Wednesday, 10 December 2014

"We never keep to the present," said Pascal

I can't remember a better description of the destructiveness of ignoring the present moment than this:

"We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. 

We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of time that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. 

The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. 

We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. 

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. 

The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so."

Written a long time ago by someone who I doubt ever heard the term "mindfulness."

With thanks to Sarah for chasing down the whole passage, quoted to us during an excellent day with John Peacock.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Digital cloning - mortality awareness, artificial intelligence and the end of the world?

This remarkable human being:

has warned us that artificial intelligence (computer power equal to the human brain) could threaten the survival of homo sapiens. He's a smart bloke and we'd do well to listen and think, though another prof calmed us a bit by saying that it's a 100+ years threat, not an "AI and Ebola too, which to tackle first?" sort of threat.

One aspect of AI which I find immediately worrying is the idea of a computer cloned with a digital facsimile of a person. I think it's worrying not because Apple might include it in their next upgrade, but because of what it tells us about mortality unawareness.

So I'm someone who has lost a partner in mid-life. I set up a digital clone of my beloved. This clone talks to me as he did, answers questions, chats, the whole bit. Maybe the imagery of him is avatar-like, or better.

So instead of mourning my beloved, I spend a lot of my time with "him." Instead of grieving for him, enduring pain, moving onwards, I stick in a digital version of the past. Not, note, my memories, but an updateable mock-up of him. If I meet someone else, after a decent time interval (I'll check with the kids - they'll tell me) what do I do? Ask my cloned beloved if that's OK? Compare digital nonperson with  actual bloke I've met?


I'm avoiding the pain as well as the joy of being human. I'm pretending death doesn't exist. Don't tell me death and life are the same thing, and we need death to be alive. I'll stay enmeshed with my dead person, who can now talk to me, offer comfort, be soothing and.....

What a horrible temptation for a grief-stricken person.

 But my dead dear one belongs here:

and in my heart. Not here:


(Or is it just me?)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Mortality: if you're mortal, this book should help. If you think you're not mortal, seek help....

This man (surgeon, researcher, teacher)

 Atul Gawande, has written a really important book. "Being Mortal" pulls together a lot of what many people have been saying for quite a long time: late and drastic medical interventions in someone's last days can be dreadful failures, in terms of what the dying person has to go through. He says a lot more than that, and he bases what he has to say on detailed accounts, including the last weeks of friends, and of his own father.

It's not always a jolly read; he goes into detail on the sort of ailments that are likely to afflict most of us as we age. One of his aims is to make us think and prepare for future difficulties, ours and those close to us; he wants to change how we view - or try to avoid viewing - the last  stages of life.

The book is about much more than medicine. He finds ways round the usual terrifying conundrums of the terminally ill, with regard to possible treatments. In doing so, he re-defines the role of doctors in such times.

Because a hospice nurse had sat down with Atul and his father and had a direct, careful sort of conversation, his father was able to surprise himself and his son with what he could still do.

"I was almosty oversome just witnessing it. Here was what a different kind of care - a different kind of medicine - makes possible, I thought to myself. Here is what having a hard conversation can do."

The conversation isn't about a menu of marginally effective and deeply horrible treatments; it's about asking the patient what matters to him, what are his fears, what is non-negotiable - all questions that acknowledge that he is going to die, and fairly soon. And then making the medicine serve those ends. 

It is very hard for doctors to do the best for a dying person if the person and those close to him can't acknowledge that they are in the last days, or weeks, or months of a life 

It's easy to say that the quality of a life is more important that it's length, at the end - unless, of course, it's your life. Here is a sensitive, emotionally honest, well-informed guide to a way through and round the horrors of futile (and very expensive) treatments. 

He writes with compassion and clarity, and he wears his learning lightly. It's a very, very good book about dying, so it's also about living.

Contemplating, through this book, the end of life has made my immediate life richer. Can't say fairer than that!

Atul Gawande is giving this year's Reith lectures, BBC Radio 4, 09:00 next Tuesday 25th November. Should be good.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Funerals: Give them what they want?

This is a "funerals" post, so if you'd like to side-step it, that's fine by me, though Andrew Marr's BBC Radio 4 programme this morning made it pretty clear that thinking about death - yours - from time to time is a positive thing to do for your life.

Anyway: as a funeral celebrant, I spend much time ensuring people - families, friends, mourners - get what they want. That is surely a large part of the rationale for a ceremony that does not need to follow the rituals and structures of an organised religion (for better or worse, of course. Come on, own up - which of us does not have a bit of an aching hole where the finer elements of those rituals used to live? Whatever we believe?)

So a while ago, that's what I did. He who had died was a big character, the crematorium was packed twice over. His family wanted to accentuate the positive, celebrate the life, didn't want it too sad and gloomy. 

After my customary warning that it would be sad, but that we would make sure it wasn't too sombre or gloomy, we went ahead and planned it.

It wasn't very sad, that's for sure.

The gathering loved it. Plenty of smiles, some big laughs. Off we went.

And I'm left thinking "was that "right?" There wasn't much mourning there, not much room for grief. Very few signs of grief. Not much acceptance or acknowledgement of the power and mystery of death to enrich our lives and help their grieving. And yet he was a greatly valued man.

Was I helping them to avoid the issue, skate in a superficial way over what had happened to them?

