Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Next World?

From "The Spectator," 8th September 2012:

The Unborn

mooch about and waste time
starting things they'll never 
finish. The next world
is nothing to them but shadows,
some don't have patience
for any of that crap at all - 

What, grass, they say, waving
their wobbly arms. You mean
you actually believe in grass?

                 Kathryn Simmonds

Brains, electricity and chemicals - more silly polarisation

Our brain activity is a matter of chemical transactions - not the sort above, bottles in the chemi lab at school, but tiny amounts, tiny quantitative changes. This is obvious, I guess - we all taker mood-altering chemicals: Pinot Noir, anti-depressants, best bitter, cannabis, etcetcetcetc. Our moods are a mix of reactions in the rest of our bodies, and reactions in our brains.

And our brains run on tiny electrical currents, connecting and disconnecting neurons all the time:

(I think I've got that about right so far, should have paid more attention at school. Mind you, that's so long ago that they taught us rather more about the stuff in the first picture than the second one.)

These facts have given rise to an unhelpful set of polarisations, which we might call romantic vs scientific. The first might be caricatured thus:

"It is reductive and mechanistic to say that we are only chemical reactions and electrical connections. Romeo says of Juliet 

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

He doesn't say "Her pheromes are interacting with my hormones and I am developing reproductive urges towards her."

The second might go: "It is nonsense to ignore scientific fact. Romeo is simply disguising his wish to mate with Juliet in culturally acceptable terms, which owe nothing to reason."

Note weasel-words "only" and "simply."

This is nonsense on both sides (leaving aside the obvious fact that young man don't talk like this very often, and nowadays might well express their desires in rather earthier terms, but "RandJ" is a great play, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a lads' night out.)

The subjective reality of falling in love is every bit as powerful as the scientific explanation of what's happening. It's not either/or. The science is fascinating and rewarding to know, helps us understand our emotions and reactions to each other. To the extent that we now talk of "the right chemistry" when people get together. Shakespeare wouldn't have known what we meant.

The relevance of all this to mindfulness about mortality? It runs alongside and in some ways resembles the hopeless and useless duality of arguments between people who are close-minded about their religious beliefs, and those who are close-minded about scientific fact.

You don't have to believe in God and an afterlife to feel moments of grace, of spiritual profundity, of transcendence. You don't have to be a religious believer to acknowledge the validity of people's feelings about profound matters of life and death. You don't have to be a rigid materialist to wonder at the enlightenments that are coming from neuroscience.

I don't know what the chemical or electrical basis of compassion is, but it seems to be in short supply in our world.

"Faith, hope and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is charity."

That's so obviously true, even to one who believe, in a literal sense, only about one in a thousand of the words in the Bible.

(I'm told "charity" there is a certain kind of selfless love, and so translating it as "love" doesn't really work. Romeo's steam-heat ardour it is not; compassionate it certainly is.)

Who knows where the time goes?

A peerless song sung by its composer.

Perhaps one of the ultimate funeral songs?

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it's time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it's time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

Peerless, perhaps except for this one: 

We used to say "There'd come the day we'd all be making songs
Or finding better words" These ideas never lasted long

The way is up along the road, the air is growing thin
Too many friends who tried, blown off this mountain with the wind

Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I'm going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again

Yet now I see, I'm all alone, but that's the only way to be
You'll have your chance again, then you can do the work for me

Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I'm going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again

But then this one might suit some, as well - my neighbour wants it as his send-off....

Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travelers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call
And will you never return to see
Your bruised and beaten sons?
"Oh, I would, I would, if welcome I were
For they love me, every one"
And will you never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be?
And can you never swear a year
To anyone of we?
"No, I will never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be
But I'll swear a year to one who lies
Asleep along side of me"
Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travellers all.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Are undertakers "huge fornicators?"

I am doing my bit to polish up the image of funeral directors after recent revelations and controversies.

The connection with the lovely creature in the photo above may or may not become relevant.

