Wednesday 23 December 2020

Sands held apart

2020 has seen the world plunged into the Covid pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have placed a pressure on our whole society opening up cracks which previously were ignored. We can see how this has affected our lives and livelihoods and how the gap between the haves and the have nots has widened. I'm grateful for being able to work from home, manage my time and work commitments and feel relatively insulated from the economic devastation which many face. The restrictions have had an impact on people's mental and physical health and for some the virus has been fatal. Again other than some flaring of my OCD (possibly related possibly unrelated) I remain relatively unaffected. I miss the physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual benefits from ecstatic dance which at present cannot take place as a group of people in the same space. Zoom sessions don't do it for me. I miss seeing friends and the natural flow of everyday life, cinema, theatre, travel etc. But basically life has settled into workable ways and there's little to complain about in real terms. And yet more than for a long time I feel an anxiety. I could place it on Covid restrictions (I'm not particularly worried for myself about the virus, although I do feel I need to be careful for my parents but the restrictions do generate difficult mental / emotional conditions), I could place it on the political situation in the UK (we probably have about the worst UK government in modern history and there has been some stiff competition), I could place it on the climate crisis, I could place it on the general losses that seem to come around in middle age or it could be that with life restricted there is simply more space for those sorts of negative feelings to grow. And it's probably all of those. This does indeed feel like a time of passing, of endings. And it seems unclear just what (and when) will be the new. A period of transition may be lengthy and the outcome uncertain. Indeed, will humans wise up and get responsible for the environment soon enough to survive?

So against this back drop the Findhorn Foundation (FF) has effectively collapsed and we know not yet if or how it might survive. Certainly it seems it is over as I have known and loved it. And whilst I've been away from it for some years now both DC and I have kept in contact with dear friends there and still feel a warmth for the FF. It was always many different things to many different people but for me it was a gateway to a deeper and far more sustainable sense of myself. A journey which would quickly take in Zen Buddhism as kind of map with the FF providing opportunities to explore and synthesise in the world. At a time when we so need communities looking at alternatives to 'the rat race' it is indeed cruel irony that Covid has forced us into isolation and triggered the collapse of not just the FF. And whilst I often commented that the FF needed to look more closely at its inconsistencies and sustainability it is sobering to see how economic realities have caused its collapse; it was all very well claiming to offer an alternative but when that alternative failed to embed the interconnection it so claimed then the scene was virtually set for failure once the world 'outside' the FF imposed a new order. Against this backdrop we are all getting older and our dear friend Erica seems to be entering the closing chapter. Erica, DC and I have enjoyed much warmth and hospitality together particularly at this time of year and so it is sad to feel the passing of those times.

All this certainly shows up that if one foot is on the rock of spiritual refuge then without doubt it is counterpart to one on the shifting sands of everyday life! And whilst I'm aware of the foot on the rock, there seems to be a lot of weight on the one on the shifting sands. So I find the koan arises yet again in what I do see as a pattern for me, or at least it's possible to construct it that way. Emptiness and the uncertainty I feel not infrequently in response when I see it all around me and can't get to the place of seeing its fecundity; how many ways have I been round that? OCD by somewhere around nine years old, that attempt at trying to gain control in the face of uncertainty, seems to indicate that as a child I saw and / or felt the shifting sands but couldn't see how to shift weight or feel enough weight on something solid enough to bear the contradiction between the vulnerabilities inherent in human life and the sense of a (separate) self who felt exposed to those vulnerabilities. A human life is wonderful - we sense that right from the start but it is inherently tricky as the first noble truth in Buddhism points out. Dukkha is always going to be with us as one of the three marks of existence. I wonder what I'd have been able to see and feel if someone had shown me the Buddha dharma as a child. But I guess that the path which led me to it was perhaps one of greater immersion than might be gained by 'fingers pointing at the moon' sooner. Shifting my view I can see the fecundity in all this- there is change and it brings new forms; new life in each moment. It is wonderful! DC will tell me off if I say - 'there are as many worlds as there are beings'. 'I've told you about that solipsism - stop it.' he will say. And I muse at the paradox- we are both separate and utterly One. By some mystery the whole of experience emerges out of the Unborn, moment by moment. Innumerable beings with their own experience all both separate and One. Each moment a movement and yet cut through with stillness. A stillness holding and being all movement. Somehow we do seem to know there is something sacred of which we are and that our lives- our experience, is the expression of that something. And that something only becomes a thing (out of the no-thing) as the shifting sands, waves on an ocean that might see each other but not necessarily the water.

Lockdown has seen DC and I make Saturday evening movie night and we have found some great movies on TV streaming services. We recently watched 'The hour of living' and 'Uncle Frank', both movies which triggered much good discussion between DC and I. In their different ways they brought us to the Red thread koan. In the widest sense it's the whole nature of the creative, being alive, living life, interacting, everything that we are. In the words of the song:

What good is sitting alone in your room?

Come hear the music play

Life is a cabaret, old chum

Come to the Cabaret 

And there is much to be said about how to come to the cabaret; about how to live a good life. But to focus on an aspect of this often associated with the 'Red thread' the above movies look at intimate relationship. George, one of the main characters in The hour of living asks in response to a question about whether or not he'd had sex with the protagonist's father 'when does anyone have someone?' It's a rich question. When do we open to someone's being? There is much to say about sex, love and divinity but the point that George makes is that any physical sex which may or may not have taken place between them wasn't important; what was important was that they could sit silently together and oceans would flow between them. Yet we know that irrespective of any physical sex, sex flowed in those oceans.

