Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Difference Of Reading

Weighing machine, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris
Image: Wikimedia Commons

A strange thing happened to me this week. I'd gone for my annual medical check-up at the doctor's surgery round the corner. The nurse read my blood pressure, took a blood sample, asked about my alcohol consumption — that kind of thing. I told her I'd been on a diet and had lost a stone quite easily, but was now finding it almost impossible to drop below 14 stone. She weighed me — and announced that my weight was 13 st 4 lb! And this is with clothes on (obviously I didn't want to frighten her by suggesting I removed them). Earlier I'd weighed myself at home with clothes off and the scales had read 13 st 13 lb. The nurse insisted her own scales — a hefty, industrial-sized model — were correct, and were regularly and rigorously calibrated. Who was I to disagree?

Delighted, I left the surgery in a state of euphoria and made a bee-line for the supermarket next door, where I bought some celebratory cakes, chocolate and a couple of bottles of wine. However, as soon as I got home, I began to have some doubts. What was going on here? We have two pairs of bathroom scales at home — one mechanical, one digital — and both always read the same. How could they both not only be wrong but also be so far out? I took 5 cans of baked beans, which I knew weighed 2 kg, and placed them on each pair of scales in turn. Yes, 2 kg exactly. How very odd all this was becoming.

I did eat the cake and chocolate, and I did drink the wine, and enjoyed them a lot, though I must admit my pleasure had been very slightly tainted. I'll have to try to weigh myself somewhere else for a final, cast-iron verdict. And that's another thing. Where have all the public weighing machines in Britain gone? They used to be outside every chemist's and in every public park. (And when did you last hear the word 'chemist's' rather than 'pharmacy' for that matter?)

I must be honest and say I do actually feel more like 14 stone than 13 stone. An okay weight for someone 6 ft 1 in tall, and I feel good, and all my trousers now fit beautifully. But I'd still rather lose another stone if I can. (Or if I haven't already, according to the nurse!)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Writing Myself Positive

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I'm approximately a third of the way through my self-imposed regimen, so I thought I'd better assess my progress.

Diet: This still goes well. It's not that I ate unhealthily before, but this time I really am cutting back on sugary, fat-laden and processed foods, and concentrating on natural and organic as far as possible. As far as sweet things are concerned this wasn't too difficult, as I have a naturally savoury rather than a sweet tooth. Though everyone craves sweetness now and then — and I find fruit or small quantities of chocolate or ice cream fit the bill. This diet does seem to suit me, I must admit, and I feel fit, healthy and full of physical and mental energy. My ban on alcohol wavered once or twice recently, but I haven't fallen back into the habit. My weight this morning was hovering between 13 st 12 lb and 13 st 13 lb, so I've broken the 14 st barrier. Therefore, roughly speaking, in a month I've lost half of what I set out to lose in three months. The rest sounds easy? Well, no — as I predicted, my weight loss rate has now slowed considerably.

Exercise: Because of the pulled hamstring, exercise was on hold for a while. But I'm now back to doing 20 min to half an hour stretching and various resistance and cardiovascular exercises each day. I haven't any expensive exercise equipment; in fact I have no equipment at all except for a Bullworker and a skipping rope. I find that the free props we have around us in the home — the wall, the floor, the chair — work perfectly well. I'm also walking again each day. In fact, the other day I walked 6 miles into the nearest town, and yesterday I walked 3 or 4 miles through the surrounding countryside. Soon I'll begin some very gentle running in combination with walking.

Meditation: I suppose I'm practising this on my walks rather than putting aside any special time or place for it.

Reading: I'm still reading a fair amount, but not as much as I was when recovering from my cyst and my muscle injury.

Computer: Hopeless! I'm grazing on it at every possible opportunity.

Thanks to everyone for your continuing support. Rereading the above, I hope I don't sound too smug and pleased with myself. In attempting to hide and cope with the problems in my life which were the impetus for this new regime, I sometimes may come across as more self-satisfied and in control than I really am. I'm just trying to think and write myself positive.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

So Far, So Good

I was overjoyed to do a circular walk round the village this morning, a distance of about one and a quarter miles. This felt strangely exciting and liberating as I've been forced to rest my leg at home for a couple of weeks because of a strained hamstring muscle. Although painful, it was obviously only a very minor sprain, since I can now walk perfectly normally.

