Posts filed under ‘Age of Anxiety’

The Revaluation of All Values

Nietzsche wrote about the revaluation of all values. I believe we are living at a unique time when it is possible to conceive of a revaluation like this. The current dissatisfaction with the way we live forces us to think about other ways. This gives us an opportunity to re-examine the values we live by, and to create new ones or revert back to earlier ones now lost or in danger.

The ascendance of Trump in the US and of Brexit in the UK gives us the chance, indeed the duty, to look at the values we currently live under, and to decide which ones can help us to sustain a life we would like to lead. These events show us in stark relief that the outcomes of our current system have terrible effects on our lives. Do I need to mention Climate Change ? Grenfell? Homelessness? Foodbanks? It is all too obvious.

But Trump will go, and although Brexit will probably happen, its revelation of the sharp divisions in our society, and its breaking up of old settled ideas and ways, gives us a short window when it is possible for us to revalue our values and to make some choices for the future.

This is why I like Jeremy Corbyn, despite his shortcomings. I believe he sincerely wants to create a better society, and to live under better values. These values, ones that can create and sustain a better society, are not the ones we currently live under. We have to decide what is more important, to keep the political economy that currently exists and that leads to greater and greater inequality or to refigure our economic and political life so that it reduces inequality and gives everyone a fair chance of a decent life.

We create society, it is not a given, and if we can dream and plan of a society that is fairer and better, then there is no reason, given the political will, that we cannot create that society. It is political will that is missing. The ideas are all there. We know what good values are, and we know what are bad ones. But do we have the political will to say to ourselves, we need to lose some of these values and to encourage others.

It would be a shame to miss this moment. It doesn’t come around that often.

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December 30, 2017 at 9:43 pm Leave a comment

A Chuang Tzu Story

In my last post I wrote about a line I found in Chuang Tzu on ancestor worship. I was actually looking at Chuang Tzu to find this story (quoted in my book, The Spiritual Teachings of the Tao),

Tzu Kao, the Duke of Sheh, was about to leave on a mission when he decided to consult Confucius.

“The King is sending me on an important mission to Chi. The Prince of Chi will probably treat me with great respect, but will be in no hurry to deal with me. It’s difficult enough to hurry an ordinary man, much less a prince. This worries me no end. You have always told me ‘Only through following Tao can most things, great or small, be managed successfully. If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. Only the virtuous man, even in the face of failure, can avoid distress.’ 

My diet is plain and simple, I eat no spicy dishes that  make me thirsty. Yet only this morning I received my orders, and this afternoon I’m already gulping iced water. My body’s burning up, and the mission hasn’t even started! If it fails, I’ll be judged harshly. I suffer on two fronts and don’t feel capable of carrying out this commission. Can you give me some advice?”

The Master replied, ”In the world there are two great principles: one is the requirement implanted in our nature and the other is the conviction of what is right. The love of a daughter for her parents is implanted in her, and can never be erased from her heart. That a minister should serve his ruler is what is right, and he can’t escape this obligation. These are called the great universal principles.

Therefore a daughter finds peace in serving her parents wherever they may be, and this is the height of devotion. Similarly, a minister finds peace in serving his ruler, whatever the matter, and this is the height of loyalty. When you simply obey the commands of your heart, thoughts  of sorrow and joy don’t arise. There’s no alternative to acting as you do, and you accept this as your destiny. This is the perfection of virtue.

As a minister and a son you must do what can’t be avoided. Absorb yourself in your mission and ignore your own self. When will you have time to think of loving life or hating death? Act like this and all will be well.

Let your mind be content with the situation you’re in. Stay centered, and resign yourself to the inevitable. This is the ultimate you can pursue. What else can you do to fulfil the charge of great Tao? The best thing you can do is also the most difficult- to let things take their natural course.”

I wanted to read this story, because I had remembered these lines,

‘Only through following Tao can most things, great or small, be managed successfully. If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. Only the virtuous man, even in the face of failure, can avoid distress.’ 

I was wondering how well I was doing in following Tao in relation to my law suit against the Monty Python group. A Taoist would say, ‘Don’t go to court. Forget it. It’s not worth the hassle and pain.” This is right. Don’t get embroiled in affairs is the Taoist way. Affairs, whether legal, business or sexual, get you entangled in them, and this leads to endless thoughts and strategies for either disentangling them, or finding a successful way through. The results of these actions are characterised correctly by Chuang Tzu- If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. You pay the price for engaging in these activities, whether you win or lose.

You will not be surprised if I tell you that I have not avoided distress during the 8 years of pursuing this case.  I did suffer and lost the even-tempered and tranquil Taoist mentality that is both difficult to find and hard to maintain. I suffered stress, illness and it probably took years off my life. Very un-Taoist.  So why did I take on this battle? In a couple of weeks I will have the Judgement on the case, and after that has come in I will try to explain why I undertook it. Till then, I had better stay silent.

