Posted on September 17, 2018
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s search for Meaning is one of the great books of our time. Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading and re-reading it and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages – Harold S Kushner.
The book is divided into two sections. The first comprises the experiences of Frankl’s internment in several concentration camps during World War 2; the second details a theory he proposes called Logotherapy, which involves looking to the future in an effort to find meaning in life with the view to improving every day existence.
Although there are many disturbing events detailed in the first part of the book, Frankl has focussed on using his skills as a psychoanalyst to try to work out why some people survive such horrendous circumstances and others do not. What is it that enables one to cope and another to give up?
Frankl believes it is linked with man’s view on the meaning of life.
It is something that most grapple with at some point in their lives. What meaning does life have? This does not refer to the all encompassing ‘what is the meaning of existence for humanity’ but more of ‘what is the meaning of life for me?’
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters therefore is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Frankl says that as the prisoners were transported to the camps many were still under the illusion they would be reprieved; that all would be well. They still had hope and therefore retained the desire to survive. Soon after they arrived, however, hope faded with the horrors of their ordeal and with it their will to live.
During what Frankl terms “the first phase of our psychological reactions” most considered suicide as they viewed the future with little hope. Some took their lives by running into the electric fence surrounding the camp – so desperate were they.
The second phase, which came after the initial shock and the desire to kill oneself, brought apathy and a form of emotional death. Many of the prisoners would no longer avert their eyes to the constant beatings of the other prisoners; they no longer felt any emotion when watching someone being tortured.
Frankl describes how, on one occasion, a twelve year old boy was forced to stand to attention for hours in the snow and then to work outside with bare feet because there were no shoes for him. His toes became frostbitten and the doctors on duty picked off the black stumps. As the other prisoners watched they no longer felt disgust, horror or pity. This deadening of emotions occurred within just a few weeks of exposure to such horrors.
Gone was hope and any meaning to life.
Frankl – one of the few who survived the concentration camps – believed that “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation” and it is possible this way of thinking, and his determination not to allow any given situation to destroy him, that enhanced Frankl’s chances of survival.
Frankl also observed that:
“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen…they were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”
Frankl believed that such intense experiences provided the opportunity for spiritual growth and with it the hope of a better future. His view was that even suffering provided meaning to life if you viewed it as such.
“When a man finds it his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
It is possible to see all around us those who find meaning in their suffering: Charities set up in the name of loved ones who have died, such as the Willow foundation. This was founded by former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson and his wife Megs after their daughter, Anna, died of cancer. The charity provides special days for children and young people who are very ill, to give them something to look forward to.
Megan’s Law in the United States was passed after the parents of Megan Kanka – raped and murdered at the age of 7 – campaigned to have a law passed enabling communities to be warned of sex offenders in the areas in which they lived.
Some, at the death of a child or a loved one, can no longer find any meaning to life whereas others use this suffering to help others and therefore find some meaning to their own lives.
As expressed by Harold Kushner in the introductory quote there are many passages in Man’s Search for Meaning that have the power to change the way we view life. One is that we have the opportunity to choose how we respond to any given situation we find ourselves in. Whether this is a life-changing event or a more chronic leeching of our sense of self, ultimately we can choose how to respond to it. Some situations we are unable to change but we still have the choice to accept what it has to offer. Frankl believes this can determine whether we sink or swim.
Another is that life can have meaning whatever situation we are in. Meaning can be found in suffering – as the examples above show – and it can also be found in the boredom of the daily routine as boredom often spurs us on to change what is not working in our lives if we approach it in the correct way.
Man’s Search for Meaning was written over seventy years ago but its message is timeless. This book will be read in years to come and will still have the power to change the life of its reader.
Posted on August 30, 2018
Whether you are feeling ‘under the weather’ or would like to improve your health to increase energy and vitality it is worth having a look at what Ayurvedic medicine has to offer. Even if you do not wish to pursue Ayurvedic treatment it is interesting to see how this branch of medicine understands the progress of illness.
Originating in India over 4,000 years ago it is one of the world’s oldest health care methods. It works on the principle that all things in the universe are one and that if the body and mind are in harmony with nature then good health will prevail. Fatigue and stress have become accepted as part of modern day living but are often precursors for more serious conditions such as coronary heart disease and cancer.
Although the pharmaceutical industry has manufactured a pill for almost every ailment, the body has its own natural defence mechanisms. Unless compromised, our immune system is very effective at dealing with unwelcome invaders; our bones heal without pharmaceutical intervention as do cuts, bruises and other physical traumas. We accept this as normal. This said, our bodies need to be healthy and in balance for self healing to be effective.
