Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bloody (Wonderful) Hippies

I accidently attended a Dances of Universal Peace event for a few days, at the Atlantida ecovillage.  Here´s what fell onto the keyboard the day after:

Holding hands, dancing in circles, chanting strange religious mantras in arabic, spanish, greek, french.
Hugging men, looking in their eyes, looking in the eyes of strangers.
Withered prune grandma of Danzas de Paz, spidery shaky voice, guitar, but force of leadership.
Feeling low, depression coming through, cold front, cloudy crates of future chaos stacking ominously over me, billowing and flexing, solid as a tower of lead, threatening to suck me up and crumple me like a ball of tissue paper, spit me out like a broken hail stone, useless.
Warm welcome.  Such a warm welcome.  Te volviste!  Happy Birthday.  They remembered!
Taken seriously.  Art of leading dances.  No personal poetry.  Drawn from ancient tradition.  But not about outward, NOT a show, not professional looking.  About the group, creating that space, the energy, clarity so all can participate, move beyond the pragmatics of which-foot-where and into the emotion and spirit of being one.
Acting together.  Acting as a team.  Acting as one body.  Moving as one, speaking as one, expressing as one.
Huge silly grin on my face, at the silliness of dancing, but glorious silliness.  Clasping hands, little formal bows to right and left, stately, measured orbit, change hands, move to next partner, like Pride And Prejudice.

Country dancing at school.  Urrrgh!  Holding a girl's hand!  Round the Maypole.  Irrelevant,  Stupid.  Foolish.  Old.
Isn´t it just, well, a little bit ...  feminine? 
Unpack.  To make oneself vulnerable, to express openness in a physical way to others.  To be soft.  Men are meant to be hard.  Tough as nails. 
Do we replace this absense with digital divulgence of the minutiae of our daily lives?  Does FaceBook replace physical contact?

Mocking voice.  Stupid, irrelevant, laughable.  The hippies have lost.  The machine speeds onwards.
Didn´t win over the world.  Consumer capitalism marches on, drum beat of reason, numbers, economics, unarguable, unanswerable, unnegotiable, unpersuadable and insensitive to the fluffy bullshit of love and light and Mother Earth.
Why is is bullshit?  Because it is not powerful.  Not powerful enough to stop what they object to.  Not strong enough to draw in the masses.  A fringe event on a side-street to the main carnival of carnivory, consumption.
New Age.  Fear in the church.  Post-modern mix, any religion from any where.  Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism.
Allah your will be done, Shiva Shiva Shiva, Christ, Buddha-Dhamma-Sanga.

Toby and his family Ohms up the mountains.  We mocked because it was strange.  Because we didn´t understand, to dismiss it, box it and put it away, so it wouldn´t challenge us, wouldn´t shake what we knew.

LOST language of fellowship, to express togetherness in our atomised consumer soup.  Language of movement, dance, and of harmony, music.  No strong shared musical culture.  In England at least.  My parents have, from Protestant Ireland, but coming from The Troubles, not updated, laced with the us-vs-them of a divided society.
This is ANCIENT.  Since dropping from the trees we have danced together, normally in a circle, touching, looking at each other, singing together, focussing on shared values, a shared idea of the world.  The MOTOR of unity, the alchemist, the catylist to mix all our souls together, emulsify, to turn the separate elements into a whole.
This is soul food.  It does not feel like a hobby, like an optional extra.  It feels primordial, fundamental, satisfying a basic need, coming home (Burning Man, "Welcome Home").  Is this what we are all searching for?  Partly at least.  Is this what drives XFactor orphans, desperate for adoption into the family of the famous to find love and be valued?
So funny!  And so FUN!  Is this how we would unwind at the end of the day if we didn´t have TV?

Feel lifted, buoyed up, more air in my water-wings, I am not alone in this world.  We are here together.  And all the other things settle into perspective.  The shallow, wispy Worryweeds part as something more vigorous and real grows up, solid stemmed, broad leafed, soaking up the sun.  The Worryweeds start to wither a little in the shade.  There is some real and solid truth to this equation:  capitalism splits up, atomises to allow free movement, tears great holes in the fabric of communal life, and massages this emptiness with advertising, and offers in its place a mountain of stuff, and we pour the pointless plastic forgotten-in-a-moment widgets into the hole, and pour and pour but it will not fill up.  Like a black hole swallowing the whole world, the forests and mountains and fish and coral and cleanliness and deep down freshness and ourselves and life in all its abundance.

Friday, March 5, 2010

High Fright (an almost Airman´s agony)*


Dancing The Skies
Who hasn´t dreamt of being able to fly? OK, so not everybody, but is there a more universal dream than to slip 'the surly bonds of earth' and soar like the birds? I could fly as a kid - if I concentrated hard gravity let me go and I floated off the ground (it took me a while to realise that this had been a dream). Later I became a greedy subscriber to Airplane magazine, collected weekly from the filing cabinet at WHSmiths and poured over hungrily on saturday mornings. I marvelled at the A10 Thunderbolt and enormous Hercules transporter, and set to sketch my own warplane blueprints. As a four-eyes I knew I wouldn't interest the University Air Squadron, but I did get a 30min flying 'lesson' for my eighteenth birthday and remember how rickety and low-tech the one-prop plane felt as I strapped myself in - like my Gran´s Mini - and the fun of directing us to 'that cloud over there'.

