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meditation

Reluctant Popstar

A visit to the barber in Turkey: flaming swabs, cut-throat razors and a little too much gel. Turkish Popstars“Please sir, you sit down.” My new best friend motions to something resembling a cabinet covered with a bed-sheet, and impersonating a couch. “Yes, you sit there.” I am in a Turkish laundromat, without a single washing appliance in sight, and a large curtain separating tiny front of shop from what sounds like an entire family washing clothes by hand. It may well be by hand, for Turkish Laundry Man tells me that my weighed and charged by the kilo clothing has a turn around time of thirty-six hours. “My friend, your room number at hotel?” “666” I reply, and not for the first time here in Antalya, Turkey, am wistfully disappointed that no-one gets the joke in this predominantly non-Christian country. On the wall behind the counter is a poster for a concert by Sri Chinmoy. An auspicious sign? Turkish Laundry Man certainly thinks so, pointing to the face on one of my t-shirts and then same face on poster. “You... him... same!” he smiles, genuine enthusiasm undaunted by only rudimentary knowledge of the Queen’s English. I decline tea—served extra black with lemon in this part of the world—ever present foil to actually getting anything done. In Turkey, were you to actually accept every courteous offer of tea, made with every business transaction completed or just proffered, you would be not only over caffeinated but permanently delayed. “Can you recommend a barber?” I inquire as I leave, mirror in corner revealing a haircut past fashionably messy and just messy. “Oh yes,” grins laundry man, “come, my cousin is barber!” Taking me by the hand, a custom which would be extremely uncomfortable back home but absolutely kosher here, he leads me diagonally across the road to a barber shop I somehow hadn't noticed, where a man with an intimidating stare is holding a cut-throat razor, giving a local the closest shave I have ever seen. There is absolutely no family resemblance. They converse briefly in Turkish, Laundry Man enthusiastic, Intimidating Barber seemingly disinterested, and a price is confirmed of TKL8, a fare more than fair. His job not only done but exceeded far beyond call, Laundry Man clasps my hand firmly and then departs, imploring me to join him for tea at haircut's close. Unlike the laundromat, the barber shop is state of the art, if such a description can be applied to the timeless tradition of men's hairdressing. European football plays on the satellite channel of a wall-mounted TV set, watched by the coiffed to be from ergonomic, custom built blue barber chairs. A million types of hair product of infinite textures, fragrances and purport line shelves inside sleek plastic tubes and containers, while beside me Turkish language magazines sit in piles for my non-reading, temporary distraction as I await my appointment with master of male grooming. As with haircuts everywhere, the first order of business is communicating the type of cut desired. Except without use of language, as “short back and sides” produces not a glimmer of understanding. Yet to utter a single word, but thankfully his cut-throat now holstered, Intimidating Barber motions to the top of my head and then the sides with thumb and fore-finger held apart, distance presumably indicating length desired. Resisting the temptation to point to the cover of “Türkiye Man” and say “Same please,” I emulate the gesture, except with a measurement several millimetres less, successfully communicating a clippers cut by narrowing my fingers to just a pinch. Shoved from behind face into a water filled basin, I relax in the knowledge that I am probably going to get a haircut at the very least vaguely approximating what I am used to. After a minute having my hair washed, Intimidating Barber places a towel covered hand tightly over mouth, nose and eyes, pulling me by face up out of the sink, an act intended to keep water off my face, but also temporarily suffocating me. I wonder at what point breathlessness would overcome polite surrender, should I be unable to draw air for much longer. Possibly not until after I pass out. While his perpetual frown is a little off-putting, especially when wielding the cut-throat razor—a not so subtle encouragement for prompt payment I am sure—he does appear to be proficient at his trade, employing facets of this art which I was hitherto unaware. Flaming stick to the side of the head is a personal favourite, steel rod wrapped in cotton wool lit and applied in measured daubs around the ears, burning off fine hairs or evil spirits I am not completely sure. Like me he is not a fan of the “side-burn”—also known as the “mutton-chop” or just plain personal grooming mistake—and, in another excuse to wave cut-throat alarmingly close to vital arteries, skillfully dispatches any hint of such with a few swift strokes. A confirmation of desired shortness—“no, this short” I signal with my fingers—and we are just about done, a few final adjustments required with comb and scissors. Did I say done? Maestro appears to have other ideas, and, inspired by a fist-full of styling gel and a look last seen in best forgotten 1980s music videos, twists and then teases my hair into points and spikes, bottle of jelly-like product fast disappearing. I have to desperately restrain myself from laughing at what is taking shape in the mirror, for he regards his craftsmanship most seriously, and expects an approval I would fear not giving. Barbershop experience is completed with a TKL10 note exchanged, price raised above that quoted but I mind not—the sickly sweet all over perfume applied at close more than justifying this age-old version of “bait and switch.” For the next ten minutes I am a reluctant Turkish pop star, now rock hard gelled haircut attracting nods of approval from schoolboys passed as I return to my hotel. Cringing, I take the out of sight back entrance up to my room, detachment from care for my personal appearance growing about as fast as recently cut hair.

