Tuesday, September 30, 2008

DIARY 76 - Nostalgia for a Sense of Belonging

I spent the weekend in Sheringham with my good friend Saddharaja. The weather wasn't exactly what the forecast indicated, but, hey! there is no God, so to whom should I complain? Saturday started out deeply embedded in a fog bank. Just as the sun had burnt it off sufficiently to create a fine morning, another front of fog swept unnervingly down the coast, which it took almost the entire afternoon to clear. Sunday was largely grey with piddling rain, not brave enough to be torrential, nor weak enough to be ignored.

We stayed over night in the local YHA. Now its forty years or more since I've crossed the threshold of a YHA, so my first flush of youth is a long time passed. But,the majority of punters seemed to range from twenty somethings to middle aged ramblers. So youth, thankfully, seemed no longer to be a prerequisite. The facilities are necessarily basic, and I guess the YHA do what they say they will do, and provide budget price accommodation. The breakfast was more than adequate, and made up for my lack of sleep during the previous night. Even though I had my ear plugs in, I could still hear a group of guys loudly singing Oasis songs, and when they got really desperate - sea-shantys. I don't know whether it was better ear plugs, or a deeper rhythm of sleep, but Saddharaja seemed to miss the entire late night carousing. All were gone to bed by midnight, but by then the deed was done and I was spark-plug awake. But don't you go thinking it was a dire weekend, because it was not. Unpredictable weather and lack of sleep, didn't stop it from being a grand couple of days, full of walks to favorite places and good conversation, plus exploratory rambles across history and memory over cups of tea, jacket potatoes and buns, in many a Sheringham cafe.

My friend Saddharaja on the beach at Sheringham, minutes before the fog rolled in.

Whilst I was lying there awake to every creaking door, and chattering windy, I fell to reflecting on a question that has long perplexed me - why did I withdraw myself so much from the institutions of the Buddhist Order to which I still belong, and what exactly is my relationship to it now? The WBO has changed beyond all recognition, yet somehow remains familiar. I have to acknowledge I never felt the imperative for that change, that others did. I never experienced the levels of deep unhappiness with the way the Order was. The liberalising changes when they came, I regretted, and resisted internally adapting to them. For a while I think I managed to hold it all together by building a bubble around myself - so I didn't have to listen. Hearing the recollections of pain was unbearable. It is interesting to recollect that I was also going through an obsession with the whole idea of monasticism. I believe I was looking for a new structure, some new rule to live by, to build my life around, having lost the old one. At the time I was interested in sharing responsibility for being a Men's Mitra Convener, who looks after the spiritual welfare of those new to the movement. The process of assessment I found protracted and required patience from me, and quite a bit of consultation with the local Order for their opinions. One piece of feedback I received, I found particularly hard to stomach. this proved to be a decisive turning point in my relation to the Order. At this point, I realised at the weekend, I didn't just give up on the whole idea of becoming a convener, but I also, to some extent, gave up on wanting to actively engage with the life of the Order. An increasingly rapid process of withdrawal took place over the next year to eighteen months.

I still experience a lingering feeling of betrayal by the old style Order (this was, after all, the Order I'd willingly signed up for) and of being abandoned in a new orthodoxy, to sink or swim, and I guess I just sank for a while. I'm certainly coming out the other end of this process now. But, as I said earlier, I'm perplexed about what my relationship to it actually is. I explored this situation with Saddharaja, as we walked and talked, I remembered an image from 'Nostalgia' a Tarkovsky film. The movie is about rootlessness, and nostalgia for a no longer existent past, a sense of belonging, and a homeland. The final image is of a man, his dog, and a farmhouse with smoke swirling from its chimney, placed in the middle of the spectacular ruins of an Italian monastery, as snow falls gently. It's an image ripe with a sense of a raw beauty and of tragedy surrounded by a chilly mist of melancholy.

For me this has a deep resonance, it somehow encapsulates an aspect of my current state. I'm sitting in those ruins, experiencing nostalgic feelings of loss,regret and longing, but not able to fully let them go, nor experience my present lifestyle completely, with all the joy I can muster. Part of my psyche is looking back over my shoulder to something which has long passed. Having seen this so clearly, perhaps I can now begin letting go of the lingering fog of nostalgia. Perhaps I could even envisage something emerging out of the ruins of monasticism. Perhaps it has already, but, blinded by nostalgia, I've yet to notice it. Perhaps, indeed.

Monday, September 22, 2008

DIARY 75 - Five Gold Stars

It's been a week of challenging situations. It was the first week in Customer Services after the NEC Trade Show, and I was overseeing the processing of New Customers. Though this was my first time doing this, it was all within my current skills range and competency. If there were areas where I wasn't exactly clear how things were meant to go, it was nothing a question to one of my more experienced colleagues couldn't clarify. So I seemed to keep my head above water on this one. To myself & my team - A First Gold Star !

