‘La Petit Mort’

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Shall I put on some Barry White?

“It is wrong to think that love comes from long companionship and persevering courtship. Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity and unless that affinity is created in a moment, it will not be created for years or even generations.” KAHLIL GIBRAN

I like sex. That doesn’t mean I think i’m good at it by the way. I mean I’ve had my moments, but in general I like it. I want to add ‘who doesn’t’ but I think that would be a general statement with which more than a few might not concur. It doesn’t feel very British to talk about it either, anyway the point is my attitude towards sex has changed a lot over the years. I found a great quote in a book I own which sums it up nicely:

“It has been said before the age of forty men give free reign to their passions., but after suddenly become aware that their strength is declining. As soon as decline sets in, countless illnesses come swarming. If this persists for a long time unchecked it will become incurable. Therefore, P’eng Tsu said ‘To use one human being to cure another, this is the true way” Therefore when a man reaches forty he must become familiar with the art of the bedchamber.”” “For this reason, it is useless to discuss the affairs of the bedchamber with a man who is not yet forty, for his lust is not yet stilled” from Sun Ssu-mio’s Priceless Prescriptions (Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics

I bought this riveting coffee table dweller (joke) from a really great second hand bookshop that I love in Chelsea and have to admit I haven’t actually read it as such, much of the bits I have glanced at are indecipherable but there are bits like the one quoted above which are priceless…especially for a forty plus year old man. Hmmmm.

The link with sex and death is obvious and deeply profound and this is why I like the term ‘La Petit Mort’ (little death) which is the gallic (and my favourite) way of describing a sexual orgasm. The term has been broadly expanded to include specific instances of blacking out after orgasm and other supposed spiritual releases that come with orgasm. I’m a spiritual kind of guy and this release and close spiritual connection has largely been my experience of the act. That’s possibly why I like it…the title…and not just in it’s red blooded lusty sense.

Apparently there are a number of possible sources; The Greek belief that over ‘secretion’ for both men and women would eventually lead to death…(never though of that one)…and an Islamic reference to sleep…oh dear! Okay so I realise that refers to what happens afterwards for both parties rather than to one or more during…(I hope).

Either way it describes neatly a full body orgasm and the semi (or un) -conscious post coital experience as opposed to a lazy/quick one which can of course be very pleasant but not really transcendental…no tears for either party but maybe a good nights sleep…so it really describes the spiritual connection and drive that is going on when we procreate (well). Life and ‘death’ perhaps combined in a single moment…

“Life is nothing but a continuing dance of life and death, a dance of change.” SOGYAL RINPOCHE

Can’t wait to read the next chapter…

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5 Inspirational Quotes about Death

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Despite what appears to be a morbid and perhaps nihilistic title, this blog is all about inspiration. How can death be inspiring I hear you ask? Well, it’s all about perspective. We’ve largely been brainwashed (yes I do mean that) into believing that the material aspects of life are the most important..global economic crisis, war, famine all find their root cause in this and what can be defined in Buddhism as the three obstacles: anger, greed and stupidity. Obstacles because they block our path to our true state of enlightenment (or Buddhahood). We ALL suffer…that is what it is to be human. So these events don’t just happen, there are people, individuals like you and me that make decisions alone or together to create these effects. This focus on materiality; money, shiny things, even the body beautiful all anchor us in fear….fear of loss, and fear of ‘not enough’. All, however, is very much impermanence and in this way a focus and attachment to material is not constructive. This physical impermanence is the very nature and essence of life and that is why death ironically can be so inspirational. Through contemplating our own mortality we begin to see that all we really have is this moment and each other. Death is not called the ‘great leveller’ for nothing. If there were a bit more thought given to our infinitely small amount of time on this planet perhaps there would be less interest in foolish things, less anger and as a result perhaps, less suffering?

Anyway here’s some quotes from people far wiser than me, hope you enjoy and please share and like (if you like).

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Life’s a beach

1) “Death is more certain than the morrow, than night following day, than winter following summer. Why is it then that we prepare for the night and for the winter time, but do not prepare for death. We must prepare for death. But there is only one way to prepare for death – and that is to live well.” – Leo Tolstoy

2) “Death is our constant companion, and it is death that gives each person’s life its true meaning.”  – Paolo Coehlo

3) “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” – Richard Dawkins, 1998

4) “There is no place on earth where death cannot find us – even if we constantly twist our heads about in all directions as in a dubious and suspect land … If there were any way of sheltering from death’s blows – I am not the man to recoil from it … But it is madness to think that you can succeed … Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come – to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair! … To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind that death … We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” – Michel de Montaigne 1533-1592

5) “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” – Isaac Asimov

The Crossroads

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Tunes from the devil, suite from Saville Row…

I suppose it’s an indication of my age that recently a few good friends have all independently of each other confided in me that they feel at a crossroads in their lives. This came as no surprise as I too have been feeling the same way recently. It seems the universe was showing me that I wasn’t alone. This blog is in fact part of that change; a way for me to explore my interest in Buddhism, and spiritual practise(s) in general and I’m also using it as a basis for a book I have started writing about happiness and a film project that will explore death as a visual meditation…so where were we….ahh yes standing at the Crossroads.

