It has often been in said, “You are dealt a pack of cards, and it is what you do with them that counts.”   A somewhat more sophisticated versions of this truism has been articulated by Johana Macey writing about Active Hope, Victor Frankl in his work on Logotherapy, and the Stoic philosophers of old.

Macy and Active Hope

Joana Macy, with her Buddhist, Structualist orientation has been investigating for the past few decades how we are to live with the knowledge that our present habits of consumption are leading to the destruction of the balance of nature on the planet.    And maybe, its destruction

The warming climate is resulting in a series of climate emergencies such as an increase in the number and strength of hurricanes hitting many coastal cities in America.  Additionally, a series of viral conditions have emerged in the past few decades.     Here are a few examples:  a new strain of Asian flu called H3N2, AIDS, SARS, H1Ni, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and ultimately Covid-19.    We are told by the scientists that as temperatures rise the number of mutations and the dangers of disease emanating from mosquitoes and ticks will increase.

Macey has been studying how we as a human species can best tolerate and reverse the reality of the damage that our present lifestyle is perpetuating.    Because the potential damages are so great, it is much easier to carry on ‘business as usual’; ignore the unpleasant reality.   For this reason she developed a way of taking action to cope with this depressing existential reality.

The Spiral

She uses the concept of the Spiral of Active Hope which involves the individual initially making a mental note, or a list, of all the items for which they can be grateful.    This is followed by an honest appreciation of the problems and challenges that confront us.

The third stage of her spiral suggests we look at the manner in which we can reduce the impact we are having on the environment.   We may not be able to reverse the unhealthy activities of the past, but we can all make small changes to stop the progress of environmental degradation and promote healthier ways of going about our life’s tasks.

The final stage is to Go Forth and activate our plans.   Each individual can reduce his or her carbon footprint.   Everyone needs to reduce their consumption of the use of one-time plastics.   We need to engage in eating locally produced food.  To cut down on meat consumption and to make our clothes last longer.   Haute Couture is now an anathema!

With our given potential for adjustment and change, we can find the ways and means to rectify the present emphasis on the growth economy and inevitable subsequent environmental degradation.  We can adapt and change our values to secure a future sustainable lifestyle

Victor Frankl and Logotherapy

Victor Frankl who endured the Holocaust, and yet emerged with a positive faith in the human condition, has done much to encourage his successors to engage in positivity.   With the horrors of the suffering still festering, Frankl as a psychiatrist emphasised the creativity of the individual to interpret their life’s hardships as challenges.   This positive outlook inevitably leads us to understand the potential of the present circumstances to transform to a healthy evolution.   His emphasis on the ‘search for meaning’ has allowed his successors to negotiate tough experiences with a positive attitude.

A major cause of depression is the predisposition to view life experiences in a negative light.    Logotherapy, as articulated by Frankl, encourages the sufferer to adapt his attitude from one of a victim mentality to orientating his thoughts in a more optimistic perspective.

Stoic Philosophy of Ancient Greece

The Greek school of Stoic Philosophy is undergoing something of a revival recently.    The sayings of Marcus Aurelius are prescribed literature for students of Psychology.   This school of thinkers suggested that it is important that you worry about the things over which you have some control.   Chronic anxiety is provoked by worrying about things which are beyond your control.

The suggestion is that we undergo a self-analysis of those things we can change and events that we have the capacity to promote positive change.   We reduce our attention of those things which we are unable to change, and endeavour to rectify those activities which are within our orbit of management.   It makes me think of Johana Macey’s third stage of her spiral where she suggests we analyse the problems with which we are confronted.   We then ‘go forth’ and do our best to change those things that are within our personal capacity to influence.

In Conclusion

It is indeed fascinating to look at three different schools of thought which are based on three very different sets of life experiences.  The ancient Stoic philosophy has so much in common with the outlook of Frankl who experienced the Holocaust, and with Macey who has been profoundly concerned with the dangers of climate reality for the past four decades.

