Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The sacred traffic in the Earl's Court Road.

I find that one way of sensing our unity with the universe- that is, with reaching a sense of in-depth commonality - is to take in the complexity of even the most apparently mundane scene.


We’re walking along a side-street off the Earls Court Road. It’s a grey London morning. You look at a parked car, and think briefly of the complexity of its manufacture, all the physical and chemical actions and reactions ready to burst into action when the driver arrives. 

Think of the cultural associations that went into its design, into even just its name. Think of it two years ago - molten steel being rolled into sheets, plastic dashboard being moulded, computer circuits being set up..this isn't one thing.Think of the car in 20 years' time - a rusting relic, or a cube of scrap steel.  This car is in motion even when its parked. As are we all.

Look up at the large terraces lining the street. Each storey is a flat. Each flat contains a history of arrivals and departures, joys and sorrows. Individuals emerge from the door of just one flat and hurry off towards their work, or school, or....? 

They take with them their stories to date, the stories they are building in their heads, the memories they are dwelling on, remoulding and changing them in the moment.

Here’s one of those lovely large London plane trees, just beginning to shed its leaves, moving into its autumn, maybe a little earlier than some of the other trees, a little later than some. Every tree varies, is unique, yet we can name it as a type of tree. Think of all that photosynthesis, water being drawn up the trunk, insects living in the tree far above the busy street.

We turn into Earls Court Road itself...the traffic is a loud discombobulating torrent.

You think you know the Earls Court Road. You don’t, even if you’ve lived in the area all your life. You don’t completely know anything, because to do so would tie it down to one time and place. The river of traffic in the road - a cliché but a useful metaphor if it reminds us that the road is a slower version of the traffic thundering along it. It is all processes,  not separate things.

People from the flats go their separate ways. You and I part, you to the Undergound station and thence wherever you need to get to, building your own changing story of today. 

I walk on, remembering that I’m not the same person who left the hotel ten minutes ago. All is change, all is in motion; feeling that, the traffic seems a little more bearable, part of the unique present moment that goes as soon as it arrives. 

Like that damned great truck. I need to stop musing and concentrate on crossing the road, or - squelch. I would become a quite different set of processes!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Attending to inner struggles

It's about accepting instead of fighting the conflicts within ourselves. There's a meditation text embedded in it.

You might find it helpful/useful

Goodbye and thank you Aretha

Perfomers I've admired all my life keep pegging out on me. I guess that's what happens as you get older - if you're lucky enough to stick around long enough. Oldies like me, we all have our own individual lists, I'm sure. But...

Goddammit, she was good. 
OK, some of the comparative statements in tributes are ludicrous. "The greatest singer ever.." "Maria Callas and her..." Really, what's the point? She was herself.
Someone put his finger right on it. She carried forward in her voice the power of Afro-American suffering and hope, as it was realised in southern church music. Like Ray Charles, her voice brought gospel and blues together. Some churchgoers disapproved of soul music for that very reason - they felt that sort of yearning passion was only for church. 
Soul music, the great secularizer of religious passion. No wonder she brought Obama to tears.
Soul music of her time can sound simple and repetitive in its sturctures and riffs. A lot of modern pop/rock music is much more varied and sophisticated. And that's part of the point. Simplicity. For me, it's the voice. She is singing directly and only to each of us - a quality only really great performers have. Ella Fitzgerald, say, or Miles Davis middle period.

And my, doesn't Aretha build it and take it on out? Listen, if you will, to the studio recording of "Respect" - such a powerful arrangement, great musicians, great backing singers. Then watch this 1967 live recording. The sound is really poor, the spirit triumphant. She's preaching. The audience are gone. Me too.



Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A sacred connection via Stuart A Kauffman

I think I am beginning to find what I’m looking for, though it won’t stay still when I find it. That’s because I’m not a thing that stays still - none of us are, we just look as though we are, or wish we were, staying still. Since we are processes in time, then, whatever we’re looking for will change as we do. We create meanings, and they change with us.

So what am I engaged in? I think it resembles what very many people are engaged in.

