Thursday, 28 January 2016

The present moment, Suzuki, Billy Collins and the Buddha

Is this the ultimate poem about awakening, removing the veil, being in the world as it is? 

It reminds me of the story about Shunryu Suzuki, early at the meditation hall one morning, so he started cleaning the toilet.  A horrified student arrived next, and said "I'll do that, master!" Suzuki just carried on, and said "Why don't you make the coffee?"

Reality - it's there, all the time, in the ordinary, in the extraordinary.  We don't need to worry too much about what is the true religion, about commentaries, about seeking and striving for "enlightenment," as if it were a steady state. ("I've got it! I'm enlightened!" "Oh, really?") 

Shovel the snow, and when the time comes, have some hot chocolate. Be in the moment.

by Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck,
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.


 "He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence." Quite so.

Monday, 25 January 2016

I'm not what I thought I was: Eagleman's Brain, TS Eliot, and me

David Eagleman on the brain, BBC 4 TV. 

Remarkable (to me, at least) stuff about the way the brain perceives the world around it. If this interests you, please bear with it; it's a bit lengthy, but I'm going to try to relate it to thoughts about the self, and about the present moment.

Sprinters need 1/10th of a second for their brains to process the sound of the start gun. This can't be improved on, however much you train. You can become faster at getting off the blocks, but you will always be 1/10th behind the actual sound of the gun when you start moving. And if you use a visual signal, say, a light coming on, the gap is longer, because visual processing takes longer, is more complex.

So the brain needs time to make anything happen in the body, and it "hides" this delay, it doen't show its workings. We think our response is simultaneous. It isn't. So in a sense, we are living in the immediate past. We can't perceive the immediate present moment - it's gone before we can process it, so we act retrospectively. 

I think somehow, we maybe know this, or sense it, which is perhaps why the present seems so intangible compared with the past- memories, and the future - plans, hopes and fears.

I'll move on to sight. The eye takes in signals and sends them to the brain, and that is where we actually see things. Signals go to a bit of the brain called the thalamus for processing before going to the visual cortex, where vision takes place. But signals go back and forth between eye and thalamus, as the brain takes in visual signals, compares it with what it's already got, issues instructions to the eye (something like"look top left corner, tell me...") and then when it's done (lightning speed, of course) it sends the final version up to the visual cortex, which is when we see what's before us. 

But we never take in with the eye exactly what is in front of us, all of it, because the brain works on a "need to know" basis. 

This is quite easily tested; try looking at a picture with a narrative or descriptive title, which will arouse expectations. Constable's "The Hay Wain," for example. Look away, and then have someone ask you what the picture's about, and you'll probably say "a hay cart in the middle of a river." Then get the second observer to ask you something irrelevant to the title, such as "how many chimneys does the cottage on the left have?" You probably won't know, unless you know the painting very well already. 

This isn't, or isn't only, about the memory, it's about how we see. If you were asked first off about the chimneys you'd get it right, because that's what you'd look for - but you mightn't know how many horses were pulling the cart. So you're using your eyes as collectors of sensory data, on a need-to-know basis, and adding and amending the sensory data accordingly. We are seeing with our eyes what the brain, to some degree, is telling us to see.

What this means is that our vision is always partial, always selective. And so my visual idea of the world around me will be different from someone else's, because they will have been looking for and logging different things. This data adjustment happens all the time, constantly, and very fast. 

But it still leaves us with a profound truth: our perception of reality is transient, dynamic and unique to each of us. As Eagleman puts it, the brain is the universe's great storyteller, creating realities inside our heads, and my brain provides its own unique model of the universe around us. 

Reality is what your brain tells you it is, and it is not constant nor held entirely in common with others. (Happily there are overlaps between our realities, or societies would collapse!) 

There was a lot more to this fascinating programme, and it was only the first part of a series, but it supports some ancient insights: our sense of reality is partial, and it changes. It isn't fixed, not for you or me, however much it feels like it. And - the present is over before we know it, yet the present is the only place we can be. Memories happen in the present. Hopes for the future happen - in the present.

 " Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."

The paradoxes of the present moment, if taken right in, can free us from illusions of permanence, can help us live not just with, but as, change.

"Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now."

I think at this point I'll stop quoting from "The Four Quartets," with just a reminder:  

"Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark."