In each instance there is a common thread.   Spend time and energy on the circumstances which are within your control.    Make the most of those qualities with which you have been blessed.   Minimise your attention to things which are pre-determined.

Shambhala Art

I have just returned from a week on a nearby farm where I attended a Shambhala Art Retreat.  The invitation stated,  “Shambhala Art’s purpose is to explore the creative process and the product we call art from the viewpoint of a meditative discipline. It is a viewpoint that encourages us to see things as they are, rather than just how we think or imagine they are. Shambhala Art does not teach a particular skill or technique such as painting, sculpture, or dance. It is about the source of inspiration, its manifestation, and how it speaks to us beyond the limits of its container,”   This multi-sensory opportunity was facilitated by two talented women who are steeped in the tradition of the Shambhala School of Buddhism.  They have trained in a unique mind-expanding process of enhancing the student’s perceptual abilities.

Shambhala Buddhism

Shambhala Buddhism is a comparatively new approach to interpreting the ancient texts.   It was pioneered by Chogyam Trungpa in the 1970’s.   He trained as a monk as a youngster in a local monastery in Tibet, where he was born.  He is believed to be a member of a traditional dynasty of leadership.   Trungpa came to the west as a young man to study at Oxford University.   He subsequently went to America where he created a contemporary interpretation of the Buddha’s thought and philosophy which is now taught in over 100 centres throughout the world.

Warriorship

He was a multi-talented man who created the “Warrior” approach to enhancing our lifestyle.   “The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help solve the world’s problems.    This wisdom does not belong to any one culture or religion, nor does it come only from the West or the East.    Rather, it is a tradition of human warriorship that has existed in many cultures at many times throughout history.”

Warriorship in this context has nothing to do with bravery, but embraces the concept of not being afraid of who we are.  The teachings of Shambhala helps its adherents to face up to their own challenges and those of the world around them using the multiple senses of the mind and the body.  Chogyam Trungpa realised in the 1970’s that a new way of thinking was required to tackle the changes taking place in the world.   And, how much more does this hold in the third decade of the 20th century?   I am hoping the insights of the Shambhala lineage, may play a role in helping me to come to terms with the contemporary challenges of environmental pollution and the degradation of our environment.

Activities

What fun it was to participate in this small group of Warriors to explore meditation, Japanese calligraphy, drama, yoga, and cognitive flexibility.   We underwent a training to understand the difference between a sign and a symbol.   We looked at objects to see that they could be used for multiple purposes, other than those for which they may initially appear to fulfil. We had time to meditate and walk aimlessly on the beautiful farm hosting this retreat.   The emphasis of this training is to get in touch with our thought sense, rather than our knowledge sense.

We were offered the opportunity to play freely with a wide range of tools, objects and materials in order to explore our own creativity.    Some of us created music with a range of authentic African musical instruments, combined these sounds with contemporary recorded music.  Others practised extemporaneous dance exercises.   There was also the opportunity to create art work with paints, crayons, scissors and multiple other paraphernalia which we last used when we were in junior school!

Co-creation Highlight

A highlight for me was co-creating the piece of art which is photographed at the top of this blog.   It took a group of three participants to construct this calligraphic rendering which was produced on a sheet of paper measuring 150 x 225 cms and placed on the ground surrounded by protective black plastic.

The participants had been exploring the concepts of Heaven, Earth and Mankind. Each member of the team was assigned the task of creating one stroke to represent each of these three elements.

The activity was performed with presence, slowness, dignity and unlimited restraints of time.    As the initial participant, I needed to create the stroke to represent Heaven.   My first job was to mindfully choose a tool – one of the five different types of brushes, ranging from a plant tied to the end of a stick, to a rag also joined to a suitable handle.   I chose the plant and slowly, yet meticulously charged my brush with black ink.  The superfluous paint was slowly allowed to drain back into the pot.   I then took up my position, stood erect in front of the paper to contemplate the single stroke I would use to represent heaven.    In this instance, it was my stroke which formed the reverse S flowing from the top right-hand corner and finishing at the bottom on the right.   Vocalisations were allowed so my accompaniment was an elongated sound, “whoooooooooosh!”

