Thursday, 18 October 2018

Exercises: The Sufi Way

"Did the writer Idries Shah give people exercises?" someone recently asked, while another asked rhetorically, "What is the value of merely accumulating data points from reading?" Elsewhere, someone contributed to this question, as it relates to the teaching stories, an important element of "the course", like the poetry, that is sometimes neglected.

Please forgive me, I certainly don't mean to teach our good friends here how to suck eggs, nor preach to the highly experienced and talented choir! But someone did ask these questions.

Zikr (an exercise used in other traditional circles) is a repetitive, iterative exercise in remembrance, that helps you connect, and leads to improvement in certain senses.

In certain early groups, Shah had everyone chant "Om mani padme hum" at the commencement of group meetings, just as Alfredo Offidani, a one-time responsible of Omar Ali-Shah, gives a "rosal of the new phase" to all neophytes, so at a certain level there can be exercises given to all-and-sundry, as well as individually-prescribed exercises, such as those involving the lataif.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Squaring the Circle: The Sufi Way

A friend who was a mathematician once remarked, in relation to my Sufi studies, that I was "trying to square the circle". What this is in his field of work is to construct a square equal in area to a given circle, a problem that you can't solve using geometry alone, though what he meant, of course, in layman's terms was that I was trying to do something that is considered to be impossible, or even insane. The Sufis' use of the octagonal symbol may, in one sense, represent an approximation, or half-way house, for Squarelanders who need to understand circles – the Sufic materials, according to the writer, thinker and Sufi teacher Idries Shah, being half way between "mere literature", shall we say, and active Teaching.

In the case of the constant, pi – which is the numerical value of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter – we simply cannot calculate the exact value of this irrational number, because even if we calculated pi to a million digits (and this has been done, indeed some can even recite the first hundred or so from memory), the answer will still, and always, be no more than an approximation of pi. "It's turtles all the way down," as someone once remarked.

There are ways around such difficulties, however, and we need not despair. pi expressed as the fraction 22/7 will be sufficiently accurate for many everyday uses, while those with more precise needs might use 3.142 or 3.14159. These values will be perfectly adequate "for most practical intents and purposes".

In a similar way, even something as simple at first glance as calculating the square root of a number like 2 is not a trivial task, since it is also an irrational number, 1.4142135623730950488016887242097... (ad infinitum), but again we can satisfactorily make use of an approximation like 1.4142.

In a sense we could say that the task of attaining Sufihood, or of coming to comprehend the answer to "life, the universe and everything", is a similarly boundless and irrational task.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Future History of Brexit

“You know, a second referendum might not have been such a bad idea, after all, old chap.”

Remember the First Law of Holes: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”


Friday, 22 June 2018

The Internet ain't what it used to be

The first time I “went online” was in the 80s using a BBC microcomputer borrowed from work. I dialed a long distance number to connect via a very slow modem to GreenNet to access a bulletin board about environmental issues, for a magazine I was running. Being an expensive call, I set all content to spool to a text file as I was “browsing” the text (there were no images), and got offline again as soon as possible, reading the content later, and then incorporating it into the magazine.

Then around 1999 I discovered the free dial-up service FreeServe. Well, the service was free but it might take up to six attempts before I managed to fully connect, and I was charged for those attempts to connect. Whether this was due to issues with the new technology or a deliberate policy to swell their coffers, I do not know.

Wild West

I created my very first web site around that time, and found the usenet newsgroup alt.sufi, meeting people from around the globe who were actually interested in the Way, which opened up a whole new world. This was before the first big groups like Yahoo! groups came along and began to kill off usenet.

The internet was far more open then, and there was a lot more searching around and exploring. In those days, someone might come along to the web site and stay there for ages, slowly browsing through most of the pages on the site, or (being in a web ring of like-minded sites for a time) they might browse my site having just come from the previous site in the ring, and then wander on to the next site in the ring. Again, in those days, search engines would crawl and index the whole of the site and especially at AltaVista and Yahoo! you could find my site on the first page of many results, even though it was just a chicken shack operation.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Etienne de L'Amour: Meet the author, Part 2

Q: The front cover design of Escape From the Shadowlands is “different”, shall we say. What was your thinking behind that?

