Saturday, October 31, 2015

EVERYTHING IS BEST

In memory of

I had a uncle who was a very wise man. I called him Uncle Dick, because he was my uncle and he was called … Dick. 

Uncle Dick was a truck driver, and I know that he had limited formal education, but he was very wise. You know, most of the so-called learned people I’ve met in my life---and I’ve spent much of my life working with academics and in academia---are little more than educated idiots. I guess I have to include myself in that category. Back to my Uncle Dick. He was wise. He used to say to me, ‘Jonesy, you never go [that is, die] before your time.’ He would say that whenever someone died or whenever the subject of death was being discussed. ‘You never go before your time,’ he would say.

It took me years to understand what my uncle meant until one day a priest friend of mine told me that his mother used to say, ‘Whatever is, is best.’ I had heard that statement before, and even then I was aware of a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox [pictured left] entitled ‘Whatever Is—Is Best’ …

Sometimes by the heart's unrest,
And to grow means often to suffer --
But whatever is -- is best.

There is a Zen kōan called ‘Everything is best’, and it goes like this. When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer. ‘Give me the best piece of meat you have,’ said the customer. ‘Everything in my shop is the best,’ replied the butcher. ‘You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.’ At these words Banzan became enlightened.

Everything is best, not necessarily because whatever is, is good, but because whatever is, is what is. Our problems only happen when we resist whatever is, when we fight against whatever is. If we can accept what is---as being our present reality---the problems caused by non-resistance vanish. Now, that doesn’t mean we should not seek to change things for the better. We must fight against injustice, cruelty, oppression and discrimination. However, when it comes to that which truly cannot be changed, acceptance is the way to go. Whatever we resist, persists. Listen to these wonderful words from the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation---some fact of my life---unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. 

These days, I have a bit of a problem with those words 'exactly the way it is supposed to be'. I would prefer to say, 'exactly the way it is'. Be that as it may, the point being made about the need for acceptance and non-resistance is a very valid one.

Now, back to my uncle, who said, ‘You never go before your time.’ Well, whenever a person goes---that is, dies---that is their time to go. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don't believe in predestination or anything like that. I am simply saying that a person cannot die earlier than when they actually do die. Some people live a long life while others die young. There is a certain injustice in that at times, but the point is that none of those people died before their time to die. Some may retort, ‘But, surely when someone is murdered, they die before their time?’ Really? Whenever you die is the time that you die. You cannot die before you die. The difficulty some have with accepting the truth of this statement shows the extent of our non-resistance to this self-evident truth.

Whatever is, is best. Everything in my shop is the best. You never die before your time.

Life is what it is. Accept it and move on. Death is what it is. Accept it and move on.





Monday, October 26, 2015

WALK PURPOSEFULLY!

‘Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration
on our usual everyday routine.’ Shunryū Suzuki.


‘Walk purposefully around the office!’

That was the directive given to my colleagues and me in a government department in which I was working as a lawyer. This happened over 35 years ago, but I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday. The directive came from the head lawyer, who was quite a whimsical fellow. We all thought he was a little odd, but I have since learned that we are all more than a little odd---each in our own way. Actually, the directive is a very sound one. Too many of us walk aimlessly, whether at work or elsewhere. We walk without a sense of purpose and without determination. 


I ask you this. How many times have you walked from one room of your house to another, and when you get to where you were headed you can’t remember why you wanted to go into that room? Even young people admit to me that this phenomenon happens to them from time to time. How many times do you drive your car from one suburb to the next and when you get to your destination you have no recollection of having driven along certain streets? It happens quite often, doesn’t it? Scary, isn’t it? We were not fully aware. We were not aware that we were at least at times aware. And we were not aware that we were at times unaware. In short, we were mindless instead of mindful.


I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.

There is a deliberateness and intentionality about mindfulness. It is something done ‘on purpose’---that is, with conscious awareness. It is anything other than living and acting aimlessly---that is, mindlessly.

