Wednesday, 29 August 2012

hill walk mindfulness: what the water said

Two little bits of mindfulness potential whilst walking in Snowdonia. Might only interest anyone who meditates, and possibly walkers like me, of a certain age and oddness?

Sometimes my feet tend to find the best place to put themselves on their own. I'm reasonably experienced in the hills (but no tiger in such matters) and those years of walking mean my feet often find a rhythm, and it's very pleasurable to let them do it. (Doesn't work in my least favourite walking environment, chaotic piles of small and medium boulders such as you often find on the upper slopes below a summit. You have to take care there and watch every step, or you'll turn an ankle.) 

When feet do their own thing like this, my thoughts are freed up, and I pay just the necessary minimum of attention to the next step. Walkers will, I hope, know what I mean.

But I can also turn this into a walking meditation, by putting my mind into (as it were) my feet, one at a time, and into the small patch of ground around them. If thoughts wander, bringing them back to those feet, there. Very calming, and it helps with fatigue and the odd bit of A.D. -derived joint pain. A peaceful day in the Carneddau on a solo walk helps get one into such a state, for short spells at least.

Then there's the water.

Standing by a waterfall - not a huge spectacular waterfall, a tourist mecca etc, just one of the many beautiful small cataracts running off the mountains after wet weather. Letting my mind stay with the water. Having to let go of conceptual thoughts about not being able to put your foot into the same river twice* or running scripts that maybe it would be worth a blog post etc. 

Staying with the ever-rapidly-changing forms of the water as it falls and breaks and foams; staying with the sound. Eventually I'm there with the water, listening to what it says - which is nothing and everything.

Then it starts to rain a little. Time to move down the cwm, time to notice again the ancient joints and the need for a cup of tea. Back from now into the flow of time and events.

On reflection, I decided that the water was saying to me something like"be." No more, no less. A kind of blessing.

*a well-known, simple and I've always thought profound saying (Heraclitus, very ancient Greek) Because the word "river" is a concept, a category, and we need it to be relatively stable so we can impose meanings on the world around us. But an actual river, there right in front of you, is water on the move, ever-changing, every second, molecule by molecule. As everything is changing - even the seemingly eternal Carneddau, which were once as high as the Alps.....

with thanks to Afon Llafar.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

High Seriousness amongst funeral directors

OK, most of us wouldn't like it if undertakers were cracking one-liners as they took the coffin into the crem, but I'm interested in the way some of the more traditional sort seem to regard themselves as guardians of community propriety in the "correct" approach to grief. 

It's well enough known that people who are shocked and grieving often succumb, suddenly and unexpectedly, to a fit of the giggles.
It's also quite well-known that in Wales, people get given an informal surname relating to their occupation. So if I'd run a chip shop for a year forty years ago in a small village in mid-Wales, they'd probably still call me "Gloria Chips."

The undertaker in a small town/large village down there was known, for obvious reasons, as "Gareth Box." A friend of mine had lost her dad, and the family were sitting around the front room arranging matters with Gareth Box when something gave them a fit of the giggles. Gareth Box, in full funereal fig, leaned forward and said reproachfully (you have to imagine a solemn, elderly Welsh accent at this point) 

"This is not a jocular occasion."

It's surely for the family to decide what is and isn't solemn or amusing on such an occasion. Of course undertakers need to be tactful and watchful, they can't breeze in to the house full of good cheer. But it is not for them to try and establish what is proper. I wonder if some of the assumption of dignity and formality is no more than self-protection, psychic insulation?

Well, it didn't work for Gareth Box, I'm afraid. It made the family giggle all the more, and from then on, it became a family saying, at appropriate or inappropriate moments. 

"This is not a jocular occasion."

Friday, 24 August 2012

Funeral celebrancy - a paradoxical status

I sometimes feel a bit like the little chap in the picture, making something (a ceremony) in which my role looks simple in plan, but turns out to be full of paradox, ultimately impossible. 

