Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Social justice: ur doin it rite

"Authentic compassion may forcefully challenge the system. Sometimes such compassion can take a powerful confrontational form, as occurred with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi. But this differs from anger, because instead of aiming to protect oneself or one’s own position against others, it aims to protect all others, by challenging all in different ways. It can challenge those who cling to a bad system to give others greater freedom. It can challenge those who have been abused to rediscover their great worth and power for good. Unlike self-righteous anger, which hates the “bad ones” on behalf of the “good ones,” confrontational compassion protects all by challenging all differently—those suffering injustices and those inflicting them. It upholds all in their fuller humanity and potential for greater freedom from fear, hatred, and suffering."

From an interview with John Makransky.  The whole interview is on the Tricycle website.  (Tricycle is a Buddhist magazine.)

Friday, 15 November 2013

I'm not the CEO – I’m just the feedback co-ordinator

I’ve sometimes likened mindfulness meditation to a CEO listening to feedback from frontline workers so that s/he is better able to run the company.  In that analogy, it is my conscious mind that is the CEO.  But the more I meditate (and remember what I have learned about neuroscience), the more I think that picture is inaccurate.

There is increasing evidence that our conscious minds are not our ultimate decision-maker, however much we like to flatter ourselves that we are in control.  According to research, by the time I formulate an intention to pick up a pen, the neural pathways required to carry out that action have already started firing.

So while I continue to believe that meditation is a way of getting feedback, it’s not so that my conscious mind can run things better.  It’s so my conscious mind has better information to pass onto the decision-making processes that lie beyond it.

This may well be wrong but it seems to make sense to me.   Anyone who has ever tried to meditate will know how little control our conscious minds have over our thoughts.  In fact, let’s face it: anyone whose brain has ceaselessly plagued them with “Wichita Lineman” for eight days in a row knows how little control we have over our thoughts.  But with close attention, we can teach ourselves that certain ways of thinking or acting cause suffering; once our being fully grasps the link between the behaviour and the suffering, it becomes easier to relinquish the behaviour.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Keeping the Five Precepts on retreat

Quite honestly, keeping most of the precepts was a piece of cake.

Sexual misconduct?  No problem: the people I was with were wonderful and no doubt if I weren't married I'd have been all over them like the rash that was all over me after the carrying-nettles-wearing-only-a-T-shirt incident, but somehow - somehow - I managed to control myself.

Don't take what is not offered?  This one was dead easy because everything in the Barn was offered to us.  However, I should like to point out that not only did I not take what was not offered, I shared food.  That's right, I put Brunch Bars and biscuits into the communal food supplies.  This had nothing to do with the fact that, deprived of coffee and e-cigarettes, I was munching through them like a woman on a mission to dissolve her teeth and pop her bra hooks.  OK, it totally was because of that, but still.  I shared.  I kept that precept good and proper.

Don't use mind-altering substances?  There were no such substances within a three-mile radius, so that wasn't much of a challenge.

False/harsh speech?  Admittedly, a couple of 'fucks' did escape my mouth, but they were delivered while empathising with a fellow retreatant about the hideousness of unrequited love, so I claim mitigating circumstances on that one.

The one that was really difficult?  Not taking life.  Man, I was a serial slaughterer on retreat!   Not being a gardener, I was unaware of the relentless killing it involves.  And this was an organic farm so it's not like I was using pesticide.  No, I was just merrily putting my spade through centipedes, then apologising profusely and hoping I hadn't deprived a family of its breadwinner.

I am not good at killing.  Never have been.  Seriously, I tear up if I tread on an ant.  The most traumatic incidents occurred while I was preparing freshly-picked salad for lunch. 

I found a tiny slug at the bottom of my colander.  Having successfully manoeuvred him* onto a leaf, I put him out of the window.  Alas!  He tumbled off his leaf, bounced on the windowsill and fell.  If I didn't outright kill him, I at least gave him a terrible headache.  Distraught, I returned to my colander, only to spot a money spider rummaging in the radicchio.  "Come here, foolish arachnid!" I cried, as I attempted to usher him onto a piece of lettuce.  Alas!  He ran into a water droplet and drowned.

In my defence, I did not intend to kill any of these beasties.  All the same, I inadvertently assassinated quite a lot of critters over the course of the week.

