Saturday, 25 February 2017

Rynick on Lennon and/not vs Bannon, me on clap-trap

Can't make the hyperlink thingy work, so back to cut and paste:

We might wish we lived in Lennon's world, but we don't. (I really don't want to live in Bannon's world -  a state of affairs he and his C-in-C could bring about, if they're not careful.)

Putting all our identity into opposing something may make us feel better, but what does it change? It empowers that which we are opposed to, because it enlarges its presence in our state of being.

Specific action may change things, though we should be humble enough to admit the probability of unintended consequences. I respond well to those who tell us (in the UK) to stop banging on so much about Trump, it simply strengthens his power over our thinking. Coretta King was right about that psychological process. 

In my darker moments, I find a degree of clap-trap in some left/liberal emanations. "Clap-trap," I've just discovered, is an 18th century expression from the theatre, meaning something superficial which is merely intended to provoke applause. It's a trap for clapping, nothing significant. Easy emotion, easy responses.

There is, I'm sure, a value in an in-group strengthening its own morale. The Natural Voice movement is an example. Many of us enjoy singing songs about harmony across the world, nations will cease to be, we are one people. We aren't, of course, and I can't see any way in which we (human-kind) ever could entirely be so. 

We can sometimes touch the deep things all people share in common, but those things are not to be found in Lennonism, or Bannonism. We can certainly avoid tearing at each other in rage and fear. We can yearn for a more harmonious world in this world, not just in our hearts.

So inevitably there is sometimes a pleasant feeling of claptrappiness about our singing. That's not the same as the powerful communality that comes from singing together, and I believe that communality does change people by pulling them together.

And singing pleasant clap-trap is not the same as, though it might help with, raising money for useful work by singing at events like Sing For Water, Cardiff June 18, London in September. (You don't have to go there and sing, just contribute, please.)

Or The Cold Concert in Bangor Cathedral last night to raise money for people locally without homes - a number which is inexorably and disgracefully rising. In our wealthy-for-some country. And you could say that any clap-trap at that event helped bring the donations in.

It's called the Cold Concert because homeless people get wet and cold in this weather, and because the cathedral is a bloody cold place to sit in for a couple of hours in February - good. A useful reminder. Contribute, and stop whinging, I told myself.

But in the end, real change comes from widening our states of being, understanding others, looking for any common ground for right action, as Rynick (and Ghandi) argue. Real change comes from inner work as well as outer action.

Lennon (particularly with McCartney) was, I think, one of the very few truly original artists of pop, so no disrespect intended to his shade. Nothing wrong with a bit of cosy clap-trap sometimes, so long as we don't mistake that pleasant warmth for the difficult fires of real personal and social change.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

finding a centred view of immigration

I don't usually choose to write directly about political issues of the day - I've other water-courses to watch -  but this passage from a blog I follow, written by a Buddhist teacher, made me stop and think. Ouch. 

It seems to me to find a balance that comes from someone who has meditated and contemplated long and productively.

 "On the immigration issue, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us that the way forward is not to determine who is right, but rather to appreciate the truth in both the conservative and the liberal approaches. The conservative approach honors the challenges of immigration while the liberal view appreciates the value and moral imperative of immigration.
 [nb he's talking about a conservative view, not an extremist, racist one.]
When people with different customs, languages and world-views come into our communities, it reduces our level of social capital. We no longer have the automatic bonds of trust that come from common assumptions and behaviors. We have to work harder to see how our new neighbors are like us. The unconscious signals and meanings, so important to our sense of being at home with each other, have to be consciously recreated."
                                                   David Rynick, at

Debates - arguments - on immigration, whether here or Rynick's USA, are often uncomfortably polarised and sometimes even a bit totalitarian, in a sense. And I'm not just referring to the extreme right.

Many of us are so horrified by the right's views on immigration that we recoil into something that seems to me too abolute. I think that perhaps both statements "I'm against immigration" and "I'm pro-immigration" are pretty useless. 

