Saturday, 30 June 2012

Funereal euphemisms

Before I get into the second part of mindfulness and beliefs, I'll interject a few thoughts about words that we use, sparked by some recent discussion over on the Good Funeral Guide.

To value life, to live enough of the time in the present, to accept the reality of our own mortality and by doing so  to enjoy the richness of existence in the light of its frailty: what stops us? One obstacle can be, I think, our vocabulary about the end of life.

The words we use matter. Mindfulness meditation is concerned with non-verbal realities, but our way into that state may be blocked by euphemism or wooly thinking. Because words are where we live, much of the time. "You must have to see clear sometimes." Someone's death is such a time.

In no particular order:

the deceased:  someone has died, and this distancing formality is no help to anyone, and especially anyone trying to deal with their grief in a truthful way.

funeral director: directing the actual funeral is exactly what most of them don't do. The good old-fashioned term "undertaker" refers to their undertaking to help you deal with a body; it seems to me that's often a difficult task, one that must impose its own great strains at times, so let's not hide it behind the pretence that they only direct the ceremony. That's someone else's job. Maybe it shouldn't be, and that's a thought worth pursuing in itself.

funeral home: how can a funeral - a ceremony or ritual - have a home? It is a unique, transient event. Occasionally it happens at the undertaker's premises, but not that frequently, I'd guess. Calling an undertaker's premises a funeral home gives it a phoney domesticity. Though it does sit neatly along from "old folks' home.."

celebrant: that's what I am, and I hate the term. We're saddled with it. Celebrating a life may or may not happen at a funeral, but a lot of other things need to happen as well. In any case, "celebrating a life" is in danger of turning into a prefabricated phrase used without thought. Perhaps it even contains a hidden encouragement not to get too upset - we're not here to weep, we're here to celebrate. But in fact, we're there for you to do whatever you need to do: flood the place with your tears, or dance a merry jig.

chapel of rest: As Molesworth used to say, "Wel I arsk you." Chapel implies a Christian context in a multi- and no-faith nation, and as for "rest"...I guess it's a back-formation from "rest in peace," but people's bodies rest in peace in their graves, not in a room at the undertaker's premises, the purpose of which is to provide a space where relatives and friends can come and say, or continue to say, goodbye to someone's body, to help them make a huge adjustment. It's a hopelessly inhibiting phrase. The goodbyes may be noisily grief-stricken or made in a brief and resentful silence, who knows? Rest doesn't come in to it.

"a few moments for your quiet reflections...": in very many funeral ceremonies. I wonder how it is really used by those present, particularly if a CD track is being played, which is very often a song. How can I look back over what someone's life means to me with Frank Sinatra singing "My Way, " a song my dead friend might have loved but one that I despise? Might it be better simply to invite people to sit and listen to the words of the song, or to the music, if it really means that much? Or sit in silence? Or...what? I suspect most people sit there feeling a bit aimless, possibly self-conscious too, their sadness deepens, they know the tough bit is coming next... please tell me I"m wrong about this.

the funeral industry: Well, quite. If you use that term, you are a part of the problem, not the solution, as we used to say way back. An effective funeral is unique, local to many or most of the bereaved people attending it, possibly a sacred rite concerning supernatural matters or possibly a secular ceremony intensely personal to those present. How can we bear to refer to it as an industrial process or product?

There's a lot of terms which I might think can be seen as unhelpfully euphemistic, but when I'm visiting a family I will do all I can to pick up the signals, and follow their lead. I've had people tell me directly to refer to "his death - he has died, not passed away." I doubt these people were suffering any less than those who are careful to say "he passed away..." And using a term like "passed away" may be transitional for them as they work through their grief.

The above terms are not like that. They distance, they hide, they create a specialised jargon that adds - or tries to add - status and dignity whether or not anyone has earned those things. We don't need to shock or distress people by being too blunt, or going into too much detail, but we should try to think and speak clearly about what we do when someone dies.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The belief thing and mindfulness, part 1

Life’s full of paradoxes. And we do well to let their strange dissonant music ring through our lives. It’s surely an illusion that only rational linear thought in a nice straight line can yield us valid propositions, or as we like to call them, “the truth.”

Pontius Pilate, according to the Christian Bible, (John 18 v 38) famously asked Jesus about the truth he said he was representing. Or as Francis Bacon put it, “‘What is truth,’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” 

Jesus’ answer would surely have been about faith in God, i.e. a belief system. Scholars puzzle over what Pilate meant, but in fairness to the infamous hand-washer, he raises a huge and perennially impossible question.

Some of us have a relative set of answers. Truth is only a product of a time and a place. What’s true here and now wasn’t true there and then. Truth is culturally and historically defined. Something is true until it is proved false. Or even: truth is ultimately impossible; all we can do is test the validity, the usefulness of propositions; truth is an illusion.

Maybe this was Pilate’s public position. Perhaps he was saying that Jesus didn’t seem guilty to him, but that finding the truth, in the furnace of Jerusalem’s politics, was not a feasible ambition. So, as we say nowadays, “oh, whatever….”

Some of us have an absolute set of answers: Jesus did. Many, maybe most, religious people do. They don’t study religions only in a comparative sense; they think, however tolerantly or intolerantly, that their way is the only true way. We all know the agonies and terrors this mindset can deliver to mankind, but I’m not going to get drawn into a typical internet argument: “atheists also do appalling things – Hitler was an atheist.” “yeah, but look at…” etcetcetcetc. I’m just observing that these are two different ways of looking at the world: one is relative, one is absolute.

