I was walking into town the long way around, down the avenue of old trees to the lake, and then along the old track by fields, near where the composer Vaughan Williams used to live, and thence into town. Halfway along the track, the words suddenly popped into my mind: “There are no taboos.”
It was the answer to a question I hadn’t even quite asked.
Earlier in the day I’d read a report in Nature Magazine about research by neuroscientists at Northwestern University into how to solve problems in your first sleep. Apparently, when Thomas Edison hit a wall with his inventions, he’d take a nap in an armchair, holding a steel ball. As he started to fall asleep and his muscles relaxed, the ball would fall, and its noise hitting the floor would wake him up with insights into his problems. The Northwestern neuroscientists investigated this phenomenon and discovered that there was indeed a sweet moment between being awake and going into deep sleep that was remarkably effective for coming up with solutions to problems.
The study referred to problems in mathematics and science, but I had a hunch that it worked for any kind of creative or relational problem. But then, the thought struck me that, even if I came up with valuable insights, many times I wouldn’t act on them, because there’d be something that stopped me from proceeding – some sense of propriety, some concern about others’ reactions, doubts about success, fear for fear’s sake …
Hence, two hours later, walking to town, the insight, “There are no taboos”.
My first instinct was, “Well, thanks, but yes there are!” And then I thought, “But if there aren’t? If there are no taboos, then I’m free to act on every valuable insight – it’s a call to action, surely?
No, came the answer, not necessarily. Many times it merely prompts us to see things more clearly, to understand that taboos are part of the structure of a matrix that we don’t have to buy into. When, for example, you meet family at Christmas and the matrix is calling you to be the child or sibling or parent you’ve always been in that context with all the associated taboos, to know that the “you” of the call isn’t you anymore. You can instead be the you that you’ve grown into since. And that’ll be enough. For if you don’t fall into the matrix and get snagged up on taboos, other people can’t then play the familiar patterns that have always sabotaged you.
I’ve got another example if you’re up for tortuous connections. Last autumn, a collection of Van Gogh’s preparatory drawings for his famous early painting, The Potato Eaters, was exhibited in Amsterdam for the first time. To the end of his life, Van Gogh considered this one of his best paintings, just as good as Sunflowers. His family, friends and buyers didn’t agree, and all slated it brutally at the time. I don’t call it his best painting myself, but I’m inclined still to look for loveliness, which wasn’t the point. The painting mattered deeply to Van Gogh – he created over 50 studies and sketches for this one work of a family of peasants he had once glimpsed through a window . He explained to his brother what he was trying to do: “What I’m trying to get with it is to be able to draw not a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head but the overall expression. The sniffing of the wind when a digger looks up, say, or speaking. Life, in short.”
“The sniffing of the wind when a digger looks up. Life, in short.” What an aim! An attempt to reveal to us matters way beneath the surface of appearances – almost impossible to achieve. Elsewhere, he says, “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”
Exactly. No taboos.
Shall we go for it, you and I? Your own aspirations and attempts are entirely yours and, though the reactions of others are not irrelevant and can even be helpful, only you know what you are attempting, only you know why, only you know the journey that has brought you to this point; it is your inner spirit that wants to be satisfied, only you will know when that point is reached. Only you, you alone, will appreciate to the full the joy of your own fulfilment. So, go for it.
Not a bad phrase as we turn the year and face the unknown. My Christmas cards include a good smattering of sheep following each other across hillsides; the New Year, on the other hand, is for the lone Tyger, tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night …
Happy Christmas everyone, and peace and joy in the year ahead.