Monday, 29 June 2015

Larkin's religion - a meditation theme

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

                          Philip Larkin

Science can define its molecular structure (H2O I believe) and point out that it is unusual in existing on the planent's surface in solid, liquid and gaseous forms simultaneously. Also, it's the stuff that makes up most of you and me.

Our imaginations and our senses can tell us more, if we stop taking it for granted because it is so ubiquitous. 

In our culture, we spend a lot of time and energy in emphasising our individuality. Consider how long we spend choosing between relatively trivial, if pleasurable, things, so that we feel different from everyone else. 

We are thus seduced into thinking each of us is a fixed item in the universe, a self which feels as though it could and should go on for ever (though - gulp - we know it can't and won't.) This fixed ego perception is, science suggests, an illusion. 

In the face of this painful cognitive dissonance, our desperate chase after trivia, our anxiety about the fact of mortality, we need to feel connected. Not just to each other, though certainly that - but to the universe, to "everything." 

Two absolutely wondrous substances unite us with the planet around us. Air, that passes in and out of each of us every second - we share it, like it or not. And water, of which we mostly are. 

Larkin's insight, seemingly so simple and so lightly expressed, is profound.

Water - a theme for meditation, I suggest, and maybe even a kind of worship!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

"Acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being"

From Rilke:

"I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love. This is what actually happens in the great expansiveness of love, which cannot be stopped or constricted. It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.

It is conceivable that death is infinitely closer to us than life itself… What do we know of it?"

 by Joanna Macy:

"In the face of impermanence and death, it takes courage to love the things of this world and to believe that praising them is our noblest calling. Rilke’s is not a conditional courage, dependent on an afterlife. Nor is it a stoic courage, keeping a stiff upper lip when shattered by loss. It is courage born of the ever-unexpected discovery that acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being. In naming what is doomed to disappear, naming the way it keeps streaming through our hands, we can hear the song that streaming makes."

All from:

via Annee, to whom big thanks.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

mad, dead or porous - the ego

An ex-friend of mine once said I had a porous ego. My response, had I been quick-witted enough to think of it sooner than about two months later, would be that everyone's ego is porous, unless they are mad or dead.

Mad, because mental illness specialises in the dreadful separation created by obsessions, delusions, hallucinations that shut out and replace the world as the rest of us know it - the poet Sylvia Plath used the bell jar as a metaphor for depression.

I think my ex-friend was probably referring to certain kinds of sensitivity that inhibit or depress us; they are the result of what some might call an excessive or morbid sensitivity. I don't find such labels and categories particularly helpful. Excessive to whom?

If the ego - the sense of "I" as a separate social being - is a creation of the mind, and if a mind is the product of a unique brain formed by inherited characteristics and moulded by our social and physical environement then it is almost by definition porous, in so many ways.

(Those who believe the mind is something other than and somewhere other than the brain may not agree with much or of all this; neverttheless, the mind may be more that "just" the brain, but it certainly seems to be of the brain, as one might say.)

 Neuroscientists have got us all excited/worried by "brain plasticity;" frequent patterns of behaviour and perception will over time change how we think, at the level of brain structure, routes through the neurons, that sort of thing. Such as using computers, video games etc. Or indeed, meditating.

It's not just about electronic technologies. Take reading books; a long time ago when they became easily accessible and literacy grew more widespread, different brain structures and ways of thinking developed, compared with largely oral cultures. 

So our minds, and therefore how we think as individual social beings, what our egos are like, all this changes depending on inputs.

More basically, being hungry or eating certain foods, can give rise to different emotions/moods, and our egos will change in response. Sugar excites us, alcohol relaxes our inhibitions - they change our sense of who we are, and how we behave.

Our egos will be changed by our beliefs, what we read, what happens to us....

The ego, "I," who I think I am and how I manifest myself to others - all part of the flux and flow, nothing fixed and rigid.

One stage towards a closer identification with the universe, a stronger sense of unity, is not mistaking impermanence for permanence, even for one day in the life of the ego.

We are all more less porous in our ideas about who we are and how we relate to the world and to others. The differences lie in our sensitivity to what comes through the pores.

I think it's useful to see ourselves as porous, changing, flowing; I think it's an illusion to see our selves as needing to cast the biggest possible shadow, to think we are impervious to change, until we die.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Singing gripes and thanks

                                  (top - Bangor Community Choir; next down - Threnody)

When I was a lad - this is personal but has, I hope, a wider point - I  was in the school choir - boy treble (i.e. soprano) reputedly the purest sound of all. (In general, I mean, not just me!) 

When my voice broke, I was out of the choir. No-one took the trouble to see if, in time, I was developing a useable tenor or bass voice as I matured. They had enough tenors and basses, I guess.

And the usual adolescent self-consciousness kicked in, so that apart from strumming a guitar and singing along, I assumed I was not much good at singing. Choirs seemed to require auditions, and the ability not just to read music but to pitch your voice at the dots. I couldn't do so, (not realising it's a matter of training) so assumed I didn't have a good ear.

Choirs seemed to be this sort of thing:

Wonderful sound, but not anything that I could do. In any case, my heroes of song were mostly black Americans (blues and soul) or British folk singers. It was unlikely I would sound like any of those models, since I was neither a sharecropper from Mississippi nor a plumber from Hull.

And then, in my retirement years, I encountered the natural voice movement, in the form of Bangor Community choir, and Threnody (as in pics at the top.)

Well, stone me, I can sing. Not wonderfully, not very flexibly, and not with the best-trained ear in town, but I can sing. Perform in public, even.

