Metta Bhavana

Metta Bhavana

The second type of meditation we’ve been focussing on in the course is the ‘Metta Bhavana,’ which is Pali for, loosely, Loving-Kindness Cultivation. Unlike the Mindfulness of Breathing method, Metta Bhavana has several different permutations, which each then have subsequent stages that focus on different people/groups. It’s likely best to experiment with each to see what works for you, but don’t be overly quick in judging one to the exclusion of the others, as it can take a bit to see much of a result from any, and some may prove more effective at different moments in your life than at others.

We were provided five different ways to approach the development of Metta:

– the use of phrases, most traditionally ‘May you be well.’
– using memories to conjure up an attitude of kindness, and then directing that as appropriate
– using the imagination to picture your subject as happy or content
– attending to sensations in the body, such as relaxation, warmth or elation, that can run concurrently with the expression of loving-kindness
– more intellectually considering the situation, focussing for example on the truism that everyone wants to be free of suffering, and allowing this to inspire a compassionate response

The actual meditation takes the form of a multi-stage affair, irrespective of which of the above approaches you should choose. The idea is that you should start with yourself as the focus of the loving-kindness, and gradually move further outwards to eventually encompass everyone, with the aim that this then changes your approach to and interaction with the world. Each of these stages should probably take five minutes or so. Before jumping into the first stage, it is best to take stock of your current emotional state and prepare yourself in the same way covered in the Mindfulness of Breathing piece. A short body scan is a good way of putting yourself in the appropriate position, coming to terms with where your body is at in the moment.

Stage 1 – Yourself
Stage 2 – A Friend
Stage 3 – Someone you feel ‘neutral’ towards
Stage 4 – Someone you feel, or whom you suspects feels towards you, slight animosity
Stage 5 – Everyone

Using whichever approach you’d decided on, or whatever combination of them, the idea is take time considering the relevant stage’s subject and trying to foster a feeling of good intention towards them. This is (generally) easiest done with ourselves and our friends, people we are usually well-inclined towards to begin with. Using the momentum built up in the earlier stages, we move on to a person we don’t really have strong feelings about one way or another, perhaps putting ourselves in the place of their friends, and imagining the feelings they might hold for this person. Next comes the most difficult. Really, this is meant to be a full-blown enemy of yours, but that can be a particularly tough person to feel anything but resentment towards, so it might be more fruitful to start with someone who you only have a slight aversion to until you get a better grip on the method itself. For the final stage, you are meant to do your best to equalise the feelings you’ve fostered for each person thus far, and then extend it out to all people in the world.

As I’d mentioned in the piece on Mindfulness of Breathing, Metta Bhavana isn’t my preferred of the two, and I’ve found it to be much more of a struggle. There’s a running joke amongst some of us in the program that this says something rather unflattering about who we are as people, having difficulty maintaining a well-wishing attitude, but of late I’ve been thinking that there is something else afoot. I’ve been experimenting with my approach, and I think I’d been too focussed on the mechanistic procedure (or lack there-of), to the detriment of actually fostering the feeling, which is the true object of the meditation. Through emphasising different aspects of the meditation, I’ve been able to catch glimpses of this feeling, though it is still a work in progress.

There’s slightly more to the intentionality of the Metta Bhavana practice than the mere focus on your body of Mindfulness of Breathing, more theoretical material to chew on even in this rough-and-ready presentation, and I’ll likely be writing more on it to come. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty more to Mindfulness of Breathing than what I laid out – more going on psychologically, neurologically, and theoretically – but Metta practice necessarily carries with it more of the overtly-Buddhist worldview, and this presents some interesting flash points. I’m still trying to get my head around it, but, when I’ve been able to articulate some of what I’m working at, I’ll post it here.


Mindfulness of Breathing

Mindfulness of Breathing

Might as well start with the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation, given that it was the first one we were taught through the course, and was in fact the meditation I did this morning.

Before getting into the meditation itself, a few quick notes.
A successful meditation session, especially starting off, is in large part about attitude. When I first told some of my friends that I was taking part in these courses, quite a few of the reactions I got went something along the lines of – ‘wow, I can never stay focussed,’ or ‘I often just get bored, sitting there.’ So, two things:
First, your mind is always going to wander, unless you’re some kind of steel-trap, 10,000 hour, meditating monster. The important thing is how you react to it. Generally, when we seek out something like meditation, it’s in an effort to acquire a bit of calm, or to improve a mood or disposition. A sure-fire way to fail at doing this is to beat ourselves up when we’re going through it. If you find your mind wandering away from whatever you think you ought to be focussed on, simply note it, maybe consider what it is you’re thinking about for a second, and go back to the meditation proper.
Second, not every session is going to be an all-enlightening affair. Most, in fact, will be a bit of a struggle, especially as you start out. A good analogy is exercise – if your body is out of shape, it’s going to take a few weeks of effort to get comfortable lifting/running/whatever. In a way, you can consider meditation to be mental exercise, and, if it’s not an attention you’re used to spending, it can be difficult – you’ve got a flabby brain. However, it will improve. And a good way of getting yourself there is the focus you bring to bear when meditating. There’s a lot going on in our bodies that we usually remain unaware of, whether because it’s autonomic or because other, more pressing things are taking up our attention. Come to it with an attitude of curiosity – take an interest in what you’re feeling, or even the absence of a felt experience. Zen.

