Storm

The storm came today.
I waited in the garden for it.
Wind rumbled around the house
talking through the gate, the fence,

the bamboo chimes we bought,
banging against their separateness:
nothing more than the ghost
of unreported rainfall in the air.

Pay attention, said the gate.
Do not be angry, said the fence.
This is what you came for, said the road.
You are a body, said the rain.

The wind chimes banged together
like thoughts.

Of storms and night walking

There was a great piece in Tricycle recently, A Gleeful Foreboding, excerpted from Clark Strand’s book Waking Up To the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. Strand describes what happened when his town near the Catskill mountains was bumped off the grid by a hurricane.

That the larger storms sometimes turn deadly does little to chasten our feelings of anticipation. Part of it is the knowledge, gleaned from a century of experience, that things will soon go back to normal. Another is the paradox of media reports, which transform terrible events into a form of nightly entertainment while pretending to inform. In the meantime, provided no one we know has suffered harm, there’s some comfort in having nature force our hands. It feels good to release our death grip on the steering wheel, and take up the snow shovel instead.

He talks about the relief of darkness re-entering the world: a reconnection with natural rhythms enabled by disconnecting from the on/off plugged-in culture. This got me thinking of how our technology doesn’t respect the natural cycles of the body and the planet. When you check your email before going to bed, the colour temperature of your screen is 6500k – blue light that your body interprets as midday sun. Of course, it’s not always practical to hope for a hurricane to send you back to the 1800s. To stop sleep-bothering perma-noon screens messing with your circadian rhythm, you can try a program I’ve been using for a few years now. Flux will lower the colour temperature of your display gradually as sunlight fades, decreasing its impact on your body clock.

And this talk of cycles brings me to a sort-of experiment I’m currently engaged in. Thanks again to Tricycle, I’m taking an online course looking at the Buddhist Pali canon. One of the interesting things about this course is that it’s structured around the phases of the moon. It began on the recent new moon. Tomorrow will be a waxing moon and the second batch of material will become accessible; on the full moon, the third batch; on the waning moon… you get the idea.

This lunacy has the interesting effect that when I look out of the kitchen window of an evening, I see a sliver of moon hanging above the hills and fields and think ‘oh, the next part of the course is almost here’. What may seem a ridiculous abstract conceit (I suspect my wife thinks so) feels in some ways more natural than our usual means of time-keeping. Even if it is slightly hard to tell when exactly the moon is half-way between new and full. How much more humane to adopt the lunar calendar for project management and render our deliverables up to the milestone gods when the moon is slightly fatter than half-full. I am digging it.

But back to Strand, his secret love of storms, and what I really want to say — he goes on to talk about a love of walking at night, how he clambered over trees felled by the hurricane. And how his neighbours, who knew of his nocturnal bimbling, now sought to join him on nightly walks, having no light to read by and presumably having exhausted alternatives. I share his view, having often enjoyed apocalyptic weather while looking out of an office window with the impression that, now, something was actually happening.

I also am fortunate to have had for a long time a group of friends willing to hike through woods and over hills at night – sometimes after an ale or two, or five; sometimes just because we can. There are good reasons for doing this. The world becomes unfamiliar again. You take special consideration of your surroundings – what you can see of them. Sounds are different: you hear owls hooting, scuffling in undergrowth, distant cars. The sights are different: you see stars, bats, moonlight and the shadows it casts of tree branches, and of yourselves. Conversation turns to subjects that are earthier, more fundamental to us, truer in some ways. Perhaps we talk honestly of things we would not say with sunlight on our faces when we, like the rest of the world, are shadow.

On a couple of occasions, I have mixed the excitement of a storm and a night walk. I remember walking up to Clent’s four standing stones many years ago in the middle of a rainstorm with a particularly hardy friend. As we went, we made our customary jokes about Harry-Ca-Nab, the devil’s huntsman who was said to ride over Hagley Woods and that area in a storm. It’s an example of The Wild Hunt: a mythology that appears in various places all over Europe, perhaps as a way of dramatising the uncanny wildness of night when married to the power of a storm. Perhaps also a wise warning. Awareness is sharp; the limbic system and imagination are on overtime. For me, Harry-Ca-Nab is in those woods and stalks them in every storm. As I write of it now, the images come from the same pool of imagination and memory.

In any case, we pressed on to the four standing stones at the top of the hill. From there we had a good view of the surrounding hills and the town where we lived. As we’d walked, the rainstorm had developed into fully-blown thunder and lightning (knowing us, it’s possible it was that bad when we set out) but we stood between the stones at the crest of the hill for a minute or two, half mad with the scene, I suppose. I called a friend on my new Nokia 3310, which I thought was a good trick. We counted the seconds between flash and thunderclap (far too few). Hey, this storm is pretty close, I thought — as if panoramic lightning weren’t a clue. Sanity dawned on me slowly, as it usually does, if at all, and I became dimly aware of the importance of getting the f**k down off the hill.

