Monday, October 29, 2012

The Wooden Shepherdess

Richard Hughes believed in the power of fiction to extend our moral sensibility. It breaks us out of our solitary confinement and allows us to see people as people, not as things, and this is 'the necessary groundwork of ethics'.

'The Wooden Shepherdess' is the second volume of his unfinished trilogy, 'The Human Predicament' that explores the movement towards war that was initiated by the failed peace of Versailles through core characters - English and German. Most prominently are Augustine, an atheist of humanist turn, a member of the landed English gentry of no gathered occupation beyond enjoying his inherited wealth and 'adventures' in Prohibition USA and Morocco, Mitzi, his distant cousin, blind and a secluded Carmelite nun and Adolf Hitler who needs no introduction even as he eludes fathoming (though Hughes portrait is compelling of a man absolutely committed to power who is continuously underestimated).

They form a fascinating trinity - the free floater attached to sentiment, the one wholly dedicated to a self-emptying other and the one wholly dedicated to their ego. The first and last fail to notice evil because the first is too distant  from it and the last because too near to it. The nun, however, in the closing pages (after her uncle is murdered in the Night of the Long Knives) sees it only too clearly as the darkness God must penetrate at a time when time is ripe.

These concluding paragraphs are striking because they suggest that in order to truly see the nature of the world, we must rest back, surrender, into a view of the world that radically de-centres us and which is God's eye seeing us. It is only God's eye that can bear, bear witness, to the whole picture - the light and the dark. It  is only in God's sight that a true valuing of self can emerge.

I have a very real sense of what he means here, by analogy. I remember my first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony that extraordinary man of God who I would venture to suggest was genuinely saintly. I did not know what to do, standing in his kitchen, should I embrace him or run away? Both I felt! It was not he who judged you, though his scrutiny as I was to find out, could be sharp, but at that moment you felt held in a gaze translucent to God and loved and in that love both upheld and found wanting in a simultaneous instant! I cannot say that I have ever felt 'more real' than in that moment. I was broken out of the confinement of my own self-regard and found myself a unique person, momentarily.

This is not only the groundwork of ethics but of the long winding path towards holiness.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Transition cities

In the UK a 'transition town' is one that is preparing to become more sustainable in a world of growing resource constraint, in Asia, though this concern for sustainability can be present, the emphasis is on growth.

It leaves me with an uneasy feeling - a welcoming to this sign of prosperity, of an assertion of a new, re-balancing world, where 'the West' no longer has the first and last word, coupled with a sense that it is all arriving too late, the time of ease is passing, and the model being utilized is one that is frankly out of date.

I sit in a city the size and complexity of Bangkok and feel that I am in an unreal place, that the obvious vibrancy is misplaced, a dancing on a thinning fabric that will give way.

This may be to misjudge the resilience of humanity in the world (or simply the time frame for discovering the lack of such resilience). I hope so!

It, also, reinforces a lesson that I absorbed from a presentation in Naples at the World Global Forum that as prosperity rises immediate environmental concerns can be addressed. Bangkok is significantly cleaner than it was when I first visited in the mid-90s not least because with the adoption of the Skytrain (and express ways), the traffic flows more steadily (and the age of the cars has decreased). However, this rising prosperity that affords (and creates the demand for) environmental improvement at the local level is magnifying pressure at the regional and global level. Thus the Economist environmental 'line' is only half right, environmental 'improvement' does accelerate as prosperity rises, but environmental sustainability does not necessarily improve, indeed quite the opposite, pressure increases.

This dynamic is further accelerated by the appalling design of our cities that so rigorously separates work from home, imposing long commutes on the vast majority of the population, that from an environmental point of view (as well as one of work life balance) is disastrous.

We need denser, more mixed use cities that utilize every opportunity for sustainability but the pressure is such, given that we need to build one new million person city every five days to keep up with demand, that only in a few, and specialized, contexts is this being achieved.

But you can see why we are in love with the city - particularly here in Asia - they teem with life and a sense (and for many the actuality) of opportunity. We feel we can shape ourselves with greater freedom here - the constraints are, if not off, loosened. They breathe new life.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Love, honour and obey

Spending time with my mother at the weekend in a place that both my father and she adored, I was prompted to wondering how it was that that they enjoyed more than fifty years of marriage and were happy.

I thought of their wedding vows: to love, honour and obey.

That they loved each other was and is clear. The sharp contours of my mother's grief since his death, the absenting void, is painful witness to that. But so too was the day, passing through Paddington Station, I saw them by chance (and before they saw me) back from celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their first date in Bruges. They resonated warmth, companionship and each was a blessing to the other.

