The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bowls, rituals, and Days of our Lives

First The New Inventors... now the lawn bowls? Oh no Aunty please stop. #abc (Tweet from Amanda Meade, retweeted by Mark Colvin)

  This is weird. The ABC is no longer going to televise the lawn bowls on Saturdays from 5-6 PM.

  Laugh if you must, but in the past year, the weeks of my life have been counted by the Saturday lawn bowls.

  Don’t misunderstand. I'm not a huge devotee. I admit to watching it occasionally, as there’s nothing wrong with a good game of bowls as a spectator sport. It has thousands of followers who deserve their sport being represented on TV, and that time on ABC1 was just fine by me.

  But that’s not it. You see, in this household, it has become a ritual of the counting of the Days of our Lives. Weeks of Our Lives then.

  Many times I have been forced into an afternoon sleep. Daily, in fact, I have to sleep, and often wake in the late afternoon.

  So I come out from the bedroom round 6 pm on a Saturday.

  ‘Oh NO!’ I cry out plaintively.

  ‘What? What’s the matter?’ says Tracey.

  ‘I’ve missed it!’

  ‘Missed what?’

  ‘The BOWLS!’ I gasp.

  ‘Not... the Bowls?? The Lawn Bowls!!???’ she responds with the appropriate degree of horror. ‘NOOOO!’

  ‘I guess I can pick it up on iView,’ I say, brightening up a little.

  She gives me a hug.

  We laugh.

  OK, it’s a charade of sorts. But there are those of us with medical conditions that ritualise our lives with schedules, as we observe the weeks flying by at a breathtakingly ascending rate. We know there’s a deeper meaning when a ritual is shattered.

  I for one will be sorry when the bowls are stopped from being televised, even if I don’t see them all that often. You see, I won’t be able to complain about missing them. I want to be able to express my anguish.

  I want my ritual!

  But then again, it appears that it will be continued till the end of the year. Maybe... maybe.... Never mind that maybe. You don’t want to know that thought.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Religion, philosophy and me (pt 2)

pt 1 | pt 2 <<<you are here | pt 3home | WHAT'S NEW! | stories from my past

My karma just ran over your dogma

  Ho ho.

  It’s an amusing line when you hear it the first time, but I’m betting this is the hundredth time for you.

  The real problem with it is that it’s not even true, most of the time. Your dogma is the two-metre Great Dane I saw a photo of the other day, and my karma as the term’s understood these days is a clapped out Goggomobil made from tinfoil and pipe-cleaners.

  Your dogma makes a mess of my karma every time these days....

  Karma isn’t what most people think it is. If you call it fate, then we need to have a talk about our terms, because that is not what was intended by the Hindu philosophers who used it.

  Dogma gets discussed every day and it’s easy to reach some common understanding on its meaning. I don’t want to talk about dogma. We all know the comfort it can bring to those who hold it dear, and the misery it can cause to those who suffer under it. Dogma in the hands of those who know how to manipulate it is a powerful tool. In warfare, it can be wielded like a sword.

  "Men who believe absurdities will commit atrocities," said the irascible Voltaire. Enough of that.

  Karma = Fate? Let’s not. The latter's anything from crystal balls to kismet. Go to Wikipedia and it will tell you far more than you’ll ever need to know about destiny or fate, and you’d probably come out less clear about it than when you started.

  But karma? This is the one worth talking about, even though it’s bandied about like a football. It deserves much better.

  In the simplest terms, the Sanskrit word “karma” means “action”.

  That’s it.  Action.  It's an active principle, not a passive one. It was never meant as a justification for lying down and bewailing our fate. We take actions over which we have some measure of choice. Actions have consequences. Actions are the results of other actions and in their wake new things happen. Karma then is cause and effect, and it’s as simple as that.

  But nothing’s ever simple while there are humans around to muck it up and give words a moral dimension, and words seduce us into thinking they have precise meaning, especially when a series of them are strung together. 

  If karma’s purely mechanical, it should be in the realm of science, surely. Engineering, mathematics or physics. What can it be doing in philosophy, where its place seems so firmly rooted?

  All the sciences are actually branches of philosophy, as that word means loving of knowledge. Karma is embedded in them all. But I don’t want to get into semantics here.

  Being utterly logical, karma saves us from some ethical dilemmas encountered by the Semitic faiths, but it's not exactly a license to do anything we want - not without consequences we can escape. Everything we do has consequences, which we might think are small or large. But the notion of Godhead is so very different between and within religions. Some of these are quite radically different.

  Do I want to tackle that one? No, I don’t. But if I don’t, then everything I’ve written on this so far is a waste of time.

  OK, let’s do the ‘God’ thing.

NOTE: This has already come up in comments on another blog posting. "Some actions we have a degree of control over, some we don't appear to. The trick in life is to understand causes and effects, not deny them, and change what seems sensible to change if possible and work with what you can't seem to change.... Even karma's 'cause and effect' is misleading, as cause can be effect. The potter makes the pot. Cause/effect. BUT the pot also makes the potter, because without the pot, there is no potter! Cause and effect intertwined."

'Yin and yang,' says Lao Tzu.

pt 1 | pt 2<<<you are here | pt 3home | WHAT'S NEW! | stories from my past

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Steve Jobs, Apple and Ozymandias

Steve Jobs is likely to die soon.

In dollar terms, Apple is worth more than Microsoft and Dell. Its capitalisation stands at $340 billion. It and the oil giant Exxon are the same size; the two biggest companies in the world. Apple is now worth as much as all the Euro zone banks combined.

 Steve Jobs was the visionary who led it to this extraordinary spot.

 I can well understand you don’t want a history of the Apple empire, fascinating though it is, but Steve Jobs, the man, interests me mightily.

 He went about achieving success the opposite way the textbooks said he should, but he did so. He never market-tested; he engineered a product that was so far ahead of the game that market-testing would have been a failure - items “that consumers never really knew they needed – until they were launched and became indispensable.

 It is the supreme irony that a man with so much to give, with all the financial resources in the world, faces the same problems staying alive as anyone else. He is nearly eight years younger than I. I don’t think he was a humble man, because humble people don’t survive in the cut-throat world of gigantic corporations, but his humanity shines like a beacon.

 How unlike Shelley’s vision of Ozymandias, the haughty Pharaoh Ramesses; and yet, in the end ... how different is the result? Perhaps the contribution of Steve Jobs to the world will be greater - far greater - than that of the mighty Pharaoh.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Ozymandias: Shelley's draft

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Choc-coated ginger dilemma

An elegant little box, which used to contain a full complement of dark-chocolate-coated ginger sits close to me on my desk. It was bought for me by my beloved, because of the anti-angiogenic properties of both ginger and dark chocolate. 

