Archives for posts with tag: Philosophy

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.


(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.)
 
 
 
 
 
(My photograph. Taken in Bad Frankenhausen, Germany)
 
Enough travel and photography for a while. Plenty more of that coming soon. Time now for some rebalancing. A little philosophy perhaps?
 
I started off intending to write my thoughts on life. Then I got distracted and my topic expanded, so here I am, writing about life and death.
 
 
Life?
 
Yeah, well. What would I know about your life and how you should live it? Very little, except for this hard won gem:
Don't try to tell anyone else how they should live a good life. It won't work and it just makes you look foolish when your own dross floats to the surface. So I won't try to tell you what I think you should do, because I don't know.
 
I do know what works for me though, and I'd like to share some of it, so if you have the time and interest, pull up a chair.
 
 
Death?
 
Try not to be put off. Maybe I've got something worthwhile to say and maybe I don't. The only way you will find out is to read on.
 
I cannot write about dying from personal experience. But then, can anyone?
 
It seems to me I'm on a conveyor belt called life. That belt has one destination. It travels at different speeds and has different lengths for different people, but there is no pause button and no reverse switch. I can ignore this, or rage against it, but it will change nothing.
 
I believe people's value doesn't diminish when they are dying. In the hospice where I volunteer I see more than a few people stripped of health, strength, independence, and sometimes even consciousness, awaiting death. Never yet have I come across any whose value was not obvious.
 
I don't think treating anyone as if they have no remaining value is excusable, especially not on the grounds of convenience. Dying is inevitable. Losing human worth and dignity is not.
 
Hiding death away as something shameful or unnatural is wishful thinking. Surely living life as though death is some sort of mistake or flaw in the fabric of existence is delusional. If every one of us will die at some stage, and we will, then death is a most persistent mistake.
 
Now, that all that is good in theory. Whatever we might prefer to be the case, death is a natural and inevitable part of life. But does that mean a person should always be left to die naturally, even when in extreme pain?
 
No I don't think so.
 
It's just that I don't trust any medical professional or judge or other expert to tell me when I lose my value as a human being. I do not want any such people having the authority to decide when a dying person is no longer of value and their life is to be extinguished.
 
When convenience is allowed to determine ethical responses to the suffering of the dying then anything and everything enters the mix. There is no ultimate boundary to what is acceptable. Does a medical degree confer superior ethical judgement and values? Experience says not. I can think of a few people I would trust to make decisions about my treatment when I am incapable. They are all people who love and value me, and there is not a technology expert or ethicist among them.
 
If and when I am suffering terrible pain and am close to death I will be reaching for that morphine button in whatever dose needed to dull the pain, whether it shortens my life or not. If I cannot do it myself I hope and trust that someone will do it for me.
 
I cannot imagine that any sane person would want a “bad” death. On the other hand, a “good” death, for me, is not just about escaping terrible pain, or avoiding gross discomfort. That's only part of the story.
 
I would eagerly avoid pain wherever I could but somethings more elemental, more important, if left unaddressed, would open the door to a “bad” death for me: Leaving stuff unresolved; missing the opportunity to be real and honest with myself and those I love, to list just two.
 
The opportunity to leave this life at peace with myself and my loved ones, knowing I am loved beyond my illness, deformity, disease, whatever, would be a wonderful thing. To depart knowing I matter to those around me: I could not wish for a better ending to life.
 
 
Living
 
Things I wish I had learned much earlier:
 
It is good just to be. 'Doing' is necessary and all very well but 'being' is what matters. I no longer ask people what they “do”. I am more interested in who they are.
 
Learning to accept what is, rather than grieving for what should be, or should have been. If only!
I'm getting better at it, but as they used to say on school report cards: “Room for improvement”.
So many regrets, so many traumas, so many injustices, so many things I want to take back or do again properly. They would smother me if I let them. I can't carry them all. Better to accept that they happened, to lay them down gently and watch them float away. There is peace in that, and grace, as I have discovered with a sense of wonder.
 
Looking for someone or something to blame is pointless. It takes me nowhere useful. It is a dead end. Hanging on to stuff has been something I have done a lot of over the years. Putting stuff down and letting go has seen me on a learning curve, often a very slow learning curve. It seems to me that such a skill would have made an enormous difference to my life. Better late than never, hey?
 
Making amends where possible. Often it is not possible, but just as often it is. Things broken can not always be put back together entirely, but there are degrees of repair. Better to try, than to leave a grievance festering untended. Easier to put down a burden too, when I have humbled myself and tried to make amends.
Making an apology is not always an easy thing. Being able to put ones self in the other's position is not always possible but now and then I manage it.
 
