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 caf├ęs 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.