spirituality


“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened” – Winston Churchill

The solstice is almost upon us! Snow’s sneaking across the land and men sell woolly hats in the street.  I’m waiting on a friend from the US, who’s flying over especially for the Imp’s wintry nuptials, while other family and friends crawl their way through The Weather.

I’m telling all involved to relax, worry not, take it as it comes – which is a joke given the self-inflicted assault on my nerves of the last few weeks. But finally, the calm is coming!

What is anxiety; why do we worry? I’ve been (annoyingly) able to watch my own discalm, disquietude, and have come up with some factors of imp-angst – which is to say, they’re not necessarily anything like yours.

For me, I reckon it’s all about other people – and their reactions to one’s self.

Because a worried “what if, what if, what if, ” by itself is meaningless – it can do no harm: we’re back to “if a wood falls in the forest, does it make a noise?”  What I mean is that the worst case scenarios are usually (I’m ruling out falling off cliffs, here) about performance, acceptance, and other contributors to emotional safety / harm.

This all became clear when I found myself saying, “it doesn’t matter what happens because we’re amongst friends.” I realised that people who love me won’t think less of me if something – anything – goes wrong. Those who would think bad thoughts aren’t my friends – and in the context of my own wedding, well – they shouldn’t be there!

So – I have just seen the first snowflakes through the window. Sinatra’s on the radio (natch) and I urge all elves, gnomes, fellow imps and pixies to hug yourselves, smile at the world and remember you are loved.  Get friends around you and get festive.  Happy celebrations, one and all.

😉

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Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk

– Carl Jung

The Imp spent some interesting time doing things she didn’t like this summer. And as a (chronologically) grown-up creature, I’m not so used to that. I’d forgotten that Doing  / Wearing Things (from haircuts to buckle shoes and long socks) That You Don’t Like was a major feature of my childhood.

We adults (by which I mean probably western, and therefore relatively ridiculously affluent) have a great degree of autonomy over our own lives. That’s especially so if you’re dependent-lite (no kids) and obligation-wary (renting, cash- not debt-led) et cetera et cetera. Indeed, yay and verily, this Imp has been known quietly to compare herself with the lotus-eaters: indolent, addicted and apathetic, lounging in luxury’s lap. Here’s some Homer (Odyssey IX) to tell you something about Lotus Eaters (translated by Samuel Butler):

I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches.

Or as Nick Cave’s version put it, “Sapped and stupid / I lie upon the stones and I swoons”….

But away from this indulgence and back we go, to the issue of the autonomy of grown-ups (western and well-to-do). If you’re in such a fortunate position, you live pretty darn near the top of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Need”. Think of a triangle. At the base are the most essential things you need to survive; as the triangle narrows, the needs become less essential to survival and more about personal growth and satisfaction:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

So, as an adult, once our survival needs (food, shelter, water and sex) are met, we strive to fulfil other needs, such as safety (financial, personal, health), then social needs such as friendship, support, a family, intimacy. When social needs are not met, depression can set in, leading to self-neglect, where the lower needs (comfort and survival) are threatened. And top o’ the pile are the self-actualisation needs (“I want to be a train driver”) and peak experiences – spiritual, mystical, and other such insight-giving moments of the life-changing variety.

Doing things you don’t want to do is not good for many reasons – the potentially negative impact on self-esteem being key. What I mean by this is that if an adult feels that they are not in control of their own experiences over a significant period of time, then they can be reduced in their own mind to the status of a child  – powerlessness – by whatever circumstances are making them endure the bad experience (unemployment; a bullying partner; manipulative friends etc).

But of course, an adult does have free will and self-determination. There is always (in the Imp view of the world) choice, there are always alternatives. There might not be a golden ticket out the door, but there’s always another way. I hear philosophers screaming (but if I can’t see them, are they real?). But bear with me: even if it’s only changing your perspective, surely if that act changes your experience, then it is an alternative (and one that is self-determined)?

So, does it follow that Doing What You Don’t Want to Do can actually be a thing that strengthens you – aiding self-actualisation? Adversity is – I would argue – surely necessary if we’re to rise to the challenge of being proper adults (not just chronological ones)?

What’s important is that we see the tests and accept them – that we don’t just peep at them and roll over, weeping. We need to address the things that challenge us – how else can we grow?  OK, it might not be a ten-day shamanic ritual of tiger-hunting, but swallowing pride, finding the positive, or seeking a better way (of action or perception) are all the kinds of behaviours we expect from grown-ups; not running away, refusing, shutting the mind and throwing our weetabix against the wall.

It’s good, this grown-up thing – after all that hard work in getting here and putting up with being a child, don’t miss out on all it has to offer!

😉

I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as a plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

– Jalalu ‘D-Din Rumi, Sufi poet

Some people believe in reincarnation, and there are many variations of that theme amongst the faiths and spiritual models of the world. Many times I’ve mused here about the cyclical nature of the single life, peeling of layers, of skins, personalities, and of the spiral nature of …nature!