Rynick's second paragraph is rather more likely to be trashed by people who live in areas with few recent immigrants, than by people who live in areas with recent rapid rates of immigration, and who may not have the cultural and economic resources to be always and entirely welcoming to allcomers from anywhere. 

Research has shown that it is the speed of immigration that above all creates hostile reactions. Perhaps it's easier to feel liberal in a general way about immigration in Llandudno than it is in Boston, Lincs.

This is not to be critical of immigrants themselves. It's about resident populations' responses to their arrival. Surely the only sensible answer to the question "are you in favour of immigration," is - in the interests of immigrants as well as resident populations - "that depends. Sometimes...."

It is ignoring the truths in Rynick's passage that has fuelled the extreme views that are empowering dangerous demagogues.

 Rynick goes on:

"One of the shocks of this election [the US/Russian one...] was the vivid awareness of the many people in this country who clearly don’t feel at home in the same America as I do. The cultural conversations about the unconscious power of racism, classism, misogyny and hetero-normative gender oppression make sense to me and feel to be essentially American. For many others, these conversations are simply for the urban intellectuals who sip skinny soy lattes and profit through the exclusion of everyone who does not live on the coasts or in a city.

It is the sense of alienation, disenfranchisement and fear that we need to address, even as we fight our new President to retain the foundations of our democratic institutions and our common sense of the verifiable realities that we share."

In this instance, i can read UK for USA, substituting "this government" for their alleged president.

Rynick describes travelling widely in the world teaching and leading meditation groups, in which something deeper than cultural and linguistic differences comes into play to hold people together. It takes time and work to create that commonality.

It takes time and work, forethought and expenditure, to truly welcome immigrants so they can make their own way without setting off hostile reactions in the people they want to live among.

Knee-jerk politics and ideological absolutism won't do it, from right or left. 

But I note that Rynick writes of fighting the person who is currently impersonating a US president. He does it through his writings, no doubt through discussions and arguments, and no doubt through the large  numbers of people he has helped to be more calm and compassionate towards anyone and everyone. People like Rynick are anti-demagogues purely through what they are and what they do.

Being compassionate and objective does not mean passive acceptance of whatever happens.

Spiritual generosity* is the missing ingredient, of course, however well-planned and resourced immigration may be. It isn't either of those things at present, which just makes a generous spirit more important than ever.

*  I think I know what I mean, though "spiritual" is still a term which for me is often encumbered by largely irrelevant connotations.)

This satirical "news" article is neither compassionate nor calm, but I'm afraid it appeals to my juvenile sense of humour:

Well, namaste, even to the Tango monster I guess...

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Kornfield on tolerance

"We so easily become judgmental of one another. Sometimes the closer we are to a person, the stronger our judgment and frustration can become. That is why family is one of the final frontiers of spiritual development.

Family is a mirror. In our spouses, our lovers, our parents and children we find our needs and hopes and fears writ large. Intimate relations reach in and touch our history without anesthesia. The wounds we carry, the longings we have to be nourished are right on the table. They need to be respected. That is why even in our own families, to say that we love one another underneath it all is not enough. 

We also need to be tolerant and respectful of one another. And while this is true in our families, it is equally true in the broader family of our society, especially in difficult times.

Tolerance and blamelessness grow when we see the remarkable and strange qualities in each of the lives we touch."


Nothing much to add to that, thanks Jack. You can find the whole blog post here:


beyond concept

"The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless, it is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept." Thomas Merton, "The Hidden Ground of Love."

Ten years ago I'd have been incredulous had you told me that I'd be quoting a Trappist monk in support of the opening words of the Tao Te Ching, words rendered variously as:

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,
The name that can be named is not the eternal name"
                                               Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
"The way that you can go
Isn't the real way
The name you can name
Isn't the real name"
                          Ursula Le Guin


"A Way that can be walked 
       is not The Way
 A name that can be named
       is not The Name"
                       Jonathan Star

That's because I was suffering from either/or.  If it's not from the Far East it's not my kind of nonverbal, mystical insight. If it's written by a Catholic, it'll be Religion, and I don't do Religion.

