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. (


Friday, September 18, 2009

Future Fish’n’Chips (Part I)

Building Belize’s first solar powered aquaponics system… and why that's mouth-watering

‘Aqua what?’ would be a reasonable response but you may well be hearing this word a lot more over the next few years. One short answer is aquaponics as ‘promise’: the promise of cultivating delicious, organic fish and vegetables in a small space with minimal work; the promise of a major role in the next great step in human agriculture (forwards this time) in which we use our technology to make the most of nature’s intelligence rather than to ride roughshod over it; the promise of eating without eating into our future.

That’s a lot to live up to, yet we need some big answers to the big questions we face: how to feed ourselves as we approach 7 billion and the precipitous production drop in easy energy from oil and gas? How to save our precious topsoil and end the strip-mining of our oceans? Where will the water come from? [1] [2]

Could aquaponics grow into one of these big answers?

For millennia fish have been cultivated in captivity, raised in ponds or tanks as a food source.[3] This ‘aquaculture’ is effective but has always struggled with the sludgey problem of poop: fish defecate in their water until it kills them and so the water needs to be changed regularly. That can mean a LOT of water.[4] And since the early twentieth century vegetables have been grown in a liquid solution rather than in soil. This ‘hydroponics’ can be wonderfully productive but those plant nutrients have to come from somewhere - normally bought as a pre-prepared formula – and systems can also experience problems with disease, as all the plants are sharing the same solution. [5]

In a lovely example of the much sought ‘win-win’ you can combine the two, aquaculture and hydroponics, into aquaponics and their respective flaws are canceled out. By growing fish in a tank and cycling their water through plant-filled grow beds you create ideal growing conditions for the plants, which then clean and oxygenate the water ready for its return to the fish.

The result, according to the aquaponics evangelists, is an incredibly productive system. Joel Malcolm, founder of, reports a six month crop of “50kg of fish and hundreds of kilograms of vegetables” in an 8m by 4m space in his backyard.[6] To put this yield in perspective the U.S corn industry, pushing nature to the limits with fossil energy subsidies (fertilizer) manages around 1kg per square meter.[7] Joel Malcolm is reporting roughly 3kg of fish and 6kg of vegetable.

In fact growing fish and vegetables together may be better for both than growing them separately, with benefits that go beyond simply canceling out the waste issue. Aquaponics practioners report lower incidences of disease in their fish and higher growth rates in their plants than would be expected in separate aquaculture and hydroponics systems.[8] More research is needed, but these early reports suggest a symbiotic relationship with great promise.

So why have you not heard of aquaponics before? Perhaps it's potential has languished, unexplored for the same reason as many other smart green solutions: the cheap and easy fossil fuel of the last few generations has made us lazy. Yet a chorus of voices grows ever louder, from climate scientists to oil geologists, that we need to smarten up. Fast.

I hadn’t heard the term until March when I arrived at the Maya Mountain Research Farm to study permaculture – a design system for sustainable living – full of the big questions and desperate for some answers (see my April 09 blog post). Permaculture is about applying ecological principles to human life, so that we can meet our needs without killing ourselves, and although aquaponics wasn’t on the syllabus it perfectly embodies this. One night MMRF’s director, Christopher Nesbitt, sat the group down in front of a laptop to watch ‘the aquaponics DVD’, a charming home production from Joel Malcolm [9]. Chris’s enthusiasm was palpable. This was ‘really cool’ he assured us, and through the shaky handycam walk arounds and strangely ‘oscar moment’ piano music, it became clear that it was. There was something to this.

The amateur roots of the system seem fascinating. There is some history of academic research in the field and a few businesses [10], but it appears that the driving force is now a global community of ‘hobbyists’. A few pioneers, notably Joel Malcolm in Australia (producer of the DVD), have experimented on a shoestring and shared their successes and failures with others around the world. That’s how Chris became hooked: “When I discovered the website I was up until sunrise” he told me. “What Joel Malcolm has achieved is fantastic". So Chris has been researching and preparing on and off for two years to build at demonstration system at his agroforestry farm and teaching center. I decided to return for my fourth visit to help out.

Designing the system
The elements of an aquaponics system are pretty simple: fish tank; fish; grow beds; gravel; plants; water; water pump; piping; roof. The final, crucial, component brings itself: the bacteria that convert fish poop into plant food in the water (ammonia to nitrites, nitrites to nitrates). Ongoing inputs are fish-food, top-up water and electricity for the pump.

