The Waves of the Same Sea

Text composed for Some Archemies [Heavy Breathing]
Curated by Bridie Lunney and James Carey

RMIT Project Space, February 2022

The Waves of the Same Sea

Einstein wrote in his scientific papers that the two postulates of relativity were no more than ‘hunches’ that he decided to elevate to the status of postulates—without recourse to experiment or testing. The aesthetics of these hunches is what convinced him of their worth. [1]

Terrence Rosenburg


Gallium: tremulous, vibratory, resonant, metal. An impossible shape shifter, a category defier. This metal shows the limits of my localised view of things; the way I think in categories. Metal should only be hard, beautiful, and dangerous. Even mild steel is a curious conflation. Steel isn’t mild, it feels harsh, uncompromising, rarely fluid, reactive, or soft.  Isn’t this how most of us think, in hardened categories, thrown ahead to navigate the uncertain world?

Not all swans are white as Europeans discovered when they came to the land, they called Australia. Categories on legs marching with science and guns and a reductive reason, that turned people and the natural world into objects. The observers, imagining they were separate from the world which had shaped them. We stop perceiving as we progress through life. So much of what we experience is memory: categories of prior knowledge projected onto our surroundings. John Dobson, the famous sidewalk astronomer and Vedantan monk insisted it was in our DNA: to only see our immediate neighbourhood and not the solar system which is our real neighbourhood. For Dobson human beings are genetically conditioned to only see the narrow horizon of need and survival—and not to see our deeper connection to the immeasurable horizon. In my early twenties I studied poetry at Melbourne University. I was struck by William Blake’s question: Where will you stand to view the infinite and unbounded?

Its spiritual, and in a certain sense contemplative, nature resides directly in its concrete form, in the analogy between the mineral realm and that of the soul; for this similarity can only be perceived by a vision which can look at things qualitatively—inwardly, in a certain sense—and which grasps the things of the soul materially—that is to say objectively and concretely. In other words, alchemical cosmology is essentially a doctrine of Being, an ontology. The metallurgical symbol is not merely a makeshift, an approximate description of inward processes; like every true symbol, it is a kind of revelation. [2]

Titus Burckhardt


My Father served in the British merchant navy during the Second World War. At the age of fifteen he was crossing the Atlantic in shipping convoys, often on oil tankers. There are photographs of him, small black and white mementos of a past world that seems impossibly distant but to which, through him, I am connected. There were many stories. On one occasion he sustained an injury from shrapnel which required hospitalisation. A small fragment of metal was permanently lodged in his skull. On two other occasions he was in ships that were torpedoed and had to be evacuated in the darkness of night on the open sea.  On both occasions he survived, climbing into lifeboats. He said that many were not so lucky and that their calling for help in the dark would always haunt him. Oil he said was the great fear in these situations. Seamen trapped in oil fires would certainly not survive. But it was surfacing in a cold swelling sea of oil, that he described with real horror. A lungful of oil could be fatal and if not would result in indescribable discomfort and permanent injury. My Father was spared this fate, but he carried the blackness of the sea with him for the rest of his life. It leaked out of him in his moods and melancholia.

In order to free the soul from its coagulation and paralysis, its essential form and its materia must be dissolved out of their crude and one-sided combination. It is as if spirit and soul had to be separated from one another, in order, after their ‘divorce’, to become ‘married’ again. The amorphous materia is burnt, dissolved, and purified, in order finally to be coagulated anew in the form of a perfect crystal.[3]

Titus Burckhardt


In the early years of my childhood my family used to fly to Aotearoa –New Zealand—to visit my mother’s parents. They lived in the King Country as it was known, in the town of Te Kuiti. My Grandfather, Lamont Young, had migrated from England in his youth on a scheme for children of retired naval officers. It was the second attempt by the family to settle in the antipodes. He himself bore the name of his grandfather Lamont Young, the subject of the longest unsolved suspected murder in Australia’s history. That Lamont Young had been a geological surveyor for the New South Wales Mines Department. Along with five other men he disappeared while on field work to confirm the existence of gold in Bermagui in 1880. Despite many investigations, no explanation has ever revealed how or why these men vanished without trace. Mystery Bay, north of Bateman’s Bay is so named because of their inexplicable disappearance in that location.

Nature is vivid in the flotsam and jetsam of the memories of these visits across the Tasman. A strange light suffuses it all. Aotearoa is thermally active and profoundly alive. This was a less touristed time. A visit to the Wiatomo Caves left a sense of terror and wonder at this cold dark underground river system, which we travelled through by boat, silent beneath a galaxy of glow worm stars. In particular, I recall driving across the North Island visiting amongst other places, Rotorua, Lake Taupo, Wairakei, and Waiotapu, the meaning of which in Maori is ‘The Sacred Waters’.

