Sunday, 29 July 2012

Inhuman immortality

In an article on the BBC website, John Gray writes about Theodore Powys and his novel "Mr Weston's Good Wine." Gray sums up a theme of the novel thus:

"only creatures that live in passing time can know moments of undying value.
There are no such moments in a life that can never end. In such a life, there's nothing to treasure, nothing that has value because it cannot come again. Our lives have meaning because they are bounded by death."
If so, then our human mortality is a great blessing; if a creature were to live for ever, it would not be a creature of time, bounded by time. It could not know it was immortal. It would not be human. As a life, it would have no meaning. 
It seems to me one thing to wish to prolong life into a reasonably healthy old age, quite another to wish to live for ever, to attempt to deny the effects of time on oneself, to pretend that this life is not going to end.

It seems to me that if we had a soul, a spirit that survived death, it would be immortal but not human. I don't know what it would be - it wouldn't be me, or you. We have to let go of ourselves eventually - that's what makes us me and you.

Morbid thoughts? No. What is morbid is trying to stave off the effects of ageing with the surgeon's knife until my face isn't my face, denying the reality of life's ending, pretending that life goes on forever. That is - inhuman. That is the reverse of spiritually or philosophically enlightened.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Ruby Wax, depression, mindfulness

Anyone see Ruby Wax on depression and mental illness last night?

Not everyone liked it, not everyone likes her style, I guess.

I am in awe of this woman. She is a fireball, and a deeply compassionate person. Don't let her wonderfully tasteless and non-PC jokes kid you.

The documentary filled me right up more than once. The bit where a glamorous successful young business woman with OCD who must continually clean her hands and avoid contamination (we saw her opening a door at work with her foot) said that she was abused as a child, and Ms Wax said "and ever since you can never get clean enough...." 

The bit where a successful chef stormed out of one of those fatuous, harsh TV talent shows when he got a cruelly low score, and then blamed himself entirely and told us he  had thought of suicide, and went on blaming himself for those thoughts, too....

The bit where a successful designer, with work in the Design Museum, explained to a gathering of friends and colleagues that he had been suffering from depression...

And the bit where, in front of his statue, she reminded us that Churchill, national hero, suffered so badly from depression that he had to be careful, at times, not to stand too close to the track as a train came into the station. 

All very moving, and very heartening, because this woman is on the attack. She won't let us see mental illness as shameful, embarrassing, or different from a "physical" illness, because of course that's what it is, whether it's treated with drugs or talking therapies. It's a physical illness because the brain is a physical entity, all part of the same organism. 

And doubly heartening, because she is into mindfulness meditation - to be specific, MBCT, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. We saw her at the Priory (above) but also at Oxford University, where she studying for an MA in this stuff. And in a session with Prof Mark Williams, one of the leading figures in the development of MBCT in this country (or anywhere else, actually.)

There is someone I know well who is suffering from depression - thankfully not as badly as some of the people on the documentary - and she had the courage and good sense to talk to her friends about it, and seek help, via her excellent GP, so she is in line for some  Cognitive Therapy. There may very well be someone close to you who needs some help, and needs to talk about this illness. Help them out. It's a nasty illness, and it (or its reported incidence) is getting more common. It won't get better if you ignore it. And if you hear someone say "He should just pull himself together," smack 'em one from me. (Er, verbally, of course.) How often do we need to distinguish clinically-diagnosed depression from being temporarily a bit glum and self-indulgent, before it sinks in?

Mindfulness (MBCT) works, for depression. It's as simple as that. 

Ruby, I kiss your shoes.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy and evil

Just finished a short book on a huge subject: evil. "Zero Degrees of Empathy" by  Simon Baron-Cohen, who is a psychology professor, and an authority on autism. The book is right along the boundaries of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. 

In my probably crude and clumsy summary: he seeks to demonstrate that low or non-existent empathy provides pathways that can (it doesn't always) lead people to carry out acts we call "evil." 

It is possible, he says, to show that certain common circuits in the brain are fired when we are being empathic. (That's the neuroscience - it's easy to follow in general though a bit demanding for your present reviewer in the detail.) People with zero degrees of empathy don't fire up these circuits when shown material that does create responses in the  circuits in people whose empathy capabilities are in better shape.