I’m looking for a profound connection, a sense of the sacred that I can live with for the rest of my days, that will make me feel part of more than “getting and spending.”

Maybe I’m looking for a Way to Sacredness. (I’ll get back another time to what “sacred” might mean in this context, but I don’t simply mean discovering or re-discovering the beliefs needed to follow a single codified religion.)

And I’m grappling with a book that seems to me very important to anyone who needs to know what life itself is, how it evolved: “Re-inventing The Sacred,” by Stuart A. Kauffman. 

I do wish he’d called it “Re-discovering the Sacred,” because I don’t think any of us can invent the sacred. It’s there all the time, ready for us. But never mind.

Kauffman is a scientist, a cellular biologist of real distinction. The book is based on scientific thought and discovery, and that is why I’m finding it so valuable. It looks as though Kauffman is going to take care of that end of my search - to find a sense of the sacred that can be reconcilable with scientific discovery, and with the rational mindset that most of us are brought up in.

I know lots of people don’t need any help with overcoming my “either/or” hangup about science and spirituality, they can be scientists and yet have some spiritual faith or other. e.g. Einstein himself. But I do need some help, and I’m hugely grateful to Kauffman, and to an old and special friend of mine who put me on to him, a friend who first dropped into my awareness the phrase “the emergent properties of complex systems.” 

If you want to know how I felt at that moment, and in further discussions with J., and when I read Kauffman -  see Keats’ sonnet “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer.” Me, I’m stout Cortes.

I've found Kauffman’s book to be alternately very clear, and then pretty tough for a non-scientist, and then clear to me again. I’m going to try to write out my view of some of the most important things, for me, that I’m finding out from him. Extreme folly I’m sure, and I might ask friend J to put me right as I stumble along my Way.

So: more on Kauffman another time.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Ishmael's vision of the sea

In my last post, I referred to the opening of "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville. Here it is. I'd never noticed the last sentence below, even though it's a theme I often return to.

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. 

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 

This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs- commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling And there they stand- miles of them- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets avenues- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Once more. 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. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever."


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Ah no, the years O

Here's a beautiful and terrifying poem. But it could jolt, or help, us into working at a better understanding and acceptance of our own mortality. That's a big journey to embark on - bon voyage. 

"During Wind and Rain" by Thomas Hardy
They sing their dearest songs—
       He, she, all of them—yea,
       Treble and tenor and bass,
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

       They change to a high new house,
       He, she, all of them—aye,
       Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
       And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years; 
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

TS Eliot and Donald Rumsfeld

In our meditation group the other day, we had some poetry read aloud to us. We often do - either poetry as a gateway to meditation, or poetry about meditative states- stuff we can feel and learn from.

TS Eliot, then, excerpts from "Four Quartets."

 "In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
       You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
       You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
       You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not."

I think here he is writing about a state of being that is ultimately indescribable. It is only routes to it that can be verbalised, not the state itself, the "still point of the turning world." Paradox is useful, as in koans and various zen stories, to break the mind out of customary linear and rational thinking patterns.

 What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. 

This can't be literally true, unless you believe in an afterlife, or re-incarnation, but it perhaps helps us escape from our usual linear sense of time unfolding, the world "progressing," into something more cyclical. Time, some physicists are now telling us, doesn't exist, all that exists is entropy. In cycles, presumably, or how come death and decay are preceded by birth, whether of a baby,  a broad bean or a star?

 We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—

So mostly we get hints, "half-heard," and there is no "stillness between two waves of the sea," it is always moving. There is no still point round which the world turns, the point itself moves - but I'm being literal again, and what's the use of poetry of it's only going to be literally, rationally valid? The stillness between two waves of the sea is, I'm sure now, what draws me back again and again to be in the moment on the sea-shore - and millions of us feel the same, however unconsciously. See the opening page of "Moby Dick."

It was agreed by those present that the first passage was, er, challenging. Good, I think we're not gathering only to relax. 

One of us said it reminded him of Donald Rumsfeld, and his known unknowns. I'd never before seen Rumsfeld as a mystic, there's a new perspective on US foreign policy....

