Clean Slates and Swimming Amongst the Stars (R10)

Internet post from Laurie Seymour (Denver, Colorado)

This caught my eye when it came up in my email alerts:-

The New Year of 2013 is upon us. The magic wand of our creative imagination allows us to consider our lives from the perspective of entering this next year with nothing from before. We stand clean. What if we could have a completely clean slate and start fresh? How does that feel? How does that change the way that we approach life? How does it change the way that we plan, set goals and consider options? In these closing days of 2012, pay attention to any fleeting thoughts or pictures that seem to arise out of nowhere. The outer self can dismiss these communications from our inner depths. Attended to, they can give us a glimpse of the future, awakening new possibilities for taking action.

My Immediate Reply

I started by thinking about all the things I have deliberately moved away from in the past, having for a time been thoroughly drawn in to their sphere of influence…

For instance, sometimes I’ve been involved in groups, including, recently, Internet groups, whose members often seem to dedicate themselves to telling others that they are wrong; they seem to have a requirement that you believe them against all other possibilities. Having a strong resistance to anybody who appears to require something of me, I have managed to detach myself from groups that are full of argument and downright unpleasantness.

Why did I join such Internet groups in the first place? Because I thought I’d learn something or find myself thinking new thoughts.

In You are not a Machine Jaron Lanier (computer expert) points out that most groups on the Internet are of the kind I have found myself in. So I withdraw… If I’ve confirmed my learning of anything from contributing to Internet groups it’s how to withdraw without regret even for the few good relationships I’ve made.

But then, courtesy of Linkedin updates, something catches my eye!

What Would Life Be Like if You Erased Everything from the Past?

Without stopping to think, I suddenly find myself in one of my favourite places—swimming amongst the stars (the celestial ones!)—that was the fantasy picture that ‘…seemed to arise out of nowhere…’ as Laurie had hoped for.

The Clean Slate—feels marvelous! Beginner’s Mind. Starting out again from innocence. But how to get there?

Innocence! How quickly it goes from life! The delightful littlest grandchild, coming up to four, stayed with us over Xmas. I was appalled at the way she had already been culturised into the ways of the world—made me realise just how ruthlessly, not considering myself to be out of step, I’d joined Thoreau’s ‘March to the sound of a different drum’ long ago. But from being a total innocent the little grandchild has already acquired likes & dislikes, desires and urges quite foreign to the real needs, as it seems to me, of what it is to be human… So early in life comes the loss of Essence… I suppose it happens to all of us down through the generations and then we might, some of us, choose, to make our way back there. To do that it’s necessary to ask ourselves what it is that’s essential to being a fully developed harmonious human-being.

The image of ‘swimming amongst the stars’ is not a new one for me—but it came up yet again when I read Laurie’s post. It represents detachment, non-identification, awareness of the dichotomy of inner & outer, flying; it gets my feet well-off the ground…

But then I began to think relatively down to earth thoughts: I was pulled up short by considering the idea of entering 2013 with absolutely nothing from before: no books, no hangups, no allegiances, no philosophical positioning, no obsessions, no enthusiasms, no being dogged by unhappiness, no passions, no clutter, no affiliations… Could I really cut myself off from all the gifts of life both positive and negative?

I look up and out of the window of my workroom across a wide river to the trees on the opposite side. In this moment now, the knack of detachment, I suppose, is to realise and grasp fully that, now, in the ice-blue sky and the movement of silver birch branches close outside my window there is no past, no time, no need to consider loss or gain, attachment or detachment. It’s all one; I am as I am right now where

peace I have from the core of the atom, from the core of space,
and grace, if I don’t lose it, from the same place.
And I look shabby, yet my roots go beyond my knowing,
deep beyond the world of man.
And where my little leaves flutter highest
there are no people, nor will ever be.

Yet my roots are in a woman too,
and my leaves are green with the breath of human experience.


What Says My Ordinary Mind?