He also discusses the degree to which zero empathy can be caused by the environment (especially the early environment, of course) and the degree to which genes are involved.

He brings in the way that even normally empathic brainwork is disrupted or shut down by stress, fear, hunger, etc, and looks at the way people do appalling things when they have been convinced that "they," the others, are less than human, not worth as much as they themselves are.

He is looking for an explanation of human evil, other than a religious one, and he is not content simply to see it as "the problem of evil." I suppose some of his broad and general statements are obvious enough - when someone does something dreadful to someone else, he (less often she) is suffering from a permanent or temporary breakdown in empathy. Well, yes, it's hard to stab someone, I would guess, if you are empathising with them. 

But his absolute emphasis on empathy, and his location of it in the way the brain works, struck me as a new and invaluable insight, based on research and careful thought. If he's right, the depths of human cruelty are not caused by an additional phenomena that most of us don't have most of the time: evil. It's actually caused by a lack of something most of us do have to some degree most of the time: empathy.

The author champions empathy as a civilising treasure to be nourished and cared for. He writes of the "pot of gold" that is the empathic personality that develops in a child who is well supported, loved and properly cared for.

My further thought is this: if adults accept and truly live with the fact of their own mortality, if they see life as a precious and singular event, then perhaps that state of being encourages empathy. From empathy comes compassion - not only in a general way, but also for this person here and now.

If the fact of your own death has never truly occupied you, then perhaps that makes it easier to make light of another's well-being, and perhaps their life too. 

"Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." And at once I am linked to common humanity. It is difficult for me consistently to commoditise people, to see them merely as agencies towards what I want to do, to objectify them entirely, if I know that their bell is also tolling for me.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Funeral Music Choices and The Parting Glass

Lots of people spend lots of time choosing music for their own funeral, and very occasionally (one hopes) for someone else, someone close to them. As a funeral celebrant, I spend quite a lot of time discussing musical choices with people, and helping them deliver their choices. My thinking is beginning to clarify a bit on this topic.

Choosing your own funeral music is a kind of turbo-driven desert island discs, I guess. Conventionally, only three or four tracks. People seem often to choose favourites, and sometimes, songs about grief, parting, death and so on. I think it may be less for their actual, imagined and planned funeral, more for a spot of musing about life and death and maybe (cynical old bag-Ed.) feeling sorry for themselves as they realise that their life, too, will end. (It's being so cheerful as keeps 'er goin' - Ed.)

I get the feeling that often, people haven't actually twigged the crucial fact that they won't be there to hear them! The music is for the mourners - bleeding' obvious, but let that sink in a bit, and it might change your choices. Do they really want to hear your splendid dry wit being exercised one last time, as the curtain swings round to "Ring of Fire? Or "Great Balls of Fire?" This in't to do with being censorious or narrow-minded. It's to do with suiting the occasion, the essential tone and rhythm of a particular funeral, the emotional journey it involves.

I think it may be better to leave a few suggestions of music you like that might help your beloveds, and let them decide. It may be something close to your own heart, and/or it may actually be something that suits the occasion - a funeral - and the people there.

I'm more and more in favour of occasion-al music, whether that's Bob Marley or Beethoven's late quartets; music that helps the occasion. And what does help might be surprising. I was concerned when a family chose evergreen Cliff Richard's ancient hit "Summer Holiday" to leave to. I related it to the person's character, and said it was a cheeky, cheerful song which should help us through the doors. Smiles and nods broke out across the room. Everyone seemed to love it. It sure did help them through the doors. Spot on, for an occasion-al track. Wouldn't suit me, suited them.

Here's a borderline one for you - The Parting Glass. It casts a certain tone over "farewell." (Though it doesn't have to be quite so melancholy as the splendid Walin' Jennies make it.) 

But NB: it does talk about all the girls he's known who wished he could have spent just one more day with them. H'mmm. Hostage to fortune. I knew of a case where the widow discovered that her husband had another family - wife, kids, household - at the other end of the country. And "she" was at the funeral. This song would have started a fight, I'd guess...

