Monday, August 26, 2013

Not a question but a 'koan'

Tell me, do you know the meaning of the word 'koan'?
I didn't . . . not until yesterday.  Then, whilst listening to a radio programme, I was intrigued to discover that it's the name for an unanswerable question.

The well-known Zen question:  "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is the perfect example.
It's a question that, as it has no answer, defeats reasoning.  In defeating reasoning it checks the over-active mind and, out of total bafflement, a 'koan' produces a wholly beneficial calm.

Thinking about this, it struck me that surely this is something we all  need . . . not questions and answers, but mind-stilling, beneficial 'koans'.

Wouldn't you agree that we are all of us addicted to our need for answers?  Not only that, we are equally addicted to our need for precision . . . and certainty . . . and control.

Only this week I heard that a special committee at the United Nations will shortly make what was called an important decision.  This important decision concerns whether or not it will keep adding an extra second to our atomic clocks.  Apparently, this adjustment is made every couple of years to keep the clocks accurate.

One second every two years . . . ?  Is such an adjustment so critical to our international wellbeing that it warrants the United Nations convening a special committee?

As time is governed by the rotation of the planet, let's concede that our clocks might need the occasional tweak.
But surely man-made weights and measures are entirely within our control . . . or are they?

You probably know that the original prototype of the kilogram, a prototype that dictates the standard weight for the entire world, is kept securely locked away in a Paris vault.

What you may not know is that there's a rumour in circulation.   This rumour claims that, through ageing, that original prototype has lost a noticeable fragment of its original weight.

So, what is a kilogram?
Is it the weight that was originally recorded . . .  the current weight of the purportedly shrinking prototype . . .  or, fascinating thought, has the weight of the kilogram become a moveable feast?
Now . . . isn't that a perfect 'koan'?

If time and weights can prove variable, what about that other trusted yardstick, what about measures?

Here, too, things are not as simple as they may seem.  Until recent times it appears that a French 'foot' was considerably longer than a British 'foot'  Hence the misconception that Napoleon was short when, in fact, his measurements had been taken using a French tape measure and mis-translated when crossing The Channel!

When we, and the rest of creation, are in a constant state of evolution, isn't it a little strange that we should suffer this craving for a constant precision in our lives?
Nothing remains the same.  Nothing has ever remained the same . . . not even us.
We wake up each morning to find ourselves inhabiting slightly different bodies from the ones we took to bed the night before.  Overnight our cells have been renewing themselves.
In the wider world, a sunset is never repeated . . . no two snowflakes are alike.

Could it be that we are fearful of where we stand in this uncertain, evolving creation?  That we need to create reassuring, fixed facts to offer ourselves the illusion of security, to provide a false sense of permanence and importance?

Let's be brave . . . let's throw away our facts and statistics and settle for the benefits of a liberating 'koan'

What about:  "Who is it watching me thinking these thoughts . . . ?"

Surely that's a 'koan' to last a lifetime!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To The Person Who Stole My Purse

I'd like to think you needed it much more
Than I - that generosity had been
Drawn out of me despite myself.  For your
Mean act illuminates where I was mean.
You wouldn't have acquired so much had I
But helped the old man I saw yesterday.
Instead, with head half-turned, I hurried by
So that my conscience wouldn't hear him play
Forgotten music on his violin.
You probably stole out of devilment,
And blew the lot on cigarettes or gin,
And never valued what the money meant.
But, if you pass that old man in the Strand,
For my sake, please, put something in his hand.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A walk remembered

Chloe, as you know, is an enthusiastic 'working cat', paying weekly visits to our local nursing home and making friends with both the patients and their companions!
But something unexpected and moving happened the other week . . .  if you've a moment to spare, I'd love to share it with you.

One of the people Chloe visits is Annie, an elderly lady of gentle disposition.  Annie's main problem is that of early dementia, her memory, whilst relatively good in relation to the past, is often hesitant and spasmodic in the present.

She loves cats, always greets Chloe with great delight, but rarely remembers that she has seen her before.
When visiting her the other week we found her room full of cards and balloons, but Annie was puzzled as to the reason . . . she'd completely forgotten it was her birthday.

Chloe excels herself with the patients, but, for a lively and inquisitive cat, a nursing home can prove tantalising.  So much possible interest and excitement lies just out of reach.

Each room has a window, each window offers a different view of the world outside.  There are windows opening onto window-boxes that Chloe would love to investigate, windows overlooking gardens that she'd love to explore. But it's Annie's window that affords the greatest temptation . . . being on the ground floor it opens out onto the garden and, in the warm summer weather, Annie frequently has her window ajar.