Crucially we are building a system - every part affects every other. We have to think systematically, in the true sense of the word. The process is fascinating. Floor space affects grow-bed size, which affects tank volume, which affects the height from the ground of the grow beds, which affects height of fish tank to allow gravity feed etc. Systems thinking will be even more important once it is up and running, tweaking the elements until the ecology 'snaps' into place.

Chris had decided on a the ‘Constant Height In Fish Tank, Pump In Sump Tank’ model (CHIFT PIST !): water gravity-feeds from an overflow in the fish tank down through the grow-beds and then drains into a sump tank, from where it is pumped back at intervals to the fish tank, causing the process to start again. This is a version of the flood and drain system and it means that you do not need to be running the water pump constantly, as happens in a constant flow design. As our system will be relying on solar power keeping electricity requirements to a minimum is crucial. The CHIFT PIST arrangement also helps protects fish from an airy death - a fish tank pump would drain the system dry in the event of a leak - and the additional volume of water provided by the sump tank gives the system a greater tolerance.

When I arrived in late August a 25 foot by 25 foot area had been dug out down to the shale by MMRF staff James (right) and Herminio (above, drilling roof beams), long time employees responsible for many of the buildings on the farm and the real experts. It is impressive what these two achieve in a day. We smashed out nine holes and set concrete foundations for the sapodilla posts, which were bolted into place with threaded rod. Wood, on an agroforestry farm, is not in short supply and hurricanes happen, so triangulation is the name of the game at MMRF. There is a real elegance to the buildings here: chunky, charming and solid as sapodilla posts.

The roof is sloped following the two foot drop between the upper level (for the fish tank) and the lower lever (for the growbeds and sump tank). Roping up makeshift scaffolding we bolted on beams and rafters and triangulated them to the posts, then ‘pearlings’ between the rafters for attaching the roofing. There was a day in the blistering sun, painting the entire frame in burnt oil, blackening like derrick workers in a big strike - harvested from a local car mechanic workshop this will help preserve the structure from the munching of termites, carpenter ants etc and the dark, bronzed effect is fetching.

The fish tank will sit on a shallow concrete bed on the upper shale level and the sump tank directly on the shale. The grow beds need to be elevated for easy access and drainage. Using a rule of thumb calculation of 150 lbs per square foot (for stone masonry) we calculated that the grow beds will be carrying over 5000 lbs of gravel each, plus water - so if the ‘tables’ you can see in the photos (above and right) look built for One Tonne Man and his wife, that’s because its about that weight they will have to support.

Now we await delivery of our custom made tanks. Ordering them was fun, a day trip to Spanish Lookout. This Menonite town – Iowa with palm trees as Chris describes it – is Belize’s hub for agricultural supply and we were confident we could find what we needed. We looked at premolded plastic feeding troughs, and one at 600 gallons could have housed the fish, but in the end it was as cheap – and far more satisfying – to order bespoke tanks from Mr Penner, of Penner Metalworks Ltd. They will be sexy, shiney and crafted by hand.

So we are getting there. Three weeks into the project we are almost roofed and ready to wire and plumb. This will be the really fun part, piping the tanks together and installing the solar system.

In Part II: 'What are we gonna feed the fish?' and 'Did the Aztecs invent Acuaponics?'


THANK YOU to our supporters. Your donations are making this possible!

We are still fundraising! If you would like to help us finish the system email


[1] "Dr. Arnalds points out that between 1980 and 2000, the global population rose from 4.4 to 6.1 billion and food production increased 50 percent. With world population predicted to increase by another three billion by 2050, more food has to be produced within the next 50 years than during the last 10,000 years combined, he says."

[2] "Unsustainable Development 'Puts Humanity at Risk'," New Scientist online, October 17 2007.


[4] Intensive aquaculture (fish in tanks, as opposed to ‘fish farms’ in open water, which is known as extensive aquaculture) can use a huge volume of water. One paper provides a useful comparison: for three systems, each with a volume of 20,000 gallons, it quotes:
- 720,000 gallons per day for a trout raceway (constant water flow)
- 20,000 gallons per day for a semi-closed system
- 1000 gallons per day for a closed recirculating aquaculture system.

Another website, praising the environmental benefits of recirculating aquatic systems (RAS), provides figures for RAS systems that equate to 800 litres of water per kg of fish. I have not found comparable data for aquaponics, but the small systems seem be an order of magnitude more water efficient.

[5] "Because each plant in a hydroponics system is sharing the exact same nutrient, diseases and pests can easily affect each plant."