To wake up to reality, we need to live with the understanding that reality is provisional, partial, ever-changing; and we are part of that ever-changing reality. Given this as demonstrably true, how can the self, yours and mine, be anything but a changing construct? 

Back in the world of neuroscience, Eagleman looks out over a city and says "where abouts is the economy of this city?" No place. It is a huge set of interactions, of relationships, always changing. Where is my self? There is no place in the brain where you can find it. It's a lightning-fast collection of mental interactions, within me and between me and the outside world. I am change. I am processes, not a thing.

The illusion of a permanent self might be socially useful. The illusion of a fixed reality out there in front of us, ditto. Just so long as we don't mistake it for ultimate reality, not knowable by the reaasoning intellect.

"Not farewell, but fare forward, voyagers." Into the paradoxes.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The fear of death and the power of meditation

Many people will have heard of mindfulness in recent years, since it has become fairly widespread.

So I won’t say too much about what it is – a way of learning to meditate that derives from Buddhist thought and practice, but which can be practised whatever you do or don't believe. It has no religious content or spiritual reference. You could call it tactful Buddhist meditation practice for people of any or no religious faith. 

When I asked a Muslim friend of mine, a follower of Sufi, what he made of the course when it was over, he said that it was fine as far as it went, but it was only a gateway. I agree, and maybe more of that another time, but for now, I would like to say something about one of the many ways in which I think meditation of this sort can help any of us.

The most pressing need for mindfulness meditation is often expressed by people suffering chronic pain (a bad back might be an example) or depression and anxiety.

I came to it for different reasons.

I’m a funeral celebrant, and although my training was good at the practical level of organizing and delivering ceremonies, managing procedures and so on, it did almost nothing to prepare me for the realities of regular contact with bereaved people. Listening to them, and looking at a coffin once or twice a week, naturally tends to make one a bit thoughtful about mortality in general and about the obvious but not always welcome awareness that one’s own life will come to an end.

As we grow older, it seems to me natural to consider the end of life more frequently and perhaps a little more intensely than in younger years. What may come up is, simply, the fear of death. This is arguably a biologically-driven and perfectly sensible fear; animals are death-averse; I suppose in evolutionary terms it’s so that they can produce young.

But us lot (homo allegedly sapiens) have a blessing and a curse: we know our lives will end. It’s a fair guess that the antelope does not worry about when and how she will die until the cheetah actually lands on her. She may twitch a bit if she thinks a cheetah is in the area, but that's not the same as worrying about her death years before it happens.

Our death awareness gives rise to lots of good things, I’m sure. Unlike the antelope, we can make plans and wills, projecting our care for those we love into a future without us; unlike the antelope, our mortality awareness results in great artistic expression, which nurtures us. But our death awareness sometimes needs managing, so that it does not become an overwhelming anxiety.

There’s much said and written about attitudes to death and dying, different forms of ritual and ceremony to help those who have been bereaved and, within belief systems, to help souls on to a better world; be that as it may, I simply wanted something to stop me getting gloomy, and to help with the tension of running a ceremony that has to be right first and only time.

Mindfulness meditation has been a big help, in this and many other ways too. It’s not so much that I meditate about, or on, the area of mortality. It’s more that the practice of staying in the moment, and returning to the present moment when my thoughts want to skip on, has given me more balance, a greater sense of accessible calm. It’s indirect, and cumulatively powerful.It's there when you need it.

My guess is that meditating regularly would help many people if they suffer from anxiety about the inescapable fact of human mortality. Not at once, not as if by magic, but gradually, over time - and the more regular the practice the steadier the progress.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

John Peacock's generous Buddhism

This man is the tip of an iceberg, in that he is a successful academic in the field of Buddhism and its ancient languages (Pali and so on, "so on" being a tacit acknowledgment that I am out of my depth here...) and a teacher of meditation for over 25 years. He's done the hard yards, went to India aged 17, lived it in India and Sri Lanka
When he talks to you and guides you, as he did yesterday in Bangor, he's the tip of an iceberg because he is friendly, informal, relaxed and engaging. His scholarly knowledge, his experience and his Buddhism he puts to our use on such a day, not to any self-aggrandisement, defensiveness, or display. He also uses references from our own (European, North American) cultures, which help with bridging any gaps between, er, Pali, and me.

