‘Why We Sleep’ and Memory

I’ve recently been reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and will probably be recommending it to everyone for a while. Walker summarises the current scientific literature on sleep, both in terms of of what it does, its health benefits, and the risks of sleep deprivation. He suggests that modern industrial and post-industrial society consistently devalues and disrupts sleep, and advocates for action on every scale to remedy this.

I was prompted to read the book after hearing it mentioned in Andrew Holocek’s exploration of dream yoga with Michael Taft on DY. Holocek draws on both Buddhist and Western thought on dreams, and discusses the potential of lucid and intentional dreaming to enrich a meditation practice. I heard a brief introductory talk on dream yoga by Khandro Déchen at my first Aro retreat back in June, and was intrigued by the idea that you could treat lucid dreams (which often occur naturally for long-term meditators) as an opportunity to practice. I had some knowledge of the topic from checking out the r/LucidDreaming community at one point, but the focus there is mostly on fantasy and wish fulfilment. I like Holocek’s angle that just as a meditation practice is about becoming more lucid and aware in your waking life, it would make sense to extend that lucidity to sleep as well.

The very idea of lucid dreaming may prompt a natural skepticism for some, but Walker actually devotes a few pages to it in Why We Sleep, and discusses an intriguing study that strongly suggests its veracity. The researchers used MRI scanners to observe the waking brains of participants while clenching their right and left hands. During REM (rapid eye movement) dream sleep the body remains motionless, but the eyes move; hence the name. Using pre-arranged eye movements, participants were able to indicate they had achieved dream control. They then signalled an intent to dream about clenching their left and right hands, and the MRI scans showed up with a corresponding image to that seen while awake. I can’t say that I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with this myself yet, but it’s good to be reassured that I wouldn’t be attempting the impossible!

Another aspect of the book that interested me was the relationship between sleep and memory. The contrast between the four progressively deeper stages of NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement) and REM seems to hold the key to how the brain processes memories. The brain cycles between these two kinds of sleep during the night in roughly 90 minute blocks, with a broader pattern of more NREM sleep at the beginning of the night and more REM later on. The slow waves of NREM sleep pulse from the front to the back of the brain, with bursts of higher activity at the end of each wave, known as ‘sleep spindles’, which seem to shield the sleeper from external noises. It seems that one result of this kind of sleep is transferring memories from a sort of short-term storage in the hippocampus to more long-term storage in the cortex. REM (dream) sleep on the other hand is a bit more complicated, although much better theorised and understood in recent years. It currently looks like its main role is of integrating the memories which have been received while awake and stored in NREM sleep, bouncing them off each other in novel and creative ways.

It would be very interesting to know what kind of effects meditation practice might have on memory, with the caveat that it would probably depend on the type of practice, the type of memory, and the intentions of the subject. The main Aro meditation practice is Shi-nè, in which, if I’ve understood it correctly, the aim is not to grasp at feelings and discursive thoughts, but to allow them to play out in spacious awareness. I’ve found several times that in the minutes immediately after practice, my mind seems to make spontaneous connections between the thoughts and ideas that have been rolling round my head. I’ve heard it said anecdotally that people who meditate a lot don’t need as much sleep, so I do wonder if meditation and sleep have some potential overlap in their effect on the mind-body complex.

Following on the heels of Why We Sleep, I listened to Andy Matuschak on the Venture Stories podcast, discussing with Erik Torenberg the fact that people often remember very little of what they read, even when they believe it’s important and worth remembering. Matuschak is an advocate of spaced-repetition systems like Anki for learning and retaining knowledge, and suggests that the non-fiction book needs a new technological paradigm which deliberately combines ‘reading’ with ‘understanding’. The principle of Anki is that if you truly want to remember something, you need to repeatedly recall it at particular intervals, and it seems that this system does actually dramatically increase your ability to remember. For a brief while there was a tongue-in-cheek war of words on Twitter between advocates of this sort of memory work, characterised as ‘first brainers’, in opposition to ‘second brainers’, a term derived from Tiago Forte’s ‘Building a Second Brain’, which focuses on building up a resource base of knowledge in the form of notes. Cf. Walker, it seems pretty obvious that your original meat-brain does its best to both retain and synthesise memories while you sleep, so it would only make sense to work on enhancing both capabilities in your daylight hours. The only difficulty is deciding what’s truly important in our information saturated world, and the best way to work with it.img_1213.jpeg

Other recent reading: Iain Sinclair’s Lights out for the Territory, a brilliant collection of discursive, digressive and polemical essays on London, and Ali Smith’s wonderful Winter, her seasons quartet being the best thing to come out of Brexit so far.