At university a friend invited me to join her family for their annual skiing holiday and the mum, Fiona, took me up for tandem paragliding flight one afternoon. A world class pilot I trusted her completely, but the intructions to run on her command at the scree cliff-edge tested this. She enjoyed a joke at the expense of my first-timer nerves, calling 'Run, run, run' from her position strapped behind me, long after we had safely left the ground, and my feet pedalled uselessly as we soared away from the mountainside. Looking down at the Chamonix valley, at tiny model cars and trees, gliding with only the sound of rushing wind, I promised myself that if I ever found myself with money and time....

... I enrolled to take my paragliding course at Colombia Paragliding, though 'enrolled' sounds a little formal for such a laid-back organisation. I couldn´t wait. Ten days and I would be dancing the skies on 'laughter silvered wings', 'free as a bird'. I had no worries about the training; it would be a gradual build up, I thought, like learning to ski - starting at the baby slope with tiny ground skimming hops and building up to confident flight. Then I arrived up at the launch site, a patch of grass whose edge looked down two hundred meters to the Landing Zone, or 'LZ', on the valley floor below. We would learn how to strap in, how to inflate the wing and 'kite' it from the ground and then... then it would be a case of just running at the edge, trusting the kit and launching into the void. Instructor Russell would be ready to guide us over Tree Hill and down the the LZ field, or one of the alternative landing zones should we be losing altitude too fast to make it. I was starting to feel a little nervous.

My apprehension wasn´t diminished by a tandem flight with Russell on the second day. It felt very shakey up there. I was trying to ignore an ancient instinct for self-preservation that instructed me sternly that "This is dangerous. You should get down."

"Russell, we have a problem
Nerves. Checking my harness straps, the ungainly rucksack sagging down behind my thighs. Radio on, strapped to my chest, helmet pressing my ears. A-risers in my hands, the lines spanning backwards to the tips of the saggy sleeping bag of a 'wing', laid out lifeless on the grass. Waiting. Watching. The wind sock bobbing on its bamboo pole. Scanning out over the edge for birds circling against the backdrop of Bucaramanga city on the valley floor - the Chulos (large carrion) that lazily trace the thermals for us as they rise in columns, passing over the launch site in cycles. Russell´s voice crackles on the radio, as from the Landing Zone (LZ) below he notices a good thermal heading our way. "Listo?" (Ready?) asks German from the launch field´s edge. He´s been flying since age thirteen and, now in his early twenties, the routine nature of this scenario for him reassures me a little - everyday is safe and safe is do-able. Running off a cliff strapped to some string and cloth is a perfectly normal way to spend a morning. "Vaya, vaya!" (Go, go). Head down, pulling from the waist I feel the harness strain and the tug and rise of the wing inflating behind me. Keep pulling. The shadow passes over. I give a little pull down on both brake lines and glance up - wing evenly spread and above me. Good. Running. Running. I feel the reassuring upward pull of the harness. My feet leave the ground. The slope drops away beneath me. I´m airborne.

There is no half-way with flight. You are either flying or falling. Paragliding has no reception room, no floating at the surface like before a scuba dive. Once you cross the threshold you cannot change your mind. You are up there inside the invisible, omnipotent wind, suspended like a marionette, toyed with absent-mindedly, with only one person who can get you back down in one piece...

I lift my legs and slip easily down into the scoop of the seat. That´s a relief. For my first two flights this didn´t happen and while I struggled, suspended by my crotch, to clasp both brake lines in one hand and push the seat under my bum, Russell had instructed with increasing urgency to steer right or risk losing too much altitude and missing the LZ. Lack of altitude would not prove to be the problem on this flight. I am already above the launch site. Following instructions I respond to the buffetting of my right wing tip and turn 360s to catch the thermal. Rising higher. Bart, the Flying Dutchman, is rising fast too, a hundred feet away under his red and white wing. I struggle to find the school, now shrinking as the rest of the hillside with its new roads and housing developments flattens out and the horizon expands on all sides. The wind is strong. I´m not even trying to track the thermals and still I am climbing. I try to sit back in my seat, relax and enjoy the majestic view, but it is very shakey up here. The wing jolts you upwards or drops you down, jabbed at by a boisterous blast from right or left, and the little seat wobbles, hung beneath its clips. I try to maintain a light, steady pressure on the brake lines held up in each hand.

This is it. I am on my own, slung under this wing in the wind with only my two hands and few days of knowledge to guide me back to earth. And earth is getting further away. I must be nearly half a kilometer above the landing field. I feel a rising sense of panic. "What if I can´t get down?" Trapped in the sky. Still going up. Cloud base seems closer. "Oh shit." This is most definitely outside of my 'comfort zone' - about 500 meters outside of it. Telling myself that I WILL get down and in thirty minutes I will have my feet on the ground and this fear as a memory I lean to the right, pulling down on the right break line and easing up on the left, heading straight out towards the LZ. Russell is still encouraging me in my successful climb, radioing instructions to turn for the next thermal. Swallowing my fear I gingerly take both break lines in my right hand, sacrificing my limited sense of control in order to press the radio button and call down in an all too panicked voice (not very Top Gun) that "I want to come down": it will be nice to have him guiding me in the right direction!

