Saturday, January 12, 2013

Jane Goodall's year of magical reading

 Writer Jane Goodall regains the freedom of unadulterated literary pleasure.
"I read nothing but children's books for a whole year."

When I was in my early twenties, and recently graduated with a literature degree from London University, I moved to a town in the midlands where I made some new friends. One of these was Mandy, who had just finished at art school and was spending her days painting murals all over the walls of an old farmhouse where she was living.

Her pictures told stories. They featured misty mountains, lakes of fire, caves sparkling with crystal, and groups of shadowy figures travelling across the landscape. As I watched her paint, we talked, and I told her about some of the books I’d been studying. My head was full of Dickens and Tolstoy and (of course) Jane Austen, and some rather more challenging works, like John Bunyan’s Holy War, and the essays of Samuel Johnson. I was used to being among groups of students who boasted about what they read, but Mandy wasn’t like that and listened without comment. One morning, she stood back from her work, paintbrush in hand, and just said, casually, ‘I only read children’s books.’

I remember being baffled at this, perhaps even a bit shocked, and thinking that perhaps I should try to introduce her to the wonderful world of adult fiction. Next time I saw her, I was prepared with a small pile of books, but so was she. I forget what I had chosen for her, though I remember distinctly what she gave me: The Wizard of Earthsea, Watership Down and The Secret Garden.

Set aside your expectations and read as a child.
Within twenty-four hours, I was hooked. The Secret Garden was a story I had read at the age of ten or eleven, but I fell for it all over again, and the other two novels were a revelation – brilliant and powerful stories, and as soon as I had finished them I needed more. Over the next few weeks I discovered the books of Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Ian Seraillier, Russell Hoban and Philippa Pierce.

Looking back on it, I can see how that time (the early 1970s) was something of a golden age for children’s novels. There was a burgeoning array of new stories and reissued classics and every few months there seemed to be a new writer to follow. I read nothing but children’s books for a whole year.

As a year in the life of the mind, it stands out even now, over thirty years later, as one of the best I’ve had. This is not to diminish the value of the previous three years, during which I had been engaged in intensive analytical study of literary form and language. I had been well taught, and loved all that I’d learned in the higher education environment, and I’ve never been someone to shy away from a critical approach to things, but as I plunged into these worlds of magic and mystery, of talking animals and child heroes, I realize now that I was connecting with forms of wisdom that can never be displaced by the social realities of the modern adult world.

The technical knowledge of literature I’d acquired was not on hold, it was quietly attending in the background, as another kind of learning was under way. In some ancient sense, story makes children of us all, and while adult fiction may lose touch with this heritage, stories for children can always take us back to it. They are drawn from the well of all the great sagas of our deep past. In rediscovering the pleasures of reading as a child, I was also renewing an awareness that story is bigger than we are, because it pushes at the boundaries of what we are and what we know. Through strange adventures in forests and mountains, peopled by magicians and talking animals, our minds can be opened to the mysteries of our own place as a species amongst others, on a small planet in a vast universe, where what matters more than anything is to act well, with the best intelligence we can acquire, especially when circumstances get rough.

As we look back on this most recent year, we may think that circumstances in general do look pretty rough. I have heard people say that adult audiences flocking to see the new movie of The Hobbit, and choosing it as holiday reading, are engaged in a form of escapism. Quite the contrary, I’d say. This resurgence of interest in Tolkien’s mythical sagas is part of a larger renaissance of story in our culture. Many of the novels I lost myself in during that year of magical reading are being republished, and there are newer ones to broaden the field of adventure.

Going through the shelves in a local bookshop, I picked out four to recommend to you. If your holiday reading shelf is already overflowing, they will wait, and may happily fill a few moments of leisure in more pressured times.

From the ‘vintage’ collection, Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams, is a novel about rabbits, though that hardly describes it. This extraordinary book evokes a world of creatures who know the earth with an intimacy our own species has lost, but it is also a world riven by violent territorial conflict, and redeemed by acts of loyalty that involve extreme courage. It is a tour de force of writing, and each of the central characters has a personality and style of speech that evokes the animal nature of the rabbit as much as the human traits that draw readers into a deep identification. Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) is a wonderfully plotted story about defeating the powers of evil in a world where human civilization is in a state of dark confusion. It is also a hugely entertaining novel, with a Dickensian flair for the comedy of villainous anti-heroes.

Tim Winton’s Blueback (1997) now almost has vintage status, though he writes from a world that holds its constancy against change. It is the story of a boy and a blue groper, written in the kind of barefoot prose that never interferes with the poetry arising from the seaworld that is the source of all his fiction. The giant blue groper is a being that needs no conscious work of mythology to place it amongst the great legendary beings that reside in the borderlands between natural and supernatural domains. In Carol Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper (2003), the border is crossed the other way as a mythical creature is naturalized through its relationship with a human child. This, too, is a story told with deceptive simplicity. We may know a true writer in a way that allows the story to lead on its own terms.