  This is very fortuitous for another reason. No-one else in the house likes ginger, nor is particularly fond of the darkest chocolate.

  Therefore, its contents are mine, all mine.... I can eat them at a rate of my choosing, unlike anything else in this house with any trace of chocolate in it. Leave it lying round here, it rapidly disappears without trace. (Or should I say, with Trace. Heh heh.)

  In the corner of the box, I see that there are two pieces remaining. I eat one.


  One left. It’s not large - about half the normal size.

  I don't really need it. This is a dilemma.

  If I leave that one piece, and open the box tomorrow and find a half-sized piece, will I be overcome with disappointment? Will I feel short-changed?

  Or even worse, if I should die tonight, leaving that piece uneaten, how regretful would I have been if I had known that?

  And how sad would it be if that last piece were thrown away, because no-one in the house likes choc-coated ginger?

  I just want you to know that I have solved this dilemma.

Where am I, exactly?

Today, I have to admit, the most disturbing thing that happened to me was a few moments after waking up.

  The room is curtained fairly heavily, so the light was dim. I listened for the sounds that usually indicate what’s been going on outside while I’ve been dead to the world. When I have a sleep in the daytime I struggle, on waking up, to work out whether it’s today or tomorrow, day or night.

  I know, that’s not an unusual experience for anyone who's slept heavily, but this time it was different.

  I tried to work out what the time was. I looked at the analog clock (you know, a real clock!) but with blurry eyes in the half-darkness, I couldn’t make out the time. I knew this much: it was either 7 am or 11.35 am.

  I lay back and thought about it. The birds and other noises were non-committal, surprisingly. No sound gave it away. The house itself was silent. That’s not unusual at any time, especially when Tracey and Christian don’t want to disturb my sleep.

  When I awaken, confused about the time, it’s always after a daytime sleep. It must be getting on towards midday then, but I have no memory or being awake earlier and reading news or writing to anyone.

  If I’d have been in a hospital, and they’d have asked, as they often do, what day is it today, this time I’d have been stumped. Thursday or Friday? I’m not sure.

  Slowly it dawns on me. It must be 7 am, not getting on towards midday. I remember going to bed last night. I remember nothing beyond that. But this is the first time I’ve woken in the early morning and not known it was morning.

  It’s a beautiful sunny day, actually. But my confidence has just had another little jolt to add to the others. Oh, don’t worry, I’m wide awake now and I feel pretty good, and I could have told you everything newsworthy that’s gone on around the world in the hours before I lay down. I probably know that better than you do. Or at least as well.

  But in my head I have this hospital image of an old man I saw not that long ago.

  ‘What day is it today, Bill?’ says the nurse brightly.

  He looks up at her, thinks for a long time, and says hesitatingly, ‘Friday? Is it?’

  It’s more a plea with her to make it be Friday rather than a question. It’s for reassurance that he’s not going to get.

  She smiles at him and walks out.

  It’s any day but Friday, Bill.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In the doctor's waiting room

3.45 pm yesterday. Time for one of my comparatively rare visits to the GP. We are sitting, Tracey and I, in the reception area.

  There are two mothers there, each with two kids. One of the Mums is reading a mag from the pile on the table, both little ones crawling over her, each the most terrible cough you’ve ever heard. She shares an iPod with one child, each with an earpiece. The other is reading another mag, or looking at the pictures.

  Snotty notes, flying mucus as they cough. They’re both sick.

  The mother, of course, has no choice but to bring them to the surgery, whether she's the patient or they are. There’s nothing she can do but keep the kids amused till the appointment. She picks up the two magazines and puts them back on the table, thumbs through the collection and gets two more.

  Another Mum brings in two little boys, about 4 and 2 years old, by the look. The boys make a beeline for the blackboard and while one uses the eraser, the other draws. They use the things so recently handled by the others.

  Their mum picks up the magazines and thumbs through them. She does a brilliant job of entertaining the boys, deftly sharing the chalk and duster. All four kids share the same space. The coughing and sniffling goes on.

  I hope the immune system of the two newly arrived kids is up to scratch, otherwise they’re going to be in the same boat in a day or two as the others.

  This isn’t a complaint. There’s absolutely nothing that can lower the chances of passing on infections under these circumstances. People have to wait their turn. They share the mags and the chairs and the space in a doctor’s surgery, and the kids share the toys. It’s just the way it is.

  But I have to say that I never touch anything there that I can avoid. I wouldn’t pick up one of those magazines if you paid me. They must be a hotbed of squirmy little nasty things way too small for the eye to see. Touch your face after turning the page and you spread them that bit further.

  Most of these sorts of infections, I suspect, are passed on through physical contact. The door handle to the doctor’s room itself, the documents the doc gives me, and the pen I use after previous patients to sign my name right at the end – that’s the extent of it.

  When we get home, we disinfect our hands and exposed areas of skin as thoroughly as we can before we touch a teacup or food.

  Before this illness, I didn’t give a thought to this on the rare occasions I was in a doctor’s surgery, but that changed when I had to deal with a low threshold of immunity. Prior to this, I seemed to stay healthy just about all the time, getting flu maybe once every two or three years. But if you can’t afford to catch something from others in the waiting room, all you can do is to guard against it as best you can.

  Bring your own reading matter for a start!

  I can’t imagine any better place to catch something than a doctor’s waiting room. Airports and shopping centres no doubt do a good job sharing round the infections too, but to increase your chances for the reverse to happen, nothing beats the place you go to get or stay well.

  Taking your own precautions surely helps. Up to now, in 21 months with a battered immune system, I have not had one infection. TOUCH WOOD!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The mind of a kitten

Honestly, I have the concentration span of a kitten right now. Attract it with something and it starts to play with it. Dangle another bauble in front of it, and the kitty instantly forgets about the first object and plays with the next.

I am so like that right now it’s not funny. For example (if I can remember examples before they disappear as well), I usually go firstly to my browser and quickly look at the ABC news website to see if the world hasn’t fallen apart. I’m not sure why I do this, as the news is almost invariably depressing.

Two minutes ago, glancing at the Twitter feed, I noticed Mark Colvin had retweeted that Gaddafi's son had been seized (9:25 AM.) That won’t make it to any newsroom for a while yet.

News is instantaneous on Twitter. If there’s an earthquake in Tokyo, I’ll know about it within two minutes, if Twitter’s open. While my nephew Glenn is still feeling the aftershocks in Tokyo, I’ll know he is doing so. I may even know the strength of the quake, perhaps before he does! (Oy! Don't dare look at the Twitter feed, or an hour at least will be lost.)