I wrote a song about it some months later. So here’s to storms and night walks.

 

 

The New Default

Our gadgets come out of the box ready to bombard us with emails, distract with SMS messages, snare us with headlines, and amuse us with status updates. In our technocratic culture, the expectation is that we are always ready to respond. Yet the pace of information grows ever more frantic.

We could create a new default. What if we gave ourselves the time to settle into deep, uninterrupted attention; to cut away the trivial; to stop multitasking; to leave our phones off; to toss our ‘to do’ lists in the bin; to not check our email; to turn the router off; to write on paper again? What then?

Josh Korda

Josh Korda’s podcast has been one of my favourite things to listen to over the past year. Josh is a meditation teacher at Dharmapunx in Brooklyn. A teacher in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, it’s actually Josh’s keen passion for psychology that makes his talks so engaging, as well as his straight-talking humour.

Josh will often start with a psychological concept, frequently attachment theory and theories of childhood development, to shed light on common problems such as addiction, envy, and shame. He also talks about aspirational topics like ‘how to live a purposeful life’, creativity, contentment, and self-esteem. Much of the time, though not always, there’s a confluence between these ideas and Buddhist thought and Josh usually offers beneficial strategies, tools and techniques.

There’s a real honesty and openness to the talks. One anecdote recounts how after recognising his alcoholism and resolving to go sober, his job as an advertising executive required him to attend a whisky distiller’s party. He describes a kind of surreal whisky fountain at one end of the room. Someone dressed as a grouse tried to hand him a free quart. While he was drinking no one ever tried to give him a free bottle of whisky, he says. He decided that, even if it puts his job at jeopardy, he had to leave the party immediately or risk everything. He makes light of heavy themes with a knack for pointing out the absurd.

Josh eventually left the advertising party altogether, having risen to the rank of Art Director because he’d grown to loathe it. Over a period of seven years, he moved from a salaried job, to freelance, to doing what he’s passionate about: teaching at Dharmapunx, where these talks are recorded, and taking one-on-one counselling work.

You can listen to Josh’s podcast on iTunes and via Podbean.

The audio quality suggests the talks are recorded on someone’s phone – not slick by any means but with lo-fi charm. Don’t let that put you off, you’d be missing out.

“My God, it’s full of stars”

As far as I know, none of history’s greatest philosopher-poets had their best insights while holding a soiled cat litter tray. But there I was, in the garden after midnight, seeking truth and a clean gravel-filled receptacle for Mr. Biggington. The valley was cool and quiet. I looked up from the decking to see a bright canopy of stars. I gazed upward in hope of a straggling Perseid meteor. None came.

As insights go it was more a way of looking. Consider that concepts we use to categorise what we see lead us to take those things for granted. So when I see a thousand pinpoints of white-blue light that are billions of years old, I think “stars” and continue cleaning out the litter tray. In fact, the constellations our ancestors navigated by for millenia are slowly changing shape. They have no blueprint. No necessary form or intrinsic reason to exist. Perhaps this whole arrangement is fleeting, vertiginous chance and should be honoured with our closest attention. Maybe that’s what poetry does for us, I thought, as I finished cleaning up cat shit.

 

 

Anatta, or ‘no self’

Here’s an exploration of the Buddhist view of anatta, commonly translated as ‘no self’ or ‘not self’. Although I’m not an authority on this, I’ve been thinking about what anatta might mean in comparison to our normal, conditioned view. Let’s suppose that View A is commonly held:

View A: there is a conscious self, an “I”, who possesses a body and senses through which it perceives the world.

Now suppose View B is the Buddhist view:

View B: there are sensations, memories, concepts, feelings which comprise consciousness in each moment.

A metaphor commonly used for View A is that of a captain piloting a ship. This is the way our language works. We talk of “my” body but it’s not always clear who’s in possession of that body if not the body itself.

In the latter view, the “I” that arises is not permanent. It depends moment by moment upon experiences. These may include physical sensations but also mental events, such as memories and conceptual thought. This “I”, or what psychologists might call the ego, is continually arising and passing as phenomena change. If we look closely, we may fail to find a pre-existing “I” — but this is not to say that there is no reality to our subjective experience. In fact, the opposite conclusion may be drawn: that subjective experience arises directly from phenomena.

In truth, most of us probably hold both views at different times and View B is by no means exclusive to Buddhist philosophy. The question we are invited to ask of View A is, where is this “I” that features so prominently in our worldview? Is it anything more than a thought?

Of the combustible and useless varieties of trees

Reading Fire Season, Philip Connors’ account of his experiences watching for forest fires in the Gila mountain range, I was struck by the following passage:

My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

— Philip Connors, Fire Season.

