Saturday, September 17, 2011

FEATURE 92 - Wim Mertens - Whisper Me

In the 1980's I saw at the ICA, and later at the Albert Hall, a performance piece by Jan Fabre. It was very controversial, but groundbreaking at the time. As it was the first time a performance work began to become noticed as part of mainstream culture. The piece by Fabre was called The Power of Theatrical Madness. The final part consisted of a man standing upstage and a woman lying downstage. The man rushes downstage and picks the women up and places her upstage by him. She then gets up and trips lightly, dancing downstage back exactly to where she was before. This goes on for twenty minutes or more, the man getting ever more tired sometimes the woman slipping from his grasp because of his exhaustion.

This music - Whisper Me by Wim Mertens accompanied this strongly poignant expression of the unresolvable nature of human relations. How the two desires of male and female struggle to meet on equal terms, but fall into roles that keep them stuck using differing means to exert their independence and power. It had, and still does exert, a great influence on my imagination. As soon as I hear this music I see the show vividly in my minds eye.

DIARY 148 - Controlling things from beyond the grave

It's taken me years even to get to this point. Years of reluctance, over an apprehension that writing a Will might presage, or advance the date of my death. As most people die intestate, I assume this superstition is not uncommon as a reason for delay. It's not even a complicated Will to administer. I haven't huge amounts of money,property or investments, my executors will have a relatively straightforward task, disposing of my possessions and sorting out my meagre finances. There has been no substantial reason for my procrastination, other than procrastination itself.

I bought a 'Write Your Own Will' pack a couple of years ago, which then gathered dust on a shelf in a plastic square cut folder. On my solitary in May, I finally made the time to draft it. In the end it didn't take that long. The thing I pondered over most was not who would get what, that was actually the straightforward bit, but the content of my funeral service.

Whilst working in Cambridge Crematorium, I'd witnessed some highly impersonal services, rushed and perfunctory, often glaringly inappropriate. I know that the style of service, the choice of readings and music lies very much in the hands, if not the tastes, of your nearest and dearest e.g. an 88 year old Grandma's coffin can indeed enter the chapel to the raucous metal screech of Iron Maiden! I guess this has informed my intentions with regard to my own funeral service - to not leave nothing to chance and state exactly what I want.

Once I'd written out my Will, decided on music and readings, then I found myself feeling profoundly sad. Here was something, however much I might envisage it in my minds eye, plan or organise it to the minutest degree, I would never see or experience. I'd never hear what people said about me or the service. It was like I was devising this one last theatrical spectacular like some sort of parting gift, to evoke or say something about me, about who I thought I was, what I thought my life was about,expressing, or is it imposing my tastes, refinements or sensibilities on the world. This one concluding show is to sum it all up, and be performed without rehearsal. I can let go enough of it now, to accept that even these best laid plans may indeed very much go astray.

What people say about you at your funeral is out of your control. You hope they'll focus on the good bits, if there are good bits, and gloss over the darker stains on your carpet. Those eulogies are the final testament of the effect you've had on the people who'll survive you. Though even that effect will be brief, lasting only the lifetimes of your close friends, relatives and colleagues. Soon, who you were, what you were like, or what you did with your life, the sense of you as an individual will forever be fading towards complete forgetfulness. Nothing will survive of you for long. Your self possession, and your effect upon the world, becomes revealed as a collective collusion, if not delusion of grandeur.

What moved me most about planning my funeral service was my absence. It would be the one event concerning my life I would not be there to witness, one thing I was bound to miss. So, why was I so concerned about what happened after my death? Was I trying to ensure that in some way my life was not all in vain? For I have witnessed funeral services for people where no one turned up. Where no one alive cared enough to say goodbye, bar the funeral director, a vicar for hire, and if you were lucky a care home assistant who'd nursed you till your crumpled into death. Whilst it's ignoble and humbling, and what no one wants, it does happen. All we can hope is that we'll be too gaga to notice or care that much before we die. Through trying to control things beyond the grave, my ego is trying to fight off the idea that in the bigger picture my life was merely a blip and mattered for nought.

So, though I've written my Will out, in my neatest handwriting, I still have two things to do; confirm who my executors will be; and sign the dratted thing in front of two witnesses. That, I can see, might be worthy of some further procrastination, before I finally set the seal, and let go, of what I want to happen after I die.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

ARTICLE ~ I Let Go - No 1


Over the next few weeks, if not months I'll be posting short articles based on, or arising from, issues that the following verses raise. These verses so far as I know have their origins in Tibetan Buddhism, but I've no idea how old they are. In a way that's an entirely irrelevant consideration. The most important thing is how one responds to them, and whether they prove beneficial to furthering ones spiritual practice. So, here we goes


I let go,I turn aside,
I put downall agreeable or painful memories relating to what I have doneor would have wanted to do in the past relating to all the episodes of my past activity.

I let go,I turn aside,
I put downwhat I have been or would have wished to be in the past
I let goI turn asideI put down the impressions that I have felt,
I discharge and strip myself of them.

I let go,I turn aside
I put down all that preoccupies me now,
all that relates to my present activity 
and to that which would be able to touch me in the activity of other people;
my ambitions;my fears;everything that my interest carries me towards.

I let go,I turn aside, 
I put down all cares concerning the future,the projects of spiritual or material order;
desire for success;fear of failure;
whatever they may be;all certainties;all doubts;
as to what I will be or to what will happen to me tomorrow or in the distant future.