However, all you need is not love.

Obey is a deeply unfashionable word but its Latin roots mean to hearken, to listen. In the opening words of the Rule of St Benedict it appears as an invitation to a deep listening to one another in God. That they were obedient to one another in this sense was a growing truth not without much trial and error on the way. I often feel that half the world's problems might be resolved if we were not such frankly crap listeners, armed with what we want to say next or lost in distraction, we do anything but hearken to one another.

The secret of their abiding happiness, however, was I think, the middle term of their vow: honour. It is tempting to translate this as 'respect' but that word is too shallow and formal. A bank clerk can respect their customer. Honour is so much deeper.

I think it held through thick and thin, in all the ups and downs of their relationship, even probably when love flirted with hate! They were to each other utterly another person in their own right to whom they owed the courtesy of being honoured even when in the midst of disagreement and in that honouring there was no trace of any seeking to manipulate after their own view. Persuade yes, manoeuvre undoubtedly, scream out loud sometimes but manipulation never. We (as children) almost missed being born because when they married, they had decided not to have children. Both changed their mind but so conscious were they that they did not want to put pressure on the other to prematurely change their conviction, they patiently waited until the mutual change became apparent! Thank God it did!

As their child, I felt this too. Never did I feel that either parent was going to impose their view on how my life should be even when they thought that I was misdirected. Support they offered, advice thankfully sparingly, but mostly they allowed you a space in which to grow and unfurl in which you always sensed you were loved but also honoured too as another person, your own person, gifted into life by them but neither owned by them nor an extension of their aspirations or desires (though undoubtedly I picked up some of these unconsciously). Honour, I think, was their secret and it is a virtue in need of wider cultivation, including in myself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pantomime debating

I remember a marvellous moment in the television series of Alex Hailey's 'Roots' (one of those landmark series that trace across your childhood when television meant something). We are in the 'Deep South' after the Civil War when white supremacy was being re-established after a brief interruption. An electoral candidate is explaining to an assembled group of listeners that he has studied the art of rhetoric and absorbed the speeches of Cicero et al. He steps onto the balcony and his first word, uttered as battle cry, is 'Niggers...'

He knows his audience and his task is not to advance an electoral address grounded in truth and value but to win. Win first the attention of his audience, appeal to their prejudice and fear and get their votes to win the election. He, if memory serves, succeeded admirably.

This memory surfaces, I fear, every time I see coverage of the US Presidential debates where the only thing that appears to matter is who appears to have won. Winning does not seem to depend on any particular access to considered truth (or the argument about what might be true and of value). It appears to depend on the style deployed and whether one candidate's 'sound bites' captured the audience's attention more than that of the other candidate.

This, if anything, is more depressing precisely because both candidates (mutual demonisation aside) appear quite decent. Their decency, however, is no apparent protection against them choosing to participate in this pantomime of apparent debate.

The debate is both 'apparent' because of its style but also because of its substance.

Sad to say there is no appreciation in either party that the United States is as much part of our global problem as a part of any solution. The only US President with the courage to confront the US with its shadow was quickly replaced by a sunny salesmen of business as usual (Carter being defeated by Reagen). The only other President to raise its shadow did so safely after leaving office - namely Eisenhower and his notable expression of his fear of the dominance of 'the military-industrial complex' (a dominance that sadly trundles along quite nicely dragging the US deeper into debt and into the quagmire of failed military adventure).

So expressing a preference for one candidate over another is rather akin to deciding which person would make you marginally more comfortable while the ship sinks. In that case you would have to plump for Obama because at least he may have a glimmer of what is at stake (though so did the Romney who was governor of Massachusetts though not now after his apparent conversion)! You have to wonder: who are these people really as they ebb and flow with the tide of public opinion (though opinion may too formed a word for it)!

There is no reasoned debate about a gridlocked US political system where the careful separation of powers is held to ransom to conflicting political ideologies and where consensus (or indeed truth seeking) is a foreign land of which the parties are mostly ignorant. Nor of a financial system that simply does not work and whose failings post-2008 have not been remotely addressed. The US ironically has become a focal point for climate related disaster but there is no discussion of climate change. The world has experienced possibly its worst harvest in a generation but there is no discussion of food security and corn farmers are still being subsidised by a bankrupt country to convert their corn into ethanol so the poor go hungry. Meanwhile the country that is the beacon of democracy (self-appointed) has most of its diplomats holed up behind concrete and metal pillars because frankly people do not much like it as a state (whereas as a culture it is widely admired, copied and aspired to). Then there is the debt...

