Archive for April, 2009

A Spiritual Almanack

A few years ago Jo Manuel and I wrote a monthly spiritual Almanack for Yoga And Health magazine. I had a look at what we wrote for April recently and since it’s the last day of April I thought it would be apt to include it as the 10th post.I’ve a few alterations to bring it up to date. I’ll add them monthly from now on.

A Spiritual Almanack

April : Blossom

I Ching – Hexagram 1: Heaven (The Creative Principle)

A flower opens to the sun; our hearts open to the universe.

The rising sun radiates energy throughout the sky, filling the space below the heavens and covering the earth, its heat penetrating all things, quickening them into life and nourishing their development. Whatever the light touches it illuminates and clarifies, exposing hidden shadows, just as the energy of our consciousness – our awareness, thoughts and feelings – illuminate and clarify everything within and without.

Commentary On The Symbol (Heaven):

The creative principle acts with vitality and persistence.

In correspondence with this

The cultivated person stays vital without ceasing.

Heaven covers everything on earth, and originates all creatures. It is a single flow of energy, continuously circulating, never ceasing, moving forward endlessly and inexhaustibly. The way of the creative is constant change and transformation, allowing each being to evolve into its own nature and opening a path to its true destiny.

The creative, Heaven, is the ultimate of health, vitality and strength, and is the source of our own health and soundness. If we follow the Way of Heaven, we are in harmony with nature, and can adapt to the changes we face, knowing when to move forward and when to stop, when to seize the moment and when to let the moment pass by. Adapting correctly to all change, we find a way that is prosperous and smooth, the obstacles we encounter do not block us, and our path reveals itself in time, each footstep and each decision opening new vistas, new possibilities.

A lily produced in spring is a marvel of creativity. It embodies the ultimate unfolding of yang, the true positive energy of creation. When positive energy is born, all things cannot help but blossom. They are all in process, are transforming and happening, are flowing events rather than fixed and solid objects.

Someone asked Chan Master Wen-Yen,

“What is the fundamental idea of Buddhism?

The Master answered,

“When Spring comes, the grass turns green of itself.”

The rain falls, clouds disperse, the sun emerges, and all forms develop of themselves. To follow the way of Heaven is to actualise Tao in your daily life, to interfuse the sacred and mundane in your own body, mind and spirit. This opens the doors of perception, as it did for William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

The energy that opens the flower wakes you in the morning. The quality of strength in people is this same primal creative energy of heaven. This energy comes spontaneously to everything from nature, is strong but has no need of force. It is bright and lucid, illuminating everything like the sun at midday. When it appears the earth is covered with growth, the world is filled with golden flowers.

They gave her the name Shi Die Lin. She was twenty months old and at one month her mother had abandoned her at the steps of an orphanage. The passport picture they sent us showed a sad, perplexed little girl. Did we want to adopt her? Having waited for six frustrating years, there was no hesitation, no matter how deep her sadness. She was healthy and needed a home, no more to be said. They delivered her to our hotel room, a scrawny, tight-jawed, bowl-legged tyke with dozens of ugly mosquito bites on her legs, and a strangely-shaped head. What had we taken on? Six years later, she has blossomed into a smiling, bonny, slim, straight-legged 8 year old who loves life. Love, human warmth, food and security have made her bloom. We call her Lily.

Vanda Scaravelli writes,

As the sun opens the flowers delicately, unfolding them little by little, so the yoga exercises  and breathing open the body during a slow and careful training. When the body is open, the heart is open.

Yoga gives us openness and flexibility of mind and body, and opens our spirit, so that we feel the relationship between heaven, earth and all sentient beings. This feeling of one-ness and unity gives us a sense of connectedness to all creation, so that we never feel alone.  The asanas help develop a core strength that gives us an inner confidence and centeredness that allows us to blossom into our true self without fear and doubt.

The Brihad Devata says: ‘All that exists is born from the sun’.  The ancient yoga exercise, Salute To The Sun (surya namaskar) puts us in touch with the universal energy of the cosmos.  The harmonious pattern of postures united in circular movements flowing into each other are part of a whole, just as a petal is part of a flower.  Traditionally  the sequence is performed at dawn facing east towards the rising sun so that in raising our hands upwards we offer the sun and the universe a respectful salute.  The golden warmth of the sun is received by our hearts and welcomed with great love and thanks.

