A Week of Patience

So how has it been, this week of practising patience? Well, I have to report that the Caffeine Withdrawal Bill did not pass its first reading in Parliament and as such has been ditched. It caused an immense headache (quite literally) and such lassitude that I lost the will to carry on. Like Spike Milligan I woke up the next morning with the letters T-E-A etched on my eyeballs and, reader, I caved. But other than that I have made progress.

First, as with all such things, the problem is to remember. All too often you have to reach the point of boiling exasperation before it comes to you that ah, yes, you were supposed to be practising patience.

One of the most important disciplines I’ve found is the practice of now. No matter how screwed up things have become, no matter how far you’ve let things slide, the time to change is now. Not tomorrow, not when you feel better, not when you’re in a more positive frame of mind but now; start practising patience right now, even if – especially if – you don’t feel ready. To paraphrase Yoda, ‘do or not do; there is no ready.’

One technique I use which I didn’t mention before is Narrating Your Life. I find this very helpful if my mind is running on ahead, thinking of the next thing and the thing after that and what’s happening this evening and not focussing on what I’m doing right now. When that happens I start to narrate my life, for example, thus: ‘I am climbing the stairs. I have a tray in my hands. I feel the weight of the tray. I am aware of my head rising up. I can feel the stairs under my feet,’ and so on; and before you know it the seemingly dull and mindless activity of bringing the tea upstairs is accomplished. It’s amazing how many things you can find to notice if you try. Have a go right now. What are you doing? Where are you sitting? What can you feel under you, around and above you? Be aware of your feet, your buttocks, your hands. What are you holding? What are you touching? What is the air temperature like? How is the light?

One yogi master (I forget who) said this when asked about the main points of yoga:

What is the most important aspect of yoga? – Attention.

What is the second most important practice of yoga? – Attention

What is the third most important practice of yoga? – Yep, you’ve got it. Pay attention – not in a stand-up-and-salute-an-officer kind of way but gently, bringing the mind to bear on what is happening right now. Otherwise life passes in a blur of anticipation, never being present in the moment.

Kirk out

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Tasty Snack or Hasty Smack?

I’m back on the yoga philosophy trail again and I caught myself wondering this morning as I hovered on the edge of discipline looking into the chasm of dreariness, where does healthy self-control end and Professor Gradgrind take over? I know it happens but I can’t quite figure out how.

The yoga term for self-discipline – I was living in Spain when I discovered this and it seemed highly amusing – is tapas. This is an individual process rather than something imposed from outside, though external disciplines can help. When I was living in the yoga centre I learned a great deal about myself, particularly that I was not good at getting up at six a m. Then again, getting up at six did help me to push the boundaries of my life. That was a good discipline. On the other hand asana sessions always began with several rounds of sun salutations which at that time I found utterly crippling. Had I been given some modifications I might have found a way into this practice; as it is, even today I still have a mental block about it. That was not a good discipline.

Discipline from outside is a double-edged sword; you have to know what is enough and what is too much. Over the years I’ve learned to take what helps me and ignore the rest, because in the end what matters is self-discipline. If you can’t control yourself you’re in deep trouble – or everyone else is: look at Trump. But here’s the rub: how much discipline is enough?

When I began writing full-time like most people I had trouble getting into a routine. So I imposed one and made myself work from nine till five with timed breaks for tea and lunch. That was fine initially but after a while it exhausted me because that inflexible routine ignored the real patterns of creativity. Sometimes I need to sit in the garden and think. Sometimes I need to read or go for a walk; some days I must finish early or go mad. Then again there are afternoons when I write, oblivious of time, until I’m called for dinner (I know – lucky me not having to cook.)*

Routine is a good servant but a bad master; in the end you have to follow the river of art no matter where it leads.

Kirk out

*Every woman at some point has to stop writing and put the dinner on. That is her tragedy. No man does: that is his.

Prosper and Live Long?

