Saturday, July 26, 2008

DIARY 68 - Observing Snail Trails

On occasions I cannot help but have a heightened awareness, an insightful prescience. I can pin point trends, distinct observable patterns in perception and actions, from the surface textures of memories - much as a snail cannot help but leave evidence of it's midnight travails - I leave a mental footprint behind me. I examine these trails, and interpret them in the light of my present viewpoint- and suddenly aspects of my past gestalt become all too frighteningly apparent. It isn't always pleasant, and there are times when I'd much prefer to be a blind and insensate cretin. Awareness is a double edged sword - cutting your flesh even as it moves to free you from bondage.

I've been dwelling on the subject of unsatisfactoriness for some time. The tone of my reflections has often been heavy hearted - its not always been comfortable. But, none the less, I've observed keenly how disaffection can rule my thoughts, actions, and the direction of my life. It's a feeling similar to having a rather cumbersome and fidgety dog come settle on your lap - all you want to do is just throw it off at the first opportunity. This is what I've done - thrown off the unwanted arrival by taking corrective action - a change in my career, lifestyle or place of residence. This could be flipped onto a more positive take, by saying I've been in search of a truly satisfying life, and that this urge did of itself bring me to Buddhism. This has helped me perceive the trails in painfully sharper focus. Padmavajra said to me he thought melancholia was the result of a heightened sensitivity to dukkha (dissatisfaction/suffering). I appear to have never left my melancholic reaction behind, it is still a dominant influence, even within my subsequent Buddhist lifestyle. Any spiritual movement, however old or new, is an imperfect phenomena, dependent upon the admirable qualities and flawed virtues of it's current practitioners. The Western Buddhist Order, and myself within it, are not exempted from this. So I can feel disappointed at times with the way it, and I, have turned out. What still no dhyana and no arahants !!!

This last week I've been at Padmaloka, in Surlingham, Norfolk, on the Summer Retreat, whose theme was The Three Trainings - in Ethics, Meditation & Wisdom, pretty basic, but fundamental Dharma Teachings. Before leaving I kept saying I didn't feel in the mood for a retreat, only to be re-assured that that was bound to change once I got there. Well, it didn't. A dense pall of dissatisfied fog surrounded me, and wouldn't shift. My meditation was flat, my engagement with study was OK, but not really sparky, and the evening Puja just felt like I was enduring a meaningless grind. Five days in, during the puja ,I felt myself as this being cut in half, spliced spiritually and mentally right down the middle. One half was mouthing the words in call and automatic response, hoping some vestige of sraddha would be stirred, whilst the other half was this scathing observer - disinterested and resentful, an actively disengaged nihilist. After several nights and days of perpetually sleeping in a bath of lethargy, I spent that evening tossing and turning in mental combat, a fight where neither side appeared to win. I rose the next day feeling simultaneously robbed of sleep and of meaning.

Fortunately I was at Padmaloka, and could call on the ample resources of spiritual friendship there. I spent a beneficial couple of hours talking with Padmavajra, going over what was going on. Sometimes, as he perceptively commented 'Vidyavajra just needs to talk', and this is so true. Everything seems less serious and intractable once I can express, converse and enter into a dialogue about it. It also requires an insightful good listener, and Padmavajra is that to a tee, but also a keen observer. I don't think he and I, have had many lengthy conversations before this - and when we have, they've been largely concerning Dogen - and not about me. The outcome has been entirely positive - that I do know the things I need to do to get myself back on track, the sense of purposelessness and lack of meaning I sometimes experience, does mislead me, and I can take it far too seriously. Sometimes the flaws I perceive in a jewel, distract my attention from its overall sharpness, polish and sparkle. My meditation may be lacking in vision and direction at present, but I'm very alive to other aspects, to the Dharma,to study, to spiritual friendship. to ethics, to simply wanting to help others with their lives, spiritual or otherwise. I felt appreciated and seen, by Padmavajra in a very helpful way. He also suggested that I could still be in a process of grieving over Richard's death, which has undoubtedly been a significant part of what has been clouding my vision recently.

