Friday, November 28, 2008

DIARY 85 - The Silence of the Land.

Prompted by a recent article in the Saturday Guardian, I've started reading 'A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. I'm only a little way into it, but it is already proving to be a really fascinating read. When I'm reading a good book, whether fiction or non-fiction, I can find myself inhabiting its realm, allowing it to speak to me. I connect in a heart-felt way. I can find emotional and spiritual feelings are being persuaded to open up and be turned around by it. Once the book is read, then this apparent synchronicity of mood may pass, or abate. The two books by Abbot Christopher Jamison, resulted in a return of craving for an experience of a more monastic style of life. Sara Maitland's book has prompted a more gentle pondering, a quieter yearning for more silence. Aspirations, can often have a different orientation, standing divided, and resembling a double-headed mythical beast. A raucous and noisy outward engagement coming from one head, whilst a silent reflective inward contemplation comes from the other. Most of the time I'm somewhere in between like an umpire, with my attention first being drawn to one side, and then the other.

Maitland points out that the experience of silence becomes so muti-faceted and subtly graded, because absolute silence is not achievable. So what exactly do I mean when I say 'I want to experience more silence in my life'? It's easy in the rush towards certainty, to conclude that solitude and silence are like conjoined twins, so inseparable that the one cannot be alive without the presence of the other. But, neither silence nor solitude necessarily demand this. It's as possible to be as boisterous in the midst of solitude, as it is to experience 'a silent way of being' in the midst of chaos. The external and internal worlds don't have to be in states that mirror each other. Yet, whilst external circumstances don't need to be silent in order for 'a silent way of being' to arise, it is a great help if they are. To touch on a deeper experience of silence, we do seem to need isolation from the unquiet clattering and rolling mayhem that our societies daily functioning produces. Being physically on one's own, and not surrounded by the usual noise making ephemera of a radio, TV, computer or mobile phones, is a prerequisite for silence to be drawn into closer proximity. There needs to be some silence in the land, first.

For myself, the main impulse for seeking external silence, can be when the levels of internal cacophony rise beyond what is containable. So in saying 'I need to experience more silence in my life', though an external silence of the land, sea and sky is essential, its really only the vital precursor to the cultivation of inward silence, of the mind, heart and spirit. As regular readers of this blog will know, I can become affected by a disquiet spirit, and this can whip up the surface emotions into a perfect storm. Meditation does help, at best its a stiller, more silent sense of being me that is made manifest. This side of enlightenment it only temporarily calms the restless mind, the anxious heart and the uneasy spirit. I cannot always bring such quiescence to my work. Customer Services is, by its very nature, a disturbed, or disturbing, beast. The daily conversational menu consists largely of beings unhappy with how reality has turned out. As a consequence they're seeking some form of compensation or consolation from us. It's perennially interactive, discursive, and challenging and in a way that's not conducive to a silent mind, heart, or spirit.

My thoughts often wander off into speculative fantasy, about an ideal job or better vocation - somewhere else. Sometimes I'm simply so 'off with the fairies' in desperate need to be grounded, to be earthed, be forced to land. In the landing can come a 'silence of the mind.'

My emotions, like most peoples, are strongly affected by the external forces and gravitas of mind and body, plus the swirl of planetary influences, the external relationships with others that bring a level of existential insecurity into our being. I frequently need to becalm my emotional sea, before a 'silence of the heart' can emerge.

My spirit, if both my mind and heart are restless, can be set about by disquiet, a compulsion I cannot easily break free from. Over the years I've gradually become more adept in the practice of letting go, to cultivate the 'sky like' attitude. Instead of jousting with the storm clouds, I can allow the thunder and lightening to pass relatively unhindered. Well, at least, that's the idea of what I'd like to happen. Sometimes the hooks go in far too deeply. Yet, without the 'sky like' attitude informing my mind, my heart and my spirit, there can be no 'silencing of the disquieted spirit' - no place for silence to land and permanently take root.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Run while you have the light of life,
that the darkness of death
may not overtake you."

Taken from: The Rule of St Benedict

Saturday, November 22, 2008

DIARY 84 - Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a Latin term used in Roman Catholicism, particularly in the Rule of St Benedict. Within this monastic tradition it is conceived of as 'divine reading', it consists of reading a text, not to acquire knowledge, or to actively study it, but as a means of allowing the divine to speak to you through it, in this case the voice of God. Reading, in this way, comes much closer to being a form of prayer or meditative contemplation. It seems as though if a text is approached in this manner, the text acts as an opening, as a channel to a divine level of consciousness ,or at least brings it into closer awareness for the reader. Obviously, in the Christian tradition, this is dependent upon the idea of the Bible as being literally the mind and word of God, through these divine words he could therefore speak to us.

