Posts filed under ‘Thoughts’

A gun to the head is wordless teaching

It’s amazing how two things that have no obvious relationship to each other can be brought into an insightful and meaningful relationship. For example, today I understood about certain Zen practices by reading a story about life in Auschwitz.

The Auschwitz incident is from Primo Levi’s recollections from Auschwitz, Moments Of Reprieve. This collection has a chapter about a German criminal at Auschwitz named Eddy who he calls The Juggler. Levi explains how he had a piece of paper and a pencil stub hidden on him, and one day on work duty in a cellar, he sat down to try to write a letter home. This was forbidden – the paper, the pencil, the act of writing home, all of it. Engrossed in his writing Levi was unaware that Eddy, a sub Kapo (or foreman), was sitting there watching him write.

Here is how Levi describes it; ‘I hadn’t reckoned with Eddy’s noiseless step. I noticed him only when he was already watching me. Instinctively – or, rather, stupidly, – I opened my fingers. The pencil fell, but the sheet of paper descended slowly to the ground, swaying like a dead leaf. Eddy lunged to pick it up, then slammed me to the ground with a violent slap. But there: as I write the sentence today, and as I am typing the word “slap”. I realise that I am lying, or at least transmitting biased emotions and information to the reader. Eddy was not a brute; he did not mean to punish me or make me suffer.’

Now here is the bit that interests me in relation to Zen slaps and shouts:

‘A slap inflicted in the camp had a very different significance from what it might have here among us in today’s here and now. Precisely: it had a meaning: it was simply another way of expressing oneself. In that context it meant roughly “Watch out, you’ve really made a big mistake this time, you’re endangering your life, maybe without realising it, and you’re endangering mine as well. ” But between Eddy, a German thief and juggler, and me, a young inexperienced Italian , flustered and confused , such a speech would have been useless, not understood (if nothing else because of language problems) , out of tune, and much too roundabout.

For this very reason, punches and slaps passed among us as daily language, and we soon learned to distinguish  meaningful blows from the others inflicted out of savagery, to create pain and humiliation, and which often resulted in death. A slap like Eddy’s was akin to the friendly smack you give a dog, or the whack you administer to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition. Nothing more in short than a nonverbal communication. ‘

It struck me that Eddy’s slap, like the punches and blows that Levi describes, are akin to the shouts and blows from a staff that I’ve read about as part of Zen training for monks in meditation.  In the meditation hall, where speech is a distraction, and where the monks are being taught not to rely on speech, I can see how shouts and blows would deliver a nonverbal message that would convey a lot of meaning to the monk on the receiving end.

I know these Zen blows are intended to rouse monks dozing off in meditation, or are meant to give a shock to the meditator, leading to ‘sudden’ enlightenment, but I can see that a master just wouldn’t want to verbally explain why a monk was screwing up, and so just smacks him with a stick to say ‘wake up’. And wake up means both stop falling asleep and also become enlightened.

It seems to me that Eddy’s slap and a master’s blow with a stick have a great similarity. The difference is that Levi’s silent lesson was one that saved him from possible death, allowing him to survive Auschwitz, while a monk’s lesson is one that enhances his life, especially his spiritual life.

When people sit down to meditate, they often get up after a short time complaining about pain in their legs. Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama, author of that wonderful book, Opening The Hand Of Thought, had a remedy for that. He said just imagine that there was someone standing behind you with a gun aimed at your head, and if you were to get up he would fire. He said this kept people sitting for much longer! This really has nothing to do with Primo Levi but I always liked this idea and so I have added it here for my pleasure.

March 21, 2014 at 12:15 am Leave a comment

What is Cultivation?

On October 22nd I posted In Praise of Hardship which was about a British Taoist Association retreat led by Meng Zhiling, a Taoist priest from China. He impressed me very much. In the latest edition of The Dragon’s Mouth, the journal of the BTA, is an interview with him, and he says some interesting and unusual points about cultivation.