There is also another position, the position many of us are in. We feel uneasy about a totally relativist position. Some things seem always to be true, for ever and always, anywhere, no matter what the cultural or historical context.

For example: children should never, ever, be corrupted and brutalized. We may try to understand the position, the psychology, of certain people in a particular time or place, but: they simply shouldn’t and mustn’t do it. No ifs and buts, no excuses.

That would seem to all of us to be an absolute. I hope. Even “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” said that if anyone “offends” one of these little ones, “it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the sea.”

And yet we middle-grounders simply can’t accept that there is, somewhere, one whole belief system that is uniquely and totally true, however attractive in some aspects it might appear. Conversely, we may feel that relative and rational approaches to the world about us hit the buffers on certain huge questions or feelings.

How can it be that me writing this, synapses flashing away, fingers clattering across a keyboard, neck aching etc, this life form, will one day not be? How can it be that you reading this, getting bored or irritated, will one day also not be? Our consciousnesses will simply end. 

Where does a life go? How long is eternity? How big is infinity?

Children, neither relativists nor absolutists, ask such huge questions, and if we give ourselves the chance, we too can feel a sense of profound wonder at these questions, which are only in one sense answerable.

Maths and science can provide answers. But in terms of our mental states, our mindsets, our sense of who we are, we still feel awed and bewondered. Our brains haven’t evolved to finally and comprehensively understand eternity, or to accept nothingness, non-being.

         “What’s it like, being asleep?”
“I don’t know; I was asleep at the time.”
“What’s it like being dead.”
“No-one can tell us.”

Mindfulness: a non-cult

When I started banging on about mindfulness meditation on this mighty blog I was at pains (I hope) to emphasise the fact that it’s not a cult or a sect. It is something of a movement, but only in the way that a valuable aid to healthy and productive living can become a movement.

In its frequently-encountered Western form (as opposed to its Buddhist roots) it has something of a founding father, Jon Kabat-Zinn; he doesn’t set himself up as a cult or sect leader. He simply goes about his work, travels from his Massachusetts base to visit other centres, writes and teaches. He hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, ever asked a wealthy group of young pop musicians for a month of their salaries….

But the practice of mindfulness is spreading far and wide, and is nowadays increasingly “mainstream” as opposed to “alternative.” (Useless terms, I know.) Perhaps there are dodgy offers around from people who haven’t been properly trained. I could put a brass plate up on the gate here at Mundi Mansions offering classes or individual sessions, set up a centre, turn the thing into a cult. (Can’t be arsed, actually, apart from other more honourable considerations!)

So how do we distinguish between a movement and a cult? This thought came to my mind recently when I read of what sounds to me like a truly horrible cult, based not too far from here, which has ravaged the lives of a few people I know and like very much. Perhaps some people get a lot out of it. It sounds poisonous to me. The film poster above may be mildly amusing - the reality can be very bad indeed.

Of course, Christianity was once a secret cult; it was certainly a sect that grew out of Judaism. Buddhism could perhaps be described in its early days as a sect of Hinduism. No one accredited Jesus or Gautama, they put up their brass plate, as it were, and off they went.

What’s the difference between JC and the Buddha, and – let’s call it for now Lust for Life?  (They are wealthy and quick to use lawyers.)

As it used to say on The Wire – follow the money. Modern cults often thrive by acquiring donations from people who are won over by their core belief systems, beliefs that in themselves may be innocuous or helpful. Moral pressure is exerted to get more and more money and property from believers.

Inside the cult, people often work extremely hard for the common good, which if you follow the patterns, means the good of the commercial enterprise being run by The Guru. Typically, The Guru and his inner circle will gain a lot more from this work and those donations than the rank and file. What sort of work? Mundane stuff maintaining or extending the Centre/s, brain work in writing materials, music, making videos etc, which are then sold for the benefit of the Centre. (see above.)

So it’s not the beliefs themselves that need scrutiny, it’s the social and commercial structures – difficult to see from outside, of course.

Jesus and Buddha? Didn’t make or keep a cent. Buddha had been a prince; he became a wandering ascetic looking for enlightenment. Jesus told people to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, not render unto him; he threw the money-changers out of the Temple and told his disciples to give up all they had and follow him. He also had this thing about rich people and heaven’s gate.

Then there’s good old sex. At Lust for Life, married or partnered joiners are advised to be celibate most of the time, in pursuit of enlightenment. It has been alleged (! More than once…) that The Guru used his hold over people to bring nighttime comforts to the women living this celibate life. How kind of him. It is also alleged that he wasn’t always too particular about the ages of the females involved. Lust for Life is not the only cult that has been sexually divisive, and has given a Guru access to many sexual partners.

The psychological mechanisms of cults are complex and have been researched and written about. They seem to attract two sorts of people: spiritual searchers who are open-minded but possibly na├»ve about the context of their searching, and vulnerable, depressive, lonely people who desperately need a home. God help them. The cult won’t.

The cult defence mechanism is simple but effective: those who leave and denounce are paranoid liars who couldn’t get what they wanted, it’s all fine here, just ask these good people… That’s why, although the police have more than once been to investigate complaints about Lust for Life, they haven’t been able to generate evidence. Intimidating and humiliating potential witnesses is not unique to mobland.

It’s so obvious, isn’t it? If a cult is secretive and exclusive to an extreme degree about how it works (not about its beliefs), it needs a good draft of fresh air through it – of disagreement, discussion, comparative judgements.

Some mindfulness courses are residential. They are not cults, it isn’t a sect. The balance it can help you achieve should actually help you veer away from cults like the toxic growths they are. You should be able to smell the stink of corruption from afar: no fresh air.

Follow the money and check the married quarters.