As a Buddhist, I would obviously need to ditch the idea of the divine God speaking to you. I do, however, find the idea of reading as a means of being in closer contact with Enlightened consciousness, intriguing. This brings, for me, a fresh way to read the Dharma. Through this form of contemplative reading it maybe possible to be brought into a more intimate relationship with the True Nature of Reality, or Buddha Nature. It could be that through the act of reading the Dharma there is triggered a reciprocal response - as you move towards Buddha Nature - Buddha Nature moves closer towards you, and at some point the touch is so profound that insight is achieved through it.

There is a need to be careful here that that 'it' doesn't become personified, and develops an anthropomorphised form - a danger inherent in the concept of 'Other' power in Pure Land Buddhism. But, I have had experiences when I'm reading one of the more impenetrable pieces written by Dogen, I can get a sense of something larger than me and my limited perspective urging itself to be communicated. In the midst of my fog bound mind, something that is almost tangible, but not comprehensible, is heard like a fog horn through a thick pea-souper. Perhaps the gap is only a paper thin, but extraordinarily significant, membrane between the world of my understanding, and the world of Dogen's. In the moment of reading could this become more than a sketchy apparition? As though I'm suddenly alerted by another person's breathing in the empty room above me.

In Buddhism we say there are three different ways, or levels, through which prajna - True Wisdom - can emerge. First, there's the shrutamayaprajna, which arises through simply hearing or listening to the Dharma. Second,there's the chintamayaprajna, that arises from reflecting on the Dharma. Third, there's the bhavanamayaprajna, that arises from meditating on the Dharma. Lectio Divina, would also appear to incorporate similar aspects, listening, reflecting and meditating being simultaneous experiences, each supporting the other for opening too, or potential for, insight. Abbot Christopher Jamison, describes his approach to Lectio Divina -

1 'As a gift to be received, not a problem to be dissected...avoid imposing your questions and let the text question you. Humility is the key to this wisdom... it also helps us to understand our hidden selves...Let the text come to you.'

2 'In order to receive what a text has to offer we must read slowly.. repetition is the soul of genuine lectio...we do not grasp the entire content immediately but in a circular manner. We read and advance, then we go back and read again. With each repetition, something new may strike us.'

3 Lectio is a way of prayer...allow the reading to evolve into meditation and then into prayer and finally contemplation... keep some phrase in mind and repeat it throughout the day so that prayerful reading becomes prayerful living. By this means, lectio becomes not so much a technique as a way of life: the text reframes daily life and daily life flows into the text.'

Friday, November 21, 2008

DIARY 83 - Everything begins with S

If I was to describe this week it would be dominated by words of a sibilant nature.

Not a lot of that around at the moment. Internal restlessness by day and a sleepless tumbling by night. Turning rancorous by Friday.

After my retreat, my shoulder discomfort abated enough for me to stop taking painkillers at night. But in recent weeks I've had to start taking them again. When I don't, I sleep my useful 5hrs, but its like I've been sleeping on a hard boiled egg all evening. I don't feel physically very relaxed.

Yes they've managed to not only keep us up past our bedtime once this week, waiting for the music to stop when they go out clubbing, but also to return at 3am with an inconsiderate fanfare of chatter and music.

Exactly how I achieve a semblance of satisfaction with my current work/life balance, is becoming an almost perpetual question. Work gives me little by way of satisfaction, mostly the opposite, so my own time has to be where I find some treasure. But this can be so fleeting, or I find it so filled with competing demands on my time, that I end up doing very little creative work that I find satisfaction in, or can be sustained. I'm finding this a deepening source of sadness and frustration.

Hmm, its at times like these I desire this so much. Everything can seem to have become so emotionally complex. I then have a strong urge to prune the expectations and demands I place on myself.

The students are only one thorn in the side of peace and quiet in our flat. We live right by the Newmarket Road, one of the main traffic artery into the centre of Cambridge. So congestion and traffic noise is pretty constant. Lacking internal silence I crave it externally - wishing for some reciprocity. I've also been wishing we'd been more pro active during the Summer and found a new and quieter place to live. Ah regrets! I have a few.