Two experiences, stand out. Walking to the rim of a volcano with my family: heat, steam, and violent vibration. The volcano was ‘man made’ we were told, resulting from an overly ambitious attempt to tap thermal steam for power generation, resulting in a massive eruption. The scattered remains of an immense concrete cap, fabricated in vain to seal in the explosive forces, lay ejected amidst the surrounding landscape.

The second memory is of a visit to what was then called the Champagne Pool in Waiotapu. This is a hot spring lake that fills a crater around 60 metres across. In my imagination the boiling depths went down to the Earth’s core. The surface of the pool is perpetually bubbling, and the water is utterly transparent revealing a submerged surface of orange and pinks. These are produced from deposits of arsenic and antinomy sulphides that contrast sharply with the yellow grey of the silica that has formed around the shoreline. I don’t know if they are still there, but we were able to walk across flimsy planks and fragile walkways that were laid upon the surface of the boiling water. Little prevented us from falling in. This visit—serene, dangerous, mesmerising—remains like a colour transparency inside my mind. I can still see the light in its purity shining through the crystalline image as we walk the wooden planks across the clear boiling surface. A crossing that marks the last year my parents were together.

What corresponds to the chaotic soul on the mineral plane is the condition of base metal, especially lead which in its obscurity and heaviness resembles crude mass. According to the famous Muslim mystic Muhyi ‘d-Din ibn -‘Arabî, gold corresponds to the sound and original condition of the soul which freely and without distortion reflects the Divine Spirit in its essence, whereas lead corresponds to its ‘sick’, ‘distorted’ and ‘dead’ condition, which no longer reflects the Spirit. The true essence of lead is gold. Each base metal represents a break in the equilibrium which gold alone exhibits. [4]

Titus Burckhardt


I now wear the same ring of yellow gold on my left hand—second finger from the left—that my mother removed from her finger, at the end of her troubled marriage. I attempted to explain my desire to wear it to her, for my own marriage, as she sat wheelchair bound and disoriented by years of confinement, medication, and the stroke. ‘I was the fastest girl in the King Country’ she had used to say proudly. I have the silver cup she was awarded in 1951 to prove it. Unlike the gold, the silver of the trophy tarnishes, its surface oxidising into black obscurity. Out of blackness too comes the memory of the phone call of the news of her stroke. As the signal ran along the copper wire activating the telephone I knew, even before lifting the receiver, that call was bringing terrible news. The image persists in my mind from later that evening of the hospital staff wrapping her inert body in a silver thermal blanket in preparation for the flight to Melbourne, whilst they conversed about other matters. Stripped of her characteristic noli me tangere, her innate sense of ‘touch me not’, now prone and vulnerable. So dramatic a transformation from person to object. From independent subject to lifeless form, unresponsive to their pushing and fastening.

This golden band sat for years in a closed box upon her dresser. The years during which my mother returned to university to eventually write her doctorate on the iconography of time in the classical world. Another life was lived while the gold circle remained locked in darkness. My sister was the one who suggested I wear it in my mother’s honour and as a symbol of renewal. Warm, resilient, ever glowing, ever welcoming to the touch. What is the age of this circuit of gold that shines once again now in the daylight? Where was it first unearthed? How many aeons before that has it witnessed? How far has it travelled from its formation within a supernova, from a dying star in a distant sky?

According to Anaximander, there is a body distinct from the elements, ‘the boundless’, which is not air or water, in order that the other things may not be destroyed by their infinity. The elements are in opposition to each other: air is cold, water moist, and fire hot. Therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time. Thus, he said that what is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise’. (Anaximander is the first philosopher to ground ultimate reality in something which is imperceptible. Unlike earth, air, fire and water, which we know through the senses, ‘the boundless’ is a substance that we cannot detect through the bodily senses). [5]



I once knew an archaeologist who really was called Tim Stone. Tim really did have a business card with the heading ‘My life is in Ruins’. He once explained to me the process of luminescent dating that archaeologists use to date findings. Rather than using carbon dating that tracks the radiative decay of carbon 14 isotopes, luminescence dating measures the amount of light emitted from energy stored in certain rock types to obtain an absolute date. So how much light is captured in the matrix of these stones?

