Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Meditation and Buddhism

Interesting tree on the bank of the Seine
Paris, March 2016
I have now attended all four sessions of meditation and Buddhism - the meditation is difficult but I think it may be useful for those times when one's mind refuses to settle. It's one of those things that needs practice to determine whether it is actually worthwhile.

The main reason I signed up for the four-week course is because the good friend I wrote about a few weeks ago has been a Buddhist for more than 20 years. He hasn't had anything that resembles a traditional job (with hours of work and a wage) for quite a long time, and has spent a total of about two years on and off at a 'retreat' in Spain. I have struggled to come to terms with this lifestyle (not that it's any of my business), and concluded that the answer must lie within Buddhism. So I want to know more about Buddhism, and the course takes place very conveniently about 2 miles from my home.

Each session starts with a short meditation focusing on the physical body, then a bit of chat about what we'll talk about later, then a longer (different) meditation, then a tea break. I like the tea break. Then there's a bit about Buddhism and its practice and another meditation session to end.

I don't mind meditation - sitting quiet and still is rather nice, but my mind dances off all the time and I have to put some effort into bringing it back. The leader describes this as 'flapping like a fish out of water', and this is indeed how it feels. The bit about Buddhism is sometimes done in small groups, which I prefer to discussions with the whole room, and has given me the chance to clarify a few things.

Obviously after just four sessions I'm only scratching the surface, but the main messages I've taken away are:

- Buddhism is not a theist religion. The Buddha is not a god or a prophet, but a man who came up with some good ideas that made him into a rather special person. By emulating his methods, a person should be able to reach their fullest potential. The word 'enlightenment' was used along with lots of other words that are difficult to pin down (I have to let most of the words go past otherwise I'd be challenging something every two minutes). You can be an atheist Buddhist, in fact if you commit yourself to Buddhism it would be difficult not to be atheist. I have no problem with this, I like a religion that doesn't believe in gods.

- The principles of Buddhism as I understand them so far (after a whole eight hours of learning, six hours of which were silent meditation) are about contributing the most possible to oneself, one's community and society, and I suppose the wider world as well. Although the group leader deliberately avoided labelling principles or actions as good' or 'bad', in lay terms it's about being a 'good' person both in isolation and in interactions with others. The group leader described being able to do anything that you want to do - there are no specific rules - but understanding that your deeds have consequences and you must take responsibility for them. I have no problem with this either, I have long been reflecting on my personality and actions, committing to change for the better, and trying to fulfil my potential.

What I've been trying to elicit, therefore, is what the role of Buddhism is exactly. I'm happy not to believe in God, prepared to believe that Buddha was a good sort with some useful ideas, and that not hurting yourself or others is a sensible course in life. Anyone can do meditation, and behave in the best way they can, and try to be a vegan, and live the best life possible for themselves and others without being a Buddhist. Why do we need Buddhism?

I think the answer is the same for Buddhism as I have decided it is for other religions - probably all religions, although I only have personal experience of a couple. Here's the answer in brief: it's much harder to be a good person on your own. If you can adopt a set of pre-prepared guidelines alongside others who are happy with the same guidelines, you get loads of help from a ready-made extended family when life is difficult, which it often is. You get some answers to difficult questions (why is there cruelty in the world? what is consciousness? what happens after we die?) and if it's a religion that's worth anything there will be someone prepared to look after you when you are ill, disabled or old if you don't happen to have taken precautions by having children and bringing them up properly.

Many people deal with the difficult questions by using words like 'spirituality', and many religions expect you to accept as truth their theories about unprovable concepts (gods, angels, miracles, what happens after death). I don't have a spiritual atom in any of the molecules that comprise my corporeal body. I am made of physics, which results in chemistry, which leads to biology. I know there are many things we do not yet know (what is consciousness?) and many things we cannot know (what happens after we die?) and I'm happy to agree that there is probably more to life than we can know or touch. What I'm not prepared to believe is that anyone else knows the answers, so unfortunately most religions won't work for me.