Now when someone talks about crossroads I immediately think of two things. The first is a character called Benny from a terrible British soap opera based depressingly in a Motel called the Crossroads Motel. Imaginative. Amazingly the show ran for over 20 years from 1964-1988! I don’t remember much about it at all (I wasn’t a fan) except for this character Benny who always wore a beenie hat whatever the weather (mainly raining). He was a likeable character always getting into trouble and being manipulated by others as he was slightly mentally retarded. (I have just checked this and according to Wikipedia the character was “a simple-minded bumbling semi-rustic handyman”). Well I thought the show may be dealing with cutting edge mental health issues but then I have never lived in Birmingham. Apparently the show did  in fact deal with some story lines that were considered controversial for the times: A single parent working at the motel (hugely controversial in the mid-1960s); And the first paraplegic regular character in British soap opera, ever. So I’m not sure whether the Crossroads writing team were in fact tackling the important issue of mental health in UK’s road side businesses with the character of Benny or whether it’s just my imagination enhancing the experience of the character – either way, he was quite memorable.

The other thing I think of is Robert Johnson the legendary Blues musician. Johnson is widely considered to be the best blues musician who ever picked a guitar. Robert Johnson the “King of the Delta Blues”grew up dirt poor in Mississippi over 100 years ago. He left home and learned to play the guitar and sing the blues; an African-American in the deep South and all that meant… never had the sorrow and hardship of the world been transformed into such poetry never had a voice conveyed in such an accessible way the loneliness and suffering of an entire people. Not much detail is known about his life, as Martin Scorsese pointed out “he only existed on his records” and it’s perhaps because of this that one of the most enduring legends surrounding his story came into being; Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads for fame and the ability to play the blues.

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, “Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous”…after the deal was done Johnson was apparently able to play the guitar like never before and like no-one else and simply plucked songs out of thin air. He also disappeared for about 18 months. According to Doktor Snake (a UK Voodoo Priest) during this time Johnson who was pretty shaken up  by what he had done and took a passage to London in the hope that the devil wouldn’t find him there (!) This by the way, is apparently where he picked up his natty dress sense for which he was also famous.

I could talk more about Johnson because his life was so fascinating…about how he supposedly practised in a grave yard and how the devil may refer to the voodoo God, Papa Legba but you can find all this on Wikipedia if you want to. What is widely accepted is that without Johnson there would be no Rock and Roll. For me though what’s more interesting (apart from this) is the symbolism at work here…

So to me the crossroads really symbolise a time of profound change in life and the choices available, inevitably this comes with a healthy dose of fear; fear of the unknown and fear of making the wrong ‘choice’ (or of not being enough in Johnson’s case), if only we could be certain that our choice of path would lead to what we want and that there would be no unpleasant feelings or outcomes. The devil may let you have it (certainty) but only if your soul is his….by the way there are a number of versions of Johnson’s tragic death but what is known is that he was poisoned near the Three Forks juke joint outside Greenwold MS where he was playing….so called because of the crossroads (here we go again) it stood near  and not the limitation of its cutlery drawer…apparently when they looked inside the suit on Johnson’s lifeless body, the good folk of Greenwold were all amazed to see the label “Saville Row”….

So the devil could be seen as the ego which needs to be fed and bargained with and offers the illusion of security and permanence and will perhaps get you what you want in the end but only at the cost of your soul…your own eternal and divine spirit.

Which way now?

The thing is in life the crossroads are really nothing but an illusion, or rather what is promised along each path is really only an illusion; It’s really only the intention that matters. In its simplest form, happiness is the attitude we travel with not the destination, therefore it should not matter which turn we take as it’s not a matter of right or wrong but rather of cause and effect. Nothing in life is certain or ‘promised’ even if it was what would the price paid have to be for this ‘knowledge’?

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things“.

SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA – DHAMMAPADA

Johnson spent his whole life running from the devil in fear….in order to be truly happy we need to be able to move forward and accept the challenges and struggles we face and indeed turn them to our advantage somehow…for me that somehow is encapsulated in the Lotus Sutra. Without that faith in the mystic truth…a perception of the true aspect of all phenomena…I would really only have (like Johnson) a reliance on self-will and the doubt that brings and the fear of the devil.

This may make me a great musician but the as the saying goes “the devil will always get his due”.

