A Three-Course Meal in Disenchantment.
When Michael Willoughby sat down to a luxury luncheon after a week spent eating rubber cheese and tinned tuna in a shack, he found the cumulative disappointments stuck in his throat.
My husband and I had returned to civilization following a week on a Dalmatian island whose chief human attraction was a miniscule corner shop called, “Most” on the storefront, and, for good measure, “Plus,” on the sign.
The only place to eat out was a third-rate pizza joint which rang with Croatian rock music, apparently the same song repeated.
These were, in fact, the only two places to spend money on Pasman.
The rest of the time we filled in moderno-Austenian fashion: meditating, reading, swimming, painting, writing and through other, more conjugal ways.
Although we had wireless connection, we both found the quartering of social media use to be pleasurable and desirable. Time passed like water, and the only slight frustration was having a few tanning hours rained-off.
And so it was, by by the time we disembarked from our ferry to the fascinating and beguiling Roman town of Zadar, we were flush with the holiday cash we hadn’t had a chance to spend.
How else do you blow excess wonga on holiday, if you’re of a certain class and approaching a certain age? You eat out, of course! We could afford to partake of not one, but two fairly fancy meals.
So, direct from eating tomatoes from the bag and tearing bread with our hands - and creating make-do-and-mend recipes on a two-ring hob (the birthplace of Chicken Pasman, no less), we were rushed to a table where the waiter improbably set our napkins on our plates with a spoon and fork, like something from Lewis Carroll. The menus were tablet computers. The music was repetitive dinner jazz (the CD skipped) and the neighbours were three people laughing at some kind of Croatian sub-oligarch’s jokes. The mirth-maker had his cigar delivered at the beginning, so it could sit phallically on the table throughout the meal.
This is all great stuff you are Bill Bryson or AA Gill, perhaps, but we are not professional humourists. What was happening was we were being annoyed and disappointed and making light of it to dissolve the tension (dukkha - suffering, stress, or what have you) instead of becoming disenchanted with the experience. In fact, the food, which was reasonably good, some excellent, almost disappeared under a number of small layers of dukkha the pretentious resto’s annoying quirks bought about.
In summary, we had paid twice as much for one meal as two days’ shopping had cost in an over-priced corner shop, and we had come out with stress, judgement, calibration and some small sense of being let down or disrespected.
Contrarily, there had been no such disenchantment around our faux-marble table, perched on our sit-up-and-beg chairs beneath the faded tourist poster in our Air BnB flat. Yet the food was not as good (rubber cheese, anyone?), roughage was somewhat lacking and the service was non-existent.
At a very basic level, something had gone horribly wrong.
I drew two lessons from the experience. One is easily summarised: “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself.” Well, of course, that is nonsense (the phrase is always used to pastiche a certain type of person, after all…) We don’t do things better than other people, we just ignore the shortcomings or we grant more patience. On balance. When we outsource anything, we are creating a gap over which we have no control. Yet the more money we spend, the less we give people a break about how things go. Our not so good pizza experience merely cheered us to the reasonable price. Indeed, when we went back to watch the World Cup, we were positively delighted by their on-par crepes and super-nice coffee. (Croatians make the world’s best macchiato - who knew?)
This leads to the second lesson I drew. The more money we spend on something, the more potential suffering we create for ourselves. This would seem to directly contradict the whole point of spending money on getting things done: which is to make things easier and less stressful. One of the fundamentals of the consumer society would seem to be based not just on a lie, but on a direct contradiction.
"Wait," I hear you say, "you can spend enough money to make sure things go swimming most of the time." Certainly, you (well, someone) can. But I said the more you spend on stuff the more potential for suffering you create.
And so we see among the wealthy. Many are constantly poring over clauses and contracts to make sure they are getting their due. A simple dirty fork (cf Monty Python) can ruin dinner for six at the Ivy. Human-ness among staff is frowned upon so butlers have to go to school so they can abnegate their entire self-will and become automata. Hotel chamber maids must silently slip in and out of rooms - where, let it be remembered, they are doing all the work - because they don’t have the appropriate demeanour of the front-of-house staff.
It reminds of a story I heard from a friend of the plumber of a well-known, knighted creator of musicals, whose butler insisted that the workman hid himself behind the drapes as the famous man toured the grounds. This, even though, water was pouring from the radiators onto the carpet in the East Wing of his Hampstead mansion.
The more humans spend to make things frictionless, the more things can go wrong, and the less they are allowed to.
Were this not so, would we not see beams of radiance emanating from bankers’ eyes? Would not the features of Knightsbridge ladies-who-lunch be relaxed and warm (botox permitting)? Would not footballers and pop stars lead calm, satisfied lives instead of availing themselves of all the fruits of Soddom and Gomorrah they can lay their mitts on? Of course we do not see anything of the sort.
