“At some point today, standing or sitting, cover or have your ears covered with your or their fingers. Set timer for 3 minutes. Press quite hard. CLOSE EYES. Listening. Listening. Release. Listening. Listening…”
This was the final – Monday’s email – instruction of the weekend. By a pretty concatenation of circumstance I took part in three really enriching things over the past three days and, because they fit so well together, I wanted to share some notes about the experiences.
Bodhi Listening was the frame for my days. In the description of Mathew Cunningham and Carlos Monleon Gendall this was a weekend of listening at the Mezzanine of Wilds Rents: Group listening, Self listening. Guided listening.
I arrived on the Friday evening, at a little before 7.30pm, having found it. Wilds Rents is an art live-space and project-space in Bermondsey, London. It is dirty, chaotic and nourishing. It is a huge warehouse. Usually 9 people live here, but those that were not taking part in the weekend had been told to keep very quiet with careful signs – photocopied drawings – saying ‘Shhhh Quiet Rents!’
It is amazing how quickly memories fade. The lighting was very beautiful when we were finally assembled as a group. First however there was a shy waiting period as each of us who had arrived sat on the kitchen couches. One by one we heard a sharp call: ‘Next!’ to convey it was our turn to meet with Mathew and receive instruction in the meditation practice. When we were finally assembled around the candles, the desk light, and the glass bowl filled with cold water and radishes, the evening became a staggered blur of group meditation and self listening exercises.
Carlos and Mathew took it in turns. In between they would have whispered chats to confer or confirm what would happen next. With Mathew we meditated and listened and heard the rich sound of the gong. With Carlos we moved and played bag of bones. Bag of bones is where one person lies on the floor with their eyes closed while other people, sometimes many, pull at their limbs. It was very very strange to be touched, pushed and held by many invisible hands in the dark. The carpet was soft. We were on a parapet, and the darkness was all around us.
We ate food that we couldn’t see very well. The quantities were very strange so that as each person served themselves they had to negotiate how many flat breads to take, what the thick sauce might be, or whether to skin the only banana. The food was excellent and tasty. Before we slept we turned the mezzanine into a massive bed by hoisting up mattresses and cushions and we went to sleep in a long line.
Five and a half hours later the gong went and we woke and transformed the bed back into a meditation space and did exercises that reminded me of Castaneda’s magical passes. And we sat in meditation again. To this point everything had been in silence, but then, like a wizard, Mathew declared the silence lifted. We made coffee and ate porridge. I thought we were going to be allowed to go free but then, at the last turn, and at 8.30 in the morning, a new concept was introduced – Samu. For twenty minutes we divided into small groups and were directed in how we would clean Wilds Rents. Once I overcame my resistance it was amazing and delightful how much 15 people were able to do in twenty minutes.
The interesting thing about how Bodhi Listening was structured – for a weekend retreat – is that the days were ours to keep and use. Except that we would come back at one point over the weekend for an hour and a half session with Mathew and then Carlos for meditation, reiki and massage, and convene once more as a group on Sunday evening. I came back at 11.30am on Saturday. I was told to wait for a little while in somebody’s bedroom. There was another bowl of radishes submerged in water. When Carlos appeared he told me that radishes were the leitmotif of the weekend and I ate two.
Mathew and I sat in meditation facing each other. He reminded me of the Mondo Zen koan about listening that he had given to us the night before. He also read me a tiny poem by Ikkyu and we let words jump out. Then I moved through the sheets-hung-as-curtains to Carlos who was burning a small stick of wood that made an incredible smell. I lay in my boxer shorts as he gave me a full body ayurvedic massage, for a generous 50 minutes, using some sort of oil mixed with a ground root.
The Anti University
On Friday evening one of the participants told me about the Antiuniversity. He told me that Allen Ginsberg, R. D. Laing, Stokely Carmichael and other luminaries in 1968 had created a movement in London. In their words the Antiuniversity wanted to allow people to meet each other without having to act out socially prescribed roles, believing that this would expose the terrible reality of modern life, in which nobody really knew anyone, and spark a revolution. When someone published online the archives a few years ago it inspired people to start it up again, and this year Antiuniversity Now was happening for four days all over the UK from Thursday to Sunday this weekend.
I looked online at their well structured website and scrolled thru 120 self organised events across London. Someone was leading a swimming class. Someone had built a sauna using Finish timber. Someone else had combined meditation and bread making to make breaditation. There were two talks back to back that I wanted to see on Saturday at Conway Hall in Holborn, but by the time my massage was over I could arrive only in time for the second one.
For many years of my life I have not been very politically astute and now I am trying slowly to rectify that. The talk I saw was on the Privatisation of the City. It was extremely galling. In Conway Hall it seems many things happen all the time: a shaman in full garb was loitering in the hallway and there was a very village hall-y type café with things laid out on a table with folding legs. The kind receptionist walked me all the way to the entrance to my talk, however the previous talk, about the emergence of a decolonial cultural front in New York City (one that creates actions, conversations and artwork to hold our cultural, academic and art institutions accountable to the struggles being waged today), was still being hotly debated inside. When people did spill out, I arrived to a room full of chairs in rows which filled up swiftly. A lady gave a little spiel about the Antiuniversity and some of the other events and then said it was their practice that the self-organised speakers introduce themselves, so that Anna Minton – the speaker – then stepped to the front.
