Friday, February 05, 2016

CONCERT REVIEW ~ John Grant

Cambridge Corn Exchange 3rd February 2016

It's a testament to how John Grant's popularity is growing that he now performs at the Corn Exchange rather than the smaller more intimate Junction, the last time he was here.. The sound balance and quality was better there, but what you lose in subtlety you gain in sheer whoomf. The band has a considerably meatier sound and percussive punch, no doubt partly as a consequence of the venerable Budgie ( The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees ) now thwacking away in his own idiosyncratic, but highly effective style.





















Its not just the band that's different, the John Grant we saw last night appeared a much transformed man from the guy who performed here three years ago. Then, his self consciousness and fluctuating confidence was quite noticeable and the audience picking up on it yelled words of love and encouragement at him constantly. There was very little of that last night, he appeared a much more assured, relaxed and substantial performer. Physically his body is less flabby and more beefy. He even remarked about going for a run around Cambridge before the gig! He actually looks happy, jokes around and beams all the time, boogies along with his band 'shaking that ass' with an abandon and lack of inhibition. He's enjoying himself and one can only feel heartened and rather chuffed for him, No doubt the new boyfriend could be one catalyst for this much improved self esteem. But, when you hear the spectrum of styles and types of songs on display here you have to say this is an impressive range. After three successful albums and many critical accolades and plaudits, he ought to feel justifiably proud of it and simply 'flaunt it girl', and tonight he does.

Half the set was comprised of tracks from the new album Grey Tickles and Black Pressure. On CD it seemed a good but perhaps not outstanding record, with not quite so many stand out tracks as on Pale Green Ghosts. However, these new tracks really blossom and come more convincingly into there own live. Snug Slacks, Voodoo Doll, Disappointing and You and Him are given extra heft and muscularity, they're so much more funky and heavy. Older tracks are scattered around the set, the obligatory Queen of Denmark, which he can sing again and again and again as far as I'm concerned, I love it. Its one of his trademark barbed satirical songs, wryly witty, written as some sort of payback towards an old lover.




His more straightforwardly uncomplicated songs such as Glacier and the old Czar's song Drug are almost perfectly constructed. Even when writing a more traditional love song Grant appears incapable of writing a trite or clich├ęd lyric, at least not without an ironic twist. Often these songs reveal there true beauty when unadorned by strings or other arrangements. The final encores tonight were devoted to love songs that Grant accompanies himself on the piano, and leaves just the richness of his voice to embellish them. Yes, that voice, it is a wonder to behold in concert. There is never any sense of strain there, from the depths to the top edge of his register its all reached quite effortlessly. Some singers when you hear them live you realise haven't quite got the vocal strength, outside of a studio, to maintain their range live, their voices start to become unsustainable, to crack or squeek. Grant is solidly on the note pretty much all the time.




 Grant's popularity may grow so he can no longer play places like Cambridge, and that'll be a sad day. There is a loss the bigger the venue, and his songs are so honest and self revealing that in his case the lack of intimacy might not be to anyone's benefit.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

DIARY 134 ~ He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips















I'd been away on solitary for two weeks, spending time getting a clearer sense of who I am, how I have been, where I want to be, and what I want to do with the rest of my life, however short or longer the term that rest of my life turns out to be. I had made some intentions for how I wanted to manage my re-entry, but these have been somewhat blown out of the water by discovering Bowie had died whilst I was away. So over the last few days I've been catching up with the rest of you who are twelve days or so ahead of me. Emotionally, its contributed to making my re-entry bumpier and more complex than I'd expected. So being careful about managing my reconnection with the world, to chill a bit, and prepare to roll out some of the things I'd thought about on retreat, have not I sense been trashed, but are perhaps delayed.

Its taken a bit of time to really sink in why Bowie's death seems significant, not just for me, but for countless others of mine, and succeeding, generations. It is obviously a grieving and mourning process of sorts. It feels oddly true, whilst also a bit melodramatic, to say a part of what I aspired to be, or be like, has died on the 10th of Januarey 2016. There's failed dreams and regrets in there,for things he and I will never now do.



Few have been able to maintain both the intensity and longevity of innovative music making, that he did during his peak period of creativity which lasted over ten years. For one of his contemporaries, Marc Bolan his lasted barely two years and had been universally confirmed as moribund four years before his actual demise in a car crash. Those who've blatantly begged borrowed and stole from Bowie's back catalogue of styles and presentation, like Gary Numan and countless New Romantics, their careers have crashed or live on only on the nostalgia circuit, or through tribute bands. Though able to replicate, none have equalled, let alone exceeded Bowie's breadth of influence, that helped change social attitudes to sexual preference, and difference in general, whilst simultaneously altering and extending the language and definition of what popular culture was capable of. This was a much wider range than you might have thought a mere pop star, however prodigiously talented, ought to have had. He had a retrospective of just his stage costumes for goodness sake!

Sexually ambiguous, he formed himself into this exotic peacock, a role model for those, like myself, who wondered whether to express these transgressive feelings we had, and he demonstrated we must and they were more than OK, His stance encouraged people to liberate from hiding or feeling imprisoned behind conventional sexual and gender norms, His songs often have subversive irony underpinning them, such as on Boys Keep Swinging, which might appear a laddish chant of the virtues of being the conventional male. If there was any doubt about the parody being presented here, then you only need view the video. At the end, three 'female figures' step forward rip off their wigs, reveal themselves as Him, and dramatically smear their lipstick. He learnt that swaggery posturing expression of defiance and nerve whilst training with Lindsey Kemp. I was giddy with glee when I first saw it.