One part of me is locked in relationships and events, held in place by the things I’ve done, the places I’ve been. This part of me is a cluster of ‘I’s—‘I’ that is a teacher, Father-I, Husband-I, Traveller-I.

This part of me might well imagine that if it got rid of all this it would not exist at all, that it would lose its past. This is reinforced by Reminiscing-I: if it erased all the rememberings (moments by the seaside, holding my father’s hand after he came back from the War, kissing a girl on our favourite walk, ecstasies of limb and exertion cycling up hills and down valleys) would the whole of my being disappear?

Reading-I—what if all the book-learning went the way of memories, all the structures of ideas, all the monuments of intellect I’ve built uo slowly, formulating, as a particular ‘I’ in me fondly imagines it to be, a progressively more and more coherent view of ‘reality’?

What if this bag of skin & bone, without considering what it might learn from it, tossed all its experience, negative and positive into the dustbin of the universe? Would it then be a No-thing?

Ordinary Mind keeps to the well-trodden pathways; it does not want to lose the way.

What Might Come out of Extraordinary Mind?

School-teacher-I often used to get kids to think about the excitement of chancing their arm with something new. “For homework tonight do something you’ve never done before, something that will be of benefit to you and those around you… Think something completely new… Compose a piece of music… Do a painting like Jackson Pollack…” My starting-point for this was usually the declaiming of Miroslav Holub’s poem which serves for me as a potent metaphor for starting from scratch.

The Door

Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there’s
a tree, or a wood,
a garden,
or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye,
or the picture
of a picture.

Go and open the door.
if there’s a fog
it will clear.

Go and open the door.
Even if there’s only
the darkness ticking,
even if there’s only
the hollow wind,
even if nothing is there,
go and open the door.
At least there will be a draught.


A More Considered Reply

Laurie’s starting point was essentially a What-if proposition; what-if questions are great because they ask us to dream, to fantasise, to set aside for the moment all our conditioning, to step out of the prison of the past. Now there are futile What-if questions of the kind that cause us to lament the past: what if I had done or not done this or that—how would my life have been different? Those kinds of questions get us absolutely nowhere; ‘it is useless to fill the heart with bubbles…’ (Richard Jefferies). But a What-if question designed to produce at least provisional answers in the here and now can be a very productive one especially if the answers come not from what we imagine to be our one Unified-I but are investigated from our multiplicity.

It might be imagined that what Laurie’s question required was a response that comes from one place in us—from an ‘I’ that bears our name, for instance, one which has kept us going down the years and brought us to this point NOW. A single Unified-I by which we have chosen to be imprisoned.

We are not one single Unified-I; careful consideration of our Being will demonstrate that we are conglomerates—we consist of trillions of ‘I’s, each one clamouring to be the ‘I’ of the moment, each making a claim to be the only ‘I’—the big ‘I am’, the one and only single unified ‘I’.

So, for example, for this conglomerate called Colin, looking out across the river, it’s Writing-I that’s made it to the front of the queue, hand in hand with Making-a-sensible-answer-to-Laurie’s-post-I. Striving-to-make-sense-I is hanging around somewhere too.

When Laurie’s post caught Idly-looking-at-the-emailinbox-I’s attention, a squad of ‘I’s jostled to get in on the action, as I’ve already suggested—both Being-conventional-I’s and Being-off-beat-I’s.

To be more specific there was Asserting-that-I-am-my-past-I; it argued that getting rid of my past would abolish everything that ‘I’ am. Close on its heels was Being-so-attached-to-the-things-of-my-past-that-I-could-never-let-them-go-I. Then there was Believing-that-everything-that-happened-in-the-past-is-a-gift-I so that even what one constructs as ‘negative’ can serve as a useful cue to the ‘integration of the self’. There was Believing-that-there’s-no-such-thing-as-a-clean-slate-I—the ‘slate’, if slate there is, always has something written on it to influence current behaviour (but what if you break the damned slate? asks another ‘I’ with a quiet voice). There was Believing-that-the-slate-is-just-the-story-of-my-life-I—if that’s the case it might just as well contain a different story and there’s an ‘I’ that could re-write the whole sorry tale. Then there was Believing-that-rubbing-the-notional-slate-clean-would-get-me-to-nothingness-I; this immediately woke up Being-jubilant-I because there’s a powerful part of me (another ‘I’) that senses that until you are as nobody going nowhere there’s no chance at all of making what we imagine to be ‘progress’. And so to Swimming-amongst-the-stars-I.

