Sunday, August 30, 2009

DIARY 111 - Sleepy Hollow

Don't understand particularly why, but this week I was tired. It wasn't that work was harder or more grueling, if anything it was a bit on the light side. I slept badly on Wednesday night, waking half cold and half sweating at 2am, and failed to get back to sleep after, as is my usual pattern. Now, I have these evenings, but normally I can easily work through it. By Thursday evening, however,I was mentally functioning on low wattage. This carried over into Friday morning, though I'd slept better overnight, and felt OK when I got up, as soon as my bum hit the meditation cushion it was obvious this was not going to be high quality concentration. It had all the qualities of watching paint dry, in that not much was happening very very slowly. After three quarters of an hour I'd only got to the second stage of the Mindfulness of Breathing. Time had flown by, but not in an exalted focused state of mind, but in a fog filled absence of clarity and awareness. Oh well, the day could only get better, I thought. Extreme tiredness causes me to partially close down communication. I can become very quiet and withdrawn, my interactions struggling under a weighty blanket of lethargy. Things perked up a little later on, perhaps the looming relief of the weekend helped lift my energy and spirits.

The weekend has been lovely, so far. Last night we had a delightful meal out at La Margarita, our favorite Italian restaurant in Cambridge. This was to celebrate missed birthdays, Jnanasalin's ordination, and starting new jobs all round. In the morning we took our usual walk into town to shop and have a coffee in the Cafe Nero in Heffer's bookshop,followed by a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum to view an exhibition called Endless Forms - Charles Darwin, Natural Sciences and the Visual Arts. I was quite excited by the idea of the exhibition which was to explore how the idea of Evolution affected the Arts. I found the exhibition a major disappointment. It took a very limited and somewhat academic perspective on its subject matter. But this is Cambridge after all, what do you expect? I would guess the curator is more a scientist than an artist. The overall impression it left was the effect of evolution on the Arts was mainly in subject matter, in a prevalence of paintings featuring apes,exotic birds and dramatic depictions of geological formations. There was a cursory ramble through the Pre-Raphealites and Impressionism without clearly stating what the influence was, and that's as far as it went. The exhibition ventured not out of the safety of its nineteenth century haven.

There is, to my mind, a larger range of possibilities to be explored, as the evolutionary idea filters through into the Twentieth century. Utopian movements like De Stael, Futurism and The Bauhaus, even late 20th Century Minimalism are shot through with raising humanity to new purer heights. Once we accepted the idea of evolution as being essentially true, we appeared to want to take hold of, and control our future destiny that went far beyond any Millennial or Post World War effect. Though it would be controversial, a look at fascistic and communist art movements in Germany,Italy and Russia in the Thirties, might have been revealing. Darwin's idea has its artistic and political down side too, if deliberately misinterpreted or taken incorrectly. There is also modern process orientated art,or digital interactive computer based work that evolves and learns from what it did previously, even the work of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy owes an aesthetic debt to Darwin. The exhibition seemed to barely scratch the surface of its chosen subject matter in so many ways, it seemed positively pedestrian.

Jnanasalin and I watched a fascinating programme of Channel 4 called Trantasia. It was all about a beauty pageant in the USA for those who are male to female Transgender. It was often funny in a touching way, whilst remaining, for me, essentially perplexing. It is really hard for anyone to grasp how difficult things are for them. As a gay man I can empathise with a sense of always being on the outside, but I can't really know how it feels to be a woman in a male body, or visa-versa. I've known a few transgender people, and this programme didn't particularly remind me of them. It was after all in the US, where there are, apparently, no holds barred. The difficulties and desires remain essentially the same - the ardent wish to be seen and to 'pass' as a women, and the extreme levels of surgery and finance they go to to transform there external appearance to more accurately represent their internal experience. What I found perplexing was that quite often their view of what constitutes the feminine is so resolutely a masculine viewpoint i.e. big tits, velvet soft skin,voluptuous lips, shrouded, if not concealed, beneath faces heavily plastered with cosmetics. This is the most archetypal of male perspectives of what is womanly. There were a few who achieved an ordinary degree of femininity, but the majority ended up as uber-femes, and looked for all the world like very bad drag queens. Now drag queens generally send up, not femininity necessarily, but the masculine view of it, its part a homage and part a camp parody of this. There wasn't even the merest hint of irony in these transgendered beauty queens, they either had very low self esteem or an extreme self belief - both of which seemed to have somewhat lost touch with reality.