Maybe I still have a model of what a funeral "should" be, instead of letting it be what it is. I was pleased by how it went, but troubled by the thought that it may have lacked what many people see asone important function of a funeral - to help people through a physical loss, however much they want to enjoy memories of his life.

They got what they wanted, but probably not what what I wanted for them. I'm sure that's better than the other way round, but still...


Hang about Vicar, let me interrupt.

Having been full of life you say, I'd want a party.

Yes, but I'm full of death now and see things differently.

You say I wouldn't have wanted folk to grieve for long.

No - but with infinite death ahead of me,

a few months being alive and fed up

doesn't seem much to ask of my friends.

OK, some of you wear the bright clothes I admired -

but you lot with less taste, give us a break

and wear dark colours please.

No flowers? Donations only? Hold your horses.

I could never have picked one charity

and loved buying and looking at flowers. I'd like to give

my mourners that opportunity.

True I liked food, and would like to see most of you

tucking in. But I'd also like to do some good -

and some of you who could do to lose a pound or two

should surely be too upset to eat.

Smile by all means, remember my gaffes

and share a careful laugh -

but then it's my funeral, fuck it -

some of you ought to go home and WEEP BUCKETS.

                                                             Julie Deakin

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Harmony, and that Stephen Taberner live magic.

Singing as well as you can, with a goodly number of other non-professional singers who were almost all strangers until the previous morning; singing a simple but powerful little song in the mighty caverns of Liverpool Cathedral; now that's a mindful activity. 

Life-enhancing, nothing to do with the trappings of funerals - it was a lovely change and maybe even a wee bit transformational. 

Harmony seems to me to have the power to carry the beauties and pains of life, to accommodate both being alive and acknowledging life's transience.  Perhaps that's why it fills people up. (Well, me, anyway!)

Your cursor over the title will take you to a YouTube clip of "Soyewela," a South African (Xhosa) freedom song.  Four other songs from the same performance are also on YouTube. The most ambitious is Stephen's arrangement of an Australian rock anthem "Throw Your Arms Around Me,"  by Hunters and Collectors. It's not perfect, but it sure is live. Before we went on, Stephen advised not to worry about ourselves, just to let the song be. It's hard to describe that feeling, but it is very presentmoment, very communal, deeply refeshing.

The man is a magician, no question.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Dying with dignity, funerals with dignity, depend on uniqueness

Your cursor over the title will take you to a BBC "Points of View" transcript of today's broadcast. Don't be misled by the title, it's not part of the assisted dying debate, it's simply about how difficult it is to feel that someone is dying with dignity.

To summarise clumsily: it's difficult for hospital staff, however compassionate and caring they may be, to provide in the environment of a modern hospital, that sense of a unique event happening to one individual. I'll leave you to read the whole thing.

Hospital staff do their best, some do extraordinarily well. But the bed in which she is dying is a bed amongst many; her death is one in a progression of deaths; and perhaps, somewhere in the hospital, someone is looking at spare beds, incoming patients, and thinking, with however much compassion that can be brought to bear, "the lady in no. 20 probably won't last the night, so..."

If you die at home, no-one is going to be waiting for your bed to be ill or die in. (Unless your family is exceptionally unlucky!) There may be one of those wonderful Macmillan people there to help, or someone from Hospice at Home. Hopefully, there will be close relatives there too (as there may well be in a hospital, of course.) But it's a unique event; it's your bed, and you're dying in it.

So if a dignified death depends on a sense of uniqueness, that is surely just as true at a funeral. That's why families hate it when there is another family visibly and sometimes audibly waiting for their turn; when an FD behaves as though this is just another job; when a celebrant minister or priest is doing so many funerals that he hasn't really made himself part of this family's feelings, hasn't done more or other than what he usually does. 

The deathly production line. We must do better.

Of course, if you die in one of the hellish killing fields in the Middle East, or Africa, or... then all this is pretty marginal. We are a fortunate culture still. But I can't imagine there's any bereaved family anywhere that doesn't want, somehow, to feel that the uniqueness of the person they loved has been part of the death, the funeral and the grieving.


Friday, 10 October 2014

we are pluralities - meditation and the striving ego

It seems to me that we are not single entities, but pluralities, full of the voices and gestures of people we have known, the places we have lived, and then some. We are unfolding processes, and our present moment, our “now,” is arrived at from “them” and “then” and “there.”

During meditation, it is possible, even for an inconsistent lightweight of a meditator like me, to let go of the trains of thought that usually occupy the mind, and be in the present moment; to drop concepts and judgements, and just be. It doesn't last long before the scripts start running again, and I need to bring the mind back again to the present - often to the breath. 

This to and fro motion is, of course, what a meditation is, for most of us. The Balance is never static, as a tightrope walker might tell us.

For those moments of presentness,  them then and there fall away. When I return to my plural self, it is with more calmness and a better balance. Perhaps for a while I am more fully a plurality, and happy with it; I am not struggling so much to sustain one single "I," worrying about claiming things for my ego. It's easier then to accept change, uncertainty, provisionality.

Meditation, like exercise, can be addictive! 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Serenade - a poem by John Fuller

This poem links in my mind with my post about the fear of death, 02:10:14; I hope Mr Fuller doesn't mind my reprinting in full his fine poem, which I found in The Spectator, 4th October 2014, page 24.

Come to the garden, that familiar place
Where life renews itself against all odds.
Untightening buds act out their memory,
And dying seems a momentray pause.

