Archives for the month of: January, 2014

Tea

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MBTI of Star Wars

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I’m Obi-Wan! Who are you?

I set out to write the previous entry in a very different way, but got wrapped up in the explanation of death as I see it. I actually meant to write about my grandfather. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll have heard me speak of my first master, Gordon. Well by coincidence, my grandfather was also called Gordon.

Gordon was born in 1921, the son of Irish immigrants. He grew up in absolute poverty, his father having abandoned his mother shortly after his birth. At 14 he left school and went out to work in order to scratch together enough money to keep his family in food. Time wound on, and whilst working in a packaging factory he attended night school, gaining a degree in mathematics. After serving for six years in the war, fighting in France and Burma, Gordon eventually returned to England and his old job. Soon, he ran the factory, and with the recommendation he gained there, he went on to become the international packaging manager for Unilever, one of the world’s biggest companies. He had two daughters and two grandsons: my brother and I. To both of us, he was the sole central and dependable father figure in our lives.

Gordon was a calm, patient and intelligent grandfather. He was kind, and fun. He had an irreverent sense of humour and a positive mental attitude. He was rich, both materially and spiritually. At the age of 87, he suffered a massive heart attack in his bed and died.

I took the news badly; I was going through a bad patch in my life and lived over a hundred miles away from him, so when my tearful mother rang me to tell me he’d died I sobbed like a baby. This simply couldn’t happen. He was old, yes, but he was as strong as an ox. He was eternal; he couldn’t simply “stop”. I told my mum to look after herself and that I’d be home the next day, and hung up the phone. And I cried, and cried, and cried. That night, something profound happened to me. I can’t claim it as an effort of will, or a decision I made. But I felt something; something I didn’t have the words to define at the time. But I think I have them now – I felt my grandfather in the Force.

I wasn’t asleep, how could I sleep? I was too distraught. I felt like part of my body had been pulled out of my chest. I felt a gaping, open chasm inside me, a black hole which felt like it would suck me inside. I looked out of the window of my girlfriend’s room in university halls, at the beautiful Southampton shoreline. I saw the Itchen bridge, a notorious suicide hotspot less than a mile away, lit up in the night. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was hurt at the thought of death. This bridge stood out in that moment as a memorial to death, a great industrial reminder of what we all faced.

And then a stillness passed over me, like a gauzy curtain being pulled back. My emotion left, and in its place was a perfect and unimaginable calm. At the time I remember wondering if this was what it was like to lose your mind. I was convinced it couldn’t be OK to feel so much of “nothing” at a time like this. I examined the feeling, and came to a realisation: my grandfather wasn’t gone.

He had passed from view, away from our ability to talk to him, to reach out an arm and hug him. He would never give my cheek a stubbly kiss on goodnight again, something I still remember as one of the most vivid and valuable memories of my childhood. He would never counsel me on the decisions I was making academically, or ask about my love life. His lessons were in some sense over. And yet they weren’t. I could still “feel” him. I could still see him, in my minds eye and through a million memories far truer than crude sensory data. What was seeing him slumped in a chair next to the feeling of being bounced on his knee as a toddler? What was watching him fall asleep in front of the TV next to that stubbly kiss? I was sad that he had left the world, it’s true; but he hadn’t left me. His lessons, his love, his legacy would and could never, ever leave me.

I’ve held that understanding ever since. I consoled my mother and grandmother at his funeral, and they were both distraught as they had every right to be. I was still and calm, sympathetic and compassionate but more concerned for their emotions than for mine. I’d be fine. He was with me, and would stay with me for the rest of my life. It would be OK. Short years later my grandmother and my maternal aunt also died, and they were buried in a family plot with my grandfather’s ashes. Again, I knew they were with me. I could be the “rock” for my family, because I wasn’t hurt by death any more. It was sad to lose them from the world, but I knew they lived on. Flowers grow on their grave, and we planted a tree for my grandfather in a local landmark called the tree cathedral, where it will grow to maturity and reproduce itself. Some of his ashes lie beneath its roots, and so grow through its branches and leaves, the animals that feed from it and the whole ecosystem around it.