In the gardens I saw the fat red seed heads of climbing roses and the papery brown seed heads of dahlias, and also many signs of spring's coming resurrection: purple and yellow crocuses, multi-coloured primulas, yellow jasmine, aconites, snowdrops, catkins, the buds of flowering currant; and tulips and daffodils were pushing up through the earth.

The diet still goes well: my weight is now 14 st 1 lb, so I've lost 12 lb in three and a half weeks, which is good going. The weight loss will slacken off now my body has stabilised — perhaps 1-2 lb per week. But my target of 13 st by the end of April is quite achievable, I think.

I've started exercising again — but I'm taking things very gently indeed. I'm still probably spending too much time on the computer but, hey, you've got to do something, and I enjoy it. And I've been reading loads — Rimbaud, Verlaine, Graham Robb, Jean Giono, Jostein Gaarder.

So far, so good.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Progress (Of A Sorts)

The strained hamstring is slowly improving, and the bird's egg-sized cyst on my chest is shrinking, but it's slow progress. I'm now off all the pills (painkillers and antibiotics) — they were beginning to upset my stomach. I've been forced to slow down over the past couple of weeks, which is probably no bad thing. Usually I'm rushing about here and there far too much and doing stuff far too quickly. At first I had the strange illusion I was actually living in slow motion. Pretty soon, however, I grew to relish the enforced stillness and slowness. Many books have been read (from Lawrence through Thomas Merton to Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu), much music listened to, many radio programmes heard. Now I just want to get on the move again.

The diet goes well. I'm taking in around 1500 calories per day or less, and a typical day's meal consists of muesli or a boiled egg with a slice of toast and Marmite for breakfast; salad or a low-calorie soup for lunch; and a fish (sometimes white, sometimes oily) / meat (often chicken, sometimes red meat) / vegetarian dish in rotation for dinner, with plenty of veggies, followed by something like three fruits with either yoghurt, sorbet or ice cream for pudding. Three meals, no snacks, no alcohol. If I'm hungry in-between meals, and I rarely seem to be, I'll eat some fruit or a crispbread with low-fat Philadelphia cheese or marmite.

The weight. Started out at 14 st 13 lb on 28 January. Am now 14 st 5 lb. Target weight: 13 st.

The exercise. Practically non-existent because of the leg. Though I have been doing some routines involving non-upper thigh body parts from a supine position (ooh, err!)

The meditation. Nothing specific, but many contemplative moments throughout the day.

The computer. Hopeless. I'm on it all the time!

I'll end with my poem Slowing Down, which seems appropriate.

I slowed right down today,
Just slowed right down.
How little we see most of the time!
So I slowed right down.

And saw a fork-tailed kite circle then drift
On a blue highway, until it was no more.
I cracked a sunflower shell between my teeth
And curled the seed out with my tongue,
The taste intense and bitter-sweet.
It hit my palate like a burst of sun.

Today I listened to a stream
Trickle then rush from Extremadura
Into Castilla y León.
I heard the hollow clunk of cow bells
Jangle like Tibetan wind chimes.

I smelled a cistus bush today.
It reeked of incense. And I sniffed
The fragrant, bitter scent of thyme,
The aromatic tang of eucalyptus.

Today I felt a mat
Of soft, green moss under my hand,
And, underfoot, crunched oak leaves, crisp and brown,
And spiky chestnut husks, like tiny hedgehogs.
I fingered the jagged edge of stones,
Felt the smooth roundedness of rock.

I slowed right down today.
I slowed right down.
How blind we are to what is happening!
How quickly we walk on!

But, for today,
I slowed, I slowed right down.
I slowed.
I slowed.
I slowed time down.

I slowed myself



Thursday, February 7, 2013


"Februalia was the Roman festival of ritual purification. The festival, which is basically one of Spring washing or cleaning (associated also with the raininess of this time of year) is old, and possibly of Sabine origin. According to Ovid, Februare is a Latin word which refers to means of purification and derives from an earlier Etruscan word referring to purging." WIKIPEDIA

It's par for the course, isn't it? No sooner have I begun my own physical, mental and spiritual Spring cleaning than I've had to visit the doctor twice in a week.

The small sebaceous cyst (not dangerous) on my chest had grown larger and was becoming painful. I'm now on penicillin, and if that doesn't do the trick it will have to be surgically excised.

