My Crib Notes on Taoism

1200px-Yin_yang.svgThere is a being, wonderful, perfect;

It existed before heaven and earth.

How quiet it is!

How spiritual it is!

It stands alone and it does not change.

It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.

All life comes from it.

It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and

Yet it claims no honour, it does not demand to

Be Lord.

I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao,

The Way,

And I rejoice in its power. (Tao Te Ching)

What is Tao?

According to Huston Smith, author of the excellent book, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions,Tao has three meanings.

Tao is the way of ultimate reality. According to Huston Smith, ‘This Tao cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom.’ (Smith, 1998).

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” (Tao Te Ching). The author/s of the Tao Te Ching recur to this theme: the ineffable, the transcendent, the primary mystery, “the mystery of all mysteries (Smith, 1998).

Tao is also immanent: it is the way of the universe, the “norm, the rhythm, the driving owner in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it assumes flesh and informs all things.” (Smith, 1998). It is also benign; infinitely generous, open and flowing.

According to Huston Smith, “Charles Darwin’s colleague, George Romanes, could have been speaking of it [Tao] when he referred to the ‘integrating principle of the whole – the Spirit, as it were, of the universe – instinct without contrivance, which flows with purpose.’”

Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe…” (Smith, 1998).

Three Forms of Taoism

In China, three forms of Taoism have arisen:

  • Philosophical Taoism
  • Religious Taoism (Popular Taoism)
  • Active Taoism (Smith calls these the “Vitalising Taoisms”)

Philosophical Taoism is not organised as a religion, but essentially is “an attitude towards life” (Smith, 1998). The core principle is that humans should live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not wasting it through friction and conflict. The concept of wu wei, literally “inaction,” in Taoism means “pure effectiveness” or “creative quietude” (Smith, 1998). Friction is minimalised. The aim is that we align our daily lives with the Tao, “to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow.”

Creative quietude unites supreme activity with supreme relaxation. The ego yields to the Tao. According to Smith, this is the opposite of Confucianism. “Confucius turned every effort to building a pattern of ideal responses that might be consciously imitated. Taoism’s approach is the opposite – to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behaviour flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action will follow new being, wiser, stronger being.”

Taoists reject competition and self-assertiveness, instead promoting humility and disinterest in worldly ambitions. Taoists extend this to nature; humans should not be aggressive towards each other or nature, seeking attunement with nature rather than dominance.

Taoists also adopted the Chinese yin/yang symbol which describes relativity and balance, in which supposed opposites are just phases in an endless cycle in which each eternally turns into its opposite and vice versa. Life does not follow a linear vector, but “bends back upon itself to come full circle to the realisation that all is one and all is well.” (Smith, 1998). Taoists even see good and evil as relative: “He who feels punctured must once have been a bubble.” (Tao Te Ching).

Life and death as complementary cycles in the Tao.

There is the globe,

The foundation of my bodily existence.

It wears me out with work and duties,

It gives me rest in old age,

It gives me peace in death.

For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life

Will also give me what I need in death. (Tao Te Ching)

Active Taoists aim to increase the amount of Tao that they can access. They talk about ch’i, which literally means breath but refers to the power of the Tao that practitioners experience flowing through them or being blocked. Practitioners aim to further the flow of ch’i.

Active Taoists work with matter, movement and mind. Practices have arisen such as acupuncture, meditation, Chinese medicinal herbs, and t’ai chi chuan. This last united yin yang philosophy, martial art and meditation to draw ch’i from the cosmos and remove internal blocks to the flow of ch’i.

Taoists meditators attempt to empty the mind so that the Tao can enter the self. Physical postures and mental techniques are not dissimilar to those of the Hindu raja yoga. In China, Taoists wanted to focus the ch’i they gathered through meditation and yoga, and transmit it psychically to the community.Meditators aim to cleanse and purify their minds and bodies of emotional disturbances and desires in order to reach the mind’s original purity and stillness. They aim in this way to realise the Tao, the ultimate truth. This would be experienced as a sense of joy: everything falling into place.

Religious Taoists built on China’s folk religious practices and Buddhist influences. The Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist Teachings,” emerged in the second century AD, with Lao Tzu as one of the three originating deities from whom sprung sacred texts which outline rituals for channeling the life force in ways which could be called “magical.”

My Reflections on the Tao

The Tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal Name. (Tao Te Ching)

When I first read these words, they came home to me, they resonated with me.

‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.’ I really like how the Tao Te Ching, right up front, acknowledges the unnameability of spirit. The writer gets to the heart of what it means to be talking about something that is beyond and within, that escapes language because it came before language.

It reminds me of the Huston Smith chapter about the indigenous spiritualities of the First Peoples. Smith talks about how significant it is that in, for example, Aboriginal Australian culture, spirituality was experienced in a non-written way. This intrigued me – how would we see the world if we did not write the words down? Then I reflected upon how different this is to the Christian new testament: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and Christ is the Word made flesh.’

There was something formless and perfect

Before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao. (Tao Te Ching)

But back to the Tao Te Ching, which strips things right back to their inner nature. When you do this with the universe itself, what do you have left? Nothing. Literally, no thing. So how do you talk about it? ‘For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.’

I love this line. It is so direct, and I really like how it has been written in the first person voice, which is really different to say, the Christian bible or the Quran, which are written from a third person narrative voice which gives it an aura of authority, you know, the objective voice of history. In this passage from the Tao Te Ching, the use of first person really brings it home that this is just a regular human being writing these words, doing her best to communicate something which it is impossible to communicate. The basic humour of that is something which I think really colours Taoism, with its crazy riddles and joking monks. There is something earthy about it which really resonates with me, and also something which reminds me of my Chinese ancestry – there is a matter of fact-ness, a down to earthiness, a laughing pragmatism about the Taoist way of relating to the world which I just love.

