Urgency to live

How should we live, considering that human history–as we’ve known it so far–may be coming to an end? If the ice caps melt, if the Amazon burns, if the world becomes a hot and desperate place we will lose the narrative of progress and security upon which our choices and values are based. What is the point of our commercial and cultural endeavours when this civilisation is so far out of balance?

Impermanence is nothing new, of course, but previously it was easier to turn a blind eye to the precariousness of life. We could believe the world would always be there, much as ever it was. There have always been parents, governments, schools, employers, and advertisers who are all too ready to give us a game to play to keep us busy. These forces have preserved their momentum but nothing matters in the way we once thought it did. What are the works of Shakespeare when crops fail? Who cares about an ambitious startup? Sporting successes? These things seem to be haemorrhaging relevance. It was ever thus – but now it becomes harder and harder to filter out the roar of emptiness.

To be aware of our finitude is a bittersweet thing. It makes urgency the currency of our times. Urgency for gratification, urgency to act, urgency to fix problems. However, there is also an urgency to live in the present. Whatever else we do, an urgency to show up for life whatever it contains may be the trait that ultimately decides the quality of our lives. This means being present and reflective. It means giving time and energy to things that matter, however we decide what they are. Perhaps this global crisis clarifies what is truly important in our finite lives. It teaches us that we can’t depend on a future that has always been uncertain and indifferent to our designs.

We keep playing the same old games, looking around to see how earnestly everyone else is playing. At the same time, it’s hard to know what’s next. Can we give up consumerism or will we continue destroying nature? Do we want economic growth or economic contentment? I find this very hard myself and frequently ruminate on what kind of device will make my life easier — usually when stressed out by those very gadgets.

So what do we really need as human beings? This is where the humanities can be restored to their rightful place after decades of devaluation. You could say that Shakespeare’s plays matter more than ever, especially to the individual mind and heart. Art has an inward effect. It can enrich our appreciation of life beyond the urge for sensory satisfaction and conspicuous consumption. It can make sense of our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. And art is often less destructive than other things we can engage with. The carbon footprint of reading a poem is smaller than many outward-bound activities but the personal reward over the long-term can be much greater. Art, literature, music, psychology: we may value these things more as a society in years to come, rather than seeing them as luxuries.

Meanwhile, in the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition, we find the Pali word “samvega”, often translated as “spiritual urgency”. In this unpredictable world, meditators have always been chastened not to waste time but to practice meditation as though their life depended on it. To seize the moment. Ironically, I avoided my meditation bench to futz around with this piece and enjoy my favourite (unpeopled) view in the world, above. Even so, looking out at the horizon and finding myself actually where I was taught me a brief lesson in taking things as they come, and not trying to get anywhere but where I am. I was able to put down my ambitions and neuroses for a second and realise some very basic things about how I want to experience the world. It reminded me that even if the future is uncertain there is always this moment–only this moment–in which to live.

One year vegan

It was a talk by Dr Neal Barnard on the effects of saturated fats on blood circulation in the brain that started me down the dark road to veganism. And the deeper I delved, the more it seemed clear that meat and dairy are not the healthy staples we thought they were. That makes sense, because we have not evolved the features of true carnivores such as pronounced canines and short intestines. As far as our digestive system is concerned we are still great apes. After all, if we were carnivores or omnivores why would the idea of eating a plate of raw meat be so unappetising? A wolf would not hesitate.

So I watched What the Health? and Forks Over Knives (on Netflix) and was persuaded that meant and dairy are no good for bipedal herbivores, and are catastrophic for environment and planet — not to mention the animals themselves. One sticking point I’d had was vitamin B12. If such a crucial nutrient could not be obtained through this diet, how could it be right or natural? Then I learnt that B12 is produced by bacteria in the soil and would historically have been absorbed by drinking from streams and eating unwashed vegetables. As we don’t do that today, it makes sense to use a supplement instead. In any case, much of the B12 we get derived from animal products has been given to them as a supplement: these animals aren’t drinking from streams either and may not see much grass in their lifetimes. I also take an algae-based omega 3 supplement nearly daily and a multivitamin with minerals every few days.

