A Binge By Any Other Name Would Smell Just As Bad

This article by Dr. Ciara Kelly in the Irish Independent about alcohol consumption in Ireland featured once sentence which leaped out at me.

Binge-drinking is defined as more than six units of alcohol – that’s three pints. That’s fact.

What’s interesting to me is the sentence “That’s fact”. Because on one reading it can be considered to say that it’s fact that three pints is binge-drinking, but what it really says is that three pints is defined as binge drinking. And that’s fine, but I find it odd the author stresses that this definition is fact, as if that strengthens the argument. It is a fact that in this country, at this time, some people define the word binge as meaning three pints. This is true, but what is so important about it?

It is absolutely important that medical experts advise us on how much alcohol consumption is dangerous to our health, but I wonder how important it is to define it in a word such as ‘binge’. I think it is an emotive word that immediately puts people on the defensive. People who are, possibly, in denial about their own levels of drinking, do not want to be told they are ‘binging’.

Dr. Ciara Kelly explains that:

It’s considered a binge because more than six units causes adverse physical effects.

This is a fact that can be observed. This is important. But what follows is a somewhat arbitrary and definitely subjective choice to then label this amount a ‘binge’. The problem is then that your definition of ‘binge’, as Dr. Kelly points out, is at odds with much of the publics understanding of that word. In this gap then arises doubt, and rejection. I have talked to people who have heard doctors warn about Irish people and binge drinking, who reject it saying “that’s not a binge”. Maybe the point is to be emotive, to shock people into realising that what they are doing is ‘binging’ – but if they don’t consider what you define as a binge to be the same thing, you lose them.

And what’s lost is the really important stuff – the medical advise about levels of alcohol and health, in an argument over semantics. Dr. Kelly makes a very strong, clear argument for the Irish to reconsider our drinking, but I fear she loses people at the B-word.

The Dude Milarepa

Milarepa

Some friends and I were studying some texts, contemplating interdependence and we came across this song by Milarepa:

“Here on Künsal Rinchen Drak, the precious peak where all is clear,
I remember appearances are examples of impermanence.
I see sense pleasures as a mirage, this life like a dream and an illusion,
And I cultivate compassion for all who do not know this.
I eat the food of empty space, I meditate without distraction,
I have different experiences, just about anything can happen!
E ma, the phenomena of the three realms of samsara,
While not existing, they appear, how incredibly amazing!”

This is beautiful. Milarepa, delighting in the appearances of samsara, cultivating compassion for the rest of us.

For some reason, I thought of the end of The Big Lebowski

“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

Your mind is fertile soil

“It’s simply time to use our potential and overpower all this negative shit. Love can be the source of all things for you. Enough with the greed, enough racism. Stop being a little bitch that needs a force field of machismo, starting fights at dingy-ass clubs. Be kind to people. Respect the earth and the universe and all of its principles. Realize that we are all kin. The same energy that birthed the plants, animals and elements, gave you YOUR existence.

Check it, your mind is fertile soil, your thoughts are seeds and your actions are the sunlight and water that can bring all things into fruition. Plant that positive seed; think the most glorious thoughts that you can possibly imagine. Your next instinct will be to see if you can make those thoughts reality.

For example, if dudes keep saying that the world is going to end, then people start to believe it and then it slowly becomes reality. But if we all start saying that the human race will thrive and harmonize, then that’ll soon become the consensus and the next step will be to act on it and make it happen. I’m just saying, your thoughts are powerful seeds, so try to plant some good ones in there before you go and do some bullshit.”

Edan drops knowledge

Interstellar (2014)

Whether by pure chance or design, the cinema I was sitting in to see Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic “Interstellar” ran the trailer for the grand daddy of sci-fi epics “2001 : A Space Odyssey” before hand. It was a prescient choice, given that the parallels between the two are obvious. Indeed the trailer, for the upcoming re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral masterpiece features a quote from Nolan himself, who refers to “2001” as “Pure cinema”.

At their core, both movies share the same basic story; a mysterious, possibly alien, presence compels man to travel to the stars in search of answers. In “2001” the motivation is purely curiosity, but in “Interstellar” there is a more pressing drive. Man must venture beyond this planet because this planet is dying, or at least becoming uninhabitable. The answer to this impending doom lies out there, and man is guided by a mysterious hand from beyond, referred to as “they”.

That is where the similarities end. If “2001” is pure cinema, and it is, then “Interstellar” is Nolan’s attempt at such purity and he approaches it with a scientist’s precision. But cinema is not a science, it is an art, and any attempts to distil its purest form in any kind of formulaic way will end up being sterile and cold, devoid of humanity.

The first half of “Interstellar” appears to be almost entirely exposition dialogue. Almost every line uttered seems to be in service to explaining the situation that the characters find themselves in, clumsily disguised as natural conversation peppered with plot points to note down. And if they are not driving the story, they are instead sign posting the films message with polemic statements about mans place in the universe that are ham fistedly dropped into conversations. It brings to mind the character from “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” who popped up to shout “message!” every time a character made a John Singleton-esque piece of social commentary. There is nothing wrong with polemic film making, but it can’t feel like you are attending a lecture. Or worse still, a morality play put on a by a local church to warn kids of the dangers of some vice.