[6] Backyard Aquaponics Magazine, Issue 1, page 5, Joel Malcolm.

[7] In recent years US corn growers have pushed their average yield over 160 bushels per acre:

[8] Research by Dr Savidov (Brooks, Alberta, Canada) has indicated that once the ecology of an aquaponics system matures its productivity outstrips that of inorganic hydroponics. This reseach is cited in a submission to the Australian government where one of the authors states: "aquaponics, before it has fully developed its all-important microbiology to change fish wastes to plant food, is not as productive in greenhouse growing of food plants as inorganic hydroponics.
But when the aquaponic system is fully operational after six months, it leaps ahead of inorganic hydroponics. This leads to earlier maturity of greenhouse crops under aquaponics, and much heavier cropping."


[10] The history of aquaponics includes early work by the New Alchemy Institute, started in 1969, and an ongoing programme by the University of the Virgin Islands.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Adios Guatemala (photos)

Xela's been good to me. When I arrived in December '08 I didn't think I'd still be here in eight months time. It's been fantastic. But I'm ready to hit the road.

Here are a few of my favourite shots of Xela town:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Amoebas / Amigas

I think the bag of cut papaya did it, though the culprit will never be known. A week later I was becoming better acquainted with my new favourite location and visiting enough baños to write a local guidebook. But my new co-habitants may have taught me a thing or two.

Every traveller gets sick. Well, that may not strictly be true - the official statistics for 'Traveller's Diarrhoea' are 20% - 60% [1] - but I'd hazard this pushes towards 100% in Xela at this time of year. 'Malo Mayo' (Bad May), as it is locally known, arrives with the start of the rainy season. You might assume the cleansing powers of torrential highland downpours, but you'd be precisely wrong. The water funnels down the steep, intensely cultivated valleys, collecting assorted fertilizers, pesticides, rubbish and precious topsoil and quickly fills Xela's aging sewers to overflowing, adding imaginable horrors to the sludgy mix. This flows through the narrow stone streets, mixing with dog excrement, slushing round street vendors food stalls. Next day's sunshine dries the deposited 'soil' to to a fine dust to be thrown up in clouds by every passing chicken bus. I paint a grim picture of an often beautiful city but the reality is that May to September is a boom time for doctors here and the hospitals are full.

So, in other words, I've not had a unique experience. There are hundreds of us clutching aching bellies. Xela is well prepared: while-you-wait poop test labs are two a penny here - or should that be one a pound (actually its one for Q20, £2) - and people don't think twice about collecting a 'botecito' (small tub) and returning it shortly afterwards with their sample. (The receptionist at Metropolis dresses very chic and I wonder if it helps compensate for being given shit all day). In fact stool samples seem as normal a topic of conversation for Xelatecos as potatoes or the weather were for my Irish grandparents. I had to retrieve my 'Examen De Heces' results sheet from my spanish teacher before she called yet another colleague over from the coffee counter for their penny's worth. Everyone here is an expert with their own recommended remedy: teas from local herbs; orange juice mixed with citrato de magnesia; Grapefruit Seed Extract; this or that vegetable...

Now I'm open to natural remedies and I did not want to make a hasty grab for the antibiotics. In fact the more I read about the wonders of our digestive system and the abuse of modern medicine, the more I hoped to avoid taking the 'Nuk-u-lar' option. Here are a few interesting facts: our 25 feet plus of intestines contain more beneficial microbes that we have cells in our bodies [2]; these 'flora' help to digest our food and tests on mice with sterilized intestines show that they need 30% more calories [3]; our gut is sterile in the womb but is rapidly colonised by flora in the months following birth, with some evidence suggesting the process is kick-started by trace fecal matter from the mother, a process denied to caesarian born babies who are perhaps less healthy as a result [4]. Furthermore the gut flora - or 'friendly bacteria' as the marketing genii of probiotic yogurts have dubbed them - create a 'barrier effect', occupying space and resources and so denying harmful micro-organisms the chance to move in. That's the risk of the nuclear strike: it wipes out the good with the bad. Post-antibiotic guts are weaker, more vulnerable guts. Not a scenario I wanted to embrace as I continue my travels.

Hence visiting two different doctors, both english-speaking, to get their opinion on my second poop-test results, which had indicated 'E. Nana: +'. They both confirmed it: Amoebas. It was not going to be a brief passing through (pun intended). They had moved in to stay and according to the doctors pressing the button was the only option.