Any celebrants out there dis/agree with any of this? Do chip in:

1. I didn't know the person who's died, but I have (usually) to present a picture of her - life story plus essential characteristics, looking for the spark of recognition in the upturned faces. If I overdo it, people will feel I am being presumptuous. If I undercook it, the congregation will find it harder to feel the connection. A catalogue of jobs, hobbies and retirement activities, and health problems doesn't do. We need to feel the uniqueness of the person, but the only possible view, for me to use, is the one from one or two people in the family. It's my empathy, imagination, background knowledge I shall have to draw on. Mustn't over do it....

2. I want to give the event some ritualistic power, some ceremonial effect, but the common threads for assembling such a thing are few and faded. Ritual and ceremony evolve over time, but we're trying to invent them. It kind of works, sometimes. 

3. I need to stay in control of the ceremony, however distressing the circumstances. But celebrants who can't bring love and compassion to the people they are working for should perhaps be doing something else. Those qualities cannot be faked as part of a professional performance, but my part of the proceedings needs to be calm and ordered. I need to be moved, I won't help anyone if I lose it.

4. I draw on my own emotions, my own thoughts about mortality and loss, but if I draw too deeply I run the risk of exhausting and depressing myself. If I don't draw upon anything of mine, the ceremony may lack my own personal commitment, therefore it will lack authenticity. If I drain myself over a few weeks, I'll be less able to energise the next funeral.

5. I don't want to take on too many funerals (see above) but if I turn down a request, I worry that a suitable alternative may not be available. (That's not, I hope, vanity, merely availability of celebrants who are at least as good (or bad) as me.)

6. I'm not in it for the money, but I find it difficult sometimes not to feel cross about the attitudes towards celebrancy fees from the rest of the funeral so-called profession.

7. Who am I to talk about the meaning of a life I never knew, and draw from it something for the people to carry away with them? Yet I know how hard it is for family members to make that sort of synthesis - much as I want to see them do as much of the funeral for themselves as they can. It's probably only people with considerable cultural resources, time, maybe money, who can do that for those close to them.

8. Celebrants often feel they need to present an honest picture of the person, but they don't want to hurt feelings, they want to help people along with their grieving. It's not a forensic activity; yet no-one respects a whitewash.

9. Celebrants often want to transform the way our culture "does" end-of-life matters in general and funerals in particular. But here and now, most people want something fairly or very conventional.

10. There is no such thing as a secular funeral that is ideally suited to purpose, occasion and dead person. It's an impossible job. 

It's the best job I've ever had.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Slow Olympics

I'm not being anti-Olympic events (except the ones I think are silly) but I am anti the ceaseless jabbering hype, the relentless trumpeting of nationality, the way our national team was "expected" to win medals, as if they owed it to us! (I write as a Brit.)

When I take over, this will be the model:

In  addition to the Fast/Superfit/Relentlessly Competitive Noisy Olympics, and the utterly wonderful Paralympics, there will be a Slow Olympics. cf the Slow Food Movement, I guess. More of that in a mo.

For the Fast Olympics:

There will be no national teams. People will compete as individuals. When they wish or need to form teams, they can use totemic or clan-type names. "The Sea Otters." "Lightning Strikes." etc

It follows that there will be no national anthems, or grandiose pseudo-national anthemic "Olympian" tunes.

There will be no hyper-expensive artificial facilities, unaffordable by many countries, and so encouraging events that are much more likely to be won by people from richer countries. Bikes will race on roads, not in velodromes. If a country hasn't got natural white water, then there won't be a kayak slalom etc. Events will be tailored to suit the host country. If we don't do that, the Olympic Sybaritic Pomp and Circumstance Committee will run out of nations wealthy enough to put the Fast Olympics on!

There will be no exclusive deals with multi-nationals offering sponsorship, and no products damaging to health will be allowed as sponsors. Heads of state will only attend as private individuals. Celebrations will be only and entirely for the skill, speed, endurance of individuals.