Meng had been working as a teacher at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, but he felt the need to find some of the old Taoists and to seek a quiet spot to cultivate himself. He ended up at a cold region called Dongbei and he carved out a cave to live in. He accepted no donations, but earned money to survive. He said “It was difficult, but it was the life I had chosen. If there was anything that could make my life easier, I would reject it.” This is the true spirit of the Tao.

After a while local villagers came to ask him about the Tao. He told them he didn’t know anything, but they didn’t believe him and kept coming, which disturbed his tranquillity. So he decided to find somewhere even more remote. He found an abandoned hut at the foot of a mountain and started living there. “It was in a bad state but I managed to fix it up enough to live there. My clothes quickly turned to rags, the palms of my hands were thick with callouses and my fingertips were often bleeding. Some of the tasks I set myself were really unnecessary, but I would just do them to make my life more difficult. I would spend my days working and meditating, just those two things.”

Incredibly, he kept on looking for ways to make things more difficult! “I began to see that difficulties in life have no end, but we just need to put them aside and forget about them. Then eventually you will reach a state where nothing is difficult, nothing is impossible. Once you’ve reached such a state, no matter where you go or what you do you will not find it difficult. Nothing can affect your heart/mind any more. So this is when your heart/mind becomes more clear and your original nature is radiant again.”

Meng says this about original nature: “Our original nature is like a glowing pearl but through our day to day lives, with all our thoughts and desires, we accumulate dust which covers its original condition. But if we remove this dust then the pearl will be able to shine again. The term for this method of cultivation is to stabilize our heart and transform our nature (xiangxin huaxing). To stabilize our heart means that we stay tranquil. When we stay tranquil we stop accumulating more dust. And by removing the old dust that we have already accumulated we transform our nature. So once we’ve removed all the dust from our heart/mind then our true nature is revealed. And our true nature is Tao.”

His advice to us sounds basic, but is profound: “Keep your heart simple and clear. Don’t get caught up in too many theories of cultivation, that just creates more ideas. Just keep your heart simple and clear.”

This sounds easy, almost too easy, but you can’t find one person in a million who can do it.

December 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm Leave a comment

In Praise of Hardship

This weekend I attended an excellent and inspiring retreat organised by the British Taoist Association and led by Meng Zhiling, a Taoist Monk from Beijing. Among other things, Meng talked (via translators) about his time as a hermit in the mountains. As I understand it, he spent a total of 13 years there, the first five trying to locate a true practitioner of the Tao and the last eight living with the old Master that he found. His Master was the true practitioner that he was looking for.

Once he found his Master, and was accepted by him, Master Meng set about digging a cave for himself to live in. He dug it out, made furniture for himself, and started to raise vegetables to survive. The only things he bought were cooking oil and salt (his master did without either of those two items). Meng explained that in going to the mountains, he set himself hardships and difficulties. Living there was hard enough, especially in the winter, but Meng kept seeking harder and harder tasks to set himself. For example, as a monk he begged daily for food. But he limited himself to asking only 7 households for assistance. Whatever he got (if anything) from the 7 households was what he lived on for the day. If he got nothing then he went hungry. The area he lived in was remote and poor, so the people were not able to be generous in their help. His aim was to use these hardships as part of his self-cultivation – overcoming these hardships was his means of reclaiming his original nature. His aim was to follow the Tao, to achieve oneness with the Tao, and he used his hardships as a tool to accomplish this.

He was sometimes in situations where the remoteness of his travels, the harshness of the environment and the lack of food meant that he might have died, and no one would have known. Our saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” applies I think to what Meng was trying to achieve. Having overcome all the hardships he set himself, he knew that there were few situations that he would find himself in, in which he could not cope.

