Monday, 10 November 2008

Here; Or, Life in the Mountains - Episode 3

Yesterday I was packing yet more stuff into the car for transport to the new site when 8 kittens turned up. One of them found a snake (an adder) and started playing with it. He eventually killed it and ate it without getting bitten. The battery had run out on the camera :-(

As a vegetarian I felt kind of weird about letting this happen, but these cats live outside and hunt for food. And in the words of Gary Snyder, we are all food for some other being in the end...

This week has been mostly about building a floor (which is still not quite finished). The old Catalan man who runs the timber yard was very excited about the project and helped us design the circular floor. On the invoice, as our address, he wrote ‘Casa Unica’ (the unique house).

At the beginning of spending time here, things are always pretty hectic. Lots to do, as quickly as possible. Life is pretty functional, and filled with work. I’m enjoying it. I’m also looking forward to sitting in the fully furnished yurt, drinking tea…

This week has also been about Obama getting elected. A cautious sigh of relief. Simply as a symbol, this is a momentous event. But hopefully his presidency will be much more than symbolic. Avaaz ( have got a little petition going. Here’s the brief, and a link:

Let's act quickly to make sure the people of the world are heard as Obama makes crucial choices in the coming days on how to live up to his campaign promises to secure a strong global treaty on climate change, ban torture and close Guantanamo prison, withdraw carefully from Iraq, and double aid to make global poverty history. Rarely has a US President been more likely to listen to us.

Also, there’s a human rights exhibition on at the British Library in London right now:

‘Taking Liberties’ is a new exhibition running from 31 October 2008 to 3 March 2009 at the British Library in London. The exhibition tells the story of the 900 year struggle for rights and freedoms in Great Britain and Northern Ireland by uniting the pivotal documents which made or changed political history for the nation, including Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights 1689, the Articles of Union 1706 and the 1832 Reform Act.

This interactive and thought provoking exhibition is accompanied by an extensive program of debates and lectures in London and around the country. In addition, the British Library will be producing comprehensive resources for teachers and schools.

The exhibition is free, and is now open to the public at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. For more information visit

And finally, here is this week’s blog:


If we were always indeed getting our living and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh perspective every hour.
Thoreau, Walden

When I first got into Buddhism I had stopped making music. I’d put it on one side in order to experience myself, and my life, in a new way. Up until then, I’d thought of nothing but being a musician, since I was 14 years old. It was liberating to realise that, actually, I was free to do anything. Anything at all.

When my band fell apart, I took it as an opportunity to just be me. To see what came out.

What came out was that my old identity fell away very quickly and I felt utterly confused and formless. All my goals and ways of deciding what was good and bad, what was worthwhile and what wasn’t, what was cool and what wasn’t, seemed to me entirely arbitrary. I pretty much lost the plot and spent an incredible amount of time just sitting in a chair, thinking.

Look around, you’ll find the ground is not so far from where you are
Don’t be too wise (Nick Drake)

I remember sitting on the floor in my kitchen one afternoon, watching a dripping tap and being unable to work out whether or not this meant more or less than, say, a world war. I mean in absolute terms, which is most important? I wrote the song ‘I Don’t Think So’ around that time.

One of the things that attracted me to Buddhist philosophy initially was that it had an answer for this that made some sense to me. It said that there are two levels of truth – absolute and relative.

In absolute terms there is no difference between a dripping tap and a world war. They both lack self-nature. They both arise and cease in dependence upon conditions. And they are both impermanent.

This kind of thinking had already occurred to me, but it had left me stumped. I mean how do you decide what to spend your time doing when that kind of thing is in your head? How can there be any ethics, or a judicial system, or any judgement of any kind about anything?

But in Buddhism, there is also the concept of relative truth. This was a novel concept for me. This is the level on which all unenlightened beings live.

On the relative level, which is less true than the absolute level, it is possible to make judgements. There are ethics, there is suffering and the eradication of suffering, there are right ways to live and wrong ways to live. All Buddhist ideas, according to Buddhism, are only relatively true (including concepts like absolute and relative truth). The aim of Buddhist practice is to arrive at a direct realisation of absolute truth. It is beyond language, and therefore any description will inevitably be totally inadequate.

And so Buddhism brought a provisional ‘structure’ to my way of seeing things. It gave me a way to make choices, and a reason to get out of bed. I have been practising for about 15 years now and I have not yet tired of it. This is because my practice, my perspective and my understanding, change over time. Also, being ‘a Buddhist’ does not mean blindly accepting a bunch of ideas from 2500 years ago, it means testing ideas against your own experience. The ideas aren’t key, the experience is. As our experiences change, so does our understanding of life.