He was an extremely clever and articulate song writer, often opaque in meaning, but true in feeling, able to cross a wide range of styles and subject matter. From unconventional but touching songs like Life on Mars to an instrumental apparently cross referencing Kraftwerk and Nazi doodle bombs - V2-Schneider. A boundless curiosity and fascination with whatever he came across meant he was rarely short of fertile new creative territory to explore. Musically it usually came embellished with a quirky off kilter edge, tinged with danger coming out of darker seamier shadows, in the form of the high pitched squealing of a deranged guitar, such as on Cracked Actor.



In that post sixties withdrawl period from dreamy optimism, the early seventies were years uniquely dull and overcast with gloom. Bowie shone a light into its hidden nooks and crannies and said 'look at this, and this, wouldn't you want to be more like this, or this', and we followed him like thirsty puppy dogs through all those metamorphoses, and inhabited them through him. A magpie, artistically, he knew a great idea when he saw one, his voracious pursuit of the new was ever shifting and polymorphous. All of this done with the most immaculate sense of personal style and panache you could think of. Bowie at his peak never appeared anything less than self-assured, the very epitome of what cool could be.

His recent creative re-emergence out of his so called ;retirement' with the exhibition, the album The Next Day, the musical Lazarus, and now Blackstar, could appear to be part of a Bowie plan to stage manage how his legacy and reputation would survive his demise. What was it that woke him up after ten years of silence? Has he known for quite a while that his health was on a slippery and increasingly acute slope? The videos that accompany Blackstar and Lazarus, are, in retrospect, so infused with a sense of his future demise, it seems strange we took them as simply Bowie play acting another character. It appears he never was just performing, but also revealing something personal through the guise of an image. For Bowie was it ever thus. I can't now watch the video for Where are we now, without feeling overwhelmed by the poignant sense of melancholy that pervades it, He was coming to terms with something when he wrote the line 'the moment you know, you know, you know'.



Bowie encouraged everyone to be a little bit more adventurous than we would have been otherwise, in being who we are, and this is why some of us have responded to his loss so deeply. We owe a lot to him,. He broadened the range of what was conceivable, let alone possible. We grew and evolved through our association and identification with him, following in his tracks as much as we felt able to. Musically, his roster of hit songs for himself and others, are simply littered with classics, and along with John Peel and Brian Eno, he was one of my main guides and mentors. They establish in me a lifelong interest and voyeuristic fondness for the experimental musical oddity, and an active pursuit of the interesting edgy sound just around the corner, in the gutter, on the concealed extremes and fringes, well away from the cultural mainstream.

For all of these things, and much more than I can really express let alone touch on, I feel a heartfelt sense of gratitude and abiding love. Saying 'Thank you David Bowie' though only right, still feels a perfunctory and wholly inadequate level of expression, it falls so far short of where it should be.

Bowie in the Lazarus video



Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everyday Life ~ We Eat What We Are












When I was a small child I attended a birthday party. As my friends and family sat around a large table eating the meal, I was getting into quite a bit of a state. Not long on solid foods, I was having great trouble eating meat. No matter how much I tried chewing the stuff it just ended up a mushy grey ball in my mouth,that grew larger and larger the more I ate. Eventually,I was literally unable to stuff any more in, My cheeks bulged with a ball too large for my small oesophagus to swallow.  I had to find a way out of this situation. I can't remember now exactly how I did it, but somehow I managed to extract the partly masticated meat ball from out of my mouth without my Mum seeing. The problem then was where on earth to put it ~ in my pocket? ~ on the floor? ~ or just continue holding this slimy half digested thing in the palm of my hand until I could find some way to discretely put it in a bin. Trapped on a long bench behind a table of other small party goers I couldn't leave without attracting attention. I settled for discrete disposal onto the carpet, where on later discovery I hoped there wasn't too much evidence, like incriminating teeth marks, to point the parental finger at me. It was the first time, that I can recall now, where I tried to conceal the consequences of my actions.

There have been times in the past when, half jokingly, I've used this incident as evidence that I never found meat eating palatable, that I was a born vegetarian forced by my parents into being a carnivore. Its hard to resist the temptation to rewrite our personal history to make what evolved erratically in an incoherent manner into a clear inevitable outcome. I'm attempting through writing this article to be as honest as I can be about how I became a vegetarian, whilst recognising that my experience and perceptions have altered me so I no longer see through the same eyes. So, looking again at that childhood incident, I would imagine that children have difficulty learning what to do with solid food, when they first start eating it. It doesn't slip down quite as easily as the baby food that's been chopped and boiled so any toothless person, of any age, can consume it without effort. Also, it wasn't that I disliked the flavour or texture of meat, but the practical issue of chewing and swallowing as you go. Once this issue had been conquered I was more than happy to eat meat for the next thirty years or so. That appeared then to be the natural human thing to do. Children follow their parents example, for a while at least.

Crouch End in North London














How did I move from enthusiastic meat eater to becoming a vegetarian? Well, it was never quite the neat upward progression, born aloft on an escalating ethical awareness and sensitivity. The prime mover appears to have been circumstances. I went to live and work in London in the April of 1980. For the first couple of years I lived in a number of shared houses, where everyone had to fight to gain access to an oven. Due to this my food consumption started to focus more on speed, and simplicity, so I ate tinned or pre-made processed food or takeaways. I lived for a while in the multi-cultural, 'alternative' district of North London called Crouch End, there I encountered both my first vegetarian whole food shop, and Doner Kebabs in Pitta bread, I became quite partial to both.  Even when I moved into my first one room bedsit in East Finchley my culinary ambitions were still somewhat limited by my living conditions. I once tried making and cooking a vegetarian lasagne on the Baby Belling in my room,with its two rings and tiny tiny oven, and I can say without exaggeration it took all afternoon.