Our star that took an afternoon to sink
Hangs in reluctance from the darkening tree
Like an amused and philosophic eye
Penning his treatise of the out-of-doors.

We are the topics of his arguments,
Enduring his extemporised revisions.
We are reminded of our natural ends
And of our origins and of their laws.

The knotted plum has dared at last to bloom:
Its blossom has no other mind but yours.

The yellow spray will lean down just for you
And though its petals scatter, they are yours.

Twisted wistaria unfolds and falls:
Its violet is a passing thought of yours.

The carved magnolia tilts its head and lifts a cheek
That mimics the expressiveness of yours.

The visited and swooning clematis
Climbs like a conscious eagerness of yours.

Yours are the flowers dimmer than their air,
Whose perfume lingers like an old desire.

Come to the garden, where two glasses wait
And there's a chair beside another chair.
The liquid lifts and widens as it pours,
And evening has no other end but night.

                                      John Fuller

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The psychological appeal of polarised views: adolescence, The Process, jihadism - ?

I had two good friends at school who became heavily inolved in what became a full-blown cult. This cult, originally called The Process, and later the Process Church of the Final Judgement, was why I lost touch with them both. At one point, I was quite interested in The Process myself. 

I realise now it was feeding on the common adolescent uncertainty about personal identity, and the longing to belong to Something - and of course in 1967 that Something had better be strange and exciting. It mustn't be part of what Processeans charmingly called "the Grey." (i.e. you and me.)

Well, that was a long time ago. Here's something more recent; from "The Spectator," 4th October, page 17. It's a woman describing how her stepson became a radical Islamist, and how he is now beginning to return to his family, leaving behind the influence of his frightening friends:

"He is maturing. He no longer needs the support of a tribe, which is what attractes Muslims from all backgrounds and nations to the idea of jihad. I've come to think that it is youth, not presecution or poverty, that these Islamic State groupies have in common, an embryonic sense of identity. For them, blaming America for the world's problems is the equivalent of shouting at their parents that they 'never asked to be born.'"

I think that my young friends back then in the mid-1960s felt that at last they had an identity that had nothing to do with their parents, that simplified their lives, gave them a new identity and a tribe. Thus were they pulled into the vortex of The Process.

It provided absolute and polarised answers to the frustrating complexities of life, it broke down their previous sense of who they were and where they belonged, it made them vulnerable to manipulative people. And as usual with such cults, guess what? There was, allegedly (!), sex and money in it for the leaders.

Would that Western jihadists had fallen for something so ultimately ludicrous and relatively harmless as the Process Church, rather than the terrifying simplicities of jihadism. The Process had its nasty side, in my opinion, but it didn't involve hacking people's heads off and it had no power base in regional religious sectarian conflict.

So when desperate parents tell us that they can't understand why their middle-class privileged children start to talk in scary slogans and attack everything their family stands for, I think that, unlikely though it may at first seem, there may be something in common with my two schoolfriends, both from comfortable, apparently stable middle-class backgrounds. 

They both became relatively suddenly alienated, energised, very strange, and figuratively and then literally, distanced from all they had known, all who knew them. They had a tribe. Than God it wasn't Charles Manson's tribe, or Jim Jones down in Guyana.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Fear of Death - mindsets that might help.

I don't mean the natural (biologically-wired) drive to avoid death. Neither do I mean fears about the nature of our individual exits. I mean the sort of out-of-balance existential terror that some people feel deep down about the fact that 
(plot spoiler alert...) 
everyone dies.

"What, me? Now? But...but...but...

It seems to me natural to have some fear of death; one philosophical response is that of Epicurus: "where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not."

So the state of being dead should have no fears for us. But then Epicurus was evidently brilliant, with a strong mind, and he didn't seem to trouble himself about the ending of his consciousness, his personality, in death. What might help us lesser beings?

I have a friend whose practice is to be as close as possible to nature, all of it, natural forces, seasons, plants, animals. Not as in "oh what a lovely view," nature as a pretty backdrop.

More like Dylan Thomas' "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ is my destroyer./ And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose/ I am bent by the same wintry fever." This helps her to see her own life and death as part of huge natural cycles, which may not ultimately be eternal but are as close to it as we can imagine. 

Another friend thinks we should make more of ancestors; our current egotiscal rage to "individualise" everything reinforces the view that we are alone and unique in time. Perhaps if we could see that we came from our forebears and pass on what we were to those who come after, we could feel readier to let go, to feel part of a pattern.

Yet another friend believes the ancestors are Right There with us. I don't, in any literal sense, but I can see the point.

I think many of us probably need something to help us relinquish our lives with the feeling that we are part of a pattern, a process, a reality greater than ourselves. There are those who say, again, along with Epicurus, "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care." I haven't come across many who truly feel that.

I don't know if believing you have an eternal soul helps you to fear death less. I would guess that for some it does, and for some it doesn't. 

I hope, whatever you believe or think you know, that you find some way of reducing you own fear of death, because excessive death-fear can really mess your life up. Happily, it can be treated (see the excellent "Staring At The Sun," by Irving D Yalom.)

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Mindfulness and depression: Anthony's wisdom and courage

If you hover your cursor over the title above, it will take you to a blog post that is a bulletin from the front line of using mindfulness to help with  clinical depression.

Anthony's honesty and insightfulness need no further words from me.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

They shall not grow old" - the British Legion is mis-using these words.