In conclusion, then, other than being a massive death machine, my behaviour on retreat was exemplary.

*Slugs are hermaphrodites, but referring to the slug as "it" feels disrespectful.  Why yes, I do have a tendency to anthropomorphise.  Does it show?

Monday, 4 November 2013

Retreat 4: How was it for you (baby)?

Quick version 

Wonderful.  There, you can go back to Facebook now.

Longer version

I was quite apprehensive beforehand.  I knew there would only be ten retreatants and figured that if I really got on someone's nerves (or they on mine), it could be a claustrophobic nightmare.  I was also aware that I know nothing about gardening and was concerned that I might find myself merrily 'weeding' prize orchids into a compost heap.  I made it clear on day one that any horticultural activities requiring knowledge or discernment should probably be delegated to someone else.  My message was heeded: I ended up pruning a hedge and cutting nettles.  (I can't believe no-one told me not to carry nettles wearing only a T-shirt.)

Anyway, I needn't have worried.  I'm told that most groups gel nicely, but one of the coordinators mentioned that our group had become especially close.  By the end, we were like family, and I don't mean in a you-really-know-how-to-push-my-buttons / I-never-asked-to-be-born kind of way.

I don't know about you, but I generally know when I've been running away from emotional baggage.  I was aware, going on retreat, that I had been avoiding feelings.  The fact that, having given up smoking in 2001, I had managed to become addicted to e-cigarettes, was a bit of a giveaway.  I decided to use the retreat to stop using e-cigarettes and to allow any underlying débris to surface, should it be so inclined.

It was so inclined.

Apparently it's fairly common for people to get emotional on retreat.  Your usual distractions have been removed and you're spending an awful lot of time meditating (a.k.a. spending quality time with your mind), so unaddressed issues can easily arise.  Although I had a vague feeling that my unease was connected to those parts of my personality I refer to as my "inner Gollum" and my "inner Sergeant Major", I wasn't sure what to expect. What came up was a lot of pain connected to feeling that I have to be a certain way to be worthy of love. 

Really?  Years of therapy etc and I still have that crap going on?  REALLY?  I know - I said this at the end of the Atheist Prayer Experiment as well, when my bulimia decided to put in an unwanted appearance.

I don't know if those feelings will ever disappear completely.  They're a lot weaker than they were and, whereas they used to embody a loud voice with which I identified, they are now a poisonous whisper buried in the core of me.  They may still be guiding a few characters from behind the scenes, but they're no longer in the director's chair.

At times during the retreat, the feelings engulfed me, but they passed and I carried on with my daily routine, enjoying the company of my fellow retreatants and the beauty of the Devon countryside.  What I have found is that, in meditation, instead of being sucked into the hurricane of difficult emotions, I can - with patient practice - learn to sit in the eye of the storm and observe them. Or, to use another analogy, I can hold them lovingly and let them express themselves, like a parent holding their distressed child.  I find that getting this sort of distance from pain is healing: I can observe it more objectively, watch it arise and pass away, see its component parts and know that it is not as solid as it seems. 

The retreat was a nurturing environment, where I felt safe being vulnerable.  The meditation has also given me more insight into the way my mind works, which is always useful intelligence to have.

I've stayed off the e-cigarettes since coming home.

NEXT TIME: How well did I keep the Five Precepts?  (Spoiler so that Mrs McGingersnap doesn't fret: I didn't engage in sexual misconduct.  Not even with myself.  Sorry - that was probably TMI for the rest of you.)

Friday, 1 November 2013

Retreat 3: Philosophy and house rules

This one's going to be dry and boring, so I'll keep it short.


Essentially Buddhist.  Most meditation sessions were mindfulness-based, though there were two guided metta meditations and some teaching on concentration practices.  The visiting teachers discussed issues from a Buddhist perspective.

With that said, the Barn's library contained psychology texts and books from other contemplative traditions, as well as Dhamma teachings.  Plus, the guy who runs the place doesn't define himself as Buddhist.  I think I was the only retreatant who in any way identified as Buddhist, but I didn't sense that the others felt put off or alienated by the focus on this guy:

"Today I shall go for the cottage loaf hairstyle"

House rules

If you know anything about Buddhism, you'll know that there are a lot of lists in it, one of which is The Five Precepts.  We were asked to keep these while on retreat.  Here's the vow from the Barn's website:

"I undertake the training to refrain from..."
  • harming any living being
  • taking what is not offered
  • sexual and sensual misconduct
  • false speech (including idle gossip, harsh and divisive speech)
  • taking substances which disturb the balance of the mind (and may lead me into committing any of the above)."