There are a few old themes at work in this paragraph. Take Case 129 from Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, compiled in 13th Century Japan:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

A lot could be said about Connors’ experience of the moment in relation to Buddhist thought (or non-thought) but it will do to note that non-striving and mindful awareness seem prominent here. Now let’s look at his closing line, “By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become, at last, useful to myself.”

Notice that Connors doesn’t say he is useless to the culture – he’s performing an important duty, after all – more that he is forgotten by that culture. He here echoes Chuang Tzu’s dream-parable of the useless tree. In it, an old carpenter named Shih, encounters a large oak standing in a field. His apprentice admires the tree but Shih admonishes him, explaining that the wood is so gnarled and filled with knots that it’s not worth cutting down. That night, the old oak appears in Shih’s dream to explain that trees which bear fruit are cut, pruned and interfered with, so that they cannot live long; trees that are otherwise useful are cut down for their wood. The gnarled oak reveals that it has spent many years trying to become useless and that this uselessness has indeed become very useful to it. Would the tree have reached its enormous size if it had been useful to carpenters?

Connors, P. (2011) Fire Season. London: Macmillan, pp. 52–3.
For commentary on Case 129 of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, see Schireson (2011) Zen in Fresno and Central Valley. Available online: http://kuzanzen.org/2011/04/non-thinking/ [Accessed: 02/03/2015].
For more Chuang Tzu / Zhuang Zhou try The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer, or The Tao of Nature in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

The art of running slowly

I’m getting back into running after a few months’ break. In the meantime, my fitness has evaporated and I’m carrying some extra pounds. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon has been sore for a while, probably due to overtraining on these beautiful but brutal coastal trails. For example, last summer, my brother and I put together a half marathon training run that ended up with a total elevation of 2,500ft. It was a fantastic run. A sea fret filled the precipice off the coast path and only the faintest ghost of the rocks below could be seen through the fog. But the terrain is hard. I remember feeling broken two weeks into my last training cycle.

Dan suggested running with a heart rate monitor. The plan is not to overreach by keeping my exertion within training zones 2 and 3. In my current state of fitness, that means occasional walking, especially on hills, and crawling along at what should be an embarrassingly slow pace. Except I don’t find it a chore at all. In fact, the first run was a minor revelation. It wasn’t a slog or a struggle, I got to stop and admire the view frequently. It helps that I was running down to the beach, I suppose, but there are lots of other details to enjoy. Birds didn’t startle as soon as I came near them… I’m not saying that small woodland creatures flocked to me as I ran, like some kind of Disney princess. It’s just that there’s time to notice what’s there: whitecaps, sunlight in the branches, bitingly cold wind. At least, there is when I’m not compulsively checking my wrist monitor. Hopefully I’ll develop a better inuitive sense of what I can sustain in the long run, so to speak.

There is a method in this moderation, however. The idea is that by running slowly, you train type I (endurance) muscle fibres which are more fuel efficient and help to remove lactic acid. When you run hard, you’re relying on high power, low efficiency type II muscle fibres. This is fine for a while but you can only store so much high energy fuel in your legs. So this might be why I usually ‘bonk’ in the last three miles of a half marathon (…and why beer and a burger is always so appetising post-race). It will be interesting to see whether a gentle way can accomplish more than my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach.

In any case, there’s a nice contradiction in the idea of running slowly. It brings to mind festina lente (‘hurry slowly’ / ‘make haste slowly’), the old motto of the Medici’s and something Shakespeare riffed on from time to time. In English we say, ‘more haste, less speed’… but the lack of paradox makes our saying comparatively flat. Festina lente, to me, is the idea that the best way to accomplish something is to do it slowly, deliberately (but not by charging at it head-on) and perhaps persistently: by working with your fate rather than rashly against it; or perhaps to do something bold in a leisurely fashion. Hey, it worked for Augustus.

You had to be there

We were talking about travelling and a friend said that if he were to embark on another big trip, he wouldn’t pack a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a camera. Not even a notebook. We’d been in total agreement until that moment. What would be the point of travelling if you didn’t take artsy photos with an SLR? Or bore your friends and family with constant updates on your adventures? I wondered at the time. Not even a notebook…

Recently, I thought twice about taking my phone with me on an errand. Now I’m a father, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I remembered that conversation. What if someone needs to get hold of me? I thought. What if I see something cool and need to take a photo? To hell with it! One by one, I peeled my fingers from around the handset and left it on the counter looking like the sinister monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As I was leaving town a spectacular double rainbow lit darkening clouds above the harbour. My first instinct was to take a photo, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that even a professional cameraman would struggle to capture what I could simply take in with my eyes and other senses. I decided to extend my walk to properly absorb the scene and ended up getting fairly well rained on. Really heading home now, two seals were playing in the waves. I watched them for ten minutes and understood what my friend had been talking about a little better.