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.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The paradox of the present

I've done a bit of head-scratching lately about the present, after reading a post on the  Secular Buddhist Association website. I'll pass on my confusions to you and see if they are at all useful. Which I doubt...

 For a good few years now I've done what I understand most meditators do, those who've come to it via the 8-week mindulfness course, anyway.

I let my awareness stay with my breath, or other bits of the body if I'm doing a body scan, and when my thoughts drift off into narratives, worries, memories etc, I gently bring my awareness back to the breath, or my left foot, or whatever. This I do to stay right where I am - in the present moment.

But. Does the present moment exist? I certainly don't seem to be able to stay in it for long, though after even a succession of brief visits to what I could call "presentmomentness", I feel...better? Calmer? Broader? Freer from conditioned responses, compulsive thinking.

If we imagine the present as moving forward perpetually, leaving the past behind  and not fussing about the future until the present reaches the future and turns into it, as it were, then what is it, this present moment? How big is a moment? 

Is it like a straight line - the shortest distance between two points, we remember from school, not the mark you make with a ruler and a pencil on paper - simply, the thing itself, the conceptual entity. 

.                                              . 

The shortest distance between those two full stops is a straight line. How wide is it? It doesn't have width.  It need have no dimension, thickness, physical presence itself.

Like the present, it's entirely a concept. A pencil mark simply represent it.

 (are they doing what they think they're doing? Where and when are they?)

Next: the neuroscientists tell us that we are always about 1/10th of a second behind the actual occurence of any event, due to the time our senses take, however keen they are, to process the information and respond to it. The fastest sprinter in the world (Mr. Bolt himself) cannot be less than 1/10th of a second off the blocks when he hears the gun. (False starts excepted, of course!)

 Does this insubantiality of the present moment matter? Well, it might, to meditators. 

One trap for meditators is striving to stay in the present, berating ourselves for drifting off, feeling we've had an unsatisfactory meditation. No matter how often we may be told that drifting off and coming back to the breath (or body scan, whatever) is part of meditating, it's hard not to evaluate a meditation as you go along, or afterwards. Hard not to grumble at yourself for not staying in the present.

Which is an impossibility.

But if the present doesn't exist, in other than an unreachable, theoretical sense, then where do I live?

Not in the past, clearly, however nostalgic I may be, because the memory reconstructs and changes the past, and that can only happen in the present. 

Nor in the future, obviously, because whatever plans or fantasies that may be runing through my mind, they are not happening at the moment, and they or may not happen in the future.

So where do I live? The present is only a theoretical point in time, the past and the present no longer exist or don't yet exist.

Where I live isn't a fixed point in time that is succeeded by the next fixed point in time - the present like frames of an old-fashioned film, a succession of fixed points in the movie of my perceptions -  is it 8mm, 16mm, 32mm? The present has no dimensions. 

Where I live, what I am, is continuous, a collection of processes, part of the collection of processes we call this planet, this universe.

I'm not a fixed point. I don't exist at all. I am a socially neccessary construct. But in the freedom that comes from meditation/cultivation, I more and more understand this.

I am flow, change, processes, nothing else.

As freedom often is, that realisation - I don't exist - is pretty frightening, until  that fear, that striving, is simply let go of.

 Let go. That's an invitation, not an imperative. We can't nag ourselves or each other into liberations.

Monday, 27 November 2017

getting old(er..)

Adjusted to fit UK contexts, here is a poem from David Rynick, a wise and compassionate man:

  65th birthday manifesto, by David Rynick

NHS, Atorvastatin,
baby aspirin please.
Don’t forget: zipper up,
phone, wallet, keys.
Sixty-five, still alive;
running now on fumes.
Yet to come, worrisome;
the piper plays the tune.
Still I’ll dance with tattered pants,
shameless far and near.
Too old to care when others stare,
I’ll find new freedom here.

 More of David on:
and in his wonderful book "This Truth Never Fails."

I wish him plenty of fumes. Maybe growing old has new freedoms in it, as well as deteriorations. Yeats wrote:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

Interpret and relate to "soul" as you wish.  Let's sing and dance onwards.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

oceans part III - distance and negative capability

That High Victorian  poet of doubt and loneliness Matthew Arnold might seem increasingly remote to some modern sensibilities, but he can still chuck out a line to stop you in your tracks. (Arnold's capitals and italics, btw.)

 "YES! in the sea of life enisl’d,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know."

We're back where we live now, a long way from where we've been. 

From this:

to this:

It's good to settle back, readjust the colour palette, season and time of day, re-engage with family and good friends in the UK.

But we are geographically separated from some people we wish we were a lot closer to; there are "echoing straits between us thrown."

The pain of geograhical separation is mediated by electronic non-distance. Thanks to Saint Berners-Lee we can talk and see over vast expanses of space and time. You can't throw your arms round a Skype or FaceTime screen, but they sure help. Passenger aircraft fly at not much below the speed of sound. Those we love are - in theory - only a day away.

 Keats wrote in a letter of the importance of what he called "Negative Capability: that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

The map on the seat-back set in front of me showed something schematic, unreal:

In this huge aluminium tube, am I really where the little white plane says I am? Are those I want closer to me really so far away? What is geography to the workings of the heart?

