A Manifesto… or Something…

So, folks, this used to be a blog that was just about Buddhism.  I fell in love with some cool ideas, and wanted to be useful by sharing about them.

But then, like most sets of ideas (even Buddhism), it didn’t cover everything I wanted to talk about.  At all.  So I started to try to find a different -ism that I could write about.  I guess I could have just started a different blog.  It’s not as if I have a huge readership; there are probably about five of you: friends that are essentially equivalent to my Uncle Noel, who was always pumped to read my essays during my undergrad studies.

Uncle Noel particularly liked the one about the ethics of war, where I said that it may well be the case that there are ethical times to kill other people, but that I sure as hell am not about to outsource discretion on that to the government and join the armed forces.  It’s for the best; I’d surely get my ass court-marshalled.  But I also think it’s dickheadery to be aggressive towards the contributions of veterans instead of giving space for peeps to heal on Anzac Day.  It’s not simple.  Nothing is simple for very long.

So, I didn’t speak about things.  At least, I only spoke in private, because I didn’t feel qualified.  As I got a bit older (I’m at the ripe and advanced age of 35, so obviously I haven’t reached any developmental end-point), I started to notice that within public discourse, whether someone feels qualified to speak is a very poor test of whether they are actually qualified to speak.  I started to get into spats on Facebook when people were cruel or bigoted, and I wanted them to check themselves.  I started to see that speaking up is a way of occupying space in society.  I started to see that when I occupy space to help, or nourish, or defend, or question, then discourse shifts slightly.  I realised that I was contributing.

Obviously, though, my finite brain and finite experience means that I only see a tiny sliver of meaning and truth.  You, dear reader, see your own sliver.

Returning to the matter of -isms, I thought that I needed to understand a sector of culture and belong to it before my writing would have an audience.  I shushed and shushed, waiting to be more–or less–queer, less vegan, less left, more–or less–Christian, more–or less–nourished by Buddhism, more–or less-academic, and so on.  But all of these spaces/communities/ways of thinking are not static, and are not comprehensive.  I am my very own cliche of a special snowflake, in the very midst of my belonging and not belonging.

I can’t shed ideology.  I can only try to work through it and process it.  Trying to shed ideology is about as meaningful as trying to physically not exist in any specific space.  But by the same token, these ideological and cultural markers are never quite comprehensively descriptive.  I keep fiddling with them and sifting through them to try to find slivers of meaning; bits of truth.

I see it as a social evolution that we have come to the place where we generally recognise that dialogue about what constitutes healthy/beneficial relationships, healthy/beneficial ways to eat, healthy/beneficial ways to have a sexuality, helps us to be better at those things.  The dialogue (when we engage in it in a healthy/beneficial way) helps us to be happier, more well; to do good and feel good.  I think the same is true about ideology and belief.  I sure as folk don’t want to tell you what to believe.  I want for you to speak truthfully about how things seem to you, and be conscientious about seeking your answers, with conscience and authenticity.

I’d like to attempt this process in dialogue.  I’d like a space to process this stuff, and explore ideas and practices collaboratively, to try to be useful.  This might be in the form of discursive analysis, antifa criticism, theological discussion, or literary criticism.  But sometimes it will also be falafel recipes or gardening tips, because quite frankly, those things also help me cope with being a little boat in a big ocean.


Trust (Poem)


It choked it out of me,
A year ago…
Sat on my chest
Slapped me in the face
My own tears in my nostrils,
Drowing me.

It buried me:
My deep, deep fear
And I lay in the dark
Under the rubble
Of my caved-in life.

At first, muffled,
The voices came
Calling out
Until you dragged me out
From beneath that massive weight
And your tears of relief
Washed clean lines
In my dust-caked face.

I stand here, among you,
Still dazed,
But I can breathe now.

Pastoral Narratives and Kindness as Redemption

Upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale

There dwelt a Shepherd, Michael was his name;

An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb.

His bodily frame had been from youth to age

Of an unusual strength; his mind was keen,

Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,

And in his shepherd’s calling he was prompt

And watchful more than ordinary men.

And grossly that man errs, who should suppose

That the green valleys, and the streams and rocks,

Were things indifferent to the Shepherd’s thoughts.

Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed

The common air; hills, which with vigorous step

He had so often climbed; which had impressed

So many incidents upon his mind

Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;

Which like a book, preserved the memory

Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,

Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts

The certainty of honourable gain;

Those fields, those hills – what could they less? Had laid

Strong hold on his affections, were to him

A pleasurable feeling of blind love,

The pleasure which there is in life itself.

The Moment for Grief

Much of the discourse around mindfulness focuses on what we gain from opening ourselves to the beauty around us in each moment, and in taking hold of the happiness that is available to us at any given time.

Sometimes, though, it is not the moment for joy.  Sometimes the current moment is observed fittingly in experiencing loss and grief.

My current moment is a moment for grief.  This is an inescapable, rasping, biting, fact.  Initially I wanted to abide with this fact in privacy.  After all, many of you are people I don’t know at all, and sometimes we need to respect ourselves by taking time in solitude.  I took these moments, and they helped me to begin to process my very real distress.

In this moment, I want to share with you what I have written to note what it means, how it feels, and that it is right and fitting in this moment for me to grieve.

I couldn’t let you leave without a word: child.

Baby boy; always my own.

Always a part of me,

Always apart from me.

I couldn’t watch you pass without a word.

Baby boy; always my own.

Formed in love;

Passed in blood and weeping.
And in this recognition

Of the tiny face we will never see

…This weeping…

You are birthed into memory.

Baby boy; always my own:

Always a part of me,

Always apart from me…

Passed in blood and weeping.

The Poetry of the Real

As usual, at five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters.  The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun.  It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.

The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket.  It was pitch dark except for the yellow light cast on the window by three lamps – two in the outer zone, and one inside the camp itself.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

ftr-gulags RUSsiberia.jpg UPSIZED

Prisoners in a Gulag, or forced labour camp

The above passage begins a novella that won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The book is exactly what its title suggests: it recounts just one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich.  It doesn’t recount anything more or less than that small fragment of time for a man whose life is of very little consequence to those around him in his work camp.  By writing about the experience of the Gulag prisoners in Russia at the time, Solzhenitsyn created a story that elevates that experience by opening it up to the consideration and sympathy of its readers.

In doing so, Ivan’s patterns of using the toilet bucket, and of trying to keep his toes warm, and of his weariness and resignation enter into our contemplation and we find ourselves moved by them.  The tone of the book is permeated by a sense of Ivan’s invisibility within his lived context, and the story thus flags the invisibility of the people that Solzhenitsyn uses this story to represent.

What if someone wrote about you?

What would they see about how it feels to live your life?  What if your routines, your sufferings, your patterns were noticed and elevated in this way?

What if you began to notice your own life with this degree of care?

What if you began to notice these things about others, and let it matter to you?  If you really actually took stock without judgement, and entered as fully as possible into the experiences of other beings?

Your life would, far more often, become poetry.  You would see more of the beauty of life: the beauty of melancholy, and intimacy, and solitude, and the millions of tiny things happening around you.  The gardens, and the tastes, and the sounds of the rain on your roof.  The act of sweeping your kitchen floor, of peeling vegetables, of tending the soil, of tidying up your desk, of tucking your child in at night, of listening to your coworker share their joy about their achievements or their weekend.

So stop, just for thirty seconds and breathe.  Just stay here in this moment that you are living right now.  Stay a while, and keep yourself company.  Take note of your story.

Between Yesterday and Tomorrow

He said, ‘There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done.  One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow.  So, today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly, to live (His Holiness, the Dalai Lama).

Do Not Copy / Not For Sale

All things change, and we don’t ever really know in which direction they’ll change until it happens.

I initially began to tune into Buddhist practices because I was hoping to find some ways to manage anxiety and depression.  I found that the practice of meditation and tuning as exclusively as possible into each moment as it happened had this beautiful, peaceful potency that helped free me up to make the best of what was available to me in each moment: no more, and no less.

As I practiced this, I slowly became better at dealing with what was in front of me at any given time, without being subjected to the distress and paralysis of constantly fumbling with my past to try to find the right way to look at it.  This was very profound for me, as I sought to address the emotional problems that haunted me as a result of the abuse and neglect I faced as a child and young person.

Similarly, this act of tuning into each moment helped me to feel less afraid of what my future might hold: whether I could protect myself from suffering in the future.

