If you haven't seen the new King Arthur film yet, catch it before it leaves the cinemas. It's an example of Umberto Eco's saying that a mediocre film contains clichés, while a great film contains nothing but clichés. In fact, it's pretty much set in Clichéa - there's even a place called The Darklands (where it's too dark). Here are some of the many tropes it exploits gleefully:
- The Chosen One
- The Dark Lord
- The Superweapon (well of course)
- Terrible Engines of War
- A king assassinated by his brother (Hamlet, anyone?)
- The Band of Loveable Rogues
- The Whore with a Heart of Gold
- The Dark Tower
- The Hot Sorceress
Speaking of versions, my wife (who as a Turk is not so well up on the Arthurian mythos) asked me how close it was to the original, to which I replied "Not at all," then realised that it's a meaningless question because there's no such thing as an "original" for the Arthur stories. I mean what would you take? The fragmentary references in Welsh and Breton poems? Geoffrey of Monmouth's fake history? Malory's Morte d'Arthur? Arthur is always being reinvented, and this is one of my favourite inventions to date, though not quite up to Boorman's wonderful Excalibur.
Nalan: What would you do if some people kidnapped me and asked for $100,000?
As I mentioned in class, I thought I might start a gratitude journal this week, given that gratitude is the topic for one of the readings. This is where you write down things you're grateful for. Sometimes its a list; sometimes its a whole letter to a person you actually feel gratitude towards (rather than a general "I am grateful that I still have all my own teeth" kind of gratitude). I didn't do this, for various reasons ...
It's the last one that I want to write about. First of all, I think gratitude is, on the whole, a pretty good thing. Aside from its endorsement by most religions, numerous scientific studies indicate that feelings of gratitude promote happiness (and possibly vice versa). I've argued elsewhere that "happiness is a condition engendered by the realisation of a valued state"; in other words, you are happy when you become aware that something you value has happened, is happening, or is about to happen. You can therefore be happy either by making things you value happen, or by appreciating them when they happen. Gratitude is an expression of appreciation, and thus relates to happiness. However, what we call gratitude covers two distinct things. One is the more everyday use: somebody does something for us, and we feel gratitude as a personal response (and hopefully express it too.) There is also a less person-directed feeling of good fortune when something we value happens, or we notice that it is there all the time. If I may be so narcissistic as to quote myself at length ...
1. Tara Brach's introductory guided meditationI thought for my next mini project I'd try out some different meditations, given that we're looking at mysticism at the moment. For the first day I went back to basics with Tara Brach's Ten Minute Basic Guided Meditation I'd been thinking about doing some meditation in class so I wanted a short simple meditation. As it happened I decided I probably wouldn't do meditation in class (that's another story) but it was a nice, easy meditation for me to do in my tired state - just focusing on and relaxing different parts of the body, then paying attention to the breathing. I should do this more.
2. Tara Brach's "Smile" meditationI wanted to try Tara Brach's "Smile" meditation because some guests on the Tim Ferriss show recommended it (one even said it was the only meditation she did), and also because of Ketut in Eat Pray Love saying "Smile with your liver." It is indeed a nice meditation but I didn't get too much out of it because I was so tired that I kept falling asleep.
3. Calm appCalm is an app designed to help you meditate (or sleep, if you prefer). There are guided meditaitons, some free, some payable (hey, this is an app, what do you expect?) and relaxing soundtracks (mainly natural sounds like rain or birdsong). I downloaded it about a year ago, but had only used it for the soundtracks, which I like to put on when I'm doing what I call "napitation" (i.e., starts as meditation but is intended to turn into a nap - great for the space before a 1.40 class). This time I tried the first of the "7 days of Calm" series of guided meditations. It was very like Tara Brach's basic mindfulness meditation I mentioned earlier - relaxing different parts of the body then focusing on the breath. Nothing fancy, but would make a good first practice for someone new to meditation.
4. HeadspaceLike Calm, Headspace is a hip meditation app recommended by lifestyle gurus such as Tim Ferriss, so I thought it was worth a try. It's a bit like a jazzed up version of Calm. Instead of the natural backgrounds, you get a lot of cartoon figures, points, levels and the usual gamification stuff. The guided meditations are read by a guy called Andy who speaks generic Estuary English - something I found a bit off-putting at first but got used to after a while. Better than all those West Coast women who sound like they've taken too much Prozac, anyway.