I think I also see in this use of first person the importance of developing my own personal voice and narrative when it comes to interfaith ministry. It is a profoundly uncomfortable act for me as a female, and an Australian with our deeply culturally ingrained British reserve, to talk about myself. But I am coming around to seeing how useful it will be to find a way to speak in the first person, as the author of the Tao Te Ching did.

 

The Tao gives birth to all beings,

Nourishes them, maintains them,

Cares for them, comforts them, protects them,

Takes them back to itself,

Creating without possessing,

Acting without expecting,

Guiding without interfering.

That is why love of the Tao

Is in the very nature of things.

I love this passage because when I read it, to me it sounded like an excellent set of directions for how to parent – to be like the Tao – and quite possibly, I imagine, how to minister. ‘Create without possessing, act without expecting, guide without interfering.’ That is the best way to parent a child, and I can see myself coming back to this as a guide to how to be an interfaith minister.

References

Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. (1998).

My Crib Notes on Hinduism

270px-Aum_calligraphy_Red.svg-2For my Interfaith course, I have to do homework on the world’s major religions. I thought I might share my crib notes here in case anyone else is curious about these faiths. I can heartily recommend Huston Smith’s book if you want to see where I got all these excellent insights from.

The Hindu Approach to Finding God

The Hindu journey is to realise one’s total being; to tap into infinity deep inside the self.

There are four disciplines, or methods of training, called “yogas,” which can lead to the integration of the human spirit with the God deep inside it.

“How to come to Brahman and remain in touch with Brahmanl how to become identified with Brahman, living out of it; how to become divine while still on Earth…is the quest that has inspired and deified the human spirit in India throughout the ages.” (Zimmer, 1969: 80-81).

A person chooses their preferred yoga based on their personality traits as they relate to spirituality:

  • Primarily reflective: jnana yoga
  • Primarly emotional: bhakti yoga
  • Primarly active: karma yoga
  • Primarly experimental: raja yoga

The first steps of all four yogas are to do with morality: non-injury, honesty, non-steling, self-control, cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, and a desire to reach the goal. The law of karma refers to the moral law of cause and effect from one incarnation to the next, creating a sense of total personal responsibility.

Jnana yoga: The Way to “God” Through Thought

This is the yoga meant for me. It is the path of knowledge: an “intuitive disernment that transforms, turning the knower eventually into that which she knows.” (Smith, 1997). This yoga is for people given to the life of the mind.

The three key stages towards deeply understanding that you are more than your finite self are:

  1. Learning that your essential being is Being by reading and listening to teachers.
  2. Thinking and reflecting on everyday language and metaphors which point towards the infinite Self.
  3. Shifting your self-identification to the abiding Self.

In stage 3, instead of thinking, “I am walking down the street,” the jnani might think, “There goes Jackie walking down the street.”

During and outside of meditation periods, the jnani would constantly remind herself that she is Spirit, witnessing the activities of a finite self. The objective is to split the consciousness of ego and the infinite Self, Atman. This cultivates detachment and forces decreased identification with the “surface self” and increased identification with the deeper, infinite Being. This Being is transpersonal, infinite.

The jnani is satisfied with the idea of “God” as Nirguna Brahman, “God-without-attributes”: utter reality, infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss.

Bhakti yoga: The Way to “God” Through Love 

This is the most popular of the four yogas, designed for people who are best motivated by emotion. The bhakta will not conceive of “God” as one’s deepest Self, which is what the jnani does. The bhakta conceives of “God” as other. The bhakti’s goal is not to identify with God, but to love God.

In bhakti yoga, people utilise images of God, rituals and myths. Huston Smith quotes a common invocation used by Hindu priests:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:

Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;

Thou ar without form, but I worship you in these forms;

Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.

Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations. (Smith, 1998).

The bhakta will engage in a number of useful practices which cultivate this selfless love of God such as:

  • Japam: the practice of repeating God’s name all day long
  • Ringing the changes on love: utilising different relational images of God to cultivate the various modes of love e.g. parental, sibling, friend, lover
  • Chosen ideal: developing a lifelong devotion to an ishta, one of the manifestations of God

The bhakti utilises the Saguna Brahman, “God-with-attributes”: a personal conception of God.

Karma yoga: The Way to “God” Through Work

This yoga is suited to people with an active procilivity. God can be found by throwing yourself into work, which becomes a “vehicle for self-transcendence” (Smith, 1997).

The type of karma yoga you choose to practise will depend on temperament. For those who are reflectively motivated, karma yoga can be practised via jnana (knowledge). For those who are emotionally motivated, karma yoga can be practised by bhakti (devoted service).

For the jnani practising karma yoga, working without thought of the self helps to cut away her egotism until she is no longer separate from God. She works in detachment from her surface self, as the eternal Self observing the action. She does not work for gratification of the ego.

“The knower of Truth, being centres in the Self should think, ‘I do nothing at all.’ While seeing, breathing, speaking, letting go, holding, opening and closing the eyes, he observes only senses moving amongst other sense objects.” (Swami Swarupananda, 1933: 125).

For the bhakti practising karma yoga, work is done for God’s sake rather than for the self. “Each task becomes a sacred ritual.” (Smith, 1998).

Raja yoga: The Way to “God” Through Psychophysical Exercise

This yoga is for those with a scientific mind. The raji will experiment on her own mind by conducting prescribed mental exercises and then observing what happens. The meditator tests the hypothesis that the human self is made up of layers: the physical body, the mind, the sub-conscious, and Being.

The meditator will abstain from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality and greed in order to make it easier to engage in introverted investigation. She will also observe cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the divine.

She will then practise the asanas, which are physical postures of balance and ease somewhere between drowsiness and discomfort, creating a physical state of relaxed attentiveness. The lotus position is the most well-known of these meditative postures.

The meditator will train her breathing to prevent disruptions of concentration. She will also train her single-pointed concentration so that she is not disrupted by external stimuli such as noises, or internal thoughts.

Concentration then deepens into meditation, and the object which she concentrates on becomes merged with her self, making self-concsciousness disappear.

