Sunday, 19 December 2010

Dawn, 18 December 2010.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Jools Holland and Mindfulness

As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows - do one?" In this case, one never knows where a mindful approach will turn up. Whilst leafing idly through the Saturday Guardian colour comic yesterday, trying to avoid the revolting blandishments of adverts for luxury goods from a previous era, I came upon a Q and A with Jools Holland, ex-pop star, excellent boogie pianist, leader of what must be the only big band left in UK (hope that's wrong) and of course TV presenter of odd manner and knowledgeably eclectic approach. (Just in case you've never heard of him.) Expecting something amusing but insignificant, I was delighted to find these pronouncements:

Q: "What is the closest you've ever come to death?
A: "Last night: sleep is its brother."

To which I say - spread the word, Jools.

Q: "What is the trait you most deplore in others?
A: I wouldn't like to make judgements."

One of the effects of mindfulness meditation is to make us less hasty to rush to judgements about others. This makes is easier to see where they are coming from, to see the whole picture of our interaction with them. It doesn't mean we accept any old nonsense from anyone, just that we should observe and think before seeking to reassure our fears and bolster our prejudices - which is surely what a lot of our judgements about people are actually used for.

Q: "What's your most unappealing habit?
A: You'd have to ask people who find me unappealing."

People sometimes call that sort of response "grounded" or "centred." I feel it shows a kind of realism and acceptance; I don't think he's just trying to be a smart-arse at the interviewer's expense, though it is quick-witted. He seems to me to be saying that naturally, and particularly given his fame, there are people who find him unappealing; they are the experts in such judgements- ask them.

But the one that startled me most was this - it was his opener:

Q: "When were you happiest?
A: Paradise is the moment you are in, so right now I'm happiest talking to you."

Whole books have been written expanding on that insight. If the present moment is the only place it's possible to live, then paradise, happiness, couldn't be anywhere else. (Nor could hell, of course.) He avoids putting happiness back in the past, he avoids making it a future fantasy. His presentmomentness is quite startling. What's the point of making comparative judgments about happiness? How are you right now? OK - happy - contented. Enough. You can't really categorise and analyse happiness, can you? If you try, it will evaporate. Happy memories are, of course, a delight, and so are future happinesses - say, a Christmas visit from family - but if I start wondering if this Christmas will be better than last, will the omnipotent grandson be as much fun as he used to be,'s nonsense. Gloria, enjoy, now, the pleasure of anticipating his visit. Then enjoy his visit. Grandson will be as grandson is. A wonder.

Jools says other pleasant and entertaining things too, but I didn't expect (prejudice, I guess) to find these sorts of potted insights in a star interview. I've no idea if he meditates, but maybe a mindful approach, wherever it comes from, helps him through the madness and pressures of the music/TV business.

So thanks, Jools, merry Christmas and a boogieful New Year.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Does mindfulness = escapism?

No - or at least, not necessarily, I think.

In Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time," Radio 4 this a.m. they were talking about Lao Tzu and the Dao De Jing, the great classic of Daoism. (No, this isn't going to be a hippyesque ramble, promise.) Daoism was described as a teaching that involves recognising the way the universe works, and following that, rather than trying to force your way against nature. Water is a frequent symbol in the text - if you come across a boulder, then like water, flow round it, over, it under it - don't try and move it, just flow round it to get where you want to be. You won't smash the boulder, but it will in any case be worn away into a small pebble in a few thousand years. Seems a clear enough symbol to me. It wasn't originally, it seems, a god-following religion, more like a philosophy and a way of thinking and living.

Following the way of the universe is how to live in the world. The people ruled by the best rulers - those who follow the Dao - hardly notice they are being ruled and guided.

The contrast was then drawn with Buddhism, which teaches an escape from the world, from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth. (First off, you have to believe in re-incarnation, clearly, in order to escape from it!) Meditation is the technique through which this escape can be earned.

This all sounds clear and simple in outline, but of course things in human societies don't work out so simply. Buddhists have been known to be proud warriors and conquerors, (though perhaps a little less frequently than Christians and Moslems) and doubtless Daoists have retreated from the world rather than using their insights to live in it.

