Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Oh the January man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of
The February man still wipes the snow from off his hair and blows
The man of March he sees the Spring and wonders what the year
And hopes for better weather
Through April rain the man goes down to watch the birds come in
to share the summer
The man of May stands very still watching the children dance away
In June the man inside the man is young and wants to lend a hand
And grins at each new comer
And in July the man in cotton shirts he sits and thinks on being
The August man in thousands take the road and watch the sea and
find the sun
September man is standing near to saddle up and lead the year
And Autumn is his bridle
The man of new October takes the reins and early frost is on his
The poor November man sees fire and wind and mist and rain and
December man looks through the snow to let eleven brothers know
They're all a little older
And the January man comes round again in woollen coat and boots
To take another turn and walk along the icy road he knows so well
The January man is here for starting each and every year
Along the way for ever
Song by Dave Gould, sung by Karine Polwart with Lau, a Scots folk band. Not her song, but a lovely one, I think.
This one is for people who feel that keeping in close contact with the cycle of the seasons, of birth, growth, decline, death, birth etc. - that close contact helps us feel at home here and now, on this planet, and stops us worrying so much about our own mortality. It helps us to find a fit.
Hope you don't feel I've been over-exposing Ms KP too much - no kick-backs for me! - but if you agree that she writes increasingly unusual and excellent songs and has a lovely voice, then I'm happy to celebrate her work. Also, we should buy the CDs of such people, and not just copy them or flip around YouTube, because it's hard enough for unusual talents to earn much money nowadays. This track is on an EP CD you can buy on her website.
Sunday, 29 May 2011
"...the early-morning walkers left Walter alone again - less, perhaps, because they were disturbed by his extremism than because his hermit-like existence now strongly smacked of grief, the terrible sort of grief that it's safest to steer clear of; the enduring sort of grief that, like all forms of madness, feels threatening, possibly contagious."
Spot on. We go a bit mad when we're grieving, and people steer clear because they think they'll come out in grief, like coming out in spots after kissing someone who's brewing up the measles. And yet grieving people sometimes/often want - just some company. Grief isn't contagious, though sadness may be - but surely we owe them a little sadness, the gateway to compassion?
Maybe it's just someone there with them that they want. Sometimes they don't want anyone for a bit, so I guess one should ask. But "is there anything I can do" doesn't go far, does it? What, like, mow the grass? Occasionally, yes - run errands, cook a meal, that's the best thing, but it's not Bob-a-Job Week. (apologies to younger reader/s)
I know at least one person out there who knows a lot, professionally speaking, about grieving, so: What's the right question?
Thursday, 26 May 2011
OK, if you've stayed with me through mind/body stuff and meaning of life/fear of death stuff, here's something by way of relief which I hope you find delightful, as I do. It's about how we yearn to do more, to do it all, whether we're as young as the delightful lass in the promo, or seven times her age. See, I'm torn between Horace and his instructions to prune back the unrealistic ambitions so we can sieze the day, and feeling that it's maybe a good thing to go on wanting to "do it all someday."
Anyway, over to Karine Polwart and her young friend.
Thursday, 19 May 2011
"Darwin's daughter Annie died in 1851 at the age of 10. Not only was it a massive personal blow, it cemented in the most painful way possible, many of his ideas about the cruelty and struggle at the heart of natural selection. Many of the song's images are taken from Darwin's own writings."
We're All Leaving
There is thunder on the skyline
And it tears her breath away
Like the twilight steals the day
A father's kind hand could not command her
To return to him once more
Like a soldier from the war
We're all leaving
Even the ones who stay behind
We're all leaving in our own time
We're all leaving in our own time
Each night surrenders to a morning
But beneath the April sky
He can hear an endless cry
On smiling fields there's a battle raging
And for every bloom he knows
Another flower never grows
We're all leaving …
And he has no Ark to bear him from this Flood
Just a broken vessel wrought in flesh and blood
Though the riptides pull him under
He will not cease to wonder
At the beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty
He brings her mother to the church door
And while she prays for what will come
He walks those woods alone
And there he builds his own cathedrals
And on every whirring wing
He can hear the whole world sing
We're all leaving …
Still under the influence of (and in the middle of) "Staring At The Sun" by Irvin Yalom. In the book he uses case histories from his clients who have gone through existentialist psychotherapy for symptoms which turn out to be generated by their fears about their own mortality. He also uses helpful ideas from philosophers (Epicurus, Nietzsche) which he expresses very clearly, simply and concisely; he also writes about his own fears about death (he is well over 70.)