But I planned firstly to respond to Jan’s and Lyn’s letters, not get involved in news stories linked to the ABC website or what my research assistants all over the world are telling me on Twitter. Then I want to respond to Michele’s and Pam’s letters, and Verdon’s. And Joan – all her comments on my blog I haven’t responded to... and am longing to do all this... and three other friends who have written. And a mysterious chap who has read my blog and has a strange and cryptic message.

I click on my blog because I have the sudden and uncomfortable feeling that I have already written something similar to this weeks or months ago.... I check for keywords that might reveal the déjà vu event, but nothing comes up. I’m relieved. Don’t tell me if you find one. I don’t want to know.

Then because I did that and can now view the blog, I see Scott’s blog comment on the Arthur C Clarke story and laugh, and it comes to mind how we programmed enthusiastically in BASIC 25 years ago, and I can’t resist trying my hand at it again.... But where’s the old Chipmunk BASIC program I know will run on a Mac, to create a little program? I want to try that. I do. The very first exercise or trick we ever learned with BASIC. STOP IT!!!!

And I have to sign those documents....  and I have three other postings open as Word documents I’ve been writing that I’m longing to get back to.... and then I remember a particular Twitter posting relating to this that points to an article that I will lose if I don’t pick it up right now and create a pdf. Hang on, I’ll be right back. Oh and look at that. A message I was about to send 20 hours ago just before I crashed for my siesta is still sitting there!... Is it still worth sending? Is it worth explaining in a humorous way why I didn’t send it...? I could do that. No. Get a grip.

DELETE. Whew. Best decision I’ve made all day.

I've barely started yet to describe the meanderings of my mind, but that will do. You get the idea. So here I am writing this, after sneaking in a comment to a friend on something else that caught kitty’s eye, and I haven’t even begun those letters I want to write yet - which is crazy, because I’m looking forward to doing so. I said that already.

Don’t ask me to write a priority list and follow it. I won’t remember where it is, and even if I did, I would break the rules before I started trying to follow it. Or spend half an hour re-ordering the priorities and admiring the beauty of it.

That’s just the kinda guy I am. Or have become. Forgive him, for he knoweth not what he doth.

Oh, you have to look at this. I don’t believe it – but seems it’s true. (On a Mac, replace CTRL in the comment with CMD – the Apple key!)

But we have to go downtown to sign documents in front of a JP. We have to get that photo ID done at the RTA.

This will have to wait to be formatted for the blog till after we get back. Can you believe that?

Right then. We’re back, and we have the photo ID so we can park in a Disabled Parking Zone at long last. I said to Tracey, I’d love, now that I have the ID card, to do handsprings all the way back to the car, with all the RTA bureaucrats looking on.

If only! Hell, if I could do that, I’d happily turn myself in as a fraud.

If only.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Arthur C Clarke's 31-word story

I found this here. It amused the geek lurking inside me. So mid-1980s!

'In 1984, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke submitted "siseneG" to Analog magazine. Clarke’s cover letter was as terse, stating "This is the only short story I’ve written in ten years or so. I think you’ll agree that they don’t come much shorter."'

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Happy keys! A surprise contact.

Verdon’s letter.

Just before Morpheus descends on me for the day i.e., before the urge to sleep overpowers me, I want to pass on a piece of good news.  If you have read stories from my past (a page now in serious need of updating) you may have seen a tragic story about a school friend, Verdon Harrison, who reappeared in my awareness by an amazing coincidence and then disappeared again.

  I ended that story by saying I never expected to be in contact with him in my lifetime.

  A little while ago, I got a call from the UNE to say there was a person who wanted to contact me, whose name was Len Harrison, and gave me his phone number.

  I knew it could be only one person; Verdon’s younger brother - so I phoned him, and he gave me Verdon’s email address. Well, it happened something like that – the precise details aren’t important, except that I did speak to Len.

  Shortly after, I received a heart-warming letter from Verdon himself, mentioning many of the things I have already written about in my blog, plus a few others. Our first contact person-to-person in over half a century.

  How ironical that this would never have happened if I hadn’t sat down to write these many stories from my childhood!

  Apart from the few times that Verdon and his family who migrated from Sheffield got a mention in my tales, I wish I could tell many others. Maybe just two, briefly, here and now.

  One night half the kids living close by where Verdon Snr. had built their house came over to the Harrisons and watched something very special. They had acquired a movie projector – one you would manually wind at the right speed to show little reel-to-reel black & white movies. They put up a sheet and on came one of the great Silent Classics of all times – Charlie Chaplin – Charlie on Ice, I think it was. He was certainly skating, everything happening to his wonderful comic timing.

  We played it and one or two others – each one probably no more than 5 minutes – at least half a dozen times, Verdon varying the speed and making the brilliant gymnast master comic genius Chaplin do even more wondrous things than in real life.


  The other was a little walking-home-from-school conversation between Verdon and me.

  ‘Mum let Johnny play in a huge mud puddle yesterday.’ (John, the youngest of all the Harrisons).


  ‘Yes.’ He grinned. ‘She let him play... in his birthday suit.’

  He winked.

  ‘Oh no!’ I gasped. ‘She let him play in the mud in his best clothes??’

  Verdon roared laughing.

  ‘No! In his birthday suit. His birthday suit!!

  I still didn’t get it.

  That’s Sheffield sophistication vs Calliope naivety for you. Or maybe just my total cluelessness. Even if he had said that it was what Johnny was wearing on the day he was born, it probably wouldn’t have helped me. I wasn’t on firm ground in those matters. For all I knew, he could have been wearing a tuxedo when they found him out in the cabbage patch or wherever babies came from in those days. That’s if I had known what a tuxedo was, and I didn’t anyway.

  Yeah yeah. I think I get it now.... 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Headmasters, footballs and awakenings

I’ve decided I’m going to be concise this time. Sadly, I’ve already failed at that by telling you so instead of just doing it, but that’s me.

  It was 1959 – the last year of Primary School for me. Mr Curtis had retired. He didn’t want to, as he thought it his duty to go on till they carried him out in a box, but 65 was the limit, so he had no choice. The Queensland State Department of Education had spoken, and its word was law.

  He was an excellent man in many respects – the last of the Pupil Teachers. By this I mean that when he got to Grade 8 and the headmaster had recognised talent in him, he was told:

  ‘Young Master Curtis, next week you will come to school wearing shoes and a freshly ironed shirt, and help with teaching.’

  And thus began his career as a teacher. He learned the trade on the job. That was how it was done in those days.

  By Grade 8, the final year of Primary School as it was then, I had had only two teachers in my entire life; Miss Turner for Grades 1, 2 and 3, and Old Jim for Grades 4 to 7. This must be astounding to many these days, who would have had a score of teachers before leaving primary school.