I’m sure there are any number of guided meditations available that detail the Mindfulness of Breathing, it being a core Buddhist style and a fairly easy one to get in to. The way we were presented it, there are several distinct phases, each with a differing focus. The meditation itself, in full, usually takes about half an hour, which can definitely seem like a lot when you’re starting out. For the first few times, you may just want to stick to the initial step.

-Starting out, you take your position, however you want to spend the meditation, whether sitting in a chair or on the ground, and get a sense of your mood, maybe dwelling for a moment on your intention in meditating so you have something of a ‘mental target,’ and taking notice of the sounds around you. I think it’s something of a common mistake to believe that meditation is about turning inwards, when, really, it’s about finding a more grounded position for yourself in the larger world. Following this, you perform a ‘body scan,’ examining each part of your body in turn, from your individual toes up to the top of your scalp, taking notice of tension or pain, relaxing things where you can. Often, you won’t be able to discern particular feelings for certain parts of your body, which is totally fine. Spend some time at it, then move on.

-Transitioning to the breath itself, you may want to take a few deep breaths to get a sense of the things to be looking out for, sensation-wise. The first proper breathing stage is a counting one, where we count, 1 through to 10, on the completion of the exhalation, repeating the count when we hit that final digit. This, and each of the following stages, should take about five minutes each.

-The second breathing stage is the converse of the first, where we now count at the start of the inhalation. If you’re a musician, you can think of it as akin to syncopation, putting the emphasis on a different part of the beat, to try and suss out different, unseen aspects of the experience. After a few sessions of this, I found that the act of counting itself was becoming the focus, and so I dropped the numbers out, whilst still keeping the attention on the appropriate aspect of the breath. You can do what you want – it’s your meditation!

-The third stage does in fact drop out the counting, where we now want to focus on what the body is up to more generally as we breathe – the rise and fall of the stomach, the spread of the ribs, the changes in tension in the shoulders, throat and neck. Just relax into it, seeing what’s to be seen.

-The fourth and final stage is more pointed, where, as best we can keeping an awareness of the body more broadly, we focus on the stream of air as it is pulled in to the body and pushed back out. A good point of observation is at the nostrils – you can usually feel the cool air as you breathe it in, though exhalation can be a bit more tricky.

And that’s pretty much it, at least to start with. You might want to give yourself a minute to readjust to the world, limber yourself up, before you break your pose, but, yeah, meditated. Well done!

For myself, I find the Mindfulness of Breathing to be my preferred form of meditation, but not everyone takes to it right away, and if you’re not keen on it, that’s alright. At this point, I’m in the process of relaxing my approach to the breath itself, trying to allow it to come naturally, rather than a rigidly controlled fashion that I have complete control over. The point, of course, is to be relaxed, rather than micro-managing the whole experience.

It’s inoften that I’d use one now, but, until you get the hang of it, a guided meditation is probably a good way to start, to give you something to follow along with and remind you where you’re meant to be at.

Happy meditating!

Getting Theroux to the Truth about Polyamory

Getting Theroux to the Truth about Polyamory

Documentarian Supreme and Unlikely Male Sex Symbol Louis Theroux has a new series out on BBC 2 called ‘Altered States’, and we caught the first ep last week – Love Without Limits.

Sexy, sexy Louis Theroux

Polyamory is a weird one. Straight dude, happily settled in a monogamous marriage, it’s not something that’s really on my personal radar, though I discuss the concept fairly often with my wife and I’ve a few friends/acquaintances that lean that way. Trying to keep up with the kids, I guess.

We, my wife and I, are generally agreed that there’s nothing wrong with it in principle – though we’re married, we don’t hold any great stock in the so-called sanctity of marriage (it’s an economic pact for goats, land and healthcare coverage, people) – but we can’t help but feel that the execution is where things get messy. Having never done anything like it, it seems like it’d require a group of exceedingly mature individuals to come off successfully, navigating the thorny emotional maze of jealousy, possessiveness, respect, dignity and what all else. To steal my wife’s insight, there’s something inherently late-stage capitalist about the whole thing, as if the transactional nature of time sharing couldn’t have come about without the assistance of Google Calendar or the like. On top of that, though my sample size is exceeding insufficient, it seems like people who opt for it as a lifestyle really aren’t the best, most well-rounded candidates to begin with. However, it’s not like any relationship – straight, gay, monogamous or open – is a walk in the park. All require heaps of effort if they’re going to be successful, and all are going to have their rough patches. Also, everyone always-already comes equipped with baggage. We’re all broken sacks of crap, so it’s not like polycules are going to be any more fucked than binary relationships, really. And so, I remain ambivalent. Did the documentary do anything to change my mind? Let’s find out!

In order to find a viable pool of candidates for investigation, our intrepid Louis travels to that mecca of American alt-liberalism, Portland, OR (because, of course). There, he focusses in on three groups of self-described poly-people: one set of more (temporally) mature individuals, somewhere in their late-40’s early-50’s, one ‘throuple’ – a combi affair of two men and one woman, and one swirling mess of millenials, all co-habitating under one roof, with a baby on the way. He spends time interviewing them individually and in groups, posing questions aimed at unpacking the situation for all of us normies who aren’t quite hip to it, as well as joining them for meals and social events, showing what their lives look like on something approximating an average day. If you’ve seen any of Theroux’s previous work (have you been living under a rock?), you’ll know how skilfully he inserts himself into situations like these – he’s got a fantastic aptitude for putting people at ease and generally avoiding offence while still putting hard, intimate questions to them, and this doco is no different.