London; Necropolis

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Can I use my Osyter?

Last week I spent a very stimulating evening enjoying one of a series of lectures being held at The Last Tuesday Society by the folks behind Morbid Anatomy who are in the UK for a short while. The Last Tuesday Society is a great place to while away a few hours if you are of a curious and sightly eccentric disposition. The little shop of horrors is actually an amazing  window on the wonderfully strange variety of life (and death) on the planet. I was there though primarily to meet Joanna Ebenstein who founded Morbid Anatomy. I had got in touch with Joanna after a great lecture she gave last year during the Death exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and she’s kindly helping me with a film project which will explore (I hope) Death’s spiritual significance in a visual and meditative way.

The lecture was entitled “Future Death, Future Bodies and Future Cemeteries” and Dr John Troyer from the Centre for Death & Society at the University of Bath asked us initially to think about what we wanted to do with our bodies after we have died. It’s a really interesting question and not one that I think about that often although maybe I should. I mean I contemplate my death but not what happens to my body afterwards. I guess I think “I’m dead, who cares?” the issue is that after it’s final breath, my body immediately becomes an issue for my family and for society.

I remember reading a book last year exploring curious hidden facts about London and found out that up until the mid 1900’s everyone was buried in their local Parish in the church grounds. This became difficult in London when the numbers of prostitutes, poor and alcoholic reached new levels and the churches no longer had space. According to Wikipedia “In the first half of the 19th century the population of London more than doubled, from a little under a million people in 1801 to almost two and a half million in 1851.[1] The city’s dead had been buried in and around the local churches.[2] With a limited amount of space for burials, the oldest graves were regularly exhumed to free space for new burials.[3] Despite the rapid growth in population, the amount of land set aside for use as graveyards remained unchanged at approximately 300 acres (0.5 sq mi; 1.2 km2),[1] spread across around 200 small sites.[4] Even relatively fresh graves had to be exhumed to free up space for new burials, their contents being unearthed and scattered.[5] Decaying corpses contaminated the water supply, and the city suffered regular epidemics of cholera, smallpox, measles and typhoid.[6] A Royal Commission established in 1842 to investigate the problem concluded that London’s burial grounds had become so overcrowded that it was impossible to dig a new grave without cutting through an existing one.[7] In 1848–49 a cholera epidemic killed 14,601 people in London and overwhelmed the burial system completely.[8]

In the wake of public concerns following the cholera epidemics and the findings of a Royal Commission, the Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis (Burials Act) was passed in 1851. Under the Burials Act, new burials were prohibited in what were then the built-up areas of London.[9]”

Gruesome.

The first every purpose built cemetery was then built out in Brookwood in Surrey (called The London Necropolis) it was deemed far enough away not to cause an public hygiene issues and was to use to the new invention of mechanised transport (the railway) to link the cemetery with Waterloo Station. The line had only one stop…(queue Hollywood style voice-over); The Cemetery.

The London Necropolis Railway was therefore opened in 1854 as a reaction to this severe overcrowding in London’s existing graveyards and cemeteries. One of the buildings can still be seen on Westminster Road although much of the line and other buildings were destroyed in the World War II. I think i’m right in saying that some of the buildings to the left of Waterloo’s main entrance were where the terminal once sat.

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Next stop…

Nowadays most people (about 75% apparently) get cremated but when cremation was first introduced to this country there was strong opposition on religious grounds. We are largely a secular society now so what we do tends to veer towards the practical and eco friendly, however according to Dr John there are now a range of options available to the recently departed today which include space burials, having your ashes turned into a prescious gem (to be worn by a relative perhaps) and Liquefaction. This last one’s a bit Soylent Green.

The idea of the future cemetery is also interesting. Holographic memorials (traditional memorials are less popular as the dominance of religion fades). In fact there are companies in existence right now who will look after your virtual life, for a fee. Think about it, there are people alive who had a facebook page before they were even born…What happens to all this when they die, all the thousands of photographs etc no-one owns a photo album anymore?

Back to reality, did you know 15,000 bodies are produced in the UK every day – what do we do with them all? It’s a serious question. In New York, apparently things are so bad that for the very poorest who can’t afford to even get a death certificate issued the bodies of relatives are lieterally piling up in the city morgue. The city however can’t dispose of them legally until the death certificate is signed…

Burial is a really interesting topic and is used by academics to define the civillastion of human beings. Before we this simple invention we human beings simply left corpses to rot like other animals did. As Dr John pointed out, this simple act has survived as a one of the greatest inventions of the human species.

Its macabre not to think about this stuff. After all death, whether we like it or not, is inevitable. As a society in the west we seem to want to distance ourselves from this further and further. We all want to stay young and live forever and most of us don’t even know how to spend our Sunday afteernoons! We all know it will happen we just don’t know when. So it’s sensible to talk about this with loved ones and relatives so they know what you want and also so you know what they might want.

