Tuesday, 30 April 2013

kora vs climber in MacFarlane's "Old Ways."

OK, that's it for the snippets and light relief stuff about death...

Back to the mindfulness.

In his "The Old Ways," Robert Macfarlane writes sometimes of things that relate to mindfulness, to being in the present moment. He writes about Minya Konka, one of those mountains sacred to Buddhists in the Central Asian range. 24, 760 feet. Buddhists walk a circuit of this mountain, clockwise, and this form of pilgrimage is called "kora." The most extreme form involves prostrations, kneeling, prayer, round 32 miles over the 18,000 foot Drölma pass.

After pointing out that it is exceptionally difficult to climb the mountain's "sharp and ice-fluted summit" - until 1999 more people had been killed climbing it than had reached its summit - he says this:

"These two kinds of mountain-worshippers stand in strong contrast to one another. There is a humility in the act of kora, which stands as a corrective to the self-exaltation of the mountaineer's hunger for an utmost point. Circuit and circuit, potentially endless, stand against the symbolic finality of the summit. The pilgrim on the kora contents himself always with looking up and inwards to mystery, where the mountaineer longs to look down and outwards onto knowledge."

I find this a resonant point. Seems to me something in here about acceptance versus striving, about being part of now rather than trying to know about it; mystery versus mastery. 

I always thought it was a pity the late great Sir Edmund Hilary had to say "we knocked the bugger off" when he came back down from the summit of Everest. I mean, they had - but it is a sacred mountain to the Buddhists living around it, it is a place of absolutes and extremes, it is a place of limitless wonder. 

(How I wish they hadn't totally screwed the word "awesome" for us over in the USA! Pizzas and film-stars' legs aren't awesome. Everest is.)

I'm sure we do, and need to do, both mystery and mastery, in our own lives. And I'm sure - indeed, I know - that a mountain summit can be an excellent place for a spot of mindful meditation. Though possibly not at nearly 28,000 feet. 

(Snowdon's about three and a half thousand feet...though the summit is too a pesteringly busy and be-caféd spot; you'll do better for contemplative moments on Cnicht, or even Siabod....)

BTW, despite his self-confessed tendency to over-write, MacFarlane's  book contains many wonders and marvels. I feel there's a good balance to be found in thinking through these two contrasting mountain journeys, kora and climb. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Dead Shorts part 2

I like these short prompts, because I find they've prompted me - or even amused me. Hope they work for you.

"It was never a great bird-puller at school." (Undertaking was the family business.)

"(At a funeral) we had to release two doves. So as they've gone up, out of nowhere this sparrowhawk slams into one of them and kills it. You shouldn't laugh, but I think even the family found that funny."
John T Harris, T Cribb and son, Undertakers in the East End of London

"People today are frightened by silence. There's a kind of inner loneliness. I think it's an agitated age. That's a comment, not a criticism."
Joyce and Ivan Fox, Crazy Coffins.

"The absence of a body is always a lot more difficult to deal with. If a place crashes, for example, it can be a help to visit the site. Seeing a body can be very helpful to the grieving process."

"For older people, the death of a parent can often seem unbelievable. They think their parents are immortal."
Joy Caplin, Cruse bereavement counsellor

"Funeral directors have a lot of dedication. I did it once. It's a difficult job; a messy one"

"You get advice about sex and drugs at school, but never death. People aren't taught and they haven't a clue."

"People shouldn't think they're being cheapskates when it comes to a funeral. I used to say to people, 'you can have that expensive coffin if you want, but we're only going to burn it."
Howard Greenoff runs Kingston Cemetery

"People try to find magical solutions when they are bereaved. A bereaved woman I knew married the best friend of her former husband just three months after her husband died."

"In my teens I was an ardent atheist. But after working in hospices I came into contact with strong religious beliefs and I am less judgemental. I don't have an easy answer but I respect that there are different ways of thinking."
Colin Murray Parkes, consultant psychiatrist at two hospices

All the above from "Get Dead," by Jamie Oliver, which as well as having fascinating mini-interviews with these and other people, is also full of remarkable facts.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Dead Shorts

My posts have been a bit wordy and chewy of late, so here for a quick and breezy go-through are a few deathly snippets clipped from  a fascinating little book called "Get Dead," by Jamie Oliver. (Not I presume, the celebrity chef?)