One of Sangharakshita's points for new and old members is that they should spend at a week or more on solitary every year. I've not been on one for over three years, and it is beginning to show. Much as I love living with David, in this flat we cannot help but be in each others pockets a lot. Finding personal secluded space is not easy to achieve. Going off for a day on my own, is occasionally possible. But that's not really like being on my own 24hrs a day, with only me and the clutter of my thoughts for company.

I've started reading a book by Abbot Christopher Jamison called 'Finding Sanctuary'. Taking the rule of St Benedict as his guide the Abbot perceptively draws out the salient points on how this could be applied to everyday life. So far its very good, accessible, not remotely preachy, in fact he's kind and possesses a great deal of human understanding. I'm finding the idea of lectio divina, thought provoking and intriguing, I may write more on this later. I've also bought another book by him called 'Finding Happiness' and 'A Book on Silence' by Sara Maitland. So I appear to be returning to my 'monastic' theme again, there's some life in it yet. I'm looking for a sense of direction from them I suspect. I've also revived my intention to go to stay in the Zen Mountain Monastery during Davids time away on the ordination course. I had yet another go at getting a response from them. This time I got one, and an encouraging one at that, so it may yet happen. Depends largely on whether I can get a month off from work in one go, which maybe the deciding factor.


Our oven has been infuriatingly out of action for three weeks or so. The electrician came once and declared there wasn't a problem. He must have just wanted to charge two call out fees or something. Last Sunday our sink got blocked, so we couldn't wash up or do any clothes washing. David's bike developed a slow puncture, which my repair didn't solve. All these were sorted out by the Monday evening, but it did seem at the time that reality was embarking on a cruel test of our patience and equanimity with things that go wrong. This leaves us with the outstanding issue of the shower head, which is usable, but the fixing that holds it upright has broken and we reported so long ago I've almost lost the will to carry on breathing. But I guess in this time of Polish plumber shortages, its not going to be considered a high priority......

I feel as though I'm a pan of water that's been left on simmer for too long.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

DIARY 82 - Returning to feast at the table

How am I ?- well at one level weary - at another fed up - at another hanging on in there -are you getting the picture? Keeping engaged with my work has been difficult, I've kept drifting off into bored day dreams. There has been an awful lot of deep sighing, internally and externally, going on. On Friday I awoke feeling drained of even the motivation to get up, I was in an extremely negative state of mind. It was no use talking about it, giving it the oxygen of publicity would only ratify it and thus makes it worse, not better. Meditating helped in restoring some balance, but it wasn't at all suitable for me to be on the phones, and talking much to customers that day. This all feels uncomfortably similar to how I was before I went to Padmaloka. It seems I was being a little presumptive in thinking I'd done with feasting at the table of dissatisfaction. There is a teaching in here somewhere, about the transitory nature of my moods, that I don't always remember. Though I have to acknowledge that when I do feel most at ease, comfortable with myself, feeling positive and capable of so much more, I am always some where else other than at work. As any week progresses, it's effects can be slow acting surreptitious poison.

I can see that I'm an OK Manager, obviously I could always do better, of course. Things have definitely improved in the team since last year or so, in some part due to me, I know that. But I'm finding I don't care for, or take much pride in it as an achievement. It feels a bit like accepting an award on behalf of someone else, who is unfortunately out of the country,so cannot be here to receive it in person. I guess this just shows that some part of me (probable my heart) isn't in it. But, is it really only a sense of duty and financial necessity that is keeping me here? Surely there are also aspects of it which are a spiritual practice - often feels as if its only ksanti ( forbearance) . This doesn't appear enough to prevent it becoming hollow and empty of meaning at times. I feel a bit like a house plant that, from time to time, doesn't get enough essential nutrients from the soil its in, nor enough sunshine for it to fully grow or blossom.

