Saturday, 16 December 2017

The paradox of the present

I've done a bit of head-scratching lately about the present, after reading a post on the  Secular Buddhist Association website. I'll pass on my confusions to you and see if they are at all useful. Which I doubt...

 For a good few years now I've done what I understand most meditators do, those who've come to it via the 8-week mindulfness course, anyway.

I let my awareness stay with my breath, or other bits of the body if I'm doing a body scan, and when my thoughts drift off into narratives, worries, memories etc, I gently bring my awareness back to the breath, or my left foot, or whatever. This I do to stay right where I am - in the present moment.

But. Does the present moment exist? I certainly don't seem to be able to stay in it for long, though after even a succession of brief visits to what I could call "presentmomentness", I feel...better? Calmer? Broader? Freer from conditioned responses, compulsive thinking.

If we imagine the present as moving forward perpetually, leaving the past behind  and not fussing about the future until the present reaches the future and turns into it, as it were, then what is it, this present moment? How big is a moment? 

Is it like a straight line - the shortest distance between two points, we remember from school, not the mark you make with a ruler and a pencil on paper - simply, the thing itself, the conceptual entity. 

.                                              . 

The shortest distance between those two full stops is a straight line. How wide is it? It doesn't have width.  It need have no dimension, thickness, physical presence itself.

Like the present, it's entirely a concept. A pencil mark simply represent it.

 (are they doing what they think they're doing? Where and when are they?)

Next: the neuroscientists tell us that we are always about 1/10th of a second behind the actual occurence of any event, due to the time our senses take, however keen they are, to process the information and respond to it. The fastest sprinter in the world (Mr. Bolt himself) cannot be less than 1/10th of a second off the blocks when he hears the gun. (False starts excepted, of course!)

 Does this insubantiality of the present moment matter? Well, it might, to meditators. 

One trap for meditators is striving to stay in the present, berating ourselves for drifting off, feeling we've had an unsatisfactory meditation. No matter how often we may be told that drifting off and coming back to the breath (or body scan, whatever) is part of meditating, it's hard not to evaluate a meditation as you go along, or afterwards. Hard not to grumble at yourself for not staying in the present.

Which is an impossibility.

But if the present doesn't exist, in other than an unreachable, theoretical sense, then where do I live?

Not in the past, clearly, however nostalgic I may be, because the memory reconstructs and changes the past, and that can only happen in the present. 

Nor in the future, obviously, because whatever plans or fantasies that may be runing through my mind, they are not happening at the moment, and they or may not happen in the future.

So where do I live? The present is only a theoretical point in time, the past and the present no longer exist or don't yet exist.

Where I live isn't a fixed point in time that is succeeded by the next fixed point in time - the present like frames of an old-fashioned film, a succession of fixed points in the movie of my perceptions -  is it 8mm, 16mm, 32mm? The present has no dimensions. 

Where I live, what I am, is continuous, a collection of processes, part of the collection of processes we call this planet, this universe.

I'm not a fixed point. I don't exist at all. I am a socially neccessary construct. But in the freedom that comes from meditation/cultivation, I more and more understand this.

I am flow, change, processes, nothing else.

As freedom often is, that realisation - I don't exist - is pretty frightening, until  that fear, that striving, is simply let go of.

 Let go. That's an invitation, not an imperative. We can't nag ourselves or each other into liberations.

Monday, 27 November 2017

getting old(er..)

Adjusted to fit UK contexts, here is a poem from David Rynick, a wise and compassionate man:

  65th birthday manifesto, by David Rynick

NHS, Atorvastatin,
baby aspirin please.
Don’t forget: zipper up,
phone, wallet, keys.
Sixty-five, still alive;
running now on fumes.
Yet to come, worrisome;
the piper plays the tune.
Still I’ll dance with tattered pants,
shameless far and near.
Too old to care when others stare,
I’ll find new freedom here.

 More of David on:
and in his wonderful book "This Truth Never Fails."

I wish him plenty of fumes. Maybe growing old has new freedoms in it, as well as deteriorations. Yeats wrote:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

Interpret and relate to "soul" as you wish.  Let's sing and dance onwards.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

oceans part III - distance and negative capability

That High Victorian  poet of doubt and loneliness Matthew Arnold might seem increasingly remote to some modern sensibilities, but he can still chuck out a line to stop you in your tracks. (Arnold's capitals and italics, btw.)

