All Hands on Deck

I’m told “The nonprofit Project Drawdown, which compiles research from an international coalition of scientists, says that “a plant-based diet may be the most effective way an individual can stop climate change.” Adopting such a diet should be our first act of revolt. The second should be carrying out civil disobedience to disrupt the extraction of fossil fuels, along with massively reducing our consumption of those fuels. The third, through mass mobilization, should be to overthrow the corporate state and nationalize the energy sector, the banking industry, utilities and public transportation in addition to dismantling a war machine that in waging futile and unwinnable wars consumes nearly half of all government expenditures. It is a lot to demand. But if we do not succeed, the human race will disappear.” Chris Hedges

So there, in a nutshell, is the green/left agenda, with Antifa as the shock-troops in the streets “carrying out civil disobedience” and “mass mobilization” with the intent “to overthrow the corporate state”, not noticing that “nationaliz[ing] the energy sector, the banking industry, utilities and public transportation” has, in itself, changed the Venezuelan diet to the Maduro weight loss plan, vegan or otherwise, and buried 100 million innocents in the 20th century alone.

So, clearly, such socialism is no solution. A crippled state cannot react at all. It cannot invest in sustainable energy nor reforestation nor population management nor research recycling nor seed its coastlines with kelp forests. It just flips people into survival mode a little faster and brings the guns onto the streets a little sooner. A “war machine that in waging futile and unwinnable wars” against ourselves still “consumes nearly half of all government expenditures.” Whether is an international assault or a civil repression will make no difference. Already many countries are arming their police in preparation.

Whilst it’s true that “The inability to see what is in front of our eyes replicates the blindness of all past civilizations that celebrated their eternal glory at moments of precipitous decline,” and “The difference is that life across the whole planet will go down this time” and “It is comforting to pretend this is not happening,” not to “foster hopes of human progress” is a faster suicide. Hope is more than “illusions [fated] only tranquilize us,” it is also the essential oxygen of inspiration and effort, for without it we are lost “at a moment when we should be rising” in awareness and response.

A “collective fury against those who are orchestrating our doom” is little more than blame-shifting, a global-scale othering, a negation of responsibility for the consequences of safe pensions, smooth suspension and constant hand-held communication; and antibiotics, safe Cesareans and spectacles. These things are not separable.

Without our desires and insecurities there would be no corporations: they are us, we are they. Their nature is our nature. Denial is futile. They built the roads you went to school on and now march down in protest; they ship the quinoa and goji berries across oceans to sate self-satisfaction; they built your airliner and you holiday hotel – and you will not tear them down because you love them.

Both compassion and competition must be mobilised if we are not to war amongst ourselves and send our scapegoats to the gulags and the gas-chambers; both are intrinsic facets of our nature and would not exist within us if there was no advantage to them, and to exclude one or the other is to attempt to climb a mountain with one hand – when we have two at our disposal.

Life will only “go down” for a while, and only in the forms we know it now; a biological recession on a geological timescale. Such cataclysms have occurred before, and will recur indefinitely. Life finds a way. It is the clinging to what we know and the failure to adapt and adjust that causes the greatest pain.

Annica, annica, annica.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rewilding with George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone.

Dartmoor

View towards Sharpitor & Leather Tor down the valley of the river Meavy.

You would have had to book well in advance to get a seat in Exeter University’s Forum last week. The auditorium was packed, and an air of quiet expectation permeated the room. We weren’t disappointed. Within minutes, George Monbiot’s powerful and passionate polemic lead us from the bald, treeless dome of Dartmoor and the barren highlands of Scotland directly to the corridors of power in Brussels and the stately homes of England. His carefully researched arguments showed how the subsidies farmers receive from the Common Agricultural Policy and the desires of rich landowners to increase their wealth have led to massive deforestation and the kind of catastrophic flooding we’ve recently seen in Yorkshire. Even the humble shepherd was singled out as an agent of environmental disaster. The ecology of the hills has been “sheep-wrecked,” he pointed out, and went on to argue that the hill-farming of sheep isn’t even economically viable. The farmers who do profit only do so because of subsidies.

One key concept is the problem of “shifting baselines” where we continually revise our image of what is natural depending on what was around when we were young – even if that environment was already a disaster zone. Monbiot argued that many conservation groups actually collude with this process by trying to preserve what is, rather than re-create what was.

