Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Hot news: the Reaper isn't fair. And....?

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in our places but will never in fact see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. To live at all is miracle enough."

So says Richard Dawkins - not everyone's favourite humanist on account of his occasional aggressiveness towards the beliefs of others, but nevertheless, a brilliant scientist and writer. What he says here feels right to me, as well as being valid scientifically, no doubt.

Us funeral minibrants spend a lot of time looking for the right things to say to people who have lost someone dear to them and, because they don't believe in an afterlife, don't think they'll ever see them again. Or at best, they are "Perhapsists." Although they have been chosen by strong-minded atheists for a funeral reading, for most of us, Dawkins' words might offer very little comfort, at this stage of their grief.

That would be because if this is a new idea to those concerned, it comes too late. "To live at all is miracle enough" is a really valuable insight to help people accept their mortality, to live with death as part of life. To quote him again, the Dalai Lama said that people in the West don't think about death until they are dying, and it's a bit late then. (There is an opposite view, of which more another time.) But to realize that having lived and having to die is miracle enough as you're dying, or for your family to realise it after you've gone, is a bit late to be of much comfort, I suspect.

In a recent post, Comfort Blanket at http://thecomfortblanket.blogspot.com/2011/02/not-why-but-when.html

writes helpfully and interestingly about the need to accept the randomness of death, stop thinking "why me" and maybe think "why not me," and feel more keenly how lucky we are to be alive. (cf Dawkins.) She also points out that really, there is no right or wrong time to die. There is just - the time. Whenever.

Of course, most of us still have a feeling for a natural life-span - 3 score and ten, I guess, plus a bit for improved diet and better medicine. And who would deny that a youthful death is a particularly dreadful event. If I help with the funeral of an 85-year old who's had, it seems, a good life, and hasn't suffered too much on the way out, well, there's sadness here, I feel, but no tragedy. Sorry if you've read this before, either of you, but: if I see a traumatised young father with three small children sitting in the front row of a desolate cremaholeium after the slow decline and death of the mother in her thirties, well, FFS, that is a tragedy. And I'd better keep a tight grip on my old tearducts and sobmuscles, at least till I'm back in the car.

But it might just help all concerned, in either case, to see that fairness doesn't really come into it. We tend to bring up our children in the belief that we and they should try to be fair. That's only civilised, no? But the unwelcome spin-off is that we tend to get unduly knocked back when things beyond the reach of fair/unfair (i.e. death, storms, earthquakes, the greed of certain sportspeople....) stray from what we want a "fair" norm to be.

And the prospect of significant unfairness frightens us. But: "If a man harbors any sort of fear, it makes him landlord to a ghost," , said Lloyd Douglas, apparently. To evict the ghost, scrap the idea of a fair point at which to die, and live with maximum presentmomentness. CB's blogpost helps point the way.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

skip truck drivers, musicians, flow, mindfulness

(Found a way of avoiding the exhausting business of thinking up witty post titles - just string together a few words on your subject matter, job done...)

People sometimes confuse mindfulness with concentrating on the task in hand. But maybe one can merge into the other most productively.

Had a skip delivered to Munday Mansions this morning. The driver had to get his truck down our narrow, over-grown "drive" (a few yards of rapidly disintegrating ancient tarmac), navigate a twist at the bottom, do a nine-point turn, back the thing into a gap about a foot wider than the truck, offload the skip a metre or two in front of our LPG gas tank so I was imagining disaster scenarios. No worries. All done swiftly but unhurriedly, indeed with some panache. An inch or two to spare all round was no exaggeration. And off he trundled.

Reversing, I find, can be one of those things where the harder you try, the worse it gets, and tension in the neck and elsewhere really ruins the attempt. I reverse best when I'm relaxed; you too, I daresay. But of course, you have to concentrate. It's like plastering - relaxed concentration, and don't fuss at it, one sweep and leave it. Give it the wrong sort of concentration, get tense and pick at it, and it's a mess.

So was the skip truck driver in a state of mindfulness, of being entirely in the present? My guess is that although he wasn't in a meditative state (hard to drive a truck in the lotus position..), to drive that skilfully, he must have been showing a high degree of presentmomentness. And you can only drive like that after a lot of practice and experience. Skill, and relaxed concentration. Perhaps the concept of "flow" is closer to it.