Antibiotics Part I... and Part II
Strike One: Nitazoxanide; brand name Nodik 500; duration three days; one tablet every twelve hours. It seemed to work. My stomach, which had been like a clunky school plumbing system, sloshing and gurgling, returned to its normal self. Hurray! But a day later the waterworks were back, exactamente lo mismo de antes. The antibiotic Mario Brothers had failed.

'Antibiotic' means literally 'anti life' and, actually, 'anti-microbials' is a more accurate term. Since Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928 they have probably saved millions of lives, yet they are a blunt weapon. As mentioned, the more we learn about the complex symbiosis between gut flora and the digestive system the more risky the use of such a blunt blade appears. Many patients do not complete their course of antibiotics. They are a Prescription Only Medication in the UK but but easily available at Guatemala's liberal farmacias, which offer all sorts of potent potions over the counter. Not completing a course means some bugs may get away - the stronger ones.

This contribution to the breeding of antibiotic resistant diseases pails in comparison to the monumental folly of industrial meat production. Hats off to Europe - and on this subject I am proud to hail from the Old World - who have banned the practice [5], but US industrial meat producers feed antibiotics to their livestock on a daily basis, to prevent rather than cure infections. In the excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan explains how American CAFO's ('Compact Animal Feeding Operations') create the perfect laboratory for new strains of antibiotic resistant infections. Economics - skewed by huge financial and fossil fuel subsidies - determine that corn is the cheapest 'input', so it is fed to cattle in the millions of tonnes. Never mind that their bellies have evolved over eons to digest grass and that feeding them corn leaves them, effectively, permanently ill. Hence the need to mix antibiotics in with their food. In fact 70% [6] of antibiotics consumed in the US is used in this way. 'Gripe A' anyone? We asked for Swine Flu and we keep asking for worse so long as we maintain this foolish practice. The Keep Antibiotics Working coalition in the US introduce a bill to ban the practice [7] which failed the first attempt and had been reintroduced to Congress in March this year. Will the media circus over swine flu do anything to further the next attempt? One would hope so. Media coverage of the issue is appalling and I'm amazed that 'Dirty Hospitals' can remain such a hot political potato in the UK with barely ever a mention of what is breeding the 'superbugs' in the first place.

Anyway, after visit number three to the doctor's I proceeded with the second strike: Paromomycin Sulphate; brand name Dediacol; four days long this time. Results were good. I seemed to be cured.

The whole experience had been educative. My host family had laughed at my faulty pronunciation, joking about my problems with 'amigas' (female friends) but the lessons I've learned may make the misnomer strangely accurate.

In the months leading up to the illness I had been feeling healthier than ever before, with daily yoga and boxing training thrice weekly. But my amigas put the breaks on all of that. It was quite a contrast from one week to the next: from early starts to long, broken nights; from a thousand skips to stumbling on pavements, walking step-by-methodical-step, slow, energy saving movements. My plans to start teaching yoga; on hold. Working on by boxing combinations: on hold. More Kung Fu drills learnt: on hold. So much to do in my final months in Xela and half the energy to do it with!

There was a choice: get angry or accept it. I decided to accept it. My stomach ache was as much part of life as the pleasant, post-yoga ache of stretched muscles. "What," I though "if I decide to look on this as an opportunity rather than a curse?". I was being denied what had been most important to me, so why not chose a new focus? I picked up the guitar I'd bought a few months back, languishing in the corner, and began to practice. It was just the kickstart my playing needed.

That's one way of dealing with frustrated intentions: if one door closes, try some other ones. I've sometimes pondered that if I lost sight or hearing it would make me focus on what I had left. I used to run every day at university and loved it. A year after graduation I developed some sort of chronic inflammation in my left knee, brought on by repetitive movement. Gutted. But I learned to work round it, playing Ultimate Frisbee for exercise. Perhaps I would never have started my yoga practice without the forced change.

It will pass...
There's something about patience, here, too. If patience is a willingness to let things unfold in their own time then a patient disposition means accepting when things don't go your way. Yet patience is not fatalism. Fatalism is getting to a flooded river and giving up. Patience is sitting down and enjoying the sun, pondering calmly how you could cross, or whether there's another route, and waiting a while to see if the waters subside. It is finding that balance between, on the one hand, a raw determination to get something done, and on the other the ability to meet obstructions without anger - so they don't steal the pleasure of the moment. Patience is a quiet determination, allowing flexibility for reappraisal and open to the possibility of changing course - sometimes it really is best simply to cut your losses. Other times just don't quit it!