We had a good discussion about "words, words, words..." and what of us is verbal. Then another short meditation. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

meditative poems and "poems"

Some poems that are offered to meditators don't seem to me to be poems, that is, they haven't got the compression of language and spark of meaning that makes a "real" poem. Still, they can be very helpful.

These "poems" and poems were read to our meditation group yesterday. We found them helpful, in varying ways and to varying degrees.

First of all, practical thoughts about not beating yourself about the ears if you striving to be elsewhere because think you are not meditating "well" or "properly:"

The Pith Instruction

The pith instruction is, Stay...stay...just stay.
Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog.
If we train a dog by beating it, we'll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused.
By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn't become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.
So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to "stay" and settle down.
Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay!
Discursive mind? Stay!
Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay!
Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay!
What's for lunch? Stay!
What am I doing here? Stay!
I can't stand this another minute! Stay!
That is how to cultivate steadfastness.

                               by Pema Chodron

Which leads quite nicely into: 
“Forget about enlightenment.
Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, and the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be.
Not the saint you’re striving to become.
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
All of you is holy.
You’re already more and less
Than whatever you can know.
Breathe out, touch in, let go.”
                                    John Welwood

 We lack specific words in English for various kinds of love. The ancient Greeks had several such words. This next poem seems to me to be about compassion, about true connection, nurturing. It perhaps follows on from the advice in the first two on being g entle with youself:

Admit Something

Everyone you see, you say to them,
Love me.
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
To connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to Hear.

By: Hafiz

Helen M Luke wrote a wonderful little book called simply "Old Age." Here, her wisdom as a Jungian analyst takes her into our area of interest:

"We hurry through the so-called boring things
in order to attend to that which we deem
more important, interesting.
Perhaps the final freedom will be a recognition that
everything in every moment is "essential"
and that nothing at all is "important."

By Helen M. Luke

Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet, on fine bossy form here. We threaten ourselves with death? H'mmm:

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves
with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

By: Pablo Neruda

Many know Mary Oliver's work, if they have taken a mindfulness course, and I'm sure many who haven't still value her as much as I do:  

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

By Mary Oliver

May all those words help you to this place:

I’ll Meet You There
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When we lie down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

By: Rumi

being beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing surely doesn't mean anything goes, it doesn't mean escaping the gruesome choices of politics or the difficulties of ethics in our social lives; it simply means that for a while, maybe at least once each day, we have to look within and leave those states of mind in which we polarise, separate, judge - or create - the "Other," and feel some unity with the ground of our being, that of us which is not conceptual or time-torn.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Puppy in springtime

Today is the vernal equinox, and therefore often described as the first day of spring. It was also the day on which our puppy cleared her second vaccination release date into the big wide world.

 We took her to a little bit of beach nearby. Just think of the impact that all must have had on her, after nothing but house and garden all her life. Huge range of new smells (they see through their noses, don't they?) and sights and sounds, and a vast and puzzling new thing - looks like water but doesn't taste right, makes a totally new sound, and it keeps moving, and...

 it's all overwhelmingly wonderful.

I was reminded of Prospero's response, in "The Tempest," when Miranda says: 

"O brave new world, that hath such people in it." 

She's just met the first human beings she has ever met, apart from her father, who says simply: 

"'tis new to thee." 

That line can express an exhausted, hard-bitten view of human society (after all it's done to him) or it can be a sweetly poignant recognition of all his daughter has before her, still to explore and experience - all the delights and despairs of life in the material world, all the pain he won't be able to shield her from, with no Ariel at his service.

The puppy faces none of this. She is entirely and absolutely in the moment; no preconceptions or projections into her future, no sense, even, of what that might be.

We're people, not puppies, with all the splendour and agony that offers us. But how good for us sometimes to see the world as the puppy does today - in the present entirely, full of wonder.

Mind you, sometimes she needs to get close to a reassuringly familiar presence, amidst this vast newness!

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Clumsy breakfast-times

Always lots to do in this life, so, eager to get the day going, I can be (usually am) clumsy around getting breakfast. Drop stuff (aren't pan-lids fun first thing?) absent-mindedly hurry on, get wrong jar out of the fridge. Etbloodycetera.