I’ve been catching up with a series on death and dying presented by Miriam Margolyes (that’s Mar-go-lees, not something that rhymes with gargoyles).  She’s a very entertaining presenter, seemingly unconcerned with image and reacting genuinely and spontaneously as she tours care homes and other facilities to discover different attitudes to death.  She visits a brilliant place where song and laughter are used to facilitate good mental health and hops across the pond to encounter a group of whacky folk who believe it’s possible to live forever if you just find the right formula.  I’m highly sceptical about this: all things are subject to age and decay (though OH annoyingly had to point out some exceptions to this; creatures with long telemeres apparently) but there are other objections.  First, this ‘therapy’ is available only to the rich, and in conversation some practitioners expressed views dangerously close to eugenics, suggesting that the poor and criminal classes would die out leaving only the worthy surviving.  Right after this Margolyes visits a poor area where the homeless hang out and most people die young; the contrast could not be greater.  Frankly I found the picture of the youthful elderly utterly repellent; most of them looked more grotesque than Mick Jagger and altogether they were such an unnatural bunch that I’d rather die tomorrow than resemble them.  But there are other, deeper objections to this philosophy.

First, what matters is not the amount of time you have but what you do with it.  We all know the problem of procrastination when a deadline is far away; but give most of us an imminent cut-off date and we’ll crack on.  It’s salutary in many ways to act as if death is just around the corner (though not like this).  History is full of examples of people who died young but achieved lots: Mozart only lived 35 years but he composed so many works that they are referred to by a Kochel number (after the guy who classified them.)  In fact he wrote 68 symphonies, 27 concertos for piano alone and so many other compositions that I can’t begin to list them; more than six hundred in all and most composed over a 24-year period.  Keats also died young but managed a significant body of work; Hendrix didn’t see 30 but changed the face of guitar music; and though it’s tempting to wonder what they might have achieved had they lived, maybe they wouldn’t have achieved much more.  I’d rather have a short, fulfilled life than sit twenty years in a reclining chair (though I think that ship may already have sailed.*)

I think the acceptance of death is a necessary check to the ego; the knowledge that there will come a point where ‘I’ am no more is a salutary one.  In any case the way to prolong life is not to postpone death, it is to live every moment.  In every moment there is the possibility of interacting with eternity, and when we do that we are in every real sense outside time.

*the short life ship, not the twenty years in a chair ship

Kirk out

 

Content May Shift During Transit

It’s a difficult thing to practise contentment; not only do you have to keep reminding yourself of it but there’s a tendency for discontent to creep in everywhere; so if you’re not careful you can end up in the somewhat ridiculous situation of being discontented about the practice of contentment. (I’m too discontented.  I don’t have enough contentment.  I must be more contented…)  And then your head explodes.

So the trick is to be contented with the degree to which you are able to practise contentment – and then, with a wave of the wand and a cry of riddikulus! you’ll be doing it anyway.  Discontent really is a Boggart pretending to be a Dementor – we need to laugh at it and it will go away.

Contentment is a necessary antidote to a society where work of all kinds becomes increasingly demanding: a society where you hit one target and are immediately presented with another.  This is sometimes seen as a virtue but according to Yoga philosophy* it’s anything but.  Discontent is the thief of life and the destroyer of satisfaction.  What is the point of achieving your goals if you never enjoy it?  I could go on and on about the need to avoid end-gaining in yoga but that’s enough for today.

*and not only yoga philosophy: Buddhism also emphasises it and it is implicit in the practices of Christianity (here‘s a blog that makes the link and also has a really good quiz to test your own level of contentment).

This is a very short blog post and doesn’t say as much as I’d hoped.  Nevertheless, I am contented with its contents…

Kirk out

 

 

Leavis and Butthead, or The Wrong Sort of Snow (Part 1: Intro)

My F R Leavis response to ‘The Two Cultures’ has come.  I expect this is something I ought to have read years ago but never mind, here it is.  I don’t expect to be edified, I expect to be pontificated at: Leavis seems to speak ex cathedra more often than the Pope (especially this current Pope) but I shall try to approach it with an open mind.