 "YES! in the sea of life enisl’d,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know."

We're back where we live now, a long way from where we've been. 

From this:

to this:

It's good to settle back, readjust the colour palette, season and time of day, re-engage with family and good friends in the UK.

But we are geographically separated from some people we wish we were a lot closer to; there are "echoing straits between us thrown."

The pain of geograhical separation is mediated by electronic non-distance. Thanks to Saint Berners-Lee we can talk and see over vast expanses of space and time. You can't throw your arms round a Skype or FaceTime screen, but they sure help. Passenger aircraft fly at not much below the speed of sound. Those we love are - in theory - only a day away.

 Keats wrote in a letter of the importance of what he called "Negative Capability: that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

The map on the seat-back set in front of me showed something schematic, unreal:

In this huge aluminium tube, am I really where the little white plane says I am? Are those I want closer to me really so far away? What is geography to the workings of the heart?

I'm finding big paradoxes here. 

There is only one ocean, whether it's brilliant azure or delicate blue-greys. 

Meditation can create a sense of oneness, unity with both the azure and the blue-grey, with them there and us here. 

We can agree with Keats, and say further that living with paradox is an essential part of freedom, of living in the now not in the land of "back then" or "ooo er, whatever next.."

Yet there still lies between us "the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea."

The internet cannot entirely gainsay the Indian Ocean.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

One Ocean

This is an oceanic coast, a continental coast. Nothing much between here and South Africa. Our more constrained and limited British seas can also cut up rough and nasty. So is it imagination, and/or knowledge, that makes the difference? Because this feels nothing like the seacoasts at home. Perhaps it’s an endlessly variable combination of light, colour, sound that I pick up in each case, or maybe it's just because I know the fact of difference. Either way, it feels very different from “home.”

Yet there is really only one ocean. On the whole planet, apart from inland seas (aka vast lakes) all oceans and seas are joined, are one. And the old mind-trick of turning a good-quality globe so that Australia is bottom left and you are looking at the Pacific reminds us that mostly, the planet is oceans and seas.

We often allocate human moods to the ocean, as we do to God/gods. They can be merciful, wrathful, gentle meek and mild. The ocean we can call angry, gentle, and so on. It’s not, of course. It is only and purely -  the ocean. 

Each wave is a fast-moving, continually changing, unique phenomenon, dying right in front of me and being drawn back and resumed.

The ocean is merely and entirely doing what it has done, with endless variations, for millions upon millions of years, before there were any people of any sort to watch it. Do I create each wave in front of me every time I look at it? 

 Are today’s waves two or three metres high? Hey, this next one must be 3.5 metres...That’s not what yields insight, though it might help me keep my trousers dry. 
Maybe I can just be with it, leaving aside analysis and measurement.

And yet, if you just contemplate for a moment the impossibly complex set of dynamic systems - tide; winds here and hundreds of miles out to sea; currents; salinity and other chemistry; air and water temperature; gravity, phases of the moon - the self-sustaining systems that create this particular breaking wave, which resembles the one before it and the one after it but is unique. 

If I add that to what I can see and here in front of me, I can feel a sense of awe (in the old and strong sense), presentmomentness,  wholeness, identity with the planet and its workings that I’m happy to call sacred, provided you don't start lugging in meanings still adhering to a Rock of Ages,  Cleft for Me, etc. (Well, you can if you wish, it's up to you, but that's not what I'm trying to get at here.)

For me, anthropomorphic deities don’t work, and the ocean is not wrathful. It is other than me, indifferent, total. Powerful beyond imagining, yes. Impossibly complex and beautiful, yes, with a beauty that goes much deeper than pretty or scenic. It’s in the curve of the wave as is crumples and blues into white that I find a sacred wholeness to sit with for a while.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Hull down

The title is not a snide shot at the current European City of Culture...

There was a time when English was full of metaphors and sayings from sailing the sea. "Three sheets in the wind," or " "half seas over," for "drunk." "The devil to pay," (lengthy one to explain, do look it up if you're interested) "not enough room to swing a cat," (ditto) and so on.

During the late eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was the largest single industrial enterprise in the world, and a huge proportion of the male population were or had been sailors. Not so nowadays, despite every available creek on the South Coast being jammed with boats (many of which are little-used.) So I guess we can expect the sailing references to gradually fall out of use - to be replaced perhaps by the delights of internet terminology...

