Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Soul and Body


Lent 2020 - Day 35

There's hardly anything in the New Testament about looking after your body. Psalms 90:10 (Old Testament) says: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years". Two thousand-plus years of medical progress suggests that today, fivescore years should be what to shoot for.

The purpose of a long and healthy life is to acquire knowledge and wisdom; if you are by nature a generalist, longevity gives you time to deepen your knowledge. And if you are a specialist, you get the time to broaden your specialisms. And the purpose of that wisdom is to bring you closer to God.

In building my own religion, I'd place a deep importance on keeping yourself as fit as your genes allow you to be - careful with the diet and plenty of exercise. Until my mid-30s, I pretty much ignored that advice; it was only the onset of fatherhood and having dependent children made me reflect upon my ways. My first Lent (a modest one - just cutting out alcohol and confectionery) was the time of conception of Moni, my fourth Lent was when Eddie was conceived.

The annual ritual - habit now - stretching back to 1992 - was originally just a time to detoxify the body, but over the decades, Lent has taken on a far more mystical meaning for me. But the physical elements of Lent are still there. It has been the time for me to take up new exercising and dietary habits and then stretch them out over the year. No longer about self-denial and self-discipline (over the years I've taken it into my stride and 46 days without drink, meat, confectionery, fast-food etc is a doddle) - it's about extending my lifespan through improved health.

Diet first. Bang in your five, six, seven or more portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day, every day. Totally (and I mean totally) cut out all sugars from your diet except that which comes from fruit or not-from-concentrate fruit juices. You can't live for more than a few days without salt. It is essential for kidney function. But you can live forever without sugar. If my religion were to have any dietary proscriptions à la Halal or Kosher, it would be a total ban on processed sugar. Alcohol - aim for that 14 units-a-week target, drink only for a purpose - to socialise, for artistic inspiration - never sup back 'empty' units.

Keeping a log helps. Consistency is key - you need to monitor yourself. I've been doing this on a spreadsheet now for the seventh year, not missing a day's data since 1 January 2014. And - being very careful not to bring down bad karma by getting complacent - it's been working. So far. GRATITUDE! Average blood pressure this week has been 112/79 (without recourse to any tablets, I must add).



Q1 2018
Q1 2019
Q1 2020
Paces walked (daily average)
10.1k
11.3k
11.2k
Pull-ups (daily average)
9
8
16
Press-ups (daily average)
65
104
109
Plank (total time for quarter)
-
3 hrs 44 mins
5 hrs 49 mins
Alcohol (units/week average)
10.6
12.1
9.4
Portions fruit & veg (daily average)
5.2
5.6
6.1


The walking's down because the last two weeks' covid-19 lockdown has meant I've only been for the one stroll, just to do the obligatory 10k paces, pushing down Q1 2020's average. Alcohol intake at this time of year is modest because of Lent (which is a movable fast); planks I started doing last January. There's also weights, but difficult to compare because I moved up from 3kg to 5kg and am now doing more of them in each of the three sets anyway.

What is the aim? I will answer: Pascal's Wager. In this case, I'm betting that a healthy lifestyle will prolong years of active life. If I live to 100 in good form, you'll know why. My father set me a good goal - 96 and half years, 94 of which were 'active' (as in walking unaided, driving a car, mental acuity on form). If I sit back and do nothing, I will atrophy, my body will start winding down. It should be a mitzvah in any religion to take utmost care of your health with the overarching purpose of fulfilling one's human potential to the maximum degree. But without filling that longer, healthier life with greater wisdom, you are not progressing along that Eternal Journey from Zero to One. That's the true goal.

This time two years ago:
Religion and Happiness - a Lenten summary

This time three years ago:
Health and fitness in a Quarter of Abstinence

This time seven years ago:


This time nine years ago:
Cycling to work - the new season begins

This time ten years ago:  
Five weeks into Lent

Monday, 30 March 2020

What goes round comes around


Lent 2020 - Day 34

From en.wiktionary.org:
Proverb What goes around comes around
1. The status eventually returns to its original value after completing some sort of cycle.
2. A person's actions, whether good or bad, will often have consequences for that person.
The roundness of events, that are said to come full circle. The notion of  anacyclosis - a cyclical theory of political evolution - was devised by the ancient Greek historian Polybius, while Roman philosopher Boethius popularised the Wheel of Fortune (rota fortunae), symbolising the circular nature of Fate. Change is invariable; inflection points major and minor come into our lives - some we notice, some we don't - but do they lead us back to where were before - or do they take us to a higher level?

Does the status indeed return to its original value at the end of the cycle? Człowiek uczy się całe życie, a i tak umiera głupi? ["Man learns all his life, nevertheless dies stupid" - Polish proverb.] This, dear reader, is fatalism and fatalism is dangerous. I see not a circle, but a spiral*. Yes, we come round, but we do so one level higher. We do learn; we learn all the time, but we don't learn fast enough and we don't draw the right conclusions, or enough from the conclusions. But we have a whole eternity in which to learn. There is so much to learn, that it may seem to you that we have learned apparently nothing, but we have. Do you remember as a child thinking: "There is so much to grasp - everything is so complicated - I'll never understand it?"

We are no longer living in the Dark Ages, nor the Middle Ages; Auschwitz is behind us - we must never forget. Nor get complacent. Onward and upward - looking back, looking down, we can see where we once were, but looking up - can we see where we'll be? Where we're going?

The last global pandemic spread through the human species just as WW1 was reaching its bloody climax. Spanish flu hit a population bereft of electron microscopes, without antibiotics, ventilators, hand sterilisers, mass-media promoting good hygiene - and 50 million died. We have learned as a species - but not well enough. Next time - there will be a next time - we'll do better. We've managed 75 years without a world war, we've managed to avoid nuclear holocaust - but we must not get complacent. Nor in our private lives, all 7.8 billion of them, nor as societies, economies, nations. Complacency is our greatest enemy as a species, heuristically believing that because today is pretty much like yesterday, tomorrow will be like today.

