Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Meditating monkeys, internal thoughts, consciousness and fearing death.

Above gem of a pic from a fascinating BBC website story about research involving brain-scanning monkeys.


Seems to me that a fuller understanding of human consciousness is helpful in getting us to look more four-square at our own mortality. So enough already with the obvious jokes such as "Never mind brass monkeys mate, I can't even find it now." These, the most northerly human-related primates, are Japanese macaques. They go for a cold meditate when it's very hot, and they look for hot springs when it's cold. They wash their food in sea-water which cleans it and may even make it taste better.

But, wonderful though these kinship points are, something else and possibly quite profound has emerged. Researchers have found, via electronic brain scanning (calm down, it's harmless and it doesn't hurt), that these chaps have what the neuroscientists call a "default mode" of brain activity. Wow.

This default mode is the bit we slide into when we're thinking about ourselves and our state of mind or bodily well-being. It is our conscious awareness of self. For example, when we're sometimes just letting our thoughts drift along thus: "I must get a new tyre, maybe I'll go to the place where there's that tasty mechanic, who looks like the bloke who..anyway, that I'll do tomorrow, ouch that ankle is still playing up, bugger it's raining and the washing's out..." etc. (The Munday mind is a murky place at best, you've gathered by now.) Or looking back with happiness or regret, or foward planning.

The other bit, when we're focusing on hurrying to get the washing in, concentrating on not dropping too many pegs, even counting them, not drifting off into daydreams about tight jeans, not noticing that the ankle hurts, not verbalising or imageing apart from the task in hand - that's the focused bit, and it shows up as a different area of activity in the brain. Our self-awareness is, as I understand and feel it, at a low state of arousal when we are lost in a task. We talk of "losing ourselves." Recently bereaved people often like to keep busy, because it dulls for a while their painful self-awareness.

You'd expect these smart monkeys to be good in that focused area, as they hunt for their sushi and wash it in seawater. But "deafault mode?" Wow again. The scientists are wondering if monkeys can wonder too, maybe look back, maybe contemplate alternative future actions not just immediate reflexes, etcetcetcetc.

Let's not be sentimental. They can't talk (i.e. their sound communications are not a fully-featured symbolic system) - no, lady, your little bow-wow can't talk to you, however sweetly he responds. But he may be more self-aware than we'd realised. The macaques may behave in a distinctly ungentlepersonly fashion sometimes. But then so do we.

Human consciousness, awareness of self, is the bit that says to us "you're going to die one day," so we have to live with the dread of death before it arrives, and somehow come to terms with it. Sometimes it makes us behave better towards each other - in the words of the nearly immortal Randy Newman, "no more arse-grabbing, back-stabbing" or it's pitchforks and trombones, not harps and angels, for you - sometimes it drives us a bit crazy - see "Staring at the Sun" by Irvin Yalom, no apologies for another plug.

And these macaques? Wish I knew. Because if consciousness is a continuum, if it has evolved gradually through a progressively complex area of organisms and to some degree is spread around the natural world more than we thought, then (and I'm not sure why) I feel comforted. Not because any other creature might have to face some awareness of its future demise, but because - just because.

Our consciousness moves through the world, the world moves through our consciousness. We make our world out of our thoughts and senses, the world makes us think and feel like we do. And we are not entirely alone in this. It's all one. Tat tvam asi. What's to fear?

My brain hurts. I may run off to an ashram.

No monkeys were hurt in the making of this blogpost.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Inexplicable patterns - funerals, not crop circles.

"Considering the seemingly random nature of bookings I receive, both in terms of the number of funerals and the cross-section of society, it never ceases to amaze me how patterns can emerge" says Comfort Blanket on a recent-ish blog post,


which is mostly about finding the balance - telling the truth, and finding the light, in a funeral for someone who has had more than the usual share of difficulties in his life. But the point about the little temporary patterns that emerge might be very true for minibrants in general, I'd guess.

Recently, I've led two funerals that were about balancing two halves of someone's life so that two quite separate groups of people both felt that the funeral was right for them.

I can also ski down Everest, speak twelve languages and play four games of chess at the same time...so, I tried to get the balance, I should say! Not everyone speaks to you after a funeral, I don't know what the others think who don't say positive things, and no-one's walked up to me and said "that was a lot of rubbish," so who knows? there must be a huge range of potential views and viewpoints in any funeral audience/congregation.

Number 1: A woman came to live round here to escape some pretty heavy scenes, the consequences of what her brother described as unlucky choices, back on her home territory. He was still fond of her, but said she'd perhaps made some unwise choices and not looked after herself, and sometimes been badly treated. At least one of her other siblings was estranged from her, and most of her family had seen little of her for several/many years. So to her family, she had been living a life of which they knew little.

But around here, she had a small group of close friends. I only had contact with the one brother who'd stayed on good terms. After the ceremony, the sibling who had been estranged from her made a couple of positive comments, and was considerably more upset than the brother who'd been on good terms. Maybe some balance - too late, too late! - had been restored there. I think to some degree the two halves of her life came closer as a result of the ceremony, and above all of input from the brother I'd met with, who had the compassion to understand what had happened in his sister's life from a point of view other than his own, and to accept what she'd done, good and not so good. I was pleased I'd been able to build his bridge for his sister.

