People are exceptionally dressed. The menu is extremely expensive. It is midday. Somehow we are aware we are in a close future environment. There is a refined crisp quality to the encounters that happen here – shades of Sweden or Japan.
He is meeting with his sister or maybe the lover of a friend. He is late, but only just. He kisses her on the cheek and sits next to her at a table. Is the table round or square?
They have an easy bond. We don't need to hear what they are saying. They are happy to see one another. He is excited and animated, she attentive and listening. In this future, one of the ways wealth is demonstrated is by space around things.
The waiter approaches: How do people order food? Tablets? Holograms? Telepathy? He only wants to order a coke, but a coke is extremely expensive. He politely sends the waiter away, he will share what the girl is drinking.
Now see him climbing up onto the table. The table rocks. The girl is unfazed. The hum of voices drops as attention in the room turns to him.
The sound then becomes a tiny gap of silence, and in this silence he says:
'You people have incredible vision,
but you are very, very uptight!'
The shock and stunned reaction is a pregnant moment and then slowly, surprisingly becomes a light applause, and then more.
He gently gets down from the table. She stands up. She takes his hand in hers. They leave through the kitchen and out onto the street.
Essentially we are alone.
Although we are alone together, the strange, complex motions of our lives are experienced only by ourselves. This aloneness has a stubborn quality. Language makes a constant imperfect attempt to bridge this chasm between one being and another.
The reality we inhabit is however a shared one, and the perceptions, gestures, thoughts that we take to be ourselves are mostly borrowed or inherited from others, and further, exchanged continually. Alone, as we are, in a shared space, even the simplest gesture influences our environment and others.
Who are the protagonists in the story that I wish to create, and what is the relationship between them?
Here are three narrative reference points that I have uncovered as a way of starting.
The first is the story of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. As for how Rumi and Shams first meet there are countless versions gathered through eight centuries of retelling. However all versions, be they more or less miraculous, portray a critical moment of testing and awakening that is reminiscent of stories that we can find in Tibetan Buddhist hagiography or other mystical traditions.
Rumi is a revered scholar and teacher with a circle of disciples. Shams a religious vagabond wandering for years like a beggar and engaging any teacher he meets in a kind of provocative Socratic dialogue.
In Konya, in the market place, Jalaluddin Rumi is walking when he meets eyes for the first time with Shams of Tabriz. Imagine this moment! To Rumi, Shams puts the question:
“Betsami, the distinguished teacher, said 'I am great because God is within me,' whereas Mohammed said, 'God is great in His infinite mercy.' How would you explain this?”
Rumi, overwhelmed by the personal significance of this question, is knocked to his knees. He regathers his composure and answers:
“Betsami limited his understanding to one aspect of God's greatness. He was secure in what he knew and sought no further. Mohammed, on the other hand, was a seeker who recognized the vast infiniteness of the Creator. His perception of God was not limited to one idea or ideal. The more he knew God the more he recognized he did not know, and so he kept seeking. Mohammed said of God, 'We do not know you as we should.'”
In Konya, a meeting of minds happens that becomes the seed of an intense spiritual friendship. The two become inseparable, spending both day and night together. The intensity of this bond is the first point of reference for my narrative.
Up until this point, Rumi's understanding of God has been incomplete – the understanding of a scholar. Shams finds God in everything, in simple, every day experiences, and he shares this ecstasy unconditionally with Rumi. Many of Rumi's students feel neglected and become jealous that they have lost their teacher to this irreverent vagabond. One day one of the students confronts Shams. A heated argument ensues and Shams leaves town without even saying goodbye. Rumi is left completely bereft, cast into a terrible depression.
A year later, a rumour is heard: Shams has been seen in Damascus! Rumi, sends his son to plead on his behalf, who is able to persuade him to return. The reunion is emotional and profound, and the intensity of their relationship begins again. However, again the jealousy of Rumi's students. There is an attempt on Shams' life - successful or unsuccessful we do not know. Shams disappears without trace. At first Rumi is again disconsolate with grief but slowly he discovers that Shams has never been apart from him and in fact can be found within his own heart.
Another narrative reference point comes from another story from a different land. After defeating the Irish knight Morholt, Tristan goes to Ireland to bring back the fair Isolde for his uncle King Mark to marry. Along the way, however, the pair ingest a love potion which causes them to fall madly in love. Although Isolde marries Mark, she and Tristan are forced by the potion to seek one another as lovers.
Tristan, King Mark, and Isolde all hold love for each other. Tristan honours, respects, and loves King Mark as his mentor and adopted father; Isolde is grateful that Mark is kind to her; and Mark loves Tristan as his son, and Isolde as his wife. But every night, they each have horrible dreams about the future.
When Tristan's uncle learns about the affair he seeks to entrap his nephew and his bride. He resolves to punish them by death, but the lovers escape. Eventually the three meet again and King Mark agrees to let them both live if Tristan will return Isolde to him and leave the country. In the final part of the tale Tristan travels to Brittany where in a curious detail he marries a lady with the same first name, Isolde of the White Hands.
When I watched Federico Fellini's film La Dolce Vita, I discovered a third reference point. The mathematical neatness of a narrative arc in seven episodes is beautiful. The protagonist, the paparazzi Marcello is in every scene. The film is a succession of his encounters; with lovers, with his wife, with his colleagues and friends; thereby, almost as a side effect, it offers us a view of the glitz and glamour of late fifties Rome, and also – the narrative arc – portraying the way these encounters affect and change Marcello over time.
I think of how when we dream at night we almost always play ourselves. Even waking life is a string of conversations, encounters tentatively joined. I like the truth of having a single character always in scene, since this reflects the way our own realities manifest.