How well did I do?  I'll tell you how well in a later post!

In practical terms, this meant a vegetarian diet, no alcohol and no coffee.  There was tea, though, and you were allowed to sneak a crafty fag behind the woodshed.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Retreat part 2: Timetable

There were three 40-minute meditation sessions a day, with the first one at 6.50am.  (Yes, you read that right.)  The second one was just before lunch and the last one in the early evening.   Most of the meditation was of the sitting down variety, but we got a few chances to do walking meditation.  I really enjoyed this, not least because the likelihood of dropping off mid-session was vastly reduced.  My only difficulty was that, because I was moving super-slowly while staring at the ground, I was frequently assailed by the thought that I must look like a stoned zombie, and then I wanted to giggle.  I know, I know: everything that arises in meditation can be used as an object of mindfulness.  All the same, trying not to laugh when you know you're really not supposed to...

The girl second from the left looks like she wants to laugh and she's wearing robes.
This gives me hope.

On the last morning, we took chairs outside and meditated while the sun rose over the valley beneath us.  *sigh*  Good times.

Between morning meditation and breakfast at 8am, retreatants carried out their allotted tasks.  My task - which I shared with another lady - was taking care of the cats and chickens.  For me, this was fantastic.  I loves me an animal.  In fact, I loves me an animal so much I don't even eat them, which was helpful when it came to the Barn's diet* .  I may have enjoyed the retreat much less had I been put, say, on laundry duty.  For years, I was convinced that as soon as I got a mortgage I would (by virtue of the immense wisdom that I would undoubtedly have acquired by that point) be able to fold fitted sheets.  Alas, here I am at 42, still struggling with pillowcases. Chucking around kibbles and chicken-feed?  That I can manage.

Silence was kept from 9pm each night until 9am the following morning.  The exception was Wednesday, when silence extended from 9pm on Tuesday night until 9am on Thursday.  I found that tough, but was told that most Buddhist retreats are completely silent and that if you so much as fart, they hit you with a stick.  (OK, I made that last bit up.)  This made me glad I had come to the Barn for my first retreat.

Now, those of you who are sharp of mind (or who have drawn a timeline) will have noticed that we had to carry out our morning tasks in silence.  I confess that I found this frustrating.  Although it is possible to convey "you fill the water dispensers while I clean the shit out" using only hand gestures, in my view this is akin to wanting to reach a spot three paces away but deciding to get there by climbing the nearest tree, getting winched into a helicopter and then parachuting down to your desired destination.  It is inefficient.  I'll admit it: I occasionally cheated.

Most days there was a meeting at 9am, to discuss practical matters or to share how we were getting along.  This was followed by working in the Barn's organic garden or, if you were on lunch duty, preparing food. 

Lunch was at 1pm, just after the second meditation of the day.  Afternoons were free.  Well, they were free in the way that school study periods were "free" - you were supposed to be doing personal practice.  My personal practice involved a lot of napping, reading and walking in the countryside; I think my fellow retreatants did similar things.  However, the retreat coordinators seemed fine with this and at no point was I hauled into an office, told I'd never amount to anything or given detention.  So it wasn't that much like school. 

There were several talks by visiting speakers during the week.  These generally took place at 5pm and were followed by dinner at 6pm.  Dinner was supposedly a DIY affair, but our group tended to eat together before going on to the evening meditation.  Evenings ended with drinks and socialising until silent time began at 9.

*I'll deal with the Barn's philosophy and rules in the next post.

Oh go on then I'll write about the retreat. Part 1

A few people have asked me for details, so I agreed to blog about it.  Look at me, caving into peer pressure.  I'll try to give you enough information to let you decide if it's something you fancy doing yourself.  I'll also do it in a series of posts, to avoid you getting teal deer syndrome.

Off we go then.

Location gorgeous.  It's a converted barn sitting high on a hill (like a lonely goatherd), overlooking the river Dart.  Here's a view from just behind the main building:

Pretty nice, huh?  I nicked this photo from the retreat centre's website, which is here.  So if you are tempted to indulge in a spot of retreating after you've read my accounts, surf over and take a gander.