So, I tried to be patient with my illness. A patient patient. It felt like a lead jacket: a constant bellyache that sapped energy, sapped pleasure from the moment and molested my concentration. Yet I realised that the challenge was to accept and even embrace the discomfort: "This is where I am. I accept this illness. I accept this barrier."

All well and good. The blog would have ended here, with the illness having passed in a few weeks: "Listen to the great lesson I've learned"; blog posted; "Next life-enhancing experience please". Then the stomach ache returned. My mood sank with my energy and I was well and truly pissed off. That'll learn me! So much for my zen-like acceptance. I wanted to smash something up.

A warm welcome?
So maybe there's a shallower and a deeper acceptance. One can accept pain as a temporary nuisance - 'I accept this, it will pass' - and make use of it as an opportunity, but essentially this state of mind is one of waiting. That's fine, and frequently effective, but what if it never passes? Far more difficult to accept a barrier as though it was permanent and look for value in it.

I don't yet know if I'm free of amoebas (poop test four may provide some reassurance). I sincerely hope I am, but perhaps I'll have to live with a fragile belly for months to come. It could be longer - a friend suffered with parasites for years after returning from Brazil.

The real challenge is to keep at it, again and again, accepting where I am and how well or ill I feel. To welcome the suffering as a teacher:

"Most people want to take joy without suffering. I will take both. See how far suffering takes me. When you do not resist suffering, you will make friends with other people who suffer. I suffered a lot in my own body. Now when someone tells me of his sufferings, I feel in my body what that suffering is. My personal experience provides me with great love and compassion. So I say, "My friend, let me try and do something." Pain comes to guide you. When you have known pain, you will be compassionate. Shared joys cannot teach us this." (B.K.S Iyengar)

Cultivating equanimity in the face of adversity is a lifetime's work. I'm learning a lot about it through my yoga practice. And a lot about it through others. And perhaps the amoebas/amigas have been the best teachers yet.


3. Sears CL (October 2005). "A dynamic partnership: celebrating our gut flora". Anaerobe 11 (5): 247–51
6. Executive summary from the UCS report "Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock", January 001 and
7. US Senate Bill S. 549: Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007
8. Light On Life, B.K.S Iyengar, p52.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Back To Reality

Studying permaculture at the Maya Mountain Research Farm

Into the Jungle
We are crouched in the dory, a traditional canoe carved from a solid tree trunk, being punted upstream through the darkening jungle. The vine covered rafters reach over us, blackening into the night sky. Jorge struggles valiently but weighed low with passengers we frequently grind to a halt and have to jump out barefoot and push. It starts to drizzle, only adding to the atmosphere.

Eventually we arrive, slipping precariously up the bank with our lumps of luggage, climbing a stepped slope until we arrive at a covered courtyard and calls of welcome from our fellow students. We've reached the Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) ready to begin a two week Permaculture Design Course.

MMRF is the life's work of Christopher Nesbitt, a forty-something New Yorker who in the eighties swapped the furious pace of a Manhatten cycle courier for a seventy acre damaged citrous farm in Southern Belize. From his early days living in a wooden shack, beholden to the sun for wake-up calls and lights-out, he has observed, studied, planted and nurtured his land into a lush and productive agroforestry system. Papaya, pineapple, breadnut, corn, beans, coconuts, eggs, vanilla, cacao, coffee... the list goes on and on. Solar panel by solar panel, stone by stone he has built a comfortable, light-filled home - complete with kitchen, book-lined study and panoramic vista'd bedroom - fit for the cover of glossy magazine.

Although the dreadlocks went decades ago he's not shaved since eighteen and Chris could now be credited with creating the 'Jungle Rabbinic' look: cropped hair and vast beard, baggy Carhartt pants betraying his urban roots, wellingtons, army surplus rucksack slung over one shoulder and riffle or machete over the other. His face is open and kind but his large, sad eyes hint at the tough graft and personal tragedies that he's overcome building his home in the jungle of this sparsely populated river valley.

Chris was the perfect host and his farm the perfect location to study something that I hoped desperately could offer a last minute reprieve to a world on life-support.

'Permanent Agriculture'
Permaculture is short for 'permanent agriculture'. It sums up the ambitious hopes of its founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who in 1978 launched it with the publication of 'Permaculture One'. In 1988 the hefty 'Permaculture: A Designers' Manual' was published, one percent ethics and ninety percent practical design instruction, where the definition given is "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive and healthy ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems." Still not clear? I wasn't either.

