Monday, February 25, 2013

LORD BUCKLEY AND THE EVER-SO-HIP ART OF MINDFULNESS

‘Hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin' daddies, knock me your lobes!’ That's 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,' in hip-speak.

Sadly, whole generations of people have never heard of this man Lord Buckley (pictured left as well as below), who, by the way, was not a real lord but he certainly sounded like a very aristocratic one when he wanted to. Why, in addition to his waxed moustache, he even wore a pith helmet at times along with his tuxedo. (Then, again, so did Groucho Marx on whose quiz show Buckley appeared in October 1956.)

His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley, who was one of the most influential figures in the American counterculture movement---he was a veritable 'Hip Messiah'---died over 50 years ago, and even in his own lifetime he never enjoyed more than a small jazz subculture cult following. Having said that, Buckley was a giant in what he did. ‘And what did he do?’, I hear you ask. Well, he was the ‘hippest cat of them all’ in the Beat era. I guess that doesn’t mean much to you either. No. Well, he had been a vaudevillian---ha, that’s been gone even longer----and a raconteur and monologist extraordinaire. No, he wasn’t a comedian as such, but he was very, very funny in a ‘black’ humour sort of way.

Perhaps the best way to describe Buckley is to say that he was a comic philosopher, actually a jazz philosopher. He was certainly a philosopher in the original sense of the word---a lover of truth. As for the jazz, well, he specialised in rhythmic hipster word-jazz---spoken jazz with scat---having taken onboard the slang and the rhythms of the black jazz musician along with the entire street language of black America. Yes, he was a strange mixture of pseudo-English toff, Sunday black preacher (no, he wasn’t an African-American), off-beat orator, storyteller, philosophy teacher, satirist, rapper (before its time), beatnik, 'flower child' (before there really were any), and, well, all-round hipster and 'personality.' What with his 'hip semantic' (that is, his own unique bop lingo ['bop talk']), Buckley's 'hipsomatic' retellings of Bible stories, Shakespeare and other literary works remain classics to behold to this very day. Yes, he was, in the words of one commentator, a 'white master of black patois.'

The hip-hopping, six times married Buckley, complete with his own 'royal court,' even founded his own 'church'---the first ever 'jazz religion'---known as the ‘Church of the Living Swing.’ To his undying credit, Buckley hated all forms of humbuggery including, most especially, organised religion, but he was very religious (‘spiritual’, we would say today) in his own way. Laughter, he said, is 'truly religious.' He also preached that only love could save the world, in the knowledge that if anything was divine, well, it had to do with people like you and me. 'I'm a people worshipper, myself,' he would say. 'I think that people should worship people. I really do.' And often he would utter these words to his audience---his acolytes---ever so respectfully and sincerely, and with a regal air: ‘M'Lords, M'Ladies ... beloveds, would it embarrass you very much if I were to tell you ... that I love you? It embarrasses you, doesn't it? Mmm.’ Buckley also said this: ‘The flowers, the gorgeous mystic, multi-coloured flowers are not the flowers of life, but people, yes people, are the true flowers of life.’ And this: 'Let me hip you to a little something brothers and sisters---When you make love – make it!' Beautiful stuff.


I first heard of Lord Buckley when I was in my late teens. That's about 40 years ago, counting daylight savings time. I heard this track on a comedy LP record, and I have dug Buckley ever since. Buckley had style---and class---and he had the knack of being able to capture and put into rhythmic words---yes, spoken jazz---the minutiae of life in all its glory and occasional decadence. Yes, he was an eccentric, but we need more of those people---not less. Clever people---truly talented people---are always eccentric. It’s the price you pay for genius. Mediocre people---that’s most of us---never understand. We’re too busy conforming and pretending to be normal.
 
Listening to Buckley is an exercise in mindfulness, requiring that you pay attention, and listen, yes, mindfully---that is, with choiceless awareness---to what unfolds from one moment to the next. Try that now. It’s not easy. For starters, it takes a while to learn the lingo and the idiom. It’s worth it, though.

