Sunday, 12 May 2013

Being Sick With Grace: An Appreciation of Toni Bernhard

For the past five years, since who-knows-what triggered a nervous breakdown in the spring of 2008, I’ve been an anxious little bunny. Intermittently, at least. It’s always there in the background, and it needs careful managing if I’m to keep it there. But it’s also nine years since I first developed chronic pain. The anniversary is only a few days away – 24 May. I turn to that thought not with an eager bunny hop, but a kind of regretful sigh. Very few of us look forward to our birthdays as we get older, as it’s an uneasy reminder of you-know-what. But at least with birthdays we have something to actually celebrate!

Nine years sick – as they would say across the pond. Over here it’s ‘ill’ – or, if you’re a supporter of the Con-Dem government, or believe what you read in the shit rags – ‘fraud’.

Imagine the relief I felt when I opened Facebook one day and found that my friend Toni Bernhard had posted her new blog piece: ’12 Tips from 12 Years Sick’. When I first ‘met’ her she was just posting ’10 Tips from 10 Years Sick’, and now I’ve known her as a friend and been helped in very practical (and spiritual) ways by her work, for two years. That’s a pretty happy anniversary, even if our mutual ‘sickness’ anniversaries, which both occur at around the same time (French Open Grand Slam – tennis is one of several shared interests), are not.

Toni Bernhard used to be a law professor at the University of California in Davis. In May 2001, on a trip with her husband to Paris, she fell ill with what she thought was severe flu. She still hasn’t recovered. Her doctors have classed her illness, which prevents this life-loving, hard working ex-professor from spending much of her life outside her bedroom, as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (M.E. in the UK) – which many people now suspect to be several (or many) discrete illness(es). Toni sometimes wryly refers to it as ‘Parisian Flu’.

I discovered Toni’s work while listening to a recorded talk by Tara Brach, which mentioned a new and remarkable book, ‘How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers’. And it is remarkable: a clear but conversational self-help book, with an autobiographical thread running through it. It’s so helpful and at the same time so personal, that when I read it I feel almost as if she’s talking to me personally. And yet it’s become a bestseller and has helped countless thousands of people like me.

Apart from this rare personal quality, other things that struck me in her writing included a total openness about how it took her years to ‘get it right’ – and how she still struggles with her illness at times, even now. She understands how it feels to hear the remark that every chronically ill person has to endure at times: “But you don’t look sick!” And she believes, and more importantly shows, how it is possible to find joy and equanimity even when our lives have taken a drastic turn, and left us with something painful and lifelong (possibly) that we didn’t ask for. She’s one of the least judgemental people I’ve ever known – a wonderful expression of Buddhist practice in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

I wrote Toni a ‘fan email’, and she responded quickly with just the same caring and friendly tone as I’d found in her book. We then connected on Facebook, which in a way has become an extension of her work, as her page attracted thousands of chronically ill admirers of her book, all seeking a connection with fellow sufferers and wanting to apply the Buddhist-inspired ‘practices’ in ‘How To Be Sick’ to their radically changed lives. Another page, also inspired by Toni’s work, has a much smaller membership and is very important to me personally. All of us in the group are struggling at times, and we all express so much mutual support and caring that it’s a beautiful experience – a kind of model Buddhist ‘sangha’ (spiritual fellowship) for people with chronic health problems. I’ve made some very, very dear friends through Toni’s work, and of course Toni is one of them.

When I first met Toni I wasn’t a Buddhist, although I did try to apply practices such as mindfulness to help cope with pain and anxiety. Now I think I am a Buddhist, albeit a secular one with an attitude towards this ancient ‘faith’ very similar to that in Toni’s book. Whatever her private, personal beliefs, her book doesn’t mention rebirth in a literal sense, for example. It’s a purely practical approach which can be applied to anyone’s life, whether they consider themselves Buddhist or not. Toni has helped me resolve more than one confusion about Buddhist thought, and is one of the people who have helped me to accept that I can try to follow the Buddha’s core teachings without a belief in anything beyond the material universe. I’m very grateful to her for this, too.

So I can safely say that she’s one of the teachers who, in recent years, has helped to change my life. Like her, I find refuge from my difficulties in the music of Mozart and Beethoven, and the love of our partners and pets – we already had those things in common. But I also find it in the friendship and support of people I would never have met without her – giving me the opportunity to give to others with similar struggles in life, and to receive from them too. And now I can also find refuge in the teachings of the Buddha, which Toni has helped to clarify for me, and who (in her words) ‘never claimed to be more than a human being. He found pain just as painful as you and I do. I take this as a reminder that the equanimity and joy we see in the many images of him are within the reach of every one of us’ (from ‘How to Be Sick’).

In September, Toni’s second book, ‘How To Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow’, will be published. I wish her all possible success with it, all the more so because I can only imagine how hard it must have been to write it while suffering with severe flu that never goes away. And I’m having to apply a little Buddhist equanimity to manage my own craving to read it! Meanwhile, here’s a link to Toni’s latest blog post, for any of my followers who haven’t discovered her regular ‘Psychology Today’ blog. Of her ’12 Tips’, I especially like No 2 (I know I’m in pain, I know I’m disabled, and that’s good enough for me); No 4 – which redefines the concept of work and usefulness to society; and No 7 – after all, where on earth would I and many of my friends be without the internet? Our hidden ‘culture of the sick’, unobserved by most of the rest of the world, has a vital and compassionate life in the world on our computers – and my, do we need it!