ICYMI: I put out a mix of ‘party’ tunes last week.

Photos from last week’s chilly walk around Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales.

in medias res #3

An occasional diary piece. Recent places: Lisbon & London.

I’ve always rather liked the fact that the academic year gives you the opportunity to start afresh twice; once in September, and again in January. Although this is my fourth September out of education, I still find that the first cool breezes of autumn send a primal message to take stock of my life and hunker down for the winter. For the last few years I’ve been in Wales for a week or two during this shoulder period, but this time I spent a long weekend (is six days a long weekend?) in Lisbon with my partner Daisy, enjoying the ambience of faded grandeur, and seeking out just about every bookshop in the city.

Despite my misgivings about certain notions of personal productivity in the last piece I wrote here, it’s actually something I’ve spent quite a bit of time working over the last year. I started with Tiago Forte’s Praxis blog, but realised that it depended to a great extent on knowledge of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a bestseller in the field. Most of the material in the book is not very complicated, for instance the now well-known ‘two minute rule’ – if you find something that needs doing and it will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. Another useful idea is to turn everything that you need to do (unless it’s a one-off errand) into a project, with its own space for gathering ideas and materials. I happen to manage my projects on Notion, but it could very easily be designed on paper or one of many digital apps (I started on Evernote). As a subscriber to Tasshin Fogleman’s newsletter I also ended up getting early access to the Digital Productivity Coach, a Notion workspace he put together with James Stuber, which is now generally available (for free if you want!). If you’re looking for a place to get started in personal productivity, I can’t recommend it more. Inspired by Tasshin again, I embarked on my first ‘twelve week year’ at the beginning of October. As laid out in Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington’s book, the concept is simple: rather than making yearly goals and plans, you shorten the time horizon to twelve weeks, meaning you have to choose a few key things to work on, with measurable lead and lag indicators. I’ll likely do a full write-up at the end of the process, but for now I’ve found that it’s (counter-intuitively) been a really valuable way to keep a broader view on what I’m focusing on at any given time, rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day to-dos (which I found can be a side-effect of the GTD ethos).

One of my twelve-week goals is to put out a blog or mix every week, last week producing this mix, which began life as a vague idea to do something for the fifteenth anniversary of Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album, Boy in da Corner. Obviously that date passed me by, but I was determined not to let the idea go to waste, and ended up with something I’m rather proud of, starting out with the more standard ‘grime tempo’ tracks that I like from the album, then moving into a jungle and hardcore inflected rinse out for the second half. The inspiration to get the mix finished came from reading Dan Hancox’s brilliant Inner City Pressure, a brief history of grime with a wonderful sense of storytelling and socio-political heft to it (perhaps not surprising given that his first published book was a history of Marinaleda, a utopian Communist village in Andalusia). Hancox makes a convincing case for grime as the ‘most innovative, thrilling and controversial music of the 21st century’, taking in its origins in New Labour Britain and the pressure placed on it by government and police, and its role as part of an informal London culture which has come under increasing threat in recent years from surveillance and gentrification. Boy in da Corner itself is emblematic of how grime didn’t fit in the first time it made a break for the mainstream, with Dizzee Rascal ‘doing pop-cultural modernism entirely the wrong way’, on his own terms, without attempting to pander to the established cultural gatekeepers. The mid-noughties hysteria about hoodies and happy-slapping seems almost comical now, but Hancox brings that era to life, and points out the continuities in inequality, as starkly evidenced by the ongoing disaster of youth crime in London, and the tragedy of Grenfell in 2017. As Dizzee put it in ‘2 Far’: “Queen Elizabeth don’t know me, so/How can she control me, when/I live street and she lives neat?”.

Recent reading and listening:

Riding the general wave of the Great Weirding, I read the second volume of Robert Anton Wilsons’ Cosmic Trigger, a scattergun collection of short pieces personal, political, and somehow very pertinent to the way the world is at the moment.