One that may be dropping out of awareness and use is "hull down." If you look at the horizon in this (poor quality, sorry!) photo, about a third of the way across from the left, you'll see a white dot. That's the superstructure of a ship "hull down." In other words, the curvature of the earth is hiding the hull from us and only the superstructure is poking above the horizon.

With sailing ships the masts of which could be 140 feet high, this would have been a more easily-visible phenomenon.

In the ancient world, it was generally assumed that the earth was flat, because it appeared so. Pythagoras, then Aristotle, worked out that it wasn't, but news would have spread slowly. By medival times in Europe, it seems that people generally grasped the idea that the planet was not flat. Some historians think that despite the sophistications and splendours of Chinese civilization, it was the 16th or 17 centuries before they wised up.

Sailors and coast watchers could have told them about the curvarture of the earth as soon as boats were large enough to sail over the horizon on a clear day. Logically, if the atmosphere is clear enough to see the masts and sails, why can't I see the hull? Because the earth is curved. If it's curved, why doesn't all the water pour off it? Aha. It must be curved all the way round, i.e. a sphere.

Which is a long-winded way of wondering when it is wise to entirely trust our senses, i.e. an empirical attitude, and when we need more abstract thought, i.e. a burst of reasoning.

Or, as in the example of hull-down sailing ships, both.

 This huge freighter, heading off across the Indian Ocean on a long voyage, isn't hull down, but it soon will be. And at least I got the horizon more or less level in this photo.

Perhaps when I was taking the first shot I was slightly unnerved by a sign painted on the path under my feet:

Indeed they do. A local woman, 75 years of age, was walking this path a couple of years ago and was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a dugite. ("Doogite," for fellow poms.) Her big mistake was to think that since she didn't feel too bad, she'd get home and phone from there. The official advice is immobility and summoning help quickly, since the dugite is "potentially" lethal. When she got home, she said "I think I've made a big mistake." Horrifyingly, one of the symptoms of dugite venom is said to be a feeling of impending doom. In her case, tragically, the feeling was an accurate portent. The medics couldn't save her.

Not all Australian snakes are lethal, of course, but if I see one, I'm pretty soon hull down, from the snake's point of view.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

distant events, immediate screens, a middle way

Geographical distance can create a sense of increased objectivity, give rise to new or at least different perspectives. 

Electronic distance doesn't exist, unless we create it.

In the wonderful clarity of a West Australian sunlit morning, the trees and shrubs are differently beautiful from the ones at home, the birds energetically and raucously so.

And yet elsewhere two nation's leader seem to want to destroy each other's nation (we have to hope it is only"seem") and within one of those nations, a deranged individual recently slaughtered many young people of whom he knew nothing, with whom, as individuals, he had no identifiable grievance.

What am I to make of this? What is the Middle Way between unproductive distress and callous disregard? Why do I keep turning on the screens to find out more about both horrors? I am thousands of miles from both situations.

I find help in an article in a major Australian newspaper, written by DBC Pierre. Most apparently motiveless attackes, like many or most terrorists attacks on civilians, end in the suicide of the perpetrator. He quotes research* that finds that following suicides car crash fatalities increase, specifically in areas where the suicide was well-publicised. Murder-suicides were followed by rises in multi-person crashes. So under the cliché "copy-cat killing" lies something more significant; we seem to be wired to find others like ourselves, and do what they do. Brain chemistry may have a bearing here.

Pierre writes "I have a sneaking sense that by consuming all the outrage, letting the buzz of fear, wallpaper our lives, we're becoming complicit. A sense that our voracious focus on far-flung outrage is now unwittingly part of the cause."   

He goes on "the screen craze has become 24/7, in our hands, on our desks, our walls, and if the stated aim of much of it is to put us at the scene, take us live, I simply ask: do we need to go? All the time? I'm living right here where I stand. This is my sphere of physical influence and I should lose myself instead into some place where I'm fearful and powerless?"

Pierre reminds us that we contain powerful chemicals such as dopamine and cortisol. His proposition is that the feelings aroused by heavy screen involvement in terrible events we are powerless to influence may create some of the same states of mind that result in such horrors to begin with. In other words, and not necessarily in any rational or willed sense, we may, if we are prone to depression, alienation, fear and the helpless anger that comes from frustration, be nudged towards similar acts. That seems to me a bold assertion that it is worth considering seriously.