I still don't, in the sense of e.g. the Christian Catechism, Book of Common Prayer etc, but I do seek insights into...what can't usefully be named.  And I value anything from any faith system or philosophy that helps me towards living with a greater sense of unity with ....

Which is why I meditate, and it's meditation that has broken through either/or thinking in this area and taught me to value what is valuable - whatever it's called.

 (Even the croaks of ravens, see Feb 16th "The Naturalist..." etc.)



The Naturalist, his Ravens, and The Way

To Newborough Forest with The Naturalist, on a very cold but dry day that turned into a beautiful evening.

The Forest is home to a large roost of ravens. It's smaller than it used to be, but still very impressive.

They are in themselves fascinating and impressive creatures. I learned that they are a very succesful, strong and intelligent species, and much besides about how and why they roost as they do, until each of them finds a feeding territory and a mate of their own. 
As always with The Naturalist, this was far from a dry listing of disparate facts. As always, he linked things together - season, weather, time of day, trees, geology, migrations. But what was new to me on this walk was his explanation of the detailed research into the raven roost, in which he clearly played a leading part (not that he would make such a claim for himself!)

On an expedition such as this, it's generally the whole field of understanding that appeals to me; it matches my romantic feelings about landscape and the turning seasons. I'm too lazy to stay long with meticulous detail.

So it's the echoing croak of the ravens coming in to the roost; the last of the light and the gleaming presence of Venus; the faint sighing in the pine trees from the lightest of breezes. That sort of thing, rather than careful investigations. The Naturalist too expresses a strong aesthetic sense, but it stands upon and feeds off a truly remarkable body of knowledge.  It's the sort of knowledge that can lead to wisdom.

Notwithstanding my unscientific approach to the natural world, I did develop a new understanding of the importance of detailed, painstaking and very specific research. If I mention that an important part of The Naturalist's work was analysing the regurgitated pellets round the base of the raven's roosting trees, you'll perhaps see what I mean. 

Apparently, by recording where individual ravens came from around the area, to roost in the Forest at night, and then analysing their pellets, it became evident that one function of the roost was the exchange of information about good feeding areas.

Our insights into the degree of communicative understanding and problem-solving of corvids in general and perhaps ravens in particular has grown rapidly in recent years. No wonder humans can train them to talk; they already do, to each other.

The Naturalist is right there amongst those who have worked to explore such remarkable and inspiring new understandings of the life-forms we share this planet with, and to communicate them exceptionally well, even to an unrigorous dreamer like me.

Here he is, on a different occasion, field glasses at the ready, explaining, informing, inspiring:
I hope I've explained just a little why, on this expedition with The Naturalist, I stood in the forest gloom looking at Venus, my back to a pre-Cambrian rock outcrop, raven's croaks echoing round us, and felt that brief but blessed sense of being at one with Everything, the Everything that mystics have sought to guide us towards. 

Strange that although "the way that can be walked is not The Way," on this occasion the way through the cold dark woods to look at the regurgitations of ravens was, for a few moments (it's always only for a few moments) "the real Way."

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

"will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?" let's hope not...

That's what Henry II was supposed to have cried, about Beckett, and four Norman louts set off to do just that. 

An occasionally turbulent priest who blogs most interestingly gives us another angle on the potentially revolutionary force of spirituality, and I wish him more power to his elbow.

Apparently, according to Peter Sewald, Pope Emeritus (i.e. retired Pope) Benedict “sees his Church as a resistance movement against the bedevilment of this age, against the Godforsakenness of fundamentalist atheism and new forms of paganism.”

