Thursday, 6 April 2017

Travelling in India: Reflections

The peacock walks majestically in the dry, brown, sparse grass, holding his head high in the magnificence of his plumage, as the peahen hustles around with others of her like, a sociable and busy group. They live here, in this oasis, fast becoming bordered on all sides by rattling roads and gargantuan edifices that will be rabbit-hutch homes for many people some way above the ground that sustains them. Elsewhere, night-time cameras put in place by wildlife experts around the campus of a school on the outskirts of Bangalore capture images of three leopards, two male and one female, who frequent the life-giving jungle that is being slowly squeezed by the constant expansion of the city, and the lake that hosts the flashing kingfishers grows smaller every year.

To live in harmony with nature and with humanity is the spring which nourished the lives of both Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti; it became clear as we travelled around India for ten weeks that it was the understanding of this that created so many of the connections of which we had become part over the last twenty-five years. Our visits to India have developed along three paths: in 1990 Maggie and I began to take groups of students from St. Christopher School in Letchworth for three week visits to Rajasthan through contacts with Faith and John Singh of the Anokhi textiles company in Jaipur, and Aruna and Bunker Roy of Barefoot College near Jaipur.  In 2002 we paid our first visits to the schools founded or influenced by Krishnamurti; and in 2007 we made our first visit to Santinketan in West Bengal, where Tagore founded schools and a university. Through these visits we have come in contact with people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, different ages, from the affluent to the poor, and from the so-called educated to those who have never been to school. Many of these people have become our friends and others, with whom our meetings have been mere flashes of time, have profoundly affected the way we look at the world and ourselves. A gesture, a look, a smile, a touch, those infinite connections so often go beyond words and take us to that all important space unknown to the rational mind.

Tagore and Krishnamurti were questioners who did not accept the authority of others, nor did they seek to create authority in themselves. During these weeks in India it has become increasingly obvious that there is a global shift towards authoritarianism which has expression on many different levels - politically, economically and socially - with nationalism rearing its ugly, dangerous head and puffed up leaders ranting against their fellow human beings, pouring the poison of fear into the ears of the unsuspecting. The timeless grace of so many of its people, and the wisdom that lies in the eyes of the old who are, even now, held in respect by those who are younger, is slowly being swallowed by ‘development’. The pace of change that we have seen in nearly thirty years of travelling to India has been extraordinary and dramatically visible. However, much of this change has reflected a Western way of life and thus is built on competition and material growth. Ironically, whole scale improvement in the lives of the poor and destitute is not as visible as the blocks of flats, new and ever larger cars, roads in various states of repair and disrepair, and soulless glass shopping malls.
It is with extraordinary gratitude that we have received so much generosity and affection, so much simple human contact that sustains the spirit beyond any material benefit. To see the monkeys, to watch the birds, to walk beneath the broad-leaved jungle trees and smell the breeze washing over the land is to be alive. To avoid being squashed by vehicles of all types and to travel, reaching our destinations in one piece again, makes us grateful; for we quickly learn the sharp lesson that control in life is an illusion and that occasionally acceptance of ‘what is’ is the only route. However, wretched fatalism is often instrumental in handing one’s life to another who is more powerful, hiding under the cloak of passivity, and often creates the sense that all life is cheap. All being well, we intend to return to India and our friends, old, new and yet to be made.

Meanwhile, part of my work is a writing project, which I have alluded to from time to time; I will be using this space to experiment with various themes.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Travelling in India: The Spiritual Way?

