‘Silence’ is a remarkable Irish movie about a sound recordist who returns to Ireland after 15 years to record soundscapes free from any man-made sound. As he does this, we are treated to a feast of visual and audio delights. The film is a slow, meditative piece, with minimal dialogue. I went into ‘Silence’ thinking it was a documentary, but left not knowing exactly what it is. It is, however, a stunning film. There are moments of breathtaking beauty as Eoghan journeys throughout Ireland looking for the elusive silence.

I’ve recently spent a few days off work and have done a bit of walking in some of the pockets of nature in Dublin city. When you live and work in the city centre you need to seek out and immerse yourself in whatever moments of silence you can. Whilst the places I visited are not as still or remote as the places ‘Silence’ take us, their proximity to the chaos of the inner city make their relative stillness all the more remarkable. Within a half hour of the heart of the city you can find yourself on a rocky outcrop overlooking a brilliant blue sea far below or wander through lesser known parts of our famous parks.

This is not escapism, however. I think finding moments and places of stillness and silence is like meditating – its benefits will be felt when you go back into the world with all its sound and fury. Going to these places is like visiting some kind of existential petrol station. I like to go, be still, and top up on the atmosphere, and try and take just a tiny bit of that back with me.

Silence is playing in the IFI.

Occupy Gotham City

Be warned: spoilers after the fold…

So, last night I saw the concluding part of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”. This isn’t a review, but I thought it was excellent and probably the best of the series. (In a side note, I’ve come to the conclusion that the much lauded middle act “The Dark Knight” (whilst also excellent) is probably my least favourite entry).

Anyhow, of all the talk around the film, one of the interesting themes has been its politics. It’s alleged that “Rises..” has a strongly right-wing, conservative pro-capitalist message. It’s outlined quite succinctly here in The Guardian; Bane and his goons talk of returning Gotham to “the people” and literally attack the stock exchange, and the comparison is made to the Occupy Wall Street movement. In contrast, the hero of the hour is a philanthropist billionaire or as its put:

the new film demonises collective action against capital while asking us to put our hope and faith in a chastened rich.

It’s also been mentioned that Gotham appears to have no social welfare program, and its most needy citizens live off handouts from rich people. In fairness, its hard to deny this reading of the film – Bane and his movement do espouse the ‘take back your lives from the wealthy’ rhetoric of Occupy, and violently attack the literal heart of Big Finance, whilst Catwoman also waxes lyrical on how the rich have gotten away with ‘living so large for so long’.

So, I agree, you can definitely spin the movie that way. But I think many of these observations are made after a surface reading of the film. If you actually think about it, things are not so clear.

(Here be the spoilers)

Continue reading “Occupy Gotham City”

Mindfulness is the hack

Mindfulness is a traditional Buddhist concept which is being embraced by modern psychology. The Buddha taught mindfulness as one element of the “Eightfold Noble Path” to enlightenment and its benefits are being recognised as being particularly applicable to the modern world. Indeed, mindfulness can be seen as having two incarnations – the traditional Buddhist idea, and the modern psychology concept it has directly inspired.

It can be a tricky idea to define, but Ed Halliwell, who wrote “The Mindful Manifesto”, offers:

Mindfulness is a mind-body approach to life that helps us relate skillfully to thoughts, emotions, body sensations and the environment, increasing our awareness, ability to manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices.

When we train in mindfulness, we practice paying attention to what’s going on in ourselves and the world around us, cultivating open-hearted and compassionate attention.

or Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Fundamentally mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth, and transformation.

Mindfulness is rooted in meditation and can be seen as an extension of a sitting meditation practice into our everyday lives. Indeed basic meditation practice is often described as ‘mindfulness meditation’. In this we take a solid posture and then rest our attention on an object, most commonly the breath. When thoughts arise we notice them, but do not fixate on them. We simply return our attention to the breath. This helps us develop what is known as ‘mindfulness and awareness’ – and it helps us become aware of our thoughts and emotions whilst allowing us to develop the skills to not be consumed by them.

The general idea is that by practicing this for a short period everyday we can develop the ability to live our lives in a more mindful way – mindful of how our thoughts shape our actions, emotions, etc.