Most of my fellow students weren't entirely sure, but our anticipation grew during the introduction: we were to be learning a whole new vocabulary that included the mysterious 'swales', the principle of 'stacking functions' and the crucial tool of 'needs and yields analysis'. With it we could share ideas with the millions of other permaculturists around the world, in the common language of the 'permaculture army'.

There were sixteen students, of all ages and backgrounds. Many were from the U.S. but there was a Canadian, some Mexicans, a Trinidadian and some Belizians on scholarship. Three teachers joined Chris - Albert Bates, Maria A Martinez Ros and and Andrew 'Goodheart' Brown - making an eclectic and experienced team who each brought their own angle. Initially teaching was theory-heavy as we learnt key principles of ecology and of permaculture design. Later in the week we practiced mapping out an area of the farm, using our bodies as rulers - our result was 2,000 square 'Erles' - and learnt how to use a simple A-frame to measure along the contours of a slope to dig a swale - simply a shallow ditch that catches and holds water, but a key tool to build healthy soil.

Piece by piece it started to make sense.

A Deficit of Ducks
There's a story that one day a student was lamenting to permaculture's founder, Bill Mollison, about loosing her lettuces to an onslaught of slugs. "You don't have a surplus of slugs problem." he replied. "You have a deficit of ducks". It neatly illustrates the goal of permaculture - to think like an ecosystem and strive always to 'close the loop'.

The carefully fostered illusion of consumer culture is that things magically appear and disappear to satisfy our needs. Yet every bit of matter passing through our hands comes from and returns to the earth's ecosystem and is part of its cycles. (A point made brilliantly in The Story of Stuff). Extraction and disposal have consequences and these can only be ignored for so long before they return to bite us. Simply put, our waste is wasting us - most prominently, our waste carbon, which we thought we could walk away from. Surprise, surprise, we can't. 'Up in smoke' should not be a synonym for disappeared.

Nature works in cycles and so permaculture rejects the whole concept of 'waste'. Waste is a resource that we've not been smart enough to put to good use yet. No good use at all - spent nuclear fuel rods, for example - is a warning that whatever system is producing it has no sustainable place in the world. There's no waste in nature as such.

So one of the key tools we learnt was 'Needs and Yields Analysis'. Each element of a design has needs and yields and the aim is to match them up - to close the loop. The chickens on Chris's farm are my favourite example. They need food, water, space to roam, a safe place for the night. They yield products and useful services: kitchen scraps disappear greedily, turned into tasty eggs and nutrient rich droppings. A big problem for tropical farmers are Leafcutter Ants, or 'Wee Wees'. The fossil fuel solution: put poison in the system, pesticides bought from outside - a complex external industrial product. The permaculture solution: Wee Wees as chicken food. Having been chased from my bed by Soldier Ants I gained a new found respect for the chicken as I watched them gobble up huge-pincered ants streaming from an aggravated nest.

Nature Resplendent
So we are part of the loop, but everyday life constantly hides this from us. For me the beauty of studying at MMRF was that you couldn't forget this basic fact: from the bug bites yelling "you're part of the food chain" to the tasty meals cooked from ingredients plucked straight from nearby trees. For the first week I recoiled: used to a more sterile environment I was faintly flustered by it all, by bugs and bites and slippy pathways. Then I relaxed, the unseasonal showers passed, and I felt wonderfully and peacefully at home.

My favourite moments were stolen between classes: swinging gently on the hammock, cool after a swim in the river, just soaking in the sounds; cheeps, flutters, rustles, whistles, pulsing bug rubbings, the high pitched whine and zoom of passing flies; the jungle community going about its daily business, from soil to canopy top. There was a rhythm and intimacy with nature that brought a deep sense of calm.

"Normal": Discuss
As the exotic became more familiar what struck me was that this 'exotic' was nothing of the sort. This is how it has been, day after day, for millions of years. My normal (our normal) everyday life is a freakish aberration: we drive complex machines over fields of asphalt, stopping at filling stations to pay pittance for fossilised sunlight, and then carelessly burn up this rich energy resource (equivalent to thousands of hours of human labour) on activities that we could often happily do without. All civilisations are temporary, perhaps as temporary as their foundations, and we have thrown in our lot with a dwindling treasure trove of inherited energy, egged on by blind faith in free-market capitalism whose priests insist that the mighty market will provide - "We'll cross that bridge..."; "Don't plan ahead (Communist!), believe"; don't save for a rainy day...