Gradually meat consumption started to decline, led by purely practical issues or cost, convenience and the limits circumstances imposed. Awareness of vegetarian ethics was in the air, through some of the people I met and was friends with. Through these I was being stirred, there was the aroma of cooking, but nothing you could consciously get your teeth into. Once your meat consumption declines your stomach adjusts to eating food that is less challenging to the digestive process. Eventually the life I lived in London became entirely whole food and mostly vegetarian, but when I went back up North to visit family, there I was still a meat eater. My past and present sat like odd incongruous bookends. I'd return to London with this uncomfortable distended feeling in my stomach, as if I'd eaten a lead balloon. Though this wasn't a pleasant sensation, physical discomfort didn't make reconciling this disharmony a priority.



















The year I became a vegetarian was 1985  the year of the The Smiths second LP. The title song, Meat is Murder, is an unsubtle direct attack on meat eaters, using highly emotive sounds and imagery. Beginning with the mournful groans of cows cut across by the slaughtering sweep of a chain saw, over which Morrissey plangently sings lyrics that read like extracts from a Gothic horror novel ;~

'closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die' 
'the flesh you so fancifully fry, is not succulent tasty or kind' 
'the meat in your mouth as you savour the flavour of murder'

It wasn't these sounds or words that converted me. The song was too heavily laden with manipulative melodramatic sentiment to be convincing, It places emotional guilt upon the listener, punishing, coercing and imprisoning. Nothing to suggest that not eating meat might be mutually liberating, for both beast and human. Having guilt thrust upon you from outside is very different to feeling personal remorse for your behaviour. Our reasons for adjusting that behaviour can be complex. conforming to external social or ethical pressure is only one of them. Underneath our conformity, our baser thoughts and feelings can still survive unexpressed but intact. Now you might say that's OK so long as it stops them eating meat. What I'm interested in is what actually changes peoples minds and behaviour, and what actively changed mine?

Morrissey, for all his self evident flaws,is who he is; open, honest,self-opinionated, prime narcissist, deliberately controversial, steadfastly refusing to be pigeon holed in any way. Whilst not blindly idolising, I did respect him. He represented aspects of what I wished to be, but wasn't quite able to be yet. However odd Morrissey might seem as a role model, he was standing for what he believed in, unafraid of what others might say. Something at the time I found hard to do. His spirit I wished to emulate. I began learning how to be more ethical by following in Morrissey's shadow. We can under estimate the effect a living breathing example, can have upon us. I doesn't mean they need to be perfect or heroic either, just people who are who they are, expressing what they believe through their everyday life. These sort of persons have had a more profound influence on me than any amount of confrontational agitprop,which tended to put me on the defensive. From such a position changing ones mind is very difficult

I hadn't thought deeply about personal ethics before, let alone having a choice in the food that I ate. I'd arrived where I was due to the push and pull of circumstance, including socially hanging around people who thought about such things, It might seem I suddenly had this ethical epiphany, with a pulsing caring heart implanted into it. But that would be to underestimate both the hardness of my heart before that time, and the drip drip effect of other peoples influence and example overtime. I'd always wanted what I did to matter, to transform myself and the world for the better. Somehow Morrissey's example reinvigorated my idealism, that through being frustrated had ossified into a judgemental cynicism. Becoming a vegetarian laid the ground for my encounter with Buddhism six or seven years later. There were at least three distinct turning points where things I'd previously concealed or was unaware of became fully lived in my everyday life. First,was the realisation and actualisation of being gay, the second was the realisation and actualisation of being a vegetarian, the third was the realisation and actualisation of being a Buddhist.

There is always a bit of a learning curve involved in cooking balanced vegetarian meals that are both nutritious and nice to eat. At this time I lived on my own, and making such a change to my diet was relatively easy .Living in a meat eating family where you're the only vegetarian, does not encourage ones intentions. Faced with meat being eaten in front of you daily, even the stiffest of ethical resolve may wither due to the lack of supportive conditions. Its not enough just to have the desire, there has to be a practical way to make it happen, otherwise its difficult to emotionally sustain it. I've lived in Buddhist Communities now for well over sixteen years, where being a vegetarian is de riguer. Whilst acknowledging I am fortunate, I recognise that my ethical practice is as dependent upon how favourable or unfavourable my circumstances are, as it is for everyone else. Take these conditions away, and how would even I fare?

There are members of my community who are vegan, so I eat more vegan food than Jnanasalin and I would if we were to live on our own. I still love cheese, eat the occasional egg, and I consume milk in my Flat White in a favourite cafe of a weekend.  At present I'm not ready, nor frankly that interested, in taking the ethics of vegetarianism to what appear to be its logical conclusion, to become a vegan.  I have to recognise that becoming a vegan still feels like more of an impoverishing decision than a liberating one. This feeling definitely carries with it an uneasy emotional background, with all the defensive reactive embellishments one might expect  I find myself baulking at conforming to the perceived inevitability of an ethical logic, whilst also knowing other sentient beings die or suffer as a consequence of my desire to eat their oestrogen rich progeny, the products made from milk and wearing their tanned hides on my feet. Through doing these things I have to own my share of the responsibility for the suffering of those animals. Maybe that ethical price is one I'm still prepared to pay, and any sophisticated rationales I might construct, even here, are refined ways of saying 'I don't want to change.' Ideas, images and invocations have no power without impulse. Emotional volition is essential for change to burst forth into active full bloom.

The first, and primary Buddhist precept, is one out of which all further precepts of body, speech and mind are born. Its not a commandment, nor an unbreakable rule, its a guiding principle that is used intelligently to direct our ethical practice. It's entirely up to us how far we want to take its interpretation and apply of it to our everyday life. Precepts come in packs of twos; what we move away from and what we move towards. So there is :~ 'I undertake to abstain from taking life' on the one hand, and  'With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body' on the other. That the 'taking of life' must be a defilement of the body is implied by 'I purify my body'. None of the precept abstentions state what their negative ethical consequence is, their defiling nature is taken for granted, the emphasis is placed decisively on the thing that needs cultivating ~ 'loving kindness'.

