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Wilderness and Mind

Updated: Apr 27, 2018



Still from Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew


ONE

First we see the desert. The fast moving shadow of cloud blackens the frame. Further slow pans across the landscape; the ground is barren, covered in rocks. The dark hills in the background caught by mist. The angle low so that more earth than sky is shown. The first teased strains of pipe music.

Now a shot where we see more sky than earth, the cut of full clouds traced in bright light before then: the figure of a man, Jesus, kneeling on the ground, cloth over his head, with arms raised in salutation. A closer shot shows him with open brow and fingers gently cupped at the sky.

Now we see again the landscape. The curvature of hill. And in the middle ground the dust kicked up as a distant figure walks. He is walking towards us and he wears all black. The camera hugs his feet and the scrape of his robe.


We see him approach and Jesus stands. A close up of the man's face shows the curl of his lip in half sneer, the dark crease of his eyelids. Jesus is beatific and relaxed. The dark man turns his head a fraction, looking out. Again we see the rocky ground, but this time we know by tilt of camera that we see through his eyes.

When the man speaks, he is dubbed in English: 'If thou art the son of God, turn these rocks into loaves of bread'.

Jesus answers, 'Man cannot live by bread alone but there is life for him in all that proceeds from the mouth of God'.

This is the end of their first exchange.

Spinning fast across balustrade and climbing blurred up the side of a stone tower. A close angle from below, for a fraction of a second, shows the two figures perched on an edge, long into the screen.

Then again the gloating face comes: 'If though art the son of God, cast thyself down to earth'.

Black gulleys and crags fill the shot, a hairlike fragment of sky.

'...For it is written, he has given charge to his angels concerning he and they shall hold thee up with their hands lest should chance to trip on a stone'.

The sentence is still being formed in air as we see already again the two figures, as they were stood before, on the desert ground, facing one another.

Here Jesus speaks his reply, 'It is also written thou shall not put the Lord thy God to the proof'. Again the inscrutable face of the dark man.

This ends the second exchange.

The view opens to a vista. In the foreground we see trees. The camera jumps, in one cut zoom, the just discernible trace of a city in the distance rested between the two peaks.


With a shade more urgency in his voice and expression: 'I will give thee all of this if thou will fall down and worship me.

And Jesus, a twitch of brow, and then, 'Away Satan, it is written thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, none other shall thy serve'.

Satan turns a fraction, looking at the vista. The zoom cuts back in reverse, from the city glinting we see again the trees. And then close in to his feet as his black shoes carry him hence.

This ends the third exchange.


TWO

Who is Sophia?

We know that we are in a close future. Her fashion is unusual and elegant. There is a Gothic quality to the way she conducts herself; perhaps the shy aloofness to her smile, which thawed is warm and lovely.

Although she is very beautiful we can see the grief that hides deep in her eyes.

Her hand is moving slowly across a table. She is reaching for her phone. Since the fragmentation it has long been useless. She carries it out of habit and because the torch and the calendar are useful sometimes. Somehow in her world electricity still works.

Watch the landscape that Sophia walks through. We can make out city shapes. Discordant advertisements, grey and folding at the edges of her consciousness.

Much of the time in Sophia's reality now there is nobody else but her. When there are other people they are echoes or phantoms of a past vaguely remembered. The interactions brisk, hollow and lacking. And then they fade leaving her once more alone.

Is the meaning of her name a coincidence?

For Sophia the wilderness is the catastrophic sense of betrayal she has been left with. It is the knowledge that she is fundamentally alone in the dreaming. That she cannot trust the shifting unpredictable nature of her reality and especially that she cannot rely on others.


She knows it is up to her to work out her own conundrum. Often her mind is clouded with a pervasive forgetting. Occasionally this is punctured with sharp moments of clarity, then again these are obscured. The weight of her burden throws up constantly the desire for various escapes. She thinks about all the different ways in which she could die, but her kinship with a basic sense of discipline protects her, and provides her with a certain sense of empowerment also.


THREE

I would like to say some things about the wilderness of mind that is bipolar disorder. Firstly I think it is good to know that bipolar disorder is not an uncommon condition; somewhere between two and four percent of people are affected. It is considered to be the most genetic illness in psychiatry and one of the more genetic illnesses in medicine.