It is rather like two parents arguing about wiping a child's nose while it expires before them of pneumonia!

And yes I do think it is that serious...

It is all a bit depressing especially when it is a country (as a people) I deeply love. But it does rather point to general malaise - where is global leadership and when are people going to emerge who you can genuinely admire? Where on earth are they?

Perhaps the era of looking to leaders is passing and we should learn the complex arts of anarchy (post collapse) or simply, in the words of Voltaire, learn to cultivate our gardens (if we are lucky enough to have one)!

Southwold: The importance of scale and place.

In spite of inclement weather (a phrase especially evocative of the place itself), I had a delightful weekend in Southwold. It is a coastal resort about which the usual temptation is to say that it is 'beautifully preserved' and indeed it does have the feel, walking through it, of a film set. At any moment David Suchet will wander round the corner as Hercule Poirot in search of hidden villainy behind the aspidistras.

However that would be to do it a disservice: what it appears to be is a community that works as a community; and, one that has exploited its charm and period feel to allow something dynamic and meaningful to be maintained. It undoubtedly has its shadows, no community does not, but if you looked about you there were admirable signs of life well-lived. There was the enthusiastic Liverpudlian who showed us around the church - an 'outsider' yet so clearly and deeply in love with the place and embraced by it. There was the well attended WEA course on Venice that my mother and I almost mistook for a coffee morning so deep were the audience in social interaction during their break, spilling onto the street! There was the well-attended church hall sale of fairly traded goods with proceeds to Christian Aid. There were the touches of self-referenced humour in the signage at the pier: we know this is a bit 'precious' it seemed to say but that is, of course, because, at another level, it is precious.

It reminded me of my mother's own home town - a scale sufficient to maintain a thriving social life without either being too suffocatingly small as to be intrusive or too large to lose connectivity. You could both hide and be found in such a place and that it seems to me is a perfect scale.

Southwold is, of course, enhanced by its location against the sea - a harsh sea that gives the place an edge - though when we were there it was grey green and placid - and a sky: a horizon of soaring light against which the clouds play revealing and obscuring games. There is nothing like a body of water to confer life on a place: a sense of renewing abundance.

Monday, October 22, 2012

An Unknown World

Even though my admiration for Jacob Needleman is boundless, this (his latest) is not his best book: 'An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of Earth'!

It is a moving meditation on our responsibility towards the Earth and is grounded in a series of haunting dreams that Needleman had of his boyhood friend, Elias, who died of leukemia at the age of fourteen. Jerry was two years younger, poorer and Jewish, Elias was from a wealthy background, Armenian and Christian. They shared a love of science and how it created a deep sense of wonder in and between them about the nature of the world and their place in it. Indeed this evocation of a serious childhood friendship is one of the best parts of the book.

The dreams are marvelous but the commentary they give rise to does not feel sufficiently anchored in the reality and texture of them. They come off as too abstracted: a flawed explanation rather than a commentary.

However, there are very good things here.

Most notably is the defence of consciousness as both the marker of what it means to be human and as a reality that can only be explored from within. In line with this is an unfashionable defence of Descartes and of 'dualism' between mind and matter.  We need to separate appropriately in order to reunite effectively. Descartes wants to know of what we can be utterly certain.  It is that 'I' am conscious and thinking - not as a 'ghost in the machine' but as a conscious 'I am' that moves in parallel to a material body -the evidence for which is less certain than my 'I'! That certainty requires a focused act of inward attention - and this attending to my inner world was a remarkable restatement of a traditional understanding: what you know is dependent on the quality of your attending, the level of your consciousness.

What Needleman wants to restore to us is this mediating level of attention both to our inner and outer worlds - both to the world of value and of fact. This would be a purifier of our habitual way of seeing both worlds - through the distorting mirror of our egotism.

The result would not be precisely as envisaged in the above image that simply equates 'egotism' with separation. We are separate - our particular kind of consciousness makes us so - but that we do not realize our separateness and its obligation is our failure. I always recall that great ecologist and farmer, John Seymour, reminding us that it was only when we ceased to see ourselves 'apart from nature' that we began seriously despoiling it. Arrogance comes from uncertainty and wanting to establish our 'place' not from comfortably inhabiting a different place.

