Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Lute Strings

Another parable. See The Ship and An Acre of Forest for earlier ones.

Gaynor had now given up her early obsession with music and decided to focus on her career. In fact, it had been several years now since she had even thought about music. Instead, her focus was on the completion of this project, the approval of her boss, the likelihood of more responsibility in the next project, the need to overcome obstructive colleagues and placate demanding customers, the determination to make an impression for her ability and commitment. She had barely noticed as her relationship unravelled and her boyfriend moved on. She lived alone now, and worked.

But suddenly, like a swimmer stricken by weakness in mid-channel, she began to find herself undermined by weakness. One morning she woke up at 3am overwhelmed by despair – knowing suddenly that she was not good enough and there was no point. She could not go to work and she could not go on. She took time off, and at first her boss was sympathetic. “You’ve been overdoing it, Gaynor” she said on the telephone, “But you’re a valuable asset to the company, so you need to look after yourself. You take some time off and get better.” The doctor advised a new treatment: mindfulness based stress reduction. Really good for depression, he had said, much better than giving her drugs. So one afternoon, Gaynor found herself in a class learning how to meditate.

At first it was really annoying. The mindfulness teacher led them in a body scan and then told them to focus on the breath. For Gaynor, the body scan had just made her feel insecure about her body: it wasn’t good enough, it was full of tension. Then when asked to focus on the breath she just found it boring. She tried doing it for a few seconds, but then immediately started thinking about the office again.

In the discussion afterwards, Gaynor asked the mindfulness teacher how she could focus on her body or on the breath without getting stressed about it. To her they just seemed like new sources of stress. Why go to a meditation class and fail at doing something else, having just failed at going to work? If she tried to stop doing these things, she would float around and then just land right back on her stress points.

“Well,” the Mindfulness Teacher seemed to be searching for the right response, “have you ever played any music – an instrument of some kind?”Winged man playing the lute Durer

A sudden stab of memory at the word “music”: Gaynor and her lute, at the age of 14. That lute given to her by her aunt, and the local guitar teacher keen on the baroque, who had taught her and encouraged her. At one time she hadn’t just played music, it had seemed that music had also been playing her.

“Yes,” responded Gaynor after a pause, “I used to play the lute, but I gave it up to concentrate on my career.”

“Ah! Well, there’s a story told by the Buddha about a lute. Once there was a monk who came to him whose name was Sona. Sona had been trying too hard in meditation. Like you he was just finding it another challenge, another source of stress. But Sona also used to play the lute. So the Buddha asked him, ‘What happens if the lute-strings are too tight?’ What would you say, Gaynor?”

“You don’t get a good tone. You get distortions, and it’s bad for the instrument.”

“And what happens if the lute-strings are too slack?”

“Similarly, you don’t get a good tone. It’s out of tune.”

“So you need the lute-strings to be neither too taut nor too slack, but somewhere in between, the Middle Way. Meditation is just like that. You have to find a point in yourself where you start getting the right tone, the one that just hits the note and is in tune. You won’t do that by forcing your effort or having too rigid an idea of what you want to achieve. You have to be a bit exploratory and provisional. On the other hand you do need to have a sense of purpose in meditation, and to maintain that sense of purpose, otherwise you will just drift off.”

When she got home, Gaynor went impulsively to her wardrobe, where, under a pile of clothes and other detritus, she found her lute in its case. In excitement, she took it up and tried to tune it, but straight away one of the strings snapped. She had to make a trip to a music shop before she could go any further. But then at last she was there, with a lute once more in her hands, and with the strings neither too taut nor too slack. After a few minutes of initial clumsiness, she was amazed at how quickly her musical agility returned: the technique, the expression, the memory of the pieces, all were still there.

She played solidly for two hours, and then realised that her depression had apparently lifted. But she felt no urge to go back to work.

The next week she returned to the meditation class. In the practice, this time, she tried to tune her breath like a lute-string: neither too taut, nor too slack. For a while she seemed to find that point, then she got distracted by congratulating herself and thinking about her lute. At least she wasn’t thinking about work, she thought.