This weekend David and I started the prolonged ritual of Christmas shopping, and preparing for the festive season. I got most of my families presents sorted out today, so hurrah!!! I'm going to see my folks early in December, so I've had to get my act together much earlier than usual. The sooner we get everything else sorted the better. I don't enjoy shopping at the best of times, but particularly so when I'm surrounded by this hurried throng of anxious consumerism. But I suppose they are as concerned as I am to get all the preparations over with pronto. There feels something quite sad and poignant about it this year. What with all the bad economic news, some people who shouldn't do, are being plunged into more expense. So much expectation of us,to buy stuff, any old stuff. Christmas is a time when conspicuous consumption becomes compulsory. I should complain, Windhorse, and my job, are dependant on this time of year. Little wonder people outside of Windhorse, in the FWBO ,and even the wider world, must look askance at us and wonder how on earth a group of Buddhists ended up creating this ethical gift company. What a strange position, to find oneself in as a Buddhist. But then buying and selling gifts is just a means, and that is not the whole story of what Windhorse does by a long long chalk.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

DIARY 81 - The Oxygen of Publicity

I'm beginning to wish. so called economic experts in the media would just shut up talking about how they see the economy going in the next year. These doom sayer's, the seers of the modern world will be as inaccurate as the seers of old. The stock market is ruled by a level of superstition and accuracy of prediction similar to that of Astrology i.e not at all scientific and very imprecise. Economic advisers are the new astrologers, the agents, as well as the oracles, of doom. If we never heard them again I doubt we would be any worse off. Economic prophesy creates the thing it predicts, summons the very beast it fears into existence - makes it more likely to manifest. So if we shut them up, any recession could be much shorter as a result. The more they talk about it the worse it will get. Don't give them the oxygen of publicity to their pernicious chatter. Gag them right now!

Watched a DVD Thursday night - The Fountain - quite possibly one of the most over inflated, preposterous movies I've seen in many a year - so confident was it of its profundity and meaning - but in reality it was clumsily conceived and stunningly predictable. David assures me that 'Requiem for a Dream' by the same director - Darren Aronofsky - is excellent. So someone has got carried away with there own success and self-importance since then, haven't they! - to produce an out and out turkey. It proves its really dangerous to inhale the oxygen of your own publicity. I've not been so eager for a movie to reach its end, since David and I endured the interminable time and vacuity of 'Russian Ark'. If you've seen that film, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Talking of over inflated egos, its become apparent that a number of English comic double acts have also soaked up too much of there own publicity. They keep doing the same stuff with ever diminishing humour or relevance. The two acts I have in mind are Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh. - each has had their moments of brilliance. For both it is the dreaded third series syndrome. First series, good, a little rough and unpolished, but still shows great promise. The second series, very good, ideas and characters well rounded and fully developed - a riot of fun. Third series, same characters, not developed much further, a feeling of lifeless routines permeats each episode - so they reach for the gross out, or coast along on old jokes, repeated and over extended until they become really tiresome. You can always have too much of a good thing. A forth series, is therefore highly inadvisable - Little Britain USA - what a load of old shite!!!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

CD Review - Scott Walker - The Drift

Scott Walker, what galaxy is he destined for? What is he trying to communicate back to us from his rogue planet? What exactly does he do with himself between making these albums? 'The Drift' was released onto an unsuspecting world in 2006, a mere eleven years after 'Tilt', and its predecessor 'Climate of Hunter' was another eleven years before that. For the majority there is only the Scott Walker of his sixties hits. For others its the Scott Walker who turned his back on pop fame, and went all continental, and sang Jaque Brel songs, that was considered somewhat radical in its day. These days less so, though Marc Almond does appear to have entirely based his subsequent solo career on the Scott Walker model. Here Walker pits himself against a splintering fragmented musical backdrop. It has a similar effect to that created by David Sylvian on 'Blemish', of unbearable truthfulness and disconcerting honesty. As Walker grows older, he continues to go where no pretty voiced pop singer has gone before. Rather than sitting back on his reputation and completely retiring into the lifestyle of a reclusive icon - he seems to be becoming even more ambitious with increasing age - he is now at 65, officially a pensioner.

I first got caught up in the world of Scott Walker, with the mid-eighties album 'Climate of Hunter', a work issued at the height of pure electro pop. It was defiantly out of step, suffused as it was with great drifts of melancholy and a keening bartered soul. His distinctive vocal quality remained to act as emotional ballast,but its like listening to soft fudge being gradually melted. This is not sentimental or syrupy music. It was contrasted and set off against a languid background of strings and occasional dissonant tonalities from the saxophone of Evan Parker. Lyrically the songs are dominated by an intensity of feeling and expression, as opposed to an ease of comprehension. You can never be sure what the hell they are about, but they have deep deep emotional resonances. Most of them were just called Track, 3, 4, 5,6, or 7, as if he didn't want to give clues, you had to find your own connection or interpretation. They all had an unsettling atmosphere seeping out from under them, as if a bucket had a leak.