With this purification of a proper attention, we would recognize the value of both worlds and be able to link them meaningfully. Only then would we realize that what the Earth needs, if it (and we) are to survive, is conscious human beings able to love the world and bear truth in it.

The thought world of Gurdjieff is (again) in evidence - we are incomplete, humanity in the making, and our capacity to value and love the world is deeply out of step with our ability to manipulate it. We know this, we know this in our own lives - how easy it is to manipulate and react to others (self-justifying ourselves on the way) rather than love others selflessly. So too with the Earth but that is what the Earth needs: will it get it in time?

This is not a book 'about' the ecological crisis, it is a book about the crisis in humanity - are we capable of bearing the responsibility of loving the Earth? This is no different a question as whether we are capable of bearing the responsibility of love of neighbour. It is perhaps the most important question of all!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mount Analogue

The Ascension of Mount Analogue by Remedios Varo

"He questioned us one after the other. Each of his questions, although quite simple - Who were we? Why had we come? - caught us off guard and shook us to the core. Who are you? Who am I? We could not answer him as we would a consular official or customs agent. Tell one's name and profession? What good would that do? But who are you? And what are you? The words we pronounced - we had no others - were lifeless, repugnant, and grotesque like cadavers. We knew henceforth that we could no longer pay the guides of Mount Analogue with words."

Mount Analogue is an unfinished novel by the French writer, Rene Daumal. He succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of thirty six leaving his manuscript in mid sentence and with only a sketch as to how it was to be completed (in a further two chapters). It is (and was to be) short yet it is a beautiful, mysterious and resonant tale.

Led by Father Sogol, once a monk, now a mountaineer and inventor, a small party make their way to a hidden continent, Mount Analogue, whose base is rooted in earth and whose pinnacle is in heaven and begin their ascent. In essence that is it but along the way, Daumal explores through poetic image, metaphor, allegory and metaphysical sleight of hand what it might mean for a person to embark on a heavenly ascent? What it might mean to answer the question who am I? And why such a question demands a change in consciousness rather than answer in any of the accepted currencies of the world, most especially words!

Father Sogol (Logos) is modelled after Gurdjieff of whom Daumal was a pupil and like his master, Daumal, places his deepest faith in asking the right question in the right way (rather than constructing answers). It is only when: who am I? strikes the very depths, when one suffers it, that a new way of being emerges as the answering activity. Reading Mount Analogue, time and again, I found myself not only thinking but feeling the dissatisfaction of any simple answer to that apparently simple question. Like a New Testament parable the transparency and simplicity of the text is deceptive. It lures you in to pondering at the heart.

There is too a characteristic emphasis on the importance of the group - the journey to Mount Analogue is a pilgrimage but not one aimed at transforming an individual pilgrim's soul but that of a group sharing the struggle to achieve a full humanity. The journey can only be embarked upon, Daumal suggests, when the group forms (even though Father Sogol, on his own, 'knows' the way) and as you ascend, you must prepare the ground for the group immediately following. No ascent is possible if it is not grounded in preparing the way for others.

I find this emphasis (that was a characteristic of Gurdjieff) deeply moving. The Bodhisattva renounces enlightenment until the last blade of grass is enlightened because no enlightenment is fully possible until this is so, all is transfigured. Hell will be empty at the 'end of time' because, as St Silouan of Athos says, 'Love could not bear it'.

Each step of the way is one's own and a opening for the step of another. We are saved together or not at all.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Saga of Jenny

Visiting a classroom of 7 to 9 year olds in Delhi last week, I was asked (amongst many other questions): what was my favourite song? My mind was wholly stumped at the time - though my appeal for Help! from my traveling companions had them suggest the Beatles!

My mind went blank because I was trying to think of something that an eight year old in a moderately poor district of Delhi might recognise and, of course, I stumbled. I should have simply said what it was (anything!) and then tried to give it a context (though that too might have been difficult). Alternatively, I could have gone armed with the ubiquitous Justin Bieber (who has indeed penetrated thus far) except I have no conscious knowledge of any of his songs (or having ever heard them)!

However, as I was leaving, my mind was whirring trying to find an answer and because it could not settle on any particular song, it was reminded of the dangers of making up one's mind and that led to the 'Saga of Jenny' - Kurt Weill's marvellous song here sung by his great interpreter, Lotte Lenya.

There are voices that are so extraordinarily distinctive and right for a piece that it is difficult to divorce them. This is such a one. For another it is hard to imagine anyone but Edith Piaf singing 'Je ne regrette rien' - indeed why would you want to? A signature has been made, inscribed on the vocal chords and on the audience's ear.