Being in a state of Nothingness is akin to being in Beginner’s Mind which is where Being-a-teacher-I always goes when working with others. Otherwise what we call ‘the past’ is a real obstruction to ‘progress: This-is-the-way-I’ve-always-done-it-I is a profound obstacle to Let’s-give-it-a-whirl-I.

Infinite Peace & Quiet

I suppose that the ideal state, one to which we all perhaps aspire, is one of infinite peace and quiet, a state of calm even in the thick of action. We work to get it, amass fortunes to get it, arrange our time in order to achieve it. The danger is that we put ourselves into a sleep which comes to be understood as the calm we were after in the first place. That way we become identified with all kinds of things that serve as distractions—unnecessary things like work, career, money, fun, hobbies, politics, clubs, societies & systems. We lose the way; we lose our souls. This can be called ‘self-calming’, putting oneself to sleep.

Being truly calm is not the beginning but the end of a long arduous process which requires the growth of insight and the discarding of all that is unnecessary to what it is to be a harmonious human-being.


Follow the circle (or system) round and round!


The desire for a state of Calm can get us locked into self-calming when we become attached to or identified with it. We all too easily fall for the comfortable sense of being it is supposed to provide—this leads to an unquestioning acceptance of how things are or appear to be—and sleep.

Once we make an attempt to follow the path to true calmness of spirit, we find many distractions: mere thoughts keep on coming to get in the way. All thoughts are friction; they run in the grooves of the mind, sometimes very deeply—they make up what we like to call ‘consciousness’. Nevertheless, thoughts are there to be carefully observed for exactly what they are: unruly, fleeting, of the moment, deriving from old patterns of thinking, from habitual ways of constructing the world we imagine we live and have our being in. Thoughts, preserved just as they are, interrupting the process of getting to Calm, are worth observing for the effect they have on Being. Or rather, each thought being instigated by a separate ‘I’, can usefully prompt consideration of the I-tangle: Indulging-in-fantasy-I, Only-too-willing-to-follow-old-patterns-of-thinking-I, Dream-master-I, Being-content-with-negativity-I, Being-too-positive-I, Being-keen-on-a-quick-fix-I, Easily-being-distracted-I, Desiring-easy-comfort-I. So many ‘I’s, each to its own groove.

Mindful labelling thus enables us to notice what’s going on inside what we habitually think of as single Unified-I. One ‘I’, identified with when we think of it as running the show, is an illusion—a construction that we put together from a dim (undefined) awareness of many agents that operate inside us.

A human-being may be regarded as a series of momentary beings. Apart from these momentary beings there is no real human existence, so that in attributing to a human-being such continuous existence as we undoubtedly do in everyday life, we are performing an act of mental construction which endows with apparent permanence and solidity what is, in fact, a series of fleeting momentary particulars.

The world of matter is thus composed of momentary particulars subsisting each of them for a short time only, and a so-called material object is merely a logical construction or symbol standing for a series of particulars which are arranged together by our minds…

Professor CEM Joad: Mind and Matter

There’s all this neuronal activity—the electro-chemical activity that drags focus hither & thither, part of us focused on this, part on that on and on.

the clock ticking
the pain in the leg
the view over the river
the dead computer-thing
the scratching of the pen-nib
the odd look of words when you go into a trance of verbal satiation
the wondering how they ever came to signify what they do
the clicking of the central heating
the pleasant feeling of being able to write at a clear desk

All this gets combined into ‘I’—the ‘I’ that thinks, “I really must get this finished…” For the moment all the ‘I’s seem to be combined into one—the one we usually live out of, imagining it to be the same linguistic subject of all the verbs we use to describe our actions.