Then over a decade later came 'Tilt', the harshness and dissonance had grown stronger, song structures were slimmer, paired back and all but abandoned to expression. A bleaker, sparser cinematic sound pervades the entire album. It was as if in the intervening years Walker had gone deep into some personal 'heart of darkness' and was exhibiting what he'd discovered. So, now, eleven years after all that, we get 'The Drift'. It opens with impatient aggression. The track 'Cossacks Are' - has an insistent drum sound , a pounding irregular heartbeat, that dominates over Walker's voice, it teeters on the edge of despair, not always lush and comfortingly familiar. The words he utters are infused by some profound loss or tragic meltdown etched into sound- 'a moving aria for a vanishing style of mind' or 'A nocturne filled with glorious ideas' or It's hard to pick the worst moment'. Obviously Walker is not at ease with the state of contemporary life, and we are not left at ease when listening to it either. I have yet to sit through the album from start to finish. At some point the unsettling intensity of it overwhelms me, and I need to take a break. It is so doom laden it scratches at, and wrenches upon the emotions, similar to a destructive tornado sucking you up, spinning you round and spitting you out.

'Climate of Hunter' was as if a man were broken hearted by the end of a love affair, and a painful divorce. 'Tilt' was as if a man were wandering loveless through a desolate landscape, suffused with an air of lingering regret. 'The Drift' is as if that man is now lost in an urban nightmare, deranged, and on the edge of becoming completely unhinged, frightened by the horror surrounding him - of a diseased and corrupted humanity. This is not escapist, nor straightforwardly accessible music, its extremely challenging, with an almost operatic level of heightened emotion. Walker comes across as the eternal pessimist, grimly reaping. This is similar to the aesthetic impact of Ingmar Bergman in musical sound. It possess the same raw nerves portrayed and emotions exposed, the richness of tonality and textures, contrasted with an open vein of cathartic release. Though I do recommend this album, it is with some reservation, be warned its not remotely optimistic or positive about the future of humanity. It is partly a medieval morbid masterpiece, partly a grand thesis about mortality infecting everything we do like a disease, and partly a grotesque, apocalyptic zombie movie. 'The Drift' is not for those who are squeamish at the sight of fake blood being spilt.

DIARY 80 - Restless Unreason

I've had a number of weeks, where I've pretty much slept through the night with no breaks. This week unsatisfactory sleep, has made something of an unpleasant, and unwelcome return. Sunday night it was broken into by external circumstance, the students in the next flat, yet again, playing loud dance music, after 12.30 at night. I got up annoyed, banged on their door, and said 'come on guys', the volume subsequently dropped. Since then my nights have had an increasingly restless character, with much physical tumbling and sheet tugging with David ,accompanied by matching mental states. I don't know about you, but I don't find the middle of the night a time for constructive thinking, otherwise I'd be making more use of this unexpected bonus wouldn't I. Things do not get clearer, so I see my way ahead gloriously illuminated. Instead my mind searches for things it can obsessively churn over, be narked or get into a state of self-righteousness about. Trying to mentally shift to contemplating something with a more positive purpose or emphasis is difficult, as the slipperiness of negativity will gradually sour milk, and turn cider into vinegar.

Still, outside the hopelessness of these nocturnal musings, I don't understand why I am so restless and unsettled, as in myself I feel OK. What is going on in the terrain of my subconsciousness? I've thought, perhaps its the beneficial effects of my retreat wearing off, or some accumulation of tension after a fortnight back at work, or past associations with being awoken suddenly in the night - who knows. Not that work has been much of a strain, in fact it's been uncharacteristically quiet for the time of year. The current economic climate obviously is a concern. I may be being foolishly optimistic, but the thought of a recession seems not to be alarming me. There has been so much unhelpful, hyped up economic speculation and hysterical predictions going on - you'd think we were all doomed. If we are in recession, we'll know soon enough, how long, or how deep will become clear soon enough, if its the end of the dominance of western global capitalism, we'll know soon enough. If we must be concerned about anything then let it be climate change. Though we ordinary folk have about as much effective control over this as we do over the credit crunch - a moderate amount of - Zilch!

