September 30, 2010
Morning thoughts on good and evil.
Enjoying my cappuchino and newspaper this morning, I inadvertently overheard (all right, this might be tautology, and, all right -I actually do love eavesdropping) a conversation between two young people. Both in their early twenties, bright, attractive, confident, succesful- not unusual in this part of London.
Clearly they never met before, and only just started chatting. As you do, when you find yourself sitting in a cafe, next table to someone fitting the above description. After the obligatory 'what do you do in London?' question (it transpired: she- in fashion, he- in film industry), the conversation quickly moved on to matters of philosophy, specifically the perennial problem of good and evil.
To summarise his view, most people are good, and if the good increase the overall amount of 'goodness' in the world, then if somebody is 'bad' (i.e. his actions add to the world's overall amount of evil), it cannot possibly be bad to kill such a person. After all, it's only logical - the fewer people generating the evil, the better the world. She agreed.
I gasped, but didn't want to spoil what clearly was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
And I thought of Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the Russian writer who having spent years in Stalinist labour camps, knew all there is to know about evil. Mainly, that the dividing line between good and evil does not run between states, classes, religions, or even political parties. Jesus knew it, and Augustine too, but who wants to inflict Jesus's views on one's fellow morning coffee drinker? But I wish I had this quote to hand, from Solzhenitzyn's Gulag Archipelago:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
September 28, 2010
Over the weekend, I was doing the final proof corrections for a book of mine called 'One-Minute Mindfulness' which is out and about in December.
I don't know if I'm allowed to - the year of living dangerously and all that - but I thought I might include one of the meditations here, a first preview, no, a 'world premier'. (Yep, that's me on the red carpet with Julia Roberts, who plays the lead. I'm the short one...)
Which one to choose from the 180? Well, I've gone for the one that my editor particularly liked on the day we met. But I am aware that every choice is a very personal thing...
It's called 'The Space Man' and it goes something like this:
When the space man arrived in the busy city, there were problems.
He was a strong man, and needed to be, as he dragged this wonderful space from town to town across the land. He liked to offer it to the busiest places, because he knew that if they didn't have any space, there wouldn't be any tenderness either.
But the space man was having trouble today because the Mayor said the space was too large to get into the city.
'It just won't fit,' he said, scratching his head. 'The streets are too narrow, and there are so many cars and people going about their business. I can hardly stop the activity just for a bit of space. How about making it smaller?'
'You can't make space smaller,' said the space man, 'it's eternal.'
'But we've got things to do and lives to lead!' said the Mayor.
'Without space, there's no tenderness; and without tenderness, there's no life.'
'Next year, perhaps,' said the mayor. 'This year's a write-off, but we'll have space next year.'
September 27, 2010
Voice of reason
How refreshing to hear an eminent scientist speak in a voice of reason on the subject of Science vs Religion.
Martin Rees who is stepping down as head of the Royal Society, would like to see a 'peaceful coexistence' between science and religion. He points out that he two concern different domains.
Not only is he not a militant atheist who goes out of his way to insult people of belief, as seems to be the fashion of today, but he says this about recent statement/sounbite from Stephen Hawking about the alleged nonexistence of God, (or, strictly speaking about there being no need for God in order to explain creation): "I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don't think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.' And : " Anyone who takes theology seriously knows it's not a matter of using it to explain things scientists are mystified by."
No doubt many militant atheists will be mystified by such unorthodox views.
September 23, 2010
Tales of the underground
I was travelling on the London underground, Victoria line, changing at Green Park.
All the seats were taken in my carriage, bar one, which had a big bag on it.
I went to move the bag, and suddenly the man next to it leaps up and is in my face, shouting, snarling, telling me to back off.
I don't back off, and he swings a punch at me. Fortunately for my good looks, I catch his fist in my palm so he kicks me instead and resumes cursing.
I stand my ground, but hold back from returning the punch.
The bag on the seat is the man's home, I suspect, his gathered worldly goods. And a man's home is his castle, worthy of defence. So despite the inner energy for redress, I let it be. I don't move, but I let it be.
With his snarling done, and nothing else to do, he sits back down like a moody guard dog.
No one on the tube reacts in any way at all.
We travel in close proximity for a few stops, him, his home and me, and then at Green Park I say goodbye.
Our adventures came together deep underground, but now they must part.
Its time for sunlight and fresh air.