This excerpt form Lawrence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen" is frequently used at the funerals of soldiers, and at memorial ceremonies for them such as Armistice Day:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. 

The poem is called "For the Fallen," i.e. for those who die in battle.

These words, followed by the Last Post bugle call, are profoundly moving when uttered at the funeral of a soldier who has died in action, or on active service. It is not to glorify war to observe that these simple lines have rung eloquently and painfully true to generations of English-speaking people around the world.

However, the British Legion uses them in the funerals of old soldiers. A while ago I attended one such funeral. As a national serviceman he had fought bravely in one of the small but nasty wars during the twilight of the British Empire. He died in his mid seventies, over fifty years after his military service.

It abrurptly dawned on me that the first two lines of the Exhortation, as the Legion calls it, were wildly inappropriate for this man. He had, I'm pleased to say, grown old; he had survived the patrols and ambushes of his youth, raised a family, enjoyed the rest of his life. Age had wearied him, in the way that it wearies anyone who lives out a reasonably full life-span.

The last two lines, "At the going down of the sun..." were entirely appropriate, and could be used at anyone's funeral, especially if you subsitute "him" or "her" for "them."

It's about time the British Legion stopped mis-using these words; the worst thing that could happen to them is over-familiarity. We need these words in the full form, for the dreadful day when a family has to say goodbye to a young man or woman who will not grow old.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

GET RID of us professional funeralists.

If you let your cursor hover flirtatiously over the title above, it will take you to a BBC website article about printed houses, for people to live in on Mars and the moon (uhuh. Why? What's the point? Enlighten me someone please...) It then goes on, much more interestingly, to computer-printed houses right here on earth. Houses built at a fraction of the costs and the time of your standard housing estate box.

The article mentions the hostility of some architects, who claim it debases their professional skills. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - Frank Lloyd Wright is a design hero now, but he wasn't always, and as for Le Corbusier...And there are those of us who marvel that the National Theatre must surely have been designed and built by a robot, or a very angry person. Opposition to printed houses via aesthetic arguments would need some careful thought. How lovely a sight is a contemporary suburban housing estate?

Construction firms will no doubt also be pretty hostile. It would be a huge upheaval. 

What's this got to do with funerals, Gloria? I can hear you ask. (I hope...)

If computer-printed houses dispense with most of the skills and labours of professionals, then a truly co-operative, community model for living with the end of life would get rid of most of the paid work of celebrants and undertakers.


 Just to repeat it again: a community (adjoining villages, small town, city district) has in it people who would occasionally give their skills to supporting people who are dying; to caring for their bodies when they are dead; to carrying out a funeral ceremony,  and to supporting the bereaved. They wouldn't expect payments, except sometimes - for expenses involved in body care, for example. This would build community relationships (deaths bring people together) and save people a hell of a lot of money.

Never mind (for the moment) the Scottish referendum; devolve funerals to the community, not the governing elite of undertakers and celebrants.

GET RID OF US! (mostly.)

I would work locally for expenses only, if I were helping with ten funerals a year instead of fifty, if I were helping to organise and co-ordinate something people were doing themselves, saying what they want to say, doing what they want to do, and holding that ceremony where they wanted.

DOWN with gruesome crematorium chapels, neo-Gothic "chapels of rest," rushed half-hour ceremonies.

ALL POWER to the dead and the bereaved.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Denial vs consolation, depression vs mourning, funeral poems

Edward Hirsch lost his son Gabriel in 2011, and recently published a long eponymous poem about Gabriel's life and his death. 

In the interview I mentioned in my previous post, he says:

“I think ancient cultures incorporated death into the experience of life in a more natural way than we have done. In our obsessive focus on youth, on celebrity, our denial of death makes it harder for people who are grieving to find a place for that grief. There is a big difference between depression and mourning. Depression is a feeling without a cause. Mourning has a cause. Many of us are carrying the dead around with us. We should not feel ashamed of that.”

I'm sure the second sentence carries a sombre truth for our culture and our times.

He also says that what he wrote about elegy in "A Poet's Glossary" would be less about consolation, had he written it after his son's death.

I sometimes wonder if I try too hard to find consoling words for funeral ceremonies; it seems to be what people want, they seem to find it helpful. Is it a fine line we walk between denying death and offering a consoling thought?

The last line of the much-used poem "Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep" is:  "I did not die." 

To which Spike Milligan might have said "then what the hell are we all doing here dressed in suits?"

Brian Patten's "How Long Does A Man Live?" (out of Pablo Neruda, btw) I find a lot more substantial, with a much better balance.

 It doesn't seek to deny the reality of a death, and the consolation it offers seems to me much more substantial.

Words, ritual, ceremonies - making wordless anguish articulate

Interesting article in the Observer yesterday and online, about an interview with Edward Hirsch. Thanks to Katherine for the tip-off. 

The article made me think, which is a bit hard on a Sunday morning, about the words funeral celebrants write and speak, in what is often loosely called "the elegy."

Celebrants scratch their heads an excess of words, words, words.... I think we sometimes get fed up with the sound of our own voices, which is in its way probably a good sign.  Some of us want more ritual and less wordage.

We may be doing ourselves down unneccessarily. Hirsch wrote this entry in "A Poet's Glossary:"

 “elegy”: “A poem of mortal loss and consolation...The elegy does the work of mourning, it allows us to experience mortality. It turns loss into remembrance and it delivers an inheritance. It opens a space for retrospection and drives wordless anguish, wordless torment toward the consolations of verbal articulation and verbal ceremony.”

