Reflections and observations on life in general.

Month: January, 2018

Salvation… ?

It’s a “drych” Sunday morning, misty and wet, not a day for hillwalking, fewer distractions for me today then. I’ve slept well in a bed I appreciate every time I lie down in it, not just for its inherent comfort but also because I made the frame myself, another story, and because I am reminded frequently in the city centres that there are many people who don’t have the luxury of even a safe place to sleep, let alone a bed; luxury is a fragile and ephemeral thing, I try to remember that.

From my flat I can look down to the Salvation Army church hall opposite, where Sunday morning worshippers are making their way in for the service, it’s a fair range of people, mostly older but not all, a few families too, this one is busy and well-attended as far as I can see. It’s also active as a social assistance centre, providing cheap, possibly free, meals to people who need them, company too, other useful and constructive events. It reminded me of a few things I’ve heard in conversations, sometimes agreed with, at least in part.

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I’ve heard people dismissing the variety of Christian churches, indeed all religions, as promoters of blind and superstitious faith, root causes of discord, persecution, prejudice and war, social & political tools of manipulation to keep people tolerating unjust and oppressive worldly conditions for now in the hope of future reward in an afterlife and meanwhile accepting the authority of a few, legitimising abuse of power and more. There are some truths in this, all religions, indeed all human organisations, have the traps that can tempt people to follow these harmful courses of action, as we see from the news on a regular basis in the continuing revelations of long term abuse of children in the care of nuns, behaviour of a number of film producers, business leaders in a London club, the list is endless and active. These problems have been evident since the early days of Christianity and very likely the other religions too, before and since. The common thread I see running through it all is the question of human problems, the real extent of some of which is only now becoming apparent and acknowledged. The pressing need now, I believe, is to examine the underlying causes of these problems, not to be diverted into the easy option of demonising either individual perpetrators or institutions, and to act on those causes.

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What I see too, though, as I look down at the last of the congregation going in to the warm and convivial hall, is the very positive aspect of this place and activity for many people, indeed I’ve had a closer experience of this in the past, in relation to a Christian family I knew and used to visit, and recently, in a Buddhist setting, though I’m thinking here about the Christian context as they receive a lot of unfair criticism and ridicule.
I saw people having a very positive, uplifting and hope-filled shared social experience, even if it gave only respite, we all need a break from our problems and I’ve seen people gather strength and stamina from this, whatever their level of commitment to or belief in the doctrines. I’ve seen something of the wider social support and networks that can be available and accessible through meeting regularly in a setting in which the focus is, mostly and explicitly, positive. I’ve seen the way people, especially young people, can feel that they are capable of achieving and that they do have real potential, due to the encouragement and wider support and contacts that they have, leading to confident, clear-thinking and healthily active young adults able to make and maintain good relationships and pursue constructive livelihoods based on sound and compassionate values. I’ve seen genuine community developing around these things, all-too-rare islands of constructive social support and interdependence in a sea of fragmented and relatively isolated individuals, clinging to assorted and often toxic flotsam to stay afloat.

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I’ve also heard, first hand, from people who have found the sense of a greater presence and possibility in the world helping them to endure deprivation, abuse, despair, imprisonment and torture; at school we had an inspiring talk from an East German preacher who had been imprisoned and interrogated for a long time by Stazi and Soviet police, as well as other persecution due to being an active Christian. My point is that there are very useful and desirable aspects to these activities and beliefs, as well as potential traps for those who do not examine critically the dogmas, rituals, creeds and actual behaviour of the followers.

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I am not a Christian, I find the theology doesn’t fit with how I experience the world inside and outside my head, though the core values as exemplified by the teachings of Jesus are very good ones. My forced exposure to Church of England Christianity at school served to reinforce my negative perceptions of it, the sense that I still get if i sit in (rarely) on a service, a feeling that somebody is trying to stuff cotton wool into my head to stop me asking questions and seeing behind the scenery.
I have found myself drawn steadily towards the teachings of the Buddha in large part because I am explicitly encouraged to examine and question it and find the evidence of whether it works for myself, not just to accept it all on “faith”, a word I associate too much with “accept that this is true and don’t ever ask why”, or in other words, wilful delusion. Mostly I find it to be consistent with what I observe and I experience real benefits from the practices and teachings I have encountered so far; those that don’t fit or seem to work I leave aside for now, I’m responsible for my own “salvation”, or not, fair enough.

