Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

 

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Steady and predictable Raimund ‘Mundus’ Gregorius has his life turned upside down one day when he meets a beautiful woman on a bridge. Fifty seven year old Gregorious, a classical languages teacher at a school in Berne, decides it is time to evaluate his life. On impulse he abandons his classroom during the middle of the day’s teaching and embarks on a journey of discovery.

By luck or providence, whilst browsing in a second-hand book shop, Gregorious picks up a book written by a Portuguese doctor, Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado, who died over thirty years ago.  The book, A Goldsmith of Words, is written in Portuguese – a language Gregorious does not understand. The book shop owner translates the first page and Gregorious immediately feels the words speak to him.

Gregorious begins to learn Portuguese in order to translate the slim book containing the philosophical jottings of Prado, who, as well as working as a doctor, became involved as a resistance fighter during the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Gregorious takes a train to Lisbon to unravel the threads of Prado’s life.

Although Gregorious makes the bold decision to take control of his life it feels as though he has exchanged his own uneventful, mundane existence to live it through Amadeu Prado. His desire to understand the complex life of the doctor appears to control his new existence as he meets Prado’s family and friends to learn what it was really like to be Prado. However, as Gregorious slowly settles into his new life, and reflects on the past, memories of a spontaneous younger self emerge. He realises he wasn’t always so unadventurous and begins to alter the way he has perceived himself for so long.

The philosophical musing of the sometimes self-indulgent Prado can be a challenging read but reveal some thought provoking insights. I have an interest in meditation and often reflect on the meaning of life, which was why I selected the book  to read. Because of this I paid particular attention to the sections regarding Prado’s thoughts. That said, some parts took a second reading to grasp their meaning. Although Mercier has tried to reveal Prado in small chunks, parts are a little long which very occasionally slows the book down.

In Night Train to Lisbon Peter Bieri, himself a philosopher writing under the pseudonym of Pascal Mercier, has managed to merge reflective thinking with a classic novel of intrigue, love, passion and adventure mixed with a dose of humour. It is not a book with peaks and troughs but maintains a steady pace. Although it sometimes needs patience and slow digestion – more easily absorbed in a quiet place – I found it very enjoyable.

 

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

half of a yellow sun

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five ordinary people through a decade of Nigerian history. After receiving independent federation rule in 1960 the country was thrown into civil war in the late sixties when Biafra, a state in Eastern Nigeria, was granted secession.

The characters are introduced during a time of peace and plenty. Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, educated and wealthy, live very different lives. Olanna is introduced as kind and thoughtful as she reassures an elderly lady at the airport that the plane carrying her son will stop on the runway. Olanna gives up her luxurious lifestyle in Lagos to live with her lecturer lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, strong, wilful and less beautiful than her twin, helps their father to run the family business and becomes involved with an Englishman, Richard, who has a fascination for Igbo art.

Odenigbo, a university lecturer in Nsukka, entertains friends where food and alcohol flow and lively intellectual debates ensue. His strong political views cause Kainene to refer to him as Olanna’s ‘revolutionary lover’.  Ugwu is Odenigbo’s thirteen year old houseboy who loves to cook for Master and his guests while absorbing fragments of their lively discussions.

Biafra’s secession in 1967 brings a Nigerian blockade and eventually war; the mostly Muslim dominated north against the Igbo population in the south.  The world, with the exception of Tanzania, refuses to recognise the State of Biafra.

The novel moves successfully between the early sixties and the late sixties to provide a contrast between the indulgent lifestyle of peace time and the famine and hardships that inevitably come with war. The early imagery of Ugwu’s pepper soup and spicy jollof rice reinforce the horrors of eating roasted bush rats to stave off starvation.

As the war progresses, Odenigbo, Olanna and daughter Baby have to leave their home in Nsukku. Their descent into poverty forces them to live in a single room of squalor, join food queues for any scraps they are able to receive and the need to hide in air raid shelters, which they share with an assortment of small creatures. Relationships that were easy when life was good are put under enormous strain when food is scarce and the people they love are brutally murdered. Kainene has a different experience of the war as she sets up and organises refugee camps for all of those forced from their homes. Her life with Richard is stable and he tries hard to integrate and become accepted by the Igbo people. Ugwu faces challenges as he explores the natural inquisitive passions of a teenage boy.