Many of the problematics that arise, both from a personal point of view and from a societal point of view, seem to stem from the fact that this is an almost invisible condition. In our shared reality it is impossible to gauge fully the complexities of another's internal life. Much of the time it is difficult to sound even the depths of our own internal lives. Relating to emotional illness we can see objectively only the section of iceberg that is above water. That the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is delayed on average by thirteen years is a reflection of this.

Two years ago, following another brutal series of depressions, I was diagnosed with type two bipolar. Looking at my family tree, a certain intensity of mood can clearly be traced back on my father's side. My own late diagnosis at age 26 was absolutely typical.

Sometimes, in the depths of madness and pain, I have wished that for just a moment I could show the people around me what it is to feel these states, so that they could understand why I behave on occasion in the irrational way that I do, or just to know how heroic my attempts have been at times to stay alive. Of course, I cannot. However I should like to try in this context to describe a little with words how it feels to experience such intense states of mind.

Although we can map clearly some shared contours of experience for anyone who has bipolar disorder (it was a great relief for me to discover that much of what I had been experiencing for so many years were symptoms I had in common with others) each person's experience of bipolar illness is unique and has its own idiosyncratic ways of manifesting.

As humans we are emotional creatures. We all know what it is to feel anger, sadness or excitement, even if strangely after the event it feels somehow far from us. A person with bipolar disorder feels the same colours of emotion that we all feel, however the difference comes in terms of the intensity and unpredictability of these emotional states.

Depression and anger can be raised to a level of phenomenal pain. If I am to try to construct a reference point for this intensity of pain, I think of being nineteen in a hospital in Delhi, India. I have just had my appendix removed. The night after the operation I am given no painkillers. I lie in abject agony, and all through the next day, swearing and crying at the nurses, until the pain becomes bearable again. This, the most physical pain I have known, is eclipsed easily by the states of mind I have been exposed to through the course of my depressions.

Beyond pain, something else happens to the mind when it is experiencing this level of emotional upheaval. Clarity is obscured to a state of stupidity and the thinking mind is caught indefinitely in cycles of repetitive thought.

Suicidal ideation is one example of this. I think it important to point out that this is different to having an occasional thought of killing oneself, that anyone might have, perhaps, for instance, after an argument with a lover or losing a job. To give an example, in the middle of a brutal depression this summer, I tried to maintain a thread of awareness as thousands and thousand of thoughts of suicide crossed my mind over the course of just one hour. Sometimes the pain and confusion became so intense that I found myself begging and begging to be allowed to die.

Such peak experiences are obviously part of a more complex landscape. In the course of any year there are movements, long slow curves of up and down, and within these curves, smaller, sharper fluctuations of mood. Whether a person has type one or type two bipolar, for the majority of the time they are likely to function completely normally from an everyday societal point of view.

Lastly, of course bipolar disorder is characterised by experiences of mania and hypomania. As I have bipolar type two, of these, I have known myself only hypomania, mania's milder cousin. For me this manifests as periods of powerful self belief and tremendous productivity, however swinging sometimes, of a sudden, into consuming anger and irritability.


Bipolar is almost unique among illnesses in that it confers benefit as well as causes great suffering. In terms of the correlation between manic depressive illness and the artistic temperament, Dr Kay Redfield Jamison has written an excellent study called Touched with Fire. I would strongly recommend anyone interested in mental health and the arts, especially poetry, to take a look at this.


FOUR

Sometime before the fragmentation, in her back garden, Sophia discovers a deadly poisonous plant. In the Buddhist tradition the analogy of the poisonous plant is used to demonstrate various approaches to working with emotions. The first method is to avoid the plant completely.

I remember once I was attending some teachings that His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave in Bodhgaya. When the Dalai Lama teaches in India thousands and thousands of people travel vast distances to catch a glimpse or make a connection with his teaching. This means that the crowds that gather are often extremely chaotic and testing. At that time in Bodhgaya there was a Canadian monk who had a knack for getting on everyone's nerves. Around and about and in the restaurants in town I kept seeing or hearing about this guy getting on the wrong side of one person or another.

Where the Dalai Lama teaches, the culture is such that thousands of people sit very very close together, almost on top of one another, cross legged on the floor. When the teachings began, I arrived, after the security checks, to discover that the only spot left in the section where I wanted to sit was directly in front of this Canadian monk, almost on his lap. At first I thought that this would be no problem, that I could handle it. However within minutes he was tutting and hissing and tapping me on the back and saying all kinds of things and I began to feel extremely uptight and angry. I remembered this analogy of the poisonous plant and decided that this was a time to practice avoiding the plant completely. I stood up and found another place.

