Saturday, June 13, 2015

Where is the borderline between attachment and love?

Buddhists believe that we should aim for a state of non-attachment, and that anyway, everything we attach ourselves to is temporary, so it's kind of pointless to get attached. Well, that's a gross over-simplication of a profound philosophy, but it'll do as a definition for now. 

I do recognise that it may often be a Bad Thing to become over-attached to people or things or ideas.

Attaching ourselves to objects

If we are over-attached to objects, that may imply that we have invested too much pride in material possessions. We are greedy pigs.

Or maybe we have endowed a certain object with the power to represent a certain memory, or belief, or perhaps our self-image. We may be in love with an object for its beauty or nostalgia or usefulness or symbolism or rarity.

I imagine that attachment to objects is the crudest form of attachment.

But is it a Bad Thing to be intensely aware of the merits of an object, for example, an apple or the planet Earth? Isn't that better than taking them for granted?

Attaching ourselves to ideas

If we are over-attached to an idea, that may mean we are closed to other ideas. We cling to our own perception or theory. We become boring, banging on about the same-old same-old year after year. We don't listen to other ideas. We cannot collaborate. We become snarky, prickly conversation-stoppers, defending our idea against all comers. We may join a cult of fellow-worshippers. Other people won't let us join their book group.

And yet how thrilling it can be to fall in love with an idea! Then we want to explore it to the limit, to test it to destruction, to talk about it all the time. One day we may find pot-holes in our beloved theory — and that's fine. We can still can keep the idea as a valuable tool or even an inspiration, loving it for itself, on its merits.

Attaching ourselves to people

And if we are over-attached to people? OK, the Buddhist warnings may simply imply that romantic love is fleeting, or that co-dependence is a sickness.

But setting aside hormone-driven romance and pathological states of infatuation or neediness, I am unwilling to let go my attachment to my personal band of family and friends.

I do my best to hold their hands lightly so that they can slip away at any time. Eventually, on my deathbed or theirs, I will let my dear ones go. But please, Mr Buddha, allow us to love one other consciously and carefully until that moment.

Let go, let go! No no no no!

I consider myself pretty good at letting things go. Books flow in and out of my house like a river. Every time I buy something, I try to give something equivalent away. Messiness is fine but clutter offends me and gets dealt with pretty smartly.

But I had better let go of my self-image as a clutter-clearer. Because last week I thought I had lost my little blue change purse, and this was unexpectedly disturbing. When I lost it, I almost lost it. I was ready to slap LOST notices on every lamp-post and send out a press release and undertake grief counselling.

Luckily the purse turned up a few days later: it was just hiding.

Seems I am irrationally attached to that change purse. Hm, why, I wonder?

  1. Usefulness. It is perfectly designed for its purpose. Though tiny, it has three compartments: one for notes, one for cards and one for change. It fits into my smallest pocket.
  2. Beauty. It is beautiful object of the softest bluest leather.
  3. Nostalgia. It is a memento of a happy family event in Morocco.
  4. Rarity. It is impossible to replace without going back to Morocco.
  5. Symbolism. It is simple and cheap and unappreciated by other people. I honour the designer and the maker. 
  6. Oops. I just noticed a more significant symbolism: the purse holds my money. How humiliating. How deeply unspiritual.
These are all reasons for enjoying the purse, but surely not for attachment.

OK, not perfect. But we knew that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Listen to yourself and notice patterns of thought and mood and attitudes to aging

It looks chilly and eely and hurty. If it's not, that's scary. It should be.
I'm trying to do just that: listen to the words I say, and especially to my tone of voice. These give broad hints about a person's attitude and mood and in a broad sense, health.

Most human encounters include a mutual enquiry about health and happiness and life in general. The exchange may be rapid and automatic and formulaic, but at the same time it's usually sincere. We do care! And as we get older, the enquiries take on a certain intensity. Our contemporaries are ailing and failing and dying.

"How are you?"
"How's life?"
"How's your day?"
"How are you doing?"
"Is everything OK?"

How do you reply to a routine howdy? 

Do you deliver an organ recital, as many older people do? More important, how does your voice sound when you reply—half full of strawberries or half full of wet concrete?