After all would they be comfortable to see your body being liquified and used as fertiliser as is beginning to happen in the USA already? Maybe they’d just prefer to munch on a nice box of Soylent Green instead?

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Nutritious and good for the environment!

No Regrets

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Recently a blogger named Bronnie Wray published a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She works in palliative care and started a blog called Inspiration and Chai where she wrote about her experiences of working with these patients. The blog created so much attention that she wrote the book.

I’ve copied and pasted the regrets for you below. They are fascinating to me.

I’m sure if you asked the question down the pub, i.e. what do you think you would regret the answers would be very different. I wish I had more sex or more money or even more power or time are NOT on the list anywhere!

What is even more interesting to me in relation to my work is that Wray noted that people grow a lot when faced with their own mortality, obviously this doesn’t mean that they get taller but rather that they grow emotionally and spiritually. I am sure this is why the ancients and mystics like Shakyamuni all taught that contemplation of death and our own mortality as vitally important to the human experience of life. From this begins a more fulfilling way to live. Rather than being morbid or depressing, it in fact allows for real spiritual and emotional growth. It’s a fact of life after all so it’s not constructive to ignore it or diminish it’s relevance to the living experience.

First study death and then study other matters

NICHIREN DAISHONIN (Gosho Zenshu)

Wary also noted that her patients would get incredible clarity of vision towards the ends of their lives and hopes that we can all benefit from their wisdom. I hope you will too.

TOP 5 REGRETS OF THE DYING

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.

Wray’s simple conclusion reminded me of one of my favourite quotes that I found on the “Just for today card” over three and half years ago and which was to become my spiritual practise and guiding mantra for many months in early recovery:

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1809-1865)

Interplanetary Funksmanship

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Mothership Connection

“Let the vibes flow through, funk not only moves, it can remove, dig? The desired effect is what you get. When you improve your Interplanetary Funksmanship”

BOOTSY COLLINS

I’ve always loved music. Especially Parliament and Funkadelic, even as I child I loved the way that Motown, Classical music and even pop would make me feel. It had power. It could change my mood immediately. Even today Pachelbel’s canon in D Major can move me to tears and hearing Aretha gets my foot tapping just the same.

Nietzsche famously said that without music “life would be a mistake” and I would have to agree. He goes on to say that through music the passions can enjoy themselves. This, I think is where music’s power lies: in it’s ability to speak directly to the heart, the spirit, the soul. In this way music is timeless, it’s of culture but not defined by it and it is always evolving and unlike other art forms it has a directness, it needs no filters to be understood or interpreted. Music is truly a universal language with an infinite number of variations to express, describe and colour the human experience. Krishnamurthi said that life is like this. He described it in one of his talks like a symphony and that our job is like someone listening to the symphony and learning to appreciate ALL of it. The sound and the silence, not just the timpani or the string section but all of it together and how it speaks directly to us with immediacy and without the need of thought especially and in a moment without force. great way to describe the movement of life.

Life however is fragile, perhaps more fragile than the music it can create, our bodies are mostly water and water evaporates at room temperature. That’s how fragile. We know that at a sub atomic level particles are vibrating at certain frequencies, in fact all that appears to ‘separate’ us according to science is our vibrational frequency; at the smallest level there is no separation and the ‘reality’ of all ‘things’ is one.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a Full Moon Singing bowl ceremony. It was the second time I had experienced it and tucked away in the middle of an empty Kennington Park we meditated, ‘played’ crystals bowls and offered healing vibrations to each other and to the universe while the Honey Moon* watched over us. It was a powerful experience, the impact of the sonic resonance of seven large crystal bowls (all aligned harmonically with the seven major Chakras in the body) is really unique. In an instant you are surrounded by the healing wall of sound, it envelops the mind and takes it somewhere quite abstract and yet familiar as if the experience of ‘being’ is just pure energy.

The word Chakra derives from the sanskrit for wheel or turning and in the Hindu metaphysical tradition (and also Tibetan Buddhism) the chakras are centres of Prana or life force or channels of energy. The systems are not precise and vary, however I was interested to note recently that the seven major chakras correspond with the major gland systems in the body, glands which secrete the hormones that pretty much control the functions of the body and therefore our life states. Not quite as arbitrary as I had once thought.

The experience can affect each participant in different ways, last night I couldn’t stop smiling from beginning to end. The experience of the sonic bath seemed to ignite every cell in my body creating a deep feeling of joy and stimulation which caused an uncontrollable desire to smile. Thank you.