The thermals just keep coming. I hit one, the wing lurching back, but I expected this and hold my course til I pop out the other side, squeezing the breaks a little to correct the pitch. "Wind's very strong" says Russell´s voice from the radio ("Yup, noticed that" I think), "You might need to use Big Ears to get down." "Big Ears!" Invoking the wise, bearded Brownie of Toytown might be amusing were the situation different, but Russell is refering to a technique of folding right and left wing tips down, reducing the span and quickening the descent. "You´re kidding!" I think. "No one ever showed me those on the ground. I´m not trying them for the first time up here!" But five minutes later, as I watch Bart with his lovely Big Ears, leaving me behind as he spirals down towards safety, I think "Forget this, I could be up here for hours", and following Russell´s earlier explanation I reach up to grab the front outside A-lines and pull. The tips dent. I let go and reach higher. The lines cut into my bare hands but with a sense of relief I feel the glider start to slow and my altitude drop. Holding on, steering with the A-lines and my body weight I figure-eight my way closer and closer, and soon I am at the tree line, out of the seat, running, dropping, pulling down on the brake lines - still falling too fast. Thud. The ground. Nothing broken. Back to earth. Oh how I love you, dry grass and cow pats...

I had been up there for forty minutes.

That was a unique experience. A taste of what it feels like to be a real explorer, out on your own. I read a collective biography of the lunar astronauts this year and my respect for their steely nerves is now even greater. It was lonely up there, and that was 400 meters not 400,000 kilometers.

I went up again that afternoon and the following morning as well. Just as I had wanted to face my fear and fly solo, so I wanted to fly again to prove that my high flight had not scared me off. Yet I have still not caught the flying bug. I get up there and have thoughts only about getting down. Perhaps it´s time to follow a different childhood enthusiasm and book into the B.A.Baracus school of paragliding: "You crazy fool! I won' fly!"


My thanks to Russell, German and Richi at Colombia Paragliding for a great couple of weeks. Not hooked this time, but never say never...

The Video Clips

Take-off (actually the morning following my High Flight)

Tandem flight: German flies us the route I´ll take solo.

Back to Earth: my reaction.


High Flight (an Airman's Ecstasy)

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee
* Blog titled in honor of my friend Stephen Tapply. He flies the flag of British humour in his global trottings and proudly specialises in essay titles based on literary puns...

Friday, February 12, 2010

YouTube and Glasshouse Books

In April 2009 I blogged about the Permaculture Design Course I did at the Maya Mountain Reasearch Farm in Belize...

Now you can watch the snappy little video!

Clearly I had no editorial input, as it features my brother and I in our vests and shorts crooning an anti-Monsanto version of 'I Will Survive'! Still, it´s out there now! Enjoy:

AND... great new publishing company launched, publishing titles (digital and print) aimed at those who do not normally read books. The first, '100', is one hundred words each from one hundred contributors, aimed to provoke and inspire school and university leavers.

I´m honoured to beone of the 100 contributers. Check out my Toes in the middle pages. And consider ordering a copy. If over 1000 orders are received within sixty days it goes to print.

Great new publishing model - let´s hope it is successful - and a brave attempt to reach an often ignored audience.

Check it out:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vipassana: thoughts after (part 2) "Equanimity as if the world matters"

Charming Charlas (day six)

It´s 7pm and our small group of english speakers are settling in a small upstairs room to listen to todays CD talk ("charla") from Goenke. The rest of the group are listening to a spanish translation in the main hall but I´m glad to hear the original: Goenke speaks a charming Indian english and his warmth, wisdom and good humour shine through. This is the hightlight of my day and if it wasn´t for these I couldn´t have made it this far. Today he has us in stitches, voicing as always our own experiences, the thoughts in our heads, "Goenke´s says 'Anicha, Anicha, Anicha', the Law of Impermanence, but this pain is not passing away! This pain is permanent! Someone should tell the teacher - she must have forgotten to look at the clock!"

His teaching is clear and illustrated with countless witty stories. It´s clarity is part of my problem: I am doubting if I want to accept it.

At this point I ask you to bear in mind that this is one variety of Buddhism and that after only a week I do not claim to be an expert. Yet this is my interpretation of Goenke´s teaching:

Two and a half millenia ago Gotema de Buddha was not original in his interpretation of life as a cycle of misery, or that enlightenment was the way out, but what he did discover, or rediscover, was the powerful technique of Vipassana, "so rational, so scientific", for achieving this. When the body receives sensations it registers them, perceives them and then reacts to them with either craving or aversion - wanting more or less of the sensation. This is the root cause of our misery. The vipassana technique uses meditation to achieve, firstly, an acute awareness of bodily sensations, developing until one can feel every particle in the body vibrating. This direct, physical experience teaches us "Anicha", the Law of Impermanence: everything is arising and passing away. From this we gain the wisdom that forming attachments to anything dooms us to unhappiness. And so, the second "wing" of the technique, we practice being equanimous towards these sensations, knowing they are passing: sitting with these keenly felt sensations we train ourselves to stop reacting to them, to accept all equally, whether of pleasure or pain. Thus, eventually, we achieve enlightenment and escape from the cycle of misery into a place free of all desire and hence free of suffering. We know "real peace, real harmony, real happiness".

No mas sankaras?
My question is: where´s the pleasure? There seems no room to enjoy the good. I love life. I know it´s short, but this wisdom makes me determined to make the most of it, appreciating each moment. I can see the benefits of equanimity for dealing with the bad, for cultivating peace and solidity, but do I want to sacrafice my ability to enjoy? Goenke talks about this technique as a "deep surgical operation" to free us of sankaras - our reactions of craving and aversion - but I´m scared it amounts to a pleasure lobotomy. And I´m not sure I´m prepared to forsake the whole world in order to escape its unpleasant parts.