So, with the answers he teases out, do I feel any differently about polyamory? Not really, I’m afraid to say. In each instance, it seemed as if there was either active abuse/advantage being taken, or an otherwise gross imbalance in power/attention.

The first set I mentioned, the older ones, are, on the face of it, two distinct nuclear families, living separate lives – two parents, multiple kids. However, the wife of family 1 and the husband of family 2 are, additionally, in a relationship. Wife of family 2 is…visibly irate with her husband, though she says that their marriage is troubled due to other reasons, and she supports the poly affair. So long as she is able to moderate it to her tastes.
Husband of family 1 is adamant that he is a poly individual as well, despite never having been in a relationship outside the one with his wife since they began their poly lifestyle…a full decade ago. Thou dost protest too much, mate. I actually felt rather sorry for him in a few scenes – his wife is quite domineering, and it’s difficult to take anything away from what’s seen other than that he is on the losing end.
Meanwhile, Wife 1 and Husband 2 carry on as if they’re a bunch of hormonal teens.

What about the Throuple? Everyone is equally involved here, right? Unsurprisingly, that’s complicated.
The two men are in a relationship with the woman, so it looks a bit like a water molecule, if you like. I think there might be hydrogen peroxide joke in here somewhere, but I can’t quite wrangle it. Suffice it to say, the stable water molecule affair was not the original configuration. And not everyone seems to self-describe in the same way. To hear the original guy call it, he counts himself as monogamous, but it just happens to be that the person he is monogamous with is poly. The woman describes her history of anxiety and depression (and lets be real here, who hasn’t got some of that going?) and it seems like the effort by both guys is to try and assist her needs. Or, at least it would be, if we heard more than 12 words from guy 2 in the whole doco – he’s always in-scene, just keeping mum.

So, what about our final group? Surely they’re alright?
As I’d mentioned, one of the group is pregnant, and this is going to understandably put a strain on any relationship. The woman who is pregnant had earlier mentioned that she’d been burned in a poly relationship previously – married, only to have her husband nicked by their mutual, female, partner. Which absolutely sucks.
But it also just adds to the mystery as to why she’d pick now – fit to burst – to take on a new male partner. In one-on-one interviews, you can see that her baby-daddy, as much as he puts on a brave face, is struggling with it. He does, of course, say that this is part of being poly, that you can’t expect to have control or privileged access to another person, which is commendable (and a good standard in any relationship – consent is important folks), but, the bigger question, why choose now to start a relationship? It strikes me as disrespectful, not wantonly so, but by way of negligence. And, get ready to have no time with your new squeeze when the kid arrives, unless you bung all rearing duties on baby-daddy, which would be even worse. I don’t know – perhaps this is just my decrepit monogamist brain failing to get it.

It’s worth pointing out that, quality as Theroux may be, he’s still here making a product, for a specific audience. When the status quo is set, and your audience is of said status quo, the way you cut your documentary is going to lean in a very particular way. While the situation as presented on-screen definitely tells one story, we as the viewer have little access to the way in which it was edited, little access to what the broader circumstances may be. There’s always going to be a salacious angle to a topic like this, and seeing things go a bit sour adds a frisson of drama. Much like the recent, very well-crafted adaptation of Wanderlust, I can’t help but wonder if this whole thing was slanted from the start, designed to appeal to semi-conscious biases of those just liberal enough to take an interest, but still, secretly, disapproving.
A good remedy for this might be a documentary created with the same amount of craft as shown here, but by someone who is poly themselves. Not a hagiography, but something that takes into account the peculiar struggles whilst also truthfully displaying the positives that an outsider might miss. If something of the sort does exist, please let me know.

As ever, check it out for yourself, make your own mind up.
Also, check this out, because it is so friggin on-point. Chris Fleming is a modern prophet.

Triratna; or, The Group Formerly Known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order

Triratna; or, The Group Formerly Known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order

‘cuz it’s a symbol, yeah?

Before diving in to the nitty-gritty of my nascent meditation practice, I thought it might be worthwhile to say a bit about the spot I was taking these courses.

Cambridge is home to a number of faith-based organisations (you can hardly go half a kilometre without tripping over at least three chapels) including The Cambridge Buddhist Centre. Located in the extreme east of Market Ward, the Buddhist Centre is affiliated with what is now known as the ‘Triratna Buddhist Community’, formerly the ‘Friends of the Western Buddhist Order’, before the name was changed in 2010.

Triratna, under the original name, was formed all the way back in ‘67 in Britain, and has since spread throughout the world and ranks as one of the largest Buddhist groups in the West. It was founded by a Brit by the (adoptive) name of Sangharakshita, after he returned from Asia with the mission of spreading Buddhism to the West, in a modernised form. As such, though full members are said to be ‘ordinated’ after having undergone requisite training, the membership of Triratna is neither lay nor monastic in the usual sense of a Buddhist order, though they do take the ten precepts common to Mahayana Buddhism (I’m thinking it might be useful to whip up a quick “Buddhism Primer” to pin down all the terminology in one space, though I’ll get to that at a later date). So, no saffron in evidence, though I’m told that there are members of the Sangha, the community, who live on-site, so there is a bit more commitment going on than just a formal study group or the like.

