Abstraction, distraction and detraction

A few weeks ago I read Stephen King’s book on writing called, um, ‘On Writing’. If you haven’t read it, and you have any kind of literary aspirations, I thoroughly recommend you give it a go. Even if you don’t, as a biography of a successful writer’s career, and as an insight into how he does what he does, it’s well worth looking into.

I’d never read any Stephen King novels before reading that one, mainly because my entire understanding of his work until now consisted of just three pieces of information.

  1. He writes horror (which I’m not into).
  2. His stories often make surprisingly good movies – Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, The Shining, etc.
  3. His books have the word ‘fuck’ in them (a fact gleefully revealed to me by a friend at school when I was twelve).

But on the strength of reading the awesome On Writing I decided to give some of his work a go.

reading the king

The old me would me would have felt the need to start at the beginning, with Carrie, because reading people’s work in the order it was published somehow used to seem so important. The new me, who read all The Watch novels by Terry Pratchett first before going back and starting on the rest (and is very happy he did so) decided to start at the very top with what many consider to be his finest work; the 1421 page, complete and unabridged version of ‘The Stand‘.

I bought an old copy from Amazon for 1p, plus £2:80 postage and packing* (I was interested in seeing what it was like, but not that interested), and so far – 444 pages in – I’m enjoying it. Unsurprisingly, considering the length, it rambles a little, and there are an awful lot of characters to keep track of, but it’s well written, the idea’s really interesting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will play out.

* The old library copy I’d bought had an anti-theft sticker inside the front cover, a fact which caused me merry hell when I went shopping the other day – with alarms going off all the time, many a suspicious look and one apologetic bag search – until I finally figured out what was going on and ripped it out, taking part of the front cover with it.

For those of you that don’t know, the basic storyline (in a nutshell) concerns a genetically engineered super flu virus that escapes the lab and kills about 97% of the world’s population, and what the remaining 3% do afterwards to survive. It’s an interesting proposition which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to the actual point of this post.

I just read a chapter on the wave of natural selection that would happen if just such a disaster did occur. After the disease had done it’s thing some people, unused to and unprepared for a world without safety and technology, would die off pretty quickly from their own greed, ignorance or stupidity. We are told about a bunch of different people, and the tragic/stupid ways in which they meet their demise, and that made me wonder about the so called ‘sanctity of life’. We’re often told that all life is precious, that dying is bad and everyone is important. But is it true?

There are 7 billion people in the world; 7 billion! Let’s assume that most of them are either making the world a better place, or at the very least not actively trying to mess things up for the rest of us. Statistically speaking, there must be at least some people who are actually making the world a worse place to be. Even if it was just one tenth of one percent, that’s still 7 million people we’d be better off without. That’s a lot. I mean, that’s 7 million deaths that could make the world a better place. Faced with an idea like that it brings the whole sanctity of life thing into question don’t you think? It does for me anyway.

reading in the garden

That was where my mind wandered to on this sunny Saturday morn (NB: I feel ok in having thoughts like this because I’m not actually proposing we go out and start killing people!), when my mobile phone went *ding ding* and I got an e-mail. Train of thought ended. Something new had come along to distract my brain, abstract my thought pattern, and detract from my creative mental ramblings. And that’s what this post is really about.

We’ve made distracting ourselves into a full time thing, so much so that the distractions themselves fight for our attention. Message alerts and notifications want us to stop our lives and take notice of what our friends are getting up to on Facebook or Instagram, and we let them. No wonder we have short attention spans.

But we do it to ourselves too. Whilst I was writing this I heard my friend get up and go in the kitchen. She’s been away for a week and got back late last night, after I’d gone to bed. I felt a compunction to go say hello, see how she was, see how her trip went, and it actually took some effort on my part to stay focused on what I was doing so that it might actually get it finished.

I don’t know if we’d be better off if there were less people in the world, but I do know we’d be better off spiritually speaking if we turned our phones and our brains off once in a while and just stayed in one place – both physically and mentally – and did just one thing at a time. I suspect we’d be a lot happier, and we’d make more of this life that we’re all so keen on preserving.

Ask Yourself Why?

This fascinating presentation by the South American business man and entrepreneur Ricardo Semler asks a lot of great questions about work, life, and what it’s all about (it’s also pretty funny too!).
 


