Love is a fine thing, objectivity too. Both can provide insight, and that’s why we turn to others for help. Fine. But who can identify your deepest reality and help you realise it? Who is uncivilised enough to understand the crippling dangers of domestication? Who really lives with the quietest voice of the unconscious; acts on what it says, thereby speaking to the quietest voice of others? Who!? Most of us turn to advice from people who are just as confused as we are: worse, because they (or their careers) are involved in our lives, because they are hoping to realise their dreams through us, because they are speaking on behalf of the system or on behalf of their little group, because they have vested interests, they are likely to give us the worst (which in many cases amounts to the safest and laziest) advice possible.
So what to do? Who to turn to? There don’t seem to be many expert human beings. Is there anyone who has risen sufficiently above the human condition to be able to speak meaningfully about our captivity, who can see us thrashing about in the web of the world (of the mind, the emotions) and who really knows why? Is there anyone who speaks directly to the unfathomable I, where there is nothing the world can know of? My view is ‘yes’, there is.
As a young man I had a very powerful urge to be free of suffering, ignorance, fear and confusion. It seemed to me that solving the problem of the self was priority one; yet, like many many other people before me with a desire to set out on a psychological adventure, I discovered that available guidance was incredibly sparse. There were plenty of self-help books of course, an innumerable number of adults with advice and an infinite number of subjects that could be studied. But the subject — self-discovery — where was the course in that?
And so, like many people, I grasped at straws. I fell upon whatever came into view that seemed to open this unlocked mystery that I was carrying around; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Deepak Chopra, The Tao of Pooh, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, My Dinner with Andre, anything which seemed to open up a new path into the unknown. It wasn’t long before I turned to the source of these works — to Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Lao Tzu and the author of the Upanishads — for answers; but I soon reasoned that whatever truth they had realised couldn’t possibly be confined to a handful of people over two millennia ago. There must be people now who have realised the same thing; who are living it, not just talking about it. So after a few more abortive experiments which churches, ashrams, therapists and other useless priestly endeavours, I hit the ‘Guru scene.’
To say that the world of ‘enlightened men’ is full of charlatans of the highest rank would be an understatement, but eventually I came across the work of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Georg Gurdjieff, the first two people to bring the reality of the East to the West. These were the first two modern people I encountered who appeared to actually be in contact with the meaning of life, or at least a fascinating truth which didn’t require a script. Krishnamurti seemed to say the same thing over and over and over again, yet never uttered a cliché or seemed to repeat himself. And it was peculiar stuff — somehow the mind couldn’t quite grasp it, impossible to remember; yet nourishing. A sense that the impossible was actually being spoken to.
Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti (whose life stories, incidentally, were fascinating) led me to Barry Long.
Barry Long was a self-declared spiritual master, a ‘world teacher’ or ‘guru’, words that make the secular mind vibrate with outraged scorn and the religious mind shrink back, as if from the pitchfork of Satan. The idea that someone could be free of suffering, could know the truth of death, could teach love or life; could be, in a word, enlightened — and not just ‘someone’, but someone living, someone ordinary, someone called Barry! — all this is usually rejected as the worst kind of cultic madness; indeed Barry Long’s teaching was often described as a cult.
Cult is a word which only ever refers to small groups led by an individual, never large groups led by a central figure, a class or an ‘identity’, such as Christianity, Buddhism, capitalism, socialism (official and unofficial), nationalism or Tottenham Hotspur; all of which are very obviously cults. The ordinary behaviour of ordinary people, gathered around viddy-screens to listen to big brothers, stuffing their faces with soma, marching off to a daily dose of alienating unlife, gathered giggling around centrigual bumble-puppies and lathered up over the latest pneumatic priestess; none of this counts as cult-behaviour; while, on the other hand, listening to someone who actually knows what they are on about, and loving the truth he lives and expresses, can only mean orgies and brainwashing and mass-suicide.