We all have hardships in our life. Most of us don’t choose these hardships as Meng did; we feel that hardships are imposed on us by life or karma. But Meng’s attitude of transforming the hardships into self-cultivation is open to anyone to accomplish. Instead of being defeated by hardships or suffering from them as an evil that cannot be avoided, we could change our attitude towards them, and use them (as he did) as tools to transform ourselves (in the Taoist sense of finding our original nature). To the Taoists the person who can transform harsh events like this is a cultivated person and one who is beaten down and defeated by hardships and is unable to overcome them is an ordinary person. Most of us are of course ordinary people, but it is still open to us to view hardships not as suffering imposed from outside (like fate) but as tools for transformation. I suppose Meng would agree with the saying that all experience is our teacher. Everything can be turned into a learning experience.

The problem is that hardships, suffering, financial problems are all stress inducing, and the effect of stress is to drain us of energy, weaken our immune system and make it harder to come back from defeats and disappointments. This is why practice is so important to Taoist cultivation. Practice means that we use other methods (also tools) to keep our body, mind and spirit in a state where we can withstand the damage of stress. Meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Kung, self-massage, acupuncture and all the other arts of self cultivation can help us keep bodily strength and energy that can fight off the depression and tiredness that afflicts the spirit.

It is not enough to have the right attitude to hardship. Attitude is philosophy or view, it is how our mind conceives of the hardships. This is important, is key, but it is not enough. We are also body, and if we do not train the body to fight off stressful damage, then our attitude can be overwhelmed by depression and illness. Taoism has tools for fighting off these difficulties on all fronts-where right attitude of mind and good energy of the body help to create a strong spirit. If all these are in place, the will is powerful, and all hardships can be overcome through transformation.

October 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm 1 comment

Youssu N’Dour Never Grows Up – Good Idea!

I watched Jeremy Marre’s excellent film on Youssu N’Dour on BBC 4. Early in the film they played one of his songs with the lyrics “When the children play I shall lead them, and be truly happy.”. He then talked about his lack of a childhood, due to becoming a singer at 13. The lyrics continue, ” I’m going back to my childhood and I never want to grow up.” In an interview he said that watching his children grow up showed him how much he had missed. He saw how his children always had questions to ask and how they profit from life.

I also never want to grow up, but I don’t think I live out my days in a playful childlike way. This would be the best way to live if I could do it. Of course as an adult you have many more responsibilities than when you were a child, and these responsibilities have to be dealt with. Some people ignore them and cause chaos, some deal with them in a slapdash way and cope, and others treat them seriously. I’m somewhere between slapdash and serious. But is it possible to take care of your responsibilities well but in a playful way, so that you don’t have to be ‘serious’ about serious things, but deal with them with flair, joy, and spontaneity. Life would be so much easier and happier if you could.

We have less of a problem treating pleasure and leisure times in a playful way, but all the other activities, which we probably see as chores, we don’t undertake in a light fashion. This is what I would like to do, in future. I think of Yeats’ poem, Lapis Lazuli,

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay

I have always wanted to look at life like this, but have never managed it. Why do I walk down the street with more of a scowl than a smile? Can’t I overlook the seriousness of life and instead see the humour and silliness of it? I know if I did that I would be healthier and happier.

Can I do it?

September 3, 2013 at 11:04 am Leave a comment

Lost Forest – Clee Clothing

My daughter Cleo started her fashion business- Clee Clothing – in 2009 when she was 16. She knew nothing about business and wasn’t interested in fashion, but she just had some clothing ideas that she wanted to make. Two of her earliest successes were the ‘Made in’ series
and the ‘I Love Ur Mum’ series, i love both of which were heavily copied by others.

After a couple of years she wasn’t satisfied with her brand. She knew it was missing something. She gave it a lot of thought and realised that what was missing was an identity. And the only identity that it could have would be hers. It was her creation and it was her designs and skills that was the essence of the brand and that is what she needed to focus on – her own thoughts ideas and images.