The actual meditation I tried was OK - the usual body/breathing mindfulness stuff. I have to confess that again I kept drifting off to sleep, and I missed the last two minutes because my office-mate came in. Conclusion: do not try out meditations after work in the office.
Other conclusion: Headspace is probably a good app for type-A personalities who are allergic to any hint of mysticism, spirituality, or hippie New Age woo, and who love data tracking, levels and other kinds of Silicon Valley hype, but it's not really my cup of tea. If I'm going to go to the opposite extreme from traditional meditation, I'd rather have it more science fictiony, and rather than Andy, I'll take that sexy android from Dark Matter.
1. TouchSince we're moving from Epicurus to mystical poets soon, I thought a good bridge between pleasure and spirituality would be sensory awareness. This is an area I've done a little work on in the distant past and thought it might be fun to experiment with again. so I decided this week to spend one day on each of the senses, starting with touch. Since what we call "touch" is actually at least six different senses (at least according to the psychology textbook I read as a teenager), I thought I'd concentrate on feelings of weight and pressure today.
As an exercise, it was interesting though not mind-blowing. For example, going up the hill to work, I concentrate on sensations of pressure in my feet, and how the way I walked affected them, then on my way from my office to the sports centre I combined that with paying attention to the feeling of the weight of my bag on my shoulder, and how shifting the weight affected the sensations in my feet. Then I was at the gym with plenty of weights to consider the weight of ;-)
Although I intended to look just at pressure/weight, I found that naturally I was more aware of other touch sensations, such as heat and cold (shower after training) and pain (I hurt my shoulder a week ago doing an exercise called "pirate ships" and it's still giving me some grief). Interestingly, pain is less disturbing when you really pay attention to it as a feedback device - I was having to exercise carefully to avoid tearing muscles, so was paying a lot of attention to the type of pain I was feeling. (Anyone who's done sports will know that there's a type of pain that says "OK, this is having an effect," a type that says "OK, but don't overdo this," and a type that says "NOOOOOO stopstopstopstop!!!").
So what has all this got to with happiness? Not entirely sure at the moment, but mindfulness - paying attention to thoughts, sensations and actions in the here and now - is generally reckoned to be an effective meditation, and this is a kind of mini-mindfulness. It's certainly a great way to switch off annoying thoughts. Seriously - try being pissed of about something and paying careful attention to the sensations in your feet at the same time.
2. TasteI embarked on my second sense, taste, expecting culinary delights, but actually just discovered two things:
- Tastes hang around in the mouth for a while after you've finished. Apart from being a reason to floss, it's interesting because you don't notice this. You're like "OK, meal finished, move on," so you only notice an aftertaste if it's particularly bitter.
- Related to this, I found that even though I was supposed to be focusing on taste, I often didn't notice the taste of meals much while I was eating them even though I'd been thinking about it beforehand. This is worryingly close to the "I dunno - a salad?" dialogue in Eat, Pray, Love, especially as I normally think of myself as someone who appreciates food.
3. SmellMy day of focusing on smell was largely a non-event. It started wonderfully, with going out of the door and delighting in the fresh smell or the rainy air, but after that I just forgot to smell things most of the time. Smell has been called a "neglected sense", and I was managing to neglect it even though I'd resolved to pay attention to it! (Ironically, while writing this, I am acutely aware of the smell of Brussels sprouts cooking close by.)
4. SightFor my sight day, I repeated an exercise I'd first done in the 1980s, which is to focus on one colour (blue back then, green today). The idea is that we tend to ignore variations in colour, so even when we notice a colour, we tend to think "green" (or whatever) and ignore the actual hue, shade and intensity of the colour. So in in this exercise, every time you see green, you ask yourself exactly what kind of green it is: dark, light, intense, dull, closer to blue or to yellow and so on. You also ask yourself whether it reminds you of any other greens you've seen and how it makes you feel. In today's case, the answer to the last question was either "nothing" or "calm", which ties in with research that green has a calming effect (which is why walls in hospitals are so often painted green). The main thing about this exercise is that it opens your eyes to everything you're not normally seeing. Artists will be familiar with this idea - I remember from an art class when I was about 13, my teacher saying "You're problem is that you're not drawing what you see; you're drawing what you think is there." (He was talking about perspective rather than colour, but the idea is the same.) As the saying goes, "No one is so blind as he who will not see." (I just got curious about where that saying comes - it's from the prophet Jeremiah, apparently.)