Here's what they didn't do when my voice broke: 
  • they didn't find out if I wanted to go on singing (I loved it)
  • they didn't train my ear, even when I took up an instrument
  • they didn't encourage all of the boys to sing - so it became a specialist activity

So now most community choirs I come across are short, or very short, of male voices.  Now I wonder, if you'll excuse a technical term, why the fuck that would be? (Sorry - a touch of futile bitterness there; it's all those years after school I could have been singing but wasn't.)

We must take care of the singing abilities of everyone, not just the future stars amongst us. In particular, boys need help and attention as they enter adolescence so that their singability doesn't lose out to male self-consiousness and musical neglect.

Why does this matter? because Sing Is Good For You (science says so!)

So I'm hugely grateful to the woman third from the right in blue, the gent with the flowing silver locks and the magnificent braces on the second right, and the woman extreme right in the first picture at the top: Pauline Down, Colin Douglas, Sara Brown.

Without them I would still be worrying why I couldn't sound like Ray Charles or Luciano Pavarotti, and not singing much at all; Threnody wouldn't be singing at funerals, and what would I do with Wednesday evenings?

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

"The Life of Rebecca Jones," tranquillity, and the Tao

I'm minded, as politicians rather pompously say, to carry on with the theme of how we face the declines and dependencies which many fear in old age. However, I've just read something truly extraordinary so of course I have to write about it.

May I introduce you to

 Angharad Price. She is an academic and a writer in Welsh; mercifully, for speakers of mere phrase-book Welsh such as me (mae'n drwg gen i) her book about her family roots in a Merionedd valley was translated into English. I've just started reading it; it's going to be a wonderful read.

In the foreword, Ms Price writes about tranquillity, "the reversal of creation. The perfection of an absence."

She goes on: "Tranquillity can belong to one place, yet it ranges the world. It is tied to every passing hour, yet everlasting. It encompasses the exceptional and the commonplace. It connects interior with exterior. The creator of tranquillity was the guardian of paradox. From the moment of conception until the moment of death, tranquillity is within and without us. But in the tumult of life it is not easily felt. .... when our senses are spent we seek tranquillity. And as we age, our search for it becomes more passionate, though never easier."

She writes about peace, tranquillity, as "a transparency between myself and the world," and she says she has encountered it many times, only to lose it again.

You can't hold on to it. There's no point striving for it. It's not amenable to conceptual analysis. It's there all the time. You just have to let yourself be with it by leaving your self behind.

Call it the Peace of God which passeth understanding, call it the Way, the Tao, a mystical experience, a sense of unity with the world. Call it a transparency between myself and the world. We can find it in meditation, in listening to what the water says, what the hills say. Call it what you like. "The name that can be named is not the eternal name." 

I find more and more often I want to be with what Ms Price calls tranquillity. "As we age, our search for it becomes more passionate, though never easier." Very true!

I think, as I read on, that this will prove to be a deceptively
profound, simply written and very wise book.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Old Age: dissolution or integration? The Fear of Death part 2

In my last post, a very welcome comment from K at   freerangeweddings sent me in search of insight into our fear of the potential dissolutions and illnesses of old age. So I went to the water's edge. 

There I let go, as far as I could, of whatever was keeping me from being in  the moment, then came home and tried to Think, which hurts, hence the capital letter.

I reckon the first step is to acept the unavoidable reality of change.

Said the sun to the moon, 

You cannot stay. 


Says the moon to the waters, 

All is flowing. 


Says the field to the grass, 

Seed-time and harvest, 

Chaff and grain. 

You must change, 

Said the worm to the bud, 

Though not to a rose, 

Petals fade 

That wings may rise 

Borne on the wind. 

You are changing 

Said death to the maiden, your wan face 

To memory, to beauty. 

Are you ready to change? 

Says the thought to the heart, to let her pass 

All your life long 

For the unknown, the unborn 

In the alchemy 

Of the world's dream? 

You will change, 

Say the stars to the sun, 

Says the night to the stars.

               Kathleen Raine

Not just to understand this, but but to let it into your life, so you live it. And actually, though it means we age and die, thank goodness we do age and die. What could be more tedious than to be the same for ever? It's impossible.

But what K wrote is, I reckon, widespread: a fear of dissolution and decreptitude in old age.

Well, the first thing to say is that old age isn't always like that. I've visited a lot of families in seven year's work as a funeral celebrant, and that's my basis for thinking so. Of course we have the relatively minor complaints of ageing, but it may help to remember Mark Twain's observation: "I'm a very old man. I've had lots of problems. Most of them never happened."

(Genius, thanks.)

The trouble with my next step is that it involves a set of practices and beliefs that you may feel don't or couldn't apply to you. All I'll say is that meditating enables people not merely to stay in the moment, but to lessen the effects of pain and illness by reducing the fear and mental tension they generate. Pain is one thing, our response to it is quite another. Meditation can help with both.

K also worries about dependence. I understand that fear. So much depends on individual situations, but I sometimes think we worry too much about being dependent on others; we might reflect on the times others have depended on us. 

Having an old person depend on you is so much shaped by the personalities involved - you, and the old person. I'm going to preach, sorry:- if we can aim to live in the moment, if we can feel gratitude for our lives and compassion for others, we are surely less likely to be a burdensome presence as we age.

OK, sometimes old age can be pretty horrrible - I hope it won't be for K, for anyone reading this, but I believe there are things we can do to lessen that possibility.

That's enough for one blog. Maybe more another time. The island is storm-lashed tonight and I'd like, for a change, to listen to what the wind says.