Not that, as I say, there aren’t an enormous number of creepy cults out there, fake masters and outright con-men. Since shamans began to monopolise access to the psyche, many thousands of years ago, through the innumerable mad sects and proto-religions that populate fringe-history, up to Jonestown, the Moonies, the shennanigans of Adi Da, Sai Baba and God knows what else that can be found, today, in the nooks and crannies of ‘spirituality’, men (always men) have been using the power of their personalities1 to lord it over credulous seekers.
Was Barry Long such a man? You’ll have to make your own mind up there; I can only speak for myself. Subtle creepiness, platitudinous cant, a weird sense of ‘specialness’, blindness to certain aspects of human life (especially sex), and other ‘alarm bells’ didn’t and don’t ring for me with Barry Long, just as they didn’t when I first came across Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti (or Sri Ramana Maharshi and Mooji for that matter). I don’t know if these men really were completely free of the human-all-too-human condition, but they were completely original, spoke with impressive authority, were not above-it-all and what they say worked; and that’s how it was with Barry Long.
I encountered his tape ‘Who Am I?’ when I was in my early twenties and it blew my mind, briefly stilling it to a state which was completely new to me and allowing something extraordinary to swell in my awareness. Not a psychological effect or trippy illusion — the kind of thing I’d had with drugs, Buddhism and other tricks I’d tried — but an extraordinary experience of the ‘I’ which precedes the ‘self’ which I think and feel I am. Listening to this tape felt like I was doing the most subversive thing on earth, listening to a truth so revolutionary it could dissolve the world, übergoldstein. After this I spent around ten years reading his books and listening to his tapes, which I still occasionally return to. I also attended a couple of his seminars.
The first one I went to, when I was still unconvinced about his status as a enlightened man, was in Sydney. It was a one-day event in a meeting room of a university. He began, as he usually did, by talking for half an hour, then there was his version of guided meditation, and then questions. I was astonished by three things. Firstly, the questions people asked him were amazingly, hilariously, intimate — ‘Barry, I don’t like the way my husband touches my breasts. He seems to grapple with them’ or ‘Barry, I am 80 and my sex-drive is low. My young wife wants to take another lover and I’m thinking it might be a good idea’ or ‘Barry. I’m dying.’ Secondly, his answers always seemed to be spot on. Not ‘mystic’ or holier-than-thou, but very practical. Thirdly, at this meeting, there happened to be on the lawn outside some kind of ‘children’s event’ hosted by McDonalds. There was a man out there on the mic who was shouting at the children with the harsh, over-involved mania that some adults adopt when trying to whip up fun in children. It was ghastly, and impossible to ignore; and yet Barry wasn’t distracted by it in the slightest. He maintained phenomenal presence — not the beatific calm you might imagine, but a very simple easy imperturbability that I felt, very much, that I wanted a piece of. No matter what he might be teaching, I thought, I want to be as present as this man.
In my view Barry Long’s books and tapes about presence are unrivalled. One of the basic reasons I would recommend Barry Long’s teaching is not holy-holy God-intoxication but the practical benefits of what he called ‘being’. Long himself cautioned against ‘being a follower’, or expecting assiduous practice of a teaching to get you somewhere, and, particularly after encountering U.G. Krishnamurti I have come to see this as a widely disregarded cornerstone to actually liberating oneself from the human condition. That said, the way Long taught meditation was quite free of the humid ‘spirituality’, which dangles the carrot of ‘enlightenment’ before naval-gazers the world over.
Barry Long’s insights about life generally, particularly what he had to say about emotion and sexual love, were also completely original. He said that emotions, which feed on the mind (particularly on likes and dislikes), comprised the bedrock of the false self and that these emotions were, first of all, hell, and secondly, radically different to the subtle feeling or sensation of ‘I-consciousness’ underneath.