Here is a translation of the original poem, by the Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, which Brian Patten adapted for his poem  "How Long Does A Man Live?" often used at funerals. It's chatty and irreverent, but perhaps actually rather profound. FD rebuttals of their new image in this poem are welcomed, but enthusiastic agreement with it are applauded!

And How Long?

How long does a man live, after all?

Does he live a thousand days, or only one?

A week, or several centuries?

How long does a man spend dying?

What does it mean to say "for ever?"

Lost in these preoccupations,
I set myself to clear things up.

I sought out knowledgeable priests,
I waited for them after their rituals,
I watched them went they went their ways
to visit God and the Devil.

They wearied of my questions.
They on their part knew very little;
they were no more than administrators.

Medical men received me
in between consultations,
a scalpel in each hand,
saturated in aureomycin,
busier each day.
As far as I could tell from their talk,
the problem was as follows:
it was not so much the death of a microbe - 
they went down by the ton -
but the few which survived
showed signs of perversity.

They left me so startled
that I sought out the grave-diggers.
I went to the rivers where they burn
enormous painted corpses,
tiny bodies,
emperors with an aura
of terrible curses,
women snuffed out at a stroke
by a wave of cholera.
There were whole beaches of dead
and ashy specialists.

When I got the chance
I asked them a slew of questions.
They offered to burn me;
it wass the only thing they knew.

In my own country the undertakers
answered me, in between drinks:
"Get yourself a good woman
and give up this nonsense."

I never saw people so happy.

Raising their glasses they sang,
toasting health and death.
They were huge fornicators.

I returned home, much older
after crossing the world.

Now I question nobody.

But I know less every day.

                    Pablo Neruda

Meditative Monkeys and Mysticism

Well, that's fine, but thing is - it makes no difference just saying so, does it?

The common denominator of the mystical experience is a feeling of oneness with the universe, with God, however you want to express it to fit your belief/nonbelief system. The essence seems to be a loss of the separate ego, a state of being which feels in total harmony with everything else. A state of being that is not a matter of conceptual thought or language-based argument. And it is of course ultimately futile to try to describe it.

The very word "mysticism" often brings rational secularists out in a rash. That's a pity. Insofar as I am a rational secularist, I can't see any conflict. I'm confident that neuroscience will soon be able to map - maybe it already can map - this mental state. It can certainly map meditative states. 

Experience of deep meditation, the usual but not the only gateway into a state of mystical union, does not turn you into a wooly-minded follower of nonsense. It is "simply" a mental state, or can be seen as such. Can also be seen as union with God, if that's the  net of meanings you cast over the universe.

Coming from the other end, people who are scared of/annoyed by rational approaches to spiritual matters sometimes seem to think that the neuroscientists and "explainers" of mystical and meditative states are somehow off-piste, and should mind their own business. Just seems to me like yet another example of futile polarisations. 

It's been decades since it was discovered that you could observe the brain-wave patterns of people in deep meditative states, and now we can actually see these states as activities in different areas of the brain, via MRI scans. This sort of work ought surely to convince sceptical rationalists that states of deep meditative calm can be observed, it's not an illusion or a con trick.

This is a Japanese macaque. It has been found that they can quite deliberately calm themselves, and escape a very hot day, by getting into water and entering a state that can be described as meditative, or at least, "mulling things over." I've banged on about them before:

With all due respect, if a Japanese monkey can quite literally chill out, then we all can. Or does being human in 2012 make that harder to do?

Feeling at one with "things," the universe, is surely a good and healing thing, even if for a short time, and only occasionally. The safest and most immediately realisable gateway is meditation. It takes some steady practice and application. Mindfulness meditation can help with depression, pain and anxiety; it can also open other doors, those doors of perception that Blake said needed to be cleansed for us to see things as they truly are.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Alpine Walking Mindfulness

This is the Col de Salenton, 2562 metres. By the time I'd reached it, I was ready to be buried under this damned great cairn thing, but lunch and a little light ribaldry from the rest of the group got me back on my feet. A few of us then went up le Mont Buet, but your correspondent and the rest headed downhill. Tricky descent at first, nasty steep chaotic rocky bit, then beautiful path down the valley to the road, via a delightful refuge.