"I wonder if, by being swept through screens into constant turmoil, we are priming ourselves with the chemistry of those who cause it, as well as promoting the market for worse."

Some of the stuff that comes through screens we can do something about- at elections, for example, or when something awful happens in our locality, by direct action as happened following the Grenfell Tower fire. But much of it is geographically beyond us, beyond any likelihood of positive action. The result is surely bad for us as individuals. Nothing that is of much use comes from such psychic disturbance.

Pierre's final point is about the paradox that whilst we are drawn into distance events we are powerless to effect through screens, we are at the same time distanced from the events- hence the frustration, hence the fatigue, the possibility of callous disegard. 

Screens - just look at the virulent hatred to be found on Twitter - help us to create the Other that must be hated and destroyed. It's easier to create the despised Other when you don't have to look them in the eye, speak with them.

So a leading politician receives foul abuse daily; so a leading TV political correspondent has to have professional protection.

I don't think there's any point in being anti-screen; after all, what am I doing at present but trying to reach out to a few readers via a screen? The idea that the world is getting steadily worse is surely as useless a proposition as the idea is is that it is getting steadily better, since so much depends on what you are measuring and where you're measuring it. It seems unlikely to me that heavy screen use about current events makes many of us feel the world is getting better...

I hope I'm not just being squeamish when I say I don't want relentless updates on mass murder. I may want to know the simple fact of it. But if as a result of closely following this horror, I really feel that the world is getting more and more horrible, then I'm doing two things.

Firstly, I am ignoring history and much information about the contemporary world, so that I am out of balance. My view is inaccurate, yet I am relying on it. I am a victim of confirmation bias, the tendency to "search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."

Secondly, I've lost the middle way. That is, the way that asks useful questions such as:
  • How much do I need to know about this? 
  • What if anything can I do about it? 
  • How significant is it in the local, national, world view of human life and its possibilities? 
  • In what ways should I care, in what ways should my compassion be engaged rather than my fear and hatred?

It is easy to be continuously outraged, enraged, depressed about the world we live in. It is harder to be grounded enough in the realities of this moment in this world to bring about positive change.

I'm going to turn off all screens for a bit now and get a little gentle morning sunlight into my soul.

*Influence: the psychology of persuasion, byRobert B Cialdini

Friday, 22 September 2017

waiting with the pain, finding the insights

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
                             Danna Faulds 
I know that sometimes things are so bad that no matter what practices we do or what medications we take, we can't seem to generate even that small amount of faith we need for inspiration to keep going. Then, if we can stand inside our pain awhile and wait, over time we may come to also see it as a way into the deepest parts of ourselves and then back out into the world, a vehicle for new insight into who we are and how much we need to care for ourselves and one another. If there is nothing we can do right now but wait then, as TS Eliot wrote, "the faith is in the waiting." If we can but wait, we may yet emerge from despair with the same understanding that Zen master Suzuki Roshi expressed: "Sometimes, just to be alive is enough."
                                                          Sharon Salzburg, "Faith."
Well I don't think the first passage is great poetry, and the second might not strike one as elegant prose - but enough already with the lit crit. I hope you agree that these are tough and valuable insights. Distracting ourselves from painful feelings short-circuits any authentic acceptance of who we are and where we are. Accepting the reality of painful feelings, and the limitations of what we can really do about them, isn't the same thing as giving up, giving in to things we should resist.
And we can also take the pain-killers if we need to.

Happy feet, sunlight and shadows

A post-meditation discussion on the dancing patterns made by sunlight, wind and birch leaves - the wondrous complexity of all the natural forces and transactions that made these transient patterns. But then we are in and of transient patterns - it's just good to recognise that in something serendipitously beautiful. And it seems to have made someone's feet happy, too!


Monday, 4 September 2017

What does the water say, then?

Nothing, of course - says rational thought. Water has no speech organs, no human agency, and therefore since speech is a human phenomenon, then...(yawn...excuse me while I switch him off.)

But Mr Logical Bore is actually, in his own terms, correct.

To pretend the water says anything to me (or anyone) is, I guess, one of those rhetorical tricks we use to try to express the inexpressible - a state of mind, a state of being.