The nearest town is Totnes.  For those of you who don't know, Totnes is where crystals go to retire and the plug sockets emit not electricity but reiki.   The townspeople even successfully managed to prevent Costa Coffee from opening a branch there, so they are Powerful People Indeed.  (That said, I can tell you from personal experience that it's quite hard to track down a fluoride-containing toothpaste in the local shops, so I'm not sure how powerful their teeth are.)

If you're turned off by that kind of thing, don't worry: the retreat centre is a good ten-minute drive out of town.  If, on the other hand, you love that sort of thing, you can bookend your non-materialistic retreat with some serious consumerism.

I went into Totnes with a friend at the end of the retreat and managed to emerge with nothing more than a pumpkin seed-coated sourdough spelt.  Go me!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

My Exorcism

I've called this "My Exorcism", but the truth is that it was just one of my many exorcisms.  I grew up within a branch of Christianity that views demonic infestation as a potential cause of anything from homicidal tendencies to mild lumbago, so exorcisms were fairly common.

In this instance, however, the demon to be removed was of a most serious and sinister nature - homosexuality.

I had returned home from university the previous Christmas and confessed to my mother that I was ... well, I said bisexual.  Anyway, we were all very upset by my non-straightness (including me), so it was decided that I should be exorcised, and that the exorcism should be led by my parents' friend from church, Lynn Harper*.  Lynn had known me for several years, had prayed with me before and was very fond of me.  Also, she would completely understand what I was going through, because she was an ex-lesbian.

Now I have to say, I was not wholly convinced of the ex-ness of her lesbianism.  She was quite masculine and, at the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, I had seen her shoes.  To me, they did not scream "footwear of a heterosexual woman".  Also, I mentioned that she was fond of me?  Yeah.

Nevertheless, she and her team of demon-busters were nice people and Lynn had a superb selection of biscuits, so I was up for it.

As it turned out, the exorcism was short and uneventful.  A few shouts of "Get out, in the name of Jesus!", a bit of a sniffle from me and it was time to put the kettle on.  Other exorcisms had involved crying, screaming, fist-banging and a hell of a lot of mucus.  I have my theories as to why I used to cry so much and none of them have anything to do with demons.  Still, this one was unexpectedly devoid of drama and over very quickly.  Indeed, if they'd been in the mood, the team would have had enough time left over after my exorcism to take a pop at the evil spirits that kept making Lynn's dado rail fall down.

For about a fortnight afterwards, I shunned my biker jacket and jeans in favour of floral skirts, thus proving that while the foul demon of homosexuality may temporarily have been dislodged, the foul demon of poor dress sense was still firmly in place.  And in the long run?  Well, back then I defined myself as bisexual, whereas now I'm a full-on gay.  So perhaps there was a genuine exorcism that day; they just chucked out the wrong thing.

*Name changed to protect the misguided but essentially well-meaning.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

"Intimate surroundings"

This is how today's Independent referred to the Shepherd's Bush Empire.  To be fair, it was in the context of comparing tonight's Manic Street Preachers show (at the Empire) with its sell-out gig at the O2 arena a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless - huh.

When I was gigging, my audience frequently consisted of a man, his dog and a biscuit.  Sometimes the dog got hungry and I lost a third of my audience.

Now that is intimate.

"At risk" audience member.  May no longer be in biscuit form.

Being part of a group

Groups have their own immune system: they sense and attack the unbeliever.  Or, to put it another way, they defend themselves against the alien threat.  To become part of a group, you must first allow yourself to be at least partially digested.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


You can travel long distances on hatred, but it is a corrosive fuel.  By the time you reach your destination, it has dissolved your humanity.

Monday, 23 September 2013


I have a friend called Liz.  She looks like butter wouldn't melt but is in fact a raging pervert.  (She would accept the label with pride.)  So there we were, this one day, walking down Tower Bridge Road towards Bricklayers Arms.  On that road, there is a charity shop run by a church of the "taking the Bible very literally indeed and no messing around" variety.  So imagine our surprise when there, in the window, was a pair of knee-length shiny PVC boots with a platform sole and ooh, at least a four-inch heel.  They were - let's say it openly - dominatrix boots.  And they were only £4.