Jetlagged

jetlagI have traveled all over the world in the last few years, an unexpected side-benefit of my full-time meditation-occupation. A more expected side-effect of the global search for a permanent natural high? Jet-lag, or to list its lesser known names: ‘desynchronosis,’ ‘dysrhythmia’ and ‘dyschrony’. Let me add one more by way of practical effect: ‘dysfunctionality.’ If I were an Apple Mac ("Hello, I am a Mac"), now would be a good time to plug me into a wall... The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, lists the symptoms of “jet-syndrome” thus:
  • Dehydration and loss of appetite
  • Headaches and/or sinus irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Disorientation and/or grogginess
  • Nausea and/or upset stomach
  • Insomnia and/or highly irregular sleep patterns; and last but not least...
  • Irritability, irrationality.
How does one cope with jet-lag? Other than badly? As with many conditions medical consensus is far from certain, but there do appear to be a few general suggestions:
  • skip sleep entirely for one night and one day and then go to bed at the new destination-area bedtime
  • adequate intake of drinks and fluids helps to reduce the affects of aircraft-cabin dehydration and the disruption of your regular eating and drinking patterns
  • set your clock to the destination time-zone as soon as possible, it can help in adapting to the new rhythm
  • exposure to sunlight may also be a factor in resetting your body clock
So bar the passing touch of ill humour which jet-lag probably cannot in full explain, it seems that intercontinental travel has much to blame for my present “disruption of the light/dark cycle that entrains the body’s circadian rhythm.” And chanting “I am not the body, I am not the body” repeatedly during the Brahma-murta has done little to disavow me of this effect. What I probably need is a good meditation—if I could but stay awake...

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Dog on Zen

Naha, Japan: Conan, a male chihuahua, mimics Buddhist priest Joei Yoshikuni at Jigenin temple Meet Conan, a male chihuahua from Naha, Japan, who’s renounced more traditional doggy pursuits for Dogen—a formative style of Zen from the 13th century that equates meditation and enlightenment as one and the same—chasing after the ever-spinning shiny wheel of rebirth before he’s even taken human birth. Buddhist priest Joei Yoshikuni (pictured) of the Jigenin temple didn’t comment as to whether his own meditation practice had gone to the dogs...
Photograph: Toru Yamanaka/AFP

Beautiful Moments in Film #2: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson's War: Story of the Zen master and the little boy

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) by Mike Nichols

CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Listen, not for nothing, but do you know the story about the Zen master and the little boy? Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Oh is this something from Nitsa the Greek witch of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania?1 Gust: Yeah as a matter of fact it is. There's a little boy. Now on his 14th birthday he gets a horse, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful the boy got a horse,” and the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says “How terrible,” and the Zen master says “We'll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful”... Charlie: Now the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Gust: So you get it? Charlie: No. No, cause I’m stupid... Gust: You're not stupid, you’re just in Congress.
Shimura’s “Cherry Blossom Storm” (1953)Impermanence is at the heart of Japanese culture, and the Zen tradition with which it is intrinsically bound. In Japan, appreciation of art and life itself is informed with an implicit understanding of the true impermanence of reality, that we each are here today, gone tomorrow—we and everything else in this world. Such an appreciation of impermanence sees a half clouded moon as more beautiful than one full, fallen cherry blossoms upon the ground more so than spring’s first bloom. As symbols, the clouded moon and decaying cherry blossoms both capture the truth at reality’s heart, and truth is infinitely more beautiful in Zen—and spirituality in general for that matter—than illusion or untruth.
When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. —John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819
John KeatsIt is a pre-modern take on the Law of Entropy informed by millennia of inward reflection, no less valid because empirically verified by the experience of heart and soul. We don’t need a particle reactor to know that everything in this universe comes to an end.
“All men think all men mortal, but themselves.” —Edward Young
In the context of Charlie Wilson’s War, this parable of the fleeting nature of reality is used to illustrate that today’s victory may be tomorrow’s loss, today’s loss tomorrow's victory. It is 1989, and real life congressman Charlie Wilson has just seen has seen himself vindicated, his policy of arming the Afghani Mudjahadeen paying off spectacularly in the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet army, a pivotal turning point in the Cold War. Yes it is a victory says CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, but where will today’s success take us tomorrow? Spirituality sees success and failure as obverse and reverse sides of the same coin, the coin of human experience which leads gradually, steadily and unerringly to the experience of true reality—the experience of truth with a capital ‘T’—the infinity, immortality and eternity of the human soul.
If I stoop Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud, It is but for a time; I press God's lamp Close to my breast; its splendor soon or late Will pierce the gloom; I shall emerge one day. —Robert Browning
Poet Robert BrowningFrom a spiritual point of view to live only for success is as mistaken as to avoid failure at all costs; both represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. Understanding life from a deeper perspective, a perspective grounded upon truth requires a longer, broader point of view than the present moment alone, with its ups and downs, victories and losses, happiness and sadness, for success and failure all are equally valid, greater and lesser steps towards the self-same goal—realisation of the ultimate truth.
No Failure No failure, no failure. Failure is the shadow Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the changing body Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the fast approaching train Of the greatest success. —Sri Chinmoy, The Dance of Life, Part 13, Agni Press, 1973.
With parables by meditation teachers in film rarer than actual masters of meditation in real life, the quoting of a Zen koan in Charlie Wilson’s War alone makes it eligible as a “Beautiful Moment in Film”—whatever the quality (and it is by no means inconsequential) of the cinematography, acting or directing. How often are the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow? How often do we even make the distinction? All too frequently the sayings of celebrity, beauty and power are writ larger in this world than their words alone justify; not frequently enough the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow. One day the words of wise people may actually be worth more than the wisdom of ‘fools.’ I can’t wait to see the films made when that day arrives.
“Human life is limited, but I want to live for ever.” —Yukio Mishima, final written words.