During the ceremony each of us channelled our voices to support the receiver, to offer them our love so that the whole process was one of giving and receiving. In this way we were reminded that none of us stands completely alone. This a key concept of Buddhism and other spiritual practises and was illustrated by Shakyamuni by the image of two bundles of reeds leaning against each other. He described how the two bundles of reeds can remain standing as long as they lean against each other. In the same way, because this exists, that exists, and because that exists, this exists. If one of the two bundles is removed; the other will fall. This is a simple way to explain the deep interconnectedness of all things.

Once we understand this deep web of interconnectedness like Indra’s Net we understand our lives only become truly meaningful through interaction with and in relation to others.

As Nichiren Daishonen put it “If you light a lamp for another, your own way will be lit.”

Our lamps were shining brightly in Kennington Park last night as the heavenly sounds of infinite energy connected us. I’m very grateful for Huna Bear for organising the event (every month) in this way helping me to develop a deeper understanding of how I can grow and be conscious of how my vibrational energy can help to connect the dots in my daily life and create the change I hope to see for this world.

We’re all human beings who, through some mystic bond, were born to share the same limited life span on this planet, a small green oasis in the vast universe. Why do we quarrel and victimize one another? If we could all keep the image of the vast heavens in mind, I believe that it would go a long way toward resolving conflicts and disputes. If our eyes are fixed on eternity, we come to realize that the conflicts of our little egos are really sad and unimportant.”

DAISAKU IKEDA

I’m already looking forward to next month. We want the funk!

*Traditionally the full moon in June is the best time to harvest honey. As most couples traditionally marry in this month that is where the term honeymoon derived from. Now you know.

Here Comes the Sun…

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“I hope Doreen remembered the sandwiches”

Today is, or more accurately was, the Summer Solstice (in the Northern hemisphere). This is the day when the angle of the earth is tilted at its maximum (towards the Sun) therefore increasing the amount of daylight received. This moment occurred at about 05:00 in the UK. (In the southern hemisphere, the summer solstice is celebrated in December, also when the daytime is at a maximum). It’s all academic when you wake up at 06:00 and the sky is just an impenetrable bank of semen coloured cloud.

I know. I was looking for another word but it seemed kind of apt. We’re all adults here. I hope I didn’t offend anyone.

The word “Solstice” is derived from the Latin words: “sol” meaning sun, and “sistere,” to cause to stand still. This is because, as the summer solstice approaches, the sun rises higher and higher in the sky on each successive day. On the day of the solstice however, it rises only an imperceptible amount, compared to the day before thus creating a sense that it is “standing still.”

As the sun spirals its longest dance,
Cleanse us
As nature shows bounty and fertility
Bless us
Let all things live with loving intent
And to fulfill their truest destiny

Wiccan blessing for Summer

This is a time to celebrate growth and life for Pagans. For them this spoke in the wheel of life is very significant because the Goddess takes over from the horned God who has been taking us through Spring. She is now at the height of her fertility and power, in fact for some pagans the Summer solstice marks the marriage of the God and Goddess (Heaven & Earth) who see their union as the force that creates the harvests fruits. It’s all about balance in the world and the natural environment and they like animals and possibly our forbears are deeply aware of the ongoing shifting of the seasons and that it is also time to acknowledge that the sun will now begin to decline once more towards winter. Yes I know. All is impermanence after all.

The impact of the sun’s journey is one that traverses all the world’s population throughout all time. People around the world have observed spiritual and religious seasonal days of celebration in June. Most are linked in some way to the summer solstice. The Celts & Slavs celebrated the first day of summer with dancing & bonfires to help increase the sun’s energy. The Chinese marked the day by honoring Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light and Christians placed the feast of St John the Baptist towards the end of June.

In fact all ancient cultures knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. They built monuments, such as Stonehenge, to follow the sun’s yearly progress. Around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, two great pyramids and then the Sphinx were built on Egyptian sands. If you stood at the Sphinx on the summer solstice and gazed toward the two pyramids, you’d see the sun set exactly between them.

Today we know the solstice as an astronomical event, it’s hard to understand just how powerful the connection with the Sun would have been for these earlier cultures. Life was intrinsically and instinctively linked. It was a natural and spiritual connection.

So what would happen if the Sun disappeared? Well if you are in daylight at the time then it would go dark but only after eight and half minutes because of the speed of light. What you would see during that time would effectively be a ghost sun; it would appear the same, it just wouldn’t exist! At that point the earth would also be free from the gravitational pull of the sun and start to move off in a straight line (probably) travelling at 18 mph into the eternal darkness. If you were in night-time and there was a full moon this would disappear and then the whole planet would be plunged into total night and the temperature would start to fall…the Sun is the glue keeping our solar system together.