So the rest of the week went extraordinarily well. If anything I had to look out for getting over intoxicated and swinging from over absorption in melancholy, to over excitedness about enjoyment. I had to keep reminding myself to calm down. I experienced how effective I can be in study groups these days, how good a Kalyana Mitra I can be too. All quite challenging to the prevailing self view. On the last day I had my most deeply absorbed meditation for quite a few years, so something had definitely moved on. Padmavajra suggested that I get more involved in teaching the Dharma, particularly about Dogen - through leading study groups, or through supporting GFR retreats. He also was very appreciative about my Dogen writing, saying some very encouraging and favourable things about my website. This makes me think I should make more effort to publicise it. Also, to explore this 'existential life koan' of dissatisfaction more directly through my writing. I feel a strong enthusiasm to follow through on all these suggestions. This appears a positive way forward , a means to emerge out of my recent trough, I just need to put my energies fully behind it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

DIARY 67 - Master and Commander

This week dragged its feet pretty much as the previous one, dreary disengagement and irritable restlessness being predominant. On Wednesday I met with Ratnagosha, and he suggested I took some time off sick. I wasn't sure about that, but it was obvious I needed to do some thing out of the norm. So I took a days break, went away to the coast, to get my head into a better space. Early on Friday morning I travelled up to Sheringham in Norfolk, to spend the the day there. I went armed with my new camera, a notebook and my copy of the Majima Nikaya, packed, along with a waterproof jacket, in a back pack. Well, I say spent the day, it was about five hours in total, lounging around on various parts of the beach, enjoying taking lots of photographs, whilst I spiritually stock taked. The majority of the morning was spent in travelling, taking about three hours to get from home to coast. On returning there was a heavy lightning storm which damaged rail points, so the journey back took over four hours, with a lot of waiting wearily for delayed trains and buses.

The day before, I'd had a long conversation with Saddharaja about what was up with me. As usual there was food for thought - I guess I knew this already; that things couldn't go on for much longer as they currently are. Either I changed my job, or my approach, or these bouts of depression were likely to get more frequent and deepen. At some point I could breakdown, I can sense, even now, how close to that edge I sometimes veer. The core problem is an overwhelming feeling, at an existential level, of profound dissatisfaction. It's usually prompted by a difficulty with external circumstances - this time it was the constantly testing nature of my work, and of course Richard's suicide. The resulting restlessness and frustration can become so unbearable I have, in the past, had to leave, or change my work in some fundamental way. On the train up to Sheringham I calculated I've changed my place, or style of employment, eleven times over the last twenty seven years. The situation has got significantly worse since I've entered middle age; changing workstyle seven times in the last eleven years - roughly every fifteen months. Here I am, ten months into my new job already feeling like I should be leaving it. Saddharaja suggested, rightly, that this strategy is getting less and less tenable as I progress further into my fifties. I know, all too well, that my options are increasingly being limited by my age and work experience. With most of the credible career options, I've missed the boat by at least a decade and a half, if I was going to pursue them. I've seriously muffed my timing. Over this, I find myself alternately wailing or railing. His constructive suggestion was to devise some way of accommodating or ameliorating the dissatisfied feelings, so they don't dominate my experience. Then, hopefully, I could stay engaged with work, in a sustained, managable way, and strike a happier balance with the rest of my lifestyle. I hadn't a clue how I might achieve this, at the time, but I do have a bit of more of a feeling for it now. I believe I need to cultivate more fun and constructive playfulness around it.

One thing I said in our conversation, that slightly surprised me, but nevertheless rang true, was that I'd lost faith in meditation as a means of transformation. On reflection this does make sense, and explains why regular meditation practice has been so difficult for me to maintain in recent years. It's obvious now, that my meditation has been plodding along on depleted batteries for far too long, lacking an inspirational re-charge. At present those batteries are as flat as can possible be. I came back from the Seven Point Mind Training Retreat in May, inspired by practice for the first time in ages, but the strain of Customer Services and Richard's death a month after I returned, soon knocked the stuffing out of that. I've not completely lost faith in everything, though it can feel like it some times. It's only weak in this particular area, the ethics and wisdom aspects of the Threefold Way I believe to be still robust and intact. But it is sobering to realise this state of affairs - which I now need to find some way to address.

The day in Sheringham appears to have largely done the trick. I had some very insightful reflections. I realised that this 'existential dissatisfaction' is a very real 'Life Koan' that cannot be resolved on its own level, by a conscious change of the way I feel, think or act. As a feeling, it's impervious to rational debate, with too strong an emotional volition behind it, which cannot be reasoned with. One way to transform it is by practices that tap into energy that goes beyond the rational - to the unconscious and the mythic - mantra chanting, visualisation, sadhana, and devotional practices - areas which I've had a slightly diffident relationship with in the past. Apart from this, its maintaining a healthy connection with nature, and with my creative interests. I've even been thinking of getting back into performing in some way. I need to make sure I get time away on my own, this is more important than I've previously realised. As for work, I'm going to revisit the Seven Point Mind Training - to practice working primarily for other peoples benefit, not from a self-preoccupied, self-regarding perspective. Remove that dart from my heart.

