Zen + Zen = Zen

I’ve been reading a book of Japanese Death Poems lent to me by my son.  I was quite ignorant of the Japanese tradition of writing a poem at the point of death: it seems very strange to us that someone can not only know when they are about to die but stop to write a poem before they go; but I found these poems to be a great source of peace: all of us in the West need to learn to confront our own mortality instead of running away from it and trying to prolong our lives as much as possible.

https://bit.ly/2EcHWiG

I’ve also been watching a film about the Tamil mathematician Ramanujan.  Played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan is an untutored genius with a brilliant intuitive mind who regards mathematics as a sort of worship and does his calculations in the sand of the temple floor.  He has a mind as beautiful as Nash’s but without any opportunity to share his insights; however a friend takes his papers to show the local British bigwig and he gets an opportunity to go to Cambridge and study under Hardy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._H._Hardy

Jeremy Irons (how I love that man) is perfect as the atheist Hardy, a man fighting on more fronts than the War which forms the backdrop to this narrative.  Prejudice is ingrained and Trinity College refuses to acknowledge that ‘an Indian’ could be brainier than they are.  But Hardy is also fighting Ramanujan himself, who cannot understand his insistence on ‘proving’ the arguments which he intuitively ‘sees’.  Intuition, in the West, is not enough: there must be proof, especially if Ramanujan is to be elected as a Fellow.  An opportunity to explore these cultural differences is missed; in fact missed opportunities are a feature of this film.  Stephen Fry has a cameo as British bigwig Sir Francis Spring who abruptly changes his mind about supporting Ramanujan (another opportunity for drama missed) and other supporting roles are underexploited, such as Toby Jones as Hardy’s friend and co-conspirator and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell; a man sympathetic to racial equality but realistic about Ramanujan’s chances of Fellow-ship.

A sad sub-plot involves Ramanujan’s young wife, separated from him by his relocation to England.  Their separation is cruelly compounded by his jealous mother who hides their letters, so that each thinks the other has forgotten them.  But once again the opportunity for drama is missed; the wife finds the letters and we fast-forward to a reconciliation, though sadly they have only two more years together before he dies of TB.

I’m very interested in the subject of multicultural maths.  Arabic cultures were fluent in maths and much of their art is based on patterns of numbers: I wonder if we are still as arrogant today as those Trinity scholars who thought the way of the West was the only way?

The film’s on Netflix now if you want to watch it:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0787524/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_7

And I have a sneaking suspicion that in Zen mathematics 1+1=1…

Kirk out

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What a Load of Old Santosh

There’s not a lot of the old Santosh sloshing around these days: the practice of contentment is so far off the radar that most of us don’t even see it, and even those of us who practise are liable to forget it just at the crucial moment.  Though it stands at our elbow and nudges, we push it away.  Only let me have this, we say, then I’ll be content.  I just need this one thing to be happy.  But Santosh is a wily old bird, and she knows better.  ‘You come along-a me,’ she says, ‘and then you’ll have everything you need.’  You know she’s right but you resist, you delay; because you’re afraid that following santosh will mean accepting that you can never have the Thing.  And you really really want The Thing.  The Thing is what your whole life has been pointing at, and you can’t give up The Thing.

Give me the Thing!

Santosh is one of the practices of Hinduism and hence of yoga.  What with Eastern traditions being non-dualistic they don’t have Cardinal Virtues and Deadly Sins: even though the concept is roughly the same (as you’ll see in a minute) the approach is much more gentle.  Rather than choosing between heaven and hell, you arrive at different levels (as it were) and are reincarnated accordingly.  I don’t believe in actual reincarnation but the principle makes a lot more sense to me than an arbitrary ‘on-off’ switch where you’re going down a chute and God flips the switch to send you up to heaven or down to hell.  There are ten of these ‘practices’; five things to do and five to avoid.