Buddhist teachers who came to the West like Chögyam Trunpa Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi and Thich Nhat Hanh seemed more interested in teaching the core sitting mindful meditation practice to people, than particularly espousing complex Buddhist philosophy (although they also did this). This, I think, inspired people like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin to develop programs like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which were more overtly secular frameworks for teaching mindfulness. Indeed the modern ‘mindfulness’ movement can be seen as a way to repackage this ancient practice in a way that may be more palatable for many. It should be noted that most Buddhist centres offer meditation courses which do not require any religious conversion or acceptance of dogma. At the heart of Buddhism is a practical, usable technique to improve your relationship with your mind and the world. Also, meditation has been mixed up in all sorts of various “New Age” movements, which may also be off putting for many. But through all these means, it is emerging as a mainstream idea, no stranger than going to the gym. Companies like Google are even promoting meditation to their own staff.

I guess what’s important is that the core idea and practice is promoted. I was thinking about this when I came across the term “mindfulness is the hack”, a phrase I first heard on Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s podcast “Back to Work”. “Back to Work” is about “productivity, communication, work, barriers, constraints, tools, and more.” and it occasionally talks about mindfulness as a method for helping improve productivity and concentration. I have been learning about and trying to practice mindfulness for a few years, mainly through meditation, and thinking of it as a ‘hack’ was interesting.

Then I also read an article about Steve Jobs’ Buddhist practice. It postulated that Jobs would have seen Buddhism’s practical methods for mindfulness as a ‘hack’ which would have appealed to him.

Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

This I think is a fascinating way to look at mindfulness meditation as a way of hacking your brain. Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brain’s neural pathways and synapses are changeable due to behaviors, environment, and injuries, which challenges the previous notion that the brain was static from adulthood. The notion is that certain behaviors can shape the physical make up of our brain. Some say that repeated use of the internet, which its inherent maze of distractions and multiple clicks, shapes these pathways in a way which is to the detriment of our ability to concentrate and focus. Similarly, research is being done that prolonged periods of meditation shape these pathways in other ways, which can be beneficial. Research is showing promising signs that mindfulness can reduce stress and promote happiness. By hacking our brains with a tried-and-tested techniques we could learn to be more mindful and aware of the present moment.

In the era of scientific scrutiny and of the ‘life-hack’ I think seeing meditation as a ‘cognitive mind hack’ could be a great way of promoting it to people who might otherwise have dismissed it.

Many towns have meditation or Buddhist centres where the core technique can be learned, in particular I’d recommend a Shambhala or Karma Kagyu Centre. I’d also recommend the book “The Mindfulness Revolution” which has a series of great essays on the topic. Finally, Merlin Mann’s post on mindfulness has a series of really great quotes to help tease out a bit more what is meant by mindfulness.

On Buddhism, reincarnation, and Dundalk F.C.

Various strands of thought are floating around in me at the moment, chiefly Dundalk F.C. and Buddhist philosophy, and they wove together last night as I drifted off to sleep. Bare with me.

It’s commonly thought that in Buddhism there is a denial of a self. Whilst this isn’t strictly true, what is true is that Buddhism says that what we think is the self, is not.
As Walpola Rahula explains in “What The Buddha Taught”

“What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, according to Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies.”

These can be grouped into what are known as ‘the five aggregates’ – Matter, Sensations, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness. In Buddhism there is no “permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered ‘Self’, or ‘Soul’, or ‘Ego’, as opposed to matter, and that consciousness should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter.” You are a temporary collection of various factors, there is nothing permanent in you. Yet, you seem to continue on as a solid entitiy from year to year.

I thought about this the other day when I was reading the excellent Arsenal anthology “So Paddy Got Up”, collected by Arseblog. In an essay entitled “What Is Arsenal?”, Julian Harris ponders:

“What is the club? What is Arsenal?” Around two thousand years ago – even before Spurs last won the league – a Greek historian, philosophy, and all-round intellectual type named Plutarch posed this conundrum: If a ship is repaired over a period of time, having each of its bits of timber replaced one by one, is it still the same ship? The ship may look similar, and perform the same function, but all the timbers are different.

In terms of its logistical, material, make-up, Arsenal Football Club is at least 99 per cent different to when it was founded in 1886. The stadium is different, the training ground is different and players are different. Indeed, every fan is different. All the pieces have been replaces, several times over, during the club’s long and varied history. Yet it is still the same club, right?”