Whatever you may be doing---eating, walking, speaking, reading, driving a car---do it with conscious awareness of the process of eating, walking, speaking, reading, driving, or whatever the activity may be. This requires that we consciously direct our attention and awareness to the doing of the activity in question. All too often, we make no conscious attempt to maintain our focus and attention on what we are doing. So, when our attention shifts---as it inevitably will from time to time---we make no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to the activity. Instead, we’re off on a mental movie of some sort in which we are the producer, director and star. 

Here's some good news---the regular and systematic practice of mindfulness as well as mindfulness meditation will strengthen your ability to maintain conscious awareness of the action of the present moment from one moment to the next. 

You can start right now. The next time you walk around the office, to the shops, or from one room of your house to another---walk purposefully, and not just purposely. Walking purposely simply means that you mean to walk, that is, you're doing it on purpose. Well, of course you are walking intentionally, otherwise you wouldn't be doing it at all---unless perhaps you're sleepwalking. But are you walking purposefully? Are you mindful of the regularity of the pace of your walking, the movement of your body, the straightness and balance of your spine, the position of your head, the weight of your arms as they swing by your side, the stretch of your stride, and the sensation of your feet pressing against the floor or earth and then rising again step after step?

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to take great, big strides or walk very quickly. It means to walk with regular, measured paces, being conscious of every step you take and ever-mindful of the purpose of your walking. It means being in control of what you’re doing. It means walking, and looking ahead, with ease, confidence, deliberateness and of course conscious awareness of the action of walking---one step after another---from one moment to the next. In other words, walking in a relaxed way while be-ing totally with the present moment.

‘What is the path? What is truth?’ asked the disciple. ‘Walk on!’ said the Zen master. Purposefully. 



RELATED POSTS



HOW TO DO A WALKING MEDITATION ... MINDFULLY







Friday, October 23, 2015

MINDFULNESS IS AN ALL-PARTY AFFAIR

Despite a few sceptical and very negative party poopers and detractors around the globe, mindfulness has well and truly come of age, proved itself, and received formal recognition both in the halls of medicine and in the corridors of power.

On 20 October 2015 the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to publish an all-party parliamentary report on mindfulness.

The Mindful Nation UK report is the result of a 12-month inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness into how mindfulness training can benefit UK services and institutions.

The report's recommendations include: (i) commissioning mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in the NHS for the 580,000 adults at risk of recurrent depression each year, in line with National Institute For Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines; (ii) creating three mindfulness Teaching Schools (to be selected by the Department of Education) to pioneer mindfulness teaching in schools; (iii) training government staff in mindfulness, especially in the health, education and criminal justice sectors; and (iv) researching the use of mindfulness training for offender populations in the criminal justice system.

Jenny Edwards CBE FRSA, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said:

'The Mindful Nation UK report comes at a pivotal time for mindfulness and for action on mental health. The evidence tells us that, properly taught, the practice of mindfulness helps many people maintain good mental health and to sustain recovery after illness.

'At the same time the pressure on mental health crisis services has never been more intense. We know that three quarters of people with mental health problems do not receive care and treatment.

'We need to give serious consideration to the role mindfulness can play in helping to reduce the chances of experiencing mental health problems and to ensure that it becomes available to the communities who have the greatest risks. This has important implications for public policy. We are delighted to see a cross party consensus emerging that it is time for a fresh approach at a national level.'

I am pleased that there are now companies in various countries that are dedicated to promoting mindfulness in the workplace and offer executive coaching and ethical recruitment solutions based on mindfulness and ethical management principles to sustainable businesses and projects. Unlike the mercenary 'big-end-of-town' companies, these companies don't only care about the 'bottom line'. They genuinely care about the welfare of people as well. They are truly compassionate. And I know this to be true---you can be compassionate and efficient and effective as well.

One such company is the newly formed Mindful Talent Limited, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is run by the dynamic Alister Gray [pictured left] who is known to me. Alister has also lobbied successfully to have two pilot programmes on mindfulness introduced into Scottish high schools. He is a deeply spiritual young man -- see his guest post on this blog -- who cares about what happens to our damaged planet. He has a great commitment to, and interest in, a better world in the making. There are others I could mention who have similar values. These men and women are the hope of the future.