A couple of weeks ago we were in Rishikesh and the place was filling up with participants for the big International Yoga Festival; these people had come from all over the world to attend the event, and one person we asked said that around seven thousand people were expected to be there this year. We were there for two nights en route from Haridwar to stay with friends in Dehradun after eight weeks  travelling in India, and with just two left until our return to the UK.
We had been staying in a hotel not far from the banks of the fast flowing grey blue Ganges, with views of the town, the temples, ashrams and the wooded hills that dominate the valley revered by so many. From our balcony we were able to observe the comings and goings of the clientele of the Pure Soul Cafe and Organic Kitchen, which we ourselves had visited earlier - very nice too. Most of the people that came and went were all you would expect from attendees at such a festival; lithe, physically confident and completely at ease in the spiritual environment of the valley of the Rishis. This is where the Beatles famously spent some time with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968, thus creating a surge of interest in all things Indian in the West, as well as being instrumental in causing a flurry of gurus to make their way westward.

What, in this world drowning in so many problems, is spirituality?

Just a few days before our visit to Rishikesh we were also by the Ganges, this time just a few metres away from the still rushing river at Haridwar. Here we were able to observe the festival of Shivratri, where the god, Shiva, is celebrated and water from the Ganges is gathered to be taken back to the temples to wash the Shiva lingam. Crowds of people were about, many bathing in the river and others gathering water in plastic bottles being sold nearby. We were told that once the water had been collected the container should not be placed in contact with the ground before it is used in the purification process in the temple.  Apparently, this demanding ritual is all about purification, of the body and of the spirit. We were able to watch the many groups of people pass below the hotel, some clearly from the rural areas nearby who had made the journey to bathe in the river and gather water.

So we had seen in the space of a few days different faces of the expression of spirituality: the apparent packaging and commodifying of an ancient way of living to an affluent world, and the unquestioning continuation of an ancient devotional practice.

Meanwhile in Haridwar  beggars lined the bridge near where all the activity was taking place. Crowds passed them, some gave money, occasionally they were given food by nearby vendors: the awful faces of suffering. Just beyond the river were the shelters of the landless, set in fields of dust, plastic and all manner of rubbish. The road between Haridwar and Rishikesh was clogged with traffic that had to gingerly negotiate partially made surfaces and treacherous driving. One car lay by the side of the road on the edge of the forest, a mangled skeleton from which the occupant or occupants could not have emerged alive.

Has spirituality anything to do with the way we treat our fellow humans? Has it anything to do with our wanton destruction of our world? Or is it just a matter of personal salvation, the achievement of a higher state; higher than you or me?

Or is it the going beyond the self, the ego driven individual that compares and divides? Is it the connection with the suffering of all living beings that comes with cooperation and collaboration? And is it the deep understanding of the indivisibility of all humanity?

Our learning is so deeply conditioned by competition, exploitation and the worship of narrow achievement that to teach our children to go beyond the limitations of their own experience goes against the way the vast majority of us live. However, humanity has reached a point where change must occur in order to divert us from the road to self-destruction; and the ground for this change lies in education and a re-examining of the way we approach learning.  The question is: how can this be done?

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This has been written in the final week of a ten week trip to India; visiting schools, reconnecting with friends, having conversations with young and old alike. Maggie and I have covered significant distances, seen and heard many things, experienced extraordinarily generous hospitality and received so much affection. We have observed the dreadful suffering of humanity and the terrible destruction of the land, for in India all life appears to be laid bare and there seems to be very little that is hidden behind closed doors. When we return I am acutely aware that I will have to continue to respond to this challenge for change; there is considerable responsibility in privilege and, among many other things, this trip has confirmed that we have been, and are, very privileged.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Travelling in India: A Conversation with a Buddhist Monk

The snake appeared quite unannounced, silently slithering over the red, dusty sand of the drive leading up to the imposing white, old colonial house, built for grandeur with little acknowledgement of the hot humid climate in which it is set.

We were quite a way from the snake and yet, in its shimmering brown progress, it seemed to turn its glittering eyes towards us before effortlessly ascending the low red cement wall and disappearing into the newly fallen leaves and branches. We looked carefully to see where it had gone; no trace was left.

He came into the large hall where wicker chairs had been put to one side for us to meet. His head was not shaved, but the thick covering of white hair was very short. Placing his hands together gently in greeting, he sat down to be introduced to us, arranging the deep maroon robes so that he was comfortable.