In any case, in our own lives, I can't see any particular conflict. Mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhist meditation techniques. It is a training in how to live more of the time in the present moment. To achieve, or approach, a mindful awareness of the present moment and nothing but it, you do need to retreat, as it were, for an hour or so - or five minutes, even. So to this degree, a temporary escape is necessary. And mindfulness practitioners, like followers of traditional Zen Buddhist schools, often seem to favour occasional retreats, for a day or a weekend.

But the state of mind, this "presentmomentness" enables one to deal better with the world beyond the room you meditate in - to move through it a little more like the water round the boulder. It encourages tolerance, sharpens understanding of the situations of other people, helps one to keep things in perspective. It calms.

So occasional temporary bits of escapism emable one to emerge and deal with "the world" better. The little I know of the two great strands of East Asian religious philosophy and practice seem to me to work more as complementaries than opponents, if we want them to.

And in all this, there is no need (unless you want it) for god-centred religion, for dogma and scripture. No wonder a professor of religious studies sneered at mindfulness as "Buddhism-lite." He's right - and that's exactly the point. It sidesteps dogma-based argument, and says simply "if you do this, properly, your life will be better for it." You can do it and still follow a religion, you can follow it and be a nature-worshipping pagan, you can follow it and be a stroppy atheist (though if it works for you, you'll probably be a bit less stroppy, whatever your beliefs.)

So is it The Answer To Life? No, it's bloody hard work, and I don't do enough of it - but it certainly helps e.g. with the tensions, anxieties, uncertainties and sadnesses of funeral work. No, because it's part of life, not an alternative to life. We all know there's only one alternative to life, and facing that is also something mindfulness can help with.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Mindfulness in action

A click on the title above will take you the impactEDnurse blog, where Ian Miller will tell you some invaluable things about mindfulness. He's worked these thing out in the life-and-death* tensions of an Emergency Department (A&E or Casualty, for us Brits) so they come from a high-tension working life. but they apply to any working life - any life.

He recommends coming to a stop every now and then, and tells you what to do, during the pause, that will help you move on - in his context, move on without killing anyone, I guess, and in mine - well, at least not to get someone's name wrong!

Presumably like A&E nurses here, he's trying to do a truly essential job amidst all the bullsh*t about cost-cutting and efficiency drives, but he is still able to deploy humour, too (see his final line) and find the time to write an outstanding blog.

The distinction between concentration and mindfulness seems very important to me. We need both, and to confuse one with the other is easily done and very unhelpful.

Thanks, Ian.

* great to able to use a lousy cliche in a context where it's actually true.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Funeral/no funeral?

Excellent post from Charles over at the Good Funeral Guide ("Endgame," 09:12:10. If you are interested in these matters and you haven't visited Charles yet, hie thee thither without delay.) He writes about the myopic selfishness of those who say "just chuck me out with the rubbish when I'm gone," or more formally , insist on no funeral at all - with no discussion with their families before they die.

Since the point he makes is so strong and, seems to me, unarguable, I can only assume this: many people state exactly what they want to happen (during a period of time when they will not be there) because they are members of the cult of the individual ego that distorts how we look at life and death.

You can't "personalise" your own funeral, or lack of it, because you won't be there, mate. It is the world without you that will have to deal with your instructions. And whilst you may get some satisfaction in knowing what lies ahead funeralwise, as you lie there slipping away, is that not just the tiniest bit selfish, if you've not checked it out with the family? And what if you go suddenly? ("Bugger, me aorta's burst. Now about that funer......")

Your family are the only people who can make it an event that reflects you. A funeral is an event, not a script. Just as a play script isn't a play. And a non-event, when grievers may want and need one, might be a painful non-event for those you love. It isn't a smart idea, to be enjoyed by "the deceased," it's a non-idea, if your family would have benefitted from a funeral. In that case, it's a hole in their lives, an absence, a negation.

It might be reasonable, after talking it through with family, to have no funeral. But just to demand no funeral, out of your own wishes, with no consultation, seems to me a final act of the cruellest egotism. I doubt such people can face their own death with anything like equanimity, because presumably they lack resignation, acceptance of the reality of the natural cycle of life/death. If they had that insight, they would surely not follow such a destructive train of thought.

So maybe yet again, it comes down to how you view your own mortality.

A while ago, I helped with the funeral of a man (call him "Bill") who lived a fairly solitary life. With no children, and separated from his third wife many years previously, he spent most of his time in the public library
and the local pub (he was a clever man with a sharp mind.) There was no "family meeting." I met one of his pals from the local pub, in the office of the funeral director. It was this pal who'd decided that Bill should have a proper funeral, and he paid for it himself. But he didn't know much about Bill's earlier life.