12 Tips from 12 Years Sick 

Thank you, Toni, for everything else you’ve shared with so many of us. My chronic illnesses are still difficult to manage, but you are one of my treasured guides on how to live with them easier. There are joys in life which I would never have discovered, if I hadn’t been nine years sick.

Friday, 26 April 2013

My Place in the Family of Things

In the past five years or so I’ve done several MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) courses, and this poem by Mary Oliver always seems to come up in them. I fell in love with it immediately; even the first line is a revelation. For me it says something about how our conditioning complicates our life with unnecessary struggle and suffering. It feels like a window into another life I previously never knew existed – full of light and air and movement, and of course freedom.

Having a chronic pain condition and spending much of my life these days indoors (no longer able to run, let alone fly!) gives it an extra poignancy for me. And right now, if I'm not quite family-less, I'm still feeling scared and uprooted as I have for the past six months. But the world still ‘offers itself up’. The cry of the wild geese may be ‘harsh’ at times, but it’s still life – and all of us, whether we feel we belong to it or not, we really do!

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself up to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Loving Life No Matter What

Moraine Lake, Alberta, Canada (photographer unknown)

I have this picture of Moraine Lake, Canada, by my bed (tilted sideways so I can look at it while lying down). It reminds me of the last year I was well: 2003, and a beautiful memory of travelling through the wilderness with Angie. We rowed out into the middle of this lake, nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains, in a little canoe. Although the weather, though fine, was quite different that day, this picture is still a vivid reminder of a place which feels like a sanctuary. It's so tranquil and still, and I can almost meditate just feeling a part of it. It's comforting. I so need comfort right now. I so need a true refuge inside myself.

I’m feeling that even more now, because today has been SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!!! I mean twenty-four hours of absolute fuck! My heart has been breaking, but at the same time, worryingly, I can feel myself begin to numb to it, dissociating from my feelings. “Ah yes, Michael, but then it’s always about your feelings, isn’t it…”

I want to look at life and feel it the way Tara Brach does, but I can’t seem to. In her new book ‘True Refuge’, she writes of ‘loving life no matter what’, of being ‘happy for no reason’. She’s an experienced meditator, of course, and it’s only recently, as chronic pain has crept into her life, that she’s been able to do this. All the same, she’s an inspiration to me. And I know I don’t practice mindful awareness on a regular basis, so I haven’t really begun to put that inspiration into effect. Perhaps I will now, because living the rest of my life like this is not really what I want. I want to deeply, feelingly love life – the whole damn catastrophe of it all, pain or no pain! But all I seem able to do is love little bits of it. 

Photo by Angie Roche,
Moraine Lake,
September 2003
I want to be happy for no reason.

Perhaps this passage, adapted from the deeply moving final chapter of ‘True Refuge’, will give you some idea of what I mean. If it resonates with a similar longing in your own life, my heartfelt wish is that you, both of us, all of us, will be able to find a way to love life no matter what.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Forgetting They're Real

Photographer unknown

Tony Blair’s government, bless their little whiter-than-white cotton socks, did about two good things during their decade in power, and one of them was criminalising hunting with dogs. Typically, however, they did it badly, leaving whopping great loopholes that have led to countless foxes being accidentally on purpose torn to shreds. It would have made more sense to have gone the whole way, and ban the activity completely. But maybe they didn’t want to upset the Bloodsports Alliance further – strange really, as they never seemed too scared of upsetting the rest of us!

It was too much, however, for the bunch of high class hooligans and Boy Mulcasters currently at the reins of our country. Not content with destroying the economy and starting the smash-up of Britain’s treasured welfare services, they announced soon after taking office that they wanted to repeal the hunting act. But to simply do so would make them too unpopular with townies. Just like asylum seekers, Muslims, benefits claimants and now even the disabled, wildlife had to be demonised. And so, ever so coincidentally, the right-wing tabloids started publishing a spate of scare stories about foxes (urban ones, mostly, but then it’s the town dwellers they mostly needed to convince). It didn’t matter that we live in one of the safest countries in the world where wildlife is concerned (due to having several friends with Lyme disease, I’m far more frightened of ticks than I am of any mammal), or that you’re far more likely to be bitten (if not mauled) by the beloved pooch down the road than you are by a fox. As Hitler famously said, and Tony Blair disastrously continued to prove, (some) people will believe any lie if you make it big enough and tell it often enough.

Artist unknown
These scare stories have not let up since. Reports of people having been mugged by foxes for their bag of chips, terrified by them as they sat cool as cucumbers on their bed, or bitten because they were silly enough to offer them a hand instead of a sandwich, still proliferate. Then, a month ago an unattended baby had its finger bitten by a fox that wandered in through an open door, and suddenly the Mayor of a panic-stricken London was calling for a cull.

Frodo or Flo at the British Wildlife Centre
An interesting thing often happens if you spend any time actually watching animals. Whenever I’m lucky enough to see an urban fox, it either runs away or sits still and looks at me, probably hoping I have a sausage roll in my hand. But two years ago I had the opportunity to get really close to two foxes, Frodo and Flo (and on another occasion Ellis the cub), at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. This is what I wrote back then.