I came back from Sheringham with a small model boat in my bag, and the gestation of a new approach being carried with it. It has a nautical thread running through it, which I'm just beginning to tease out. Though my instincts tell me that this might very well transform my approach to work. It gives me an archetype, a way of envisaging my role in Customer Services as its Master and Commander, constructively supporting the crew, and effectively steer them through choppy, as well as dormant waters. Today I've had great fun researching nautical flags. realising how similar a ships steering wheel is to a Dharmachakra wheel, even the Ships Figurehead, Compass, Nets, Bell and Stores, all resonate in some imaginative way too. The ideas I'm having are all creatively reinvigorating, to be interested in Customer Services in an entirely fresh, and fun way. I might even physically change our set up to look more like a boat, with a mast etc. I've yet to test how the rest of my team colleagues respond to this. There might be just me willingly on board, the rest of them feeling press ganged - but hey! what the hell, let's give it a go. I've just bought a DVD of the Peter Weir film Master and Commander, ( starring that handsome deep throated hunk Russell Crowe ) as a sort of mythic touchstone for this new direction. I've also ordered some seafaring reading;a book about heroic sailing adventurers; a Patrick O'Brien novel, and a W.G. Sebald novel 'The Rings of Saturn' about his travels along the Suffolk coast. The restoration starts here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

CD Review No 14 - The Ting Tings - We Started Nothing

Like most debut albums 'We Started Nothing has a musical styling that is patchy. I think THE TING TINGS were plucked for stardom when they weren't quite ready for it, their ideas not yet fully formed. Still an album where half of it is brilliant, a quarter passable, and the rest a trifle feeble, but unoffensive. is acceptable in these barren days. They've certainly brightened up my Summer for me. The breadth of influences is impressive, and at their best they manage to weld these into that recognisable unique and punchy Ting Tings sound. As a drum and voice combo, rhythmically and vocally they are obviously strong, both aspects always propel each song along. Much is made of Katies's voice in the mix, its muti-tracked, layered and counterpointed. Yet that sulky stroppiness survives throughout.

GREAT DJ - A great opener,a tinny strummed guitar opens, the drums pummel in, then Katie & Jules voices sing together. 'Fed up with your indigestion. swallow worries one by one' urging us that we ' got to love the BPM.' Its simplicity is what makes it addictive, with its naive geeky chorus of 'Imagine all the girls - AAAAAAAA- And the Boys -AAAAAAAA - And the strings - EEEEEEEEE - And the Drums , the Drums the Drums' I've not heard lyrics so unaffectedly delightful since Talking Head's first album.

THAT'S NOT MY NAME - An almost perfectly structured pop production. Building from that simple opening drum beat, adding in hand claps and vocal rapping, till we get to the catchy chorus. They give this too us this twice then comes the crooned break of 'Are you calling me darling? - Are you calling me bird?' continuing in the background, as the drums and guitar come thundering back in, layer the main vocal chorus on top, plus some filtered words intoned by Jules - and you have pop magic. It doesn't let up,your interest never fades, because it's always giving you something new to be intoxicated by.

FRUIT MACHINE - Very retro sixties sounding track, with traces of the B52's in the vocals. Rolls along nicely,developing its ideas without quite reaching the heights of the last track.

TRAFFIC LIGHT - A rather slight track, which abruptly changes the style from the opening power pop, to indie whimsy. The lyrical idea is a bit of an overstretched and feeble metaphor. Possibly the albums weakest track.

SHUT UP AND LET ME GO - Ah, yes, at last we're back on track again with this sublime bit of indie funk pop, with that guitar riff so reminiscent of early Talking Heads.

KEEP YOUR HEAD - Yeh! Yeh! Yeh! give me that gutsy vocal delivery, with unmistakably strong echoes of the B52's, with the odd nod, via the electronic rumbling in the background, to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Spunky man!

BE THE ONE - Sounds very eighties, the vocal chorus reminds me strangely of Prefab Sprout.

