Existential Musings to kick of Mindfulness Month

Last night, before bed, I found myself engaged in a discussion about the nature of the universe, how humans (and the world as we know it) came to be, and what, if anything, happens after we die. This wasn’t light subject matter for a Sunday evening, and I must confess that, as fascinated as I am by the incredible phenomenon of our existence, I am, in equal parts, utterly terrified by it. My partner and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum where explanation of our existence is concerned – he takes an entirely scientific view and has no belief in a greater being or purpose. As far as he is concerned, therefore, when humans die, we cease to exist. There is no Heaven, no Hell, no reincarnation, not even, as Buddhist philosophy posits, a higher, purer form of consciousness that our ego-less selves return to. There is just nothing, until sometime in the far distant future (or perhaps not even future, since quantum physicists believe that time itself is a construct of our tiny minds because they are not capable of perceiving more than three dimensions – I won’t even begin to go there) another Big Bang-type event occurs and gives rise to another civilisation like ours – as has, statistically speaking, most likely happened before, and will continue to happen, ad infinitum. Whilst this argument fascinates me, it also makes me feel so entirely insignificant that it makes me want to cry. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that last night whilst having the conversation I actually did cry, quite suddenly and without warning, and purely as a result of the stabbing terror that accompanied the mere suggestion there is nothing more to this life, that we are but a happy (some might not use that word) ‘accident’ of the universe.

I was brought up in a family with religious beliefs, and if pressed I would say that I still sit more on the side of there being ‘something out there’ than not, though that’s not to say I would currently classify myself as a practising Christian – far from it. Whilst I completely appreciate the argument that religion is merely a construct of the narrow human mind in an attempt to comfort itself about the impending nothingness after death and the relative obscurity and pointlessness of its existence, I don’t entirely buy it. Maybe that’s precisely because my own narrow mind is so terrified that it has adopted that default position. But somehow I just feel so deeply and intrinsically certain there is more to this puzzle than we are capable of understanding – more than even science can explain. I don’t believe in the notion of a white-bearded God who sits atop a cloud, nor do I believe in a red horned Devil stoking the fires of Hell. If anything I’m more inclined to align myself with the Buddhist idea of losing our egos and returning to one consciousness – as frightening as it is to think of losing that part of myself that makes me unique, I think I can buy into the concept of enlightenment and acceptance of what is, what has always been and what will always be. I might even be convinced to some extent in reincarnation, and living other lives as a pathway to higher states of enlightenment. I certainly believe in the existence of ghosts – whether they are really the spirits of dead people or rather the imprints of those people due to some kind of space/time lapse or interference I’ve (obviously) no idea. But now I’m really going off piste.

If you’ve read this far the chances are you think I’ve gone quite crazy. And maybe I have. But isn’t it important for us to think about the nature of our own existence? As tempting as it is to put it in a box labelled ‘too scary’, isn’t it a good thing to question why we are here and what happens once we are no longer? It’s certainly a topic that is playing more on my mind with advancing years (as well it might, for obvious reasons).

I said I’d make February a month for mindfulness, and this topic seems a good place to start. This morning I listened to the Inner Fire guided meditation from the Chopra Centre, which focused on accepting change. At the end was a one minute poem, and it was highlighted that one minute is all it takes for the blood in our circulatory system to pump around the entirety of our bodies. Isn’t that amazing? In a single minute we essentially change completely on a cellular level. Last night my boyfriend held my hand up to the light to draw attention to the red hue fingers have in such a situation. He pointed out that redness was the iron in our bodies – iron that was created in the Big Bang, and which was but one of many incredible ingredients that make up what we are. This blew my mind, to some extent, but also fascinated me. We are such complex beings and this universe is huge beyond our comprehension. Isn’t it important, therefore, that no matter what lies ‘beyond’, we make the most of every second that we exist, in this context and in this realm of consciousness?

I will finish this somewhat existential blog post with a fascinating story one of my friends re-posted (somewhat coincidentally) on Facebook today:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.” – Útmutató a Léleknek

Food for thought.

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Epiphany on me

Every so often when I’m engrossed in a book, or lost in a song that’s so beautiful the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I get a sudden rush of overwhelming anxiety. Why? Because in that moment it dawns on me that I will never be able to read all of the amazing books in the world, or hear all of the glorious music that’s been produced over the many years since music began. It’s obvious, of course, but whenever I think about it for any length of time it’s still a sobering enough concept to take my breath away.

Phase two of this bizarre anxiety involves my ruminating that I haven’t read the right kind of books, or listened to the right kind of music. As I’ve grown up – and I should point out at this juncture that I still find it hard to accept that I am, in fact, grown up. Indeed when the prodigal and only child of the family returns home for a familial visit my parents also often have some difficulty believing this – I’ve always thought my capacity and hunger for knowledge would increase and my tastes would mature, not unlike a fine wine.