I bumped into a friend in his eighties (call him Luke) and asked the usual question and he said, "I've just had a triple bypass and a hip replacement!"

What tone of voice did you imagine—depressed, tragic, piteous, whiny, fearful or worried? Wrong wrong wrong. His voice was joyful and triumphant and he went on to say, "I'm feeling better than I have for years." Then he rushed away to a meeting about his latest venture.

Voices tell their own stories

Yesterday at the pool I was reminded of Luke's exuberant voice when I encountered another friend (call her Matilda) from decades past.

"How are you?"
"Good. I'm fine." (Tentatively, as if to say, being well is a bad sign, it must stop soon.) "But you know, I'm in my eighties." (Gloomily, as if to say, "Therefore by definition my life is completely hopeless and pointless and I'm sure life is horrible for you too, and if not, you mark my words, it will be soon.")
"Well, you've still got that beautiful smile."
"Huh. A smile with the back teeth missing." (Bitchily, as if to say, "I'm ugly and you know it. How dare you say something nice about me? I have lost teeth. I have suffered.")

In three sentences she made me feel sad for her, although she does indeed have a beautiful smile.

Statistically, everyone over 80 is likely to have at least one ominous health condition, so I do not underestimate the troubles of Matilda's life. Her health problems have left visible scars. But this attitude, voiced over and over again in words and tone, surely cramps and squeezes and poisons the spirit leaving no space for hope, no space to appreciate a good swim.

Matilda did me a good turn

I decided to listen to my own answers to these daily howdys—both the words I say and the voice I use. I don't want to be dishonest, but what's appropriate? How much detail is appropriate? If you keep saying the same things, you get boring. If you keep using a gloomy voice, it doesn't just reflect gloom—it spreads gloom.

Minutes later I met yet another friend in the changing room.
"How's your day going, Rachel?"
"Brilliant. I woke up."
"You mean the swim woke you up?"
"No. Every day I wake up, it's a brilliant day." And that is well worth celebrating.

Photo: "Bessie" 1914. Alexander Allison. Commons, 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Staring death in the face: my year of being old

I'm putting myself through a DIY boot camp for old age, achieving one goal every month. I'm booting myself into action, establishing habits that will preserve me—and my brain and my family and the national budget—in the best possible state while I live.

The final task is what it's all about: I must come to terms with old age and dying. Whew, big ask, huh?

In one sense, the whole year is dedicated to precisely that unprecise and probably impossible goal. However, I'll be forced to focus strongly on death all day on 27 September, when I attend this workshop:

Life, Death and Transformation

One of my sisters told me about a Tibetan meditation on death, when for almost an hour she visualised herself dying in a remote place like a desert, and then vividly experiencing the gradual decay of her body. This sort of guided meditation, I imagine, will be part of the workshop I attend.

My sister said that ever since that day she has never worried about whether she looks old or young. She still looks marvellous, but it seems she just let go of that understandable desire to look younger. I too would like to become less attached to my anachronistic self-image as a younger woman.

Why am I booting myself into such a morbid experience? 

Well, it's clear that most of us have highly successful mechanisms for denying, downgrading, dumping and downright rejecting death. We're not going to die, oh no! And we're not ever going to be old like that pathetic person over there who can barely walk or see, oh no!

Possibly the human capacity to blank out the end of life is a healthy thing. I don't know. But that capacity is sustained by self-deception and bizarre thought patterns, which are not so pretty.

I would like to try another possibility: knowing deep in my bones that I will die one day, maybe tonight, maybe in 25 years, maybe sometime in between. I would like to be able to accept that fact, to understand what death involves, to feel the honest grief and loss, and somehow to be OK about the entire incomprehensible terrible wonderful bundle of life and death.

That's what I'm expecting from a workshop on Life, Death and Transformation.

It's hard work letting go

Of course this day will be hard work in every sense. Such understanding cannot be delivered on a plate. If it was easy, we would all think like Buddhist nuns and monks, I suppose. Or at least we would think rationally about our own life cycle instead of subconsciously regarding ourselves as exempt from the processes of dying and death.