Weeping Cross, an Anglican priest blogging at, responds thus:

“This age may be subject to bedevilment, but all ages are: there’s nothing unique about the times in which we find ourselves.

The manifesto of the early Church wasn’t a doctrinal essay but an account of a life, and eventually four mutually-conflicting if complementary accounts of it. None of this was authoritarian or even stable: none of it could easily be corralled into a system... It would always be turbulent, disruptive, no matter what the world around it was like. It would always, will always, demand more than human culture can ever deliver. The Gospel will always be at odds with the age.

Notwithstanding the inescapably disruptive power of the Gospel at its core, the Church has been far from inescapably disruptive. It has crowned and approved of worldly power, used the secular sword to fight its battles and enforce its ideas – and less high-mindedly, its grubby self-interest – and showed only occasional bursts of conscience at its collaboration with the forces that nailed Christ to the cross. It has done very well out of it, thank you. And now, deprived of that long power, for the Church to make a virtue of necessity and suddenly to discover a counter-cultural mission is a bit rich.

One suspects that Benedict (and plenty of other Christians of all sorts of types) only see this age as especially bedevilled because Christians are not in charge of it.”

Wow. And that's a C of E vicar writing.

Leaving aside the claims of immortality and divinity which, to my way of looking at it*, were heaped on his shoulders by those who came after him, Jesus was a turbulent prophet, and paid a terrible price for it.

"The Gospel will always be at odds with the age." As is, surely, any truly contemplative, meditative practice, many insights of the sort usually described as "mystical." If we all lived as Jesus did, as Buddha did, as George Fox did, could our social and economic structures survive? Should they, in any case?

(* nothing very profound or distinctive, largely derived from reading Geza Vermes, "Christian Beginnings.")

New Car Guilt?

 It's a strange thing, having a brand-new car. Our usual policy is to buy nearly new and run the thing into the ground. Apparently, new cars have 50% of their lifetime carbon footprint sitting right there in the showroom. But we were offered a really good deal which meant that for us it was irresistible; the car has a huge guarantee, it is, by repute, very reliable, and we're not, as they say, getting any younger. It was hardly worth buying a nearly new car, at least in financial terms. It might well have been worthwhile in environmental terms.

We console ourselves with the thought that we only run one car, which can be pretty inconvenient, living where we do, but we stick to it. And we hope to run this one until it falls apart, like the last one. Also, being new, it is much more economical to run and much less polluting via the exhaust pipe than our old car. It's not a diesel engine, for starters.

Well, it would be naive to think that any of us have only one agenda when it comes to the environment. But for me, a more interesting strangeness relates to car worship. 

I have always found it too easy to be condescending about petrol heads and their worship of the machine; it is a culturally and environmentally damaging obsession, and it gets into the heads of some people, especially young men, and causes them to kill others and themselves from time to time. 

On the other hand, letting go of striving for the "right" view of owning this car and simply being in the present moment whilst driving it makes you realise what a remarkable machine a modern car is. 

How silly it would be to take that for granted. This humble hatchback, a "small car" in terms of modern definitions, is a much better machine, in practical terms, then the beautiful old monsters I used to worship in my adolescence. I have to say if I were offered an Austin Healey or an Aston Martin now, I would prefer to have our car.
                            (it's an Austin Healey 3000, if you're interested)
 Jeremy Clarkson, high priest of totally irritating petrol heads, actually has it right when he says that we are pretty good nowadays at the old suck squash bang blow, i.e. the internal combustion engine. We are also very good at making cars reliable and comfortable. What we have to do now is to restrain them and limit them more effectively, and I'm not sure Clarkson is any help at all in this task.

If I lived in the pre-car area I might have more time for contemplations and walks because the pace of life was slower but I certainly wouldn't see family and friends as often as I can now. We are where we are - today.

And I will confess secretly here and now that I do like looking at it; it's bright red, for goodness sake!

(this isn't actually our new car)