Ayurveda aims to balance the body, mind and soul to prevent illness and promote well being. A variety of techniques are used to achieve this: diet and the use of plants along with exercise and meditation. This holistic treatment is having a resurgence in the field of complimentary and alternative medicine with an emphasis on prevention of illness. It also stresses the importance of personal responsibility for healthy living and gives advice on methods of achieving this.
Each person is considered individual, with a unique mind-body type. Three life forces, known as doshas control the activities of the body and each person has a unique combination of the three doshas, with one being prominent. When these three forces are in balance there is good health. A disturbance of one of these forces produces imbalance and possibly disease.
A NOTE OF CAUTION: If Ayurvedic treatment is to be used for an established illness or disease it is important to use it under the guidance of a reputable practitioner and with the consent of a Medical Practitioner. Remedies are complex and some treatments can be toxic. They are often regulated as dietary supplements which do not have to undergo the rigorous safety and efficacy standards required for conventional medicines. Proven conventional treatments provided by your General Practitioner, or a hospital doctor, should NEVER be replaced with unproven complimentary and alternative treatments.
An Ayurvedic practitioner considers there to be six stages in the course of an illness and in the Western world we generally wait for stage four to arrive before seeking medical treatment.
|6 Stages of Illness
The following 6 categories show how you can take personal responsibility for good health:
1 .Follow a sensible diet. There is a plethora of information regarding what constitutes a sensible diet. Lean meats, fish, pulses, fruits and vegetables are the recommendations. Plenty of water or herbal tea is also advised. There is a growing body of evidence to show that an excess of processed foods is causing ill health so these foods should be avoided.
2. Use relaxation techniques to prevent and reduce stress. Transcendental Meditation is a method used in Ayurvedic treatments which has proven to reduce stress, calm the body and improve sleep and digestion. If time is limited and meditation cannot be fitted into the daily schedule, then look into mindfulness. This can be used in everyday activities.
3. Make the best of life’s ups and downs. There are obviously situations when this is not appropriate. It would be foolish to even suggest making the most of a serious illness or the death of a loved one. There are many times though when smaller issues take over, causing misery. Dwelling on these has a serious effect on health if prolonged.
4. Cultivate harmonious personal relationships. It is worth working at relationships both at home and at work. Being nice to someone unpleasant often brings surprising and positive results. To begin with it takes some effort but the response could lead to a more pleasant environment for everyone.
5. Watch your thoughts and practice right thinking. Regurgitating last week’s arguments or remaining anxious about some future event is detrimental to both physical and mental health. The mind can only occupy one thought at a time so if the thought is a negative or nasty one then change it!
6. Regular sleep and exercise. Sleep provides rest giving the body time to repair and heal any damage sustained during the day. The benefits of exercise are well documented.
Following all of the above methods need not take any extra time from a busy schedule. Exercise and mindfulness can be incorporated into the daily routine with very little disruption – there does not have to be a formal time set aside for these activities. Thoughts have a great effect on the well being of the body, so watch them whenever possible. Prevention of disease keeps the mind and body healthy and ready to cope with the more substantial traumas when they appear.
Posted on July 1, 2018
The Benevolent Dictator is released on 1st July 2018
Ben Hollow has a deep desire to make the world a better place and from the age of ten dreamed that one day he would become Prime Minister. Like many who enter politics he had a utopian vision where doing the right thing would improve the lives of many.
“I would join a progressive party, promote third-way policies, and sweep to victory on a new wave of economic liberalism and social responsibility”
However, having reached the end of university studies he becomes overwhelmed with self-doubt, wondering if he did, in fact, have anything significant to offer which would further his career in politics.
When Ben is asked to represent the university to debate ‘ideology is dead’ he meets Amal, his opponent, and this chance encounter sets Ben on a path he could never have anticipated.
As they become friends that evening in the union bar Ben learns that Amal’s destiny is enshrined in his role as Prince of Argolis. Amal does not have the freedom to embark on a career of his own choosing because his future is tied to his responsibilities in his home land.
