Thoughts on an Irish Funeral

I never cease to be amazed by the warmth and support offered by neighbours, friends and families at Irish funerals. My appreciation of this warmth was brought back to the forefront of my mind when I very recently undertook the sad journey to the home of a man who had tragically died in a farm accident.

As we neared the house we were greeted by a small army of volunteers, clad in reflective gear, and directing traffic into a nearby field which had been offered as a space where visitors could safely park their cars.  Outside the house, a sturdy temporary shelter had been constructed with scaffolding supports to protect arriving visitors from any harsh weather that might occur during the two days when the body of the deceased person was reposing in the house.

Another army of volunteers provided tea, sandwiches, biscuits and cakes for the very many hundreds of neighbours and friends who streamed through the small premises during this period in advance of the funeral proper. In ireland, this time of waiting, visiting, praying and offering comfort to the relatives of a deceased is called a “wake”.

The tragic circumstances of this man’s death did not add to the number of visitors nor did it distinguish the procedure from what is the normal custom in rural Ireland.  Some years ago,  on the death of my own mother in law, the same care, attention and consolation were lavished upon her family by all comers on just the same scale.  On that occasion, one of the most moving sights on the way to the house where “Gran”, as we all lovingly called her, was laid out, was the sight of her neighbours digging her grave in the nearby cemetery, a tradition that is still common in rural Ireland, a meaningful tribute of love paid to a deceased neighbour.

Nor is this comforting confined to rural areas. My brother in law died in a large Irish town some years ago and his death was accompanied by a huge outpouring of support and grief from the many people who knew and loved him.

This natural friendliness and support offered to a grieving family is something to be treasured in a world where death and its formalities tend to be anaesthetised.   The final departure of any of us is a time when warmth and support is required, clinical attention to the removal process is just not sufficient.  Long may these traditions last as a comfort to families who have lost loved ones.

Tony Brady – Dublin – 1 October 2016

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Thank Your Lucky Stars

If you have the technology to listen to or read meditations such this you are among the most privileged people ever to have walked on the face of the earth and among the most privileged people alive today.  T

”Life is not a problem. It is a miracle, a gift, a teaching, a celebration. Thanksgiving acknowledges the miracle of life –  It says that we live in a world of beautifully interacting thankfulness” – Daphne Rose Kingma

So what have we to be thankful for today?

If we take a moment to think back on countless thousands of years of human history, it is hard to find what might be accurately called “the good old days” for the average woman or man in the street.   Life might have been bearable for the few people at the top. But even kings, queens, emperors and persons whose every wish was obeyed would stand in awe at the opportunities with which anyone reading this is blessed today.

Cynthia Ozick tells us ”We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”

So let’s take a little time out for reflection on all the good things with which we are surrounded and which, in the hurry of our busy lives, we may have failed to notice.

Think of people, talents, good fortune, reasonable health, sufficient belongings.  Just look around, pause, think.

So here we are, surrounded by so many reasons for contentment in a world which is still so unequally divided.  This thought will and should unsettle us.   Meditation is not a comfortable sit on a cushion for a lucky minority living in a world which, for them, is a world of plenty.  Meditation helps us to see things as they really are and sometimes what we see is a need for action to put things right.   In Buddhism, the term you find is “engaged Buddhism”.  Engaged Buddhism calls us to look at how we spend our lives and how our lives have an effect on others.  You don’t need to be a Buddhist in order to see this idea arising as the consequence of reflection.

Let’s think about the ways in which we might help to make this world a better place. How can we live so that our lives will have made some little difference? Can we live a life that might leave the world a little better than we found it?

This does not mean running for political office (perhaps it does for some!) but it does mean all of us looking at our daily choices. How can we share what we have in talents or in material goods with the less well off?   Can we offer people an opportunity to get on their feet?  Can we think about what we buy, how far has it travelled and what about the working condition of those who toil, in sometimes awful circumstances, so that we can have what we want when we go out to buy?

The call is not that you or I should change the world but that you and I can each change our own world.

We each just have to make a difference to the life of even one person.