It's caused by haste, and an accompanying mild tension.  Mind not on the task, being not with the present but hanging between present which will not take care of itself if I'm not there (toast will burn) and future which doesn't actually exist yet anyway.

We've got a new puppy; she stopped trying to chew up the entire kitchen this morning and settled down for a nap. That's a nice break for both of us.

I moved slowly round the kitchen, carefully and deliberately, so as to keep quiet. I found I was actually rather enjoying getting breakfast ready; no tension at all. I stayed with the slower-than-usual movements, watched my hands doing things carefully and competently.

It took me maybe 15 or 20% longer than usual. Or maybe not. I didn't drop anything, didn't stop to swear because I'd managed to get the lime pickle out instead of the marmalade, etbloodtcetera.

Better quality doing. Stay in what I'm doing, be with the movements.

Simple enough, I guess. Haste and mindful calm are obviously incompatible. Festina lente, as the Romans used to say (I was told a long time ago.) Hurry slowly. More haste less speed. But it's better than merely being efficient, because I enjoyed my breakfast-time a lot more than usual.

The puppy didn't wake up till I'd finished eating. I didn't drop anything.

Here endeth the pan-lid sutra/parable.

(fair enough, you can't boil an egg out there, but I expect he's had his mindful brekafast already)

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Ursula K Le Guin

I'm paying  my respects to a literary hero of mine, who died last week. I'll start with the 'science fiction' novels, of which I've read City of Illusions, The Lathe of Heaven, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Disposessed, plus a few stories. And now I'm rereading some of them.

First thing to say is that she preferred to be seen simply as a novelist; she tried to avoid the genre trap, but also questioned the whole idea of "literary" science fiction, which was sometimes applied to her work. (If it's a book, it's, in the largest sense, 'literary,' but I can see what people meant. She writes so very well.) 

 "People who don't worry at least a little about semi-colons aren't likely to be writers." She wrote a lot of interesting essays about writing and creativity.

 What she wrote were simply, novels and stories. Generally about places and states of being that don't exist, i.e. imagined worlds - like any novelist, whether the imaginings are located in Camden and Dundee, or the planet Anarres and our planet in the future.

What marks her out for me is her ability to bring ideas to life - political ideas (especially in The Disposessed), scientific ideas (brain wave manipulation in The Lathe of Heaven) and ideas about gender and sexuality (The Left Hand of Darkness.) 

Her science fiction has little or nothing in it of cops and robbers in space; no violence for its own sake, only as needed by the plot, and not dwelt upon. She created worlds in which she could work out her ideas and themes, and set her well-drawn characters amongst them. My guess is she needed the total control of an imagined world to do that; she wouldn't want readers distracted by thoughts such as "would they really say that on the BBC?" Or "but that subway station closed years ago."

She was an anarchist - she liked to explore the possibilities and consequences of anarchism, to keep the idea and the vision alive, as she did in The Disposessed. But she never resorted to black hats versus white hats. The society on the anarchist planet Annares suffers from problems and shortcomings not experienced by those on its twin, the capitalist Urras - and vice versa. She shows us her understanding that humans are not perfectable, but they can do perfect things, sometimes.

She was also a Taoist, which meant she knew the value of doing less or doing nothing when that is the best thing to do:

“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”         (from The Left Hand of Darkness)

 She published her own version of the foundation text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching. 

She was an environmentalist, who gave us, a long time before things got to their present pass, some terrifying images of exhausted resources and polluted ecosystems.

And she was a feminist, who wrote this to women (to all of us): 
“Now this is what I want: I want to hear your judgments. I am sick of the silence of women. I want to hear you speaking all the languages, offering your experience as your truth, as human truth, talking about working, about making, about unmaking, about eating, about cooking, about feeding, about taking in seed and giving out life, about killing, about feeling, about thinking; about what women do; about what men do; about war, about peace; about who presses the buttons and what buttons get pressed and whether pressing buttons is in the long run a fit occupation for human beings. There’s a lot of things I want to hear you talk about.