, like any other company, is planning for the worst, trying to be leaner and keener as a business, and doing everything it can to keep its turnover up. I don't for some reason feel worried about its survival. If it were to fold, that would be a shame, but its not the end of life as we know it. A business like everything else is an impermanent phenomena. I've experienced at least four recessions, including the deep one in the mid seventies, and been made redundant twice. So I know they're not pleasant. These will be difficult times for everyone, but the economy has grown out of proportion, you only have to look at the average house price to see that. Things need bringing back down to terra-firma. The Queen, for once, said something perspicacious this week, when on a visit to the London School of Economics, she said: 'If these things were so large, how come everyone missed them?' Indeed your Majesty- how come? I would say banks and governments became so focused on stimulating exponential growth at any cost, they abandoned sensible precautions and fiscal rectitude. Instead we were encouraged to believe it was possible to have everything we wanted, to live beyond our means without consequence. You want a house, a car, a swimming pool, a face lift - here, have the dosh now, though you and your offspring will be paying for it, for the rest of your lives. Unfortunately those same folk are now going to be bearing the brunt of the financial and social suffering that may result - no one will be bailing them out in quite the same way as failed banks or governments.

Towards the end of the week, after many fractured nights of sleep, I was beginning to feel mentally a bit pooped. Communication by me, with my team, on Friday, proved a tad fraught with sensitivity and reactivity. Though I did have a brief moment of insight - when I have enough emotionally on my plate, I find it hard to listen, or cope well hearing other peoples emotiveness. I start to feel weighed down and oppressed whilst I'm listening - internally there can be a restlessness, and sometimes a dismissive response can arise. Fortunately, I don't voice this response, but it can make my communication clumsier, as I try skilfully to work my way around this internal obstacle of frustration. I can become downhearted at the crude nature of some of my imperfections, and the ineptness of my communication skills. Oh well, more to practice, more work in progress.

Monday, November 03, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Big Mind-Big Heart by Dennis Genpo Merzel

Genpo Merzel's appeal as a teacher, is based on his ability to make connections between the sometimes obscure Zen source material and ordinary peoples lives. Sometimes this is a tricky line to walk, the main danger being to the health of Buddhism. You make something accessible, but it may be done at some cost to the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) - to dumb down, misrepresent, or introduce elements that are not in sympathy with it. The challenge for all Buddhist traditions working in the West is to maintain the clarity of the teachings they've inherited, whilst discovering ways to fit them into the culture they now find themselves in.

This is not a new dilemma, it occurs when Buddhism arrives in any new culture it encounters. It happened in China, Japan and now in the US and UK. Chan/Zen, has found itself at both a physical and philosophical distance from the original Buddhist source material, ever since Bodhidharma arrived from India. This explains why Chan/Zen repeatedly states its ancestral lineage back to the Buddha, just in case we might be inclined to doubt it. On one hand it appears defensive about this Dharma inheritance, on the other, it confidently asserts that its teachings are 'a special transmission outside the scriptures'. The core Zen texts are mostly later Mahayana concoctions, the only existent texts often being Chinese translations, or sutras that are specifically Chinese Chan in origin. Aspects of Zen teaching can, as a result, seem to tread an unconventional line, when placed against earlier Buddhist teachings. This generation of texts need referring back to the primary scriptures, in order to provide continuity and context. Otherwise you will not be able to discern whether a sutra's teaching has cultural or doctrinal authority. There is an element of 'Chinese whispers' here, where the message gets seriously distorted the further away from the source - the original Buddha's teachings - it gets. So, in the West there is both a requirement to experiment, but also to accurately present the Buddha's teachings as clearly as possible. Merzel's book doesn't quite succeed in doing both.

Having admired some of his previous books I approached this book, with expectant interest. I'd heard about the Big Mind -Big Heart process he's been championing, without quite ascertaining the details of it. Finally I could obtain a better sense of what this consisted of. The endorsement on the cover from Ken Wilber, should have been advance warning - he says that the Big Mind process can be used - 'in any spiritual path you wish, or even by itself, as a practice for realising your True Self''. This tells you all you need to know about where this book is coming from. Merzel wants this approach to be accessible to all, but in order to achieve this he has effectively to neuter the Buddhism that should underpin and explicitly give it vigor. He often blurs distinctions between religions, making relativistic generalisations and sweeping universalising of belief systems. The idea of what the True Self is, is a substantially different affair looked at it through Buddhist eyes, than it would be through a psychologists eyes, for instance. Quite what sense, if any, does the ideal of a True Self make within the theology of Christianity or Islam. What exactly would Enlightenment mean to Catholic theology? Also, The Ten Perfections of the Bodhisattva - are translated by Merzel into - The Ten Perfections of Excellence. This makes no real sense without also understanding The Bodhisattva Ideal, and that these perfections can only be fully practiced by an enlightened being - not an unenlightened one! Its important to know that these are difficult Ideals to put into practice, not an easy to follow, step by step, Self-Help Guide.

