Tidemills is a former 19th C. workers village on the shingle beach between Seaford and Newhaven where I live. It was built to harness the movement of the tide up and down a salt-water creek and was a thriving community in the mid 1800s. When the mill was closed it became a slum and people were moved out in the 1930s. Then the ruins were dynamited by the army to prevent it becoming a place for the invading Germans to hide during the 2nd World War.
Now it’s a beautifully atmospheric spread of ruined flint buildings and foundations in among the seathrift, sea cabbage and mulleins that grow out of the shingle. I love it there. In one direction you can look back to Newhaven, across the harbour and ferry and see my house. In the other you can look along the sweep of Seaford Bay to Seaford Head the massive chalky cliff that begins the Seven Sisters.
The Head has been the energetic focus of all my time down in Sussex: sharp, luminous and serene. And I would often take Floyd and Millie on dog walks down there as the sun was rising, watching them run crazy on the low tide sand or walking through the rain-glazed grass and marsh towards it.
One morning, about 10 days in, the winter sun there was absolutely blinding and everything seemed drenched in presence. I felt very ‘spread-out’ into the landscape and very happy.
But coming back home to practice, I also became very aware of a sort of amnesia that exists between different “self-states”. I would sit in the morning and be full of doubt and questions about the practice. A little later, at Tidemills, I would be exulted by a sense of luminosity in all things. When I was luminous, the doubting Alistair was all sealed off in the amber of time. There was no memory trace of it. When I was full of doubt again in the afternoon, the sun bright clarity of the morning walk was likewise forgotten.
Trungpa Rinpoche makes an interesting point about this when he talks about tantra. Tantra is a strain of dharma that is concerned with the here-and-now. It means ‘thread’ and the idea of a continuity between (or rather below) individual moments is central to this teaching. I was puzzled : why was there no coherent thread between my morning and evening Alistair? And Trungpa pointed out that it is only the authentic experience that forms the thread. When we are not authentic but locked-up in our ideas about LIfe, then the thread drops momentarily out-of-sight…
The habit of thinking about myself all the time leads to a neurological rut and my awareness falls into that rut and has no sense of the time when I wasn’t in it. It’s what Ajahn Amaro calls ‘forgettery’.
This is the foundational idea of dissociation theory. That our various self-states – depressed, anxious, ebullient, creative – are different neural knots that we enter into and – while we’re in there – that is our world. The other dimensions are forgotten.
What tantra points to, however, is that there is a fundamental state below neurological ruts – what Trungpa calls ‘ordinary mind’ – which is uncontorted, unfashioned by thought, uncontrived, immediate.
Very gradually, over the course of my 14 days of silence and practice, I found myself accessing that uncontrived state more and more readily. Stopping humming and singing really helped. It opened a window to the simple on-going reality below: birds singing, the washing machine tumbling, my cold feet, Floyd the dog, snoring.
And I had the growing suspicion that those moments of presence at Tidemills were more fundamental than the anxious knots. Maybe that space was there all the time? Maybe, as Trungpa suggests, the ordinary mind is always present, steady, on-going and vast, below the momentary tangles and dramas of the ego-addicted mind.
The last few days of retreat did give me some glimpses of that.