We need to open ourselves to the light so that we can learn to trust ourselves and the universe.   As the Mundaka Upanishad says:

The Lord of Love shines in everyone’s heart. When we are wise and see the Lord of Love in all living things, we lose ourselves in the service of all and find ultimate peace and joy. With truth, meditation, self-control and discipline, we can find ourselves in this state of joy and see the inner spirit, our real essence, shining in our hearts.

Every day the sun rises to say “You are alive – enjoy it!” and every night when you go to bed, reflect on how wonderful it is just to be alive, to breathe and feel the joy of existence itself.

© 2003/ 2009 Mark Forstater and Jo Manuel

April 30, 2009 at 3:48 pm Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

In 2003/4 the British Library put on an exhibition called Chinese Printmaking Today. It featured a dazzling array of printmaking skills, but to me the most impressive piece was a collection of four traditionally-bound Chinese books, printed on rice paper with indigo covers, string binding, and held in beautiful walnut boxes. They looked like beautifully preserved examples of 15th  and 16th century volumes. The work was called Tianshu (Book From The Sky) and what was remarkable was that it was all an elaborate cultural joke. All of the 12,000 elaborately carved Chinese characters that made up the content of the book were all invented by the artist, Xu Bing, and they had no meaning at all. The books looked like the real thing, but were just elaborate nonsense.

It got me thinking what a real book that fell from the sky might reveal to us. The sky (tian) is Heaven for the ancient Chinese, and it’s where the ancestors, with all their accumulated wisdom and knowledge go after they have died. What would all our ancestors, looking down on our puny efforts, have to tell us about how we are living our lives. They must have made similar mistakes to us, but now they are unaffected by them, whereas we still have to live out the karma of our days contending with the results that we have caused. Perhaps such a book, told from this elevated POV, could give us guidance about how to conduct ourselves, how to avoid or at least deal with pain, troubles, and problems. This would be a great book to have in your library. I decided (this is a joke) to translate this book, since it is the only Chinese book I am capable of translating. I actually wrote to the artist asking him for the right to translate the book. He never wrote back. He must have thought I was mad. Maybe I am.

That’s how I got the idea of The Book That Fell From The Sky, a users guide for earthlings, full of advice from the past and the present, from the dead and the living, about how to look after your body, mind and spirit in this lifetime. Of course I haven’t gotten around to writing this book yet, so perhaps I should re-title it The Blog That Fell From The Sky.

April 29, 2009 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

There is a famous story about a saddhu, an Indian holy man, who wandered the country without possessions. When he was hungry people fed him; when he was tired he lay down to sleep. He was as naked as the day he was born.

One day the Saddhu made a terrible error by wandering into the tent of a Muslim Chieftain. Two of the women screamed and the Chieftain picked up his sword and slashed at the Saddhu, cutting off his arm. The Saddhu, bleeding heavily, calmly turned and walked away.

The Chieftain, shocked at what he had done, picked up the arm and took it outside to find the Saddhu. When he caught up to him the Saddhu stuck his arm back into place and turned away. But the Chieftain said, “Before you go, please give me some words of wisdom.”

The Saddhu said,

If you do not do what you want to do,

You may get to do what you like.

When the Chieftain heard these words, he left his home and followed the Saddhu as a disciple.

What did he mean by this saying? Is there an important difference between doing what we want to do (our desires) and what we like (what is good for us)? And if this difference is significant, then how can we make sure we know how to tell this difference?

As the Tao te Ching says,

Always desiring,

See only the surface.


See the essence.

To get to the bottom of things, to really experience the profound, we need to gain control of our desires. Without this, by blindly following our desires, we only scratch the surface of life. We need to learn how to gain control of our desires and so learn a more meaningful and deeper relationship to life. And in doing so, we learn how to live healthier and longer.

April 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm Leave a comment

Life- A User’s Manual

When my children were born, they didn’t arrive with a user’s manual, the way a washing machine does. My partner and I had to figure out (with the help of Spock and the rest)  how to handle, feed , clean and care for them. Some of that knowledge we had from past experience, some we learned from the books, but most we gathered as we went along, the suck it and see method. We made mistakes, sure, but overall we managed to find the right balance between the theory of what was meant to happen and the reality of each individual child.