I know that many people take comfort in the notion that someone or something they believe in is looking out for them - I am lucky enough not to need this notion, given that I don't believe there is anything out there. Buddhism seems to take a more practical line, that the people looking out for you are those around you within your own community. So that's good.

The two types of meditation we learned were mindfulness of breathing, which involves trying to focus on your breathing and determinedly bringing your attention back when it inevitably wanders, and 'metta bhavana' which is about fostering a positive attitude towards yourself and others. I've been more or less successful at doing these within the sessions and a few times at home, and I like the approach. The leaders of the group declare that there is some sort of emotional or spiritual benefit that emerges from successful meditation, but I can't say I've experienced much, although perhaps I managed a little glimpse of something on one occasion before my mind sped off down the road and I had to catch it up and drag it back to the matter in hand.

The group continues to meet on a Tuesday night and all are welcome; I don't know whether I'll be joining them or not. I like the meditation but I'm much less keen on the Buddhism, because despite being sympathetic to the concepts expounded so far I still find it a bit too much like organised religion. There are bits that have been hinted at but not discussed, including a brief reference to 'puja' which is a bit like worship although it might be more like paying your respects. I am being fairly vague about my intentions because I thought after I'd run 5km, and then 10km, that I'd stop running, but I'm still doing it and even enjoying it. So it might be the same with Buddhism. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The usual complaining about being busy

Badminton match
Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham, May 2016

Well, it's been a busy time. If it hadn't been for some blog posts I drafted a while ago there would have been a whole lot of nothing new in this space. So I thought I'd just make a quick list of the few things that I might write about that have taken up my time in the last fortnight. Within a minute I had this:


Cover for colleague: group education  and clinic
Type 1 education in new location
DESMOND Type 2 education
Meeting about insulin pump service

Not work

Badminton AGM
Shoulder: nurse/physio
Sports: running, badminton, Fitbit™
Water meter
Blood donation
Sunday lunch in the pub
Police and Crime Commissioner election
Clarinet choir
National Badminton League final
St Albans
Disc golf

I should just leave it there and lie down in a darkened room. But I suppose I could expand a little on some of them.


I was asked nicely to cover for a colleague who is off sick, and so far I have said yes to each request, although it means I have not had any period in the last two weeks within which I can catch up e.g. read or respond to emails and telephone messages, write letters etc. It has been made worse by delivering our Type 1 education in a new venue where we don't have access to computers, internets etc. This whole situation is unsustainable. The coming week will be no better, but I am going to use the extra hours I have accrued to take a day off and help mum with some Philatelic Business, of which more may be revealed after it has happened.

The meeting about the insulin pump service was quite interesting. We have been precipitated into a minor crisis by one of our nurses being on long term sick leave. Having coped for rather a long time we are now reviewing what we do a bit more seriously than usual, and it has become clear that the service we provide to people who use insulin pumps is particularly stretched. It was set up in 2006 on the basis of anticipating four new patients a year, and now we support more than a hundred people on pumps with at least one new one every month, not to mention the children and young people that we inherit from the paediatric service. From one consultant clinic once a month we now have two consultant clinics twice a month with no additional funding for nurses or dietitians.

It looked for a while as though a business case was going to be formulated for more nurses but with no reference to dietitians, and my manager has now retired (with a new one recruited but not yet started). So I pitched up at the meeting with the nurses, doctors, managers and finance people, and carried out my self-appointed role which was to add the words "and dietitians" every time the word "nurses" was uttered in the context of needing to fund more of them. Clearly this was irritating enough for them to start nodding in my direction and saying "and dietitians" for themselves. So that worked rather well.

The outcome of the meeting is slightly unnerving because rather than just scope the increased requirement for the pump service, they have decided to scope the requirements of the whole diabetes service at the site where I work. It would have taken an incredibly long time to look at just the pump service, so now we'll have to wait until quite close to the end of time before we get any new money. Not that there is any new money; the finance person revealed that the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) who pay for health services is pretty much broke.

