Monday, 27 January 2014

Complexity Meditation

I was in an aeroplane, more than seven miles up, when I started thinking about the complexity of things.

For people who do meditation, one of the major goals is to achieve simplicity, that sensation when all is one, when the constant ephemera of daily experience disappear into ragged wisps of illusion, where there is only the reality of breathing in and breathing out, holding on and letting go until you transcend the duality, moving beyond thought and feeling into monad unity … Ommmm.

I have never been very good at this.

There’s a hamster in my head; a driven, energetic little bastard who gallops away on his exercise wheel all the time. I’ve spent much of my life (futilely) trying to stop him, or at least slow him down. Most of the times I try meditation – and it doesn’t make much difference what technique I use – I generally manage to get through the initial phases quite easily, into that area of inner stillness and relaxation and then, in the growing silence, I start to hear that bloody hamster more clearly.

Most of those who teach meditation counsel not to worry about this. “Don’t fight it,” they say. “Let the thoughts come … and go. They will arise and then fade away, leaving growing peace, emptiness and goalless fulfilment in their path.” Om mani padme hum.

They don’t know my fucking hamster.

He’s a persistent little bugger, and he enjoys the space provided by the initial phases of the meditation process. One his nastiest little tricks is to take the role of the observer of my progress, analysing it, commenting on it, making the process of voluntary not-thinking into an interesting, obsessive, conscious subject of thought – and thus neatly derailing the whole process.

He’s given me quite a bit of grief in my life. For many years I found I could slow him down, or even put him to sleep altogether, by using (ever increasing) amounts of alcohol.

Not a good idea. Dealing with the consequences of that took a lot of time and effort. Generally, I believe that using psychoactive substances to try to modify aspects of your personality isn’t good for you in the long term, because you’re only putting temporary “No Entry” signs on major areas of yourself, which only function as long as you’re actively taking the substance. (Disclaimer: This observation should be no way seen as applicable for prescribed and monitored medication for mental health issues such as serious mood disorders or potentially psychotic personality problems.) And, as my experience with alcohol painfully taught me, such strategies often have serious – and lasting – downsides.
So, I have learned to accept, I have to live with my hamster and develop other strategies for dealing with him.

Choose your battles, they say. Don’t get into a fight unless you’re pretty sure you can win it. Sometimes, instead of trying to wrestle my manic hamster into silence, or to ignore the constant rattling of him whirling away on his wheel in the corner of my mind’s living room, I take a different tack. I consciously open the door of his cage, inviting him to come into the room and really stretch himself. Reach for the ceiling, I tell him. Be welcome. Show me what you can do. (And, very quietly, whispering to myself so that he can’t hear the furtively hoped intention; Knock yourself out.)

And so, in a kind of anti-meditation, instead of relaxing and emptying my mind, I relax and consciously allow it to fill up.

Which brings me back to the aeroplane.

I’m in an Aer Lingus Airbus A320-200, more than seven miles up in the air, travelling at about 500 mph. Along with around 150 other people, I’m securely enclosed in a warm and comfortable environment, which is just as well; a few feet away, outside the aircraft, the lack of oxygen in the thin air would be competing with the very low pressure and a temperature of -60° C to kill me within a matter of minutes, long before I’d hit the ground at the end of my fall.

I start to think about the number of people involved in the process which has me here. There were the thousands of people involved in building this plane, which was manufactured either in Hamburg or Toulouse (or even quite possibly both – since Airbus has a very complex assembly process, the result of intricate political horse-trading). The CFM engines were almost certainly built in France, though many of the components were made by GE in the USA; thousands more people involved in building, selling and transporting the hundreds of thousands of individual components incorporated in the actual aircraft in which I am now flying.

But, my expanding thoughts about complex human connectivity realise, this is only part of the picture. What about all the people involved in making the ancillary fittings; the companies which did the final fitting for the airline, for example? It’s quite possible that some of the stitching on the faux-leather/plastic seat cover on which I am sitting was done by some Chinese woman, working a sewing-machine on a twelve hour shift in a sweatshop factory for three euros a day. The list of those involved in making my journey possible expands again to include all these people, and all those who were part of the myriad operations of packing, transporting, unpacking and installing stuff from many corners of the globe.

And then there’s the crew, and all the people working in the two airports getting this plane into the air and back down again safely. The ground-staff and the baggage handlers, those who did the security checks and signed off on the passenger, cargo and fuel manifests. The air-traffic controllers who are guiding our flight safely through the night. The people working on pumping the crude oil out of the deposits where it has lain under the ground or the sea for millions of years before those complex hydrocarbon molecules began their final journey to be refined into kerosene now being burned to provide energy for the jet engines pushing us through the skies above Germany, Holland, the North Sea, Britain, and the Irish Sea, all the way from Düsseldorf to Dublin. Was the man who oversaw the pumping of that original crude a well-paid shift worker on a North Sea oil-rig, or a much more poorly-paid Filipino migrant worker, sending remittances home to his family from Saudi or Kuwait? All the people involved in refining that kerosene and finally transporting it to be pumped into the plane’s fuel tanks.