This is what I don’t want: I don’t want what men have. I’m glad to let them do their work and talk their talk. But I do not want and will not have them saying or thinking or telling us that theirs is the only fit work or speech for human beings. Let them not take our work, our words, from us. If they can, if they will, let them work with us and talk with us. We can all talk mother tongue, we can all talk father tongue, and together we can try to hear and speak that language which may be our truest way of being in the world, we who speak for a world that has no words but ours."
                                                        (from her 1986 commencement address to Bryn Mawr College)
If that doesn't fill you up or make you want to cheer, check your pulse.

And then there is her best-known work, her fantasy novels for children/young people (actually, for any of us who value such things.) The Wizard of Earthsea, originally a trio but eventually extending to six stories. Here she creates a world in which there are dragons and other fabulous creatures, without ever resorting to the tedious villains vs good guys binary vision of Tolkien and his army of followers. (There are dragons, magic and wizards in Earthsea, but no goody-goody bloody perfect elves!) She wrote about a school for wizards long before Harry Potter, but placed it in its own unique moral, mythical and physical world - no warmed-over British public schools, dorm jests and meal-time naughtiness. Her stories can be dark at times, and tough, but never morally easy or confusing. They are good to grow up with, I'd imagine.

Someone (more than one, I'm sure) asked her once if she minded JK Rowling having nicked her idea. Le Guin said words to the effect that there was no point in worrying about such things, that when you write your ideas float off and live where they can, and in a way it was a kind of compliment. Some writers might have consulted lawyers - Rowling is a very rich woman (good luck to her, too) - but no lawyers for Le Guin. She was a truly free spirit.

 Thank you.

Monday, 29 January 2018

A Sense of the Mysterious - Still Looking... 2

I've been looking at a book for many months, thinking "must get to that..." It looks good. "The Upright Thinkers," Leonard Mlodinow.

The epigraph to chapter one:

"The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion, as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind." 

Who wrote this?  A New Age guru? Someone who commutes between Glastonbury, Totnes and Findhorn according to the phases of the moon?

By the time he wrote this, in 1932, he had developed the special and general theories of relativity, and predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which were only confirmed a year and a half ago.

The sense of the mysterious is an infinitely valuable thing, thought the man who turned physics on its head.

I'm with Albert. 

(I'm sure he'd have been relieved to know that.)
 (We'll let his exclusively male statements go by - they are of the time.) 


Saturday, 27 January 2018

a noisy meditation

We've often observed, in our meditation group, that there is no point in regarding extraneous sounds as intrustions, as disturbance to our peaceful meditative atmosphere. Note and be with the sounds, make them part of the present in which you are meditating, might be the advice - perhaps from an unusually self-righteous teacher! Still, good advice. Easier advice to follow with the sound of birds' feet on the roof, or a strong wind. But industrial noise levels?

Next door are having their cobbled outside area pressure-washed today, and the guys are using the noisiest compressor in the history of the world. For a moment, I thought it was an angle-grinder. Perhaps a bass one. We decided to go out in order to escape it, but first I wanted a short meditation.

 So I setled me down to meditate, thinking "wonder if this is hopeless?" It really was a loud and monotonous noise.

No problem, to my surprise. Didn't even have to work at concentrating on it or ignoring it. It was simply - there. 

Maybe regular meditation can actually make us better at accepting what is happening now, rather than wanting it to be different, wanting to move on to the next thing. If so, it worked this morning.

So I stayed with the noise. Only difficulty was, when it stopped. The sudden quiet came crashing in.

But it was, of course, nice when it stopped.

Friday, 26 January 2018

"We must admit there will be music despite everything."

Excerpts from "A Brief for the Defence" by WS Merwin
(thanks, Annee.)
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants....
                                                     The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
                                           From REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005

Some things don't resonate for me - "what God wants..." when the only God I can relate to is nonhuman, so doesn't "want" - though I follow the poet into the idea of praising the Devil (as a symbol for evil in the world) if we make injustice the only measure of our attention. That's an important insight.