  The new headmaster was Kevin Reddy. He was quiet and meticulous; probably in his late 20s or early 30s, and it was incredibly novel for us to have a young man in that role.

  For one thing, in the first week he started teaching at Calliope, he walked down to the field where we were kicking a football around.

  ‘Give me the ball.’

  Why? we thought. Were we in trouble?

  He was wearing his nicely creased woollen trousers and polished brown shoes. He casually took a couple of steps and kicked the ball straight up in the air.

Sputnik and our football
  We couldn’t believe two things about this. One was that he could or would join us on the playing field, and the other was that he could kick a ball so high and so straight up that it made the Soviet launching of Sputnik 18 months earlier seem almost unnecessary. To us, that football was about to go into orbit, but miraculously, it eventually came down not three metres away from the smart shoe that had launched it.

  We gasped and cheered, and Mr Reddy was forever our hero.

  Poor Old Jim. All those years of (not always) patient teaching of parsing, sentence analysis, and dividing pounds, shillings and pence into extraordinarily small fractions vanished in the hero stakes with one effortless kick of a football into the stratosphere.

  Eight years later, I, as the new teacher, walked to that identical spot on the same playing field, called for the ball, and repeated Kevin Reddy’s feat. I can’t say for certain that it was as spectacular a kick as his seemed, but it was good enough to evoke a similar response to the Reddy kick forever emblazoned in my consciousness.

  I was a hero, status bought at a heavily discounted rate, but happily accepted all round.

  So, you can imagine my sorrow this morning. I was playing in a football match. I need only to chip the ball over the opposition players’ head and one of our blokes would run the try in.

  I took a few steps, wondering why I was making heavy weather of it, and tried a simple dropkick – one I had done a thousand times at least.

  At that moment, I realised to my horror that my right leg was as it is now: barely usable as something to stand up on, let alone as a pivot to launch a neat left foot kick.

  The kick was a terrible failure. I woke with a lurching start, as if I had been kicked hard in the stomach. I felt physically ill.

  Perhaps the dream had caused that, or maybe feeling vaguely nauseous through the night had caused the dream to become entangled in my thoughts of childhood football.

  All I know is that it reminded me I would never kick a football again. Never split a log with an axe. Never again throw a tennis ball.

  There’s an immeasurable sorrow in such thoughts. You have to be there to understand it. Yet how many times must that be multiplied in the sorrow of the young quadriplegic who will never again do all the things he or she took for granted before that illness or accident.

  I can’t begin to imagine. It makes you start to appreciate what real courage you need to have to cope with that. And, more importantly, the amazing courage of those who have overcome their sadness and achieved greatness in their lives by becoming role models, and thereby giving hope to others.

  They’re the heroes.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Memory holes and madness

I decided not to mince words here because I have a point to make that you won’t really understand unless or until you’re in this situation.

  Most of us, whether young or old, have been in that spot where our memory of some person or thing has let us down. Something we’ve known all our lives won’t come into mind when it’s needed. Unaccountably it disappears. We go to introduce A to B and find that B’s name has buzzed off.

  Embarrassing. And there is no doubt that with increasing age, this phenomenon does seem to get worse. Those of us who have had brain malfunction, dysfunction or surgery, and are on medications that promote memory failure will know what I’m about.

  Generally, though, it’s not that much of a problem. We laugh about it, go on to another subject, and like magic, and usually when we’re not struggling to recall whatever it was, that forgotten thing effortlessly pops into memory.

  If we’re lucky.

  In fact, it’s not luck, it’s just the subconscious mind doing its fantastic, amazing job. There are very few things we lose forever from memory unless the brain has suffered physical injury. We need to locate and traverse the right tracks to get back to them.

  What if you suddenly find there are ‘black holes’ in your memory? (Here I use an expression I first heard from Julie*, and has come into my everyday vocabulary.) And what if there seem to be more and more of them?

  Like black holes in the universe, you know they’re there only by their effect. What does that do to your life?

  It’s more serious than it looks. Much more.

  Think of a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle, in which quite a number of the pieces are missing. As long as they aren’t there, you don’t know what was in the black holes in the puzzle and you have no obvious memory of them. Worse, you are probably not even aware there are black holes! As well, sometimes pieces of the puzzle you interpret as one thing now seem to represent something else, because vital parts aren't there. You don't even know they're missing.

  You are asked to describe the picture in the puzzle, and you do it as best you can. But with the gaps, you misrepresent it. Your brain glosses over the gap. You don’t see what everyone else does.

  Isn’t this a definition of madness? When your perception of things doesn’t agree with what seems patently obvious to all those around you?

  Do I sound like I’m off my tree, when I write this? I don’t think so. There are a lot of definitions of sanity, and a lot of ‘sane’ people disagree on them. But let that be.

  My point is that when the black holes strike, you lose confidence in your mind, your intelligence, your capacity to reason, and your whole self. Worse, you know that those around you lose confidence in at least some of those, and why shouldn’t they? If you insist something is X and they are all sure it's Y, it's a recipe for frustration. You feel they are humouring you by letting you say X is the reality, not Y; and they're doing it so you won’t get stressed by the dichotomy. But where does which leave you? And them?

  It’s lose-lose. You don’t want to be trapped by a delusion any more than those around you want you to be. But what if you are sure you are right? How much angst does that cause for everyone? And how does it feel knowing that these perception gaps are causing grief to them? Should you just shut up and swallow the frustration? Often you do. Sometimes you don't. Either way, it creates an impasse.

  Let's explore this a bit.

  The best and simplest definition of intelligence is ‘the ability to perceive relationships.’ I’m not up for debate on that one, so accept it for the moment at least. I’ve always had a good memory. After all, I spent a lifetime as a professional historian! Where would I be without good recall? I need that in order to perceive the subtle connections between all sorts of things when I write or discuss history. I take pride in seeing relationships that others may have missed, though of course it’s also possible to make false connections as well.

  When you feel confident in your own ability, you don’t mind being persuaded you have made a mistake. But when that confidence is lost, it changes things.

  My point here is this. I can’t now be sure I can recall all the pieces of the puzzle in order to see, as best I can, the relationships between them, and be able to tell you with self-confidence what the picture is about. By the above definition, this means my intelligence has also declined. I lose the ability to perceive relationships if things obvious to others aren’t there for me to tie together.

  If this is your problem, then at the very least, you and the people around you will quite rightly lose faith in your judgment. If you know you can't have faith in your own judgment any more, why would you expect others to?

  This is quite novel and frightening when you are used to having reasonable confidence in your judgment and when you are used to having others feel your judgment is sound. Doubting it, especially for what you suspect are good reasons, eats away at the very foundations of who you are.