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Footnote

  1. “After Gust Avrakotos’s outburst against the head of the Clandestine Services, he was unemployable in the CIA. Stung, Gust went home to Aliquippa and asked a family friend (the town witch) to create a curse against his boss Graver. Had any of the teams in the CIA found out about the curse, they would have sent Gust away for psychiatric evaluation, but the curse was a private affair.” Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile.

Rollercoaster monks

Rollercoaster monks It seems meditation isn’t the only way to get up into the air, although one can’t rule out that these Buddhist monks aren’t actually—heavily disguised as fun park patrons—practicing their asanas:
“The postures that a Buddhist deity assumes in a sculpture or painting are known as asanas.” —Mudras in Buddhism, Rev. Jnana, Zen Dharma Teacher
Whatever the intent there seems little doubt they are having a jolly good time. Super-sized fun even, albeit probably not hair-raising...

Find your true voice as a writer

Jack KerouacFinding one’s voice as a writer is the difficult but necessary first task facing every new author—spelling and grammar perhaps excepted. While there is no better or other way to become an authentic, original writer than to write, and write, and write... the practise of making perfect, of being true to yourself by finding your own true voice can be aided and abetted in a number of ways.

7 ideas to discover your true writer's voice

1. Avoid over-analysis and intellectualisation Inspiration is like a sky rocket, a fast moving, suddenly lit firework; ride it heavenwards while the flame burns bright; ride it without care for length of journey or name of destination. If inspiration is a sky rocket, excessive intellectualism is surely a fire extinguisher; suspend the dampening effect of critical thought by putting aside the intellectual mind, and its tendency to doubt, limit and measure—listen instead to the voice of inspiration within. The more you let it take its own form and course, to speak unhindered, the more fruitful and authentic your writing will be. 2. Seek inspiration in silence Jack KerouacInspiration can also be sought in silence and in depth, just as in the practise of meditation. Some writers talk of the process of learning to write as “finding their voice,” an experience analogous to the subtle, instructive inner voice sought in meditative discipline. In a contemplative, instructive vein, Jack Kerouac advised “Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.” You can find your true writer’s voice, and in fact the source of creativity itself in stillness of thought. With patience, wait for the ripples upon the mind's surface to subside; there you will see inspiration and creativity staring back at you. Listen always to their whisper. 3. Form and technique are destructive, not constructive Don’t get distracted by technique in the beginning; the pen should be the instrument of your inner voice—not the other way around. On a computer, ignore layout, font-size and line-spacing; just let words pour forth. Form can be addressed at a later date, and often more constructively from a suitable distance. When starting out, stay up close and focused, one word at a time. 4. Writing is a conversation View writing as a conversation. If you imagine yourself as writing for an audience, which really is the point of writing—having something worth saying to somebody worth saying it to—writing becomes not a solitary act but a communication, talking in silence with potentially the entire world. Imagine and then feel a conversation with another as though they were actually present, like a best friend, close inside your heart; then the words naturally will come. This technique is one to way find your true writer’s voice—you give it expression in the act of talking to an imagined other. This method is also used in television and in radio, where the reality of being in front of millions of people can produce fearful paralysis. Also for actors, who use their imagination to aid a more natural performance, to ‘just be themselves’ in front of a lifeless camera. It is no different writing at a computer—not always in truth an environment conducive to natural, expressive conversation. When done well, writing is a conversation, but with you as listener, dictating a voice that speaks from within. 