It's the increasingly deeper experience of  'loving kindness' that will drive change, I need to tangibly feel my current actions are 'defiling' me, not just bodily or psychologically, but spiritually. By recognising I feel unwholesome because of my actions I'm then prepared to make a profound shift in order to purify them. For the most part it's such instinctual feelings that direct us. Logic plays a role in this, but is more retrospectively applied. We think about the reasons why we've chosen to do what we've done, in response to our heart having already moved a step ahead. Should logic alone motivate us, the actions however well intentioned, will have to find themselves a heart. Logic and willpower unaffected by feeling, are barren things, capable of alienating us from the reality of our emotions and resistances. I've found through painful past experience, to be cautious in not creating inauthentic divorces between my ideals and my personal readiness to act. Our 'loving kindness' towards others is incomplete if we are passed over unloved in the process. Through the practice of not taking the life from others, it is possible, paradoxically, to take the life from ourselves. Its better to start from the position that ~ we eat what we are. Whilst I encourage my actions to move towards being more ethically skillful, I have to recognise that this side of Enlightenment they'll never be completely perfect. I am an imperfect being, living in an imperfect world. Trying to perfect the imperfectible would be foolish. Learning to live with imperfection is a harder, but a wiser practice.

'To abstain from taking life' can seem solely about the slaughter or murder of other sentient beings. In a literal sense that is true, but it's spirit is more far reaching than that. It has a broader remit to examine all the facets of our interactions to perceive where it is that we 'take life' from ourselves and from others. This may be by lying, slandering, hatefulness, craving or simply by holding views that run counter to the way life and things really are. Through our thoughts, speech and actions we can do violence to others. This reverberates through our being. so both us and the world we live in become riddled with it.

Few of us in the West are directly involved in the killing of other living beings. We consume, these days, at many removes from the production of the things that we eat, whether meat or vegetable. This doesn't absolve us from taking a degree of ethical responsibility for the killing of animals, or the ethical consequences for those that kill on our behalf.  The whole meat and dairy industry exists as a result of our collective actions in eating meat, fish and dairy produce. Killing the animal you eat is traditionally the pre-eminent defiling karma. The karmic consequence becomes less tangible the further away our responsibility is from the actual slaughter. This distancing may be one reason why most people aren't vegetarian, and why I don't feel compelled to be vegan. The background consequences of my actions are not placed in front of me daily. If I fail to connect emotionally or imaginatively, it may be due to this lack of cogent experiential feeling for the consequence of what I do are. In theory at least, if an animal were to die of natural causes or through an accident, because it wasn't killed by human hand, it might be eaten free of any ethical consequence. The emphasis then, is placed on the means by which the food we eat is obtained.

In the ethical rush to not be implicated in the killing of animals, there are other ethical practices which may be overlooked,sidelined or downgraded. Our ethical relationships with animals might be squeaky clean, whilst our ethical relations with other human beings might be poor. Adopting the high ethical ground over what we eat, can publicly sanitise selfish, superior feelings and our desire to have influence over and control the actions of other human beings, that can lie beneath it. We can lose touch with cultivating 'loving kindness' towards others because they don't do what we do, they don't model themselves on us and become vegetarian or vegan. Our ethical practice can become another craving or aversion, another fixed like or dislike, another extension of ourselves, even of our self hate. Do we eat to satisfy our hunger, to survive, to feed our greedy nature, eat in order to pass time, to fill up the existential void through our mouths,? How and why we eat, is as interesting, from the point of view of practice, as what we eat

















In the Buddha's time wandering Buddhist mendicants fed themselves by the begging for alms, going from door to door in a village or town asking for food. They offer up their bowl never knowing what they'd be given, all qualities and types of food mixed up in one pot. In India this would be mostly vegetarian, in other cultures this couldn't be guaranteed. The practice in receiving alms forces a mendicant to go beyond personal preference and accept cleanly, without qualms, the generosity of what they are given, from whoever it is given by. The mendicant in begging for alms shouldn't really make distinctions about who they will or wont accept alms from, they are simply to receive whatever is given. By doing this they also create an opportunity for the alms giver to go beyond there own selfish concerns and perform a generous act. However, I'd be surprised if the social obligation of alms giving was always administered or received with good grace, I'm sure many people in villages and towns would grow resentful of the seemingly never ending stream of beggars and the drain on their own perhaps limited resources. And if the picture painted in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa is to believed, mendicants could become quite adept at discerning where the wealthier areas of town were and begging for alms there, because they'd get a richer, better quality of food.

I'm not suggesting we all should take up begging for alms. It does ,however, provide an example of a different emphasis that can be made on ethical practice and food. It appears to be founded on making oneself beholden to the kindness of others, wearing down our selfishness by not pandering to likes and dislikes, challenging over weaning pride and encouraging generosity in others.  A wandering mendicant is not involved in any work, let alone growing food or breeding and slaughtering animals. The ethics of what you are eating and its means of production appears less emphasised, the ethical focus being on the spiritual efficacy of having to beg for the food one eats. Ideally cultivated within the generous aura of 'loving kindness', in how the food is given and received. This is part of a broader ethical spectrum to be considered alongside the ethics of how food is produced.