Narrative dialogue pervades whole swathes of “Interstellar”. Contrast with the relative sparseness of “2001”’s dialogue. The maxim “show, don’t tell” is completely abandoned here. Everything is narrated by the characters explaining it to each other, and us, the audience. There is, admittedly, a core of humanity represented by the break up of a family as the father goes off to “save humanity”. This core is hindered by clunky dialogue, but saved by excellent acting from all involved.

Once our characters get up into space the film begins to pick up. Nolan can create a thrilling action sequence, and “Interstellar” has a number of them. The mid section of the movie settles into an entertaining enough yarn, and you are carried along by the combination of special effects, roller coaster action and bombastic music. It does “peril in space” well, but I couldn’t help but think of last year’s “Gravity” which took this to its logical conclusion. Still, it thrills and delights for a good extended period. But it feels like slight of hand, a diversion to distract you from looking behind the curtain and finding out there’s nothing there. In time however, “Interstellar” begins to set up its big final reveal, as the mysterious other is unveiled.

Both “2001” and Nolan’s film culminate in the central hero astronaut, having defeated a nefarious interfering menace, confronting the central ‘alien’ mystery. But whereas Kubrick gives the audience space to interpret, ponder and imagine in the incredible “Star Gate” sequence and beyond, Nolan takes you by the hand and begins to point out the pieces bit-by-bit (all driven by external character narrative). “2001” leaves a void in which the audience can speculate, but “Interstellar” literally tells you almost everything, but in doing so unveils a mystery which ultimately collapses under its the weight of its own logic. “2001” gives you enough to fill in the gaps yourself, “Interstellar” gives you so much, you are left with a gap that makes no sense. The sad thing is the central premise of the mystery in “Interstellar” is a great idea, but so literally explained and revealed it ultimately feels silly.

The scientists in “Interstellar” are obsessed with solving an equation which will reveal humanity’s salvation. Nolan appears to look upon film making in a similar way. Like his characters he is looking for all the variables which will complete the puzzle, and he proceeds through them in an objectively literal way. It is no surprise that the man who in “Inception” (which I enjoyed) presented dreams not as the hazy, shimmering experience they are, but as tightly bound rule driven video games, does something similar with the mysteries of a multi-dimensional universe. Like the similarly cosmic and ambitious “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, the film could have ended 20 minutes before it did and chopped off a whole section of explanation and I would have been left much more satisfied. Fade to white and let us finish it.

“2001” and “Interstellar” are two planets orbiting the same star. But “2001” is a world partly cast in darkness, in the shadow of a monolith which invites us to explore its mysteries for ourselves. “Interstellar” is bathed in the cold light of day, where everything is revealed and its mysteries are exposed in an objective, joyless glare and ultimately is found wanting.

Why Not Today?

I was walking to work today listening to Rage Against The Machine on my headphones and at the exact moment in “Guerrilla Radio” where Zack says “What better place than here? What better time than now?” I walked past a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Why Not Today?”. :)

It is now two weeks since I made a formal decision to not eat meat. Since I made that choice a big weight seems to have lifted off my shoulders. I’m not interested in making a case for not eating meat here, but I want to talk about making decisions.

Going “vegetarian” was something I was considering for a long time, and it had increasingly become a source of stress for me. When it came time to eat I would think a lot about it, feeling guilty about possibly eating meat, then stressing out about it. Then a few weeks ago, a single image struck me, and I made a ‘now-or-never’ choice. Since I’ve made that choice, there is no stress. There might be decisions about what I can eat etc., but what I should eat no longer bothers me. If I get annoyed by lack of food options somewhere, at least I am not being made anxious by my own indecision.

It has occurred to me that this is something I should investigate more. Doug was writing recently about conduct and Buddhist practice and touched on this. One of his bits of advice was:

If unsure, just don’t do it.

I think this mirrors how I made my decision about eating meat. If I was doubting the ethical ramifications of my actions, it’s simply best to not engage in that action. I also agree with Doug when he encourages disciple, which reminded me of the Leo Tolstoy essay which also inspired my decision:

In order to be moral people must cease to eat meat? Not at all.

I only wish to say that for a good life a certain order of good actions is indispensable; that if a man’s aspirations toward right living be serious they will inevitably follow one definite sequence; and that in this sequence the first virtue a man will strive after will be self-control, self-restraint.

I fell that beyond just living in a way I feel to be right, the effort of practising some kind of self-restraint and disciple is helpful.

I’m of course not suggesting that it is easy to just stop engaging in any activity that is causing you anxiety. We all struggle with these things. But what I do think that if it is something that is relatively not difficult, but that it is still causing you grief and you want to give it up….why not today? It was save you anxiety and guilt over it. You might fail, but then you can start again. But you have to start.

