Gazing at Buddha

A small Buddha

sitting calmly

in the morning gloom;

taking shape in early light.


The black resin idol,

composed and serene,

stares past me

to where I cannot see

and cannot go.


Sitting impervious,

untouchable, inanimate.

Its atoms no more or less exceptional

than the miracles dancing

in my bones.

We share that at least.

I look through Christian eyes

and see in you nothing to recoil from.

You are not the risen Christ

but you point me to him.

I think of people you inspire

and warm to them;

if not brothers and sisters; my friends.

A model of contentment.

Untouched, transcendent,

you exist in harmony with all things

just as I do not.

You don’t manipulate, obligate,

retaliate, pontificate or desecrate.

You simply are;

take you or leave you.



Many kinds of Hell

Tell and retell

the tired tales that serve us well.

Grievance, grief, remorse, regret.

The mind recasts, renews

pasts more wisely left;

that stunt and choke a soul.

Private little hells,

factory fitted,

home delivered.

Deep thought pits

with vertical walls

and slippery bits.

Everyday hells;

returned to habitually,

invoked mindlessly.

Repeated insanity,

drifting endlessly,

clung to hopelessly.

No images from Dante;

mostly less heroic;

not the least bit romantic.

Hells up close and personal.

Tawdry, tragic, ordinary

hells right here and now.

Many kinds of hell

in the stories we tell.

Real, imagined,

accepted, denied.

Each resonating

with the shriek of a shackled soul.

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

​​
I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.


You might glance at the title and move on: banal, trifling, inconsequential, clichéd, trite, well-worn, you might think. Adjectives are powerful qualifiers. They can damn and skewer just as effectively as they praise. Here’s some more of them: Heartbroken, wide-eyed, incredulous, insecure and somewhat aggrieved. 

That was pretty much me for a day or two this week.

Some background:

A couple of days ago I accepted that the battery on my ipad needed replacing. That part was straightforward. The procedure involved resetting the device, returning it to factory settings, the erasure of all content and swapping it for another ipad. No problem. I backed everything up and went to get the battery changed with an air of indifference. Just one of those occasional necessary distractions. 

The battery replacement was a success, and arriving home again I hooked the ipad up to reload its content. 

“Corrupt backup file”, was the screen message. Some instants engrave themselves on your consciousness. Heart-sinking is an appropriate adjective. Incomprehension dissolved quickly into dread, and then just as quickly into anger. I am not nice to know at such times, suffice to say.

The second worst thing was realising how much stuff I had lost. The worst was when I couldn’t remember exactly which files had vanished. Gigabytes of music, photos, business and travel documents, passwords and poems had found their way onto my ipad, and I had grown complacent. I had allowed the device to carry my life inside it.

I know, I know. The fault is mine. A better back up system yada yada. 

So anyway, hours of recovery work has put my music, my apps, and most of my photos onto the new ipad. The rest doesn’t bear thinking about as I have given up ever finding it. I guess I will learn what was important when I need it and can’t find it.

But enough recriminations and techno babble. What has become pretty obvious to me is that I had become way too invested in a device that had wormed its way into my life. 

I’m writing this on my new ipad, but I’m a wiser man now. No more trust. No more complacency. Perhaps most important of all is no more dependency! I no longer trust the creature and while I will continue to use one, I won’t ever again allow it to carry so much of me and mine around. 

You’ve blown it ipad! You’re a tool; a device. You wanted to take over, little by little, file by file, password by password, contact by contact, but this sucker has woken up to your game. From now on you work for me!

I was already suspicious of Siri and distrustful of cloud storage, not to mention apps and search engines like facebook and google that pry into personal preferences and use them in marketing. I am more so now. Truly disturbing when you think about how they use our information. I’m warming to the idea of mounting a guerilla resistance by denying them access or misleading them wherever I can. 

Well, that’s the revolutionary in me asserting itself. I don’t suspect facebook or google will be overly concerned, but sometimes gestures matter.

So I guess, what began as a technology disaster has started me on a quest to reclaim control of my life.

Wish me luck.


(Inside the Thousand Buddha Cave, near Luang Prabang, Laos)

 

Where are thoughts we no longer think?

Forgotten fragments of an earlier us

who breathed

and knew differently.

Links to an earlier self;

tumbled in memory, frayed, misplaced,

saved by random connection

of an unexpected smell, or taste.

Is there a place where old thoughts go?

A graveyard somewhere out of mind?

Is there an archive for them,

uncatalogued, unsigned?

Do past thoughts persist?

Where do they stay

when they’re unremembered;

with passing days?

Off the radar and out of mind,

unsummoned, bypassed,

do they wither and die

like cut flowers on glass?