It seems utterly radical, this response to misery. I imagine the Leutenant reporting to his General "Sir, we´re having a spot of bother with this living business: so many desires are disappointed and it makes the men suffer so", to which the General decisively replies "Right, cancel desire. No more desires for anything, good or bad. Complete equanimity. That should do it." "Cancell ALL desires, Sir! But... but... you mean ALL desires!".

And really, is this even possible? Desire, in its broadest sense, drives life, from the biological roots of reproduction upwards. Surely to end desire is in some senses to die? Seen in this way Buddhism is an utterly pessimistic response to the unpleasant aspects of life. It characterises all experience as misery, because even the pleasant creates suffering by generating attachment to that which will not last. In response it seeks to disengage. Is there a difference between equanimity and indifference? I don´t want to become some sort of Buddha Zombie, floating outside of life, passive and unmoved.

La Rosa y La Mierda (day seven)
Surely it must be a certain type of desire we abandon? I book a ten-minute slot with La Professora on day seven and in my less than perfect Spanish ask the question as clearly as I know how:

"I have a rose in my left hand and a piece of shit in my right. According to the teaching the natural reaction is "Mmmm, la rosa, I want more of this!" and "Urgh, la mierda, get me away!". So am I right in thinking that we are trying to get to the place were we do not react to either, and if offered more rose or more shit we would be completely indifferent? Surely there is a space for enjoying the rose, in the moment, while accepting that it is passing away? When it does, you let it go. Surely there is a space for pleasure without attachment?"
Smiling down at me with kind eyes she shakes her head. "Lo pega", she replies: "It sticks". Pleasure always creates attachment.

This is what is troubling me. I don´t want to give up enjoying life, not even to escape all suffering. It seems to me like deciding that, because some days are sunny and some days wet, you will concrete up your windows and doors and sit inside listening to Bach, at peace and unmoved. Or like choosing to exit the river and travel beside it in a solid train carrage with no windows, feeling compassion for those poor souls still caught in the rapids outside. I think I´d rather be in the rapids, under the sky, taking the knocks with the thrills.

There must be a middle way. I search for metaphors to capture it. Can we not, like plants, have roots deep in the ground, stable and equanimous as sun or storm pass by above, yet with the rest fully in the world, opening petals to the sun or closing them against the rain? Or, is equanimity not like the anchor that secures the boat, no longer blown across the sea by passing storms but still fully experiencing them and also the glorious days of calm?

Do Buddhists live in an orange submarine?

I may be mistaken in my interpretation of the teaching, but Goenke seems very clear on this point: all pleasure creates attachment and attachment creates suffering. In none of the talks did he distinguish types of pleasure, with say a "moral enjoyment" - such as arises from serving others - that free of atttachment and therefore available for the enlightened. Yet he talks of happiness, compassion and service. Is the desire to serve not a desire? I notice that even instructs us to pursue our equanimity "ardently": "Ardent - having, expressive of, or characterized by intense feeling; passionate; fervent."

I see you (day nine)
This is peace. The clocks have all stopped. The meditation hall is still. The stillness of a silent ocean floor, where all the sediment has settled down, leaving a peace that is so alive. I sit and drink it in. The light has faded and outside the crickets chirp like tiny referees. A car hums and grinds its way up the steep road. Even The Cougher is silent. I often enjoy this last meditation of the day.

Yes, I am pleased to be nearing the finishing line, but the experience has been so rich that I wouldn´t take it back. I am grateful for what I´ve learned but my fundamental question - "Do I want to go where I´m told this practice will take me? - has caused what I hope is a healthy sense of rebellion. Earlier a fellow meditator passed me, leaving the hall early, and I wondered if my blissful grin of 'enlightenment' added to his frustion. "If you only knew" I thought "that I´m smiling at the juicy steak and glass of Sauvignon I´ll be celebrating with in a few days time."

One thing I appreciate about the teaching is that is founded firmly on "Try if for yourself" and "Use your noodle" - as Goenke has repetedly stated this is not to be accepted as "blind faith". Dhamma (the path) requires hard work and patience but it will show results at every stage. If I question Dharma´s destination I do so joyfully, perhaps even equanimously (wink). I don´t accept everything but I don´t reject it all either.

The Noble Chatter (day ten)

The final day and the silence has ended. Last night Goenke sounded perhaps a tiny bit dissappointed as he explained that many years had shown that Vipassana students did not fair so well going straight from the silence back to the outside world. So on day ten we speak once more. I am very glad of it. What a transformation. From sombre silence to glorious interaction. Finally we can discover the people behind the shoes and socks. I hug The Cougher (something I´d promised myself) and seal my journey from annoyance to compassion - I mean the poor guy couldn´t help his cold and it must have frustrated him no end.

The veil has been lifted and men and women mix freely again (I smile noticing my thoughts turning to who´s phone number I want to collect - still the bachelor!). There is a palpable sense of joy, often mentioned by past students, and it is not purely from relief at making it to the end. I am helping clean the kitchen the next morning, before our coaches take us down back into the frantic city, and it seems like the most enjoyable activity ever. What a pleasure to be helping, to be serving. One of the morning meditations, early in the course, had left me with a sense of seeing past the clothes and bodies and passing actions of everyone around and into their fundamental humanity: fundamentally loveable, irrelevant of the outside. This is still with me and I feel a deep compassion and a profound joy as I look around at all these fellow souls, scrubbing and washing and laughing away in the kitchen.