It’s much the same way with looking after yourself – there’s no manual telling you how to preserve your body, or how to use your mind, so if in doubt you seek advice, read expert opinion and try to listen in to your own feedback mechanisms to fine tune how you live. But even with all the information available about diet, exercise, smoking, drinking and stress, so many people still suffer from all the usual ills. Why aren’t we getting healthier?  Why do we still suffer needlessly?

More people now live to 100 and beyond than ever before. 19th century advances in sanitation allied to  20th century discoveries in science and medicine have given us all increased longevity. But with longer lives has come a plague of chronic diseases of  middle and old age- strokes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis.It looks like we will all live longer, but will we end up living well? What good is it having extra years it they are filled with illness, pain, memory loss, and misery.

We don’t consciously remember our birth, but we know that we will witness our dying, if not our actual death. This fact panics most people into a state of denial. Better not to think about it until you have to. But unfortunately that usually means when it is too late, when some illness has already targeted us for termination. 60% of people would prefer to die in their own beds at home, but only 30% will do so. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone who wanted to die at home could do? I believe the knowledge is available to help that other 30% achieve their aim, dying at home peacefully among family and friends, and not in an impersonal hospice.

April 25, 2009 at 12:38 pm Leave a comment

How we use our mind

The way we use our mind is usually to gain some kind of advantage. That is, we try to work out how to increase the things we want to have and how best to avoid the things we don’t want to experience. In this way, most of our thinking is based on the discriminatory mind- the mind that decides what gives pleasure and what gives pain.

This kind of thinking is an extension of animal sensation, and is really not particularly human. Animals act this way through instinct. We have similar instincts but have added to that the thinking process as well. We use thinking to amplify these ‘instinctual’ desires. That is, the thinking is done for an end and not for itself. It is in a sense an extension of instinctual thinking, and is not really rational.

If we were to really evolve in our thinking, we would be doing something else. That something would be along the lines of the contradictory, non-instinctual Taoist idea- “When there is nothing I enjoy, then I am able to enjoy everything”. Think about that. What does it mean to enjoy nothing and yet enjoy everything. It is not nonsense.

Rather than think about how to achieve or heighten our sensations of pleasure- whether that pleasure involves money, fame, power, drugs, drink or sex-  we would be thinking of ways to go beyond or above the dualities. The dualities we are talking about here are rich-poor, sex-celibacy, power -weakness, high-depressed, fame- non- entity.

April 23, 2009 at 3:34 pm Leave a comment

Inner Truth – A Bit More about Seneca

In the book The Spiritual Teachings Of Seneca I wrote:

Seneca observed that most people are seduced by the glittering appeal of life’s material awards- houses, possessions, money- into holding an irrational attitude to the world. When we are elated by gain and depressed by loss, our values become distorted and we begin to live a life of illusion, losing sight of the distinction between the true and the false.

In alienating ourselves from inner truth, our identities become tentative and uncertain, and we are easily swayed by the examples of others. We follow majority opinions and tastes rather than our deepest convictions. Many of us waste much of our time scrabbling to make money and achieve high status, failing to fulfil our potential for happiness. As we mistake the false for the true, attaching ourselves slavishly to material objects, our judgements about the world become suspect and we stray further and further from the truth. Increasingly confused and perplexed about what life means and how to get the best out of it, we often feel lost.

Seneca followed a philosophy- Stoicism- that altered his attitude to life and enabled him to react to loss in a different way to other people. Stoicism helped him to acquire an inner state of freedom and peace that was intended to leave him untroubled and detached from pain, disappointment or failure. His mission was to create a practical, down-to-earth recipe for living that could alleviate symptoms of spiritual illness and be applied in all circumstances.

April 19, 2009 at 10:40 pm Leave a comment

Your possessions or your life? Which is more important?

Last August, a British businessman in severe financial difficulties, Christopher Foster, killed his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie, 15, before burning down his £ 1.2m mansion and in the process killing himself. Foster had assets of £ 3m and debts of £ 4.4m and he could not face the threat of becoming bankrupt and losing everything he had. He told associates that his wife and daughter could not cope if they were forced to downgrade their lifestyle. During successful times Foster had owned Ferraris, Porsches, a Bentley and a Range Rover.

