Sunday, 30 June 2013

Death and Mandela

We are told he is getting stronger, that he may be going home. He is 94, and he must be one of the most highly-regarded people on the planet. Perhaps we want him to be immortal, to come back to us, to continue to be a point of reference for humanity.

Denis Goldberg, a colleague of Mandela's, who spent 22 years in prison, came quite close to saying on BBC Radio 4 just now, that he hoped the doctors were not over-doing their efforts to keep him alive. He also said that the media should leave the family alone, and that there is a danger that people want to associate themselves with him for one last time for their own egotistical reasons. 

The final point I want to draw from such a wise source was his view that there is danger in regarding Mandela as a solo Messiah. His great gift was to draw people together and inspire them in a mass movement; in this he was a true leader and an example. The time has come, said Goldberg, to concentrate on building a better South Africa - life goes on, in the nation he and his colleagues did so much to bring into being.

Probably only someone who was beside Mandela at the heart of the struggle could say such things. But it's clear enough, isn't it? If we can't accept Mandela's mortality, we are also failing to accept our own, and vice versa. At least broadcasters and journos are beginning to say things like "as Mandela's life draws to its close..." and that's helpful.

He is 94. Ameliorate his suffering, and if the time has come to let him go, let him go. As with any person, whether icon or nonentity, as with anyone, when the time comes

Nelson Mandela, rest in peace, your work is done. The work continues.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Discipline, death and mindfulness

What sort of discipline enables us to face our own mortality? Suppressing our emotions? Doesn't work for me, because they'll rear up somewhere else. Pretending we don't care, looking the other way? Works for some, I'm sure, provided their exit is speedy and unexpected. But you can't unlearn what you've learned about the end of life.

Some stuff on meditating, specifically, some Buddhist stuff, makes much of mental discipline. I sort of know what they mean, but in our culture, and to my generation, that can just sound like school. Wackford Squeers, and his descendants.

No doubt many of our contemporary ills are caused by a lack of self-discipline, and it is of course very important. But I don't want to get into that just now.

I simply want to observe that for me, the discipline of mindfulness doesn't seem to involve suppression, or unkindness to oneself, or an unpleasant rigour. Paradoxically, it seems to involve a letting go, an acceptance, in a particular context and setting (i.e. meditation.) 

The only discipline needed is regular practice, as I tell myself when I'm leaving it too long between meditations.

Maybe, like a musician or a spin bowler or any other skilled activity, we should simply talk about practice. The mental discipline, which does help us to face our own mortality, simply comes from the practice. And the good news is that it is cumulative, or is the word exponential? The more you do, the easier it gets to do it regularly. 

Do it, and the discipline will develop of its own accord. No need for any internal Wackford Squeers, in fact, he'd get in the way.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Scared of Death? These books might help.

These books may help us live better and face the end of life better. And of course, a good book about dying must be a good book about living.

Staring at the Sun: Irvin D Yalom. He takes a straightahead look at the fear of death, how, unacknowledged, it underlies much mental anguish, and how, as a psychiatrist, he has treated such anguish.

Who Dies? by Stephen Levine. I haven't read this yet, but I've read his "A Year to Live, " found it very helpful, and am advised by someone whose opinion I much value that this is his best book. That's why it's on my list.

Intimate Death: Marie de Hennezel.   Tough and beautiful. She was consultant at a hospice in France. 

Old Age: Helen M Luke. An extraordinary and revelatory way of using her insights as a psychotherapist to help us accept old age.

The Undertaking: Thomas Lynch.  Because it is about so much more than the business of being an undertaker.

Man's Search for Meaning: Viktor E Frankl. We respond to the demands of life by creating meaning; if we don't find meanings for ourselves, in everything that happens, then we die. This certainty he brings us, from inside Auschwitz.

The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are: Alan Watts. If I'm scared of dying, perhaps it's because I'm scared of letting go of "me." But "I" am not a separate thing from the universe, I am not what I think I am. Such clarity and wisom from Alan Watts.

It;'s not, perhaps, for me to recommend, or enthuse. All I'll say is that these books have been enormously helpful to me, and I hope they may be to you too.

(But you might not want to read them one after the other!) 

not 42 concluded - God/not and the First Ashes Test

In the last three posts I've been trying, with limited success, to use two scientific concepts (as far as I can understand them) to try to avoid an either/or approach to the mind/body problem, and the god/no god argument (or conundrum, if you are less prone to argue!) 

I'm getting a headache with all this, and I bet you are too, if you have been brave/foolish enough to read all this, but I'll summarise what I'm trying to say:

The two concepts are: the unpredictabilityof large dynamic systems (chaos theory and all that) and the idea of emergent properties - that in some cases you can't predict or define the nature of what will emerge when two or more discrete things are brought together to creat a different  thing. 2H, 1O = something quite different from  either: water)

If you think God is not a possibility, because you've looked at the physical laws of the universe as known to us, then for you there is no God. If you think that the entire universe, including us, might result in an emergent property which is, let's say for now, Everything and Always, and if you can accept that from our perspective on our good old Earth we can't know such an emergent property, then for you there might well be a God.

