Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Spooky Times in Liverpool with Stephen Taberner

Last weekend, to the fine city of Liverpool, and a singing workshop led by the extraordinarily talented Stephen Taberner, Spookmeister. ( If you haven't seen or heard the Spooky Men's Chorale, with their beautifully-sung subversions of stereotypical masculinity, then hie thee to YouTube.)

The Chorale, above.

He taught us lovely songs over an evening and two days, and we ended up with a brief performance in the Walker Art Gallery. He described us as "The choir that is and now is no more." We'd never met up before, and he got an astonishingly good sound out of us. And now we are no more - we were unique, once-off, in the moment or two.

Above: Stephen threatening us with violence if we don't pull it together...in fact he is an extraordinarily productive mix of firmness and gentleness, huge skill and creative guile.

Now then: what has all this to do, I hear you say (it'd be nice to hear anyone say anything around here these days apart from me...) what has this to do with my usual themes of mindfulness, spirituality (whatever that means these days) living in the moment, and funerals?

A great deal.

I find singing in this sort of style, especially with what for me was demanding singing, can create a warmth, a sense of release and acceptance. It frees off something broader and calmer than the usual me, it keeps me in the moment. 

We also sang in some wonderful places, such as the Lutyens Crypt of the Metropolitan (i.e.Roman Catholic) Cathedral, below:

and the Dome Theatre. The locations certainly helped.

Such singing in a funeral creates a space in which people can feel what they feel, a release sometimes for their grief. That's why we need more funeral singers like Threnody (see a couple of posts from a celebrant involved with them, on the Good Funeral Guide blog: 

Not the formal, immaculate, traditional eg Male Voice type choir, wonderful though they are - that's too distancing for many of today's funerals. A community-type choir, people singing in their natural voice, in harmony. It draws the congregation in.

Such singing has in it a lot of love. Not "lurve," but - caritas. Compassion. Unselfish warmth. 

I felt really uplifted by singing a song by a friend of Stephen's, Rachel Hore, called "Love is Born." I think that title describes what happens when the singing is going really well.

If this sounds a bit solemn - it's also really, really good fun!


or "Choir at the Walker" on YouTube

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Obsessed by death

There was recently a thought-provoking post on the Good Funeral Guide, sparked off by an empty hearse.  Your cursor on my title will take you there the moment, of course, you have finished reading these golden (if opinionated) words... 

Charles Cowling compares the common public reaction to a funeral procession many years ago, to what happens now. Nothing. Apart from impatience at the slowness of the cortege. He takes this as an indication that we have lost a more shared, communal response to an individual death; it's more of a local issue, happening to someone else. The cortege is a nuisance.

So a temporary traffic disruption instead of a shared understanding. Depressing thought.

It may be that this lack of shared feeling is part of our obsession with death. I agree with Barbara Chalmers (brilliant website "Final Fling") that death isn't a taboo subject, that's a tired cliche, and yet the ways we talk about death, the way we do funerals, suggest we are obsessed by it. How can you tell that our culture is obsessed with death? Because however much we think we are talking about it, we are often simply shying away from accepting its inevitability. Because:

  1. we hide it away in production-line funerals and brief ceremonies
  2. we try to gloss over it, talking too easily of the "celebration of a life"
  3. by relentlessly trying to "personalise" a funeral, we may inadvertantly paint over the universality of death in life
  4. many people don't talk about or refer to their mortality - although given the chance, an increasing number of people realise how liberating it can be
  5. the cult of youth doesn't help; it's natural for older people to think more frequently than young people about the end of their lives, and we are urged all the time not to grow old, just to be youthful whatever out age

If we accept our mortality, if we stop pretending we are not going to die, we value our lives, and the lives of others. If we deny our mortality, we distort and trivialise life itself.

So we ignore funeral processions, we tidy away the physicality of death, we jolly up funerals and deny our grief, at our peril. 

Well, I warned you it would be opinionated.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Learning from the commonality of grief

Interesting stuff recently on the Good Funeral Guide, about grief, had me thinking.

“I’ve lost him; but we had a good life. Now he’s gone, I can hold that much close to me out of the desolation.”

Grief on your own can be desolating. Perhaps a shared grief is a less desolating pain?