In February 2012 she held an event to create a Rebirth of the Brand, and brought out new themed designs that reflected her feelings about life.

This is what she wrote about the Rebirth: “Cleo started Clee Clothing aged 16 with no solid plan but lots of ambition. Fast-forward 2 years; Cleo paused, and realised how unhappy she was with what her project had become. Her lack of business understanding had led to a lack of brand value, meaning and direction. What was Clee Clothing, and what did it want to be?

Months of self-reflection later, Cleo decided that despite her discontent, she wasn’t ready to let go of all she had worked on. She decided to use all the negative feelings she had to begin rebranding, to work on new designs and to build the foundation that had been missing.”

Cleo relaunched Clee Clothing under “The Rebirth” because, as a Phoenix is reborn out of the ashes of itself, so was Clee Clothing.

The first collection under ‘The Rebirth’ is broken into 3 stages: Lost, Trust and Unrestricted.

Stage 1, Lost , is where Cleo felt she was before The Rebirth took place. As George The Poet eloquently puts it:

None of us have a clue why we’re here. And

Some of us are too fly to care. Life is a

String of mistakes that find purpose, the confusing

Thing is what makes that time worthless. You’re

Selling a vision, wanting us to buy the dreams, but

What if the end doesn’t justify the means?

None of us have a clue why we’re here, unless you’ve got

Something you could prove which you’d like to share?

Otherwise we struggle with two types of fear: the

Fear of what could be and the fear of what will be

Dealing with thousands of sharks feeling around in the dark.

Missing that childhood freedom you found in the park, which

You would fight for at all costs: but the

Bottom line is that you’re lost.

I recently saw one of her designs that came from the theme of Lost. It is Lost Forest, a beautiful black white and grey T shirt that is really a work of art.


As Cleo says, “Clee Clothing now reflects the honest and personal journey of its founder and designer – Cleo Forstater. The way a musician uses their music, the way an artist uses their art; this is her expression. All the designs, either explicitly or inexplicitly, echo a feeling or thought that Cleo has held.”
Check out Cleoi and you’ll see what I mean.   –

August 20, 2013 at 9:21 pm Leave a comment

Standing on Others’ Shoulders – Part 2

Having written six books that have had as their starting point someone else’s writings, I feel it is time I write a book that is entirely mine (if you can ever say a book is entirely your own). In a way, this blog is that book, and I wonder if I will really write another book?

A publisher friend suggested I write about my experiences with the Pythons- my involvement with the Holy Grail, the dispute over Spamalot, and the subsequent court case. I’m not certain I have the energy to do this now, but if I were to do it, it would be quite an undertaking. Two parts of the book would be difficult to write. One would be the need to examine my own personal feelings and relationships around the making of the film and our breakup. That was a painful time for me. Secondly, I would want to explain the case in a lot of detail, as a kind of litigation manual.  That would take a lot of time to put together, and perhaps the events are too recent for me to take this on.

Instead I may decide to do more guided meditations. I created one called The Age Of Anxiety for people suffering financial stress, and I liked how that came out. I’d like to do one for people who think too much. That would be a useful tool .   

There is one Taoist philosopher called Lieh Tzu that I have wanted to write about. I suppose if I do that I would be again standing on his shoulders. But since he had a reputation as a man who could ride the wind that might be quite an exciting trip.   

He wrote,

My mind concentrated and my body relaxed, bones and flesh fused completely, I did not notice what my body leaned against and my feet trod. I drifted with the wind East or West, like a leaf from a tree or a dry husk, and never knew whether it was the wind that rode me or I that rode the wind.

Standing on those shoulders would really give me an incredible view of the world! Maybe I’d better do that one, after all.

July 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm Leave a comment

A Life Well Lived

I went to the cinema to see Joss Whedon’s film of Much Ado About Nothing. One of the ads that preceded the film was for San Miguel beer, and the ad’s slogan was- Una Vida Bien Vivida- A Life Well Lived.