Being envious of the success, wealth or good fortune (or whatever) of others is a giant waste of time. Self evident now, but not always so. There were always plenty of opportunities to look over there at how much easier someone else had it, and cling to the resultant feelings of injustice.
I do not much look at what others have any more. I could no longer care less. I wake up each morning. The sun is shining (mostly). What more do I need or want?
 
Needing to have others think or believe as I do was never good for my blood pressure or sense of well being. Having prised my hands away from the tiller on this one, my days are much gentler and more peaceful these days. What someone else thinks or believes is their business and has no affect on me. Well, that's true in theory at least. If what they think or believe is ignorant or stupid, or threatens my way of life (and I remain convinced of my ability to judge such things by the way), I can still get up a head of steam, but at least I no longer feel the need to argue. Live and let live, as far as is wise, I say.
 
Showing love is just as important as feeling it. People will not automatically know that I love them unless my actions show them. Showing love is more than just providing material support. It means taking the time to listen, to empathise, to hug, to put myself last, and to say repeatedly how much my loved ones mean to me. I'm embarassed to admit that it took me so long to realise and act in this area. I could blame my childhood upbringing for that, but as I said above, blaming is a waste of energy.
 
Family and friends are the most important aspects of life. Nothing else matters if these relationships are damaged or broken. No material success, no self gratifying achievements mean anything next to the love of family and friends. Once again, it would have been better for me to have appreciated this much earlier.
 
Music and art feed the soul. I always knew this, but now live as though I believe it. Two years ago I started learning to play classical guitar. I've now reached a level where other people can realise what I am playing is music and that gives me great joy.
 
And finally . . .
 
There is much wisdom and philosophy in wine, but the more wine, the less you remember.
 
 
And to finish, in case you agree they have some relevance, I include the lyrics of Steve Earle's “Pilgrim”:
 
 
I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys
This ain't never been my home
Sometimes the road was rocky 'long the way, boys
But I was never travelin' alone
 
We'll meet again on some bright highway
Songs to sing and tales to tell
But I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys
Until I see you fare thee well
 
Ain't no need to cry for me, boys
Somewhere down the road you'll understand
'Cause I expect to touch his hand, boys
Put a word in for you if I can
 
 
“Pilgrim”
Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band.
 
 
from http://www.steveearle.net
 
 
 
 
 
(Sunrise over the Broadwater, near my home)
 
Early morning. A coffee cup stands before me. I'm in an expansive, live and let live, mind frame.
 
It seems the more I learn, the less I know. I guess I'm on a journey, . . . I suppose. Looking to make sense of things that don't make sense; trying to touch bedrock in a patch of quicksand; to establish my bearings in a world that has more puzzle than plan for me.
 
I used to be addicted to digital news media; especially to the reader feedback comments they invite. I have even been known to contribute a few myself. The battle of ideas fought on a sea of high drama. It's all there! At least, that's what I used to tell myself.
 
I see the whole enterprise differently now. If you're lucky, you come across a dash of grace, a smidgeon of empathy, or a worthwhile insight in reader comments here or there, but they're few, and nearly submerged in a swamp of abuse, derision, ignorance, tribalism and prejudice.
 
Don't leap to any conclusion! I am not taking a partisan stance. Right wing, left wing, conservative, progressive, anarchist, or whatever: There are few of any persuasion whose commentary rises above the smug, the ugly, the patronising, or the fatuous. (If you're a contributor and you feel slighted, well what would I know?).
 
I'll admit I have become quite disillusioned by politics and politicians. I no longer trust that many know what they're doing or have solid principles to guide them. The cynicism with which politics is done disgusts me, and the level of self interest I see frightens me. There, I've declared a possible conflict of interest on this topic!
 
There's got to be a better way for political ideas to be shared and contested. There's got to be a better way to approach life, I'm less and less interested in what divides us. I am more and more interested in building bridges. Continuing to dash ourselves against walls of ignorance and prejudice is just stupid. It is also futile.
 
With all this in mind I watched a webinar presented by Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation) yesterday. He is a person who, while I don't always embrace everything he says, has some insights. One yesterday resonated clearly. It goes something like this:
 
Human history is chock full of 'them and us' attitudes. Humans naturally team up together against those they see as outsiders. This gives them a sense of identity and security, but it also brings with it inevitable cycles of conflict, violence, and destruction. According to Fr Richard (a Franciscan priest) there is a way to break these cycles. We must stop creating 'outsiders'.
 