When I refer to what the water says, I'm trying to note down the effect water, in a few of its multudinous states, has on me and I'm sure on millions of us. I'm not seeking to project onto the water something of me. The traffic is the other way. Whether it's the churning wake of a cross-channel ferry:

the power of a breaking wave:

 or the unexpected peace of an inland waterway amid the noise, the crowds and excitement of a large music festival:

 water will always work, if I can let it.

Much of us is water. It runs through us. Many (most?) people like to sit and gaze out over the sea, or a lake, or just a river or a pond.  There's surely something going on at a profound level. After all, we may love the view out across green fields, but it doesn't have the same pull, does it? Herman Melville writes that if it was sand pouring over Niagra Falls, we wouldn't flock there. (A disturbingly strange thought!)

Here's a bit from the start of "Moby Dick."
"Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. . . Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever."

Everyone may know it, but I hadn't consciously realised it, until it grew on me, slowly and fruitfully. I now know that provided I don't try too hard - or preferably, not at all - and let my awareness rest with the water, its movement, its stillness, whatever changing form it takes in front of me, I am rewarded by some moments of being in the present. A sense of unity and universal presence. 

That is what the water says.

Archhippy/folkies The Incredible String Band had a Water Song:

Water water see the water flow
Glancing dancing see the water flow
Oh wizard of changes water water water
Dark or silvery mother of life
Water water holy mystery heavens daughter
God made a song when the world was new
Waters laughter sings it is true
Oh, wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing
     (secularists may prefer to take God and holy as metaphors, if it helps.)

We change, all the time, as everything does. Nothing is constant. It's change that enables us to be. Perhaps the water holds me because from it I absorb the lesson of flowing, the lesson of being here and now changing in the non-existent present moment.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Journeys, Ithaka - Inside the Wave part 2

(follows on from my posting 10th June of Helen Dunmore's wonderful poem "Inside the Wave.")                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 So Odysseus' wanderings over ten years, on the way home from the Trojan War, take him into enchantment, imprisonment, danger, and suffering, through all of which he keeps his destination firmly in mind: his wife and son Penelope and Telemachus, and his own realm, the island of Ithaca.

In discussion recently, a close friend said I seemed to be much interested in journeys. That got me thinking.

Odysseus gets home to find his wife besieged by suitors who have told her that the old boy must be dead by now; they want to marry his wife and take over his lands. They have been eating greedily and boozing and behaving really very badly, exploiting the code of hospitality, which is at the roots of civilization. Penelope has remained true to Odysseus. Just. She's had to be crafty about it. But Homer was a realist, and there are suggestions she enjoys the flattery just a bit. Well, who wouldn't? And maybe the old boy is dead?

Well he isn't. He draws his mighty bow - no-one else can - and he and Telemachus slaughter the lot. (This was an age of warrior-heroes, not gentle the moral code of the time, they had it coming.) 

But travelling changes us, journeys move us along, not just physically.

"At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
"Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore."

                                                 "The Dry Salvages," TS Eliot

There is only the journey. Everything changes, always - and maybe accepting that, living in that state of being, helps us live better, eases some of life's pains. Stasis can only be relative. (I'm almost tempted to refer to a recent political slogan about stability..) We're always travelling, it only looks as though we've "settled down." The great children's author Arthur Ransome wrote that a house is just a boat that's been moored rather too long.

As for Ithaka - Cavafy tells us it's the journey that matters more than the destination, so we should value it. Embrace the change fully.

 "As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean."

                                                                                  "Ithaka," CP Cavafy

"These Ithakas." We need them, but they are not ultimate realityThat's only to be found 

Dunmore's Penelope won't touch her hero; Odysseus is left gazing into,  meditating on,  the inside of the wave:

"And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple
About to be whole."


Helen Dunmore - such a loss, such gifts she leaves with us.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Cavafy''s barbarians.

A poem by the great Alexandrian Greek poet CP Cavafy.

Wise old bird

 When we have an election, we divide and argue about The Best Things To Do Next, then we vote about it, and then, hopefully, we come together again and be with our friends and family even if they did vote for The Other Lot.

We define ourselves against The Other, weak or strong, the generalised Not Us But Them..Perhaps we need them not to be us so we know who we are.

"The Barbarians Are Coming"

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

            The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Helen Dunmore

In amongst the raucous cut and thrust, the sneers and groans and cheers of the run-up to the general election, the poet and novelist Helen Dunmore died, aged 64. 