Gradually I realised that in each moment all I had to do was make a small choice about what to do at that time.  Small choices of compassion, or self-nourishment, or diligence in each moment felt less overwhelming and somehow became a lot more potent.  When I am able to be present and compassionate in more moments, I protect myself from suffering in the future.  By choosing small kindnesses, small contributions of effort in short moments, I am able to be more consistent and more potent than I ever was when I was trying to predict every moment and effort in my future.  I used to exhaust myself before I had even started, by thinking about everything I would need to do instead of the first small part that I needed to master in that moment.

The freedom of living in each present as it comes to us also allows us to recover more quickly when things don’t go our way.  It helps us to avoid all kinds of shortcomings that bring suffering to ourselves and others:

  • We avoid arrogance by acting in the present rather than calculating our worth based on the past, or on what we perceive our future capacities will be;
  • We avoid dishonesty by acting in the present rather than fearing the consequences of living truthfully in the present moment;
  • We avoid unkindness by seeing the present worth/strengths/needs of other beings;
  • We avoid laziness and procrastination by not assuming that we will have time in the future to do what we can do now.

These are very broad examples that only cover a few concepts, but that’s what I’ve got time to write today.

What will you do now?  What is this moment’s best application, for you?  Do you need to rest? To meditate? To express kindness?  To eat?  To clean?  To write?  To listen?  To cry?  To travel?  Use this moment well and you will have done your best to protect yourself from future suffering, and in doing so, you will have your best possible chance at creating future conditions that increase your opportunities for a happy and potent life.

My Humblest Apology

The idea of apologetics as a mode of discussing one’s religious leanings is one of the more tedious topics that I can think of.  There is a deep irony in beginning my blog in such a mode, and I hope you’ll bear with me as I explain, as accurately as possible, this venture that I’m embarking on… that hasn’t happened yet, and can only be authentic within a certain fluidity.

It’s difficult to pin down a voice for these discussions; and yet the act of doing so is an important aspect of establishing a rapport with you as a reader.  If I stand well back from you, distancing my voice from the ‘facts’ I lay before you, it might help you to feel as if I am being objective and that my ‘facts’ (as long as they are couched in the appropriate references and so on) are not just about ‘a buddhism’ that I bumble through the living of, but of some Buddhism Proper.  If the latter even exists, I’m unqualified to describe it authoritatively.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, I don’t actually wish to describe to you all of what it feels like to live as me, and I don’t want to describe this blog as a road to enlightenment as such.  I am not sure where my life will end up, and my most valuable asset as a Buddhist is those fleeting moments when I am able to grasp that each moment is, in itself, all I will ever really have.  I am besotted with my fragile liberation from chasing ideas of what is to come.

My initial training in philosophical discourse and the histories of thought was at a somewhat (and subjectively) moderate Christian theological college as I worked towards the goal of becoming a Christian pastor.  Huge swathes of what I wrote in order to gain my degree was geared towards skilling up as a Christian apologist in order to equip me to bring the unwashed masses into line with the ‘Truth’ I was being educated in.  I learnt a system of thought and, whilst I laughed with the other theology students about the books of responses brought into my house by visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was in many ways being educated to think and function in a similar (albeit more creative and fluid) way.  I’m not interested in setting the blog up as some kind of Christianity vs. Buddhism thingy though, either.  Yuck.  Just yuck.

What I do hope that I will be able to write is something truthful, that functions as apologetics only insofar as an attempt to bridge the diverse gaps between my readers and my own mind, in order to try to be useful to you.  I want you to understand some of the ways in which seeking out Buddhist thought and teachings helps me to be happier, and more compassionate, and less burdened by my personal history and current headspace at any given time.  I am not trying to change you in the sense of thinking that I am an expert and you are a learner and you should read what I have to say so that I can fix you.  Sometimes, though, I see beauty and I want to write it down in case it brings something to someone else, too.

Over the years (I won’t pretend there are more than a few; I’m 33 years old as I write this) I have found increasing relief from my sufferings as I have accidentally stumbled upon Buddhist teachings and further stumbled as I seek to live them out practically.  Some of these practices are interpersonal, some reflective, some theoretical and some purely and unfathomably experiential.  As I learn more it helps me to write more, and as I write and talk about what I am thinking about, sometimes I am useful.

So, as I write this blog, I hope you will accept this humblest and most respectful apology, and I offer it to you out of a wish to be useful to you: nothing further than that.