September 20, 2010
the size of my happiness
I don't mean to be competitive (see Simon's blog below), but I too had a perfect day today.
First, a reassuring news from my doctor that a repeat full blood count test came back normal and that my anxiety at alarmingly abnormal results first time round was unnecessary. Apparently, blood-making is a dynamic process and the number of various types of blood cells can go up and down for not always discernible reason. Not unlike caprices of British weather then or share price index - unpredictable and always changing.
But going back to my perfect day, while I care very little about FTSE 100 share price index, I care a great deal about what sort of day I wake up to. In fact I care about weather to such an unhealthy degree that it literally dictates my levels of wellbeing. Weather good - I'm happy; weather miserable - so am I. I know this is not a way to live out one's days (especially not in England!) but there it is.
However, today - with glorious weather and just the right number of the right types of blood cells in my veins - it felt euphoric to be alive.
After obligatory coffee and newspaper in Portobello cafe, I took Boris bike to the Lido on the Serpentine where I dropped it off; more paper was consumed, some people-watching, then al fresco lunch. From there I walked to V&A museum to briefly contemplate some things both weird and wonderful.
Back in the park and late-September light, I sat on a bench, my heart filled with joy and gratitude for such perfect day so far, wherupon a fearless squirrell climbed onto my lap. By a rare stroke of luck, I had some nuts in my bag. One small rodent was made very happy, and so was one higher primate.
Another Boris bike took me to High Street Kensington and to a perfect early- afternoon glass of wine
shared with a friend and each other's news.
Today - happy day, tomorrow - who knows.. It's all a dynamic process. But perhaps, if we can teach ourselves to see the size of our pain (see Robert Hass poem in my last blog), we need to teach ourselves to see the size of our happiness too..
September 19, 2010
It's such a perfect day
A rather wonderful day, so if you want misery, look away now.
Had a good time with Meister Eckhart this morning; he really is very good company, always leaving me stirred, dismantled and happy.
I then ran a hilly and enjoyable half marathon, taking in the Ally Pally (first BBC radio broadcast from there etc) and Kenwood House (with its own Rembrandt inside, not that I stopped) on Hampstead Heath, followed by a wonderful hot bath.
I started the Ken Follett novel 'The Pillars of the Earth', recently recommended to me, and then a walk to Seven Sisters station to go and have lunch with my daughter.
It was a lovely time, truthful, kind and funny, including a walk by the river, where we watched Narrow boats setting out, and disagreed about what were geese and what were ducks. The jury's still out.
On our return, some strong coffee and a three way phone conversation between ourselves and my son, just out of the pub in Brighton having watched United beat Liverpool.
I left my daughter to watch the Bond film 'A view to a kill' - one of her favourites - while on the train journey home, a nice phone conversation with a friend, while I pass through romantic stations like Turkey Street and Bruce Castle, before arriving at the sisters numbering seven.
It's a half hour walk back home for some coleslaw and samosas.
Tonight? Well, I'll have to stay up for Match of the Day obviously. 10.00pm is a little late, but hey, you're only old once.
And really, as darkness brings closure, and my desk light shines bright on my typing fingers, what more could I want but this?
Light a fire
This from a collection 'Sun under Wood" by the American poet Robert Hass:
"Private pain is easy, in a way. It doesn't go away,
but you can teach yourself to see its size. Invent a ritual.
Walk up a mountain in the afternoon, gather up pine twigs.
Light a fire, thin smoke, not an ambitious fire,
and sit before it and watch it till it burns to ash
and the last gleam is gone from it, and dark falls.
Then you get up, brush yourself off, and walk back to the world.
If you're lucky, you're hungry."
Easy, Zen-like in its simplicity, and effective ( for small to medium pain, anyway!). If mountains or pine twigs are at a premium where you are, light a candle at home and watch it burn.
Finding scissors and Truth
Today my daughter called out to me, saying that she had found the sewing box scissors under a pile of clothes in her bedroom, now for anyone who has experience of teenagers this may not seem unusual, but it filled me with happiness.
Now let me explain, a few weeks ago I had been looking for these particular scissors and no one had touched them or had any idea of where they were. The simple fact that when she found them, realised that she was the one who took them and was able to own up and be honest about it filled me with joy.
Her honesty was welcome because it made me realise that when I was a child in a similar situation I would have been too frightened to own up, I would have slipped the item back when no one was looking.