Incidentally this reminds me of a ‘joke’ in the Readers’ Digest.  My grandparents used to get this bizarre monthly magazine and you found back issues piled up in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.  I never bothered with the articles but scrolled through reading the cartoons and so-called jokes: the humour in the RD was of such a subdued and conventional kind that I always imagined a retired colonel somewhere in Sussex chortling mirthlessly over his poached egg.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the joke (this is getting more and more like one of Ronnie Corbett’s rambling monologues) – the joke, or perhaps it was intended as an aphorism, was: ‘Some open minds should be closed for repairs.’  I read that forty years ago and I still have no idea what it means (if anything) but I imagine the Colonel harrumphing in approval as he cuts into his poached egg.

Incidentally, does anyone still have poached eggs?  I’ve not had one for years; the only time you see them is in hotels at the breakfast bar.

I started this post last week, since when I have re-read Snow’s original lecture and Leavis’s response.  I am formulating a number of complicated thoughts on this which may take some time and even when they are formulated I don’t suppose there will be space for them all here.  But it’s jolly stimulating.  Basically what I think we’re looking at is a clash of two other kinds of culture; the elitist and the meritocratic.  Snow, high priest of the meritocracy, represents the future and Leavis, pontiff of elitist tradition, knows it – which explains why he reacts as he does.  Basically Leavis is fighting for his life.

But more on this anon when I’ve got all my ducks in a row.  In the meantime I’ve also gone and ordered Leavis’s ‘The Great Tradition’ (get all your books from Alibris and give Amazon the finger; they’re cheap and reliable and they pay their taxes) which I read years ago and have mostly forgotten.  (I started to read it online but I’m no good at reading from a screen.)  He chooses six authors worthy of this Great Tradition, and while the gender balance isn’t too bad (Jane Austen and George Eliot make the cut) his criteria of greatness are so narrow and elitist that one is tempted to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennett and say, ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six great writers; I rather wonder at your knowing any.’

More on this when it comes.

Kirk out

 

How Many Cultures Was It Now?

One of my valued readers, Taskerdunham, has gone and started me off on the whole C P Snow/F R Leavis debate again.  To recap quickly, Snow presented a lecture in 1959 (I was two at the time and had very little culture at all) suggesting that there was a gap between the arts and the sciences in both academia and popular culture.  The advantage, he said, was generally on the side of the scientists because although most of them had read the usual books * most people on the arts side couldn’t even tell you the first law of thermodynamics which, he suggests, is equivalent to asking ‘have you read a book?’

*it was of course much easier to say which were ‘the usual books’ in those days, as indeed Leavis did, at great length (see below.)

Hm.  Let me think: I know the second law of thermodynamics is ‘heat cannot of itself travel from a cooler to a hotter body,’ but the first?  I seem to think it’s something like, ‘whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot it is.’  Yeah, that was it… I have consulted the Oracle and It says the first law is, ‘heat is work and work is heat’ which means energy can’t be created or destroyed.  So there.

Aaaanyway, long story short, dear old F R L who had already written what many see as an elitist account of what constitutes Great Literature, takes huge exception to this and slags Snow off in no uncertain terms.  I have yet to read the full lecture (I’ve gone all scholarly on this and ordered both books, which are due to arrive within a few days) but his criticisms of Snow personally are uncalled-for* and his strictures on the novels somewhat unfair.  I’ll get back to this when I’ve read both lectures but meanwhile Snow’s novels are something I can talk about as I’ve read them a number of times.

*possibly the only thing Thatcher ever said that I agree with is: ‘If they criticise you personally they have shown they do not have a single argument left.’