With any learning, the more effort you make, the greater the rewards. And this is a different kind of knowledge.

PS Of course, I will write a book about my year of being old

I'm a writer, doh! The title is Boot Camp for Old Age. After writing the book, I'll stop brooding on the topic and revert to being myself — not old, but sort of pre-old or late-middle-aged by today's standards in New Zealand. But just because I write about my boot camp doesn't mean it isn't very, very real.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Happy old you: in training for a fine old age

Window or reflection: don't make false assumptions
Old age: look at what's really there, not your assumptions
Lately I've been shocked by contemporaries who have made a false assumption about life after 70 and never questioned it, despite mounting research to the contrary. They seem to have resigned themselves to a miserable, feeble, passive old age. They show no signs of wanting to change a thing in their lives, apart from pressing their GP for yet another prescription.

They seem to have given up all hope of being happy and active, because they believe they are technically, irrevocably, statistically "old". Result: they are physiologically and mentally much, much older than other people who are exactly the same chronological age.

I think we need a new profession: old age trainers. Their job is to train people for a bright old age. This had best start young, in the fifties or sixties at the latest — but it's never too late, thank heaven. Although there's a catch: you have to be motivated. You have to make decisions, take the initiative, grab the last quarter of your precious life and do stuff. You can't just take a pill.

OK, OK, I know what you're going to say. In advance let me state that I agree with your first three statements but can see not a shred of evidence, let alone any proof, of the fourth. In fact, the fourth statement is a load of old bollocks.

  1. We all grow old.
  2. Old age ends in death.
  3. Therefore let's accept our limitations.
  4. There's nothing we can do to improve our lives as old people, because our fate is all due to luck and genes.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

101-year-old survives the Nepal earthquake: what's his secret?

The tragic May 2015 Nepal earthquake is known to have killed 7000 people already. Rescues have been few, each a miracle.

Where did 101-year-old Funchu Tamang find the stamina to survive? He's an inspiration.

He is tough and he was lucky. And he doubtless has something extra special as well. What, I wonder?

Screenshot from AsiaOne, 4 May 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Anne Karpf on aging: you're doing it now, and it's fine

I read "How to age" by Anne Karpf on my Kindle, and reviewed it for Amazon. I totally agree with Karpf's attitude towards aging — embrace aging, start young, it's continuous, it's interesting, it's growth, it's part of life. But alas, this is not easy in a culture that hates and fears old people and all they symbolise.

Some people may be disappointed in the book because of the title, which is misleading — and that's a shame. (And oh the agony of choosing a title...) Also, what a strange, depressing book cover! Title and cover don't do this important book justice.

My review

Anne Karpf reveals the extent of gerontophobia in the west — with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for it.

Don’t be misled by the title: this is not a how-to book, but a long, eloquent essay reflecting on a big topic. It’s not easy to overhaul your attitude towards aging from a dreaded disability to an essential, valuable, lifelong process. However, at the end, we see how “Gina” incorporates the author’s attitudes towards aging into her own life. She started her personal how-to programme after her grandmother’s funeral by resolving:
“1. Never again to say of someone ‘she must have been beautiful’, as though age were some necrotizing organism that eats away at beauty.
“2. Whenever she felt anxious about her own encroaching wrinkles, to imagine herself fifteen years older so that, in comparison, she looked positively peachy. She thought of this as a reverse facelift.
“3. To remember that Betty, until the very end, thought that life was an adventure: she was always seizing new opportunities, conversing with strangers and reading new books.”
I recommend this book. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Poignant earthquake symbol at the Wellington Railway Station

Stripes around Wellington Railway Station columns
Red-and-white stripes around the Wellington Railway station send a message loud and clear: take care, because this heritage building is undergoing earthquake strengthening.

For visitors, the stripes might suggest the opening of a massive new barber shop. Or hint at free lollypops within.

But for many Kiwis those stripes have powerful connotations. They summon memories of the Christchurch earthquakes, when road cones burst into bloom all over the city.

Those poignant floral road cones symbolise disaster, resilience and hope.

Road cone photo by Christchurch City Libraries
Railway Station photo: me