Similar to this, only without a stranger's leg inserted

Needless to say, my kinky friend was practically salivating.  But!  Was it safe to go in and try them on?  Was this a honeytrap?  Would anyone asking about the boots be identified as a terrible sinner, whisked into a back room and exorcised?

You go in.  No you.  No you, no you, no you.

We ventured into the shop together and looked around.  Not a soul to be seen.  We tiptoed over to the window display.

Liz picked up the boots, slipped off her shoes and tried one on.  It was too small.  Her disappointment was palpable.  

"Why don't you try them on?" she suggested.

So I did try one on.  It was not too small but it was too late.  We had been spotted: a tall chap wearing an outsize gold cross was making his way over to us.  Recognising that I was in no position to walk unaided (let alone run), Liz gallantly sat by me, ready to defend me if necessary.  The man's face was stern as he stood over us.

"Would you like me to help lace you in?"

Well that was unexpected.

"Err, thanks, but I think I can manage."

"Well give me a shout if you need anything."

"Will do.  Cheers."

And with that, he walked away.

Reader, I bought them.

I still can't walk in them.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The ups and downs of fundamentalism

I don't know when I wrote this.  Probably in 2009 or early 2010.  It inevitably paints a simplistic picture, but captures some of the feelings I had when I was a Christian fundamentalist - the sense it gave me of having a defined place in the cosmos, but at the same time, of being under relentless scrutiny. From other notes I made around this time, it's safe to say I was going through a fairly anti-religious phase!


It must be terribly reassuring to be a religious fundamentalist.  However dreary your daily life, however demeaning your job, you can boost your self-importance with the thought that you are a valued warrior in a transcendental battle between good and evil.

Your boss overlook you?  The girls don't like you?  So what?  The Creator of the universe Himself has selected you personally for some spiritual task that no-one else can do.

Yes, it must be comforting.  But also - what a burden!  Every encounter a potential holy battle.  Were you supposed to offer that woman a word from the Lord, that woman at the bus stop reading Dan Brown?  Have you, by failing to address her, set off (or failed to set off) a chain of world-altering events?  Or can you comfort yourself with the thought that, since God's will must always be done, it cannot have been His will that you disturb her?   Perhaps.  Perhaps all is well.  He has chosen you.  But never, never forget - He is always watching!

Forget the feeling of importance.  I'd rather be able to clear my drains without worrying that I ought instead to be clearing a path for the Almighty.  Imagining that ever-wakeful celestial gaze would paralyse me.

Friday, 20 September 2013

A haiku

Social niceties
Prevent me from relieving
My itchy vulva.


Yesterday, I dug out some old notebooks and started reading them.  I found a few bits that I liked, so I thought I'd share them here. I'll be drip-feeding pieces into the blog over the coming days (and weeks, depending on how much I find).

They're short, undeveloped thoughts, many of them serious.  I plan working some of them up into longer pieces, but right now they're just fragments. 

I hope you enjoy them.

Saturday, 31 August 2013


Today, a couple of self-described born-again Christians came to my door.  As I rounded the corner from the living room to the hallway, I suspected the visitors would be evangelists, as I didn't recognise them through the frosted glass.  I am a natural coward, so why didn't I back round the corner and hide behind the sofa?  I'll tell you why - because I'm also proud.  If I'd backed into the living room when I was pretty sure they'd already spotted me, they would have known I am a coward.  And I couldn't have that.

I'll be honest.  I was hoping they were JWs or Mormons.  I believe that members of those groups are required, on pain of excommunication (OK, I exaggerate), to do the door-to-door thing.  As a result, they tend to be reasonably easy to send away.  With JW's, I'll usually say something like "I'm a Buddhist and am very unlikely to read The Watchtower, but please feel free to leave a copy with me." 

What?  Perusing their psychedelically-coloured illustrations of lions and koalas playing table tennis is the closest I get to dropping acid these days.  Anyway, the JWs usually seem content to move on to the next house once they're a Watchtower lighter, and we part amicably.  Happy days.

These two were different.  I can't recall every step of the conversation, but it went something like this, only longer.  This is definitely a truncated version.  It felt like about three hours.

Me: Hello.

Chap: Hello.  Can we come in and pray with you for two minutes?

Whoa!  Straight to the point!