It was a beautiful morning when we visited the nursing home two weeks ago.  The garden, visible through Annie's open window, was bathed in sunlight.
"Why don't you take Chloe for a walk outside?"I suggested.
Annie's face lit up, "May I?  Would she let me?"
"She'd be thrilled!" I assured her.
Pushing the window wide open, I handed Annie the lead and an eager, if rather incredulous, Chloe led the three of us out onto the garden path.

I don't know which of them was the more excited . . . Annie, with the lead grasped firmly in her hand, or Chloe, for whom this garden, a wonderland that she had gazed at so wistfully through the window, was now a reality.

They took their time . . . Chloe wanted to get her bearings, sniff the plants, examine the inviting wooden seats.  Annie wanted to savour this rare and unexpected pleasure of taking a cat for a walk.  It was only with difficulty that I managed to guide the eager explorers back down the pathway, and encourage them to return, albeit reluctantly, through the open window that led back to Annie's room.

It seemed a little sad that Annie wouldn't remember this experience.  It had given her so much pleasure.  Nonetheless, I consoled myself with the thought that, were it another sunny day the following week, we'd be able to repeat the exercise.

On our arrival at the nursing home the following Friday, I noticed one of Annie's daughters walking down the passage.  She was clearly on her way to visit her mother, but her face lit up with pleasure on seeing Chloe.
"My mother told me!" she exclaimed excitedly, "Se told me all about taking your cat for a walk in the garden!  It's Chloe, isn't it?"

On reflection, I don't know which of us was the more delighted, Annie's daughter or me.  Not only had Annie remembered the epic walk, she had also, to our mutual surprise, remembered Chloe's name.

Off-duty 'working cats' deserve to take it easy.
For Chloe, what better place to relax than a branch of her favourite tree . . . but not an idea, perhaps, to share with Annie!

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Emperor's Wallet

I'd be the first to admit it, I don't understand economics.  The numbers are too big for a start.  I can't get my head around a million, far less a billion . . . and can you grasp the concept of a trillion?
It's way beyond me.

But, as a total ignoramus, there's one thing I find particularly baffling:  when a government declares that it's borrowing vast sums of money every day, vast sums on which it's paying equally vast amounts of interest, who is it, or what is it, that's lending this money?

And does any money actually come into the equation, or is this all just a question of exchanging IOUs?

Presumably, pieces of paper (or emails, or text-messages) are exchanged, attesting to the loan of these large amounts on which, in theory, a heavy rate of interest has been agreed.   But, in effect, has anything actually taken place other than an exchange of promises?
Where is the money . . . what is money . . . ?

But let's move from national loans to personal loans, a level that even I can understand.  What of self-serving money lenders?  What of the people who remove your financial anxieties in the present only to give you, in exchange, a prolonged period of crippling debt.
What are they lending . . . ?  What are you owing . . . ?

Or what of the familiar High Street banks?  You may have a savings account, an account that promises a degree of security in times of need.  But, should you visit your local bank and ask to see your personal deposit, should you request that a container marked with your name and packed with notes and coins to the value of your savings be placed on the counter . . . will it be there?
Such is the invisibility of money that this is highly unlikely.

I'm reminded of the story of the Emperor's new clothes.  
Persuaded by an unscrupulous tailor that he has purchased and donned an eye-catching new outfit,  the Emperor proudly parades his nakedness for the benefit of his courtiers and bystanders.  Each of whom believes that he, and he alone, is the only one unable to see the splendid new attire.

Far better, they feel, to go with the tide of opinion, far better to admire the Emperor's invisible garments than to admit to impaired vision.

Are we being equally blind when it comes to money?  After all, what is it?  Be it paper or metal (or represented by a plastic card), it is totally valueless in its own right.  Someone else has to believe in its value for any value to exist.
Are we just feeding each other's delusions?

And the extraordinary and dangerous thing about money is that this nebulous, man-made creation now dominates the thinking of western society.  Where our distant forebears looked to the gods to protect them, we look to our bank balance.

True, money can be translated into goods and property, but even here the value only carries weight if others are willing to go along with the illusion.

I can't demand three pounds for a punnet of strawberries unless someone else is willing to accept the value I specify.
Even if they do, are three small pieces of grubby metal really equivalent in value to the delicious fruit itself?  That's a matter of opinion, not fact.

Surely then, money is a fiction agreed upon . . . and the moment someone declares that the Emperor has an empty wallet, the currency-driven economy of the western world could collapse.

Would that be so terrible . . . ?  Might not that very collapse lead us towards something better and wiser and more beneficial to all of humanity . . . ?

But, as I said at the start, I don't understand economics.  Better, perhaps, to keep all these fanciful notions to myself!