It’s the Force which gives this peace to me, as I defined it above. Death is never nice, but we can choose to understand it as a transformation rather than an end. The lessons my grandfather gave to me will be passed on to my son and daughter; they helped me earn the money for our home, and the mental and emotional stability to build a loving family around my children. He lives on in us, as I live on in them.

As we all live in the Force.

Don’t worry, just try.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Wisdom of Yoda

Death is one of the biggest philosophical subjects humans face, and the seemingly impenetrable curtain of death has the power to change our lives. People subscribe to religions, kill one another and make other such huge decisions out of a desire to understand, accept or rationalise death. I have no doubt that as Joseph Campbell discussed, the early roots of spiritual belief come from a desire to understand the flow of life and death. Death comes to us all, and it seems that nothing that lives can escape it.

The barrier to understanding which death comprises is one of our capacity to comprehend. As beings that are largely defined by their perceptions, both of external and internal experiences, the notion of an “end to experience” is essentially inconceivable – in our minds, it amounts to an “end to existence”. Such a dead end (no pun intended) is outside our sphere of experience as we experience the world in a causal A > B > C way, but when we see a dead body, or watch someone die, we must face this possibility of an end to the causal chain as far as that person is concerned. Their body stops causing/behaving (except to decompose), and the “agency” of bodies is our primary method of inferring consciousness in other beings; without beings which seem to behave similarly to us, how can we believe they are “experiencers” in the same way we are?

Religion attempts to explain this sudden change in behaviour another way; that the “soul” exists separately from the body, and at the moment of the death it leaves the body. It’s fine! Don’t panic! The soul lives on, and either moves on to some other plane (heaven/hell) or is reborn in a new body. But in reality we have no evidence for either of these conclusions, beyond the words of certain “enlightened” individuals. That’s not to say these views are necessarily wrong, they’re just not observable unless we actually die, which is not necessarily the most sound methodology of experimentation.

What we can observe, however, is the flow of energy, and the transaction of chemical bodies into the wider environment. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. The energy which drives us and the energetic properties of our cells will return to the environment, as will the chemicals which we’re composed of (these two are simply stores of energy); carbon and water moving out from our corpse or our ashes. These return to the wider system, and fuel whatever happens next: the leaf growing, the deer eating the leaf, the wolf eating the deer, the raven eating the deer, etc etc etc. The raven’s body fertilising the grass which is eaten by the cow, which is eaten by the human… the flow carries on. It is, observably, endless. Life continues. This is, for me, one of the main actions of the living Force.

So it is true that one of the strands of Religious thought is observably correct – the chemical and energetic parts of our bodies return to the ecosystem and are “reborn” in the leaves they fertilise and the animals which eat them; but it can also be observed that we move onto another “plane”, and it’s a mental, or causal one. The people who knew us in life do not forget us. The actions we set into place do not “stop” as our body stops. Our offspring, partners, colleagues, friends and even those who hated us continue to carry the germ of our entity within them. We continue to exist not just in a chemical or DNA-based form, but in a mental (and some would argue, spiritual) form.

The “idea” of us can be stronger than we were in life – look at the “concept” of Jesus for example, which has achieved an enormous amount more than the man himself is said to have achieved in life. This is rebirth in an equally true sense, or perhaps it’s better understood as “immortality”. We cannot die, in the sense that death is an end to existence, it’s simply impossible. Our energy and our matter is conserved, and so too is our conceptual existence. We fade as a clearly delimited, single and distinct being; instead we are part of everything. Our actions may live on conceptually and influence another generation, and this may influence the next generation or some other part of the living world. Each “move” like this leaves the original “essence” which we identify ourselves as, a little less distinct and traceable – but it’s still there. Someone with a sufficient understanding of causality and energy conservation can’t fail to recognise this; and so death is nestled at the core of what the living Force means.