If there's a word I can repeat endlessly, mantra-like, it's gratitude. And in a grateful frame of mind we can approach God in prayer, asking for awareness, until we reach... we reach... the Higher - Ground. Yes. And at this moment Stevie Wonder's song is refreshed in my memory, in the pop charts around the time of my 16th birthday. The song addresses the issue of reincarnation. Stevie Wonder said of this song: "I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around ... This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive." Another great artist touching on the metaphysical journey, the eternal evolution of consciousness.
I'm so glad that he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin'
Till I reach my highest ground


*A spiral: could this be the symbol I've been looking for?

This time two years ago:
Winter returned for a morning
[What goes around comes around - same this afternoon!]

This time three years ago:
Globalisation and the politics of identity

This time six years ago:
More photos from Edinburgh

This time seven years ago:
Edinburgh continues to fascinate

This time eight years ago:
Ealing in bloom - early spring

This time 12 years ago:
Swans arrive in Jeziorki

[The same pair are back again this year!]

Sunday, 29 March 2020

"On my planet there is no disease"


Lent 2020 - Day 33

Where does this quote come from? These words have stuck with me for 30 years or more. While I seek an answer, I have devised a thought experiment.

Imagine that your consciousness is that of a being from another world - another galaxy even - vastly more evolved than humanity. But you are in human form. Brought up among humans, you interact with them, maintaining your cover; you observe them and their world closely, and you compare them. You have the wisdom. You see just how far they still have to go to catch up.

How does your world compare to Planet Earth in the early 21st century?

"Disease - eliminated aeons ago, along with war, poverty and natural disasters. Genetic progress has conquered ageing - and death. Genetic and spiritual progress. They have also tamed hatred and anger, cruelty, greed, laziness - and ego. Extended lifespans and technology allow us to travel vast distances across space, as our experience of time is far different to yours - your centuries, we treat as mere months. We communicate via telepathy - for us, no one holds secrets. We cooperate with each other to a degree that you could not begin to imagine. Learning is all important to us. Learning in depth and in breadth. In time, you too shall see. In time."

But religion - what is the religion on my planet?

"It is science; it is knowing; it is awareness."

And what is science on your planet?

"It is aiming towards total understanding of the phenomenon you know as consciousness, distributed as it is across the Universe. Sometimes, some of your artists show they have an inkling of it too..."



This one too...




This time two years ago:
A Brief History of Time review (Part II)

This time five years ago:
"We don't need no [tertiary] education"

This time six years ago:

Arthur's Seat - Edinburgh's urban mountain

This time six years ago:
Heaven

This time seven years ago:
A wee taste of Edinburgh


This time 11 years ago:
Forward go the clocks

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Divine intervention


Lent 2020 - Day 32

"Divine intervention/Always my intention/So I take my time" - Mother of Pearl, Roxy Music, from their third album, Stranded. Bryan Ferry justifies his inactivity, passivity, see-what-happens, rather than making his feelings known to a woman he admires. Fate, destiny, coincidence - or just random happenings - are balanced against driven human volition. Triumph of the individual will? Or does God step in to intervene?

Let's take two points of view:

  •  "I shape the course of events. The decisions I take determine the path that my life will follow. Belief in fate is fatalism; it is the ideology of losers."

  • "Our lives are predetermined. Everything that happens to us has been preordained from above; there's nothing we can do to influence the final outcome."

Which point of view is nearer to yours? If you accept determinism - then what's the point of striving for anything in life? If you believe in your powers to shape the way your life turns out, have your plans taken into consideration the possibility of external random events interfering? At this critical time for civilisation, many of us with plans are having to put them to one side, to wait out the pandemic, before returning to our chosen course. Is this a moment for determinists to point out the futility of trying to shape one's destiny? Does God step in to intervene in our affairs?

The debate between free will and determinism has been present in mankind's discourse since the dawning of philosophy. It would be worth reading both Wikipedia articles linked above as well as some of the philosophical concepts related to the two, such as fatalism and indeterminism.

Accepting the existence of these two contradictory world views, it seems to me that both extremes are clearly wrong - fatalism leads to inaction while stubborn belief in the strength of one's will engenders a harmful arrogance (as witnessed in the current occupant of the White House).

We are always teetering on the edge of chaos (now more so than at any previous time in my life since the end of the Cold War. Is it better to make plans in the anticipation that no unforeseen circumstance (the outbreak of war, accident or illness) will render them invalid? I am minded of stories of Polish farmers in the 1960s who held back from working too hard on their land lest WW3 broke out.

To what extent can we will ourselves good luck? To what extent are our prayers answered? How aligned are we to the forces shaping the way the Universe unfolds?

The sun also rises
There is in the Jewish mystical tradition the concept of the Lamed Vavniks - the 36 righteous people on earth, in each generation, that protect the world. They justify the purpose of mankind to God. Guardians, if you like, of us all. The fact that mankind has not as yet been wiped out in a mass extinction event could be put down to their intervention on our behalf. But each generation has its burden. My visit to the Auschwitz museum when I was 18, had a profound impact on my faith - how could an omnipotent God allow such bestial horrors to happen on such a scale? In Europe? How could millions of utterly innocent humans - so many of them children - be murdered in such a cold-blooded, organised way? What was their place in God's eternal plan? Does God have a plan?

I gave up on God as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. But I did not give up on God. There is no plan, no roadmap, but there is an Unfolding. There is a purpose to the Universe, a common destination for all matter, for all consciousness. We are too lowly in our intellectual ability and our spiritual evolution to grasp more than just fragments, rays, intimations. We must be open to them, not shut them out because of the rationalist materialism that blinds us to wonder.

God steps in when we are open to God, when we are filled with gratitude for our sentient life, when we are aware of our consciousness and its place in the Universe. If you believe that it's more than one life, and with each one, awareness grows, and that eternal thread grows stronger, more tangible.