The final state which the meditator may gain is samadhi, which means “together with God,” or “comepltely absorbed in God.” In this state, form itself falls away. The mind continues to “think,” but of no thing. It is “filled with that which is separated from all qualities, neither this nor that, without form, without a name.” (Smith, 1998).

Stages of Life

In Hindu thinking, people’s lives follow four approximate stages:

  1. Student: a period focused on cultivating habits and practices
  2. Householder: In this stage, a person focuses on satisfying human wants: pleasure (through marriage and family), success (through vocation), and duty )through participation in the community)
  3. Retirement: Withdrawal from social obligations to engage in spiritual exploration
  4. Sannyasin: Return to the world as a person who has discovered the difference between the finite and infinite self, often as a mendicant or economically independent person who has no more interest in the body

My Reflections

“God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.” (Sri Ramakrishna, 1903).

I really like the inclusive spirit of Hinduism, which seems to embrace Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, even Christianity as different paths to God. Naturally in a social and cultural context this does not always play out as religious tolerance – witness Gandhi’s assassination, or anti-Moslem riots. But the philosophy itself (as with most world religions, when you get under their cultural surface) is incredibly open-hearted and open-minded.

The ideas of the different yogas for different personality types in Hinduism really makes sense to me. I have always tried to shoehorn myself into a devotional model, as that was all that was ever offered in my Catholic upbringing (I didn’t have any exposure to Christian mystics in suburban Australia!).

Reading about the jnana yoga approach, I felt like I was seeing a place for myself in a religious framework for the first time. As Hindus acknowledge, we all utilise various aspects of all the paths, and I also get a lot from meditation and work (the raja yoga and karma yoga). But I have never felt comfortable “naming” God or praying to a He, or She for that matter.

The chapters in the Bhagavad-Gita which seems to outline the jnana yoga approach for me best are “Religion by the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery” and “The Manifesting of the One and Manifold” (Trans. Arnold, 1993).

“Receive and strive to embrace

The mystery majestical! My Being –

Creating all, sustaining all – still dwells

Outside of all!

 

“See! As the shoreless airs

Move in the measureless space, but are not space,

(And space were space without the moving airs);

So all things are in Me, but not I.”

 

I also like the following passage, because of Arjuna’s reaction, which is a beautiful way of describing how humans cannot stand to behold the Unnameable for long.

“So did Pandu’s Son behold

All this universe enfold

All its huge diversity

Into one vast shape, and be

Visible, and viewed, and blended

In one Body – subtle, splendid,

Nameless – th’ All-comprehending

God Of Gods, the Never-Ending

Deity!

 

But, sore amazed,

Thrilled, o’erfilled, dazzled, and dazed,

Arjuna knelt; and bowed his head,

And clasped his palms; and cried…”

Key Texts

There are a LOT of Hindu texts. The “Vedas” are “revealed texts” which include four main parts:

  • Samhita or Mantra (prayers and devotional hymns)
  • Brahmanas (commentaries and priestly texts)
  • Aranyakas (rituals)
  • Upanishads (esoteric philosophical texts)

The Upanishads are the most influential amongst these, and in modern Hinduism the Bhagavad-Gita is the primary scripture. For a more detailed account of these texts, take a look at Arvind Sharma’s book.

References

Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Edwin Arnold (trans.) The Bhagavad-Gita. (Toronto: Dover Publications, 1993).

Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, 1951. Reprint. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1969).

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Swami Swarupananda, trans., Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita (Mayavati, Himalayas: Adavita Ashrama, 1933).

Swami Abhedananda, The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: The Vedanta Society, 1903).

Interfaith ministry

I have just been accepted by The New Seminary into the ministerial program. I’ll tell you about it.

I have been looking for a way to pray in community for years. I guess you can take a girl out of Catholicism, but you can’t take the Catholicism out of the girl. A long time ago I started questioning the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and Karen Armstrong’s books helped me immensely to understand Catholicism and other religions as ways of translating the unknowable into terms humans can deal in.

Unfortunately religion gets caught up in culture and power, and you end up with institutional disagreements and simplified, mass messages about ‘truth’ which have nothing to do with genuine spiritual exploration.

I started reading more theologists and philosophers and began to understand the World in terms similar to philosopher and writer Marilynne Robinson:

  • Faith is an attitude towards life, rather than belief in a specific set of facts
  • I embrace the presence of mystery
  • Faith is a process, an attitude of wonder, an openness to joy as well as the experience of deep suffering

Recently I finished the second draft of my novel, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (working title – yes, it’s a Psalm). The day I returned home from writers retreat I felt this weird sensation which I soon identified as happiness. I was free of the book which had been my companion for the last five years. Suddenly I found myself following my nose, so to speak, and this meant researching how to become a celebrant for funerals. In this process I stumbled across the interfaith ministry course which Stephanie Dowrick had done in 2005. After researching some more and attending the interfaith service at Sydney’s Uniting Church, I decided it was the course of action.

Today I was accepted into the interfaith ministry program of the New Seminary. I had a chat with Dr Jay Speights, who is the convenor of the course and sounds like a really genuine friendly fellow who during our conversation kept discounting my tuition fees unprompted. I will do the course largely online, with two group sessions per month in real time on a Monday morning here, Sunday evening in the USA.  I also participate remotely in a number of intensives. Next June I am required to attend a group retreat in New York (such an imposition 😉 and then upon completion, I will be ordained as an interfaith minister.

The course focuses on world religions, pastoral care and interfaith service. Every month I am required to make site visits to various religious sites of worship, and the course is run by ministers of various faiths. For pastoral care I study and do practical exercises, and am required to find a local practice which can supervise my activities.

I have also enrolled in a celebrancy course in Australia so I can learn about and be qualified to conduct life ceremonies – deaths, births and marriages, so to speak. I am most passionate about funerals, forgiveness and naming ceremonies – I REALLY, REALLY think that everyone should have access to meaningful ceremonies which mark life’s key moments. I think these ceremonies make a difference to us.