He opened with an absolute favourite quote of mine on the destructive nature of not being in the present moment:

"We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. 
We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of time that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. 
The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. 
We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. 
Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. 
The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so."

Wise if troubling words, by a shrewd old bird, Blaise Pascal:

Then towards the end of the day John Peacock quoted from a group of peoms I frequently rummage around in, TS Eliot's "Four Quartets," in this instance, "Little Gidding:"

 "We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...."

Given this congruence between John's favourites and mine, I'm bound to see him as a genius...and will write more soon about the main and many benefits I took from his input. Here's TSE, looking slightly pained by my frivolity, to play us out:

Take it, Tom:

"....Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one."

Friday, 15 January 2016

a cosmic therapy for our fear of death

The power of metaphor. It's natural, at an animal level, to fear death - it's a survival instinct. But if, instead of avoiding it, we stay with it, meditate, or read, contemplate, let symbol and metaphor help us, we can sometimes come to some sort of terms with it. I think avoiding it just strengthens its hold over us. I think this poem is pretty splendid.

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote

To fear of death,

I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,

I suck them from the quenching dark

Till they are all, all inside me,

Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself

Into a universe still young,

Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,

The light of all the not yet stars

Drifting like a bright mist,

And all of us, and everything

Already there

But unconstrained by form.

And sometimes it’s enough

To lie down here on earth

Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields

Of our discarded skulls,

Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,

Thinking: whatever left these husks

Flew off on bright wings.

Rebecca Elson

There is a sting in the tail for those (me included) who didn't know that Rebecca Elson died at the age of 39 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She was a distinguished astronomer and a poet. What a loss. One could say, about this poem, that she knew whereof she wrote.

Thanks to Kathryn Edwards for passing this on to me.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Faith, not "faiths"

It seems to me a bit of a nuisance that religious belief systems are called "faiths" as in "faith schools," i.e. a school in which a dominant ideology is given a high, or at least some, profile. A Roman Catholic primary school, a madrassa, whatever.

The following is about, or from, a book I haven't actually read, which is simply called "Faith," by this woman:
 I like the way she extricates faith from the arena of conflicting belief systems and locates it in each of us as something that can enrich our lives. 

"The tendency to equate faith with doctrine, and then argue terminology and concepts, distracts us from what faith is actually about. 

Whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely. 

Faith is not a commodity we either have or don`t have - it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience. 

Many link faith to narrow-minded belief systems or the word evokes images of submission to a higher authority. Fanatics harness what they call faith to hatred...but I want to invite a new use of the word faith, one that is not associated with a dogmatic religious interpretation. 

I want to encourage delight in the word, to help reclaim faith as fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating. This is a faith that emphasizes a foundation of love and respect for ourselves. The Buddha said that faith is the beginning of all good things. No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables to try again, to trust again, to love again, even in times of immense suffering."  
                                                                         Sharon Salzberg.

A true faith school would be one that helped children develop their own faith, in a world which shouts conflict and alienation at us, much of the time.

This guy has faith that he'll reach the other side:
because he is trusting his own experience, at a deep as well as a practical level. He knows himself enough to feel sure he'll make it.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Peaceful places, sacred spaces

Not that I'm exactly sure what "sacred" means, for people who don't share in full the belief system that resulted in the building concerned.

Some meditators generally try to create a quiet, calm space in which to meditate. That could be the basic requirement, beyond which you don't need to go. Others might want more sense of a spiritual apartness from the daily round, which is why I went to Swarthmoor last November, despite not being a Quaker myself.

Meditators who are Buddhists or have been influenced by Buddhism might want some things associated with the Buddha to help create - what? An atmosphere? Maybe a little statue, or a poster, some Nepali fabrics, etc. If you venerate someone's memory but don't turn that into a religious faith, are you still creating a sacred space, with your statues and incense?

I surprised myself by being able to do a sort of meditation on a train - provided there weren't too many intrusive or sudden sounds. Yet I too respond strongly to certain spaces which believers in a faith system would call sacred.

This is a (feeble, sorry!) photo of a very old Romanesque church in the Tuscan countryside. Despite tourists and someone with a Hoover from time to time, I felt at once calmed by it. It felt a very resonant space.

Maybe it's the architecture, maybe (spooky alert) it's centuries of prayer and silence that are replayed at my senses from the walls themselves! Maybe it's just my knowledge, + imagination, of human intent and practice down the ages, in which case it's me, not it, who is doing the response.

