The grass here is almost white. We’ve had no rain for it seems like months. Every few days I walk up our lane and water three trees we planted in the Spring just before the drought began.
Even so, the amount of sunshine has been good. I heard on the radio that 70% of people in Britain suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. We need the sunshine. Just back from the OBOD summer camp. More kids there than ever, and I left as the ‘wide game’ was being prepared. This year it will be based on Dr Who at Stonehenge. As I left the field Belinda arrived carrying a bag of rubber drain unblockers. It took Stephanie back in Lewes to explain: ‘Daleks’!
‘Ordinary heroes: how nakedness can be used to enlighten, empower and entertain.’ How many of us are comfortable enough in our own skins to feel free of any sense of embarrassment about our bodies? Despite the religious, legal and cultural restrictions that surround its display, nakedness has been used creatively by mystics, political protestors and artists for centuries. Today it is also being used by ‘ordinary people’ to break free from feelings of ‘body shame’ and from the tyranny of stereotypical ideas about beauty.’
In this and following posts I will summarize (and sometimes expand) on what I said:
I once had to wade across a river in flood in New Zealand. When I got to the other side I was about to put my clothes back on my wet skin, when I asked myself “Why?” I was in the middle of nowhere, on a trek in the bush, and so I carried on walking naked and it was a revelation to me. No need for those heavy walking boots and socks – luckily the ground wasn’t rough – and no need for clothes! I felt like a wild animal – innocent and at one with my environment. I could skinny-dip in pools, feel the breeze on my skin and it was as if the trees and animals of the forest were greeting me as one of their own. I meditated under a tree and allowed the joy of simply being alive to flow through me.
Was I mad? Am I unique in having such an experience? Of course not. How many of us have had the experience of being naked in a way that has generated positive feelings of freedom and joy? It’s easy to pass over any experience we might have had of skinny-dipping or sunbathing naked that made us feel really good, but I believe it is important for us to pause and analyse these feelings – if only because joy and freedom are two of the most important motivators and goals of human endeavour. They are the preoccupations of psychotherapy and religion.
Horace Walpole wrote: ‘When I cast off my clothes, I cast off my cares!’ When I asked how many of the participants at the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Skin: Exposed’ event in London in July 2010 had felt the same way as Walpole, about 80% of the 140-strong audience raised their hands. This is remarkable: a great deal of research goes into working out how to relieve people of cares. Perhaps the National Health Service could save vast amounts of money by prescribing nude therapy rather than prozac, and instead of seeing thousands of people walking around under sedation, we could see them strolling our parks and sunbathing without a care – or at least without pants (as people do in the Englischer Garten in Munich).
Nakedness can, of course, provoke negative feelings and be used to inflict cruelty: to embarrass or humiliate. But our focus here is the positive feelings that it can engender and, concomitantly, the positive uses to which it can be applied.
If we begin to unpack these positive feelings we discover a remarkable range of experiences and inspirations to action that flow from these, which fall broadly into three categories, those of Religion and Personal Development; Politics and Activism; Art and Culture.
The feelings of freedom, joy, closeness to nature, and increased authenticity reported by many people who enjoy nakedness relate to our spiritual and psychological lives. Feelings of authenticity and innocence give rise to a sense of empowerment and the desire to challenge the status quo – hence the power of nakedness to fuel rebellion and protest. Associations with honesty, with ‘the naked truth’, mean that nakedness has also been used on the other side of the political fence, to promote the careers of politicians.
And in our third category, we know that skin tickles: that the body provides us with important ingredients of good entertainment: shock, excitement and amusement. In sum, nakedness can be used to enlighten, empower and entertain. Let’s look at each of these abilities in more detail (in the posts which will follow).
Note added 15 April 2011. I’m sorry the posts don’t follow. I got busy. But you can read in detail the ideas I would have posted in my book A Brief History of Nakedness.
I knew Reaktion Books would be a good publisher for A Brief History of Nakedness when I read their catalogue. Here was a house pleased to publish books on the philosophy of boredom, or the history of barbed wire – who understood, in other words, the depth of meaning and interest inherent in the most apparently mundane. The great secret that every thing holds fascination – is a doorway to complexity and depth – is known to the insatiably curious, but remains hidden for the majority.
On Friday I talked with another Reaktion author, Steven Connor, when all the participants in the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Skin:Exposed‘ event met after the opening session. Steven had delivered a dazzling oration on nakedness and skin and I wanted to read more of his work. A web address later and what joy! Essays on skin, sand and best of all plugs!