5. Be courageous Be courageous, even if you have to lie to yourself; convince yourself that you are brilliant! You are a writer—imagination is your chosen weapon, so use it to your advantage. A blank page can be daunting, a failure of ideas discouraging; if imagining yourself as a great writer gives you the necessary courage and self-belief to be able to write, then do so. As meditation teacher, poet and writer Sri Chinmoy explains, “Insecurity goes away when we acquire the capacity of identification.” If you can identify with the capacity to write well you are half-way to actually doing it. Repeat bravely with Jack Kerouac “You're a Genius all the time,” for almost anything goes when you have an empty page to fill. 6. Be your best critic, not your worst If a word or idea refuses to come you, a sentence denies completion, and ‘next’ remains an unanswered question, the worst sin is to get caught up over it. Negativity, worry and self-doubt are an anathema to creativity; anything that stops you moving, progressing forward should be shunned. Remember this as a maxim: “keep moving, keep moving.” Like Jack Kerouac again, who would imagine himself heroically as author-athlete, his writing an act of physical and mental athleticism. Arguably his best novel, On the Road was written in a single three week sitting, a Herculean effort of endurance which required an unbroken ream of typewriter paper 120 feet in length. Obviously this is somewhat extreme, and to continue the sporting analogy, it is suggested that his performance was illegally ‘enhanced,’ but the analogy is good; like an athlete keep moving, keep writing—skip a paragraph, write back to front if necessary or in order of thought; even move on to a completely different project—writers often have scores of works on the go simultaneously, awaiting the muse of inspiration for their completion. 7. First-thought, best-thought Allen GinsbergThe “first-thought, best-thought” aesthetic of Zen Buddhism is one well-practiced technique used to find the authentic writing voice, a technique borrowed from meditation to bypass the filter of intellectual mind, appropriated but not invented in the modern era by the Beat poets and writers—Allen Ginsberg most famously. First thought here is considered to be ‘true’ thought: perception unmediated by the distorting lens of intellect or the surface personality. It is another way of describing intuition, and is the basis of the saying “First impressions don't lie.” Formalised as “spontaneous prose” by Kerouac; and by Ginsberg, “spontaneous, fearless telling of the truth of naked, authentic experience” to paraphrase, developing spontaneity and intuition in your writing will work miracles for your creativity, not to mention sense of authenticity and authorial power. Discarding rationality and reason is a hotline to your heart as a writer, and getting your heart, your authentic voice and self on the page is the only way to move and inspire your readers. The final word goes to Allen Ginsberg:
“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does.”
In its capacity to convey truth and feeling, prose written from the heart may just save the world as well.

If a tree falls on Google Maps…

If  a tree falls on Google Maps and nobody sees it fall, did it fall in the real world? An interesting conundrum explored in this short video by low-end production team The Vacationeers, whereby fictional users of a virtual world, by the click of a mouse, cause change in this world, a post-modern, Web 2.0 allegory if you will to the ageless Indian philosophy of Advaita Non-Dualism, a system of belief and practice which resolves existence and non-existence, self and others, this world and the one beyond to a single, undifferentiated reality. It’s kind of like imagining the entire universe as never ending menu of pizza toppings, baked upon a single, infinitely sized pizza.
Ramana Maharshi“If a man considers that he is born, he cannot avoid the fear of death. Let him find out if he has been born or if the Self has any birth. He will discover that the Self always exists, that the body that is born resolves itself into thought and that the emergence of thought is the root of all mischief. Find from where thoughts emerge. Then you will be able to abide in the ever-present inmost Self and be free from the idea of birth or the fear of death.” “The world is illusory, Only Brahman is real, Brahman is the world.” “There is nothing wrong with God's creation. Mystery and Suffering only exist in the mind...” “That which is not present in deep dreamless state is not real.” —Quotes by Ramana Maharshi on Non-Dualism
Keanu Reeves in A Scanner DarklyHeady stuff, and hyper-intellectual mind-candy explored in better detail on film by The Matrix and A Scanner Darkly, which coincidentally both feature the exceedingly cosmic Keanu Reeves—although even this fan of serendipity defies drawing a bow long enough to find cosmic parallels in that. Yes, the idea that an action in Google Maps can cause change in the real world may be completely non-sensical, but like most science fiction you can not deny that it is hyper-fascinating. And, as in the philosophy of non-dualism, what could be more fascinating than the idea that thought alone can change reality...