Like music. You practice and practice, play a lot with different people, and eventually, whatever the musical form, It happens. A folk music trio I know describe how, at their weekly sessions, things sometimes go OK, but sometimes the tune just seems to play itself; at the end of the piece, they put their instruments down and say things like "wow, what happened there?" Flow is what happened. They were entirely in the present moment, and it almost felt as though the music was playing them. They are left elated and slightly puzzled. Some would call those moments a spiritual experience.

But don't forget the hard pactice, i.e. skilful repetition. Although you can get yourself into a mindful state whilst washing up, that's not flow. How much do you need to practice before you can wash up efficiently? I have never felt confused about whether I was washing the dishes or the the dishes were washing me; it's not music.

But you can stop ignoring what you're doing, or feeling dismissive about it, and hurrying. You can bring your mind entirely into the present, and lead it gently back whenever it wanders off to this afternoon's appointment or yesterday's irritations, that builder's bum or this anxiety about.... whatever. If you can do that, you find that washing up is not such a miserable waste of time, because you and it are both Now. And in any case, there's nowhere else you can be, but Now.

But flow, it ain't. That skip truck - it flowed into position.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Ice Music, mortality, Richard Coles

Maybe you heard the Radio 4 doc the other day about the Ice Music festival in the far north of Norway. If not, the video below gives some idea of what's involved, though Richard Coles' radio interviews, chats and comments, plus a bit of sound-track, gave me a better idea.

How fascinating that sometimes the ice sounds, other times it won't. If the temperature rises, the ice instruments start melting whilst they are being played. And no, I don't think it's just a gimmick. The sounds are ethereal and beautiful, the underlying concepts rewarding, I think. I loved the musician's appreciation of unpredictability and chance.

At the end of the Radio 4 doc, someone was saying that the instruments are just left to melt away, their time is over, their music made, and then they are gone. "Like us," said the Rev Coles.

Little doors and windows started opening in the mind at this point, so brace yourself for some cliches: each of us should give up our music, unpredictably, and as naturally as possible, before melting away, job done, time over. (This next bit particularly for Buddhists:) Change back into water and then freeze again so next time around, maybe, get made up into another short-lived instrument, make some more fleeting music....

OK, it seemed more profound when it was half-thought, half-imagined, left symbolic rather than stated so baldly. So back to the ice music and enough with the cracker-barrel philosophy, Gloria.....

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Mortality, humanism, belief - so nothing too heavy today. Oh, and Natural Voice singing, too.

This post owes much to Xpiry, Vale, Mopsus, Jonathan and the source of all, Charles. It will be quite a long post, so I'll understand if you want to chuck it and wander off for a beer.

Still here? OK, I'll give it a shot.

Isn't it great when different areas of your life suddenly link up and light up? When different viewpoints contribute to one illumination.

In a characterisitcally honest and direct post, Xpiry explores with us her puzzles and doubts over how far she should go, in an apparently non-religious funeral, when families ask her for "just a hymn or two and maybe a short sort of prayer..." see http://dontgettooclosetothefurnace.blogspot.com/2011/01/religion-by-back-door.html for her thoughts. and valuable comments from Charles.

It's a recurrent issue amongst humanist minibrants, as it needs to be. Honesty is all, in this crucible of emotions and beliefs we call a funeral. How far to go, in what has been categorised as a non-religious ceremony, in including material that relates to an afterlife, divine authority, etc. You can't - I was going to say "please" - all the people all the time, but "please" doesn't come near it. We need to draw a line, is the worry. We can't approach our hieratic potential (thanks to Vale and Mopsus) for everyone in the congregation, because they all believe very different things. Or can we?

I guess it can be an issue for ministers of religion, too, coming from the other direction. It seems pretty reasonable to me for a minister to mention God a bit, maybe offer a prayer. If not, why the unusual garb, etc? And perhaps a bit silly of families to book the vicar, because s/he's such a dear, and then ask for a Godless ceremony.

Charles (what do you mean, "Who?" Please take yourself over to http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2011/02/are-you-a-lightning-rod/
without further ado, where you will find the rest of the commentators mentioned above.)

Charles coined the excellent phrase "Great Perhapsism" to describe the sort of hopeful belief in some kind of after-life, a post-mortem meeting place, saloon bar in the sky, etc. I bet millions of Brits are neither full atheists, nor informed agnostics, neither Christians et al nor Pagans. They are Perhapsists. That's why, in the ceremony, they want a whiff of the supernatural - and I use the term in its full sense, not as a sneer.