The 'normal' has a way of lulling us into a false sense of security and permanence. For hundreds of years life was very 'normal' in this now jungle-filled river valley, when it was part of a bustling Mayan metropolis. One evening we climbed the ridge in the gold of the setting sun and through a clearing in the undergrowth looked at a beautifully set Mayan wall, 1200 years old. Chris told us that there are literally hundreds of house mounds dotted around the farm (his house is in fact built on one). At their zenith the Maya ruled an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras for over 600 years before their civilisation declined and came to an end. But we're smarter than them, right? We have Google and ATM machines. And cars. And toilet paper made from ancient forests. The Mayans might beg to differ and challenge us to last a little longer than the century and a half since industrialisation began.

Just not seeing it
When I first walked through Chris's farm I saw trees. Just lots of trees. But walk through with Chris as translator and you start to see complex systems, carefully designed and incredibly productive: coffee and cacao shaded under breadnut trees and coconut palms, pinapple crescents catching water and building soil around sapplings. My illiteracy was shared by the 'conquerors' five hundred years ago, who lamented the ignorant slash and burn agriculture while missing the carefully managed agroforestry system of the 'fallow' land (see 'Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle').

Yes, we know more than the Mayans. Our scientific method is qualitatively different from what went before. It has given us great power. But perhaps we're all the more stupid for it.

The fertile middle ground
For me the genius of permaculture is that it recognises this stupidity but refuses to fall into the opposite trap of romanticising past cultures. It respects both the natural systems that ultimately support all life and also the scientific method that has given us so much power to understand and influence them. My interpretation of permaculture as that it is a science-based design system. Ultimately we are completely reliant on nature, but if we approach it with respect we can understand and learn from the systems that keep our world alive. Then we can apply our intelligence and creativity to tweak and mould them to provide generously for human life. It is a middle ground between domination (destined to fail) and subservience (destructive of our humanity), aimed at creating a humane space within the natural world. A garden.

Spades out for the revolution
So that's what it boils down to: permaculture is gardening. And to think as a boy I saw my Grandfather as such an anachronism, with his rows of raspberries and inability to operate a video recorder. If engineers ruled in the 20th Century then perhaps the 21st belongs to the gardeners: scientifically literate, socially influential and operating in their millions. We hope.

'Everything gardens' is a permaculture principle and it was illustrated every night as we carefully stepped over the torch lit highway of Leafcutter Ants, ferrying green chunks in their millions back to their nest. They use the leaves to grow mould that will feed the whole colony. They hardly ever kill a tree, Chris explained, but strip only some branches before moving on. They do not destroy that which they depend upon. The heart of permaculture is learning from nature, and we could take a leaf from their book.

I Will Survive: Permaculture Remix
It was a fun-filled night tinged with sadness, as everyone pitched in for the 'No Talent' show that rounded off the two week course. I'll spare you the full version, but my group had 're-designed' Gloria Gaynor's classic 'I will survive' to include lines such as: "At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without these pesticides" and "But no, not us, we will survive. For as long as we know how to swale I know we'll stay alive." After two weeks we had all become quite fond of each other. I wondered where this group of radical gardeners would get to, and what difference we would make. And why the course was only two thirds full when the 'normal' world is so clearly starting to unravel.

Still, we left inspired, determined to plant and compost to a better future.

Back to Civilisation
The bus was pretty swish - air conditioned, reclining chairs, video screens - but I felt uncomfortable. A growing sense of agitation was making me desperate for the journey to end.

We stopped at Gautemala's version of a service station. As I looked round at a forest of plastic, tin cylinders behind glass and bulging humans poking at synthetic food on polyester plates, I realised what I was suffering - culture shock. I was trying to place it all in the natural cycles I'd become used to and so little of it would fit.

It showed the change my fortnight at MMRF had brought. In my five years of 'environmentalism', first of study then work, I've heard lots of theory about living within the earth's limits. Now for the first time I really felt it, in my guts. Permaculture might not be 'the answer' - there's no such thing - but it taught me to see the fundamental logic of our place in the natural order.

More than this, perhaps it might allow me the audacity of hope for a reconciliation between humanity and the world we're currently beating the crap out of. Perhaps environmentalism does not equal atavism. Perhaps MMRF hints at a way forward, rather than a retreat, as the interns check their emails under locally grown bananas: the Apple Mac sitting with the permaculture pineapple.

I don't know yet, but I firmly believe that Bill Mollison was right in 1988 when he wrote that "in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy or the end of civilization as we know it". I just hope that, over two decades later, another of his assertions still holds true: "What we have done, we can undo."


