Monday, 21 March 2016

Is home wherever you lay your hat?

This town was recently selected in some poll or other as one of the best places to live in the UK:

 Apparently a spirited young woman I know, who lives there, upon being informed of this over her breakfast, said (and I quote):

 "Christ. Shows how fucking awful the rest of the country must be."

This greatly amused me, because it seems to sum up the essence of being 17 in our times. "Teenagers" (I'm not mad about the label, but still..) often want to get away from where they were born - even if they want to keep in touch with their families, even though they may return, they want to get away.

It's actually a very pleasant town, though it suffers from too much road traffic through the town centre. It's the sort of prosperous place in which the charity shops look like real shops, and their stock is often at least as good as real shops around where I live.

It's an expensive place to live, as far as house prices go. And they do. Upwards, relentlessly. You'd think it would be a nice place in which to be brought up, and I daresay it is - a resolutely comfortable, prosperous, overwhelmingly middle-class, picturesque, reasonably safe sort of place.

And I think that's perhaps the reason for the young woman's strong feelings. She knows the rest of the world isn't like that, and she wants to get out into it. She maybe wants to feel that home will be where she hangs her hat, and see how that goes, at least for a while. Meantime, she's on the secondary school exam treadmill with which our culture is obsessed, and who wouldn't want to get the hell out of that for a while, when they can?

But then again, she's 17, and it was early-ish in the morning. She might, by this evening, be revelling in the delights of her home town.

Somehow, I doubt it. 

I bet she'll want to hit the road before she can feel that "lovely to be back here again" stuff, as opposed to the "lovely to see my family again," which one hopes will always be true for her.

I mean, what did I care about peaceful duck ponds in English country towns when I was 17?
 Though it looks to me like a nice place for a quiet think, these days, now I've almost reached her age numerals reversed. I might even feed the ducks, though I suspect they'd turn their bills up at anything less than organically-grown locally-baked sourdough wholemeal.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

What the fire said

This is the little church up our lane. Plenty of gravestones, plenty of memento mori. The churchyard is gearing up for its full-on spring burstings of celandines and primroses, and of course some daffs too.

 What, I hope you will soon be asking, has the coming of spring to do with this photo of our kitchen stove?

 (Can't hear anyone asking very loudly I'd better carry on whilst you're still awake.)

In my work I encounter grieving people, and I'm dealing with some ongoing sadness myself at present. Grief, when it comes, is natural, and we would do better to go through it and accept it, than try to stifle or avoid it. (nb especially British chaps...)

So how best to live with the inevitable sadness of our human mortality? How to live with the impossibility, the raging unfairness and seemingly impossible fact of our extinction (to put it bluntly.) How - why - should we "put up with" the fact that it all comes to an end?

We might say, a little piously, that living with the awareness of death in our lives enriches them, makes them vivid and real, helps us live in the moment. True. Still, and all.....

So after walking up the lane and mementoing a spot of the mori, whilst at the same time enjoying the early spring springing, I sit down by the kitchen stove. I'll just be with the fire, look at the flames and think of nothing much.

Immensely calming. The fire is busy transforming substance into energy, heat and light. Feels lovely, looks lovely, feels...right. Part of me and my life. 

It's what the sun is busy doing, every star, the entire universe. Transforming, changing. If it didn't do that, nothing - you, me, the moons of Jupiter, the cat, daffodils - nothing would exist.

So yet again, feeling the reality of constant change as what life is, helps me with accepting mortality as what life is. This isn't so much an act of will or analysis, as it is the product of a sort of meditative state, I guess. Just being with it all, on its own terms, not mine.

It all feels right. Spring, gravestones, primroses - and the fire in the stove.

 Hope spring offers you some lovely moments, as the seasons' wheel turns, wherever you are.

Friday, 18 March 2016

mindfulness and madness: Radio 4 cops out

Out of the Ordinary, Jolyon Jenkins, BBC Radio 4 Wednesday 16th March, "Mindfulness and Madness."