The only path, when I meet a family, that I can find through this variety of semi-beliefs is to:

  1. listen very carefully with all my seven senses (five plus the two super-powers I'm not supposed to tell you about) to people at the family meeting;
  2. empathise, all the time;
  3. think hard about what I've learned from the facts and anecdotes I've heard about the one who's died, and the ones I can still talk to - I mean the sub-texts, implications, echoes and resonances;
  4. keep sitting on my own aesthetic and philosophical preferences;
  5. try to help them develop the ceremony as they really want it, to push it if possible, and not give in to an impoverished idea of what a funeral is for - and so on.
  6. Then try to make sure the ceremony does something for them, something more than get It (body and event) out of the way.
It's a particular way of going out to people, and taking in who they are and what they want. Jonathan comments on this area with an eloquence that earns nothing but grattitude from me, over on the GFG post with the link above. He says:

"For me it’s about being able to love the people we represent, more than simply serving them. There is a love between human beings that can show itself for just a moment and then move from our sight. But it does not die; it simply reflects the process of living in a human body, which only happens for a little while but stirs the ethers with passion and so leaves its lasting influence. Then, actively loving those who are trusting you to take control so they can lose it if they have to, you can talk to the place inside them that is hurting. That is the joy of this work with complete strangers, the connection between souls who would have passed in the street without noticing each other at any other time."

So that's why this is a vocation, not just a service, a profound privilege and not just a duty. As he says - a joy.

In the light of all I've learned from such people, I'm coming to feel that my previous metaphysical squeamishness matters not at all. There is only one reason not to compromise, and that is my hieratic authenticity. (Yes, I know, I shouldn't read so many very clever posts.) It's not so much about if I don't believe, literally, in what I'm saying; it's more that there'll be a problem if I've been asked to say and do things I can't establish some relationship with, things I can't internalise, things I can't feel, as well as think about more rationally. Because obviously enough, if I'm uneasy with it, the audience won't buy it either. In Jonathan's terms, the love wouldn't be behind it, it would be outward form stuff. And that's why I couldn't lead the Lord's Prayer, but I can sing songs from religious traditions. E.g:

I went to a seasonal celebration recently, a spin-off from our community choir. It was for Candlemass/Santa Lucia/Imbolc/St Brigid, add whatever belief system ackowledges that the days are growing longer, that winter won't last for ever (though it's having a bloody good try round here) that ewes will be getting their milk in and we should urge on the spring in our hearts by lighting some lamps and doing Stuff.

The Stuff we did was sing a few very simple songs, grouped round candles and the earliest of flowers (snowdrops etc). The songs came from belief systems - a Christian one in English, a Christian one in an African language, a Muslim one, a Buddhist one. (They weren't actually about the festival, which mattered not at all.) Our choir leader, very much part of the Natural Voice movement, is just wonderful at this stuff.

So here's this alleged humanist, singing away about God/s and staring into the candle flame. No worries. It's only words. There won't be a thunderbolt from above: "get ye gone, infidel," nor one from 1 Gower Street "superstitious nonsense..." No abrupt conversions, either. Just a developing sense of pervasive calm as the time went by. The last one was a sort of tuneful Buddhist chant. The final effect on me was like a really good mindfulness meditation session. I was entirely present in the moment, and felt as calm, open and easeful as I can remember feeling. A wonderful preparatory session for resuming this vocation of ours the next day. (Which is why I bang on about mindfulness meditation, in singing or other form - it really helps with the work.)

I can't imagine why any of us who don't believe in a religious system would worry about the origin of the songs. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't have benefitted from the session, provided they could be open-minded about it. If religion is a human construct, then its fruits yesterday evening were for all. If religion is what it thinks it is, then ditto.

Singing has been demonstrated, by a rational, scientific experiment, to lower stress hormones very effectively. It is, undoubtedly, good for you. Or, if you want a non-scientific explanation, it's a lightning-conductor to the divine.

So in one sense, who cares what anyone believes? Yes, I think we can have that priestly function for a great variety of people and beliefs, provided we can own what we say and do, even if we go into areas that wouldn't mirror our own beliefs. And - if we can feel that short-term, unconditional love for the people we are trying to help.

Let's say it again, Mr Larkin: "What will survive of us, is love."