Story makes children of us all.
Quite recently I designed an online course in creative writing for an Australian university, and in preparing the materials, I went through several dozen textbooks in the area. Many of these contained advice and exercises on ‘how to read as a writer.’ Such exercises of course have their value, but the gift of story is a shared heritage, and comes to those who make the commitment to lay down their ambitions and expectations, and read as a child.

(As a post script, Mandy still lives in the farmhouse and has had four children who grew up surrounded by fiery lakes and misty mountains.)

Dr Jane Goodall is a novelist and literary essayist and critic. Now based in Queensland, she has taught, lived and read for many years in both England and Australia. She is a regular contributor to the Universal Heart Book Club. You will find the books that Jane suggests - and perhaps some of your own past favourites - via the bookstore links (above right). A small % of sales is returned to this Book Club. We also welcome your comments as well as your reading memories and experiences!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Walter Mason gets philosophical in the garden with Damon Young

Gardens have always held a sentimental place in my personal history. My beloved grandfather was a keen gardener, and when I was eight he came to my house and helped me establish my own vegetable garden, growing eggplant and paw paw trees, tomatoes and green beans. Every day after school he would come over for an hour or so and tend to my little garden while I followed him about, chatting about the world and all of the amazing things that were going on in my own special garden.I have remained fond of them all my life, though I am not really possessed of a green thumb, and my success rate with any plant is only ever around 50%.

Damon Young's wonderful new book, Philosophy in the Garden, is a beautifully written and highly entertaining exploration of writers and thinkers and their relationships to gardens and plants. The garden, he says, is one of the most fundamental expressions of civilisation, representing a place where we flirt with our fear of nature and our great desire to somehow curb and control its beauty.

Sydney's Hyde Park gardens
It is also central to the Western philosophical tradition, with all of the great schools of the Greeks being established in and around gardens.

The garden has also been a place of retreat for writers, those terminally indoor creatures like Jane Austen who nonetheless benefited from a daily turn around their garden beds. My favourite writer gardener has always been Vita Sackville-West, though in this book Young is much keener on the garden work of her romantic rival, Leonard Woolf.

Damon Young

This beautiful looking book is a wonderfully refreshing mix of literary gossip, historical exposition and philosophical reflection, and I never wanted it to end.

From Proust's beloved bonsai that provided him with an entire imaginary world to Nietzche's despised and immoral nature, a place that showed up what he saw as the cruelty and randomness of a capricious universe, this book never allows the reader to slide into easy platitudes about gardnes and flowers and home sweet home.

I was struck most by Colette, that deliciously amoral writer, who in her final years was bedridden and deprived of the pleasures of the plants and gardens she had so loved. And like Rousseau I have been struck by the romantic possibilities of nature, and at various points in my youth was convinced that the only solution for the future of humanity was to live more in accord with what I imagined was nature's perfect - and perfectly beautiful - system.

If you have ever planted a cactus or sprayed a lemon tree or mowed a lawn you will find much to fascinate you in Philosophy in the Garden. In equal parts bookish and outdoorsy, it balances the romatic dynamic that so many of us literary types battle with, and challenges the binary of art vs. nature.

You can purchase this or any other book at the global bookstore links: all above right. We also love to hear from you. Don't hesitate to post your comments, thoughts, responses. You might also want to catch up with Damon Young's 2014 article on his current reading.

7 Spiritual Practices learned from Thich Nhat Hanh

This article by Walter Mason originally appeared in the Eremos Journal. Eremos is an organisation dedicated to the cultivation of an Australian spirituality. You can hear about the history of Eremos in this interview with Rachael Kohn on ABC Radio National's The Spirit of Things. 

Perhaps one of the most accessible and beloved of the contemporary “spiritual masters,” the world’s second most famous Buddhist, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has inspired more than a generation of spiritual explorers in the West. 

His open and inclusive attitude and his complete avoidance of religious dogma have seen his ideas about meditation, religion and lifestyle grow in strength and many of his spiritual concepts have become everyday parlance. 

Thich Nhat Hanh traces his lineage back to King Tran NhanTong, one of the great Kings of Vietnam, a real figure, who in 1229 renounced political power and became a Buddhist monk, establishing the Truc Lam Zen Sect, the first indigenous Vietnamese Buddhist Order. 

Tran Nhan Ton - Vietnam's monk king
While it’s hard at this remove to gauge the shape of thirteenth century Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation is notable for its lightness and its joyfulness, and for not being unrealistically demanding of time and commitment.