I'm finding big paradoxes here. 

There is only one ocean, whether it's brilliant azure or delicate blue-greys. 

Meditation can create a sense of oneness, unity with both the azure and the blue-grey, with them there and us here. 

We can agree with Keats, and say further that living with paradox is an essential part of freedom, of living in the now not in the land of "back then" or "ooo er, whatever next.."

Yet there still lies between us "the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea."

The internet cannot entirely gainsay the Indian Ocean.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

One Ocean

This is an oceanic coast, a continental coast. Nothing much between here and South Africa. Our more constrained and limited British seas can also cut up rough and nasty. So is it imagination, and/or knowledge, that makes the difference? Because this feels nothing like the seacoasts at home. Perhaps it’s an endlessly variable combination of light, colour, sound that I pick up in each case, or maybe it's just because I know the fact of difference. Either way, it feels very different from “home.”

Yet there is really only one ocean. On the whole planet, apart from inland seas (aka vast lakes) all oceans and seas are joined, are one. And the old mind-trick of turning a good-quality globe so that Australia is bottom left and you are looking at the Pacific reminds us that mostly, the planet is oceans and seas.

We often allocate human moods to the ocean, as we do to God/gods. They can be merciful, wrathful, gentle meek and mild. The ocean we can call angry, gentle, and so on. It’s not, of course. It is only and purely -  the ocean. 

Each wave is a fast-moving, continually changing, unique phenomenon, dying right in front of me and being drawn back and resumed.

The ocean is merely and entirely doing what it has done, with endless variations, for millions upon millions of years, before there were any people of any sort to watch it. Do I create each wave in front of me every time I look at it? 

 Are today’s waves two or three metres high? Hey, this next one must be 3.5 metres...That’s not what yields insight, though it might help me keep my trousers dry. 
Maybe I can just be with it, leaving aside analysis and measurement.

And yet, if you just contemplate for a moment the impossibly complex set of dynamic systems - tide; winds here and hundreds of miles out to sea; currents; salinity and other chemistry; air and water temperature; gravity, phases of the moon - the self-sustaining systems that create this particular breaking wave, which resembles the one before it and the one after it but is unique. 

If I add that to what I can see and here in front of me, I can feel a sense of awe (in the old and strong sense), presentmomentness,  wholeness, identity with the planet and its workings that I’m happy to call sacred, provided you don't start lugging in meanings still adhering to a Rock of Ages,  Cleft for Me, etc. (Well, you can if you wish, it's up to you, but that's not what I'm trying to get at here.)

For me, anthropomorphic deities don’t work, and the ocean is not wrathful. It is other than me, indifferent, total. Powerful beyond imagining, yes. Impossibly complex and beautiful, yes, with a beauty that goes much deeper than pretty or scenic. It’s in the curve of the wave as is crumples and blues into white that I find a sacred wholeness to sit with for a while.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Hull down

The title is not a snide shot at the current European City of Culture...

There was a time when English was full of metaphors and sayings from sailing the sea. "Three sheets in the wind," or " "half seas over," for "drunk." "The devil to pay," (lengthy one to explain, do look it up if you're interested) "not enough room to swing a cat," (ditto) and so on.

During the late eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was the largest single industrial enterprise in the world, and a huge proportion of the male population were or had been sailors. Not so nowadays, despite every available creek on the South Coast being jammed with boats (many of which are little-used.) So I guess we can expect the sailing references to gradually fall out of use - to be replaced perhaps by the delights of internet terminology...

One that may be dropping out of awareness and use is "hull down." If you look at the horizon in this (poor quality, sorry!) photo, about a third of the way across from the left, you'll see a white dot. That's the superstructure of a ship "hull down." In other words, the curvature of the earth is hiding the hull from us and only the superstructure is poking above the horizon.

With sailing ships the masts of which could be 140 feet high, this would have been a more easily-visible phenomenon.

In the ancient world, it was generally assumed that the earth was flat, because it appeared so. Pythagoras, then Aristotle, worked out that it wasn't, but news would have spread slowly. By medival times in Europe, it seems that people generally grasped the idea that the planet was not flat. Some historians think that despite the sophistications and splendours of Chinese civilization, it was the 16th or 17 centuries before they wised up.

Sailors and coast watchers could have told them about the curvarture of the earth as soon as boats were large enough to sail over the horizon on a clear day. Logically, if the atmosphere is clear enough to see the masts and sails, why can't I see the hull? Because the earth is curved. If it's curved, why doesn't all the water pour off it? Aha. It must be curved all the way round, i.e. a sphere.

Which is a long-winded way of wondering when it is wise to entirely trust our senses, i.e. an empirical attitude, and when we need more abstract thought, i.e. a burst of reasoning.

Or, as in the example of hull-down sailing ships, both.

 This huge freighter, heading off across the Indian Ocean on a long voyage, isn't hull down, but it soon will be. And at least I got the horizon more or less level in this photo.