The British Wildlife Centre is an hour’s drive away from Eastbourne, and very close to the beautiful Ashdown Forest (where a certain Winnie-the-Pooh once lived). Last autumn I visited it with Angie, and for about half an hour or so I spent time in their fox enclosure, photographing these beautiful animals as they were fed by the keepers. I got some lovely photos, but it was also a very moving experience for me. As I sat so near the foxes, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could want to chase, terrify and kill them. Their resemblance to certain household pets (and I always think of them as curiously cat-like dogs, even though they’re far more closely related to the latter) was incredibly striking. The same look of intelligence was present in their eyes and behaviour. Would any of those ‘hunters’ traumatise and kill their beloved dogs or cats? No!

Waiting for chick dinner!
My passion for foxes really began in those moments of closeness. I tend to agree with the Buddha that most acts of evil or cruelty are done in ignorance of our shared natures. We don’t have to anthropomorphise animals to make this true. It’s a scientific fact that we’re all related; humans and all other animals have common ancestors. – (Shared Natures, 22 April 2012)

Sentimental? Anthropomorphic? Maybe, but then I don’t really care – either of those traits is harmless in this instance. But I fell in love with foxes that day. They’re extraordinary animals, now threatened with the ultimate punishment for simply doing their best to make a living in the world  (just like us) – and doing it pretty well, I might add! And far from being ‘vermin’, as they’re so often described in the bog roll papers, they have far more in common with our beloved and ever popular pet dogs and cats. Imagine if a council called for the confiscation of all dog-owners’ pets, on the grounds that they ‘might’ attack someone (which happens about every day). People would be outraged, wouldn’t they? Some people love their dogs so much, they’d probably put their lives on the line to protect them.

Ellis with the keeper who hand-reared him
Yet in the end, the prejudice against foxes results only from ignorance – that and a credulity about what people read in the papers. People who spend time with our fellow mammals (and foxes are very close relatives of ours, as organisms go), know them and recognise their kinship with us. Children, especially, are capable of relating even to ‘primitive’ animals that most of us would find difficult to like. Here’s the psychotherapist, meditation teacher and writer Tara Brach, writing about her son:

On my son Narayan's sixth birthday I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He named several and followed their struggles and progress closely. After a few weeks he pointed out the ants' graveyard and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day when I picked Narayan up after school he was visibly distressed. He told me that on the playground the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. He was horrified that they were hurting these friends he so admired.
I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings -- as he had with the ants -- we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn't had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn't want to injure them either. – (Radical Acceptance, 2003)
"Am I in focus?"
Increasingly in this world where war and persecution seem to have become the norm, many people seem drawn to the Buddhist philosophy of non-harming – from the rise in vegetarianism, to all those who work or volunteer for animal rescue or conservation projects. And people love wildlife; see how popular TV programmes like ‘Springwatch’, ‘Countryfile’ and David Attenborough’s series are! Except that, when hate, fear and prejudice are stirred up by the gutter press, people don’t want their wildlife on their doorstep – or disabled people or ‘scroungers’, either. So many of us are so easily stirred up into prejudice and fear. Fear, of foxes! It’s nonsensical to me, because when we get really close to them we usually love them. But so much is nonsensical in this deteriorating country, which shows every day just how easily (some) people’s prejudices can be switched on – with just a headline or two!

Frodo and Flo love to sleep in the sun.
There are many reasons why culling foxes is impractical and ineffective, from the ridiculous expense (in a time of 'austerity'!) to the fact that new fox families tend to move into the vacant territory afterwards. But surely the worst thing about a cull would be the totally unnecessary cruelty involved. Urban foxes aren’t the ones the toffs in power want to hunt, of course. The calls for a cull are mainly to help influence public opinion, through appealing to the worst in our natures. Demonising wildlife means that we then start to see them as ‘other’, as pieces of vermin that can be hunted without qualms. To allude to Tara’s words, we forget that they are real – that like us, they only do what they know how to do, to be happy, to survive. Most of us love wildlife, but unfortunately it’s the psychopaths (of whatever party) who ‘run’ the country, and control the media who support them. And if they apparently have no qualms about exterminating human beings for political reasons, they’re not likely to feel guilty about some of their core voters terrorising and killing our fellow creatures, whose skins some people still wear to keep their dainty little necks warm.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Human Need for Myth, Part 2

I never expected to be writing a sequel to my previous blog post (and it started out as a simple postscript!), but I guess it’s not surprising, since Karen Armstrong’s book stimulated a lot of thought. And it concerns a subject where my own thoughts are still developing, because I’m comfortable neither with religion (even Buddhism, or at least not quite), or with atheistic views which pose science as something which has made all myth obsolete. As a result, my views tend to shift about a bit. In my initial flush of enthusiasm for ‘A Short History of Myth’, I was apt to half-consciously put aside one of my irritations, which was Armstrong's apparent tendency to be prejudiced against science as the opposite of myth – a prejudice for mythos over logos. I think I did this because, with my own prejudice for science over religion, I was afraid I might not be responding objectively.

Towards the end of writing my piece, I began to be aware that Armstrong had missed something, in her passionate pleas for new myths to help enrich and protect the world we now live in. As I suggested in my paragraphs about the cosmos, the discoveries of science might not be incompatible with myth, and novels may not be the sole reduced form of mythos in our globalised society. Richard Dawkins, who in my least-favourite book of his (‘The God Delusion’), applies his tendency to literal-mindedness least appropriately, still makes some very good points; and one is that the real universe revealed by science is infinitely more wondrous and unimaginable than that depicted in any creation myth (though I have a deep fondness for Tolkien’s myth, in which the universe is ‘sung’ into existence by… what? … whom?). This may well be because myths are about us – they concern human problems, fears, needs and aspirations. And, in comparison with scientific revelations, religions (especially in their own literal-minded forms) are noticeable for their parochialism. Their concerns seem so small, so limited, so lacking in a sense of deep wonder. My suggestion is that scientific discovery has made this apparent, and that religions tend to be out-of-date myths. They simply don’t fit the scale, whether imagined literally or mythically, and this may be why for many people they’ve degenerated into childish literal beliefs or (at worst) fundamentalism. Our new myths, I think, need to be compatible with the true infinite that science describes so literally, but whose richness is capable of being applied to very human myths.