So maybe we should concentrate on the occasion, and the people there, rather than just riffing through our favourite CDs (or vinyl, or 78s, or cylinders....)

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Mindful Rainbow "hippie" vs awful folkie part 2

(The pic is actually Sarah Adams, an Australian musical comedy performer, as "Jade the Folk Singer," a highly successful piss-take. 'Nuff said...)

(and the "hippy" and the folkie are only versus each other in their effect on me.)

I like the very baggy genre known as "folk," or "singer-songwriter." I try to stay open to new sounds. But.

The same evening I chatted to the Rainbow people, I went to a local gig, in a lovely little village hall up in the hills. The gig was put on by a local female folkie/singer-song writer. The headliners were very good. All through the folkie's preceding set I was trying to look neutral, and thoughtful. It was a local thing, lovely atmosphere, kids charging round rearranging chairs, all nice. Didn't want to look like a grumpy old bag.

She was dire. She wrote her own material, and I think she probably has something, but she manages to throw it away because she doesn't know how to communicate with her audience. She doesn't so much work for her audience as expect them to love her. Muttered, inaudible introductions. Waves and hellos to people she knew (most of them - she lives there) in a way that made it feel like a private function we'd drifted in to by mistake. Her guitar playing, although it did strengthen as she progressed, sounded like "A Tune a Day," about page 10. She has adopted a highly mannered way of singing, perhaps because she wanted to sound like someone well-known (possibly not well-known to me.) She needs, I thought, to sing much more straight out and directly, until she finds her own distinctive voice. And when she ended a song, she said "thank you" before we'd applauded, which for me harks back to the very worst of the folk-club singers from my distant youth.

OK, she was probably feeling nervous and self-conscious, but if you put on a gig, and if you want to communicate with an audience which is not just composed of your mates...

My word, was I feeling judgemental, full of ancient knowledge and experience, highly critical...

A quick look at part of my background (this post is eventually about mindfulness, honest): In the 60s we could be a very choosy, sarcy lot. I remember a gig with a Merseybeat trio The Big Three. No dis to them now or since, but they were dire, too. They tried "What'd I Say," the Ray Charles song that was a classic even then. In the song there's a call and response bit, you'll remember.  He sang out "hey..." Long silence, then a very loud raspberry echoed round the university hall. Not kind. But maybe that's partly why the music in the sixties was (some of it) so sharp. We took the stuff seriously, we were looking for music to live by, not sonic wall-paper, we listened a lot and were critical as well as sometimes adulatory, and we knew a lot.

So here am I in the village hall suffering this self-indulgent non-performance, and I'm thinking about mindfulness.

Should I simply accept what she was offering? (The gig was very cheap, excellent value over all) Should I refrain from judgement, comparison and criticicism? I wondered what my mindful Rainbow person would have thought. Music has different purposes. Trance and rave-type music seems, to my ears, often to have very little happening, very little change to it. Presumably, that's the point, for the state of mind it seeks to encourage. Fine. Saying "this has a monotonous harmonic structure" merely = "This lettuce doesn't taste of leeks."

But the folkie wanted us to listen to her songs, and she'd written them with some designs on our attention and our emotions. I can't just switch off the bit of me that makes judgements when I listen to music. I have to distinguish between what suits me and what doesn't, or I'll drown in a sonic tsunami.

So I conclude rather lamely that sometimes we have to compare and distinguish, judge and decide, and that isn't the time for a totally mindful sort of acceptance.

Being totally in the moment whilst listening to that singer was beyond me, so was being non-judgemental. But I could have been more compassionate, and maybe I was, a bit. I didn't stalk out of there, I applauded politely. And she didn't get the raspberry.

I fear one day she might.

Mindful Rainbow "hippy" vs awful folkie

Two interestingly contrasting experiences recently.

There's a small encampment nearby of Rainbow people, in a lovely spot by the sea. Common land, and despite some local huffing and puffing, no worries so far. They stay for a maximum of one month, and don't come back, they say, within seven years, and they are only here to celebrate the new moon.

(Actually they weren't in tipis, as above, they were mostly in ordinary tents, plus a couple of bell tents and a sort of bender for the kitchen.)