The publisher designates the book as Self-Help/Body Mind Spirit, and I would say that's the best place for it. Essentially the process Merzel has designed is a development of a psychological technique called Voice Dialogue. In this you speak as aspects of your psyche and come into a more intimate relationship with them. What Merzel has done is extend this voice dialogue to include spiritual aspects too. So practitioners speak as The Self, The No Self and The True Self, etc. This makes sense if you believe these things are present, buried within your current, but still conditioned unconscious - Enlightenment is already within you, you just need to unlock it from your experience. That a conditioned person could intimately experience the unconditioned, whilst remaining a conditioned person, I can't quite believe is possible. There might be vague glimmers, but no substantial insight. The view behind this seems to misrepresent the Buddha Nature doctrine of imminence, though this is not directly mentioned here at all.

The danger in the Big Mind process is that it appears to make Insight a simple matter of psychological role play, for this truth to arise into consciousness. As a Buddhist, admittedly from a different Western Tradition, with its own jargon, I found it difficult to understand exactly what level of spiritual experience was being evoked by this role-playing. There is such a jumble of specialised jargon's, disguised Buddhist references, psychological models, psycho/spiritual guff, Self-Help and Universal philosophies at play here. In short, some of the underlying premises of this book are extremely dodgy. Mostly its misleading about how an Insight experience could be achieved. If it was this easy, then surely the Buddha, or some enlightened person over the last few millenia, would have espoused it. I don't believe Merzel is such a person either.This book comes across as half baked Buddhism, garnished with a sprinkling of psychology for added cultural zest. It maybe that people will try this technique, experience something bigger than themselves, and this could be of some help to them. At the very least it could assist with the whole process of psycho/spiritual integration. There isn't much danger in actually using the technique, but there would be if you bought into the wooliness of the philosophy behind it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

FEATURE 15 - Studs Terkel on a Soapbox - Parts 1&2

Two You Tube videos from a programme made about Studs Terkel seven years ago.

Studs Terkel on Interviewing.

"I've changed the word 'interview' to 'conversation'. That's deliberate, because of the connotations. I'm talking about the connotations in my mind. You go for a job, you get interviewed: that means you get asked questions, and you give answers... Well, I don't want it to be like that. I want it to be like a conversation, and I want it to be entertaining and I want it to be enjoyable. To me, to the guy I'm talking with, and to all that audience of eavesdroppers out there who're hearing it. That's exactly the atmosphere I want to create, that they're eavesdropping. They're excluded from the conversation, but I don't want them to feel that, I want them to feel they could join in if they wanted to."

Studs Terkel from a book of interviews he had with that other great oral historian, Tony Parker.

DIARY 79 - A few things to say about......


Yes, he is a breath of fresh air, a beacon of hope, an opportunity for the US to reform itself and repair its sullied image in the world. I seriously hope he does get the mandate, and survives long enough to do some good. I am deeply aware,however, that I know little or nothing about the policies he is campaigning on. Much is the same for Mc Cain, the media reports have focused exclusively on personality and charisma, to the neglect of giving us a clear idea what they stand for, apart from crudely sketched partisan positions. The mood in the UK, at least, seems to be that any change whatsoever will be better than things staying as they are. If the Republicans get re-elected, whether by hook or by crooked means, social unrest could follow, the US's democratic reputation already in tatters will completely collapse, quickly to be followed by their economy, it would seem. If the Democrats get elected there could still be social unrest in some southern states, or a Presidential assassination. Not a comforting scenario to envisage, and I hope I'm not being unduly pessimistic. But this does highlight how much America stands at a very uncertain moment in its history, poised as it seems for radical change, and for once positive with hope in its heart, however briefly it may or may not turn out to be. Memories of President Kennedy are unnervingly coming to my mind here, and in the UK the wave of renewed optimism and desire for change that swept Blair into power in 97 - and look where all that ended up!