I don’t really know where this will all take me. I don’t really care. It just feels 100% like the appropriate thing for me to be doing.

I look forward with excitement and trepidation to sharing what the courses offer with anyone who might be interested.

 

 

Second draft

Well, Varuna The Writers House delivered. I have a second draft of my novel! I even have a working title: Fearlessly and Wonderfully Made.

At first I panicked at the idea of producing something in a week. Then I called my husband who gave me permission to sleep in, shop and get massages and do no writing at all, if that is what I needed. So I did that for a day, and then I found myself writing until the not-so-bitter end.

Hurray for Varuna! Thank goodness Mick Dark made this incredible gift to writers: space and time and quiet.

 

 

In memory of Ally

Today is the anniversary of my sister Allison’s birthday.

In honour of Ally I would like to share the children’s story which my talented niece and I are working on. We want to help kids understand that disabled kids are just like them: heroes in their own minds.

IN MY WORLD

(by Jackie Bailey with illustrations forthcoming by Sophie Cooke)

Hello! I am Ally.

In your world:

I use a wheelchair to move around
A tube helps me eat food (mostly brown :-( )
My mouth doesn’t always make the right sound

But people don’t know what adventures abound

In my world:

‘Take that!’ I shout at the Sea Monster Snail
Who is trying to eat Queen Ellie’s tail
I catch him in netting of strongest seaweed

The Queen gives me treasure for my great deed!

Then to the sky to Sophie, Queen Fairy,
Prince Andy and Cam, who are fighting Witch Scary
‘No you don’t!’ I shout and lasso her wand

They present me with a chocolate pond!

I fly to help King Elliot the Brave
Trapped by Dragon McDread in a cold and dark cave
I sneak in and tickle the Dragon’s round belly

The King thanks me with rivers and rainbows of jelly!

Now to Lord Kyle and Lady Jacinta
Who are being attacked by Shriek Owls of Winter
I brandish my sword and away the birds hoot

The gracious pair thank me with a train that goes, ‘Toot!’

I race to find Princess Bec and her brothers
Hiding from Ghosts of Shivers and Shudders
‘Whoo-whoo!’ I cry – the ghosts runs away

We celebrate with cake and we run, dance and play.

To Elves Maddi and Isaac’s assistance I swoop
They’ve been locked in a cage by a Very Mean Brute
I flick them the key and wrestle him down

They place on my head a golden crown!

But now…..

In your world and mine it is time for bed;

Mummy sings me a song and kisses my head;

Daddy tells me a story of queens and foul foes,

And brave girls like me, who are always heroes.

You and I look and sound different, it’s true
But we’re really the same;
We’re kids, through and through
If we ever meet, just look in my eyes
You’ll see a

fairy
knight
princess

up, up, up
I fly!

The power politics of (under-) funding the arts

Image appears on Www.education.nswtf.org.au

Image appears on Www.education.nswtf.org.au

I have had this question bubbling around in my head for weeks (months, years). Why do Australian governments fund the arts so poorly?

It’s not an economically rational decision. There is ample evidence of the value of the arts to the economy. Politicians are intelligent and educated people, and can understand the concept of investment in an industry at certain nodes of influence having a catalytic effect, leading to much greater returns.

Cuts to the arts are often post-rationalised as an economic decision. In much the same way as I can rationalise buying yet another black cardigan (I’ll always use it, it goes with everything), the government uses economic reasons to rationalise selling pretty much anything. 20% cuts to higher education – ‘hard economic decisions’; freezing the Medicare payment schedule – ‘hard economic decisions; cuts to CSIRO, the ABC, and pretty much every other public institution which Australian people still actually have some faith in and respect for – ditto, ditto, ditto.

‘Hard economic decisions’ sounds paternal, responsible, vaguely Calvinistic, appealing to our epigenetic belief that pain is noble and necessary for the greater good. In reality of course, economic rationalism is just a marketing strategy for conservative government agendas. There is literally no economic sense in cutting the arts. There is even less economic sense in cutting something as essential as higher education or under-funding schools (the latter is increasing in the 2016 budget, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of quality education that was derived from actual research and evidence).

How do you argue with irrational people?

There are a few, barely visible factors which I think it might be useful to observe and unpack, which might help us to come to some sort of answer to this question.

  1. The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda.
  2. Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens.
  3. The end of democracy is nigh.

The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda

This is not exactly a state secret I am revealing here. But it is worth bearing this in mind. A free market, to some, means total laissez faire capitalism (think pre-GFC America) and to others (think Keynes, the economist darling of the arts) a market regulated to protect competition for the benefit of ‘consumers.’

At the moment in Australia we are finding out just what a free market means to our newest Prime Minister. So far, it seems to mean, ‘This government is not paying for anything that someone else will eventually cough up for.’

It seems sensible until you realise what it means in practice. For example, you can count on parents to work their fingers to the bone to send their children to university, even if the fees become astronomically high. When you love someone, that’s what you do. In the process, the parents may sacrifice their health and housing security to do so; and ultimately there will probably end up being far fewer Australian students at university from less affluent backgrounds.

The government can also count on artists practising their art despite not being funded to do so. When you love something, that’s what you do. Of course, there will be far fewer artists making art, and far fewer artists from less affluent backgrounds. But so what? It’s still taking place, right?

And then there is the argument – why don’t philanthropists pay for the art?

The problem with philanthropy is that it is not a meritocracy, as public funding is (meant to be). Philanthropists can donate to whatever they like, and so they should – but greater reliance on this purse means a greater concentration of funding in the hands of artists who can access power. It is the same problem as raising fees in higher education – a meritocratic system which enabled people like me and my siblings to escape poverty and ‘economically participate’ is less and less accessible to the scrappers, the underdogs, the people on the outside looking in.

wish things worked the way that the free market philosophers believe they do. I wish they did.