Argolis is an Arab emirate with a population of a quarter of a million people run by Amal’s father, the King.. Amal has no desire to rule Argolis when his father dies – ‘my brother will be king, someday. I, thankfully, will not’ – but must still fulfil his duties as prince. Whereas Ben is desperate for a position of power which is far beyond his reach, Amal has power at his fingertips but does not want to rule as his father has ruled. He quotes Shelley:
“Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil. When all men are good and wise, government will of itself decay”
When Amal’s brother is killed in a car accident, and the king’s health is in decline, it is evident that soon Amal will be king. Ben tells Amal this is his opportunity to change the way Argolis is governed and, not wishing to make these changes alone, Amal asks Ben to work alongside him as his advisor. Ben accepts.
When the king dies shortly after Ben’s arrival the task of accompanying his friend to improve the lives of the people of Argolis begins. Although Amal, with the help of Ben, has the vision of transforming his country to work under a democracy he discovers it is no simple task. He finds he is not free to make decisions alone but must work with the men who had been advisors to his father: Daniel al Had, head of Government operations; General Othman, head of the army; Admiral of the fleet and Marshal of the air force. Trying to implement any change was going to be a challenge.
Ben and Amal soon find themselves far out of their depth, with serious threat to their lives, as their ambitions for democracy become evident.
Tom Trott has succeeded in taking a topical subject and weaving it into a very entertaining story.The struggle of the people, throughout history, has been a difficult one where blood is shed in order to gain freedom and democracy from dictatorship. Those in power will do all they can to hold on to it.
The opening chapter begins with Ben’s reflection on the story he is about to tell and encapsulates the essence of the book.
“I used to believe in democracy. I even, for a brief time which I now consider my childhood, believed in politics. Politics is about changing the world for the better, my father would tell me; ever the academic, never the politician. Politics is the art of the possible, is how Bismarck put it. When I say I do not believe in it, I mean it: it does not exist as a force in the world. Democracy and politics are just different ways of describing power; those who have it, and those who do not. Power is very real.”
It is a thought-provoking statement which leads one to reflect on the nature of democracy and who truly wields the power to bring about change. Can the ideology for a better world be achieved through governments or will it only come “when all men are good and wise” as predicted by Shelley? Can a better world only be achieved when each individual lets go of the desire for power and treats others with respect?
The Benevolent Dictator is a fast moving novella of about 150 pages and is a light and easy read. Ben and Amal are taken on a journey which – like so often in life – is not of their making but changes their perspective on live immeasurably.
The very nature of a novella makes it difficult to develop the characters fully and this is the only area where criticism could be aimed. Although Ben’s dry humour gives an insight into his character it would have been interesting to get better acquainted with both Ben and Amal to understand more of their emotions as the plot unfolds.
That said it was an enjoyable read.
Follow Tom Trott on Twitter: @tjtrott
Thank you Tom for the review copy.
Posted on June 13, 2018
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” Dalai Lama XIV
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s our duty to society to be happy. At face value it seems self-centred and indulgent to seek happiness when there’s so much suffering in the world. It seems like a ‘blow you Jack, I’m alright!’ type attitude. However, the more I think about it and watch life going on around me, the more I believe that if we could make it our priority to be happy then the world would be a much better place.
During a recent visit to a supermarket a woman barged into me with the force of a rhino (I’ll refrain from commenting on her size!). Slightly winded and taken by surprise I found myself apologising – as you do! (For some reason the British have this strange habit of apologising for things they haven’t done. There is a wonderful book called Watching the English by Kate Fox which investigates English behaviour – and the author spent an afternoon bumping into people and discovered that over 80% apologised to her for bumping into them!)
I obviously didn’t apologise loud enough – or perhaps the woman was deaf as well as bloody rude – and I found myself on the receiving end of a barrage of abuse. “Don’t F…..g say sorry then” she yelled as she shoved her trolley into mine, grazing my knuckles in the process. Stupidly, despite her obnoxious behaviour, I began to explain that I had apologised even though she had in fact bumped into me but she stormed off, leaving me mumbling to myself like a crazy lady.
No longer in the mood for shopping, due to indignant outrage, I picked up a few more things and headed for the checkout. No points for guessing who was at the checkout next to mine. Yes, the charging rhino who was now venting her anger at the poor man at the till.
She was clearly not a happy bunny and I felt sorry for whoever was waiting for her at home.
Observation tells me that unhappy people tend to be self-focussed, rude, difficult and antagonistic. I’m not talking about sad unhappy but miserable unhappy. Miserable people make it their mission in life to make everyone else’s lives on par with their own. Happy people on the other hand tend to be more tolerant, flexible and generally nicer people. Happiness is infectious. Being around happy people makes you feel good despite your own problems.
So, how do we seek happiness and fulfil our planetary duties?