Not perhaps the God that people pray to if they say "Dear God, let us hammer the Aussies in the First Test," but nevertheless, something which you can call God if you wish.

(Though maybe if you are in tune with the universe, such a prayer might make a victory by an innings and 45 runs more likely, so if you are an Enlightened One, please give it a shot!)

This thing, which is generated by/same as Everything and Always, is not encompassable by verbal concepts, and certainly not, I feel, by dualistic thinking. Because the universe runs through us as we run through it, E&A might be sensed or intuited, no more than than that. It might be what is sensed when we enter a state of mindful being in the present; or when we read bits of the Tao Te Ching, or some other useful "mystical" text. We can hop over the question "is there a God or isn't there a God?" by saying "there is and there isn't." No need for cognitive dissonance, no point in reaching for certainty.

Similarly with the brain/mind/body. In one sense, the mind, according to everything we know, is limited to the physical brain, which is part of the body. In another sense, the mind, as an emergent property of the brain's chemistry and electrics, is more than and other than just the brain. Which may be why we have such wonderful and puzzling phenomena as entrainment.

Why am I bothering with all these words?  I could just meditate, and let the wordless present inhabit me every now and then, thus perhaps demonstrating both the above phenomena.

Due to my upbringing in an increasingly rationalistic age, and because I have reaped the benefits of that age (if in doubt about these benefits, just say to yourself "dental anaesthetics; radio") I find it comforting to find support for my feeling for the ineffable, in the state of being and thinking we call "science."

Phew. I'm done.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Not 42 - God/Not God - the "problem" of belief.

Let's leave aside for now the increasingly sterile arguments between the so-called "New Atheists" and the Defenders of the Faith - each side seems to feel that the other is making a category error.

Let's leave aside the anthropomorphic God of many religions, as shown above.

Let's look, instead, at the limitations imposed on us by thinking that there could be a finally satisfying answer, which could be arrived at to convince all the uncommitted and uncertain people (most of us in the UK, I'd guess.) "Yes, there is a God." "No there isn't a God." More either/or, more polarisation.

Bring together, if you will, the emergent properties of complex systems, and the unpredictability of same. 

The universe (just this one, never mind all the others we are told may exist) is vastly, unknowably complex. Relatively tiny changes in one area could well produce unpredictable results down the line. We (humans) are a tiny part of this vastly complex system, and it moves through us as we move through it. We are not separate from it,we are part of it.

All the time we know more and more about the systems that make up the universe, but perhaps it is never finally knowable, because never finally predictable.

If all the systems that comprise the universe are, as it were, looked at together, can we predict, can we know, the whole? 

The East Asian traditions of Taoism and Zen Buddhism intuit that there is a Way, a state of being, that is at one with the universe, literally indescribable, and with us all the time if we can live in it. It is not knowable by reason. The Way that can be spoken of is not the true, eternal Way. 

Western science seems (I think...) to be telling us that complex dynamic systems are unpredictable, and that you can't, at the next level up, define, determine or predict the emergent properties of such systems. (Water both is and isn't one atom of hydrogen and two of oxygen...)

Perhaps the sense of God that so many people have is an emergent property of all the systems of the universe, something that since we are part of it we can intuit, but not analyse or describe. It's the Whole Damn Thing at maximum emergence.

It doesn't matter if we call it God, or not. We humanise it and symbolise it because we think that makes it approachable. I prefer the East Asian Way, you prefer the GodMan who rolled away the stone - it really shouldn't matter so much.

That's not to say all religions are the same. Not all cultures are the same - and organisations are complex and dynamic. Could anyone have predicted, from the early work of the Prophet, that a Muslim would shoot a Muslim girl in the head because she said it was a good idea to go to school? That Christians across 17th century Europe would slaughter each other because some did and some didn't belief that a piece of bread turned into the flesh of Christ?

But it seems to me that the whole argument about belief is often a waste of time. There both can and cannot be a God.

Let's grow up and live with uncertainty. Keats called in "negative capability," the ability to hold in the mind two contradictory things at the same time. 

Zen masters threw koans at their students to break the chains of either/or thinking. I'm also trying to use my tiny half-baked bit of scientific understanding to reach the same place.

Not 42 part 2 -the "butterfly effect"

Apparently, Newtonian physics - gravity - explains very well the elliptical orbits of large planets, stars etc. and we can predict their movements very well. However, a 19th-century astronomer thought about the orbits of much smaller lumps of stuff in space - what about the very small moon of a planet, or an asteroid? He worked out that a tiny disturbance (a little shove) would suffice to move the thing a disproportionately large amount off its usual orbit, to unpredictable consequences. This was, I am reliably informed, one of the very earliest origins of what came to be called chaos theory. 

(If you already know this stuff, do skip it, pausing only, please, to tell me where I've got it round my collar.)