It's easy not to notice her quiet voice amongst the self-advertising noise of our literary media. She wasn't a particularly fashionable writer; I'm quite surprised how many of my well-read friends have hardly heard of her (no point-scoring intended.)

The best of her writing has a grace, a lightness of touch, that I'm going to be cheeky enough to recommend to you. It's a kind of enlightenment. And it works so well because of the clarity of her gaze at the physical world about her.

In her novels, her imagination often worked very successfully through historical settings; her last novel is set in Bristol, amongst a group of radicals, in the days of the French Revolution. Its use of history - the tensions between public and personal - I find highly effective. 

She didn't find out she was dying until she was editing the novel, but in an afterword, she wrote that she must have known subliminally because the novel was “full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm." 

Her last book of poems, "Inside the Wave," is full of that sharp light. The title poem in particular, gives me what Eliot illuminated for us: the intersection of time with the timeless moment. It uses the story of Odysseus; I'll not bang on about it, though I might in a separate posting. Here it is for you:

"Inside the Wave"

And when at last the voyage was over
The ship docked and the men paid off,
The crew became a scattering
Dotted, unremarkable,
In houses along the hilltop
Where the lamps flamed in welcome
And then grew dim, where a woman turned
As if from habit to the wall.

In the bronze mirror there was a woman
Combing what was left of her hair
And beside her, grimacing,
A dirty old mariner.
He swore and knocked back the chair.

Yes, then Odysseus opened his mouth
And all that was left
Was the sound an old man makes
Between a laugh and a cough.
His toenails were goat's hooves
His hair a wild
Nest of old stories,

He straddled the tiles
As a man of the sea does
But she would not touch
His barnacled lips.
From the fountain, pulse by pulse
Came gouts of blood.

Everything stayed as it was,
There was no unravelling
Of wake behind him,
No abandoning
Uwanted memories and men.
Besides, the earth stank.

He went down to the black rock
Where the sea pours
And the white sand blows,
He turned his back to the land
And thought of nothing
For the voyage was over,
The ship dragged by a chain
Onto the ramp for inspection.

The waves turned and turned
Neither toward nor away from him,
Swash and backwash
Crossing, repeating,
But never the same.
At the lip of the wave, foam
Stuttered and broke.

It was on the inside 
Of the wave he chose
To meditate endlessly
Without words or song,
And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple
About to be whole.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Enzyme gods

(Warning –this is likely to be an uncertain and tentative sort of posting...)

BBC Radio 4, "In Our Time," was about enzymes this morning. It was full of wonderful insights, even, or perhaps especially, for a non-scientist like me.

 I add this diagram (nicked off the internet ) in a spirit of confused humility!

Brilliant chemists, like this morning's panel, often need to find analogies to move their understanding closer to ordinary more or less colloquial speech. The panel's chair, Melvyn Bragg, asked "what would happen if there were no enzymes?" The answer was crisp and clear: there would be no life. At all. 

At one point, they were discussing the mind- boggling speed and effectiveness of enzyme reactions within cells. The way enzymes single out chemical situations and speed them up, or allow them to happen at all, sounded truly awe-inspiring.

Using the only sort of analogies that are available to most of us, Bragg said  they sound almost intelligent. 

The panel got a bit uneasy with the idea of intelligence at the level of chemical reactions, and framed it all entirely within the random processes of evolution.  I suspect the panel could feel at their backs the spectre of "intelligent design," of evolution as designed by God the Father, of the dogmatic ignorance and intolerance of some fundamentalist Christians.

But my little brain was whirling. Here was a contact point for those who who don't accept the anthropomorphic God of the Christian Bible, but who want to feel the presence in our lives of something more profound and more, er, sacred? than our ordinary human perceptions and context for actions.

Chemists can do extraordinary things with genetic engineering into the activities of cells and the enzymes, right down to the level of genes and DNA. So it is not, I hope, to obfuscate the rational power of their thinking with some wishful, vaguely consoling mystical mist, to say that the sense of wonder I felt at this point in their discussions was pretty close to what people often rather lamely call religious.

I guess I'm trying to say that a scientific view of the chemical reactions without which there would be no life is so complex, it reveals so intricate and powerful a life force, and it is so completely part of the rest of the universe that we call not-life; such a view can  make me feel the presence of what I have to call sacred because I don't know another word for it. 