Friday, October 16, 2015

MINDFULNESS IN ACTION: PAUL VALÉRY’S ‘SEASIDE CEMETERY’

I don’t do it often, but I don’t dislike a walk through a cemetery. In fact, I find it quite enjoyable—up to a point. A cemetery is such a great place to contemplate the eternal and the unknown. Media vita in morte sumus. In the midst of life we are in death. Mors janua vitæ. Death is the gateway to life. Having said that, too much contemplation of death and the dead results only in a morbid and melancholy state of mind. Life is for the living. I say that with no disrespect for the dead.

French symbolist poet Paul Valéry’s famous 1922 poem ‘Le Cimetière marin’ (‘The Seaside Cemetery’ or ‘The Graveyard by the Sea’), set in the cemetery at Sète where Valéry [pictured] himself is now buried, is a sublime meditation on life and death. The poem is also a 'call for action', with the message (ugh) that life is for living now. The tension between being and non-being, between action and inactive contemplation, was a perennial theme of Paul Valéry ('At times I think and at times I am'), but in ‘Le Cimetière marin’ the poet, after coming to accept the inevitability of death, boldly proclaims the need to choose life and eternal change.

Valéry's deep reverence for life, even in the midst of a place of death, is palpable. The poet begins by describing a calm 'sea in flame'---a roof-like expanse of seemingly unending 'sea forever starting and re-starting' ('Quite that roof, where the doves are walking') under a blazing sun at noon. There is a tranquil state of ‘celestial calm’---‘palpable calm, visible reticence’---when ‘thought has had its hour’. Life is a ‘temple of time, within a brief sigh bounded’. For about three-quarters of the poem Valéry is lost in self-absorbed but numbed meditative contemplation---‘long vistas of celestial calm!’ Intimations of immortality, you could call it. However, his contemplation of the mystery of death (‘The dead lie easy, hidden in earth where they / Are warmed and have their mysteries burnt away’) morphs into a mindful awareness of the inevitability of death---intimations of mortality---notwithstanding the seeming endlessness of life itself (Break, body, break this pensive mould'):

Even as a fruit's absorbed in the enjoying,
Even as within the mouth its body dying
Changes into delight through dissolution,
So to my melted soul the heavens declare
All bounds transfigured into a boundless air,
And I breathe now my future's emanation.


Le Cimetière marin at Sète, France


In time, however, the wind begins to stir and waves start forming on the sea. A new state of consciousness arises in the poet. Self-absorption gives way to conscious awareness and exuberance. Even defiance. True meditation---mindfulness—is not a state of reverie or contemplation of the ineffable. Valéry once said, 'In poetry everything which must be said is almost impossible to say well.' That is so true of life as well. Contemplating the ineffable tends only to result in existential angst and confusion. And forget about beliefs. The ever-skeptical and agnostic Valéry spoke well when he said, 'That which has been believed by everyone, always and everywhere, has every chance of being false.' Mindfulness is something altogether different; it involves no beliefs. It is an intense and intentional state of ceaseless change and action and not just awareness. Mindfulness is for the living, of the living, and is in the living of our days---all days, every day, and every moment of each day. Back to 'The Seaside Cemetery':

No, no! Arise! The future years unfold.
Shatter, O body, meditation's mould!
And, O my breast, drink in the wind's reviving!
A freshness, exhalation of the sea,
Restores my soul . . . Salt-breathing potency!
Let's run at the waves and be hurled back to living!

Yes, mighty sea with such wild frenzies gifted
(The panther skin and the rent chlamys), sifted
All over with sun-images that glisten,
Creature supreme, drunk on your own blue flesh,
Who in a tumult like the deepest hush
Bite at your sequin-glittering tail -- yes, listen!

The wind rises! . . . We must try to live!
The huge air opens and shuts my book: the wave
Dares to explode out of the rocks in reeking
Spray. Fly away, my sun-bewildered pages!
Break, waves! Break up with your rejoicing surges
This quiet roof where sails like doves were pecking. 


The movement of the poem---note, by the way, how the rhythm of the verses cleverly mimicks the sea's movement---has now gone full circle, with the doves in the opening line now transformed into white sailing boats. Doves fly high. Not so boats. Not so us. From intimations of immortaility to ones of mortality. 