DIARY 147 - Death has its own cutting edge

In the Triratna Buddhist Community to which I belong, having a 'cutting edge' is a commonly used term. It's short hand for 'the cutting edge of your practice', and theoretically at least, one is always supposed to have one, know what it is, or at least know where you can locate it, if lost. It can be a way of keeping ones mind focused on what your practice actually is, instead of it remaining abstract, which can be another way of being vague about practical application.

Recently, Arthapriya raised an interesting query about having a 'cutting edge'. He wondered as a metaphor, whether it was appropriate for experienced middle aged practitioners to use. Having a 'cutting edge', has a more youthful, thrusting vitality to it. its certainly not how I feel or respond to my practice now. But if I still expect myself to have 'a cutting edge', I put unhelpful pressure on myself to find one, even if it in no way mirrors how I currently experience practice.

I've been trying to come up with an alternative term, and have so far failed to find one. I'm beginning to see what it is that has changed for me is my perception of the proximity of death. When I was younger death seemed almost in another world from mine. Other, older people than I died. It was as though I was looking through a telescope from the wrong end, and mortality's event horizon seemed a very long way off. When all your life seems still to be stretched out before you, the stream of your life can appear able to be self-directed, all your energy and purpose goes into rowing your own boat. The 'cutting edge' of one's practice there, is all about integration, and the forging your spiritual volition and vision on the anvil of the world.

At my age (fifty four), its not that I've become jaded or cynical about this youthful style of practice, but my perspective on it has changed. Physical and mental deterioration, is starting to impact on my ability to create anything new in the world. It's as though my telescope has turned around, and all I see is the same things over and over, as death looms ever larger in my vision. I'm finding fewer invigorating refreshing things. Practice now, seems more about consolidating or building on already established foundations, to find new levels and depths in them. The stream of my practice is less self-directed and more other-directed by circumstance, conditions and environment. My spiritual volition and vision is now being forged by the anvil of the world, not on it.

Whether youthful or mature, both viewpoints are false and exaggerated. The telescope miniaturises and pushes death further away than it may be, or magnifies it to bring it nearer than it may be. What telescopes and turns the perspective around is me. It's also me that is either apathetic or anxious about the perceived imperative for practice, before my death arrives. Such a heightened exaggerated perspective is a distorted one,and hence deluded.

Life or death happens right here, in this immediate moment. The illusion of time lengthening or shortening is just that, an illusion of perception. What there is to be striven for in my mature adulthood, in this moment, is equanimity, with myself, with what I have become and what I have done or not done with my life. Now you could see that as a 'cutting edge' if you want, but for me it is more a 'letting go' of some of my 'thought coverings'**

** a phrase from Edward Conze's translation of The Heart Sutra

Sunday, September 04, 2011

DIARY 146 - Reports of my death have been exaggerated

In ways that are not without impact or significance, what makes me tick can often remain a puzzling mystery, even to myself. After years practicing mindfulness and self-awareness, I understand some aspects of my psyche better. The major patterns, trends and habits in my physical and mental behaviour, I can be more prepared for them, to avert, divert or simply bare with them, as all these things do pass.

Sometimes though, I have a strong emotional response to a situation, whose cause appears to go beyond immediate circumstance alone. These, are more existential in colour and tone, and hence not easily fathomed by personal or historical analysis. Because they come cloaked in emotion I don't at first recognise them, as some unusual feeling is masking its more familiar face. Then, suddenly it does become apparent, I see it -'Ah, its you again' Staying with this, uses up huge amounts of energy, not to mention a dogged perseverance.

When these moments occur, it's as if I'm precariously perched on a fence, quite often in danger of falling off backwards into my past, into sentiment, into a sense for things lost, to be grieved over, toppling into a deep melancholic stream of regret for what might have, or never now will be. I can metaphorically give up the ghost, and want to abandon, clear away and divest myself of everything old and worn.

Or I can topple forwards, into the future, with its ever shortening horizon, with its reminder of how close the expiry date on my mortal coil is. I become anxious, in a panic, to get a grip, get things done, achieved before time or capability run out. I'm like a devil driving a cart with no wheels, propelled not by a galvanised faith, but by the horror of an importunate death, that needs to have a resolved and fulfilled life preceding it.

These are the two ways I tend to react to the impermanence of my body and mind, of the death of this thing known as me. They both disguise this issue, behind either apathy or anxiety. I flip between - there's really nothing I can do about this - to - there's something I must urgently do about this. In Buddhism there is said to be always a Middle Way in any circumstance, though it can be difficult to discern when ones viewpoint is so entangled in the conditioned world. If all roads have a left and a right lane, the middle way isn't along the central reservation. It's probably not on the road your on at all. It's not some half arsed compromise or improbable balancing act either, nor is it achieved by stitching together something torn to make it wearable. It has a more radical twist to it, presenting a simple more balanced viewpoint, that is not necessarily predicated on the immediate circumstances. It has to go beyond being apathetic or anxious. Trying to work out what that middle way might be for me, is what I'm pondering on at present. As yet no answer has been forthcoming, but I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 02, 2011

FEATURE 90 - Laura Marling/Mumford&Sons/DharoharProject

A brilliant fusion of folk music from across many oceans and mountains, based on Devils Spoke a Laura Marling song from her last album 'I speak because I can.' Energy by the bucketload