It got me thinking – what is a life well lived? Socrates said ‘The unexamined life is not worth living”, so for him a life well lived is one in which you cease living through habit and conditioning, and instead clarify what it is you are doing with your life, where your actions and behaviour come from, and what thoughts have made these events come about. This makes your life full of spontaneous yet well-thought out responses to life, rather than reflex conditioned ones.

That may not be everyone’s idea of a life well lived. In the past my conception probably included a certain level of materialism, the idea that a surplus of cash helps to make a well-lived life. But recently I’ve changed my mind. I am not against having money, but since the past couple of years have brought a forced reduction in my income, I’ve had to revise my ideas.

A well-lived life must mean one in which, as an individual (and there is no way we can experience life other than as individuals) we feel that we have done something good with the life that we are given. I know that good is a very broad word, and I use it deliberately, because the kind of good we can do ranges from raising children, to making art, cooking food, making wine, working for our families, loving others and yes- even drinking San Miguel beer. Good spreads itself throughout the landscape of our lives, overwhelming the evil that we also do.

A few years ago I looked back over my life in a very long sweep of personal history. This presented a jagged series of ups and down, times of plenty and joy alternating with times of woe, easy times and rougher times. But looking back from that present point I realised that the waves of good and bad formed a pattern in which the final result was good. I was reassured by that, that the overall pattern of my life constituted a ‘life well lived’ although I didn’t characterise it like that at the time. I didn’t have the ‘San Miguel philosophy’ to help me out. How pleasing to find philosophy alive and well in the cinema.

July 18, 2013 at 8:52 pm Leave a comment

Standing On Others’ Shoulders – Part 1- (don’t hold your breath for Part 2)

I think it’s time that I started standing on my own creative feet and stop standing on the shoulders of others. In my case that means old philosophers – both east and west.  My first 5 books were all about philosophies or philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Taoism, Yoga and Socrates. I explained the ideas behind the philosophy, followed by key texts I had referred to.

My latest book – I Survived A Secret Nazi Extermination Camp – is entirely different. The first part of the new book is a short introduction to  the little known but infamous Nazi death camp called Belzec. In this isolated, forested camp in SE Poland,  the Nazis killed an estimated 650,00 Jews and Gypsies.  The time between arrival by freight train to death in a gas chamber was only two hours. Rudolf Reder, a Polish Jew, managed to stay alive for four months as a worker in the camp, before making a miraculous escape. By the end of the war, Reder was the only survivor of the camp, and he gave a Witness Statement recounting his experiences.

It is this Witness Statement of Reder’s that forms part two of the book. He recounts the horrific, pathetic and harrowing events that took place in Belzec, and the cruel and criminal acts of the Nazi and Ukrainian guards.  It is a difficult account to read – one man recounting the hell that the Nazis’ madness had created, and which he saw first-hand.

Part three is an account by me ( a kind of memoir ) about how and why I came across this Statement of Reder’s. It’s partly about my family and partly about my relationship to the holocaust, and its victims.  A few years ago, I decided to search for my Grandparents’ roots online via JewishGen which led me to discover hundreds of ancestors. This search ultimately led me to Lublin, and it was on a visit to the Majdanek Concentration Camp that I found Reder’s Statement. At the same time I learned the fate of my grandfather’s family – those who he left behind had been sent from their homes in Lublin to be killed in Belzec .

How is this book different to the other 5? Of course it’s much more personal. I am not writing about dead philosophers but about the terrible fate of my own (newly discovered) family. It’s about history, but told in a personal way. I’ve set out my reflections on what I was learning, and my own memories were part of this discovery.   Obviously I am not a survivor of the camps and no known relative of mine had been one either. We were Americans, not Europeans. All my grandparents emigrated to the USA in the early 1900s, and my parents and all of our family had been born in America. Growing up, I never realised that my grandparents had left family behind – parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. It is the fate of those family members that my search revealed, and my memoir reflects how I came to terms with this dark knowledge.