My contribution was followed by my co-creator who made the representation of Earth – the black horizontal line on the lower left of the work.

The third member of the team made the prominent mark red mark representing the Human.   She slowly and mindfully picked up the rag-ended tool and dipped it in the red paint.   Meditatively she allowed the excess paint to drip back into the container.    The participant then took up her position at the head of the page, gradually raised her mark-making tool above her head and with a loud gesticulation of “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh” the marking instrument was swooped down onto the paper from the overhead position creating a loud bang as her tool met the the ground.   It produced the large central splatter in the artwork.   A spontaneous round of applause was rendered by the audience.

This brief sampling of the range of experience which accompanied my excursion into Shambhala Art is an attempt to share my impressions of a unique experiential journey.   I have tried to give a feel for the innovative, inventive, original opportunity in which I was able to explore my personal creativity.   How grateful I am to have enjoyed this wonderful space with two gifted teachers and a small group of wonderfully imaginative and creative co-participants.

 

I wish to introduce you to one of my favourite thinkers.   Matthieu Ricard holds a doctorate in molecular biology from the Pasteur Institute, in Paris.   He is a multitalented scholar who interrupted his research into cell genetics to become a Buddhist Monk. He not only translates Buddhist texts but also acts as one of the chief interpreters for the Dalai Lama.   In addition he is a prolific photographer and has done sterling work in raising money for the underprivileged in India, Nepal and Eastern Tibet.

Much of the information in this blog is culled from an article in Tricycle which you can either read or restrict yourself to my personal interpretation!    https://tricycle.org/magazine/why-meditate/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=a2f224650e-daily_Dharma_2019_2_28_NS&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-a2f224650e-307275697

Because Matthieu is immersed in scientific methodology I respect his capacity to interpret Buddhist texts and philosophy for the Western mind.   He has played an important role in the scientific study of Buddhism by being the first subject, who is a long term meditator, to be examined in an EEG machine.   I had read about this research about ten years ago and I was highly impressed when I learned about the results of his meditation on compassion when it was evaluated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   The readings, when measuring Matthieu meditating on compassion, were the most extreme that had ever been witnessed. The needle measuring the requisite brain waves went right off the graph paper!    I was so impressed by this overt demonstration of the power of meditation that when a new course was offered in Mindfulness and Meditation by our local Stellenbosch University, I was the very first person to enrol.

Matthieu, in conversation with a journalist from Tricycle Magazine, says that one of the main pursuits of Buddhism is, “To bridge the gap between the way things appear and the way things are.”   So often our suffering is caused because we interpret events or conversations unrealistically.  Buddhism helps us to understand that events and happenings are not always as they may appear to us.   Most of our perceptions are from the interpretation we place on our sensations, rather than an accurate portrayal of reality.   So, one of the aims of Buddhist practice is to determine the difference between reality and our interpretation of events.    The study of Buddhism precepts is a therapeutic route to our realistic interpretation of our experiences.

A newspaper headline describing Matthieu as the “Happiest man in the world” has been oft quoted, and he was asked how he felt about this description.    “Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest man in the world,” he replied.  Happiness, however, can be over-rated as a personal goal according to Buddhist precepts.

He then went on to say, “Thinking that happiness is just an endless succession of pleasant experiences seems more like a recipe for exhaustion than it is for happiness. Happiness is a way of being, not a sensation. If you are only looking for pleasure, then you need to know that there’s probably no way that the brain could sustain pleasurable sensations forever.”   He believes that genuine happiness is related to wisdom.   Pleasure by itself is over-rated.   Whilst there is nothing wrong with pleasure, it cannot be equated with true happiness.   For true happiness, a person needs to be attuned to reality and free from mental toxins such as hatred and craving.