Yalom's title comes from the Maxims of de le Rochefoucauld: "You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death."
Yalom is a very humane and wise man, full of compassion and insight. He expects each of us, and himself, to be carrying around a dread of the end of our self-awareness, but he argues - no, he demonstrates most effectively - that understanding the nature of our fears helps reduce them to a manageable level - occasional anxiety from time to time, perhaps, rather than the full-on terrors that some of his clients have been suffering from. He demonstrates that to avoid or try to bury our fears about the end of our lives will distort and spoil them. It is by understanding and accepting them that we can free ourselves, and enrich our lives.
And I know that there are plenty of people out there, certainly in the blogosphere around GFG, who would tend to agree with him. I certainly do.
It took me a suprisingly long time to realise that being a funeral celebrant has helped me in this area, for maybe three reasons:
1. It's not me in the box. That was a startingly crude realisation, and it is not, of course, why I took the whole thing on. To put it less bluntly, the sadness and compassion I feel feel for the end of someone's life and the grief of those they leave behind - however temporary my feelings may be - re-emphasises the extraordinary fact of my own self-aware life, in this present moment.
2. Related to the above, there is a certain de-sensitisation effect. Not to the fact of mortality itself, but to the trappings of funerals and funeralists. When I stood watching the coffin being unloaded at the first funeral I was involved in, I felt a touch of the tension and dread I remember at family funerals at that point. I hope it doesn't sound callous to say that now I deal with funeral directors, watching coffins, etc etc with equanimity, not dread. I'm usually too concerned about getting things right, and about the family. (Of course, I'm not at what you might call the sharp and messy end of all this, as FDs are.)
3. As someone who reckons there isn't an afterlife, writing words about the things that are left behind for us when someone dies, and trying to make such words as real and as honest as possible every time, has really made me think about mortality and belief. I'm less "either/or" about beliefs, more opposed to facile polarisations, more aware of the realities of other people's lives and beliefs.
So the work has given a very great deal back to me. But it is not always comfortable, because it involves at least looking towards the sun for a bit every now and then.
Yalom ends his book thus:
"I do not intend this to be a sombre book. Instead, it is my hope that by grasping, really grasping, our human condition - our finiteness, our brief time in the light - we will come not only to savor the preciousness of each moment and the pleasure of sheer being but to increase our compassion for ourselves and for all other human beings."
If you've read any of my ramblings, you'll see at once that he could easily be writing about mindfulness meditation.
Working on funerals has helped me at least glance sunwards, and has caused me to take up mindfulness meditation, which has helped me to glance sunwards, with benefit to myself and, I hope, to those I work for. It's turned out to be a suprisingly neat and unexpected equation.
Enough. It's tedious to be told to read a book someone else raves about. WTF: read the book.
Tuesday, 17 May 2011
It's surely a biological function, an evolutionary priority, to seek to preserve one's life. Sometimes, people have managed to put that function aside and either risked or actually given their lives seeking to protect other people. We call them heroes, and are moved and astonished by their ability to put a moral choice and a willed action in front of their natural human fear.
They themselves tend not to use the word "hero," but say things like "I just found myself doing it," or "seemed what had to be done," or "just doing my job." Self-preservation can be put aside, but for most of us much of the time, it's a priority. In a comparatively safe society like ours, self-preservation can give rise to all sorts of neurotic stuff - the so-called "worried well," and if I catch myself thinking like that, I try to remember that the human body at any age is not perfectable and totally stable; health is relative, and OK at the moment is OK.
So most of the time most of us want to keep on living, unless we are very ill, profoundly unhappy and distressed, or just tired out and resigned. Because mostly, people fear death, or if they don't fear death, they fear dying.