There are things which it is useful to approach with a willingness to have confidence in, a lifejacket, climbing rope, the brakes on my bike or car, the competence of the pilot to land the plane safely or the doctor to remove my appendix without killing or maiming me, the possibility that this set of teachings and meditation practices will be helpful. All of these things I can, if I wish, examine and test and review.

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So when I see the people emerging, now, from the service and gathering (there are usually tea and cakes after, I think), I see something that is mostly positive and life-enhancing, useful in a fragmented society too. The proof, for me, is in the “pudding” in the sense of the observable results of this activity and there is good stuff there that, if it works for you, I’m glad and would encourage. I would also encourage, urgently, examining carefully the list of ingredients to discriminate between those that are genuinely nourishing for the individual and society, those that are innocuous flavourings and colours and those that are bad for your long-term health or even toxic to us all. You don’t need to give up eating cake but the recipe might need adjusting.

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About a kilometer away I can see the steeple or tower of the “Faw Kirk” that gave this town its name, from back in the Middle Ages, beyond that, today’s mist obscures a splendid view to the Ochil Hills. It’s time for a walk through the nearby Callendar Woods and perhaps a welcome coffee, even some cake, in Callendar House, by the remains of the Roman frontier at the Antonine Wall. I shall examine the ingredients of the cake!


Under Snow – 2.

Sunday, forecast for cloud and snow most of the day, a good day for indoor things & administration. I achieved some of those things as well as baking bread and toasting an assortment of seeds and nuts, a few of which I gave, before toasting, to a visiting squirrel on my window-ledge. His, or her, I’ll use the former pronoun to mean whatever, climbing is impressive, he leaps from a thin branch to the grit-embedded wall, 10m up, landing squarely and confidently then moving fast over the rough vertical face; if I start climbing again, he’s my teacher. However, this is not about squirrels, though there were many of them about today. This is about a walk in the woods.

The fresh snow lay on almost every branch, even the finest, to an even depth. It struck me how amazing this is, that despite the snow flakes falling with plenty of space in between them (at least 10cm to my guesstimate), in a short time several had landed on top of and next to each other so as to cover everything. It made me realise the power of the random event, given enough of them, every possible combination can happen, no mystery intent nor agency necessary.

Callendar Wood is part of the estate of Callendar House, now open freely to the public. It is a mixed, mostly coniferous, woodland but has many yew trees in varying forms, some relatively tall and straight, others convoluted and twisted and sprouting shoots from horizontal and dipping branches that create miniature forests on the tree. They are dark trees, heavy beyond their physical mass with what feels to me like accumulated shadows that they hold under their canopies. Previously I have found them gloomy and unattractive trees but here, somehow, in this context, they appear to carry a sombre beauty that reveals itself when I wander under the dark umbrella to explore the twisted forms that even the straightest trees have.

Today the yew trees were lightened by the accumulation of snow which they would occasionally shake off the end of an over-laden branch, sometimes aided by the passage of a pair of squabbling squirrels. The shadows beneath seemed today to hold a slight warmth and sense of snug shelter. In the right light, the bark revealed warmer colours, browns and reddish patches that would glow in sunlight, if it were allowed in. As yesterday, I noticed this but did not feel inclined to stop and draw, the luxury of the camera felt enough to capture a reminder of the visual and mental impressions I was noting.

Passing Callendar House and the expanse of lawns that lead to the long ridges of the Antonine Wall embankments, the place was busy with families, noisy with delighted children tobogganing down the last frontier of the Roman Empire.

It’s been a good weekend, experiencing energy, exquisite moments of visual beauty, space, movement, stillness and a slightly different view of things, under snow.

Under Snow – 1.

