Wednesday, 7 December 2016

WW: Christmas in Oxfordshire

(Photo by friend and fellow Blogger blogger Bill Nicholls. One of several brilliant morning captures of his home county that he posted last Wednesday.

England shares the same Christmas vibe as my own North Pacific homeland: more grey than white, more frost than snow, but timeless and deeply compelling if you were raised on it.

This scene is also my Yuletide desktop this year. With the holiday lights app blinking around the edges, it looks like home to me.)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Wrong

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from my dad. I was in high school, and on the horns of some dilemma.

For some reason, my dad – whose counsel trended to the brief and prescriptive – heard me out this time, as I explained my choices and why I feared I might be censured either way.

My dad nodded a few times, and after a brief silence, said:

"Well, in the end, it doesn't matter."

I hadn't expected this.

"What? Why not?" I asked.

"Because you're always going to get criticised. No matter how carefully you choose your course of action, someone's going to call you an idiot, or a jerk, or a traitor. There is literally no decision a man can take, about anything, that isn't morally reprehensible to somebody."

"Great," I said. "So what do I do?"

"You choose your critic," he said.

I raised an eyebrow, and he continued.

"Suppose you're walking down the street and a panhandler asks you for spare change.

"If you give it to him, I guarantee you somebody will say, 'Nice going, you jerk! You know he's just going to spend that on booze. You're keeping him addicted, undermining the economy, making it possible for freeloaders to live off society. People like you make me sick!'

"On the other hand, if you don't give it to him, someone else will say, 'You selfish bastard! You wouldn't go hungry tonight without that 75¢, but he might! You can't spare a handful of coins for a brother who's down on his luck? Even drunks have to eat. You're the reason life is so lousy!'

"So that's the choice: which gripe can you live with?"

In my life I've consistently found that this formula busts up ethical logjams like nobody's business. It doesn't always lead to the safest decision – to put it mildly – but it does generally reveal the one I'm least likely to be ashamed of later, even in the face of inevitable criticism.

My dad's gone now; he died in September. And since I don't have any kids of my own, I figured this was as good a time and place as any to pass on his thunderously effective mindfulness tool.

In these morally challenging times, when even the citizens of heretofore principled societies face dubious and potentially dangerous demands on their allegiance, this is the sort of advice we can all use.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

WW: Winter on the point

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Pháp Dung's Timely Teaching

Meditation (17451472849)
I'm not much of a rock.

As a Zenner I aspire to be unmovable. The patron of my practice is a fellow who's made a career of it. And I often exhort others – principally here – to remain calm, to look deeply before acting, to avoid multiplying suffering by making a bad situation worse.

In the blogosphere, no-one can see your hypocrisy.

The fact is, I have a warrior spirit. I want to horse up and ram a swift lance through as many jerks as I can jab before one of them takes me out. Call it an ethnic weakness, but I am by nature a doer, a get'er'doner, and especially a defender. When arrogant pricks start kicking folk around, my first impulse is to cut them off at the knees.

Literally, if possible.

Which means that recent events have handed the monk I decided to be fourteen years ago a steep challenge. By way of meeting it, I've largely withdrawn into meditation and monastic discipline these last weeks, to sit with my conflicting values. If you were to ask me what honour demands in these times, depending on time of day you'd either hear, "Look deeply, understand, and proceed like a grown-up," or "Behead the mofos."

I'm working on that second thought.

And in that task I've greatly been helped by this Vox interview with Pháp Dung. As a senior student of Thich Nhat Hanh, he's received a great deal of training in mindful activism (a concept that conventional Zen considers oxymoronic, but one that Thich Nhat Hanh founded a lineage upon), as well as holding his ground under fire.

As I've found the student as lucid as the teacher, I pass his teaching on here to brothers and sisters who find themselves in the same dilemma.

I guess anybody can be a Buddhist when it's easy, eh?

(Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

WW: Winter from the water tower

(Something about this shot just grabbed me. Also gives me deep Christmas vibes, but I suspect you have to be from the North Coast – or maybe the UK – to pick that up.)

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Tough Love

Once, when I was in Grade 2, my teacher had all of us save our milk carton from lunch. Afterward we folded it into a flower pot, filled it with dirt, and planted a single bean in it. Then we lined up our little pots on the windowsill and waited.

To nobody's surprise, within a week each had produced a shoot. Our teacher then divided us into groups and issued new orders. Group Number 1 got to leave their bean plants in the sun and care for them as usual, but everyone else had to stop watering theirs, relocate it to a closet, sit it on the radiator, or the like.

I was ordered to put mine in the refrigerator.

What happened next remains as vivid to me as this morning.

I have a loving, if independent, nature, and in the few days I'd been tending it I'd conceived an affection for the bright green tendril striving upward. I also wasn't a moron. What seven-year-old doesn't know what happens to a living thing in the faculty room fridge? Years later, as a teacher myself, I could have prepared a better lesson plan than that during passing period. Using nothing more than what I had in my desk.

On a Friday afternoon.

I hung back as the rest of my group came forward, hoping she wouldn't tally us. But she did.

"Robert?" she demanded. "Where's Robert? Don't you have a plant?"

I mumbled the affirmative.

"Bring it here."

I hesitated, carton in hand.

"Do you hear me? Bring it here."

"But…" I stammered, barely audible. "I don't want to kill it."

"What?" she snapped, incredulous.

I raised my eyes.

"I don't want to kill it."

At this point my teacher pitched what can only be called a power tantrum. "Oh, I see!" she snarked, enraged beyond self-respect. "Everyone else is participating, everyone else has to do what they're supposed to, but Robert (her voice dripped) doesn't want to kill his!

"Everybody look at Robert! He's not like us! He's special!"

I began to sob, and she continued to demonstrate why I have so little respect for authority. (And possibly why my attitude toward women was for so long uncharacteristically hostile.)

"You put that bean plant on the cart THIS INSTANT!" she commanded.

I did. But I didn't stop crying for some time.

Half a century later, I'm just starting to catch a whisper of public commentary about the state of empathy on this backwater planet. Not much. Not enough. But a few writers, here and there, are beginning to question the fitness of our souls to ensure our continued survival.

Empathy is the defining human strength, the single advantage that pushed our fangless, clawless, stumbling arse to the top of this heap.

But we have a knotty relationship with the stuff of our success. The "toughness" and "courage" we admire in leaders and ourselves amounts most often to cruelty, self-centredness, and indifference. Those who betray a glimmer of "weakness" – empathy, compassion, sophistication, humanity, evolutionary superiority – are abused and ridiculed. The rest of us are conditioned to look on silently.

Which is why empathy needs claws and fangs.

In my life I've consistently been punished more severely for empathy than for cruelty. When guilty of the latter, I've been disciplined; when the former, I've been humiliated, ejected, and blacklisted.

Therefore, it's increasingly critical that decent, fully-evolved human beings learn the difference between insensitivity and just pissing others off. We must refuse to pipe down when advocating forgiveness, generosity, and the objective analysis of karma, regardless of sneers and threats. The alternative is what we already have, what's killing us progressively faster: government by the least human. Whether national, local, or in some grade school classroom.

Most importantly, we must actively patrol the state of empathy in our communities, and teach future generations to honour and protect their own evolved souls and defend those of others.

Check it out, bitch: this entire species depends on the beans we produce.

Stand aside, please.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. New Life [photo] courtesy of Juanita Mulder and

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

WW: The grand prize

(Regulars will recognise this as the origin of my profile picture. It's a giant Chinese fishing float, blown from recycled bottles. We seldom find glass balls at all any more; ones this size are exceedingly rare. There's another like it – but not as nice – for sale in the village for $80.)
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