You don’t find plugs fascinating? Then you don’t understand! See how Steven Connor weaves a spell around this deceptively dull object:
Plugs are peculiarly intimate objects. Plugs are archaic things, that belong to an economy of spaces in which what mattered was to seal, to store, to quarantine and dam up flow. But now the plug is used for different purposes, to establish connections, and to draw together places and times. Plugs are scale-transformers: they used to keep proximal things distant, now they bring distant things up close…In some places plugs are getting harder to find. Why do airport lavatories, for example, have sinks with no plugs? Nearly always, they also have automatic taps that belch out a grudging little spatter of warm water (or, just as often, don’t), when a hand is waved at or under them in a mystic pass. I imagine that it is because airport sinks are the products of the ‘defensive design’ that characterises most public amenities, that is intended to inhibit rather than to enable the way things offer themselves for our use. The principal concern for the designer of an airport lavatory is that passengers will be getting off planes crumpled and malodorous, and may want to treat the public lavatory like a private washroom, filling the sinks with steaming water, stripping to the waist and turning the paper towels into improvised flannels to give themselves bracing scrub-downs. Surely, the reasoning goes, if the flow of water requires to be renewed every few seconds, and no accumulation of water is possible in the sink, this kind of behaviour can be discouraged. I admit I have myself, in grimmer, grimier moments, been tempted by the prospect of such a public ablution.
Philip Dodd talks to the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips about his new book, On Balance. Need and appetite, greed and excess. How do we know when enough is enough? Is balance always a good thing?
And an excess of flesh can provoke strong reactions. Indecent exposure or the body beautiful? Night Waves discusses why art, religion and society still have very different reactions to the naked body. With Philip Carr Gomm, author of A Brief History of Nakedness; the columnist and writer Joan Smith; and art critic William Feaver.
Philip talks to the writer Barbara Kingsolver, recently awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel, The Lacuna, the story of a man caught up in the great moments of the twentieth century, working for Diego Rivera, witnessing Trotsky’s death and finding himself involved in the McCarthyism of post World War II America.
And there’s another in our series of letters from the scientist and geographer Jared Diamond, who talks about why the pyramids are so remarkable and the sense of wonder they still inspire.
Ernest Thompson Seton, naturalist, artist, author and founder of the Woodcraft movement wrote this in the 1920s:
The Seven Secrets of Woodcraft
The Fourfold Law. From the Great Central Fire are four pathways: the Body Way, the Mind Way, the Spirit Way and the Service Way. Along these four all men must go if they would be truly men. And each of these leads to a lamp, a little fire that we light from the Great Central Fire. These lamps are Beauty, Truth, Fortitude and Love. From these four, issue the twelve laws of Woodcraft, and this is the secret of the Fourfold Fire.
The Medicine in the Sky. This is perhaps the greatest secret: that the sun rays have power to purge away many of the worst ills that afflict mankind. Tubercular troubles of all kinds find their deadly enemy in the sun. To most of us the sun rays are a wonderful tonic. One in fifty, perhaps, because of some physical defect, is unable to stand it. This is the test: as long as it is pleasant, it is good; if unpleasant, it is bad, for pain is nature’s protest against injury.
The Sacred Fire. The rubbing stick fire has always been the sacred fire, the “Need Fire.” You can make it if you follow the directions in this Birch Bark Roll, with balsam fir in the north and east, with cedar in the south, with yucca stalks in the southwest. This is the sunlight bottled up in the wood, and it comes forth again under the power of the bow. With this we light the Great Central Fire of Council. It is the symbol of the one Great Spirit.
The Bread of the Woods. In every part of the wilderness there is a food that a starving man can find to save his life. In all parts of the United States, where there are ponds and slow streams, we can find the Wapato or Duck-potato. Its leaf is like a slender arrow head and its root bears a nutritious bulb as big as a walnut.In all the eastern part of Canada and the United States, the Bog-nut or Indian Potato abounds in low bush land. It is a climbing plant with purple flowers, and leaves composed of 5, 7, or 9 leaflets. On its roots are strings of the bog nuts about the size of hickory nuts.
In all the prairie country we find the Indian Turnip or Pomme Blanche.In all the far north, we find the Rock Tripe on which Richardson and Franklin lived for months.In each region is at least one such starvation food. It is the pleasant task of the Woodcrafter to search for and discover this hidden blessing in his home land.
The North Star. No one need get lost at night in the wilderness if the sky be clear enough to see the stars; for the seven stars, that is, the Dipper, point to the North Star, the Home Star, swinging around it, but pointing ever to it.
Vigil. Do you know that when you sit alone all night by a fire in some high sheltered place, without food, books ;or company, you get very close to the Great Spirit? And if you earnestly desire it, you may hear the voices and will surely have the guidance of better wisdom than your own.