It is like that vary familiar story about the boy on the shore rescuing a starfish. There are multiple versions of this story floating around but the original idea comes from “The Star Thrower” published in 1969 by Loren Eiseley.

This is one of the variations:

Early one morning, a man was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and he found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that the boy was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  As the boy came closer the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves.” The young man continued  “When the sun gets high, they will die unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said to the old man “It made a difference to that one!”

So we should never doubt our ability to make a difference.

And never forget that our good fortune and the gratitude that follows from it urges us to make that difference.

Never doubt  that every ordinary person, people just like you and me, can make that difference.

A closing thought, like our opening reflection, is also from Daphne Rose Kingma.

“Saying “you’re welcome” affirms that we live in a world awash with treasures, with miracles and blessings, that we are blessed with an endless array of people, moments, experiences, surprises, magic, curiosities, and beautiful coincidences to which our only delighted, ecstatic, and unchanging response should be thanksgiving.”

May each of our lives be filled with endless reasons for gratitude and may gratitude inspire us to make a difference to the people around us.

Tony – Dublin 8th September 2016

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Where were you in 2015?

Now that we are into the first weekend of the new year it might be a suitable time to look back and ask “Where was I in 2015?“. I don’t pose this question in a geographical sense, such as “was I at home?” or “did I get away?” but in the sense of being present in 2015 during 2015.

So much of our present seems to be spent in needless worry about the future and pointless regret about the past. Looking to the past we think “if only I had said or done this”, “if only I had not done that”. Looking to the future we worry about things that might never come to pass, we prepare answers to questions that will never be asked and smart retorts to insults that will never be offered.

Mark Twain is credited with the statement “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” but words to that effect have been offered by the wise throughout history. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger who lived between 4 BCE and 65 CE said in his letter number 98 to Lucilius: “There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”

In the present we need to make plans and perform actions that we believe will help lead to the future that we desire, for the most part we reap what we sow. But pointless daydreaming achieves nothing and an undue proportion of our time can be whittled away in that valueless activity.

The past cannot be undone. Is there one of us alive who would not do things differently with the benefit of hindsight or with the advantage of the wisdom that sometimes accompanies older age? Who, with a mouthful of fillings, crowns, bridges implants and dentures would not take better care of his or her young teeth the second time round? Who would not immerse himself enthusiastically in the acquisition of skills so easily acquired in youth if only youth could be grasped once more? How many times have we failed to do the good deed or succumbed to the attraction of something we later have cause to regret?

We cannot change the past but the present gives us the opportunity to change the future. So we have to develop the skill to live in awareness of the present moment as it arrives. We can practice this by stopping for a minute or two and seeing if we can concentrate on our breath or on the sounds around us. Try this and notice the tendency to start thinking of something else arising so often and so quickly. When someone is speaking to us, really listen to what is being said. Notice how often we only half listen as we prepare our response. When going from A to B pay attention to the journey. Life happens on the way to our destination.

So in 2016 let’s see, day by day, if we can be present even just a little bit more than we were in 2015. That will make it a good year, one for which we can be satisfied when we take a quick look back at its end.

Happy New Year. In 2016 may you be well, may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved.

Tony

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Our effect upon others

It is sobering to stand back for a time and consider the effect which our actions and words can have on other people.

We are all aware of the Butterfly Effect, a title given by Edward Lorenz, mathematician and meteorologist, upon discovering though repeatedly running his weather models, that each tiny change in the initial conditions would produce a significantly different outcome.  The name Butterfly Effect refers to how a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia could drastically alter the weather in New York City.

The cumulative effect of minor changes mean that, even today, weather forecasting is a science which can only accurately predict outcomes a few days ahead.  Chaos theory means that the further in time the attempted prediction the less accurate the prediction will be.  Even with all the sources of information which we have today, countless ground, sea and air based weather monitors and satellite observations, and with the benefit of formidable computing power as never before, we cannot accurately predict weather long in advance. A build up of small variations has the potential to set any prediction widely off course.