We’ve had a lot of snow in the last week, here in Scotland, it’s made the usual headlines and stimulated the usual discussions that you hear from the British Isles whenever any part of our wonderfully wide spectrum of weather presumes to exceed the acceptably mediocre level of novelty and mild inconvenience. Despite the depressingly widespread ownership and misuse of bloated “SUVs”, usually boasting at least 4-wheel drive and sold as fulfilling the “go anywhere” dream, few seem able or willing to drive these through even a couple of centimeters of snow and ice and so schools are closed, people are stranded and epic tales are told in conditions that would be laughable in countries that have to cope with rebuilding roads and power lines after most winters. I have, however, felt it better to drive than cycle to work over the last week, given the many patches of black ice, invisible until too late on a dark winter morning and evening, which is frustrating but better than limping in to work with bruises or worse and a damaged bike; there’s enough hazard from motorists to cope with.
Given this present situation, getting out for a walk has been more necessary and refreshing than usual and this weekend has been very satisfactory, with a modest but beautiful walk on some hills to the north of Lochearnhead, yesterday (Saturday) and a more reflective stroll this afternoon through freshly snow-laden trees in the nearby Callendar Wood.
Yesterday’s walk was the result of turning a setback into an opportunity to explore, my original and planned destination being blocked to me for a lack of any more space to park cars in a considerate manner in a sensible proximity to the path up the mountain (Ben Ledi). Exploring northwards, I found space in a layby close to the official car park, inaccessable to 2-wheel drive cars and full of Mountain Rescue team vehicles – they were on a training exercise. My route led up through the dense, dark walls of the forestry plantation, tight-packed trees laden with several inches of snow. The snow was about knee deep and the Mountain Rescue Team had helpfully trudged a narrow groove-like track through it so I could make easy progress to beyond the tree-line.

Apart from the team, I was the only person there for most of the day. I startled a grouse from its hiding place under the snow, it erupted from behind me and flew a short distance to where it could observe me from behind a lump, leaving wing-marks in the snow around the hole whence it had sprung. In other places, grouse and mountain hare had left their spoor in isolated trails over the wind-sculpted and crystal-covered surface through which I now ploughed my less graceful way.

The air was very cold but the wind light and it felt mild. I felt energised and exhilarated by the bright light and crisp air and snow. At a suitably sunny and wind free spot I stopped to enjoy a brisk and very quick snow-bath, wonderfully refreshing despite the rapid numbing of my feet as soon as my bare feet sank into the soft surface; I felt as alive as after a dip in the sea, warming quickly as soon as dressed and running the next few metres through sheer energy.

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The views from the two small summits (Meall Buidhe and Beinn Leabhainn) were superb, a full panorama including Ben More in Glen Dochart, Meall an Tarmachan and Ben Lawers above Loch Tay and, in the south, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin, which dominate the mountain view from the school where I work. I thought of friends I would like to have shared this with and sent them good thoughts and wishes anyway, sharing through the ether of the mind feels more useful to me at these times than yet more Facebook posts, though that’s ok for later.


Meall an Tarmachan & Ben Lawers, with Loch Tay, from Beinn Leabhainn


Ben Vorlich (L) and Stuc a Chroin from Meall Buidhe

After taking photos – the air was too cold to use watercolours (the water freezes and you have to paint with slush… not successful) and it was getting late in the short day – I set off down, the new moon crescent high in the sky as the sun retired to bed. The mountains were turning from shining white to a soft and dreamlike grey-blue, slightly luminous in contrast to the dimming mauve sky behind them. When I see these things, I think of how I might paint them, though I don’t yet feel the urge to do so strongly enough to turn that into a result, it’s as if it’s a train of thoughts that are arising and falling away, perhaps to hide in the recesses of my mind and ferment over time until, if ever, the “right” moment comes to pass.


Glen Dochart, Ben More & Stob Binnein, summits for a future visit.

As I descended, the snow went from crunchy crystalline to softly silent; out of the wind, now, I was warm. At the road, a welcome bonus, my car was still there and in working order. It had been a quality day, in part thanks to those two people who parked their cars so badly that they occupied enough space for two more. I could have been conventionally irritable, angry, feeling cheated and taking it personally. Instead I chose different objectives and got what I was really after anyway, more in fact. Definitely a quality day, I’m grateful.