None of this stops us trying to do something about sorrow, slaughter and malnourished babies - but if our attention to the wrongs and evils of the world takes us over, we are in deep trouble, and those who suffer get nothing from our despair. From our delight, from our enjoyment, comes the sense of values and contrasts that enables us to take useful action in the social sphere. 

And so, of course, the poem reminds us to seek to live in the present moment and to act from it.

"We must admit there will be music despite everything."

There was music in Terezin transit camp - not, as in Auschwitz, to keep time as the slaves were marched to work, or to deceive inmates about the true nature of the place, but for its own sake. Despite everything. Despite the fact that what they were in transit to, from Terezin, meant that most of them eventually died. But before then - there was music.

Olivier Messaien wrote his "Quartet for the End of Time" in a prisoner-of-war camp. The quartet was premiered at the camp, on a bitterly cold night 15 January 1941, in an unheated space. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. The cello was bought with donations from camp members. Messiaen later recalled: 'Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.'

flat on my back, not really meditating, when...

 In a meditation session, our minds rest with the breath, or areas of the body, or ..whatever it is we are using to centre ourselves. But our minds move away into linked chains of memories, or anticipations and fantasies, or - well, if you meditate you'll know the stuff. So we are taught to bring our consciousness gently back to the breath, or whatever we're using...

It's been frequently observed  that one difficulty with discrete meditation sessions can be that we try too hard - "how can I get back to that wonderful feeling of being here and now and only here and now?" (Not that we ever can, in any real sense, "get back" to anything - time's arrow moves in only one direction.) "How can I stop my mind wandering away from the breath?" And the harder you try, the harder it gets.

And meditators can often feel self-critical because they feel they were "drifting off,"  "not concentrating," "letting my thoughts run away with themselves." The "I'm useless at meditating, must try harder " treadwheel.
 Perhaps these feelings are endemic in discrete sessions "on the cushion" (chair, stool etc) exactly because sesssions can seem special, apart, to one side of daily life. 

I should try to remember two things; it was John Peacock who first made it clear to me that having the mind wander off, and gently returning it to the present moment, is all part of meditating, it is not some shameful failure of mind! And secondly, that it's not helpful to feel that being mindful is only a product of discrete meditation sessions.

This morning, I was doing the few simple Pilates-based exercises I use each morning. These are to stop my back throwing in the towel too far in advance of the rest of me. 

 it's probably needless to say that this lissome young fellow is not me, and I was on the carpet at home, not on the grass surrounded by flowers.

Lying on my back, I finished with a big stretch, then relaxed - and with no bidding or effort felt -  It. Being entirely and only present. No effort preceeded it, no thought in particular led to it. 

Maybe it was having being bodily aware of the various quite small and focused movements needed for the Pilates, letting my mind stay with them. Maybe it was the contrast between the effort required, followed by the abrupt release of effort and muscular tension.

It didn't last long, It never does, but It'll be back, perhaps when I'm on my back, perhaps when I'm walking along the top lane, perhaps when I'm in session.

 Doesn't really do to analyse It too much, I'm just grateful for It's arrival, and will try to arrange myself, in whatever posture and location seem propitious, to encourage Its arrival.

"Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time..." 
                                  (TS Eliot, Burnt Norton)

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

"I still haven't found what I'm looking for," not quite...

I want to feel in touch with, part of, something so vast we might as well call it omnipotent, all powerful. It seems likely to me that all of us need this or something like it, but I don't want this is to read like a sermon or a bossy directive so I will simply write in terms of what I need.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;”

I take the poet to be saying that we don’t much feel part of Nature, in the sense that it is ours and we are its.

There are powerful polarising forces in our culture, and I'm not just talking about politics. For example, we tend to feels that someone who is troubled, as Wordsworth was, by the materialistic excesses of our choice-driven culture necessarily wants to turn away from the material world, maybe to live on top of a mountain in China. 

Well that's not me; our technological culture is rich in benefits for nearly all of us - let's take that as read. But I do believe too often we lay waste our powers with endless fussing about insignificant differences between one consumer good or one experience, and another. We haven't got much of a frame against which to set the glittering lure of everything the marketing industry has created to draw us towards products and experiences. 

