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.)