Not work

Badminton club #2 has an AGM and stops for the summer. Club #1 is more disorganised in terms of administration - we had AGMs when I was club secretary, but not before or since, and hardly anyone turned up - but at least we play on over the summer. Club #2's AGM is held with a fish and chip supper and then a game of skittles, and was great fun. I sometimes think I can do this socialising thing; I used to be good at it long ago.

My left shoulder is still painful and has hardly improved in the six weeks since my injury, so I finally made an appointment to see a Nurse Practitioner at the surgery, who gave me a form to allow me to self-refer to a physiotherapist. She also advised me to take paracetamol instead of ibuprofen. I look forward to the physio appointment not least for its blog potential. I am not optimistic that the shoulder situation will be improved by physio, but what do I know?

Running and badminton continue, and I have bought a Fitbit™ with my TV watching points (and what do points mean?) but am struggling to operate the software that makes it worth having, which I take to be another sign of the inevitable march towards senility. For those not aware of the latest in fitness technology, a Fitbit is a device, in my case a wristband, which monitors the wearer's activity. I let it count my steps. If you enter the food and drink you consume it will advise on calories in and out; it should monitor your sleep but I can't make that bit work. It has exposed the limitations of my mobile phone, but my contract is about to expire and I'll see if an upgrade will help the situation.

Culture news: I went to see Cymbeline at the RSC in Stratford. I haven't been there since they remodelled the theatre, which is a long time. We had seats in the gods, which in the new theatre entails raised seats a bit like stools with footrests. It was OK to start with, but as the play entered its fourth hour I definitely started to feel a bit fidgety. A little way into the second half one of the friends I came with very suddenly left the auditorium. It turned out that he remembered he'd left the oven on, and had quite a time of it trying to contact various people to check that his flat wasn't on fire. I'd given him a lift so he couldn't just nip back home.

I meant to look up the plot before going but didn't get round to it, but another of the friends I was with had looked on Wikipedia and gave us a quick outline. Unfortunately for us in this production they'd decided to change the sex of some of the key characters, so the Wikipedia description of the king made no sense until we worked out he was now a queen. Also, the white queen and her white consort had managed to produce a black son, which was also rather confusing. Which just demonstrates our ignorance of our literary inheritance. But the play was good, and I'm always surprised at being able to follow the plot despite understanding only about one line in four.

I have a whole blog post about the Buddhism and meditation thing waiting in the wings, so I'll say no more about that. I also had a water meter installed which took no more than fifteen minutes and has reduced my (albeit estimated) water bill to a shadow of its former self. Blood donation went without incident, Sunday pub lunch was enormous and delicious, and the PCC election was pointless. I looked up the candidates the day before but I haven't bothered to find out who won. I take part in elections because I believe everyone must, but I have to admit finding it more difficult to justify this stance with each successive bunch of useless self-serving politicians.

The clarinet choir is good fun, although this time our leader has chosen pieces that stray much too far into the upper registers, to the extent that a much more enthusiastic and committed first clarinettist has invested the thousands of pounds required to buy an E flat clarinet, and I am envious. I am having to look up fingerings for top F's and G's that I haven't used since I was at school.

More badminton: the NBL competition was invented very recently to fill the gap between National teams and ordinary club leagues (the two league teams I play with were both relegated, so I am delighted that we may avoid being beaten into the ground every time I step onto the court next year). Four of these NBL teams battled it out for the top spot on the warmest sunniest day of the year so far, meaning that I spent the majority of the day indoors. It wasn't as good as the International competition in the same venue, but a nice day out. Birmingham Lions beat Loughborough University in the final.