My friend Jess on the Both/And Podcast with Jason and Jared, chatting lucidly about meta-rationality and sexuality!

Getting Messy with Mental Polyculture

Over here in my corner of the Twittersphere, it seems you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In some sense I’ve been thinking with it ever since I came across Venkatesh Rao’s elucidation of ‘legibility’. This isn’t a long summary or a review – I’d recommend the above or Slate Star Codex for that – but a brief look at a simple idea: that of ‘strength in diversity’.

One of the key ideas that the book circles back to is the fragility of monoculture, and the strength of polyculture, despite an outer aesthetic appearance of disorder. Scott’s first example is that of German forest management from the seventeenth century onwards, when it was discovered that a pristine forest of neatly regimented trees may produce an abundance of lumber for a generation or two, but is ultimately likely to collapse under one or more stresses of disease or weather, in a way that a more diverse forest does not. The rule holds in other kinds of agriculture, and can also be extended to cities, as explored in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Whenever an authority seeks to ‘legibilise’ a population or place, they tend to envision a rational order along the lines of a military camp, and whether their intentions are benign, malignant, or somewhere in between, this legibilising will entail cutting out a good deal of actually useful stuff. For instance, the Soviet Union’s enforced collectivisation of farming failed to account for a myriad of factors, and its perverse incentives meant that most of the country’s eggs and garden vegetables ended up being produced in tiny private plots of land in the free time of collectivised workers. There is always a ‘dark side’ to these projects: ‘The most rigidly planned economies tend to be accompanied by large ‘underground, gray, informal’ economies that supply, in a thousand ways, what the formal economy fails to supply’.

For now, it seems that European countries and the U.S.A. have given up on vast, high modernist urban or agricultural projects (not so the Gulf states and China). But the force of legibilisation continues apace, especially in the realm of measurement, or metrics. While we are used to the idea that the government gathers information to conduct taxation and distribute services, the last few decades have seen an explosion in the capabilites of corporations to mine and make use information about us. And not only do corporations do this, but we are encouraged to measure ourselves, using apps to track biological processes like menstruation and sleep, and counting the interactions that our increasingly branded personas make with each other on social media. We also find a generalised expectation that an individual monitor, manage and increase their own productivity (however defined).*

Ironically, for the productivity gurus, it seems that attempting to be productive at all costs is, in fact, unproductive. Trying to optimise your life in line with a one-track route of productivity, whatever the goal, just results in burnout and/or apathy. You can think of it a little like going to the gym. If you decide to make your metric of gym success the amount of weight you can lift in a biceps curl, and simply do that, your initial gains will quickly plateau, leaving you with not much to show beyond curious looking biceps. A well-balanced routine would challenge different aspects of fitness at different times, giving a more holistically healthy outcome. Simple productivity ideas applied with brute force often display a similar poverty of breadth, and even if they result in a higher output on whatever metric you might be measuring, this output may well be brittle and somewhat meaningless (the paperclip maximiser is a philosophical exploration of this idea in the realm of AI).

I’m interested in how this notion of mono vs polyculture might apply to our mental lives, as well as the outer world. On a recent Deconstructing Yourself episode, Rin’dzin Pamo and the host Michael Taft discussed the place of internal conflict in meditation practice. External conflict is a given – our expectations, wishes and desires constantly react with a world that does not take them into account. But internal conflict is often assumed to be an ultimately soluble problem. The idea is that to be a rational, disciplined member of modern society, your desires must be legible to yourself, and they must at least accord with one another, whether they make sense in the real world or not. Despite the century that has passed since Freud and Jung’s exploration of the contradictory world of the subconscious, the assumption of much ‘inner work’, be it psychotherapy or meditation practice, seems to be that one could eventually reach a state of perfect mental harmony. In particular, Theravada Buddhist meditation is often described as purifying the contents of the mind, such that one no longer feels strong emotions like fear, rage desire at all. Whether or not this is the case, I’ve come to think that it’s a remarkably bland and uninteresting vision for being a human. I found Rin’dzin’s Vajrayana Buddhist perspective very useful – as they put it: ’I don’t have a problem with conflict, I kind of welcome it’. As anyone who has worked within a formal system knows, there is always a point at which carefully laid rules and plans break down. In the reality of working with a situation, unexpected results are bound to happen. That’s when you need to work with whatever is actually occurring, and be willing to get a bit messy.**