In order to understand death, we must understand the true nature of life: for we too are the dispersed essences of billions, trillions of lifeforms. We are composed of, breathing and eating impossibly ancient microbes, precambrian tree ferns, dinosaurs, trilobites, Neanderthals, ancient pharaohs and jazz singers. What we do is, to an inconceivable magnitude (either micro or macro), influenced by what they did; how they grew, the decisions they made and the conditions they lived in. At the very base level of where we come from, as Carl Sagan so memorably noted, “we are stardust, billion year old carbon; […] we are one species. We are star stuff harvesting starlight”.

For me, this is what it means to understand the living Force:

Life in death; death in life.

Or to put it in a more orthodox way:

Death, yet the Force.

If you understand, things are as they are. If you do not understand, things are as they are.

Zen Proverb

A Simple Illustrated Guide to Meditation

The Seven Virtues of Bushido

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In public consciousness, there is little more synonymous with the word ‘Jedi’ than the lightsaber. This fictional weapon is used by the heroic Jedi and villainous Sith to do battle; it is viewed as a “more civilised” weapon than guns and bombs. It requires training and precision, and has limitations (it’s a close-range weapon, for one) but used properly can accomplish seemingly impossible feats, not least deflecting laser bolts as they hurtle towards the fictional Jedi. The sword has a long tradition as the “heroic weapon” and the instrument of light used to battle darkness; and in this way it has parallels within the Jedi path.

The sword has been commonly used to symbolise liberty, strength and often the word of God. If we replace the word God with the Force, as many have, we can see a simple parity between the chivalrous knight of medieval times defending the honour and virtue of the world in the name of God, and the noble Jedi Knight who uses his lightsaber and the strength it allows him to protect the liberty of the galaxy, in the name of the Force.

Swords are also central to many great myths, from the Sword in the Stone in which the raising of Excalibur proclaims the young Arthur the “Once and future king” and hero of his land (and a whole mythological saga), to the historical Ronin Miyamoto Musashi, founder of an entire philosophy based on swordsmanship represented in his Book of Five Rings. These very different heroes used their swords, and their prowess with them, to lead revolutions in thought, inspiring others to follow a path of nobility and a coherent personal code. Perhaps like Arthur, the darkness Jedi seek to banish is that of ignorance, of closed-minded acceptance and face-value assumptions? Our sword of light could be a torch, shining a beam into this world of darkness in order to uncover the truth. It can be a beacon of hope for others to follow, and a lighthouse on story seas for others to aim towards.

In Dan Millman’s The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, the philosopher/teacher/Jedi he calls Socrates describes his sword as his ability to meditate and focus his attention; I think this is a useful metaphor for us as Jedi. Through the sharpened edge of his perception, Socrates cuts through to the reality of every situation. This can be disorienting and disconcerting for the novel’s protagonist, who represents a more “everyday” worldview. Without the years of accumulated wisdom and the flash of enlightenment reached through his years of training in dedication to his “swordsmanship”, Socrates’ ways can seem outlandish or even impossible. And yet they stem from perfect wisdom, based on knowledge gained by experience, crystallised by perfect focus. Crystals, too, have their part to play within the Jedi path.

Lightsabers have crystals at their core, and I’m reminded again of the crystal structures which I have in my mind’s eye when I think how each human extends out of the living Force. I’m reminded too of the early Joseph Campbell lecture in which he describes the “web of jewels” envisaged in Hinduism, coincidentally the name of an old band I used to front, Indra’s net; how it describes a holographic system in which every point is dependent and contains information relating to every other point, and how this is a metaphor for the universe we live in. This, for me, ties together much of the Jedi worldview. Everything arises from one substance and exists only as part of a wider, all-encompassing system. Everything is affected by everything else, even if this is at microscopically tiny levels. Everything is one, and the countless trillions of “things” are only distinct in our minds; in reality they are all fundamentally the same.

It’s this sameness that drives the Jedi, and this crystalline centre which encapsulates our worldview. We reject the extremes, and instead we are prisms to the light. We refract the glare of reality into a full spectrum of colours, each a different path making up the middle ground of synthesis before deciding on the course which works best in the real world. We use our focus like the swordsman, slicing to the heart of things and rejecting the surface distinctions. Our sword is a shield against the weak, a weapon against darkness and a torch to light the path, for ourselves and others. Jedi are the sword of the living Force.