 
It certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I had an interesting chat today with a guy I used to work with a couple of years ago. We both spent a long time at the same company, and we were both generally (but not specifically) miserable for a great number of those years.

As with all these things, it’s only once you get away and look back do you realise just how unhappy you were, and you wonder why you put up with it for so long?

Thinking about it, it occurred to me it’s like the frog in a pan of water on a low heat. Turn the heat up slowly and frog will boil to death before he even realises what’s going on. But try to toss him into some already boiling water and he’ll jump straight out again!

So it is with unhappy situations. The really terrible ones are so shocking we escape from them immediately. The truly nasty, pernicious ones worm there way deep down inside us without us even realising it (often until we explode and don’t understand why?).

I got out by choice, training as a yoga teacher and then going traveling round the world. One of the best decisions I ever made. My friend had a little less of a choice about his exit, which made it a much harder and more painful experience for him.

But looking back now he truly believes it was the best thing that could have happened to him (work-wise, at least). He’s happier now, he’s about to embark upon his own business venture, and to quote him directly, he feels that “…a great weight has been lifted from [his] shoulders.”

Change can be hard, especially when it’s not by choice, but if we can take that change, build on it, and come out the other end with something that benefits us, then it makes it all worthwhile.

That’s what I think anyway. 🙂

Accidental Blashpemy

I blaspheme. Like, a lot! On a daily basis in fact.

As I go through life you’ll find my vocabulary littered with ‘God Damns’ and ‘Jesus Christs’ as I continually take the Lord’s name in vain whilst stubbing my toes or dropping things or, if I’m lucky, gazing in wonder and amazement at something magical.

But the important thing to remember is that I don’t mean it. These words have no more specific meaning to me than does the word ‘Coke’ mean specifically the brown sugar water made by the Coca Cola Corporation. When I say coke I mean any brown sugar water you have available (or at least did, when I drank brown sugar water). They’re just words I use to express a general meaning, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Likewise my latest bit of blasphemy.

I’d seen this bookshop/cafe just round the corner from the hostel I’m staying in in Adelaide, and filed it away as a nice place to go and sit, drink tea, and read a book. And so, the other day, that’s exactly what I did.

Initially it seemed like any other bookshop you get; ie, full of books. But then as I was perusing the DVD shelves (I can’t help it, I see a DVD shelf, I have to peruse) I noticed that I’d heard of none of these movies; not a single one. ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘So they get their supplies from some knock-off DVD supplier.’ It happens. Usually in 24 hour garages and back street newsagents though.

Then I spotted one with ‘Kirk Cameron Presents…’ emblazoned across the top, and a spark went off in my head. He’s a pretty well known Born Again Christian in the States. ‘So,’ I thought, ‘they have a religious DVD section. Ok, that’s cool. Each to his own.’

Then I headed to the cafe counter, passing lots of what appeared to be Self-Help books along the way. I stood waiting to order, my gaze drifting around the room, alighting on children’s books with the word ‘Jesus’ in the title, and adult books with the word ‘save’ on them somewhere, until it finally settled on a corner of the room separate from the rest that just had ‘Bibles’ written across the top of the entryway. I think around then is when I finally twigged I was in a Christian bookshop (and if that didn’t do it the t-shirt shop across the road selling ‘born again designs’, and the homeless guy with JESUS tattooed across his knuckles, really would have been the clinchers).

Now as I say, each to his own. It’s all good. But what made me chuckle to myself, and where the blasphemy comes in, is I was there to finish reading ‘Good Omens‘ by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, a light-hearted, tongue in cheek look at the Book Of Revelations and the End Of The World.

accidental blasphemy

If you haven’t tried it and you like a bit of a chuckle I suggest you give it a go. It’s a fun, well written book, that I thoroughly enjoyed. Apparently it’s a bit of a cult classic. I don’t know about that. I just picked it up in the book exchange at the hostel, figuring both these guys pen a good yarn, so together they’ll probably do alright.

But be warned, it doesn’t take The Bible entirely seriously. It doesn’t take much of anything entirely seriously in fact, but certainly not The Bible. That was why I felt kinda funny sitting there reading it in what was quite clearly a pro-Jesus establishment.

