Saturday, 6 June 2020

Leaving the battlefield

It's difficult to say, in simple terms, what has been troubling me. A part of the difficulty is that what I observe is a continuation of how things have been. Based on nothing more than one or a few aspects of who people are, they see others who don't share these properties as being the enemy, or at least "other".

The battles we're currently fighting have been fought many times throughout history, and nothing has been resolved. It's common for one group to shame another for perceived complicity in the oppression and resultant suffering of the former group. Employing "othering" like this reaches its peak in seeing one group as having an inherently greater capacity to commit evil acts. Ironically, this is often done in the pursuit of a reduction in the prevalence of intolerance and bigotry.

If all we manage is to replace one form of bigotry and intolerance with another, then we should acknowledge that the problem may not be with what is happening in the outer world, but within us.

Certain movements treat us not as humans, but as sub-categorisations of humanity. This is deeply upsetting to me, and I have to acknowledge that this upset has the potential to express itself in emotional reasoning. Nevertheless, the trend seems to be toward division, blame, shame and "othering". There are those who benefit from this division, but I'd suggest that it is certainly not in the interests of humanity more generally.

The language being used right now, across the political spectrum, troubles me. I've tried to use language that is non-divisive in this piece, but apologise if some has slipped through. It's probable that I am as unaware of my bias as anyone. My bias, in my view, is towards acceptance and compassion. Our task is to help the disadvantaged and downtrodden. I truly believe we can only achieve this through cooperation, not attacking those we perceive as "other". Let us try to understand, not condemn, and we might discover that we are stood firmly on common ground.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Injury

This has been my third day with a back injury. It has been a lesson in how much we take our ability to bend and stretch for granted. You might expect that I'd feel more than a little depressed by this turn of events, but that's not the case.

I accept my current condition, and feel compassion for the lower back muscles I have mistreated, which now refuse to cooperate.

All of us right now are having to practice acceptance, to some degree. From what I see, some seem to be struggling with this. There have been attempts to blame and shame others, not just for the spread of the virus, but for many other things too.

Certain movements have stepped up their campaigns to blame the oppression of one group on the members of another, and individuals are clinging to specific aspects of their identity, wielding them as weapons against those who don't share the pigeon hole. It all serves to separate us from each other, and create conflict where it need not exist.

In relative terms, an injury to my back doesn't make me feel depressed. I can't say the same for how this crisis is being used to further the agenda of those who use fear, hatred and anger to achieve their desired outcome. That's wholly depressing. It's a clear reminder that it's impossible to make peace with those who aren't at peace with themselves.

I try to adhere to my commitment to acceptance and compassion. Admittedly, I'm not always successful in that. It's starting to feel like a lonely place, to be honest. I suppose I have to accept that people project their inner conflict onto others. It's likely that I'm also guilty of this - actually, I'm acutely aware that I have been guilty of this. If we accept this projection of inner conflict as a sign of suffering, it's much easier to offer compassion to those we might otherwise supply with another perceived enemy.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Fear and judgement

Has your behaviour changed? Has the way you feel changed? You might find that you're short-tempered, confrontational and just different from how you usually are. It doesn't help that others seem to be behaving irresponsibly, potentially putting us and those we love at risk.

People are experiencing a sense of loss right now. It could be a loss of freedom, a loss of income, a loss of their way of life or even the loss of someone they love. On top of all this, there's a loss of connection with others, in the way we'd usually connect with each other. We're facing a great deal of uncertainty, and it's understandable that we may feel afraid, whether we acknowledge the feeling or not.

It helps to separate the actions of others from who they are. We may not like the behaviour, but we have no idea what is behind the behaviour. You may notice that condemning others, feeling animosity towards them, doesn't bring us peace. Quite the opposite, in fact. We may start to lose our faith in humanity. This is all the more pronounced when the positive aspects of humanity - warmth, affection, connection - aren't so readily available to us.

What we have left is compassion. If we recognise that behaviours we find difficult to tolerate are almost always a manifestation of inner suffering, we are more able to separate the behaviour from the person. This is also showing compassion for ourselves, because we reduce the damage that fear, hatred and anger may inflict upon our mental and emotional health.

Monday, 6 April 2020

When this is over

In real terms, little will change. The virus has already taken a number of lives, and a number of people have lost their livelihood. In the grand scheme of things, however, little will change.

In an episode of a martial arts podcast, the discussion took many turns, but at one point touched on the fortunes of Asian economies in comparison to those in Europe and the United States. A point was made that economies largely built on the exploitation of other nations' people and resources were now significantly weaker.

Up to a point, the governments of the world's largest economic powers were very much in favour of the process of globalisation. One possible outcome of the process, however, was a decentralisation of political and economic power. How a government responds to such a situation says much about their perception of where they stand, or believe they should stand, on the international stage.