As I had said, I’ve already made it half-way through the second part of the meditation course. The first part, a six week course with an additional mini-retreat ‘training day,’ focusses on acquainting the beginner with two types of meditation, Mindfulness of Breathing and ‘Metta Bhavana,’ the Pali terms for ‘Loving-Kindness Cultivation.’ I’ll comment on each of these in later posts. The second, six-week course, rather than introduce new meditations, is aimed at fine-tuning the initial set. I’ll also write on some of the ways in which we’ve been doing this, likely with follow-ups as more techniques are presented. Sessions are set on Monday evenings, lasting about 2 ½ hours, with a break in the middle. Each session is overseen by an ordained member of the Group, assisted by either two or three mitras, depending on the size of the group. Due to little more than a trick of scheduling, I’ve retained the same ‘team’ from one part to the next. There was a good crowd at the start of part one, though this whittled down as we progressed through the Autumn. There are only six of us in part two, all continuants from part one. It’s not a bad set-up, as this allows us more time interacting with one another and the Group members, talking about our own practice and ways of improving it, which wouldn’t be as feasible with a larger number of people. At £125 and £95 for parts one and two respectively, the course ain’t exactly cheap, but, at least to my thinking, it’s fairly good value for money – 12 weeks worth of classes, with guided meditation recordings and worksheets available for use at home – less than 20 quid a week. Plus, broken creature that I am, putting some money towards it means I’m more likely to invest the time and effort outside of class to make it worth the while.

The Centre, alongside the two-part meditation course I’m taking, also offers to the public introductory courses in Buddhist theory and culture, yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness, with more advanced tuition reserved for mitra members, those who have committed a stronger affiliation with the group. There are also retreats, free drop-in sessions and sporadic art events. Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from outside, half of the building houses an Edwardian-era theatre, first opened as the Barnwell back in 1814, which is in good nick. Really quite impressive.

How the Theatre used to look…



…and how it is decorated now


It would be remiss of me not to note the somewhat troubled past of the Triratna group, which is part of what prompted the change in name. Back in 1997, the Grauniad published allegations that the aforementioned Sangharakshita had been less-than-chivalrous with his sexual behaviour through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Allegedly, he used his position within the community to coerce ostensibly straight men into homosexual relationships. In counter-point, it is claimed that all relationships were entered into in the belief that they were welcomed and desired. Much as we’re seeing with so many other faith-based groups, every big (Western) Buddhist sect seems to be riven with sexual misconduct: just this summer, the leader of the Shambhala community stepped down over it, and it’s not like they don’t have a long lineage of that already (case of start as you intend to go on, seemingly). Anyway, irrespective of whether Sangharakshita’s sexual advances were nominally welcomed, the abuse of power in targeting lower-ranking members of the society is way out of line, and, to their credit, the Triratna group recognised this formally.

All that said, everyone I’ve met thus far at the Centre seems sane, and I don’t know that I’ll be spending much more time with them than the current session. I should also mention that Sangharakshita died not half a month ago, on the 30th of October at the age of 93. Alongside whatever sexual malfeasances he may have made, we should remember his work building an international community aimed at human improvement, and, more than anything else, his staunch and continual support of the Dalit (Untouchable) community in India. A morally grey individual, but then so are we all.

Not all Pigs…or Something

Not all Pigs…or Something

Get it?

This is likely out of date by now, but I’ve been chewing on it awhile and it’d be good to get off my chest.

A couple weeks back, in the run-up to the American mid-term elections, I noticed a post on my facebook feed from a (Canadian) acquaintance, talking about the so-called ‘migrant caravan’ (funny how that has dropped from the news cycle right after the elections, eh?). Said individual is a pretty staunch ‘progressive’ liberal, and doesn’t usually post anything wantonly reactionary, so I was surprised when I noticed the tenor of the commentary – very much against the people making their way through southern Mexico, questioning how they could be so entitled as to dare to enter a country that’s “not their own,” and even going so far as to stoke the preposterous idea that this is all a ploy by the America Right to stir up their base. As I said, liberal, so I guess the legal fiction of the primacy of borders should have gone without saying, but, like, even the Young Turks got it right on that conspiracy theory. I guess I’d been spending too long in my Extreme Left echo chamber, but the whole thing caught me rather off-guard.

So far, so whatever, but then I noticed that someone else had swung in, presumably much further left than our original poster, spouting off a bunch of slogans and Marxist platitudes. In the face of this, OP doubled down on their original position, expressing esteem for rule-of-law, securely controlled borders, and, by extension, the carceral state. This was met with more platitudes, which were in turn responded to by repetition and the deployment of some sorely misunderstood economics and history. Then everyone made up and nothing of value was conferred.

People – this is a bad way to argue.