  I now realise that some of the most famous ‘insane’ people in history were enraged or depressed about the onset of their insanity not so much because it was happening but because they were acutely aware of its effects, and they feared and resented what it was doing to their relationships with those around them.

  And there wasn’t a damned thing they could do about it except feel frustrated – not with others, but with themselves – even when that frustration seemed directed at others.

  No-one is to blame. It just feels like it. How well Shakespeare explored this theme in King Lear! 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bureaucracy and the Handicap Zone: Tracey's story

[Denis wanted me to write a piece for the blog about my experience applying for a Mobility Parking Scheme card (MPS) from the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA). This is more commonly known as a Handicapped parking permit. After some persuasion I decided that I would write something, perhaps not quite what he had in mind though.]

 A MPS card is one of those things that most folk don’t ever think about, except in terms of wishing they could park in that great spot right next to the door of the shopping centre, only to find that it is a handicap zone. That means it is ‘no parking’ unless you can display the magical ‘I’m handicapped’ card on the dashboard of your car.

 After some discussion, we decided last Friday that it might again be time to think about applying for an MPS card. Yes, I said ‘again’ and in order to explain that I’m going to begin this story a bit further back than last week.

 After possibly a record-breaking engagement – eleven years – Denis and I got married on the 4th of July 2010. At that time he was a little unsteady on his feet and prone to an average of three seizures a week but he was doing more or less OK. Within a week his mobility rapidly declined as the swelling in his brain, a by-product of tumour activity, increased significantly.

 Almost overnight he could not get out of a chair by himself or walk around the house without significant assistance. The furniture arrangements for every single room in the house were altered so that a pathway was made, allowing us to navigate all rooms side-by-side. 

That meant quite a bit more furniture shifting than you would first imagine, especially in the bedroom. Den could only get in and out of the bed on his ‘good’ left side. That’s on the far side of the bedroom, so all the furniture other than the bed came out of there. With my help, he could get out of bed and get right around the room to the door.

 To get around the house, Den would hold on to furniture or the wall on one side and I would support him on the other. Very rapidly even that became difficult and so I began pushing him around on his wheeled office chair in the areas where we have polished floorboards, from computer desk to dining table and back. 

In the evenings I would push his office chair to the end of the sanctuary of the wooden floor to where it met the carpet and we would make what felt like a perilous journey into the lounge or the bedroom – both carpeted. The rugs on all the carpeted floors had to be rolled up and stored, as even that slight height difference was a not inconsiderable step up for Denis and a dangerous trip hazard.

 People who came to visit were always amazed at how well he seemed, but they never ever saw him try to move. A couple of friends would have thought differently though, as on a few occasions their visits coincided with a seizure and then they would have to hastily leave. Poor Julie, it really wasn’t your fault at all!

 Then came the seizure that left Denis paralysed for at least an hour. He was in a lounge room chair at the time and getting him into the bedroom to put him to bed that night was almost impossible but somehow we did it. That night I knew I was going to need help.

 We quickly had an electric hospital bed installed, a shower chair, toilet commode, a wheelchair, bed-stick and all manner of equipment including a ‘floatation chair’. Float it did not. It resembled some massive archaic torture chair, or at the very least, the barber’s chair that Sweeney Todd used to despatch his clients. It had settings that allowed a person to sit or recline or lie down in it. 

Unfortunately it was neither electric nor hydraulic, and the person operating it (me) had to rely on sheer brute strength, taking the weight of the chair and the person in it to change the seating positions. By this time, Den’s arm was in a sling too, which also cut down his ability to help me manoeuvre him about.

 It was at this time I got the paperwork to apply for the MPS card.

 We filled out the application and had a lengthy doctor’s appointment so that the necessary medical report could be written up on the application form. Even though we really needed it, that was a far as we got, because something wonderful happened.

 Den was started on steroids which, at the expense of his normal good humour (I now totally understand the expression ‘roid rage’), significantly reduced the swelling in his brain and there was an immediate physical improvement. At about the same time, after months of my pressing the oncologist for it, Denis has his first infusion of Avastin.

 The effect on his condition seemed relatively miraculous. The MRI done at the time showed an amazing reduction in both the active tumour and inflammation, and his mobility was much improved.

 So, I decided to wait to apply for the MPS card until I thought that things might be moving towards needing it again. I have always felt mightily indignant when a seemingly ‘normal’ looking person emerges from a vehicle parked in a Handicap Zone. We didn’t really need it yet so I wouldn’t apply for it yet.

 Fast forward to now.

 For various reasons that I won’t go into here, we feel the time of the MPS card is coming, especially if things move in the direction that they did last year and, frankly, there is no reason for us to think that they won’t. Denis is again holding my arm tightly when we leave the house. I know how much he has to concentrate to walk, to tell his knee and ankle and foot to lift with every single step. Any little distraction that pulls his focus can mean a stumble, and that is quite scary for me. I know how much he weighs (sorry Honey!) and that I am kidding myself that I could save him if he started to fall. A broken bone or worse would be an unthinkable disaster.

 So, along with moving pot plants away from the entrance to the veranda and shifting furniture which has again crept into the pathway of potential paramedics (the last thing I want to be doing in an emergency is shifting the furniture) I decided the day of the Mobility Parking Scheme had come.

 As I have already said, we had previously filled out all the paper work, including the full medical report. I could see that they had a section where Denis signs it and then I could sign it as his Representative. Armed with the forms, the Medical Report and my Power of Attorney I went into the RTA and took a number.

 I waited half an hour.

 Finally my turn.

 I presented the forms at the counter.


 “Is Denis here with you?” they asked.


 “Why not?”

 “Well, he has a terminal brain tumour and cannot function properly on one whole side of his body, which is why we need the parking permit, but as you can see he has signed your form allowing me to be his Representative, and I also brought my Power of Attorney.”

 “Oh, yes, that’s fine....but he’ll need to come in himself”

 “What? Why???”

 “We’ll need to take his photo to put it on the permit”

 “What? But what if that’s really, really difficult for someone???”

 Now, at this point in the story it is worth thinking about why someone would want a Mobility Parking Scheme permit. In fact, I’ll quote the criteria on the form itself:
 To be eligible for a MPS card, a person must be unable to walk because of permanent or temporary loss of the use of one or both legs or other permanent medical or physical condition, or whose physical condition is detrimentally affected as a result of walking 100 metres, or who requires the use of crutches, a walking frame, callipers, scooter, wheelchair, or other similar mobility aid.
 After a lengthy silence, computer consultation and the printing out of more documents, I was finally provided with an alternative.

 In a few very special circumstances, a MPS card can be issued without a photo. You just need to write a letter and send it off to an address in Sydney, but you’ll also need a letter from your doctor, and then if the exemption is granted you’ll just need to....