Me: Erm, I don't really feel comfortable with that.  I'm happy to take a leaflet, though I probably won't read it.  Anyway, it's a lovely day for you to be out.  So bless you.

I am hoping they'll take this as their cue to leave.

Chap: You said "Bless you": are you a born-again Christian?

Me: No, but many of my blood relatives are.

Lady: Awww, why aren't you?

Me: I just don't believe.

I decide not to mention my Buddhism, for fear this will open up another line of conversation.

Chap: I'm a soldier by profession.

Me: Thank you for your service.

Lady: [smiles approvingly]

Chap: I work for the NHS.

Me: ?

Chap: I meet many patients who get to the end of their lives and all they want to do is give themselves to Christ, but sometimes it's too late.  Every day is precious.  Nobody knows when they are going to die.  You mustn't leave it too late.

I am beginning to feel awkward.

Chap: Why don't you let us in to pray with you?

Me: No, I really don't feel comfortable with that.

Lady: [retrieves card from bag and points to URL printed on it] These are our church's details.  Look this up and come and join us on Sunday.

I take the card.

Me: I'll look up the website but it's very unlikely that I'll come to church.

Chap: You should.  Your Christian family are not stupid, you know.

Me: No, I know.  They're very intelligent: I just think they're wrong about this.

Chap: [takes pen from his jacket pocket and holds out his hand for the card - I give it to him] Here, this is my name and phone number.  Give me a call.

Lady: Yes, promise you will call.

Me: Thank you.  I can't promise to call you, because I don't want to make a promise that I can't be sure I'll keep.

Lady: That's good.  You are a good person!  You should come to church.

Me: I don't believe...

Chap: You'll see I am Mr [name redacted].  Not "Doctor".  Surgeons are "Mister".

A surgeon!  He said 'surgeon'!  Oh well, I'm still thankful for his service.

Me: I've met some surgeons.  I've had a fair few operations.

Chap: And God has kept you alive through all those operations.  Don't throw away the chance he has given you.  Here, let me take your details.

Me: I really don't feel comfortable with that...

You may notice a pattern emerging here.

Chap: Just your telephone number.

Me: No, as I say, I dont feel comfortable with that.

Chap: Then ask God to reveal himself to you.  Pray: "God, show yourself to me."  Don't believe beause a religion tells you, because a preacher tells you.  Ask God to come to you directly.

I sense that telling them about the Atheist Prayer Experiment would be a bad tactic.  I smile and nod non-commitally.

Me: Well, thank you for coming by.  I hope you have a good day.

Lady: You too.  We will be expecting your call!

Me: [apologetically] Please don't.

Lady/Chap:  Goodbye.

Me:  Goodbye.

And with that, I was finally able to shut the door.

I felt quite shaken after this encounter.  Not that it was hostile, but I felt they were so focused on delivering their message, they failed to take any notice of the effect their persistence was having on me.  They were oblivious to the fact that they were constantly pushing the boundaries that I'd tried to set, in a friendly manner, from the beginning of the conversation.

I don't like being put in a position where I have to stand my ground.

Next time, I'll be retreating to the living room and hiding behind the sofa.  Bugger my pride.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

I'm off Facebook

I plan to use the freed-up time to be creative! Will my creativity be in the form of:
  1. writing and playing music, or
  2. finding ever weirder ways to avoid the above?
The smart money is on option 2.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

A letter from Fräulein Maria to the Reverend Mother

Dear Reverend Mother,

I've been pondering your advice. (Lovely singing voice, by the way - you should be in the movies!)

Given that rainbows never actually touch the ground, I'm afraid I'm going to discard that part of your counsel. You'll be pleased to hear, however, that I've booked myself onto a stream-fording course and will be undertaking some basic mountaineering training.

Although I fear you will consider me lazy, honesty compels me to confess that I really, really hope that my dream is located on a nearby, relatively small mountain.

Thanks again for your words of wisdom.

Fräulein Maria

P.S. Be honest: do you think the Captain's too old for me? And should I be disturbed by his fecundity? My hips aren't that big, Reverend Mother. 

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Picking up litter: it's not about anyone, not even me

I wanted to write an update on my 'be the change' experiment.  Rather than dealing with everything at once, I thought it'd be easier to look at each section of what I've committed to doing.