But they don’t. Free market politicians in this day and age are as dangerously innocent of reality and as frighteningly fanatic as communists in agrarian Russia, 1917. Just look at America to see how well free market economics works out for the little guy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Foucault was on to something. Politicians use their power to entrench the status quo for themselves and the class they identify with. Cuts to education, freezes to Medicare, and cuts to the small-to-medium arts sector are all manifestations of this primitive act. They might even believe in it as they do it. Missionary zeal is never not zealous.

That’s why you have to elect a government which identifies with the class of the majority of people. With the working and middle-class, who like choice and enterprise but also like education and health care. Who like sport but also want their kids to be able to go to the library or the gallery or learn an instrument at school, public school.

I don’t think there is a political party in Australia which currently identifies with the class of the majority of people. I think the current government markets itself well in an aspirational sense – you know, the classic ‘if you buy this car you’ll get the beautiful girl’ – ‘if you vote for me you’ll be well off and have good-looking white friends who accept you.’ It has convinced people it represents who they want to become, as opposed to who they are. By comparison, I have no idea who the ALP represents. The ALP seems to have been experiencing the kind of identity crisis reminiscent of my teenage years (patched overalls, bandannas and brand name sunglasses. I was young. The ALP has no such excuse).

Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens

The other point I want to make is that the arts are viewed through a gendered lens, and whenever your industry or sector is viewed through the G-lens, you are under-valued. Social service sectors associated with the feminine virtues – childcare, social work, nursing, teaching – are amongst our poorest paid professions. Within sectors there are gendered hierarchies – criminal law or corporate law vs community law centres; brain surgeons vs paediatric surgeons; the big arts companies, associated with power and old money and status, vs the rest of the arts. Then of course there are gendered hierarchies within hierarchies – school principals and CEOs of social service companies – still mostly blokes, despite the majority of their workforce being women; heads of major arts companies still mostly men.

My husband gives me hope, noting that sectors like banking and finance will be disrupted via technology over the next decade or so, but it will be much harder to disrupt the social services sectors, in which humans will be ‘much harder to disrupt.’

I think arts are seen through the G-lens. This is because it is not seen as a ‘productive’ sector (even though we know it actually is – but like much of feminine-gendered work, the outcomes seem indirect or invisible to the gendered eye).

Because of the G-lens, arts work is not viewed as ‘real’ (i.e. men’s) work by people outside the arts. Consequently arts is stuck with a bad image as the ‘pretend’ work of ‘people who’ve never known a day’s real work.’ As soon as you say ‘I work in the arts,’ people roll their eyes. It’s like you just said, ‘my biweekly mani-pedi in Toorak.’ Because the ‘arts’ are seen as a nice to have, as something fun, as something you might do because you love it but not for the money, then you are immediately identified as someone who is either a ‘bludger’ on the tax payer (i.e their) coin, or a member of the moneyed class. In reality, most of the arts sector is impoverished and many are attempting to speak truth to power and other culturally necessary acts of resistance.

The other thing about gendered sectors is that the work they do and the value they create makes positivists like free market believers uncomfortable. The exchange involved in arts is about people, relationships, connection and spark. It is an energy transfer and by nature its impact is largely unseen. Arts experiences are gifts and cannot be made more efficient or productive. The value of an arts experience is like the value you derive from a teacher who actually cares about you, or a counsellor who genuinely responds to where you are at right now. It saves you. It changes your life. Authentic connection is so hard to come by in this free market age, where everything has a price and everything can be made more cost-effective (I was just reading that funding cuts will see callers to mental health helplines asked automated questions so they can be directed to the appropriate mental health area. This is an attempt to streamline helplines rather than fund specialist helplines. Imagine calling a helpline and getting asked to dial 1 for suicidal ideation, 2 for loneliness, 3 for eating disorders…? You don’t have to be that imaginative to see that helpline might not be very helpful). But in this era, the ineffable is dubious.

The end of democracy is nigh (well not entirely, but come on, got your attention)

Since the late 1990s, we have seen a contempt for the ethics and norms of public service arise in the corridors of power. I don’t mean everyone in parliament – there are lots of good people working for their electorates. But I think that there is a clique of political types who learned under Howard’s tutelage (SievX, children overboard, ‘I was not informed’) just how much room there really was to manoeuvre before you actually broke the law.

In the arts, this was brought home in 2015 when the Australia Council unceremoniously lost a huge chunk of its funding. I and others were speechless at the sheer audacity of such an act, flouting long-valued conventions of arms-length funding and the norms of policy-making in consultation with the sector and based on evidence.

It’s not so much the end of democracy I am talking about here, as the end of the concept of public service. 2015 highlighted for me that there is, amongst some decision-makers, a lack of respect for the norms of public service – evidence-based policy making, careful consideration of the public interest, transparency and accountability of ministerial funding decisions….It’s seems as though there are some decision-makers who hold us, the people they are supposed to serve, in contempt. These decision-makers behave like a passive aggressive friend who calls you at 6.00 am on a long weekend to allegedly wish you a happy birthday (you know who you are). How do you call them on it? It’s not illegal. But it’s clearly not right.

 

Top ten tips for responding to a mourner

Today I bundle under my new doonah cover, bought for its primary colours in a nod to the need for cheering up. My husband has taken our daughter to the playground, which she was unimpressed about, sensing perhaps that mummy’s retreat to bed reflected more than a sore throat (although there is that of course, too – the low immune response of grief taking its daily toll). Or perhaps she was just hungry. Who knows. She left the house swathed in a red and white check sheet which her father also used to wear as a boy, both generations emulating superheroes ready to fight off the baddies. She is my little hero, but sometimes I need a break. I feel the need to apologise for this to the gods that be, in case they think I no longer deserve her.

It has been what, three weeks? I can’t tell – since my sister died. I have started to feel guilty for still feeling bad. Shouldn’t I have moved on by now? Shouldn’t I be getting on with things? I read about one woman’s explanation, several years after losing a child – she still misses her everyday, but sometimes she is happy. I know losing my sister cannot be compared to losing a child, but I felt like I knew the sentiment.