Still more human connectivity; As I order a chicken and lettuce wrap to eat, my thoughts turn to all of those involved in producing this, from those working in a food-processing plant somewhere to put it all together to the farmers who raised the chicken (probably somewhere in a battery) to the ones who grew the lettuce and the other ones who grew the wheat baked into the wrap. And who were the people who mined the salt which was used to season it, and where did they live and work? And how many people were involved in buying and selling and transporting and assembling all the ingredients of the snack I’m eating?

Ephemeral, momentary, fragmentary connections with literally hundreds of thousands of people who have all been involved in some way in making this journey I am on possible, but connections which are none the less real for all that. Our modern lives are perfused with incredibly complex interconnectivity; in thousands of everyday situations, which overlap and fuse into each other, we live lives of wonderfully complicated interdependence.

Without noticing, my racing thoughts become weaker, quieter, fall away. I find myself becoming quieter, more peaceful, more relaxed.

The hamster has lain down in the corner and fallen asleep.

Om mani padme hum.

Fee fi fo fum.

Dum di dum.

Ho hum.


Om …

Images retrieved from:

Friday, 17 January 2014

Walking Slowly

I have started to practice walking slowly.

As a little boy, around fifty years ago now, I decided that there was something virtuous about walking quickly. I suspect that this is a common phenomenon among little boys who go walking with their fathers; fathers have longer legs and just cover the distance faster. And therefore, because little boys look up to their fathers and want to be just like them, they decide that it must be good to walk quickly.

At any rate that’s the way it happened with me. Walking was primarily a way from getting from A to B, and it was obviously advantageous to do so as quickly as possible.

As an adult, many years later, I discovered another use for walking; exercise. In a society in which we have become increasingly conscious of things like cardiovascular performance, body-fat ratio, the potential health dangers of obesity, overeating, and a too sedentary life-style, keeping physically fit has taken on many of the characteristics of a religious proscription. To admit, as I do, that I find every kind of sport (personally practiced – being a spectator is something quite different) supremely boring is comparable in many circles to someone confessing in medieval Spain that they were a Jewish atheist with an interest in witchcraft.

Walking then was something I saw as a possibility to combine the necessary with the useful. If I did have to walk somewhere, then the thing was to do it as quickly as possible; get the old circulation working, push the heart-rate up, get the muscles flexing and bunching, burn up some of those endless extra calories which would otherwise (in a lipid form) congeal around the waist-line or (more dangerously) within the artery walls.

Necessary. Useful. But never really pleasurable. The idea of “going for a walk,” something millions of people unselfconsciously accept as a normal form of recreation has never really appealed to me. I have always tended to see the time needed to get from A to B as a period to be practically and rationally managed in order to reduce it to the minimum possible. Which meant that if I was going to walk anywhere I planned the time necessary on the basis of a brisk – a very brisk – walk.

Last April I moved house. It was a project which was quite significant for me, in all sorts of ways, most of which I won’t go into here – not now anyway. But one aspect of my move was that my new flat was much more central than my old one. And as the summer bloomed and I finally started to feel settled in, I made a resolution; with butcher, baker, supermarket and pharmacy all just a few hundred yards away, and my place of work only a fifteen minute walk distant, I would consciously strive to walk when I could – thus ensuring a minimum of exercise and even massaging my liberal light-green conscience about the size of my carbon footprint.

Life was good, and the future was bright, bright. Only by the end of August I was forced to the realisation that I had slowly, unknowingly been slipping ever deeper into a condition which I knew all too well. Knew intimately and still not recognised in its insidious approach, even as it dug its talons deep into my soul.

I have written about depression on this blog before, a number of times, and I don’t want to go into too many details about it; it happened, it was bad, I’m slowly coming out of it again. The frightening thing about this episode was that there was no real reason for it – everything was okay, I had the feeling that I was in control of my life in a way which I hadn’t been for years. In retrospect I was able to identify certain factors which had possibly (probably?) triggered it, but I have had to face up to the unpleasant likelihood that this is a condition to which I am simply prone. I have to accept that it may happen again, and that there is little I can do to prepare for it, except practise a certain kind of relaxed watchfulness so that I am not quite as blindsided as I was this time.

Indeed, in writing this it strikes me that the roots of this last episode may be even farther in the past than I have realised up to now. It is well over a year since one of my creative wellsprings started to dry up – by this I mean my inclination to write. My essays here became more seldom, and harder to write. If I had had to explain it last April or May, I would have simply said that it was due to the increased busy-ness and heightened stress involved in moving house, a few months later, when I finally accepted that I was at the bottom of a very deep pit, the idea of writing was simply unthinkable. If this is really the case, then the fact that you are reading this is a sign that I am well on my way back to the light (though I’ll make no promises about how long it will take for me to post the next essay!).