But it struck me how fluid this question of favouritism in music is - it appears so dependent on mood. If the question had been asked about any other art - I could reel off book, film, poem or painting with a degree of confidence in the stability of the choice but not for music. I could relatively quickly settle on my eight 'Desert Island Books' but be tortured into indecision about my eight 'Desert Island Discs'.

Music is often advertised as the art that unites. Is this because it transcends 'choice' (and judgement) and works on us at a wholly different level and only works in its own language? There is no possibility of translation: you are immersed and the possibilities of immersion are polyphonous, continuously shifting as you shift and change.

Of all the arts music is the most successful at evading fixity (or idolatry) and, therefore, is it the most imaginative?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Fox in the Attic

Richard Hughes is author one of the most compelling (and mysterious) books about children ever written: "A High Wind in Jamaica" where a group of children are captured by pirates and turn out to be radically more amoral than the pirates!

Such an understanding of childhood as beyond innocence and experience weaves through Hughes' 'The Fox in the Attic' - the first volume of an uncompleted trilogy (as he died only 50 pages into the third volume).

The trilogy is Hughes seeking to account for the rise of Hitler and the failure of peace to take root after the breaking carnage that was the First World War. He does this through a complex tale that incorporates both fictional and factual figures (including Hitler himself).

His central character is Augustine, a young English men, inheritor of a crumbling estate in Wales, who is breaking out after a time as a virtual recluse. He carries all the prejudices of his class and of a skin deep acquaintance with modernity. Through the book, he interacts with his sister, married to a Liberal politician and with his German cousins, who live in Bavaria, and whom he visits during Hitler's failed Munich putsch - which is beautifully described by Hughes replete with a defeated Hitler taking shelter in the attic of a supporter before being arrested.

One theme is how those who came of age in war (and assumed it as natural) and yet were too young to fight were left with a paradoxical mixture of relief and guilt (in England) and primarily of guilt in Germany. If the latter was betrayed, its honour must be restored (and its greatness), and nothing will assuage the guilt of not forestalling that betrayal other than through violence.

But it most deeply moving (and insightful) when describing the failure of Augustine to understand his German relations.Their differences can only be superficial - how can such attitudes (like their Catholicism) survive modernity and why are they not more like him? It is an extraordinary account of a young man's educated ignorance and egotism and in it we see mirrored our own inability to engage in empathy, to see anything or anyone, from their own point of view.

One of the motifs is of not hearing - continuously characters half hear or half read or are distracted - we like to think that we are not like this but, in truth, I suspect these monologues, passing each other by, is what counts for much of our conversation, sadly.

A second, related motif, is the confidence we have in our own knowledge and judgement (even if the evidence for them is minimal or suspect). So, for example, in Hughes description of the putsch he shows how people misread Hitler. This is not hindsight but a stark account of the myriad attitudes that prevented people taking Hitler seriously - of genuinely seeing him.

Both feed into a realization of our current dilemma - that we neither see nor hear the other - we simply trade half formed and often prejudicial observations. I was reading this week the accounts of the US Vice-Presidential debates where it appears that the only thing that matters is who appeared to have won. The first thing that goes missing here is truth - and without truth than can be no genuine advance.

Processing elephant dung

Bring 75% prepared elephant dung and 25% waste cotton together in water, allow your mixture to lie on a fine wire mesh frame, lift, turn over the frame, press down allowing the newly minted sheet to detach from the frame,  from where it will pressed to remove the water then dried. You have a sheet of paper.

On Thursday I made two sheets and they are now in my bag on the way home.

I was visiting Vijendra and his family - first in their home come paper works and second in a field they had purchased two hours drive from Jaipur where we learnt some aspects of Indian cookery: a new recipe for Dahl, how to roll a chapati and make a bread ball (whose name I forget) that is a specialty of Rajasthan - all under the stars, sparkling clear in the darkest of nights.

Vijendra's story, which, as a high context individual, he related in great detail was fascinating. A slow spiral movement from childhood poverty (his father had leprosy) to his current success and future prospects. (see

We were this week exploring 'leadership' and I was struck that while we focus on leaders as individuals, they come to be out of a matrix of relationships - interestingly repeatedly people, including Vijendra, made mention of strong relationships with their mothers. These appeared to confer on each individual a strong sense of identity and a holding love that creates a binding limit to the natural fears that are a part of any life (and which for many hold them in check, limiting their options and their flourishing).

