It Was Ever Thus

Following the surprising and welcome news from that renowned climatologist, Donald Trump, that climate change is a hoax . . . news which is particularly welcome for those who live in the low-lying areas of Bangladesh . . . I thought perhaps I should re-examine other hoaxes that have been foisted on us.

Once you open your otherwise closed mind to the possibilities, the world becomes a different, and very much simpler, place. It is, for example, both obvious and reassuring to know that the world is flattish, and that the sun is moving around us. It will then not take you long to see that women and blacks are inferior, and that no problems come from the building of walls.

This latter point becomes crystal clear when you think of, for example, Troy, or Jerusalem, or Berlin!

Today, I have been pondering the hoax that is history and progress. The conventional view of historical time is of steady progress, whether it is a steady slope of improvement, or whether it is a two-steps forward-one-step-back progression as described by Hegel.

However, it’s possible to see it very differently.

Have you noticed that old people always tell you how much better everything was in the past? I say it myself, now I am as old as I am! So do all my friends!

It is dismissed and marginalised as being grumpy.

Interestingly, my father was the same. Everyone’s father was the same, going right back to Adam, who had no father to tell him how rubbish Eden was.

But what if it has always been true, and the old folk have been silenced by the next generation, because life would be unbearable if it was truly recognised to be as it is, an infinite process of entropy. Entropy is recognised by physicists as a universal law of disintegration, but no-one seems to question why we think it somehow only applies to the rest of the cosmos and not to human development.

Maybe the elders have always been right. After all, even after comprehensive indoctrination we can all see that the Garden of Eden was better than, for example, Stoke on Trent or modern Syria. (If you need any more examples, ask any old person.)

And it’s no good falling back on evolution, which is widely misunderstood to mean improvement. Evolution has no plan. All Evolution is doing is passing on its DNA. It has nothing to do with you. And nothing to do with quality of life. One of its most successful experiments is the chicken, which, as a whole species, has co-opted us into increasing its numbers. The quality of a chicken’s life is irrelevant to Evolution.

As is human quality of life. Just so long as we keep breeding.

This is why young people have to be brainwashed into thinking things are getting better, so they keep breeding. But when an individual gets past active breeding age, they can see it is all a hoax, a practical joke. It is then, and only then, that Evolution can allow them to see the truth. That things get worse, not better.

It was ever thus.




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Living in Interesting Times

I am reminded of the old Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times.”

It was difficult to leap out of bed this morning with my normal enthusiasm (sic), what with thinking about all these jolly interesting times we’re living through. One is tempted to list them, but what would be the point in doing that?cover

And you might disagree with something on my list, and, as a result, decide to hate me or despise me, or, worse than anything in the world, decide to unfriend me!

No, we shouldn’t fall out. We might need each other.

And I don’t really know you. You might be someone who sees it as a good thing, a reason to be cheerful, that a newly-resurgent Russia and a newly protectionist USA can now divide the world between them in order to put a stop to China. Or you might be a member of another species, any of which will see it as a cause for unbridled celebration that homo sapiens could soon become extinct.

Although the world now seems as though it is run by the crazy people, it has always been so, and I’m not so stupid as to wish I was an Ice Age hunter-gatherer, or a twelfth century Chinese labourer, or a 16th Century Russian serf, or a 19th Century English slum dweller.

If you catch me getting misty-eyed about the past, any past, just sidle up to me and whisper the magic word, “anaesthetic”.

But I can’t be really positive all the time. Some days it all seems too much.

The world situation, my health, the unstoppable and accelerating rush towards death, the impersonality of the universe, the dark afternoons of winter, all come crowding in on me. And, during my morning walk with Ruby, from the church in the village came the slow tolling of the bell.

Of couse. It’s Remembrance Sunday.


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Carving Valleys

This morning, when I took Ruby for our walk along the river to Hey Green, the world had turned all watery. It was a bit of a shock for both of us, as we have had such a dry autumn.

The river bank

The river bank

Amazingly, rain doesn’t seem to affect my disability scooter, though I wouldn’t drive it in a swimming pool! The road was wet, which makes it easier for me to hear a car behind me, but, on the down side, makes it more difficult for the drivers to see me.

Deer Hill was invisible in cloud, and mist softened the valley. Everywhere is homogenous, brown, mottled green.

Over all is the grey sky.IMG_2465

The alder carrs are full of water. They are no longer boggy bits where Ruby gets filthy; now they are black trees standing in a lake, and there are no rabbits to chase.