Amitabha Buddha Statue, Quy Nhon, Vietnam

The meditative exercises for which he is most famous are simple and easily-practised, with an emphasis on everyday applicability. He has popularised, for example, the practice of walking meditation, which is a revelation for many Westerners who shudder at the thought of hours sitting on the floor in full lotus position. And perhaps his greatest contribution to Western spiritual discourse has been his popularisation the Buddhist idea of mindfulness, of constant awareness of what the body is doing and what the mind is thinking. 

Nhat Hanh helps people work toward this state by introducing the idea of gathas, small and sometimes enigmatic poems that can be recited silently while the doer is engaged in mundane activity. 

These gathas are adapted from his own monastic practice, where monks are given a book of them to memorise so that they can sacralise the doing of chores and religious work such as the lighting of incense or the taking off of shoes outside the temple door. Thich Nhat Hanh has reinvented them for twenty-first century living, introducing verses to be remembered as one turns on the computer, for example, or is stuck in traffic at a red light. 

Nhat Hanh’s genius has been in finding a space for antique Buddhist ritual and practice in modern Western living.  

From a lifetime of following Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and teachings, I have derived seven specific practices which have improved my life immeasurably:

7 Practices from Thich Nhat Hanh

Practice 1 – Seeing Deeply: Really investigating situations, emotions, relationships. The spiritual practitioner is urged to investigate the root causes and emotions of every experience through reflection, quietness and the active extension of compassion and patience.  

Practice 2Mindfulness of eating and of the conditions that brought this food to us: The necessary act of eating can become a mindful and profound experience. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages eating in silence, and in giving praise before the food is consumed. Both are traditional practices in any Vietnamese monastery. 

Maitreya, Buddha of the future, outside a monastery in Vietnam

Practice 3 – Observing the breath: At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s spiritual method is the ancient and intuitive practice called anapanasati – the mindfulness of breathing. It is such a tiny and easy thing to do, and yet it can bring so many changes to your life. Simply sit quietly and be aware of the breath going in and the breath going out.

Practice 4 – Reverencing our parents and our ancestors: This is quite a challenging idea for Westerners who might seek to lay blame for everything at the feet of their forebears. As a whole this idea, which is central to most East Asian philosophical systems, and certainly to Vietnamese Buddhism, is largely absent from most modern Western manifestations of spirituality. That is why it can be so powerful. 

Practice 5 – Pursue Social Service: Born in 1926 and entering the monastery at a young age, Thich Nhat Hanh had basically known nothing but his country at war. As a young monk he became increasingly concerned at the trauma the Vietnamese people were subjected to. Gradually he became a devoted religious practitioner and a concerned young radical. He encouraged lay people to become both more involved in Buddhism and to pursue social service. He established lay youth organisations that encouraged social welfare work underpinned by meditative practice and a deep study of the Buddhist scriptures. 

Practice 6 – Chap Tay (the traditional greeting): To quote Thich Nhat Hanh from Living Buddha,Living Christ – “When Buddhists greet one another, we hold our palms together like a lotus flower, breathe in and out mindfully, bow, and say silently, “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.” This kind of greeting produces two Buddhas at the same time. We acknowledge the seeds of awakening, Buddhahood, that are within the other person, whatever his or her age or status.”

Practice 7 – The establishment of Sangha: The sangha was traditionally believed to be the celibate renunciates who practiced the Buddha’s strictest rules and lived as an exclusively spiritual community – the monks and nuns. Thich Nhat Hanh helped extend that meaning to be all of the community of Buddhist believers. But a couple of decades ago he extended its meaning again to embrace any spiritual community. He says we can never live fully as individuals, or even as members of a family. We need to establish ourselves in a larger community of people who might otherwise be strangers – this is called the sangha, and it is a group which has gathered together in an effort to be better people. Sangha building and sangha living is difficult – we might fall out with other individuals within that community. But ultimately our commitment is to the community and to the ideal of sacred community building. We rely on each other to smooth down our rough spots. 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to receive Eremos' very fine quarterly journal, you can join here

In March Walter Mason will be a part of a panel in Sydney exploring modern ideas of pilgrimage, hosted by Eremos. You can find out more, and book tickets, here

Stephanie Dowrick greatly admires Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria

Richard Holloway, author of Leaving Alexandria

Religious belief – or its absence – is key in shaping how we will interpret the world and respond to it. It also profoundly influences how we value life as well as our own lives, and all the choices that flow from that.This makes it surprising how relatively few contemporary memoirs are written primarily as spiritual explorations. Although I am constantly "on the hunt" for them, and eager to re-read old favourites, in the last year or so I have read just two truly outstanding examples.

The first was The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana, a wise, deeply thoughtful and brave young American who spent enough time in pre-civil war Syria to explore not only the outer culture of that increasingly anguished country but also her own inner spiritual evolution. The second, and the focus of this review, comes from Richard Holloway, a magnificent writer with a string of thoughtful books already to his credit.