"Staring at the Sun," by Irvin Yalom, opens with these enlightening words:
"Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. ...But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom and, inevitably, diminish and die."
That awareness, he explains later, can lead to various death-fears and anxieties which, if not looked at and faced, can cause all sorts of personal problems and tensions. And yet looking into one's own mortality, looking into death itself, is like staring at the sun - you can't do it for long.
His words quoted above linked, for me, to another insight from Dorothy Rowe: it is not so much a fear of death that haunts many people, it is much more the fear of the annihiliation of the self - in fact, the loss of self-awareness. Some people would say they would rather die than lose all sense of their own identity, (i.e. face the destruction of their personalities, their memories, their egos.) They might describe such states as a living death. (Sorry - but I said, no snowflakes and kittens...)
So maybe, with respect to Yalom (it's a tremendously worthwhile and helpful book, I've found) but maybe sometimes self-awareness is not as precious as life, it's more precious to us than life, since without it we don't see ourselves as fully alive. And Rowe looks at the way people will defend themselves against a perceived threat to their sense of identity (even if the threat is hardly or non-existent.)
So maybe to accept our own mortality, to deal with the dread death holds for us, we need somehow to come to terms with losing our self-awareness. (I'm beginning to find "dread" a more useful word than "fear," in this context.) I'm going to hold that idea, and come back to it in a moment.
Yalom uses the insights of Epicurus, who points out that death is a non-state. There is no individual awareness after death, just as there wasn't before life. We didn't exist before we were born, and (in a literal and basic sense) we won't after we die. So, nothing to fear about being dead. There's nothing there, and no "me" to know that there is nothing there. Or, like the Venerable Bede quoted in a recent Good Funeral Guide post, we simply cannot know anything about before and after life, even if - like Bede - we believe in an immortal soul. So, still, there is nothing to dread about being dead. There's no point in dreading a state of non-being.
Except - we have to come to terms with losing our self-awareness, our very selves. (Even if you believe in a soul, you will still surely have to say goodbye to yourself in this life as you are now.)
You've been waiting for that second boot to hit the floor, if you've read any of my meanderings before, so here it comes. For many of us - well, for me and I hope maybe for you one day - some reconciliation with mortality, with acceptance of the prospect of the end of me, some resignation, can come from mindfulness meditation. (Other kinds of meditation too, I'm sure.) And that's because while you are meditating, you achieve some relief from the demands of the ego, all the "what ifs," the "should haves," the "I'm gonna.." and you exist, as far as possible, just in the present. And when you return to the usual flow of thoughts, plans and worries, you may find an increased acceptance of your life, and of its inevitable end.
I'm pitching the mindfulness thing fairly low today; I could say that a meditative state puts one into contact with non-rational, profound states of mind (what non-believers still call "spiritual," lacking another term, or what some sorts of believers might call God) and that these states of mind are deeply rewarding, and yield calm, compassion and general well-being, even back in the onward flow of the old hurly-burly.
And this may help you to a view you'll find in a comment on my last posting, from Comfort Blanket, where she says: "What I do know for sure is that if there is one thing that gives life meaning, then that one thing is death. Because it puts things into perspective, brings them into focus, sharpens us up, gives us a limit on how much/how long...
So perhaps the meaning of life is death? Can it be that simple?"
Only death can give life its meaning. We are here to be, we are not here "because"....or "so that"....
It is only not being here that makes being here possible, significant, capable of creating meanings.
The meaning of life is death, the meaning of death is life.
The other meanings, we create for and between ourselves.
Monday, 16 May 2011
The BHA is holding a national conference this summer in Manchester, with people who I think are interesting (Philip Pullman, AC Grayling, Polly Toynbee) although to avoid preaching to the (un) converted, maybe they could have asked a lively bishop, rabbi or suchlike along. Rowan Williams and Pullman would be a good gig, I'd guess.
Anyway, the title of the conference is "The Meaning of Life." The publicity stuff admits that maybe Douglas Adams is right, and that the question itself may even be meaningless, (but of course that's not the point, for a conference theme.) I think they are right, it is a non-question. I seem to remember that philosophers call this sort of thing a "category error, " which is to say that the question itself is mistaken, unanswerable, its terms won't and can't lead to a valid answer.