The suggestion that everything is only relatively true, and the recommendation that we should test ideas and values against experience is something that I think we should all be applying to our own values and beliefs, and the values and beliefs of contemporary Western society.

The main role of advertisers is to try to manipulate our perception – to tell us what means what – with a view to creating a desire in us for the product or service they are being paid to sell. This is what branding is all about. Glance at practically any advert these days and it will be dishing out some form of pseudo-philosophy. It will be telling you what life is about, and how their product helps you live that life.

Just Do It. Because you’re worth it.

Don’t wanna be a bum you better chew gum.

There is an excellent book by Naomi Klein called ‘No Logo’ which explores this area, and provides lots of examples and statistics about the history of advertising. If you have not yet read it, I urge you to get hold of a copy.

I have been thinking about this recently because I have realised that I am, in fact, in a PR war. I too am trying to tell you what means what.

I want you to feel rich and successful because you buy less. Because you have a smaller car. Because you walk to work. Because you have plenty of leisure time. Because you don’t wear designer labels. I want you to feel like you are a good parent because you don’t buy lots of tacky shit for your kids. I want you to feel like you’re where it’s at because you grow your own vegetables. You are cool because you don’t know who won X factor but you do know your neighbours. Because you think Big Brother is a barbaric freak show. I want you to feel safe and secure because you don’t have an ID card. Because there are no cameras watching you right now. Because the Government isn’t keeping a record of all your emails. I want you to feel sophisticated because your house doesn’t look like the ones off the TV. Because you don’t have a tan, bleached hair and a Brazilian.

I say you, but I mean we. I have noticed that I feel a little more confident on the high street when I am carrying shopping bags of newly purchased items and wearing a clean shirt. Like somehow I am a fully fledged citizen when I am carrying proof of being a consumer. Weird, huh.

Anyway, I have a plan for a guerrilla-style, viral marketing campaign. Some of the big brands already do this, so it is not revolutionary by any means. Actually, the Buddha did this with his disciples, so I guess they maybe nicked the idea from there.

My idea is that more and more of us decide to climb out of the values that we have imbibed, and that we, as Thoreau says, get our living and regulate our lives according to the last and best mode we have learned. That we follow our genius. In this way, we become walking talking ‘adverts’ for a different way of life. Kind of like performance artists.

What that way of life is, I have no firm idea. I’m hoping it will be as varied as the people who market it. I know that we can’t go back to pre-industrialised society, though perhaps we will choose to include some of the old ways. And maybe we will use technology and global networks intelligently, for the benefit of all beings and for the planet itself. And maybe we will re-build our communities, not as the homogenous groups of the past, but as free associations of individuals, based on mutual respect and tolerance. And maybe we will choose to spend our working lives with our friends, or our families or our communities, so that this huge part of our time is spent with people we care about. And maybe we will commit a certain part of the day to reflecting on what we are about, what matters to us, and to relaxation, meditation, and maybe even celebration.

By the way, I’m afraid no pay is offered for these positions. But then the hours are pretty good. And you can work from home. And moonlighting is fine. And you can have as many holidays as you like. And I don’t need to see your CV, you don’t need to fill out an application form, and there is no interview. Sound ok?


sorby said...

Fantastic Padma! Especially loved the paragraph which begins "I want you to feel rich and successful because you buy less..." - I can really relate to it and do aspire to a more authentic way of living. Having spent the past few years shedding material posessions (not through choice necessarily) I feel much 'lighter' in heart and spirit. Your last blog mentioned the things we actually need to do - wake up, breathe in and out a bit, eat, drink, keep warm/cool, go back to sleep; You start to realise just how much of what we do is unnecessary and just serves to maintain this artificial lifestyle we accept as 'the norm' - either because we *want* it or because we couldn't cope with the stigma of not appearing to have 'normal' aspirations, wealth and interests.
Thanks for the 'No Logo' recommendation - I've just ordered a used copy from Amazon. I recently read a wonderful book which your blog reminded me about. The book is 'The Tao of Physics' by Fritjof Capra - you've probably read it? He agrees with you about our language being insufficient to describe the 'truth' of anything. What is there really that we don't experience in a relative way? What is experience without something to compare it to? I guess that has a lot to do with enlightenment and I'm only really just setting out on that path. Thanks for shining some light on that path for me! :o)

Padma said...

Hey Rob

Thanks for your comment. Yes I have a vague recollection of the book you mention.

Interesting point about our experience always being related to something. You are right - transcending the subject-object dichotomy is one key aspect of the enlightenment experience. You can get some interesting glimpses of such a state - a flow of perception which is not 'me' and is not perceiving 'not me' through meditation. Especially in a retreat situation. Not sure whether meditation is something you are into, but my guess is that it would be right up your street!

All the best