I have begun to dig in a little, not wanting to forget my sister, not wanting to be happy just yet, as it would somehow dishonour her, mock my own grief, belittle her importance to me. I get angry at people who want to cheer me up, as if they are saying, it doesn’t matter that much. Of course that is not what people are saying – I know that. But that’s how it feels. The best responses are when friends don’t ask, how are you, but ask, how was this week – acknowledging the context, the different set of benchmarks you are operating within. But we in the West encounter death so rarely nowadays, that we don’t know how to sit with it; we don’t have the experience to know what a mourning person might need.

I don’t want this to sound like a complaint – I have received love and kindness from numerous sources, and I am lucky for this. Perhaps it is just the nature of grief, that you cast about, looking for something to fill the gap of the love you have lost. I do think it is also the lack of some kind of acknowledging ritual, or a period of mourning, something to dignify this loss, something to socially ‘see’ it.

The other thing that happens is, some people seem to think you should be less sad if the person who died had been ill or are elderly. Like it should be easier to lose someone who clearly was on the way towards death anyway. And maybe there is truth in this – the grief for Ally is for me somehow cleaner than it was for dad, whose death was a shock. But I want to scream to the world (and I think I and my siblings did this at her funeral): just because Ally was disabled does not mean I miss her less now. She was a whole person to me, right to the end.

When someone dies, you lose everything of them and you together. You lose the person  who you knew as a child, as an adult; you lose your history with them even if you still have your memories. You lose their complex presence inside your life, your skin, your flesh and mind. You don’t even know exactly what warmth they provided until it is gone. I suppose this is why I am drawn to quantum physical explanations of the soul. Because the loss feels so very very physical.

I have wonderful friends and loved ones taking care of me right now viagra india. Drawing on their sweet actions, I offer the following advice to people wondering how best to relate to a mourner in their lives.

Even if you have little experience with grief yourself, I hope the following will give you a few simple ‘ins’ so that seeing a mourner does not make you feel helpless.

Tips for responding to a mourner

1. When you hear of the loss, even if belated, I recommend that you send a card, call and/or better yet, send a small caring gift or token. Don’t SMS – or if you do, follow it up with something more tangible – eg even just an email, if it is a loving one, preferably more than one line.

2.  If the mourner does not return your calls, you can send an email or a card or persist in trying to call go on. Keep trying. It’s just that they don’t have any energy, but your thoughtfulness in persisting will make them feel loved.

3. A physical gift or token as I mentioned above, can be really appreciated. It could be chocolate, your favourite relaxing tea blend, or perhaps a massage oil. Whatever it is, as long as it is something you have thought about and want to share with the mourner – as long as it represents that you care – it doesn’t matter what it is or how small.

4. The mourner might not want to talk about it. That’s not about you, it’s about their process. I recommend occasionally offering subtle openings to talk about it if they want to – even if they said they don’t – they might change their mind half way through your conversation, once they have dealt with the initial discomfort of being re-submerged in their loss.

5. If you can, attend the funeral. Even if you think, I didn’t know the person who died all that well, it is a much, much appreciated show of support at a time when the mourner is feeling a great rent in their usual fabric of love.

6. Your mourner might still be feeling up and down, occasionally sad, depressed or angry, for many months and years. Give them a bit of rope, but you should not have to be on eggshells around the mourner, and if they take their anger out on you, it’s best if you tell them that is what they  are doing – they should not do that and if they feel angry, they need to find ways to let that out. It is never OK to let a mourner make you their doormat.

7. Be aware that some of the mourner’s moods are not about you; you don’t need to (nor can you) fix them; all you need to do is be present and acknowledge the pain. Often your mourner is just looking for permission to feel whatever they are feeling, even after time has passed, because our society denies the mourner that permission. But you can support the mourner with the permission to grieve, and you may find the mourner starts feeling better sooner as a result.

8. I think I want to reiterate that point: it is not your job to make the mourner feel better. Don’t take that on. We tend to try to fix things in our society, but grief cannot be fixed. It has to be lived through and loss has to be integrated into who we are after someone has died. It is up to the mourner to tell you what they need, and it is up to you to make sure they are not milking you dry emotionally.

9. If a mourner doesn’t know what they need, you might be able to suggest things (like time off – the main things we need are time and permission). If you think the mourner is becoming maudlin (ie re-traumatising themselves for no benefit), try distraction, fresh air, sun and light exercise. Bringing up politics and things happening in the wider world can also provide perspective, and anything which gets the mourner laughing is good for them. But don’t force these things – just bring them up gently, into conversation or activities. Let them take effect rather than didactically (or self-importantly) telling someone to get out of their rut.

10. Hugs, physical touch, and checking in as time passes – these should all be top of the list really. I think this is why I talk about gifts – most of my close friends live a long distance away, so gifts are a substitute for visit and touch.  If you live near a mourner, try to squeeze in a few drop-ins more than usual, and check in as time goes on too, even just a phone call here and there. Hugs generate oxytocin and connection, which the mourner desperately needs. And checking in is a great way of letting the mourner know you care, and that they are still allowed to be sad if they need to be – you acknowledge this each time you offer your open arms or ears.

Thank you to all the excellent souls who have done all of the above for me. You know who you are. xxxx

 

Grief and pain

The pain has hit.

Today was the first day I did not think to myself, ‘I can’t believe she is gone.’ Now that the buffer of shock has dissipated, the pain can be felt, as if the body was waiting for the mind to be ready to handle it. Just.

Grief feels like a weight on my chest, a nauseating swill in my gut. Today it hit me in the car driving to the shops with my darling husband and daughter. I felt like I could not move my head, or get up from the chair until it let me. It hit again later, when we got home – luckily it was nap time for my little person, so I went to bed and slept for two hours, then got up and waited for the lead to leave my system whilst I watched my husband do all the chores and play with our daughter.