I’m not a fan of debating on the internet – way too much of a zero-sum affair, and there’s no way of knowing if your interlocutor is acting in good faith or just trolling – but if you’re going to, at least try to do it effectively. Slogans are great for riling up the faithful, but they aren’t going to convince any one on the fence, and are likely just going to push them over on to the other side. It’s something I harp on quite a bit, but, you need to figure out what you’re trying to achieve and set your behaviour to match: do you want to strut and preen and perform for the in-group (a la so much ‘woke’ internet conduct), or do you actually want to make your case in the best way possible? It’s a matter of immediate tactics vs. long-term strategy.

So, let’s take the carceral state for example.

If your opponent is a self-described ‘progressive,’ such as was our OP, or even if they’re a vanilla lib or even a conservative with a conscience (rare as they are – real conservatives, not those with a conscience, most “conservatives” in anglo countries are just laissez-faire liberals), they’ll likely have some common ground with you regarding the brutality of the modern industrial-prison system. Actually, if they’re a progressive, they’ve probably done a fair amount of research on their own, already. However, nothing is going to make them shut down faster than labelling all police fascist pigs.

It’s highly doubtful that a majority of people enter the police force for anything other than altruistic reasons. It’s sold to them as an honourable profession, they’re involved in assisting their community, and so on and so on. There are definitely a minority who go in to it for the wrong reasons, on a power-trip or what have you. But, chances are, your interlocutor has a buddy who is a cop, or a family member, and aren’t going to take too kindly to you dragging them through the proverbial mud.

It’s up to you to unpack how the job, by its very nature, requires the police person to work against their better nature. The job ain’t all defending helpless widows and nabbing drink drivers. Often, even the majority of the time, it’s about undermining the very class they likely come from, keeping the state rigidly organised to the benefit of the propertied against the working, punishing those who are selected by systemic means as the criminals of society. You need to show how, inherently racist as society is, it perverts what were otherwise reasonable individuals into the murderers of unarmed poor people. And this takes facts, and patience, and equanimity. It’s not easy.

And that’s what I was thinking in the wake of seeing that interaction.
Until I came across this article a day or so later.

The article details the current state of the organisation known as the ‘Proud Boys’ – one of the various alt-right (or alt-light, to hear other right-wing hate groups describe them) groups to attract attention post-Trump, and in particular their conduct at recent demos in NY and Rhode Island. The Proud Boys are the creation of Gavin McInnes, one-time Vice co-director, more recently on a constant drift towards the extreme right, burning bridges and causing offence along the way. The Proud Boys have been pretty effectively dunked on by the good people over at Chapo Trap House for their more parochial aspects, including the requirement that each member adhere to a ‘no-fap’ rule, ie., not masturbate or consume pornography. Jokes aside, though, the group has as one its core values the use and escalation of violence in public, and has clashed with antifa and the like numerous times now. In the aftermath of Trump taking the Presidency, I commented on the histrionic nature of labelling him a fascist, pointing out that, even if he has fascistic tendencies, it’s not as if he’s got a brigade of brown shirts supporting him. Since then, though, the Proud Boys have been renting themselves out as ‘security’ for Republican events, becoming, as the Baffler describes it, “the militant wing of the Republican Party.” It’s not as if they’re Trump’s personal death squad or anything, yet, but it is a situation that bears watching and dismantling, if at all possible.

More to the point of this post, though, is what played out at those demos. When a group of Proud Boys, outnumbering counter-demonstrators, beat them with impunity – under the watchful eyes of the NYPD, in full view of the media – nothing was done. The police were on-site. They watched it happen. They then arrested the counter-protesters. “I have a lot of support in the NYPD and I very much appreciate that, the boys in blue,” McInnes later said.

So, yeah.
Fuck the pigs.

Sing it, PatStew.

It’s Buddhism, but Not as You Know It

It’s Buddhism, but Not as You Know It

It’s been quite a while since last I posted anything, and, unsurprisingly, plenty has happened.
We moved into a new flat over the summer, and I’ll blame the lack on that, though it’s likely my own laziness at fault. I’ve a dedicated office again, so, hopefully, this signals a return to regular posting.

Alongside the novelty of the move, I’ve also, finally, gotten around to something I’d been meaning to do for probably a decade now – a Buddhist meditation course. I’m actually half-way through the second six-week instalment at this point, so I’ve been tardy in writing up this, as well. It does, however, put me in a better place to comment on it over all.

If you know me or have read some of the other posts here, you’ll probably know that I was raised Catholic, but that I’ve regarded myself as agnostic for a long time, and have an abiding distrust of religiousity. Why, then, an interest in Buddhism? And, why now?

Even back in my teens, when I was making an earnest attempt at the whole Catholic thing, I had an interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, reading widely, if not especially deeply, on the various faiths and disciplines. I had experimented with meditation, and yoga, but never established anything approaching a rigorous practice. It’s something I’d wanted to foster – I can recall thinking back in the early days of the undergrad that taking a solid week’s meditation retreat sounded like an experience worth having – but have never gotten around to it till now.

My current approach and intent is probably somewhat different than that early, teen-aged interest. Coming out the other end of an education in analytic philosophy, any vapours of mysticism have been thoroughly exorcised, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. Over the last few years, I’ve also been figuring out that I’m probably constitutionally ill-equipped for the kind of faith that real belief requires, but I’ll unpack that more in a later post.

