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.