I don't know another word because when we're in touch with this presence we enter states  of being and realms of paradox that may not be expressible in ordinary linear, rational speech.

I'll finish off this ramble with a very neat little observation from one of the chemists. He said that bacteria are much more adaptable, smarter chemists in one sense, then we are. They can adapt molecules to create new molecular combinations that they need. 

We can't do much of this. For example, we can't create vitamin C, but if we don't put any into our systems then we get scurvy, horrible things happen to us and we are likely to die. 

So we eat stuff with vitamin C in it and that passes into our systems so our teeth don't start falling out. A vitamin is just a term for an essential substance that we can't synthesise within ourselves. 

OK, there's nothing intelligent or divine in the ordinary sense about what bacteria do when they use enzyme reactions to adapt to their environment. They do what they do, they can't help doing it, they have no choice about it!

But look - enzymes can work at 10 to the power of 17. The lifetime of the universe, the chemists said, is calculated as 10 to the power of 16. (I had to let that thought-flare burn through for a moment...)

So: enzymes can make thousands of reactions occur per second that would otherwise take beyond the lifetime of the universe. And all life depends on these enzyme functions. That sounds pretty close to what people used to call omnipotent, Godly. This is within their own context of course, and literally countless other things have to happen, and have happened, for enzymes themselves to exist.

If they are Godly, they have no morality or allegience or other human attribute. So at least you can't claim they're on your side. The drone pilot and the suicide bomber, Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, the Pope and Ian Brady are all (or were) entirely enzyme-dependent!

A human being has been described (by one of them) as "just a puddle of chemicals." Just???


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Pascal's chair and the General Election

"The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he is unable to sit quietly in his room," wrote Pascal.

I imagine it's pretty hard to sit quietly in your room if you live in Gaza, or any of the troubled areas of the world. (i.e. much of it.)

 Did he mean if we sit on our bums, the sum of unhappiness in the world will decline? Is this the ultimate escapism, the depths of irresponsible selfishness, the ultimate political quietism?

I think it needn't be. Eliot said we are "distracted from distraction by distraction." I offer you, good people of the jury, Facebook and Twitter. Whatever is good about them (much, for many) they are also an easily-available seductions into distraction, an invitation to put aside consistent application and reflection, an opportunity for a short snarl, a nasty but brief verbal attack. I think they tend to make us sit unquietly in our rooms, or on a train staring into our phones.

I take Pascal to mean that calm thought, whether it's the longitudinal pursuit of reason and analysis, or the presentmomentness of meditation, or reflective states of creativity, or some kinds of prayer - calm thought is the only way to develop the wholeness of an integrated personality, of someone who may at least have the potential for happiness in him/herself, and therefore of creating happiness in others. 

Would you agree that happiness, like unhappiness, can be be infectious?

(You may, like me, feel that happiness - joy, perhaps - is a spontaneous sort of thing, whereas contentment is a more lasting state of being.  In which case, please substitute "discontent" for "unhappiness," with due deference to Pascal.)

Living in what might happen next, or what has happened, rather than at least trying to find content in where you are, surely makes us chase our tails. Sitting quietly in a room means our tails can be tucked safely out of the way and we can be what we are right now, for a while at least.

Whilst we were canvassing for a general election candidate yesterday, a good friend who is giving so much more to it than I am,  said "I'll be pleased to get my life back on June 9th." 

At elections people divide, and argue about the divisions - we have to. Policy choices must be made. Then after an election, people gradually drift back into their usual associations, which frequently work round and over the top of political differences. That re-grouping is essential too. But it's getting harder. It was particularly hard for many of us after the EU referendum.

A bit of sitting quietly in our rooms may be very helpful when all the scratching and blaming and arguing - necessary, unavoidable maybe - is done. But it would help if more of the arguing was more civilised, less of a cheap headline howl, less personalised. It might make it easier to get back normal again - whatever that is.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

voices of the rain

- or rather, one voice made up of many many parts. A sort of Spem In Alium of wetness. That's what the water says this morning.

After hot dry days, with heavy evenings - wonderful weather in itself - we woke to rain.

Writers, poets, have sought to dissect and label that variety of sounds. With my head out of the window, I begin to do the same, then I let go of cataloguing. I'd rather just be with it. Breathe in that indescribable collection of smells that come from plants and earth wet again after dry days - you'll know it, of course. Listen to the total ear-picture of rain on so many different surfaces, running off in so many different channels and routes.