A new car…that would make me very happy! A month in the Caribbean…how could I be miserable sunning myself on a beach there? Obviously it is my responsibility to be happy so Lastminute.com here I come!!
But do these things really make me happy? Momentarily, yes. Then I revert to my baseline level of happiness. The level that is me. The level that, whatever the problem or pleasure, I revert to in everyday life. Once I’ve overcome the awe of sitting on a Caribbean beach for a few days I get a bit bored and think how nice it would be if I could wander around an art gallery and get out of the heat!
My daughter has travelled a lot and worked as a volunteer in small villages in Uganda and Cambodia and she tells me that the people there seemed happy with life. Despite having very little, they were happier than many that she meets at home. (Home as in England – not home, home…we’re not generally a miserable bunch). They were always willing to share their evening meal, which consisted of a few floating bits in a watery broth. They had more than their fair share of problems, as you can imagine, but their baseline level of happiness was higher than many who have acquired an abundance of material goods.
“Happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by eternal events” The Art of Happiness, HH Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler.
The key is not to confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure comes and goes but the aim is to achieve a higher baseline level of happiness. We clearly need the basics of a roof over our head, food in our stomachs and clothes to wear but does all the extra bits really make us happy? It’s all about our attitude to life and we can do a lot to change our expectations in order to achieve greater joy.
I truly believe it’s our priority in life – our contribution to the planet, if you like – to seek happiness. It’s neither self-indulgent nor selfish. Hard work it may be, to express more love and affection and smile at everyone; sometimes nearly impossible to show compassion when you’re angry and frustrated but the more it’s practised the easier it becomes (so all the books say!). Over time, less things irritate and annoy – and this raises the baseline level of happiness. .
Posted on April 22, 2018
Hana is sixteen and living on Jeju, an island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula in the south, which is under Japanese occupation. Hana is a haenyeo – a woman of the sea – and spends her days diving with her mother for food to eat and to sell at the market. Her little sister Emiko, just nine years old, remains on the beach protecting their catch.
From the day Emiko was born Hana loved her baby sister and vowed to always be her protector.
“I will keep her safe, I promise” she tells her mother.
So when Hana sees a Japanese soldier walking along the beach, knowing he poses a threat to her little sister, she lures him away to spare Emiko and is subsequently snatched from her family and forced into a harrowing life of sexual slavery, her innocence plundered .
“She has never left the island before. The realisation that she is being taken to another country terrifies her, and her feet freeze, refusing to take another step”
The story is told by both Hana and Emi but during different periods of time. Hana’s narrative covers her captivity during 1943 and Emi’s is a reflective account, told in 2011, of the tragic events that shaped her life.
Hana suffers terrible abuse along with other young women who are kept as ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese soldiers during the second World War. When she first arrives at the brothel she is uncertain of her fate but discovers it all too soon as she waits in her room.
“The door swings open and she sees soldiers lining up for the new Sakura. Hana later learns that a new girl’s arrival spreads like wildfire through the camp, and all the soldiers show up early, racing to be the first to try her out”
It is impossible not to be moved by Hana’s pain as she tells of being repeatedly raped, without any empathy from her abusers, knowing this was reality to so many young girls during that time, ripped from their homes, separated from their families and used without any concern for their well-being.
“10 hours a day, 6 days a week she ‘services soldiers’…raped by 20 men a day”
Emi did not suffer the same fate but is beleaguered by pain and guilt from the horror of separation from her beloved sister and for the torment so many had to endure during that time. As she sits on a plane to Seoul, visiting her children, the agonies of the past are too distressing to remember.
“Emi could not stop her mind imagining what lay beneath the tarmac, buried for too many years. Who, not what. There were many faces looking up from the Earth as she flew overhead. Emi doesn’t want to remember them. She pushes their vacant stares away allowing the sounds of the city to distract her”
Although Emi escaped the horrors her sister was subjected to she still bears the scars of an unhappy life. Grief and sadness is still apparent over sixty years after the war. Life has continued but the pain remains, ready to be triggered at any time.
“Many had survived the second World War only to die in the Korean War. But, if like Emi, they had managed to live through both, they forever after carried a burden of helplessness and overwhelming regret”
The story of the comfort women is a piece of history that the Japanese Government refused to acknowledge until 1993 and one that, still today, many know little of. Bracht does an excellent job of bringing the plight of these women into our thoughts. It is estimated that anything between 50,000 and 200,000 women were abused in this way.