We don't ask "why is a blackbird?" It simply is. To ask "what is the meaning of life" is to say "why is a person?"
Some religious people might say that the meaning of life is to serve God, but if you don't believe in God, or at least, not in any sense in which serving a god could be a meaningful action, then that's no real answer. Or, the meaning of life is to go to heaven at the end of life, or at least avoid hell. But I've two probs with that outlook: 1) I don't share the necessary belief and 2) the question isn't "How should I live?" (i.e. virtuously, so you can go to heaven.) It's about looking for a meaning in the fact that people live (and so do earthworms, gannets, stinging nettles etc.) i.e. it's assuming that life itself has a meaning, because if my life has a meaning, then why shouldn't the life of a stinging nettle have a meaning? We're both equally alive.
To ask "what is the meaning of life' might be akin to asking "what is the purpose of life? We can devise our own answers to that question. i.e. "the purpose of my life is to make money," or "I didn't even know what the purpose of my life was till I met you, li'l darlin, can I buy youse a drink?" But these are constructs we decide for ourselves, they can't be general categories that can apply to any and all life, or even any and all human lives.
It seems to me, having read a bit, pondered in a simple sort of way, argued with a friend or two, that life simply IS. A life (mine, yours) is an event, or series of them, a process not a thing. Life itself is a particular arrangement of energy in the universe, distinctive from not-life. We can usually say "this thing here is a life-form, that thing over there isn't, never was and never could be. That's a pencil, this here is a Duke" (I'm aware there are a few tricky boundary things that are sort of a bit but not entirely alive, but just for now, lay off the picky stuff please, or I'll get a headache...)
Life reproduces and evolves, and eventually, here you are, and me too. For now. Because life is finite in any single of its multiple forms. So maybe it helps to see a life as a bit like a deep-sea wave (not a breaker, but an ocean swell.) Water (cf our body stuff) with energy passing through it, the energy lifts water up into a wave shape, then when the energy moves on, the same water subsides (the body dies. )The water itself doesn't move forward, it just settles back and the energy moves on. H'm, that might need a bit more thought. But I'll hang on to the idea that a person is body-stuff which is energised until it isn't any more, and the wave itself moves on.
So - life simply IS. A friend of mine criticises my views for being rationalist, reductive, not open to the wonders of God, I should trust my intuition and silence my ego etcetcetc. Well, my feeling that life IS rather than MEANS is the product of some rough-and-ready reasoning, sure, but also a deep, intuitive feeling, a kind of identitification - it feels right, as well as thinks right, to me. I find it liberating.
BECAUSE (wake up at the back, please) it's important to note that although life itself doesn't have a meaning, that does not mean our lives are not devoid of meaning. We have to make meanings to live. The human animal has to throw nets of meaning over the universe in order to live in it, has to make "sense" of its surroundings and itself - and many of those meanings are enlessly wonderful. I've got meanings all around me: Bach's Cello Suites, the Beatles, "Figaro" and Miles, I've got "Middlemarch" and Seamus Heaney, "The Wire" - just fill in your own current favourites of people creating meaning so they can make sense i.e. so that they can live as themselves, fulfill themselves. But even without these wonders, I've got the lives of those around me, those I'm close to and those I've just met, all those narratives and encounters: why should I feel desolate because life itself (human or nettle) has no meaning? I feel liberated, not abandoned. Meanings in my life abound, but that doesn't mean that life itself has a meaning. What is the meaning of the universe? Why is a galaxy? Non-question.
Why does this matter? This will be the subject of my next post (probably) which will be about our fear of death.
Look, I know this stuff isn't a barrel of laughs, but you've got this far, so why not hang in, eh? Please?
Sunday, 8 May 2011
Thanks to Comfort Blanket for setting me on this road - run your cursor over my title above to link to her blogpost on the subject.
When I first heard about Action for Happiness, I was intrigued,with one reservation (on to that in a mo.)Now I learn about Random Acts of Kindness, also with one reservation from me, which is rapidly evaporating.