What a kerfuffle this week about two overpaid entertainers behaving like juveniles. The details about the answering machine messages left on Andrew Sachs phone, prove it was entirely an unedifying event, obscene, and not even redeemed by an ounce of wit. The fuss that has ensued seems out of proportion, but perhaps its not just about this particularly incident, but the whole comic culture. What comedians get away with these days on prime time television has changed so radically in the last ten years. If I might indulge in a Mary Whitehouse moment - there really have to be some boundaries as to what is considered appropriate for public broadcast. Its not really good enough to justify it by saying this is how folk speak in ordinary life. You shouldn't as a matter of course pander to the crueler aspects of human communication. TV & Radio is not ordinary life, its life writ large and visually enhanced, so it will have an impact on the society it reputedly serves. It acts not as a mirror, but as a magnifying glass, and as such it gives a distorted picture. To treat it as a reflection of reality is dangerously naive. It isn't just down to Ross and Brand to clean up their act, but a whole raft of TV entertainers who will merrily slander and publicly defame people simply on the basis of their passing celebrity. Humour does have a need to satirise and prick pomposity - but much of what passes for amusing comment is really giving someone whose fallen from grace or has revealed a humiliating flaw in their character, a good public kicking.

In the 80's comedians did develop a moral compass, jokes about someones disability, race, sexual orientation or gender were forsaken. These now seem to be deemed appropriate when it comes to any celebrity who falls on hard times - I've heard some truly awful remarks being made about Kerry Katona, Amy Winehouse and Heather McCartney - all women I'll have you note! The details of their personal responsibility for what has happened to them aside, no one should be lampooned for their inability to overcome their drug or alcohol addiction, or the fact that they have a false leg. This humour might be called 'edgy', and irreverence does have its place, but it needs to be skillful and have a moral purpose too, otherwise it will not hit its intended target. It just becomes vindictive, the humour of the school playground. Leaving lewd messages on a 78 year old's answering machine, is just disrespectful towards someone who was going to be a guest on your show. If they'd stopped for one minute to think ' would I like this if it were done to my grandparent' or to bring it closer to home' if this were done to me would I find it funny'? But I guess they got carried away, so intoxicated with their god like gift, they lost the plot completely.


When I heard on the radio that Studs Terkel had died at the age of 96, I let out an instinctive and impassioned cry of 'Oh No'. In that moment I recognised quite how personally I felt this loss, how much I'd come to love a respect the work of this pioneer civil rights, broadcaster and oral historian. Very much a man of the people, and of his time, Studs was left wing in America, when it was a very unpopular if not dangerous thing to be. He was briefly blacklisted during the Mc Carthy era. His interest in ordinary peoples experience steps out of every page of his books, and was no doubt present in his radio broadcasting too. If you haven't read any books by Studs Terkel, I highly recommend them. My personal favorites are' Hope Dies Last' about individuals who've never lost their idealism, or 'Will the Circle be unbroken' where he interviews people about their different views on death, or 'Working' where he talks to workers from all types of work and careers.

Studs Terkel, undoubtedly had his own political views, yet his approach to documenting his subject matter was impartial, showing every possible angle on a subject. He interviews people from all social, economic and political spectrum's, and allows them to speak. What is communicated is their basic humanity outside of stereotypes. Irrespective of your own views about the opinions they express, in the end you understand a little better their experience, and why they have come to that conclusion, however unpalatable it might be to you. In 'Working' he interviews people at all levels of the Ford Company, and what he reveals is how each level of the business always blames the level above them as the source of all their problems. In his books you really are forced to 'bare witness' to the breadth of human experience and step out of your limited, self preserving perspective.

His approach to making his books was laborious, often visiting an interviewee several times. He always took a tape recorder with him, though he barely understood the technicalities of how it worked, and was lost if it didn't. Until her death a few years ago, his wife listened to and transcribed these tape recorded interviews. Terkel would then further edit and polish them. What he produced was invariable a seamless personal monologue, with little sense of Terkel's actual presence or questions. Without resorting to racial or cultural caricature he allowed something of their manner of speaking to come off the page. This is a skill he sensitively developed to a high degree. It is his self-effacement that gives the books their impact,because of this the books are never about him as the author, or the book being an expression of his ego. His books are about lives the people in them. His approach to interviewing was to encourage the person he was interviewing to open up and more deeply reveal themselves. Jonathan Ross should take note!