Here are the niyamas, or things to practice:

Santosh

Saucha, or cleanliness,

Tapas, or discipline (primarily self-discipline)

Svadhyaya, study of self and of texts

Ishvara-pranidhana, acceptance of a higher power (a bit like the practice in Alcoholics Anonymous, and susceptible of many interpretations).

But before you get to these there are five yamas, or things to avoid:

Ahimsa, non-violence (the corner-stone of Gandhi’s philosophy)

Satya, truth-telling (Gandhi also spoke of satyagraha, or ‘truth-power’)

Asteya, non-stealing

Aparigraha, non-greed

Brahmacharya, either celibacy or the right direction of sexual energy (this does not necessarily imply homophobia but a focussing on sexual energy to foster relationships rather than on personal gratification.)

https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/practice/the-yamas-and-niyamas

The thing about these is they all work together; and it occurred to me this morning that santosh and aparigraha, or the avoidance of greed, are very much in tandem.  If you are satisfied with what you have you do not crave more (this does not apply to those whose basic needs are not met) so it could be said that the constant striving after achievement is a kind of greed.  That sounds a little harsh, I know, but in an age where being driven is seen as some sort of virtue, it might help to see it in that way.

Kirk out

 

 

Good Morning? If You Say So

I’m feeling rather gloomy and Eeyoreish this morning.  When I feel like this I’m unwilling to foist my Eeyoreishness onto others, because I know what that feels like and it ain’t pretty, so instead I thought, what better time to compose a cheerful blog post?  Because I know that being cheerful outwardly can lead to feeling cheerful inside.  However, before I begin smiling, this requires a caveat.  I think there’s something deeply wrong with enforced cheerfulness: as I said before in the post about Dismaland:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2018/10/26/exit-pursued-by-a-gift/

enforced ‘happiness’ can be terrible for your mental health because it’s not real.  Before you can begin to be happy you first have to acknowledge your sadness or depression or pain or gloom: otherwise that’s called denial.

But once you’ve done that; once you’ve acknowledged the pain and sadness, there is much to be said for a cheerfulness which is a considered choice: one which looks at the awfulness of a world where Brexit threatens to smash up just about everything; a world where Trump is still President and where Brazilians have just elected (albeit by a narrow margin) a possibly even more repellent leader than DT and where just about the nicest, most generous football club owner ever has just been killed in a helicopter crash:

https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/leicester-news/aaib-investigators-give-update-leicester-2158815

Image result for mourning Leicester city logo

image removed on request

What sort of a world is this?  It’s a bloody awful one.  So give me my parachute because I want to bail out right now.  I don’t want to be here in this place where everywhere you turn there are more and more reasons for despair.  I want to leave, thank you very much.

So, having said all that (and taken cognisance of the fact that there’s nowhere else to go*) you can do one of two things: despair or hope.  And I choose hope.  ‘Strong men know not despair, Arjuna,’ says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (let’s be generous and take ‘men’ as including women) and so I choose hope, even in the midst of despair.  Even in the depths of Dante’s hell there is, as Dorothy L Sayers points out, a tra-la of happiness:

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

(Canto III)

Literature is full of such examples: in the land of the dead where there is no hope at all, Lyra refuses to accept the reality she is presented with, insisting instead on finding a way out:

https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-amber-spyglass/philip-pullman/chris-wormell/9781407186122

and, terrible though the Inferno is, Dante eventually finds a way through to Purgatory

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purgatorio

As for me, when I feel despair I think of a river.  No matter what obstacles a river faces, whether rock or stone or earth or deep chasms, it will find a way through.  It may take time and persistence but the steady drip-drip, the insistent push of water will in the end break down the hardest rock.  Even dams need an outlet – and constant maintenance.

So be the river.  Find a way through, not a way out.

Kirk out

* without either committing suicide or trying to live on Mars, neither of which appeal

 

 

If I’m Bored It Must Be Sunday

When I was a child Sundays were practically synonymous with boredom.  Everyone went to church and the whole thing was an incredible performance; dressing up in your best (and most uncomfortable) clothes, sitting still through hours of excruciating boredom and not being allowed to do anything fun.  When I was a teenager it was hardly less exciting as the pubs were closed most of the day, only the paper shops were open (and with restricted hours) and there was nothing to do.  It is hard to see a connection between all of this conformity and the teachings of Christ.