Here, now, is the immortal Lord Buckley delivering his famous---and perhaps his greatest---hip language routine ‘The Naz.’ (The Naz [sometimes billed as the Nazz] is Jesus Christ, the 'carpenter kitty,' whom Buckley called ‘the hippest cat that ever stomped this green sphere,’ for he was ‘the kind of a cat that come on so cool and so groovy and so with-it that when he laid it down---it stayed there!’)

Now, that's what I call hip, man---you cool daddy-o.



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Sunday, February 17, 2013

MINDFULNESS CAN EASE CHRONIC INFLAMMATION

A new study the results of which have been published in the January 2013 edition of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity has shown that mindfulness meditation not only reduces inflammation, it reduces inflammation more effectively than some other behavioural strategies.


The study involved two groups of people who suffered from chronic inflammatory conditions including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma.

One group was given instruction in mindfulness meditation (more specifically, an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction [MBSR] program) as a way to reduce stress.

The other group took part in a program of activities that have been shown to reduce stress including physical activities like walking, balance training, agility skills training, core strengthening and music therapy.

Each group was given the same amount of training and engaged in the same amount of home practice.

Each group was then exposed to psychological stress using the Trier Social Stress Test and then apply capsaicin cream to their skin. Capsaicin is the active ingredient of chillies and is known to cause local inflammation. Immune and endocrine measures of inflammation and stress were collected both before and after MBSR training.


Blood tests were then used to measure immune and hormonal markers of inflammation. Interestingly, each group had reduced stress levels by the end of the experiment, but the mindfulness meditation group was shown to have experienced much less inflammation than the other group---despite equivalent levels of stress hormones.

Other studies have already shown that the practice of mindfulness reduces inflammation. What is significant about this most recent study is that it has shown that mindfulness meditation appears to reduce inflammation to a greater degree than other effective behavioural therapies.


Resource: Rosenkranz M A, Davidson R J, Maccoon D G, Sheridan J F, Kalin N H, and Lutz A. ‘A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation.’ Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Jan;27(1):174-84. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.10.013. Epub 2012 Oct 22.

 


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Monday, February 11, 2013

MINDFULNESS AND ISLAM

Now, lest there be any confusion about the matter, let me say this right at the outset: I am not a Muslim, and Islam is certainly not my favourite religion. No, not by a long shot---but that’s for another day. Actually, I have no favourite religion at all. Having said that, I can find some good---and, yes, plenty of bad---things to say about every religion. Today, I will say some positive things about Islam. It’s high time that somebody did.


I’m ‘into’ mindfulness---which is all about health and wellness---and the essence of mindfulness (which, by the way, is not a religion) is this---unconditional surrender to what is. Such surrender is the result of a choiceless awareness to life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. In essence, the word ‘Islam’ means voluntary and total submission---in peace---to the will of the Almighty (Allah) together with a striving after Truth so as to do the will of Allah. Submission and surrender are essentially the same thing, for both involve a letting-be and a calm acceptance of whatever is. The word ‘Islam’ refers to that total peace that comes from such submission or surrender.

In Islam this submission is anything but fatalism. It is often said in Islam that the Almighty does not change the fate of a person, or a people, unless that person or people changes what is in themselves. Also, the notion of insha’Allah (‘God willing’) embodies qualities such as patience, resoluteness, wisdom, compassion, equanimity and non-reactivity---all qualities that are otherwise embodied in mindfulness. The Arabic word sabr denotes a calm and unconditional acceptance of what is---that is, there here-and-now---manifesting itself in an imperturbability that refuses to succumb to worry and anxiety. Such equanimity can only arise when there is a calm acceptance of reality or life---on life’s own terms.

The monotheism in Islam may appear to some to be overly strict and remote but at least it avoids the anthropomorphism of traditional Christianity and embraces an ‘all-Encompassing’ Reality (Qur’an 2:115). Those words---‘all-Encompassing’---appear in many places throughout the Qur’an, which, it must be remembered, contains, among other things, the religious, civil, social, legal, and military codes of Islam. (You need to keep the latter especially in mind when reading portions that present as militant or aggressive in nature.) Now, Allah---‘the [sole] deity, God’---is ‘of all things, encompassing’ (Qur’an 4:126) and, as such, is not so much omnipresent but Omnipresence itself, for it is axiomatic in Islam that the Almighty Divine Life cannot be said to be ‘in’ any place nor be ‘everywhere.’ Nor can the Almighty Divine Life be said to be ‘nowhere.’ All such talk would limit the limitless.


