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!


Friday, 19 May 2017

Old Joe's Old Chair: time past, time present

Over 40 years ago we lived in Suffolk. In a village 25 minutes' drive away lived Old Joe and his sister Rose. Joe was an osier, that is, he made baskets out of willow canes. ("Osier" just means "willow," of a certain sort.) Beautiful baskets, light, strong, in subtle natural colours. 

He showed us how he soaked them (horrible cold dirty-looking water in a big tin bath arrangement) to make them flexible. He had strong hands that worked quickly and firmly, but showed the wear and tear of his trade. His outdoor workspace was - rough and ready, to put it gently.

Joe and Rose lived in what at a safe distance looked like a picturesque thatched cottage. It was...not in good nick. Inside, it was a bit of a jumble, but no doubt it was how they liked it. It could have been called "a bit of a slum" by an outsider driving past.
 This sort of thing - but this isn't Joe's place.

Perhaps it's now a second home, cleaned out, done up to the nines, owned by someone wealthy.

It looked as though they lived on very little - certainly, his baskets were good value given the hours he put into them. They had a sturdy, hand-made look to them, not like the uniform, smooth mass-produced and mostly imported baskets that I would guess put Joe out of business a long time ago.

Joe had a little high voice and a very strong Suffolk accent. He wore a grubby old fawn mac tied up with string. We told him the name of the village where we lived. "I bin there once!" he squeaked. "Man on the beach there selling...oranges and...apples..." 

For a moment, it sounded as exotic as it must have looked to Joe, all of nine miles away from his cottage.

Joe and Rose seemed uncompromisingly "authentic." They weren't part of any heritage industry. I never saw any kind of advertising - you went there because someone told you about it. They seemed living relics from an ancient rural past.

Joe agreed to make us a willow-cane chair; a new task to him, but he reckoned if he made an oddly-shaped basket, turned it over and fitted a back and sides, it would work. He gave it thought, and a lot of care.

It worked. It was very light, and it creaked delightfully every time you moved in it. It seemed like an artefact from a different century (we weren't especially keen on aspects of our century back then.) It was wide enough to sit in with a guitar. It was entirely unique. Old Joe's chair.
Joe's chair, I found recently, was full of woodworm, and the rats had got at it. It had to go.

It made me sad, and yet I had hardly used it for years - decades. It wasn't really all that comfortable, though lovely to look at. 

But it was so much of its time, that time in our lives. A new baby, new friends who are now now old friends, folk music, Barsham Fair, Sandy Denny solo at the Ipswich Corn Exchange - I've an additional big nostalgic name checklist I'm not going to drop on you.

Rose died soon after we left Suffolk, and since she kept Joe going, ran the house and so on, I don't like to think how his final years might have been. 

Nothing is constant in this universe, except change. We're all nomads. Old Joe's gone, and now so has his chair, a link between our garden now and our garden then, our lives now and our lives then.

Trying to hold on to the past just makes it hurt more. I have to allow my nostalgic sadness, not try to squash it. I have to be with those feelings, in the present. 

And I have to take the chair to the tip.   

But I won't forget Joe and Rose.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Change, Now, change

You could say that the point about each of us being a strand in a family/community story (my last post) is another demonstration of "dependent origination" (ugh! jargon, sorry.)

There is nothing constant and unchanging. Everything comes from something else, and will become something else. Eliot:

"In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto."

If we can accept this, then surely we can belong, be a part of it, stop struggling fruitlessly to hold on to the uncatchable Now.

This seems mightily obvious to you, I daresay - yet it's so easy to ignore or forget it.

We spend a lot of time trying to drink clear soup with a fork. 

Ancestry from "Windermere diaries," and loneliness

From "Windermere Diaries:"

"I can’t even begin to tell you the stories that have been aired today, memories of our own childhood, and stories of my grandmother’s childhood, unimaginably painful little tragedies and kindly souls and scandal and heartbreak and cheerfulness. It is lovely to see my own little life as just one bit in a long onward story, of good times and bad times, and people just quietly getting on with doing the best they could."

Perhaps one reason (or bag of reasons) why many of us sometimes feel isolated and powerless, why individual identity is both so important and so frequently in crisis, is because we don't do enough of what the Windermere crew quoted above are doing.