I’m happy to report though that I survived the experience. No one took umbrage at my presence or choice of reading material (though they would have had to have known it’s contents to do that, which seems unlikely in somewhere like that), and I was neither cast down, smote, nor rent asunder, which would have put a bit of a dampener on the rest of my day let me tell you.

I can only conclude that either God doesn’t care about that sort of thing or, as is more probably the case, She’s got a better sense of humour than most people give her credit for. Just look at the platypus for example. A prime example of someone having a laugh if ever there was one. 😀

Get Your Head Around This

They say the original Blue Marble photograph really showed humanity what a singular and precious world we have.

NASA Blue Marble

For the first time ever mankind was able to see our home in it’s entirety. To see just how isolated we really are, how unique our planet is, especially within the vast emptiness of space. And to understand just how important it is for us to stop all this fighting and destruction and work together for a better future for all.

Well now we have another unique perspective of Earth to ponder; Earth, from another planet!

Earth From Mars
 
both images reproduced under license courtesy of Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre

Seen from Mars our home planet is just a tiny dot, no hint of the complexity or confusion that lay upon it’s surface. There are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand, and many more planets than that (ie: the ‘star’ at the centre of our solar system is the Sun), yet ours is still the only one that we have found anything close to life on. The current Mars rover Curiosity is looking for any hint that there might once have been water on Mars. If they can prove that they will be pretty certain life could once have existed there. But what will that mean to most of us? In the great scheme of things, not a lot.

Water on Mars is a long way from little green men, and really that’s what most people are interested in, the idea of meeting other intelligent species. But let’s say, against all the odds, that we found them or that they found us. Do we really think they’d be impressed by how we treat one another?

Countless astronauts have said upon seeing Earth from space that it’s hard to believe such a thing as war could exist on such a beautiful and peaceful looking place. And many of them have even dedicated their life to humanitarian missions upon their return home, so moved and changed were they by their experiences. Sometimes all we need to make sense of the world is a slight change of perspective.

As Bill Hicks once said, “It’s a round world last time I looked.” We need to stop looking at our differences and start concentrating on our similarities, both inner and outer. It’s the only way to be if we want to get where we’re going (and be ready for when the sun goes super nova in about 5 billion years!).

Two Incidents – Equal, And Opposite

Got home from work last night, ditched my bits (including my mobile), and went straight out to the chippy for some supper. It had been a long day of telly watching and I just needed some fresh air. I got my portion of chips, some curry sauce, and I headed straight for the park where I lay out in the sun eating my food and enjoying the unexpected dose of vitamin D. It was so nice to just sit and do nothing for a while, to take a break from everything going through my brain, and just be; if only for a moment or two.

On the way to work this morning I obliterated a pigeon! I didn’t do it on purpose. It landed in the middle lane of the motorway, tried to get out of the way of the car coming towards it, and promptly flew into the path of my car. I saw a flash of grey, heard a THUNK, and looked in my rear view mirror to see an ever expanding cloud of feathers appearing in my wake. Got to work to find some very unsavoury bits of bird spread around my left rear wheel well. Now I have to go to the car wash.

One day you’re basking in the sun, and the next day you’re a pigeon murderer. Life does have it’s ups and downs, does it not?

Live A Better Life

This is an excellent talk on not only how to increase your longevity, but also how to enjoy the years you do have so much more!
 


 
It’s by Jane McGonigal, creator of SUPERBETTER.

She starts off talking about games, but quickly goes into tips for better living. All the ideas she offers are real and familiar, and are backed up by real world science. But the absolute bonus are the practical tips and exercises she gives you at the end to help you improve the quality of your life.

It’s very fun and life affirming, and I’m glad I watched it (which is why I’m sharing it here!). 🙂

And because I don’t say it enough, thank you all my friends and followers for checking out my blog, leaving comments, and taking an interest in what I do and what I’m doing to improve my life. It really means a lot to me.

Be happy everyone, and remember to follow your dreams! It’s the only thing that makes any sense in the long run. 😉

Vipassana Meditation Retreat : The Aftermath

Ok, so I was going to do this big detailed review of the Dhamma Dipa meditation retreat, what happened when, how, etc. But then I thought maybe it’s best not to give away too much of the experience, and rob people of the chance to find out for themselves. Plus, I’m not sure how I feel about it right now, so anything I write would be a little unbalanced to say the least. If you’re interested in doing it you should just go do it. It’s free, you can leave whenever you want, and you’re big enough to make your own decisions about the whole thing.