Sadly, among we normal population, we see a different form of suffering. A belief (contrary to the common sense of profit) that Sainsbury’s, Holiday Inn and EasyJet should spend lavishly on making sure that nothing goes wrong for us ever. The firms that are modelled like, and branded on, the idea of “exellence for a price that won’t break the bank,” are not going to be able to meet both requirements. Whether this is half as bad or twice as bad as the suffering experienced by the rich is an individual choice.
Because all this is a choice. Clearly, we aren’t going to live off tinned tuna and rubber cheese for perpetuity. Neither will we change our own bed sheets in a hotel.
However, what we can do is soften our expectations, our sense of entitlement, our belief that things simply shouldn’t happen the way they are, and that surely, as loyal customers, we are owed a seamless experience.
I am not suggesting we shouldn’t complain or get what’s owed to us if things fall below a certain standard or could be improved. I really quite like making a stand - especially if there’s a freebie at the end. However, this can still be done in a mood of unattachment. If our ego is not bound up in the sense of what’s due, in price, in status, in superiority; we can enjoy what we have (which is so much), we can be delighted at the things that go well and forgive the things that (our fellow humans) don’t quite get right.
We might even save some money into the bargain.
But no more rubber cheese, please, Louise.
Theft of a Beach
Today we leave Pasman Island. Last night, our voluble hostess invited us to dinner. Her dad cooked a kind of barbeque (peka) - pork and potatoes, rosemary from the hedge - in a bell-like oven with burning logs all over it, constantly cursing his son who’d just tidily thrown out all the ash.
He wouldn’t let us stop eating and drinking (much to his daughter’s embarrassment) waving comestibles at us, like he had just been coaxing the smoke in the open grate.
“Please, he wants you to have some more apple juice. Have it for me.”
After he’d gone to bed she told us how she used to know the white, rocky beach at the end of the path so well, its pools and boulders, she would skip sure-footedly all over it, even at night.
Well, last year the family showed up to the holiday home and found that workmen had blasted the beaches away to create what you see the picture. No one had asked or told them what was going to happen off-season.
Apparently, the local domain had taken money from an EU grant meant for sewerage to fund the dastardly deed, and sold the igneous rock off for decorative pebbles.
Yet the work had not been finished before the season started, and the ocean had taken back what had been half-done over the following winter.
Indeed, a week before the season opened, this year, we watched three portly, half-cut retirees hoisting the remaining rocks from the ocean, and breaking them with hammers to shore up the esplanade. We didn’t rate their chances.
Mr. Nicholas H’s Christ Church, Spitalfields
He had never seen a monocle
on the head of a crocodile
atop a Great Dane’s body
(wearing a ruff and military epaulets)
but built this anyway
from a pile of limestone batons,
wedges, crescents and blocks
some say flung down by piqued Amun
who couldn’t slot them in the Sphinx).
The quoins, he mortared in mud
from the black Nile’s bed
mixed with myrrh and
balsam of Mecca.
And it sits here, staring still,
Hawksmoor’s heads, bodies
and legs, giving off its whiff
of flood-tide delta
over our stale real ale,
the traffic’s fumes of lead-free petrol.
How the confused masonry amalgam’s
frozen melodrama curdles
the air in your lungs,
jams the chatter in your gob.
Oh, it could barge the Ten Bells,
chip shops, and Jack the Ripper gawkers
into the road (the poor shed
doesn’t know its own strength
or how completely frightening it is,
seeming so neurotically
hunkered on haunches,
is just hankering for sausages, fled
from Commercial Street market,
now turned to tat and tchotchkes
and gallons of lattes
and the drool collects
in puddles on the flagstone steps.
Talk about the Weather
Please don’t get me all wet, babe.
Let us leave those clouds full plumped up.
We won’t dance their rain down; seed them
with our shot, orgiastic rockets.
Say we’ll keep the Earth swept clean of tears,
dusty dry-bone, baked mud,
so love’s potential leap’s kept fat
sluggard in the pod; small roots
feebly unfumbling the pavement’s underside;
In no wise threatening the cornerstones
of both of our houses
(for the most part, secure)
by which, I mean… God! Look, I’m not that sad
Yours - he ain’t too bad;
let’s take a rain-check on this, love.
Having had a filling replaced in Guy’s Hospital, I thought I would treat myself to an almond pastry and macchiato in the AMT coffee.
Sitting facing into the room, given a lack of seating, toward a group of Bright Young Things (all headed to different Cambridge colleges) I put the pastry into my mouth only to find that:
a) it was unusually crusty, knobbly and resistant
b) I couldn’t feel it.
As a result of this combined structural and sensory deficiency, the croissant was inserted either not far enough, or too far - I will never know which. At any rate, instead of chewing, I was forced to tear it apart using the type of head motion normally seen in Staffordshire terriers trying to break down a small child for easier consumption. Having no feeling on the right-hand side, even this act of animal savagery was inexact.