 So, it seems to me that the time to apply for a special parking permit on the grounds of your mobility impairment is before your mobility is impaired!

 Now I wonder why we waited to apply. We could have been swanning in and out of handicap zones for ages, just like those people I mentioned earlier, who don’t look handicapped or like they really need to park there. Maybe they are the smart ones, ahead of the game.

 I really can’t help wondering how people who are alone, dealing with ill health and/or mobility issues contend with the paper-driven bureaucracy that must be navigated before they are eligible for any sort of concession, benefit or assistance.

Making sense using Eastern logic

I’m not sure whether posting this in the way I have makes any sense.

The reason is that long postings must reach only a very small and diminishing audience. I truly believe that I, like most people, have lost the capacity to concentrate for long periods unless totally engrossed in what I’m reading, like a great novel in which I can lose myself. When people send me long documents, like a 5000 word article I promised to assess for publication in a journal like South Asia, I wilt. This is in spite of being interested in the subject, and even if it’s written well.

I decided to post it as a whole, but broke this into just five parts so that if you also wilt, you might manage a bit at a time. These five parts are each about the right length for a single blog posting.

What it’s about.

I was challenged to give a public lecture in which I could show that the original philosophy of Buddhism was entirely rational in its approach to life.

I accepted this challenge, long ago, in the days when I was foolish enough to take such things on. Here is the gist of it. I still hold to it as a fulfilling way of viewing life, fueled by a ruthless and satisfying logic. Ruthless as in consistent, of course. There is no philosophy more about compassion than Buddhism.

OK. Let's see if it flies.



In a public talk like this one, I always have to try to guess at what sort of audience I might have.

Some of you might be practising Buddhists. Others may be people firmly committed to another faith, yet others may be atheistic or agnostic, and others yet again may simply be curious about what someone like me can do with a topic like this. I haven't come here tonight to convert you to a new religion, or if you claim to be a Buddhist, I'm not intending to challenge the pathway that you're now treading. But Buddhism is an intensely practical and sensible philosophy, ideal for intelligent skeptics and philosophical vagabonds, so perhaps I might try to make some tenuous connection with my topic along those lines.

You might say, with good reason, that Buddhism already makes sense without the least help from me. What I'm trying to do is to talk about Buddhist philosophy using only terms that are acceptable to ordinary people like myself, trying to live a fairly ordinary life without taking too much out of the world and hoping that when we leave it behind, the world will be at the very least, not too much injured by our presence.

The most basic propositions of Buddhism

We're told that the man who we call the Buddha subjected the human condition to a rational, dispassionate analysis. The Buddha was reputed to have lived around the Sixth Century BCE, which incidentally puts him round the same time as some of the greatest thinkers from the ancient world - Greece, India and China. He subjected himself and the experiences of those around him to this ruthless investigation - ruthless not in the sense of being cruel and heartless, but in the sense that he applied a clear and unshakeable logic to human beings and their psychology and place in the world.

For a start, let's say what he wasn't trying to do. Firstly, he wasn't trying to analyse the world in terms of a theology - by which mean, he wasn't trying to get people to believe that there was the sort of god up there somewhere who you could get a mental picture of and ask for favours, or even to thank when things were going right in your life.

Defying the Brahmins

He lived at a time when the brahmins had a stranglehold on the Hindu religion, and they were often telling people that they had the gods in the palms of their hands, so to speak, and that they could intercede for ordinary people with the gods.

This wasn't the sort of religious idea that appealed to the Buddha. He was much more concerned with principles that would give people some control of their own destiny through their own actions.

That's why he subjected the world to this rational analysis, and that's why in the end his ideas dealt fairly and squarely and directly with the issues in people's lives, and what they could do by their own efforts to find contentment. He wasn't interested in anything that would take responsibility away from individuals for their own lives and actions. He wanted people to accept what they could understand, and not rely on blind faith. The only faith he asked people to have was in themselves and in their capacity to improve their level of contentment with this life.

This analysis is about living life and finding genuine happiness in this world - because he believed that truly contented people had no need to fear anything that anyone else could do to them. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.



The first idea that he put forward was that the essential characteristic of all existence was what he called dukkha, a word that's usually translated as ‘suffering.’ The essential characteristic of the human condition is suffering.

Now, does that cause your hackles to rise immediately? Doesn't it sound a pretty morbid proposition? Suffering, all around.

Think about it. Maybe he’s right, even if we ignore the myriad of terrible things that happen to other life forms on a daily basis. You could start by taking a fairly close look at the world today, with the overwhelming majority of its seven billion people getting too little too eat, having little or no shelter and few medical facilities. You could look at the planet groaning under the stress of the seething mass of humanity that's just about out of control in some ways.

You could see the wars going on, the sufferings of humans, animals and other creatures, and you would find it undeniable that misery and degradation are all around. And where it doesn't seem to be the dominant characteristic, that place is the exception rather than the rule. People are born amidst suffering, and die in that state. Just by being in the world today, you caused vast suffering to a myriad of creatures, from what you ate at dinner tonight to the ants your car may have run over or were crushed under your feet as you walked from the carpark to your workplace.

Now all that might be true, and you can't deny it, but that wasn't the essence of what the Buddha was getting at when he put forward the proposition that life was suffering. Or at least, that was only a part of it. In any case, you might say he was around 6 centuries before Christ - they didn't have seven billion people in the world then. And I have a right to live, don't I? If I have to watch out for every living creature, I couldn't eat, couldn't drink, couldn't move a muscle.

The Buddha, to my way of thinking, understood this very well.

Although he would still maintain that the outstanding characteristic of existence still is suffering in that sense, that wasn't the main thrust of his argument at all. He appears to have seen that suffering in that sense is a normal part of the way of the universe - the suffering of an animal killed by the lion is not evil, or the suffering which accompanies illness and death - these are simply part of the process of life - the flow and change that is the characteristic of the universe. The transience of all things - he was quite accepting of that.

In fact, he understood that one of the things that caused the most suffering to human beings was failure to accept transience as a characteristic of life. But I'll come back to that in a moment.

We have a problem with the term "dukkha". He seems to have accepted that even the natural world, which can hardly be described as sinful or careless or immoral, the natural world was one in which killing was inevitable, and dying was an unavoidable consequence of life.


A more inclusive idea of dukkha

That wasn't what he was on about, essentially. "Dukkha" can be translated in various ways, and we don't have to accept that “suffering” is the only term we can apply to it.

What it really means is something more like "off-centred-ness" - like a wheel that isn't centered on its axle, so as soon as things start to happen and the wheel moves, it is awkward and inefficient and just plain looks and feels wrong - and by its very action generates off-centredness.

If you apply that to human beings, it has real meaning then, because we often say that we have to focus ourselves; we have to centre ourselves - we have to find our true centre - our selves - whatever terminology you want to describe the process that allows you to escape from the condition of frustration where you never feel at peace.

What he was really saying here was that most people feel frustrated and dissatisfied so much of the time they live, to a greater or lesser degree. He's not saying that everyone's suicidal about this; he's saying that we tend to experience this off-centredness just about every day of our lives. He had certainly experienced this himself - it was the very thing that made him set out on his journey of understanding of the true nature of the world and himself.

So, he accepted that dukkha, or off-centredness, is part of the human condition, and his next step then had to be to identify what it was that caused the sort of suffering that we seem to bring on ourselves.

This was the second part of his analysis, and in it he said that suffering of this sort is caused by desire. So what did he mean by that?

He was talking about the things that we think we need. Let's leave aside the essentials for the moment: things like enough food to eat, comfortable enough houses and clothes and basic health. In a society like ours in particular, these basics are easy enough to attain for most people.

Yet the fundamental fact appears to be that there are vast numbers of people out there with more than enough to eat, more than adequate shelter, and enough money to get by on - and yet they are still unhappy.

These are the people that interest us for the moment, because if you want to deal with the other sort - the starving and the homeless and the diseased - you're talking about a different part of the problem that deserves to be tackled in a different way. The ones I'm talking about now are the ordinary people who find that large chunks of their present existence make them unhappy, even when they have a comfortable lifestyle.

The Buddha himself was one of these sorts of people - you might say he epitomises their existence - he is a caricature of it, in fact. At least, the stories about his life certainly are. Brought up in a palace, the son of a raja or ruler, he had everything that life could give him - wealth, luxury, beautiful wife and family. He knew perfectly what it was like to have everything and yet feel utterly miserable.


What he came to realise was that people had been trained in their lives from the moment they were born to desire certain things and to fear others, and it was the nature of the things they learned to desire that trapped them.

What are we taught to desire? It would be interesting to see what you were taught to search for as the things which are to be valued more than anything else. Possessions, wealth, excitement, love, friendship, success, some sort of immortality. I daresay there are a few others you could add, but how do we identify the successful person in our community? Aren't these the very things by which we identify the successful person?

When we look at the objects of human desire, we see that there is one common element - they all relate to ego in some way.

This was the next logical step in the Buddha's analysis. The primary characteristic of the world is frustration, caused by desire, caused by ego. All our lives we are taught to enhance our egos. The best birthday present, the prettiest dress, the smartest car, the cleverest in the class, the most beautiful girl of them all, the strongest boy on the beach, the sexiest partner or partners, the biggest diamond, the biggest boat, the most fantastic wedding, the most prosperous business....

Of course, these are the crassest and most obvious things, and you might argue that you aren't entirely seduced by these attractions. Most of us are. And why - because every one of them relates in some way to the ego. The bright red sports convertible is a startlingly clear example of the extension of the ego of the guy on the move in more ways than one. The man who wants a beautiful wife draped over his arm is sending the message to the world that he is so attractive that he gets the best. Ego! The woman who flaunts the expensive bracelet is getting a great boost to her ego by being the chosen one. The billionaires of the world usually ooze power, ooze ego.

The problem with all these things is that they are symbols only and if all they do is to inflate the ego, they will never achieve any ultimate purpose. It’s a trap to believe it.


Ego is insatiable, and if it constantly needs the stimulus of possessions to satisfy it, however temporarily, then it will never be satisfied in the long run, and the time will come when no amount of possessions, power, money - anything that feeds the ego - none of that will be enough.

It becomes so frighteningly not enough that people who have everything often feel the need to risk it in order to prove to themselves what it really means to them. So disillusioned might they become that they search for meaning in artificial things that push the ego back further and further. Out of sight, obliterate it - in drink or drugs - anything that makes them forget the self that they're supposed to have created. Those who find refuge in drink or drugs betray the contempt they now harbour for the ego built from a lifetime of conditioning - the collapse of that paper self. They have everything possible in the world that feeds ego, and it fails to satisfy.

That must be a frightening realisation.

This sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It is and it isn’t.

Losing the problems of ego

The Buddha's analysis does in fact identify that the person who has things and is still unhappy is trying to do exactly what they should when they resort to drink and drugs - to lose the ego. Clearly, if his analysis so far is right, then losing the ego will eliminate desire, which will eliminate frustration.

But according to the Buddha, the booze and the pills are not the solution. All they will do is destroy and numb the mind and the body without touching on the root of the condition - and that's what will come back to haunt you when you're sober again. What we must understand is that we are all drugged up to a greater or lesser extent in our understanding of the world, deluded by the incapacity of words and ideas to really express true meaning.

The tyranny of ignorance

By the Buddha's analysis, the other condition that pervades the human environment is ignorance. Most of our suffering is caused by ignorance of one sort or another. Ignorance and lack of mindfulness - too much concern for our own egotistical desires, and ignorance of what real happiness is about.

Surely ignorance is the one staggeringly obvious characteristic of humanity. The challenge that the Buddha set the world was to come to terms with our ignorance and to try to clarify and set our minds straight so that we would not destroy our selves and others by our ignorance - because ignorance is more dangerous and more seductive than open hostility. Open hostility - ours, or someone else's - is something we can recognise and which we are often forced to face. Ignorance lies there and quietly destroys us and those around us.

I was watching a story on TV about a woman who had spent much of her life under the mistaken impression that her son-in-law had taken her daughter away from the family and had caused the deaths of her other two sons by encouraging them to join up to fight in the war. The story revolved around ignorance and prejudice (which is ignorance by another name) and the destruction of entire lives which it had caused. She learned the truth in the end, and discovered that she had twisted and distorted her entire life around an untruth resulting from ignorance.

When we understand something after being ignorant about it, often we don't even want to let go of our ignorance because it becomes the very stuff of which our lives are made. We want to believe in the reality we make for ourselves, because of the investment in ego that we've put into it.

The Buddha had worked through all these stages of understanding, and he had come to the conclusion that if we could only correct our perception of life, then we would find peace and contentment. We'd know what we needed to change and how to change it, and if something couldn't be changed, then we'd know how to accept it and live contentedly with it. The AA motto asks for the wisdom to know the difference between things that can be changed and things that can't. The AA philosophy is pure Buddhism in that sense. This is nothing more than being practical and sensible yet we fight against it all the time.

There's a great story about the Buddha visiting a monastery and finding that one of his disciples there was limping. “What's the matter,” asked the Buddha? “I was practising simplicity in my life,” said the monk, and because I was walking in the heat of the sun, the soles of my feet became blistered. What should I do?” he asked.