I´ve found a friend to chew my doubts over with: Nick from Massachusetts. It is an instant meeting of minds. He shared my doubts a year ago on his first course, still shares them to some extent. We swap metaphors and search for ways to process what we´ve learned, to find a space for the pleasure of life within the Buddhist path. This is noble chatter and it is an essential ending to the course for me.

We were asked to give the technique a fair trial, follow the rules and persevere for the duration. This I have done. Now I can take the time to think and read and talk it through. I´m on my lookout for some real life Buddhas, to see if they´ve a sparkle in their eye and a deep pleasure in life´s riches.

It starts with this moment, but where do you go from there?
I will try to summarise my current thoughts. Life is short, it is passing away and I believe that really grasping this is essential for contentment. I do not believe that the response to this ´Law of Impermanence´ must necessarily be the abandonment of desire. I do not want to disengage from the world. I want to smell the rose and love every second of the experience.

I believe that life´s passing away can lead to a different response: this moment is all I have and I am going to live it fully, enjoy it fully, appreciate it fully. For me this draws me in to "suck the marrow out of life", as a good family friend puts it. Yet this commitment is always given with the understanding that I cannot hold on. This gives equanimity in the face of pain and disappointment. The fleeting nature of the present amplifies the good and dampens the bad - for me it teaches "make the most of all there is to enjoy and keep the misery in perspective."

This was a lesson that I felt I started to learn earlier this year while I was ill (see April post). Was I going to get angry? - At whome? Did I think I had a right to be healthy? - Why? This is life and you accept it. How many days had I woken with a healthy stomach and taken it for granted, and now that health was gone was I going to react with unhappiness? I had to accept the illness and find the good in it. And if and when I had the good fortune to be healthy again (which I did) I would try to be thankful for that every day.

It is understandable to feel that true value requires permanence. I do not accept this. The good can be good even though it is passing. The value you can know right now does not REQUIRE surety that it will last forever. This is a strand in many philosophies and religions that I have to question:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6 v 19-21)
I hope my heart is in the moment. I hope that it is possible to hold tenderly and lightly to the joys of life. I raise a glass of wine with my favourite poet, Omar Khayyam, and ask the Buddha to join us in a toast to life:

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Ah, fill the Cup :--what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn TO-MORROW, and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet!


Reminder: these posts on Vipassana have been an account of my own personal journey. There are thousands who have had different experiences and I am not putting this forward as either a definitive account or an authorative summary of the teaching of Buddhism. As a friend pointed out, chuckling at me, my ´grit and battle´meditations probably say as much about me as about Vipassana!

If you want to make up your own mind, Vipassana courses are available free, worldwide. See

The final quotes are selected from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (not in order). I heartily recommend a read: First Edition.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Vipassana: thoughts after (part 1) "Start again, smilingly"

That was without doubt the most challenging thing I´ve ever done. Yet never have I learnt so much or thought so hard in such few days.

Here we go (day zero)

I´m giggling like a schoolboy with my new friend, the silver-bearded Alejandro from Ecuador. Sat on a bench in the men´s outdoor rest area we´re talking about girls and waiting for the start of the first meditation. With it begins the Noble Silence, nine days with no talking, no touch and little eye contact either. Of course men and women live completely separately, except for the meditation hall, to help maintain our focus on the task at hand. We chuckle, enjoying our final worldly thoughts before the serious work begins.

The course is being held in a Catholic retreat centre, high up the Medellin valley with the city stretched out below. The main building has a dining hall, split into mens' and womans´ sections by a wall of cotton sheets, and from it two corredors of basic rooms run down, hugging the hillside. The men´s outdoor area runs between these, a path lined with flowers that we will all spend many minutes appreciating, that widens at the end affording a view of the valley below. The meditation hall is behind and above the main building and appropriately we climb stairs to reach it (the women entering via a separate staircase). It´s full of light from the wall of windows that looks out on the bobbled clouds and green slopes.

Monkey mind (day two)
"Start again...Start again", Goenke´s kind, serious, low meditation voice instructs us from the small speakers on the stage, either side of la Professora, who sits cross-legged under a white shawl and has just cued him up on her iPod Touch. "Start with a calm and quiet mind, alert and attentive mind, attentive mind..." Goenke guides and, adjusting my bum on the cushion for the umpteenth time, I close my eyes. I can hear others around me as the room slowly settles. We are sat in rows, men on one side and women on the other, facing the small stage with our digital guru and his assistant DJ ("The teacher is a CD!" I had exclaimed). It´s day two of the course and I `know` people in the room by their particular sounds: Miss Crinkle-Bag to my right, Snot-Gargler-Man back left, Senora Fake-Sneeze far front and, DIRECTLY behind my head... The Cougher.

But these sounds are not to be my focus. The first days of the course we are instructed in Anapana, a technique based on the breath and focusing the attention on the sensations around the entrance of the nose and the upper lip. Through a small hair in my right nostril I am sharpening my mind.

It is an unruly beast, the "monkey mind". We`ve been told to be patient, as though we`re training an elephant. I put the sounds of the room aside and pick out my friend the nose hair: "Just exactly what is that sensation like? Different on the inhale to the exhale? Yes. A vibrating? No, more like a gentle pressure. Bending inwards... then bending outwards... inwards... then outwards. They´ve been getting tricky recently, those tickly nose hairs. Maybe I´ve passed the stage of easy hair management? Maybe I´ve started the glorious depilatory journey where the hair you want abandons you to leave only the generous fountains sprouting from ears, nose and eyebrows ... Oops, lost it. Ok, back to the nose hair: inwards, outwards, inwards, outwards."