Half of a Yellow Sun is named after the emblem for Biafra, worn on the sleeves of soldiers fighting the war. This three year war has been consigned to distant memory for most of the world and the word Biafra synonymous with starving, large bellied children in Africa.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has done an excellent job of bringing the war back to the attention of the world whilst telling a beautifully written story. The account of history, which members of her family experienced, is related through these five wonderful characters in a moving and empathetic manner. She has captured the human condition well: during times of suffering some find a deep inner strength whereas others flounder and surrender, unable to cope. The changes in each of the characters also reinforce that although we often have little control over external circumstances we do have a choice in our personal response to them. An inspirational read

An introduction to Ayurveda

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.

yoga meditation

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 

  1. Accumulation: This is the consequence of taking unhealthy substances into the body or permitting negative feelings such as anger or anxiety to have power over our daily lives.
  2. Aggravation: If over long periods the body and the mind are neglected, effects being to show in the form of tiredness, poor digestion or general irritation.
  3. Spreading: Harmful toxins spread through the body leading to an increase in symptoms. This may lead to depression, significant disruption to the digestive system or disruption to sleep among other things.
  4. Localisation: There may now be an accumulation, leading to a more pronounced effect, in a particular tissue or organ and a visit to the doctor is often necessary at this point.
  5. Manifestation: Symptoms are more distinct and a diagnosis is made and treatment prescribed.
  6. Complications: If left untreated there may be a secondary disease, a chronic condition or possibly even death.

 

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.

Meditation for Beginners

If you have tried to meditate in the past and given up then I urge you to try again. I agree that effort is needed but the main reason people abandon meditation practise is due to lack of time. Finding 10 -20 minutes each day for formal practise is difficult with a busy daily schedule involving work and children. Many who meditate in the evening after a long, tiring day often fall asleep. There are, however, many practical exercises involving no extra time from your waking day, that will bring noticeable benefits.

So, what is meditation? It is focussed awareness. The body is relaxed while the mind remains alert. Meditation is not to be confused with relaxation. Relaxation is the state where your thoughts drift and the mind isn’t fully conscious. Sleep is easy when the mind and body are relaxed. The aim of meditation is to gain control over the chaotic thoughts the mind produces every waking second. There is rarely a time when the mind is not thinking about the past or the future. However we do experience times when we are so absorbed that our thoughts don’t intrude. For example, listening to music without allowing the daily worries to butt in is a form of meditation.

So, why mediate? There is plenty of supporting evidence that meditation:

Lowers blood pressure
Improves concentration
Relieves stress and anxiety
Boosts creativity
Enhances personal relationships
Leads to a better quality of life
To let go of the constant nagging worries that the mind dwells on is of enormous benefit to health. When we feel calm and happy everyone is our friend. When we are stressed and irritable nobody is our friend – particularly those closest to us who we love. Always remember that the mind can only think of one thing at a time, so replace any thoughts that are worrisome or unhelpful to your wellbeing with a thought that makes you feel better. Practising meditation exercises allow each person to gain mastery over their mind and thoughts to bring enough awareness to be in a position to consciously change the thoughts that are unhelpful.

Below are three exercises that can be integrated into daily life and will begin the process of relaxed, focussed awareness. Set the alarm on your phone to remind you at frequent intervals during the day. If you are on the train going to work by 8 o’clock set the alarm for 8.05 and practise on the train. Set the alarm for break times, meal times, and various times during the days and evening to bring your mind back to the task in hand – which is to concentrate on what is happening AT THAT MOMENT. The first two exercises can be practised while you are busy at work but to begin with you will need the alarm to remind you.

Watching the breath. While washing, dressing, queuing in the bank or working at the computer you can focus on your breathing. Relax the body and feel the breath move in and out. When you become alert enough this is an excellent exercise for confrontations and difficult personal situations. You remain in control allowing you decide how to handle the problem without reacting first.
Present moment awareness. Concentrating on the task in hand reduces day dreaming and worrying, thereby reducing stress and anxiety while ensuring you do a good job of whatever you are doing. Don’t permit your mind to wander aimlessly. Even if the task is boring, keep bringing your focus back to what you are doing because it is the discipline that is important. If you can concentrate on mundane tasks you will be more aware of your thoughts at more important times. Formal meditation requires sitting for a period of time, concentrating on either a mantra or an object. Concentrate on the filing, or listening to a boring business talk – it’s no different and means you will not have to find the time in the evening or early morning to concentrate on a banana! It is not necessary to close your eyes to meditate. It is all about the mind being alert and aware rather than drifting and becoming aware of the body and relaxing it if necessary. Are your shoulders hunched while leaning over the computer? Then relax them. Is your mind regurgitating last week’s arguments? Then think of something pleasant and let the rest go.
Visualisation. This is easier when the eyes are closed but can also be practised anywhere. On the train, at work during lunch break or even sitting in the toilet provides the perfect opportunity! Look around for any item: a clock, your hand, a vase – anything. Look at it for a few moments and see the detail then close your eyes and try to picture it. The more you practise the easier it gets as with all meditation exercises.
Formal meditation – when you feel ready – will take your practise to a deeper level with greater health benefits. The above exercises will, however, get you started without taking any extra time from your daily schedule and the results will be noticeable.