Neuropsychologists such as Paul Brok will posit that there is not in fact any such thing as the ‘self’. That, in fact, we are no more than a series of firing neurons – not even the product of those firing neurons but that ‘we’ are the actual neurons themselves.  Consciousness is no more than that. All is flesh; there is nothing else. And of course, the word “reincarnation”, if you like playing at etymology,  is about “being made flesh again”. But leaving aside the question of a single, identifiable soul moving from a human to a bird to a tree for today, I wonder whether we “reincarnate” many times within the one lifetime?

What on earth is this about? Well, is it so sacrilegious to wonder whether I really am the same “person” I was when I was 17? No, of course not. For many people, it is common wisdom to accept that we all change. However, most tend to believe there is a common thread of selfhood, on which the multi-coloured, -shaped and -sized buttons of my ‘persona’ hang (a button each for me at 6, me at 10, me at 50).

What if we denied that thread, and said instead that we’re just a bag of loose buttons? An initial reaction might be that in so doing, we lose something. But what? I have my memories – I remember things that happened in the past. I don’t necessarily need to be the same rigid ‘soul’ to remember, do I? Could denying that thread of rigid selfhood be instead liberating? If we let our selves perceive our selves as a button collection, might we be freed of notional constraints? For example, you might be uncleashed from self-limiting beliefs, such as “I’m a secretive type of person”, or “I’m never been good at sharing my thoughts,” “People don’t warm to me,” or “I’m rubbish at remembering birthdays.”

I suspect that if we let go, denied, ignored, that thread of Me-hood, we could all have much more interesting, exciting and fulfilling lives. If we un-anchored ourselves from the Legend of Me (made both by others and ourselves) and let our present, current being be, who knows what voyages we might make? If we understood that I am who I am this moment and that is the only Me that matters right now, then perhaps we would find it simpler to find happiness and satisfaction?  We would not be seeking to fulfil past or potential needs; we would not act out of fear for the future, only out of clarified self-knowledge.

We would not confuse our worries with our desires.

I’m not advocating short-sightedness – quite the opposite. Rather look forward to the lfe that you will live day after day, knowing you’re your best person today and will be another best tomorrow. Look forward to that and recognise the boundless potential you’ve just spotted! If – as a result – anyone has a problem with you being you, well….

😉

L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.”

(Man is born free, but everywhere, he is in chains) – Rousseau

Always skin-shedding – chain-shedding, we worrying people. But….

No sooner do you pat your own back for getting rid of some self-limiting rubbish (you know, like a salary, or feeling you ought to be nice), than you find you’re saddled with another heavy yoke (usually of your own devising) that you’d never even noticed before (like wanting to look acceptable, you know: living free of pustulating sores, for example).

Ok, ok, so I have salted it up a bit.  But pause a second. When you kicked a bad habit, you freed yourself. When you deliberately lost weight, or learnt a new skill, you freed yourself. When you accepted you got it wrong, you freed yourself. When you did something that scared you shitless – you freed yourself. Every time, you changed. You became something additional to what you’d been before.

It would have been very weird, however, if you then said, “Right, that’s it! I’m done! I’m perfect now!” and didn’t allow yourself to make any further changes; stopped yourself spotting any further “chains” or from doing anything about them.

And perhaps that is the nature of life. Perhaps it’s even a defining quality of life? That once you stop unchaining yourself every day, you may as well be dead? Because in all other senses – morally, spiritually, intellectually – you are dead once you stop changing?

I thought this up – to start with – when I spotted that I chain myself to this computer rather too much. It hypnotises me into not leaving it, into not doing all the things I should……

😉

Assumption is the mother of the screw-up

– Angelo  Donghia, New Yorker and interior designer

I had an idea today – or perhaps it was a thought. I almost wrote, “just a thought”, but realised that would put ideas above thoughts, and that’s just a false promotion.

Anyhoo, it struck me, this notion. It was this: without a whole bunch of feelings and thoughts about the world – and more specifically, the people – around us, it could be very hard to function effectively. But they don’t – by any means – necessarily help us out all the time, either.

What sort of things are in this bunch of feelings and thoughts, then? It’s assumptions, empathy, sympathy, compassion (“feeling with” someone), anticipation of another’s wants, needs or feelings. All of these are about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Neurologically, it’s partially about prediction of events (“if or when X happens, Y tends to follow” becomes “when her ice-cream falls to the floor, Suzie will be upset”).

That’s the logical side of things – but in terms of narrative, it lacks what would be the natural next step for the majority of people: to anticipate and then react to the other person’s need (compassion / empathy / sympathy), perhaps by putting your hand in your pocket to buy another ice cream, getting the hankies ready, or providing a distraction, like letting the ice-cream fall on your own head to make Suzie laugh, rather than cry…..because all of those would be a nicer thing for her.

Some people are very empathetic (watch out for people who ‘catch’ other people’s yawns) and in extreme instances can be irritating in their ever-readiness, meeting, matching, catching the needs of those around them. But they might be the ones who make the world go round, so I’m going to leave them alone.

