Magazine article The Spectator

Doing Something about Your Mind

Magazine article The Spectator

Doing Something about Your Mind

Article excerpt

Doing something about your mind GOING BUDDHIST: PANIC AND EMPTINESS, THE BUDDHA AND ME by Peter Conradi Short Books, £9.99, pp. 183, ISBN 1904095631

Peter Conradi is a retired academic best known for his critical work on Iris Murdoch and, more recently, as her authorised biographer. The biography, though painstaking and full of interesting material, exemplified the difficulty of constricting a linear portrait of a thinker who not only wrote obsessively about mages and the electric currents for both good and ill - around them but also herself occupied that territory in her relations with friends, lovers, acolytes, pupils and biographers.

Going Buddhist turns this difficulty to triumphant advantage. Conradi's friendship with Murdoch and their long conversation about matters of religion are one of several connecting threads in what is in effect a long essay about the author's personal experience of the Path. A portrait of the novelist - 'plump and short with dishevelled hair ... her face open with tenderness and compassion like a mollusc, yet also deeply private, with an intense pudeur and a steely strength' is made all the more vivid for not appearing central to Conradi's project. 'Are you a religious person?' she asks him, during their first solo talk in 1982. Conradi felt, at the time, 'an intellectual's routine contempt' for the religions he'd met. But shortly afterwards he picked up, and read in a single sitting, a book by the Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa. He resolved then to explore Buddhism. Why Buddhism? asks the novelist, for whom religion is a safe subject. 'Because I had to do something about my mind,' the critic answers, several pages later. He depicts himself, almost in passing, as something of a wreck, given to crippling panic attacks, capable, at best, of impersonating adult efficiency. The meditator, in the beginning, impersonates other meditators. Only this second impersonation, if it is persevered in, leads to a path instead of a rut. The claims made for 'sitting' are in some ways breathtakingly modest - 'meditation makes nothing happen at all except to slow one down so that one can witness how one always was, but never before quite saw.' But for Conradi the practice soon becomes a form of mental hygiene which he cannot do without.

Two decades later and the author is too Buddhist to proselytise. What he offers, in a spirit of friendly detachment, is part autobiography, part primer for beginners, part lightly drawn philosophical and social criticism. The best of the book is a discussion of how Buddhism has gone west. …

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