The language is honest and often quite brutal as we learn the extent of abuse the comfort women had to endure. Women have always suffered at the hands of soldiers, who somehow become dehumanised by the very nature of war causing them to do despicable things to women. It is a story that is all too familiar and still prevalent around the world today.
However, it is the cold and calculating way the Japanese military organised the comfort women that makes it all the more shocking. Rape in war is often opportunistic but for a government to sanction the abduction of young girls to service the soldiers as they fought for their country is abhorrent and Bracht does not attempt to protect the reader from these harsh realities.
Although White Chrysanthemum is a book filled with heart-rending and tragic events Bracht has used an array of complex characters to write a gripping story. Hana’s strength during her ordeal is inspiring, while even the soldier who abducts her at the beach and is the first to abuse her – Morimoto – has his own sad tale. The kindness of Keiko, an older woman at the brothel who helps Hana through the ordeal, shows that even in such dire circumstances there is room to provide sympathy and support to others in greater need.
Mary Lynn Bracht has succeeded in telling a disturbing part of little known history in a compelling and entertaining story. As well as the many fascinating details in the book about the comfort women and the occupation of Korea, the Author’s Note provides further information which is of great interest, followed by a timeline of events beginning in 1905 when “Korea becomes protectorate of Japan, ending the Korean empire” to 2015 when the “Japanese and South Korean governments announce a ‘landmark agreement’ on the ‘comfort women’ issue”
A superb book which I highly recommend reading.
You can follow Mary Lynn Bracht on Twitter: @marylynnbracht
Posted on March 28, 2018
“History is not just about the evolution of technology; it is the evolution of thought” The Celestine Prophecy – James Redfield.
Thoughts are silent, private, but they shape our world. Most of what has happened and is happening now in our world was created by ideas formulated in the brain: the decision for one country to invade another began with a thought; the decision for a terrorist to hire a car and plough it into a group of people began with a thought; the decision to start an affair with someone who is married began with a thought. Likewise, working to maintain cordial relationships between countries, raising money for charity and the evolution of technology – all came from initial thoughts and ideas.
Thought informs our very existence. It has the power to destroy and the power to heal and, of course, the way we think often dictates how we behave.
So is it possible to create a better world for the future by being mindful of the way we think?
I am not a world leader – or a murderer – so I doubt any change in my thinking would have a tremendous impact on the world. Altering my mindset and staying calm, instead of getting angry, would be great for my blood pressure but, at first glance, would seem to be of little help to anyone else.
But what if our thoughts are more than fleeting opinions that pass through the brain and disappear? What if they exist in form but we are just unable to see them? Like, say, electricity. We cannot see electrons orbiting a nucleus in an atom but we are told by scientists that they do.
There are many who believe thoughts have form; that they are bundles of energy which radiate in waves and have an effect on surrounding matter. What if a thought impacts on the person who is the subject of that thought?
Imagine…I’ve had an argument with a friend. I’m angry. I feel hurt and betrayed and never want to speak to that friend again. My anger, like a black cloud, settles on said friend (well ex-friend now!) and influences their mood and behaviour. My thoughts are not only wreaking havoc with my health but are disturbing the mood of my (ex) friend too, which in turn will affect others.
We have all experienced walking into a room and, without knowing what has taken place, sense a tension. You can almost ‘cut the atmosphere with a knife’. We have also all experienced the effects that positive, happy people have on us compared to unhappy or negative people. Good company uplifts, whereas miserable company leaves one feeling depressed. So is it possible that other people’s thought-forms affect our mood?
A report published in the British Medical Journal regarding a randomised controlled trial to determine “the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection” concluded that “prayer said for a group is associated with a shorter stay in hospital and shorter duration of fever…and should be considered for use in clinical practice”.
There have been many such studies, with comparable results.
Prayer is no more than thought, however it works. So if our positive thoughts help others what of our negative thoughts? What of our prejudices and dislike towards others? Even if negative thoughts are not expressed verbally it is possible they are causing harm to those who are the subject of those thoughts – which, in turn, may affect their behaviour.
There is a quote which is attributed to Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, which says that:
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become”
It seems, therefore, that we all have the power to create a better world for the future just be changing the way we think. It sounds simple but in practise is difficult to do.
Being nice when we are angry takes Gandhi proportions of compassion and understanding; refraining from shouting at the television while listening to politicians arguing on Question Time may be near impossible but if, whenever we can, we send out good thought-forms perhaps – in our own little way – we can help towards making a better world.