The great dynamo of the seasons is thrumming almost audibly. The plants - trees, nettles, corn cockles, broad beans, speedwell, fescues - are almost visibly leaping upwards.

The blackbirds are completely off their heads, of course, singing fit to burst.

"The river is within us, the sea is all about us." What's falling on my head will soon be river and sea. But for now, it's our garden, on a suddenly wet and noisy morning, and it's - delicious.


Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Manchester horror

What's to say? In one sense, nothing. I guess people grieve, pray, meditate - and where we can, work hard to help all affected.

The ultimate objective compassion would be to try to understand and forgive the man who did this. (News reports either know or assume it was a male.)

Perhaps it's particularly hard to do so because he deliberately targeted children.

Presumably he was a deluded psychopath.

I think I can just about manage not to see him only as a murderous shitsmear who unfortunately didn't blow himself up assembling his murderous device. He was some mother's son.

I think I can just about manage not to think of anyone who helped him (if anyone did) as deserving instant death. Yes, I can let go of murderous intentions towards such people, and merely hope they are very swiftly detained and rendered harmless.

I can even let go of dark thoughts about the blowhards who say something along the lines of "well, if we bomb other countries, support tyrannies and sell them arms, what can we expect? Syrian children die all the time," though I can't help wishing they were made to clear up the blood and broken glass to make them see the reality of what they are so self-righteously dismissing. I mean, what (excuse me) fucking use are such comparisons? A murdered child is a murdered child - anywhere, everywhere.

I can take heart at how well "ordinary" people respond, (let me know if you meet an "ordinary" person, I don't know any such,) and how fast, efficient and brave the emergency services and the police are, faced with such events. (It's only in hindsight that we know there wasn't a second bomb about to go off...)

I'll have to see what I can do in my own mind to reach a wider, more useful sense of compassion. 

I hope all this doesn't just sound like navel-gazing amongst the pain - I think it's worth investigating one's own responses - how about yours? 

But then I think of parents who dropped their children off at a gig, and found out a few hours later that they were blown into pieces.

Forgiveness? Maybe not yet. Maybe not ever, in truth. 

Compassion, in a more general sense? Worth working on. Always.


Monday, 22 May 2017

Can an atheist be a Buddhist?


This man (above) is Doug Smith. In the video I've put at the top, he's a bit headlong, and full of references to Buddhist scriptures which mindfulnessistas with no spiritual or religious attitudes may find a bit tedious. However, the question seems important to me, and he really gets a lot into ten minutes!

Some people who talk to me about meditation "and stuff" describe Buddhism as "just another religion."

Well, it is and it isn't. Or, it can be if you want to worship, but it doesn't have to be if you don't. Ideally flexible, perhaps, for our uncertain times?

This man:

as you can see, profiles practice; Buddhism as something you do to liberate yourself and live more fully and more compassionately, not Buddism as a set of metaphysical beliefs. This book:

 I found really helpful- concise, and mercifully free of complicated Pali/Sanskrit terms. (I'm grateful to all those scholars/writers who have used their tremendous scholarship to interpret ancient Buddhist texts and teachings so we can benefit from them without needing to learn ancient languages and understand polysyllabic terminology! The Interpreters.)

There's no real reason why you can't follow Buddhist precepts and also follow one of the Religions of the Book; there's no reason why you can't do so and be an atheist. Suit yourself.  It's what you do that really matters. (Though in some of the less tolerant versions of the Religions of the Book, you'd best keep quiet about your Buddism - they get very excitable about "heresy.")

This bloke's 

teachings are available to all of us, thanks to the Interpreters. You can worship him, if it suits you - or not. He said to his followers when he was close to death:

"Think not for me. I am gone. Work out diligently your own salvation. Each one of you is just what I am. I am nothing but one of you. What I am today is what I made myself" (i.e. enlightened, liberated, awakened.) 

At least, that's one version, reportedly, of what he said. After all, it was four or five hundred years before Jesus, and there's enough scholarly argument about what Jesus said. In some versions, Buddha said "light your own lamp" or "be your own lamp." Same thing.

But above all, it seems, no claims of supernaturalismo: "I am nothing but one of you." That'll do for me!