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.

The Five Best Things About Having a Blog

WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.

Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing. So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.

Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.

Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.

Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.

Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.

And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.

So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.

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

 

 

Today I Shall Be Mostly Practising…

Sometimes life can seem like a merry-go-round.  I don’t mean that it’s horribly busy, though it is for many people; what I mean is that insights which are very clear one moment can be lost in the next, and only recovered when you ‘come round’ to them again.  Life seems to swoop like a waltzer-ride, causing us to lurch from one reality to another, one set of people to another, one lot of viewpoints to another.  In a globalised world where values are relative and every second person you meet has a different outlook, it’s hard to know exactly what and where you are.  The temptation is to build a wall of prejudices and lob missiles over the top.

Enough with the metaphors.  It came to me today that since I blogged about it a few months ago, I haven’t really practised santosh much.  I’ve thought about it fleetingly, as a face glimpsed fleetingly from a bus (is that another metaphor?) but decided, for whatever reason, not to go there.  But today it has come to me that I need this more than ever.

So let’s skip the what and the why, since those are dealt with in that previous post, and go straight to the how.  How precisely is one supposed to practise this thing?  Can you download a course?  Are there exercises?  Well, perhaps; but my method is to begin by reminding myself of what I’m practising, often just by simply repeating mentally the word santosh.  It’s about noticing when the mind gets a little manic; when there’s a tendency to be perfectionist and to practise end-gaining, and telling yourself: Wait.  Practise santosh.  Be content.

In addition you can bring this awareness to everything you do.  For example, this morning I decided to vacuum the living-room.  There wasn’t time to do it ‘properly’ so instead of feeling dissatisfied and making a mental note to go over it again soon, I decided to be content.

But how do you be content?  If it doesn’t come easily to you this can seem like an inaccessible mountain.  There are some good suggestions in this blog including practising gratitude and not being judgmental.  As Paul McKenna points out in ‘I Can Make You Rich’ there’s no point in being a millionaire if it just makes you want even more money: he calls this ‘wealth dysmorphia’, a very apt phrase.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, particularly when there’s something you want very badly, but contentment doesn’t mean resignation.  It doesn’t mean accepting that you’ll never have whatever-it-is; just accepting that right here and now you don’t have it: it’s the spiritual equivalent of geo-positioning:* knowing where you are.  Because if you don’t start from here, where can you start from?  So every time I look at the garden and think about what’s left to be done; every time I look at the washing-up, every time I consider that I am still not celebrated as a writer, I tell myself ‘I am content.  I am content.  I am content.’

And for your own contemplation here’s an OM symbol inside a mandala:

https://galleryofgod.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/wpid-om-symbol-hd-wallpaper.jpg

I am going to get around to blogging about the McKenna book, I just haven’t got to it yet (I am very content with this…)

Kirk out

*I would call it ‘ego-positioning’ which would be nicely anagrammatical, except that it’s not about the ego.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

I Think You Ought to Know

The character known as the paranoid android, aka Marvin in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was fond of saying ‘I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.’  Eeyore has similar conversational openers although he is more adept at emotional manipulation (‘we can’t all have houses’, ‘very natural, and it was only Eeyore’s tail.  But still I wondered.’)

But when I’m feeling depressed I have a dilemma – to talk about it or not to talk about it?  I’m only too aware from certain miserablist individuals of my acquaintance of the total downer it can be when you subject others to your own depression; I’m also aware of the potential value of thinking and acting positive.  But then again there’s the need to talk about it, not to be in denial.  So what to do?

It seems to me that there’s an optimum amount of expression required.  Naturally I tell my dear OH when I’m feeling down and OH is always concerned and wanting to help.  But whilst it’s a relief to get it off your chest I’m aware that feeling better is largely down to me.  Fortunately most of the time I can find something that works: watching a comedy, digging the garden, going for a walk, reading a book.  Equally important is avoiding things that bring me down: listening to the news, reading Facebook, thinking about the future.

Food and drink can also help: eating good, fresh food gives you energy but there’s nothing to beat chocolate.  I avoid alcohol as it’s a known depressant.  Sleeping properly also helps; unfortunately this is not under my complete control and sometimes everything I try fails – or at least only succeeds partially.  I can drink my chamomile and swig my herbal sleep mix and put on my sleep CD and still stay awake for ages.  It’s very annoying.  It’s as if there’s a part of my brain that resists all efforts to put it to sleep.  This part of my brain is like a recalcitrant toddler and insists on being awake no matter what I do.  

In my previous incarnation as a yoga teacher I used to teach groups of depressed people.  I would always focus on active postures; plenty of movement, no contemplation or meditation and some high-up music like this:

video removed on request

High notes seem to reach a part of the brain associated with euphoria; there are better tracks than this but I don’t know what they’re called so I can’t find them.

I’m off now to buy some salad stuff and chocolate biscuits…

Kirk out