I disappeared behind a cloud of icing sugar which, at length, fell in drifts on my black winter coat. Meanwhile, I struggled to coax the adamantine lump of pastry towards my gullet, like a blind man at the bowling alley. To induce its disappearance, I then took a swig of macchiato, which was the perfect temperature on the right-hand side. On the left though, it was quite hot. I swilled it about to cool it, but my useless right lips would not seal, thus adding a spray of tepid coffee to the detritus on my overcoat.
I navigated the rest of the croissant with my fingers pulling it apart gingerly. The sweetmeat had more or less fallen apart anyway…
Four mindfulness errors people make about the Tube Strike that cause them suffering
At the best of times, transportation, particularly public transport, is a brilliant gauge of how we are doing in terms of mindfulness practice. The Tube strike has really separated the enlightened men from the boys. The papers are full of people squeezing onto buses or lining around the block for one; tailbacks and fractiousness.
This piece is not judgy(?), so I won’t ask whether all those thousands of people who chose to travel really were as vital to the smooth running of their company as they thought, nor whether their bosses believed all those people needed to be in the office instead of working from home. I’ll just focus on the experience of people trying to travel in adverse conditions whose Days Were Ruined. Or who complained about it the whole morning when they got into the office.
A note about me: I am a home worker and tutor who cycles when he goes to see tutees or for meetings. I had three journeys to make today. I also, partially coincidentally, had a trying day’s travelling. I had a broken bike, so had to use Barclay’s bikes. These bikes were in demand so two racks of them were empty when I went to get one out. Another had a broken check-out system. And it was raining and blowing so hard at one point, I had to get on the DLR. But I had managed to plan and take extra time (mindful of the possible problems) and, so, using further mindfulness techniques, I managed to laugh at the feeling of one disaster landing on top of another as I dragged myself around, remaining cheery – rather than letting these problems drag me down. I say remaining cheery. If I had gotten out of the wrong side of bed, no doubt I would not be writing this blog…
What did I attempt and manage to practice that those who were upset – or whose days were ruined – by the Tube strikes did not? What suffering did they create for themselves?
1) They took it personally
The thing about public transportation is that it is a hugely complex system – a miraculous interaction of runners, riders and technology. And the Tube, with its people and ancient systems, and confusion and size, is one of the most complex in the world. So, to decide that things are being screwed despite your own Very Important mission in life or, even, just to make your day worse is one of the more risible delusions a human can make. Frankly, the Tube does not care about each individual traveller. Even if one accuses the Tube (or the Unions, or the bosses) of incompetence, that is a highly judgemental position and one without rationale. Could travellers do the job better? Do they really know what is going on that needs to be fixed? Is Boris right? Is Bob Crow? There is no convincing evidence either way.
But that is by-the-by. Blame or rage at an invisible entity is simply one of the more pronounced forms of aversion – so visible because it is so impotent and laughable. A healthier way to deal with delays or travel disasters is to explore and feel the anger within out of curiosity – fascination at the energies in the body. This allows us to own our feelings. We are feeling anger – it is not caused by “the Tube” or “the Unions.” Otherwise everyone would be angry and some are not.
We can also let ourselves off the hook a bit. I have certainly often felt terrible at being late. But in this situation, no one will blame me. If we don’t feel guilty, we won’t be so aversive.
As to depersonalisation, the self that Buddhism sees as delusion is often posited as a rather mystical thing. We are all part of The One – switch off your mind, relax and float downstream. Yada. Yada. But this Eastern idea is actually true! We are all part of the same flowing system, of which the Tube is a part, raised from the same earth, all objects in a complex environment. It is only our minds that say we are separate and unique and must fight for our own selves - for “respect.” That fight, Buddhism says, is the route of suffering. This is like the ego in Freudian terms. Eastern countries have far less of an emphasis on this delusion, as seen in the collectivism of China and the strong society of Japan. This thing is not a given.
2) They do not choose in line with what makes them happy
Trying to get to their desks in London on the day of the Tube strike is just the latest bad choice some people who have chosen unhappy lives have made. For them, something like the Tube being up the Swannee is the ideal opportunity to blame some of their unhappiness on external factors. It’s not them, it’s their work, it’s their boss, it’s the job security that means they have to travel – and are unhappy. So they are already on (the) edge.
Can there be a sadder, more mournful display of this unhappiness than the chorus of car horns I heard as I cycled through the Rotherhithe Tunnel? Stuck in slow-moving traffic, drivers chose not to enjoy the opportunity to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet or do some breathing, but instead kept up a racket of honking, adding precisely nothing to their movement forward, but instead blowing off their frustration through noise pollution and causing distress to others (including the five or so people who were cycling or walking through the tunnel, realising that driving might not be sensible.) Precisely what did these drivers think would happen? Who was doing something wrong? They were exactly like toddlers stamping their feet.