I began the week with an open mind about 'Leaders Quest' ( How much can one see, learn, contribute in only (if a full) six days? But the underlying methodology of asking questions rather than leaping to judgement, crossing diverse social and cultural spaces and enabling both connections and contradictions to emerge; and, mixing diverse people bearing radically different experience, perceptions and knowledge together, if skillfully facilitated (which it was on this occasion) works.

I have much to process internally as I leave India.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The weighted veil

There are moments when I feel that the veil is to be lifted and all the world will be seen in the original light of its creation - and I sense that it is your own fear of the freedom such seeing offers that is weighing the veil down, not allowing it to be drawn back.

Such a moment was at breakfast yesterday, sitting in the morning light, watching a prideful peacock strutting across the lawn, refusing its own display, tail feathers firmly held behind.

At the day's closing, I was standing in a field, remote from Jaipur, under the stars having shared food with a delightful family: the son of which is a delightful paper manufacturer with a compelling story to tell.

I am trying to thank his mother for her, their hospitality and she is insistently, simply telling me how delighted she is to be happy and to have made us happy and how she will pray for each of us; and, you just surrender into a mutual being happy, rather than insist on formulating your thanks, and all is well and all manner thing is well.

The world rests in its origins for a moment and all is at peace.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Education for all?

Teach for America has persuaded a significant number of young, well-educated Americans to take two years to teach in under performing schools serving poor communities in the United States. Thus enthused the high achievers return to their career paths and become advocates for better educational outcomes in the country.

The model has been brought to India - Teach for India - and in Delhi they have 145 Fellows of the programme teaching in both public and low cost private schools.

It was was to one of these private schools I went this morning. In a 'contained' basement (but clean , well lighted and equipped), I attended a class of 7-9 year old children, uniformed, alert and prepared for our arrival.

They sang, and questioned and we questioned back - all in English - a language three months earlier they had little command of. I then went, as a part of a group, to visit the house of one of the parents. It was an illuminating conversation - he had three children and they and their parents lived in a single room (with washroom and kitchen) for which he paid 4,000 rupees (25% of his salary). He was completely committed to his children's education and to all of them - two girls and a boy - equally (which was refreshing and, sadly, not always the case). He was very articulate about the sacrifices he was prepared to make for his children's opportunities, even saying that he wanted to be known as the father of his (named) children. That would be his happiness.

Fascinating too that he was a supporter of the BJP - not for being, noticeably a Hindu nationalist - but because he saw himself as an aspirant member of the middle class (having moved from Bihar to Delhi) and because of Congress' perceived (and indeed actual) corruption. To our eyes this was poverty - five family members in a single room, mainly occupied by a giant bed - but to him both his job (shift manager at a Japanese owned factory), the success of some of his relations and his hopes for his children, made him middle class in the making.

I had concerns.

First Teach for India is very 'American' having high expectations for each and every child. They should/could achieve 'anything'. High expectations are vital but they needs to be realism too and an education system has to be multi-faceted to account for ranges of ability and interest. Going to college in itself is not the only (or the best) aspiration for everyone and tends to skew education towards the academic performer rather than the practically gifted.

Second there is the perennial challenge of private education. Does its existence and its undoubted popularity let the government off the hook from providing good quality education for all? Teach for India works in both kinds yet it was noticeable in our private school boys outnumbered girls. The boys go to the better performing private school, the girls go to the government school because it is free!

However, they were aware of the many difficulties and nothing but good can come from a significant number of highly capable young Indians giving two years to have what can only be a very challenging and inspiring opportunity and continue their careers and lives with a deep passion for quality education for all and being in positions to help influence the terms of that debate.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Change makers in India.

The day began with an introduction to mindfulness in the Vodka Bar at Claridges. This may be the first time a meditation group has assembled there for a session of relaxed quietness! Despite the incongruity, it was a lovely way to start the day - meditation in a group has its own particular energy that can deepen the experience of solitary practice. At present, I access it too rarely and must make amends on return.

Then it was out into the Delhi traffic - thick,  congested with each vehicle obeying an individual logic through which navigation is achieved (usually) with the application of great skill, fortitude and liberal use of the horn.

My group visited ITC Hotels Group to explore sustainability with Niranjan Khatri and discover a company that appears to be doing many things right - from its use of renewable energy, building supply chains to small scale farmers and employing people with disabilities. Most importantly in aligning sustainability not with corporate social responsibility but within its core business model. I liked the chain's branding as 'responsible luxury' capturing the paradox of consumption but with a genuinely green face (rather than green wash).