And what of the dead? Valéry refers to them as having been dissolved into a 'dense absence'. Not a mere absence but a 'dense' one. How can an absence be dense? When it is ineffable, unreachable and yet ever so sublime. Jesus is recorded as having said, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ (Lk 24:5) and ‘Let the dead bury their own dead’ (Lk 9:60). Have you lost a loved one? I lost my parents over 30 years ago and I still miss them. I seldom go to the cemetery where their cremated remains are buried. My parents are not there. I do not look for them there. They are to be found in the very livingness of life itself. I am reminded of some beautiful words from the collection of poems This, My Son by the Australian writer Joan Kinmont---words I've often read out at funerals, words that capture the essence of Paul Valéry’s poem:

Then your dear, distant voice
Broke through the night ...
'Seek me in the world
If you would have me near;
Seek me in the light.
Darkness and defeat
Entomb me here.
Dear, lift your eyes above
To beauty and the sky.
Seek me in the light.
Death is not the end.
There is no death.'
Your voice spoke in the night.

Mindfulness---like life itself---is not for day-dreamers. It is for those who want to live life fully and deeply for so long as it lasts. Mindfulness is not escapism. It is a non-judgmental, intentional awareness and experience of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next.

'The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.' So wrote Valéry. When asked about his enlightenment the Buddha is reported as having said, 'I woke up.' That, my friends, is what mindfulness is all about---waking up ... and staying awake.

Yes, the wind rises! We must try to live! 

And if we live mindfully, that’s even better.



RELATED POSTS












Friday, October 9, 2015

DON’T PRETEND THAT YOU UNDERSTAND WHEN YOU DON'T, JUST LISTEN

For many years I taught law at a major university in Sydney, Australia. I still teach law, but not at the same place. I used to see my law students---thousands of them in total—do the very same thing I did when I was a law student back in the early to mid-1970s. They---as I did in my time---tried to write down in lectures everything that I said, or at least everything that they thought that I thought was important and needed to be known and regurgitated at exam time.

I well remember when I was a law student. By the way, the present Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in my law classes way back then. We all knew then that he would go places. For starters, he told us that he would. No, not exactly. But we all knew it. He was then the brightest fellow in the room, and he still is. But I digress.

Anyway, I would write down everything the lecturer said—well, as much as I could---often not fully understanding the complicated legal doctrines, rules and principles the lecturer was pontificating about. I always hoped that the lecture material would make sense to me when I got home. I would read and re-read my notes on the train going home but seldom would the stuff make much sense to me. So, when it came my turn to be the lecturer---I had learned a lot more about the law in the 15 or so years after leaving law school---I would say to my students, ‘Now, if you don’t understand what the hell I’m saying, please don’t write it down. Just listen. Listen carefully. Ask questions. Do anything, but don’t just write down what I say in the vain hope that it will all come together later, for it seldom will.’ Those last few words---'for it seldom will'---would frighten the heebie-jeebies out of the students, but that wasn't really my aim.

Here’s a little Zen story which is more than a little on the point. It goes like this. A monk came to the celebrated Zen master Pai-chang and asked, ‘What’s the most wonderful thing in the world?’ Pai-chang replied, ‘I sit on top of this mountain.’ Impressed, the monk paid homage to the master, ceremonially folding his hands. So, of course, Pai-chang hit the monk with his keisaku (stick). We all need to be hit at times with a keisaku---metaphorically speaking, of course. There are many ways of waking up to the real. I have always favoured the direct, hard-hitting, no-nonsense approach. Zap! Sock! Kapow! Whack! Whamm! (Shades of TV’s Batman.)

Now, the monk did not understand the import and significance of Pai-chang’s statement, ‘I sit on top of this mountain,’ but he felt he had to give the impression that he understood. We are just like that monk. Someone tells us a joke which we don’t quite understand, but which we assume is funny, so we laugh nervously. ‘Oh, that is funny,’ we say, hoping that the other person won’t notice that we don’t get the joke.