Another aspect was highlighted to me recently. A group of us were in a restaurant and we all ordered vegetarian versions of items on the menu. When one friend's food arrived it turned out to contain meat. However, rather than send it back, they decided to eat it, but picked out any obvious bits of meat and put them on one side. Their concern was that in sending the food back, it would be thrown away which would be wasteful. An animal died in order to provide food that ended up being thrown away. This is doubly wasteful, of a life and of food. In our culture we rarely consider how wasteful our consumption of it is. If our food isn't exactly what we want we send it back, without a second thought for what the consequence of that action may be. In the West, in our mythical world of never ending abundance,it can be hard to see our food and water as precious resource and the necessary ecology of not being wasteful of it. At all levels of our society everyone wants to feel they have a choice in what they eat, even if you live on the street, get food from a food bank, or are a freegan raiding a supermarket's dump bins. Being able to chose is being able to freely express our sense of our selves.

















Twenty first century consumerism is built on choice, and consequently if we have the money we can eat exactly what we want, when we want it. Increased choice is matched by increased alienation from the means of food production, and a tendency to become increasingly neurotic about food. Horror stories abound in the media of animal cruelty, pesticide residues, food allergies, digestive diseases and major food health scares. These turn the simple act of eating into an ethical minefield, everywhere there seems yet another new thing to be faced or avoided. We feel the oppressive weight of these choices everyday, so its not surprising if some turn a deaf ear, or simply draw a line and say this far and no further. There is some virtue in doing that, we can't make an imperfect world perfect purely through the food we consume. We end up making selected gestures to demonstrate we are doing something, but its lack of breadth and joined up coherence is a very telling trait.

To decide to give up this tyranny of personal choice is a spiritual practice, yet even doing without choice is a choice, and you might reasonably suggest just become a vegan and have done with it. However, its also important to challenge the neurotic nature of our likes and dislikes. Though being a carnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan are ethical choices, they are also ways to express our preferences and exert control, As a vegetarian you may choose to refuse an act of generosity when someone offers you a jelly baby, because there may be animal gelatin in it,  Whatever the sound ethical reasons, this does rebuff an act of generosity, an opportunity to share is denied, a connection is cut, a kind action curtailed. Putting other peoples needs before your own, can exist alongside guarding the ethical gates of what's in the food you eat. I'm well aware that I am blurring clear ethical lines of consistency here, the sort of thing most of us tends to find easier to stick with, We like black and white distinctions, not muddy debatable grey ones. I do so purely to broaden the spectrum of issues out from the narrow literalness that can sometimes dominate ethical rectitude. This may mean I decide where I place my ethical emphasis in each moment, and it being entirely possible that I may adjust it, even if this appears ethically inconsistent.

My ethical practice can drift towards rigidity and self-righteousness, a sensitively applied self-discipline turns overtime into the hard-hearted habitual sternness of an iron rod. I've found it personally useful to see my ethical practice as a conditional preference, to hold it as lightly and deftly as I can, and apply it as directly as I can in response to the exigences of the present moment. I've been consistently practising being a vegetarian now for getting on for thirty years. I've lived with vegans and eaten vegan food. I can envisage there might be circumstances where I may have to eat meat, In my current conditions I can easily eat across a spectrum of vegetarian/vegan food, but this may not always be the case, dependant upon circumstances that emphasis may be forced to shift.

I cannot artificially contrive a pure motivation, I have to accept that even my best actions usually have a rather messier mix of motives. Though they do arise out of an genuinely authentic desire to be better than I currently am. Becoming a vegan without a genuinely authentic desire to be one, could just simply be placing a tick in the Buddhist ethical correctness box. The relative cleanness of our intention is another element in whether our ethical practice will be spiritually effective. In one of the opening paragraphs of Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook he says this:~

"This work has always been carried out by teachers settled in the Way and by others who have aroused the Bodhisattva spirit within themselves. such a practice requires exerting all your energies. If a person entrusted with this work lacks such a spirit, then they will only endure unnecessary hardships and suffering that will have no value in their pursuit of the way."

I am not a Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva spirit has not arisen in me. I simply put insufficient amounts of effort and attention into making 'loving kindness' a more prevalent quality in my thoughts, speech and actions. If there were an ethical spectrum, hatred might be on the far right, and the Bodhisattva spirit definitely more left field, with 'loving kindness' being somewhere left of centre. I've placed myself facing in the right direction but not yet far enough away from negative influences to be incapable of being drawn back into them. What is important to note is that, according to Dogen's view, any endurance, any hardship, any suffering we might encounter through executing an ethical practice in our everyday work and life, will have little or no spiritual value in our pursuit of the Enlightened state, if it lacks the Bodhisattva spirit or at the very least an alive pulsing practice of 'loving kindness' at its very heart.

My ethical actions ought to be representative of me at my best, adjusted in response to any shift in the direction, quality and purity of my heart. There is a place for pre-emptive actions to challenge the ethical level I am currently set, or maybe stuck, at. Though I need to be wary of acting prematurely, beyond my heartfelt readiness for change. Sometimes I've been not sufficiently aware of how un-ready I was, and this has damaged and undermined further efforts at making progress. For an un-ready,unwilling participator any perception of having made progress might prove to be an illusory one. In my experience opportunities to move forward tend to arise in response to, and to meet, ones readiness.

I want to encourage my ethical practice in everyday life to be as diverse as it can be, avoiding settling down or becoming a one trick pony. In looking back over the early history and development of my ethical practice in regard to food, it was circumstances that provided the foundations for further changes to arise and take their place within me. Principles, precepts, practices or people appeared to emerge to meet and encapsulate what was already coming into being.

This article has been a very instructive thing for me to write, It has been based purely upon my present perceptions of what my past motivations and experience were, so in the sense of being an accurate representation it is a flawed one. I hope, nonetheless, that it has some resonance with it, and with the lives of others .

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Everyday Life ~ Battling, Living & Working With It.