Matthieu has some interesting things to say about evolution.   If we need to wait for genes to change for people to become more altruistic and compassionate, we may need to wait for 50,000 years.   However, if the wisdom of Buddhist psychology and philosophy can be culturally acquired then there can be a major transformation towards more peaceful solutions to conflicts in just a couple of generations.

It would be great if the current major trend of seeing more and more people with a Western cultural orientation assume the skills of mindfulness and meditation,  could lead to the evolution of a greater understanding between all cultures, and ultimately we could achieve greater understanding and altruism between people of different social and political backgrounds.

“So the idea is to gradually progress from a state of mind where unfavourable conditions prevail, to another state that is characterized by stable attention, inner peace and clarity, confidence, courage, openness toward others, benevolence, the ability to deal with emotions, and other qualities of a vast and calm mind,” says Ricard.

For Matthieu in conversation view:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4QetA3ypdQ

 

Yesterday I was invited to give a talk to members of our local University of the Third Age about “Ageing and Sageing.”   This invitation resulted from the events of last year when I had the privilege of hosting Gary and Charolotte Carlson of Sage-ing International who live in Alburqueque, New Mexico.   They volunteered to visit Cape Town after their tour of the Kruger National Park so that we could share our experience and knowledge of the process of Eldering.  We had been interacting over the internet, but this would be the first time we would meet.   The Carlsons offered to facilitate some workshops to give Capetownians the benefits of their international experience and teaching.

In my presentation yesterday, I spoke about the pioneering work of Rabbi Zalman which he describes so eloquently in his book entitled  “Ageing and Sageing.”   The foundation of his philosophy can be summed up in the following words, “What is the point of an extended life, if we do not develop an extended consciousness?”   He further states, “Fortunately our culture’s limited view of ageing is undergoing a profound reconceptualization.   We are the first generation to apply the insights of humanistic and transpersonal psychology and contemplative techniques from our spiritual traditions to the ageing process itself, giving birth to what some people call the conscious ageing movement.

It so happened that yesterday was the first day that my new website called A Mind of Grace was ready to launch.  I feel this is propitious.   Whilst Zalman passed away at the beginning of the technological revolution, he could never have foreseen the possibility that the process of blogging may form an integral part of the “ageing and sageing” process.  I am looking forward to experimenting with this opportunity to blog and share ideas with an international audience.    I believe the process is intimately tied up to my intention of practicing the art of conscious eldering.

This morning I had a further opportunity to practice some ‘sageing skills’.   The process of transforming South African schools from the dynamics of the apartheid era to the more progressive approach of our new democracy is proving extremely challenging.   My domestic worker took a seat in my study when she arrived today to talk to me about her strong emotional reaction to a story that appeared in this morning’s Cape Times.   A local school, which under the apartheid system was reserved for white learners, now has learners of all races.   An unfortunate incident was reported in today’s newspaper about an altercation between a learner and a teacher which took place a few days ago at a local school.  It has involved a degree of violence by the pupil when she shoved her desk towards the teacher, who then retaliated with physical blows to the learner.  The events had been widely reported on social media.   Albertina has two daughters; a teenager, and another daughter in her early twenties.   She was particularly disturbed by this altercation, because of the violence involved and complains that today’s children have no respect for their parents, She perceives this problem to exist amongst her children’s generation of school goers.

I had recently watched the moving TED video entitled, “My son was a Columbine shooter. This is my story.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xfyN-yBZ7c  The mother’s poignant recount of healing during the past 20 years since this shocking incident, may help Albertina to realise that rebellion amongst school children is not a new phenomenon.    She recognised the pain that this mother had worked with during the intervening years.   That she had come to some degree of equanimity and acceptance.   I hope that my novel form of therapy may assist my employee to come to terms with the difficult relationship sometimes encountered between parents and their children.

I do believe that part of the sageing process is to keep in touch with the responsibilities of the mothers of today, as well as the current challenges faced by children of this generation