Photo credits: Thanks to Erle Noronha for the second picture (Chris's house) and Albert Bates for the group photo. All others are my own.

What permaculture can do - the mighty 'swale' in action. A great little video:


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Friday, January 2, 2009

The List for ´09

Are New Years´Resolutions out of fashion? I´ve no idea but my list brought me to Guatemala. And that´s not the half of what it´s responsible for.

I´ve no idea why but in Jan ´07 I made a list: what did I want to have done in twelve months time and how did I want to have changed.

Perhaps it was the recent end of a significant relationship or the time management course work had sent me on - whose golden rule was ´make lists, do the most important first´- but it goes down as a significant moment.

I´ve always enjoyed too many things, or so I felt as I struggled to narrow my focus, desperate to be really good at something yet feeling doomed to be a Jack of All Trades. So it was cathartic this time 24 months ago to sit and decide what I actually wanted from 2007, listing things I´d always said I wanted to do and deciding which I wanted most.

For example near the top of the list was ´learn to dance´. Now the viewing figures for the UK cult show ´Strictly Come Dancing´may well have been reaching their crescendo (although how many went dancing?) but I swear that had nothing to do with it. For years I had wanted to be able to partnerdance. Time to learn. So I asked about clubs in Oxford, immediately found that the University had an excellent one, open to everyone and only two quid per class. After six months trying out every style on offer I settled on Salsa - popular, fun to dance in a group (´Rueda´) and with an excellent teacher. So, fast forward to a few weeks ago: I was striding towards a salsa club in Xela, on my own (my new Xela friends having left for Xmas), to dance with strangers in a country whose language I barely spoke, and I realised I had come a long way from the days not so long ago when you couldn´t have proposed a more terrifying scenario. Thanks to List ´07.

There´s a great danger with lists, however. They can play right into the hands of a culture obsessed with outward success and accumulation. One of the most distressing moments of my life was the realisation three years ago that I was fixated on achievement and self-improvement, to the detriment of what really matters in life - friendship. A questionnaire I did with my fellow environmental Masters students had me far left at the ´Goal Oriented´end of the spectrum, with everyone else middle or towards ´People Oriented´. I was indignant with the stupid, over simplified pop-psychology... because it was true. Yet I knew from previous dark days that fellowship with "fellow (hu)man" was ultimately what made life worthwhile. I vowed to put people first from then on. Spending time with those I cared for was priority number one.

So it is heartening as I sit and look back at the lists for ´07 and ´08 to realise that while it is the "learn to dance" and "study spanish" goals that I´ve remembered as significant victories, they are actually full of targets like "Enjoy meals with housemates", "Go on holiday with Dad" and "Throw at least two houseparties". And of course the most important goal of all, which I´ve been surprisingly successful at achieving - "Wear more hats".

The people-focused goals are the most satisfying, of course. They can also be the hardest. I honestly can´t say I´m a better listener or a more selfless person and those will be carried over for a third year. Perhaps they need translated into the actions that might lead to them? Trying (too close to leaving for travel) to volunteer with the Samaritans was a decent one as far as listening skills.

As well as the type of goals - and many a self-help book will tell you that you need to start with an idea of the the person you want to be, or your ´legacy´ - I think the attitude to the goals themselves is crucial. Sorry Zen Masters (in your charicatured form) but I like doing things and enjoy striving to achieve targets. No apologies. It is fun to have a project. The difference now is that my self esteem is not (or at least not unhealthily) tied up with whether I achieve them.

This is the big difference between now and ´then´. I´m happy in the process, irrespective of the outcome. It is the practice of yoga, and to a lesser but growing extent meditation, that has helped to calm my achievement-hungry soul. I´m learning (you have never learnt) to breath in deeply the present, to forsake the look before and after and enjoy NOW: I´m alive, my heart is beating, my lungs empty and fill, the world, universe and everything flow unstoppably onwards.

But... January is a time for just such looking beyond the present, named as it is after the Roman god Janus who´s two faces look infront and behind. So Dr Buick prescribes some time out after the bustle of Christmas and before the new year picks up speed: to look back at things to be thankful for and lessons learned; and to look forward at what you hope 2009 will hold.

Then make a list. It may just make your year.

I´m working on mine. What´s on it? Ah, that would be telling, but I can´t rule out the involvement of hats.

Picture: Gautemaltecos climb a local mountain to perform Mayan (right, in sunshine) and Evangelical Christian (left, lower down in the shadows) ceremonies and make prayers for the year ahead.