This time last year:
Oblique views of Warsaw from the air

This time six years ago
On Calton Hill, Edinburgh

This time seven years ago:
Doomsday - the Last Judgment

This time eight years ago:
Sunny Scotland at 23.9C 


This time ten years ago:


Friday, 27 March 2020

Divine inspiration


Lent 2020 - Day 31

True talent, talent that belongs to the ages, is rare. The precious gift to uplift, to communicate the deepest insights in whatever form - music, visual arts, drama, poetry - storytelling across the media - has been held in highest esteem across all cultures. Since the dawn of mankind, the gifted artist has had a special place in society.

I would posit that the greatest of those have been touched by something divine - a restless sixth sense of the Unrealised - of that destination to which we're heading. An essential element of a great work of art is that is has to speak to the truth of the human condition, to reach into the consciousness of the reader /listener/ viewer who says - "yes, this is how it is". It could be a new realisation, it could be an eternal truth retold in such a way that adds new insights, building on what we've hitherto understood - a flash of light through a facet of the diamond.

The ancients believed that lightning was a crack in the sky through which the glorious light of Heaven could be fleetingly seen. It is this light (in a metaphorical sense) that manifests itself in great art, in great music.

Like other divine powers, distributed across the entire population, talent is rare and weak. Mastery of the craft - musicianship or the technical side of painting is one thing. Quite another is to have one's own distinctive 'voice', having something profound to say and the wherewithal to do it originally. And to reach people's souls down the ages. It is that which separates the truly gifted from mere entertainers. The test of time is really the only test of art. Creating a great work of art is a like launching a satellite; it requires a great deal of energy to escape the clutches of gravity and enter earth's orbit; but once up there, it can stay in the firmaments for the ages.

Having willed myself to write daily throughout Lent (helped to some extent by the virus curfew), I can see the benefit of self-discipline in the creative process. It's about creating a body of work; not all of it resonates. Reading Shakespeare even, one can see a great many throw-away lines that bulk out the plays between those really memorable quotes. Most LPs will have duff tracks on them. Not every painting will be a masterpiece. But if the artist has the self-discipline and the focus to keep expanding a body of work, then the hit-rate will grow over time.

Even so, divine inspiration is called for. You don't know where it came from; 'automatic writing', consciously trying to channel, or just picking up snatches of melody that come to the mind while sleeping - and indeed, dream images. As you sleep, you may think you are lying still in a bed standing on a floor of a house or flat standing on a patch of land. But that building, that bed, is actually on a planet that's spinning (at the latitude of Warsaw or London) at 642 mph (1,033 km/h) while hurtling around the sun at a speed of 66,619 mph (107,230 km/h), and rushing through our galaxy at 515,000 mph (828,000 km/h). And as you travel in your bed at these improbable speeds, you sweep through oceans of invisible energy, particles, waves, fields... your consciousness swims through it, you are a part of an unfolding universe, on its way towards its destination.

Be open to it, open to the dreams that can form the basis of art, great or small, insights that drop into the mind unbidden. One must be receptive to that; be equipped with the means to record the significant thoughts (I'm never been without a notebook and pen since May 2010). Most of the content is work-related; one end of the notebook is to do with work, the other end (always the thinner, I must confess) is random jottings, ideas and thoughts captured after passing through my mind. Musicians and artists are rarely far from the means of getting that inspired melody or sketch idea onto paper (or electronic media). It's one thing having a phone, another to use it this way!


Talent is a genetic gift, made manifest through devoted hours of practice, the result of will. The divine spark cannot be negated. Most people have their favourite musicians, poets, novelists, film-makers, artists who have made their lives richer, bringing insights that have broadened horizons.

And as a final thought, it's worth remembering that great religious art reached its apogee in the Renaissance, which began in Italy as the Black Death abated in the middle of the 14th century. Will that happen again? 

This time last year:
SO?

This time two years ago:
A Brief History of Time reviewed

This time three years ago:
Eyes without a face

This time four years ago:
London blooms in yellow

This time five years ago:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time six years ago:
Scotland and its language 

This time seven years ago:
Death, our sister

This time nine years ago:
The iconic taste of Marmite


This time ten years ago:

This time 11 years ago:

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Time - religion and metaphysics


Lent 2020 - Day 30

How religion sees time is interesting. I was thinking about the second verse of the traditional Polish carol Wśród nocnej ciszy while writing yesterday's post about prophesy, and in it pops the notion of time:

Ach, witaj Zbawco z dawna żądany,
Cztery tysiące lat wyglądany
Na Ciebie króle, prorocy
Czekali, a Tyś tej nocy
Nam się objawił.

"We greet ye, Saviour, desired for ages,
Looked out for for four thousand years,
For you kings and prophets
Waited, and you this night
Appeared to us."

Jesus's birth to a virgin was foretold for a period of time twice as long before his birth as the time between His birth and our age. But four thousand years - to be more accurate, four thousand and four years, was the span of time between the creation of the Earth by God and the birth of Jesus, according to Archbishop Ussher, Primate of All Ireland, in 1650. The Augustinian notion of the Six Ages of the World, which inspired Ussher, stems from II Peter 3:8 - "One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." The interpretation was taken to mean that mankind would live through six 1,000 year periods, with the seventh being eternity in heaven. Taking this literally, Ussher indicated that Jesus would come again in glory to judge the living and the dead around 2000 AD.

Pre-Enlightenment Man lived in the here and now. A lifetime was, well, a lifetime. There was no notion of bigly huge numbers; there were stars and there were planets, but these were just 'up there', rather than billions of light years away. Time passed with the seasons. A time to sow, a time to reap. And after a gruelling life of toil, a time to die, and then hopefully to rest in God's eternal home.

Science has given us a grasp of the enormity of the universe, helped by mathematical notations such as orders of magnitude. We understand time better than our forefathers, and yet... and yet.

