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Posts Tagged ‘thought’

coffeecupFrom a corner of this corner coffee shop I command a view of two streets in this archetypal northern market town of mine, and mainly what I see are people lost in thought. And since we all have a habit of thinking in a way that is essentially corrupt, I’d say most of us are in trouble, most of the time. And the troubling thing for me is, I know what those I see are thinking because it’s all around them.

When I say “thought”, I’m talking more in abstract terms, as an outward expression of the human mind in the built environment. I’ve just come back from a walk on the moors, which has rendered me philosophical and still, and observational. Nature has been slowly reclaiming the moors since our forbears stripped the land of its trees in ancient days. The moors are not pristine, not yet a meditation entirely void of thought; you can still see traces here of what we think: the run of a fence, the straight line of an irrigation ditch sliced deep into the peat. There are traces too of the way we used to think: a ruined farm, tumbled now to something that resembles pre-history, thoughts of a way of life that was overtaken by yet other thoughts, thoughts of an economic expediency that rendered an entire way of living in those otherwise bleak wastes obsolete.

I pause at this point and read back over my words, try to decide if what I’ve written is what I believe to be true, or if I’m just plucking strings at random, searching for cute harmonies. I find no discord, find I do believe what I am saying, but then belief is never a guarantee of truth, indeed it’s every bit as vulnerable to corruption as the thoughts that give rise to it.

An image appears on the TV screen, the ever intrusive news bulletin, the ever intrusive informer of a particularly corrupt kind of thinking. It shows a masked man bringing down a sledgehammer, breaking up works of art that were crafted 3000 years ago. This act takes place in what was once ancient Assyria, and we are viewing it in my northern market town, several thousand miles away.

There are two versions of this story – one is that the masked man’s beliefs tell him these works are idols, that the highly literal interpretation of his belief system commands their destruction because they insult his deity. Another version of the story is that the potent imagery is designed to become a viral thought, carrier of a lethal pathogen, fatal to hope, carried far and wide on the winds of an ever hysterical media, greedy for such proofs of the world’s descent into chaos, and our powerlessness to act against it.

Idolatry. I hold with that thought for a moment, reminded of the journal of Margaret Wilson, an early Christian missionary to India who spoke of the love she had for her children being idolatrous, that it distracted her thoughts, tempted her away from the love of her God. In this she did not mean she loved her children any less, but that she was conscious of the difference and careful not to confuse the two. Such were the careful, self analytical thoughts of a religiously devout woman born two hundred years ago. There were idols aplenty in the community she served, and in which she eventually died, but she never sought their destruction. I watch these stone idols fall, smashed to dust in the early second millennium AD, and am saddened by their loss, by the apparent barbarism of our times. I realise too how the value of education lies not in the mere passing on of fact, nor even in teaching the young how to think, but also how to question and to test, independently, and without fear, for the trueness in one’s thoughts and the thoughts of others.

The high mountain is a meditation, crafted not from thought, but by nature. The water falls down the gullies in a way that is at times awe inspiring, yet no human thought, no master landscape designer decided it should fall that way. The lakes in the valleys too take their shape, not from the thought of man, yet they are infinitely pleasing to the eye and the spirit. They transcend us, yet they are also a part of us, triggering within a memory, as if for a forgotten love, a curious longing for that sweet, sublime perfection we have since the days of Eden, lost.

From the corner coffee shop my senses drown in thought. The built environment overwhelms me, with only a narrow slit of sepia sky to hint at greater things beyond. The road, the pavement, the scratty shops, all are the imperfect physical manifestation of our thoughts. The clothes we wear, even the shape of our spectacles are decided by the curious interplay of thoughts, thought somewhere, and by someone. But in achieving an inner stillness, I also see the pavements are broken, that in the side streets there gathers a tide of fast food cartons, that the roofs are missing tiles, that the grime washed render, once proud white, is cracked and coming away to reveal the scars of spalled brick underneath, that a man stands suddenly doubled over as if in pain, while another nearby, and apparently oblivious, holds a bucket for charity. The man is drunk, fails to vomit up his intake, then unsteadily joins the flow of passers by.

What are we thinking? Why indeed am I sitting here, a lone scribe with notebook while my neighbours text to others and play Candycrush to while away the empty time between movement from one place to the next? Are they thinking anything at all? And when they lift their eyes what do they see of the thoughts of the world? How do they interpret, filter, inflate, suppress? Do these thoughts we see inspire or depress the spirit?

What are you thinking, right now? How much of it is true, how much of it corrupt? And how would we know the difference anyway?