That being said, here’s some points from the few notes I jotted down when I got back. They should go some way to defining my experience there, and maybe give you an idea what to expect. And for those that need it I’ll just say it right now – **SPOILER ALERT**

my 'cell'

For one thing it was tough! Ten days of getting up at 4am, meditating for ten hours a day, no food after noon (though some fruit at 5pm); no talking, no touching, no eye contact; isolation, hard work, and a lot to comprehend. That about sums it up. It’s an emotional experience, but not a social one. They take it very very very seriously, and there’s very little let up. You’re there to work, and work you must.

I almost left a few times, sometimes because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, sometimes out of frustration, and sometimes because I was just sick of all the rules. But I stuck it out, and I at least gained a good grounding in Vipassana meditation (though I also got that from reading Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition).

the old farmhouse courtyard

I practiced when I was meant to practice, but I didn’t always do it very well. If I tell you that I came away from there with a new recipe for vegan calzone, an almost complete film script, and the business plan for a new retreat centre in the Lake District, you will see that my mind wasn’t always on the job.

Though I could see the value in the no contact rules (to experience the technique for yourself without other opinions getting in the way) they were frustrating. At times I wanted to scream, just to make a loud noise (NB: when we were finally able to speak on the 10th day my voice was so croaky from lack of use); not knowing anyone’s names I ended up making nicknames for them just to have a point of reference – Zippy, the Wizard of Space and Time, Mr Swishy Pants – (not all of them were entirely complimentary); and I didn’t get to meet any girls which, to be honest, is part of the reason I go to these damn things. But anyway…

leaving dhamma dipa

So it was hard. At one point I almost went to look at my car just to check it was still there (and maybe to gain some psychological support from it’s presence) but I caught myself and decided not to be so stupid. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. One guy even got in his van, and would have left if the gates had been locked, but they weren’t so he stayed (it made sense somehow). And someone even heard a car leaving it 3:30am, though who it was and why he didn’t know. Heck, my own roommate left on the second day!

But there were also spooky moments that kept you interested. Like the discourse on day 7, when the teacher, Goenka, via the medium of badly shot video, told the ‘This Too Shall Pass’ story. The weird thing for me is I had been thinking of that story that very day. My head was full of film and TV clips most of the time, and the story appears in My Best Friends Wedding, with Paul Giamatta telling it to a defeated Julia Roberts in a hotel corridor. It’s not a story I think of often, and maybe it was just a coincidence, but it certainly caught me by surprise, and helped keep me interested on days 8 and 9 when all I wanted to do was go home (or at the very least have a lie in).

undoing all the good work

So I survived, just! Come the end of it I was glad to go home. And what did I do when I got back? Had some curry sauce and chips, watched back to back episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and ordered a bunch of stuff off Amazon. I haven’t done any meditating since (though I did pretty much go into a load of night shifts, so I’m kinda knackered at the moment) and I don’t know when I’ll be sitting again. My leg still hurts like hell (that made for a fun 10 days let me tell you!) and so I’m less than enthusiastic to get down on the floor again.

And if I’m honest I’m a little dubious of the whole experience too. All the discourses and instruction were off tape, with just an assistant teacher to offer clarification if you were to ask. The tapes were shot in 1991. Are you telling me that no one in 20+ years has learnt or benefitted enough from the technique to be able to teach it on the organisations behalf? That puts doubts in my mind. And the final discourse, where they insist that they are the correct way to do Vipassana like Buddha used to do, and other meditation techniques have lost his teachings along the way, left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

All in all I’d have expected my mind to be alive with what I’ve learnt, but in fact it’s not. I’m glad I went, but I was equally as glad to get home, and I’m keen now to just crack on with the rest of my life, planning what I’m going to do next and how I’m going to get there (the subject of my next blog post).

Like I said, give it a go and make your own mind up. These are just my thoughts/memories on the matter. And here’s one final one to be going on with. I’ve heard it said that you should seek enlightenment like a drowning man seeks air. Now that’s all well and good, but if you live your entire life like you’re drowning, well what kind of life would that be?