The second problem was the niggling muscular pain at the back of my upper left thigh which I developed after my walk along the Viking Way last Thursday. It suddenly got a lot worse, and the upshot is: I have a strained hamstring. I'm astonished how painful and debilitating this is. I've pulled muscles before, and although they were painful in certain positions, and although they took longer to heal than I hoped, the whole situation was bearable. But this strained hamstring is painful all the time no matter what posture I'm in (though some positions are better than others) and seems to affect my whole locomotion. I can't get comfortable in bed — lying on my side is out of the question. It's difficult to put on trousers and socks, and to get up from a chair. And when upright I can hardly walk (without groaning and general melodrama). The co-codamol I've been prescribed hardly cuts through the pain.

So my new exercise regime is on the back burner for a while. However I've already lost a fair amount of weight, which I'm pleased about, and this state of relative immobility is a good excuse for meditation, for reading lots of books and for listening to lots of music.

I'll give more details about my weight and the type and amount of food I'm eating in my next post. In the meantime I'll groan my way upstairs and go back to bed!

Monday, January 28, 2013

New Beginnings

I have some unbelievably difficult and seemingly insoluble problems in my life at the moment. In fact they've persisted for a while and I don't think they'll be going away any time soon. Sometimes I feel I'm losing it. Sometimes I feel that life is pushing me about, that I'm not in control.

I need to change things, to cope with the stress, to realise that there will always be problems, and that life is full of difficulties, but it's the way you handle them that's the important thing. Over the past few months I've tried turning things around, but with little success. Now I am absolutely serious about sorting things out and have formed a strategy, a three-month plan (Feb-Apr).

I have rather an addictive personality, and it's all too easy for me to deal with problems by doing things I enjoy to excess: eating, drinking, blogging, you name it. But of course doing all these things in an undisciplined way just leaves you feeling wretched, out of control, a piece of flotsam pushed this way and that by the stormy tides of life.

A sea change is needed. So this is my plan. First of all I need to lose weight. I've gradually been putting on weight for a year and am now nearly 15 stone. I don't actually look particularly overweight — I'm 6 ft 1 in with broad shoulders — but I know only too well that I should weigh more like 12 and a half stone. At between 12 and a half and 13 stone I always feel great and full of energy. I want to get back to that state. So my goal is to weigh 13 stone by the end of April — which means I have to lose around 2 lb per week. And then stay at that weight. I've done this before, and know it's doable, but it will mean a balanced, calorie-controlled diet of healthy food. Fortunately I eat healthy food anyhow, and am not tempted too much by sugary snacks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and suchlike. I will be giving up alcohol, though.

Secondly I need to get more discipline back into my life. Therefore, as well as the diet, I'm returning to my old regime of daily exercise and meditation. Also I intend to read more mindfully (well, I tend to do this already, but my reading has become a little haphazard) and walk and/or run every day. Re. blogging and computer time I'm confining myself to one slot in the evening, rather than dipping in and out throughout the day.

I've decided to document my progress in cyberspace because I think it will be a massive incentive knowing that the world is my witness (hopefully you don't think I'm being too narcissistic). It's a bit like promising things to a sympathetic audience, then not wanting to let them (or myself) down. Also it may help others in their own pursuit of physical and spiritual transformation, an energetic and healthy lifestyle and a life in which you can control difficulties to some extent, rather than be overwhelmed by them. I'm sure it won't always be easy, but to know that at least a few others may be walking alongside me each step of the way will be a great encouragement.

I'm beginning now, but my official start date will be 1st February. I'll be blogging once or twice a week about the experience. As usual any comments are most welcome.

The scales this morning showed my unclothed body weight was 14 st 13 lb.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Sound Of Silence

“There are many types of silence. There is a silence before the note, there is a silence at the end and there is a silence in the middle.” DANIEL BARENBOIM

Neon sign by Tracey Emin

Silence, the pause between the notes (even in the middle of the notes according to Barenboim) and between sections and movements is important in music. When you think about it, without the pauses, without the silences, there would be no individually distinct notes at all, only an unbearable, endless wall of sound. The apotheosis of the concept of silence in music has to be John Cage's 1952 composition 4' 33". In this revolutionary piece the musicians do nothing at all with their instruments; not a sound is heard. (Or rather — and this is important — the only sounds heard are those which come spontaneously from the environment of the performance venue.) It's also noteworthy that Cage's first book was called Silence: Lectures And Writings (1961).

The use of creative silence is not confined to music. Indeed, it is employed in all the arts. In poetry, the intentional, significant spaces between words, between lines and at the end of lines, are crucial. If poems did not contain silent (though pregnant) spaces — in the form of blank lines, line breaks, enjambments, ellipses and caesuras — many poems would resemble the demented rants of some breathless Whitman or Ginsberg wannabe.