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Manet

Back in 1977, when I was training in an engineering workshop, my mate ran his finger up a bandsaw blade. He swore and I fainted. I told everyone I’d had no breakfast and maybe that was why I’d fainted -only admitting the truth to the work’s doc. He was an old guy, long steely grey hair, an incongruous hippy type – a real-life Gandalf. He said I’d be okay, told me to get back on that bandsaw right away, and that I’d probably benefit from learning how to meditate.

The advice about the bandsaw made sense, but I ignored the bit about meditation because I had a fairly rational head in those days. When I think back it was probably the most sage piece of advice I’ve ever had from a medical professional. It was to be years later though, dropping a bottle of Prozac into the bin and wondering what the hell I was going to do next, that I finally took his advice.

By then I was struggling with panic attacks. You sit in a cinema, a theatre, a lecture at college, a presentation at work, and you sweat, you shake inside, you fear losing yourself, you fear drawing attention to yourself. You also fear getting cornered by the consummate bore and being too polite to tell him you’re busy, so you sit there, quietly tearing yourself apart while his interminable tale drones on, when what you really want to do is stick your finger in his eye and run away screaming – all of this behind a serene smile.

Scary, isn’t it?

I lasted a couple of weeks on the Prozac. Its effects were dramatic. They calmed me for a while, helped me to keep working, but I was not myself, and this intruder who was not myself took over my self, decided it no longer needed to sleep, that it was okay to do pushups in the small-hours of a workday morning, then decided it was in the mother of all panics and hanging on by its fingernails, needed a doctor more urgently than it had ever done before. This was definitely not me, so the Prozac went in the bin. (don’t do this without talking to your doctor)

So I talked to my doctor, but found him time-pressed and unsympathetic. He told me the medication would either help or it wouldn’t. Well, it wouldn’t. The message was clear: I was on my own; mental health issues may be ruining your life, but unless you’re thinking of taking your life, the amount of support you can expect is patchy. This was 1992. The only difference now is demand is even greater for fewer resources, and we are better at pretending they are not.

Gandalf’s advice finally broke through: I bought a book on Yoga, which introduced me to meditation. Meditation looks complicated, sounds mysterious, and seems bound up with a lot of transcendental, spiritual stuff. But the physical practice itself is straight forward, and it worked. I’ll probably still faint at the sight of a bloody injury, so don’t come looking to me for first aid, but the panic attacks are a thing of the past. I lead a fairly normal life, most of the time.

You don’t need a guru to learn meditation. Even self taught from books, meditation has an immediate effect on the mind, but without “messing” with your mind in the way anti-depressant medication does. In meditation we try not to think , or we try at least to separate ourselves from our thoughts, and to realise we are not our thoughts.

With a panic attack, we think we’re going to faint, when there’s no physical reason why we should – the pulse rate goes up, we hyperventilate, we experience dizziness; with obsessive hypochondria we think we have a fatal illness which we assemble from otherwise innocuous symptoms and we convince ourselves we are going to die; with obsessive behaviours we think we must carry out an action in a particular way or a set number of times and we think that failure to do so will cause something bad to happen. Thinking, especially faulty thinking, has lot to answer for. It can make us really ill. It can ruin our lives.

Meditation was developed to correct faulty thinking, admittedly more on the transcendental, spiritual level, and therein lies the problem for many in the west, and for two reasons: in the west most of us have either cut the spiritual dimension entirely from our lives, drained the vessel dry so to speak, or we have adopted a narrow, entrenched religious view that does not encompass spiritual philosophies borrowed from other cultures; we have filled the vessel instead with concrete, one that does not permit the natural convective dynamics of exploration and change.

So let me defend meditation by saying it acts upon the mental life, and we need not attach any spiritual significance to it at all. It’s just that in eastern cultures there is less separation between the mental and the spiritual realms. Meditation also acts upon the physical body by freeing up energy consumed in vast quantities by a frantically thinking brain. This is why, when we meditate regularly, we feel less drained by life.

You can find “how to” material on meditation just about anywhere online for free, including my own notes, here. We must meditate every day for it to have any meaningful effect, and we’ll most likely feel resistance to this notion when the pain inside us realises what we’re up to, but persistence pays. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of encountering what was once a sure-fire trigger-situation, and realising we’re looking it calmly and squarely in the eye, unshaken.

And just in case you’re a tough guy who thinks meditation is for girls, remember Kung Fu fighters meditate. It gives them an edge. It’ll give you an edge too.

Think about it. Or rather don’t think!

Meditate!

Thanks Gandalf.

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