June 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm 3 comments

Taoist Meditation Retreat

I just returned from a 3 day meditation retreat with the British Taoist Association. Last July I went on a similar 5 day retreat. When I arrived at the venue, Hourne Farm in East Sussex, I opened the notebook that I had used in July and found a note that I had written then. It was from a talk by Shi Jing the Taoist Priest who leads the retreats. The note said,

When our chi (life energy) goes out, when it leaves us, what does this do to our jing (our vitality)? Our vitality gets drained. People lose their energy and vitality. Then life becomes a struggle. Recovery from illness is slow, and the lack of vitality changes how we see the world. We start to se the negative and not the positive. And this drains our vitality even more. A dreadful downward cycle ensues, which can lead to depression and illness.

The effect of negative thinking is that our vitality drains away, leading to a lowering of spirits, a tendency to depression, and with that comes despair, hopelessness and an inability to act. We freeze in fear and anxiety.

This short note struck home to me when I read it, since the past two weeks have been quite difficult for me. I have separated from my wife (after 20 years together), and moved from my house (and kids) into a small flat-share. At the same time, two legal cases that I have been pursuing to try to get money owed to me  have started up, and these provide tensions and problems of their own. The confluence of all these events, a veritable perfect storm of troubles, had me feeling very low indeed. My spirits were not positive and I felt a downward cycle starting in myself.

So the words I read at the very beginning of the retreat provided me with a focus for the self-cultivation that I planned for the weekend. I realised that I had to change my negative view of the events that were happening to me into positive ones if I was going to survive these next few months in a good and healthy way. 

Consequently I decided that I had to look for the positive in the events in order to stop the negative thoughts from taking over my mind. The events themselves are neither positive or negative or good or bad. It’s the way we look at them that determines whether we consider them bad or good. On the face of it, a marriage break-up is not good, but it may be that the ultimate result of being on my own again may become more positive than negative. Perhaps in the future I will look back at the break-up and realise that I needed it to happen to move on in my life.

The meditation retreat helped me to do this, since one of the things we do in Taoist meditation is to look at the thoughts that arise as ’empty’, as insubstantial, and so we do not engage with them or go along with them, but instead allow them to just pass by, like clouds in the sky.

Doing this in meditation allows you to take this same view in daily life, so that if a negative thought arises, like the one I had on returning home- “You are returning to an empty flat”  – then the best solution is to just let that thought pass by and not let it light up the emotion that is its source- loneliness and self-pity. Normally the thought would conjure up the negative emotion, or it may be that the emotion has brought up the thought, which then revolves back into the emotion in a never ending tumble of negative emotions and thoughts. I didn’t need to bring up a positive thought to counter the negative one- like  “At least in your flat you have time and  space to yourself “, I only needed to ignore the negative one, and not allow it to unearth the emotion that would upset me.

This was my lesson from the retreat, and I am hopeful that I can continue to put it  into effect.

September 22, 2009 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

A 5 Minute Meditation When Waking Stressed

I was recently quoted in the London Evening Standard regarding a short meditation for busy people. The paper ran a page on things that distracted and stressed multi-taskers can do to gain mental clarity in their busy day. The bit I wrote for the paper was heavily edited, so I thought I should have another go at it.

The idea was to propose a meditation for people who were so busy that they didn’t have any time whatsoever to meditate. What I suggested was the following:

Stressed and busy people often wake up with their heart racing and their belly all a-flutter. It is the adrenaline coursing through their body that shocks them into wakefulness. It’s not a good idea to get out of bed in this state of anxiety, so I suggest a 5 minute meditation technique that can be done in bed to calm the mind and body before getting up.

If you wake like this, lie back in bed, gently stretch your arms and legs out a little from the body (in corpse pose (Sivasana), keep your eyes open (to avoid going back to sleep) and just breathe gently and evenly through the nose. Try to take deep even breaths that go into the belly rather than the upper chest. Stare up at the ceiling and try not to be distracted by thoughts. If thought arise (which they will) just let them pass, do not attend to them or give them any mental energy. If you can do this for 2-3 minutes you should start to calm your nervous system, slow down your heart beat and stop the butterflies in your belly. If you have the time, take long enough in this breathing meditation for all those relaxations- heart, belly, nervous system – to take place.

At this point, being more relaxed, you can now direct your thoughts to the tasks ahead of you. Deal with each task one by one. Decide which task is most important to do, which is least important, which can be deferred, which ones can be combined, which can be delegated to others. Spend a couple of minutes working out an order and schedule that makes sense to you.