There`s a part of the mind that`s like one of those machines that spits tennis balls, but loaded with utterly random idea-objects. I sit getting fired at, mentally swatting them away: "nope, not following that one... inhale, exhale... no, there`s another one, back to the nose hair". Suddenly I find myself on the other side of the room, engrossed in a thought, wandering how on earth I had ended up thinking about Madonna´s castle in Scotland. Dropping it I retake my seat and start fending them off again. Little by little the time spent seated with my breath is growing longer and the mental meanderings shorter and less frequent.

It seems a little odd, these solemn instructions, session after session the same, to focus on the nose for hours at a time. Yet this is training with a serious end: developing our ability to observe reality "as it is". We are sharpening our awareness of our physical sensations, the first half of the Vipassana technique.

Meet Angry Mike (day four)
Meet angry Mike. I´ve had to. It is day four and I´m seething.

We´ve settled into the routine, rising in the dark at 4am to the sound of the bell that will call us to the meditation hall seven more times that day: two hours before breakfast, three before lunch, four before evening tea and an hour plus a talk in the evening. Blessed ten minute breaks split the long blocks into separate sessions, three of which are ´group meditations´ guided by the digital Goenke.

All this is conducted in absolute silence. I have decided that the Noble Silence is so called because we would otherwise be extremely ignoble. Without communication to smooth the inevitable ruffles of life together my character is having full reign to reveal its ugly undersides - the petty judgements, easy afronts and, frankly, violence.

This is one effect of the combined silence and awareness training: you begin to notice so many thoughts that are normally hidden in the tumult. They arrive in my head and instead of passing unnoticed and unchecked a little bell goes off: "Ping: Judgement", "Ping: Anger". Please don´t get the wrong idea, I´m not a surpressed axe murderer. These are sadly normal, judgements like "Can´t he see how ugly those trousers are" or "How dare he take the next washing-up sink when we´re waiting here patiently". Pointless and petty and popping up all the time. Realisation of how far I have to go?: check.

This background mental agression has risen to a crescendo in days three and four because: "these b******** keep making me sit for hours, again and again and again!" "This never stops." I think. "There goes the bell again, already. Don´t make me do this, please!" as I pull myself up from my bunk and trudge towards the stairs. Of course I signed up for this and I want to be here, but such a reasonable fact doesn´t take away the anger. I´m itching for a fight. At times, as the hours role on, I am sitting on my cushion desperate to start a royal rumble, turning on The Cougher and letting all this frustration vent itself in a giant macho pile-up.

Firm Determination
This is not surprising. This routine can only be described as gruelling, or it is certainly proving so for many of us, especially the new students. Ten hours seated per day. We have all become cushion sculptors. You will never see anyone plump a pillow as carefully or apply such origami-like precision to the folding of a blanket. It seems critically important because as you hit minute 90 or 110 those aches become the most significant events in the history of the universe. They expand and they swallow time."That´s what I need!" I caught myself thinking at one point "one of those professional cushions with the Ohm embroidered on the top. Bet that´s their secret", a riduculous illusion brought to an end when someone lent me theirs: "Nope, worse".

We have been introduced to ´Firm Determination´: from day four we are asked that we do our utmost to stay absolutely still during the hour-long group meditations, not shifting our position at all (I realise that I was trying this for every session anyway). The principle reason for this is to provide the raw material for developing equanimity, but more of that later.

When is a pain in the butt not a pain in the butt?
"Ring the bell! Ring the bloody bell! Don´t you realise how important this is! Just ring it! NOW!" It must be nearing 5pm but the toughest thing is I have no idea exactly what time it is. The small ache in my left buttock hadn´t been much trouble at first but it grew, and grew, and grew. Now it is an incessant orchestra hit of discomfort. But I am NOT going to give in.

An observer could gaze around the room clueless that behind so many of the faces of blissful calm rages a struggle of operatic proportions. I chuckle at the thought of a Meditation Olympics - not much to look at, but oh, if the commentator could read minds. I found myself climbing the steps to the meditation hall earlier humming the Rocky theme tune. This is the toughest challenge of my life so far, no question.

I´ve never run a marathon, but I imagine the similarities are strong: some of the sessions are a pleasure but those that become a test of the will always begin the moment when the thought "Ok, enough now." pops up for the first time. This is when the challenge begins. I´m finding the final sessions of the pre-lunch block and pre-tea block the toughest.

We have moved on from Anapana to practice the Vipassana technique proper, which involves scanning the attention up and down the body observing all the subtle sensations with equanimity. I am trying.

"Ok, great. Thank you, I´ve learned a lot from this session. Let´s have a little break. If you could just end now.... No, ignore that. I´m content. I´ll sit here as long as you want. Scanning the body... observing the sensations. So there´s a large and bawdy sensation of discomfort. So what. Just another sensation "arising and passion away" as Goenke says. I accept this.... No, no I don´t. Ready to finish. Bored of hurting now..."

So it goes, as the minutes tick by. I win the argument and sit in peace for a while until the next strong "Ya basta" (enough already) thought arises. This time I present myself with the options: "Going to give up? Going to shift your position and then feel disappointed in a few minutes when the bell goes and you could have kept going? Did you or did you not commit to this course and to giving it your all? Good. Well keep going then. OK. Back to the top of the head, sensations, scanning down..." Again and again I follow our teacher's advice to "Start again, smilingly".