If our words, whether in the form of elegy (i.e. reading a really good poem or passage) or our own efforts, "turn loss into remembrance" then they may be creating the "verbal ceremony" he refers to. We may sometimes under-value that power. 

I'm reminded of what has been said about really effective popular music: it gives voice to the feelings millions of people have but can't articulate so well themelves.

Sometimes, of course, bereaved people do articulate well for themselves, or they do so for us to read out for them. Other times, we have to find the words with and for them. It's a difficult thing to do. "A raid on the inarticulate, With shabby equipment always deteriorating In the general mess of imprecision of feeling..." as another poet, TS Eliot, wrote - about his work. 

Our successes are never total. I guess - hope - our failures are only partial too.

It's a great thing to try to do.

You can read the article here:

Monday, 8 September 2014

Being a funeral celebrant

I've posted on this before - a good while ago - and this one is likely to be just as opinionated as the earlier ones. But it's only my opinion, so just step over it rather than let it spoil your morning, or even two minutes of it!

Being a funeral celebrant is:

  • a community service not a job. You may get some money for it, but if you are not primarily committed to being at the service of your community, then clear off out of it, because you're part of the problem, not part of the solution. (The problem is expensive funerals unsuited to the families who book them.)
  • being part of a movement. Not the movement you might think it is. It's not the Atheists Militant (or otherwise), nor the New Age, nor the Green Funeral Movement, or any other pre-committed label. It's a movement working to find ways of "doing" funerals that suit the families you work with and their cultures.
  • not being anti or pro the status quo. There isn't a status quo. It's all on the move.
  • demanding and draining, though not depressing.
  • really rather wonderful

We come in all shapes and sizes, and we work in all sorts of places.

If you think it suits you, come and join us, but if you just want to earn as much as you can as quickly as you can - please don't.

The Mother of the Sea - Kathleen Drew is a Shinto goddess

Here's what seems to me a remarkable and moving story. 

Phycology is the study of algae, and Dr. Kathleen Drew was a phycologist at Manchester University. In 1949 she published a paper in "Nature" which for the first time made clear aspects of the reproductive system of a certain seaweed.

The seaweed is  porphyra laciniata, and it grows along the North Wales Coast.

Gosh this is riveting, you're thinking. 

Hang in there. You're reading about a Shinto goddess.

The seaweed is closely related to Nori, the black seaweed they wrap round nori rolls, eaten all over the world but especially in Japan. It's a very healthy and nutritious food.

Her paper was read  by a Japanese scientist, Sokichi Segawa, who was gracious enough to pass all the credit to Dr Drew, although it was he and colleagues who realised that her discovery would enable the harvest of nori to be much more predictable and very much larger. In effect, it could be seeded and sown.

Japan was close to starvation in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the seaweed industry in particular was close to collapse. Drew's discovery revolutionised the production of nori, saved the communities that harvest it from great suffering, and contributed to Japan's resurrection as a prosperous nation. It's unlikely that any of us outside Japan would every have heard of nori were it not for her.

Every year  on April 14th, there is a ceremony by the sea in Japan in her honour., in gratitude to her. She is called The Mother of the Sea, and is regarded as a spirit, a goddess, in Shinto.

There was a lovely BBC Radio 4 documentary about her this morning, you can get it on iPlayer:

I just love the idea that someone unknown to almost all of us, I suspect, could be seen as a goddess in a far distant and very different culture, and built into their traditional annual celebrations.

There she is, peering down her microscope in Manchester in the Thirties, little knowing she is going to be pantheonised in Japan twenty years later. Blessings can emerge from unlikely quarters!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Multi--tasking and mindfulness

It seems clear that women are better at multi-tasking than men. Whether that's because they have to be, or whether that's a good thing for any of us, is a different matter.

This woman seems quite cheerful about it all, though her little spud may be just about to delete a morning's work....Three people close to my heart have to do a lot of this sort of thing these days.

One thing is pretty definite; mental multi-tasking is not what you want in meditation, nor, says Larry Rosenberg*, in life.

"People sometimes ask "how can I get anything done if I do only one thing at a time?" Actually, we can be more effective. There is better attention and less tension when we do just one thing, and these factors more than balance the time that is saved by doing several things at once."

 I think he's not necessarily right in the short term - we're social animals, and sometimes our social (work) environment demands multi-tasking, but I'm sure we should avoid it when we can. I'm also sure he's absolutely right in the long term, because multi-tasking is a strain. It wears you out.

What he does urge us to do is to be pliable as well as steady in our attention. 

If a child runs into the room with a nasty cut and you're just filling the teapot with boiling water, it's multi-tasking time - no good saying "I just need to be mindful of the moment, and I'm making tea. Be with you in five." 

But even in this sort of instance, it's down to the quality of attention we bring to what we're doing. In fact, crises, even mini-crises like this one, often result in our being very firmly and clearly in the moment. But multi-tasking when you don't really need to, out of habit?

TS Eliot nailed it: "distracted from distraction by distraction."

Sounds to me like a definition of much of what's on Facebook....

* "Breath By Breath," Larry Rosenberg with David Guy.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Balance, in meditation, in our bodily systems, in the weather.

More wisdom from my Cropredy friend.

(it's a very nice village, by the way, as well as a festival. Here are the good people of the village hall serving their excellent breakfasts:

which are a very good preparation for:

To the point, Gloria!