The pressures of our highly individualised culture - the song of "me," the personalisation we are encouraged to reinforce, the multitude of choices we can make every day, even about trivial matters - can make us feel unique, and uniquely alone. I must strengthen my feeling of uniqueness, in case I simply erode away in the tide of FacetwitGramtext clamour, the assaults of TV advertising.

Well, each of us is unique, but each of us is not only a single integer, stranded in space and time. I've often banged on here about the ways in which it is possible to feel one and the same with the rest of the universe around us. (One of the fruits of meditation/prayer.) 

Windermere's point is different, but related.

We come from and belong to families. Feelings of rootlesness may account for the huge upsurge in the last few decades in the number of people researching their origins. 
 and it's not all as daft as this!
Of course, families can be the source of strife and misery as well as love and support, but my point here is rather broader than the emphasis on one's immediate family alone.

"It is lovely to see my own little life as just one bit in a long onward story, of good times and bad times, and people just quietly getting on with doing the best they could." 

 That's the point. Our stories interweave and roll forward. We are special and unique, at the same time as being simply part of many stories, that go back in time getting fainter and fainter, and will go forward in time, getting fainter and fainter... It's one of the many ways we belong.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Differentiation and separateness, loneliness and togetherness

Long absence from me blog - much on, and a bit of a lapse in faith in the value of my blogging. Still, here we go again...

We are highly differentiated matter. We start as two cells and very rapidly become more complex and differentiated. Some bits of us are a liver, other bits an ear or an optic nerve. That’s how we are, in ourselves. But maybe we over-differentiate ourselves from everything else around us.

Difficulties – unhappinesses–arise when we feel ourselves to be totally different, entirely separate from everyone else, from the rest of life on the planet, from the planet itself and the universe it moves with. An ultimate loneliness, you might say.

Then the time comes, relatively gradually for many of us, mercifully abruptly for others, when the energy which sustains this differentiation dies away, and so do we. We are then still matter, but a lot less differentiated, no longer a set of processes working together.

All of this is also valid for living creatures in general, but there’s one big difference: we know this last dissociation is going to happen, not only knowing it just before it happens (a gazelle when a cheetah lands on its back) but for most of our lives. Our consciousness of ourselves as differentiated, as a self separate from everything else, knows it.

Much in our cultures and ways of life at present strengthens our sense of being a separate self, a differentiated ego. I’m not sure we could survive in our world, as we’ve adapted it, without this ego.

We even differentiate between our egos (our minds) and our bodies. I think for much of my life I semi-consciously regarded my body as what I made use of to cart my brain around. 

Now I have slowed down and calmed down (relatively speaking!) I am able feel much more strongly that I am one set of systems encompassing toenails, eyeballs, brain – areas of the same thing. I have come to feel that there isn’t a “mind/body problem.” That dualism is the fault of Descartes and his "I think, therefore I am." I wish he'd said "I am, and I think. It's part of what I am."

Recent reports about the way our guts (literally speaking) are part of how we feel and think support this conception. We're a lot more than the tightly focused, reasoning consciousness that I guess Descartes was referring to. Much of our brain's activity is below the radar of our reasoning minds.
That’s not to deny that consciousness is a fascinatingly complex and problematical phenomenon - philosophically, psychologically and physically. What's the difference between a mind and a brain, between me and someone else, headwise?

I think it was Dennet who explained that a brain is a thing in a body, much resembling other brains, whereas a mind, a unique set of procedures and processes, is what a brain does. A brain is, a mind does. 

A car is a set of mechanical and electronic systems, but it’s not a journey. A journey is what a car does. A mind is bound to be unique, because it is formed by a brain out of an individual set of life circumstances and genetic inheritaces.

But if my mind is unique (just as well, I might think, on a bad day!) that doesn't mean I'm uniquely alone in the universe. That horrible, crushing, depressive feeling seems to me to be a dangerous illusion.

In the book from his TV show "The Brain," David Eaglemann makes the point that our networks of neurons are so much linked in with other people's networks of neurons, that we (homo sapiens) could be seen as one huge network. 

And I guess the more we internet each other, the truer that becomes - for better or worse, because the internet also creates "the other," s/he who must be opposed. Just look at Fkbook at election time!

So each of us is unique, but none of us is truly alone in the universe. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, drives my green age." 

We belong to each other. 
We are of and in each other.
We are of and in "IT" (everything else.)