It is hard, but we do have a choice about how we want to live our lives, what we want to do with them to make money and how we want to spend our time. Mortgages and children can sometimes feel like non-choices, or roads travelled, that we feel like they have pushed us into a life we cannot escape. But that is really a refusal to compromise.
I recall a conversation with an acquaintance, working at Barclay’s HQ in something both tedious and stressful to do with insurance. He hated it and it was making him ill. Couldn’t he do something else, I wanted to know. No, he replied, because he had to live in a certain area because he had previously been broken into elsewhere. That was his excuse for ignoring his feelings. As far as I know, he is still in the same job.
How do we get in touch with what makes us happy? My teacher, Maitreyabandhu, at the London Buddhist Centre points out that things that are supposed to make us happy (he references winning work and going in for prizes) often actually feel unpleasant, if we really pay attention to the emotions in our body. This is a radical and startling observation.
3) They do not want to be alone with their thoughts and feelings
But most people do not want to be feeling those feelings in their body – those aversive feelings of fear and rage. They will do anything they can to avoid them. For commuters, the “antidotes” to these feelings (the cravings) are for free newspapers and their smartphones. But these tools are not that exciting (especially without web access!), and so it doesn’t take long for them to start becoming aware of their negative feelings. And those negative feelings, instead of being investigated and felt, create negative thoughts. And, as we know, negative thoughts create more negative feelings. Given an extra-long commute, all hell breaks loose.
But that extra-long commute for us who are trying to move towards enlightenment (non-self, contentment) provides the chance to get in touch with what it feels like to be out of control – or to realise how little one is in control. To understand what it is like to be part of a system. That rage, that anxiety is there all the time and now it is being magnified so providing a great opportunity to explore it. This is a form of meditation – a meditation on feelings – but it can be combined with mindfulness of breathing or if one is calm, then purely mindfulness of breathing. Delay – nothing at all to do! - can be a gift, if looked at right.
Some people will want to vomit or hit me when they read this, seeing me as some sort of annoying spiritual type. I can understand that (even more annoyingly). I would just ask them, which is the more rational choice given the lack of choice we face in this scenario? Are we on the side of the problem (unhappiness) or the solution (contentment)?
4) They do not feel gratitude nor try to cultivate it
What is the main thing that days like yesterday and today say about our transport system? That it is vital to our lives in the City. That it normally runs tremendously efficiently. That it carries a lot of people around – many more than the ones we saw stuck at various nodes through the system.
To me, that is a cause for gratitude. And cultivating gratitude is a sure-fire way of creating positive feelings (as in, like, proper science supports it.) How amazing that we have this resource that we don’t normally think about! Meanwhile, women in Africa have to miles and back to a well for water. Men break their car axles on unmade roads in South America. Drivers in China get stuck in week-long traffic jams. With any complexity, there is a risk of imperfection, whether through systemic breakdown, human error or dispute. Instead of cursing this confusion on the two days of the year (plus change) it happens, why not praise its normal smooth running, only now apparent?
We can change. We can change our thought patterns. We can change the relationship to our feelings. And we can change our lives if we find that we are not living in a way that makes us content. I have.
In the Mirror
Look but don’t tut. Judge
not lest ye be nudged
into diagnoses (dysmorphia,
anorexia, “issues”) (you
think I’ve time for “issues”!?)
So, love (enough) the two slabs
of chest these arms, don’t lust;
Adjust the shoulders al la
Alexander (?) or just
pulling in my gut. I’ve got a gut?
Well, can I pinch more than an inch?
(What if I just have generous pinch?)
This “thing” it is not static,
I can cock my guns, flex my pex,
pull up my abs. It is not static:
and muscles waste two weeks without work,
time to get back to the gym.
No! Back to a ROUTINE!
But, so, the body-ego rises, puffs up,
and I whip it out in clubs,
send images all around,
serve it up, dish it out,
take, use, this is my body…
One more creative venture,
just showing one more drawing
And always, anyway, these crouch-lines,
twine-like, in my tummy. From keyboard
bending… Bad posture,
bad pose. Unstable. Ageing. Morphing.
Dust thou art,and unto dust returnest.
Facebook update, dancer husband. “I’d like to thank
that virus for helping me get rid of that little tummy
I put on in the hols. Done in two days!”
Pic (C) Sarah Ann Loreth
The Visions of Meyer Eisenbeth
If a quip drops and there’s no one there…
for Jo Cleere
Re: quotes, you said,
"We all say clever things
from time to time, but no one’s there
to make a note of it.”
the egoist-artistic type,
never belched a polished-up bon mot
without a Boswell-scribbler on-hand.
You felt the in-built skill we have
to tickle, educate, amuse,
should be extolled:
"make Cowards of us all!"
So let that be set down.