On Meditation

For me, meditation is a way to reset the mind. People only turn to meditation upon reaching adulthood or adolescence: no child ever feels the need to stop and focus solely on the movement of breath in and out of the body. This is logical. A child takes one day at a time. When they go to bed, that marks the end of the day. When they wake up, that marks a fresh start. A new beginning. An adult, on the other hand, does not take each day as it comes, meaning that each morning is not a new beginning so much as it is a continuation of yesterday. Responsibilities mean that adults are constantly looking to the future and therefore failing to appreciate the present day. Although going to sleep separates one day from the next it does not, unlike it does for a child, reset the mind. As such we find ourselves getting stressed as life sweeps us off our feet. There is no respite: no pause in which our minds are reset.

Meditation allows for such a reset. It provides a period in which we are not making plans for the future or dwelling on the past. Instead the meditator is wholly and exclusively experiencing the present moment. They are clearing their mind, thereby ridding themselves of stress and anxiety. When they are done, they feel refreshed. Reset. Ready to take on this next period of life with the same mind-set as a child getting out of bed.

What is Heteronormativity to me?

Heteronormativity: a simple concept and a depressingly accurate reflection of our society: the assumption that all individuals are divided into 2 categories, determined by genitalia, which presupposes sexual attraction for the opposite gender, and often life-long societal roles.

There is no denying that such a presumption exists amongst the general population; the status quo of cisgenderedness and heterosexuality stamped on every newborn. Those individuals who grow up to realise they fall outside one or both of these categories will, more often than not, feel incredibly isolated as a result: society’s proverbial ‘closet’ for the LGBT+ individual, out of which the struggle to escape is all-consumingly terrifying for most.

As a gay man, the hardest part of accepting that I existed outside of the status quo was coming out to myself. I had never been educated about homosexuality and ‘gay’ was only ever an insult. Isolation and depression overtook. The fault attributable to society.

Fortunately change is in the air, with legislative progression and public support of the LGBT+ community. The influx of ‘coming out’ videos and stories on the internet provide strength for those struggling with their sexuality. Advocates of LGBT+ rights, such as Sir Ian McKellen and Laverne Cox, are educating the public. Prejudices are being uprooted, so we are moving in the right direction. A movement which shouldn’t cease until heteronormativity exists alongside other prejudices of the past.

What more can we do? Remove unnecessarily gender-specific targeting, often based in commercial products. Educate our children without pretending that they are all heterosexual and cisgender. Finally let these children explore their individuality, and embrace who they are without any presumptions. That way, one day, ‘coming out’ will be far less of a scary process, and maybe even unnecessary.

 

 

Why I love literature

There are some passages in literature that one can’t help but be struck by how much it relates to their life. A beautiful length of prose can sum up a seemingly impossible feeling, emotion or situation. It might not have even occurred to you how you felt about something until you read the words written by another.

I remember reading this paragraph in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 when I was in a state of depression. It just clicked with me, and I could easily have been reading prose written by myself:

“He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over, and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy. He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.”

I felt comfort in reading the words written by another person who could so perfectly sum such a feeling: such a human feeling. Often in life it’s too easy to feel alone, with the burden of an emotion or situation, but the reality is that someone, somewhere has described exactly what you are going through.

I’ll leave you with another simple sentence that I could relate to, written by Sebastian Faulks in Birdsong:

“The quietness of the world about him seemed to stand outside time”.

Depression

For me, depression is like black ink that stains the heart and darkens the soul. On a good day, the ink is in its well and my heart beats lightly between my lungs. On a bad day, the ink coats my insides and drains any energy that resided in my body. Optimism is drawn from my mind and replaced with bitter hopelessness.

In my experience, mental illness affects people in different ways. Below is a extract from my journal written on 22nd January 2015. It is difficult to read back, because now that I’m in a good place I know that these feelings are contained within the boundaries of my depression, and on any good day I would never think like this:

“I feel on edge. I find it difficult to focus; difficult to relax. I often think that I don’t deserve to be where I am, and that I can never fit into my surroundings because of it. I almost feel as though I’m in a parallel world; that my life exists on a transparent sheet that’s placed on top of the real world. I feel detached. I feel that if I stop existing tomorrow, no one will notice.”

In this period of depression, I read back through my journal and realised that writing down how I felt (both in times of happiness and depression) helped me to come to terms with my mental illness. I figured that I don’t need to think like this, but when I do, I know that it only lasts as long as this relatively ephemeral period of helplessness lasts. That’s easier said than done, of course, and I’ve been in a good place for most of the year, so I’ll have to see how things go.

One of the worst things about depression is that, no matter how perfectly your life goes, you can be sure that it will always be with you. Sometimes stepping on the backs of your shoes, breathing down the back of your neck and inevitably, every now and again, giving you a cold embrace and dragging you to place you live to escape from. My well of ink is always teetering unpredictably over my organs, ready to douse any happiness that has accumulated within me.

I don’t want to finish on this bitter note, and the last thing I want is for this post to be triggering. What I do what to put across is that depression affects so many of us, and I often find solace in my awareness that I am never alone.