"Once you know about death you can never not know about it again."

"Families (of the dying) are often caught up with the symptoms and they forget about their relationship."
      Christine Klaus, clinical psychologist

"Death has been mystified by middle-aged men in suits. But death is the most natural thing in the world."
     Lucy Howard, who was then a trainee embalmer 

"People die of everything. I've seen fit and healthy people that have dropped down dead for no reason, and drinkers and smokers who live to a good age. I'll go my own way, thanks very much."

"I don't dislike anything about this job. I wonder if I'm sick in the head. They've tried to put me into counselling, but I don't need it. Well, I don't think I do!"
      John Shiels, senior mortician

"I've always wanted to do this job, from about the age of eight. I loved wearing black and sitting around in cemeteries. They're so peaceful."

"There's a lot of myths around dying. I think this job has taken away the fear. I don't think there's life after death."
       Sue Harvey, funeral director

"People say Buddhist funerals are happy occasions. But that's like saying going through labour doesn't hurt. It's bollocks."
       Penny Black, Buddhist celebrant

Maybe more little bites from the frontier next time.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

What is a Funeral For?

Any crematorium worker/chapel attendant will tell you that there are all sorts of funerals these days, all shades of belief and unbelief and not-sureness, all manner of ritual and ceremony, all sorts of behaviour from respectful quiet through laughing and chattering to fist fights.

And we all know that a body has to go somewhere, when a life has left it....






(I mean, what use are they? They are bloody expensive!)

In human societies around the world, people need rites by which to say goodbye to a life and to part company with the body that was that life. In our culture, there has never been so much choice available as to how we do this.

Because I'm a funeral celebrant, it seems right to keep asking myself such questions. What difference does a funeral ceremony make? What else are we doing, other than putting a body somewhere it can, er, "rejoin the natural elements from which we all come." I'm going to risk a few over-simplified and blunt suggestions in answer to the question.

1. It marks a stage in our grieving. I've learned to distrust all generalisations about grief, except that each of us does it in her own way, each of us goes through it. A funeral can and should help  people along this journey.

2. It brings people together who have one thing in common, even if nothing else: the life that has recently ended. Mutual support.

3. It's public, usually, to some degree at least, so the gathering marks it as a death that has happened, a life that is emphasised and remembered, a spirit that is freed - perhaps.

4a). Aha! Now we're getting to it. Spirits. Religion/not religion appears. But it's a greatly exaggerated non-problem, if a funeral really does its job. You may believe that the funeral is to mark the release of a soul from a body, to help the soul on its journey to an after-life, in which case it really needs to be done, or else. (see "Antigone.")

4b). Or you don't believe a word of it, or you are a perhapsist. No problem, as people irritatingly say at every turn these days. But really, it shouldn't be a problem. If a funeral clarifies and illuminates the meaning of someone's life, if it makes plain the way we carry away with us the influence of the dead person, the bit of us that came from our shared lives, then that too emphasises what doesn't stay in the box when we leave. The soul doesn't stay in the box, nor does the meaning and effect of someone's life. (For better and/or for worse, that goes on rippling.....) Either or both these things are true.

5. A funeral is a big and difficult transition. You've seen John Doe's life in terms of his body, walking, talking, doing stuff with you, stuff that even at a distance, makes a difference to you. Then this impossible thing happens: the body is no longer doing the stuff that you called John Doe. But it still is John, the beloved, the old bastard, the laughalot, the champ, the.... Oh. No, it's not. John's in heaven, or in my memory, or in the way I laugh or talk too much when I'm nervous, or can bowl a leg-spinner. He's still with me, but he's not. And in that box, there's that body that was John - but it's just a thing, now. No, not "just." You need a chance to make that huge adjustment, so that John, in whatever way you like or don't like, stays with you, and "the body of John Doe we now commit to..." etc. You can walk away from the body and hold on to the meaning, to you, of the life