At the age of seven, having been recognised as the reincarnation in a line of important religious figures, he became a Buddhist monk and began his studies in a monastery in Tibet. When he was twenty years old he was part of the group that accompanied the Dalai Lama in his flight from the Chinese invasion, seeking refuge in India. In the years that followed he worked predominantly in setting up educational institutions for the Tibetan refugees that also sought asylum in India. Recently he had spent a term of ten years as the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile.

That evening he was to give a public talk in front of the white, colonial house entitled: 'Buddha's Teachings and Krishnamurti's Insights'. However, he had agreed to meet us for a conversation soon after our arrival at the end of a six hour car journey.

Towards the end of our conversation we observed that humanity was on an almost irretrievable course towards disaster; that, even if it was not to be precipitated by human behaviour, it might equally come about through some natural phenomena. This, he felt, had the possibility of bringing about some sense of realisation or understanding of the effects of self-centred or egotistical activity. The global economic system as it is currently, underpinned by violence and greed, with the existence of rapid environmental degradation, widening inequality between the poor and the rich, and increasing religious intolerance is destroying any semblance of balance or harmony in the world - negating the values and ethics that might give some avenue to ensuring the survival of the human race.

We talked of the education system as it generally is worldwide; the superficial approach to learning with the tendency towards the acceptance of information without examination or questioning. From this emerges a form of blind faith whether it be in religion, modern technology or in the economic system. In Buddhist terms, he explained, the process of learning is seen as a movement from the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through to the direct perception of truth, at which point it becomes authentic learning. Thus the individual, through reflection and meditation, gains an insight into the truth and therefore is no longer a second-hand human being, accepting what has been told. When asked about the relationship between teacher and student, he responded that the Buddhist view is to use the word 'friend', that is one who removes fear and explains with simplicity and clarity. And that this relationship, if it is lo lead to authentic learning had to be a collective, collaborative process, involving neither comparison nor competition.  In this quality of collaboration, doubts and difficulties would emerge, but in this collaboration there would have to be the removal of all authority.

The question was then put as to whether this process was also one that occurred in self-knowledge, or self-realisation. Learning about the self was entirely dependent on an understanding of what the 'self' and the 'other' is, as opposed to the misunderstanding that leads to the confusion of self and ego. He mentioned that the realisation, or perception, of the self leads to the transformation of behaviour and relationship, particularly with nature.

He left us with an apology for his limitations in the English language.

Learning, whether through the words of wisdom of another or the observation of the snake over the sand has the potential to be of extraordinary depth and endless.

Our travels in India continue until March 14th.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The ending of teaching.

So, that seems to be that, I think. Like the pathological darkness of these misty, dank days that span the end of one year and the beginning of another, the years of teaching in schools that have dominated my life gather together and hang in a veil of memories. I did not like school when I was obliged to attend as a student, and I have not really enjoyed the experience of the structure of schools as a teacher. The classroom could be a place of laughter, silence, boredom, interest, intelligence, or stupidity; yet I could never remain too long in that one place, feeling the need to move, to breathe and to release the brain. Some days I would watch children as they stared out of the window in a yearning to be free, or lost in some hazy story that would lead them through lands of inconsequential tenuous reality. Some days I would find myself disappearing through a gaze that would penetrate the grass and the trees with such uncertainty and incredulity that to return to the classroom was like wakening from the edges of sleep.

I have finished teaching almost in a way that could only have been designed for one who was distinctly averse to cleverness, whose irritating tendency was an inclination to find humour in everything, and who never felt any superiority to the children in the room. Not a successful career perhaps; no great status or salary, no invitations to impart wisdom gained from the years, no first-class degrees or glittering prizes, just the opportunity to listen and discuss with young people. And a delight in being with the young.