By my early thirties I was certain I’d have moved beyond childish chick lit ‘novels’ and the kind of soulless popular music that’s relentlessly and indiscriminately spewed out by endless commercial radio stations. I would, I thought, be reading Proust and Tolstoy, listening to Beethoven and Chopin, spending my spare time studying philosophy and going on cycling holidays to French vineyards with my similarly-inclined peers.  

But alas, ‘twas not to be. At thirty one I’m ashamed to admit I still spend most weekends drinking cheap cider and falling out of clubs (playing – you’ve guessed it – popular music). I still haven’t read most of the Orange and Booker Prize-shortlisted tomes I acquired some years ago in a fit of pique at my own ignorance of the workings of the literary world (‘you want to be a writer!’ I’d scold myself. ‘How can you write without reading the works of the great writers?’)  And the sum total of my knowledge on classical music and wine would fit on the back of a postage stamp (and still leave room to spare).

The interest in politics and international affairs that I thought was a rite of passage of getting older never quite materialised. Nor the savvy business mind which would easily decipher tax codes, pensions and such like. Instead of a one woman dynamo I stand before you as an empty, muddled and ignorant shell. I am a caterpillar that failed to undergo metamorphosis and turn into a butterfly. I am a Monopoly piece that didn’t pass Go.

I suppose a psychologist would say that the root cause of my anxiety is my feeling small and insignificant, not knowing my place in the world and worrying I will never make my mark. And I suppose with that analysis they would be pretty spot on (in fact I’ve surprised myself by trotting that out without too much thought and whilst simultaneously wondering what to cook for my dinner – who says we women can’t multitask? Oh, I did, in yesterday’s post. Damn).

But hang on just one cotton picking minute. What about the things I have achieved, the books I have read, the music I have listened to? What about the friends I’ve made, the stories I’ve written, the places I’ve visited? I may never know my Beaujolais from my Fleurie, or be able to discuss the merits of Aristotle’s theories over Plato’s. I may not develop a discerning ear for classical music, know the background to every international conflict or be the next Jane Austen. But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll write for pleasure, read for pleasure and continue listening to music that makes my hairs stand on end – even if I heard it on Radio 1.

And above all else I’ll do my best to be a good person and make other people happy. Because no amount of knowledge, maturity and finesse can make up for not being able to do that.

I took this photo when I went on a walk by myself along the beach in Lombok. It reminds me of a quiet, reflective period in my travels – appropriate for this post, which actually made me feel surprisingly emotional as I wrote it.

what’s mine is yours?

At the end of last night’s Satsang class at the Sivananda ashram (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post) the yogi leading the class discussed the importance of not getting too attached to material possessions. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture that underpins the philosophy of yoga which the ashram teaches, Swami Sivananda refers to humans as the ‘caretakers’ of everything they come into contact with in life, rather than the owners. We are all, he says, ‘passing pilgrims’ in this world, which is why the whole concept of ownership is one that he discourages.

The yogi gave the example of someone saving up to buy their first house, who feels that in the exchange of deeds they are laying claim to that property and making it their own. Yet the reality is that such an arrangement is only ever temporary because, ultimately, the end of life will sever all such ties. It follows, then, that everything else we humans like to stamp our ownership on is also merely temporary – including our relationships.

I really like the idea of being a ‘caretaker’ rather than an ‘owner.’ To give an example of why, when a person borrows an item of clothing they generally take care of it more than if it were their own, because they know at the end of the day (or week, or month) they’re going to have to give it back (after all, it would be pretty embarrassing giving something back in a much worse state than the one in which it was loaned).

I think that as a society we would do well to stop and think sometimes about the way in which we regard the things – and indeed people – closest to us. If everyone had in mind that they were ‘passing pilgrims’ the world might, I believe, be a better place to pass through.

Time out

I probably shouldn’t admit to being short of inspiration today, but there you have it: My confession. It’s been a taxing start to the year, to say the least, and I’ve exhausted all of my energy stores – both mental and physical. Training for next weekend’s 16 mile run isn’t helping on the physical front, but it has at least given me a focus for which I’ve been grateful in my lower moments; hard as it is to get out and running when the axe of redundancy (or any other challenging life event) is hovering over your neck, it really is true what they say about exercise making you feel better. Though I’m still not convinced I’m going to enjoy tomorrow morning’s scheduled 12 mile run in the rain….

