Wednesday, January 28, 2015

THE FLU

It's humbling to be reduced to a quivering, achy mockery of what was once a human being, but this is what the flu can do.  I had my flu shot months ago, but it seems that just this year the medical community bet on the wrong strain and what started out as a innocent-seeming sore throat blossomed into what I can only assume to be the flu.  It involves the familiar wooziness in the head and the familiar aches and pains--which don't get easier with age.

This morning, bleary after a fitful, often interrupted sleep, I thought this would be an ideal time to put my meditation practice to the test.  I've been doing it for years, I told myself, in part in order to be ready for the sickness and pain I am likely to encounter as I age.  Let's see how it works when I'm feeling terrible.

It pains me to report that it didn't work too well.  I lit my candle, made myself as comfortable as possible in the circumstance, and set my iPhone "Insight Timer" app for a half hour.  With my head awhirl with fatigue and possibly, I thought, fever, I soon found that its inclination to go to sleep was a lot more powerful than its intention to get calm and focussed.  Pain is one thing.  I can manage to sit through some of that.  The flu is something else...

Monday, January 26, 2015

ANTI-SEMITISM

In yesterday's email I received a forward that included this link to a piece in the BBC News Magazine about Winston Churchill's less endearing qualities.  If you scroll down, you'll find some thoughts about how he shared the "low-level casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind."  My friend added this personal note:
     [   ] the wording of "casual anti-semitism" seems appropriate: one of Hemingway's friends, when asked about H's (whose 3rd marital decision was to marry a jew) anti-semitism, the friend replied (words to the effect) "well that's the way we all were", i.e  unthinkingly, 'cause that's the way they were raised/the culture they came from. Perhaps a good example of this is our wonderful Eleanor Roosevelt (see her early life comments about the Jews: obviously, I have great admiration for people who grow).
    In no way to make apologies for antisemitism/other vile & virulent beliefs about others, but I sometimes wonder how others might judge us some day for thinking/behaving in certain ways which our upbringing/culture has instilled in us---or have we Californians of the 20-21st Century already achieved moral perfection??
Which in turn triggered memories of my own.  I responded:
Thanks for the forward.  As one who was brought up in the culture referred to, I was particularly interested.  Living in English country villages, the son of the local Anglican minister, during and after World War II, I never knowingly met a Jew until coming to America!  Hard to believe, perhaps, but true.  All I knew of Jews was what the Nazis had perpetrated in the course of the war, and even that was somehow at a distance.  No, that’s not quite true.  My good Christian mother, the vicar’s wife, read to me stories as a child from books in a series called “All Saints,” and I have deeply buried memories of stories about what Jews did to little Christian children in the dark back streets of eastern European cities…  This, surely, was a part of the “culture” that is referred to.  Not a heritage to take pride in, but one to be conscious of, I think.  We do need to understand, and correct where necessary, the prejudices that underlie of our social/cultural assumptions, and that’s not always easy to do.  And no, we Californians may think of ourselves as liberated but we are far from achieving moral perfection.  It behooves us to wake up, and stay awake, to who we are.   
Thanks again for an important thought on Sunday morning.  
(Actually, my memory failed me.  The book was actually "Six O'Clock Saints."  I had one of those deep frissons of childhood remembered when I found an image of the cover on Amazon...  I wonder if my sister remembers it, too?  The story I remembered was titled "Little Saint Hugh"--and its location was NOT eastern Europe but Lincoln, in my own country, England!  The story is a part of the whole ancient "blood libel" fallacy.  I think there must have been other stories set in eastern Europe, though.  They tease the memory...)

Like all racial prejudice, anti-Semitism arises out of ignorance.  Too often, we are content to allow it to persist in a "low-level, casual" way because that's easier than choosing to take the conscious path.  Our 21st century American culture is shot through with prejudice of all kinds, but it remains below the level of visibility because we are comfortable in our ignorance and choose not to make the effort to question our own behaviors and beliefs.  What results is a great deal of unnecessary suffering, for ourselves as well as for those we so easily dismiss or hold in contempt.

With stories of anti-Semitism and other forms of racial hatred on the rise in Europe, there's plenty of prejudice still to worry about.  With the growth of world populations and their migration, and as cultures clash, there will be plenty more to worry about in the future of humankind.  My own job, though, can only be to monitor my own prejudice, with consciousness.  



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

REVIEW COPY, ANYONE?

I'm wondering if there are TBD readers who might like to receive a review copy of The Pilgrim's Staff?   If so, please feel free to email me with details, and I'd be happy to let you have an ebook at no cost.  My email address is peterclothier@mac.com.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

LEONARDO’S SUPER BRAIN: Book Review


LEONARDO’S BRAIN: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius, by Leonard Shlain 

I’m a big believer in the significance of names, and for this reason—among many others—took special pleasure in reading one Leonard (Leonard Shlain) writing with such evident passion about a namesake, Leonardo de Vinci, from many centuries past. 