We walked three very long days, very beautiful but it all made new demands on my stamina. Not much time for mindful meditation, and on many sections of the path, too much vigilance needed to let the feet find their own way. But my ways of staying in the present, which I pass on to you in case they ring any bells or might be of any use, were these:

1. Stop conceptualising what you're doing. It's no help to keep thinking "this is twice as far as I've ever walked in Snowdonia," or "we're at about 1900 metres, so, Good God, that's another six hundred metres of ascent, that's more than half the height of Snowdon and I'm knackered already, how can I..." etcetcetc. No help at all. Especially if you're walking with more experienced people who know the way, you can drop all that stuff, it's in the head, not on the path.

2. Don't keep looking ahead at the objective (the col, the peak, the refuge, the lead walker) because it encourages "why isn't the damned thing getting any closer?" And that may make you hurry beyond your capacity to do so.

3. I know this is contrary to the usual meditative way of staying in the present, but do let your mind run on if develops a train of thought, and a repetitive tune in your head can also help.

4. Stop anticipating pain and exhaustion, and this may mean consciously letting go of tense neck or shoulder muscles. If you're OK at present, you're OK, just keep doing it. Trust yourself to keep going. You'll know if you really can't carry on, and the rest is mostly just fussing yourself up.

There's loads of practical stuff too, of course - stop and drink when you want to, don't worry about being first or last, etc, mostly common sense. But the inner workings stuff had a lot to do with my being able to make it OK.

These feet, this path, here and now, one step at a time.

I don't mean it to sound like an endurance test, it was hard going sometimes but it was  - bloody marvellous! And much of the time it was all very here and now, a simple life for a few days.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Good Funeral Awards - moi?

Look, this isn't mock modesty - I was entirely astonished and entirely delighted to have this blog nominated, and to have been runner-up to the website "Final Fling," which has, I believe,  thousands of readers. I just chunter on about stuff which I need to think about and collect a handful of patient people who occasionally drop me a line in response, and suddenly I'm up there on the podium in my floral house coat with my hair in curlers  amongst the elegantly good and eloquently great of the Funereal Revolution. 

"... and finally...(sob)...thanks to my long-suffering cat...(sob)...without whom..."

No, people were spared any such nonsense, because the awards were presented at an event in Bournemouth, which I couldn't, alas and chiz, attend, because: 

1. this blog needs to be anonymous - tedious perhaps, but I need to be able to comment on and describe funerals I've helped with, without making anyone involved feel uncomfortable, and 

2. because I was already committed to a walking holiday as a member of a party of like-minded loonies, and if someone drops out, the cost for all goes up. I'll drop a line or two about mindful stuff and the walking when I've recovered from the trip. Which was wonderful, btw.

I digress. That's because I am a bit stunned.

Important point is - bravo and hooray for all involved in turning a wizard wheeze into what was clearly a highly successful event. It must have been very hard word indeed. And has been pointed out, any of us involved owe shed-loads of gratitude to Charles Cowling.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Le Grand Balcon and Stephen Levine - mindfulness and dealing with the fear of death part 3

This blog is taking a week off to do a spot of mid-level walking in the French Alps, where I hope the weather will be as it is in this photo. (My walking group has no horse, however...)

There are quite possibly some slightly scary bits on the path, though, I'm assured, all perfectly safe if one isn't an idiot. H'mmm...

The book below has something interesting, nay, rewarding things to say about fear, and specifically the fear of death. It isn't a book about the last year of an individual life, i.e. it isn't a cancer log, or similar. It is about trying to live as if one had a year left to live. Which means of course, living in the present moment. So in a sense, it's "another" book about mindfulness, though it isn't a course book. Or maybe it is...