Our world is so often described as globalised, yet it feels so tragically fragmented – a almost-planetary culture hardly holding itself together, tiny parts of it fighting other tiny parts, a vicious empire trying to divide and conquer, nobody sure of what’s true anymore, and with many of those who think they are sure being the most frightening. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…’ A big reason for this may be the absence of a unifying mythology to bring people together and express our problems, fears, needs and aspirations… It’s not difficult to see why Armstrong feels that without mythology, ‘we will not save our planet’.

And yet, the universe that Carl Sagan evoked so vividly that it almost had the resonance of myth, may contain the elements of a unifying mythology. I say mythology and not religion, which tends to solidify and become dogma, and probably is incompatible with science! Religion tends to stagnate or fragment into opposing (often minutely different) dogmas; but myths can constantly develop and evolve, just as folk tales do; and science, (if pursued diligently) modifies and develops its understanding constantly. ‘We are made of star stuff’ – what could be the germ of a more wonderful and unifying myth than that! Myths which emphasise both our unity and diversity (the Vulcan people in ‘Star Trek’ have a wonderful saying, ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’) might be just the kind to help to lift the human species out of its fragmented despair, its sleepwalking into destruction. The advantage of such myths would be that, far from being antithetical to the real universe which Copernicus and Kepler and Bruno and Galileo first began to reveal, they would actually be informed by the realities that we are all a part of – from the unimaginably vast cosmos to the incomprehensibly small universe of DNA, which really does unify everything on this planet, really is infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Armstrong, I think, misses a trick – or rather, she misses the hope of a brighter future for mythos and for our planet. I think we can see glimpses of it in the explosion of new-age beliefs (such as the ones that permeate Facebook), which express the human sense of wonder and need for unity, but remain based on only fragmentary and flawed understandings of science. Another is the subtle change in human consciousness that was triggered by the Apollo lunar missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the first time in the whole history of our planet, life forms from this planet left the cradle and stood on the surface of another world. When I think about this, it doesn’t really matter to me that the necessary money and technology was only ploughed into the ‘space race’ because of political rivalries and military tensions (which is why, once America had ‘won’ and proved its ‘superiority’, the money and political support stopped coming and the dreams of so many of us went back to being dreams again). It remains in some ways the most tremendous achievement of the human species, and is so full of mythic resonance that I get chills just thinking about it.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 (how appropriate that the programme was named after a great mythical god!) orbited the Moon for the first time, and both photographed and filmed our own world rising above the lunar surface. It was broadcast live internationally, while astronaut Frank Borman read the opening lines of Genesis. Near four years later, the Apollo 17 crew photographed the whole earth as they returned from the moon. This photograph (reproduced above) has become one of the most famous and iconic ever. The image is dominated by the landmasses of Africa, Madagascar and Antarctica, surrounded by deep blue ocean and swirling white cloud. Around it is the deep, impenetrable, utter darkness of space. The photograph has almost become an iconic image for the environmental movement, and it’s not hard to see why.

By the end of the 1970s, two small automated spacecraft were visiting the biggest and most mysterious planets in our solar system, beginning with Jupiter and Saturn. By 1990, having fulfilled its task perfectly, Voyager 1 was high above the plane of the solar system, and about six billion kilometres from Earth. It was the furthest anything from our planet had ever travelled (and it will continue travelling, in theory, for ever, there not being much for it to collide with). At the request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the spacecraft to take an image of the sun and various planets in the solar system from this vast distance. In a small part of this photograph is the Earth, and thanks to its use as the theme of a book by Sagan, it's become known as the Pale Blue Dot.

The image is dominated by a scattered light ray caused by the close apparent distance of the sun to the earth from such a huge distance. In the centre of this ray is the Earth, so small that it takes up less than one pixel in the entire image of which this is a part. In his book ‘Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space’ (1997), Sagan commented on the meaning that this photograph had for him:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Here is the seed of a myth – probably very many myths. And although the apparent insignificance of our home as revealed by Voyager 1 in this image may frighten or disturb some people, it reveals truths which, at this moment in human history, have never been more urgent for us to realise. The futility of our fighting, the parochialism of so many of our concerns, the fragility of life (and probably the rareness of life), our apparent aloneness, and our responsibility to be the wise stewards of what is so far the only life we know in all this emptiness… If we were to heed these truths, and simultaneously awake to the wonders that exist on our planet and beyond, then we may not even need mythology (certainly not religion as we know it now) to help bring humanity together and help us live noble lives. It may be that the push forward into space that began half a century ago (and now appears to have stagnated) could lead us to a point where humans have outgrown the need for mythology – in at least some of its forms. Personally, I’m not so sure. For one thing, humans love to tell stories, and if as a species we ever wake up to the realities that Sagan reflected upon, then I’d expect those realities to inform many of our stories. But I do think that scientific discovery, far from being cold and clinical and concerned only with creating high technologies, provides a hopeful vision for the Earth’s future, if we can listen to it in the right way. And there’s so reason why mythologies far grander and more truthful – perhaps also more fragile and human - than anything of the kind we’ve imagined so far, might not be a part of that.