And there are other people who choose not to “feel with” others, or choose not to at certain times (ranging from ignoring the whinger in your group of friends to “compassion fatigue”  – a term now used to describe the public’s weariness at hearing “too much” about suffering and donating less and less). And we all do this on occasion, whether for tiredness, boredom or other reasons, ranging from the selfish to the “it’s good for them” school of thought. And before you ask, I’m not going to address the issues of empathy and autism and Asperger Syndrome – others are better qualified.

But…

…what interests the Imp today is how we walk around our worlds making all kinds of assumptions about other people; about their thoughts, needs,  desires, dreams. And very often, especially with those we flatter ourselves we know best, we don’t even realise we are doing it.

How often do we hear ourselves and others say, “he did it because…..”, or we explain another person’s behaviour away with, “oh, well, she’s jealous / excited / waiting / plotting….”? And doing this is not a bad thing – I think we need to do it to learn, to interact, but it can be ludicrously off the mark and lead to all kinds of misunderstandings, wrong judgements and rather unusual situations. We usually only find out we got it wrong when we get a surprise (which makes sense, doesn’t it?) or offend (prejudice being the bad extreme of this “thought-about-others” spectrum).

Alfred Korzybski, a profoundly influential semantician,  said that “the map is not the territory”. IE, it’s important to remember that what you believe to be the world around you is not the reality. It’s your perception of it. Others perceive it differently, constantly, and you can perceive it differently, too.

By extension, in the Imp world view (which is ever-changing, of course), it’s best always to be reviewing your map as you move through life – just as if the life ahead of you is uncharted. Because, of course, it is.

For he who has no tranquillity, there is no concentration.”- Bhagavad-Gita

“The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil.– Cicero

Time for some reflection from you chaps. By you, on you and on those you know. Not on me, thanks! ….Ever have times when your own activities surprise you? A moment or seven off, “What on earth am I doing?”, or even, “Now this is strange!”?

It won’t knock you over to read that such a condition is where I’ve found my impish self.

I’m surrounded by tubes of paint, sketches, computer sketches and maps. Obviously, ‘cos I’m Painting A Thing and that’s (clearly) the way to do it.  I’m also doing this tippity-tap and draping myself under the dripping mellifluidities of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, in prep for a singing rehearsal….Having edited photos, chatted with snowed-in chums and made a rather nice squid-ink seafood risotto (yeah, that’s the bit I’m most impressed with, too).

But here’s the rub: can any of it be any good, being so juggled? Can they possibly cross-fertilise? The thrill of the squid ink (try it) does go very well with Ella’s Misty (nip to itunes – the youtube version’s nowhere near as good and it’s 79p very well spent), to be fair.

Pish pash posh:  these good things are mere externalities. The output is how the effect should be judged, surely? Well, maybe not. After all, surely all I ought to be concerned about is the quality of my own experience? Not in a selfish way (moderation, etc etc), but in a recent post, I jotted that in some brain disease/injury cases, patients lose their sense of time, and with that loss, they also lose anxieties and – more importantly – increase their sense of well-being. That’s the condition to seek, surely? Peacefulness. We all achieve it differently, of course. I couldn’t sit on my bum all day (which reminds me; must set the video recorder); I’d be very unpeaceful. For me, the peace (and it has to be temporary to have value; time-limited, ironically) comes from pleasing, productive pottering. Like this.

Now, go on and play Misty for me…..

😉

It occurred to me earlier that we often allow our own selves and lives to be shaped – like coastlines – by the regular impact of the the waves around us. Left to our own devices, our own plans, plots, maps, we were “going to be” x, y, or z. We were “going to do” a, b and maybe even c.

As a child, I drew out a plan for my life ahead.  It stretched out away from my body, up and cross the A4 page, my life all written out ahead by little-old me. The next school, the exams, perhaps college or university. At that stage (X marks the spot) I would become a writer, by that one (Y?) be married with children, over there I would travel, and there I would rest. I think I only got as far as the age of 40 – anything further was, I think, too dauntingly unimaginable, so I gave up and shut the notebook.

The interesting thing is that it was the same notebook in which I had copied part of my family tree, going back to the mid C19th, faithfully writing down the faceless names of generation upon generation of pavier (pavement layers, turning rough paths into civilised routes: hard, back-breaking work) and their wives and children. Just as I saw the tree working backwards, I saw my own branches (of action, not progeny) going forwards.

So why is this posting about waves, and not branches? It’s both, I suppose. For me then, the life as yet unlived, the plans, the map, was solid, determined and branchlike. By contrast, the reality of life is fluid and reactive.  Is there really anyone who has not been fundamentally – in their character, their personality, their actions – affected by the people around them? Who has not held off a course of action because of how it would impact on loved ones? Or been afraid to progress a plan because AN Other did something similar so recently and to such acclaim?

But this is good; this is listening.

We are both waves, having constant impact, and coasts, accreting and being eroded accordingly. Standing at the edge, in the liminal space of ebb and flow between sea and land, we can see the process happening up close and we can take an opportunity to look again at what we thought we knew.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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