6. This change hurts, takes time, needs to be gone through, in whatever way your culture supports, in wherever these things are done. With a stiff upper lip, in a cacophony of wailing and howling from the professional mourners in some countries, in the awful silence that follows a battle, in secret, in St Paul's Cathedral. I was told the story of the mother in front of her daughter's open casket who, when the undertaker tried to console her that "it" wasn't really her daughter, slapped him till his teeth rattled and said "I'll decide when I stop calling this my daughter." The mother was still in transition, from a living daughter to a body and a set of meanings she could, somehow, manage to live with."She" wasn't "it," not yet. 

7. A person becomes a body not when the pulse stops, but when those who love her are ready to see the difference between a body and what they still have, what they can live on with. Disrupt that, with your breezy 20 minutes in a crematorium gliding over the surface of things, disrupt that, and you make it harder for them to find what they can live on with. Get it badly wrong, and you may make it harder for them, for the rest of their lives. That's why a funeral ceremony matters, that's why we have to get it as right as possible. There's a lot more to grieving than a funeral, of course, but a funeral is a pivot. That's why we feel better when it's over.

8. A funeral ceremony is to express love. If it doesn't, it's like a gin and tonic with no gin,  no lemon, no ice and f*all tonic either. It may be to express the love of God, it is certainly to show the love we have for each other, behind the stiff upper lip, behind the rain that's pissing down on the pagan ritual, behind the jazz band or the syrupy ballad or the lovely choir, behind the nervous giggles afterwards, underneath the undertaker's funny little top hat, the bishop's bonnet, Aunty Elsie's frankly dreadful hat. 

"Now abideth faith, hope, charity; these three. And the greatest of these is charity."

Charity in the ancient meaning of "unselfish and unconditional love for people" (my translation, not copyright...) 

A funeral needs to be a charity-filled transition, to help everyone there to grieve, so they can leave a body behind and take away with them the meaning of a life.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

mindfulness and neuroscience

In our culture, which is rich in benefits derived from rational thought and scientific innovations, we often need "proof" that something apparently unrelated to science is actually "true."

(The quotation marks above are a get-round the issues that arise if we pretend that "proof" and "true" are unarguable constants. You could use "evidence gathered from observation and rational thought" but it's a mouthful, and you could use "valid," but enough already with the quibbles.)

It's a generation since an article in the "Scientific American" identified the sort of brain-waves generated by Transcendental Mediation, to more-or-less show that TM makes a difference. (Provided you could afford it!) 

Since then, what we now call neuroscience can observe the brain in action via MMR scans. ('n stuff. I kind of, y'know, like, don't really know what I'm talking about here on the technology, so I'll move on.)

The point for me is that neuroscience can show us the brain, in action, in different states. It can show us the brain doing its normal stuff, dealing with one concept, fantasy, worry, memory etc after another, in that linked way that passes for normal thought. It can show us the concentrated attention that comes from doing a focused task. And it can show us a different state, which is that of meditation, specifically the mindfulness meditation derived from Zen Buddhist techniques.

I'm going to quote heavily from an article I learned of from Kathryn, for which, many thanks. A click on the title above should lead you to the article, but if it doesn't, I've put the URL below. (The article is four years old, so no doubt much more has been done since, but it's a useful summary.)

"This question of ‘I’ needs to be answered experientially. It has to be investigated and directly perceived; thinking and analysis cannot reach an answer. One way this can be done is through meditation, observing the process of experience and discovering that this ‘I’ is nothing more than the very clinging to one thing, then to another; grasping at what is desired, rejecting what is disliked; taking credit, pride, blame and shame; judging self and other; constructing a self-narrative; re-running memories; pre-occupation with future possibilities. This ‘I’ arises only with the thought process, but it happens so habitually that we begin by mistaking it for who we really are. Is there an ‘I’ apart from this clinging to things? What happens if we let go of it?"