For the Slow Olympics:

There will be a gathering of people interested in the quality of their own lives, and therefore of the lives around them. The goal of any activities will be calmness, understanding, and compassionate insight. The vehicle for such insights will be beauty. People will sort themselves into various activity groupings, and they will be transported to sites of natural beauty, where they will  hike, bike, meditate, sing, dance, drink wine and chat, whatever is on offer. They could row, sail or canoe, provided they didn't race, provided the object of the exercise was - exercise, and living in the present moment. 

At any sign of haste (eg jostling for the "best" spot, wanting to hurry on because something even nicer is happening an hour later) participants will be asked if they would like to start the activity again. After participants have completed a certain number of experiences, they will be given a certificate celebrating their work in the Slow Olympics movement, and asked to move on so others can take part. They will be invited to share contact details with other certificate holders, to form an international network of people seeking to live in the present moment, to show care for themselves and those around them, to integrate themselves with the powers of nature and the universe, to...

Good God, is that the time already? Must dash....

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Cropredy 2012 part II - Richard Thompson

This came somewhere towards the end of a superb set, solo to start with, then RT was joined by the youthful old lags from Fairport, and by Pete Zorn, who blows so wildly and excitingly down his saxophones that I fear one day his brain will pop out of the bell, still fizzing with musical power. 

This and one or two other songs were particularly touching because they came from the days when RT was married to the mother of the female singer in this clip, Kammi Thompson. To see one who looks and sounds a lot like her mum, performing with her dad an emblematic song from those days, was almost too much for this nostalgia addict.

So as with Bellowhead but differently, not mindful in the meditative sense. Rather a re-entry of warming memories and positive feelings from about, ooh, I dunno, 38 years ago? A healing feeling, and therefore, afterwards, a particular calm descends. One does indeed feel in the present moment.

For me the music still moves. It may not for all, of course - but if it does and you weren't there - well, you should have heard "The Wall of Death...."

It is the sort of music, I find, that seems to have created a soundtrack for my life. The Long Suffering One by my side was also totally immersed, until I made her jump and me hoarse with my excessively enthusiastic yells after this track.

Cropredy Capers - Bellowhead and mindfulness too?

This clip, despite inevitably poor sound quality, gives, I hope, some sense of the phenomenal energy and drive of this unique and glorious band in full cry. To be down the front was the sort of overwhelming excitement that I was in need of after a lot of funerals and a disturbing episode with an old friend-who-may-be-about-to-turn-into-an-ex-friend. Not so much distraction, more like total absorption.

It was one hell of a set, and (other, true) old friends who had never seen them and have been very patient with my ravings about them were astounded and elated.

Mindful? Well, it stopped me running mental scripts (you know, "maybe I should have..." or "that's typical of me, what a fool, I should have..." or "next time, I'll.." - that sort of thing) and it took me out of myself. It wasn't a meditative calm. But it was definitely a different and very refreshing place to be. Strange that this sort of high-energy, basically uncomplicated music can do that, in a different way from, say, Miles Davis or Mozart? 

If you don't know this crew - their music is firmly rooted in the English tradition, they are not straining after some tedious "new folk" concept, they have simply found their own bag. Theatricality is a big part of it. They lean towards rude old songs about maidens who don't stay that way for long. (OK ladies, but that was then and this is now. Bad old days, I daresay, but bloody good songs!) They know, in some songs, how to hold things just this side of chaos. All power to them!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Hail, Cropredy!

This blog is off to Cropredy Festival, near Banbury, Oxfordshire (England, The World, The Universe, thanks to N Molesworth for the complete address) in a couple of hours. It is a very nice festival - not big enough to overwhelm those of us of mature years, but big enough to be exciting!

It's also a lovely village with very pleasant and tolerant inhabitants. Try breakfast at the village hall - you won't regret it. 

Should I have any mindful moments to communicate after the event, I will do so. The mighty Bellowhead are playing, as well as Richard Thompson, and...well, look for yourself.

They are selling tickets at the door. See you there?

And it's all the work of these throughly decent and talented chaps, who as you can see, are also of mature years:

We shall folkrock on into the twilight.....