June 28, 2013 at 9:26 pm 1 comment

Creative Advice for Creatives

Vivian Maier Self-Portrait

Vivian Maier Self-Portrait

I watched Alan Yentob’s excellent Imagine documentary (BBC) about the work of Vivien Maier, a nanny (now dead) who took 150,000 photos of things she liked, or which interested her.

Her photos are excellent, mindful of the work of Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, and the story behind them is quite extraordinary.  Because it seems Vivien never studied photography, never knew any photographers, never showed anyone her work, and printed only a few of her photos. She stored her negatives in 5 storage lockers in Chicago that she continued renting for years. But when she got too ill to pay the rent, the contents of the storage lockers were sold to auctioneers, sight unseen.  At this point all the work could easily have been trashed, except the buyer of the job lot realised they must be worth something and sold the entire lot to another dealer.  From there, a spiral of buying and selling, and a growing admiration for her work brought serious acclaim. Now her vintage prints sell for $ 8000 and new ones for $ 2000.

A great post mortem success story, like Van Gogh’s. But the part of the film that impressed me most was a comment by photo gallery owner Stephen Kasher, about how she ‘created’ her style. Vivien Maier has a distinctive visual style, all her own. How did she create it ?

Kasher said she is one of the few photographers with no (photographic) outside influences. She never exhibited, published or sold her work. Because she had a day job she did not have to take photos to please anyone but herself.  She didn’t sell them or show them. They were private, and so she could take photos of whatever interested her, and over time work out the best solution for obtaining the images she wanted. This best solution was to solely satisfy her creative urge, to get the best shot she could.

So Vivien Maier had Freedom (capital F) to do what she truly wanted. She took photos only of what interested her, and she took them at as high an artistic standard as she could achieve.  So her style comes partly through technique (the type of camera and film she used), her vision – what she wanted to shoot and the feelings and ideas they conveyed to her – and her self-effacing persona, which could be unobtrusive and capture people ‘acting’ naturally. Or should that be acting ‘naturally’?

So the essence of Vivien’s style did not come from the outside- from her equipment or other photographers- but came from the inside- from her thoughts and emotions, from the way she saw the world. Writers are always told, “Write what you know about.” And I suppose Vivien did photograph what she knew about- kids playing on a beach, street people in Chicago, the life of a flea market. But maybe a better way of saying this, and one which can be imported by  other creative artists is “Write or work about what interests you. What interests you is something you will be able to express for yourself. ” Just like Vivien.

And her great posthumous fame tells us that the more freedom we can give ourselves. the better the work we will do, whether others recognise it or not. Leaving money aside (and I know that is not easy), what Vivien’s story says about creative work is that if you can work at your art or craft without deviating from what interests you, not trying for recognition or fame,  not trying to make money, but only trying to perfect your abilities, then you may make something that lasts.

June 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm Leave a comment

Web Site Frustration

I decided I needed to revise my website to change the focus from The Age of Anxiety (an audio I created) to my new book I Survived A Secret Nazi Extermination Camp. The book is being printed (soon) and so I wanted to be ready with a site to support the book’s launch (if there will be one). But my HTML skills are non-existent, so I’m finding it difficult to work on my WordPress site.

Maybe I need to really commit the time to learning these skills rather than just throw my hands up in despair. But I have always believed that if there is someone who knows how to do something well – whether a plumber, electrician or web designer – that amateurs like me should always pay for them to use their skills rather than do a hash of the job myself. In the past I always had the dosh to pay for this work, but at the moment cash is tight, which is why I am even considering doing this myself.

I’ve always assumed that Photoshop and other design tools were beyond my ability. I haven’t changed that opinion. So here I am needing to make a decision- learn the skills or pay for them. Any suggestions from the virtual world?


October 22, 2012 at 3:06 pm 3 comments

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The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.