With only 6% of our native woodland left, the most depleted in Europe, both speakers were keen to show that recovery is possible. In contrast to, but in harmony with, Monbiot, Alan Featherstone gently explained how, in many cases, all we need to do is fence off areas to prevent grazing. Nature does the rest as the natural succession of species re-wilds the landscape. Ultimately, the trees will return and much Britain could again be covered with life-sustaining rainforest. Moreover, none of this need cost much. All we have to do is re-allocate the existing subsidies to reward landowners for allowing large mammals to live on the land – as they do in Sweden with wolves – rather than rewarding them for their currently environmentally disastrous practices. It’s even easier with the marine environment. It simply requires “no take zones” where fishing is banned and marine life can flourish and move back into our badly depleted fishing grounds.

If you’d like to get involved or find out more, go to:

Walk on the Wild Side

http://www.treesforlife.org.uk

Image by Herbythyme via Wikimedia Commons

 

Posted in Environment, trees, Uncategorized, wildlife | 1 Comment

An innovative approach to political campaigning

http://southdevon.greenparty.org.uk/news/2015/04/25/bikes-across-dartmoor-for-a-green-mp-in-central-devon/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Best Wishes for a Happy and Restful Solstice and a Peaceful and Prosperous New Year

Hi Everyone,

I just want to check in to wish you all best wishes for a happy and restful Winter Solstice  and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.
I’m sorry I haven’t offered you any new writing for a while but I had a nasty accident with a circular saw which left me unable to type for several months. As a result, I’ve had to retrain the fingers on my left hand and develop a new typing technique which has meant it  took me much longer than I had hoped to finish my MA projects.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time volunteering as the External Communications Manager for the South West Green Party, but I’ll be back next year with more new writing about cycling, mindfulness and anything else that takes my fancy – including a review of the newly opened section of NCN Route 2 around the Exe Estuary and the fabulous new bridge over the railway.

In the meantime, here’s a brilliant little clip form Casey Neistat on the perils of trying to do the right things in New York. Enjoy, and be safe.

 

Posted in commuting, cycling, falling off bicycles, USA | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bring Your Own Boat.

In the middle of a sleep-deprived, turbulent night some bright spark must have sat up sharp and decided that running a good restaurant simply isn’t difficult enough. No. What you really need for that added challenge is a barely accessible location which makes it difficult for your customers to get to you, and equally difficult for them to leave. And so it is with the The River Exe Café.

Of course, there’s certainly novelty to floating a wooden hut, a marquee, some sturdy, self-built rustic tables, some cheap-as-a-job-lot steel chairs and a decent kitchen on pontoon moored in the Exe Estuary, but not that much.

Exe Cafe

Perched on a pontoon moored on the Exe Estuary, the inimitable River Exe Cafe.

We booked by email ten days in advance – that was the easy bit – and arrived in Starcross, the nearest landmass to the restaurant, in plenty of time: 11:30am for a 1pm reservation. The first mistake was ours. We should have been there even earlier, at 11am, to catch the 11:10am ferry to Exmouth. The next ferry, the 12:10, would arrive in Exmouth at the same time as our water-taxi was due to leave. There was a chance we’d make the connection, and at least we had a few minutes to weigh up the options. But knowing that time and tide wait for no-one, and that the boatmen round here are fiercely prompt and proud of it, we decided not to chance it and rode 24 miles round the estuary by road. No hardship at all on a Bonneville on a blazing July day.

Forty minutes later, we pulled up just round the corner from the docks and took advantage of the free parking opportunity a motorcycle usually brings. Both the continuous queue of traffic from Powderham to Exminster – caused by the traffic control of the Crashbox Car Rally – and the ‘permit only’ parking of Exmouth’s packed backstreets made us happy in our choice of a motorcycle for a day out; but from here on in it was boats.

Arriving at the top of the ramp which leads down to the ferry pontoon we got the first inkling that all might not be plain sailing. The restaurant’s board on the railings had a little ‘closed’ sign hung on it. We rationalised, full of optimism, that either it hadn’t been changed from last night or the café was full and taking no more aboard. So we waited at the top of the ramp with other eager diners until the boatman welcomed us aboard his little red 12-seater taxi.

There was the two of us, a couple of late middle-aged women and a party ‘with Tom’ which should’ve been six but was now five. The ferryman started to check passenger names against his list, and neither we nor the ladies were on it. And none of us were called Harvey. Discussions ensued, reservations were questioned, I was asked if I’d brought a hard-copy of the email reservation, which I hadn’t, so the ferryman rang the restaurant. The phone is handed to me. The restaurant searched their emails and found the pertinent string, but there was no reservation. They must have ‘booked it in the wrong month, or something.’ I hand back the phone. Two more couples turn up. The ferryman won’t let them aboard until the reservations are sorted, because that would make thirteen. And it’s a 12-seat boat. I’ve played this game on management away-days. It never ends well. And the ferryman always wins.