Goodbye to meat

image

So for over a year now I’ve been giving serious thought to giving up meat, something I wrote about before. The initial spur was when I became Buddhist. Not that all Buddhists are vegetarian, nor is there a rule that says you must become vegetarian. But if you study and follow Mahayana Buddhism, it becomes increasingly difficult (I think) to align eating meat with a commitment to not harm sentient beings, and many teachings I encountered suggest this, including those from the head of my lineage.

If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat.

This was coupled with seeing some documentary footage on how animals are treated for food etc. and the idea of eating meat became increasingly unpalatable (pun intended).

So I reduced my meat intake a lot, cutting out red meat completely, and limiting meat to weekends only, sometimes going a month at a time. My intention has been for some time to cut it out completely, my only real hurdles being that I don’t eat cheese or eggs, and many vegetarian options (when eating out) feature those. But increasingly this has improved and i’ve found more and more alternative options. What was only holding me back really was the idea i’d never get to enjoy meat again. I kept saying to myself “i’ll start in August”, or “September”. Or for a long period I decided I would never formally swear off meat, and simply avoid it as much as possible. But as I went for longer and longer stretches without meat, I became less and less comfortable with ‘breaking’, and it dawned on me I’d only be satisfied if I completely stopped.

This week was the anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday and I discovered that he was vegetarian and had written on the topic. One quote in particular jumped out at me:

This is dreadful! Not the suffering and death of the animals, but that people suppress in themselves, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity – that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like themselves – and by violating their own feelings, become cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life.

I felt like this was speaking directly to me: that I was suppressing an opinion I held. Which made it even worse. I actually believed eating meat was wrong, but was not being decisive about my role in it.

But later that day I was walking through Dublin and I walked past a restaurant and read this in the window and I almost heard a bell ring in my mind. I just knew instinctively I was going to imminently give up meat. The slogan seemed so horribly cynical.  I wonder who wrote it. If you believed it to be true, if you believed that chickens could indeed be happy, how could you possibly eat them? It’s a self defeating statement.

What it is, of course, trying to say is that their chickens are not treated cruelly, so you can eat them guilt free. But for me, they are replacing one source of guilt, that your food suffered for your enjoyment, with another. Your food didn’t suffer, but was happy. But we killed it anyway so you could have dinner.

That was that. As of today, I plan to not eat meat again.

Alan Watts and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

If you’ve read any of my blog you will be aware of my love of the work of Alan Watts, who has been one of the most influential people on my own philosophy and outlook. Interestingly, Alan moved in the same circles as two other teachers who have informed my thinking greatly, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche. I’ve outlined before some of the relationship between Suzuki Roshi and Alan, and David Chadwick’s biography of Suzuki Roshi details it much more. In particular, it brought to light Alan’s relationship with Suzuki in Roshi’s final days before his death.

It was interesting then to learn, that apparently Alan spent his last day and night with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa Rinpoche was a highly influential and revered Tibetan Buddhist lama who came to the West after fleeing the Chinese invasion in 1959. Like Suzuki and Watts he was instrumental in spreading the dharma in the West by helping explain it in ways young Westerners could understand. All three ended up in the United States in the last 60s/early 70s having journeyed from Japan, England and Tibet. And Trungpa, like Alan, was not only a great teacher, but also enjoyed sensual delights, specifically alcohol and women.

Chronicles Radio have a short podcast where they claim that Alan spent his last night alive in the company of Trungpa Rinpoche. Apparently, Watts was one of Rinpoche’s “literary heroes” and he loved reading him. When Trungpa came to America from Britain he was keen to meet Alan. They had their first meeting on Alan’s houseboat where they spent the night drinking and talking.

Afterwards Trungpa remarked that he was “disappointed”, as he was surprised at Alan’s lack of depth about practice. (Alan was definitely a brilliant speaker and ‘translator’ of Eastern ideas but was sometimes criticised for his lack of formal commitment to set practises, particularly meditation). But Trungpa was still keen to meet with Alan and they continued a friendship.

Later, whilst Trungpa Rinpoche was holding his Vajryana Seminary, he went to San Francisco to see Alan, and they spent a day and night together, talking and drinking. Alan went home and passed away in his sleep the next morning.

In an odd footnote, afterwards Trungpa became concerned about Alan, worried that he had become stuck as a ghost at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais where he had a study and library. Rinpoche took some students to his library and told them that Alan was “stuck with his books and his office and couldn’t let go”. He wandered about until he found a spot in the field outside where he though Alan was. He instructed his students that they were going to help Alan by exorcising his ghost. They performed the supplication to the Kagyu gurus and the Heart Sutra. After which Trungpa said “That’s it” and he was happy.

It’s fascinating to note the role these three men had in each others lives, and in each other’s final days. Trungpa himself died years later, in 1987, like Alan with conditions related to excessive drinking.

Chronicles Radio also details Trungpa’s meeting with Suzuki Roshi.