I wandered down to see how they were getting on in the God-awful weather we've been having, and chatted to a woman on the beach with her child, who seemed to be enjoying life by the sea. I was intensely curious but tried to not be too intrusive, and she was quite reserved but friendly. I quickly realised that she would neither make nor accept generalisations.

I asked her if, because they were celebrating a natural event (one that most of us don't even notice) that meant they were pagans. She looked thoughtful and said "some us might say they were." She'd told me that they came from all sorts of backgrounds, and met up from time time to live together for a while and bring what each of them could - food, skills musical or otherwise, or "just - love," she said.

"Do any of you travel permanently?" I asked. She thought again, and said, "Yes, I think some of us might." We talked about local reactions, and a poor-quality, silly piece of journalism in the local paper (that was me, not her - she said nothing critical at all.) But she said how just that morning a villager had been friendly and open-minded with her in a launderette.

She said a particularly interesting thing. She drew an analogy with the Brazilian rain forest, the way that many people who are never going to go there are simply pleased to know it's there, and hope that it will be OK. Maybe, she thought, some people feel like that about this sort of gathering; they wouldn't necessarily want to join it, but it's something they're pleased to know is going on.

Well, that's me. I'm too addicted to showers and toilets to camp like that. And maybe I'd have felt differently if there'd been hundreds of  them, but I was pleased they were there. Some sort of flame being carried forward, in our often harsh and competitive culture, with its corrupt power structures and self-deceiving wastefulness.

She said people are welcome to come and visit them, and when we parted, she gave me a hug - "we always do," she said. She was, I think, a very calm, peaceful, accepting sort of person. She was not as naive as I'm making her sound; when it was raining heavily all day, they sheltered in a large bell tent, and she said that after a couple of days the inter-personals got a bit tricky. I bet. Camping sauvage takes a lot of effort, and who likes washing up in the rain?

As I wandered off, it dawned on me. I reckon that least for the duration of her stay with the Rainbow camp, she was living very much in the present moment, mindfully (whether she knows the name and the concept or not.) She was disinclined to judge, to generalise, to counter arguments, more inclined to think through a point, accept, add something to what was being said. She wasn't critical, as I was, of the  views expressed in the local paper. In fact, she wasn't inclined to be judgemental about anything.

Another thing I liked - they weren't in the least "look at us, we're being alternative." None of that self-conscious exhibitionism that sometimes can be cringeworthy at, say, a festival (I mean a commercially-run mass audience festival.) They were just doing their thing. I didn't feel she was being a "hippy," she was just being herself.

Maybe joining the Rainbow gathering, especially a small-scale one, works like a retreat, only instead of a mediative, largely silent experience, to encourage mindfulness, it is a communal one. You have to concentrate on doing the essentials; it won't work if you are critical or judgemental of the other people there. Too much negativity flying around would break things up, and they managed to endure days of heavy intermittent rain.

 "Before enlightenment, it's chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, it's chopping wood and carrying water."

And the contrasting experience? Coming here soon.

Monday, 9 July 2012

This book may change your death - and so maybe your life

If you:

want to think about the profound mystery of mortality, and the cycle of life and death

want practical help on making good funerals happen

think that ritual and ceremony surrounding final goodbyes is too often anaemic and conventional

like conventional ceremonies, but want to make a funeral for someone close to you belong to you instead of to the funeral "industry"

want to challenge, develop and liberate your own ideas about death and funerals

enjoy looking at, handling and then reading important books that are beautiful to look at as well as profoundly useful

then BUY this cased set of excellence. Because it's brilliant, and because an important charity could use the income to help us all die better.

If you:

like the conventional, impersonal funeral "industry"

think you're going to live for ever

think it's all someone else's funeral

think a funeral needs to be a swift and superficial event, to be got over with before we have a drink and talk about the traffic and the weather,
 then - I don't know why you're reading this, but I'm pleased you are because it's even more important for people like you.