Eventually we made contact with his third wife, who was very helpful and came to the funeral, though she didn't want to speak at it. The only other people there were his boozing companions, about eight of them. They were a well-weathered bunch of individuals. They carried the coffin in. One of them, who'd certainly had a stiffener or three by then (11:30 a.m...) muttered, "well,I s'pose there's a first time for everything," and in we went.

My guess is that Bill, who was a self-described atheist and a Communist, would have said "chuck me on the skip." He left no instructions about his funeral (or anything else.) His general attitude to life and to death seems to have been one of defiance.

I found the whole occasion moving. It was poignant to see how this crowd of dedicated boozers had hauled themselves into collars and ties and come some little distance; they were the only possible pall-bearers and mourners, apart from his patient and philosophical ex-wife. It was very moving to think how his old pal had shelled out to see the thing done. They'd said good-bye to a good saloon-bar friend, a bloke they described as "cussed, entertaining, bloody clever." Job done. Back to the Pig and Whistle for a straightener. Any announcements about meeting up for "refeshments" would have been superfluous...

I read them a stanza by Tony Harrison. It seemed to me to sum up Bill's defiant attitude towards death, and life:

Death’s a debt that everybody owes,

And if you’ll last the night out no-one knows.

Learn your lesson then, and thank your stars

For wine and company and all-night bars.

Life careers gravewards at a breakneck rate,

So drink and love, and leave the rest to Fate.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Funeral music

In non-religious ceremonies that I've been involved in, if the family have sorted anything before we meet to plan things, it'll be some or all of the music they want. Generally and conventionally three pieces (entrance, reflection time, departure.) Occasionally, there is more music, especially if the dead person was a musician. Very occasionally, there is some live music. Occasionally, after the non-religious ceremony is over, there is a hymn. Very, very occasionally the people sing something which isn't a hymn. No question in my mind that the absence of congregational singing is a pity and a problem - though when I overhear ten elderly people struggling through "Abide With Me" led a minister who can't sing, the issue appears a little less cut and dried...still, it's what matters to them that matters, not my musical preferences.

For burials, there has only very occasionally been recorded music, though on one occasion we had a live singer on a sunlit hillside overlooking the sea, singing a song about living by the sea-side. Unforgettable.

In my opinion, the exit music doesn't work too well for the close family, because they are often out the door after just a few bars - though they will sometimes sit and listen for a bit. Still, it's perhaps nice (usually) for everyone else to leave to a sound other than shuffling footsteps.

There is a point of view that a lot of this personalised music is part of the cult of trivialisation and escapism about death and funerals in our society. Maybe it can be, but in my experience, it often isn't, i.e. the music is something the close family is moved deeply by. Friends too.

Here's a list of some music which I feel has been effective. Not that I necessarily liked it (not the point at all) but that it seemed to work particularly well for the people concerned, in context. And yet it's impossible to be entirely objective. I simply can't include "My Way" even if a family might have found it effective...

1. Days (Kirsty McColl, though it's originally a Kinks song) "Thank you for the days..." What could be more poignant and simpler in a funeral song chosen for a partner ?

2. The Dead Song, by Seasick Steve. ("No-one comin' back from the dead...") Very tough, very strange - we walked in to it and it gave me goose-flesh, it was so basic. For many people it's a truth, and such a hard truth to face, but such a necessary one. So it served as a good start to a non-religious funeral, and threw out a big challenge. It sounded ritualistic; not at all in the same world as Classic FM or Radio Wan....

3. Barber's Adagio. A deep unfolding sort of sadness, simple, dignified, unsentimental.

4. Layla - Eric Clapton. As Charles has noted, sometimes the words don't really fit and yet it doesn't really matter - this song is a howl of pain from beginning to end, including the screeching slide guitar (by Duane Allman) but leaving out the ponderous piano stuff in the second half. Someone who died too soon said that at her funeral there should be "no religion, no tears, and "Layla" by Eric Clapton." We managed the first and last of the three instructions. It was excellent entry music, and seemed to catch the sharpness of the particular grief these people felt about their loss.