I find people are most sensitive about the animal welfare issue. They can sometimes view veganism as an accusation. There is a level of cognitive dissonance required to ignore the fact that one is not eating a “burger” but a cow, and not to question the pictures of happy cows on dairy products. This is especially true if one views oneself as an animal lover. Veganism upsets the applecart. But let’s think about the animals for just a moment. There is a certain American-style roadside diner I drive past every few months and for some reason, it always strikes me that this one nondescript restaurant is serving up dead animals day in, day out — frequently just as a topping. And it’s happening everywhere. 56bn animals each year. How will history view this?

People don’t necessarily understand or want to know the very good reasons for going vegan, which can be somewhat isolating. I suspect they think it’s another inexplicable, leftfield thing I’m doing — such as meditation. They may be partially right as mindfulness has played a significant role in my ethical thinking and also promoted the value of renunciation (nekkhamma). I just haven’t missed the meat and dairy and enjoy vegan food for what it is: often fresher and less stodgy than animal foods. There have been some accidental lapses, but I just pick myself up and start over. My mouth waters sometimes if I make the kids a cheese sandwich (I’m not making the decision for them) but it’s really not a big deal.

It must be said that many big health benefits of veganism are dependent on being a “whole food” vegan, which means eating fruits and vegetables that have not been processed or are minimally processed. That means cutting out oils, crisps, etc. which are high in saturated fats. One of the main health problems of meat and dairy is the high saturated fat content and olive oil, for example, has been processed to contain the fat of god-knows-how-many olives and so can cause some of the same problems (though not the inflammation and bad gut bacteria, happily). I don’t eat a whole food plant-based diet but can imagine floating in that direction gradually. As to the aspects of veganism outside of diet: I don’t want to buy leather goods but am not throwing out my leather wallet or shoes bought previously.

So, I hope to continue eating veganly, though I know there is a heavy attrition rate. We’ll see how it goes. One thing is certain: my view of food and what it is natural or necessary to eat has changed forever. If you’re interested in veganism, I highly recommend the documentaries mentioned above, and Mic the Vegan’s YouTube channel.

So you’ve wrecked the planet

As you may or may not be aware, life as we’ve been living it is probably over. Greenland and Antarctica are melting much faster than expected. CO2 is reaching levels at which, historically, there have been plants and trees at the South Pole. There is the threat of crop failures and food shortages in the years to come, more social instability and perhaps even collapse. Things could get very ugly. And still there is no meaningful articulation of a new worldview at a governmental level. We insist on economic growth, and hope for technologies that will allow us to maintain our dependency on profligate energy use while counting our carbon calories. Meanwhile demand for the low-cost air travel and red meat that developed countries have indulged for so long is spreading internationally.

But, hey, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. In this undependable world, which biped mammal blessed (or cursed) with a pre-frontal cortex wouldn’t seek security and advantage through high-carbon technology? Who doesn’t want light and heat at the flick of a switch; quick, safe, and efficient travel; an abundance of tasty and sometimes healthy food; a dizzying array of toys and gadgets to ease our existential anxiety? Of course we want these things but how does one power such a Promethean fantasy? Fortunately, we found all this highly combustible black stuff in the ground. All we had to do was dig and burn. It has been a hard dream to let go of but that’s all it was: a dream.

Perhaps homo sapiens will return home in the not-geologically-distant future: gathering around a fire on the savannah, using rudimentary tools, eating ridiculous amounts of fibre. And what will be said in the red light of that fire? What stories will they tell, what wisdom will they share under lonely stars? Fragmented myths about the age of peak energy, maybe. And perhaps there will be–still visible if they know where to look–an Ozymandian reminder of our impossible lives. Maybe they’ll be happier in small ways, more connected to themselves and the mystery of life. Maybe this is a journey we are all asked to undertake.