Face it. The Reaper has a 100% hit rate so far. He is touring your area. Deal with it. Get the book. You can't fend him off or smack him with it - but people who love you may be very pleased if you and they have bought it and read it and thought about before he rolls into your life. (OK, that's scare tactics, I'm sorry, but it's very difficult to deliver an effective, helpful funeral in five days if you've never thought about it before, and it's a bit late to accept your own mortality just when the Old Bastard knocks on the door!)

The Natural Death Handbook. Available from The Natural Death Centre at:

Naked mindfulness students ignore loud mass lecture.

Aha! That's got your attention, gentle reader!

OK, it's a cheap if ancient trick, but it's getting lonely around here. If you occasionally drop by and read stuff from me about mindfulness, or funerals, or dealing with mortality, or if you pick up a video clip you like:

Do say hello, leave a comment, argue a point, tell me when/if it's boring, useful or what.

It's been horribly quiet in the old comments box of late, and if I'm boring you that much, maybe I'll just totter off and do crochet work instead?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Mindfulness: not a belief system

It seems to be difficult to avoid polarizing people by belief. A particularly crude question is the one asked of a family by some undertakers: do you want a religious or a non-religious funeral?

They should, in my view, be asking about the kind of ceremony that’s wanted, and the sort of person, if any, they want to help them create it. Many funerals that are not taken by an ordained Christian minister, but by people like me, have some element of belief, or spirituality. And some Christian ministers will reduce to their essential minimum the amount of Christian doctrine in a funeral, if that’s what the family wants.

That’s just one example of the inaccurately polarizing effect of dividing the world into believers and non-believers. It ignores the realities around us, in our society at least.

There is another way of thinking that simply side-steps polarisations along the lines of belief/unbelief.

I started off this exciting mini-series by writing about paradox, and its value. This middle state of being could allow one to be both a believer and a nonbeliever. It can tolerate paradox; that’s because it could be categorised as a state of mind, a state of being, rather than a set of beliefs. It doesn’t need to have a defining attitude towards truth, absolute or relative.

I think that many of us have a feeling, at an almost instinctive rather than rational level, for a sense of unity with the natural world. It might be the powers and cycles of nature in my garden, or on a storm-driven shore in Ireland, or looking at a distant galaxy through a telescope. It can generate a sense of wonder and humility (galaxy) or comfortable at-oneness (my garden.) But chiefly what seems to happen is that the ego is calmed by a sense of being part of something, neatly symbolised for me by the picture above borrowed with thanks from the website.

This sense of unity, of losing for a while the sense of a self standing apart from the world, can perhaps be approached through some rational realisations. For example, we are not one “me,” we are complex collections of micro-organisms and systems that interact with the world in ways well beyond the usual reach of our five senses. However rational we may feel ourselves to be, the forces of nature work on us in ways we are unaware of, day-to-day.  We feel at home on the planet because we evolved in it, with it in us – the planet grew us; our components came from the stars, etc etc.

But ultimately, there may be a sense of unity we cannot approach through reason or factual argument or concepts. This ego-calming, this presentmomentness, can’t be created by chains of words and conceptual thoughts such as these.

This sense of unity, this state of mind is usually called “mystical,” and an ancient route to it was and is meditation. Meditation involves bringing about states of mind other than those we use to cook the dinner or get to work or plan tomorrow or regret yesterday.

These states of mind involve living as far as possible, in the present moment. Entirely. Let go of the narrative chain of thoughts, stop writing little scripts about what you are going to do or should have done, and just be. You’ll fail, and then succeed, and then fail, and then succeed. When you succeed for a little while, you may feel strange to yourself, a little outside your usual self.

I remember the first few times I felt this, way back in boyhood. It was slightly disconcerting, and nothing to do with meditation, it just happened, but for some reason I was able to revisit it sometimes. Mindfulness meditation brings it back and helps me retain it for a while. The effect is very calming, at a deeper level than just “relaxing.” It spills over into the times that I am not meditating, or not even consciously relaxing.

It doesn’t matter what you believe the ultimate truth to be about Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or Krishna - or Charles Darwin. It’s not about your beliefs. They needn’t get in the way at all. (Some belief systems may help you get there, but that’s another story.)
The techniques derive from Buddhist meditation. The experience may be similar to some states of union with the world, or with God, described by religious mystics, whether Sufi, Christian or Hindu. The state of mind may be what the Tao Te Ching is talking about:

A mind free of thought
         merged within itself,
         beholds the essence of Tao (“the Way”)
A mind filled with thought,
         identified with its own perceptions,
         beholds the mere forms of this world.