To help save us all, we probably do – as Armstrong says – need mythos and logos. This means that we need an ability to think mythically (therefore a deeper understanding of myth and its importance in human history), as well as a deeper and wider education about science. Sagan was always calling for the latter when he was alive, and Dawkins does the same now. But as the previous century showed, we need to be careful what kinds of myths we create.

As Karen Armstrong says, so many destructive myths took hold during the twentieth century, and they haven’t gone away now. It was a century of unparalleled technological and scientific development; yet it left the human need for myth in despair, and that need turned to myths of separateness rather than the celebration of unity in diversity that we could have had. A richer education would reveal to far more of us that myth is different from religious dogma, and that science is not limited to technology (which is actually more of a by-product of science). With these levels of understanding, new, far wider, more wonderful and more truthful myths might grow. And the human species might really have something to aspire to.

At the present point in human history, this doesn’t seem to me very likely. But there are seeds of hope. The question is whether or not they can grow and flourish in this climate.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Human Need for Myth

I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s book, ‘A Short History of Myth’, which my partner Angie found in a charity shop and brought home for me. I was ambivalent about reading it, and to be honest I still am - slightly. But it’s a quite absorbing and informative book, despite a few biases and omissions, and packs a great deal of rich thought and ideas into its 140 pages.

Knowing Armstrong’s Christian background (she was a Catholic nun for several years, but writes ecumenically about all the world’s main religions), I was worriedly expecting it to have an anti-scientific bias, which I think is somewhat evident in the final chapter. She does however, describe myth and science as in some sense opposites, accepting that we ‘need both’ in order to fully live in and understand the world. And despite my own, normally scientific bias, I share her concern about the way that the consequences of the Age of Enlightenment have made it difficult for many of us to think mythically. Scientists like Richard Dawkins (much as I like much of his work) often seem to regard myths as nothing more than ham-fisted, ignorant, childish attempts to explain the Creation or the physical universe around us. What Armstrong says is that the whole point of myths is that they’re not literally true. The Genesis myth is not literally true, and Jesus himself was mythologised by St Paul. The Catholic doctrine of original sin (which, amongst other things, began the Church’s morbid preoccupation with sexuality), was St Augustine’s re-interpretation of the Eden myth, and has no real basis in the Bible. The ‘Holy Trinity’ is a myth created to express the impossibility of limiting the inexpressible to a ‘Father God’ or other such representations. She might have said (though she doesn’t) that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or the Arthurian myths are not literally true. A successful myth is ‘true’ in the sense that it expresses, obliquely and through metaphor, deep truths about our lives and encourage us to live in certain ways (often through hardship) and with nobility and courage. If a myth moves us deeply and brings a sense of deep-rooted, ethical meaning into our lives, then it is ‘true’. It’s a successful myth. A myth that doesn’t do this is unsuccessful and fades away. But the fact that none of them are literally true does not make them unimportant.

In such a short book, Armstrong leaves a lot out and her own fields of interest are consequently very evident. In a way, she might almost have called the book ‘A Short History of Religion’. She concentrates, after taking us through the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (which I feel involves a fair few simplifications about these vast periods of time, and a lot of guesswork about the mythologies described, since none of them were written down at the time), mainly on the three Abrahamic religions, with a fair amount of space given to Buddhism and Hinduism and a bit about Confucianism. So: the Middle East, India and China. But that leaves a lot missing, surely? What about the pantheistic mythologies of the native North Americans? Or the so-called Celts and the people who built the prehistoric stone monuments of Britain and Brittany? These latter people always get left out, as if we Brits are still encouraged to think of our ancestors as sunk in the depths of barbarism while Egypt and Mesopotamia were inventing the modern world. But recent developments in archaeology are bringing about some fascinating ideas about the religions and mythologies of the ancient British – the people who created the awesome and richly suggestive sacred landscapes of Orkney and Wiltshire. Admittedly these theories are unlikely to be definitively proven, for obvious reasons, and perhaps they fall within the generalised category of prehistoric mythology described in the first two chapters. But I missed even the briefest reference to my own prehistoric ancestors, and felt that they surely deserve a glance even in a ‘short’ history.

What I learned about the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), was fascinating. Apparently it’s only in recent times that their sacred texts have been taken as literally as they are today by many of their adherents (I'm not sure quite how convinced I am by this). Armstrong explains how each story in the Koran was presented quite openly as a myth; the tales in the Old Testament are similarly myths, and many of them cannot possibly be literally true because they break the laws of physics or contradict historical evidence. But they are powerful myths, and this explains their dominance in the world for so many centuries, indeed millennia. The life of Jesus, thanks largely to the efforts of St Paul, is a powerful myth for Christians. Jesus cannot have literally risen from the dead, but it’s what his story tells Christians about their personal ‘rebirth’, redemption and resurrection that’s important. It’s what makes his life story (an archetypal one, in that it bears such strong similarities with other myths in other cultures) so deeply moving for those who ‘believe’ in him – even after two millennia. 