There was a view that the pageant was going to help them become more acceptable to the outside world. However, at one photo shoot in the streets of Las Vegas, some of the contestants couldn't stop themselves from thrusting their hormonal crotches and silicon based bosoms in the faces of a bemused group of men, who looked collectively embarrassed and bemused. After all, no self respective woman would behave like this, unless she was a street hooker. It seemed to do the opposite of making them seem more acceptable, some of the contestants themselves were disgusted by this OTT, rather slutty behaviour. Overall there was a sort of feisty camaraderie, but also a confused grasping for something which was going to be everlastingly unobtainable, which left me feeling quite sad.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

FEATURE 29 - Musick Non Stop Electro Pop

There is currently a style revival of eighties electro-pop going on. The electronics being sparse, stripped bare of any pretense of being 'real' instruments that could be plucked, banged or twanged, this music is deliberately tinny and unaffectedly artificial. In the eighties this brought the vocalist to the fore providing human warmth, to contrast with the grey coolness of the musical backing. This was the era of richly toned, if not melodramatic, vocalists such as Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, Phil Oakey and Marc Almond. In this regard the current electro-pop revival falls short, in that the singers are distinctly not in that league, varying from singers whose vocal ability and range is polished - Little Boots - to dull and out of tune - La Roux. This can mean the vocal interplay with the electronics frequently falls on its heavily made up face.

Her debut album 'Hands' bursts into galloping, foot stomping, high energy life on tracks such as 'Remedy','New in Town' and 'Stuck on Repeat'. Sorry it doesn't fit my blog better, You Tube have altered their set formats.

Her abilities as a tune smith are undoubtedly well honed, though lyrically she veers far to often for my liking into a banality you hoped had died there last breath with the demise of Stock Aitken & Waterman. The album is strangled by the hands of its production values, making arrangements fussy and overladen with layers of detailing that get buried in the accumulated sediment. A quality of electro-pop established by its progenitors Kraftwerk is a sharp and crisp clarity to the overall sound. Hopefully in future she'll do more performances as minimal as this one on 'Later with..' This is a pure delight, the song 'Meddle' is the undoubted highlight of her album, a quirky beat, accompanied by a beautifully articulated melody and lyric, this is a stunner.

Vocally Little Boots in the mode of Kylie and Madonna, in that she's not particularly an outstanding vocalist, and can easily bland into the indistinguishable gaggle of 'noughties' female singers. Musical references and straight steals of electronic beats and riffs abound, so she's not breaking any new boundaries here either. The duet with Phil Oakey on 'Symmetry' is a nod towards someone for whom she owes more than a pound or two of her royalties too.

Poor La Roux, undoubtedly she leads the electro-pop eighties revival, complete with outrageous haircut and clothes. She also best captures the musical style, particularly on her hit 'Bulletproof'.

This is spot on, and here at least the production values are correct. If only her vocals were up to it, on her eponymous album these are frequently not just feeble but excruciatingly off key in the worst karaoke tradition. She should be severely restrained from ever singing in falsetto ever again as on 'I'm not your toy' or 'In for the kill'. In contrast to 'Little Boots' the tunes are often quite flimsy affairs. This can be forgiven, overlooked or even transcended if you have the lungs and larynx to brazen it out, but faced with La Roux's major Achilles heal, you're left with too many songs that rarely transcend the poverty of melody. The best of the bunch are the tracks Colourless Colour', 'Tigerlily' and 'Quicksand'. Here is a truly awful live performance of 'I'm not your toy' if your stomach can last more than a minute into this, then award yourself a gold medal.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sunday, August 09, 2009

PRACTICE 4 - Input & Output


Over the last few weeks I stopped listening to music. Well, to be honest, I had to stop listening to a specific piece of music - the debut album from Florence & the Machine, called - Lungs. Now it's a good album, but no more addictive than countless others I've owned. It is, however, new music, and I've never been able to resist the fresh sense of discovery as you become acquainted with an album, as the artists style and distinctive way with song structure emerges. In the past this was something of an addiction, constantly listening to a CD until I'd know every nook and cranny of it, then there was a brief pause before I sought another musical kick. I'm more discerning these days, and have some understanding of how this cycle of craving for musical innovation disguised a whole load of dukkha that I was completely unaware of until I became a Buddhist. Music still remains a great source of pleasure, one that I get a form of life enhancing delight from. With Florence & the Machine I did, however, hit a little difficulty.