So mindfulness takes us to an essence, an essen-tial mental state. Most of the time, quite naturally and necessarily, our minds are filled by their own perceptions, the chatter of thoughts flowing along….

But if you are a rationalist who thinks such things as the Tao are mystifying twaddle rather than mystical union, no matter. You can still encourage this state of mind with simple enough techniques that are in themselves “non-religious.”

Mindfulness meditation, to relieve stress or depression, or simply to place yourself in a better relation with your existence, is a beliefs-free set of techniques. It can, I think, help you get to that state of being at one that is ultimately impossible to describe. You just know when you’re there.

It’s not about belief; it’s experiential, not conceptual. Its benefits are very great, and as pragmatic as you like, or as spiritual as you want to make it. Either way, why not spend a little time each day entirely in the present moment? You’ll feel better for it, and: so will those close to you.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Eric Bibb - Come Back Baby

One man with his guitar singing about the heart of loss. 

In his recorded version there is more break in his voice, a heartbreaking sound.

In a funeral? Well, I think it would hurt, but then it might also help.

"Come back baby, let's talk it over, one more time..." 

If only...

Rifkindism - mindfulness and belief part 2

The internet wars of religion/atheism seem to have died down somewhat, though the argument is still there, of course. Maybe I’ve just pulled out, because mostly, it’s boring and repetitive. But in the wider world, conflicts over religion+politics rage on in the usual terrifying way. What is the Truth? Does the Taliban wield it, or is it being defended by the U.S. Marine Corps? Or....

Last post, I was trying to consider absolute vs relative ways of looking at truth, and identifying a third “not sure” way that so many people seem to live in.

Hugo Rifkind in The Spectator, 23 June 2012, touches on one kind of “not sure”ness after attending a Christening in a country church. He writes “other people’s religions pose no problem for me. I’m rather an Anglican agnostic rationalist Jewish  disestablishmentarian, in this respect.” He wonders if anyone has done a study of the degree to which atheism is an urban phenomenon, and decides that:

“Your urban atheist, I suspect, strips back religion to just the God bit, and that’s why they find it so inexplicably stupid. But that’s exactly the bit the core religious aren’t concentrating on. That is why the very rational views of people like Richard Dawkins make some, like me, feel terribly uncomfortable. He thinks he’s declaring war on suicide bombers, intolerance and female circumcision. But it comes across, to people who have nothing to do with these things, as a war against niceness, biscuits, and the quiet humility of everyone getting along.”

Despite his jokey tone, he makes an interesting point. You don’t have to accept the core belief systems of a religion to have it as part of your individual identity, your cultural reference point, and it may help people get along better. Or as someone put it neatly about religious ritual, “it’s simply what we do around here.”

Maybe that’s why atheists sometimes enjoy Christmas carols and that whole magnificent story which they must see, in essence, as a myth – but Christmas (or Diwali, or Hanuka, or….) may simply be what people do around here. It’s part of what makes people feel they belong, even if they feel that creationism is dangerous nonsense and Darwin was pretty much spot on.

It is, however, at that sort of crux that we have to make our choices: Darwin or Christian fundamentalist views of the origins of life? It matters very much in education. And that is where Rifkind’s civilized aversion to polarizing views around the truth of religious doctrine reaches its limit.

There are “either/or” issues with roots in religious differences, and that’s not only in areas of appalling conflict where religious difference is welded to tribal or ethnic differences to create lethal political strife. (Although in a sense, what does it matter if a mass murderer is an Islamist bomber or that Norwegian monster currently on trial? “By their fruits shall ye know them,” whatever their beliefs.)

There is another mode of thought and being, a different middle way that is not about belief at all, not about The One Truth. It could be categorised as a state of mind, a state of being, rather than a set of beliefs or an attitude towards truth. I’ll finish off this mini-series in a third instalment. Yes, I know, the tension is unbearable...