How long since light from the stars has shone upon this hard stone, recently excavated from the dark earth? How is it that I forget the age of stones? To look and listen to my surroundings and what they are saying. Physicist John Wheeler writes that the cosmos is perfectly organised for life, for the development of consciousness. ‘Participation is the incontrovertible contribution of quantum physics’, he writes, ‘it strikes down the observer of classical theory, the man who stands safely behind glass and watches what goes on without taking part. It can’t be done, quantum physics says it. May the universe in some sense be bought into being by the participation of those who participate?’ An interwoven partnership. If so, then this has been a remarkable exchange in the making for an inconceivable length of time. And yet we can conceive it.

Near the corner of Elgin and Swanston Streets—at the entrance I used when I was a student at Melbourne University in my early twenties—sits the brutalist brick and concrete architecture of the Earth and Meteorological Sciences Building. This kind of blunt architecture was ubiquitous in the 1970s in Melbourne and somehow is screened out of the buildings that come to mind when I think of that University—the faux Gothic law cloisters, and Old Arts, even the car park under the green. The campus at Melbourne was a dilapidated array of architecture when I studied there, before the neo liberal boom that transformed the available spaces on the university grounds with structures seemingly inspired from science fiction. Somehow the Earth Sciences Building—perhaps because of its bluntness—feels like it was built to last, to house solid material, to do the job of research. Indeed, its concrete and brick, in ubiquitous grey and brown, look like strata and its textures feel hewn from stone. It appears to have emerged from the earth. A chthonic ark, ageing, but not going anywhere.

In keeping with this sense of emergence from the hidden depths is a remarkable collection at the front of the building that can only have been designed by an academic from the discipline. Along the Elgin Street side, partially screened by the tan bark, plants and litter and positioned underneath a dramatically ascending concrete pedestrian footbridge, are a series of stones. Some are large, the size of a table, some small, the size of a suitcase. Some are dark grey and steely red, others a mustard colour. Some take the form of simple geometries; others suggest complex forces have produced their structures and patterns. Small dull copper plates along the edge of the footpath reveal the provenance and nature of these stones. And their age.

The first of these rocks encountered walking towards the university looks like a small mountain from a Song Dynasty painting. Its convoluted hardened forms in pinks and greys peppered with ochre still retain the bruised sense of the time when they were once liquid. When stone was liquid. This basaltic scoria, ejecta from a volcanic cone, from the Western suburbs of Melbourne, was formed during the Tertiary period a mere 2.5 to 65 million years ago. A relative youngster, according to the plaque, spanning from the Pliocene as far back as the Palaeocene epochs. Nevertheless, it outdates vastly the entire recorded history of humankind.

The furthest boulder in the collection with its intense reds and ochres spread across its table like form, is siltstone and shale, from the little township of Balnarring on the Mornington Peninsula. As a child I attended a church in Balnarring on Sundays to learn of the Creator whose spirit moved over the dark waters of the earth and who bought forth creation. Now dried and illuminated by the sun, this stone is full of marine sediments from the Triassic or Cambrian eras. Luminescent dating would show this overlooked survivor to be five hundred million years old.

What is the relationship between this and us? Across these immense durations? Between the cosmos and the heart? Between the perceiver and the perceived? Has this terracotta beauty been waiting since the time of its formation for this moment? Who observes who? In accordance with Wheeler’s thinking, no phenomenon is a real phenomenon unless it is an observed phenomenon.

In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me...I was there, listening...I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe, and not want to penetrate it. [6]

Paul Klee

I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known. [7]

Hadith Qudsi


In my late twenties, I commenced a meditation practice and one of the very first instructions was a reminder to breathe whilst sitting with eyes closed and heart open. I clearly remember the indescribable sensation of that first meditation, accompanying a new awareness of air dissolving all boundaries, passing from outside to inside and inside to outside.