At first I thought "what's the world coming to, that we need an organisation to promote kindness? It should be spontaneous." Then I remembered a very good idea from some years ago, called I think "Play It Forward." If you received a kindly, helpful act from a stranger, you waited till the right moment, and did something kindly for a stranger yourself. Lapel badges were made. It din't really take off. It was too unspontaneous and yet it was unplanned and situational, it involved waiting for something good to happen to oneself. RAK is much simpler and more direct, more planned and structured and yet more open to spontaneity.
It would be good to think kindness could be catching. I wish I was sure about that...but we should do these things as a matter of principle (it's better to behave better) and because, dammit, it feels good, as CB observes.
In Hong Kong, people will often give up their seat on the metro for an older person. Uhuh. Remember that? Pretty rare nowadays on the Tube, I think. We've just got out of the kindly habit. Maybe RAK on the Tube could spread...after all, Hong Kong is every bit as busy and high-pressure as London. RAK could generate habitual social responses, over time. (Of course, part of it in HK would relate back to modern relics of Confucian attitudes towards the elderly)
My reservation about Action for Happiness is perhaps a bit theoretical: I think the aim should be contentment. That's the base line for happiness, which seems to me truly to be a more spontaneous, inspirational thing. Want to make someone doubt their happiness? Just ask them how happy they are. If they waver, and start comparisons and measurements, they're done for, they're headed for discontent. Having said that, the content of AfH is very helpful.
Mindfulness teaches us to aim for balance and contentment. Happiness will then occur more often. And a mindful person is also likely to find it increasingly easy to feel compassion and understanding rather than the envy, anger etc.that so often comes from judging and comparing.
But maybe it's chicken and egg. Perhaps RAK can also open the door to a mindful approach to life, because self-interest is put on the back-burner for a while, and those evolutionary bits of us that say "me, me" are stilled for a while, whilst we do something kind just for the sake of it.
OK, we all have to criticise, judge, and plan sometimes. You don't want to miss the train, or fail the exam. For the other times, mindfulness will generate calm will generate contentment will generate balance; RAK may lead to serious outbursts of...happiness.
Friday, 6 May 2011
Over on theknifeyousee (click on my title above to get there) Arkayeff writes most clearly and interestingly about the so-called "mind/body problem." He observes that of course the mind influences the body and vice versa - for him this is an important question because it has a lot to do with his state of health, in a very real and immediate sense. He accuses the famous French philosopher of putting Descartes before de 'orse (come on, don't tell me you couldn't see that coming) and thinking that one gland joins two separate things, mind and body, to each other. Well, Descartes was a clever bloke, sans doute, but he got that wrong.
But - since we can prove that mental states affect our physical well-being, (glands, hormones, bodily reactions to states of mind, immune systems, all that) I think the real problem is actually the mind/brain problem. I'll return to that in a moment. Or two.
Does this philosphical/psychological stuff matter? Seems to me it very much does. A lingeringly mechanistic view of health leads us to label an illness "psychosomatic," almost as a sort of sneer - usually prefaced by "just a.." or "only a..." i.e. it's not a real illness, like flu or a broken femur. I think that this separate view of mind/body, mind/brain, is an obstacle to a balanced view of self and a mindful view of the present moment, it hinders the development of a well-integrated personality.
Arkayeff is thinking through the degree to which his characteristic states of mind may have contributed to, even caused, his condition, and he takes us back to his school days. "Psychosomatic" seems to me nowadays an almost useless term, because it implies: mind, over there; body, over here. Mind causes illness over here. But it's separate. We're still stuck with Descartes.
The way round this one may be to concentrate on the brain. Now, at this point I tend to piss off people with certain kinds of belief. An old friend of mine jeers at the idea that the mind is the same, or comes from, the brain. He is interested in more metaphysical, or supernatural, models. Fine, I'm not being narrow-minded about all that, I just want to sidestep it or we'll get stuck. So I'll just say for now that many psychologists see the unique mind as being what the brain develops (starting from very very small) as a child grows up, using what genetics and the environment gives us.