Along with basic lack of presence there are two things which interrupt this I-consciousness, or the easy simplicity of simply living; two things which disturb the psyche and make people emotional and unhappy (which Barry defined as ‘happy-today-unhappy-tomorrow’). These were ‘not getting your life right’ and ‘the love between man and woman’.
He released several books and tapes on making love without emotion, on staying conscious with your partner, and he said a great deal about being honest, straight and present at work, with your children, family and friends; all of which was exceptionally direct, perceptive and practically useful. In short, the truth. I find it impossible to imagine that I could have experienced the love with women that I have without them. Not that the world never felt love before Barry Long, or that, even with his teachings, my own relations with women haven’t still been ruined by my selfish insensitivity and cruelty2, but what he said was radically new, completely original and superbly effective. His ‘Making Love’ book changed my sex life and that of many other people, not just ‘for the better’ — as in, having better sex — but into an entirely new reality. Not one that you might imagine — incense sticks, cheesy breathing and soft-focus giggling-and-nibbling — but a kind of intimacy and pleasure, almost terrifying in its intensity, that spread into my entire life.
I’ve emphasised in this account the practical nature of Barry Long’s teaching, its almost secular benefits — freedom from worry, from romantic problems, from emotional-slavery and so on. But the heart of the whole matter does come down to something which hardcore atheists and sceptics find impossible to swallow; adoration of and consequent experience and knowledge of the unknowable, the mystery of experience, the vivid strangeness of the present moment and the reality of one’s own consciousness, which the thinking mind can never grasp. All of this Barry Long rightly summed up with the word ‘God’ — not the fictional abstract-emotional God of established religion and myth, but the strange reality of life, the life behind the appearance-of-the-world conveyed to the mind by the mind. This life is the subject of religions like Buddhism, Advaita, Zen and Taoism, all of which are sometimes called ‘atheist,’ in that attention paid to God or gods is at best secondary, but which seek to uncover an ultimate reality which is still, literally, divine.3 ‘Living the divine life’ is a phrase guaranteed to give materialist minds the willies, but it’s what Barry Long taught, and taught better than anyone I have ever heard of.
You may be wondering, at least if you’re reading this at the beginning of the twentieth century, why you haven’t heard of Barry Long before. To this I would point out that Arthur Schopenhauer has long been widely ignored and one the most unfashionable major philosophers in Western universities (although this is starting to change), while his crowd-pleasing contemporary, George Hegel is still the subject of endless academic discussion. I would also point out that D.H. Lawrence, Ivan Illich, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vincent Van Gogh, William Blake and many, many other great writers and artists were either totally ignored during their lives or their work has gone through long periods of total obscurity. Finally, I might bring your attention to the fate of Eckhart Tolle, a student of Barry Long who, without crediting or hardly ever mentioning his principle influence, took some of Barry Long’s most profound insights, repackaged them and became probably the wealthiest and most famous teacher of ‘mindfulness’ in the West.
Most people have no idea what the truth is and have no way of recognising it. When it appears in their lives they are confused, irritated or bored. They are only able to accept that something is genuinely original when they are told to accept it, either explicitly, from the recommendation of someone sufficiently famous, or implicitly, when they see lots of other people flock towards the fairground. Then great works find their moment in the sun and can be carried from one generation to the next. Until then, their influence is, so to speak, in the dark, travelling gradually through the veins of humanity, until the time comes; and Barry Long’s time will come.
A fuller version of this account appears in my new collection, Ad Radicem, which unites Long’s core insights with madness, technology, ethics and aesthetics, anthropology and the nightmare world-on-the-brink we live in today.
- And these personalities can be very powerful. They are often powerful enough dabble in the psyche — the freeky-deeky layer of wyrd between the daytime world and the mysteries of the superconscious depths.
- Barry spent a lot of time in his seminars pointing out how man sneakily uses knowledge of Barry’s teachings to further his own sexually dishonest aims, and women should never believe what men say, no matter how noble.
- Atheists rarely direct their scorn at these teachings.