In the same way our day to day behaviour can have an effect which is altogether out of proportion to what we might expect.  A simple good deed performed today or a helpful word spoken can trigger similar action of the part of others, rippling out from one person, affecting other people and ultimately cascading in a totally unpredictable variety of beneficial results.  One good deed or one motivating good word issued at the right time has the potential to change the world.

We have to be aware too that our less skilful deeds and words can work their way into the communal consciousness and have devastating effects further down the chain of cause and effect. 

A simple example is bad humour, few things are more infectious, and starting from one person, especially from one in authority, bad humour can quickly devastate a whole body.  But in our day to life bad humour would be considered a rather trivial failing.  What about violence, even to the point of killing, abuse, physical and mental, and all the many attitudes and acts of evil of which every one of us is, given the right circumstances, all too capable?  Look at the effect of war and terrorism, even the effects of what might be considered a just war and what might be considered to be justified acts of violence in response to oppression. 

Everyone who is the victim of subjection, violence, war, terror and atrocity has the potential to give back in kind, or worse, what he or she has received and so add to the world’s reservoir of hatred.

So having thought about these things what can we do?  Simply remember this: that each of us, the best and the worst, has within us, seeds of goodness and the opposite.  The seeds that we water will be ones that will grow.  When faced with unfairness try as far as possible to avoid watering the seeds of retribution and revenge.  Try every day to water the seeds of goodness that lie within.  These can be done by any simple good deed, a good thought, a kind word of encouragement.  These things cost nothing and every one of them adds to humanity’s store of goodness. 

Each new day will give all of us many opportunities for a decent and honourable response to what is offered to us.   When the opportunity arises opt for the good side.  It could change the world. 

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A New Day

Waking up

We wake up each morning, mostly feeling fine. We open our eyes, we hear the first sounds of day, we stretch, emerge from a warm bed to a warm room, go to the bathroom for a morning pee, flush the toilet, find clean water on tap, wash, clean our teeth, dress ourselves, enter the kitchen, press a switch, make a cup of tea or coffee, have breakfast.

 

What we receive and what we give in life are like entries in a bank account. We look at all today’s income with amazement and see little or no outgoings. It makes us realise that world owes us naught. It is we who owe so much to the world. Can we try today to reduce the debit balance in life’s books?

 

The everyday morning ritual provides us with an ideal opportunity to notice the benefits that we so often take for granted, rest and shelter, the comforts of a home, light and heat, drinking water, sanitation, clothing, footwear, food for breakfast, refrigeration, power, and all this before we have hardly begun the day. Have we even noticed the air that we breathe, have we been aware of our lungs working though the night, without any intervention on our part, another unnoticed wonder, bringing us to the gift of this new day?

 

If we can open our eyes to the simple things that every new morning unfailingly brings it will inform our attitude and affect for the better our relationship with the people we will meet in the course of the day.   An attitude of gratitude is a positive beginning to any day and a positive focus in any life.

 

Instead of complaining when the breakfast cereal runs out we would benefit greatly by reminding ourselves of all the days when the supply has not run out.   Just consider for a moment where our breakfast has come from.   Think of the ingredients, the planting, the careful cultivation, harvesting, packaging and transporting of this everyday commodity before it finally lands in the shop where we select it from an astounding variety of different possibilities offered to us in this amazingly beneficent world.   Reflect for a moment on all the people whose dedicated and co-operative work has been involved in bringing this first meal of the day to us.  Not only have we the cereal but we have it packed with the benefit of quality control standards, best before date calculated, vitamin content shown and dietary advice offered on the pack.   Yet this breakfast, product of so much labour and loving effort can be eaten mindlessly, even munched on the hoof as we direct our attention to the TV, the newspaper, electronic devices and while planning “other things to be done”

 

Many people believe in God, others do not, but whatever our attempt at understanding this wondrous reality in which we live and move, this awakening to a new day and the receipt of such benefits even before the day’s work begins is a cause for pause and a reason for profound thankfulness and constant gratitude.