When I was younger for all sorts of reasons I was so shy and so afraid of romantic attraction and sexuality. Perhaps because of this I made all sorts of painful mistakes, my dilettante attempts inviting bad luck, which only compounded my frustration. At the same time I felt a tremendous yearning for love and relationship which at times could be quite painful.
Why for some does attracting a lover seem to come so naturally whereas for others it is difficult and somehow out of reach? Can we learn and develop in a way that improves our chances at love and sex? Especially, for boys who don't necessarily tend to grow up talking with each other about these things, if attracting girls doesn't come naturally, or if it has been hampered by experiences of rejection, what can one do about that?
In films sometimes we meet our future lovers by spilling coffee all over them or perhaps by diving for a purse that has fallen in the ocean. This kind of thing might happen in real life, but if we are to wait for such a perfect encounter we will have to wait for a long time and when it does arise we might not know what to do with it.
In London now – I have been there four months – many people are internet dating as a way to meet others. Online dating obviously cuts out a lot of potential obstacles – for instance not having to taste the disappointment of discovering that the person you are attracted to has already a boyfriend or a girlfriend (hopefully at least!).
I haven't tried internet dating yet because until a few weeks ago I was in a relationship. Now that I am once again thinking about how to find a lover, I have been interested in the resistance I feel to the idea of meeting someone online. Perhaps this is because of received romantic ideas about how love should happen, or perhaps it is simply fear of something new.
In prepping for this talk I emailed a friend who has been internet dating for a little while to ask him what he had learnt through his experiences. He told me to lead in every situation. Don't ask for permission, its much better to risk not getting the kiss than to wait around hoping that she'll make the first move. Also he said, on dates, although you may be nervous, the other person will be more nervous than you, so fake it until you make it. Put her at ease until she relaxes into the interaction.
Years ago this same friend of mine lent me a book by Neil Strauss called The Game. This is a book in which Strauss, or his alias Style, documents the way in which he infiltrates the world of pick up artists, studying with a string of idiosyncratic characters before finally becoming a master pick up artist himself, complete with a circle of his own students.
The book also becomes a vehicle for sharing the insights and advice he receives about pick up from the different characters that he meets. Some of the advice he comes across is pretty good; for instance a pick up artist never drinks while trying to meet new people; while some is more dubious: canned lines or aggressively ignoring or insulting someone to garner their interest.
Of all the pick up artists that he met, my favourite was a character called Juggler. Later I read Juggler's pdf. How To Meet and Connect with Women and I liked it. His attitude was refreshing. As well as giving much straight forward and sound advice; such as ask interesting questions that you actually care about and disqualify yourself rather than trying hard to impress; his text encouraged spontaneity, humour and creativity in conversation. Principally he seemed to champion creating a back and forth dance-like quality in an interaction that comes from sometimes acting nonchalant and mostly acting warm and using good timing, being responsive to the other persons high points, to escalate the engagement towards a desired outcome.
In a dream, I am in the future. An upstairs room, reminiscent of the pre-pre club that existed for a brief time in the North Laine, Brighton, but more uplifted, large and spacious. Other people are there dressed beautifully, engaged in various activities. When I ask a girl who is leaving 'What is this place?' She answers me, 'Haven't you heard of the phenomena of Dressing-up Bars? There is one in Cardiff also'.
What will dating be like in the future? How will we meet new lovers? What would a utopian version of dating look like? The backdrop for my narrative is the arising of Dressing-up Bars. This is the cultural context or milieu through which the protagonists shift and change.
I have fallen in love with the iconoclastic fifteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu. The title Red Thread that I wish to use is a reference to this love.
As a tenuous heir to the throne, Ikkyu's life is politically antagonistic right from the beginning. He is almost certainly the son of Emperor Go-Komatsu, his mother a disgraced lover of the Emperor. In part because of this, at the age of five, he is separated from his mother and sent to live and study at a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto.
Ikkyu is somewhat a poetic prodigy and from very early on he writes in non-traditional forms. Much of his adolescent poetry is filled with yearning references to his mother, he must of felt their separation keenly.
In his teenage years, he passes through a number of Zen institutions, openly critical of the materialism and lack of genuine practice that he finds, and eventually becomes the sole student of an eccentric teacher called Ken-o on the edge of the Lake Biwa. Ken-o has a sporadic teaching style and emphasizes the importance of zazen or sitting meditation. When Ken-o dies, a few years later, Ikkyu is just 21. For seven days he fasts and performs the funeral rites. Then, in a characteristically passionate gesture, he goes to drown himself in Lake Biwa where luckily he is talked out of it by a servant of his mother.
At 25 Ikkyu is listening to a band of blind singers perform at the temple when suddenly he penetrates the koan that his second teacher Kaso has given him. In recognition of this first glimpse of satori Kaso gives him the name Ikkyu which roughly translates as One-Pause.
Ikkyu's whole life appears to be a string of diffident poetic gestures. When he is made Abbot of a certain monastery, he lasts only ten days before he writes a long list on the wall of all the possessions that the monastery has accumulated and chases it with a scrawled poem that says:
Ten days in this temple and my mind is reeling!
Between my legs the red thread stretches and stretches.
If you come some other day and ask for me,
Better look in a fish stall, a sake shop, or a brothel.
He is then for years a travelling vagabond, around him gather a circle of students, many lay, artists, business men, whoever, he brings the teaching in a very direct way out into the community. His conviction that enlightenment can be found in the midst of ordinary reality, especially his concept of the red thread of passion, is very close to Tantric.
In curious symmetry to his first moment of satori, as an old man, he falls in love with a blind musician Mori who becomes the love of his life. I finish with another of his poems:
My hand, how it resembles Mori's hand I believe the lady is the master of loveplay; If I get ill, she can cure the jewelled stem. And then they rejoice, the monks at my meeting.