Turning points

So the nights are getting longer. I was doing walking meditation in the library courtyard, feeling relaxed and yet self-conscious enough to walk at such an angle that the late shift librarian couldn’t see me from the café. He didn’t care, he was playing an electric piano, though I couldn’t hear it through the glass. Libraries are such important community spaces. My band used to practice on the sixth floor of the local library on Friday nights when we were too young for rehearsal studios (and pubs). Now I pace slowly backwards and forwards accompanied by a silent pianist. It’s a little surreal, I suppose.

Anyway, there I was shuffling up and down and the paving, walls, and surrounding buildings were lit with a kind of intense twilight that made everything more vivid. The deep blue sky contrasted starkly with the clouds, which were dyed candy-floss pink by the descending sun. Within five minutes, the light faded and suddenly night had crept into the scene. I remember seeing a similar vivid glow while camping in the Dart valley. My tent was surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves which were suffused by hazy autumnal light. Similarly, on returning from a quick trip to the bothy, I was surprised to see the startling effect had already gone, replaced by limpid daylight. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

There’s something refreshing about the turn of the seasons, though I’m increasingly grateful for the return of the light after winter. This season of mists and mellow fruitfulness used to be a favourite but now I appreciate the change most of all. Probably twenty years ago, I was kicking leaves while walking through a village and saw a bookshelf and lamp in the window of a terraced house. That’s what I want, I thought. It’s funny how these blueprints stick and before you know it you’re on the other side of a window, fixing a broken bookshelf and surrounded by books and more books: many of which you haven’t read and have no time to read. Or at least it sometimes feels like it. But that’s OK. Moving south-west has been a big undertaking/adventure but the house is coming together, we’ve been extremely fortunate to find freelance work so far, and things like this meditation group are fostering a sense of connection to the area. I don’t know what the next change will be but I’m still excited to keep shuffling through the leaves and see what I find.

Failure

titanic-mould-loft-design

The ship’s design pictured is the Titanic. The cross-section is drawn at full scale and the length at quarter scale.

I visited the Titanic exhibition in Belfast recently. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’ve been reading Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, about how we learn from failures both catastrophic and small. The ‘unsinkable’ ship that went down on its maiden voyage is a prime example of the gap between our expectations and the complexity of the real world. One of the striking quotes in Syed’s book outlines how progress is largely bought with failure, and in safety-critical areas, with blood. There are starkly important areas where black box thinking and a related concept, marginal gains, can be applied. Syed contrasts case studies from aviation, medicine, and the criminal justice system to name a few.

The importance of feedback

Syed has an interesting metaphor for thinking about failure and feedback. Some disciplines offer instant feedback on whether you’re on the right track; others permit you to flail around without ever knowing. He likens it to practicing your swing on a driving range in total darkness. How would you ever know to adjust your technique? How would you improve? He quotes a statistic that says trainee psychotherapists “obtain results that are as good as those of licensed ‘experts’.” The reason for this, Syed argues, is that psychotherapists have only indirect access to their patients’ inner experience, and few therapists track long-term outcomes once a client relationship has ended. This means they have little opportunity to revise their judgements based on real-world feedback. Another example: apparently, people learn to steer cars much faster than boats because the effect of steering on tarmac is immediate where as the action of a rudder is delayed. So in any number of disciplines the question becomes how can we give ourselves more immediate feedback?

I wonder if the same problem faces meditation teachers, and how it might be overcome – perhaps through standardised questionnaires, as some therapists have advocated for. In meditation, many teachers encourage an attitude of playful exploration. A large part of the practice seems to be trying various approaches and inquiries, and seeing for yourself what the outcome is – classic trial and error. We call it meditation practice for a reason perhaps. One conception of how this works might be that meditation reconnects you to the feedback mechanisms of body and mind. After all, you are the most sensitive, subtle instrument at your disposal. The non-linguistic right hemisphere of the brain is constantly processing thousands of datapoints and expressing these through the body as feeling, intuition, emotion. If you’re wary of becoming a quantified self (as opposed to an unquantifiable one), take heart. In my view, as sensate human beings we are already data-driven so wearing a fitness tracker is like putting legs on a snake, to use a metaphor from zen: unnecessary.