Alder is a bright orange when it is felled, bright against black winter. It must be good wood for building things like piers and jetties, for it seems quite happy to spend half the year standing in water.

The river has almost doubled its width, and is dark and fast-flowing, except for the places where it has burst its banks, where it lies still and cold.

The sound has changed overnight. What was a high, playful sound, has become a deep, steady rush. The slow erosive power of a relatively small stream like this carves whole valleys from the moor. All of the Colne Valley has been carved from ancient mountains, and when the river is full like this I can almost hear the remorseless wearing away, grain of soil by grain of soil, little stone by little stone.

The ditches are full. Everywhere is the sound of water with its head down, heading for the sea.



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Searching for the Needles in the Political Haystack

Revolutions are notorious for making things worse. Consider Egypt, Iran, and Syria. Cynical Britons might include America!

However, there has just been a bloodless revolution that will not produce a bloodbath or a tyranny, and, as such, it should be known and celebrated.

There are a couple of hundred countries in the world, but Iceland has achieved what only three other countries have: equal parliamentary representation of men and women. All the others are still in the grip of the patriarchy.

It joins a select band of three, and, if you guess which countries they are, you’ll be wrong.

Because they are Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba.


For me, Rwanda is the real eye-opener, with a parliament consisting of 68% women.

These are the needles in the political haystack, little bits of positivity that never seem to get reported. They are important good news, not just Cute Puppy Finds Loving Owner stuff.

As I get older I find it increasingly hard not to get sucked into apathetic cynicism. Cynicism in politics is all around me, whether it be outrageous lying and hypocrisy, or so-called satirists sharing a quiz show with people who hold poisonous views (after all, we all love a laugh, don’t we? And these extremists are such jolly good sports . . . )

It warms the cockles of an old man’s heart to find some seriously good news at the moment. I should try to find some more.

Basic arithmetic

Basic arithmetic

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Heaven or Hell?

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” John Milton


A reader of this blog wrote to me recently, to express her feeling that my description of a retreat sounded, to her, more like hell than heaven.

And, Heather, it set me to thinking . . .

Why, exactly, do I go on retreat? Why is it not hell?

Heather is probably in the majority, and may wonder how I could actually enjoy being off-grid with no electronic devices, not much chit-chat, no meat, no alcohol, and not over-much sleep.

Crosby Hall

Crosby Hall

Put as bleakly as this, she would have a point.

But I suspect it is not just we ‘Zenners’ who feel that a degree of apparent hardship and isolation more than pays for itself in the form of deep satisfaction and understanding. There is a great beauty in it.

Mountaineers and climbers feel it, long-distance runners feel it, monks and mystics feel it. Explorers of all kinds feel it, whether they explore the physical or the inner world.

So I’m not on my own, and there must be something in it that goes beyond pain, and I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others.

For me – and I can only speak with authority for me – first of all, I suppose, comes the physical and mental challenge, and the satisfaction one gets from achieving it. This is the obvious one, but still begs the question, why not do something easier and more obviously useful? I can catch myself thinking this when I watch the Tour de France.

There is the sense of inner health that comes with the ascetic lifestyle. However, this smugness falls to pieces when I get home and weigh myself, and find that all that inactive meditation has resulted in me putting on 3 pounds.

Crosby Hall

Crosby Hall

Retreats and other extreme sports are not free of physical danger. Climbers fall and get killed, runners destroy their knees, meditators put on weight!

Just as with climbing and running, meditators have to break through ‘the Wall’ that they all talk about. It is a very real obstacle, born of ego-resistance, laziness, tiredness and frustration, that makes the inner difficulty of the challenge. If you couldn’t break through it, it would make the activity pointless and disturbingly masochistic.

In retreat terms, this Wall famously comes in the second day. This is when you think it’s all stupid and painful and upsetting. If you were allowed a mobile phone you’d just call a taxi.

But, if I can hold my nerve and push through it, I can reach within sight of the summit, or at least a stunning viewpoint, just as the climber does. And this gives me the motivation and pleasure to continue.img_1285

Up here, in the mountains, or when you get your second wind, or when the mind slows right down, the world’s beauty can overwhelm you, and the tue insignificance of my ego becomes apparent. It is an epiphany, a state of peace and clarity.

To those who do it, those who climb or run or sail or cycle or explore the body and mind, it is addictive and humbling.

The mind can, indeed, make a heaven of hell.

Thanks, Heather, for providing the spark for these musings.


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What Is This?