Modelling first class professional assertiveness and a boatman’s common sense, and by a process that remained mysterious, he eliminated an unlucky couple and arranged with the restaurant for them to make the next sitting in an hour. As the seating arrangements were settled, the incoming ferry from Starcross docked – the one we would have been on if we’d taken that option. We would have arrived just as the taxi would have been leaving with 11 passengers, and not us. So now we were on the team and, just as we were about to leave, a woman turns up who wanted a lift to her yacht and squeezes on in twelfth.

The taxi pushed hard and crawled out into a 5 knot outgoing tide, making only about one and a half knots over the ground. The ferryman gave a good commentary to the ladies, dropped the woman off on her yacht, and explained that, although the café has brought a great deal of business, it’s brought its fair share of chaos in its wake. They like to receive 10 guests an hour, every hour, and they have a boat of their own too. The problems come when the reservations change, then the water-taxi’s payload changes too. I could tell he’d had some practice sorting out restaurant bookings.

The weather was blustery but in all other ways idyllic. We kept our eyes open for seals on the sandbanks, but saw only anglers, wrecks and some lunatic kite-surfers swooping past. The weekend’s supermoon was pulling the tide hard past straining moorings as yachts dangled on their buoys. The wind funnelled down the estuary from the north, raising sharp, choppy peaks on small waves. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the pontoon and climbed up and into the restaurant – just two hundred yards from Starcross. But you can’t get here from there unless you bring your own boat.

Once aboard, everything was fine. A Peter Tosh tape loop valiantly tried to induce a Caribbean atmosphere, but the wind wasn’t for warming and you are where you is. We ate inside in blue PVC marquee attached to the rustic-planked kitchen and counter area. Beneath our feet we could see the ebbing dark green tide whoosh past and feel the breeze cut up around our ankles. The staff offer blankets for starters. But it’s all good fun. The service was prompt, friendly and well coordinated, and I watched with moistening mouth as heaped, steaming plates of mussels were deftly delivered to the next table.

We had no trouble choosing the pan-fried wild sea bass on samphire and cress with smashed new potatoes. We had no trouble eating it, either. It was superb. The fish was perfectly cooked, flavoursome and flaky, and beautifully presented on a bed of greens that were sea-crisp and crunchy fresh. The potatoes were soft and fluffy, and the whole pile was topped off with a subtle, creamy sauce. It felt like the perfect dish for the setting and every mouthful was a treat. For sweets, Teresa opted for the Eton Mess; nothing to do with Westminster or education, but everything to do with mouth-melty, dripping-fresh honeycomb and clotted cream, and I had a zingy raspberry cheesecake with a rich, tangy sauce.

Sea bass on samphire

Sea bass on samphire

Then the other boat-related snag showed up. We paid, but couldn’t leave.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a leisurely lunch, and if we’d gone the whole hog and had a starter, we’d probably have still been stuffing ourselves. There was lots of other good stuff to try, particularly those mussels. But, as it happened, we’d only taken an hour and a quarter of our allotted two hours, and so there was 45mins to go before our water taxi home.

There’s an old story I was told while cycle-touring round the coast of Ireland. A guy on his travels ask a local chap the way to Limerick. The local smiles through his teeth, lists his head to one side, strokes his stubbly chin and surveys the horizon through narrowed, worldly eyes. After a moment, he looks to the traveller and says, with great wisdom and compassion, “Well Sir, if I was going to go there, I wouldn’t have been starting from here.” Likewise, if you’re planning to visit the River Exe Café, and I heartily recommend that you do, make sure you start from Exmouth – or bring your own boat.

http://www.riverexecafe.com/

 

Posted in eating, rowing, sailing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Grit in the Grease

For those of you who’ve been wondering where I’m making my connections between cycling, meditation and other Buddhist ideas, here’s a draft of the prologue to my forthcoming travelogue. I’d love to know what you think.

Prologue: The Grit in the Grease

Morpheus: “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
The Matrix.