I have written about the late Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Carlo Rovelli's (much briefer) The Order of Time. Rovelli's more recent work (30 years after Hawking) has the advantage of being easier to grasp conceptually and of benefiting from 30 additional years of theoretical physics to draw on. Both books advance our (layperson's) perception greatly.

The key lesson from Rovelli is that time goes from past to future, in one, irreversible direction only, because of entropy. Rudolf Clausius's equation for entropy change, ΔS ≥1 is, according to Rovelli, "the only equation of fundamental physics that knows any difference between past and future. The only one that speaks of the flowing of time." This is is significant in the age of quantum mechanics; other equations are reversible, whereas if you leave a glass of hot water in a cold room, the water will only tend to get cold. It is here we can witness the passage of time.

Time is granular; it comes in units. The shortest unit of time is Planck time (5.39 x 10-44 second), the time it takes light to travel one Planck length (1.616 x 10-35 second, the shortest unit of distance in the universe) in a vacuum. Both being discrete units, there is no thing as half a Planck time or a third of a Planck length; they are absolutes.

All well and good, but how do we perceive time and why is important to religion, especially in the context of prophesy? As we age, we perceive time to accelerate. This is because our consciousness has experienced more of it when we're older; for a ten year-old, one year represents 10% of their lifetime. For a 50 year-old, one year represents but 2% of their lifetime. You are accelerating towards the end of your days, from the moment you become conscious of the passage of time as an infant.

For religions, the End of Days has to be sufficiently close at hand to be scary - this makes the social control function easier to apply. I am an optimist; I do believe there's an infinitely long-term plan for our universe. Stretch out your horizons beyond one human life-span and eternity sitting on a cloud with a harp praising God sounds a bit limited.

The past, on the other hand, is as illusory as the future. When I wake up each morning, the past (the recent past, the distant past) are no more than a tool-bag of useful experience that's required to live out the rest of my life. Artefacts are on the shelf; books, photos, mementos that nudge the memory and draw out memories. But memories - those qualia memories of subjective experiences from the past - can come unbidden, or can be triggered by smells, sights, sounds, sensations or tastes.

These form the thread that link the current you - the current assemblage of atoms, molecules and proteins - the stuff that knit you - and what you once were. The notion that there's not a single atom in you that was there nine years ago (quoted by Bill Bryson) or seven years ago (quoted by Richard Swinburne) becomes significant. Rationalists would say that your long-term memory is stored somewhere within your brain. However, science has yet to pin it down, or even define 'memory' on agreed terms. Those memories from your past abide within you, despite the 'youness' of you having changed over time. So when you reach back to a memory from decades ago - an embarrassing childhood moment that can still make you cringe - and there you are - that's your soul.

This time four years ago:
Easter Everywhere, Lent reaches an end

This time eight years ago:
Sunset shots, first bike ride to work

This time ten years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time 11 years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time 12 years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Prophetic


Lent 2020 - Day 29

For Teresa (who foresaw this post)

Most religions go in for prophesy - soothsaying, consulting the oracle. Claimed knowledge of what will happen is often used as an instrument for maintaining control over the faithful.

Last Saturday morning, I dreamt of earthquakes, and tweeted about the dream on Twitter. 24 hours later, it transpired that an earthquake struck Croatia.

Sceptics could rightly argue that earthquakes happen all the time (they do), and that not every earthquake is heralded by a dream of mine (they are not). One could also argue that my recurring dreams of seeing planes plunge to earth hardly ever presage an actual plane crash.

However, I do feel that precognition is one of the paranormal senses that we have, albeit in most of us it's extremely weak - too weak to even recognise (to quote from The Overload by Talking Heads). But it's there, and as we evolve spiritually, so our awareness of what's outside the here-and-now will steadily grow. We have become rationalists over the past three centuries; our default position is to seek to explain away anomalous experiences with established science.

Precognition is notoriously impossible to pin down (I'd argue because it's a quantum event requiring the presence of an external conscious observer); attempts at proving/disproving it are futile. Read too much into prophesy, take it too literally, and you will go astray - as followers of so many doomsday cults have discovered to their cost. Prophesy is claiming foreknowledge of events to come, prophets claim they see the future. The Old Testament contains the prophecies of 33 prophets.

The central tenets of Christianity are based on Jewish prophesy; that the Messiah shall be born in David's city, that the Messiah shall ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, that He shall be put to death unjustly and shall rise again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom shall have not end. As the Scriptures have foretold. Eschatology - the end of things - is present in the Old and the New Testament, ending with the Book of Revelations.

My big prophesies? That humankind will survive and evolve for millions of years to come, disseminating across the galaxy, growing in wisdom, curiosity, awareness and psychic powers, becoming kinder and gentler along the way, losing that primitive anger and ego, rising above base biology. Homo sapiens will evolve into a higher being, more angelic in behaviour, more infantile in appearance. At some point, biologically, Homo s. will become a new, genetically separate species.

We will will it. Along the way there will be tribulations, one step back for each two steps forward, but each setback will be dealt with in a more efficient way due to improved science and processes. And each tribulation will only happen when folk memory of the previous one is erased by time, when complacency creeps in. The eternal thread that is your consciousness will see the universe unfold, it will not witness it as 'you', only in the form of intimations of having lived before flashing back; these will get stronger, more tangible, with each successive incarnation.

When will the world end? Wikipedia has listed all the dates that various religions and cults have claimed will be the end of the world. None mention a global flu pandemic in 2020.

However, the Ancients Mayans, who predicted that the world would end on 12 December 2012 were about as right as I was about an earthquake in Turkey and Japan - I think they got it very slightly right.

This time two years ago:
New bus stop for Karczunkowska

This time three years ago:
"Jeziorki bogged down in railway mud"

This time four years ago:
Ideas, and how they take hold

This time five years ago:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

This time 12 years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

The secret and the hidden


Lent 2020 - Day 28

Any discussion of building your own religion must touch upon the hermetic, the occult, the arcane, the esoteric - layers of deeply hidden secrets only to be revealed upon learning by those who seek. Hidden from the masses, the secret teachings of esotericism have sought a common denominator across all religions, a universal truth, though available only to properly-schooled initiates, who have braved ordeals in order to reach the next level.