The day in St Albans came about at short notice when Lola II phoned to say she was going there with some overseas visitors on a Tuesday when I wasn't working, so I avoided many of the jobs I was supposed to be doing by joining her there. We went around the Verulamium museum, a Roman theatre and the cathedral with interludes of tea, lunch, more tea and cake.

On Sunday I organised a badminton (club #1) social event to play disc golf, which uses baskets instead of holes and small frisbees in place of golf balls. After a full round of 18 baskets in sunny weather with only one frisbee lost in the river, I was tired out. Not that we're at all competitive (except we really are), I came second last.

And to bring us bang up to date, I have Ilf working in Lola Towers today and within the first hour he changed two door handles, cut another door to allow it to close, finished the unfinished laminate flooring and is now working on the external lights and the kitchen electrics that he condemned last time he was here. I've chased Olf the garage man for the last two jobs, but still haven't looked for an architect to advise on remodelling the ground floor. Mowing the lawn yesterday I was even considering more ambitious plans for the garden!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

My home situation improves further

Close up of pink flower
Harlow Carr, July 2015
Lola Towers Restoration Project update - it's been wonderful. Really satisfying. Bits of Lola Towers are looking almost respectable, and it doesn't half improve my mood, although it makes me a little less sociable because I'm so much happier at home.

Ilf the Handyman continues to be a godsend and a good chap - he brought me more wood offcuts for the fire, and I gave him the deep fat fryer that nobody wanted on Streetlife (a site a bit like a local Freegle but better). I begged him to prioritise the shower ceiling because going without showers at home for two weeks to dry the room out properly was dreadful - I used sports centres after badminton, and had baths, but it's not the same. Not only was the shower ceiling done when I got back but he'd also put up my new living room light as well as starting on the door handles. I've now got a new wall light in the living room and a new lock on the front door too.

We had a conversation about the loft ladder and he took on board my suggestions and seems to have fixed it (I must go and have a look), but there is a bit of difficulty with the upstairs lighting and I'm going to have to empty the loft sooner than anticipated. He has expressed proper horror at some of the things he found behind the light switches in the kitchen, in his words: "This switch will be replaced the next time I come round, even if I have to pay for the switch!"

I'm still enjoying opening and closing the door that now closes properly, and my additional activity now includes switching the lovely new living room lights on and off. And having showers.

Olf and his team have worked wonders on the garage too. It is pointed, and has new UPVC windows and a side door that locks properly, and the big front door has been tweaked so it closes properly and has a new hardwood frame. The gutter has been replaced, the lights have a proper fuse box and switch and there are four properly wired sockets too. All those involved continue to be puzzled at my idea of putting the car inside - one chap's opinion was that with a bit of insulation and a lick of paint I could rent it out for a student to live in. All that is left to do is to sort out one corner of the roof (a bit complicated because of asbestos) and fit a new lock to the main door.

The other benefit of Olf and the gang working on the garage was that I felt obliged to hang around on my Tuesday off, making them tea and answering questions about where electrical supplies were routed and where I wanted sockets etc. I decided to use the time to address the ivy situation in the garden, and took two carloads to the tip. This has stiffened my resolve to get rid of the bloody ivy once and for all - a half-hearted attempt with weedkiller was not enough, and the wall is crumbling beneath its onslaught.

I am happy with my project management so far, the costs have not been excessive and I am immensely pleased with the results. I am now in two minds about how ambitious to be as I go forwards with the LTRP. Should I limit myself to replacing and possibly extending the kitchen, or should I consult some sort of architect to address the ground floor layout on a rather grander scale, including doing something about the staircase? There's lots more to do in the spare room and in the garden, and the whole house (with the possible exception of the bedroom) badly needs redecorating. What next, readers?

