Tag Archives: Zen

Taking away some of that Bull Island zen

Dawn over Bull Island

Dawn over Howth Head, August 2016

My physiotherapist better look away now. Because this is a post about something that I really shouldn’t be doing much of but, despite all advice to the contrary, can’t give up.

It’s running. Or jogging, or slogging, or the next best word that describes my morning efforts around Bull Island.

On the mornings I can run that is. A burgeoning case of hallux limitus, a fairly common arthritic disorder that’s struck the big toe of my left foot.

A year ago I wrote about how the condition could eventually end my running altogether. Twelve months on and a canny regime of ice/walking/bicycling/rest has ensured that I can still get out for 5k twice a week. If I’m feeling utterly reckless I’ll stretch that to 10 – and pay for it afterwards.

But stopping is not an option. Most runners know the empty, distracted feeling when they miss a planned outing. Those who are injured know that they will do anything – make whatever time sacrifice, take whatever supplement, stretch whatever muscle – to get back out again.

Why? It’s not to get a physical workout – there are less painful ways to do that. It’s mental – or it certainly is in my case. When I’m off the track I miss the calming, clearing effect of a good run.

Running man

Running man

Over the years I’ve tried many things to quiet my mind. But nothing even comes close to the effect of 25 minutes running in the outdoors.

In recent weeks I’ve needed this more than ever. Planning, packing and preparing to leave Ireland has been exciting – but the flipside of the excitement, the anticipation and the bittersweet series of goodbyes has been my mind’s switch is jammed to ‘on’.

And so I’ve turned – despite the pain, which is manageable – back to jogging. Not just any jogging either, but a workout on Bull Island and Dollymount Strand, the sandspit that sits to the north of Dublin city centre.

This has been my gym in recent years, and it’s one I’ll miss. When my running ban was in effect I’d walk there, in any season and any weather.

But the best time to run in the area is on an August morning, shortly after a 6am sunrise. If you’re lucky you’ll catch dawn breaking over Howth Head, on one side, and over the city of a million slowly waking souls on the other. Most likely you’ll be alone, blank before the heavens, while your thoughts will have the decency not to intrude.

I’ve no idea where I’ll be running next month but – physios be damned – I will be. Whatever the location I do know one thing – I’ll take some of the Bull Island zen with me.

Dublin from Dollymount Strand

Dublin from Dollymount Strand, August 2016





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Praise Fahey, I’m Satisfied

'Recorded half a century ago'.

‘Recorded half a century ago.”

PERHAPS it was the day’s sun. Or the wine. Or, more likely, the fingerpicking skills of my friend S.

Whatever the reason, quite early one September morning in the bar of small château near Bordeaux in the south of France, I experienced an epiphany.

It came by way of a performance of a short piece of music on a guitar.

Sligo River Blues had been first recorded 50 years earlier, in a church in the United States by the person who wrote it, John Fahey (or Blind Joe Death, if your prefer).

Fahey, then 20, named the three-minute acoustic piece after Sligo Creek, a small river near where he grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Written for solo guitar the piece is a repeating cycle based on first, fourth and fifth notes. Broken down it appears simple, if not repetitious.

But it can assume a dynamic of its own when played, shifting from a series of notes to a melody to a mantra.

That’s how I heard it that night in France – a three-minute experience that cleared my mind, emptying the room of everything but me and Fahey’s music.

I asked S to play it again. And once more after that.


'A repeating cycle.'

‘A repeating cycle.’

CAN a song change your life?

John Fahey thought so. In 1956, at the age of 16, a friend played him a recording of Blind Willie Johnson’s Praise God, I’m Satisfied.

He later described the experience as an epiphany, a conversion, which left him nauseated and weeping. He felt, he stated, like he had been “smote to the ground by a bolt of lightning”.

So, what changed for me?

That evening in France was not the first time I had heard Sligo River Blues. I was familiar with the song from a 1996 CD reissue of Fahey’s Blind Joe Death, the album it was first heard on.

That version had all the cracks of the first vinyl pressing and the ambient noise of the room it was recorded in half a century ago. It was an authentic as you could expect.

But, off the recording and in the room, it assumed a whole other power, a hypnotic, calm-inducing effect, a feeling of purity in mind and music.

This was Charles Bukowski’s “curious feeling“, a feeling “that everything was beautiful there, that it would always stay beautiful there”.

This was music as mind, as opposed to music as rhythm or pitch, sound and silence. I had never heard music this way before – almost as a Zen mantra.

Since then I searched out other compositions or performances that have the same effect.

They’re rare; likewise ‘Sligo River Blues’ itself doesn’t work for me every time, but when it does it is a remarkable experience.

And you don’t have to be in France, or even in the company of a guitarist, to encounter it.

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