From the Gnostics and Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Theosophical Society, through to various New Age movements, the idea of such ideas guarded down the ages from the uninitiated masses have had appeal. Symbols with hidden meanings, secret teachings, passwords, ritual, trance and transcendence inspire curiosity and a desire to discover; the more deeply hidden, the more one wants to find out. The success of books such as The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose or Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series of novels demonstrates how powerful the concept of hidden secrets in religions is, and how tightly guarded they are. We all love a good mystery!

Mainstream religions have their mystical traditions - Sufism in Islam, the Kabbalah in Judaism both draw on centuries of revelations reserved for those intent on deep immersion in hidden knowledge. Christianity, however, has tended to frown on esotericism as something difficult to control; something said to be associated with the dark arts - black magic - tainted with Satanism even.

Science too frowns upon esotericism, seeing little difference between mystical traditions and organised religions. In seeking a universal spiritual dimension of reality, esotericism rejects both the rationalist one based on physical laws, and the established religions based on institutions and dogma.

Here I find common ground with esotericism, but I also extend my hand to science for its monist view of the universe, and equally to religion for its belief in a divinity and afterlife (though I differ as to how those two are defined). In rejecting aspects of science and religion and simultaneously embracing aspects of both, I seek to bring the two closer together. By sifting that which divides from that which brings them together. And this unifying factor would be the awe and wonder that one feels when considering the universe.

What would be my religion's mystical secrets? Brought up on Roxy Music, I can see the influence of songwriter Bryan Ferry upon my aesthetic preferences; while the second side of their second album, For Your Pleasure, carries me off to different planes, it is the third track on the first side, Strictly Confidential, that touches on the esoteric: "Before I die I'll write this letter/Here are the secrets you must know/Until the cloak of evening shadow/Changes to mantle of the dawn." And then the dialogue between the narrator and the 'voices': "Haunting me always are the voices [Tell us are you ready now] Sometimes I wonder if they're real [We're ready to receive you now]". Powerful stuff for the 15-year-old's imagination. Give the song a listen, do...



Moments of joy, contemplating a starry night, gratitude for being alive, threads of metaphysical connection between the past and the present.


This time two years ago:
Afterlife - a myriad possibilities, after the Magic has returned
[By coincidence, this theme is continued, in a post from 2018!]

This time three years ago:
Warsaw photo catch-up (Rotunda going down)

This four years ago:
Conscious of being conscious

This time five years ago:
New road and retail

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time nine years ago:
What's Polish for 'commuter'?

This time ten years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Monday, 23 March 2020

The Physical and the Metaphysical
- science and religion


Lent 2020 - Day 27

For my brother, Marek

Last  Lent (or was it two Lents ago), Marek took me to task for using the word 'spiritual' too loosely, so I started using 'metaphysical' instead, to mean much the same thing. So I should define these terms then.

'Soul' or 'spirit' - the words sound archaic; unscientific. So I have taken to using 'consciousness' or 'awareness' - philosopher Richard Swinburne uses them interchangeably with 'soul' and 'spirit'. And so we move to the link between the world of religion and the word of science, and it is the notion of consciousness. Or spirit.

Consciousness - is it a field, or is it granular, and if so, what's its smallest unit of measurement (Planck length, Planck time*) asks Marek... Indeed - can one ever measure consciousness?

Damn good question! I would posit that consciousness would be analogous to gravity and mass; the more massive an object is, the more gravitational force is has. How that gravity works - science cannot yet tell us. At the macro level yes, but at the subatomic level, at Planck length, theories of gravity break down. General relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible. Science cannot (yet?) tell us how the two interact, yet interact they must - otherwise there'd be no universe.

As to consciousness - we're even further away from cracking that one. Consciousness over time is an interesting concept; we are acutely aware of how time can either be subjectively seem to drag or fly depending on what we're doing. My *PAFF* moment qualia flashbacks are always brief; evaporating like snowflakes on the palm of my hand. Are their length a measurable unit of consciousness over time? The function t must feature in any equation describing consciousness...

It's somewhere out there on the horizon
Suffice to say, the more advanced the life form, the higher its level of consciousness. We are unable to know one another's subjective experience (qualia); how can we do any more than guess what an elephant, whale, chimp or cat is subjectively experiencing at any given moment. Yet we are sure they are sentient. I recall Dorota Sumińska on TokFM talking about her days in veterinary school where she was asked to milk a cow on a farm. When the cow turned around to see an unfamiliar person approach, the look of surprise on its face persuaded her that cows are just as conscious as we are - except they cannot communicate it very well. Rats, mice, birds certainly possess sentience too. Fish? Prawns? Toads? I don't know.

[I am not a vegetarian but don't eat meat at Lent - I could quite easily come off meat for good, but cheese and fish I would find hard to abandon. Eating less meat is something we should all do for our planet's - and our species' future.]

Marek recently questioned my (over) use of the phrase 'subjective experience', and yet that's at the heart of my quest to reconcile the religious with the scientific. It stands at the very intersection of the two worlds. If I were to build my own religion, its reconciliation with science would be a key feature.

*'Planck time' (5.39 x 10-44 second) is the shortest unit of time in the universe, the time it takes light to travel one Planck length (1.616 x 10-35 second, the shortest unit of distance in the universe) in a vacuum. Both being discrete units, there is no thing as half a Planck time or a third of a Planck length; they are absolutes. What would the equivalent unit of consciousness be?

This time last year:
Marchin'

This time three years ago:
A leader for our times

This time four years ago:
Social justice - the Church and inequality

This time five years ago:
Google Street View comes to Poland


Sunday, 22 March 2020

Intimations of Immortality


Lent 2020 - Day 26

Upon my sunset walk today I neared the tracks by where the old Ballast Mountain has now been replaced by an earthen one. I was contemplating how great artists - writers, poets, musicians, actors - can raise one's attentions away from the mundane towards the soaring, the numinous, the divine. I was humming Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis to myself when...