Religion everywhere is a magnet for those who seek power.  The tragedy is that religions often stem from prophets or messiahs who preach against power – but the lure of getting people under your spell by promising heaven and threatening hell and by aligning yourself with the gods you are supposed to be worshipping, is too great.  One survivor of Catholic abuse said a nun told her ‘I’m God.’  This is the most basic idolatry ever and you can’t understand how they don’t realise it.

But!  Yesterday was an antidote to all that because I went to a brilliant service at All Saints.  The church, so often associated with shaming gays and lesbians and excluding those who don’t fit in (thus directly contravening the teachings of Jesus) has changed – and one small church in Loughborough has taken the brilliant step of having a Pride service.  It was a terrific event, inclusive and welcoming not just to gays and lesbians but to everyone, encouraging us to love ourselves as God made us.

http://www.allsaintsloughborough.org.uk/jml02/

After that I went to the pub and then to another pub and then for lunch and then for a walk along the canal.  That’s what Sundays should be like.

Kirk out

Geography of a Psycho

You may have heard the term ‘psycho-geography’ or you may not: it doesn’t matter.  Psycho-geography is the connection of landscape to psychology; the link between your surroundings and your interior world.  Psycho-geography is a key feature of many crime novels – where would Rebus be without Edinburgh, its pubs and greasy spoons, its dank council estates overshadowed by Arthur’s seat? – and it is specifically mentioned in ‘Day of the Dead’:(https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2018/08/02/what-comes-after-sunday/) where the hidden rivers of London are a clue to the actions of a serial killer.  And now I’ve been and got me some psycho-geography too.

I didn’t mean to, at least not consciously (can you mean something unconsciously?) – as I said a couple of days ago, I set out without any plan at all.  But now that I’ve walked thirty or more miles of river (or canal) it occurs to me that there are very clear parallels between this walk and my life.  Walking the canals has been an existence alongside but entirely different from my everyday life.  Even when you can see the road, the towpath is a world away from the traffic.  It is a hidden life, a watery life; a life where you meet ferrywomen in tied cottages, chat to boating folk and ask them to fill your water bottle.  It’s a life of fishermen as still as herons; a life of getting lost, having tea in pubs, finding places to pee and being very glad to see Bertie.

In addition to all this, the river is a perfect metaphor for art.  Art has its own hidden course which it strives to follow rather than being swept along by the mainstream.  Stephen Fry once said that in every artist the desire to be seen contends with the desire to hide: I would add that the desire to follow your own voice contends with the desire to be recognised.  So in terms of psycho-geography instead of struggling to be recognised by the mainstream (the road), I’ve been following my own course (the river.)  It’s like song-lines, in a way:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songline

Does that count as cultural appropriation?

Kirk out

End-gaining in walking

Here’s an object lesson in how end-gaining happens.  Two and a half weeks ago I set out on a walk.  I had no end in view, just to walk.  I might get as far as Normanton but I probably won’t, I thought.  And in any case it doesn’t matter.  Wandering without an object is a very freeing thing to do; and as it happened I did make it to Normanton, but it didn’t matter.  It was fun and interesting and I got to use the chain ferry.  But it wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t.

Then I thought, what if I walk further?  Maybe park up somewhere and walk north, see where I get to?  I did park up somewhere, I did walk north and where I got to was Kegworth.  I was interested because I hadn’t been to Kegworth before, only through it on the nightmarish A-road on which construction lorries grind past all day long (they’re getting a bypass, which is good.  In a sense.)  Kegworth has at least two great cafes and some interesting shops, so I enjoyed a good mooch.  And as I sweated my way back to the car at Zouch, a Plan began to emerge.  Now at this stage the Plan was merely fun, something to structure my holiday around, like a peg to hang your hat on.  The peg doesn’t matter, it’s just a means of placing your hat somewhere.  But in order for the Plan to work, you have to make believe that it’s important.  Much fun is based around this kind of make-believe: pretending that it matters who wins a card-game or whether certain rules are followed (Mornington Crescent is a perfect example of this.)  And holidays (at least self-catering ones) are a way of living your normal life in a sort of relaxed parody where you do some of the same things but none of it matters.  In a word, it’s play.