Anna’s talk was an extension of her book Ground Control. She explained that things had got much much bleaker in the few years that have elapsed since it was published. The slides: mostly white text on black, a couple of times with lovely unapologetic typos. The gist that barely a square inch of London is still publicly owned and councils have been selling off housing estates, land, whatever, as fast as they can; demolishing low cost housing, kicking out the tenants or home owners, and replacing it with a tiny amount of so called affordable housing (defined as being 80% of usual market rent in London, i.e. still completely unaffordable to the vast majority), but mostly just blocks of flats for wealthy people. Shopping malls, parks and of course Boris’ grassy bludgeoning bridge are all privately owned and therefore public rights are greatly reduced.
The crowd that had gathered were rankled by the cold truth and the discussion after was often loud and filled with people’s palpable frustration. There was an awkward scene where one man kept butting in with borderline racist views. Another man made an especially good point – I thought – about envisioning possible alternatives rather than just complaining and feeling disempowered by the oppressive weight of capitalism gone completely out of control. I slipped out the back door while the debate raged.
Ritual >>>> Enhancement – UA
UA stands for Universal A, they are probably most easily defined as an artist collective though the nature of their practice verges on cultish. On Sunday they gave a workshop as a part of a series called Please Stand By, curated by Rebecca Glover, at the Chisenhale Studios in Bow. I walked up the canal at midday from Limehouse in the light rain which was a beautiful journey. I arrived with mild foreboding, reassured by seeing smiles of old friends, and was shown through to Studio 4 where a ring of chairs had been laid out. Aubergines ensheathed in rubber hung from the ceiling and covering two or three tables were various devices of many descriptions. Vases of pink salt or petrol oil. I made tea and sat as the circle gathered.
The afternoon was facilitated gently by Paul Gwilliam, Miriam Austin, Matt Drage, Boris Jardine and Lizzy Laurance. UA formed in 2013, in their own words, in order to investigate the aesthetic possibilities of religious practice, mythology and ritual. The afternoon would be a series of connected workshops, within a workshop and a single room, that led naturally to the collaborative creation of a group ritual. It would also mark the first time that as a collective they were opening out the practices that they had been carefully cultivating together in retreats, for generating art, for the uninitiated.
We collaboratively threw the I Ching as a central reference for the day and received guidance in the form of Sui, Following. We lay on our backs and were led in meditation with gradually movement introduced so that legs waved in the air and people rolled. We made tabernacles, individually but together – assemblages of our own design, utilising the wire, wax, beetroot stained fabric, vegetable matter, talcum powder, rubber, plants, clay etc. etc. on offer. These would each hold the sacred objects we had been asked to bring and fasten them in some way to our bodies. It was messy. We were led in creating collaborative poems, my scepticism cast aside by the beauty that some simple aesthetic limitations and rules forced. Words from the poems became the seed for group vocal exercises as we stood in a circle and created a wall of sound by chanting. Finally, and thoroughly loosened up, we divided into four groups and were asked to create a single stage of a four step ritual; each group given a simple sentence or instruction as a parameter to work with.
The collaborative ritual played out as the final part of the five hour workshop. It became at times intense and evocative. A group hallucination formed as we navigated visualisations where we were shrunk to the size of a matchstick and smaller and wailing keening cries as each person in turn separated their sacred object from tabernacle. At the pinnacle we crossed at last a threshold where publicly in pairs we smeared liquid on each others wrists and fed each other single nodules of pomegranate.
I stayed to help tidy up which gave me some much needed closure from a very strange, exciting and frenetic five hours and also meant I was late for the final part of Mathew and Carlos’ Bodhi Listening weekend, which put me somewhat in the doghouse temporarily. Returning to Wilds Rents, and rejoining the group of listeners halfway through, we sat together in powerful silence, we walked together in powerful silence, we drank tea together in powerful silence, and we found places to stand or lean together in powerful silence. After some time the energy kind of naturally dispersed and, catching the time, I saw it was 11pm and overdue for me to make my way back home.
It is still possible to do wonderful free things – yes all three of these events were completely free (merely an offering of 3-5 pounds asked for by Bodhi Listening to cover food and tea costs, which I shamefully forgot to give) – in a city become maddeningly hostile and engorged by it’s own agenda to make a tiny select rivers and rivers of money. I know from personal experience how much effort it takes to make things happen and so I want to extend a deep thanks to all the people involved in making Bodhi Listening, Antiuniversity Now, and Ritual >>>> Enhancement, I feel lucky, inspired and refreshed by your generous work – thank you!
Llew Watkins is a writer and artist based in Limehouse, East London.