As well as Buddhist philosophy, I thought of this quote, by Steve Grand

“Consider yourself. I want you to imagine a scene from your childhood. Pick something evocative… Something you can remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you WEREN’T there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over… The point is that you are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, whilse simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.”

Football clubs, like people, are temporary collections of various aggregates, but appear to continue as a solid form. In a being, these aggregates are constantly changing – both mental and physical, to such an extent that you are (physically at least) a different person over time. But, something remains, or appears to remain constant or present. The same with a football club, as Harris pointed out.

But what happens when a football club or a person, dies?

Buddhism is also well known for its doctrine of reincarnation, or more accurately ‘rebirth’. But here lies a problem: The Buddha denied a permanent entity like a Self or Soul, so what could possibly be reborn or reexist after death? If a being is a temporary collection of physical and mental forces or energies, ‘death’ is the total non-functioning of the physical body. But the forces and energies, according to Buddhism, do not stop.

(At this stage we will cheekily point to the Laws of Thermodynamics “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”, but move on swiftly)

As Rahula says:

“When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life”.

Glasgow Rangers F.C. technically recently ceased to exist as a football club. However the fan base is still there, the name is still there, the assets are still there. And they have, for all intents and purposes, been reborn via Sevco Scotland Limited, trading as The Rangers Football Club. They will reenter the league and continue. Rangers F.C. continues.

As well as Arsenal, my other love in football is Dundalk F.C. Dundalk, like Rangers before, are a club in a perilous financial situation. They are in real danger of going out of business, and this has motivated fans to try and save the club, and hopefully we will.

But some of the talk refers to Dundalk F.C. ‘going out of existence’ – but I reject this. The current incarnation might die, but the energies and forces will continue on. This is not to say we should not battle to save our club, but it should also serve to allay any hopelessness.

Buddhists believe that when the conditions are right, a being is born. It is the same for a football club – when the conditions are right, the club appears. The energy and forces of the fans of Dundalk F.C. remain. The conditions will be there.

“It is like a flame that burns through the night: it is not the same flame nor is it another”

How things can be between men on this Earth

I was reading this morning about the relationship between Jesse Owens, the African-American who famously ran to victory at the 1936 Olympics under the nose of Adolf Hitler and his Aryan ideals, and his rival, the German Luz Long. Whilst parts of their relationship is disputed, what struck me was this part of the story:

Luz Long died in 1943 while fighting for Germany in World War II. A final letter he wrote to Jesse Owens reads, in part, “Someday find my son … tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth.”

I don’t know why, but that stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it.

Not so great expectations

The other day there was a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about happiness and expectations. It argues that the reason Danish people continually rate as the happiest people in the world is due to lowered expectations. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that this argument was rife for a bit of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, and lo and behold, the author did too.

Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

It’s a natural fit, as a central idea of Buddhism is that suffering/dissatisfaction/unhappiness occurs because we desire or expect one thing to happen, but reality often serves us up something different. We live our lives waiting for something in the future that will make us happy, and thus wallow in unhappiness now. We miss out on enjoying the here and now (which, is all there actually is) in the promise of something better tomorrow. But inevitably when this thing comes, its not good enough, and we wait for more. And more..and more.

This was excellently put by Alan Watts, and captured brilliantly in the “Music and Life” short film:

Or as Eric Weiner in the New York Times put it:

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I was thinking about all this last week as I had my breakfast. It was a typical Irish summer morning – grey, over cast and bucketing rain. I scanned some social networks and saw the inevitable dawn chorus – “Feckin’ rain!” etc, with people pretty pissed off and down about our weather. We have high expectations for the weather – its Summer, it should be warm and sunny. And when we wake up the Universe has a different plan. When this split between expectation and reality occurs, we get upset.

Within an hour, the sun was out, the sky was blue and people were merrily skipping about town in short sleeves, and people were happy. The day had finally lived up to their expectations.

The next morning? Rain and gloom. If we lowered our expectations about the weather – the rain wouldn’t seem so bad. And the sunshine would be a pleasant surprise, but one that we would expect to pass and so would not mourn its passing.