The Peace of the Night. There was a time when our grandmothers taught us that the night air was poison. We know now that this is a mistake. God does not put out any worse air at night than in the daytime. Only it is cooler. And there is danger of being stung by malarial mosquitoes at night if we are not protected. We know now that the air of the night is not only cooler, but more tonic, a power for nerve rest. We know that the Angel of the Night brings healing under her wings. The weary, the nerve-wracked, the sleepless, may trust themselves to the outdoor night with certainty of blessed repose.
A friend Gordon Cooper writes: ‘Seton’s woodcraft stressed building a cabin in the woods, making one’s own kit, and meditating while nude or nearly nude in the summer months. When Seton spent time with Julian Huxley in the 1890’s in London, he became a vegetarian and flirted briefly with Zen Buddhism. There is certainly a pacifistic, communal and individualist message conveyed in all of the Woodcraft games, as well as within the Honors and Degrees System.’
I love the summer, but it also tends to be rather frenetic here at Casa Gomm. Does the summer tend to be a frenetic time for you too? Here is a poll to help me determine if our family is unusual in this respect!
The solution? Apart from the three Sss (or is it four? 🙂 ) of swimming, sleeping and sunbathing, meditation is what seems to work best to counteract stress, so Damh and I, with the help of music from Charlie Roscoe, Nigel Shaw and Jonny Robels, have created a set of five guided meditations to help reconnect with the elemental forces of nature. The meditations are gathered into an album available for download and called ‘Wild Wisdom Meditations’ and this is available onitunes or CD Baby here. Each of the first four meditations are very different – the first one earthy, the second ‘watery’ and so on, with the final fifth offering a deep relaxation that connects you to all four elements. To give you a feel for what they are like, and whether they work for you, you can listen to this fifth one here. It lasts about 20 minutes so please only listen to this when you have at least 25 minutes of undisturbed time ahead of you. Do not listen to it in a public place, while traveling, or where you might get disturbed or interrupted.
A few posts back I showed a photo and poem of one of the Order’s ‘Honorary Bards’ who have astounded us over the years at our Glastonbury gatherings with their poetry. Here’s another, Barry Patterson, with his poem about William Blake:
Big Bill Blake
Blake’s chest is filled by a wind roaring through time that does not heed convention or calamity His mind knotted around a divine pressure behind his eyes, like a hangover or a coming fever Face, frowning & laughing at the same time & no-one knows what thoughts are moving there He doesn’t care what may or may not be visible to his audience, only that they understand.
His hands move suddenly, then they are still again, he can’t remain motionless in this atmosphere’s gloom Head on fire, eyes burning, voice rising & falling in the song that he must sing Everything alive within the horizon is stretching into the light, but we don’t ever see Some say he’s crazy, but they only see danger in feelings set free into the wild of nature’s embrace.
It’s the Garden of Eden, every day, but nobody wants that to be true right now A rat race run by parasites all too scared to wake up now & see the sun The impossible is commonplace to them & innocence & freedom are hopelessly overwhelmed by their serious intentions If someone mentions the war in heaven then they nod so wisely as if they really understood
But there is no war & no wall to contain the soul, only a down cast gaze in the heat of the mind made forge Where chains of belief & disbelief are equal in their power to condemn the human race to slavery & a chain is a chain whether it be forged from iron, lead or uranium, titanium or gold Mere words you have been told are not enough to show the unseen landscape of humanity’s true heritage.
No ghost, no machine, no animal red in tooth & claw, no root no vine, no precious race Only a heart beating light, a mind made transparent, unimagined, untrammelled, set free The guilty globe of waking life, roaring with the primary pulsation of the senses is burst open Like a soap bubble peeling itself apart from the point of penetration setting free the refractions from its surface
& a red haired man shouts & waves his arms about, he jumps up & down pointing at a wildflower, he says: The cistern contains; the fountain overflows. One thought fills immensity. What is now proved was once, only imagin’d: every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth. I say: we are enslaved by an idea that we have about ourselves & we mock those who dare to question it.
Barry Patterson, June 2006
From the Collection ‘Nature Mystic’ published by Heaventree Press, 2008 See Barry’s website.
29 July 10 (Thursday) Flowers and Owls -: A Night of Story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion Treadwell’s Bookshop, Covent Garden, London
Tonight we invite you to a telling of a Welsh story from Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, that legendary myth cycle replete with magic, gods, goddesses — here in the tale of Blodeuwedd, we have Celtic lashings of violence, love, and pagan hearkenings. Renowned storyteller Fiona Collins calls her retelling ‘Flowers and Owls’ and will enchant you — through the veil of the mists to where the Otherworld lies and its heroines teach spiritual and magical lessons. Price: £7.00 in advance. Time: 7.15 for a 7.30 start . Books seats, with payment by card, on 0207 240 8906. Treadwell’s, 34 Tavistock Street, London WC2E 7PB. www.treadwells-london.com.