I was saying that equanimity seemed to me a goal of meditation - the effort to achieve a balance. We talked of systems out of balance, and I suggested diabetes and tornadoes, when one of a person's bodily systems is out of balance, and when an entire weather system is out of balance. Balance is what meditation aims at.

His response surprised me. It was along the lines of "balance is the last thing we want to achieve, because it's static."

Like this, I guess:

A bit more thought - the kind that hurts and brings you out in spots - made me realise that I didn't mean balance = stasis either. All the good advice I've read on meditation insists that bringing the mind back to the breathing, or whatever the focus in the present might be, is exactly part of the meditation; we shouldn't expect to achieve a perfectly mindful half hour entirely still and present, because we won't, and then we get frustrated and chuck it in. 

The equanimity, the better sense of balance, comes from having meditated, it's not a perfect stasis achieved during meditation. So I said to my friend that I realised I didn't mean a static state, either.

He went on to say that looked at on a larger scale than the tornado itself (admittedly hard to do if it hits you, of course) makes us realise that a tornado is a weather system seeking a better balance. And the body's systems are always and continually moving into and out of all kinds of balance. Diabetics, and to a lesser extent all of us, never have a static state between too much insulin and too much sugar. 

So balance, in the sense I mean in when discussing meditation, is a constantly dynamic state, just as a tightrope artist is making tiny movements (or larger ones) all the time. She is balanced. She is not static.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Speak to Bert....

We once took some kids to watch Bert, a clown. He did his best, but the 20 or so children there didn't find him engaging. So they didn't respond when he called for participation. Until in desperation he stopped, looked at them, and dropped the persona; he said "speak to Bert...."

(Alas, they didn't. He soldiered on for a bit and then gave up. Probably went for a drink or three, reflecting that kids can be a tough audience.)

I use this blog to work out a few thoughts, and as a storage place for stuff that might also interest other people. It's just great when people leave a comment. I appreciate the effort and time involved; it's silly of Blogger not to have a "like" button because maybe that's all someone might want to do. But it's very rewarding to feel in contact with someone else's views. And although my small readership seems fairly stable in terms of numbers, there seem to be fewer and fewer comments.

There's nowhere else we can do this stuff. Facebook is useless for anything of any length, and Twitter is even briefer, of course.

So if you read something here that provokes a thought, do share it please.

"Speak to Gloria..."

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Wisdom of Pratchett's Tiffany

You have to take up wisdom wherever you find it, don't you. This from Sir Terry Pratchett:

..."saying goodbye to his [dead] father in the coolness of the crypt, trying to find a way of saying the words that there had never been time for, trying to make up for too much silence, trying to bring back yesterday and nail it firmly to now.

Everyone did that. Tiffany had come back from quite a few deathbeds, and some were very nearly merry, where some decent old soul was peacefully putting down the weight of their years. Or they could be tragic, when Death had needed to bend down to harvest his due; or, well, ordinary - sad but expected, one light blinking off in a sky full of stars. And she had wondered, as she made tea, and comforted people, and listened to the tearful stories about the good old days from people who always had words left over that they thought should have been spoken. And she had decided that they weren't there to be said in the past, but remembered in the here and now." (my italics) 

It seems to me a great gift and skill to be able to write so simply and clearly, and to come up with a thought that is new (to me, at least) and is powerful, and consoling.

 I salute you, Sir Terry.

(The quote is from "I Shall Wear Midnight," one of his four Tiffany Aching fantasy novels.)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Belief as agency rather than absolute - do you believe in reincarnation? + Tiffany Aching.

We'll get to Tiffany Aching in a minute.
I reckon anyone making use of the insights and practices of Buddhism has, sooner or later, to decide what they think about reincarnation. 

I don't "believe" in it, by which I mean that I think it is so unlikely that it is not a useful or helpful concept for me to live with - though it may well work well for others.

I am treating reincarnation as a belief, an "either/or" sort of concept, or at best, a "may be/probably not" framework. Either you do or you don't believe in it.But belief doesn't have to be an absolute; it can be an agency you use to do something important for yourself.

I was in conversation recently with a very special and longstanding friend of mine. He has a medical (i.e. a scientific, rational) background alongside an open and enquiring mind. I think he is one of the wisest people I know - which statement would make him snort, I am sure.

He told me that a long time ago he realised he was blaming his parents for everything that he felt was wrong with himself and his early life. 

As you do, or as many of us do from time to time.

So he took up a working belief in reincarnation. The work involved was thinking himself through to a different sense of self; if he was a soul (spirit, whatever) born into his current body and his current life, then neither he nor his parents had any control over who and where he was as a child. 

For about ten years he used a belief in reincarnation to work through his resentments and deal with his blaming. When he had done so, he found the belief simply fading away. It had been an agency which, consciously and deliberately or not, he had used to heal himself.

Until I guess he reached a more existential position in which, as Tiffany Aching might say: "This I choose to do. This I accept responsibility for." 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Quaker insights into silence and grief

Not that sort. (Anyway, you can't make decent porage in a minute!)