The European Union is, in theory, an example of a cooperative form of governance. To some extent, this is true in practice, but it's also true that international competition exists within the union. Something interesting happened, though. Competing concerns within the union led to decisions being made cooperatively as compromises were reached. Depending on your political stance, this led to decisions being made in the interests of everybody or nobody in particular.

Unfortunately, some members of the union believed they should have more power; some members believed that others had too much power. The decisions became less important in the minds of many than how the decisions had been reached. Here in the United Kingdom, the media picked up on this dissatisfaction, and it became a tool for those who were fearful of the implications of some rulings, to convince the rest of us that leaving the union would be in our interests too.

Whether all of the above was a good or bad thing depends very much on your frame of reference. It does, however, highlight how our sense of separateness is linked to competitive behaviour, even when the environment in which we find ourselves calls for cooperation.

The current crisis has led to many of us feeling this sense of separateness on an individual level. The sense of threat connected to the crisis has, on an individual level, amplified the sense of competition with others. This was most visible in the panic buying which exemplified and reinforced existing inequalities.

Now that so many of us are living in enforced isolation, we might miss the company of friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues. There will, of course, be exceptions. Isolation will be a relief to some. The question is, will the physical absence of others at this time lead to us valuing their presence in the future?

Loneliness can have a profound effect on our mental health. When coupled with a sense of threat and uncertainty, the effect is more pronounced. Those who are unable to be with elderly or terminally ill loved ones may experience anticipatory grief, and those who lose loved ones at this time may feel the effects of complicated grief. Many other forms of loss will be felt - loss of income, loss of liberty, the loss of a way of life, etc. Isolation gives us more time and space to ruminate.

We are faced with the choice of looking inward, to our own experience and suffering, or outward to the experience and suffering of others. This isn't an entirely selfless act. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote that, during his time as a prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp, he noticed that those who were concerned for the welfare of others were more likely to survive longer. It's difficult to imagine how we, placed in such a situation, might be affected by the horrors we witnessed.

Modern writings on the subject note that compassion for self is a necessary component of compassion. Indeed, we may be of service to others, but it would be irresponsible to neglect ourselves. Acceptance and commitment therapy, for example, works with an acknowledgement that to be human is to feel emotions. Compassion focused therapy highlights how these emotions are often in conflict. When we give little attention to this aspect of ourselves, we are not exercising compassion for the one who looks back at us in the mirror, instead allowing feelings to gather strength and potentially overwhelm us.

"I feel... and how it affects me is..." It can be difficult to say this to someone else, if we lack trust in those around us or have reason to be uncertain of their response. To simply acknowledge it to ourselves is enough. There's a visualisation where we imagine reaching in to the feeling, and pulling it out, making it separate from us. Then, we reach out and bring the feeling back into us. It's a way of seeing the feeling as a part of us, but not the entirety of our being. Other visualisations involve seeing ourselves as an ocean, and our feelings as waves on the surface of the ocean, or variations on this theme. The waves come and go, but the ocean is constant.

In all of this, our thoughts about our situation and how we feel play a part. The words we use, whether spoken or in our internal processes, to describe what is happening, affect our experience.

I seem to have digressed, as I often do, but it is always linked in some way. Many discussions have started with "When this is over..." What I hoped to communicate was that how things are, when this is over, is fundamentally linked to how we use this time.

When I happened to see a good instructional video on Ba Duan Jin, I shared it with friends.


There has, so far, been no response. It doesn't matter. I know that performing this sequence, especially if we are otherwise immobile, has a positive effect on physical and mental health. I offered it in the spirit of helping others, but at the same time accept that others may choose not to accept it as such. It only matters that I offered it - that my focus was on others. I was thinking cooperatively, rather than competitively.

In the end, I don't know whether individually, nationally or internationally, a spirit of competition or cooperation will prevail. Most likely, the two will co-exist uneasily, as they have before. One or the other will be dominant at various points in time. Yin and Yang. Maybe we will use this time to come to some form of acceptance of the need for balance. Maybe we will just learn acceptance. Maybe that's enough.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Ottamage!

Sometimes, it feels like fate, the universe or something else is trying to send me a message. It's rare that the meaning of the message is known immediately, though it often becomes clear at a later date. Today, my attention was drawn towards a person - someone I've never met and am unlikely to ever meet.

Today, a number of things directed my attention towards Macharin (まちゃりん).

I'm not a typical fan of Japanese idols, if there is such a thing. My first exposure to the whole scene was entirely accidental. While I was searching for something else entirely on a well-known video site, Idoling!!!'s "Don't Think. Feel!!!" came up in the recommended videos. Curiosity, and the liberal use of exclamation marks, drew me in.

Somehow, the song and the video brought a smile to my face, at a time when, honestly, such a thing wasn't easy to achieve. I wanted to find out more, but almost everything I found about the group also mentioned another idol group called AKB48. A show featuring members of the group, AKBingo!, was highly recommended.

Most of the comedy in AKBingo! came from the reactions of the young women to the strange, uncomfortable or scary situations in which they found themselves. There's debate about how much of what we see from Japanese idols is an act, and how much is really them. If you pay attention, for long enough, you might just see something that hints at what you would see when there are no cameras around.

Many fans have their favourites. Many fans choose their favourite based on how attractive they are. There are fans who feel compassion towards young women who have made sacrifices to work in an industry where they entertain others. There are fans who fall somewhere between.

Macharin's given name is Ma Chia-Ling. She's originally from Taiwan. When she first appeared on the show, her knowledge of the Japanese language was far from that of a native. From her first appearance, she realised that her quest to learn the language was a "charm point". Some of the members taught her slang, and amusing phrases, or she learned them herself. The hosts saw this as a source of hilarity.

As we got to know more about Macharin, it seemed that she was trying hard to bring smiles to the faces of the audience, and even the other members, while feeling some emotional pain. Trying her hand at winning a comedy contest, she cried while talking to the camera, saying that she didn't feel she'd been accepted by the Japanese audience. During an episode of AKBingo!, we got to hear a call between her and her father, who hoped to see her on TV at a show for the new year. Some of the members in the studio, watching the clip, cried as the reality of a member living in a separate country to her family hit them.

Today, I managed to watch an episode of AKB48 Nemousu TV. It's another show linked to the group. In the episode, Macharin's acting skills were tested, and the tears came easily to her. When I later logged into Instagram, a post from Macharin was at the top of the page. I then saw a few news items regarding Taiwan.

Maybe I identify with Macharin in some ways, but that's a post for another time. It's hard to not feel some kind of connection with her. It seems all too easy to see how she feels. She was visibly surprised and delighted when she heard a member speaking Mandarin on AKBingo! She was visibly upset when AKBingo! came to an end.

One feature of the Japanese idol industry is that an idol's career has a definite lifespan. Those who have a good sense of timing have utilised their fame to break into other areas of the entertainment industry. I hope Macharin achieves everything she hopes to achieve. It's unlikely that she'll read this, but I really do wish her happiness.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Acknowledging and accepting

There have already been signs that people's mental health is being affected by self-isolation. It's quite apparent that the feelings are mostly connected to a sense of loss (freedom, income, certainty, etc.), apart from the obvious potential threat to survival.

This feeling of loss often changes our relationship with others, and how we relate to ourselves too. Our attachment to people and things now absent becomes a source of pain and suffering for us. We try to hide or lock away our suffering as an unconscious process, failing to realise that this gives our feelings more power.

"I shouldn't be feeling this way." The exact words we use to say this don't really matter. The message we send ourselves is essentially the same. We try to deny our emotions, our humanity, but like a child pulling at a trouser leg to get attention, our feelings remind us of their existence.

Acknowledging how we feel is, in the longer term, how we learn to accept and integrate difficult feelings into our existence. Once we make the feeling a part of our conscious awareness, we are more able to decide how we engage with the feeling. For many of us, this first step involves talking to someone we trust about how we feel.

We can no more avoid what we feel than we can avoid being human, and it is our attempts to avoid, rather than accept, what we feel that create the greater part of our suffering. However we come to acknowledge what we feel, it is our first step in accepting the feeling as a part of our experience and limiting its power over us.

There is more to be said, but maybe I have said enough for now.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Lockdown, day 1

Lockdown day one. People seem to be more short-tempered than usual. The shops seem to have returned to some semblance of normality. I was able to get bread, cereal and tinned fruit. There was no toilet tissue, though. It was disappointing to see a general lack of awareness of personal space. I wonder how many people will become ill, or even leave this world before their time, due to what seems like either a lack of awareness or a lack of concern.

In small ways, and ways that aren't so small, this situation is likely to affect the mental health of many people. Maybe things will change. Maybe there will be the growing realisation that it is better to act cooperatively, rather than competitively and adversarially. Hopefully it's within us to do that.



Physical exercise is arguably more important than ever. Many of the warnings about going out, and meeting with others, say that we only have to sit on a sofa. That feels more than a little irresponsible. To be fair, a number of personal trainers, yoga instructors, martial artists and others have started putting free lessons online. Could it be that we're starting to see how our fates are intertwined?

This isn't too far removed from my everyday experience. For some, the lack of connection with others, and the absence of the physical presence of friends and acquaintances will be hard. That's something I spend much of my time dealing with. In recent months, it's been something I've chosen to do. There are times when our suffering takes us to dark places, and that darkness may, in turn, cause suffering for others. Maintaining a distance from others, in such circumstances, is an act of kindness, but they may see it as something different.

I've been waiting for an assessment, to see whether something fundamentally different in the structure of my brain has been responsible for difficulties experienced over the course of a lifetime. That meeting is now on hold, of course. In one way, such things are an opportunity - an opportunity to practise acceptance of uncertainty.