Dukkha is usually translated from Pali – the language of the Buddha – as ‘suffering’, but it doesn’t have to be as strong as that. It can be just a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that something is not quite right, that things could be better or less painful. Boredom is dukkha. Being skint is dukkha. Feeling trapped or unattractive is dukkha. It’s the grit in the grease in the hub of the wheel of your life, of my life, of everyone’s life. It causes friction. It causes illness. It slows things down. And, if it’s not routinely attended to, eventually the axle seizes and everything becomes stuck.
One trick is to keep moving, because it’s only by being on the move that you know that you aren’t stuck. Another is to be still, because it’s all about balance.
Czech Republic, July 2007.
As I round the shoulder of the hill on the climb up and away from Uhersky Brod, heading South-west towards the Slovakian border, the valley below is green, beautiful and benign. I can see the road to come curve down into the valley towards Starý Hrozenkov and rise again along the banks of a spangly-prince of a river, the Vapanice, to Horná Súča and hills beyond the border. A mile away, the customs shed. A single storey, creamy-coloured concrete block in the melting Sun; a people-petrol station with twenty times the asphalt, and an aluminium canopy you could play tennis on, where logo-spattered, long-haul trucks and men in caps and bomber jackets trade papers and ship shed-loads of sap-wet spruce between sharp white lines.
The sky, blue-glass and clear, holds fresh mountains and warm roads in my eyes. Slovakia graces the horizon with welcome cloud-wisps and the promise of more beyond. Long, dry grasses stand still and untroubled. Forget-me-not and buttercup-peppered pastures roll away south. Bristle-thistles beckon bees, and wildlife goes about its business with the unconcerned and blissful ignorance of the abundant time it always has, and yet people struggle to find. In the woods to my left, sloping northwards up the hillside, the taki-taki buzz-click of a woodpecker’s assault ricochets through crispy, spruce-soaked air as its beak – obsidian black and shockproof – attacks the trees for termites.
An hour before noon, on a July day you’d wish for any friend’s wedding, the road surface is not yet hot enough to soften and cover the tyres with grit, as it will later. I don’t do well over thirty degrees; I’ve been told by Italian’s that I am ‘a man of the North’, all thick hair and Saxon. But my bike is fine and my body feels great. My lungs are clear, nothing hurts and everything is intact. Even without Lou Reed, it’s a perfect day. But I am fuming; I am absolutely bloody furious.
I scan the scene for a reason. Nothing: absolutely no reason at all for any angst of any kind. There is nothing in the world around me to hang my rage on, nothing to blame for the angle-grinder shower zip-sparks snarling in my head, searing from one synapse to the next, listing every slight or insult I’d ever received; every rejection and disappointment; every betrayal and injury and hurt I’d ever known. They were scrolling across the screen of my mind like a catalogue of crimes against my precious humanity. In the air on the Earth where I stand, right there, I am free as I can be; travelling light and alone by bike from Prague to Krakow without obstacle or enemy. I am in a beautiful place on a beautiful day with no stress or pressure of any kind and yet, I’m not happy. Not even close. I have a thunderstorm in my head.

The late meditation teacher, S.N.Goenka, told a tale to illustrate the importance of learning the art of managing your mind.

One day, on board a ship, there was a sailor and a scholar. The scholar looked at the ocean and asked the sailor for the name of the current, its speed and direction. The sailor replied, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know, Sir. It is not my job to know that.’
‘You mean you haven’t studied oceanography?’
‘Oh no, Sir, I have not studied it.’
‘Then you have wasted a quarter of your life! How can you go to sea and not study the currents?’
A while later the scholar looked up at the sky and asked the sailor: ‘What kind of clouds are they, and where do they come from?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know. It is not my job to know that.’
‘You mean you haven’t studied meteorology?’
‘Oh no, Sir, I have not studied it.’
‘Then you have wasted a quarter of your life! How can you be a sailor and not study the weather?’
Later that afternoon, land came into sight and the scholar asked the sailor: ‘What kind of mountains are those? Of which rock are they made?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know. It is not my job to know that.’
‘You mean you haven’t studied geology?’
‘No, Sir. I am so sorry, Sir. I have not studied it.’
‘Then you have wasted a quarter of your life! How can you travel the world and not study geology?’
Feeling despondent and troubled by his own ignorance, the sailor made his way below.
Within an hour, a massive jolt shuddered through the hull of the ship. People started to panic and run around, desperately asking each other what was going on. The sailor came running up the steps and over to the scholar, who was leaning on the rail.
‘Quick, Sir, we have hit a reef. The ship is going to sink. We must swim to the shore. Come on, there is no time to lose!’ The scholar looked aghast and replied: ‘But I am a scholar. I have spent my life in a library; I have had no time for swimming.’
‘You cannot swim, Sir?’
‘No, I can’t.’
‘Oh, Sir, then it is a terrible tragedy. If you cannot swim then you will surely drown. You have wasted your whole life!’