WE WALK - Starts off with a rambling piano intro, which builds into a track with a strong walking beat. Love the way it finishes with that breathy Ah,Ah A U Ah vocal rhythm

IMPACILLA CARPISUNA - What this penultimate track is all about is any ones guess, sounds like its lyrics might have been found in a Japanese sushi bar. Art school or what? - still its entertainingly batty.

WE STARTED NOTHING - Eponymous and concluding track, which runs for twice as long as any of its predecessors -I would prefer it if they keep 'em short. It's structured around a basic guitar riff, which feels like it was stolen from Primal Scream, or someone of that ilk. Katie's vocals are high and strained to almost a falsetto. They introduce a soulful brass section too. This track just boogies along on one level, it takes you no where new or of particular interest. You just ride on it for a while, then get thrown off at the end. The live clip indicates that some of the tracks on this album ended up being overproduced, in the hope that more would be better. I bet they're all great played live though.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Sorrow itself,
is a creative act


DIARY 66 - In Memorium


Given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre at a celebration for his life on the 2/7/08

Earlier this year, all of us in the Customer Services Team did a Myers Briggs personality test. Most of us turned out to be introverts, who needed our own quiet space in order to think,reflect and re-energise. Richard, however, as if we didn't already know, turned out to be an extrovert, not just a little, but hugely, an 89% extrovert. More than anyone else I've ever met, he needed communication, verbal interaction and conversation in order to work out what he felt or thought about things. Asking Richard to be silent, or be on his own for too long, would be like a form of purgatory for him.

It was this quality of extroversion that made him so effective in the Customer Services team. Though not everything in Customer Services worked for him, he had an strong aversion to maths, calculators or detailed admin, or anything that required applied concentration, he'd soon tire of. But answering phone calls, sorting out problems with couriers or despatch,he had an endless capacity for. Given the choice he preferred face to face contact to simply phoning someone. Myers Briggs defines an extrovert as someone who gains energy through their verbal interactions, and this was Richard to a tee. The busier the phones got the more he loved it, and consequently the more energy he found. As soon as the phones went quiet he quickly got bored and would start seeking out distractions. Well, if I'm honest, he'd start distracting everyone else in the team, with silly faces, noises, a series of wide open questions, provocatively designed statements, witty banter, and his dreadful, but often cleverly conceived jokes. His humour in full flow could tip over into more raucous, bawdy and occasionally rude remarks. Richard never liked it when I told him to stop, or that he couldn't go somewhere, or was not to do something. These were the only time when I saw Richard become angry, though later he'd always quietly and humbly come and apologise. Even though he could be quite unmanageable, he somehow remained intrinsically loveable. Richard would never allow anyone to leave thinking badly of him. He didn't make enemies, just friends. Richards presence was invariable bright and life affirming, and was thus always a delight to meet.

Richard was honest, about who he was, and how he was - and yes, we knew he wasn't always happy. Though this wasn't always visible to the casual encounter, he hid it so well behind his light-heartedness and good humour. This wasn't put on for our benefit, it was partly just how he was, whether he was struggling, or not. When he did open up about his difficulties, it never felt heavy, or burdensome or as if he was dumping his stuff on you. He never played the victim, he took full responsibility for himself and his actions. He'd be frank and direct,and say things that others wouldn't dare to, in communication he was brave and fearless, you knew where you stood with him. Richard was a man of the present moment, so what he said one day, he truly believed, even if the next day he'd fervently express an opposite opinion. So sure of what he felt in the moment, his actions could be impulsive, and take unnecessary risks, Only afterwards, in hindsight, did he realise he should have thought it through more thoroughly. But then that was Richard.

Over his four years at Windhorse I saw him become a more confident, well rounded and integrated individual. Though the process could be protracted. When he started to explore what his sexual orientation was, his position would seem to change daily. It was a bit like him trying on hats. One day he thought he was heterosexual, the next homosexual, the next bisexual, all the while his dress sense became ever more pink. In retrospect it was clear where this was taking him. Though at the time, I don't know who was more confused Richard or his friends. Such times of personal discovery, can throw up whopping big challenges, and Richard found he could meet them face on, even if he was unsure how far he should go in resolving them. It was quite a stormy brew of difficulties Richard had to conjure with in this life. As the condition of his disability worsened, he knew the potency of his increased levels of medication could very well rob him of his independence, which he'd fought so hard to achieve. I don't think any of us quite realise how stubborn, determined and courageous Richard had to be, every morning ,of every day. And though I regret the loss of his friendship,and him not being here, I do understand why he might want to give up the struggle.