Life can only be experienced from within. No one can unlock the so-called mysteries of life for us---no priest, minister, guru or teacher. Direct, immediate and unmediated experience of the real is the only way to know and understand. We must learn to listen. That reminds me of J. Krishnamurti’s many encounters with his audiences. This would happen quite often. Krishnamurti would ask some metaphysical question, and someone in the audience would respond with some pat answer such as ‘There is no self,’ or ‘The knower and the known are one.’ Krishnamurti would snap back, ‘He is copying someone.’ The 'someone' was usually Krishnamurti himself. The pat answer annoyed him to no end. He hated having his own words thrown back at him. So do I as a lecturer. Well, maybe not the first time it happens, but certainly after a while it gets more than a bit irritating. Enough said.

Don’t copy. Don’t write it down. Don’t pretend to understand something when you don’t. Listen to the voice of the real—that is, the voice of experience as well as reason. Self-knowledge and self-understanding, gained from a life lived mindfully from one moment to the next, is worth so much more than all the book knowledge and so-called wisdom of the masters put together.


Note. The photograph at the top left of this post is of the author, on the occasion of his law graduation in 1978 at the University of Sydney.




Friday, October 2, 2015

ANYONE CAN AND DOES PRAY---EVEN THE ATHEIST

No, this post is not about that rather silly aphorism, 'There are no atheists in foxholes.' The fact is, atheists are to be found in foxholes.

I do, however, want to say something about prayer. Anyone can prayer---even an atheist. Listen to the first two verses of this Christian hymn by the British poet and hymn writer James Montgomery:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire … unuttered or expressed.’ You don’t have to package or formulate your words in a Christian form. You don’t even have to verbalise your desire. Whatever be your sincere desire---whether for yourself, some other person, or our world---that is your prayer … and a prayer.

Now, there was, in what I quoted above, that pesky little word ‘God’. The word ‘God’, if one uses it at all, means different things to different people. For some, there is no objective referent at all to the word ‘God’, and I respect that position. The important thing to keep in mind is this: ‘The word is not the thing.’ That’s something the Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti [pictured left] used to say over and over again, and he is right. It’s the reality behind the word that matters. In other words, don't get hung up on the word ('God'). Instead, focus on the reality behind, and beyond, the word. Well, I hear some of you say, what is that reality? What follows is my take on it.

Despite things constantly coming and going, waxing and waning, there is something unending and unceasing, something that is beyond time and space itself. It is the ever-present spirit of life---that is, the very livingness of all life, the essential oneness of all life, and the self-givingness of life to itself so as to perpetuate itself. You can call that God if you like. The New Testament says that God is love. That’s pretty good. Some also use the word ‘God’ to refer to our innate potential perfectibility as well. That makes some sense too. The really important thing, if you choose to believe in God at all, is to avoid believing in a tribal, cruel and nasty God. That sort of belief is very harmful to others. The Baptist minister and theologian Dr Harry Emerson Fosdick once famously wrote, ‘Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a man can cherish.’ 

Me? These days I neither believe nor disbelieve in a traditional God. I love these words from the Jesuit priest and author Anthony de Mello SJ [pictured right]: ‘The atheist makes the mistake of denying that of which nothing may be said ... and the theist makes the mistake of affirming it.’ But, having said all that, God or no God, prayer is real.

Does prayer really change things? Well, it can change the pray-er, that is, the person praying, and when the pray-er changes other things start to change as well. That is not anything supernatural.

Having said all that, we should never see ourselves as the end and God as the means to that end. Dr Fosdick made another good point when he said, ‘God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things.’ I think these words from Venerable Fulton J Sheen are also helpful: ‘We do not pray that we may have good things; we pray rather that we may be good.’

Pray in whatever way makes sense to you, but do more than pray. There is an Indian proverb, ‘Pray to God but continue to row to the shore.’ (I have also seen that proverb expressed as, ‘Call on God, but row away from the rocks.’) There is an Arab proverb that is very similar: ‘Trust God but tie your camel.’ By all means hold on to your desires and hopes, but you---indeed, all of us humans---must do what needs to be done to bring about positive, lasting change in ourselves and our damaged world.