I am an adequate cyclist, a competent mechanic and a reasonable map-reader. I can make camp almost anywhere, and I can usually manage to communicate with most people most of the time in most situations. I have always found cycle-touring uplifting and conducive to my happiness but, even with a good degree in psychology, I was failing to manage my mind, to manage my thinking. And that was why, on this glorious day, I was in a foul mood and furiously unhappy. In that moment, on that hillside, I realised I needed to learn to swim. On a bicycle.

This is the story of two bike rides, along the same road travelled twice, half a lifetime apart. Both were undertaken in order not to get stuck. By paying attention.

Posted in Buddhism, cycling, meditation, spirituality, spokes, trees, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Form, Emptiness and the Great Tit of Zen

Mindfulness.

Pedalling around all over the place is all very well, but sometimes I need stillness and contemplation.

In his book The Power of Now, Ekhart Tolle says that he has “lived with several Zen Masters – all of them cats.” In my discovery of the Buddha’s Dharma, I’ve been lucky enough to have been tutored not by cats, but by an insect, a baby rabbit and, most recently, a great tit (Parus major).

I’m not sure what kind of bug it was that gave its life to teach me about mindfulness, but I think it was a Myrmus miriformis.

Myrmus miriformis

Myrmus miriformis

I was sat in a field in Devon idly twiddling a stick in the wet Dartmoor mud, not thinking of anything in particular – certainly, nothing I can remember. I was folding the mud over the end of the stick and flopping it back again. Mindlessly.

In the split second it took to pick up one glob of the sticky, gooey mud and fold it into the next, a bug scuttled across the surface and came into view just long enough for me to see its creamy-brown, six-legged form, and then it was gone beneath the muddy micro-earthquake I had just created. Buried. Splat. Just like that.

Now, we’d been given strict instructions on this particular camping retreat that killing was not permitted in the field as it contravenes the Buddha’s first precept, which is to abstain from it. And I had just dumped the equivalent of a cart-load of topsoil on an innocent insect. Ooops.

Guilt ridden, I dug around with my little stick to try to rescue the poor little blighter, but to no avail. It was gone. In that moment my hand, eye and mind had not been skilfully co-ordinated, and a life was lost as a consequence. I had witnessed that, through my inattention, an innocent creature had suffered. It was a tiny life, but it taught me a great lesson about trying maintain attention in the moment, always trying to be mindful.

Impermanence

A few weeks later, I undertook my first silent retreat at Gaia House. Early one crisp and misty September morning I was practicing a slow-walking meditation on the lawn. I came close to the nun’s cemetery where a family of rabbits was grazing on the dew-covered grass. There was an adult and five kittens. Here too, killing was prohibited – and probably has been for generations – so the rabbits were completely unconcerned by my presence. For them, it was a known-to-be-safe area.

I stood and watched them for several minutes, and wondered at the fecund innocence of life and the undeniable cuteness of baby rabbits, before slowly moving on.

The next day, I took a walk along the lane. When I returned to the house, I saw the smashed and dead body of a baby rabbit by the side of the road. A car had probably hit it that morning. The family I had seen was now one fewer. Here one minute, gone the next: impermanent – as are we all. A key Buddhist principle explained to me by a small, bloodied, brown rabbit corpse. And not so cute, now, either.

Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form

Last week, I sat a silent Zen retreat back at Gaia House with the sparkling-clear Martine Bachelor, and the ever-erudite Stephen Bachelor. We contemplated the koan “What is this?”

I was spending some time alone in the lounge – an oak-panelled room with sash windows from floor to ceiling. I was gazing south-east over the freshly-mown lawn where mighty trees and the gentle ambiance combine to form a landscape where Constable meets Van Gogh, and the air is filled with the cawing of rooks, floating blossom petals of pink and white and the rapid-fire knocking of a woodpecker in the copse behind the house.

In a pot in a window’s reveal stood a white geranium. The nearby window was open at the bottom; a gap of just two inches for some breeze. A great tit hopped through the gap and settled on the rim of the pot. But, on seeing me, it panicked, turned tail and tried to fly back out of the room. Most birds are still more timid than rabbits.

But alas: where, to the bird, there should have been empty space, the emptiness was full of glass. The bird smashed headlong into this unexpected, invisible form. It fell back stunned into the plant pot. It lay there on its back, claws in the air, wings twisted, eyes staring at me, dazed and confused.