I couldn't have done what she did for fear of punishment, this would have been in the form of being made to feel embarrassed or ashamed that I had said I didn't know where someting was, when all along I was the one who had moved it. I would have been made to feel small and stupid by the person who I relied on for my care and survival.
This kind of harsh treatment repeated again and again left me with a legacy of denial and dishonesty when it came to taking responsibility for my own actions. Owning up to things, even when I knew them to be true, left me feeling too vulnerable and exposed and therefore my default choice would always be to hide or run away from any person or situation that challenged my sense of safety.
Sometimes when the truth was too painful for me to hear, I would blame the messenger, my deflection would save me from the pain but it never brought healing. Trying to manipulate others into thinking things are their fault is not honest and an unhelpful move!
In fact three of the biggest growth spurts I have experienced on my own spirtual journey are:
1/ Giving up trying to manipulate others, after all it is an impossible task and unfair request to expect someone else to provide what I need.
2/ Learning to trust that if I go inside and sit with the pain,I will find the resources to meet my own needs.
3/ Learning not to be afraid of being challenged, without challenge there is no growth and more than anything I need to grow.
Looking into the Truth Mirror still sometimes leaves me feeling exposed, but now instead of running away, I choose to step boldly foward into the light.
September 16, 2010
A milli-second is all it takes
This is a rather shocking tale, and one from which I'm still recovering.
I was at the Odeon cinema, in London's Leicester Square this week; but don't worry, I wasn't enjoying myself. I was there as a member of the press to consider the pros and cons of the Celibacy rule for Roman Catholic clergy. (Celibacy means abstaining from marriage; abstaining from sex is quite different obviously.)
The evening was divided into two parts. First there was to be a film, followed by a debate led by a panel of the great and good - and stand-up comedian Frank Skinner.
The film was excellent. It's called 'Conspiracy of silence' and is a good story well told about sexual hypocrisy in the Roman church. Beautifully shot, excellently scripted, top performances - and if you want a copy, go to www.conspiracyofsilence.co.uk. It will make a good evening's viewing.
But this is not a blog about the film, but about what happened between the film and the debate. I was sitting next to a woman I didn't know, and we started chatting, as you do. She was clearly a 'liberated catholic', pro-everything the Pope isn't, and very proud of the fact that she hasn't seen her priest in a dog collar for 16 years. She made positive noises about the Guardian and appeared right at the forefront of the liberal concensus. It's all going swimmingly, I thought. What can possibly go wrong? It's nice meeting new people, and always easier if there is some enlightenment in the air.
She looks at my press badge, and asks which paper I work for. I say I do most of my work for the Daily Mail.
I can't convey in words what happened in that milli-second. But I went into it chatting happily, and a reasonably nice person, and came out of it, a figure of hate, shit on the pavement of life. She couldn't talk to me from then on. Before I had been a human, but now? I knew how the Jews felt. I'd been given a label, and now anything was legitimate.
She couldn't speak to me for the rest of the evening apart from one or two spiteful comments. I presume anything was fair now, given that I was no longer human, and she was way above me on some moral high ground that had suddenly appeared from nowhere.
I did mention that I was glad to see the Pharisees of Jesus' day had survived the centuries - 'I thank you Lord that I am not like them' - but words seemed fairly pointless amid the chilling wind of demonisation.
The good news is that Frank Skinner was a wonderful panellist, very funny and insightful too. At one stage during the debate he had to shout out 'Don't heckle the nun!' which he admitted was not a line he'd ever uttered before onstage.
September 15, 2010
reading Jonathan Franzen
The famous American writer Jonathan Franzen has made a short video in which he expresses his 'profound discomfort at having to make a video like this". Quite apart from the fact that presumably he wasn't forced at a gunpoint (that's if you don't count the metaphorical guns pointed at him by publishers, agents, and the rest of the PR machinery), what he's got to say is wise and dignified.
"The internet is fine for commerce, but, to me, the point of a novel is to take you to a still place".
And then: " The world of books is the quiet alternative - an ever more desperately needed alternative".
In the busy digital media world of fast results, easy opinion, and sound-bite messages, this is indeed a brave thing to say. It echoes Saul Bellow's words that "art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterises prayer too, and the eye of the storm."
Nicely said, and, as unproductive as this may sound, I'm going to devote the rest of the day to silence and reading Franzen.
September 13, 2010
Not feeling the benefit
I was watching an old lady being interviewed about benefits.