Number 2: A man had an unhappy home life and a dead-end job in the town where he was brought up. Possibly in response to this early life, he drank too much, smoked too much and applied rather too many chemicals to his consciousness. He moved up here about half-way through his life. He kept in touch with his mother by phone, and saw his brother and sister-in-law occasionally, but his life here was quite separate from his earlier life. He had a large circle of very close and supportive friends around here. He did work part-time part-time, but spent a lot of the time on benefits and down the pub.

When he died, his older brother and sister-in-law, both retired, came up here to arrange his funeral. They knew no-one up here until a week before the funeral. They struck me as people who'd worked hard, not made a lot of money, people with pretty mainstream sorts of values and attitudes - unlike he who they'd come to mourn, who I suspect must have seemed to them self-indulgent, irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive. The man had known he was going to die, but had done nothing to sort things out, neither did he leave any instructions with regards to his funeral. His brother had to pay, and clear out his flat etc etc. Two days before the funeral, the sister-in-law phoned me in some distress about all this.

But his friends around here were just great. Two of them delivered their (excellent) tributes to him and helped choose the music; another friend put up the two visitors. There was a large turnout for the funeral, and down the pub afterwards. Brother and his wife felt calmer about it all just before the funeral, and they were, I think, helped by the funeral. I think a pretty good balance was struck between the two halves of this man's life, in his funeral ceremony at least. I think and hope brother and wife were able simply to grieve for the man instead of just feeling bitter - certainly, they said so.

So there's a little pattern for you. Here's another: I've been asked to play Leonard Cohen's famous song "Hallelujah" in three of the last five funerals I've worked on - sung by the old groaner himself, by Jeff Buckley, and by Rufus Wainwright. I'd never been asked for it it until six weeks ago.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Shrines and memorials

What an interesting discussion over on the good old GFG recently, as you will discover if you hover your cursor over the title above.

Read it? Good. On we go, then.

I'd like to take up a couple of points made by Thomas both in the post and in his comment. He is as thoughtful and eloquent as ever.

He seems to me to be saying that memorials need to imply "hopes of a continued existence in another (world)" if they are to avoid disrespecting the past and losing our bearings in the present.

I'm not taking sides here (supernaturals vs materialists, as it were) but surely it is possible to make meaningful commeration for people with no such beliefs, by people with, apparently, no such beliefs? People still go to Highgate to see Karl Marx, and Communist leaders are famous for being stuffed and mounted post-mortem for the public gaze. Nasty, you might think, but it is, or was, meaningful, presumably even for the hordes of Russian visitors to Joe Stalin's embalmed and mustachiod fizzog who were Christians in their hearts and hated the old tyrant.

Even if Russians' attitudes to Stalin's tomb have changed, that change is surely part of a huge historical and cultural shift which is itself resonant?

More trivially perhaps, John Lennon was, I think, an atheist, yet his fans still gather at various shrines to him, whether in Prague, New York or Liverpool.

As for the scattering of ashes being devoid of meaning, and transient - to you, good Thomas, maybe, but not necessarily to the people who do the scattering.

I know a piece of rocky foreshore where ashes were scattered and a small plastic plaque affixed (quite illegally!) to a rock only exposed at low tide - it says that Dad will still be able to look over to the mountains he loved. I don't think these people were necessarily running away from anything, they may well not have believed in an afterlife in other than a "perhapsist" sense, but I think we can be confident that the view of the foreshore and the distant hills will serve them well as place full of symbolic meaning and personal resonance, maybe even some comfort. Hope so.

As someone said once somewhere, a society without a sense of its own history is like a man without a memory - but at the family level, a memory, and a sense of history, does not only depend on public memorials. I don't agree with Mrs Thatcher's infamous comment that there is no such thing as society, only families, but it seems to me that society starts at the level of family interaction and family history. A shrine is a shrine, whether it is a low-tide rock, a winged angel, or a bunch of photos and a candle once a year. Who are we to define how people define who they are?

As it happens, I don't much care for ashes-scattering either - a bit of Granny in the eye on a windy afternoon does not, in my book, make for a meaningful event - and when someone said to me recently that they would be bringing Mother home from the crem whilst they decided where she should rest, I of course didn't say "that won't be your Mother, she's gone; that's simply what the flames can't consume of her body." That's me, not them. Each of us creates post-mortem meaning in our own ways.

We are chucking out the wisdom of the past when we show our children and young people, by our own behaviour, that we can't be bothered with understanding the past. Classical music, classical literature, real jazz, old paintings - hard work, aren't they? It's not that Vermeer is "better" than Shrek, or that George Eliot is better than Robert Ludlum, it's just that if you only do Shrek and Ludlum, a world of feeling, a range of understanding, is likely to be shut off from you. (And vice versa, no doubt, but on my desert island....)

Family history may be harder to "do" without public memorials, but I'm not sure we should extrapolate this into deciding that we are chucking out the wisdom of the past because we are not building substantial public memorials. And no-one loves a classy memorial more than me - one of the pleasures of lurking in churches.

One of my favourite memorials isn't a substantial object at all, yet for me it rings out down the centuries. It is also one of the shortest, to a famous person, and it still moves me with its implicit denial of time's obliterating hand and its restrained celebration of genius:

"O Rare Ben Jonson"

(ps OK, I'll come clean - of course George Eliot is better than Ludlum, and there's more in Ben Jonson than there is in Shrek, it's just harder to get to. Walking up a fell is harder work than sitting watching BBC3. Well, in the physical sense, anyway.)