Not long afterwards I awoke one morning with a terrible pain in my chest – a sense that might arise if you had, say, a cricket ball lodged around the region of the heart. Frightened, I went to the doctor who without an appointment was unable to see me. A nurse assured me that I had merely strained my chest coughing in my sleep and recommended a few days rest in bed. By the third day my breathing had become a wheezing gasp that reminded me of my grandfather’s laboured breathing from the emphysema he developed from being keel hauled as a punishment in the navy. The sensation of the lodged cricket ball remained. On a Friday evening I struggled, breathless, to a doctor’s surgery near my home and after listening to my chest for a minute the doctor looked at me soberly and said directly, “You must go to hospital immediately. You could die any minute.  You have a seriously collapsed lung”. I caught a tram to the hospital, counting every step and every breath. Within half an hour, an X-ray confirmed that I had a Spontaneous Pneumothorax, and that immediate surgery was required to deal with the condition. My lung was perforated and falling onto my heart. Air had escaped out of the lung into the chest cavity. At any moment the other lung could collapse. The procedure required the patient to be awake and so, fully conscious, I watched as a young and very nervous intern with a scalpel cut a small aperture through the skin in between my ribs sufficient to insert her finger, which she did—not unlike Caravaggio’s macabre painting of doubting Thomas. A transparent pipe was fed into the aperture and attached to a pumping mechanism intended to remove the air that had escaped from the lung into the pulmonary cavity. The effect once the mechanism was switched on was of an even greater and more frightening sense of constriction due to the fact that the pipe had been incorrectly attached to the wrong end of the device. It sounds almost comical now, but even more air was being pumped into the wrong part of my chest producing an acute sense of suffocation and near unconsciousness. Unable to speak at all I gestured desperately to the medical staff. The moments of not being able to breath at all stretched on as they trialled different configurations eventually finding the correct connection. Finally, relief from this terrible sense of asphyxiation. Afterwards, air was slowly pumped from the spaces between my lung and ribs throughout the night. The doctor firmly explained to me that a high probability existed of a recurrence. They expected a second collapse of the lung, and this would necessitate a far more dramatic solution of major surgery entailing an internal stapling of the lung to the ribs.

In the long hours of that night, I prayed deeply to a God I hardly dare believe in. I have never been more conscious of the miracle of breath, the perpetual exchange that our body undertakes, which we assume will carry on forever, but which is most assuredly finite.

In one of his best known explications of the nature of things, ibn -‘Arabî looks at God’s creativity as an analogue of human speech. Just as we create words and sentences in the substratum of breath, so God creates the universe by articulating words in the Breath of the All-Merciful (nafas al-rahmân), which is the deployment of existence (inbisât al-wujûd); indeed, existence itself is synonymous with mercy (rahma). [8]

William Chittick


I have travelled on the fast train across the horizons of snow—luminous, crystalline, and silver—to the city of Konya. Some hours later, at the end of the journey, a taxi driver gestures with a nonchalant wave of the hand towards the snow covered blue ceramic tower, brilliantly illuminated in the afternoon sun of the city street. ‘There’s Melvlana. You can walk from here’. A knowing look at the end of the exchange.

The next day visiting Mevlana’s tomb, the resting place of Jalluladdin Rumi. The snow has stopped, and the bright sun fills the air of the quiet street. I enter the main hall, approaching the burial space that once, years before I had seen in a photograph in a book. Then I had looked away in fear. Something both wonderful and terrible about the immense scale of the turban placed upon the tomb affected me. How is it that distortions in scale can have this impact? Some people are giants and even in death their presence is immense. Now, I sit in the company of Mevlana and his deceased followers for the morning, on the cold floor. Later I read the Mathnawi, written in his own hand locked away in the glass vitrines. These same words, now read across the world, continue to provide water for the thirsty. Mevlana, one of the disruptors of history, a shatterer of categories, who reshaped the revelation by lifting his arms and turning.

Leaving the building and walking among the finely carved tombstones of his devotees, chalk white in the midday sun: musicians, poets, and lovers. Who were these people, how came they to be here? I approach the fountain, where ablution with water is made to commence the ritual of prayer and the Sema—the whirling ceremony, outlawed in Turkey since Ataturk until the 1980’s. There are many of these beautiful washing structures in Turkey. The ablution, essential to prayer, washes away the impurities of the world, preparing the adept for the renewing ritual. It takes the place of the confession in the Catholic tradition. No need for intercession or mediation. Just you, the merciful water and the Absolute who has promised forgiveness for all who undergo the surrender sincerely. Water and mercy, rahma, are one—the infinitely merciful—to whom Mevlana was devoted. This morning it is below zero, still and bright. Leaning in. I see that the fountain has frozen inside the circle of iron.  The water of mercy is transformed into a crystalline drawing of movement. A beautiful tracing in ice. Movement captured and still in the sparkling sunlight. For the few locals around this does not prompt any notice. But for me, having crossed the world from the heat of the driest summer ever recorded, this is a moment of wonder.