I worked for a Buddhist Right Livelihood business for over seventeen years, and it did what it said on the tin, provided supportive conditions so that I could use my work as a spiritual practice. It was a simple direct way of working on myself as I worked. It could also, to be honest, be like a safe house, a place to hide away from hostile truths and unpalatable realities, indulge in being overly precious. I feel now that living in such a benevolent workspace for so long, was not entirely good for the liveliness of my spiritual practice. Any change unsettles the status quo, stirs up stagnant energy and blows the dust off aspirations that have perhaps stood still for too long.  So, now I've returned to that ordinary world of work outside, I'm finding fresh inspiration in creating ways to positively engage with it, and not approach it as if it were the supreme enemy of the spiritual life that I have to fight off.  That seems now like a rather perverse form of aversion hidden behind the well polished veneer of spiritual delicacy ~ 'lets keep that filthy decadent deluded world at arms length shall we, lest it pollute the purity of our intentions.' 

Men do have a tendency to see every difficulty they encounter as an adversarial conflict, sometimes its appropriate, but more often it demonstrates a lack of sensitivity. In terms of practice in everyday life we see the battle as between the outside world and our desire, however spiritually conceived, for control over it, It's usually clear from the start who'll win hands down, and usually it wont be us. To turn everything into a battle of wills is quite futile, only causing us unnecessary suffering. However much we might want it to be otherwise, the world is how it is, and though it does change, it's not forced into changing by strength of human will alone. We, however, don't have to be how we are and should be willing to adjust our approach in response to whatever we encounter.

So its clear where the real battles are being fought, and its not out there. It's like a man who has a headache trying to make it go away by banging his head against a wall, until both he and the wall are bloodied. Its an image often used in plays to dramatise personal torment, and they're quite painful to watch. Yet we all know the emotions that this is trying to convey. It's not everyday life that is frustrating and tormenting, it is us that is frustrated and tormented.

Having said all that, everyday life, if you allow it, will 'pollute the purity of our intentions' . We may indeed have to guard ourselves against being coerced or deceived by it, but the toughest fight will be to not become passive to it. You can't always be putting up, or learning to live with it, or be ambivalent to the effects of everyday life upon you, or treat it as somehow neutral, or take a hands off laissez fare attitude, far from it.  Not everything about everyday life is 'most efficacious in every way'. There is a need to make wise distinctions every moment of the day, a preference for the skilful rather than un-skilful in the way we act, speak or think. Practice in everyday life has to have 'be ethical' written into its DNA.

Yet, what exactly do we mean when we say 'everyday life'? It's such a generalised all encompassing term, it feels almost ludicrous to suggest we might not know what we are talking about. I'm not going to get into philosophical conjectures about whether the world outside us really exists. Lets just take it that we experience the world as having a concrete reality that we interact with and interacts with us. I could draw up a very very long list of things of what constitutes everyday life, that wouldn't be remotely comprehensive. So I'll couch it in more simplistic terms, everyday life is where events, people, environment and ourselves collide, our behaviour mediated through our responses to all four. Responsive behaviour is conditioned by the views we hold, by what we think we want from events, people, environments and ourselves, our desires and expectations of what everyday life can give us.

The Buddha thought there were three things that marred human existence, the first and primary one is a view that everything good in life, is, or should be, permanent. The reality,however, is that everything good in life is not permanent, things change,what was gained is lost, things arise that disturb our stability,we get what we don't want, this then causes the second, great frustration, anger,disillusion, dissatisfaction and despair. As this view of impermanence trickles down into the depths, our psyche tries hard to avoid the logical third consequence, that the Number One good thing - us - is not a permanent entity either. That continuous sense of our self we experience, is a falsity, a misconception, we too are a changing, shifting, transitory thing. This causes us on a sub conscious level, immense irreconcilable grief, as though a favourite pet has been stolen. Our response is to renew our efforts to find at least one thing that is permanent, we press the fulfilment of our desires into being the meaning to our life, and deny all indications and thoughts about our psychological and bodily mortality. Spiritual practice in everyday life attempts to subvert these three fallacies. Its best to start with our desires, because they're easier to spot, most quickly reveal themselves to be vacuous conceits that don't possess the meaning we attribute to them. Their sole purpose being to distract us from the meaninglessness that arises should we accidentally bump into our impermanent peril, In the light of this, the stuff of everyday life seems a very spiritually potent thing indeed. This is what we are truly battling with, learning to live more consciously with, to actively work with.

When we take an ethical decision, by what are we being instructed; by our experience, a rational assessment or a gut instinct? It might appear that this involves a tussle between all three, but Professor Paul Dolan's theories about decision making suggest, that if we are forced to make a decision quickly we mostly follow our gut instinct and construct an explanatory rationale for it afterwards. If there is more time, then it may be possible for a more experiential and rationally based thinking through of the issues to take place. Having a clear ethical framework against which to weigh our thoughts, feelings and actions, is going to be an essential tool for practice in everyday life. It's helpful if there is time to give broader consideration to all the factors impacting on an issue, but you can't rely on there always being time. We will, in most instances, have to trust our ethical gut instincts in the present moment.

Applying an ethical framework to life decisions becomes second nature. Any positive habit will over time and repeated application become a 'conscious competence' The skill is in preventing our ethical standing from becoming unquestionable,  hardening into a fixed like or dislike. This may mean we just stopped actually weighing up issues in the present moment, so our behaviour is almost predestined. So whilst there are definite benefits in holding ourselves to an ethical standard, this will cease to be a practice alive to the prescient individual character of each moment, if it ossifies into a rule, of what you shalt and shalt not do. If this happens then something is beginning to go ethically awry. Ethical practice has a flexible subtly nuanced nature, yes, it is informed by past experience, but its also responsive to present conditions and circumstances. There must always be a possibility to think, say or do things entirely differently. If ethics turns into a prejudiced opinion then it takes us away from any clear eyed objective assessment, towards a more subjective view, that's becoming entangled in our pride and self identity,  As Sosan Seng-ts'an in his Verses on the Faith Mind puts it:~

"if you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind." 