There have been a couple of communication gaffs and explosions recently in my team, some partly my fault, some not. During this week I had to engage with sorting out the consequences of these. One was a face to face meeting that Saddharaja facilitated. The ensuing discussion was open, exploratory and revealing, for both of us it increased our levels of understanding of each other tendencies and needs. I was quite apprehensive and uptight for most of the weekend before, so it was good once the day came. I've been feeling pressed up against so many things in the months since Richard's suicide, that by the beginning of September I'd pretty much lost touch with the end of my usually long tether, and I have to acknowledge I'd had enough and was angry. I was able to avoid being heavy handed or confrontational in my communication, with one regrettable lapse of self-control, that I had to unreservedly apologise for and resolve this week. To myself & my team - A Second Gold Star !!

All this, plus the final preparation for my Dogen Study Day this last Sunday. The day went extraordinarily well, and I feel quite chuffed about how it turned out. We had a good attendence, with twelve people. I think I'd thought things through sufficiently, and was prepared for the unexpected. I didn't know until the day exactly how many people would turn up. The trouble with a Buddhist Sangha, is no one wants to commit themselves til the last minute, in case something better comes up! I'd only been told by seven folk they were going to come, and one of those dropped out on the day. There were at least four other people who I knew would have liked to come, but were on retreat or holiday. So I need to be prepared, when I hold another day in the future, for a similar number, if not more. The next likely time for another Dogen Study Day is around the anniversary of his birth on the 19th January. It may be I left the study group a bit too open, to men, women, mitras and Order Members. I need to consider if I should set things up a little differently next time, or at least make sure I have a Co-Study Leader so I can sub-divide the group, at least for some of the time. Managing twelve proved to be OK, but I did have the substantial Dharma knowledge of some experienced Order Members present, as back-up, that did help me with this. Smaller groups would have enabled those people who weren't comfortable in such a large group to contribute. That said most of the folk present were lively and engaged with the discussion, which is all I ask of any study group. I had to do some occasional light steering, or clarification, but it largely stayed focused and constructive of its own accord. To myself - A well earned - Third Gold Star !!!

David came along to the day, helped prepare a shared lunch, and generally supported me exceedingly well. He's also been away for all last week, busy visiting a handful of our Evolution shops in the Birmingham area. Before he left, my Norton subscription was about to run out, and we'd got a replacement security programme included with our Broadband. So he spent three fruitless hours trying to un-install Norton from my computer, which prevented the broadband connection from working whilst Norton remained like a smug cat in the background. In the end he had to restore everything to how it was before he'd started. So we decided to just let the Norton expire of its own course, and see what it left. Finally David had to resort to using a special programme that literally wrenches Norton out, because it embeds itself like a particularly pernicious virus everywhere it can in your computer. The new security programme runs a lot smoother, is less aggressively intrusive, doesn't start doing things in the background without telling me,and generally doesn't bugger up the effectiveness and speed of my computer. Go back to Norton - No, Never Ever Again !!!! To David goes - A Fourth Gold Star !!!!!!

In myself I feel better, in a more stable and content state, less internally fractious, frustrated or torn. I know I'm very easily swung about by my emotional mood, it is in some ways very like Norton's Security programme, extremely pernicious and hard to wrench myself free from. The state of my emotional stability, is like an ocean that's so dependent on the external weather conditions. This current lull may signify a more settled period is arriving, or perhaps it is just the calm before yet another storm rips through. Regardless which it is - To myself - A Fifth Gold Star !!!!


Saturday, September 20, 2008

FEATURE No 11 - David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was a writer I've never heard of until his suicide last week at the comparatively young age of 46. This weekend there was a feature article in the Guardian's Review section. It was edited down from a public talk he gave in the US. I was struck by his powers of observation, self-awareness and kind hearted perceptiveness about the contemporary state of the human condition. I'm now really interested to read more by him. It's easy with hindsight to read something prescient into this talk, but there is a bagkground mood permeating its erudition, of a great amount of personal soul searching.

Here's two paragraphs from the article.

"If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting
(that we think of ourselves as at the centre of the universe) - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But, if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of things. Not that that mystical stuffs necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T-True is that you get to decide how you're going to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's true. in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship ... is that pretty much everything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you....Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, been seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out."

from an article published in The Guardian 20/09/08


Only people
who are going beyond attainment of buddhahood
can use a broken key
to open a lock with no keyhole


FEATURE No 10 - The Gotan Project

Two rather fine videos to accompany two rather fine pieces of music from this rather fine combo.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

FEATURE No 9 - Jesus is my friend - oh no he isn't !!!

This is just so wrong, in so many ways, I can't even begin to make a list. You have to laugh at the naivety and sheer gall of these squeaky clean-living people from the land of the free. The line about Jesus being like 'a Mountie who always gets his man, and he'll zap you anyway he can 'really cracks me up. Take a look at the line up, how many closet gays are there in this band? But then it's also quite worrying, they obviously don't live on the same planet as everyone else, where could this level of repression and well ironed ignorance lead? Discuss.