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Magus
by John Fowles

narrated by Nicholas Boulton
"Nicholas Urfe goes to a Greek island to teach at a private school and becomes enmeshed in curious happenings at the home of a mysterious Greek recluse, Maurice Conchis."
This is a weird book. I have been picking 'classic' audiobooks at random, then reading the blurb about the book followed by some of the things that people have said about it, usually on Audible and Amazon and Goodreads websites. If it looks as though it's worth it, I'll download and listen. Many people cited this one as their favourite book ever, lifechanging, that sort of thing. It's a long, long book (more than 26 hours in its audio version) and now I've finished it I still don't see the point. The main character is tormented in a 1950's version of The Truman Show where nothing is real, all is staged, and despite being perfectly at liberty to walk away he keeps coming back for more. I can believe that falling in love keeps him involved for a certain amount of time, but when that particularly folly ends he still doesn't leave them to it and get on with is own life. The story isn't even concluded particularly well either, and that really made the whole ordeal even more annoying. I must get back to the Galsworthy and I'll be much happier.

[Later - I've been thinking about what I wrote above, and I've changed my mind. Nowadays I like books when there's a rattling good story that has a beginning, a middle and an end that satisfies all my questions. I also like books when they are a bit challenging and make me think, but the story seems to be the most important factor for me at the moment. It wasn't always this way, and this book exemplifies the sort of thing I might have been looking for twenty or thirty years ago, because it isn't trying too hard with the story, there's much more to it about the world and our beliefs and our place and who we think we are and how we see everything that isn't our self. What if we couldn't trust anything we saw or were told? If we were just seeing shadows on the cave wall and thinking this was reality? I can see how this book would feed that thought experiment, and could have made an impression on the twenty-year-old me. I just don't want to bother with that sort of effort any more.]

Image of the book cover

And The Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini
"It's a funny thing... but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really, what guides them is what they're afraid of. What they don't want."
I liked this book a lot, so much in fact that I'd like to read it again, mostly so that I appreciate the links between different sections of the story. There is a thread running through all sections and they are sometimes connected in ways that are not obvious. The heart of all the stories is Afghanistan, and we are taken from 1959 to the present day, but not sequentially. I never stopped wanting to know what happens next, where will these people end up, will they be happy?

Image of the book cover

Paul Temple Intervenes
by Francis Durbridge
"In a small country lane, the well-known American, Myron Harwood, is found dead. The murder heralds the start of a spate of celebrity deaths – and each time the victim is found with a small white piece of cardboard, bearing the inscription ‘The Marquis’."
The second of three I picked up from a book swap box, and just as bad as the first. I used to think they were quite good on the radio, but I've been listening to the radio version as well recently and the problem is too many characters and such convoluted plots that the outcome is not only implausible but disappointing. I'm sure I'll still read the third anyway because it's so easy, and sometimes easy reading is what's needed.

Image of the book cover

The King of Torts
by John Grisham
"As he digs into the background of his client, Clay stumbles on a conspiracy too horrible to believe. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of a complex case against one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world and looking at the kind of enormous settlement that would totally change his life."
This book is terrible. I've read John Grisham before and I seem to remember it was OK, but this one was just boring. The lawyer makes a fortune and loses a fortune and that's the end of the book. People on the whole are mean and greedy (with a few exceptions) and anyway the world of US class actions isn't one that I particularly want to know about. I should have been able to tell from the title.

Image of the book cover

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"When Mole goes boating with the Water Rat instead of spring-cleaning, he discovers a new world. As well as the river and the Wild Wood, there is Toad's craze for fast travel which leads him and his friends on a whirl of trains, barges, gipsy caravans and motor cars, and even into battle."
It occurs to me that I've been listening to 'The Classic Tales' podcast for some time now, and the guy's narration has improved no end. He still makes the odd mistake but nowhere near as often, and he made a good job of this book. Obviously I've read it before but there are bits I'd forgotten, although most of the forgotten bits are somewhat odd. For example, the chapter called 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' (when Rat and Mole find Otter's son Portly at the feet of the god Pan) is beautifully lyrical and evocative and has supplied the name of quite a good Pink Floyd album, but in terms of story and plot the chapter is wholly unnecessary.

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