No Man is an Island

The news has always been a divisive thing. On the one hand we all want to feel connected, to know what is going on ‘out there’ in the world. On the other we do sort of suspect that the version of life we are spoonfed by the media is skewed and distorted like a picture taken through a fish eye lens.

Is it getting worse? That’s hard to say. But my own experience as a Brussels resident who has been reading news reports from the UK media on the recent bombs at Zaventem airport and the metro would suggest it is – or at least that the media is as sensationalist as ever.

Both to loved ones and idiots on social media I have defended this city I love, which, if you believed every BBC news report you read you would think was besieged by jihadists on every street corner. Contrary to public media opinion, who take great delight in filming some dickhead reporter roaming the streets of ‘jihadi capital of Europe’, Molenbeek (incidentally also the suburb in which I work), or the use of water cannons against a small group of self-declared fascists downtown, it is still possible to walk down the street here without the need for police protection and an armoured vehicle.

The thing I love most about Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is people’s resilience; their ability to stay clear-headed and articulate in a crisis. And also, as the police cat food Twitter episode so clearly demonstrated, their sense of humour.

Though I will always love it, increasingly I feel glad I left the UK, and am experiencing life on the ‘outside.’ Because when you are inside the Kingdom we ironically still call ‘United’ it is frighteningly easy to adopt the media’s attitude to issues such as terrorism; to become closed-minded and biased without even realising it, due to the diet of twisted information you are fed by power-hungry media outlets and politicians.

If you listen to the likes of Boris we are far better off out of Europe, away from all these nasty jihadis. Raise the drawbridge! Keep Britain safe! What good can Europe do us? Look at the mess France and Belgium are in! Though I have neither the political knowledge nor inclination to address these tenuous arguments here, I will highlight one thing, a poem by John Donne, entitled ‘No Man is an Island’:

Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s 
Or of thine own were: 
Any man’s death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind, 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

Whether we are part of Europe or not (and I personally believe we should be), none of us is an island. We must stand together in the face of terrorism and not let it divide us, by faith or for political gain. The media and politicians have ulterior motives. It is for us, the ‘normal people’, to look past those, to look past religion, past race and past hatred;  to look into our own hearts. Because it is only there we can find the good, the pure and the true; and understand that love is the only answer there is.

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Thoughts from Brussels

Exactly one week ago we woke to the news that 129 people had been murdered in cold blood by terrorists in Paris. These were ordinary people like you or I, who were letting their hair down after a busy week, enjoying a few drinks, dinner or a concert on Friday night. But the terrorists had other ideas.

It has since transpired that one of the masterminds behind the Paris attack came from the Molenbeek district in Brussels, one of the most deprived areas in Belgium, which is purported to be an easy target for Islamic State (ISIS) militants trying to recruit young Muslims. It is also, incidentally, where my office is located.

Belgium is coming under fire for its lax security measures where tracking terrorists is concerned. For a small country a disproportionate number of people have been recruited to ISIS and left to fight for them abroad – indeed some reports claim Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation –between 350 and 550, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims.

These are worrying times, made more worrying still for those of us residing in Brussels by the news this morning, exactly one week on from the news from Paris, that the threat level in Brussels has been raised to very serious, with metro services suspended all weekend, concerts cancelled and a warning not to go to public places.

I feel conflicted by this latest threat. A part of me is defiant and wants to continue exactly as I always would, because to do otherwise, to change our way of life, is to show them they are affecting us, to let them win. But obviously there is also a part of me that is concerned for my welfare, for my partner’s and friends’ welfare. A portion of my daily commute involves taking the metro. Should I now avoid it, in case of an attack? Or carry on taking it and trust in the security forces (and statistics that would probably say my likelihood of being caught up in an attack is small) to protect me from harm?

At any rate, I can’t help but feel the terrorists would be stupid to do anything now the threat has been raised. Far better to wait until it has subsided, until people are less scared and come out of their shells to resume normal life, and do it then. We must remain vigilant. But, beyond that, what can we do?