Life is not circular, but moves in spirals, overlapping like the conical shells that can be found on the shores; beginning at a point and spreading until the emptiness inside is greater than the thin outer coating that is so fragile and almost translucent. The lifetime of experiences that do not only exist in memory are caught in the net of learning, not to be extracted and held as true, but rather to be left to flow loosely in the consciousness of all humanity.

Thus, my final work, whether it comes to some sense of fruition or not, is to delve into learning, to question the assumptions that have arisen over the years – particularly concerning the organisation of learning. Can learning be organised? What are the results of attempts to organise learning? So, my wife and I leave for three months in India, to travel, to observe, to listen and to learn. The work of Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti will feature as markers along this pathway of inquiry, of great significance, but not exclusive; and conversations will be had at every opportunity.

The next step is beginning……

Sunday, 11 September 2016

There are many graveyards...

There are many graveyards in this world that house the bones of humanity. These particular places are not, however, the cemeteries of the dead, but of the dying. Here the bones of the poets, the growers, the dreamers, the whistlers and the singers, are ground up and placed into moulds for reshaping. Similarly, traces of the painters, the artists, the actors and the thinkers may be found if you look hard enough … bare traces in the surrounding scrubland.
Listen to the whispering that curls like smoke from the buildings.  Hear the laughter that is not forced by cruelty, the joy that is a celebration of being together, the silence that connects with all that is living. These places are where the powerful coerce the young into conformity: some of these places are made mostly of glass, some of mud, some have no light, some have shade in the fierce glare of the sun. You may come across in these places the hum of electricity, like vast crematoria; others in which can only be heard the dry rustle of paper, enough to light the funeral pyres. Dull eyes watch screens on which endless movement distracts, heads held in invisible clamps, neatly locked by headphones. Whilst in other worlds heads are down and bodies with backs arched on the hard ground, endlessly repeat words in monotonous rhythm; too scared to look up at the sound of a bird, stomachs cramped by inertia and fear.
Meanwhile, in the corridors of the rich there can be heard the clipped footfall of the caretakers of the dying. Trim, and bearing rules and regulations, they are secure in the knowledge of their corrections. Outside they survey the limits that keep the bad guys out and the good guys in, fresh keypads ensuring that the adventurous may only pace around the fence like caged tigers. Thousands of miles away where money is sent to ensure that the standard choking grip of conformity is carefully put to good use, the keepers of the dying threaten the adventurous with their own poverty – starvation is a powerful master.
Dry knowledge crammed into bodies like Tagore’s parrot*; furnaces of wrong and right burn in the minds of embryonic humanity. Nothing is learned except the noise that inhabits the graveyard; for learning is now worth only what can be remembered, dragged from the chatter of the knowledgeable mind and spewed out to demonstrate such cleverness, like the raking vomit of the diseased mind.
It is time, my friends, to add our voices to the quiet stream that is questioning the view of learning that has given rise to current view of what education is, and to question fundamentally how we bring up successive generations of humanity. It is time to, in the words of Roger Waters, ‘tear down the wall’.

*The Parrot’s Training by Rabindranath Tagore

An integral element of this quiet stream of questioning is the film ‘Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

An apology: for the responsibility is ours.

I think that all there is that is left for me to say is ‘I’m sorry.’

You sit there by the window staring out at a world that is barren and colourless, and maybe you’re watching the soft fall of the snow on the road, or the raging of a monsoon breaking the iron heat of a parched land, or perhaps you’re stranded, looking out from your tower to the city below spread out like the entrails of a broken land.

I wish to apologise to you for the world that I will be leaving behind. Not for the Earth and all that grows and lives there. Not for the seas that roar and crash in their darkness and peacefully lap the shores in blue-green clarity. Not for the mountains, the lowlands and the air that you breathe. No, but for the continuing arrogance of my kind; the arrogance of knowing what is right.

Children, we have imprisoned you in your homes; we have made sure our cars can drive anywhere and destroyed your freedom to play; we have built on your playing fields and put fences around your woods. And to keep you quiet we have given you all kinds of entertainment so that you will never need to leave your bedrooms – you can live in a world of images and sounds that entrance, excite and exploit you. But your bodies want to be free to move, to discover and to play.