Both the above movies also raise questions about the nature of and construction of masculinities and in Uncle Frank homophobia is shown as a symptom of fear and confusion. Set in 1973 and contrasting the acceptance from some with the utter abhorrence from others it is a rich movie with multidimensional characters. My own wounding from the homophobia which was an unquestioned backdrop of the time and place in which I grew up has left scars; grief being chief among them. Grief for the shutdown lost years when to act on homosexual impulses seemed far too risky and the resulting confusion, isolation and stagnation robbed me of the chance to come to the cabaret. And what is so painful in that and has played out in complex ways ever since is not just the missing fun, connection with others or even connection with myself and of course the oceans that George in The hour of living describes, no it's not just those, it's all of those; all of those together; the allowing of a vital response to the Red thread koan, the surfing of the shifting sands and the possibility of a glimpse of  the rock. And I must remember that all that was a part of the past yet not the whole of it and the intervening years have been rich with experience and have brought me to where I am now. To see anything as lost is to know it in some way; nothing stops and nothing starts but that everything is.

The nature of mind-what is it? Where is it that our lives play out? What are those shifting sands? Where do they shift? Grains of joy flow with those of grief and others of the everyday. Sands of the rock of the Unborn; waves on the ocean. What's tough about Covid is that the required social distancing is a force of separation, when what we all want is to come together so as to better be together.

Sunday 26 July 2020

How much freedom do we have not to wriggle?

I think I developed OCD sometime around 9 years old, although it may have been a little later but not older than 12. So I've lived with this condition as it has waxed and waned for at least 40 years. Over those years it has shifted shape and modulated in magnitude; subsided so as to virtually disappear, returned some times in familiar forms sometimes in changed form, highlighted aspects of its root and moved with the rest of this body-mind as part of the flux that is life. A complex and pernicious condition that one is always recovering from it has flare ups and remissions. And a bit like many other dis-eases the reasons for the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning are obscure. However, the root of this condition is basically an attempt at a bargain with life to be granted certainty. Why attempt this bargain when the very attempt itself sows its own frustration? Because like Alice down the rabbit hole it wasn't clear at the time of following the rabbit that one would end up falling down the hole. And rabbits pop up! And having seen a rabbit it can be very difficult not to follow it, for if we pay no attention to anything then where is the meaning in our experience? We wouldn't ever find the wherewithal to make even so much as a daisy chain. So seeing 'a rabbit off' ie something that seems not quite right, not quite stable it's in our nature to be drawn to investigate. And there is compassion in it, for I would say that at the start of the OCD feeling a glimpse of impermanence was perceived; vulnerability, potential loss and suffering, and with that came the desire to control, to make safe. So we reach for something. But like the jar of orange marmalade which Alice took from the shelf we find it empty. And so begins the search for a suitable place to put the jar... and we are still falling...

OCD is a potent mix of thoughts and emotions. And like any mental health condition the tricky thing about it is that the very tools you need to restore some balance to the situation are the ones affected greatly by the condition. OCD is an addiction. The clue's in the name - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The obsession is the fear, the compulsion the trying to fix it, the result is ironically the dis-order where order was sought. Such mind states affect the subtle feelings involved in how situations are perceived. The overall flavour of it is sticky, tight with itchiness.

And so, one learns that from time to time one will find oneself falling down the rabbit hole. And the tricky thing is just what to do with that empty jar... All one can do is to be open to putting it in the cupboard as it passes by. One way or another we're all moving the empty jars from the shelves to the cupboards. Sometimes like Alice we reach out in curiosity at other times we reach out for security.

 I read recently in a blog I follow, that Victor Frankl said:

"The last of the human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity...”

Well, I'm not so sure about that because it seems to me that what is being assumed here is a stable self, a centred, grounded self able to absorb the situation whilst remaining capacious enough not to be overwhelmed by it. And I'm not sure that such capacity is granted to us except by what might be called grace. Now I'm not saying that it can't be cultivated. I am not saying that one can't acknowledge but not become. Clearly it is possible not to add unhelpful energy to one's experience to just let it be and respond to what is needed without adding or resisting whilst still engaging with the flux of life. It's just that in 40 years of OCD waxing and waning by unfathomable reasons I have seen how the feelings forming choice and which impart one's attitude are not anywhere near as stable as might be sufficient ground to stake a claim for freedom. And the surrender to the falling not so available at times as would be required for freedom. And if such stability of mind and surrender were at all times available to all beings I wonder - what shape meaning? What shape compassion? It seems to me that such freedom as Frankl points to resides in the divinity of our humanity. And, as we span the space between heaven and earth such capacity for absorbing life's vicissitudes from a centred vantage modulates. I'm doubtful I would have survived in a concentration camp. It's possible, but I'm not sure what was available to Frankl's mind would have been available to mine. The modulation of capacity - to what extent is this ours to control?

It takes a great deal of energy to negotiate the rabbit hole of an OCD flare up. Depending upon the intensity and other aspects of one's life the ability to remain centred is affected by the depletion of energy. Beyond this there's a more straight forward seeing emptiness- that there's no separate self to be centred. I am always at the centre of my life yet there's no separate person to grasp and although I say 'my life' in reality it's a much more diffuse experience than 'my' indicates. And so it comes to this- what if anything needs to be done to let the stickiness pass? The difficulty is sitting in the not knowing. And as with quicksand the key is not to wriggle. It's not that I disagree with Frankl, it's that I question what causes the modulation of capacity.