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.
Death on the Roads
For cyclists, the threat of death is all-too real:
people make it all the time.
Example: how we ask for it without a helmet,
and being informed that surgeons call us “donors”…
One Sunday, 3am, this cop pursued me through three reds
round empty streets I know like country lanes.
He warned this late, some drunk would “run me down.”
Another one barked: “Halt!” as I tried nosing round
a long, stopped, laden truck of beams.
“A bit of common sense,” he said
“Or else you’ll end up under it.”
"Every fear contains a wish," said Freud.
And so the cabby, apoplectic that
my junction turn was tighter than his cab’s,
must win some prize for being actualised.
“I hope you die,” he snarled.
One day I will.
Get Rid Of
In political terms, I somehow seem to be the UK’s one-man Iowa. It’s something to do with my pragmatism, married to the attempt I make to at least some fist of understanding the issues - what I think a desirable outcome should be - added to my constant anxieties about (mis)management (an upbringing glitch). This muddle coalesces to pitch me close to what the “average public” tends to be thinking. This is a horribly long-winded way of saying, I can normally see how something is going to “play,” and if there is going to be a shift in voting. So it is, I hope my sudden desire to kick out the ConDems is more broadly mapped.
When I say “I am Iowa,” I don’t mean that I have ever voted Conservative - although I had a brief flirtation with their patriotism and power-worship when I was 14: a typically inverted rebellion. I have voted Labour when I have voted. I was in the Fabians. But I do mean that, unlike, 85% of the people I know, I was willing to give the ConDems a chance. Personally, I saw (perhaps still see) the austerity thing as a rather brave attempt to tackle a Western welfare state, mostly pensions and healthcare, crisis. A former Labour party member, I became horrified with the amount of money that party threw at things without a real grasp of what they were hoping to achieve or how they might do it. I also immediately sensed what terrible news Brown was going to be. When we found out his soul was made of catarrh and that he’d pretty much put the kibosh on Blair’s Government too I could hardly be bothered to go “meh.”
And I sensed in Cameron a decent manager - perhaps not terribly likeable, really, perhaps too posh, but “a safe pair of hands.” Most people in power are awful. There were some good (and bold) ideas about things the Labour Government would rather not have grappled with: freeing up education somewhat, much-needed reform of the welfare state to end the living zombiedom of a life on benefits … not sure about health, but I don’t think increasing an internal market is the end of the NHS. It is already a market. In addition, the waste an inertia of large public institutions enrages me. On all the other “fringe” aspects such as funding the arts, yes I do believe the loss of some “goodies,” is part of the situation we find ourselves in in this ageing society.
And for the first three years, I was reasonably happy - or at least not concerned - with our government. Government always goes wrong. Government is entropic. It falls apart. I didn’t feel mismanaged. But either I was naive or willing to believe too well of this lot.
Over the past few weeks, in short order, a series of policy decisions has convinced me that it is time to get rid of these people. It has crystallised my experience that the Nasty Party is still here and that its new-found desire to capture so-called Middle England (those who have not managed to think beyond the Daily Mail) now makes it a dangerous force. And that Cameron lets eccentric, wrong-headed people run rampant - possibly through fear of what happens post-reshuffle.
There was Education Secretary Gove’s appalling jingoism in the Daily Mail using the good faith of those who signed up to defend the “patriotism” of the senseless slaughter of millions of people in the Great War. This on top of his eccentric policy crap-shoot, always tending towards to most infantile, misty-eyed and recherché conception of what our young people should be doing until 3.25 every day.
There was the sudden recall (too late, too late) of the new “ipnas,” in report stage, which would give an out-of-control Police force the right to do as they pleased even without having to arrest anyone. [Just in: the Lords have sent this packing two to one - hurrah!]
There has been the bungling (IT again) and current nomadic existence on the foothills of chaos of the welfare reforms.
There has been the spectacularly awful “bedroom” tax, which punishes people for the disaster of the UK’s planning system - but threatens to make those living in areas with plenty of houses homeless for no reason.
We have just had the Tories ringfencing ALL benefits to pensioners, no matter how rich, in an area which costs 20% of our national spend vs. 16% for welfare (pensions cost £144bn - housing and unemployment combined cost 8%.) This means that almost all the latest, extra £25bn in cuts will fall on working age people. Happy New Year.
There are popular vote-grabbing positions which enrage me and bear no passing relationship to common sense: Europe, Romanians and Bulgarians, benefit-recipient-shaming … all of which Cameron gladly engages in to attempt to shore up the right wing which will, nevertheless, always despise him.
As for the health service… who has a clue?
And how about structural reforms to the labour market - helping the million or so young people who are out of work? How about tacking the planning system, always weight in favour of the sensitive middle-class owner and practically unaltered since 1947? How are we reversing the desertification happening at breakneck speed in London where increasing numbers of ordinary people are being crapped out in favour of the wealthy? How are the police, surely the biggest force for bad in this country being called to heel? What are we doing to redefine our place in the world, particularly vis a vis Europe. On none of these crucial matters is anything much taking place.
Is this mendaciousness or mismanagement? It seems a potent brew of the two. Lansley and IDS seem like classic bunglers, helping themselves to a huge slice of power with some privilege custard and then choking.
Gove is an out-of-control, pro-am, nut-job, grammar school boy with a chip on his shoulder, whose flagwaving is given increased rein.
Osborne has contracted Thatcher-disease, listening to no one. And Cameron, his blind eye hidden behind a distorting monocle has failed to see or does not care to see what his staff his doing. Just as long as he can bob along, slightly detached, pronouncing to the media hither and yon. His inaction and his lack of moral compass (or exercising thereof) has made it all possible.
And if a major structural issue in the Western world is the welfare crisis, surely the gap between rich and poor and the pooling of power in the hands of the super-wealthy is another one. It is not a matter of right or left, although it involves money, but an imbalance and division that is threatening the way of life of everyone else.
No doubt you will call me a dupe for not realising this earlier. Certain of you of a leftier bent will recall discussions where I stood up for the status quo and revel in my confession. But I believe in seeing how things pan out. Three years should do it. Let’s hope others follow my middle-of-the-road realisations.
Your plastic keyfob snapped
off. Its clear, etched angel hula-hooping
in the dirt. The one that was given to keep
watch over me and instil hope forever
in my heart.
It was never really my style:
from some new-coined spiritual being.
When she fell, I thought losing her
would cause me little
Yet, strangely, now she’s gone,
my angel, house keys slither
to the bottom of pockets and bags.
I have to remind myself not to panic
when I can’t find them:
“They’ll turn up,
are just less available, now, being
harder to find with fingertouch.”
And so I do miss my angel
and would like
to petition her return.
But you are also gone.
Or you’re out there, somewhere,
keeping the vow you gave
to say goodbye.
If you had three wishes and one wish could
be eternal wishes. And everything came true
even ruling the world
and your prayers answered
(or your chanting, if you’re into that).
If you got the money, the fame
(and the power) and you won the lottery,
the wheel, horses, cards (just for kicks, right?)
and the girls / boys, and vast complexes
to put them all in.
If your life was lived
with no friction; no gap; not even a fag paper
between wanting and getting; wish and action
one. If you had everything you wanted and everyone
and everything they wanted, you would have nothing
to live for anymore.
AND If you accept everything
you have and what you never will and might never
(or might) and all that IS and who you are (your people, too)
if you love all this, you’ll have all you ever need
and you’ll live