Maybe dealing with grief, one’s own and other people’s, can sometimes move us gently backwards from the immediate pain to a position of acceptance, a wider view.

That distancing is not the same as avoidance; it could be a wider view than the immediate pain of bereavement. It could be, in a positive way, a possible easement. It could involve feeling a link to the generality of suffering as a constant in the world, and placing a single loss in that wider field.

People need to share their grief, and their fear of mortality, in some way or other, whether it's in a big wailing session, or by a restrained, oblique comment - or just a hug. We need to know that other people get how we feel. When they do so, it makes a powerful bond, and perceived break-outs from that bond may be harshly treated - that's what this GFG posting "altered identity" suggests to me. (Cursor over the title above will take you there, thanks Sir Tim B-L.) 

Those combat troops who return from a war have commented on the powerful bond between them, which comes not just from the dangers of battle, but from shared loss.

In a (happily!) more mundane way, perhaps funeral work can also move us gently back from the potential or actual pain of our own mortality, and the pain of those close to us, by continually making us experience loss as a generality.

In the same way, shared joy widens its effects on us.

Monday, 7 October 2013

"Unofficial" meditation situations

There's no such thing as an official mindfulness meditation situation or procedure, of course, but as anyone who has taken the eight-week course knows, there are recommended procedures, positions and techniques. They work, I find, no doubts.

But: a common complaint amongst veterans of the eight-week course is that it is difficult to fit in a 45-minute sit-down every day, so the practice slides. Feeling that is sliding makes it harder to get back into it. Whilst acknowledging that "fitting it in" suggests an unhelpful set of priorities if you want to do this invaluable thing, I can see the point. It happens to me, too. Though  you'd hope even busy people can find a moment or two, like this bloke:

Here's some settings and situations I've found conducive to a few mindful minutes, no need to cross legs, ring bells, lie on your back:

1. Walking, if you're alone. Even a stroll along a lane or footpath seems to make it easier to be present, as the hedge or fence slides past and the foot-steps fall regularly. I let my mind stay on the movements - mine, and the world moving slowly towards and past me. If you like hill walking, even better, after you get tired enough! Watch the feet - they belong to someone else, they make their own way, your mind stays with them and on the path.

2. In the bath. Shower doesn't seem to work. It seems easy to relax, let the mind stay with the sensations of water on the immersed bits, and cooler air on the bits above the water-line. (Enough info already, they cried - rightly - but it works.)

3. Doing simple stretching exercises, e.g. a bit of very simple Pilates to get the ancient self creaking along better. You can't do this stuff well unless the mind is with the bits of body you are working on, and it's easy to leave it there, then move it on to the next bit.

4. They teach this on the eight-week course: choose a simple "boring" household task or situation and let your mind stay with it - walking upstairs, washing up, chopping sticks (best to keep your mind with that in any case unless you can grow spare fingers at ease), painting a wall. It transforms something you think is tedious and for which you don't have time into something doubly productive.

5. Oddly enough, driving sometimes works. (Never, of course, listen to a meditation CD whilst you are driving.) Not in heavy traffic, not if you don't know the road and are worrying about directions, but on a familiar road, the need for the body and part of the mind to do the driving stuff and be alert seems to help me stay in the moment. The world rolls towards you, the mind stays in it.

6. Music doesn't necessarily help. It can, in our daily lives, be too often a mild background distraction. But I remember the first time, last year, I heard the opening of Bach's B Minor Mass on good equipment at a sensible volume: it riveted me to the moment for 12 minutes plus - I was totally in the music, which meant in the moment. I hope that doesn't sound pseudo - it could have been Radiohead or Tricky, take your pick - it just needed to be, for me, unfamiliar, sublime and demanding. A couple of years ago I wrote about watching Bellowhead in the rain at Cropredy Festival - same presentmomentness, though much as admire Jon Boden, he's not sublime. Or is he?? And in me yoof I remember watching Eric Clapton with John Mayall playing "Have You Heard," in a small London club, and time stood still. Familiarity has taken that from me, and just left the emotional intensity. But I digress. As so often.

So: I suggest finding some frequent activity and using that as a mindful few minutes, when you think you haven't time for the full body scan.