It’s too easy to think that expressing our individual selves through choice and consumption is all we need to do for a happy life. In any case, as long as 1% of the world’s population owns - what is it Oxfam said? 80%? - of the world’s wealth, and we know that fact, how can pure materialism feel like a satisfying way to live? (We really do need to do something about that 1%, but that’s not my brief here.)

You might justifiably object that there are still very many people in the West who follow a religious teaching, and those teachings are frequently critical of materialism as an end in itself. So there are and so they do. 

Some of those teachings seem to me socially benevolent and supportive of individual calm and well-being. Others, by their self-righteous exclusion of everything they disagree with, are the reverse of calm and benevolent, as far as most of us are concerned. 

And they are occasionally socially toxic and physically dangerous; but let's not get into the wearisome argument between pro and anti-Dawkins - are religious people or atheists more likely to be wicked? Crusaders and jihadists vs Mao and Stalin. Since almost all of us are neither, let’s take something else as read: it’s what individuals do with their beliefs that ultimately matters, much more than the beliefs themselves.

It would be so much simpler to be a devout Christian or a gentle Muslim, but that may not really do for those of us who can't accept the demands of faith in supernatural beings. 

Although I think we do in the west exaggerate the importance of belief over practice, and although I can see the potentially  supportive nature of regular religious observance, this whole area of life is too important to me for any faking or wishful thinking, and that’s what I’d be doing if I started saying a "Hail Mary, Full of Grace." We can't unknow what we think we know - unless it is shaken to bits by something else.

Gradually, bit by bit, that shaking has been an uncomfortable but rewarding part of my living. It is leading me away from either total belief in a major religion, or a purely rationalist, materialist understanding of our world.

One thing remains firm and clear, for me at least: omnipotence cannot be anthropomorphic. God cannot have a human face or any human attributes. So I need to keep looking.

Someone once wrote that people who are happy with a religious faith and regular observance can expect a calmer and happier time of it than those who are working things out for themselves in what is called "A spiritual path.” (Sorry about that clumping great modern cliche!) The path-seekers will have a lonely, restless time of it.

So be it.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Meaning of Christmas?

One answer would be that it means whatever we want it to mean, but that's a little too easy, for something so powerful, even when it is not acknowledged to be so.

For a declining but still substantial number of us, it is simply the story of the start of the Incarnation, Word made Flesh. The story, to be found in Matthew and Luke, is literally true, for such people. (Mark and John don't mention it.) Angels from the realms of glory, a virgin birth, shepherds and Herod, the whole thing. It happened, just as the Battle of Actium or the Act of Union happened.

At the other end of the scale, there's the entirely commercial and secular view; a chance to  buy and sell, to eat and drink stuff we don't usually eat and drink, and to get presents (OK, to give them, too.) 

My feeling is that a lot of us are in the middle. It's a tremendously powerful myth, a midwinter (almost) celebration that brings family and friends together. But there's more. There is something strong and special about this - the serenity, the idea of light and hope at the darkest time of the year. "In The Bleak Midwinter..."

And for many of us, these powerful feelings seem to survive horrible journeys in horrible weather,  gruesome presents from irritating relatives, and all the other usual seasonal grumbles with which people like to shield themselves from the idea of giving in to a little joy.

But one casualty of the modern Christmas, other than the New Year's Eve drunks being wiped down and sewn up in A&Es across the land, is the idea of the Twelve Days of Christmas, of Christmas as a season, not just a weekend. It vanishes into sales, measurements of how well The High Street did, trade figures and news of dreadful but relatively small-scale events here and elsewhere - events that happen all the time, but they are usually covered over by The News. Well, The News must go on being reported, even when there isn't much News, so: how about an unusually vile murder?

So: hooray for Twelfth Night, for Epiphany and the Kings. Next Christmas, let's try to keep that special feeling running until at least the day after Twelfth Night! 

In this spirit, then, Threnody will be learning "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and singing it in parts.