 The Middle Way and psychological states

This story uses an analogy directly used by the Buddha to illustrate the Middle Way in relation to psychological states. The Middle Way appears not just in relation to sets of explicit views – what we might typically think of as ‘extreme’ views – but also in the assumptions we make in everyday life. If you are not an extremist, unfortunately you can’t congratulate yourself that you are necessarily already practising the Middle Way, as the kinds of states encountered by Gaynor are, more or less, the ones we all encounter, to a greater or lesser degree, on a regular basis. We are not quite hitting the Middle Way at every point where we are not optimally ‘tuned’.

However, it’s important to understand how beliefs relate to psychological states here. It is not the psychological states that are extreme, but the beliefs that accompany them. For example, Gaynor was not in an ‘extreme’ state just because she was depressed – depression may have a variety of causes, after all. Rather her depression was being perpetuated by a rigid view: in this case the view that fulfilling the goals of work and career would meet all her needs. This view was inadequate to the conditions, not because the work was bad, but because her needs were more complex than that. If she were to flip to the opposite negating view, that work was bad and she should give up work entirely, it might have equally negative effects. These views are only ‘extreme’ because they are rigid and fail to notice the possibility of a balanced and flexible judgement in between, not because they would necessarily be conventionally understood as ‘extreme’.

As a good lute-player will know, it is no good just tuning your lute once. You have to keep re-tuning it, because otherwise it will go out of tune, and similarly the Middle Way consists of a series of flexible judgements constantly re-made, all of which hit a middle point between the affirmation and denial of fixed beliefs. The Middle Way is thus a process of judgement, not a fixed belief in itself. If you had a sense of it in the past, and then forgot it, rediscovering the Middle Way can indeed be a bit like rediscovering your lute at the bottom of your wardrobe.

Meditation is an excellent context for directly experiencing the Middle Way. If you approach it with a fixed belief of the kind Gaynor had (that it was just another source of stress requiring too much of her), it will not yield any satisfaction, any more than a badly-tuned lute will provide satisfactory music. Someone approaching it with the opposite belief (that meditation was just about relaxing and having no purpose at all) would probably have an equally bad time. However, as soon as you hit on the right tuning for the lute, meditation can become much more rewarding. For a short while you may create beautiful music, but then it is very likely that you will get stuck in some other way, hanging onto a rigid belief of some other kind rather than finding the balance. Every time you manage to loosen that belief (every time you re-tune the lute), you begin to live a little more provisionally, and build up more adequate habits in relation to the world.


The MWS Podcast 60: Rod King on 20’s Plenty For Us

We are joined today by Rod King, the founder and campaign director of 20’s Plenty for Us a movement set up to campaign for a default 20 mile speed limit in the UK. He’s going to talk about its rationale, the effect that it has had, the challenges it faces, how he sees it progressing and how this all might relate to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 60: Rod King as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_60_Rod_King

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An Acre of Forest

I am currently working on a book of 29 ‘Parables of the Middle Way’, each accompanied by commentary. I will be posting some example parables here from time to time, and any comments will help me refine them. I already posted ‘The Ship’ a while ago, and here is another one, ‘An Acre of Forest’

“In addition to the property we have discussed, your grandfather left you something you might not have expected in his will” said Mr Jenkins, looking over his documents.

“Oh, what’s that?” replied Petra, intrigued.

“An acre of forest.”Mixed-forest Oliver Herold

“An acre of forest? I didn’t even know he had an acre of forest to leave! Where is it?”

“In the Elwyn Valley, I believe, about five miles from here. It’s an odd little bit of land, and I’ve no idea how he acquired it or why. He doesn’t seem to have exploited it for timber, or anything of that kind.”

“He did love forests” said Petra. “Perhaps he just wanted to preserve it.”

“Perhaps that’s the best explanation” replied the solicitor. “Still, Mrs Dawkins, what do you want to do with it? If you’d like me to put it on sale on your behalf, I could set that in motion.”

“What sort of forest is it? Is it ranks of conifers, or are they broadleaved? Are the trees mature?”

“I’ve no idea, I’m afraid. I’ve never viewed it. We could go and look if you think that’s important.”

“Well, I don’t need to take up your time with that, Mr Jenkins. Just show me on the map where it is, and I’ll go and look by myself. Once I’ve seen it, perhaps I’ll be able to make a sensible decision.”