However, there is a growing movement for a more secular-orientated version of Buddhism, which puts aside much of the esotericism and non-falsifiable claims for something rather more tangible. It was probably my reading recently published books by Robert Wright (which I’d mentioned previously) and Stephen Batchelor that finally got me motivated enough to go out for this course, and I’ve tried to keep in mind the insights offered there whilst going through it.

Furthermore, this interest in Buddhism, and (Vipassana) Buddhist meditation most particularly, hooks into or runs alongside the intention to move towards psychotherapy professionally. Mindfulness practice, a la the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, has long been a component of the Western therapeutic world, and, though I’m on record expressing disdain for the way it’s being picked up by the Managerial Class, there is good evidence that it makes an improvement in people’s lives. If and when I do enter into work as a therapist, it seems like a useful skill to have available, and I would feel the charlatan if I didn’t have a good grip on it myself, recommending it to others. Plus, there are those same benefits which I can make use of myself – more even-keeled, better able to handle anxiety and depressive episodes when they inevitably crop up, and, with luck, just generally nicer to be around for others and myself. I’m not about to don the saffron and become a bhikkhu: I sin far too much, and enjoy my sins at that. But, perhaps, as I approach 30, it’s time to rein in and moderate some of that sinning, all the same.

Yours Truly and a photobombin’ Buddha, Thailand ’16

So, expect more pieces to come, reflecting on my experience as it develops, commenting on and sharing any insights I might come across, and discussing issues as they arise. I’ll also do some looking at the authors mentioned above, and the ways in which their perspectives have influenced my own.

Tabouleh and Borlotti Humous – Light Vegan Dinner

The quasi-Vegan diet I struck for myself back at the end of January is still going strong, thanks in no small part due to continued exploration of vegan dishes – tweaking things I already did, trying out new recipes altogether.

As you may recall, I ended up eating a lot of humous over January and, while I’m certainly not sick of it, some variety is definitely appreciated. Which is why my interest was piqued by the idea of swapping out chick peas for a different kind of bean – borlotti beans.

Not Tuna, I Swear

I caught a few recipes online that recommended sumac, which I think I’d like to try. This time, however, I elected for the Arabic spice-blend used in kabsah (or mandi, if Yemeni is more your style). I had it on hand, and wanted to start getting through it whilst still fresh. Worked a treat.

Breakdown of the humous, then:

-4 tbsp tahineh
-400ml (volume) cooked borlotti beans
-2 small onions, diced and pre-caramelised
-healthy glug of olive oil (~3 tbsp)
-1 tbsp kabsah spice blend
-juice of 1 lemon
-splash of water to thin, as necessary
-2 tsp salt
-pepper to taste

Caramelising the onions in advance really rounded out the flavour. I cheated and did it over moderate heat, which cut the cook time to around 10 minutes or so. I threw in two teaspoons of caster sugar, which was another deliberate fudge. I’m sure it’d be even better done properly. The blending of the spread is haphazard – so long as you end up with a texture you’re comfortable with in the end, it doesn’t really matter the order in which you add the ingredients, really.

The tabouleh was a pretty straight-ahead affair – handful of mint, maybe three or four times that parsely, half a  head of green lettuce, several tomatoes and half a cucumber, a single lemon juiced, with plenty of salt, cumin, coriander and pepper to taste. I pre-cooked one (dry) cup of bulgur and let it cool before getting on with the rest of the mix. Tossed with a healthy amount of olive oil, it did quite nicely. Hearkening back to the facile tips of yore, I microwaved the lemons half a minute to more easily release the juice.

I quickly made some some flatbreads up (mix of self-raising and gram flours, water, aqua faba, basil and salt) to round off the meal. Ended up being a bit dish intensive on the prep-side, but the actual time spent was minimal.

Tibetan Tuesday: Vegan Broth and Momos

Another recipe riffed off of Jackie Kearney’s ‘Vegan Street Food’, with a few alterations. This was my first attempt at the Tibetan dumpling staple, and, while there’s room for improvement, it didn’t come off too badly.

Who’s that in the spoon? Spoiler, it’s me.

First, the ingredients I went with:

3 medium carrots
300g celeriac
1 onion
2 moderate tomatoes
8 mushrooms
4/5 bay leaves
A dozen or so peppercorns
2 tbsp sweet soy sauce
1 tbsp olive oil
Good handful cilantro
3 dried star anise sections
3 garlic cloves
(all vegetables roughly chopped – this is just broth, after all)

2 large potatoes
300g red cabbage
200g red bell pepper
hearty knob of ginger
1 spring onion
1 tsp hoisin sauce
~1/2 tsp salt and pepper each
2 healthy dashes of turmeric

Next, prep:

The hardest part of trying out a new recipe, especially one with more than a few moving parts, is figuring out how to make the timing work and cut back on waste and mess. Initially, I had thought to steam the cabbage and potato using the broth as it boiled. Alas, the amounts just didn’t jive (a real shame, the cabbage and potato leached a really vibrant blue colour that would have been  sweet for the broth), and so that was separated out into two pots. Kearney recommends 40 minutes for the broth to simmer, and I probably got there and more by the end of meal prep.

I put aside the creation of the dumpling dough until after I had the filling on the way, but I would probably switch the order next time. I used about 1 and 1/2 cups of plain flour with a sizeable pinch of salt, and somewhere north of a 1/2 cup water (at least so you know the ratios – more on that later). Kneading took about 10 minutes – a stiff dough is desired. The recipe originally says to set aside for 30 minutes, and I don’t think I left it quite that long.

