It was a Saturday and the phone was ringing, emails were coming in and I was hard pressed to get out of the house to make my meeting on time; so it looked like being a normal weekend. As I flung on a clean shirt, the cat ambled past, out of the door into the sunshine, then curled up on a chair in the summer house and went to sleep. It had clearly been a long journey from her bed. Driving quickly away from my house I pondered on the life of cats and their pace of life, before realising that unless I got a move on I would definitely be late.
At home in the evening, all the rushing seemed a waste, as I lived in an idyllic setting in a beautiful house hundreds of feet above the River Wye, with dizzying panoramic views, but had no time to see them. The house backed onto hundreds of acres of forest, but I had no chance to walk them. Save for owls hooting and bats skimming the trees the land was quiet, but I had no peace. By now the cat was awake and wandering through doors open to the cooling summer breeze to the balcony at the front, where she lay stretched out. I sipped a cold beer, relaxed a bit, and the phone rang.
I discussed this with a friend as we took rare time out to walk high in the Brecon Beacons, telling him that what I really wanted was a Cat Saturday, every weekend, where there was time to read, or play guitar, or sit quietly and contemplate.
The revelation came that achieving the bliss of a Cat Saturday would come not in pressing forwards and doing, but in removing. I would find this whenever I rode my motorbike, the detritus of life stripped away by the wind, sloughed from my shoulders, as no emails could be replied to and phone could be answered, there was only a road and the easy focus on riding, wherever my route took me. I rode year round, often heading towards Snowdonia in the summer and exploring the icy local high mountain passes in the winter, at all times at peace.
It seems as if the first step towards a state of bliss is the removal of noise, of interference, of confusion. Lao Tzu talked of Wu Wei, a state of ‘no thing’, not to be confused with ‘nothing’, as that is simply inactivity. Through Wu Wei, life is lived in seamless connection with the natural world, in harmony, navigating obstacles and turbulence by passing between them in a flow of simplicity. It rejects consumerism for its impact on the environment and the transitory nature of the happiness gained from purchasing, the hedonic adaptation which creates a falling off of pleasure the more an action is experienced.
For Lao Tzu, Wu Wei was entwined with Ju, where yielding to force through suppleness creates resilience and strength; as a reed in a river flood bends and adapts, whereas a rigid structure can be swept away as it resists. For Bruce Lee this was ‘fighting without fighting’ and both judo and jujitsu use the principles of flow, adaptability and suppleness to gain strength in battle, the 'ju' being in both their names. Daoism taught that the attainment of tranquillity came from living in harmony with the natural world, ‘the sage helps the natural development of all things and does not dare to act.’
A restless cat woke me before it was light, deciding it was time for us both to be up, and since the shroud of sleep had slipped from me, I wandered out onto the balcony, the promise of coming summer warmth gently around me. The grey, pre-dawn light was as soft as the breath of a sleeping lover and at the foot of the limestone cliff to the side of my house stood two deer, aware, calm, unconcerned. Then quietly, with ballerina steps, their tawny bodies became part of the forest as they faded into cover. The forest was silent, too early even for the birds, I sipped the bitterness of tea and put the paddleboard into the car.
The board slid across the taut surface of the river, warm fingers of dawn reaching through the trees towards me. Swans glided and guided their puffball babies, herons stood in stately elegance as I passed, and my world was at peace, a state of bliss. A Cat Saturday.
In the casinos of Las Vegas there are no windows or clocks, whilst artificial daylight is created with bright white lights, so people lose all sense of natural time and their circadian rhythms are blurred and blended. The slot becomes the focus, the bright noises of the machines clamour, the craving for more which binds gamblers into a circle with their karma the force of their actions. In this harsh automaton existence, far removed from the natural world, self is stripped from them, along with their money – the average spend of a visitor is $500, and there are 50 million visitors a year. The casinos are a complex, calculated construction, designed to manipulate and direct, to bind minds with artificiality and prevent them from escaping craving, from ‘snuffing out’ their karma.
The impersonality of the casinos also separates the people who play the machines, or play the tables or play against others, it is a construct designed to create individuals without interpersonal relationships who are locked into their hedonic adaptation, their short term pleasure fixes. Epicurus argued that ‘it does not follow that every pleasure is a choice worthy without qualification’, thus Philosophical Hedonism is distinguished from the unqualified pursuit of pleasure fixes. The slots create a hunger, a craving, for pleasure which is never sated. A pleasure that has no worth, but immense value for the casino owners.
A clear January night left the trail hard and the three of us climbed out of the Vale of Ewyas towards the ridge to the south of Capel-y-Ffin. I have always found pleasure in travelling with good friends, with ‘good’ defined as both close and of virtue, which my two companions were. Aristotle observed that ‘Good men will be friends for their own sake, that is, in virtue of their goodness.’
Those whose morality is thin or who seek power at the expense of virtue rarely have friends, since friendship relies on trust (I’m struggling to compile a list of dictators with a circle of intimate friends). These people lose the companionability of true friends, who will be loyal alongside you but honest with your failings, without seeking advantage.
The pleasure gained from friends is strongest where the friendship has endured over years and through shared experiences of all types, it is the antipathy of hedonic adaptation.
If dictators have few friends, then they are also defined by negativity, as are the states they construct, which frequently devote vast amounts of energy to their machinations, their grand schemes and their persecutions. They reform, they conquer and they control through the diversion of enormous resources and through grandiose plans which are enacted without a thought to finding the simplest way; if Mao had taken a Small Step Forwards then perhaps 20 to 40 million people would not had died.
In the search for a state of bliss it seems that simplifying is a good place to start, since this also involves removing complexity, negativity and the ‘noise’ from life. This takes time, since it is not about following a series of instant actions of gratification, seeking social media likes or Amazon deliveries. It is not focused on perfection (though there can be bliss in that) because there is often beauty in imperfection; was a daguerotype picture better than a calotype because it was more exact, or did the imperfect calotype add texture and life to the image? The moment may not be computationally perfect in every way, but it could be blissful.
It seems to me that there is one thing that all moments of bliss share, you can look back at that moment and relive part of what it meant, that blissful feeling. No one will look back in a decade’s time and remember with pure joy a line of coke sniffed, the delivery van arriving or the clatter of coins from a slot machine, but they could relive a state of bliss when the soul was at peace and they were connected to the moment. For, just as Wu Wei is not ‘doing nothing’, bliss also has connection, perhaps to a person, a feeling or a landscape which you engage with. This is engagement with, not subjugation or control of the moment or the action.
Bliss has purity but lacks complexity, it holds the moment but loses negativity. It can involve laughter with friends, the blast of an icy wind on a mountain top, the arms of someone wonderful, the soaring of the soul in a piece of music, or the simplicity of a Cat Saturday.