Despite our distance from this spiritual reliance on the environment in our highly industrialised and technologically advanced society, we are still totally dependant on the Sun for life, yet we have nothing of the same reverence or celebration of its power today. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why to this day, it’s still so special to some: It communicates something deeply profound about the nature and fragility of human existence. The celebration of the solstice is one way of acknowledging this and perhaps on a more subconscious level, offers an opportunity to remove the mask of humanity’s global constructs and break through the ego-fuelled illusions and boundaries of race, culture, religion and nationality.

After all, without the sun all of humanity would simply be alone in the darkness.

A net to catch the wind

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Before…

Friday last, I went to the final day of a very stimulating show at a Gallery in Soho to help eat one of the exhibits. As you do. The show was called Memento Mori which is Latin of course and translates as ‘remember you will die’. It’s said that during a Roman Imperator’s vir triumphalis (basically a big parade and one of the highest achievement in the Republic) a slave would accompany him in his chariot holding a gold wreath above his head and whispering ‘Memento Mori’ in his ear. This act would both symbolise the brevity of existence while simultaneously conveying a passion for earthly things. It may also have had a ‘deflating’ function, reminding the jubilant emperor that whilst he was being treated like a God, he was in fact human.

Whatever the purpose, it was a great exhibition with exhibits from Jake & Dinos Chapman and others. I was there, however, to see Tasha Marks who I had recently met at Car Art Boot Fair. Tasha had produced a Vanitas Case made almost entirely from Chocolate and had invited me along to it’s farewell. I felt dear reader that it was only my duty to go along and help her of course in the name of art…I have to say it was delicious and I’m now convinced all art should be edible…this ties in very well with the Buddhist principle of impermanence and would therefore carry spiritual significance and meaning. Probably not so good for the market though so I can’t see it taking off in a big way, although the gallery experience would be so much more fun and a great way to meet people.

Anyway, Vanitas art in itself is fascinating and usually features objects rich in symbolism such as skulls, rotting food, and fading flowers in order to produce in the viewer’s mind an acute awareness of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. The origins of the term date back to the latin biblical aphorism: vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (Ecclesiates 1:2) (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity).

Vanitas Vanitatum

All the Flowers of the Spring
Meet to perfume our burying:
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time.
Survey our progresse from our birth—
We are set, we grow, we turne to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest Breath and clearest eye
Like perfumes goe out and dye;
And consequently this is done
As shadowes wait upon the Sunne.
Vaine the ambition of Kings
Who seeke by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.

from The Devil’s Law Case by John Webster (1623)

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After…

Apart from edible Vanitas art, Tasha does amazing things with food and runs a boutique food event organisation called Animal Vegetable Mineral. She has an exhibition currently running at the Herrick Gallery in Shoreditch and has obtained some of the extremely rare and valuable substance ambergris. Ambergris is a now fairly unheard of ingredient but apparently it’s formed in the lower intestine of sperm whales and is primarily known for its distinctive musty aroma which was previously used in perfumery. According to Wikipedia, “Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes. The ancient Chinese called the substance ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’ and during the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague.” As well as being used in perfume, it was historically used to flavour food and is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

I use incense when I chant quite a lot. Smell is after all one of the most powerful and evocative of the human senses and I find it helps relax me and and helps me to focus. Quite often it will transport me somewhere else, to places I have visited in the past depending on which flavour I use. I’m sure like Proust we have all had those ‘madeleine moments’. (Marcel Proust’s masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu is wholly inspired by the smell and taste of cakes which transport him immediately to a time in the past from which the book emerges). It may not even be a place, sometimes it’s a feeling or an emotion or a particular person of course. This reminded me that I saw some very alarming research recently from a company called Nielsen, the same guys who provide the ratings which are still largely used by TV and advertising companies to target their advertising at the right suckers (that includes me of course). Anyway this ‘piece of work’ showed that amongst the 18-24 year old group (globally), something like 75% of them would rather lose one of their senses than be without an essential piece of technology…

What?!

Yep. This was a very credible global study. No reason to disbelieve it. Okay so actually doing it and saying it are different things however the inferred meaning is clear. To do a bit of my own fieldwork I asked someone I knew in that age group what they thought and she confirmed without any hesitation that she would forfeit her sense of smell if it meant keeping her mobile phone…I was gob-smacked. This was quite possibly the most morbid and depressing thing I had ever heard. Obviously the issues that this piece of information raised could inspire a hundred blog posts and I don’t have the time. I don’t have kids and I know these days young people’s entire social lives are built around technology (when I was making a date I just hoped that person would show up as arranged) but surely someone somewhere is teaching them something about the beauty and poetry of life?

Please tell me they are, because if they are not, we might as well be dead.