I wanted to know why this happens. When Dad died, the Internet was still in its unreliable infancy. This time, I could ask Dr Google.

Scientists have documented the following physiological impacts of bereavement:

  • neuroendocrine activation (cortisol response)
  • altered sleep (electroencephhalography changes)
  • immune imbalance (reduced T-lymphocyte proliferation)
  • inflammatory cell mobilisation (platelet activation and increased vWF-ag)
  • hemodynamic changes (heart rate and blood pressure)

This explains why I feel exhausted but can’t sleep when I would normally like to. Why my fuse is short and my heart shakes. Why I have been fighting various lurgies and allergies this week. Why my stomach clenches as if something terrible or wonderful is about to happen – or I am about to throw up. The heart genuinely aches; the body is truly labouring with less air and under more strain. Doing the daily chores feels like acclimatising to high altitude mountain climbing, because you essentially are doing exactly that.

According to the research, these physiological responses are greatest in the early months after bereavement. In spousal bereavement or the loss of a child, the survivors experience increased mortality (particularly if they are elderly and so have less immune response in the first place): dying of a broken heart is real.

I wonder why the sorrow waited until now, when I am preparing to get back to work on Monday. Unfortunately, you can’t dictate to your body or your spirit a clear schedule; a project management approach to grief.

There are websites which provide advice about living with and through the physical pain of grief (I won’t list them here, but just google grief and you will see loads of heartfelt advice and suggestions). Practcal advice includes having massages, eating well, snuggling, and listening to sympathetic music. The advice I will try to take regarding working – instead of making to-do lists, make a list of everything you got done at the end of each day; say no to things you don’t have the capacity for; get more sleep if you can, and exercise.

When my dad died 15 years ago, I was very hard on friends whom I didn’t feel responded the way they should have. I was young, and they were young, and I was sensitive and in shock. Everyone responds differently – as one website suggested, one should not expect to get the reactions one wants, but be open to forgiving and accepting this. I was not, last time around. I want to be this time, because I know my own pain last time made me lose more than I needed to when my dad passed away.

I have received some beautiful and really interesting replies about my soul searching posts. People have given me their own insights and I am hugely grateful. Does anyone else have any ideas, or experiences to share? I am so intensely curious – what do you think happens after death, based on your experience? And if you don’t think there is a ‘soul’ or ‘energy blueprint’ after death, how do you find meaning for your life?

I may have seized on quantum physics and the soul as a way to avoid feeling the full terror of there being no point at all to each individual life. If you have a different solution to this, please share it.

 

 

 

 

Quantum physics and the soul

Today I woke up sick with a cold. It is as if my body, upon hearing me think about starting back to work today, had other, more realistic ideas.

I am watching comfort DVDs and eating the chocolate which came courtesy of Julie Lovell. It feels surreal, using the old tricks of the trade to ease my way through depression for this particular affliction.

I have been resisting thinking of my sister as a phenomenon of the past, the way I spent years not thinking of her as disabled, but simply as an individual of different characteristics to most. That was until she herself described herself as disabled but not in a defeated way, simply as a matter of fact, an aspect of her reality to deal with. But she is not here to tell me, in her straightforward way, ‘Well, being dead….’

I can’t feel her any more.

Those first few days, as I wrote in my previous post, I could feel her confused soul, seeking its way forward. But after that, I have felt not so much nothing as very distinctly that she is not part of the world I inhabit any more. There is a coldness to it, and maybe this is an artefact of numbing myself to the reality, or maybe it is because she has passed into a different realm of unknowability, or maybe it is because, as I am starting to believe, she no longer exists as Allison but as a set of frequencies unattached and unaware of itself.

After my last post, I googled ‘quantum physics and the soul’ and discovered that I am not the first person to theorise the soul as a set of coded frequencies. Several physicists – one at Cambridge University, one at Princeton, and one at the Max Planck Institute – have theorised similarly that this is possible. (This one is the most similar to my thinking about wave-particle duality and the potential for the soul to continue as a set of frequencies).

I wonder if the soul has no mass, in which case, it could theoretically continue forever unless interrupted. But I also think that such a post-death collection of frequencies would be unlikely to be self-aware without the physicality of a body / matter, and therefore would not be capable of directing itself into another existence, unless it is the soul of a great meditative practitioner whose brain frequencies have been altered through years of practice to actually incorporate some sort of directive awareness. If the soul has mass, then it exists in space-time like the rest of us and cannot continue indefinitely, except perhaps in its wave-aspect. Hmm.

I have started reading Tibetan Buddhist texts on what happens at and after death, and the theories are similar to mine and those of the quantum physicists, except that they are far more detailed. The Buddhists theorise that the ‘soul’ is shaped by the life of the person (which makes sense – the brain is elastic and shapes itself according to genetics, environment and experience). They believe that good karmic works during life set the soul up for a positive rebirth. In quantum physics, you could describe this as the soul’s set of frequencies having a predisposition to connection (in life, known as ‘compassion’), which means that the soul is drawn to similar frequencies or quantum states. Potentially, this could be a new life. The soul blueprint is absorbed and imprinted in that of the physical being it has joined, so you would have no idea of it but in this way, knowledge is imprinted and continued and evolves with each physical iteration.

OK now I can see I am sounding crazy. But the fact is, if there is a soul, there must be a material explanation for it. Otherwise it is just crazy talk. We should never rule out anything that might be possible simply because of the prejudices of the times we live in. We would still think the earth is flat and the centre of the universe if we did that.

The Buddhists talk about different realms which the soul enters after physical death, and possible ‘reincarnations.’ These depend on how well the soul can direct itself after death, and how trained for connection it is. In gross material terms, I can imagine a swirling soup of soul space, except I know this isn’t what it would look like because that would have been detectable. In quantum physics terms, I think it more likely that the soul (perhaps I should call it a quantum blueprint? There must be a less loaded term…), if eternal in its wave aspect, writes itself into the quantum layer and yet can interact with matter, and possibly is attracted to matter, and so may at times iterate in the physical world.