The answer seems to be that there is no one thing that is the Self, "I," the ego. "I" am a construct, continually rebuilt, continually changing. 

"On the basis of all this, it has been hypothesised that what is usually happening when we are ‘at rest’ is in fact not rest, but self-referential thinking and processing. Anyone who has ever meditated will have first hand experience of this, because when you start to meditate, you begin to notice how busy the mind is with an endless series of loosely associated thoughts, memories, plans, daydreams and thoughts about these thoughts. " 

This is the stuff we fondly refer to as "I." It's essential, of course, it's part of what our brains do, part of what my mind is. But is isn't a fixed thing; we are continually re-making our sense of self.

"So what happens when we let go of the ‘small self’? Preliminary findings from neuroscience are consistent with what we know from spiritual masters and what we find through experience. There is no thing which is the self. There is a process of thinking and analysis of experience. It is not even continuous: its aura of continuity is, I suspect, part of the image created in the present moment, but the process in fact comes and goes. Through training it is possible to taste a mode of experience without this companion. This habitual tendency can be weakened, and an alternative selfless mode of experience inhabited. The ‘selfing’ process itself can be observed objectively, and its insubstantiality seen."

Meditation, and the mindfulness approach is the simplest way in I've come across. It provides a context for the sense of self; it can create a distance from "me," and this distance creates in turn a greater calm. It can lessen suffering (pain, depression.) It can increase our sense of belonging in this life now, yet ease our anxiety about who we are and why we have to die. 

And I may have gone about before, but: this isn't snake-oil; it's not The Answer to Life; it's not a cult. It fits your life and mine. It's as spiritual or as practical as you want it to be.

And the neuroscientists seem to be telling us that it's, er....obervable, and verifiable.


Friday, 12 April 2013

An inner life in hell?

This elderly gentleman was a truly extraordinary man. He died in the late 1990s at the age of 92. Not only did he survive the Nazi concentration camps, he found in it a source of his life's work thereafter.

I can't sum up the depth, clarity and precision of his thought in a few words, but: he concentrated on how we need to find meaning in our lives. He realised in the depths of hell that if the inmates found no meaning in what was happening, they were doomed.

His answer to the frequent but hopeless question "what is the meaning of life?" he summed up thus:

"For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment."

He found that we have to let life ask the questions of us, different questions all the time, and how we respond is what gives meaning to our lives. He found that was the way to find meaning in what he and the others suffered, and to endure it. 

He found it possible, as did others, to develop  an inner life, a spiritual development, in the camps. He found that moments of natural beauty, because they were such a particularly intense contrast to his immediate surroundings, were supremely important.

He thought thus whilst working in pyjamas in zero degrees.

Such a man creates hope, enlightenment, understand. He relieves suffering.

Ah, don't bother with this feeble summary - go read the book.

"Man's Search for meaning," by Viktor E Frankl.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Balance, Mrs Thatcher and the Sex Pistols

Interesting comments on the death of Margaret Thatcher. Some commentators thinking through what UK would be like if she'd never been prime minister; others pointing out the paradoxes in her premiership (e.g. she hated feminism but did so much for female role-modelling; she espoused Victorian values such as thrift and passed the legislation that began the whole "casino banking" era, bringing huge wealth into London and...well, you know where we are now!) 

Naturally ex-miners and union leaders have little good to say, although some of her opponents seem now to be admitting that the power of trade unions did need to be contained and controlled. And I'd actually forgotten that Arthur Scargill brought the NUM out on strike without balloting them first.

And then there are the absolutists, the de-humanisers. George Galloway MP apparently says he hopes she burns in hell. An Irish cricketer says he hoped her final illness was long and painful; he has since "apologised." Don't use Twitter unthinkingly, it's PUBLIC, remember, idiot? Did you even think for half a second of her family?

There is the taboo on not speaking ill - well, not too ill - of the dead. A woman said to me that she wanted this line in her husband's funeral: "He was a grumpy old bugger, but he was my grumpy old bugger!" That's usually about as far as it gets, in private life.