The paradox is in trying to work with systems, order and discipline without coming to believe in them too strongly. The polycultural metaphor could serve us well here, in the context of an imaginary monastery garden. This garden was laid out by several different hands over a few generations as the monastery expanded and contracted. Some parts are more formal and decorative, others purely practical, with room for flowers, shrubs and trees alongside the fruit and vegetables that the monks need to live. From time to time, an administrator will attempt to corral the whole thing into his own vision of order. The head gardener smiles, nods, makes a few cosmetic changes, and keeps things going roughly as before. He has what Scott refers to as mētis, a kind of local, situated and situational knowledge of the garden; the lay of the land, the history of planting, not to mention knowledge of his workforce and their abilities. He also recognises the limits of his knowledge, and allows the complexity of the various garden systems to work themselves out, and occasionally surprise him. Most of all, he understands that the very strength of the garden is in its diversity, with different parts flourishing at different times in response to geography and human intervention. I believe that it’s possible to take this perspective on the individual body/mind. By allowing the existing patterns to express themselves, you can work with the grain of your experience, leaving room for chance, serendipity, and the occasional surprise.

*Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is on my radar here as a book to read.

**Another podcast conversation that helped to crystalise these thoughts was Zak Stein on Emerge with Daniel Thorson (Metapsychology, Soul, and Collapse, Pt. 2). Stein frames the problem of internal conflict using the terms polytheistic and monotheistic, the former based on a Jungian notion of a cast of archetypal or mythic characters. He also suggests that just as a monocultural farm allows for easy pest control, harvesting, etc., so does mental monoculture, in the sense that it skews towards creating highly legible people with predictable needs and desires.

Recent watching: Stewart Brand’s wonderful ‘How Buildings Learn’, a BBC programme about architecture and design from the late 1990s, which the man himself has kindly uploaded to YouTube.

in medias res #2

Recent locations: Tywyn, mid-Wales (doing something like this); London, England & Kirkby Malham, People’s Republic of North Yorkshire.

A bit of prehistoric forest what got left behind on the beach

My favourite kind of reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, is the sort which feels a bit like your brain is being re-wired. While I was in Tywyn recently, volunteering as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway, the world’s first preserved railway and an all-round lovely thing, I was doing some diving back into old Ribbonfarms and came across this rather long post. I hadn’t watched the linked Donna Haraway Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Chthulhucene video the first time I read it, but this time I was moved to – and I’m glad I did. In fact, I found the talk so compelling that I decided to read the related book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which was published in 2016.

Staying with the Trouble is my first time reading Haraway, and I’ve found some very productive cross-pollination with other recent reading/listening around both environmental issues and community building. The book is bristling with ideas, drawing on Haraway’s philosophy and collaboration with other academics and artists, as well as a multitude of other intriguing voices, both human and non-. A major theme is disavowal of the term ‘Anthropocene’, and its failure to adequately describe the current geological epoch of human-influenced extinctions and climate change. Haraway also rejects the environmentalist’s alternative, ‘Capitalocene‘, with its Marxist implications of Modernity, Progress and History (note the capitalisations!). Haraway suggests that the humanity-focused narratives engendered by the above terms have a tendency to lead either to wild optimism in the possibility of technological fixes to our various predicaments, or to a profoundly nihilistic despair:

Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude.

Her constant refrain is for us to return to the networks we can see and feel, ‘staying with the trouble’ of living on a damaged planet, and doing the best we can – in the lives we build and the stories we tell.

Haraway is particularly interested in the notion of ‘sympoiesis’, or ‘making-with’, exploring a kind of ‘tentacular thinking’ through the work of pigeons and their handlers, and going on to work through various other case studies of human involvement in networks with humans and animals which are somehow more than the sum of their parts. Throughout the book, she echoes Virginia Woolf’s call in Three Guineas – ‘Think we must’, and proposes some very useful tools for further thinking. Drawing on the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, she reminds us that ‘It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas’, and comes up with the uniquely wonderful formulation ‘It matters what worlds world worlds’. Presciently, in light of Extinction Rebellion, she also suggests that the correct response to the world as we find it is to revolt – but ‘of course, the devil is in the details – how to revolt?’.