To take every day and myself exactly as they present themselves, is one way to define the approach I'm currently adopting to my practice. I take my past experience with me, as practical tools stuffed into my backpack, but what the nature of the territory I'll traverse is, well, that unfolds with every day. For example, I don't even know how I will be when I awake. I have osteo-arthritis present, to a lesser or greater extent, in most of my joints. The depth and length of time I sleep can be dependent upon the level of discomfort I experience over night. This sleep deprivation, how cold or warm the room is overnight, how much or little I ate before bed, how heavy the work was the previous day, the type of weather and atmospheric pressure, are all events that affect how my body feels as I awake. Then there is my response to that feeling. My joints can be stiff and achy as I walk about at 3 am, and my state of mind can be correspondingly stiff and achy too. Experience tells me that physical and emotional states tend to live together in a sort of dysfunctional marriage. So my early morning practice is in not allowing how I'm physically feeling at the start to set the emotional template for the entire day. If I'm in a grumbly, resentful, despairing, self-pitying state of mind I have to be kinder throughout the early morning, not push myself too hard, cut myself a bit of emotional slack. At some point my psycho-physical being does rise above the turbulent thundery cloud layer. If I'm actually quite bright, sharp and alert, its worth enjoying it, but need to temper my enthusiasm so I don't become unbearably peppy, or so intoxicated by the energy I have that I try to do everything, crashing exhausted by the end of the day, How I am of a morning I treat as a conditioned, but impermanent event. If I manage not to gorge on my despair or my delight, the day might have a more steady emotional tone, and at best a touch of equanimity might turn up.

To do this means remaining alert, aware and actively engaged. To work better with, not just  lifes limitations and frustrations, but also its everyday opportunities and joys. Even then, things can change and we not notice they've changed; what once was challenging a tendency in yourself, morphs into a stoical accommodation of it. Actively practising along with, turns into passively putting up with. Which isn't to say learning to live with pain for instance, can't be a practice, it can, but the emphasis has to be on remaining alert and active in your responses, adjusting your approach according to both pain, mind and emotions. You can't sign off on a practice, and it remain one.

There is a constant game of tug and war going on between worldly and spiritual desires. Quite frankly,at times it can be difficult to tell which one is pulling you, because whether they succeed or fail, both can leave you with your arse caked in the excremental mud. Maybe that's the point really; right or wrong, skilful or unskilful, positive or negative, success or failure, things do get incredibly mucky. There's some value in being confused for a short while, it places you on the cusp, so things could swing dramatically either way. Humiliation on the one hand, insight on the other. Practice in everyday life often means being prepared to get our hands, mind and heart dirty, because in the middle of the filth we may discover something of greater value ~ a jewel of insight, not just buried in the shit ~ it is the shit itself. As Sangharakshita tersely expresses it:~

"You have to really wallow in it before you know its muck"

Hakuin recounts an incident in his life as a disciple, where he has thoroughly convinced himself that he's not only had Insight, but that he was really fully Enlightened. So he goes to visit his teacher just to have him rubber stamp it, to garner official approval for a Master. However, Hakuin is mistaken in his spiritual self assessment, his teacher rebukes him and sends him away with a flea in his ear. Despondent, and humiliated he trudges home, his mood reflected by the torrential rain and the path ahead of him that is treacherous with deep puddles and slippery mud. He trips, loses his balance and falls face first into the largest and muddiest of puddles. Drenched and dirty right through to the skin, he pulls himself back up. As he does so he finds the whole thing intensely amusing, and starts laughing uproariously at this apposite indignity life has served up for him ~ what a fool he has been - and in that moment he has a realisation, the very profound Insight he mistakenly thought he'd had earlier.

This story demonstrates that self deception, status seeking, arrogance and conceit can be as present in a Buddhist, as they are in anyone. Its tragic, but actually all too common. However ,though we may fall for our own self- delusion, everyday life has a tendency to throw the crap back at us, like flotsam washed up on a beach. These resounding slaps to our ego, mirror our vanity back at us, providing an opportunity for real insight should we see it and then chose to take hold of it. Awareness, when clear of the obstructions we place in its way, will naturally be drawn by experience of suffering into areas where we don't normally look, to where those delusive desires and wrong views about self and permanence hide themselves.

There's a traditional Zen phrase that goes as follows:~

"No one has fallen on the ground, who has not risen without using the ground."  

Battling, living and working with everyday life is sort of like that.




Friday, August 21, 2015

DIARY 133 ~ Colluding Creatively with Change





















Since Windhorse closed in April my work life has been in a state of a evolving flux. One minute I think my future work situation is settled into a predictable routine, the next its ruffled its back and unsettled itself again. I sort of hesitate to say anything about my current set up lest it puts a hex on things. The amount and type of work I'm doing for Casey's Yard is in an experimental stage; can they provide me with enough work to meet my basic income?  Thankfully I'm getting other occasional work from Windhorse Trust that is helping keep my head above water. I have to keep reminding myself that its still early days, just four months since finishing at Windhorse, so my future work pattern is unlikely to have finally established itself yet. Something is still being worked out between myself and reality even as I write this.

My aim to do eighteen hours work a week, is happening, but it is proving to be quite variable, if not vulnerable to change. Nothing ever turns out as you'd imagined  or wished it to be.  Casey's Yard is casual and non contractual work, but it is regular and they are lovely people to work for. Nevertheless, when and how much I work changes week on week, so creatively making the most of my days off is difficult, on a 'finding your groove and staying with it' level. Without some regularity I don't find it easy maintaining momentum on Jnanasalin and I's plan to start a website selling handmade goods and refinished furniture. We are making progress, but its more a slow shuffle than a briskly walked pace. He and I are just too busy earning a living and recuperating afterwards,which does distract and dull creative momentum.