In the final chapter, while lamenting the decline of myth in the Western culture of the last few centuries, Armstrong describes how the deep human need for myth keeps trying to express itself wherever it can. I like the way she feels that modern novels are a way that we can tell new myths, and re-invent old ones (her explanation of the ways in which art and contemporary story-telling can fulfil this role, is convincing). And here I feel it’s a shame that she doesn’t even mention fantasy literature and science fiction, which is myth-making in ‘novel’ form if ever there was one. J. R. R. Tolkien said that his creative literary work arose out of a desire to create a ‘mythology of England’ – our original myths having been obscured by various cultural and physical invasions, particularly the Norman takeover of 1066. In his ‘Silmarillion’ stories, which he kept telling and retelling throughout his creative life, he provided a rich creation myth (involving a ‘Fall’! – Tolkien was a Catholic) with a Scandinavian and Germanic flavour which is deeply powerful and moving. It has a tremendous resonance, as does ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which is a myth that can be read on many levels, but particularly about power (and the renunciation of power) and ‘growing up’. Personally, I think it’s a ‘true’ myth. When I first read it, I occasionally had to remind myself, when I found myself lost in Middle-earth while working or performing household tasks, that it wasn’t history – it hadn’t actually happened, and could never happen in the real world. Because it felt as if it had! I think the profound resonance this book has for so many people – a resonance that far outstrips that of the vast majority of fantasy writing – is precisely why (even before the films were made, and despite constant sniping by the Arbiters of Literary Taste), ‘LOTR’s popularity has never waned in the half-century since it was written. It still has claims to be the most popular, the most loved, book by readers in the British Isles - and of course it’s loved throughout the world as well.

Due to my own personal interest, this paragraph has been a bit of a sidestep! But I enjoyed Armstrong’s book, despite feeling just a little irritated now and then. I think both my interest and irritation result from feeling at a crossroads recently regarding both science and religion. I love science; I think it’s by far the best way we have of understanding the physical universe, and I’m agnostic about the idea of a universe which isn’t physical. If anything else exists, I don’t think we have a way of knowing about it for certain. Science strongly suggests that the material universe is all there is (but what an ‘all’!), and metaphysical experiences may turn out to have purely physical causes that can be understood by science. But at the same time, I’m increasingly alienated by the aggressive atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens (now deceased) et al. I sympathise with its frustrations, but for me, the way to weaken religious fanaticism and stupidity is not through aggressive atheism but through tolerance (which is the opposite of fanaticism).

I’ve also found myself increasingly attracted in recent years to Buddhism, partly because not everyone even regards it as a religion, but also because I’ve been practising vipassana (mindfulness) meditation as a therapy tool for living more happily with chronic pain and anxiety. I’m also attracted to Buddhism’s emphasis on kindness and compassion, its ethical system based on non-harming (and tolerance). Despite ethical similarities with many other religions, Buddhism feels a long way from the guilt and sin-preoccupied Catholicism I grew up with. It’s deeply refreshing. I find it hard to relate to the ritual and ‘religious’ aspects, but there’s a growing secular movement which lifts a lot from Buddhism, and its core beliefs and practices can be followed without any mention of the supernatural. And it’s not a theistic religion, by a long way. So this, together with Armstrong’s treatment of religious texts as mythology, and the realisation that myths can in a sense be ‘true’, suggests to me that everything is more complicated and more subtle than the new atheists seem to realise. The belief systems of the American Christian far-right and the Taliban may be deeply childish and crude, but they are not something with which to judge the whole, complex and often immensely frustrating mythologies of the world – religious or otherwise.

It’s also possible that the future of a world where myth has been discredited, even by religious leaders who insist on taking their texts literally, might be more hopeful than Armstrong imagines. Because many of us seem to equate science either with technology, or with a field of knowledge so arcane and difficult that it’s intellectually beyond us, I think we are often unaware of the sense of wonder and meaning that science can engender. As we learn more about ourselves and the universe, we learn more about our place in it – a place which often seems so miniscule and insignificant that people may react either with despair or a defensive retreat into fundamentalist religion. But it isn’t necessarily like that. Exceptional, visionary scientists and writers like Carl Sagan, without leaving behind their commitment to rational thought, have communicated such a sense of wonder about the cosmos that logos and mythos don’t seem so far apart. “We are made of star stuff”, Sagan said, and in a demonstrable, scientific sense, we are. Our bodies are formed from the very atoms created by exploding stars billions of years ago. We could say that we are the universe made conscious, a way for the cosmos to know itself. Similarly, we are also direct descendants of the very first and simplest forms of life to have evolved on this planet, and every other living thing in the world today (or that has ever lived) is in a profound and provable sense our cousin. These ideas are, to me and many others, so awe-inspiring that they have something of the power of myth – and yet they are demonstrably, literally true as well.

The way to these profound discoveries was paved with the scientific virtues of objectivity, experiment, testability – not with the ancient ways of storytelling and myth-making that has served us throughout human existence, and which people still seem to hunger for, because the conflation of science with technology and their guilty, perhaps unconscious sense that religion doesn’t stand up as ‘truth’, has left them with nothing to feed the human sense of wonder.

These scientific ideas may even provide the germ of the kinds of modern myths which Armstrong passionately cries out for in her final chapter: compassionate myths which address the reality of our global village, in which we are all dependent on one another. In a way, the discoveries of biology and astronomy and physics are not incompatible with Buddhism, whose emphasis on kindness and compassion for all beings seems increasingly attractive to educated westerners. And again, one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Tolkien’s works may be their reminder of the need to cherish all things of this earth (or Middle-earth), our deep interdependence with nature, and of how easily everything we need and love can be swept away by corruption, greed, technological destruction and love of power. As Armstrong pleads, we need myths that help us deal emotionally and ethically with these realities. ‘This is crucial’, she writes, ‘because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.’