A Divine Union

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Fighting crime and Cortizol

I’ve recently started a regular Yoga practice again. Up at 06:00 for the 06:45 class. I feel totally reborn. I think it was the chanting that did it. It reinvigorated my interest. I love Yoga. For the past few days i’ve been feeling focused, relaxed and sleeping really well. I’ve been practicing on and off for many years now and have tried a few different flavours in that time. As I’m sure some of you will already know, there are many definitions of Yoga. The word is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ which essentially means to join or unite. The union referred to is that of the individual self uniting with Cosmic Consciousness or the Universal Spirit or God. Yoga is a means to achieving this goal; Samadhi or ‘Divine Union’.

“Who am I who speaks, walks, stands and functions on this elaborate stage we call the world? I should find this out”.

YOGA VASISHTA

The postures or asanas (there are literally hundreds) are chosen by a teacher for a student to improve this mind body balance. These days a teacher will normally take a whole class of students through a set of postures one after the other (depending on the style of Yoga). However this is only one aspect of the ‘Eightfold path’ – it’s more than just mastering postures and increasing your flexibility and strength.

“The traditional purpose of Yoga, however, has always been to bring about a profound transformation in the person through the transcendence of the ego”

In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism the word actually means “spiritual discipline” hinting at the wider philosophy. People often only associate yoga with the postures and stances (Asana) that make up the physical activity but there are other aspects of yoga including Pranayama (control of life-force or Prana) and Pratayahara (interiorisation of the mind). Essentially the Yoga we practise is not for ourselves alone but for the Divine. It’s aim is to work out the aim of the Divine in the world and to effect a spiritual transformation. It’s been practiced for thousands of years, and it’s something that’s evolved and changed overtime of course and now (like religion) different factions have developed with Bikram or ‘Hot Yoga’ being the latest and possibly most controversial (for the copyrighting of asanas in a sequence not the girls in bikinis).

Most scholars believe that Yoga originated in India thousands of years BCE (Before the Common Era apparently). However there is also some evidence that in fact Yoga was practiced in Ancient Egypt for a very long time. Some research has indicated that the philosophy of ‘personality integration’, was in fact practiced in North East Africa for about 10,000 years. Apparently this teaching of ‘yoga’ was derived from the meditations and insights of the early sage priests and priestesses. The original inhabitants of the country called it Kemet, meaning black or the black land, because of the yearly flooding of the Nile which caused the rich silt to overflow its banks. In the Kemetic teachings this process of yoga is called Smai Tawi which means union of the two lands, this doesn’t refer to Israel and Palestine of course, but the higher and lower nature within the human entity.

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Has anyone seem my Chia seeds?

Whatever style or definition of the word you use, the physical practise of Yoga is all about the breath. In the asanas it’s the focus on the breathing that helps one improve by ignoring the resistance of the grasping ego mind and it’s the breath that energises the body and deepens the practice. In this way one doesn’t do Yoga, in the same way that one doesn’t do Meditation…Yoga is a way of being.

I have found that this is also a pretty great tool outside of the yoga studio. On how many occasions do I just need to breathe (or remember to breathe)? The more you do it, the easier it becomes. This is the mindfulness meditation at work throughout the day that the Buddha spoke about. There have been many occasions where the outcome would have been very different if I had simply been able to count my breath and work through the unpleasant feelings. Progress not perfection. What being conscious of the breath is really doing of course is bringing me back to the now, it simply connects me with what is really important right now, the mind at rest. In this way Yoga is like a physical or moving meditation. Chanting works the same way. Studies have found that the rhythm of mantras are similar to the heart rhythms, helping the practitioner to tune the mind to the frequency and beating of the heart whether resting or hard at work. The breath controls the heart.

A lifetime of unconscious living can lead to a lot of deterioration in the body, while a life of conscious living means we are actually able to learn to control certain aspects of our bodily functions. One of the other amazing benefits of Yoga is improved posture. I think i’ve literally grown about an inch taller over the last few years…

In fact the union between mind and body is so strong (why do we even think of them as separate anyway) that recent studies have shown that just by standing in powerful postures (hands on hips, hands raised for example) we can in fact increase testosterone and decrease anxiety hormones like Cortizol. Try it next time you have a job interview or important event; stand with your hands on your hips like Wonder Woman (I would suggest doing this somewhere private) and see how your attitude changes. It really works. It’s all about tricking or training the mind and it’s simpler than you think.

Or is that just because my mind is so simple?