Labelling all the ‘I’s—Feeling-I’s, Doing-I’s, Thinking-I’s—enables us to separate from them, and more importantly perhaps, to change the ‘I’ we’re in from moment to moment. We don’t have to be in any of the habitual ‘I’s. We can simply watch their antics from a stillness within. The question worth asking is—What is the ‘we’ that can perform this function?

What-if there is an ‘I’ that is capable of standing outside the whole process in order to take stock of it, shape-shifting and all? It’s not an ‘I’ that can take control but at least it might be able to understand the movement between one ‘I’ and another—between Being-angry-I and Being-relaxed-I, for example.

The knack of being able to stand back and just observe is an aspect of mindfulness or self-remembering.


I prefer to think of whatever-it-is in our makeup that can step outside things as Meta-I. It can literally step away from all the other ‘I’s.

In the unlikely event of there being anybody who denies the possibility of such a concept, they are perhaps still stuck in the grooves of old ‘I’s so familiar that they have become comfortable to be in even though they perhaps haven’t worked successfully in the past. It requires that one become unstuck to begin to understand the very concept of being unstuck.

Once define it, once occupy the space mapped out by Meta-I and you can find yourself well on the inside of it, standing apart on the other side of the bridge. Ordinary minds will just argue about it all; extraordinary minds will just say, “OK, right, here ‘I’ go then…”  Give-it-a-whirl-I says, “What do I do first then?” It’s a what-if kind of question. Answers to a What-if question tend to define the answerer’s state of being.

I don’t have to quarrel with the world—the world quarrels with me…  Buddha

Don’t try to become enlightened. Just discard all your views & opinions… Nasrudin

Things Constantly Change

If it’s true that things constantly change what is the point of clinging to them? What is the point of clinging to the past? What is the use of identifying with another person when tomorrow they will be different just as you will be?

Bodily aches & pains don’t last—they are not ‘me’. Swimming amongst the stars is a way of detachment; it is a metaphor, a manageable image, of being detached while not denying the ache or the pain.

Feelings don’t last—they are not’me’. I have misery but ‘I’ am not my misery. I have love but ‘I’ am not my loving. Swimming amongst the stars is a way of leaving feelings behind while not in the least denying their existence. When I return from a ‘swim’ I discover different feelings, the miserable ones transformed, the loving ones enhanced…

Perceptions are ego-constructs—they are, of course, not ‘me’ at all. We construct things one way and might just as well construct them otherwise. To assert the correctness of one’s own perceptions over those of others is ego-delusion; to argue with another is an attempt at ego-bolstering. Swimming amongst the stars leaves all that behind.

All mental constructions change: feelings from the past; political and religious attitudes, philosophical frameworks—‘I’ have them but none of them are ‘me’. ‘I’ can play endlessly with mental constructions without an assertion of rectitude to engage in which would be to try to achieve ego-support. Ego needs constant support. All judging, deciding, grasping, rejecting and so on comes from ego-delusion.

The need for pleasant sense impressions, the search for pleasure & fun, the avoidance of pain, construct the world for us—they are not us. Swimming amongst the stars helps me to see them for what they are—unnecessary figments of the imagination..

Remaining detached in the face of all this without friction—a suitable metaphor for me is swimming amongst the stars. To extend the metaphor… Each star perhaps represents something relatively fixed: a bodily ache or pain, a feeling with which I am familiar, a perception or an idea I’ve got used to, a Beethoven Symphony, a Rothko painting, an ‘I’ of one kind or another… When this bag of wind swims amongst the stars it becomes detached from it all but can paradoxically choose to settle just wherever it will.

This is a kind of at least temporary insight. One needs to go several times round the system.

The return to earth at least helps one to see things differently

Go and open the door.
if there’s a fog
it will clear.