I find it incredibly sad that a family has to die rather than face poverty. Ok, no one wants to be poor, but it’s not really the end of the world, certainly not something to die rather than face up to. People have a strange idea of what they need their children to have in order to be happy, as if money will make us happy. We see all around us that money provides neither happiness nor security. I remember reading once about the actress Melanie Griffith who was desperate that she had to make enough money to leave each of her children many millions of dollars so that she could secure their future, as if money would do this for them.

But money alone will not give us security and riches do not give satisfaction. True security and real wealth come from within, and cannot be found from externals. This is what the philosophers in all ages East and West have told us, yet every new generation that comes along seems to get it wrong and makes the same mistakes. The credit crunch we are living through has been created entirely by human greed seeking ever more money in an endless search for satisfaction that can never be attained.

April 19, 2009 at 3:33 pm Leave a comment

Seneca on Adversity and Fortune

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, had a lot to say about adversity and how to deal with the strange twists of Fate. This wasn’t just philosophical musings either, because Seneca’s life was full of extreme highs and lows of fortune. He experienced times of debilitating loss as well as periods of great power and wealth. As a young lawyer he was exiled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius because of his skill at oratory- Claudius was envious of his eloquence. He sent him to Corsica, then a barren, barely populated island, for 8 years. Just before he was taken away, his young son died and while in exile his wife also died. Seneca’s life was at its lowest ebb.

When Claudius married Agrippina, she convinced the Emperor to bring Seneca back to Rome to become tutor to her son Nero. She eventually made him a Consul, a powerful political position. When Nero finally became Emperor, Seneca found himself at the centre of Roman power and he parlayed that into the amassing of great wealth, becoming one of the richest men in the Empire.

This life of extreme ups and downs gave Seneca plenty of material for his writings. He was always wary of Fortuna, the God who was behind the changes of fate. He believed you always had to look at the dark side of possible events (the bottom line). This was his reality principle:

Never give in to adversity

Don’t dare trust prosperity.

The blow you’ve anticipated

Will do the least harm.


None of us can make promises about what is to come. Even what we hold slips through our fingers; and accident cuts short the very hour we have in our grasp. Fear keeps pace with hope, like a prisoner and his escort

He claimed to have welcomed poverty when he was in exile:

Those of us who are on good terms with poverty can count ourselves rich.

The person who is truly impoverished is not the one who has little but the one who yearns after more.

Of course as a rich man he was accused of being a hypocrite for writing lines like this:

Society is unanimous on the subject of Greed- it wallows in it. People look up to money, they pray for it for themselves. They offer it up as if it were the noblest profession they could possibly have.

But Seneca the philosopher also talked about the value and importance of the soul:

Riches are not where we pile them up. It is the soul, not the safe, that we need to fill.

Seneca’s life, with its rollercoaster highs and lows, its grandeur jutted next to fears and anxieties feels very modern to me, even though he lived 2000 years ago. He is an example of how we can fall abruptly from high position and status but also can rise again from the ashes. There is hope in this. Things continually change. Nothing stays static.

But in the end, Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide, because he knew too much about Nero’s transgressions. However Seneca went down in history as having a ‘good’ philosophical death.

(Quotations from The Spiritual Teachings of Seneca by Mark Forstater and Victoria Radin)

April 17, 2009 at 3:28 pm 3 comments

The importance of belly breathing – Part 1.

Post the Second. –

There is an emphasis in the guided meditation to getting the breath down as deep as possible into the belly. This is because one third of all people breathe only into their chest and consequently their breathing is shallow, and the amount of oxygen taken into the body is reduced. It also means that when we are under stress, and the breath is affected, even held, it becomes even shorter and shallower, which can easily lead to hyperventilation.

The body can utilise much more oxygen than most people inhale, and more oxygen is better for the body’s functioning, since the oxygen molecules make their way into every cell of the body. There they are integral to the creation of energy.

