Wednesday, 8 March 2017

"Morbid" thought for the day?

I don't think it is morbid to write about human mortality, and how our understanding of it affects the nature of our living.

Anyway, here is my Thought for the Day: There has been a lot written about near-death experiences. I don't mean narrow squeaks - you've probably had one of those on one of our roads. I mean people who flat-lined and were brought back to tell us about their mental and emotional states. People who lay dying and to some degree conscious until intervention saved them. 

(drum-roll, please)

Life itself is a near-death experience.

There you are. That's it.

Not because, or not only because, it is in physical terms more fragile and vulnerable than we sometimes like to pretend- in our part of the world, at least.

Because  we are substances that are energised into processes that live and then dissipate into other energies and processes. Former process = conception and birth, latter we call death.

That doesn't mean to say death isn't a huge mystery. But acknowledging that mystery, that power; living with death-awareness in your life; understanding and feeling the indissoluble nature of that relationship - I find that helps. It illuminates and enhances living, and helps us move towards the end of life. At least, that's what I'm finding.

Health warning - it's almost fashionable these days to write about death, funerals, grieving...I don't see that as the same as living in full awareness of the nature of life and death. It can be helpful, or it could be a subsitute for the Real Thing.

There are people who seem to live on outside of any sort of death awareness, and then keel over. Which they would need to do if their perceptions about living and dying were not to be rudely adjusted. By a lengthy terminal illness, for example.

I think for most of us, developing a relationship with the reality of our deaths is valuable and necessary as we grow older, if we are to live fully and well into old age.

There are, of course, limits. During a very busy period of my work as a funeral celebrant, I was reading bits of "The Tempest" again, following the live screening of the RSC's superb production. 

I reached Prospero's lines about going home to Milan and retiring, and he says "when every third thought shall be my grave," I caught myself thinking "only every third? Lucky old sod." 

H'mmm. Time for a rest and a little less work.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Buddhist terminology, Buddhist jargon

There are two Buddhist concepts that seem immensely valuable to me, but are often expressed in phrases that may not be much help to outsiders. But: health warning. This is only my probably feeble and inaccurate understanding of them. I'm no Buddhist scholar; that's why I need a translation, as it were, before I can make full use of these insights.

Dependent origination.  I take that to mean that nothing exists as an entirely separate entity. We throw our distinctions across the workings of the universe so that we can come to some sort of understanding of it in our own terms. 

 The example often used is of a plant. When is a daffodil a separate entity? As a bulb? As a shoot below ground level? As those promising green stalks? Only when it flowers? And after you've cut the brown leaves back, do you still have a daff, or only a daff bulb? 

A daffodil can be seen as a process in time, a continuous event which we observe and enjoy at different stages. There is nothing static, if you use the right time-scale. It gave me a jolt when I realised that there is nothing eternal about mountains, nothing, in geological time-scales, particularly long-lived about them. In the Nant Ffrancon valley, high up below a ridge, there are the marks of wave action in solid rock. Two thousand feet above current sea level. 

It's all another way of saying that everything is change. Everything depends on what came before and will come next. The "I" that is writing this is formed at this point in time, and then lapses into another self-perception. Everything originates in something else.

Emptiness. A dear friend of mine once said she preferred using Lectio Divina, using short excerpts from a significant text, as a basis for meditation, rather than "emptiness." I see her point, it's a common-sense one.

It seems to me that emptiness, in meditative terms, is a challenge; it tells us that nothing has a solidity, a discrete existence.

I think science may support us here; apparently, if you took all the "space" out of my atoms, and just left the substance (OK look I know it's energy, not stuff like wood is stuff - give me a break here) you'd have a little pile of dust on the floor that weighed as much as I do. 

I'm only those interactions between nuclei and electrons and...all the other particles. Then I'm only the interactions between the elements those atoms make up, then the elements mixed into compounds, then... etc. 

So I am not one thing, I have no discrete single existence called "me." It just seems as though I do. But care is needed here. I'm not saying I am an illusion, and so is all the rest of the observable universe. I'm saying that I have no ultimate fixed identity. Me, this keyboard, my pen - we are empty of any unique fixed existence. We are only processes, only change,  en route.

I think "emptiness" is a misleading term for this understanding - but needless to say, I can't think of a better one!

Can be a bit scary, living, even for a little while, in an understanding that nothing has a fixed form and identity, but it's also liberating.

That's why the book I'm stumbling through that is about this stuff is called "Seeing That Frees," by Rob Burbea. It's wordy, it's not easy, but it's - well, there's a clue in the title. I'll grapple on.


irresponsible wisdom and right action

Sometimes I think I could simply link to David Rynick's blog and leave it to him....

This morning,
rather than diagnosing
and recommending,
in pragmatic prose,
a way through
the current crisis,
I sip tea and
practice being

The dark masters
gather and grumble
at my indolence,
but I courageously resist
their muttered insults and

I have grown old
and weary in
steadfast pursuit of
their fickle approval;
as if freedom could
happen at some other

Every action balances
dungeon and delight:
the endless quest for
self-earned grace or
some rougher and
sweeter enterprise
depending only
on the air that
has already been

This morning again
I practice resistance to
the ancient gods of Self
accomplishment and vow
to disappear into this
one life without

"To disappear into this one life without justification" - maybe that's where we need to go to find the best thing to do in any given circumstance, rather than striving to act by using the ego's promptings and desires. That's the paradox - "there is a field beyond ideas of right and wrong; I'll meet you there," says Rumi.

Maybe we need to let right action* emerge from within, to let it grow in that field beyond right and wrong. There, it can grow free from the needy ego, which seeks to reinforce its sagging foundations by endlessly justifying itself.... for more help from a wise one.

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.)