Sometimes you can't get tunes out of ones head, that's almost a universal experience. They'll also crop up in unexpected venues, like in ones meditation. In meditation I've usually been able to gently train my attention to move away from it, to focus on the practice in hand. With Florence & the Machine, it just would not go away. I would be meditating, doing Mindfulness of Breathing, Metta Bhavana, even my Sadana, and tracks from the album would be playing in the background ALL THE TIME. They never stopped playing, no matter how much I focused on the practice, stayed relaxed and un-flustered by this background accompaniment, it persisted. I began to notice some aspects that were contributing to this; if I listened to it on headphones it was ten times worse; and the frequency I plied it. The longer the time I left it between playing the album the intensity of this Muzak effect began to fade, but would return with a vengeance the moment I gave it a spin again. So I've been experimenting with a few days music free, and then a week, ten days and the difficulty passed, from internal hearing.

Sangharakshita advised that in our noisy world filled with mindless chatter, we need to reduce input. Input these days comes from all directions and media. Its not just music we can be bombarded by. I've also recently decided to stop listening to Radio 4's Today programme. This daily breakfast dose of John Humphries, and the tone of cynicism and derision that pervades the programme, I found this was a far from ideal set up for the day, particularly so after a double sit of meditation with senses attuned to subtler nuances. As some one who can be easily prone to cynicism, I hardly need outside influences reinforcing this not very pleasant tendency. We feel obliged as world citizens to be well informed about so much, otherwise we aren't performing our duty as human beings. But as Quentin Crisp succinctly describes it - 'People see so much more going wrong with the world over which they have the same meagre control as before'. So however much we are better informed about the world, the large majority of news is just input, which we can do very little to resolve externally, so it hangs around like sediment in our psyches. The responsibility to our hearts and minds to hold all this clutter weighs heavily upon us. Information can cultivate concerns over which we have no real power to take effective action. To hear of other peoples suffering and be unable to ameliorate or heal it, is a painful experience, however potentially insightful it possibly may be.

Besides ceaseless input, there can be the equally seductive activity of ceaseless output. The desire to keep busy, to always make productive use of leisure, as well as work time. In this way I can find it difficult to just stop, to do nothing, and tune in with myself in a totally unstructured way. Its yet another aspect of restlessness and worry - what happens when I do nothing for as long as possible? - nothing untoward is usually what happens. Taking in all that input is one form of output, reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, watching TV etc. The rest consists of a wide range of activities, ranging from meditating, to domestic chores, spending time with friends and painting. Sometimes these things compete for space, and my life can feel overcrowded with the 'things I need, must, or want to, do'. The demands of modern life are not an externalised, but an internalised coercive force, bound up inextricably with our sense of who we are, or would like to be seen as.

Maintaining a simple life appears to be founded on keeping these activities in a reasonable perspective. To make good honest judgements; what is important,what is just an unreasonable expectation, or a wild imagining, what would be reasonable to do in the time available? Sometimes it remains a bit of a juggling act, even when I am clear what my priorities are. It depends what sort of output activity it is. By its very nature ironing is never going to be as deeply satisfying as reading the Dharma or meeting a good friend, but it still has its own intensifying level of necessity, that needs to be dealt with at some point. The lawn at Abbey House, is quite large, and during the summer it needs a regular weekly mowing. I watched this week as the rain fell, and the sun shone soon after, the grass rapidly shooting up. Cutting the lawn began to rise up my must do list, but time available to do it was limited. Yet did I really want to spend an hour and a half of a weekday, after a long days walking up and down a warehouse aisle, walking up and down a lawn? I could only put this off only for so long, before I would have to adjust my priorities.

If everything does come at you with guns blazing for attention, then perhaps you are asking too much of yourself. What we think of as important or not important is largely subjective. In the greater scheme of things whether we hoover carpets or paint pictures are equally meaningless or meaningful activities. We chose, and bring our subjective judgements to these activities, our likes and dislikes, and rapidly turn them into fixed objective needs. However mundane the task, sometimes there is a simple necessity to just keep on top of things, whilst not ignoring ones personal need for creative activities that sustain you. If we turn around our viewpoint,a mundane practical task can also be a good space for thinking or processing or planning the day.