Posted on February 17, 2018
I read recently that there are 36 spiritual laws governing the rules of life on Earth, one of these being the Law of Attraction.
The premise of this law is that whatever you focus on you attract into your life. Negative thoughts attract negative situations and likewise positive thoughts bring positive circumstances into your life. It’s all to do with the vibrations with which we resonate. Sounds great doesn’t it? This means if we all think constructive thoughts we will all be very happy…maybe.
Conceding there was some sort of logic to this and because it sounded simple to put into practise I wondered whether the Law of Attraction could be used to improve the pitiful state of my financial affairs and supply me with a replacement for my clapped out car. Could it help me win the lottery for example? I decided to put it to the test.
I selected six random numbers – well, almost random. I put pieces of paper with numbers 1 – 49 in a box, shuffled them in the usual manner, and pulled out the following:
6 7 9 18 32 41
I thought it unlikely that three numbers under ten would come up so I put number seven back and chose again. I got 26 and felt that was a much better balance.
I printed the numbers using font 36 – nice and big – and stuck them to my desk. I found a picture of a luxury car and put it next to the numbers. Would it work? Would I clear my debts and be the proud owner of a decent car? I was dubious.
When practising positive thinking I understand that it is necessary to believe you have already received what you desire rather than hope for it. So, with this in mind, I spent the next three days frequently looking at the pictures on my desk chanting with excitement that I had won the lottery.
When I had some time to reflect on my win I wondered what I would do with it. If it was less than £50,000 I would pay off my overdraft and the maxed out credit cards. If there was enough left, which was unlikely, I would get a nice car. However as soon as I started to think in larger sums, especially when I got into the millions, I wondered how much I would gift to relatives and friends. Then it got tricky. I’m sure you’ve done the same and come to the conclusion that you would have lots of money but no friends because distributing it fairly would be very tricky. I was so overwhelmed trying to decide what to do with the money if I won it (sorry, when I won it) that I was terrified by the prospect of actually winning. I ripped the numbers and picture of the lovely car from my desk and resigned myself to the fact that an overdraft and full credit cards were not the end of the world or worth losing my friends for.
Posted on January 14, 2018
“Life is my school, and I’m here to learn” Shakti Gawain. Every experience has something to teach us.
Today I woke in a good mood twenty minutes before my alarm was due to ring. I got out of bed and carried out a meditation exercise which left me feeling at peace with the world. Today was going to be a good day.
On my way to a meeting I was driving along a country road at what I considered to be an acceptable speed. From out of nowhere a large Mercedes GL350 zoomed up and sat a meter behind me. It was probably slightly further back but you get my drift. It was very close.
I looked in my rear view mirror to see a woman at the wheel screaming into her mobile phone. As much as I felt sorry for the poor soul on the other end, my irritation was growing at her careless disregard for my safety. She beeped her horn, which I ignored. My lack of response to her intimidation apparently left her no option but to overtake. As the car screeched past, her hand lingered far too long on the horn while she hurled abuse through her open window. Irritatingly, she then pulled immediately in front of me in an effort to avoid a car on the opposite side of the road, forcing me to slam my foot on the break. Although there was no possibility of her hearing, primal instinct took over and I yelled back: “You ……idiot!”
COUNT TO 10 ? …….. I DON’T THINK SO!
So where was my calm composure now? It had vanished as quickly as the elephant in the Siegfried and Roy magic trick. My shoulders were so tense they were up by my ears and my knuckles had turned white through gripping the steering wheel. How dare she yell such abuse? She was driving appallingly and she was on the phone. If anyone couldn’t drive it was her. I felt irritable and short tempered for about an hour after. Why? Because I felt personally slighted. That woman had implied I was a bad driver.
Now, my personal growth books tell me that when people behave badly it should not be taken personally because it is often an expression of their inner turmoil; their inner conflict and suffering. If she had pulled up behind someone else – unless the person in front was driving so fast she was unable to catch them in her Mercedes GL350 – she would have treated them exactly the same.
I know all this. But it didn’t help. So I have to ask myself: Should I continue reading the plethora of inner growth manuals that adorn my bookshelves in the hope that someday I will benefit from the wisdom they have to offer or should I give them to the local charity shop and know that at least I’ve helped raise a fiver for a good cause?