*PAFF* Unbidden, into my consciousness, into my train of thought, leapt suddenly the phrase 'Intimations of Immortality'. Surely, 'intimations of mortality' - those first inklings that a middle-aged person has of no longer being indestructible and eternally young? No, It was 'Intimation of Immortality'. At home I checked. Yes! It's a lengthy Wordsworth poem (too long for our first-year English class at grammar school, but I would have heard of it, or read of it, for sure).

The poem's full title is Ode: Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood; it clearly carries in it Wordsworth's conviction of having lived before. This is the fifth stanza:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The soul that rises with us, our life's star
     Hath had elsewhere its setting
     And cometh from afar.
     Not in entire forgetfulness
     And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
          From God who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy
Shades of the prison house begin to close
          Upon the growing boy;
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows
          He sees it in his joy.
The youth who daily farther from the East
Must travel, still is nature's priest
     And by the vision splendid
     Is on his way attended.
At length the man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.
Out childhood Godlike innocence becomes tarnished as we age; the theme of Wordsworth's poem is slowly losing that connection with the Infinite in adulthood. A few days ago I quote Shakespeare's Hamlet - "To die, to sleep/Perchance to dream" - and here we have the the opening of the parentheses; "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting/The soul that rises with us."

While I share Wordsworth's sentiment about the wonder that a child remembers (as I do, so much) from early childhood, my own experience is not of that wonder "fading into the light of common day", but of a sense of its continual refinement. As long as we remember, hang on, to that childhood wonder, and seek the sublime.

Look at the faces of some new-born children - not all, just some - the ones with faces that tell of a consciousness at work, trying to make sense of what's around them... In our earliest infancy, the world around us consisted of shapeless blocks, vague monoliths, from which, with age and experience - and the chisel of thought - emerge statues of understanding. From out of crude lumps of unhewn observation they emerge, honed ever more finely, more delicately nuanced, catalogued more precisely, with each passing year. Watch that infant's wide, unfocused eyes play over an unfamiliar room, pulling together sense and structure from what is around him. Have they seen this all before. No...?

We edge slowly along from uncertainty towards certainty, from darkness to light - yet we are not even the tiniest fraction of the way along the infinitely long road from Zero to One. One life, one consciousness, one brief chance - is this to be our only glimpse into the marvellous process?

I don't believe it to be the case. The journey is long; much learning lies ahead. We must learn to overcome the reptile in the brain, that dim, brutal, angry and selfish animal within us, the ego, and allow in the angelic; this is spiritual evolution; willing yourself ever closer along that eternal path towards God-ness, towards absolute understanding; total Universal unity and infinite consciousness.

Our bodies will die, but the atoms that make this "shell of foam", those atoms maintaining formation within the molecules of our DNA, within our protein, maintaining our current consciousness - those atoms will keep on spinning as they have done so for many billions of years. "The stuff that knit me blew hither/Here am I!" wrote A.E. Housman. While that stuff is together, assembled as us - what will we have taught it?

And those atoms, those quanta of consciousness, will return from the dark collective of that rich loam once more as individual and conscious life, they will be another tiny step closer to God. There is a seamless continuum which our souls observe through myriad eyes. We live, we learn, we die, we are reborn; it must happen a countless number of times, each one level closer the Whole. There is something of the Socratic concept of anamnesis here. Socrates' theory suggested that the soul is immortal, and repeatedly incarnated; knowledge is in the soul from eternity, but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the trauma of birth. I'd suggest not so much knowledge, but spiritual wisdom, which is honed ever more finely with each successive incarnation.

This is the same William Wordsworth, whose poem The Daffodils introduced me to the concept of the qualia memory, the flashback ("When oft upon my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood/They flash upon that inward eye/That is the bliss of solitude")

Are you familiar with Vaughn Williams' Fantasia? I mentioned Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) a few days ago; this is the piece that inspired Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) to compose an orchestral piece four centuries after Tallis's time. This is Psalm 2, set to music by Tallis. [The text of Psalm 2, though based on a later translation of the Bible, crops up again in Handel's Messiah as Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together?, an entirely different sound.]




This time last year:
Peace of Mind

This time four years ago:
The Name of God and the Consciousness of Everything


This time seven years ago:
The Church and Democracy

This time eight years ago:
Prime lens or zoom?

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Chances, complacency and Gratitude


Lent 2020 - Day 25

I assume like me you've not had the coronavirus yet; I've confined myself to the house (with a daily stroll keeping at least two arms' lengths from the tiny handful of passers-by) for the duration, but how long the duration? Weeks or months or years? No one knows; we're in a situation that few humans alive today can remember. Anyone old enough to remember the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20 from childhood would have to be over 105. Reading the works of Wiech, written in 1930s Warsaw, one comes across the curse 'ciężka grypa' ('jasna cholera' is still in the Polish vocabulary, but the 'flu related one isn't). By 1923, global markets are making up losses, the US is into the 'Roaring Twenties', the pandemic largely forgotten in popular culture, the horror of the trenches on the Western Front less so.

Looking at the spread of covid-19 and the woeful lack of preparedness of healthcare systems around the world, one thing is clear - it will affect everyone. Italy is some 14 days ahead of the UK, which is about ten days ahead of Poland in terms of numbers of confirmed cases and deaths.

It's a numbers game. Your chances of contracting the virus increase every day as the number of cases (confirmed by test or not) rises. The number of cases per million is rising, and with them your odds of avoiding covid-19 are dropping - from one in a million, to one in 500,000, to one in 100,000, to one in 50,000 and so on. Leave the virus to spread at the current rate (doubling every three to five days) and soon it will be down to one in ten. And then evens.

Can you will chance?

You can take precautions. You can wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds, avoid touching your face, practice social distancing, but given the speed of the spread, your chances of coming into contact with the virus and getting into your nasal, oral or ocular mucous membranes will increase. Touching shopping, touching your food will become riskier.