Sculptures by Barbara Hepworth in the Kröller-Müller Museum sculpture garden, Otterlo, the Netherlands.

Substitute "silence" for "empty space" and it's the same thing in painting, where the use of "negative spaces" or "negative shapes" is essential to the depiction of "positive" forms, just as in architecture one talks of interior and exterior "architectural space" defining a structure. In sculpture, too, the holes, gaps, chinks and spaces in and around an artwork are absolutely essential to its overall meaning: just look at the works of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Anthony Caro.

Bedford Square Pavilion, London

Ok, so silence is important — but what's going on in these silences, these empty spaces? Quite a lot, actually. Total silence or a completely empty space is a rare thing, as Cage demonstrated in 4' 33". To put it crudely, there's always someone coughing or scraping their shoe; there's always some fly buzzing at the window or an aircraft whining in the distance. Even the state of peace and tranquillity you could reasonably expect to find in the depths of the countryside is far from silent. There's always something going on, some sound to hear: the birds tweeting, a stream gurgling, the wind tearing through the trees. Perhaps you could then speculate that these sounds of nature do in fact reveal the true silence of nature, in the sense that behind and beyond these real, physical, natural noises you might faintly detect the hidden, metaphysical pulse of nature, the barely discernible rhythm of the universe, the mystical reverberation of deep silence. Which some have identified as a low hum. Ha, we're back to sound again!

I suppose true, unadulterated silence or empty space is utterly airless and featureless: a vacuum, a black hole, a nothing. In other words, completely boring — without interest, without substance, without definition, without meaning, without any possibility of change or transformation.

What's intriguing, I think, is Barenboim's recognition of a silence not only before and after the note, but in the middle of it as well. Is this the contemplative zen silence at the heart of all things, at the heart of the atom, at the heart of the universe, at the heart of music, at the heart of poetry, at the heart of ourselves? And what does this silence sound like?

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles

EE Cummings

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (8): Jealousy

Jealousy and Flirtation by Haynes King (1831-1904)

Jealousy — along with her equally twisted twin sister, Envy — is one of the strongest, most unpleasant, futile and all-encompassing of emotions. There are two types of jealousy I'd like to consider. The first is that all-too-common envy we can feel at times towards others. Whether we are jealous of another person's perceived or imagined health, wealth, happiness, status, success, talents, good fortune, family, car, house or garden, it's all the same: the bottom line is that we become insecure, frustrated and bitter, wondering why others seem to have all the luck, and resenting life's injustices. And envy tends to be a state which breeds more envy, just as maggots multiply on rancid meat. No matter how many times we may satisfy our cravings for what our neighbour already appears to possess, more cravings inevitably take their place. There is always something else to be envious of.

Fortunately I learnt long ago about the ugly mechanics of envy, and I am so relieved not to be in its cold, life-denying embrace. It's a great freedom and liberation not to be tied to that ceaseless emotional treadmill. Acceptance of what one is and what one has, gladness at being oneself and not another, contentment with one's lot no matter how unfairly the cards have been dealt — these are the secrets of a happy life. Now, I'm not saying that I'm always content, and cheerful about the way things are, and overjoyed that much of life seems to be a succession of pain, tragedy and disaster. And I'm not saying either that we shouldn't have the ambition to change things, to improve our lives in whatever ways we feel are right. But if such desires are for shallow or impossible things, and if they are fuelled by jealousy and envy, than we are heading straight down the road of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

The other type of jealousy which comes to mind is, for me, much more difficult to restrain: that is sexual jealousy. I've met a few people who have insisted they do not understand this emotion, and have never felt it, but I don't think this is the case for most of us. Like all kinds of jealousy, sexual jealousy can be a destructive, consuming passion — based, I believe, on insecurity, and a fear of rejection and abandonment. I have felt sexual jealousy at some periods in my life, sometimes obsessively, and have always found it pointless, demeaning and a waste of time and energy — yet this strong, unreasoning emotion always seems to override logic.

Astrologically I am a Scorpio, and "Scorpios are known for their possessiveness and jealousy but on the other hand, they are extremely loyal", according to this Zodiac Signs website. Be that as it may. Shakespeare, however, has more elevated things to say on the subject. In Othello, Iago famously describes jealousy thus: "It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on: that cuckold lives in bliss, / Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; / But, O, what damnéd minutes tells he o'er / Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet soundly loves!" And Othello's misplaced jealousy gets out of hand: " ... Yet I'll not shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster. / Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men."