A ‘Test’ Tube

As proud as I am of London and Londoners in general. I don’t like the underground. That’s hardly a unique statement. Me and a few million people in London probably. It’s an incredible feat of engineering stretching over 240 miles and I know millions of pounds has been spent on it and continues to be spent on improving the ‘experience’, however I just thought i’d offer a few ideas up for consideration that might improve things a bit further…

Luckily, because of my current work situation (or rather lack of it) I hardly have any need to use the ‘oxo’ at the moment. Every cloud and all that. This makes my life infinitely more pleasant as you can imagine, however when I do have reason to descend into the underworld sorry underground I feel like I’m playing Russian Roulette with my immune system. Either I’m just unlucky or the environment of our subterranean transport system incubates complex strains of germs and flu and cold viruses that you can only build up a resistance to if your travelling on it everyday. If you work from home and suddenly need to get across town; you’re dancing with death. Well not death literally (unless you’re actually dancing in front of the yellow line) but anyway, it’s like some kind of primordial ooze down there, millions of virae (is that the plural of virus?) swilling around in the damp warmth feasting on millions of infected or soon to be infected hosts. Think about it, if you were a virus or a germ where would you rather be? As London is for the human virus so the London Underground is for viruses, only it’s much much cheaper.

I’m a Londoner born and bred. That may make me a lot of things but it does not, I repeat, it does not make me a dawdler. If I’m on the tube it’s because I need to get somewhere. Simple. I’d like to do that as efficiently as possible please. Thanks. I think I’m a man who understands that my life is nothing if I can’t stop to smell the roses frequently but people; there are NO sweetly smelling roses on the underground*. It’s a proven fact that Londoners walk faster than any other people on the planet and you can probably add a few mph if they, like me, happen to be of the cockney variety which I am (sort of). So the only thing a tube ride is good for is getting to B from A as speedily as possible giving you maybe 10 or 20 minutes for a few pelvic floor exercises, a spot of Tai Chi (not recommended on the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line between Kennington and Waterloo) or a solo game of Mornington Cresent. If any of you are familiar with the game from the Radio 4 program ‘I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue’ you’ll understand how potentially dangerous that is to play alone.

Apart from these tremendous challenges there’s just a general feeling of anxiety about the whole journey for me nowadays. In fact I can’t actually sit down anymore because of the processing my brain will do when I see a woman who has grey hair but who doesn’t look that old…actually she looks in good health…she can’t be older than 55 surely….is that old nowadays…people live much longer after all? You get the picture. Do I offer her my seat? I might just completely ruin her day. My experience is women can be quite sensitive about such things, if I do get up and she doesn’t accept – the whole carriage might look at me in a certain way and…oh she’s just got off at Moorgate anyway. I used to pretend I was meditating, as if somehow that would grant me some kind of spiritual immunity, however my general rule of thumb now is to give up the seat and try not to think about it, so if I’m not sitting down in the first place…job done and no mental torture. Well apart from that moment when there’s a seat and you refuse to use it much to the (my imagined) displeasure of the rest of the carriage. Who would do that sort of thing anyway, in London?

So here’s what I’m suggesting. Could we instigate a Tube Charter? Something that would create some kind of speed limit? Perhaps there’s a whole new vocation for people who could stand with placards with arrows and instructions to ‘speed up’ on them. Given the desire for TFL to computerise everything, (did you know many of the trains currently in service are already automated) maybe dot matrix traffic signs with the required speed displayed or flashing at us would help? We could have filters and congestions signs as well to really keep things moving.

In addition to some new rules and ideas to keep everyone moving, i’d also like to see an elementary test. This could be taught as part of the national curriculum (and extended to the UK citizenship test of course). About 1,107 million people use the tube every year, that’s about 3.1 million per day. We have cycling tests and driving tests, it might not be such a crazy idea after all?

It could test a person’s ability to get their travel card out of their bag/rucksack/pocket/arse in time and put it in the machine in one graceful flowing movement. It might test other basics like the ambulatory speeds required on the platforms and in the tunnels and of course the obligatory standing on the right hand side of an escalator. For the advanced passenger there could be modules on different speeds allowed for ascent and descent on almost empty escalators (should a three lane system be introduced perhaps)? Given that the world is being ‘gamified’ all over, a points system which gives a reduction in the fare might be useful and could incorporate penalties for those who stop to look at tube maps/unbutton cardigans/generally look around aimlessly in front of barriers or who walk along a platform looking at their mobile phone.

Lastly and this is key, I suggest some kind of  viral test before embarkation? This could be something simple like that x-ray screen in Total Recoil (the Arnie one not the new one). It might look like some kind of breathalyser – one quick blow and off, a quick wipe with an antiseptic sponge from a friendly robot arm and on with the journey if you aren’t carrying the Norovirus or any other kind of Tube friendly ’24 hour’ virus. Would that be too much to ask? It may sound daft but the good folk in Nippon have the sense to wear masks. How effective they are I have no idea but the principle is clear, I don’t want to catch your germs and I’m also going to try to make sure whatever contagious germs and viruses I might have I don’t pass on to you.

And relax.

How civilised a journey would  that be?

*I don’t know this to be fact. There may well be some well-kempt and godforsaken station out in zone 10, however there are definitely none in Zone 1.