Pavlov´s dogs couldn´t compete with our finely tuned ears, waiting... waiting... waiting... for the lunch bell. I notice it later when washing up, so innocuous, and realise that no object is as powerful. In those final minutes, stretching out like years, we long for it with every cell. I´ve begun trying to read the various kitchen sounds, searching for a pattern - "The blender. That´s for the fruit juice. They make that last!" - for signs that the moment of release is approaching. The tinkle of dropped cuttlery causes a jump of excitement followed by the crash of realisation. This waiting and wanting is awful.

And that is exactly the point: you cannot make it end by wanting it to end. The only tactic left, other than defeat, is to give up craving and accept, accept, accept. Accept the unpleasant feelings and sit with them.

I start to do this and an amazing thing happens: the ache, which had grown into a roaring tsunami threating to overcome my willpower, changes. The quality of the sensation physcially changes. It is like being in a recording studio with a bad heavy metal band, the noise sharp and horrendous, and I have just stepped into the sound room and closed the door. The band are still playing - I can see them through the window - but the sound is now muffled, bearable, separate. It has become a white heat somewhere below and above it my mind rests in a sort of solid, unchanging peace. The thought "make it stop" pops back and, like someone pulling the soundroom door open, the clash rushes up round my ears. I fight to close it: "I accept this. I will sit here for as long as it takes. I will sit here even after the bell goes."

This is a pretty profound insight: experiencing that the worst part of pain is our reaction to it, the craving for it to stop, and that giving up this craving actually takes out the sting.

I can recognise the power of this. Training oneself to accept the pleasant and unpleasant, the good and the bad, without prejudice clearly gives great strength and studies pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn have demonstrated the effectiveness of meditation and "mindfulness" in helping those suffering with chronic pain. More broadly too the quality of equanimity is one of the most important that we recognise in the Older and Wiser whose solidity and unflappability radiate strength and peace, even in the most stressful circumstances. It is an attractive attribute and one I would love to cultivate.

Except that I am troubled by a critical question: what am I giving up to be equanimous?


In Part 2: equanimity as if the world matters...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vipassana: thoughts before

Today I start a Vipassana course: ten days of silent meditation at a retreat centre outside of Medellin, Colombia. And I have to admit, I´m nervous.

The application form, with its sombre tone and detailed code of practice, made it clear that the course was neither a holiday, an opportunity to socialise nor even a rest cure from the trials of life. It would ´suit only those willing to work seriously and observe the discipline´.

Discipline is an appropriate word. Here is the daily timetable:

4:00 a.m.---------------------Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 a.m.----------------Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 a.m.---------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon--------------Lunch break
12noon-1:00 p.m.--------------Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 p.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 p.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 p.m.----------------Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 p.m.----------------Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 p.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 p.m.----------------Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.---------------------Retire to your room; lights out

We will be observing the Noble Silence, a ´silence of body, speech and mind´, which means suspension of all forms of communication with other attendees, taking care not to disturb others or to be disturbed by others. Nearly ten hours of meditation a day. One hundred hours in total. That´s a lot of time with only your own thoughts for company.

That´s the point. Vipassana is, according to the foundation, "the process of self-purification by self-observation". ´Vi-passana´- seeing deeply.

Do I need purified? Do I want to look so deeply into my own soul? Will I be able to sit with myself for 100 hours without loosing it?

I will find out soon enough and share some thoughts on this blog.

Be still and know
I may be a little nervous but I have wanted to do a course like this for a while. I grew up in the Christian tradition, with it´s own history of retreats, fasts and ´days in the wilderness´. How many prophets, teachers and followers from all traditions have had their time of solitude? For me this is one of the principle reasons for travelling: I have the chance to get to know myself better and space to discern what comes next. To some extent the course will be a concentrated form of my whole journey.

At the same time it will be very different. A friend, Steve, who took the course in April in Guatemala said that was surprised by what a physical challenge it was. Perhaps my early church days gave me an unintended inkling: sat on a wooden pew in my smart little suit (so itchy), shirt and tie (so tight) wondering when the minister would ever finish, desperate to run or jump or anything.

Steve also used the words ´mental static´ and I expect to come face to face with the whiring, buzzing, clicking, jostling bull race of thoughts that we all live with minute by minute.

My limited experience of meditation has given me a taste of this, what it is like to stand back and observe our frenetic thoughs: like stepping out of a river in flood, where you had been fighting to keep your foothold; or like sinking below the water in a crowded holiday swimming pool, the door shutting on the kids shreaks and hubbub and the world sealing round you into your ears, the sound of your heart beating and muffled noises through the water.

There is much truth in the saying that "you cannot see your reflection in moving water". I have learnt over the past few years to love and cherish stillness. Of course not always (silent Salsa! no thanks) but as an essential resourse. It is one we seem to be strip mining away in our teched up, cosmopolitan lifestyles. Bars with TVs at every table, buses with radio blairing, the TV on just for company.

The generation never unplugged. Always an ipod. Always an MP3 scratching out from the cellphone.

Perhaps we are afraid of the silence and what we might find there?


Vipassana courses are available worldwide and are free.
For more information and course details visit

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Future Fish´n´Chips (Part II)

Roof... Tanks... and Black Soldier Fly Action

The splashing sound was different from the regular river noise. Then round the bend the dory appeared, almost eclipsed by the fish tank: successful delivery number one by James and Herminio.