A: Let's wind back a little. Originally, I came across a black and white photo of the Museum of Antiquities in Antwerp, and I was quite taken by the male figure standing there in the archway and casting a long shadow on the cobbles. That's actually how I see Marie picturing the young stranger she meets in one of her lucid dreams.

I liked the image because of its olde worlde appearance, the link to the dream, and the shadow cast by the character. No matter how fast you run, you can't escape your shadow, as the saying goes. I used that image in the first edition of the Escape From the Shadowlands. However, I felt that perhaps some readers might recognize the museum in the “real world” (or what most people think of as the real world, our everyday world of steel, concrete and glass, that is), and that might partially break the spell, since the book is set in another, parallel and yet familiar world.

Wanting a replacement for the image, I went hunting on Wikimedia Commons which hosts photos with Creative Commons licences that can be freely used as long as you do things like attributing the work to the author. As soon as I came across the painting Schattenspiele (shadow games) by Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), I knew that was the one for me. Yes, it's a landscape image and so there's no way that it would stretch across the entire cover, but that was actually an advantage, because I wanted something that hinted at what you might call “Plato's Cave 2.0” with people mesmerized by the shadow play, living in their own little world of appearances, as it were, which is far removed from and a mere similitude of what the mystics would advisedly call the Real World. With the image as a box beneath the book title and above the author's name, it also hinted at what is, by and large, our confined thinking. And the text on the front cover of the book, again using fonts that are free for commercial use (Englebert, with the word “Shadowlands” in grey Berkshire Swash), was meant to be as legible as possible, especially in thumbnail images, but not so bold or ornate that it detracted from the image itself.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Etienne de L'Amour: Meet the author, Part 1

Escape From the Shadowlands.
Q: What inspired you to write this first novel in the Shadowlands series?

A: I think the ideas have been stewing for several decades now. It all started perhaps in my childhood, growing up in a pretty poor, struggling and hard-working family in the North of England with a brother older than me by ten years and who was very successful even in those early years. Unable to compete, I had to find a quiet niche for myself. So many life experiences, really. Discovering the alternative possibilities of Shangri-La in Frank Capra's 1937 film, Lost Horizon which was adapted from James Hilton's novel of the same name; a book that I went on to study much, much later in a course on the writers' craft.

Fast forward a few years to a misspent youth as a hippie freak, foolishly experimenting with illicit – albeit mind-broadening – substances, and reading dozens of books along the lines of practical astral travel, Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye, and Helena Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled. I read a few books by folk who turned out to be fakes, but they nudged me in a certain direction, down a wonderful, winding road much less travelled. Reading With Magic and Magicians in Tibet by Alexandra David-NĂ©el represented a notable turning point, and I was also fortunate to stumble across a thin pamphlet by the then-embryonic Buddhist Society in the UK. I remember reading several of their publications and writing to the Secretary of the society inquiring whether it was better to become a Bodhisattva (especially a Bodhisattva of the Household who worked in the everyday marketplace of life, one who has achieved nirvana and returned to help others) or an Arhat (whom I envisioned sitting on some distant Himalayan mountaintop in quiet and solitary meditation). Needless to say, the Secretary sent a reply, suggesting that I was perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Well, even I could see now that there was no “perhaps” about it, really. I was all over the place in those days.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Article 13 of the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market

If you're a blogger, use social media, or run a search engine, expect stuff to hit the fan when the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market comes into force very soon.

This meme has been removed under Article 13 of the EU
Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market.

If you're skeptical, please check out:

 • The death of the meme could be upon us
 • The EU's Copyright Proposal is Extremely Bad News for Everyone, Even (Especially!) Wikipedia
 • Wikipedia's Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market.

Image: Paolo Tiramani and Donald Trump.
Author: Mggcb.
Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Font: Englebert (Free for commercial use).