In short, we are talking about an ‘all-Encompassing’ Reality---One Presence and One Power active in the universe. This is the true meaning of the statement, ‘There is no God but Allah’ (Qur’an 47:19). This uncreated and unmanifest Presence is not ‘transcendent’ in the Judeo-Christian sense---at least not in the sense of some supposed anthropomorphic deity in the ‘upper regions’ (whatever that means). No, we are talking about a Reality that is truly limitless, encompassing all things including all of space---and yet beyond all space as well. Nor is this Presence ‘immanent’ in the Christian sense, for the Presence cannot be said to be contained ‘in’ anything. Nor can this Presence be said to be in any way ‘separate’ from the universe (that is, the sum total of all that is) for the notion of separateness denotes divisibility whereas this Presence is indivisible. All in all, it is a mature concept of deity.

Now, you need not call this Omnipresence 'God' or ‘Allah’---I generally don’t---but you can if you wish. The really important thing, as I see it, is this---this boundless and limitless presence and power of life fills all, is all, and empowers all, for everything is truly an individualised expression of life.  This presence and power---this All-in-All---is most fully and personally experienced in the silence. It is experienced as peace, calmness, tranquility, equanimity, wisdom, love and compassion---indeed, as all those things ordinarily associates with the sacred or the divine. The regular practice of mindfulness affords a unique opportunity to cultivate these qualities---simply by a calm, choiceless awareness of whatever is.

This post would not be complete without at least some albeit brief mention of Sufism. Every religion has its ‘inner’ or esoteric side, and Islam is no exception. Like all mystics, the Sufis assert that it is possible to fully embrace the Divine Presence in this life. Almost every religion looks with suspicion upon the mystical tradition, the main reason being that if it be possible to embrace this Divine Life in some direct, immediate and unmediated fashion, then there is a loss of control, authority and dependency. How terrible! Bring it on.

Well, Divine Life or nothing, the ‘good news’ I have for each of you is this---Muslim or non-Muslim, believer or infidel, theist or non-theist, you can never be less than life, you can never be separate from life, and you are always---I repeat, always---in direct and immediate ‘contact’ (for want of a better word) with life in all its fullness. I don’t care if some call that heresy---and they will, because they want you to be in submission (that is, bondage) to them and their authority. Reject all such nonsense. Choose to be a heretic, for the word ‘heretic’ refers to one who chooses. As truth/reality/life is dynamic and never for one moment static, those who refuse to choose----and instead remain statically wedded and glued to some fixed, rigid and ‘authoritative’ view of reality---are simply not on the side of life. Simple as that.

So, why not choose to affirm your oneness with all that is---the ‘is’ being nothing less than the ever-dynamic, all-encompassing life as it unfolds incessantly from one moment to the next. Here’s some more good advice---‘Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others,’ wrote the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi (pictured), ‘Unfold your own myth.’

 
 

Monday, February 4, 2013

MINDFULNESS AS SOFT FOCUS AWARENESS


One of the best books ever written on Mindfulness---not only for beginners but also for others---is Mindfulness in Plain English by the Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk and author Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (pictured above). I wholeheartedly recommend it, as well as all other books written by ‘Bhante G.’

Mindfulness is many things, but above all Mindfulness is the bare attention to, and the choiceless (i.e. no preference, and no prejudice) awareness of, the action and content---both internal and external---of the present moment unfolding from one moment to the next. (Note. It is the attention that gives rise to the awareness.) Mindfulness is not only awareness, it is also the awareness of awareness. But exactly what sort of awareness? Well, for one thing, it is a curious awareness, that is, one in which the observer---that is, you, the person that you are (not some supposed 'inner' observer in your mind)---is open, spontaneous, passively inquisitive, and, above all else, flexible. Also, the awareness is not only direct and immediate, it is of a ‘soft focus’ kind. Never forget that. Bhante G has this to say about the matter: 