A surgeon, inventor, and best-selling author, the late Leonard Shlain was evidently himself something of a Renaissance man.  No surprise, then, to find him so fascinated with Leonardo, the Renaissance man par excellence.  Steeped in knowledge of technology and the sciences as well as in history, music and art, Shlain writes not only with genuine enthusiasm for his subject, but with engagingly elegant and highly readable prose.   He carries along even the less informed reader—such as, with regard to the sciences, myself—with an organized progression of carefully examined content.  We follow his arguments with pleasure, and with curiosity as to where he will take us next. 

“Leonardo’s Brain” leads us on a spirited journey through a maze of information as complex and intriguing as the brain it seeks to describe.  I’m not up to date on left brain/right brain research, but Shain makes a persuasive case for his contention that da Vinci, a left-hander and quite possibly same-sex oriented, was as powerfully right- as left-brained, and possessed of an extraordinary intuitive power that enabled him to posit scientific theories and invent technological devices that were far ahead of his time.  He credits the artist, persuasively, with a special “time-space consciousness” that enabled him, for example, to envision aerial views of cities and landscapes that would have been unimaginable in his day; and to “see” his way through problems to solutions that no prior human knowledge or rational analysis could explain.

While Shain’s guided tour of Leonardo’s brain embraces, of course, the artist’s particular genius as a painter and draftsman, it also explores his astonishing grasp of human and animal anatomy, biology and botany, mathematics and astronomy, military sciences, geography, geology, cartography…  And more.  But the book itself is yet more ambitious, projecting from the master’s brain forward into present-day scientific, geopolitical and ecological issues and suggesting—I hope not overly optimistically—that the human brain has evolved, and will continue to evolve, toward an “improved version of homo sapiens”, gifted with a more dimensional understanding of our situation in the universe, a fuller and more generous consciousness; one that can operate, given the advances of five centuries, with the same time-space super-consciousness he attributes to Leonardo.

Let’s hope the author is right.  In the meantime, his book is an engaging antidote to the hostility and pessimism that infects our world today.  A more advanced, wide-ranging and compassionate consciousness is perhaps the last best hope of our troublesome and trouble-making species.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

LIFE-LINE

Here's how it went this morning...

After metta, I started out with a familiar exercise to settle the mind, bringing the attention to fingernails, fingers, wrists and forearms, upper arms, shoulders; then down to the toenails, bottoms of the feet and ankles, lower legs, thighs and hip joints, pelvic bone; lower back, mid-back, upper back and neck; skull and jawbone; both hemispheres of the brain, eyes, nose, mouth and ears; and following the breath down through the throat to the chest, lungs, heart; upper abdomen, lower abdomen, and out...

That steadying feat accomplished to the best of my ability, I brought my attention to the thought that I've been working on: I don't want to die.  And what came up, surprising me, this morning, was the oldest of all my deeply buried memories: the closest I ever came to actually dying, to my knowledge, was at the moment of my birth.  The umbilical cord got twisted around my neck, so my father told me later in my life, and I was saved only by the swift action of the midwife with a pair of scissors.  Ironically, the life-line that had assured my survival since conception now threatened to prevent my entry into the the world.

These things keep coming back to haunt us.  Much, much later, I came to associate this sublimated memory with fears about writing, about being choked off at the throat in such a way that the words would not come out--or come out only in a strangled version of what I wanted to say.  I came to understand the need to open up that passageway through an act of consciousness.  It was perhaps the first of many epiphanies that helped me to change the course of my life, and to become the writer I was always meant to be.

So that came up.  And the truth is that the identity I have created for myself as a writer has been threatened, recently, by a lack of energy and motivation.  Yet I fear what might result if I were to allow that particular entity to "die."  Who would I then be?  Would I lose my value, my sense of worth as a human being?  Would I be nothing?

Then a second insight: the neck pain I have been suffering from for too long now, more than a month, surely plays into this.  The neck, of course, is the physical connection between head and body, the direct passageway between brain and heart.  If the neck is locked up, as mine has been, that connection becomes tenuous.  And if the head is severed from the body, of course, the result is... death.  Having lived for the better part of my life "in the head" and having learned the hard way of the importance of the heart, I have tried to remain aware of the need to maintain that connection through a continuing act of consciousness.  To lose it is, in some important way, to die.

The work of meditation then, as I see it, is to open up that life-line and to keep it open.  I surrender too easily to old habits--particularly the bad ones!  To revert to the question that started this whole line of thought: why am I doing this?  To facilitate the passage between head and heart!  Which is an answer I can live with...