It becomes binary. You either catch Covid-19 or you don't. If you do, you either get mild symptoms or severe symptoms. With severe symptoms, you could end up in an intensive care unit. If you do, you'll either recover or you won't.

Below: this table is from the Imperial College study that persuaded the UK government from ditching its previous 'herd-immunity' strategy to its current one.


Looking at my age group (60-69), I can see that if I do catch the virus and develop the symptoms, I've a one-in-six chance of ending up in hospital; if I do end up in hospital, I've a one-in-four chance of needing intensive care, and overall a one-in-45 chance of dying of it. The chances of catching it grow by the day. The chances of dying from it grow by the year.

Nothing to be complacent about. We can all but hope that a vaccine is around the corner, and that wider-scale testing will be rolled out to catch the carriers (especially the asymptomatic ones). Complacency is the killer; our eyes were off the ball. Individually, complacency is letting your guard down, taking unnecessary risks.

In the meanwhile, feel gratitude - for health, for life. My daily strolls, setting off before dusk, give me a chance to commune with the Eternal and Infinite, catching a sunset, marvelling in the Magic Hour.

Can you will luck? Feel grateful for each day, thank God - and don't get complacent. Whenever you feel that complacency creeping into your train of thought - slap it down, consciously!

My life goals today are mainly metaphysical, reaching out for a greater understanding of what it is that makes us human, where our spiritual needs come from, searching for that among my qualia memories, seeking out spirit of place that bring peace of mind.

Meditation helps, a short, simple moment of calming oneself down, focusing on breathing, on existing - something that can be done at home, before falling asleep - a quick, easy way to regain peace of mind.

Calling on the Love of God, seeking that inner hug, that welling up of tears of joy - it's not something that everyone can do; and not always are you in the right mood, but try, and you may be able to surround yourself with an aura of universal peace. Then is the time to pray for the world.

This time six years ago:
The clash of narratives

This time seven years ago:

This time eight years ago:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time nine years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time ten years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time 11 years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time 12 years ago:
Snowy Easter in England




Friday, 20 March 2020

Refutation (II)


Lent 2020 - Day 24

"Michael - you're indulging in wishing thinking. The world - the universe around us, it is physical - observable, measurable. We're born - we die - get over it. Death ends all, it snuffs out our brief span of being conscious. No one has yet returned from the dead to tell us about it. Religion is nothing more than a collection of folk myths, woven into an easily-digested ideology and used to control societies. To offer people the carrot of immortality in return for good behaviour. 

"The Enlightenment opened mankind's eyes to the scientific method, to the need for provable, repeatable experiments, peer review and data-driven analysis. Newton, Darwin and Einstein gave us the tools to understand ourselves and the universe we inhabit. A 'divine hand' to steer the process is no longer necessary; the laws of physics explain how the universe functions. Divine destiny? Kismet? Karma? All superstition. Coincidence woven into faux narratives. Dressed up in fairy tales. Religion is so riddled with many cognitive biases it's hard to know where to start.

"Don't concern yourself with mystical woo based on pseudo-science - it will get you nowhere. Just focus on being a good human being. Be kind to others, be charitable, make the existence of everyone around you as pain-free as possible. Work hard, fulfil your human potential, look after your health. That's enough."

Well no, it's not enough. 

I don't refute science, it has brought many marvels into our lives, not least my ability to write to you via this medium. Medicine has greatly advanced thanks to science. Our understanding of physics at subatomic and cosmic scales has increased vastly over the past century. But it would be wrong to shut out the sense of wonder of just how unlikely it has been that we are here, thinking, alive, conscious. The astronomically huge coincidence that the laws of physics allowed conscious life to observe the expanding universe, which, despite the advances of scientific knowledge, is still full of mystery.

We are still a long way from understanding how our Universe began - whether it's one of many (in a cycle of Big Bangs, expansions, contractions and so on), or just this one (then what?), or whether indeed there's an infinite number of universes as well as our own. We don't know. And we are far from knowing what drives the increasing acceleration of our Universe's expansion. Dark Matter and Dark Energy? What are they? Nothing more than mathematical stop-gaps? And was there consciousness before life, or is consciousness an emergent property of life? Does consciousness exist throughout the Universe(s)?

We appreciate that lower-order mammals - our pets - display irrefutable hallmarks of consciousness as do cephalopods - octopus and squid. But biologists are beginning to appreciate that signs of consciousness can be found within amoeba and paramecium, which can show feelings and can learn. Very well.

But below that level? If (and it's one of the greatest 'ifs' that science has yet to prove or disprove), consciousness exists as a universal property - a proto-consciousness, a building block, like an electron or proton - then what's at that macro, galactic level?

[My brother asked me a great question last night - whether such a proto-consciousness is a field or whether it is granular and what would be the smallest unit, like Planck time or Planck distance.]

I would like to posit the notion of consciousness evolving, reaching ever-higher levels, and that such an evolutionary pathway is nothing less than the purpose of the universe. Prove me wrong.

There's one question I have when I ponder the Universe -

IT... JUST... IS...?

How is it? Why is it?

I'm trying to make sense of it philosophically as well as scientifically.

This time last year:
Young Betjeman by Bevis Hillier

This time three years ago:
The mature mind's power over the instincts

This time eight years ago:
Welcome to spring

This time nine years ago:
Giving way or standing firm?

This time ten years ago:
Summerhouses near Okęcie

This time 11 years ago:
A truly British icon

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Refutation (I)


Lent 2020 - Day 23

"Michael - you were born into the Catholic Church, you were baptised, taking the name of the Archangel Michael; you have taken the Holy Sacraments - you were brought up a Catholic, you were versed in the Catechism, Sunday Schools, you went to a Catholic grammar school, where you were taught Religious Instruction by priests.

"And yet you have chosen to reject the way of Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, who died on the Cross and rose again from the dead to save your soul!