You are now ready to get out of bed and face the day. It might be a good idea to write down your tasks so you don’t need to clutter your mind with them. But in any case you should have a clear idea of what you need to do, and a calm mind and body with which to do them. The more often you do this meditation, the easier it gets to do, and your mind and body soon get habituated to this new regime. That is, your mind and your body memory both begin to recognise this type of deep breathing as the trigger to a relaxed state and so your system moves into that state more easily and quickly.

This is the real secret of breathing meditation. We always assume that meditation is something we do in a specific meditation pose, usually a cross-legged Lotus posture. There is no doubt that this posture, allied to a peaceful space and sufficient free time, will give the best results for meditation. But real meditators take the tranquil mind and relaxed body that they get from sitting meditation out of the meditation room. They try to keep that tranquil mind while they are brushing their teeth, eating, taking the tube, walking, working on a computer, talking with others and so on.

This is also something you can do. If during the day you get upset, angry or stressed, just sit down, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and just begin breathing as you did in bed. A few deep and even breaths reminds your body and mind that you want to enter a relaxed state –  and you will.

September 8, 2009 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

Two Problems In Meditation (an article I have written)

People who want to meditate are confronted with two major problems: one is their mind and the other is their body.

The mind problem is the incessant flow of thoughts that immediately starts up as soon as you begin to meditate. The meditator, who has sat down to achieve a peaceful and restful state of mind, becomes frustrated by the never-ending flow of thoughts that penetrate her consciousness. These thoughts she considers as ‘distractions’ that stop the peaceful state from arising.

The body problem has to do with the difficulty of finding a comfortable and easy sitting position that can be maintained for the duration of the session. Many meditation books suggest sitting in the full Lotus posture (cross-legged with feet resting on the opposite thigh) or the half Lotus posture (cross-legged with one foot on the opposite thigh). These postures are excellent because they keep the back upright and give a solid base to the body. But unless you are very young or exceedingly supple it is very difficult to even get into a lotus posture much less stay in it without aches and pains in various parts of the body. The lower back, hips, pelvis and the knees all are under great pressure from these postures and often the legs fall asleep while we hold ourselves cross-legged. If you can stay with the pain, the body will eventually give in and take the position, but in my experience this can take a long time, and can be both agonising and too disturbing for meditation while it is happening.

These two problems together cause many people to give up meditation before they have even experienced its great rewards. So what can be done?  One solution for the body is to use a meditation stool as a support, so that you can keep a straight back without having to cross your legs. The other way is to begin by lying on your back in the yoga posture Sivasana (corpse pose), which keeps your back straight and presents no body problems. This is the posture that I recommend for beginners in my audio The Age Of Anxiety.

So with the body sorted, how do you deal with the mind? It’s only when we begin to meditate that we realise how crazy our everyday mind is. It has been called the ‘monkey mind’ because it never stops responding to sensations, commenting on them, dragging up memories and images, flinging out snatches of songs, and all in a jumble that slides and rambles through our consciousness. To experience the monkey mind, try this experiment. Sit or lie in a meditation posture, close your eyes, and begin to breathe evenly and gently. On each outbreath count silently ‘one’ and continue counting each outbreath as ‘two’, ‘three, and so on up to ‘ten’. When you reach ten, go back to silently counting one again and so on.

How far did you get before the monkey mind distracted you away from the counting? You may have completed the first ten, but did you manage to get through the second series? Like the body, the mind too will eventually give in, and slow down these thoughts, as long as you don’t respond to them. I liken the mind to a train station, with many trains of thought leaving at all times. If you respond and get on one of the trains then you are off on a journey that will take you far away from your meditation, but if you can stay in the station and let the trains go their own way, then eventually the trains will slow down and even stop for a time. At that point, you have gained some control over your monkey mind, and you are truly meditating.

September 3, 2009 at 8:59 am Leave a comment

MEDITATION FOR STRESS – An article I have just written

Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a contemplative and healing practice. Its use has been more prevalent until now in the East rather than in the West, since it forms the bedrock of teachings as different as Yoga, Buddhism and Taoism. However its use in the West, particularly among Christian monks and nuns, was also widespread in the middle ages. Presently I imagine there are more people meditating in the West than in the East, most for spiritual reasons, and some for healing.

What is meditation? There are innumerable kinds of meditation, each designed to do a specific job, but what they all have in common is the attempt to still the ‘monkey mind’, the ever active conscious mind that accompanies our every waking hour. When we are at work, or walking, or eating, we are not aware of how insistent, persistent, chaotic and dreamlike this conscious mind is. Only when we sit down in meditation do we find out how difficult it is to penetrate beyond the thoughts, feelings, bits of song lyrics, and images that our mind constantly assails us with. This endless barrage feels like it will never slow down or stop, and many people who try meditation soon give up because they believe they will never be able to control their mind and quieten it. There is almost an impish quality to the mind when it realises that you are serious about slowing down your thoughts. The mind then becomes an internal voice telling you that meditation is a waste of time, or that you are doing it really badly and should stop, or that there are too many chores to do instead of sitting down like this. All of this is the ego defending itself from a threat. Having run the castle of the mind for so long the ego reacts with all its wiles to the threat of regime change – a new way of functioning.