I first came across Snow by accident.  It was my habit, not really knowing what to read, to browse library shelves and open books at random to see if anything grabbed me.  By chance one day I opened a book called The Masters and read a sentence that said something like: ‘he apologised too much for a man who was often so easy.’  And I thought, ‘here’s a man who understands me’ (I was eighteen at the time.)  Well, he wasn’t – at least not in the way that I thought – and yet he did understand diffident people, so I checked out ‘The Masters’ and read it avidly even though I had no idea that university colleges had Masters or what manner of man these might be.  Nevertheless it engaged me (which ought to say something about Snow’s powers as a writer) and this set me off on the whole ‘Strangers and Brothers‘ series.  (Shortly afterwards in my interview for Nottingham University the panel were very impressed by the inclusion of Snow on my reading list.)

Many people have since pointed out his shortcomings as a novelist.  Yes, he can be sententious; his prose style can be heavy and his characters speak wordily.  But I know of no-one who could begin to make committee meetings exciting or indeed to elicit any interest whatsoever in the election of a Master to an obscure Cambridge college in an eighteen-year-old woman; but Snow does.  His involvement in every nuance, every balance and shift of power and his insight into what each character wants; all these draw us in without the need to resort to grand dramas or intrigues – which means that when an affair does come such as in ‘Corridors of Power’ the drama is all the more effective for being understated.

The world Snow wrote about has gone: it was a world with men at its heart and women round the periphery; in fact the word ‘men’ resounds like a gong through the books.  His is a world we would now call ‘pale, stale and male’ – the world between and after the wars (the novels run from the ‘twenties to the ‘sixties) and although his women are rounded, even powerful characters in their own right, they very much inhabit their own sphere and Snow, both as narrator Lewis Elliott and as author, exhibits an attitude best described as Olympian.  You’d never know there were any women in the professions: when he comes across a young woman with meticulous observation skills he remarks that she would ‘make a good nurse’ and he once disparages a woman scientist as ‘not as good as her husband.’  The world will not forgive him for this and neither will I, but nor will I forget the insights his books offered me.

Next exciting instalment on the – ahem – 55-year-old Two Cultures debate coming up… and I won’t even have a rant this time on how the city of Leicester has forgotten him.

Or will I?  By the way, did anyone at all spot the carefully-concealed April Fool on Monday?

Kirk out

 

We’re Here Because We’re Here Because You’re There Because We’re Here

The older I get and the more I look at unjust societies (which is practically every society) it occurs to me that oppression is based on nothing at all.  The ways in which women were held to be inferior were myriad: from the size of our brains to the predominance of our hormones, no matter which way we turned reasons were advanced as to why we must advance no further.

But suppose a woman did show evidence of superior intellect; suppose one or more women demonstrated their ability to keep a cool head under pressure, what then?  Would the men admit they were wrong?  Of course not!  The women would be demonised, labelled as ‘not proper women.’  Because women can’t do these things.  Why can’t they?  Because they can’t – and if they can, they’re not real women.  So there.  QED.

Someone recently told me about a car journey they’d taken with a male driver, someone they didn’t know very well.  He got lost, so she dug out the road atlas.  ‘Women can’t read maps,’ he said.  He kept on saying it with the frequency of little white lines in the road.  ‘Women can’t read maps.  Women can’t read maps.’  She persisted in reading the map and got them to their destination, folding the map in triumph as they pulled in.  ‘Well, you mustn’t be a woman,’ he said. 

There you have it, in a nutshell – and that was only a few years ago.

The absurdity of these ‘arguments’ is so clear from a distance, you wonder how anyone could possibly be taken in by them.  But the oppressors don’t just rely on argument: the status quo is maintained by force or the threat of force.  This can be physical but often it’s mental (I won’t list the ways and means because they’ve been covered thoroughly in recent decades.)  The trump card in this scenario, however, is religion.  Why wouldn’t it be?  If you can claim that you rule by divine right it doesn’t matter whether you’re a monarch or a husband or a white man or a priest, you hold the trump card now and for eternity.

It doesn’t matter whether the landscape is gender or race or sexuality or something else, the game’s the same.  1. Things are the way they are because they’re the way they are.  2. If they weren’t the way they were they’d be wrong.  3. This is the right way for things to be and 4. if you want further proof read the Bible.  Or Koran.  Or whatever.

So there.  We’re here because we’re here and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Kirk out