This radio doc misses a chance to deal with an important subject: the potential that intensive meditation has to unearth or worsen existing severe mental health problems amongst a small minority of people. To give the devil, as it were, his due, this subject needs looking at, and the answer "well they probably weren't very stable in the first place" doesn't really cover it.

But Jenkins blows it.

He starts off with two poor souls who suffered very badly - because they went on a ten-day intensive silent retreat. This sort of experience is totally unsuitable for beginners, and in any case is not usualy what people mean by "mindfulness meditation," which
usually refers to the model developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in Massachussets, and further developed in this country by centres such as those at the universities of Oxford, Bangor and Exeter. Typically, it offers an eight-week course, and follow-up sessions if you can get to them.

(If you want to know more about a ten-day vipassana retreat - personally, I wouldn't go near it! - read Tim Park's excellent book "Teach Us To Sit Still.") 

Responsible mindfulness centres and teachers will always warn you about possibly upsetting consequences to the work, and suggest that serious, deep-seated and unresolved mental difficulties should be addressed through different therapies. On the eight-week course I took, a second experienced staff member was on hand to offer guidance and support if people became upset. 

For retreats, mindfulness centres make it plain which suit first-time retreatants (usually a three-day guided and supported retreat) and which longer ones are only open to experienced retreatants.

Jenkins talked to an interesting man who referred to the full Buddhist Therevada approach to managing the disorientating, or re-orienting, effect on one's sense of self that meditation can bring about. But a chance was missed to discuss the idea that in our culture meditation might suffer from not having a cultural and spiritual context to support  it, and perhaps that is why a few people maybe at risk from mental distress if they learn to meditate and then are left on their own.

Jenkins tried to discredit mindfulness meditation by linking it to the more extreme examples of weirdness demonstrated by some transcendental meditation adherents in the 1970s and 80s (yogic flying, and the belief that meditators could change crime rates for a week in Liverpool...and the Maharishi's political party fiasco.) Interesting, and quite fun, but nothing to do with mindfulness meditation.

(I do know people who feel they have benefitted a lot from TM; needless to say, Jenkins didn't talk to any such people.)

A researcher from Coventry University talked about scientific research which to his satisfaction demonstrated that meditation did not demonstrate any advantages over other relaxation methods and anti-stress procedures. That doesn't actually seem to me a reason not to do it if it suits you. "Other brands are available." 

The researcher also said an interesting thing, with regard to claims about meditation as mental training. I too find that an unhelpful term; meditation is a lot more than, and other than, training. But he went on to say "the brain is not a muscle." Indeed it isn't, and wise meditation teachers don't pretend it's that sort of training.

Except that there is a sense in which the brain might respond to repetitive training like biceps to gym work. David Eagleman's TV doc "The Brain" referred to London cabbies doing the knowledge. 

 He showed us that such intensive absorption of knowledge, and development of decision-making skills based on detailed information, over three years, actually does cause a small area of the brain to get  larger. The guy from Coventry allowed nothing for brain plasticity and the long-term effects of meditation.

Mr Coventry University said that meditation, even the more-or-less secularised Buddhist form we call mindfulness, answers a widespread need for something esoteric, spiritual, apart from ordinary life, now that so many of us don't go near a church or a temple. Seems obviously true to me; then he said that "the ideology of mindfulness meditation goes back to the 1960s."

It goes back 2500 years earlier than that. Shall we play sitar music in the background, suggesting that meditation is a hangover from the era of acid trips and turning on, shall we? Or shall we make a grown-up, useful radio programme?

OK, there is something troubling, and occasionally irritating, about the fashion for mindfulness, and sometimes its benefits may be over-hyped. If it isn't done "properly," thoroughly, sensibly, it can be risky for a small minority of people. But all Jenkins really wanted to do was trash it. He talked to no-one who claimed benefits from it, he allowed nothing for what you could call the subjectively-reported value of it.

He hardly addressed the important issues around meditation and mental health suggested by his sensationalist title. He relied on three personal stories, which troubling though they were, are no replacement for some facts and figures, and a real examination of the issue. A cheap, humourless and disappointing cop-out.