There is so much more I could say, and to some extent I’m still digesting (or perhaps composting?) the book, and will likely find that it would be worth re-reading several times. The last chapter is a speculative fiction of sorts, imagining five generations of a human/monarch butterfly symbiont, living through a ‘great dithering’, and the eventual destruction of the species they have been made kin with, while the world changes irreversably. This touches on one of Haraway’s slogans for the times we live in, ‘Make kin, not babies!’, a suggestion deeply considered in light of the troubled history of racist and eugenicist attempts to restrict reproductive freedom, and arrived at in the hope that it can be an inspiration for dialling down humanity’s impact on the world in creative and sympoetic ways, rather than something coercive and negative. I’ll leave Haraway with the last word here:

The Children of Compost would not cease the layered, curious practice of becoming-with others for a habitable, flourishing world.


Related recent listening and reading:

Jared, Jason and Jess talking about Tech, Culture and Collaboration on the Both And podcast – discussing intentionally building communities of like-minded folk, among other things!

Another approach to the emerging human condition from Venkatesh Rao, taking on board some aspects of Haraway, as well as Tiago Forte’s ‘Build a Second Brain‘ work, and the Ood of Doctor Who.

Timothy Roy on Rolling your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community.

A Good Boy

in medias res #1

An occasional diary of what I’ve been up to/reading/thinking about – from Bloomsbury to Tibet via South London, naturally!

IMG_0280The Easter season takes a heavy toll on the church organist, but I’m glad to report that I made it out the other side with all faculties intact, and may even have enjoyed it a bit. The unseasonably warm weather also made for a very pleasant bank holiday Monday trip to Knole house in Sevenoaks, Kent with my parents. I hadn’t been back to Knole since my first visit in 2016, when several of its rooms were undergoing refurbishment. The main showrooms are now available in all their glory, but I was particularly delighted to find that that Edward Sackville-West’s rooms in the gatehouse are now open to the public, with a specially curated exhibition about his life and works. Last year I happened to come across a biography of Eddy by Michael De-la-Noy at the bookshop where I work, having been intrigued by him ever since I discovered a few of his bookplates knocking around the shop (see below). A cousin of the much better known Vita Sackville-West, Bloomsbury-ite and lover of Virginia Woolf, Eddy was a highly regarded music critic and novelist, writing, along with Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Record Guide (1951), a comprehensive guide to all classical music recorded at that point. When he lived at Knole he was part of the constellation of ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s, decorating his rooms in the gatehouse in a curious combination of 1890s decadence and 20s modernism, albeit with a Bloomsbury slant, incorporating a beautiful fire screen by Duncan Grant. Here he welcomed such luminaries as Ethyl Smyth and E.M. Forster, and embarked on a string of doomed love affairs whilst writing some fairly well-received novels, unfortunately all out of print today. Knowing nothing about the gatehouse rooms in advance, it was an unexpected joy to find so much Eddy ephemera in one place.


A side effect of spending much of my time on social media and blogs is that I often forget exactly where I first heard about something. So it is with Donald Lopez’ Prisoners of Shangri-La – my Amazon history tells me that I ordered the book on 2 June 2014, but I can’t remember where it was recommended and I didn’t make any note of it at the time. Prompted by Lopez’ recent guest appearance on the Imperfect Buddha podcast, and the prospect of an Easter Sunday afternoon on a sun lounger, I started re-reading to see what it would offer a second time around.

