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.
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