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. … It is that flashing split second just as you focus your eyes on the thing, just as you focus your mind on the thing, just before you objectify it, clamp down on it mentally and segregate it from the rest of existence. It takes place just before you start thinking about it--before your mind says, 'Oh, it's a dog.' That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is Mindfulness. In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing. You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it. …


Bhante G goes on to say that Mindfulness is akin to what we see with our peripheral vision ‘as opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision.’ Now, here is what I think is the really important thing. In Bhante G’s words:

Yet this moment of soft, unfocused, awareness contains a very deep sort of knowing that is lost as soon as you focus your mind and objectify the object into a thing. …

Let’s say that you’re driving your motor vehicle in the middle lane on a six-lane highway. Using your peripheral vision you become aware that there is on your side of the road and more-or-less level with you a red truck in the left lane and a black or dark blue car in the right lane---it doesn’t matter what. You are aware they are there. You don’t need to look closely. It’s more than sufficient that you’re aware they are there---and you immediately adjust your position in your lane to make sure there is no contact, while all the time keeping your eye on the road and looking directly ahead. That is the way to go!  

Bhante G makes the undeniable point that, in the ordinary course of our experience of things---that is, so-called ‘ordinary perception’---this ever-so-brief moment of ‘soft, unfocused, awareness is ‘so fleeting as to be unobservable.’ Yes, we squander the moment, so to speak. We let it die on us completely. So much of our so-called experience of life is, well, a total non-experience. We are not even ‘alive’ to it. Yes, I estimate that as much as 80 or 90 per cent of the moments of our life ‘experience’ are not experienced by us at all. It’s like we are not even alive for most of the time. Sad---very sad---when you stop to think about it.

Yes, we choose to be ‘alive’ (in a sort of a way) to some perceptions but we let it die on us and quickly make it---and ourselves---the past. We note the perception. We label the perception. We react to the perception (in the form of, say, attachment or aversion) on the basis of, among other things, mental images, memories, opinions, beliefs, judgments, prejudices, preferences, evaluations, as well as so-called knowledge and conditioning---and we interpret the perception. Instead of just 'seeing' or 'observing' in a direct, immediate and spontaneous manner, we subject the otherwise fleeting perception to the whole content of our consciousness stream. And, not only that, we start to analyse and judge it---thinking, thinking, thinking. There is no end to it. And where there is thought, there is no awareness. None.

The result---analysis paralysis, judgment, all rooted in the past. For varying lengths of time we cease to be present in the now---we’re stuck in the past. And that's not a good place to be.

In the words of Bhante G, ‘[t]hat original moment of Mindfulness is rapidly passed over.’ He then goes on to say that the purpose of Mindfulness Meditation is ‘to train us to prolong that moment of awareness.’ Now, we are talking about a 'still' moment of ‘pure’, unadulterated, unconditioned (that is, not-in-the-past) awareness---before we start mentally riding off in all directions, so to speak. Bhante G refers to this moment of awareness as a ‘flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness.’ Beautiful words. J. Krishnamurti has written, 'To see temporarily is sufficient. If you can see it for a fleeting second, it is enough, because you will then see an extraordinary thing taking place.' He is talking about an attention that is total and complete, that is, direct perception---without memory and thought taking any part in it. Elsewhere, Krishnamurti refers to the state of mind in which there is 'total seeing' as a 'state of negation' in which there is no identification and there are no evaluations, no justifications, no condemnations and no defences. It is a mind or mind-set that is 'choicelessly still,' yet at the same time 'fully awakened.' In the words of Krishnamurti, 'Seeing is one thing and seeing something is another.'

People say to me, ‘Surely there is a place for analysis, judgment, and the like?’ Of course there is. As a practising lawyer I would get nowhere without analysis and judgment of complex sets of facts and circumstances falling for consideration and advice. But, having said that, we are talking about moment-to-moment choiceless awareness and experience of life as it continuously unfolds from one moment to the next. Don’t let those precious moments ‘die’ on you by letting your mind stop to label, analyze and judge. Instead, stay soft-focused in the now, remaining curiously but passively alert to each perception---that is, ‘flashing mind-moment’---as close to its moment of ‘arising’ as is humanly possible in all the circumstances of the moment. Do that---and you will truly come alive!


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