 In such a place, (even in our nearest cathedral, not the most splendid of such structures, though very old; even in that gaudy Buddhist temple near Ulverstone) I can feel part of something much wider and more profound than the usual chatter of my thoughts. I hope such spaces don't mind my using them as meditation/contemplation sites even though I'm not one of their full-on believers. 

I'm not sure, rationally, what "sacred" means, but I know it when I feel it. It can, of course, be found in the natural world around us, in if we're in the right frame of mind.


Thursday, 7 January 2016

what the weather said

The forecasters are having a hard time lately. "Sunny spells. 30% chance of a shower" was the word for Snowdon today, from 09:00 onwards. Sitting in the cars and watching horizontal rain and sleet at 11:00 was - dispiriting. We like walking in the hills in mixed weather, but we are not masochists. So this was as near as we got to Snowdon today:

a photo from Beddgelert Forest. We got a bit of shelter walking along tracks amongst the trees, and eventually the weather did, mostly, clear, giving some good views. 

I guess some walkers might have felt frustrated, but there was a general feeling that we'd had a good little walk, it was grand being out amongst it, and we've all been up Snowdon a good few times, so no sense of desperation, no drive to get up there whatever the weather.

I think what the weather said was "be in the present, stay with what is,  make the most of it and don't fuss about what isn't." (i.e. the possibility of hypothermia at 1,000 metres - but also the possibility of an ascent and fine views..)

As often happens, being by water, by the very full little torrents rushing off Moel Hebog, gave me a few minutes of presentmomentness, out of the company for a bit, then back in to social being.

It was a good day, provided you stayed with what was happening, not what could have, or didn't, or still could if....It was a good day, exactly as it was. 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Flooding and Bessie Smith

As for the terrible floods this Christmas, this woman,  rightly called the Queen of the Blues and backed by the great James P Johnson, says it. "I woke up this morning, couldn't even get out of my door."

I used to think the song was a picture of the Great Mississippi floods of 1927, but the song was recorded before that took place. On tour, Smith saw the flooding in and around Nashville on Christmas Day (!) 1926, when the Cumberland River rose to 56 feet above normal, still a record, aslthough Nashville has long been prone to floods.

Wherever, whenever, she universalises it, as great artists do, and she can awaken our sympathy and our empathy.

The January Man and the rolling seasons

The seasons roll round. We have this idea of  days and months - it's the New Year. At the same time, a warm December makes it feel like early spring some mornings (when the rain isn't horizontal.) The seasons are the engines of natural change, uncontrollable, beyond our compass. Over this seething roll of energies, we throw nets of human meaning, such as "New Year's Day" or "January."

Here's Bert Jansch's beautiful song, in a version by Lau and Karine Polwart, to take us through the year. I hope you have a good 2016.

A poet takes tea on January 1st.

Don't you just love the way he develops his thought and his feelings in counterpoint with the actuality of making his breakfast tea as the day dawns? He is a poet of the profound within the ordinary. And what about the toughness and density of the final image?

by Billy Collins

Everyone has two birthdays
according to the English essayist Charles Lamb,
the day you were born and New Year’s Day—

a droll observation to mull over
as I wait for the tea water to boil in a kitchen
that is being transformed by the morning light
into one of those brilliant rooms of Matisse.

“No one ever regarded the First of January
with indifference,” writes Lamb,
for unlike Groundhog Day or the feast of the Annunciation,

this one marks nothing but the passage of time,
I realized, as I lowered a tin diving bell
of tea leaves into a little body of roiling water.

I admit to regarding my own birthday
as the joyous anniversary of my existence
probably because I was, and remain
to this day in late December, an only child.

And as an only child--
a tea-sipping, toast-nibbling only child
in a colorful room this morning--
I would welcome an extra birthday,
one more opportunity to stop what we are doing
for a moment and reflect on my being here on earth.

And one more birthday might be a consolation
to us all for having to face a death-day, too,
an X in a square
on some kitchen calendar of the future,

the day when each of us is thrown off the train of time
by a burly, heartless conductor
as it roars through the months and years,

party hats, candles, confetti, and horoscopes
billowing up in the turbulent storm of its wake.

from the book, "Ballistics," © Random House 2008