This sort:

I'm not one, but there is much about them I find interesting and rewarding. Here's a couple of quotes from a Friend's publication  about funerals, sent to me by a dear friend who is also a Friend:

 "Quakers do have something very special to offer the dying and the bereaved, namely that we are at home in silence. Not only are we thoroughly used to it and unembarrassed by it, but we know something about sharing it, encountering others in its depths and, above all, letting ourselves be used in it…"

I love the idea that we encounter others in the depths of silence; I think that can be very true in a funeral, any sort of funeral - or in a wedding, for that matter. And being used in the silence seems a potent idea, whether we think it is literally true, or a powerful metaphor for what happens to us in a profound moment.

And on grief:

"People so often talk of someone ‘getting over’ a death. How could you ever fully get over a deep loss? Life has been changed profoundly and irrevocably. You don’t get over sorrow; you work your way right to the centre of it."

This seems so true to me that it's a puzzle sometimes why more of us can't accept that and live with it; it is so helpful.

Both quotes were written by Diana Lampen in 1979, and if she is still with us, I thank her for them.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Cropredy Festival, Mischa Macpherson and transcendental interstices, + excellent breakfast at the village hall.

Health warning: this one's about music, and is no less opinionated than usual... Ed.)

 Back from Cropredy, Fairport Convention's annual bash, bigger and in some ways better some ways not, than ever. Here's the bill of fare:

Much more to a festival than the line-up, of course. I'm not sure how many more years I'll be able to get alternately roasted and soaked. I look with envy at festivals that have huge marquees...but you can't get 20,000 people in one marquee, and there is a togertheness about Cropredy which is very special. (Apart from people who can't hold their drink and don't care about the music or the people round them; not so many of those, but enough, down the front at least. Those people are not together in any sense.)

Then there's the toilets (above festival par, but par isn't all that high) and the food stalls, with plenty of good stuff, some of which continues to contest the territory with the ageing system long after it's been paid for and consumed. See toilet comments. But nice showers - with huge queues.

It was a sell-out year - which is lovely in many ways, but crowdwise, a bit much at peak times.

(stop bloody grumbling and get to the music - Ed.)

Someone wrote somewhere (and that's the standard of your underpinning references? - Ed.) that we look for transcendental moments in the interstices of a song.  Between lyrics and intrumental patterning, musical form and expression, we find something difficult to describe but which feels "right," like coming home, like being entirely here and now.

When the Australian Pink Floyd tribute band (yes, tribute band - don't sneer till you've seen them and then you can try sneering) launched their set with "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," full-length, I had such moments. I'm no Floydhead, mostly missed them first time around, but this was very beautiful music. I was - sent, as people used to say. Where, I don't know. That's the point.

But for me the best music was from some of Cara Dillon's set, much of Capercaille's, and all of the Mischa Macpherson Trio's set.

Mischa who?

Go here: 

or better still, try to catch them live. She has a lovely natural stage presence, they all play superbly, they are all very young, given the standard of their prowess.

They are from the Hebrides/Western Highlands, I believe, source of many a lovely voice. There were moments (OK, interstices, if you like) when the instruments shifted a little under the voice, and though I have not a word of the Gaelic, IT happened. 

So Cropredy '14 was billed as a prog rock-ish, Chas and Dave sort of festival, but for me the timeless/present moment moments were either Scots or Irish (Cara D.) Coincidental, perhaps.

Chas and Dave? Huge fun, loved 'em.

Huge self-important guitar-screaming prog rock? Gertcha!

And Fairport were Fairport, bless 'em endlessly. What is more heart-lifting than to hear them swing into "Walk A-While" and think "well, they're still doing it and I'm still here, so all is well for a while at least."

 Thanks, lads. Look after yourselves and keep doing it!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Into the West - funeral music?

I don't know about you but I don't pay much attention to film music as music. At the end of "The Lord of the Rings," there is some music. Whatever else I did or didn't like about the films, the way they did the elves was close to the top of "didn't much like." I wanted to bite one of them in the ankle, just to see what would happen... 

So the last scene, in The Grey Havens, is far from memorable for me, along with its music, which if I remember rightly, runs on into the credits. A powerful piece of myth-making schmaltzed up, was my grumpy reaction.

Yet in it's essence, it is the ancient myth of death as a sea journey to another country. The Anglo-Saxon epic poem "Beowulf," much mined by Tolkien, opens with the funeral of Shield Sheafson, Beowulf's ancestor. He is sent out to sea in a Viking longship, and the poet comments that no-one can say what hands, under what skies, unloaded that precious cargo.

This myth (I'm using the term objectively not perjoratively) crops up in different forms at funerals, most frequently in the poem "what is dying?" which starts "I am standing on the sea shore/A ship sails..."

Anyway, at a funeral yesterday we had a CD track of Annie Lennox singing "Into the West," the music which she co-wrote for the very end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy,

It was a favourite track of the man who had died, and his wife had it playing on a loop to comfort him during his last hours. In context, it was deeply moving and very beautiful. I commend it to you.

Lay down your sweet and weary head
Night is falling, you have come to journey's end
Sleep now and dream of the ones who came before
They are calling from across the distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see all of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms, you're only sleeping

What can you see on the horizon?
Why do those white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

Dawn will turn to silver glass
A light on the water, all souls pass

Hope fades into the world of night
Through shadows falling out of memory and time
Don't say we have come now to the end
White shores are calling, you and I will meet again
And you'll be here in my arms, just sleeping

What can you see on the horizon?
Why do those white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water, gray ships pass
Into the west

Monday, 14 July 2014

Caffeine, Toxins, Vipassana and Tim Parks

Tim Parks in"Teach Us To Sit Still" describes the ways in which first relaxation and then meditation brought him relief from very unpleasant symptoms (pelvic pain) and associated anxieties. He manages to avoid drastic surgery, and he eventually does a 15-day course of meditation at a Vipassana centre. I haven't been to such a centre, but he writes in what I guess is a fair-minded as well as an engaging way about the process. He certainly reaches a new understanding of the relationship between mental states and physical symptoms. And he stops hurting.