"Two thousand years of religious doctrine, shaped by St Paul, by thinkers such as St Augustine and St Thomas of Aquinas, you blithely reject out of arrogant pride - believing that you know better? You concoct a story, based on dreams, and choose to shape this into a belief system that explains your purpose within God's creation? And to share this, to propagate it among other people?

"You turn your back on the faith of your forefathers, the national religion of your beloved homeland? This is the religion that saw Poland hold firm against invaders and occupants over the centuries!

"You reject the Holy Bible, the Gospels of the New Testament, the Good News given to Man that he may find salvation and everlasting life in the Kingdom of God?"

I do indeed. I distance myself from the Catholic Church, from Christianity, in my rejection of dogma. The stuff about the Holy Trinity I don't get, and Jesus's divinity and resurrection from the dead, the Virgin Birth I can't accept either literally or metaphysically. I first found myself diverging from the Church as a teenager; as an adult and parent I paid lip-service for the sake of social convenience (as I suspect a great many churchgoers in Poland do). In a universe of a billion galaxies each consisting of a billion stars, the notion of  Terrestrial exceptionalism doesn't persuade me. And I particularly refute the notion of appropriating God, Jesus and Mary for the nation-state. It runs counter to any serious theology.

However, I stand with Christians, Jews and Muslims in believing firmly in One God. Creator of all things visible and invisible. And along with many religious people I believe that there is life after death - although I differ from them as to how I believe that afterlife is defined and experienced. I also differ with most established religions as to how I see that God - certainly not anthropomorphic, not a wise old patriarch with a beard, not a King, nor a Lord. I also stand firmly alongside religious people against atheism in believing that there is something greater than the here-and-now; the notion of an ultimate destiny, a purpose.

We are too small, too limited, too early in our evolution to have but the slightest idea of God. In a universe as vast and as rapidly expanding as ours, traditional theology falls short of explanations. Over the past century, we have learnt so much about the universe and its structure down to the subatomic level - think how much more we shall know as a species in the next century or ten! Catholic theology, which was so powerful in the Middle Ages, never recovered its intellectual prowess after the Reformation and Enlightenment.

The Catholic Church remains a strong force for social control in Poland and many other Catholic countries, but its influence is on the wane - sadly for the wrong reasons. Materialism and rationalist reductionism I would also side against. It is a simple, observable truth that as societies get wealthier, the number of regular churchgoers declines.

Today marks the halfway point of this year's Lent.

This time last year:
Extensive and intensive living

This time four years ago:
Before Spin by Keith McDowall

This five years ago:
Mill town Łódź 

This time six years ago:
Today, a tipping point in European history

This time seven years ago:
Church and state

This time eight years ago:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw

This time ten years ago:
Lenten recipe no. 7

This time 11 years ago:
Poland's economy - upturn in sight?



Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Repeatable metaphysical experiences


Lent 2020 - Day 22

Working from home, my routine has settled down - physical exercise in the morning (press-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups weights, plank), at the laptop and phone until 17:00, then out for some paces. Out in Jeziorki, social distancing is easy as population density is low. I can walk for 90 minutes and pass within a tiny handful of people, a safe two metres apart.

The sun sets at quarter to six, so the Magic Hour - half an hour before and half an hour after sunset is encompassed by my constitutional stroll.

Last summer, I wrote about the notion of the replicable joyful experiences. Building your own religion, what would be your recipe for repeatability - being able to get that precise sensation exactly right, that moment of joy...?

A walk at dusk was one of these. Not just any dusk; the sun must be seen to be setting, the sky marbled with thin cloud to catch the iridescent afterglow of the last rays.

I found it, just as I'd left it
Here we have my Sublime Aesthetic; that precise 'This is not America' moment when all of a sudden I am transported to another time, another place. That old familiarity, that congruent moment when the current qualia of my subjective experience match a memory so perfectly that *PAFF!* I'm there again, but to a moment not of my lifetime. The flavour lingers for a few moment, before barking dogs and speeding cars return me to the here and now.

And there is a consistency linking the landscape (spirit of place) and the feeling. Digital photography gives me the tools to recreate what I saw and felt with great precision.

Crystalline and Pure. March 2018
The Sky and, beneath it, The Road. Summer 2015
Heaven's drama. Autumn 2011
Around the corner from home, and the old familiarity. Summer 2007

I am always looking to replicate the feeling so I can refine it, define it better, put it into words that will strike a chord with others. These are sensations I felt in my grey jumper'd childhood, but they squared not with suburban West London under leaden skies. It was only in Poland that I found that those childhood dreams and inexplicable flashbacks squared with what I was seeing for real.

This has triggered a search for the metaphysical links which in turn suggested a deeper mystery at play, a connecting thread between an unfolding universe and one's deepest intuition.

Can this be the basis for a personal religion?

FOOTNOTE:

The following morning (19 March), I had the following dream... It is Florida, the mid-1950s. High summer. There's some kinda parade, down by the beach. There's a succession of pedal-powered quadricycles with fringed canopies; ladies dressed as Southern belles are pedalling them along the boardwalk, four to a conveyance. I'm in the crowd watching. Excitement breaks out when someone whispers that Lucille Ball from the I Love Lucy show is among the ladies in the parade! However, I move on to the car park. There's a bright red 1955 Fire Department Oldsmobile, I join the guys who are moving it to the main road, the junction with the turn-off for the car park. They are going to park the car along the middle of the road, to marshal the traffic. There's a guy in Ancient Egyptian attire selling hot-dogs at the crossroads; we tell him we're going to be parked up here, would he mind moving his pitch a few yards back - he's cool with this because, he says, traffic will be moving slower... CUT!

Exactly like this one.
Yet another dream that squares with Another Time/Another Place.

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki's temporary level crossing almost complete
(Three years on, there's not a trace of it left.)

This time five years ago:
Swans, dusk, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Joe Biden in Warsaw for talks after Crimea invasion

This time eight years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time 11  years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring