Wednesday, 25 February 2015

It's All a Matter of Timing

The second question new meditators ask (after what do I do?) is how long do I do it for? And there is no set answer to that. Five minutes would be pretty good if you are not currently doing any time at all, but really, to have an effect it's got to be a reasonable length of time. Twenty or thirty minutes is a good start: long enough to require some discipline but not impossibly long. It takes most people a few minutes to get settled, and to get into the inner routine required. Then you will need some time to go about your particular discipline, and then to rejoin the world again. Thomas Keating says, and I think he is right, that the body seems to have a sort of rhythm that goes in 20 minute cycles, so blocks of 20 minutes - 20, 40, 60 - works well. It's a good idea to decide on the length of time you are going to commit before you sit down. Deciding to finish "when it feels right" is an invitation to distraction and impatience. Which then raises the question, how will I know when my time is up?

For those who meditate with their eyes open that's easy. Put a clock of some other timing device (An appropriately sized hourglass, a marked candle, the shadow of the sun on the wall...) where you can see it. For those who meditate with eyes closed, you will need something with an alarm. And that's where your smartphone reveals yet one more function that it's pretty good at. Most phones have a timer function which works just fine, but there are scores of meditation timing apps out there and over the years I've had a look at most of them.

The one I settled on as the best is Insight Timer, available for Android and IOS. It is a basic adjustable countdown timer which allows the user to set a time for meditation or to store any number of presets. It rings a nicely authentic bell at the beginning and end of your session and allows you to set interval bells at appropriate points of your choosing. It can be set to turn off your wifi and phone while meditating so you won't be disturbed. Where it differs from the others on the market is that it is linked to a website which acts as a kind of online meditation community. You can see how many people in the world are meditating using the timer right now, and see their locations (or at least, the cities they live in) on a little map. You can make friends with others and send them encouraging messages. You can form groups and have little chats. All very cosy, if you have the time. It also assiduously collects your statistics and awards prizes (variously coloured stars) for your achievements. You can look back and check your progress, as far as time spent in any given day, week, month of year goes anyway. The statistics are a great incentive, but actually they are also a great trap. The idea of meditation is to let go of the things that bolster our false sense of self, and the collection of data, while it might be a helpful spur very early on in the development of  a meditation practice, soon become an invitation to pride or guilt, neither of which is going to help very much.

I deliberately ignored and subverted my statistics - by using a different timer on some days, but lately I have given up Insight timer entirely in favour of Contemplative Outreach's little Centering Prayer app. This gives me a timer with customisable bells, a prayer to begin and finish, access to a range of reading material, and a newsfeed on events being run by Contemplative Outreach. And as a special bonus, it doesn't keep statistics.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Why I won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey

In even embarking on this post I am heading into a Catch 22. I have not read the Novel by E.L James and neither have I any intention of seeing the film which is based on it. So I am caught between two accusations: on the one hand, "how can you comment on something you have never read?" and on the other, "Oh I see you have read it - so good enough for you but not for others, eh, you hypocrite." In my defence I think I'd have to have been living under a rock for the last couple of years not to have heard of the book, and to have a pretty fair idea of what it's about. And I have read a couple of the many reviews whose estimation of its literary value runs the whole gamut from mediocre to abysmal.

The main reason I won't be going to this film, if I'm being honest, is that I expect it would be mind numbingly, backside achingly, eye glazingly tedious. But there's more to it than that. To put it bluntly this is a dirty book, in the way that term was used in the old days before the Internet turned sexual practises I had never heard of until I was 30 into spectator sports for teenagers. This is a work which sells by titillation, and therefore stands in the same line of evolution as Frank Harris' My Life and Loves, a dog eared copy of which was passed surreptitiously and enthusiastically  amongst my schoolmates and me when we were in the fourth form. Frank Harris broadened my sexual horizons well beyond those set by the grainy black and white educational films shown in a sort of embarrassed hush by our PE teacher, and even beyond the Playboy magazines which were my other main source of  erotic information. So, I suppose I owe My Life and Loves a kind of debt, except that for every ounce of knowledge imparted came a ton of ignorance in that the book had a sub text which was absorbed along with its various lurid tales of erotic derring-do. I was taught that women were objects; they were prey to be hunted down and captured and used; they were a resource that I was free to plunder for the joys that they could give to me, me, me. If I gave pleasure in return, so Frank Harris taught,  it was only in an attempt to render women more cooperative. I was tricked, in other words, sold a shoddy little bill of goods that I later learned fell far short of the beauty and joy of the  relationship of body mind and spirit that was possible between loving, absolutely equal and mutually respectful partners. The presence in my life of real women of spirit and intelligence soon showed Frank Harris' Victorian romps for the nonsense they were but I'm not sure the sub text of 50 Shades of Grey will be so easily dealt with. E. L. James' grubby little book is about sado masochism, bondage and discipline in a relationship between an immensely rich and powerful man and one of his employees. It is a relationship in other words in which there is a vast imbalance of power and in which the controlling power of the man is used for his, and eventually, her sexual gratification.

It's easy enough to find books about sex if that's what you are looking for. It's easy enough to find books about BDSM if that's what takes your fancy. But none of them have become the media sensation that 50 Shades of Grey has, because for all it's literary failures this is a slick book and it dresses its unsavoury message up in the gloss which passes for success for so many of us. The characters live aspirational lifestyles, and the sexual behaviours, which are popularly imagined between fat, sweating, pathetic, middle aged men and cartoonish caricatures of women in leather boots and chains, suddenly take on a whole new aura of sophistication and desirability. Like all pornography 50 Shades of Grey reduces human beings to objects, so a complex and intelligent woman becomes a couple of breasts and a number of orifices, all conveniently provided for the pleasure of men, but of course it's not alone there.  The added dimension of this grubby little tome is its emphasis on pain and humiliation as avenues for sexual gratification. I see on tonight's news that the sale of handcuffs and restraints and whips and so forth is a bit of a boom industry at the moment as people read the book and see the film and think they might like to give all this stuff a whirl. I guess for most of the purchasers this is all a bit of harmless, private fun, but I can't help but feel a little alarmed. A relationship in which one partner seeks to have power over the other; in which the powerless partner is regarded as an object for obtaining sexual gratification; in which causing pain and humiliation are avenues for pleasure. This is an invitation to catastrophe for many people and by people I mean women.

Glorifying and popularising sexual violence is something that I don't think can be tolerated in a healthy society. And that's why I for one won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey. Today I figured out how much a night at the movies would cost for Clemency and me and I gave that amount to Women's Refuge. Their website makes donations pretty easy. I know you probably weren't going anyway, but how about joining me in this? Maybe our disgust at this tawdry little excrescence might turn to some good after all.

Monday, 2 February 2015


I've taken to carting my camera around with me again. This morning the harbour was still and the light was a diffused silver. So, what with it being my day off and everything, I drove to Aramoana.

 Otago Harbour.  
Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom (18mm) 1/250 f8. Post processed

Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 50mm 1/400 f10

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 70mm 1/800 f5.6

Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 95mm 1/800 f5.3

 Can't go anywhere without running into a Red Billed Gull 
Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 70mm 1/640 f6

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 90mm 1/640 f6.3 C/Pl filter

And Earlier in the month I drove to Gabriel's Gully after visit to Lawrence. In the hills above it I encountered Blue Spur. Once a town with a population of 500, shops, a school and two churches, nothing much now remains.

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 34mm 1/400 f6.3

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 69mm 1/55 f5.6

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 82mm 1/400 f4.8