For a more amusing attack on mindfulness, try the new Ladybird book!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

David Eagleman's curious paradox/error: immortal mind stuff

I greatly admire David Eagleman for his little book "Sum" and for his excellent TV documentary series about" The Brain." He's a deep thinker, a neuroscientist and an excellent communicator.

But "here's the thing," as he likes to say when he unleashes another fascinating insight upon us. At one stage in his documentary, he talks about the demonstrable fact that many of our actions by-pass the conscious self, either because we respond too quickly, or it's an instinctive reaction beyond the reach of conscious thought. My example comes from cricket: a batsman facing a fast bowler has 1/5th of a second to "decide" what stroke to play after the ball bounces. He has no time to think about anything much, it's all in training and preparation, and stroke selection before the ball lands in front of him. 

Eagleman uses a scarcely believeable sequence of a young boy doing tricks with plastic cups, and afterwards the boy says no, he doesn't think about it at all, he's just trained himself to do it, speeding up bit by bit until it's automatic.

Eagleman describes how a child's brain develops, and becomes an individual consciousness, a mind. And how each morning when we wake up, we re-build, super-fast, our self-awareness, our sense of self. 

And how our memories are not a storage cabinet, but are also re-built from established patterns of connections between brain cells. So a mind isn't a thing, it's one of the things a brain does, all the time when we are awake. We are, as I have banged on about before, processes, always changing. We change our memories as we revisit them. The idea of the self as a thing, a constant, is a misleading illusion, as a north Indian sage realised in the sixth century BCE. And now neuroscience seems to be backing him up.

So far so good. Our brains and our bodies are a continuous system, cycling stuff around, and sometimes - often - our conscious minds are unaware of stuff we do. 

Our emotions are an essential part of this brain/body cycling. He showed us a woman who as a result of a brain injury (motor-bike accident) lost most of her emotional capacity in the area of decision-making. She suffers a lot because of it, because the smallest decision is extremely disturbing for her. We need our emotions to help us decide things. Reason plus emotion = a decision. That's why pure and absolute objectivity is impossible.

He also shows us how our bodies respond to emotions before our conscious minds do; an emotional response is rooted in our bodies. We may sweat, the electric conductivity of our skin may change, our eyes may show widening irises when someone attracts us, and "we," our conscious selves, our egos, know nothing of this. It's a body/brain response, not a mind/self-aware ego thing.

But I think he contradicts himself. In the last episode he did some stuff on how difficult it is to create truly humanoid artificial intelligence in a computer system. (I'd be interested to know what he thinks of the recent news that a Google "Deep Mind" AI has defeated the world's best (human!) Go player.)

But in this final last episode, he starts down the road of ways in which we could re-create the entire neurological activity of a brain. (Watch it on iPlayer if you are interested, it's good stuff.) If a brain is what it does, not what it is, maybe we could capture that unbelievably complex neurological totality and upload it. We wouldn't need "the wet stuff," as he so charmingly calls it! We would have immortalised a brain.

We could defeat death....Oh dear me no, did he really say that? Now we are surely talking misleading illusions again. 

Firstly, you might upload the totality of neural patterns, but that isn't a brain, nor a mind, nor a person, because all those bodily interactions aren't there. He's shown us that earlier in the series. We may be no more than a vast complex of tiny electro-magnetic interactions, but those interactions need to be in a body if they are to be a person.

And secondly, people - us - are built in time and end in time. I can't imagine what it would feel like to be a mind (of a sort) in a machine that wasn't time-bound. 

Or maybe I can: it would be called hell, it would be a kind of eternal madness. 

We, the people, are life, we are death. Or we are not people. Who wants to be a brain that isn't a person?

You said it, David! My mind is all of me, not merely the pattern of my neurons - it works both ways.

Give me life, give me death.

Let's separate the sci-fi from the wonders of reality. Let's accept the miracle of our mortality. Let's stop pretending that we won't die. If we can do that, we can really live. Now. In this moment.