To Recap Briefly

As Laurie asked: ‘How does that feel? How does that change the way that we approach life? How does it change the way that we plan, set goals and consider options?’


5 thoughts on “Clean Slates and Swimming Amongst the Stars (R10)

  1. “Swimming Amongst The Stars” is one of those images that the Deep Image poets of the late 60s and early 70s enthusiastically called for to infuse poetry with a jolt that they felt was much needed. Poets like the Robert Bly and James Wright cut their verse from that swell of swirling darkness that resides in the silk of a pony’s ear or the scent of an early blossom. In the silence of Bly’s “snowy fields,” a walk through the pasture was as wild as Whitman’s shambled hair, or Pound’s purple scarf. I go to them when the world sets its literal claws on the dark beauty of the smallest flower of grass, and I consciously use the word dark as they did to remember the dry and fossilized measurements that Eliot with all his poetic genius gave to us.

    To begin with a clean slate with no past to burden us, to soar among the stars unfettered by the weight of serious, self-serving titles of merit, to abide no laws, or consequences.This is foolish, literal, uncreative and is a way to twist things to fit a false feeling of practicality. We can turn anything into a cheap sound-bite.
    To use the language I’ve just used as a way to confound and hoodwink something as magnificent as a beautiful image is to turn it into a smelly bog. Sometimes it helps to look at the other side, the enemy that tries to make this world work for them, instead of them working for this world and with this world, planet earth. “Swimming Amongst The Stars” and “Swimming with Clean Slates” is a wonderful right-side up mode of living. Gurdjieff says man sees the world upside down, well these images offer a sort of turning if we let them turn us.

    To take delight with my son who just reminded me of my body breaking down! And in that moment of exchange between father & son an impression left its mark in the air, or on our skin and could maybe be remembered 40 yrs.from now when I’m long gone, and how the slate can come clean thousands of times by endless experiences like this that ripple along down every road, up every hill, and how the stars will also mark our exchanges. It can lift the top of one’s head open and splinter our bodies into pieces, not literally of course.

    Those poets and seekers of a non-literal persuasion will hear something strange and unusual when words are strung together in a certain fashion, and each time this happens with accident or not, a slate will empty ; the contents pouring from vessel to vessel with an unimaginable affect. Who among us can see that far from this very moment? The future of stars, planets, grandfathers, mothers, berry bushes, bottles of rum, all of it is Now. My son who now just closed his door is writing a poem 50yrs. in the future, the ripples have no beginning or end, is something this simple & pure is too much for us? If it is just STOP!
    Something new, the music’s too loud, time for dad “I” oh well. It’s good to remember one self when Swimming Amongst The Stars, we don’t want to stay there too long and ruin it.

    I wish it were true that those in power honestly cared about children or trees, or rivers, or the brazen guts it takes to “Swim Amongst The Stars” But I’m only a fool when I join in the madness and become afraid to leap into dark waters. I’m only afraid when words become literal and I use them to control and strangle the sea of impressions that are freely being created & destroyed in one swoop.


  2. Love the way you swim around between the literal and the creative, Patrick. That’s a task for the complete human being using all their features: intellect, emotion, body, left brain, right brain, metaphors and rationality. ‘Break the damn slate!’


  3. Oh Colin…What a lovely experience it is to read your words! You have taken my Friday Focus “prompt” and in your response have taken me on a journey through your stars and then amongst my own. Ultimately, when we take each breath, in that moment there is no slate… Laurie


  4. Thanks for your soaring swim in the stars, Colin. I had a similar response to Laurie’s intriguing “what-if” thought experiment – that it could not be about literally ridding ourselves of our personal history, but rather about intentionally ridding ourselves of the biases and preconceptions produced by that personal history. Your distinction between “ordinary mind” and “extraordinary mind” near the start of your essay put me in mind of Shunryu Suzuki’s classic distinction in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.” That would be a worthwhile outcome indeed from taking on Laurie’s challenge for the new year.


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