These previous few paragraphs are just thoughts, stimulated by a night’s reading and writing when I should really be fast asleep! At the moment, I haven’t reached a place in myself where I feel comfortable in relation to atheism and religion, or science and myth. My agnosticism in part stems from my deep confusion. But it’s an interesting journey. And it’s one that many, perhaps a growing number of people, seem to be sharing.

Meanwhile, give Armstrong’s book a read. There’s plenty in even this short history that I didn’t know before – and it’s a deceptively slim book which is full of rich ideas. It will really get you thinking!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Finding Safety, and a Caring Presence

For several years now I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation, to help me live more comfortably with anxiety and chronic pain. It’s gradually led me into a new and refreshing outlook on life, as its Buddhist roots have inspired me (an agnostic – almost an atheist on bad days!) to look at other aspects of that ancient religion. I’m very attracted to the Buddha’s teachings on living this life now (rather than more metaphysical ideas about reincarnation, etc), and the growth also of a kind of ‘secular’ Buddhism in the West has made its central components of awareness and kindness/compassion a lot more accessible to me. Over the past two years, several books and teachers have opened up for me possibilities of self-compassion. Having been brought up as a Roman Catholic with its myth of Eden and doctrine of original sin, self-compassion feels almost like a revolutionary idea; I can’t begin to express how refreshing, almost lifesaving it is! All my life I’ve assumed that my own feelings were unimportant compared to other people’s – a belief that has led to a lot of pain and many regrets.

Like self-compassion, meditation is a practice I’ve always found difficult, even while recognising the benefits (which can be quietly revolutionary). I’ve suffered from anxiety since a traumatic nervous breakdown five years ago. But even when I’m not especially anxious, meditating alone can bring up uncomfortable feelings of unease and isolation. And I spend a lot of time alone, as my partner lives away from home for half the week and I’m too unwell to go out to work. And if I’m under emotional stress, these feelings make it even more painful to accept any other emotions that surface while I’m meditating. Recently I discovered that when I’m meditating in groups, the anxiety is much less and I’m much more comfortable. So for the past few weeks I’ve been attending my local Buddhist group (even though I don’t consider myself an out-and-out Buddhist), where I can feel included in the welcoming presence of other practitioners. This is really what Buddhists call sangha: a deep emotional refuge found within a community of friends on the ‘spiritual path’. A friend and I recently started a small sangha of our own on Facebook: a private group of friends, all with some kind of chronic illness, and all following Buddhist practices as a way of growing spiritually and living more positively with our ill-health.

My favourite meditation practice is one that expresses intentions of metta: another Pali word usually translated as ‘lovingkindness’, ‘friendliness’ or ‘kindly awareness’. I think I love this partly because it encourages a sense of connection with others, and therefore of safety, since our kindly intentions are directed towards others (even those we may not find it easy to like) as well as ourselves. But even this, when I practise it alone, sometimes makes me aware of feelings of anxiety, although they may be lessened. The intention of meditation practice is to help us be aware, non-judgementally, of our moment-to-moment experience, whether revealed by our senses or the internal experience of our thoughts and emotions. Any feelings of aversion that come up, any impulses to escape from painful feelings, are accepted non-judgementally as well. With practice, we can gradually become more at home with our experience – more at home in ourselves and in the world. 

My difficulty, which must surely be shared by many, especially those who have been traumatised, is that I struggle to accept my feelings of physical pain and anxiety. It’s just too unpleasant and frightening. As Tara Brach says in her new book ‘True Refuge’, mindfulness meditation can involve the risk of re-traumatising if a sense of sufficient safety isn’t included. One option here is to practice, very gently, with the help of a compassionate and experienced teacher or therapist. But what do we do when we’re alone?

There’s a chapter in ‘True Refuge’ that affected me deeply when I read it a few nights ago, and which gave me a sense of hope – a way through the difficulty. Tara describes one of her therapy clients, Dana, who had been profoundly traumatised as a child. With Tara’s help, Dana managed to create a refuge for herself by thinking of several people she trusted and felt safe with, while she offered herself phrases of lovingkindness. Over a period of time, this practice had a deep effect on her feelings about herself and other people, and the ultimate effect was de-traumatising.

This, for me, is a deeply moving inspiration. Over the past few days, I’ve been creating my own ‘true refuge’, hoping ultimately to facilitate my acceptance of the feelings brought up in meditation without being quite as frightened by them. In the short term, just having a ‘safe place’ to offer lovingkindness, by repeating the phrases in a traditional metta meditation, is a gift that I can offer myself in the face of almost daily pain, anxiousness and isolation.

Here is what I’ve come up with. The places and people in my refuge are fluid and can change depending on what ‘feels right’ in the moment, so I’ve included several examples. I spent a lot of time thinking and listing examples; where and with whom do I feel most safe, secure and at ease?

My safe place: Rosebank, the childhood cottage of the writer Laurie Lee in the Gloucestershire village of Slad, which Angie and I visited last summer. The cottage lies at the foot of a steep bank covered in wild flowers. Near the top of this bank, but raised a little above the flowers, is where I sit with the people in my refuge. 