Why I hate Facebook: commentless blogs e.g. Windermere Diaries

(Health warning: bit of a rant coming up. Probably not very fair or well-balanced.)

Yes, I've got a Facebook page. But it's a bloody nuisance. It's full of pleasant but mundane stuff, or people sharing political stuff most of which is preaching to the converted, But it's  quick and easy.
When blogging really got going, even by the time I started my first blog ("Meditation and Mortality") people took the trouble to add comments, and some really valuable conversations, arguments, affirmations and denials could develop. It helped me keep on writing.

Now, no-one seems to comment much on blogs. Not just this one.

Take, for example, the delightful "Windermere Diaries," simply and beautifully-written daily accounts of the life of a married couple of farmer/taxi-drivers in the Lake District. It's full of the profundity of ordinary daily life, of gentle humour, realism and acceptance. It's generous and ordinary. You don't have to read it every day, but it's there for you when you want it.

Do people comment on it? Well, her Mum did recently. And occasionally she gets a comment. Yet she's got literally hundreds of regular readers.

Or take "The Hearth of Mopsus," if you want to know what a thoughtful, Goth-obsessed open-minded but very devout C of E vicar is up to. Again, hardly ever a comment.

My guess is that Facebook has done this. We'd rather tell someone about an article in the papers, urge them to sign an on-line petition or tell the world that we've just had a nice walk, photo attached. We want to reassure ourselves with little gestures from like-minded people rather than engage with otherness. Please Like Me (so I know I exist.) 

I'm even invited to "Like" South-West Trains. Why would I do that?

Sod Facebook, we should use blogs to think and write just a little more lengthily and thoughtfully. and comment on what people have written. I want to know what people have to say, not just what papers they read and what they had for tea.

stranger love in a crowd

"Love one another" various religious leaders and figures have urged us, as if love was something you could will into being. "Practice loving-kindness," urge meditation teachers as they help us try to do so.

In a quieter, less densely-populated area such as the one I live in, it is easier to acknowledge each person you encounter than it is in a teeming city street or a big railway station. To respond, even to notice, each person would quickly exhaust you. We hurry along, regarding other people as at best irrelevant, at worst dawdling obstacles to get round between platform 12 and the entrance to the Northern Line so I can make my connection.

Every person on that station  concourse is a story, is in the middle of some narrative. I sat by a cafe window looking out and down at the crowd, taking the trouble to look at each face I could see, taking in the posture and attitude of each individual making up that transient pattern, that hurrying diverse crowd.

 I wasn't trying to feel any particular kindness towards any of them, but an unusual thing happened (unusual for me, though I guesss saintly people feel like this much of the time. I haven't filled in the application papers for sainthood, nor am I likely to. All that hard work and self-denial!)

I began to feel, unannounced, a kind of gentle benevolence, a sort of non-specific kindness towards them. 

Maybe I was doing what we do when we are looking for a specific face in the crowd, searching to pull familiarity and reassurance out of anonymity.

 This person's narrative

seemed to involve waiting for a train time on the indicator board - or was she looking for someone who was looking for her? which is perhaps why she stood still. 

Aha! One of the the faces in the crowd turned into the one she's looking for. (Actually, they hugged each other, but I didn't take a photo, it felt intrusive, somehow.)

And off they went; who knows how their stories changed after that meeting? 

I knew nothing of any of the people below me, through the window. I'd simply given them some time and attention, and a fellow-feeling, a kindness, had emerged. Of it's own accord, nothing to do with my ego or will.

"Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter," wrote TS Eliot, and I had no idea what he meant. It had seemed to me that one loved someone, or a group of people, or a rugby team, a country, a few acres of ground. 

But if we see love as a universal force, an attraction, a state of nature, then perhaps that's the simplest and purest kind of love.

The people I was looking at had no idea about what I was feeling, of course. But it helped me; I was tired and feeling a little sad and drained when I sat down. I left the cafe feeling quite different.

And all I'd done was let something rise to the surface which is there in potential all the time.