What Makes us Human?

I was sat in the passenger seat of my mum’s car, slightly dazed in the warmth of the British summer when this question was posed by Jeremy Vine, the presenter of BBC Radio 2: what makes us human? Thinking back to a module I took on evolution and speciation for A-level Biology, my initial thought was ‘what a ridiculous question’. After all, (regurgitating what had been drilled into me at college) humans are humans because if two similar individuals can breed to produce fertile offspring, they are of the same species. And that’s that. Well okay, biologically my initial take on the question might have been accurate, but the presenter was pressing for a rather different response.

Dr David Starkey spoke on the subject and enlightened me as to the deeper side of the question. He rejected specialised traits belonging to humans as our defining feature, including language, love, altruism or self-consciousness, explaining that these features definitely are not unique to human beings. He explained that humans are unlike any other species because of an inherent inclination to make and seek patterns. He accepts that other animals share this human quality, such as spiders that construct complex silk webs and birds that engineer their nests, but none to the same extent as humans. Human patterns, Starkey explains, are on an infinitely larger scale which has led to the supposed conquering of time and space.

He says that patterns are found to be experienced by every sense: physical patterns such as sculpture or gardens are patterns for the eye; music for the ear, cuisine and wine for the pallet and perfume for the nose. Despite these, he says that the most important patterns are those for the mind: maths and language (master patterns), which are themselves patterns but also the building blocks for further and more complex patterns. I love this idea, that numbers and words can be used by humans (as Starkey suggests) to build suspension bridges, send a man to the moon or to create and preserve history or build and spread religion. These are responses to the human need to seek patterns in order to make sense of our lives in this world.

I think there might be better ways to distinguish humans from other animals, but I give credit to this explanation, because I agree that there is an inherent logic to human existence which is based on numbers and language, and this does separate us from the rest of life on Earth. I have never understood this to be a “pattern” before, but I like this metaphor (pattern: a regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in the way in which something happens or is done.) The only doubt I have about this idea is that, more often than not, human activity occurs in a seemingly random and haphazard way. I certainly don’t (often) make choices based on probability, and communication is largely based on non-linguistic understanding. Despite this, it cannot be denied that humans have codified the world into letters and numbers, and this certainly defines us as humans.

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05wy24n (01:11:00)

Just after writing this post I came across a TED talk that proved the point that humans use and apply maths to almost all aspects of the world in an effort to organise an otherwise unorganised world. This talk is by Hannah Fry, who sums this up nicely by finding patterns in the phenomena of love and relationships:

love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics is, ultimately, all about the study of patterns. Patterns from predicting the weather to the fluctuations in the stock market, to the movement of the planets or the growth of cities. And if we’re being honest, none of those things are exactly neatly ordered and easily predictable, either. Because I believe that mathematics is so powerful that it has the potential to offer us a new way of looking at almost anything. Even something as mysterious as love.”

Link: https://www.ted.com/talks/hannah_fry_the_mathematics_of_love

Fahrenheit 451

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

I’ve just finished reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is my type of book. One that makes you think about how society functions or could function in an alternate, yet almost perceivable, version of society. For those of you who haven’t read the book, the premise consists of a futuristic society where firemen start, as opposed to put out, fires. Namely, houses belonging to those possessing books. Books are illegal, and its citizens are addicted to fast and simple technologies. Books, however, expose citizens to knowledge that could upset their meaningless contentment. For example, Fire Captain Beatty gives an explanation of how the government censors information so as not to cause any unhappiness in society: “Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” Orwell conveyed a similar idea in 1984 when he created the slogan for his authoritarian state: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”

Guy Montag, the main character (a fireman), becomes aware that there must be something more to life than light entertainment and comfortable ignorance.

Although published in 1953, the message this book sends is more accurate now than ever before. We live in a fast-pace world where information is transmitted in seconds and books are becoming more obsolete (in their printed form especially), in favour of speedier mediums, such as documentaries films, TED talks and podcasts. The reality of this shift is undoubtedly less grim than the tale told in Fahrenheit 451, but mindless television and computer games appear to be shortening the attention spans (and stealing the attention all together) of our young generation in a way not dissimilar to the depiction portrayed by Bradbury.

In my opinion, a fast pace-world isn’t a bad one. It allows for more information to change hands more quickly, thus knowledge can spread in a way that it never could before. One categoric difference between our society and that of Guy Montag’s is the scrupulous level of censorship. Bradbury draws parallels between his fictitious society and that of authoritarian regimes, such as that of Nazi Germany, where book burning to enforce strict censorship was a reality. I can’t image living in a society where citizens where fed certain information, but other information was kept a secret. But that’s exactly the point. I can’t image it because this society is all I’ve ever known. If complete censorship of certain materials were the norm, then people would be blind to it. They would be unaware of the hidden information, so would take what they know as all there is to know and live in contentment with this knowledge. Only a person from outside of this society could shake their head at the helpless ignorance of those within. I think it’s safe to assume that most places of Earth live in near full disclosure. The test appears to be that if there is more than one convincing side to an argument, no one is hiding all that much from us.

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag.”