Posted on December 3, 2017
For those seeking peace in the midst of this chaotic world Karen Armstrong’s book, Buddha, offers hope. It talks more about a way of life than religion. Words such as enlightenment and Nirvana are inspirational but remain elusive and theoretical to all but a few. To know that the Buddha was born an ordinary man and through his own personal search reached enlightenment gives encouragement to those who are trying make sense of life in this troubled world.
Siddhatta Gotoma (often spelt Siddhartha Gautama) was born into a wealthy family, his father being a prominent figure in Kapilavatthu, Nepal. Cosseted by his over indulgent father, Gotama had everything he desired and was sheltered from every form of suffering. He knew nothing of sickness, pain and death while growing up.
When he did finally encounter the misery and hardship that blighted the existence of those beyond his ivory tower he was appalled and became obsessed with the suffering that was the human experience. So much so that he decided to leave his comfortable home to seek a solution to life’s ills. He believed there had to be a way to “enjoy a calm in the midst of life’s tragedies that gave meaning to existence in a flawed world”.
One night, at the age of twenty nine, Gotama donned the robes of an ascetic and left behind his wife and baby to roam the forests in search of “a solution to the puzzle of existence…everything in the mundane world had, it was thought, its more powerful, positive replica in the divine realm” and Gotama was determined to find it.
So the search began.
Over the next five or six years Gotama joined various groups, partaking in their teachings but found they had little effect on him as a person. Physical and sensory deprivation did not lead to overcoming desire and greed – in fact it often had the opposite effect.
“He was not ‘entering into’ the doctrine and dwelling in it…the teachings remained remote, metaphysical abstractions and seemed to have little to do with him personally…try as he would he could gain no glimmer of his real self, which remained obstinately hidden by what seemed an unpenetrable rind of Praktri (nature)”
As time went by Gotama believed that the teachers could not provide him with what he sought, that he must seek it directly; experience it directly. He was convinced that the answers lay deep within him and only he could “release the treasure that was held within”.
Whereas the ancient religions taught that salvation was through ritual and sacrifice, Gotama – and others at that time, such as Socrates and Confucius – thought that salvation lay within the reaches of each individual but that there was something inherent in human nature preventing the spiritual experience.
“The sages and prophets of the Axial Age (800bc – 200bc) were gradually realising that egotism was the greatest hindrance to the experience of the Absolute and sacred reality they sought. A man or a woman had to lay aside the selfishness that seems so endemic to our humanity if he or she wishes to apprehend the reality of God.”
In conjunction with the skilful meditation techniques he had learned over the years, Gotama set about the practise of ‘mindfulness’ and self analysis. Gotama realised that even though he could achieve elevated states of consciousness “when he came out of his trance he was still subject to passion, desire and craving. He remained his unregenerate self. He had not been transformed by the experience and had attained no lasting peace”.
He believed that alongside the mediation practise, it was essential to cultivate kindness and compassion and to relinquish the unhealthy states of greed, violence and anger. He believed that right thought and right action would lead to peace in this challenging world. Daily, he would reflect on his thoughts and actions and determine if he could be kinder and more harmonious with those around him. He believed that compassion was the key to advancement on the spiritual path and he believed that “the new self developed imperceptibly over a long period”.
Although history relates that Siddhatta Gotama reached sudden enlightenment whilst sitting one day under the Bodhi tree, some think that it was at this time he received the revelation on how to reach enlightenment; that personal transformation had to come first.
The words of the Buddda are as practical today as they were over two thousand years ago. Compassion is the key to spiritual advancement and to practise compassion it is necessary to become free from the control of the ego. To consider others; to put others before our own selfish desires and not alway think of ourselves first.
The ego, in its fight for self-preservation, controls thought and action: The need to be right in an argument; the anger experienced when someone fails to consider our needs; the desire to obtain more wealth rather than sharing what we already have. These are all part of the human condition and which, if we wish to find peace in the midst of chaos, we must let go of. The Buddha believed that Instead of ignoring, denying or fighting suffering it is necessary to see it, understand it and work with it. It is our lessons. It can make us better people if we do not work against it or refuse to acknowledge it.
There seems to be within us an inner resistance to change and the awakening of our true selves, our inner being. The desire to meditate is often thwarted by distraction. The ability to stick to any serious research for the ‘inner spirit’ becomes an ongoing struggle.
What the story of Siddhatta Gotama highlights is that this struggle is experienced by everyone – even, or especially, those who finally achieve enlightenment – but that with tenacity and strength of mind we all have the possibility of finding calm in this challenging world. Problems will aways arise, troubles forever on the horizon. The key is to learn how to deal with them in a manner that reduces suffering.