It's almost nine months since I had a retreat, a holiday or any kind of prolonged break. After this Summer of working hard in humid conditions, I'm a bit bushed. As it is, a day without working isn't quite a day without eating, but it can seem like that. A holiday or retreat is both an additional expenditure and a loss of income that has to be planned for in advance.Yet planning ahead confident I'll have the money when the time comes is not quite where I am at just at the moment. But if I don't get a break soon my energy and engagement will gradually deflate like a leaky balloon. I can sense the beginnings of it, I'm just a bit too pooped, too often.This year has felt like its been wall to wall with work or work concerns. I don't have any post Windhorse issues to work out, just a sort of psycho/physical/emotional exhaustion to give myself time to rest and recover from.

At Windhorse it became second nature how to make my work my practice. How you make cleaning a practice is something that's emerging, but I need space to reflect on more. Cleaning is,after all, an excellent example of an impermanent action, you do it one morning and its trashed by teatime, and I'm cleaning the self same flats all over again a few days later. It's reminiscent of the story of Milarepa and Marpa's Towers. Marpa asks his disciple Milarepa to build a tower, every night he leaves it almost finished but wakes in the morning to find the tower has been completely dismantled by Marpa. This happens not just once but over and over again. It's a parable that demonstrates how easily we become personally identified with a job, imposing a sense of purpose and meaning onto it that it doesn't deserve. Any job inevitably comes to define us, any job will come tumbling down of its own accord, because it is an impermanent thing just like everything else.

There is something about repetitiveness in a job that on one level provides stability and structure, but its predictability can prove quite taxing,if not testing, of ones tenacity, boredom and patience. There can be a growing appreciation of a jobs futility, yet there is also an integrating as well as a grating quality to it, its a teaching in a truer sort of humility. We are never quite as important as we'd like to make believe we are. Cleaning is the same task over and over again, simultaneously a meaningful and a meaningless action, which can be a bodhisattva activity; saving all sentient beings from filth,

Cleaning has low status in our society, but most low status jobs are not unimportant. Myself I'm not that bothered by what other people may or may not think, I find my own pleasure and satisfaction from doing any job as well as I'm able. If I'm to maintain any sense of personal integrity, its important I don't short change either myself or others, and the latter aren't just my immediate employers but includes the people who are hiring the holiday flats, At the same time I  know things cannot ever be perfectly clean, there's inevitably a flaw in it somewhere. The immaculate nature of the flats when I've cleaned them is an illusion I self-create around the task. My ego always attempts to stick some meaning and self-esteem onto it. but its just a barnacle clinging to the side of a ship that it depends on the hull for life and support. This doesn't mean I should decide to do a job badly, In the pure light of perfection I'm already doing that.

I've taken to cleaning things, not because they aren't clean, but because they haven't had much attention for a while. If you focus only on what is seen as dirty then that limits your perspective on why you're doing it. There is a broader sense of a place being well cared for too, and a caring for others pleasure in staying in the holiday flats. A room feels noticeably different after its been cleaned, and it isn't just that it looks cleaner, one senses the presence of the cleaner whose been there, the overall attention the place has been given. After a visitor has left, you also are left with an impression of the sort of people who've been staying there. Some live very lightly, and its hard to tell they've been there at all. Others leave a lot of mess and detritus behind them, loads of half eaten food in the fridge etc. Being a tidy person myself, I have to work constantly on not being too harsh and judgemental, particularly when I  have to clean up after them. Other peoples way of being collide with mine all the time, that is how life is. It's challenging.

I've been reflecting recently on how in the spiritual life, we can use our personal habits and prejudices as our starting point in assessing the spiritual value of something. As I said I'm quite a tidy person, and I can take that tendency to be tidy and turn it into a spiritualised quality of say a Zen like aesthetic or mindful attentiveness to things and environment. An untidy person might do the same, turning a lack of concern for aesthetics and cleanliness into a renunciation of worldly standards or viewpoints.  These both attempt to redefine and sanctify previously held views via Buddhist values This can allows us to carry on holding the exact same views about ourselves and others we had before we became a Buddhist, and put them beyond question behind a religious veil.  Whether we are tidy or untidy is spiritually speaking not that important, its all in our volitional intent. If we were to be so as a result of a lack of mindfulness, or a lack of care for oneself or others then that's a different matter to simply being tidy or untidy. When we sanctify our habits in this way we are being disingenuously untruthful not just to ourselves, but also to others. Paradoxically resisting change by colluding with Buddhist ideas and values. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

FEATURE 131 ~ Nigella Talks Dirty

Well, all I can say is she's been asking for this for some time. Her particular liking for flirty innuendo and extravagant use of language is something of a gift.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

DIARY 132 ~ Cousin's Day

For the last few years we've been having an annual gathering of all my cousins with their respective wives and husbands. They are generally quite good natured affairs with a lot of banter, teasing and boisterousness. I enjoy these days, but I do get quite tired of  the noisy garrulousness. I wouldn't say we are a close family, but we sort of rub along well with each other as long as we stick to the light hearted end of conversation. If anything else emerges it becomes quite obvious that I come from a completely different if not alien world to them  Jnanasalin was away on a solitary retreat this year so missed all of this.



This time we met at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. It's literally just up the road from the better known Chatsworth House. It's a uniquely preserved Medieval/Tudor house, complete with an intact Kitchen of the period, it was abandoned by its owners in the 18th century when they inherited Bolsover Castle, the Hall started being restored by them in the 20th century. It is quite an evocative and fabulous place to walk around.