Slow and mindful, I approached the window and opened it fully. The bird took off and made its escape. I slid the window back to its previous position, careful to leave everything as I’d found it. Then I sat down, happy: a good deed done.

Birds are known for their small brains, and are often considered stupid. And I cannot say for certain that it was the same bird, or another one just like it, but the bird returned. It hopped through the window just as before, looked at me for a second and then took off across the room. It perched on the high top edge of the oak panelling near the door, opposite the window.

I was now between the bird and its path to freedom, so I re-opened the bottom sash window and made my way slowly around the edge of the room and back towards the bird to encourage it to leave. Again, the bird headed full-pelt into the ‘empty’ space towards the trees beyond. Again, it slammed into form where there should have been emptiness. The top half of the window was still closed.

MG_0312greattitWAB

The bird fell straight back into the plant pot in exactly the same condition as before, but this time it remained completely still: no twitching, no blinking. It looked dead. I opened the window again and picked up the bird, resting it in my warm, cupped hand. And I waited.

How do you know if a bird is in pain? I have no idea. If it were mortally wounded and permanently disabled, then the humane thing to do would be to ‘put it out of its misery’ – wouldn’t it? But that would leave me in a sickening dilemma. I wondered what its neck would sound like if I broke it.

Then, slowly, the bird began to regain consciousness. It blinked, but it still lay paralysed in my palm, staring at me. As a wild bird, it had almost certainly never felt human body heat before, and my hands seemed to be getting hotter.

I scrutinised it closely. What is this? Why would a bird make the same mistake twice? Why would any of us do that? Was there some kind of teaching to be heard here? Or am I just interpreting phenomena in any way that suits me best?

The bird started to preen the tiny mustard-yellow feathers at the roots of its wings. First the left, then the right, then back to the left; rapid, probing, prodding movements deep into its plumage. I thought it was a bit of a funny time for a spruce-up, but then I remembered that that’s what birds do when they’re stressed. The ornithologists call it “displacement activity”. I had seen robins doing it when they fight. They have a bout of beak-bashing and breast-stabbing over a territorial dispute then, when that all gets a bit heavy, they break off the fighting and have a little preen before re-entering the fray. This bird must have been terrified. It was unable to escape, it was being stared at by a big, hot, monster-human and it was getting hand-roasted. The only thing it had going for it was that I wasn’t a cat.

After several long minutes of just breathing and staring, it fluttered. It didn’t get anywhere, but it looked as if its wings would work. It fluttered again, turned itself over and perched on my finger, its tiny heart pounding while it panted hard; its feather-ball breast pumping in and out twice a second; its bright-black eyes staring wild.

Then it was up. Its wings buzzed in the air. It rose a few inches, then dropped back into my hand. It tried again. This time, it made nine inches of altitude before falling back, and I caught it again, and waited some more. A minute or two later, on its third bid for freedom, it managed to rise a foot before making six feet of level flying out into the open space. It reached the safety of a nearby bush, perched and looked back at me.

What is this?

Since the 1930s, physicists have been telling us that the atom is made almost entirely of space and, therefore, everything we think of as solid – the entire universe, in fact – is made of nothing but emptiness and vibrating energy. I’m told that if you scale up the nucleus of an atom of iron to the size of a football, the distance between it and its first electron-shell would be equivalent to the length of football field, and the electron the size of a peanut. Some philosophers have taken this and used it to argue that all solidity is an illusion.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

This would seem to solve the ancient Zen conundrum that “Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.” But, as Stephen Bachelor reminded us, through one of those traditional Zen tales, this might not be very important in the human scheme of things – or particularly useful to great tits.

The story goes – in the usual way – that a student went to his master and announced that he had grasped the meaning of emptiness, and had come to realise that everything in the world was, in fact, nothing but emptiness. The master picked up his Dharma-stick and whacked his student hard on the arm.

“Ouch!” said the student, confused. “That hurt. What did you do that for?”

“Not so empty now, is it?” responded the master, rapping his stick on the table.

WP_000623

Blossom drifts, rooks caw. A bird arising flies from White geranium.

The naïve realism of Zen: just keep asking yourself “What is this?” Maintain your beginner’s mind. Eschew fixed categories, absolute answers and strong opinions. It might leave you perplexed but, in Zen, that’s a good place to be.

Posted in Buddhism, enlightenment, meditation, spirituality, wildlife | Tagged , | Leave a comment