Alternatives: a residential street I lived in for one year as a child, where I remember feeling very happy; and a fictional village called Sinshan, where Ursula Le Guin’s far future utopian novel, ‘Always Coming Home’ is set. This book deeply moved me and has stayed with me, even though I haven’t read it in nearly twenty-five years.

My safe people: my partner Angie sits at my left side with her arm around my waist. We love each other dearly, and she always ‘has my back’. Our black-and-white cat Tally lies curled up on my lap. On my right, almost touching me, sits a red fox – one of my favourite animals – and I rest my right hand on the fox, perhaps stroking it behind the ears. Next to the fox is a woman; sometimes she’s one of my close Facebook friends, and sometimes she’s Tara Brach herself. Sometimes she’s both of them! We can do anything in our imaginations! 

As I sit on the flowered bank, or in the street, or in the imaginary village, with my partner, animals, friend and benefactor/mentor, I offer this simple metta phrase to myself:

May I be happy and peaceful.

The repeated phrase, which is a kind of mantra, varies. If I’m in a lot of pain or anxiety, it might be, “May I be well, and free of suffering”, or even Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase, “I care about this suffering”. Many people have a short list of phrases, but I’ve found that just one keeps it simple and I like that. After a few minutes of repeating this phrase, either silently or aloud, I might move on to the following traditional stages of the meditation: offering metta to a friend (or friends), a ‘neutral’ person, and then someone I’m having difficulties with. Sometimes I’ll just stay with the first two stages, or maybe only the first. It depends on how I feel, how much time I have, what feels most needed or appropriate in that moment. But I always try to keep that image of my safe place and people in my mind.

I’ve since decided that, apart from brief ‘mindfulness of breathing’ practices, and the occasional quick scan through my body to relax tense muscles, the metta meditation will probably be my main practice for the near future. I’m hoping that giving myself this refuge, as well as the other refuges provided by the Buddhist and Facebook groups, will help me in time to feel more comfortable with my inner experience. That I can eventually get in touch with the ‘felt sense’ of my emotions in my body, without being frightened into non-practice, distraction and what Tara calls ‘false refuges’ – over-dependency on medication, other forms of addiction, trying to control my experience or other people… I sense that it may be a long process. But I don’t mind so much about that now. I have a refuge which should help me, in time, to access the ultimate true refuge of compassionate awareness, which Tara calls loving presence. In the meantime, my companions on the bank of wild flowers in the English countryside, will always be there.

I’ve already noticed other benefits of providing this refuge. The people in my safe place may be images in my mind, but they are also real people. And they are people who care about me: Angie, my friend, and Tara, who may not know me personally but has given me and hundreds of thousands of others a great and caring gift. So when I imagine them caring about me, it helps me to care for myself, and to bring a caring presence to my experiences in that moment – including difficult ones. The words ‘caring presence’, in the context of suffering, really mean the same thing as compassion. So providing this safe refuge is helping me to be compassionate towards myself. 

The presence of these caring figures in my refuge also helps me to feel compassionate towards others. Bringing a caring presence to my own suffering reminds me that I’m not alone; just as my friends care about me, so I can care about them. The refuge reduces that sense of isolation which I often feel so deeply when I’m alone, and the disconnectedness that characterises so much of our experience of suffering. It reminds me that we all suffer. In the Dalai Lama’s words, “Everyone wants to be happy. Nobody wants to suffer.” The refuge that helps me to bring caring presence to my own suffering, helps me to offer that same quality to others as well.

Perhaps one day, it may also make it easier to be aware and compassionate towards the suffering of people I dislike, especially those who have hurt me. If a loved person hasn’t been present for us, if they haven’t accepted or encouraged us to feel at home with a part of our emotional experience, then that can be deeply scarring, especially if it was during the formative years of childhood. But in all likelihood, they haven’t been present with themselves either, because significant others in their own past didn’t allow them to feel at home in their own skin. So people who’ve damaged us have been damaged too.

But that’s not so easy for me right now. I haven’t yet managed to deepen my attention and bring caring presence to deep and raw feelings of emotional pain, such as I’ve recently been having in family relationships. When I tried to do that before creating my refuge, I was flooded with feelings of anger, hurt and guilt which felt too scary to stay with. Neither have I been able to focus deeply on the suffering of people in war zones, or who have lost their human rights; I tend to get caught up in anger, fear and helplessness, as I did before having to give up peace activism. It’s very difficult for me to bring caring presence to such intensity of feeling. As Tara and all great Buddhist teachers say, we need first to bring compassion to our own suffering; and by touching that tender place with a caring and accepting presence – not dwelling on it or wallowing in it – but simply by saying, “I care about this suffering”, we begin to recognise our kinship with the rest of humanity. Otherwise it’s like forgiving someone without first experiencing the ‘felt sense’ of how they have wounded us. The forgiveness is premature. We can’t truly forgive someone until we’re fully aware of what they’ve done to us. 

So right now I have my hands full – or perhaps I should say, my heart full! – in learning to bring a caring presence to myself, and to those closest and dearest to me. And when it all seems too big, too difficult a task, I can remind myself that both awareness and compassion lie very deep in our evolutionary nature. Their potential will always be there, a true refuge that we only have to bring a caring attention to ourselves to find. Without condoning the times when we’ve hurt ourselves or others, we are not intrinsically bad people; we all have ‘buddha nature’. As Tara has said many times in her writings:

‘The very nature of our awareness is to know what is happening. The very nature of our heart is to care.’