In discussing the ontological role of image and imagination, Ibn ‘Arabî often uses the termbarzakh’ (isthmus, barrier, limit), which in the Qur’an is that which stands between the sweet and salty seas (25:53, 55:20) and prevents the deceased soul from returning to the world (23:100). Ibn ‘Arabî employs the term to designate anything that simultaneously divides and brings together two things, without itself having two sides, like the “line” that separates sunlight and shade. [9]

William Chittick


Many of us have grown accustomed, in a way that I never thought we would, to sitting in front of our computers, with their blank eyed cameras. We have gotten used to the inconsistent and erratic video images of friends and strangers as we socialise and work from home. The image promises so much: union, synchrony, simultaneity. But, as a work colleague has said, the glitch is an ontological fact and there are many in this technology. The image on the screen cannot look you in the eye which is the thing I really yearn for. Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote about the blind spot at the heart of vision. I feel that point of invisibility, of blindness keenly in this medium. A disconnect that has exhausted me over this past year. My daughter tells me that her friends and classmates in this new online life are opting to not turn their cameras on. Ignoring their teachers, her circle of friends is choosing to speak and listen rather than be seen.

People of my age will remember the hours we used to spend on the telephone talking with close friends. The old type of telephone that was safe to hold to your head. There was a feeling of intense connection and freedom in those conversations. A kind of seeing through listening. We filled in the gaps without questioning. As if we could travel outside of the body and be present with another no matter how distant. Sound—in particular the voice—was central to that feeling of intimacy. It could touch you from afar. Sound fills a room whereas an image cannot, a sonically obsessed friend of mine from art school once said. Again, from Merleau-Ponty, it is not just the words, although they can fire the desire and feeling of travel. But it is also the space around the words, the gaps, silences, and timbre of the voice that are part of this touching. ‘There are no pictures,’ my children exclaimed when I first sat with them to read a novel, when they were much younger. I was emulating my mother’s practice of reading to me and my sisters in the evening on the couch, enveloping us in a space of security and imagination. I could feel the vibration of her voice sitting next to her whilst travelling in my mind on the medium of her words. ‘You have to see these images in your mind’, I told my children, ‘Let the words make them’. At another time I sat listening to a Sufi sheik, the wisest person I have ever met, answering questions from his audience. I felt the power of speech to not only create images but also insight, a sense of presence that has stayed with me for years. The voice in Islam is tremendously important, as it is the vehicle of the miraculous revelation. The sheik wrote that the voice is unique in its capacity to move from within the body to the surrounding world, bridging intuition and reason, the infinite and finite. In these long sessions now, in front of the black glowing glass of the computer screen, I find myself, like my daughter, turning away, lowering my gaze, and listening to what can be felt beneath the words and the spaces between them.

The voice travels, crossing the isthmus of air, from the inner to the outer. Even in his last days my friend the writer was, as always, the wordsmith—witty, and eloquent. But those parting words were almost impossible to say. After receiving the news by text message, less than an hour after he had died, I went out into the back garden at sunset to sit beneath the trees. I live near a main road, usually endlessly noisy but now silent during the restrictions. The voice of a blackbird broke gently and sweetly into my hearing. The flute-like intricate sounds of the song flowing into the thoughts of my friend. Everywhere are signs for those who reflect. It took me a moment to realise here was my friend, the writer, taking the form of bird song, hidden now from sight. Free at last in the dusk of evening. Bidding me farewell.

That all souls are ‘made of one substance’ can be known from the fact that the ‘movements’ (emotions) of the souls of all living creatures—in spite of the immense variety of species and levels of consciousness—proceed in a similar fashion. One could say they are like the waves of the same sea.[10]

Titus Burckhardt

Leslie Eastman, Melbourne, February 2022.

[1] Terrence Rosenburg, The Reservoir: Towards a Poetic Model of Research in Design, Working Papers in Art and Design 1, Accessed December 5 2014, ISSN 1466-4917.

[2] Titus Burchardt, Alchemy, Penguin Books, (Maryland: Penguin Books, 1967) 67.

[3] Titus Burkhardt, Alchemy, 72.

[4] Burkhardt, Alchemy, 72.

[5] Aristotle, Physics, 3,3, Accessed February 11 2022,

[6] Paul Klee, quoted in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, Galen A Johnson, ed., The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader (Illinois: North-western University Press, 1993), 147.

[7] As quoted in Javad, Nurbakhsh, Traditions of the Prophet, Volume 1, (New York: Khaniqahi-Nimatulla Publications, 1981), 13. Quoting Nurbakhsh: “This term ahadith qudsi, literally means “sacred sayings” or “sacred traditions. These traditions consist of non-Qur’anic revelations offered by the Prophet of Islam on behalf of God”. 

[8] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 11/ 2/ 2022.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 11/ 2/ 2022.

[10] Burckhardt, Alchemy, 73.