The afternoon was spent with Galli Galli Sim Sim which is India's Sesame Street. It began with a discussion of Mitt Romney's Presidential debate intervention promising to eliminate public subsidy for PBS (and thus cripple the characters of Sesame Street) as if this was the most significant area of public expenditure in the US. Let us attack children's educational achievement - all for the cost of buying two or three drones with which to randomly kill people who, fingers crossed, are our enemies (and in the process manufacture many more).

But moving on, I discovered much about developing a multi-media venture in a complex country (with twenty two official languages and such a range of fragile sensibilities) and got to interact with one of the 'stars' - and her puppet handler who was a fabulous young woman who through this work had been inspired to set up her own puppet troop and work with children in conflict ridden Kashmir, helping them articulate their grief at the loss of parents to both militant and police action. Children finding in the interaction with the puppets a safe space to articulate their deepest hopes and fears and give healing narrative to past trauma.

The evening was spent with the homeless and an organization that was both providing delivery of much needed services and advocating for change. I had a memorable encounter with an elderly man who had been a priest in the army and was now homeless. There was an obviously painful back story of generational conflict with his children. The more he assured me that they had agreed to see things differently and were content with the difference the more it sounded as a hard held coping strategy. A story told to make life bearable. It was painfully sad and if I had one criticism (or suggestion) for their work was that as well seeking reconciliation between homeless children and their families, similar work needed to be undertaken with homeless parents and grandparents - to build potential bridges of connection and potential care.

A long day but a very fruitful one. It is deeply refreshing to connect with people who carry a passion and carry it into the heart of the world aiming for liberating change and to be doing it in such different contexts.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

India revisited

I am back in Delhi and impressed by its post-monsoon greenness. It is lovely to be back.

I spent the morning with a trust that works with street children where 30-40 new arrivals might grace a Delhi railway station every day. They flee abuse, a felt lack of opportunity and towards the dazzling allure of a city sold to them in minted Bollywood dreams.

The reality is harder: a Delhi nightmare  where you prioritize your expenditure on drugs (or glue), the cinema (for escapism and sleep) and possibly food or if you are a girl your income is prostitution and your outgoings go mainly to your pimp.

The Trust helps develop trust with the runaway and entices them into the possibility of a new life - either effectively as an 'orphan' in one of their centers or in a renegotiated relationship with their families.

The results are impressive - people progressively healed and given new opportunities - as was evident in our two young guides and their oft told stories retained both a freshness and a deflected pain.

At lunch, we had a exceptionally moving talk from a contemporary Gandhian who had effectively re-interpreted his master's message for a new century - not only was he engaged in effective work with young people creating for them new educational opportunities but also deeply reflective on the revaluation of values we all need if we are to navigate a perilous present. We need a new sense of the joy of learning into the world, of collaborative discovery and inter-connected lives rather than defining our meaning through consumption. A consumption that leaves the world broken and our souls empty.

I was reminded of the importance of defining ourselves by what we are for rather than simply protesting what we are against and that this necessarily requires us to state our values and the culture they give rise to rather than take shelter in the instrumental thinking that bedevils international development agencies. These are exceptionally good at defining what we are against, more challenged by protesting what we are for.

So far so good on this trip that is meant to be displaying the heart of India and that may display a small but valued portion of its skin.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The wonder striking world of Remedios Varo

One of the happy circumstances of ordering online for prospective books is forgetting that you have done so and there in your in-box is a note telling you that something no longer expected is on its way.

In this case it is a copy of 'Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years': a new book on this remarkable Spanish painter who lived for most of her life in exile in Mexico.

She began as a 'Surrealist' and is often described as remaining one. However, in her case, as with many artists touched and moved by surrealist impulse and experimentation, she developed a more disciplined, highly conscious art of the imagination.

It was an art saturated by a highly eclectic and personal spiritual vision that is both enchanting and difficult to read in any other language than its own.

It can (as above) be delightfully whimsical - cats, creatures of contained contentment, inhabiting their own quasi-medieval world where the wind is harnessed to the simple pleasures of a playful mobile. Each cat is uniquely themselves in a pastoral, contemplative space.

It can, however, be more pregnant with significance as here. The power of music assembles a mystical tower whose straight staircase ascends into a starry, gold touched cosmos. Art is a making after a transcendent meaning and is magically transformative. Where does sacred music take you if not out of your self and into a heavenly ascent?