 

We might usefully turn around a phrase of G. K . Chesterton and exclaim “Here begins another day, yesterday I had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me. Why am I allowed yet another day?”
With metta

 

Tony

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Finding stillness in an always connected world

“Here though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen! Searching for strangers in… Dubai!”
― Dave Eggers, The Circle

We had a broadband interruption in my house some time ago and my discomfort at the fact of being even temporarily disconnected from the wired up world, prompted me to consider the question of Technology Addiction and the idea of a Tech Sabbath. The challenge is finding stillness in an always connected world. In 1922, The French Jesuit philosopher priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist and geologist, referred to the “noosphere”in his theory of cosmogenesis. Just as the Earth has an atmosphere and a biosphere, Teilhard referred to the emerging sphere of interconnected thought as the noosphere. The interconnectivity of our planet in Teilhard’s time was primitive by comparison with the web of communication which encircles the globe today.

This interconnectivity has been a boon to humanity, enabling instant global communications, bringing distant peoples together, and giving us something in the nature of a collective planetary consciousness. The benefits have been immense in terms of world education, disease monitoring, transport control and safety, environmental monitoring, weather forecasting and the instant dissemination of news and ideas.  Social media has given us a planetary awareness of human rights concerns and environmental issues.

The benefits have not been without their downsides, particularly the effect which instant access to, and reliance upon, external global sources of information has had upon our ability to concentrate and remember. A 2012 Pew Internet study in the US suggests that, while students coming through the school system in our always-connected world, benefit from having instant access to a wealth of information from numerous sources, their attention span and desire for in depth analysis is diminished.

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”
– Steven Spielberg

While appreciating the benefits of mobile devices (and the benefits far outweigh the downsides) we need to give mindful consideration to the manner in which we put our mobile devices to use, and the habits by which we tend to allow these devices to fill time which would otherwise be available for the increasingly neglected activities of daydreaming, pondering and reflection.

Many of the sentiments of the poem “If” by British Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling, written in 1895 are laudable but the line “if you can fill each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run” seems to have been taken too enthusiastically to heart in the century since its writing, even more so since the advent of the internet and the almost universal availability of mobile technology. We find that inventions which we expected would free up our time have entangled us in a never ending frenzy of activity. Devices connect people umbilically to their work outside traditional working hours and at the same time they create a distracting diversion from real person to person communication when people are in fact physically together.

“Generally we waste our lives, distracted from our true selves, in endless activity. Meditation is the way to bring us back to ourselves, where we can really experience and taste our full being.”
― Sogyal Rinpoche

Can we manage to introduce some order into all of this? What would it be like to go for a day without having your mobile phone with you, or, if it must be with you for emergency use, could it be turned off unless and until an emergency arises?. And could you go comfortably for a day without checking personal email or the social media?  It is not easy when you get used to having a technological umbilical cord.

Going without our mobile devices is easier said than done when these multi purpose devices hold contact information on our friends, keep our appointments, set alarms, keep us entertained, tell us if it will rain, and even give us the real time of arrival of the next bus or train. But the feared loss might be found to be a real gain.

The idea of a Sabbath is well understood in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions. Religious Christians, Jews and Muslims are expected to observe a weekly day of rest. But the idea of a periodic day of rest is not solely the preserve of the monotheistic faiths. Other philosophies and religions recommend and encourage Sabbath. In Buddhism, Sabbath is the Uposatha, The Buddha explained that this day was meant to purify the polluted mind which would in turn lead to inner tranquility and happiness.

“A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week.”
― Henry Ward Beecher

Would it be pracical to set side one day a week for a Tech Sabbath. Could we can pick one day (not necessarily the same day) each week when we turn off the technology and reboot our lives (I exclude, of course, technology which we must use during working hours as a necessary part of our employment. It seems we all have to live with that)

If a day without connection seems impossible, how about placing a limit on the nature of the connection. Could we confine the likes of Facebook and Twitter to connections with friends rather than have ourselves inundated with suggestions and ideas from anonymous business and the media?   Could we confine our checking of social media to certain hours?

Could we try this for just one period of one day in the week ahead?

A meaningful life requires time for quiet and meaningful reflection.  It is hard to find that space in an always connected world but we need to make the effort if we are to live lives that are other than superfical and distracted.

I look forward to feedback as to how you get on and how you feel you have benefited from this endeavour!

With metta

Tony

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