5. Beethoven: String Quartet #13 In B Flat, Op. 130 - 4. Alla Danza Tedesca. A son used to play this beautiful and complex, dancing music with his father, and we listened to it (rather than just hearing it) at his father's funeral.

6. The Lark Ascending. Quite well-used, but for a lover of the outdoors (not just someone who enjoyed a walk, a real outdoorist) it was a gentle, consoling piece that for once justified the word "evocative." It said something about someone's life, what he saw as one of the best things in it.

7. Delius: "Irmelin" - Prelude. Little-known piece by Delius. The dead man was a Delius enthusiast and authority. It spoke for him.

8. Haydn: Symphony No. 45, "Farewell": II. Adagio. Seemed a perfectly-balance exit piece, can't exxplain why.

9. Elgar's "Nimrod." Often heard, and still and always a noble, deeply moving piece of music. As the themse swells, so should your feelings.

10. "Peace Piece," by Bill Evans. Great jazz pianist, not swinging, for once (solo.) Gentle, consolatory, draws the ear in, seemed to complement people's private thoughts and prayers.

Please, do add any examples of your own that were particularly effective. I hope you agree it's an important and interesting subject - and we need to be ready for when the family says "he didn't really go much on music - what do you suggest?" Rent-a-Theme won't do. We need to choose something that fits the unique tone and context, something that will sing out for them.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Three funerals in two days part II.

Well, it's not really a very good idea, and I'm certainly not bragging about it. The funerals went well, I think. I won't do it again unless the reasons are at least as pressing as they were this time.Thoughts arising:

1. I'd say it's only possible at all, if you can clear enough preparation time in advance, before any of them take place.

2. I found it very important to sequence visiting the families and assembling the scripts in the best order. You really don't want three family visits buzzing round your head with nothing written down from any of them...the first funeral was a complex and rather tragic one, and they wanted the family visit as late as possible to collect comments and tributes from as many people as possible. So although this was the first funeral to take place, I wrote it last. Etc. Boring logistics, but to get this sequencing wrong would really be disastrous. However, this means holding your nerve and writing up a ceremony the day before the funeral...having cleared the decks by writing the others first.

3. It caused me huge anxiety when it needn't have: is this really the right CD?(yes, of course, you've already checked it.) Have I mixed the names between families?(no.) Am I heading for the right crem? (yes) will the train get me there in time (yes) will there be a taxi at the station ( yes, there always is, and anyway you have some taxi phone numbers with you - so shut up, you daft old bag...) etc etc. And all this was purely because of the IDEA that I had three in two days, which was exceptional, so worrying, so, I'd better worry... Once they were written, rehearsed and ready to go, I really could have stopped worrying about the logistics. Anyway, I can't control the whole damned universe. Roads occasionally get blocked, trains break down, though not, thankfully, very often. (Incidentally, anyone got any smart ideas about what to do if your journey to the funeral becomes impossible?)

4. This worrying is not very mindful. Though the mindful looking at the coffin just before starting and putting self briefly in present moment went well all three times..

5. Huge relief and big slump afterwards, of course. Watched "East Enders" AND "Holby City," for goodness' sake....nothing like junk telly to wind down for an hour two. Plus a drop of the old Limestone Coast CabSauv.

6. Can't go hillwalking, too much snow (I'm not Sherpa bleedin' Tenzing) but will look foward to it, need some physical exercise.

So did the funerals themselves suffer because of this close run? That's the only important question. Hard to answer - I really don't think so, although here's a trap I nearly fell into: I sent a draft to the family involved in the final funeral, they changed one thing, and said it was fine, pleased with it etc. Because I was a bit pushed, I was on the verge of just printing it off. "Well, they think it's OK." That would be a dreadful abnegation of responsibility, quality control etc. They have little experience of funerals, I have quite a lot. So get on with your job, Gloria, and stop short-cutting! I checked myself, and went through it again, tweaking a couple of phrases, reading it aloud again, getting a better "lift-off."

But if I did three funerals every week, there's no question I wouldn't be doing them so well. One's mental and emotional powers get drained in this activity, and need time well away from it. Some people may be able to manage three in a week regularly, but not GM. So no, I won't lay down absolute rules about frequency when I take over, but I will certainly lay down guidelines very firmly, and interview and observe those who do take three per week regularly. And of course if they are selling the bereaved short for their own profit, they'll be next in a box.

Still waiting for the spare parts for the damn tanks.