Traditionally Buddhist monks and nuns take the vinaya vows; not to kill, not to steal and so forth; in order to protect themselves and others. The vows become a container within which the practitioner can undertake the practice and study of the Buddhadharma. This is a way in which avoiding the plant can be a constructive and supportive gesture.


In terms of working with metal illness or strong emotions there are some very basic, simple and powerful things that we can do. Having sensible sleep patterns and a good diet, eating at regular times, has a tremendous impact on our general sense of well-being. Also setting up and maintaining positive social structures, meaningful friendships in which we give, at least as much as we take. In Dr Servan-Schreiber's book Healing without Freud or Prozac he presents an extremely convincing case for the importance of such common sense methods and the crucial need to develop a more holistic vision of the healing process.

One interesting analogy connected to this that was told to me is that of a stool. Work, home, love and family are like the four legs of the stool. At any one time we can get by with three legs, even perching awkwardly on two or one leg for a short while, but best is when we have all four of these legs in place supporting us. This notion of creating a container is the rational behind therapeutic communities. If we can build our lives in a way in which we have a sense of earth, then we will be that much more able to work with the shifting, and sometimes shocking qualities of reality when they present themselves to us.

In the Buddhist analogy of the poisonous plant, the second approach to working with emotions is transformation. This is said to be like a doctor taking the plant and skilfully mixing it with other herbs to make a medicine.

In Mahayana Buddhism, for each of the emotions there are taught to be ways of contemplating in order to neutralise and transform these energies. For example, if the practitioner is overwhelmed by excessive wanting and desire, he or she meditates on the fleeting nature of all things. If the practitioner is feeling angry, he or she meditates on loving-kindness, especially that all beings are alike in wishing to be happy and not to suffer.


In Shantideva's celebrated text, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva', we find an example of how anger might be transformed in this way through understanding:

All defilements of whatever kind, The whole variety of evil deeds Are brought about by circumstances: None is independent, none autonomous.

Thus, when enemies or friends Are seen to act improperly, Remain serene and call to mind That everything arises from conditions.

If things could be according to their wish, No suffering would ever come To anyone of all embodied beings, For none of them wants pain of any kind.

It is said that when a peacock eats the poisonous flower the spots on the peacock's tail become even more wonderful and lustrous. This third style of relating to emotion is connected to tantric Buddhism.

These are the more esoteric teachings within the Buddhist cannon. In the tantric tradition the Buddhist view is that within any emotion there is some basic intelligence or energy that is actually wisdom. Ordinarily this wisdom is obscured by the dualistic mind, that is to say the mind that is tangled in the illusion of a fixed sense of self and other.

Through the practice of meditation it is possible to relate to one's mind with such openness and clarity that dualistic concept falls apart like a snake unknotting itself. The interesting thing is that for an advanced meditator who is able to practice in this way the basic energy of the emotion is not lost, instead it is transmuted into wisdom. Actually within the Mahamudra tradition it is said that a person with very strong emotions is an especially good candidate for developing realisation.


FIVE

The conversation that Jesus has in the wilderness with the devil is constructed from scripture. There is something interesting hinted at here about the way that words or quotations can be turned to any purpose, made to justify an argument be it right or wrong. To anyone involved with the process of making friends with themselves through the practice of contemplation or of meditation, whatever spiritual framework they may be working within, the problem of self deception is a constant challenge all the way along the spiritual path.

In the wilderness story it is as if we are allowed a glimpse into Jesus' heart at a crucial juncture on his own path. Although the device is used of a dialogue with Satan, it is as if Jesus is grappling with himself, working with the very real possibilities of subverting his spiritual realisation for selfish aims. In Pasolini's film the subjectivity of this moment is emphasised by the spacious hallucinatory cuts. I am reminded of the parallel story of Gotama Siddhartha, on the cusp of his own enlightenment, as he sits beneath the Bodhi tree and is assailed by the forces of Mara.

The wilderness is essential in the same way that winter is essential. It is a time of great hardship and tests but for this very reason it can also be a time of tremendous growth. When we see Jesus leaving the wilderness he strides comfortably with purpose. There is the sound of Angels singing. Grasses stroke his feet.

© 2018 by Llew Watkins.

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Writing, art, sculpture.