So the mind can be seen as an aspect of the brain's function (whatever else it may be.) It makes sense, I think, to say that the conscious mind is one aspect of the brain's activity, and that area of brain activity is where the consciousness of self comes from. Self-consciousness seems not to be a static thing you can find somewhere in the brain, it's a thing the brain does all over, much (but not all) of the time we are awake. (Thanks to Sue Blackmore, Susan Greenwood, Antonio Damasio, for the little I know about neuroscience and the "problem of consciousness.")
An aside: Look, if you want to think that the mind is related to the immortal soul and nothing to do with the body, help yourself, but I'm on a different track here, a more mundane but I think important one. OK?
Other aspects of the brain are not part of the conscious mind. Breathing - not really a choice, though we can affect it a bit as it goes on. Heart pumping - an absolute. No brain= No heart pump. No pump, no blood to brain. What we loosely call death..a neat feedback loop. Brain needs heart needs brain needs heart needs.... for however long you live. I emphasize this because it seems helpful to me to remember that the brain is as much part of the body as a hand - and vice versa, since when my hand hurts, that's an event not in my hand (although it feels like it) it's an event in my brain. The inter-relationship is absolute. There is no "psychosomatic" illness. There's just illness - dysentry, depression - and there's just health - being able to walk ten miles, being able to find contentment.
Consciousness of the self, of my personality, changes over time, in endless and complex interactions with the internal and external environment. This only looks like a reductive view of human beings if you have trouble accepting that the brain is the most wonderfully complex thing in the known universe, and that is not separate from the body, it is "simply," part of it, in an endless feedback loop as long as we live. And that we have much more to learn about ourselves, and the way the world moves through us as we move through it.
Now serendipitously, just as Arkayeff was posting his thoughts, up comes a poem from the wonderful Digital Cuttlefish, see
which is bang on the issue.
If we can accept that the mind is an aspect of the brain (to put it very very loosely) and the brain is part of the body, then as the DC suggests in his poem, a lot of the problem might be simply how we describe these things. We are still stuck with the ghost of Descartes - dualism.
We don't, it seems to me, need to accept the wilder shores of "alternative" or "holistic" beliefs to take a whole-systems approach to how we think and feel. Nothing against mysticism - likes a bit of it meself at times - but not just now please Swami.
And now I will wave the mindfulness flag. Arkayeff's preferred route is hypnosis, mine is mindful meditation - same objective: increased levels of calm, of living in the moment, of not anticipating, not regretting, planning, worrying, judging, polarising, criticising to excess- all useful and necessary states of mind, when and only when needed. Like the famous "flight or fight" hormone responses - handy if ambushed by an angry bull, self-destructive if suffered before and during every business meeting.
Why do we make things complicated by defining them unhelpfully? Arkayeff has been ill. His state of mind, affected by his early experiences (and no doubt other things, as he says) have had much to do with the development of his illness. Mind is generated by brain. Brain is part of body. What's good for brain is good for body, what's good for body is good for brain.
Yes. Why are you oversimplifying this complex stuff - neuroscience, theories of mind, psychology, philosophy?
I speak as I find. The clever guys working at the cutting edge bring back exciting and fascinating news - from the profound meditators, from the neuroscience labs, from the deep thought days. I try to understand it when I read it. But me, I need to make sense of all this. So I try to keep it simple. OK?
Wednesday, 4 May 2011
This is a temple in Hong Kong, to Tin Hua, who is (I think, my Cantonese being a wee bit shaky) a god of seafaring and fishing. They don't want people taking photos inside the temples - fair enough - but I hope this shot from the doorway gives you some idea of the joss-smoked, wonderfully gaudy interior. At a different temple to the same god (photo didn't come out) by the sea on Lamma Island I did as requested by a couple of my regular visitors (OK, by my regular visitors...) and lit a joss stick on behalf of all Perhapsists. It seemed the decent thing to do. No doubt the humanist police will soon hunt me down. I also visited a Buddhist nunnery, the huge prayer-hall of which was a much more tranquil place, with a beautiful courtyard. All redolent of rather more useful insights, truths and practices than yer average knock-about temple (three guys were eating their lunch in one corner of this place above) I popped a couple of bob in the can to help keep the Buddha gilded etc - but slightly missed the rackety mixed-up Buddhist/Taoist/Confucian mix of temples like this one to Tin Hua.