Getting back to the filling for a moment – as I mentioned above, I steamed the potatoes and cabbage, each finely chopped, for 15 minutes. In the interim, I gave the ginger, pepper, and spring onion a chop themselves – the onion was on the rougher side, but the ginger in particular was minced. After taking my steamer off the pot, I (regrettably) emptied the indigo water and added a dash of sunflower oil, returning to the hob to heat. First went the ginger, followed shortly by the pepper. This was fried for about 5 minutes, enough time to render down. The potato/cabbage was added to this and mashed. This mix was poured into a moderate-sized aluminium bowl (the same I’d used to prepare my dough, rinsed) and the remaining ingredients were stirred in. Set aside to cool.

The recipe advises 16 “lime-sized balls” of dough, rolled out to a 3 mm width and sectioned with a 7.5 cm cookie cutter. I, erm, fudged that width part, and it came back to bite me. I suggest you follow it.

As I said earlier, I’ve told you the ratios I used for the dough, because you’re probably going to want to make more than I did – I only used about a third of the filling I ended up with, as you’re only meant to add a teaspoon to each dumpling.

Even what you see here was pushing it when it came time to fold

Wet your fingers a bit to seal up the top, or lip, depending on the style you elect – moons or money bags. Have a small amount of oil heated and ready in a pan – I used sunflower again, but any high heat type will do, I’m sure – as you will want to fry the bottoms of the dumplings till golden brown, before transferring to the steamer. Having left my dough too thick, I wasn’t able to achieve the sought-after translucence within the recommended 7 – 10 minute steam-time, though they did cook through.

Don’t be like me.

Thin your dough.

All that remains – kinda look like xenomorph eggs…

Though the dumplings were thicker than necessarily optimal, the flavour was present. The broth was a success, as well – the anise really pushes through. The original recipe calls for half a fennel bulb, which, though I didn’t have it on hand, I wouldn’t mind trying out next time. Other things that were changed were celeriac for celery (it’s what I had), the absence of a broccoli stem in the broth and sherry in the filling (have port, no sherry – ill equipped larder, right here), and the addition of the bell pepper and turmeric.
It seems a shame to toss so many vegetables post-broth – I’m going to see if I can make something worthwhile from the remains, and certainly won’t hold it against you should you try the same.

Keeping it light – Easy Vegan Miso soup & Banh Mi

Following that heavy dinner, tried to play it light yesterday with a lunch of Miso soup.

You can find plenty of recipes online, and it’s a pretty simple dish to prepare. It took all of twenty minutes, and even that was an external constraint – the spring rolls had to be in the oven.

I used a moderate saucepan’s worth of water, maybe about 1 – 1 1/2 L, which I set to boil. Added 3 medium mushrooms, cut in slices, to the water fairly early on so that they had time to cook down a bit. If you elect to go with dried mushrooms you’l probably want to reconstitute them well in advance. I had some fresh on hand at the time, and used those. After maybe five minutes, I dropped the temperature and added two good tablespoons-worth of white miso paste. Towards the end of that twenty minutes I added several loose handfulls of dried seaweed and a teaspoon of soy sauce. The kelp didn’t take very long to take on water. I also put in another tablespoon of miso, for good measure.

Just before serving, I threw in some green onion and tofu. I only added these at the end to avoid losing their consistency – the green onions are nice and sharp raw, and the tofu, being silken, was likely to fall apart if cooked too aggressively.

I skipped out on adding any mirin, as most recipes will ask for, simply because I didn’t have it on hand. The broth was good, particularly after the mushrooms and seaweed had time to open up, but could have been a touch saltier.

Kept to the theme of ‘unheavy’ with dinner, a quasi-banh mi – something I’d been craving for the last couple of days. No luck getting a proper baguette at the market, so I elected for ciabatta instead. Getting further from the original, I used some of the kimchi as an ingredient – it’s grown no less powerful!

Kept things standard with the use of cilantro, and, instead of the customary meat, I was able to pick up some flavoured seitan – made in Switzerland, of all places.

A Return to Osten Ard: Tad Williams’ The Heart of what was Lost and The Witchwood Crown

As I mentioned previously, there was another series that I had returned to recently to provide a nostalgia fix. Unlike Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, though, which saw me rereading the original works, it’s been all fresh with Tad Williams’ latest series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The original series of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (consisting of a trilogy of books – The Dragonbone Chair (1988), Stone of Farewell (1990), and To Green Angel Tower (1993), though the final was split in two for resale purposes) won Williams a well-deserved place amongst the fantasy greats and paved the road later heavy hitters such as The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m pleased to say that the first offerings of this latest series have not let down the source material.

The Heart of what was Lost

Williams is nothing if not ambitious with this return to Osten Ard. Beyond the intended trilogy of full-length novels (and these are long books – ain’t called epic fantasy for nothing!), he plans to write two novellas to fit between the other works. The first of these, The Heart of what was Lost, came out before the first full book and acts as a bridge between the original and the new.

Picking up almost directly from the closing of To Green Angel Tower, The Heart does a good job at reminding the reader of the main characters, lands and history of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, while also trying out something fresh. The novella is actually really the story of a single battle, a mopping up by the human victors of the original series as the try to put to bed any chance of a resurgent Hikeda’ya troubling generations to come. If only they were so lucky.