Though I only knew Richard for a brief time. I have no bad memories, My recollections are all kind hearted. Richard never became so wrapped up in his own suffering, that he became blind to the suffering of others. He cared a lot for his friends, being very generous with his time and energy. He was a really lovely man and I am still missing his presence greatly.

DIARY 65 - Grief - One of the burdens of life.

It's been an emotionally demanding week. Back at work was hard enough, I just didn't want to be there a lot of the time. That said, the team was probably at its most harmonious. Our shared sense of grief over Richard's suicide, is I think bonding us together. There are still plenty of issues still to be dealt with, and we'll get round to them once the time, and conditions are right. There are many underlying contrary indications, coming at me left and right. Between what people say, and what I experience them doing. Between being flexible and responsive to the moment, and wanting to control and pin down all uncertainty and areas lacking clarity. One team member believes the team is overworked, another thinks we've not enough to do. These issues all need addressing in some way. Despite my own feeling of being out of sympathy with being a Customer Services Manager, I find a sense of responsibility to my team to not leave them in disarray, to get the team on a more even keel, overrides my own desire to abandon ship. Though I question whether this desire to put the needs of others before my own before, is sensible. It's never been a beneficial strategy for me in the past, though its undoubtedly helped the situations I've been working in.

Generally this week the thought of Wednesday evening at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, celebrating the life of Richard Tebbit, has been on all my mind. Through all the events of Richard's death, funeral, and my week off, its felt like I was carrying this sad, heavy hearted burden. One that I wanted to set down, and be rid of, but couldn't until this last point was passed. I've been holding emotion in check, though it's seeped out unexpectedly at times. I had a meeting the day before, where I'd been reporting in about how things were in the team, where I was completely overcome by emotion, becoming tearful. The evening itself was quite a simple meditation and ritual, with readings, music and a period of Rejoicing in Merits. I was leading this latter part. In this period people stand up and extol the virtues of the deceased. Richard's immediate family attended and they seemed to find it memorable and fitting. My own rejoicings I'd spent the previous few evenings writing and refining. Going by the number of people who've expressed their appreciation of what I said, I appear to have judged it right. I'll publish a copy of it after this posting.

Some surprise has been expressed at how good a public speaker I am. Well, it all comes down to my training and theatrical performing background. I certainly needed to draw on it. I am an emotional person, and those pesky surges of grief catch me out. I knew I'd need to have my rejoicings written down, that I couldn't rely on me being able to hold it together. It's funny though, that I read it through many times, but never identified which bit I'd find emotionally tricky. On the evening it proved to be two parts where I was expressing my sense of losing a much loved friend. David said he'd have completely fallen apart at that point, but that's when the training kicks in, you contain, recover and go on.

Now that's over, where too next? Well, I say over, there's a bit more private grieving to be gone through. At the end of a meeting on Friday ,someone observed that the way we talked about the teams work and situation seemed sad. I responded that the underlying feeling in the team at present was of great sadness. At which point a surge of emotion filled me up, and moved me, from head to toe. Reminding me that, Yes, it's not quite over yet. There is a current of sadness in relation to Richard's untimely death, a sadness in relation to how difficult it's been in the Customer Services Team over the last ten months, mixed up with a personal sadness about my own past life, the ambitions that failed to succeed, a sadness about my continuing sadness, a sadness about no longer knowing what I need to do in order to be more content and happier with my life, a sadness about just carrying on - Oh, the list could go on and on. What's required is a radical turn around in the seat of my consciousness, but failing that distant spiritual hope, a decisive shift in my approach to this work, or a decisive shift away from it.

Meanwhile, I haven't the emotional space for creative pursuits, whether they be painting, meditation or Dharma writing. I'm out of sorts with them all. I'm internally angry that, in the face of death, they've failed me in some fundamental way. I'm adrift, shifting towards abandoning the sinking ship, to stop struggling to keep the leaky vessel afloat. Currently there is a sort of 'Why bother' response. Part of what makes Richard's suicide so unsettling, apart from the obvious shock and loss, is that his decision to take his life, chimes in with my own despair at the purposelessness of life, and my own subsumed desire to give up trying. I've certainly ceased wanting to make the best of it - trenchant apathy and nihilistic urges rule.

There will be a more cheerful posting from me eventually, I promise. Forgive me whilst I grieve.


If you do not get it from yourself,
Where will you go for it?
If you wish to know the road up the mountain,
You must ask the man who goes back and forth on it