Perhaps when I was taking the first shot I was slightly unnerved by a sign painted on the path under my feet:

Indeed they do. A local woman, 75 years of age, was walking this path a couple of years ago and was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a dugite. ("Doogite," for fellow poms.) Her big mistake was to think that since she didn't feel too bad, she'd get home and phone from there. The official advice is immobility and summoning help quickly, since the dugite is "potentially" lethal. When she got home, she said "I think I've made a big mistake." Horrifyingly, one of the symptoms of dugite venom is said to be a feeling of impending doom. In her case, tragically, the feeling was an accurate portent. The medics couldn't save her.

Not all Australian snakes are lethal, of course, but if I see one, I'm pretty soon hull down, from the snake's point of view.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

distant events, immediate screens, a middle way

Geographical distance can create a sense of increased objectivity, give rise to new or at least different perspectives. 

Electronic distance doesn't exist, unless we create it.

In the wonderful clarity of a West Australian sunlit morning, the trees and shrubs are differently beautiful from the ones at home, the birds energetically and raucously so.

And yet elsewhere two nation's leader seem to want to destroy each other's nation (we have to hope it is only"seem") and within one of those nations, a deranged individual recently slaughtered many young people of whom he knew nothing, with whom, as individuals, he had no identifiable grievance.

What am I to make of this? What is the Middle Way between unproductive distress and callous disregard? Why do I keep turning on the screens to find out more about both horrors? I am thousands of miles from both situations.

I find help in an article in a major Australian newspaper, written by DBC Pierre. Most apparently motiveless attackes, like many or most terrorists attacks on civilians, end in the suicide of the perpetrator. He quotes research* that finds that following suicides car crash fatalities increase, specifically in areas where the suicide was well-publicised. Murder-suicides were followed by rises in multi-person crashes. So under the cliché "copy-cat killing" lies something more significant; we seem to be wired to find others like ourselves, and do what they do. Brain chemistry may have a bearing here.

Pierre writes "I have a sneaking sense that by consuming all the outrage, letting the buzz of fear, wallpaper our lives, we're becoming complicit. A sense that our voracious focus on far-flung outrage is now unwittingly part of the cause."   

He goes on "the screen craze has become 24/7, in our hands, on our desks, our walls, and if the stated aim of much of it is to put us at the scene, take us live, I simply ask: do we need to go? All the time? I'm living right here where I stand. This is my sphere of physical influence and I should lose myself instead into some place where I'm fearful and powerless?"

Pierre reminds us that we contain powerful chemicals such as dopamine and cortisol. His proposition is that the feelings aroused by heavy screen involvement in terrible events we are powerless to influence may create some of the same states of mind that result in such horrors to begin with. In other words, and not necessarily in any rational or willed sense, we may, if we are prone to depression, alienation, fear and the helpless anger that comes from frustration, be nudged towards similar acts. That seems to me a bold assertion that it is worth considering seriously.

"I wonder if, by being swept through screens into constant turmoil, we are priming ourselves with the chemistry of those who cause it, as well as promoting the market for worse."

Some of the stuff that comes through screens we can do something about- at elections, for example, or when something awful happens in our locality, by direct action as happened following the Grenfell Tower fire. But much of it is geographically beyond us, beyond any likelihood of positive action. The result is surely bad for us as individuals. Nothing that is of much use comes from such psychic disturbance.

Pierre's final point is about the paradox that whilst we are drawn into distance events we are powerless to effect through screens, we are at the same time distanced from the events- hence the frustration, hence the fatigue, the possibility of callous disegard. 

Screens - just look at the virulent hatred to be found on Twitter - help us to create the Other that must be hated and destroyed. It's easier to create the despised Other when you don't have to look them in the eye, speak with them.

So a leading politician receives foul abuse daily; so a leading TV political correspondent has to have professional protection.

I don't think there's any point in being anti-screen; after all, what am I doing at present but trying to reach out to a few readers via a screen? The idea that the world is getting steadily worse is surely as useless a proposition as the idea is is that it is getting steadily better, since so much depends on what you are measuring and where you're measuring it. It seems unlikely to me that heavy screen use about current events makes many of us feel the world is getting better...

I hope I'm not just being squeamish when I say I don't want relentless updates on mass murder. I may want to know the simple fact of it. But if as a result of closely following this horror, I really feel that the world is getting more and more horrible, then I'm doing two things.

Firstly, I am ignoring history and much information about the contemporary world, so that I am out of balance. My view is inaccurate, yet I am relying on it. I am a victim of confirmation bias, the tendency to "search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."

Secondly, I've lost the middle way. That is, the way that asks useful questions such as:
  • How much do I need to know about this? 
  • What if anything can I do about it? 
  • How significant is it in the local, national, world view of human life and its possibilities? 
  • In what ways should I care, in what ways should my compassion be engaged rather than my fear and hatred?

It is easy to be continuously outraged, enraged, depressed about the world we live in. It is harder to be grounded enough in the realities of this moment in this world to bring about positive change.

I'm going to turn off all screens for a bit now and get a little gentle morning sunlight into my soul.

*Influence: the psychology of persuasion, byRobert B Cialdini