After "Teach Us To Sit Still, Parks used his experiences to write a novel about young woman at a Vipassana centre. The novel's title is "Sex Is Forbidden." Which it is, along with an awful lot of other things, including an evening meal. (Tea and a piece of fruit only.) No intoxicants, and of course, no coffee, or other "toxins."

Both the central character of the novel, and Parks himself, came to the Vipassana Centre in dire straits. I expect that makes one readier to put up with things that would otherwise seem objectionable, worrying even, and for many people the rigour of the 15 days' isolation from the world no doubt works.

I have a big reservation about a central concept in the experience, as described on a Vipassana Centre's website: "purity." There is much emphasis on purifying the mind, and the body. 

It's not so much the rigour of the code that alienates me; fair enough, they are aiming at eliminating distractions and diversions, hence segregation of the sexes, no reading materials, mobile phones, etcetcetc. 

It's the idea that we can be purified, the emphasis on ridding the mind and the body of impurities, that doesn't work for me. Isn't that the old dualism, mind/body, pure/impure, the idea that a drive towards ridding ourselves of our beastly bits will make us good, holy, enlightened, better members of society.

I can't remember who it was who said that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the size of the dose. Anything can become a toxin if you take too much of it, perhaps even meditation; we can't spend our lives in the lotus posture. (I can't spend five minutes in it.) I don't accept there are pure and impure beings. We are mixed creatures, morally fallible, and I don't trust any kind of moral or physical absolutism.

Still, it worked for Tim Parks. Maybe if I was in a jam, I'd put up with ten days of rigid social and physical control. But it seems to me there are kinder meditation routines and retreats that can also result in awakening, "Insight, " "Seeing things as they truly are" (translations of "Vipassana").

(I should emphasise that "Vipassana" is a broad term for ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist techniques, and that the regime Parks describes is simply one interpretation and one methodology for delivering it via an intensive - to put it mildly - silent retreat.)

Monday, 7 July 2014

Caffeine and meditation: any help?

Now I have a clearer understanding of the effect of caffeine on my system, and on the assumption that it affects others similarly, I need to look at the question: is caffeine useful to keep us awake when we meditate?

Because people do nod off when they're meditating. I find that even if I've had a reasonable night's sleep, it can be hard to stay awake, particularly during the body scan stuff. Lying down, eyes can't tell the difference. Until someone starts snoring.

So why not caffeine up and stay awake?

Doesn't work, I think. The pick-up isn't even. Either I'll find it harder to maintain a level sort of presence because the the old bonce is off running scripts, jabbering away, hopping around and has to be hauled back to the present moment even more often than usual. Result = jumpiness, and dissatisfaction with self more likely. Total equanimity burn-off. See pic below.

Or the caffeine has faded, and that's when I'll feel even sleepier. Peaks and troughs of stimulation don't help meditation, I find.

Better to meditate before coffee in the morning, and maybe later in the day, by which time the caffeine level should have subsided. Or cut down on the caffeine and try for more even energy levels throughout the day. Our culture seems addicted to the idea that we need large shots of sugars and coffee to make us function.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Mindful caffeine?

I now have an enhanced respect for the old Java, the cappucino, the..well, you know the bewildering variety of ways you can slurp up caffeiene. (I write not of useless fattening caffeinated fizzy drinks....) 

I have also added to my understanding of caffeine levels in different teas. Did you know that, contrary to propaganda, white tea, lovely though it is, has one of the highest concentrations of caffeine of any tea? And that decaffeinated tea and coffee still retain small quantities of caffeine? You did? OK, on we go.

I've been trying to find out what might be causing a reactive skin rash I've been proudly nourishing for at least 18 months, so I am trying the procedure of leaving out of my diet one at a time the most common suspects for triggering histamine reactions in the skin.  

You may imagine my relief when after an alcohol-free 19 days I discovered that keeping clear of the Merlot the G&T and the foaming pint of Adnams made absolutely no difference. I was still "scratchin' like a hound" (Coasters, 1959, "Poison Ivy.")

So next I tried caffeine. I stopped drinking teas black green or white, and coffee. Stopped abruptly. Big mistake. Headaches, generally feeling well below par (and par isn't what it used to be. Do you find that? You're obviously over 60...) grumpy (-er), mood (-ier) swings.

Stuck it for two days then re-caffeinated gently, with Darjeeling tea. Fizz pop went the day, back up to par. That's just two cups of Darj in a day, no more.

And that was and is my usual daily dose, apart from an espresso in the morning. Clearly, even my moderate caffeine intake makes a big difference to my metabolism, and I have an addiction. I'm so proud to have discovered that, since I've always been too cowardly to contemplate getting addicted to anything else much. Apart obviously from Cotes du Rhone. And music. And being in the countryside. And....h'mmm.

There is a point to all this. Which is: what effects are caffeine levels likely to have on meditation sessions? Should one espresso up in order not to nod off, or shun the stuff because it disturbs equilibrium?

I shall address these crucial issues in my next post. Please try to contain your impatience.