We join Duke Isgrimnur and a sizeable force on the march north, travelling into lands still gripped by the former Storm King’s power – icy winter still blasting the Frostmarch and Rimmersgard, even late into the year. They chase the scattered remains of the Norn army – those Hikeda’ya and Tinukeda’ya who didn’t perish at the battle of the Hayholt. Inevitably, Isrimnur’s men lay siege to Sturmspeik itself, the last fastness of the Norns.

In a break with the earlier works, much of this story is from the point of view of Hikeda’ya, giving the reader insight into their culture and daily life in the subterranean city of Nakkiga. This does good work at fleshing out things only hinted at in the initial trilogy, which will be an important springboard for The Witchwood Crown, the first full novel of the The Last King series. New characters are introduced who will have roles to play in the novels to come, and there is a satisfying bit of pathos built up over the course of the work. The focus is tight, but there are some untelegraphed twists that hook in nicely to the larger story. All in all, an unusually lean offering, but one that whets the appetite for more!

The Witchwood Crown

Something about the framing of that view makes me uncomfortable…

The Witchwood Crown sees us back on familiar ground in terms of scope – we’re returned once more to the sprawling high fantasy of the original books.

King Seoman and Queen Miriamele are travelling, with full entourage, to Rimmersgard. Three decades have passed since the events of The Heart and Isgrimnur is an aged man, his once-mighty physique wasted away, leaving him on his very deathbed. The train make haste to the North, but, for political reasons, must make a detour to Hernystir in the West on their way. It is true that Seoman (still Simon, to his friends) and Miriamele rule all the lands of Osten Ard under the High Ward, but the client kings of the various states can be unruly, personal pride and expedience overriding allegiances to far-off Erkynland. True to his young self, Simon has little stomach for politicking, and it is a good thing that Miriamele, sole child of Elias, the Mad King, was reared for courtly life. Sometimes subordinates need a strong hand to remind them who truly rules.

It is during these travels that we are brought up to speed on the changed situation for the joint Monarchs and the whole of their Realm – their son, the prince John Josua, died some time ago –carried off by a fever that swept through the Ward. Luckily, he left two heirs, Princess Lillia and Prince Morgan. Unluckily, Morgan, the elder of the two, is a rake – interested in little other than wine, women and dice, he is a poor imitation of his virtuous, studious father, and certainly unfit to inherit the crown. Both monarchs have been devastated by the death of their son, which Williams is…very…keen…to tell you! If Barbara Hambly was intent on informing you Gil was a scholar, Tad is desperate for you to get just HOW DEVASTATED Seoman and Miriamele are. Perhaps I’m being unfair, and the death of child, something I’ve never even come close to experiencing, can leave parents with the degree of ptsd evidenced throughout the story, but it honestly got a bit tiresome. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the book, to my mind. At any rate, the clashes between generations are a recurring motif, as each party secretly recognises the right way forward, but, through stubbornness or self-pity, allows the situation to stagnate. It’s certainly frustrating for the reader at times, but, just as I was saying with Hambly’s approach, this is what sets the work apart. The characters are flawed, and better for it.

Meanwhile, in Nakkiga under Sturmspeik, dark things are stirring. Hikeda’ya society has changed radically after the events of The Heart, the near-sacking of the city showing the Norns that they would have to give up on many of the old ways if they were to survive in the world. But Queen Utuk’ku is finally awakening from her multi-decadal slumber, the somnolence between death and life she was cast into following the disaster at Asu’a, and there is every likelihood that she will denounce the changes, the desecrations, made in her absence. With her god-like control of the Hikeda’ya, Great Houses are known to fall at even the hint of her displeasure. Amidst this scene of tumult, a party of elite warriors are sent forth from the mountain, their mission fell and secret even to most of their number. On the edges of Norn lands they are joined by a Black Rimmersman, one of the Queen’s mortal slave-catchers – purportedly to guide them, but with motivations all his own.

The individual narrative threads soon tangle into the skein that is the hallmark of these high fantasy tomes – characters haring off to the four corners of the map on seemingly unrelated quests that you can be sure a writer of Williams’ skill will pull together in the end. The close of The Witchwood Crown sets up the next novel on several fronts: new quests are just beginning to be undertaken, a genuine threat is declared from a corner long teased at, dark political intrigue blooms from an unexpected source (this one was a bit of a gut-punch, even if -some of it- was satisfying), and the right number of secrets are revealed to keep you wanting more.

I wouldn’t say that it punches at the same weight as something like the Malazan series (the review of which, incidentally, continues to be the most heavily-trafficked of all my posts. Must have some superior SEO or something.), but that also grapples with material of a more obviously-adult nature, coupled with a more ambitious narrative style. All the same, this long-awaited return by Tad Williams scratches the right itch. If you’re a fan of the original batch, or you’re looking to fall into some epic fantasy for a few days (as one would hope, the book can read as a standalone. Appendices are supplied glossing the history of the previous books and various peoples and places referenced, for the uninitiated), I heartily recommend these new books from The Last King of Osten Ard.
Unfortunately we will have to wait until September to get our hands on Empire of Grass, the next instalment. No doubt it will be worth it!