So at this point my walking was entirely in that spirit.  Of course I was aware of being fitter and getting lots of exercise and being out in the country and Finding Out About Canals and all of that – but none of it mattered.  If I hadn’t done any of those things it would still have been good.  It was play.  But then at some point another little voice began to arise.  ‘What about walking the whole of the river Soar from the Trent to its source?’  This seemed a fun idea (though later studies of the map showed it to be impracticable), an idea which was conceived in the spirit of play – but all too soon the plan of walking the Soar from end to end became a – well, an end in itself.  It became Something I Was Doing; something I would Tell People About.  And they would Be Impressed.

The more this end-gaining took over, the less fun it became.  I knew where I was going each day, whereas the fun had previously been in spontaneity.  I had a goal to reach and I might feel a failure if I didn’t reach it.  I began to feel tired instead of energetic, dispirited instead of joyful.  And at some point I said, enough.  No more.  I was all set to give up walking altogether.

And then, just like a see-saw*, (and after a day’s rest) I found the desire to walk was not entirely extinguished.  I abandoned altogether the plan of walking the Soar (now adapted into a plan to walk the canal down to Foxton Locks) and went closer to home (see yesterday’s post).  And it was much better.

The moral of the story is, all ends must end.  Oo, and while you’re here I found this video again, which I thought was lost:

Kirk out

*or see-Soar

It’s Your Funeral: the D-Word

We seem to be undergoing something which I am resisting calling a sea-change – let’s call it a land-change – on how to mark death.  Death as a subject is almost as taboo as sex used to be when I was young: it’s considered in poor taste to bring it up in polite conversation.  You can talk about illness all you like, but don’t mention the d-word.  On the other hand there is an explosion of public grief at events like the anniversary of the Manchester bombing.

Let me say this at once: the Manchester bombing and other similar events are terrible.  It could easily have been our daughter had she been a few years younger, and the targeting of young people is particularly horrible.  That those directly affected should show grief in public is entirely understandable.  But as Matthew Parris pointed out yesterday:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b39v43

(it’s about 21 minutes in)

the stiff upper lip has gone and is replaced by almost compulsory public grief.  I can’t summon up much grief for the passing of the SUL, and yet I think somehow things have got a little out of control.  Private grief is probably best expressed privately, by which I don’t mean on your own with a box of tissues (unless that is genuinely best for you) but shared with friends, family members or counsellors.  However that is entirely different from feeling compelled to express emotion at events which don’t affect us in the slightest (Tony Blair comes irresistibly to mind here.)  It’s not enough to care; you must show that you care, and the best way to do that is by shedding a tear.  If you’re being interviewed about some crisis in your life, better cry a little – that way people will take it more seriously.  They will ‘feel your pain.’

On the other hand, there’s the whole funeral phenomenon.  Funerals used to be a time for wearing black and looking solemn; for walking or driving very slowly behind a big black hearse; for wearing veils and looking at the ground.  But nowadays you’re as likely to be asked to ‘wear bright colours’ and ‘celebrate someone’s life’ – and I can’t help feeling there’s an imbalance in all this.  I dislike enforced cheerfulness even more than I dislike enforced misery: at least when wearing black you could look sad; but now we’re all supposed to be joyful.  I’ve even seen a blue hearse – and don’t even get me started on the speed of the average cortege as it nips down the road.  It’s like the one in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (I can’t find a clip but you know what I mean.)

So on the one hand we have ubiquitous grief on the media; on the other we have bright colours and fast hearses.  What is going on?

Kirk out