But this is not to be a negative post, far from it. I’ve found a new job that I’m itching to start, have already got some freelance irons in the fire and genuinely feel this period of change will be the making of me – I’m just looking forward to the change phase being over and the new phase being underway, because it’s the change phase itself that’s so very tiring.

Rather than go home and slump on the sofa this evening (as is my body’s inclination) I’ve decided to be proactive in beating the tiredness, and am planning a return to the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney for its evening Satsang class. The Centre is a branch of the ashram in Kerala (southern India) where I did a two week residential yoga course in 2011. Satsang is a free class which comprises a twenty to thirty minute group meditation session, followed by 45 minutes of mantra chanting and a talk on the philosophy of yoga. It sounds a bit crack pot, I’ll admit, but I actually find the whole thing very relaxing, and a great way to ‘switch off’ the mind after a long day or period of stress. To any disbelievers reading this post I will say only this: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

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Writing this post reminded me of the few days post-ashram when I and two of my fellow ashramees [sic] spent a few days on the coast, in Kovalam. This pic was when we were still full of the enthusiasm of regular yoga practice – how times have changed (for me at least, I can’t speak for the others!)

Past Post: Montessori nursery article

I recently stumbled across some articles I wrote as part of my Freelance and Feature Writing course with the London School of Journalism a few years back, and thought I’d share this one about Montessori teaching today:

The truth about Montessori teaching

Maria Montessori’s work with special needs children in the last century led to the development of a new and unique approach to teaching, with the learning environment being carefully planned from a practical standpoint to better equip children for adult life. In recent years it has come under criticism for impressing discipline at too young an age, but few people have a true understanding of what Montessori teaching actually involves.

Nicola Greer is the co-owner of the One World Montessori Nursery in Brook Green, West London. She explains: “Two fundamental aspects of Montessori teaching are cleanliness and order, with order being particularly important. Montessori is all about teaching the child to be self-sufficient – an important part of which is learning to take care of their environment. But it is also a child-centred philosophy that allows the child to progress at his or her own rate. They are given choices and are not pushed beyond their readiness. If you push a child it is counter-productive, but it is equally important not to hold a child back.  They should progress at the rate they need.”

Montessori nurseries differ from mainstream nurseries in that children are able to choose what they want to do.  Practical life tasks involve such activities as learning to dress and clean using scaled down versions of adult materials.  Sensorial tasks involve the use of geometric blocks, fabrics and smelling bottles to name but a few.  Cultural tasks utilise globes and science materials, and mathematical tasks incorporate number rods and counting beads.

But surely, if given a choice of activity, most children will persistently gravitate towards their favourite activities, ignoring all of the others? “Without guidance they might,” admits Nicola, “but children don’t have a long attention span and are therefore unlikely to spend too long on any one activity.  If they do, the teacher will introduce something else.  Practical life activities are generally very popular.”

So what would Nicola say to the critics of Montessori, who feel that children are encouraged to learn discipline unnecessarily early?  “It does work,” she says, after a moment’s hesitation, “that’s what I’d say.  Generally speaking, children at Montessori nurseries tend to do well.” But why is it so important for children to learn practical tasks like cleaning at such a young age?  “It teaches them the accomplishment of performing a task with a beginning, middle and end,” she says, “and children love to imitate adults, for example by pretending to cook with a toy kitchen.”  Wasn’t Maria Montessori very grounded in reality though? “Toy kitchens aren’t entirely in keeping with the Montessori philosophy, in the sense that Maria Montessori was opposed to anything fantasy based,” Nicola concedes. “But I feel that as the nursery is open from 8am to 4pm it is too long a day for a child not to have any fantasy at all.”

Nicola agrees that not all Montessori schools follow the original teachings exactly.  “The majority do,” she says, “although you can’t be too rigid because Maria Montessori lived a hundred years ago and we must move with the times and adapt accordingly, as well as complying with Ofsted regulations.  We are not a ‘pure’ Montessori nursery as such, because we have had to adapt to the requirements of the Foundation Stage where there is a greater emphasis on creative play. Montessori would say that children learn through doing.  The generally accepted modern philosophy is that children learn through play, and I think it is essential to encourage role-play to some extent.”

So to what extent does the One World Montessori Nursery follow traditional Montessori teachings?  “Well,” smiles Nicola, “essentially we are a pure Montessori nursery, but we also have a role-play corner which is definitely based in fantasy.”  The wizard costume just visible through the door of the tiny wardrobe beside us bears testament to this.  But as I leave the nursery, I can’t help feeling that Nicola has interpreted the original philosophy very well, and despite my own initial misgivings about Montessori methods I find myself wishing her all the best.

Remember these? I used to love mine more than anything (and yes, I did try to put the plastic tray in the REAL oven like the girl in the advert)