Buddha is telling us that we are often architects of our own suffering but that a different mindset can allow us to be happy in a world fraught with pain.
“The attainment of Nirvana did not mean the Buddha would never experience any more suffering. He would still grow old, get sick and die like everyone else and would experience pain while doing so. Nirvana does not give an awakened person trance like immunity but an inner haven which enables a man or woman to live with the pain, to take possession of it, affirm it, and experience a profound peace of mind in the midst of suffering”
Karen Armstrong has provided a wonderful, easy to digest, insight into the life of an ordinary man who found Nirvana and achieved enlightenment. Although this book is about the Buddha I think it provides hope and encouragement for anyone trying to find meaning in life. I do believe that the basic tenets of most religions are those of love and compassion and the Buddha has provided a practical approach to work towards achieving these qualities to enable every individual access to a better quality of life.
Posted on November 14, 2017
You can read more about Ruth Hogan as she discusses her writing journey In Conversation with Greenacre Writers
When Anthony Peardew, a British writer, discovers what he believes are human ashes in a Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin, while travelling on the 14.42 from London Bridge to Brighton, he labels the tin with the place and date of its discovery and stores it on a shelf in his study, along with all the other lost items he has collected.
In the clutches of old age Anthony is still grieving for his fiancee, Therese, who died tragically forty years before. On the day she died Anthony also lost the precious medallion his beloved Therese had given him and, although he was unaware of it at the time, losing the medallion provided a means for Anthony to find purpose to his life. Although devastated by Therese’s death he knew it would be wrong for him to throw away the future he had.
“He would a million times rather had spent it with her, but to give up when she died would have been the greatest wrong; to throw away the gift that had been snatched from her would have been an act of appalling ingratitude and cowardice.”
So he dedicated his life to collecting lost items in the hope of returning them to their rightful owners, as he had hoped that one day he would be reunited with the lost medallion. As well as meticulously labelling and storing the objects he found, he also created imaginative stories as to the circumstances surrounding their loss. As Anthony finds his health deteriorating he is determined to hand over the responsibility of the lost things to his faithful housekeeper-come-secretary, Laura.
Laura, in the aftermath of divorce from her husband Vince, had been “barely surviving on wine and medication” when she had seen the advertisement for the post of housekeeper/personal assistant as she flicked through a magazine in the doctor’s surgery waiting room while seeking a remedy for her depression.
That had been six years before. Now Laura experienced only comfort and peace at Padua – Anthony’s mansion set in tranquil surroundings – and takes pleasure in caring for the house and her boss. To Laura, Anthony Peardew “was like a comforting constant, like Radio 4, Big Ben and Land of Hope and Glory”. On his death Anthony bequeaths Padua and all that is in it to Laura with the caveat that she continues to attempt to reunite the lost items with their rightful owners.
Interspersed between Anthony and Laura’s narrative the reader is taken back to the 1970’s to follow the lives of Eunice and Bomber to present day. Like Laura, Eunice sought a change from her mundane existence. Young and bored she answered an advertisement for an assistant to a busy publisher and her life was transformed when she met Bomber. Full of charisma and charm Bomber always made those around him feel good. Slowly Eunice falls in love and although Bomber can never reciprocate a close friendship develops.
The Keeper of Lost Things is a charming novel where Ruth Hogan has successfully blended the believable with fantasy to entertain but also to give the reader the opportunity to reflect on the deeper meanings of the story. It covers love and loss, friendship and pain through beautifully written prose, especially in the short stories relating to the lost objects.
While reading these poignant tales it gives pause for thought that these items have a story behind them. That the loss of the “Lime green hair bobble with plastic flowers. Found on the playing field Derrywood Park, 2 September...” came about during a moment of courage and triumph for its owner.
And, like the objects, people too have a story. When meeting strangers we have no knowledge of their past; what has brought them to where they are today; what experiences have made them who they are. Ruth Hogan has weaved a tale that highlights the complexities of human relationships and has done so with tenderness and a dose of humour through the lives of these delightful characters.
Bomber’s sister Portia and the ghostly element surrounding Therese bring a lighter side to the story. Sunshine, the nineteen year old girl with Down’s Syndrome, who befriends Laura, is special in many ways. In her innocence she reminds us that because someone is different their views and opinions should be respected.
And then there is Freddy the handsome gardener at Padua…how can Laura resist!
A lovely book to read sitting by a log fire…with a glass of wine…on a cold winter’s night.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter: @ruthmariehogan