The book’s essential premise is that Tibetan Buddhism is a magnet (and I don’t use the metaphor lightly) for various kinds of mystification and mythologising, by Tibetologists, Tibetophiles, and Tibetans alike. This sort of argument will be familiar to those who have read Edward Said’s Orientalism, but Lopez doesn’t engage in the sort of binarising discourse that soIMG_0301.png often follows in Said’s wake, instead giving a nuanced history of the interactions between Tibet, its neighbours and the wider world, particularly as they pertain to Buddhism. The writing is academic without being overly formal, and Lopez tends to wear his theory lightly, covering Tibetan Buddhism’s misreading as a degenerate kind of ‘Lamaism’; the links made between its priestly hierarchy and Roman Catholicism; the various uses and misuses of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ (mostly a twentieth century invention); the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’; and the curious popularity of Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye, a book written by an English man who had never visited Tibet, but claimed that he had at some point taken on the consciousness of a very well-travelled Lama. Beyond being a fascinating and sometimes amusing read, Lopez’ approach in prisoners is to pick apart our received notions about Tibetan Buddhism. In doing so he discovers that the hall of mirrors is unending – Tibetan Buddhism has come loose from its homeland in the mind of the rest of the world, a process which has only accelerated since the exile of its political hierarchy after 1959. The religion has stepped into a role it originally served to medieval China, as priest to patron, but this time to the whole world, becoming a symbol of universal love and compassion, especially in the form of the Dalai Lama, while hopes of genuine political change begin to fade. Along with David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, and David Chapman’s various blog series over at VividnessPrisoners of Shangri-La was pivotal in changing the way I understood what modern Buddhism was, so I was glad to go back for a second time and rediscover its wealth of insights.


My other read for the week was an offshoot of the Deserter blog, Today South London,Tomorrow South London, written by Andrew Grumbridge and Vincent Raison, or their alter egos Raider and Dirty South. Essentially a cobbled together series of pub crawl blogposts, the book is nevertheless a fun read and occasionally approaches the sublime, with a surprisingly moving ending. The name is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as the book definitely skews more South-East, but if you’re looking for an actually readable pub guide and your postcode is SE, the authors have certainly shared a well-researched wealth of knowledge here!

I’ve started tracking my reading on GoodReads, and set myself a goal of 100 books read for 2019, which should be visible here. I’ve yet to add a few from earlier in the year, so hopefully the goal isn’t as wildly ambitious as it looks at the moment.

Recent listening: an absurdist leftist take on Brexit from trashfuture podcast, the Donald Lopez episode mentioned above, and the soundtrack to most of my tube journeys in the form of this brilliant darkside hardcore mix by Pearsall.

On Wanderings – Night Buses, Ecstatic Flight & Psychogeography

I’ve just finished reading Iain Sinclair’s excellent London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line, and thought I would use it to tie together some recent thoughts about wandering. Sinclair has lived in London as an author for fifty years, and is perhaps best known for his line in ‘psychogeographical’ journals of the city, which also include London Orbital (a similar walk around the M25) and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Psychogeography is a term coined by Guy Debord in 1955, and while it has had various interpretations, I think it might best be understood as an errant and playful approach to urban geography, in which the city becomes a multitude of ideas and memories to be explored. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneurbut perhaps with less of a sense of detachment.

In the book, Sinclair follows the route of the (then) newly-minted London Overground route on foot in just one day, with his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting in tow, noting the layers of memory and history, both personal and public, attached to various locales. Although a pedestrian for the purposes of the book, Sinclair’s real interest lies in the way that train lines warp the world around them. He looks at this in the prosaic sense of the rise and fall of London suburbs – Hackney on the up, Chelsea Harbour somewhat stagnant and forgotten – and in terms of the subjective experience of the individual traveller. This latter purpose is exemplified by his tribute to a London painter of railways, Leon Kossoff, whose paintings of Willesden Junction give a new perspective on a landscape not usually regarded as beautiful.

The book has a unity of purpose and tone, but its digressions retain a constant power to surprise. For instance, Sinclair uses the streets of Clapham to weave an extended (and quite moving) passage on the sadly shortened life of the author Angela Carter, and her gifts of friendship and professional advice to the younger writer. Again, in the hallucinatory night-time streets of Hampstead (getting on for thirty miles of walking behind them), the apparition of Sigmund Freud’s final residence leads to thoughts on other London exiles, such as Karl Marx, who lived in London from 1850 to 1860, and the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, who briefly lodged in Camden in joint love, enmity, and poverty. By the time I had finished reading I had a quite visceral sense that I had travelled with Sinclair, in mind if not in body, and on a journey different from anything I might have expected before opening the book.