A former Anglo-Catholic priest and Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, Holloway is a highly praised (and sometimes pilloried) intellectual who in Leaving Alexandria (aptly subtitled, "A memoir of faith and doubt") offers an exceptional personal story. Better still, and while never lurking behind abstractions, this also emerges as a quite brilliant survey of the huge shake ups within Christianity over the last seven decades or so, written by someone who is, in all matters theological and institutional, post-Christian, yet is loyal still to the “miracle of pity” and to the “tiny figure of Jesus [that] can be seen on the seashore, kindling fire”.

Holloway is loyal, too, and wants to hold onto what he knows as “the poetry of religion”: unassertive, discovered in silence or in acts of tolerance or kindness far more reliably than in words; intimate, and utterly profound. This emerges in stark contrast to what Holloway calls “bad” or “noisy” religion that excuses and perpetuates gross injustices to women and homosexuals, dissidents and "heretics". And that uses its power so often not to create peace but to disturb it.

“Bad religion can be comforting, a blanket that protects us against the chilly winds of an empty universe, but it can be dangerous too, “ Holloway writes. And later: “The congregations that were growing…were the scary ones, the ones that spoke with absolute conviction about everything. Conviction sells. …[But] I felt there was something unhealthy about an approach to Church growth that worked by persuading people they were suffering from a terminal disease called Sin for which only their Church had the cure.”

Holloway contrasts this poignantly with the “earliest days of the Jesus movement, when it consisted of…the doubters and the uncertain.”  And when compassion mattered far more than rules. However he also sees, as I do, that we live in a world of widespread moral and spiritual poverty. Many people find this unendurable, seeking extreme versions of certainty (whether assertive Christianity or insistent atheism) as their only reliable saviour.

A reforming, self-transforming bishop, explicitly anti-authoritarian and “out” on the side of women clergy, gay priests and laity, and the messy, demanding “poor”, it’s perhaps surprising that Holloway held on as long as he did. He retired at the age of 66. But of course he was, always, living an unusually rich inner life, even and perhaps especially when provoked by God’s increasing absence. This is what makes his book exceptional: that we witness the tenacity and yearning that inspired him.

Raised in a working-class town called Alexandria, in the Vale of Leven north of Glasgow, by a mother who preferred the pictures to church and a father whose unassuming habits of hard work and consideration of others shaped young Richard irrevocably, Holloway had “got” religion early. By the time he was 14 he had left home to live in a seminary that offered training in the priesthood specifically to working-class boys and men. This led him to a life different in every way from that of his family, yet his gratitude for them is matched only by the quiet, almost silent appreciation he has for his wife and children.

Old St Paul's, Edinburgh

This is a book that can be read with tremendous interest by all thoughtful readers; not only those for whom Christianity has been part of a personal story. It is about faith and its meanings in one man’s life. But it is also about the centrality of human as well as divine relationships. That's what I love most about it, especially with the interplay of intimacy and distance that is surely part of Holloway's character as well as his writing. It’s in and through those relationships that theology, as well as our favourite ideas about ourselves, must be challenged. Holloway does that. And he does it superbly.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick's own books include Seeking the Sacred (with much spiritual memoir included in it), and her spiritual study of visionary poet Rainer Maria Rilke, In the Company of Rilke. She is co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club. This review - in a slightly shorter form - first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (2012). Leaving Alexandria can be ordered via the bookstore links on this site (above right). We welcome your comments!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mark Hovane welcomes the year with haiku simplicity

Mark Hovane
   From beautiful Kyoto, cold in January and demanding winter rigor of visitors and locals alike, long-time resident, teacher and gifted Zen garden guide Mark Hovane, sends these exquisite images, a poem from Australian Judith Wright, and haiku from two masters.

    year's end, all
corners of this
floating world, swept

            Matsuo Basho

                                                           The new year arrived in utter simplicity-
                                                                                                       and a clear blue sky

                                                                                                              Issa Kobayashi


Old rhythms, old metre
these days I don't draw
very deep breaths. There isn't
much left to say.

Rhyme, my old cymbal
I don't clash you as often
or trust your old promises
of music and unison.                                                  
Judith Wright
I used to love Keats, Blake
Now I try haiku
for its honed brevities,               
its inclusive silences

Issa, Shiki Buson, Basho
Few words and with no rhetoric.
Enclosed by silence,
as is the thrush's call.

                               Judith Wright

From "Notes at Edge" in Phantom Dwelling
(Angus and Robertson, 1985)

Mark writes, "On New Year's Eve, people gather at their local temple to 'ring in' the New Year. According to Buddhist belief, the bell is sounded 108 times to purify us from
the earthly desires that entrap us in the cycle of suffering. The chime is deeply resonant." And continues to ring as we contemplate these images and re-read the evocative poem and haiku Mark has chosen.  You can find out more about Mark Hovane and his exquisite, deeply knowledgable Zen Garden and Temple tours via this link.