FILM REVIEW - There will be blood

I missed seeing this film on the big screen, which may explain why I found its scale on my computer, somewhat overblown. Paul Thomas Anderson's previous films, gave him a reputation for bold cinematography, odd characters and general quirky profundity, little of which is in evidence here. It's a rather conventional 'big picture', with 'big ambitions', and a 'big star', that unfortunately packs a very small and over attenuated punch. The only thing which remains vividly in your face is the musical soundtrack, which though obviously innovative, is distracting and often extremely irritating as a result. It frequently double underlines the tenseness and sense of foreboding in a scene, in a very clumsy and heavy handed way. This operates in the way scraping your nails across a blackboard would do, it puts you on edge. But when scene after scene fails to deliver on that tension, you realise that this soundtrack is meant to compensate for something which is not present in the film -the sense of an evolving and involving drama.

As a movie it drags you across the grand sketch of its narrative landscape, like a sack of old potatoes i.e. uncomfortable. The pace at which it unfolded its storyline had a rather unremitting plod and dreary predictabilty to it- the corrupting influence of avaricious capitalism upon its victims and perpetrator. It kept evoking comparisons with 'Citizen Kane', which only revealed how badly Anderson's over ambitious artistic agenda fell short. We are repeatedly left lingering 'significantly' on panoramic scenescapes to no real meaning or purpose. There was, paradoxically, a lack of dramatic confidence at its heart - 'telegraphing' its important scenes to us a good while beforehand, sometimes visually, but mostly audibly as I said earlier. It kept having to remind us to pay attention.

A below par script can be lifted to an altogether different level by superlative ensemble or individual acting. Certainly if you took Day Lewis's performance out of 'There will be blood' the remaining performances are eminently forgettable. Everything else paled in the extensive shadow of such BIG acting. Yet leaving him in centre stage, demanded a lot from Day Lewis in holding it all together. Only an actor with such a proven track record, could hold down being the core of a movie in quite this way. The superlatives have certainly been gushing concerning Daniel Day Lewis's performance, for which he won an Oscar. I couldn't see much to justify the effusive nature of this praise, I remained largely in a couldn't care less mood about his central character. His acting is undoubtedly full blooded and imaginatively alive, but it didn't rivet me to his every mood and gesture, nor feel in any way gripped, appalled, inspired or in awe. The character does run far too close to being a re-hash of his part in The Gangs of New York - the same moustache with a different suit and hat, but minus the Irish/American accent and power crazed menace. The reasons why this character Daniel Plainview was behaving like this were opaque. I really could not say I understood him any better by the final credits.

The same fate befell the character of Eli, the evangelical preacher, which was a hopelessly underwritten part, and miscast to boot. The young and obviously inexperienced actor gives it his best shot, but for all his manic screeching voice and flailing, his acting looked desperate and ineffective most of the time. It required a subtler, more intelligent and less of a broad brush stroke approach than this. Who was this young man Eli, and why would his flock be so willing to follow someone so young and clearly feeble? Any interesting connections or parallels to be drawn between the manipulative practices of evangelical Christianity and devout capitalism were hardly explored. The final scenes in Plainview's mansion seemed to want to explain and resolve such unspoken questions, but only suceeded in creating further gaps in the already unfullfilled expectations of its plot. In short, this was a bit of a sprawling mess - there will be blood, but you'll not find it in the arteries of this film.

DIARY 74 - Steer a new course or abandon ship?

The Customer Services Team is small, with only the four of us even a small change can have a greater impact than one expects. So, I guess how I am doing must have a knock on effect on the others. This week one member of staff departed on holiday, and another returned from a month long retreat. With these coming and goings the cohesion of the team re-fractures, and everyone re-adjusts there position. It feels like a bone repeatedly being broken and re-set. For myself, I feel like I'm constantly in the position of covering for someone whose not here, for one reason or another. Actual managerial time to plan or prepare is largely absent, I decided when talking this through with Personnel that I cannot carry on like this. So, I've informed the team this week I'm taking a regular 1-2 hrs every morning away from my desk and the standard C/S responsibilities. Lets see how this goes.

Within myself it's turmoil as usual, nothing has essentially shifted, bar the general level of irritability increasing. I'd had enough by Friday afternoon, walking away from my desk in a very angry fume to calm down. I went upstairs, not quite knowing what I was looking for. I entered the shrine room, pulled out a few meditation cushions and stared disconsolately at the Buddha for about forty minutes. What I was expecting? - inspiration? - insight? - or maybe a calming resolution - or just a simple decision. Unfortunately nothing of the kind was forthcoming. All I experienced was the repeated mental churning over of the milk of human unkindness. I realised I wasn't capable at that moment to rise above this state. So I left work early and came home.

The cutting edge of this state has softened over the weekend. However, the primary dilemma remains, how do I move forward? Do I steer a new course or abandon ship? After the emotional battering of each week, I have to acknowledge that, for the sake of my own welfare, handing in my notice and abandoning ship is becoming the one option still left standing. This choice, were I to take it, would have an unsettling consequence both for me and for David, particularly in the run up to his ordination course. This, and how my leaving would affect the morale of the team I'd leave behind, and what meagre employment options I have, are giving me pause for further thought. But for how much longer?