Being a musician and member of the iPod generation, I suspect that my own psychogeography of London would be rather more musical than Iain Sinclair’s. Laying aside my early years of illicitly hiding my iPod in my bag so I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon on the way to and from school, mixes have been a particularly important musical inflection of my London travels in recent years. Electronic mixes and albums seem particularly suited for travelling through the urban environment on trains and buses, especially when the music comes from London. A good example of this is Burial’s music. His nostalgia for 90s rave culture is well documented, with tracks saturated in vinyl crackle and redeploying air-horn and vocal signifiers from earlier London musical scenes. But Burial’s music also seems to express something about London as a place, as he suggested in a rare interview from 2006, speaking about the sense of travel he tries to evoke in his music:

‘If I’m making a tune sitting in my room with a cup of tea, I’m not making a tune about sitting in my room with a cup of tea, it’s like I’m out there somewhere. That’s how I started listening to jungle, going through the lightless neighbourhoods, the districts.’

The track Night Bus from his self-titled first album is an encapsulation of this feeling for me, using the sound of rain and vocal samples, perhaps echoes of the club or rave, to express this idea of passing through London’s sprawling suburbs.

Another good album for travelling about the city, especially on a wintry night, is Cold Mission by Logos. Its a perfect combination of lush ambient soundscapes, grime references, and ‘anti-banger’ tracks like Seawolf and Menace, which have an incredible sense of power and movement using just a sparse palette of sounds. A favourite track from the album is the more ambient Night Flight, also known as E3 Night Flight. In the track the sound of metallic waves collides with a repetitive bell riff, almost like a lullaby, then a chanting vocal and ominous bass drone chime in, gradually building then dropping out until just a pair of string notes and a siren are left in the mix. As a citizen of South London, I’m pretty reliant on night buses to get home once the last train has gone, and for me the track is another perfect evocation of and soundtrack (after Burial) to that washed out night bus feeling.

Of course, it would be a little blinkered to insist that Burial and Logos’ music is about London in any meaningful sense – it could mean something completely different to a listener from elsewhere, or even just someone else from London. But since this is my psychogeography, I’m going to go one step further, making the leap from Logos’ Night Flight to another kind of night journey which it evokes for me – the ecstatic flights of the Shangqing Taoists, who were active during the Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE) in Ancient China.

Magical night-time excursions seem to be a global feature of religion and mythology – just think of the witch on her broomstick for the archetypal European version – and the Shangqing corpus of texts includes elaborate instructions for a practitioner on how to visit the stars without leaving their room. In the Taoist worldview, there is an understanding that various levels of reality are related, with a particular correspondence between the structure of the human body and that of the universe as a whole. The Shangqing texts tend to prescribe visualization as their main meditation technique, combined with breathing exercises, fasting, etc.

There are many texts, involving ecstatic visits to various parts of the earth and its boundaries, but those which appeal to me most, and which I feel are evoked by the dream-like nocturnal sounds of Night Flight, concern excursions to the sun, moon and stars, related in Chinese thought to  the ‘Three Breaths’ which created the cosmos. The practitioner first retires to their meditation chamber, completely isolated from human activity, then invocates the names of celestial divinities. Following this they fly to the heavens (sometimes using the constellation of the ‘Dipper’ as a vehicle), and pace the constellations, absorbing the energies of various stars.

But really, what relation does any of this have to a walk around the London Overground? I reckon that psychogeography and Taoist ecstatic flight have quite a few interesting affinities. The notion of freely wandering pervades both, maintaining an openness to whatever might occur – especially if it will bring joy. There is also an aspect of forgetting required for success in both, since the everyday world must be left behind, either to visit the stars or to look askance at the city as it exists. The Taoist practitioner uses visualization practices to render the world as it is new, much as the psychogeographer creates a new world by dredging up the ghost memories of the city and putting them to work.

While riding the N3 bus doesn’t compare very favourably to travelling in a vehicle made of stars, it is nevertheless an opportunity – to look at the city afresh, and in doing so hopefully learn something about both the city and oneself.

 This world is unreal in that it is imaginary, but it is real in that the individual lives in it and through it creates a new self: it is unreal-real, like the world of the Buddhists, which has a metaphoric character one must never forget – a net used to catch one’s prey, a creative, playful globe.

Isabelle Robinet, in Livia Kohn: Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (1989).


Further reading:


Robinet, Isabelle, ‘Visualization and Ecstatic Flight in Shanqing Taoism’, in Kohn, Livia (ed.), Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989), pp. 159-191.