“Well, don’t expect too much. A single acre is not a very large area. And it may not have been well-managed so as to look its best. Here, you can see where it is marked on the map.”

Despite this premonitory warning, when Petra parked her car in what she was sure was the right place, and looked at her acre of forest, her heart immediately fell. All she could see were ranks of pines: Norway spruce of a kind that is grown all over the British uplands simply to make as fast a profit from timber as possible, of the kind that shades out all undergrowth and forms a thick mass of impenetrable dead branches under the trees. She found it difficult to believe that her romantically-minded grandfather would have bought a timber plantation just to make money, and her opinion of him began to take a plunge as a consequence.

She was about to drive off in a rage against her grandfather, when she thought perhaps she should look beyond the initial rank of pines, in case there was a clearing there or something. Also, if she was going to sell it, she’d better check what condition the trees were in and how mature they were. So, she barged her way through an initial row of dead pine branches. To her surprise, there were no pines behind the first row. Instead there was a stand of ash trees. Oh, and over there were some beeches, and there were some oaks too. A clearer way opened out between the trees, with undergrowth around her, and she found herself in a charming clearing, with wild flowers, birds singing and a squirrel scuttering off through the branches. Quite a variety of trees surrounded the clearing: sycamores, rowans, London plane… She couldn’t even identify all the types of tree.

No wonder her grandfather had bought it! Now she understood. Grandad had had an eye for the hidden and unappreciated. Her grandmother had been rather like that: an initial austere, utilitarian exterior, but when you got to know her she could be the warmest, kindest person in the world. This acre of forest was exactly the same: not just one type of tree but many. Not just ugliness but beauty too. Not just commercial timber, but beautiful mature broadleaved trees as well.

It was clear what she needed to do. She would preserve it too, and pass it on to her grandchildren as well. Her grandfather had left no particular instructions for his ashes, but now she also knew where to scatter them.


Variation of beliefs in an individual

The acre of forest is a parable about the multiplicity of human individuals – and indeed the same point, more obviously, applies to human groups. Most of us have at least some awareness of the dangers of stereotyping a group of people, whether they are grouped by race, gender, age group, profession or whatever other criteria. However, we are far more likely to assume that if someone expresses (or implicitly shows) a particular belief, then this is essential and definitive of them. Far from it – the beliefs of a particular human individual are like the trees growing in an acre of forest. Some may resemble each other and be of the same species, but others may not.

We cannot know whether or not there is any kind of essential unity (a ‘self’) in an individual – this would be a metaphysical claim. However, we can judge from experience that multiplicity is quite likely, and that we are rarely single selves. This is perhaps most obvious in people who have conditions such as multiple personality or bipolar disorder, when we tend to regard extremes of differing belief in the same person as indicative of a mental disorder. However, it applies to a lesser degree to all of us. Nearly all of us, if we are human, make resolutions that we fail to keep, forget to answer emails, have more positive or more negative moods, and change our language to suit the company. This is not a question of pretence, masking who we really are (as if we could know who we really are), but rather of simply being innocently various.

We are perhaps most likely to take people’s beliefs as definitive when they themselves take them very seriously and believe that they are living their whole lives by those beliefs – as is the case, say, with strong religious or political beliefs. However, it is very unlikely that they are. Even a saint, deeply committed to certain religious beliefs, does not make all their everyday judgements with reference to those beliefs, but rather consults everyday practical beliefs. If St Francis needed to wash his robe, he would have made the same judgement that it needed washing whether he was a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist. A social belief like the correct way to greet someone is also usually the product of a particular cultural context, regardless of the religious or political beliefs in it.

When a person seems to consist only in a rank of pines, then, perhaps we should bear in mind that there may be lovely rowans behind them – or, of course, the reverse.


Photo by Oliver Herold (Wikimedia Commons – CC)

The MWS Podcast 59: Rupert Sheldrake on Science as an Integrative Practice

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and research scientist and author of more than 80 technical papers and numerous books. He’s perhaps most well known for his book ‘The Science Delusion’ and his morphic resonance hypothesis. These will be the topic of the discussion today as well as exploring the idea of science as an integrative practice.

MWS Podcast 59: Rupert Sheldrake as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_59_Rupert_Sheldrake

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