Some feedback is hard to face, of course. And this is where the problem of cognitive dissonance appears. To accept that we have made a mistake may imply some uncomfortable facts about ourselves that we do not want to see. It’s very hard to accept that you have made mistakes when it comes to parenting, for instance, but that admission could fuel future growth. This is how children themselves learn, after all. Every tumble and setback is part of an epic process of trial and error that leads from sitting upright to cartwheels and handstands. We are failing and learning all the time. Following Syed’s logic, perhaps one of the deep problems in depending on unhelpful strategies to cope in life is that when we go to excessive lengths to avoid failure and pain we also turn away from the mechanism that will spark future growth. As always, it probably pays to know where a compassionate balance lies.

Creativity

Syed emphasises that creativity is a response to a problem in a specific time and place. While we often buy into the idea of lightning bolt of inspiration, it is engaging with a well-defined problem that turns us into a conductor for the muse. Inspiration often then strikes when we step back and switch off, or when we are jarred into an epiphany by criticism, paradox, or an unusual connection. Syed, like others before him, claims that such a creative epiphany can almost always be characterised as a connection of ideas from previously separate conceptual categories. He also believes that true progress often requires both a paradigmatic shift and compounded marginal gains. Optimising existing processes may get you to the top of a particular hill while the mountain remains unclimbed.

Craft improves through failure. Sometimes exclusively so. This is the learning mechanism at the heart of practice. For example, every author begins by writing badly. Over the years, style, ability and judgement develop as we innovate around now familiar pitfalls. Every failure tells us something new about ourselves, our craft, and the world. Even an experienced writer will produce a bad first draft. In a sense, with each new project they should be trying something they have never done before. We wouldn’t call this a failure but it’s essentially the same: an iteration. Bad dialogue can be replaced. Awkward plot points can be straightened out. Instead of stigmatising failure and falling back on blame, applying the same mindset to other areas of life could be similarly fruitful.

With this mindset, there’s less resistance to thinking about why I haven’t managed to complete a novel, as I said I would two years ago. The idea, I think, is not to allow self-blame creep in but to analyse contributing factors compassionately. In the case of the novel, after trying for a few weeks I felt it was simply not the time, and not the right idea. I’d been cranking out words and projects of all kinds and had a unique opportunity to slow down, enjoy life, and let things happen by themselves.

If I undertake another long writing project in the future, I’ll know what I’m getting into a bit better, and where a few more of the pitfalls are. I hope that I’ll take Syed’s advice and get feedback early on to motivate myself and improve the work. In fact, he uses Pixar as an example of iterative story writing. The animation studio’s writing teams often end up drawing 125,000 storyboards or more. While I don’t think I can pump out quite that many iterations, I could start writing some scenes and character sketches on this blog and seeing what folk enjoy.

Every poet has a long career of being rejected from magazines and crashing out of competitions. Often, no feedback is provided. This is understandable because of the huge workload and time pressure editors and judges face. However, just think how helpful even a line of feedback could be to developing writers. One of my poems, ‘Vardøger‘, was rejected from Poetry Review with a one-liner that they really liked the first three stanzas but not the rest of it. They were right. I cut the poem down and submitted it in the Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers competition, where it was probably my strongest shortlisted poem. Perhaps in the future I’ll be more tenacious about asking for feedback.

Back to Titanic

But what of the Titanic? What was learnt from that? Well, not only were serious design flaws brought to light – the inadequate rudder, flooding compartments, lack of lifeboats – but regulations governing safety at sea and responding to ships in distress were overhauled. Probably not every lesson that could have been learnt was. As humans we often take the most efficient approach to problem-solving by doing things the way we’ve done them before. As a friend of mine says, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Failure is inevitable but Black Box Thinking argues that embracing setbacks liberates us from future mistakes. It frees us to learn from failure instead of turning from the pain of it and being doomed to repeat it.