Where is this leading me? To other worlds? To other universes? If the soul can exist, does exist, at a wave level, then it could feasibly exist everywhere, at all times, massless, echoing throughout the vacuum, a potentiality encapsulated in the DNA of the sub-atomic multiverse. What then makes it a physical reality? Does it have an inherent attraction to physical form? To – life? I don’t want to ask the question,’ why’? because this goes in the wrong direction – it starts to assume without proof that there is a choice behind all of this. Better to ask, ‘what’ and ‘how,’ at this point.

Do we encapsulate all possible selves within us? Is this what it means that we are all interconnected, that we are everyone’s mother? Outside of spacetime and inside spacetime simultaneously? I used to hypothesise as a child, that Jesus taught us how to access eternity right now, in a moment. Perhaps this is what I meant? That eternity is living within us?

This is contingent on the soul having no mass. If it does have a mass then that could explain why it is attracted to matter at some point, rather than continuing indefinitely. Perhaps it does both? Perhaps it has Higgs bosons and wave aspects simultaneously?

Perhaps I am just looking for an explanation for what is really just a projection of my own mind, desperate for a way to sublimate its loss?

Here I am stuck. Any ideas, any other amateur quantum physicists out there?

 

 

 

 

Religion and death

It is at times of death that religion has its greatest potency.

It had been a long time since I had been to mass. As I listened to the liturgy during my sister’s farewell, I could hear the rhythms of the service in a way I had not as a regular attendee. I heard the constant beats – death, hope, death, resurrection, death, death, death. In the midst of life we are in death. In the midst of death we are in life.

I often think about religion and faith – most often when I am driving and my mind has some time to itself. But on Tuesday at my dear sister’s funeral, I thought about religion in a new way. As something you can only really think seriously about at a time like this, when the veil between us and the enormity that humanity is part of is at its thinnest. I thought, This is when I should think about religion. This is what religion is for – to prepare us for death.

Buddhism is quite overt about this. It has specific meditations where you visualise corpses, skeletons, and remind yourself that all is impermanent. For great practitioners, their final days are spent in a meditative spell, attempting to refine the subtle mind to the point that reincarnation is as conscious a choice as possible.

Christians live in the reality of death and the possibility of hope, through Jesus. I heard the words about sin and redemption and it sounded to me just like the kind of faith that would be born from a culture struggling to assert a moral hold on itself. Christianity offers hope in death. Imagine. What a thing.

Hinduism, like Buddhism, celebrates rebirth and enjoins us to merit during our living years. I don’t know enough about Judaism and Islam to speak about their after-death beliefs, but from my reading of theology and history (especially the excellent book, a History of God, by Karen Armstrong), I know that many faiths embrace mystery and remind us of the unknowable.

Islam, Judaism and Christianity each have mystic practices which acknowledge, through rules and symbols, that God is beyond naming.

I have been through the common journey from devout Catholicism to agnosticism in my life. But for years there has been something hopeless about my materialist worldview, something spiritually bereft which I dismissed as hankering after the community of faith rather than a reflection of some hidden truth I was missing.

Upon reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, my views changed and crystallised again. She gave me a way to understand faith as an attitude towards life, and acceptance of mystery in the world we know and do not know. Whether this is hopeful, I don’t know, I couldn’t say.

When my sister died, I had no butterfly on the windowsill moments. I did not feel her leaving me peacefully, farewelling me to go to a better place. I had a very strong feeling that she was confused – that perhaps she did not even know that it was over for her. I spoke to my husband about this, and we cried together. I tried to explain what it made me think – how I could explain this sensation in the material terms I thought about the world. Perhaps people’s souls are the electric frequencies, the patterns of us, which are left even when we die. Our bodies cease to work, but the brain frequencies that made us who we were linger in some sort of sub-atomic way, like a code, like an electric version of DNA for the soul, but far more fragmented, and much harder to observe scientifically. Music resounds with certain frequencies in our head, which is why we experience dissonance and consonance the way we do, and the same is true of stories. Why not then, personalities?

In my nascent theory, this then is the soul – a lingering pattern which eventually, perhaps brokenly, perhaps in perfect form, rejoins the life energy of the universe (wince) for want to a better term – I am still working on that. (Please don’t think I am falling into a mind/body dualist position, which is such a moronically gross concept that I don’t want you to think I am going there.)

The soul is as close as we get to experiencing the unknowable.

In those days after my sister left us, I felt that I could sense my sister’s soul’s confusion. In the hours after she left us, I felt strongly the lack of a cultural ritual which would have let me stay with her body through the night and into the next few days, before her final farewell. We should be able to sit with our loved one, and be as involved in preparing them for disintegration as we want to be. But that is a topic for another essay.

This sensation triggered my theorising. I spoke to my Buddhist monk friend about it. He is the closest I could get to an expert on dying.

He said, ‘I don’t know if it [my feeling] is real or not, but it is all so interrelated, and maybe people who are close to the person who has died can feel it more. I don’t know, but it can definitely help to just keep sending them calm, peaceful thoughts that it is OK to go.’

‘And even, um, information?’ I asked, not wanting to sound stupid. ‘I am not sure she knows she is gone.’

‘Yes, that can happen when people pass away with problems or lack of clarity in the mind, or drugs in their system. I have seen it a lot and it is really, really common.’ This was a relief. Even if it was not true, it was something I could do for her. And who knows? No one can definitively prove there is no such thing as a soul lingering, clinging to familiar matter, waiting for the all-clear to go.

So over the next few days, I sent my sister calming thoughts and most importantly, the information that she had died: that this next journey was hers. Gradually, the sensations grew less urgent, and when the funeral directors collected her body form the morgue. the sensations stopped all together. I do not know what was real or not. As my monk friend, said, It is all so interrelated.

So this is my theory of the soul, and I am still working on it. I can say that some sort of spiritual practice to prepare for death is necessary for me. I don’t know what form it will take. All advice welcome.