Dynamic systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. So even if the system's future behaviour is fully determined by their initial conditions, (planetary orbits) with no random elements involved, the fact that they are deterministic does not make them predictable if the initial conditions are made approximate by tiny changes. 

Tiny initial changes can result in huge and unpredictable later results - the so-called "butterfly effect." The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings could result, weeks later, in the birth of a hurricane. Although we know the components of a hurricane's birth, we can't predict its emergence because it is dynamic, complex, and sensitive to tiny initial changes.

"Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future." says Edward Lorenz. 

All of the above I owe to Wikipedia.

Next, I'll get on to God. For that I'll need both chaos theory and the idea of emergent properties.

(I've got that nasty feeling that any readers will think "she's getting excited about stuff that's actually pretty common-place and widely-known." Maybe so, Mr Big Brains, but writing this stuff makes my head hurt so it must be good for me...)

It's not "42;" here's what it is.

I've decided not to beat about the bush. In a few day's discussion with dear old (and brilliant) friends, I have found the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Up to a point. I reckon. And I need YOU to tell me where I'm going wrong, so please comment if you sniff out absurdity or inaccuracy. And this stuff really has to do with how we face death.

Firstly, the mind-body problem.  Is the mind more than the individual's brain, influenced by genetics and continually adapted and moulded by experience as it grows older? Is it infused with some universal force, some divine spark, some immortal stuff outside our skulls?

Rationalist might say no, it's all answerable from the chemistry and electrics of the the physical brain. Dualists, religious or otherwise, might say no, there must be more to it, "the scientists" can't point to a bit of brain and say "your sense of self, your sense of wonder and your acknowledgement of the vastness of the universe is in here." The mind is more than the brain.

 My friend J's answer was "Yes. Quite possibly both."

Then he talked about the unpredictability of complex systems. He pointed out that if you started to bring together, for the first time in  the history of the universe, one atom of hydrogen and two of oxygen, there is no way you could predict or estimate, the nature of water, that wonderfully complex substance all around and inside us. 

Water, he said, is an emergent property of one atom of hydrogen and two of oxygen. It is more than could be comprehended by looking at hydrogen and oxygen separately.

If the mind is an emergent property of the human brain, then it is both only the brain and more than the brain - impossible to deduce from the chemical and electrical properties of the brain on their own.

There is no need for an either/or, dualist/rationlist single answer to the question.

Maybe we need a new way of thinking, of being, to live with these big questions. We move through the world, the world moves through us, and that dynamic relationship generates from the brain, an almost incredibly complex system, the unpredictable uniqueness of a human mind. It is and it isn't just the pasty stuff inside our skulls.

If you're still with me, is this giving you a headache? It did me, but it was worth it, I felt.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Ritual, The Wicker Man and yer local crem job

A couple of unusually demanding funerals lately plus plenty of the more expected sort, so no posts for a while. Here we go again:

I recently saw "The Wicker Man" for the first time. Yeah, I know, everyone else saw it at least 35 years ago, but we don't like to rush things at Mundi Mansions. 

The community on Summerisle needs to secure good harvests, and carried out assorted pagan-type rituals to bring them about. Just as cultures used to and no doubt still do. Bearing in mind our efforts to develop profounder, more psychologically effective rituals in funerals that do not simply follow Christian (Muslim, Jewish, etc) ritual patterns, I was interested in the rituals Lord Summerisle and his people had developed. 

Some bits seemed to me a bit daft. Songs round the maypole, perhaps because the actual songs seemed rootless and silly to me, and the moves at the climax of the film:

The bits of ritual that worked came from existing remnants of ancient ritual - 'obby 'oss, for example, and the rapper-type swords. Maybe it's the difference between ritual that seems to be about ritual, i.e. it has easily spotted designs on us, and ritual that enacts at a deeper level. Maybe it's just because I know that 'obby 'oss is ancient.

These issues echo the ones we face as we develop funerals to suit our diverse belief populations. If we try to invent totally new ritual, will it seem rootless and a bit silly? If we stay close to existing ritual elements, whill they still work in our rapidly-changing culture?

So in funerals we still process, we bow heads, we sometimes wear dark clothing etc. We light candles (when we are allowed to), bringing through from church ritual something ancient and powerful about light in darkness, life-in-death-in-life.

The masks in the film were very powerful, but I guess that might be a step too far for your average family.... 

So we think and feel and discuss our way forward.

Jimmy Witherspoon on the price of funerals

The great jump blues exponent Jimmy Witherspoon has a comment for you about the relationship between income, inflation and the price of funerals in the last verse of this belting number. The undertakers don't have a union, as far as I know, they have professional associations about which they seem to have pretty mixed feelings, but in general terms and for an increasing number of families I reckon 'Spoon is right on the money. I look forward to his guest appearance on MoneyBox, or Stephanomics - oh, except that sadly, the undetakers submitted their bill for him a good few years ago now.

I saw him in the mid-sixties some time, with the Dick Morrissey Quartet at the Bull's Head, Barnes Bridge. What a blast that was.