Even I , who was an athlete when young, and have been doing meditation and yoga for 20 years, found that my breath was restricted at the diaphragm once I started doing some concentrated belly breathing. Since the diaphragm is the second most important muscle in the body after the heart, it’s wise to try to make it as healthy and free-flowing as possible.

I am currently researching a book on health, well-being and longevity and one of the objects of the book is to be very practical, by giving exercises on DVD that people can follow. I wanted to have a series of yoga asanas that readers could do in order to discover where their body was stiff or in pain so that the work could be targeted at those places. I asked my wife, a yoga teacher, to help me devise these exercises, but she said that it’s better to start with breathing, since that is primary, and the asanas an be looked at later.

This led me to consider my own practise. Although I have been doing yoga, tai chi and meditation for many years I have never actually concentrated on belly breathing and testing my own breath patterns. I knew that I breathed into the belly, but I was also aware that for many years I felt a restriction or obstruction around the middle of my body just where the diaphragm is. I had worked on trying to loosen this tension, but had I actually eliminated it?

My wife had started learning Transformational Breathing, a training co-devised by Judith Kravitz in the US. She had Judith’s book Breathe Deep Laugh Loudly  and an audio CD, so I decided to read the book and do the exercises, without a teacher (having a teacher would have been preferable). Transformational Breathing exercises ask you to breath into the belly through the mouth and not the nose, and I found that after a short time doing the exercise my head felt light-headed. According to the book, this may have been due to the balance in my body between oxygen and nitrogen. When you breathe through the mouth and try to fill the belly with breath, you are deliberately taking into the body a great deal more oxygen than you normally would. This changes the balance between the nitrogen and oxygen in the body and could be the reason for my light-headedness.

I also realised that although the exercise called for 100 continuous breaths like this on a daily basis, that I got too light-headed to do that many. Clearly more work was needed on my belly breating.

To be continued

April 15, 2009 at 10:22 am 2 comments

The Age Of Anxiety – a Mini Vacation For The Mind

Seneca, the Roman statesman and Philosopher, said that you can go on holiday to get away from everything, but the one thing you can’t get away from is your self.

It’s even worse when you have serious financial problems, because then not only can’t you afford a holiday, but your problems relentlessly crowd around you, giving you no room to breathe or manoeuvre. Financial worries, with creditors literally breathing down our necks, give us no respite from the pressure of owing money and feeling helpless about being unable to repay. We feel lost by not having a way to deal with our situation. Fear and anxiety take over.

The guided meditation I have created – called The Age of Anxiety- is designed to be a kind of mini-vacation for the mind. For 30 odd minutes you can transport yourself out of constant worry and take a break that truly refreshes: a short therapeutic holiday for the self.

But this isn’t just a form of oblivion. That’s what people use sex and drink and drugs for: to temporarily take the self away from its current state of mind and forget the thoughts and feelings that obsess us. But once these short-term fixes wear off, we are in a worse state than before- more unstable and weaker – and even less capable of dealing with the harsh reality we face. This is not the solution.

In my experience the only thing to do with financial problems is not to seek oblivion so we can forget them, or to hide the credit card statements in the drawer so we can deny the problems exist, but to face them head on and deal with them, as painful as that might seem. It’s not easy but I’m afraid it’s the only solution.

You have to have the courage to look directly at the situation you are in, and to admit to yourself what the worst possible outcome might be. To accept that outcome, even if it means losing your house, or down-shifting your life-style to poverty levels, is the only way you can deal adequately with your problems. If you can do that, you might find that the worst outcome can be avoided, and that the situation can be resolved in a better and unexpected way. But you can only do this by accepting that the worst possible outcome may be the one that you have to live with. From this position of Ground Zero you can build.

This meditation has been designed to help you deal with your problems. It won’t make them go away, but it can give you a fresh perspective on your life that can help you to deal more effectively with your fears and problems. For 30 minutes or so, it can take you out of yourself, get you away from the constant harassment of your fear and insecurity, and give you a breathing space to find new strength to deal with your problems. The meditation offers some affirmations that can increase your innate capacity to deal with adversity. Finally, it offers a new vision of how you can relate to the universe at large, which can broaden your perspective of who you are and how you currently operate in the world.

I hope you give it a try, and I look forward to hearing how you get on

April 13, 2009 at 9:20 am Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.