Is our tendency to mistrust outsiders and separate ourselves from them stronger than our preparedness to trust and include them? If I could overcome this tendency, what would happen? I fear I know the answer, and fear even more that I might be part of the problem.
 
It's all very good for me to say what I have just said, but its implications are radical and they scare me. Removing barriers and including outsiders would leave us at the mercy of their intentions. Do I really want to invite all who want to come to enter my country whether or not they can contribute or share my values? Do I really want to give out my address to all and sundry and leave the house key in the door? Do I really want to love strangers unconditionally as I love myself?
 
Where have I heard that before? Love others as you love yourself. Father Rohr says, 'why not?'. As you break down the barriers and look at others differently, you stop caring about yourself so much. Love is what it's all about he says, and I suspect he is right.
 
All well and good to love without limit, but in a world where the 'others' almost certainly will not love me back (at least not straight away anyway) that seems to demand self sacrifice; and almost certainly self destruction.
 
That was and is the way of Jesus. I understand that. What I have only recently begun to understand is how radical and scary the way of Jesus really is.
 
So, live and let live? Certainly! Work on dismantling the 'them and us' barriers? Yes, I see why I must do that.
Walking across the divide with open arms and defences down? That would leave me open to the opportunism of others who don't understand that love is the only way. It would ultimately cost me my life, as it did Jesus. I don't think I'm brave enough to follow through.
 
So where does that leave me on this beautiful winter morning? The more I learn, the less I know. That's a hard thing for me to accept.
 
 
Paradox:
noun
1. a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.
2. a self-contradictory and false proposition.
3. any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature.
4. an opinion or statement contrary to commonly accepted opinion.
 
 
 
 
 
The day has barely begun. There's not much happening at the coffee shop.
 
The sun is yet to make an appearance but it's light enough for street lamps to be redundant at 6.15 am. The proprietor is busy arranging furniture and adjusting signage as I walk in, but smiles as he sees me. As is customary, mine is the first coffee of the day to be served.
 
Our conversation is as bright as it is predictable. I find a seat: Is it always the same table? I resolve to vary this detail on my next visit. I did realise I might be habit bound when he told me I was 'late' one morning. That was some time after he had begun ringing up my order on the till before I had given it.
 
It's not that I seek out predictability. Mornings however, need to have a structure. My brain needs time to warm up, just like car engines used to, until they were ready to purr smoothly. I remember one superior officer's less than subtle observation many years ago that the young recruit in front of him was not a morning person. Not much has changed since. Kind of comforting in a way that the old me is still there.
 
This morning sees moored boats swing with the tide, pelicans slice wakes through glassy water, walkers in pairs and single joggers, crisp air, and coffee in a warm mug. By the time the coffee is finished, the sun is up and glaring, seagulls are wheeling and vehicle traffic is beginning to interfere with the serenity. I am ready to face the day.
 
In this precious half hour or so, before my brain is functioning at full efficiency, thoughts surface that might otherwise stay lost in the background. I nudge them and turn them over, before deciding if they are worth pursuing. Maybe my early morning brain is sort of like a slow cooker: The ingredients need to sit for a while before they're ready for the table.
 
Rumours of thoughts materialise gently, presenting themselves almost like debutantes, anxious to make an impression, but not expecting to be taken too seriously.
 
For example, as I rotate the coffee cup on its saucer and rearrange the teaspoon, I begin to wonder at how incredible it is that I am here at all. This morning. This cafe. This city. This planet. Why am I at all? Why am I? Why?
 
What is my life? Is it something to be endured before dropping onto the ground and shriveling like a discarded apple core? Am I something more than a set of quantum interactions? For that matter, why do quanta interact at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?
 
(At about this time the coffee is usually getting low and the day beckons).
 
Lot's of half formed thoughts. The permutations are as many as there are mornings to sit here drinking coffee. Precious few useful answers though . . . except for one:
 
After my share of lived experiences, a (very) little wisdom has found its way to my door. This wisdom tells me not to give up wondering, or to give up thinking thoughts for which there are no neat answers. It also tells me that it is good to remember that the world can get on really quite well without me at the wheel.
 
Perhaps then, it might be ok for me to relax and accept my existence as irrational; beyond my ability to explain it, since it seems to be real anyway.
 
Just as I have an irrational trust in love and friendship.
 
Just as I marvel irrationally at the power of forgiveness.
 
Just as is my irrational faith in a God I cannot understand.
 
I could go on.
 
Never mind. It's a start, and the coffee's good.