So - litter. I've been picking it up.  Not all of it, or frankly I'd never get as far as the newsagent, but I've been picking up bits here and there.  Nobody has said anything to me about it, so all I can report on is what goes on in my own mind and emotions.

The first couple of days, I was terribly self-conscious about picking up litter in the presence of other people.  What would they think of me?  Nutter?  Exemplary citizen?  Someone whose hand they'd like to shake, just as soon as it was disinfected?  I'm pleased to say that these self-absorbed thoughts quickly subsided.  Picking up and binning the occasional tin can or crisp packet has become a habit and, on the whole, I don't give a thought to what other people make of me for doing it.

It's easy for for my mind to make judgements about the people who have dropped litter and to invent stories about what it means about me that I'm picking it up.  This comparing and judging is unhelpful.  That's in part because it makes me resentful, irritable and self-righteous (which are not happy mind states), but also because harbouring such thoughts is inimical to my other aims of being friendly and to view people as fellow humans rather than as label-bearers.

It's been surprisingly easy to let go of those judgements when they arise: I remind myself that picking up litter is something I have chosen to do as a very small way of being the change I want to see in the world.  It means nothing about people who drop litter and it doesn't mean anything about me.

I'm also getting a greater sense of responsibility and appreciation of the area I live in.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Update - and a new experiment

I've been away for a while, so before I get into the meat of my subject, a quick update:

Since the Atheist Prayer Experiment ended, I've been meditating daily.  I've missed a few days but that's all.  I've also been listening to a lot of Buddhist podcasts and reading books.  I've reached the point where I describe myself as a secular Buddhist.

The food thing isn't resolved, but my mind has become much quieter through the discipline of meditation.  I very rarely count calories (or WeightWatchers points) and, although I still overeat at times and feel anxious about my weight and body shape, I generally rely on how hungry I feel to determine whether or not I should eat.  The  incessant food-related mind-chatter is pretty much gone and I have to tell you - the relief is enormous.

Anyway, a new experiment.  The idea for this was brought on by the death of one Margaret Thatcher.  I spent the first seven years of my life in a mining community in South Yorkshire and then moved to Sheffield, a town known as 'Steel City' until, thanks to aforesaid deceased lady, the steel industry was pole-axed.  Given the devastation her policies wrought on communities in the area in which I spent my youth, it is hardly surprising that I was not fond of her.   I'll be honest: I wasn't sad that she died.  But I wasn't celebrating either.

I exchanged a few messages with a fellow graduate of the Atheist Prayer Experiment.  Being from a (formerly) industrial region of north England, she shared my feelings about the Iron Lady.  In one message, I wrote that I'd only really be able to celebrate when Thatcherism was dead - when the selfish, acquisitive  "I'm alright Jack, I've got mine and if you haven't got yours then you probably deserve to suffer" attitude had been buried as the bastard offspring of the Just World Fallacy that it is.  Alas, I pondered, if I wait that long to celebrate, then I'll probably be put on ice long before the champagne can come off it.

We decided that we'd do our bit to erase this aspect of Thatcher's legacy.  And that's where I got this idea.

Every now and then, your Facebook friends (and maybe even you) will post the Gandhi quotation "Be the change you want to see in the world".  Possibly accompanied by a picture of Gandhi.  Or a sunrise. Or a unicorn.  Anyway - it's the sort of thing we all read, nod in agreement and then surf over to a debate forum to slag off Republicans/Liberals/members-of-a-demographic-group-with-which-we-disagree. 

So, my experiment is to be the change I'd like to see in the world, for 90 days.  Not to admonish others for not being the change I'd like to see, but simply to try to embody the attitudes and behaviours I think would make the world a better place.  Specifically, I think life would be better if people:
  1. were friendly,
  2. showed an interest in each other's well-being,
  3. went the extra mile to make others' lives easier; and
  4. communicated with each other on the level of their shared humanity, rather than as bearers of labels.
Starting tomorrow,  I'll be trying to do/be those things, in my dealings with everyone I encounter - strangers, friends, family.  Also, I'll be picking up some litter, because litter just bugs me.  I'll report my findings.  I'm sure that, at times, I'll forget I've committed to doing this and that, at other times, I'll just plain old fail.  I can be a grumpy, bloody-minded old git when I want to be.  But hey, worth a shot, I feel.