This was the final leg of the fish tank’s journey from Mr Penner’s metal workshop to its new home in the aquaponics system at MMRF. Chris and I had earlier collected three of the six tanks from Spanish Lookout and, firmly strapped to the truck, driven them back to Toledo district. Now, delivered up river, the fish tank was hauled up the bank and set on its level concrete foundation.

There it sat under the newly fitted roof. That hadn’t fitted. Ordering roofing from a hardware store whose menu included only a handful of options, one could be forgiven for making some assumptions. Such as, that the ridges of the transparent and metal versions would correspond. Nope. We had to engineer a one inch rise so that the upper metal panels would ‘sit’ on the lower plastic ones. In the end it looked fine but it taught me a useful lesson: never assume, always check.

The 3.5 foot high by 6 foot diameter fish tank will hold around 700 gallons (US) of water. Using spare 1 ¼ inch piping available on the farm, plus newly bought connectors, we donned our Mario Brothers outfits and started plumbing. From the fish tank the piping splits at a t-junction and drops to the end of each pair of grow beds where it splits again. Ball valves will provide flow control – balancing water input between the four beds – and piping with holes drilled on the underside will run back down the length of the beds, flush with their edges. The water will drain out of these holes, fill up the bed to the level of the stand pipe (which allows excess to drain off) and then drain out downhill to the sump tank.

My time at MMF is up. I leave a fine looking system that is two thirds complete. It awaits installation of a solar panel with water pump, to feed water back up to the fish tank. There is also the gravel for the grow beds to be collected from the river. This is a significant task as each grow bed requires around 35 rice-sacks worth, which must first be carefully sifted for correctly sized stones and then hauled uphill by hand. Chris hopes to add a final touch of class to the site with stone paving and a seating area, where visitors can sit and watch the fish while learning the basics of aquaponics.

Then just add water! And fish! The plan is to source these from the river, which will be the crucial first test in this experimental system: Will local fish species survive in a tank? What size will they reach? What stocking density will they tolerate? And what will they eat?

What will the fish eat?
This was my big question on learning about aquaponics. Yes I was excited about fast-growing vegetables and garden-sourced fish but, I reasoned, if you need to buy synthetically produced, fossil fuel subsidized fish food every month from the specialized pet store… not the sustainable dream.

The answer may lie in Black Soldier Fly (BSF). Whilst researching online I came across a number of references to BSF composting and use as fish food. With ‘nature’s most efficient stomach’ the larvae can chomp through 15kg of restaurant food waste per square meter per day [1]. Most exciting of all they can be self-harvesting: once mature, the larvae wriggle out of the compost to find a dry spot in which to pupate. With a specially designed compost bin they can be, in theory, collected neatly in a pot.

This seems to offer a perfect solution for converting waste organic matter, of which there is plenty, into dense, nutritious fish food.

‘How do we get some?’ was the next question. My reading told me they are extant throughout tropical, subtropical and temperate regions so I built a test composter bucket and waited. But in one of those wonderful examples of practical wisdom, we discovered that Chris was already harvesting BLF larvae for his chickens. His ‘maggot bins’ were pulsating with them and, just as stated online, when he tipped out the contents the chickens went crazy for them. The final step was simply to design a self-harvesting composter.

My first attempt, based on a useful example online, has not proved prolific. The barrel is teaming but they’re not exciting en mass. We are hoping that a second tilted barrel design will offer a less intrepid and more convenient route.

If this works Chris may have a fantastic and free source of fish food. Other potential sources include pelletised Meringa Oleifera, a protein-rich plant easily cultivated on the farm, and perhaps a solar powered bug zapper hung over the fish tank! Together these sources may offer a balanced diet sufficient for the fish. If so all three of the major ongoing inputs of the system – electricity, water and fish food – could be sourced sustainably.

This project is an experiment to see if the ‘backyard aquaponics’ systems that initially fired Chris’s interest can be adapted to rural, off-grid Belize. If the system at MMRF proves itself a highly productive source of fish and vegetables, a second question arises: could similar systems, manufactured out of cheap materials, provide an attractive option for local farmers and village co-operatives?

Aztec Aquaculture
One indication that the answer could be ‘yes’ is the fact that symbiotic aquaculture and agriculture is by no means new to Central America. In fact it may even have been invented here. There is an ancient agricultural method known as ‘chinampas’ in which vegetables are grown in raised beds surrounded by canals, whose nutritious sludge is dragged up as fertilizer. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, (now the site of Mexico City) was famously built in a shallow lake and used this method of production, perhaps providing the foundation of its high population density, wealth and therefore dominant regional power. In fact there are antique chinampas fields at Pulltrouser Swamp in northern Belize.

Some agricultural entrepreneurs have started to reintroduce this method, often utilizing the fast growing Water Hyacinth for mulch [2] and in time it may undergo a renaissance. Will its smaller infrastructure requirements make chinampas a more realistic option for large-scale adoption than aquaponics?

What is very likely, at least, as future fish and fossil fuel stocks dwindle, is that some version of mixed aquaculture and agriculture will have a critical role to play in Belize as in the wider world. We hope that the demonstration aquaponics system at MMRF will be a fertile first step.


THANK YOU to all those who have supported this project through your generous donations.

To follow further progress on this project visit


[1] This is reported by ESR International, a green technology company focused on the elimination of landfill. See They went on to develop and market the BioPod, a BSF composting bin whose design seems to have inspired a number of DIY attempts recorded online, along with my own. (