'Well, I don't get any benefits,' she said tetchily.
'You don't get any benefits?' queried the interviewer, surprised.
'None,' she said. 'No benefits for me!'
'But what about free travel on the bus?'
'Oh, I get that.'
'I see. And your free TV licence?'
'Well, if you're going to call those benefits...'
Its interesting how quickly we are consumed by our sense of entitlement, which leaves nothing as gift -
- when in fact everything is.
September 12, 2010
The chosen ones.
I have a new member of the family and he has well and truely got his feet under the table, all four of them!
He started visiting this time last year, sneaking through the back door and creeping up the stairs to steal food. At first I would scream abuse at him and chase him out, but unperturbed by my shocking behaviour he just kept coming back.
I think I first realized I was losing the battle, when I noticed my daughters had given him a name, the conversation went something like this "Mum, Sammi came in again today" "Sammi?, Who's Sammi?" "You know the ginger one, I've always wanted a ginger one called Sammi" " Well I don't want any more"
Then the cold weather started and I didn't have the heart to chase him outside, so I used to pretend I hadn't noticed that he had come in and was hiding behind the curtain. On reflection this may have been my fatal mistake!
When spring arrived I was still insisting that I didn't want any more, I did a little bit of detective work and found out that he actually lived about twenty doors away. His people told me that they call him Bobby, "because he bobs in and out as he wants to".
Well, he continued to bob into mine, getting bolder and bolder and after an initial freak out, he became firm friends with my young grandaughter, sitting next to her because he knew she would share whatever she had with him "Lillie, don't let Bobby lick your lolly"
"But why?" "Because he will give you germs" "But why?" "Because I said so!" "But why?" etc etc.........
He carried on coming in, he'd be there first thing in the morning, when I arrived home from work and last thing at night, we began wondering if he ever went home. Then a few weeks ago my daughter came home and announced "I just saw Bobby's owners, he doesn't go there anymore, I think he's chosen us" I felt myself groan inwardly and pathetically say "but I don't want anymore cats"
But this week I gave up the pretense, when I came down the stairs from my bedroom and he placed a dead mouse at my feet, he had that same kind of look, as children have when they have made you something special.
My daughter was right, we are the chosen ones.
September 08, 2010
Just back from blogging holiday forced on me by ailing computer, I would like to be able to report that there is a perfect balance between my online and offline lives. But I wonder..
In his book "The Shallows. What the internet is doing to our brains" Jonathan Carr argues what only those in deepest denial would deny: that digital ways of communicating are not only altering the society we live in and our relationships ( for better or worse), but literally changing neural pathways in our brains.
We skim and scan for bits of information from lots of different sources, welcoming the constant interruptions, if not actually actively seeking to be interrupted by our marvellous digital gadgets. We move from checking email to blog, twitter, facebook, nearly all day long. Focused, quiet, deep, nourishing reading of books becomes impossible for a brain that is addicted to and craves constant interruption. In the process we are loosing the ability to concentrate, contemplate and reflect.
Poor us! That's all I've got to say today. Off now, must check my email, again..
September 06, 2010
I think I'd like to be told before I die. I'd like to be given a few minutes before I go.
'OK, Simon, you've got a hundred more breaths.'
'A hundred more breaths?'
'A hundred, yep.'
'Do with them as you will. It's up to you, of course.'
'Sure. A hundred you say?'
'There or thereabouts.We won't get caught up in too much exactitude.
'Always a mistake.'
'Exactitude is overrated.'
'No, sure, sure. A hundred breaths give or take -'
'It's 'final things thrown in the case' time.'
'A journey ahead.'
I'd like to be told before I die; to have time for brief reflection on adventures thus far, the holy and the broken, though the two are one of course. I suspect if I reflect well on the past, the future will take care of itself.
Intentions determine quality of being, so I suspect I'll look back on those.
'Where did your intentions point, Simon? In what direction? Towards you or towards others? What did you intend in this brief sprint across the field of life?'
Forget about appearance, because appearance adds up to a fat nothing. We can dress up our intentions in all sorts of fine clothes, that appear to dazzle; that keep our phoney show on the road.
But fuck all that now. Fuck appearance. I only have a hundred breaths, so better to be true than appear well. What did I intend?
So many years have passed, but a mis-spent half hour in so many ways.
The luckiest man in the world, I know that...so thank you...yes, I can't think much beyond that...thankyou...