Those ghostly constructs

that earlier selves spun,

elude us and withdraw,

leaving the question:

Just who are we after all?

 
Beauty, simply.
(Water plants near the mouth of the River Danube 2016)
 
 
Try as I might I don't understand the world. Never have. Don't expect I ever will. So I guess I'll just have to accept the presence of beauty, without knowing why it's there, rather than not there.
 
Now and again the world disappoints me. Some of its inhabitants disgust me, and others surely frighten me, but despite that, the sum of life has always seemed to me threaded with beauty.
 
I said 'sum'. I meant 'essence'. There's a purity to be distilled; a vein of hope to be discovered in all things. I believe it, and won't be persuaded otherwise.
 
I won't say all things are shot through with beauty. Sometimes there may be only a strand of it; thin, tenuous and tiny; visible only to eyes that want to see it. Sometimes it will only be seen in hindsight. Sometimes the presence of beauty would offend us if it were suggested.
There are circumstances, and I've lived through my share, where even the suggestion of beauty would be blasphemous. Grief, anger, rage, hopelessness, injustice, fear; a complete list would be a long one. Even at these times, in my experience, there is an essence, a presence, that waits patiently and respectfully for us to be ready to turn towards it.
 
(Memorial for victims of the Thai Burma Railway construction World War 2)
 
 
Through all the things that make life monotonous, pointless, useless, or cruel, beauty, simply shines through. I don't understand it, but I accept it.
 
I will thank God. You may thank who or what you like.
 
 
(Shrine. Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, 2017)
 
 
A Life worthwhile.
 
I've posted on this theme before, but this afternoon I feel the need to continue the conversation, even if this post maybe needs more time spent on it.
 
(Waterfall in Erawan National Park, Thailand)
 
 
Might there be a recipe for a worthwhile life? A formula? A user's manual? A hack?
 
Don't know really, although I suspect there is some good advice here and there.
 
 
Hundreds of priests, sages, gurus and life coaches will tell you such things exist. Not all of them will charge you for the information.
 
You will be pleased to know I'm not in the business of charging for sharing wisdom. Nor am I in the business of preaching, advising, or (hopefully) patronising. Nevertheless I do have some thoughts on the topic, and here they are, incomplete and hopelessly generalised:
 
A life that is worthwhile is one for which I am grateful. I could leave it at that, because that sentence, properly understood, is the key to much wisdom. But since I've begun, thoughts flow from this.
 
A life worthwhile is one in which I stay humble, in which I take time to think, to weigh up. I realise my life isn't and never was all about me.
 
I know my own mind, my values, and what I would be prepared to die for. It is a life in which I recognise and remember what is important and what is not.
 
Through many false starts and blind alleys, I begin to understand that how materially successful I am, how much I earn, how much I own, how attractive I am, has no bearing on how much I matter in the scheme of things. I learn to accept others (who all also matter in the scheme of things).
(Street sweeper in Delhi)
 
 
Because I understand its not all about me, I have time for others. I hold their love and their dreams gently.
 
I don't know why I am, or even what life is, so I accept all of it as a gift. I accept I have been created by a loving God whom I worship naturally instead of myself. I realise not everyone will agree. I have given up worrying about that. Religion has a bad press in some arenas, and deservedly so. There is too much temptation to strangle ourselves in misunderstood dogma and to create a monster that imprisons us, rather than frees us. I'd better stop there or I might begin to preach.
 
((Taken in a UNESCO protected temple complex in Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
(Lady in a village in Armenia)
 
 
I know the world is not perfect and that many of my brothers and sisters have not seen justice and love in their lives as I have. I talk to God about this. I don't often understand God's answers.
 
 
Notice I've used “I” exclusively?
 
You need to work out your own path. Hard work, but you don't need to do it alone.
 
 
(We're all different. Each of us matters.)
 
 
 
 
I find myself feeling increasingly isolated by the groupthink I see everywhere these days.
 
Am I the only person who is uncomfortable with the spirit of the times which divides people and judges them on the basis of what they believe or how they vote?
 
(Photo of a memorial to prisoners of war killed building the Thai-Burma railway in World War 2.
Hellfire Pass, Thailand)
 
 
How sad it would be
 
 
If I believed in tolerance so strongly,
I could show no tolerance
to those who saw things differently.
 
 
If I praised diversity in all things
except opinion.
 
 
If I defended human rights
with personal abuse,
foul language
or violence.
 
 
If I believed those who thought differently
were stupid,
deluded,
bigoted,
or evil.
 
 
If I my belief in a cause
stopped me reaching out in friendship.
 
 
If I believed I held the truth and it were mine alone.
 
 
How sad it would be.