I'm still in the middle of it. It's clearly written. He believes that we have a spirit that moves on after death, but even if you don't believe that, it has much to recommend it.

A bientôt.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Jaques, depression, and Dealing With the Fear of Death part 2

I saw "As You Like It" recently. Here is the well-known speech by Jaques, which even if you know it well, is worth, I feel, revisiting, to get the full power of the last sentence:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I was lucky enough to see Alan Rickman as Jaques in the eighties. At the heart of a wonderful comedy was something truly chilling and disturbing.

The stage melancholic was, I understand, an increasingly fashionable figure in Shakespeare's day. So let's accept that Jaques is playing a part here, he is self-consciously being a melancholic character.

But it struck me when I heard these lines once again (and no doubt this is obvious enough) he is in a state of what these days we would call depression. He says nothing positive, does he? He puts himself at a distance from the rest of humanity and turns a cold and weary eye on it. The baby mewls and pukes - well, they do, but generally we don't regard them with disdain for doing so. The schoolboy whines. The obsessed lover writes daft poems to an eyebrow. The soldier risks getting blown to bits for what? Reputation. Huh. And so on.

Then eventually, we get to the dreadful ending, that of which so many of us are scared - old age as a second childhood, helpless, with what now we call dementia.

Poor Jaques. He can't take it, can he? The roles we act out as we progress through life count as nothing for him, because of the way he thinks life dwindles and is extinguished. He gets none of the warmth and comfort that comes from being engaged with the stages of life we see round us, from feeling compassion and identity with other people. He is analytical, cold, remote, self-conscious. What Sylvia Plath called the Bell Jar of depression has descended, and cut him off from the rest of us. Eventually, even the Forest of Arden isn't remote enough from human folly, and he goes into some sort of religious retreat from the world. Let's hope there he finds some peace, some comfort, some easing of his pain, some thawing of his disgust and terror.

Just as well that Jaques didn't encounter mindful meditation in the Forest - it might have helped him with his fear of death, eased depression, helped him face his own mortality - and then we would never have had this wonderful speech. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Dealing with the Fear of Death part 1

 I was asked recently why I started "doing" mindfulness. I answered by relating it to my work as a funeral celebrant. I've said often enough here and hereabouts that it is not depressing work, but it's Big Stuff. You find yourself staring at a lot of coffins in the course of a year.

I needed something to help me deal with what this magnificent poem by Thomas Hardy says, so painfully and so clearly:

               During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs—
       He, she, all of them—yea,
       Treble and tenor and bass,
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

       They change to a high new house,
       He, she, all of them—aye,
       Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
       And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

Well, 'nuff said. I don't think we help ourselves by pretending that the fact of death, of human mortality, isn't a pretty definitive smack in the gob. 

But n.b. mindfulness isn't an avoidance strategy. Trying to avoid our awareness of mortality, which it seems to me our culture does a lot of, gives death enormous power over us. It makes the way we live deathly, morbid, in many ways that need, individually and collectively, to be dealt with.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, questions such as is it fear of death or of dying that troubles us; does it make any difference if you believe in an afterlife; is stoicism the best answer, etc etc. Let's just consider if mindfulness is a way of living with the fact that life ends, so that we are not obsessed by it, depressed by it or dominated by it.

Easy, I humbly or arrogantly submit. Yes, it does, in many interesting and diverse ways, too many, you'll be pleased to hear, to address in one post. 

So here's one way I've found that mindful meditation helps: if you spend part of your day living as far as possible in the present moment, you are not anticipating, planning, dreading, worrying. And when you have to return, after your meditation (or quiet time, or whatever you want to call it), you may find that you retain more calm and more acceptance as you go about your daily life. Your calm will be disrupted, of course. But you know (sweet secret!) that you can go back to that place whenever you choose. It's a place where death has less of a hold on you. It's the timeless present.

"Quick, now, here, now, always....."