Her art is woven from a deep and playful engagement with unfamiliar patterns of knowledge - the esoteric, the alchemic and the magical (as was true of her great friend and fellow 'surrealist' Leonora Carrington) and yet you do not need to be a student of similar paths to be attracted and haunted by her paintings. This is because those paths point to something intrinsically true about our selves, our humanity.

The Catholic artist and poet, David Jones, asked: "What is the language of our effect signs?" His concern was that the rich language of traditional religion that itself was embedded in a wider culture (of history and myth) was increasingly inaccessible and unacknowledged. If your viewer does not know the myth and legend, say, of the daffodil, in its complexity, is not your art, your painting of the Queen of Heaven daffodil in hand, reduced?

To which the answer is both yes and no. Yes because there is no easy way of sharing your response to a painting either with a wider tradition or history and within that with one another. There is a difficult task of conscious reclamation - of learning, rather than living within, the symbolism. No because whether we 'know' or not the specific symbolic language, we do live in that world (in however unrecognised a way) to which the painting testifies. We may not know the language but it calls to us and we are moved. The image touches our depths before it reaches our surfaces, our interpretations.

Remedios Varo's art is a continuing testament to our depths showing that we are made for a world of wonder and contemplation. A world that continually retains its mystery.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Yoga of the Christ

Ravi Ravindra's commentary 'The Gospel of St John in the Light of Indian Mysticism' is a beautiful and challenging text.

Reading it on the plane to and from Dubai, I was struck first by how much of my presumed familiarity with the Gospel was imagined. A handful of key texts resonated with memory but many came upon me as if I have never encountered them before (that cannot be true as I have read the Gospel several times from beginning to end).

Like any re-reading, the reader, I, am different and so you notice the familiar differently and highlight different things.

This time I was struck by the compelling account it gives of how we fail to recognise what is in front of us both because it does not accord with our expectations and because it enthusiastically over supplies our expectations.

Running throughout the Gospel is a narrative about how Jesus the Christ fails to meet the religious establishment's assumptions about who the expected Messiah should be and how the populace, hooked on signs and wonders, greet him as their wish fulfilment. Both are to be radically disappointed as Jesus the Christ is offering the hard, interior, way of dying to the everyday, self-centred ego and being now empty being re-born from above, from the entry of the Spirit that saves.

The interior way does not meet the earnest and subsequently angry superficiality of both the religious traditionalists and the crowd and both conspire together to eliminate the troubling offering of a different, more arduous, way.

What is so striking about the Gospel is how few choose to take that way - of dying to self so that they can be re-born, like Lazarus, from the dead.

We are happy to worship the cross just as long as we do not have to take the way of the cross for ourselves.

It, also, gives the most compelling argument for why the current rush to reinforce legislation protecting people's religious feelings are so antithetical to Christianity as they were the very laws that, in first century Palestine, led the religious authorities to crucify one particularly offensive subversive and blasphemer namely Jesus!

It is not our 'religious feelings', usually as disorganised and fragile as any other kind, that should be trusted as a test of the authenticity of a sacred message. We need to have a gathered and co-ordinated intelligence, quiet discrimination and an enabling response that reflects true compassion to pass judgement on any truth (or its absence).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Not a fan of Dubai!

It is disorientating looking up at the Burj Kalifa, the world's tallest building at 829.84 meters. It does not blend into an undulating space, like a mountain, or commune with other towers as in New York, it simply erupts from the ground: all shiny and glassy and out of place, belong to no space, it belongs nowhere.

The whole city is like this - it gives off the aura of being a random erection, unplanned, unstructured and just here: wholly arbitrary (though divided into apparently framing districts).

This is rather dispiriting when given that it was built within an autocracy by an autocracy. You may have imagined a greater sense of vision, guiding order and planning. They might have built something altogether new and imaginative. They did not.

The desert here is horizontal, parsimonious of resource, except for heat (and oil) and unattractive. Buildings could have been close quartered, grown from their landscape, created beauty cumulatively and from detail, and used heat, both actively and passively, for energy and shade for cool. They could have represented the place and culture from which they came - close, bound, communal and hospitable. Instead they offer the same profligate, fragmented, competitive image we all have yet magnified.

Here the city squats in its desert for just as long as the extravagant resources it requires to live on can be managed, after which you can see it crumbling into oblivion. It will not be the first time in human history that this sense of over-reaching resource extraction has led to collapse, nor sadly the last.

In the interim, it glitzes across the desert, people trade and exchange and shop and you can admire its chutzpah especially at night when darkness and twinkling lights soften its harshness and disconnection.

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  and resonant with this rece...