So if someone had succeeded in blowing Hitler up in 1944, should people not have celebrated? H'mm. Obviously, there are limits to the taboo. 

But Thatcher wasn't Hitler. The absolutists, the bitter Thatcher-haters, should remember that for better or for worse, she was elected three times to the post of prime minister.

Which brings me to the Sex Pistols: "God Save the Queen, the fascist regime..." 

Each generation gets its turn to be nostalgic, and there's a lot of it around these days about punk. Well, I had my turn ref the 60s I guess, though my memory isn't so shot that I can't distinguish between nostalgia and reality. Drugs? I was told by an "insider" that by the time Hendrix died, he was dropping LSD, literally, into his eyes with an old-fashioned eye dropper.

Hurrumph. Here goes:
The Sex Pistols? Only a talentless adolescent with limited experience of life could possibly think that the UK was run by a fascist regime. If it had been, the first thing that would have happened when the authorities heard that song is that the band would have been squashed - an irony that was pointed out at the time. Presumably whoever "wrote" the song was a political infant as well as a generator of horrible noises (OK sorry that's just my prejudices!)

Later in the song he says the Queen isn't a human being. There we are - dehumanise. Polarise. I wonder if the Sex Pistols ever stood at the gates of Auschwitz and thought about how we need to dehumanise humans if we are going to destroy them?

Look for The Balance. Find a civilised way to criticise, to lament Mrs Thatcher's effect on the country, to express your dislike of everything she stood for. All you do if you hurl malevolence at her at present is display your own limited sense of humanity. Ironically, since she is so often blamed for the breakdown of consensual politics, you are prolonging that lack of consensus, feeding that divisiveness. You also prolong her influence over you.

The need for us to acknowledge that every human being is a human being is perhaps the only absolute value worth holding to. If we don't, we can never understand why people do as they do. If we don't, we make ourselves a little less human.

Next post will relate to this via Viktor Frankl and the camps he survived.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Al fresco cremation for Downton's Matthew

Reader of the Good Funeral Guide blog will have perhaps noted that I'm honoured to have been chosen as celebrant for the funeral of poor Matthew Crawley, late of Downton Abbey. Click your cursor on the title above and you will be taken straight there. (Er, I mean to the GFG of course, not to Downton Abbey.)

If you are wondering why people are going to all the trouble of refurbishing this old alfresco cremator for his funeral, 

you might want to consider these regulations, seen recently:

"Please note the updated regulations and guidance for all persons utilizing this crematorium, as from 1 April 2013:

1.  No lighting of candles please – they are a fire hazard in a fire-sensitive environment.
2.  We are well aware that there are only two toilets in the crematorium; we are seeking to address this issue, but in the meantime, please advise all mourners to make sure they use other facilities before coming here.
3.  We understand that some celebrants have been puzzled by our stereo system; if you do not book the organist, then the funeral director or the celebrant will have to operate the equipment, which is easily accessible at the rear of the chapel.
5.  There have been complaints that the cross is difficult or impossible to remove, for the funerals of atheists. We live in a multi-faith society, but this is, after all, a chapel. Please book the removal of the cross in plenty of time before the ceremony.
6.  We are not equipped for slide shows; if you want one, you must make all arrangements yourself, and supply all necessary equipment.
7.   Please do not over-run your allocated time allowance. Thirty minutes should be sufficient for nearly all funerals, and we do not want a queue of families waiting outside in the rain.
8.  Please check with us before presenting a cardboard or sea-grass-type coffin; some of these "green" coffins simply burn too well.
9.    Please do all you can to preserve a dignified atmosphere; the following unsuitable funeral elements have come to our attention:
a.   Clapping and cheering
b.   Swearing, even in a song; for example, there is an unsuitable word in the middle of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life;” please be on your guard.
c.   Loud conversations by departing mourners
d.   Smoking in the outside areas around the crematorium
e.   The toasting of the deceased with alcoholic beverages, in a party mode."

(Well I ask you. No wonder the Downton Toffs would rather say goodbye to Matthew in the open air. Lady Mary says she is going to the Towers of Silence when her turn comes....)