How does one come to terms with sexual jealousy? The issue is far too complex for me to deal with here in a few words. Suffice to say, I think the trick is to recognise that we are all independent beings in the end, that we are all existentially "on our own", and that we do not possess anyone else, even partially. Possession implies power over someone, and that is not good; it is not our right to expect or exert this. Our loved ones are human like we are and they are not perfect. They are not our property. They are separate beings. They change, they evolve, they may hurt or betray us. Their minds are not our minds. Other minds may contain unshareable secrets and depths we can barely guess at. If we can look at things in this way, with a more realistic kind of balance, we can then begin to differentiate between love and sex, and realise that, although sex may be an important part of love, it is not love itself. Real love should transcend human failings, disappointments, sex and sexual jealousy.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (7): Guilt

Michelangelo's depiction of God, the Father, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

All this talk of emotions and how to manage them is fine in theory, but how do things work out in practice? I'd now like to examine some "challenging" states of mind, using examples from my own life. And "guilt" is a particularly pernicious feeling I've had continuing experience of.

Born into a God-fearing, Methodist family ruled by a strict and domineering father, I was soon acquainted with the notion of guilt and its effects. Although there are differences of emphasis and interpretation, all Christian sects and denominations believe in the concept of "original sin" — the belief that at birth we enter a world already contaminated by sin, the result of the Biblical Fall of Man and our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From a rational, emotional and instinctual standpoint, I've now believed for a long time just the opposite: that we arrive in this world pure and innocent, and that it's the flawed human world which corrupts us. However, dubious attitudes and ideas drummed into us from early childhood are often hard to dispel. Or, more precisely, we may be able rationally to reject these attitudes and ideas, but the emotional toll they exact on us is often more difficult to reverse.

My parents, especially my father, dinned into me that I would be damned and rot in hell if I sinned.  My youthful crimes and misdemeanours were, on reflection, pretty mild and ordinary: telling lies, swearing, chasing girls in the school playground, masturbation, drawing rude cartoons of my father's lorry driver (which led to the lorry driver reporting this to my father who gave me a beating), being cheeky at Sunday School (again this led to a beating when my father got to know of it). Yet, despite the innocuous nature of these little vices, the corresponding guilt I felt was hugely disproportionate, and hung over me like a black cloud for much of my childhood and early adolescence. I don't want to exaggerate things, as I remember many happy times too: playing with mates, reading books, Christmas, holidays by the sea. Periods when this feeling of "guilt" seemed to subside, when I could overcome it by escaping outside my self. But I would always return wretchedly and with a sinking heart to what seemed at the time to be inescapably my "default" condition, a permanent background state of fearful guilt and anxiety.

Since I was brought up by my parents to be wary of the rough and godless village children, I also found it difficult for a while to mix in with most other normal kids of my age — though I always had a small circle of close friends. All this caused further debilitating feelings of shyness and acute self-consciousness. Much of my school life was therefore a bane to me. Luckily I was intelligent and assiduous, and retreated into my school work, which I found relatively easy. Which begs the question: was I hardworking out of fear of the teachers, out of a desire to please my father, out of an anxiety I might fail, out of guilt? As though hard work and "doing well" would help assuage my constant, irrational guilty state of mind? Because I knew that my father's leather strap was always waiting for me, lurking on a hook behind the tea towel in the kitchen?

I am glad to say that life improved dramatically in my early to mid-teens, and I changed unrecognisably — gaining confidence amongst my peers, with girls and with adults, and claiming my rightful place in the world. At the age of fifteen I walked and hitchhiked through the Swiss Jura. I stood up to my father and informed him that no, I would not be going to chapel with him on Sundays any more. I grew my hair. I read Orwell and Jung and books on Existentialism. I developed, I matured; I side-stepped as best as I could the tyrannical influence of my father. I asserted my true self. I did everything that is "normal" for an adolescent, and I began to love life with a passion and intensity which has never left me to this day. Yet even now — often, ironically, when I am engaged in transparently blameless activities — residues of guilt persist, like ancient dust still clinging to the bottom of a spring-cleaned wardrobe. Fortunately I have been able over the years to deal psychologically with these childhood traumas and irrational guilts and fears, though it has been a gradual process. I think that the seeds of all such long-learnt destructive feelings and emotions remain hidden somewhere deep within us, ready to germinate again if given the opportunity.