If, at the same time as this battle of the mind is raging, we try to sit cross-legged in meditation, this also proves difficult for many people, leading to cramped legs, feet falling asleep, and pain in the hips or lower back. Add this discomfort to the difficulty of calming the mind and it’s no wonder that many people give up meditation after a short while.

This is a pity, since meditation, like most body or mind practices, takes some time to get used to. It is a training of the mind, and as with all training, time must be spent in order to get accustomed to it. One solution is to use a posture that does not require the legs to be crossed. It’s possible to meditate sitting at the front of a chair and thereby keeping your back upright. Another way (and one I prefer) is to lie on your back in the yoga posture sivasana, with the arms and legs held out at a small angle from the body. With a small pillow under the skull it’s possible to stay in this pose for long periods of time. It is also a natural relaxing pose.

When we begin to meditate, if we close our eyes, we can feel our breath begin to slow down. The breath gets deeper and longer and since the breath is the link between body and mind, this calmer breathing has a positive effect on our entire being. The mind does slow down, which is why the thoughts that come up seem so loud and insistent. Other than the breath, and the proprioceptive feeling of the body lying on the floor, there is nothing else going on. Our universe has been reduced to the three elements of breath, body sense and thoughts. Life has become simpler.

The relaxation associated with the breath, particularly the exhalation, which is a form of releasing or letting go, allows the nervous system to calm, and with that we feel our body sinking further into the floor as the muscles relax. As the mind relaxes, so too does the body. Our thoughts slow down, but if we continue to react to them, as we do in normal conscious living, then we are taken on a journey far away from the present moment and the meditation is lost. The trick is to allow the thoughts to come and go, and not to react to them. This is the part that takes quite a lot of practice, because we are so wound up with our thoughts that our habit (both of body as well as mind) is always to react to them as soon as they arise. In fact all emotions and many thoughts bring with them a specific muscular and bodily reaction. But if we can let these thoughts pass by without reacting to them, then they begin to slow down even more, and we begin to ‘sense’ or ‘know’ or gain awareness that there is another reality behind the thoughts, a presence that is still mind, but a different mind, a spacious mind of clarity and peace. This is the mind that we want to find in meditation, because we feel that it is somehow our original mind or our true mind, and the truth that we embody can be found in this open spacious sense of awareness.

When we are stressed or anxious, we are in a completely opposite state. We suffer from a mind assailed by confused and chaotic thoughts, a body altered by stress hormones, and a breath that is as choppy and confused as our mind. How can meditation help in such a situation? Anxiety seems to leave us no way of avoiding the painful thoughts that tumble through our mind, constantly invading, revolving and threatening. With our mind so full of problems, all we can do is seek temporary solutions that will take us out of our minds for a short period of time, like drinking, or drugs, or going to the movies. But when we come down from our high or get back home, we are back exactly where we were before.

Meditation is a great healing practice for stress because of three reasons. Firstly, by allowing us to gain some control over our breath we are able to initiate the relaxation response, which helps us to get out of the panic state, and calm the system. This we can do anytime we feel stressed and it only takes a few minutes. Secondly, if we can gain even a glimmer of that mind beyond the mind, we understand that there is more to our life than just the thoughts that are currently threatening us and causing pain. We gain an expanded consciousness, even if that expansion is only enough to see that there is life beyond our problems. We can then learn not to react through habit, but to respond spontaneously to the events that arise. Thirdly if we can slow our minds and find greater clarity to our thinking, we may be able to discover new solutions to our problems, or at least gain enough confidence to know that dealing with our problems is the only real solution. Meditation works; it only requires some discipline or dedication.

If people are unable to find a meditation teacher or attend a class, a guided audio meditation can help, especially one that is fully instructional, and which takes account of the needs of beginners. Meditation has been with us for thousands of years, and has proven itself as an aid to spiritual development. It’s good to know that we continue to have access to an ancient practice that is so effective in healing 21st century problems.

July 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm 2 comments

Launch of The Age Of Anxiety

Last week we launched the Age Of Anxiety onto the unsuspecting public with an interview on Radio Leicester with Rupal Rajani. Unfortunately we only had seven minutes discussion, but I was happy to at last begin to tell people about the audio. The PR onslaught continues tomorrow with two more interviews – one with Radio Northampton and a second with Radio Bristol. We are also hoping for some national newspaper coverage. 

Rupal said that she would try out the meditation herself and report back. I’m interested in getting feedback from people who try it.

June 18, 2009 at 4:16 pm Leave a comment

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