“Wear sandals,” said the Buddha.

It’s another way of saying that we need to understand the problem, so that we can consider the best solution.


You may be wanting more substantial answers. Understanding the problem isn't enough, though there's no doubt that it’s essential. What's the good of all this if you don't get a solution?

Do it yourself!

The Buddha said several things about this. One was that ultimately, all people had to work out their own pathways to happiness for themselves. No-one else could really do it for them, because it involved decisions only they could make.

But he didn't simply leave people to their own devices from that point on. He gave offered a guide to the process of freeing ourselves from the bondage of our own ignorance and desires and egos, and this is what has come to be known as the Eightfold Path.

I'm going to tell you what the Eightfold Path is, but I'm not going to go through the eight bits one by one and I'm avoiding that for a couple of good reasons. Most important is that they have such an archaic, prescriptive and moralistic tone that I'm sure you're going to get a distorted conception of what he was really on about.

Listen to them:
1. right views2. right intent3. right speech4. right conduct5. right livelihood6. right effort7. right mindfulness8. right concentration
What do they mean? Two things.

The Eightfold Path

This Eightfold Path is firstly a set of preconditions for the right way to look at things, and secondly, it's a method of correcting that perception. It's a discipline, and like all disciplines, it's something that usually comes over time and with a good deal of training.

It's not a like a recipe or a packet cake mix. It's an environment in which release from ignorance and unhappiness can be achieved. It's not about extremes or damaging your body. It's a pointer to leading a contented life and a peaceful exit from life at the end - but you've got to take responsibility for it.

The Eightfold Path encourages us to get ourselves in the right mental and physical condition to correct our perception of the world, and then practice a technique that will help us get better and better at seeing things for what they are and making ourselves content. The technique is usually called meditation.


Meditation is a much misunderstood term. Some of you may tune out the moment you hear it. We may think of rows of people - or maybe just one person - sitting in a lotus position, eyes half closed, apparently half asleep or possibly comatose. What are they doing?

Mostly what they're doing is nothing more - but it's a big nothing - nothing more than stilling their minds so that they can experience things directly instead of through the fog of words, thoughts, concepts and sensations that constantly interrupt our chance to be directly conscious of what we are and what the world is.

This is where the eyes of some of you are going to glaze over. Get rid of words? Ideas? Why?


Because we have lost the art of experiencing things directly, except in the few times in our lives when we become ecstatic for some reason or another. Our football team just won the premiership.... Or we fall in love, or win the lottery. These are ecstasies - the kind where you forget your self in the primal scream or moment of passion. These are hardly the stuff of self-realisation.

This is because these aren't the only ecstasies. There are quieter ecstasies in the world with more profound meaning than waving the winner’s cup.

Here we have to bear in mind the true meaning of the word ecstasy - ex = “out of” and stasis = “the self”. Out of self. Free of self. There are the quiet ecstasies of total absorption in something, where you lose that troublesome sense of self and maybe even experience a moment or two of mystical bliss - total identification of the experiencer and the object of that experience - a form of perfect if fleeting serenity and happiness where you want nothing more and you’d like it to go on forever.

Supposing you accepted as a hypothesis that there was a way to prolong, more or less permanently, that blissful state of quiet ecstasy - that state of total absorption. That state in which you know intuitively how to deal with the world and all the challenges that it poses for you daily? A state that would put life and death and fear and happiness all into such crystal clear clarity that nothing in life could ever trouble you again?

Would you buy some of that? Or is it such a fearful proposition that you want to cling to ego and selfish pleasures, even though you know that they ultimately end in suffering and pain and humiliation?

Buddhism challenges you to test that hypothesis. It has a word for that state of total absorption, total awareness and mindfulness, and that word is nirvana.


Let's suddenly change the setting. Instead of me here persuading you to begin to observe the preliminaries to the practice of meditation, let's pretend that I have become transformed into a Baptist preacher. I have just convinced you that you've got to let Christ into your life, that you can be blissfully redeemed from your lives of wickedness by God's forgiveness and you can be reborn as a new, spiritually perfect person. You'll get down on your knees and pray to a loving God and thank Him for His salvation.

Why did I suddenly switch scenes and persona? The reason is twofold.

Identity and Difference

There is a strong identity between the ecstasy of meditation and the joy of freedom for the saved sinner, or the joy of prayer. But there’s a vital difference in one aspect of it and here is where all the Eastern religions part company, superficially at least, with the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I want to make a contrast between that point of spiritual bliss that the Christian or the Muslim might reach on the moment of surrendering to God. In Christianity, for example, you can have your sins washed away by an act of genuine contrition, expiated by the love of God.

Buddhist philosophy doesn't have a parallel to that, except perhaps in the later Mahayana tradition, and I don't want to get into the sects of Buddhism. Let's stick with what I see as the pure philosophy for the moment.


What Buddhism says is that contrition for sins is a wonderful thing and certainly a step in the right direction, but that you can't undo the consequences of your action. You might make amends, but you can't wipe the slate clean because you simply can't go backwards. In the great computer program of life, there is no UNDO command!

You have to come to terms with the consequences of your actions and you have to see yourself as a part in a gigantic link of causation - of cause and effect. No-one can deny that that is exactly what we are - we're here on this earth because of all the events that have occurred since the beginning of the universe, and we're making waves, however small they might seem to be, that will reverberate to the end of time. The butterfly that flutters its wings in Beijing may set off a chain reaction that has immense consequences for the world, if I might borrow an analogy from some fundamental principles of chaos theory.

What have fluttering butterflies got to do with saving your soul? Well, Buddhism has some rather mind-boggling interpretations of the soul too, but let's not confuse the issue more than we have to for the moment. Buddhism is all about taking responsibility for your actions, because you are in control of your destiny to an important extent. You make decisions and you take responsibility - that's what the law of karma is all about.

It’s the moral law of cause and effect, that neither you nor I nor anyone can escape from, because you can't escape from the consequences of action.


Karma literally means action. To early Buddhism as it comes to us, there is no God sitting up there somewhere who takes a paternal interest in you or me. There is no god to whom you can pray for forgiveness and who can intercede on your behalf. To Buddhist philosophy, such an idea of godhead - or ultimate reality or ultimate salvation - some father-like figure - is a rather child-like conception, just like the vision of a heaven where the streets are paved with gold, or the cool green and water-filled paradise of the Muslims might be regarded as a childlike one in spiritual terms.

Whatever godliness or heavenliness there is, it is within you - within us all - it is to be realised. And that is the goal of meditation - to realise truth and to act upon it. Through this discipline, of meditation, it loses its selfishness in the superficial sense and becomes a kind of mantle of loving kindness radiating from you to all creation. 

And I've only just got started!