You are being put in chains by our ideas, by our certainty that we know better than you and we know what is best for you.  We like to dress you up in uniforms so that you look the same as all the others, force you into vast buildings, have you divided by age and coerced into tests and examinations that will determine whether your life will be a success or a failure. I’m sorry that we’ve made you into faceless, disposable, mechanical units. You, with all your beauty, life and energy, will be bound into a colourless book that contains the story of your lives before you’ve had a chance to live it. And we’ve sought to dominate you through fear; fear that divides; fear that paralyses; and fear that makes you fight your fellow beings.

We’ve forced you into thinking that to compare and to compete is the only way to live. So, quickly you will forget to help, to listen and to share, and instead you will be required to lie, to force your opinions, and to take all you can for yourselves.

Have you seen the images of children lying lifeless on the shore, in the bombed ruins of their homes, and the hungry deserts of the world? Have you seen the tidal waves of rubbish that choke our seas and strangle all creatures? Have you seen the scars where once were trees and where all manner of living things moved freely? And have you seen the grinning men and women who tell you that they know the way to make your life better, while they make the money that keeps you in chains in a room with no doors and a screen instead of a window? 

You may not have seen them yet, but they are there, I assure you. And you know what? I put them there; I am sorry.

So, I’m participating in this story of which you are part, a story consisting of conversations from the past and the present; a story that is not just made up of words. It’s probable that I will not see much of it, but you will. And the first few words of this story are: ‘Does it have to be like this?’... Our lives will be the answer.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Division, Unity and a Fox.

The fox comes towards the kitchen window on its walk down the drive, oblivious of the watcher. Its sharp muzzle and bright eyes feel out the surroundings. The setting sun emphasises the red, russet brown and dark sleekness of its body trotting undisturbed over the tarmac towards the grass. The shape of animal intensity and intelligence exudes a kind of youthful freshness that may belie its age – ageless and sexless embodiment of a life.
The watcher, on the other hand, represents the grey/white hair of the of the turning year; his beard a determination of fatherhood and more in a world that stumbles towards the self -destruction of humanity like lemmings trying to find the nearest cliff to jump from, eyes tight shut and jabbering away. This watcher is unable to join the crowd, his eyes, though blurred by tears, are still open and he is aware of his connection with all humanity.  He, like many, regardless of gender, sexuality, wealth, education, nationality does not recognise separation in a world that is desperate to divide and destroy.
You are the watcher – an individual that is indivisible from humanity, from all that lives on this extraordinary Earth. You do not live in isolation either inwardly or outwardly, and this connection does not exist in ideas, thoughts or language. You are held in a web of life and death that exposes the ebb and flow of the tide of relationship.
However, we continue to cling onto the belief that we are involved in some kind of competition; comparing ourselves to others, desperately seeking signs of superiority and clambering over the bloodied and burnt bodies to reach the top, the summit of decay. So many global institutions are founded upon this way of being; not least schooling – that bastion of exploitation and brainwashing. 
So you are stepping out of the entertainment and acknowledging that there are no ‘others’; calmly and quietly you are stepping from the tracks that hold the speeding vastness of the runaway train. You are living as a creative human being, not self-consciously clever, not clamouring for power or status. You may dig the garden, paint pictures, film the ugliness and beauty of your surroundings. You may write words, sing songs and dance the dances. And with it you are bringing the light that can be glimpsed through the crack in the darkness of our collective misery.

The fox continues on its journey, but hesitates for a second and meets the gaze of the watcher. Its dark eyes are not reflected in the blue, for it is unaware of the watcher. Sleekly it makes a right turn and disappears under the tree, its burnished tail a flick of final copper light.  And the watcher is overwhelmed by the memory of the tiny hand of the child in its mother’s arms opening and closing, as if feeling out for the shape of this new life.