The bigger issue does of course tug at my heartstrings every day. The ignorance, bigotry and racism shown by so many in the face of the refugee crisis is not only dividing communities but playing directly into the hands of the terrorists. I am not so naive to believe this situation can be resolved purely with love. Sadly now we have let it develop this far the only way it can be addressed is with more violence and bloodshed. But I do believe it is essential that people are tolerant, and that they seek to be informed about the situation instead of believing the hateful bile reported in the tabloids.

In the West, until now, we have been largely protected from the terrible things that have been happening across the world for decades – many of which were, ironically, brought about by the actions of our own governments. Our hands are not clean, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are, that what is happening now in Europe is nothing to do with us. We funded terrorism for our own economic gain, and it backfired. Now those terrorists have become strong, and they are striking at the heart of the freedom we hold dear. They are also, let’s not forget, driving terrified people from their countries, terrified people who now reside at refugee camps across Europe. These people are like you or me. They are not, as the idiotic Republican hatemongers in the US would have us believe, ‘rabid dogs’ seeking to kill us all.

We started this, it is our responsibility to finish it. And beyond the guns and rhetoric, it is all of our responsibility to bring about a society that is centred around tolerance, hope and love. If we can succeed in this the world, and humanity as a whole, may yet be saved.

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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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Stop Fighting Hate with Hate – Try Love Instead

As tempting as it is to wallow in depression at the future of humanity after today’s horrific massacre of satirical cartoonists in Paris, to do so would achieve one thing and one thing only: It would mean the terrorists have won.

Whilst it’s heartening to see the numerous messages of support for the victims (and indeed for freedom of speech itself) on social media, as well as the hastily organised rallies across Europe and the newly created cartoons in response to the tragedy, less heartening is the hashtag #killallmuslims, currently trending on Twitter.

It is sadly inevitable that the events of today will lead to reprisals against innocent Muslims, as well as the usual torrent of ignorant comments about religion being the root cause of all evil. But as British journalist Emily Davis succinctly put on Twitter in the aftermath of the incident: “Islamic extremists. Not Islam. They are different entities and shouldn’t be casually associated. Terror has no religion.”

Terrorism in the name of religion is NOT religion, but rather extremism based on a warped perception of it. As someone who has grown up in a household with religious leanings, I have witnessed the positive side of having faith, such as the sense of community and charity that it fosters. Blaming religion in all its forms for this kind of evil, extremist activity is almost as ignorant as the terrorists themselves. Not only that, it instigates a misguided campaign of hate against innocent people who are merely trying to follow their religion in the name of peace.

If only we could all learn to practice tolerance and acceptance, we might yet be able to pull ourselves back from the brink of what could well be the end of civilisation as we know it. Hate is not the way to fight hate. The only thing that will defeat it is love.

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Swami

Dawn breaks over the Agastya mountain range in southern Kerala. As the sun begins its lazy ascent from the horizon, a Chestnut-headed Bee Eater swoops across a lake, its surface so flat that the bird’s bright plumage is reflected back in glorious and unbroken technicolour. Rising from the lake are vapour trails, the ghost of night evaporating into the air and making way for day. The air is still, with no discernible sound besides the whooshing of the bird as it dips and dives down to the surface of the water. All is calm.

Beside the lake sits a man. Clothed in robes of orange, his legs are crossed, the thumb and forefingers of each hand touching one another. His eyes are closed. He looks to be in quiet contemplation, yet he is transcendent; half in this world, half in the next. No earthly troubles phase him, no thoughts chatter incessantly inside his head. He is a master of the art of the still mind, having experienced the peace that comes with being fully in the present in a way that few can comprehend. He sees in, on, above, beneath and through all things.

He is a swami, a man of great religious faith, a Hindu god-in-waiting. He sought enlightenment, and found it. He is at peace.

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This is the late Swami Vishnudevananda, one of the two swamis who were revered at the ashram where I stayed for two weeks of last year. He was my favourite because of his big smile and open demeanour, and because of this image with the caption: One has to ask oneself, what do I really want from life? That is the fundamental question. Indeed it is Swami.