But even at the worst of the depression in September I still walked. On the occasions when I had to leave the flat, something I found hard to do, I marched forth, desperately striding to an appointment or to the supermarket to buy groceries.

And then one day, returning from a session with my therapist (seven and a half minutes brisk walk away), I realised something. There was no reason to hurry. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. It didn’t matter a fucking toss whether my walk home took a few minutes longer. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon and the more my pace slowed, the more I found myself appreciating it. In a seeming inversion of the logic to which I had chained myself, the more leisurely I walked, the more time seemed available to me. And the more time there was available, the more my racing thoughts slowed, my mind moving into a freer, more relaxed space, a space which it had so desperately longed for and needed.

It was not a miraculous, spontaneous healing, that would be a drastic exaggeration. It was, rather, an intuition, an inkling, a brief glimpse of a reality different to the negative, worried, obsessively and futilely circling inner world in which I was captured and held.

Like most such inklings, this one was quickly gone. I completed my short journey home (walking slowly) and then forgot the experience. But the next time I was returning from a therapy appointment I remembered it once more, and once more I slowed down. I remember consciously deciding to generally walk more slowly when I was returning home from therapy.

Initially, my thinking was still typically purpose driven. I found myself formulating the explanation that I was giving myself this extra time afforded by walking more slowly to reflect on what had happened during the hour of psychoanalysis, what insights I had achieved, how the whole process was progressing. An opportunity to increase the value of the session, to retrospectively continue to mine the depths just plumbed. For I am, indeed, a typical child of my time and culture, formed by and embedded in a world obsessed with development, with efficiency, with optimizing, doing things better, and faster, and more comprehensively, and (usually presented as the most important of all) more economically.

"Sometimes I sits and thinks; and then again I just sits."
Only, I found myself gradually realising, it wasn’t true. The therapy session may have been very productive, I may have found myself suddenly exploring a whole new area of my psyche, or achieving a wonderful new insight about the way I tick, but I wasn’t using the more “relaxed” state of consciousness I was achieving by slowing down on the way home to reflect on and deepen the therapeutic experience I had just gone through. Instead, I was using it to do … nothing. Oh, I might start thinking about something, but, I realised, my thoughts usually petered out, spreading out and thinning before vanishing into emptiness like the fractal silhouettes of the leafless winter trees I found my wandering gaze idly and momentarily focussing on before moving on.

I have started to expand the experiment. I no longer just walk slowly when I’m coming home from therapy; I now try to do it whenever I’m walking somewhere without a definite time that I have to be at my destination. Which means, for example, that I continue to walk briskly to work but when I walk home from work I do it slowly.

I usually work the night shift, which means that my journey home takes place around 7.30 in the morning. It’s an interesting time to be on the move if you have the leisure to do it slowly in a relaxed way. There’s a grammar school on my street, and a primary school at the end of it (and German schools generally begin their day at around 8.00 a.m.) so there are lots of kids underway, the small ones lugging bags on their backs nearly as heavy as themselves, most of the older ones in groups practising and living the all-important and ever-demanding teenage attitude of cool. A splash of headlights, brake-lights and rushed activity in front of the schools as hordes of parents fulfil that basic, most essential parental duty, being a taxi-driver for their offspring, the cars backing up behind halting school-buses. Adults on their way to work, moving determinedly, their faces generally closed and concentrated. At this time of year it’s dark when I begin my way; by the time I get home the sky has lightened and the day has come. And I’ve found myself noticing and rejoicing in the fact that, as the planet precesses on its cosmic path deeper into 2014, the dawn begins a few minutes earlier from day to day.

It still doesn’t come naturally to me; this strange exercise of walking slowly. The habits and attitudes of a lifetime are deep, and I often catch myself unnecessarily striding forward and have to remind myself to slow down. But maybe, for me, walking slowly is something like playing the piano or learning to drive a car; something I have to practice quite a bit before it starts to come easily or naturally.

It’s a mild January afternoon as I finish writing this – the sun breaks out frequently from behind a scattered cloud cover.

I think I’ll go for a walk.

There were lots of musical options for this topic; Dionne Warwick, "Walk on by," Fats Domino, "I'm walking," Katrina and the Waves, "Walking on sunshine," etc. In the end, it had to be Lou ...

Images sourced from: This quotation is most often - incorrectly - attributed to the baseball player Satchel Paige. Some say its author was the great philosopher, Winnie the Pooh (sadly it isn't, though it suits Pooh). In fact, the first use of it seems to have been in this Punch cartoon, over a hundred years ago.


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