5. HearingFor hearing I tried to pay more attention to background sounds. Again, this is something I've done in the past. Things I noticed:
- My wife may have a point when she complains that I'm a noisy eater! We tend to filter out sounds we make ourselves until we pay attention to them. I don't know how much sound my eating generates on an objective scale - maybe she just finds it loud because she's paying attention to it.
- There's something very calming about paying attention to very faint background sounds like the wind or distant traffic. It's almost like you feel your consciousness expanding into the area around you. One meditator described this feeling as "putting out my antennae."
- There are a lot of birds in Bilkent.
Wednesday, 22 February 2017, 9:45 AM
Since we're moving on to Epicurus, I thought I'd continue my "happy moments" blogging but focus on pleasure.
- Waking up early and being able to lie in a warm, cosy bed for a while before I had to get up.
- Taste of bread and butter at breakfast. I enjoyed the rest of the breakfast too, but for some reason I really appreciated the bread (maybe because I don't eat a lot of bread these days).
Continuing with feelings of pleasure ...
Friday, 24 February 2017, 11:53 AM
I rediscovered Treasure by the Cocteau Twins - I used to love this album back in the 1980s, lost my tape of it, then stumbled upon it on Spotify. I love the sensuous textures of the music; The Cocteau Twins are almost physically pleasant to listen to, as opposed to music I enjoy more intellectually (e.g., Bach) or because of the energy of the feelings, regardless of whether those feelings are pleasant (e.g., heavy metal).
Continuing to focus on pleasure ...
Friday, 24 February 2017, 8:45 PM
Qigong (Chinese breathing exercise) was very pleasant today. It nearly always feels good - you get high on oxygen - but there some extra factors this time.
Bearing in mind my earlier experience with the Cocteau Twins, I paid attention to the texture of the music that I normally play in the background. It's a loop of hang drum music - very repetitive but a lovely feel. The qigong series I'm working on at the moment is wuxing ziran, "the play of the five animals", and there's one animal I particularly enjoy, the dragon, because it involves running in a tight circle with one arm held out, like a kind of crazy sema. This reminded me of the play-theorist Roger Caillois' idea of ilinx, the pleasure we get from disorientation, like whirling, roller coasters or bungee jumping.
Sunday, 26 February 2017, 2:52 PM
Last night we baked fish in an oven bag (very good idea BTW) and threw in a few potatoes. Although the fish was very tasty, I found I got even more pleasure from the potatoes. I suppose some of this may be like my enjoyment of bread earlier - I'm not eating a lot of carbohydrate these days so I really enjoy it when I do. This ties in with the practices of both Epicurus (who would sometimes go hungry so as to appreciate the pleasure of eating more) and Seneca (who while being ridiculously rich, would sometimes spend a month eating like a beggar). Another factor might be childhood memories. We often used to go to my grandparents at the weekends, and my grandmother would cook a traditional Sunday lunch of roast beef or chicken, which always had potatoes roasted in the oven in the fat of whatever beast was in there with it. (Apologies to vegetarians reading this.)
A most pleasant day
Monday, 27 February 2017, 9:32 AM
Lots of pleasant moments yesterday, starting with an excellent breakfast (no breakfast beats a Turkish breakfast). This time I was particularly impressed by the taste of the olives (from Hatay). Then off to my taijiquan (t'ai chi) class, which was very enjoyable. Again we concentrated on wuxing ziran ("play of the five animals" - see previous post). I worked up a good sweat, which was pleasant in an odd kind of way. I don't sweat much normally, even at the gym, but breathing exercises do it for some reason (especially the crane exercise, which appropriately corresponds to the element fire in Chinese metaphysics).
Back home for lunch and a nap (which is always pleasant) then a few hours indulging in my new favourite pastime: reading a book in bed. I noticed that although I read a lot on the computer , I never fully relax when I'm doing it. Maybe it's the physical conditions of reading at a desk on a computer, or maybe it's the fact that I associate the computer so much with work, so even when I'm reading purely for pleasure there's always a feeling I should be doing something else, the urge to check my mail etc. Reading a physical book in a place where I never work (bed) sets up a barrier between reading for work and reading for pleasure. (Ironically, the book I'm getting so much pleasure from at the moment, Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, is something I originally picked up for work.)
In the evening, one of my favourite foods, mince and eggs (kıymalı yumurta), followed by Survivor.