To be alive, to be able to do anything at all, is a joy in itself. If our needs of life were to become simpler, could we be satisfied with any activity? What we want from our life and whether its easily attainable lies at the root of most suffering - because not getting what one wants is objectively painful. But as Sangharakshita observes, sometimes the deeper problem is when we do get what we want - because the dukkha of this is concealed beneath a healthy surface of vibrant pleasure. Sometimes, whether its output or input, we are just trying to block out that existential pain - what could be wrong with that?

FEATURE 28 - Sheringham Sunset

Thursday, August 06, 2009

DIARY 110 - The Man Returns

Well, the man has returned, beaming brighter and more relaxed than I've ever seen him. He's also come back having shaved his head and several pounds from his weight during his four months in the heat of Ghuyaloka. Both haircut and being thinner suit him. A group of us collected Jnanasalin with two others from Stansted Airport, where with resounding cheers, garlands and hugs we welcomed them back to this swine flu infested isle. Jnanasalin looked a little weary at the time, weighed down no doubt by his huge rucksack, and the suddenness of the vulgar blasts from samsara that is Stansted Airport. Ah! the mixed blessing that is Stansted Airport - oh lets not get started on that one again!!!

So over the last week and a bit there has been a slow, almost imperceptible re-adjustment for both of us. Jnanasalin, to the manifested world that is Cambridge, and me to his presence being around once again. Its all gone fine. Jnanasalin has been tired a lot of the time, samsara imperceptible drains you of energy you know! Today he's seemed more his usual perky self, so I think he's reached some sort of stasis with his return. He's come back with bundles of ideas, inspiration and projected future plans that will take a few years to fully unfold, as he settles into life in the Western Buddhist Order. Basking in the evident shadow of his four months practice has further rekindled my own desire to take my own level of practice further.

Last weekend we both went to the Combined Order Convention at Wymondham College. This was our first Order event together,which is something we'll need to get used to, and learn how to attend based on being two individuals, who are both Order Members, without adopting a public pretence we aren't a couple for the duration of a retreat etc. Eventually this will become second nature, but for the time being it still has a frisson of novelty and genuine delight to it. One's first Convention can however be a daunting event, it was also my first for what I can only say is too many years to mention. I think we mutually gave support to each other, so we held it all together. After an initial feeling of being totally overwhelmed by it all, I think we both managed to largely enjoy our few days there.

The Order I belong to is going through 'interesting times', of yet another period of self-doubt. This time its an uneasy, and occasionally fractious, debate over the 'unity and diversity' of our practices, and where the natural boundaries of them should be - if any. Sangharakshita, the founder of our Order, recently stepped in, in an attempt to bring some urgently needed clarity and gravitas. His intervention has not been without the additional complications of projection and subsequent reactivities inherent to him being the Order's 'father figure.' Even he cannot set things down it would seem. Restating what his original intentions for the Order were, does at least damp proof the foundations from further corruption. We cannot pretend we didn't know. The Convention was thus largely devoted to exploring a hot hot topic. Whilst I appreciated the need for the debate, this perpetual probing and re-examination of the minutia of the Order, seems overly self-absorbed to me. It became reminiscent of group therapy, but for the entire order. I have to try hard not to find this focus dispiriting. More broadly, in coming together in such large numbers one can also experience the Order en-mass, practicing together, sharing perceptions, and by more deeply unfolding the Dharma we could leave revived, our sraddha freshly inspired? Well, there was some of that this time too, but hedged round with a polite nervous harmony. As we have not yet found an effective way to calm unsettled seas, I think this one has some way to run yet.

This was my first week picking orders in the warehouse, and helping in the kitchen two mornings a week. My feet have gradually become accustomed to walking most of the day in heavy sweat inducing boots. My back has largely held up, though it was beginning to twinge by Friday afternoon. As my bodily stamina increases over the next few weeks, we'll see how this goes. My back exercise regime is proving essential in maintaining a healthy level of support. I know the troubled area hasn't gone away, but it's not nagging at my psyche all the time, as yet. So not a bad start, and I'm quite enjoying the pace and rhythm of the work. This week has also been one of the most humid of the summer, which itself can have an energy draining effect all its own. So I have felt weary, and I've found myself quiet and withdrawn a bit during the evening, which is my usual pattern when I'm tired. Again I expect this will change as I adjust to the physical demands of the work.