I’ve just got back from my six-monthly, week long, Zen Buddhist retreat at Crosby Hall, in west Lancashire. As always with the autumn retreat, I have come home with a cold. Forty people sitting together for eight hours a day is not conducive to infection control.

Maybe we should meditate in face masks? Then, we would look like rows of chimpanzees trying to come up with the plot line for Hamlet!

On the one hand, the physical and emotional process of every retreat is the same; on the other hand, every one is totally different. It could be no other way, really.

Crosby Hall

Crosby Hall

The first day is spent adjusting to the new regime – the early morning rise, the eight hours of meditation, the aches and pains that come from stillness but, at the same time, the sense of freedom that comes from a structure to the day that is designed to give the mind the openness of no-structure.

The second day is the difficult one, when the body begins to hurt and the mind starts to examine the things it doesn’t want to. You have to just get through this bit, and then the next few days are easy and enormously interesting, as the body adjusts and the mind explores new discoveries.

What does my mind do when I am meditating?

It doesn’t stop thinking, for a start. Trying to stop the mind from thinking is a little like trying to stop the heart beating. Thinking is what it does. I guess I’ll only stop thinking when I die!

At first, I just watch the thoughts as they come up, and then let them go away again. The trick is not to follow them, or grasp at them, and then they will start to slow down and lose their ability to seem real. They are, after all, only electrical discharges inside a skull.

Even if you are a genius, they are still only discharges in your skull.

At this point in a retreat, I find myself fixing and obsessing on a phrase or expression that my mind seems to have randomly chosen from the various things my teacher has said. One time, I pondered on Douglas Harding’s insistence on looking at the looker rather than at the seen. This time, it was Keizan’s question, What is this?

The beauty of this is its simplicity. I sat and asked myself What is this? SometimesI had my eyes open, and so was asking about all the world, the Thingness of Space; and sometimes I had my eyes shut, and so the question becomes What is this thing I call me? The Thingness of Me . . .

Then I started to flick my eyes open for just a snapshot of the world, and I found there was another question. What is this? And why does it have to have a name?

This is so simple and facile, you’re probably thinking, Why go to all that trouble and discomfort to find that out? It’s obvious.

But, I felt that was the point. It is obvious. It’s so obvious we’ve forgotten to notice it. We subscribe to the notion that the universe is a vast web of interconnected energy and flow, but we forget that this applies to our tiny chaotic lives as well. It applies to the wall you’re looking at.

Crosby Hall grounds

Crosby Hall grounds

This felt so important that I wanted to dance. I can’t dance conventionally, but I do a good hip-hop impression with my hands and face! It is how I physically express joy.

We all do the Dance together.


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A Whole New Ball Game

img_4087 img_4088I am sitting on a chrome bar stool in the kitchen. I am sitting near the breakfast bar, not at it, and I am not eating. I could just be looking, thoughtlessly, out of the window, where the sun is shining through the scented rose.

The rose, planted in memory of my mother, is having a second flush this autumn. The first major frost will waste her flowers, and she will be wind-blown, like crimson confetti.

The stool is set low, so my feet are on the floor either side, to act as my stabilisers.


Although I have multiple sclerosis, and have appalling, monocular vision, I am looking, to the public, uninformed, view, like a fairly ordinary old-ish man.

“Ordinary”, not “normal”. Ordinary is the best we can aspire to, while normal is the worst. Ordinary is an average, normal is the lowest common denominator.

Although I may look like I’m looking at the rose outside, I am, in fact looking at my wife, Elisabeth, at the other end of the kitchen, who holds a yellow tennis ball. She is going to throw it at me!

We have invented a game, and, like all games, the point of it, in an existential sense, is not at all obvious.

The rules of the game insist that the thrown ball must bounce before it is caught. More of a basketball pass, really.

This is an impossibility for me. I can only see the ball in tiny two-dimensional flickers, my hands don’t do what I tell them, and, if I move, I fall over. As a contest, it doesn’t have much going for it!

But, as we throw the ball to each other, over and over again, I’m getting better at it.

The low bar stool gives me the stability to reach for the ball without falling over, and I can feel my cote waking up. I sometimes catch the ball, as I lunge despairingly for the yellow flash. My success rate is improving. Not a lot, but improving nevertheless.

I think my assumption that I no longer had any hand-eye co-ordination was blocking the instinctive move, the wordless and thoughtless response to the flight of the ball. If you think about catching or hitting a ball, you can’t do it with freedom. The action becomes cramped.

This, now, is the Zen of Catching.


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