Friday, April 27, 2007

The Secret

This film, which springs directly from the little gem that was "What the bleep do we know" and is meant as a further exploration of the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness, is not only a serious misreading of its sources but also both morally repugnant and a sad confirmation of exactly how some in America end up conflating the spiritual and the material, the real and the evanescent - when they should definitely know A LOT better.

Judging from their website I would say that the producers have been reading too much Dan Brown and not enough Fritjof Capra.

It's all very well to get together well known US self help gurus like Jack Canfield, Marci Shimoff and John Gray together with the odd Quantam physicist and have them spout about what great lives they have and how they lived through tough times, transformational experiences and personal redemption. It's another thing altogether to invest these individuals with some sort of mystique ("The Secret") and in so doing confer on their view of the world as we see it post-edit an aura of reality and authenticity, and in the process render this view something to aspire to; whether it be the '$4 million dollar house' or the 'Checks that just keep coming through the mail'.

Let's not forget just how profound and important real self actualisation is and remind ourselves just what all the fuss is about when we bring together theories and philosophies like Quantum Physics and Buddhism.

Eastern spirituality and Quantum Physics both seem to suggest a similar concept of the universe. Although of course one is spiritual and the other physical at the outset nonetheless they appear to converge in suggesting that essentially the universe is empty, that all that exists is energy and that we, and our minds, are nothing more than manifestations of this energy. In seeing this we can either accept the impermanence inherent in our universe or exist in a state of grasping and delusion. The confusion of the permanent with the impermanent and the concepts of attachment and non-attachment are at the heart of Buddhist teaching and it is here that we get to the nub of the problem in The Secret. The much vaunted 'Law of Attraction', the idea that the minute one relinquishes one's attachment to something it can be effortlessly possessed and that we are therefore masters of our own individual universes, is nothing but a grimly distorted and misunderstood interpretation of the concept of non-attachment.

You wanna own that new car? Stop thinking about how you can't do it because this is only ever increasing the impossibility of doing so. Just start thinkin how ya gonna do it and your La-Z-Boy will transform itself into the babe magnet of your dreams. Whatever.

This film mentions cars and money and God an awful lot. It doesn't mention love, compassion or peace. It equates material possessions with happiness in the crudest manner possible and suggests that if you live in utter poverty, at the bottom of the heap then no-one but you can possibly be responsible. Now, I'm not saying that these are the beliefs of the participants or even that this is what the producers are trying to argue. No. But what I am saying is that this is what they have ended up doing. And I wonder why they did that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Manu Bay and travelling around India with a 7ft surfboard

I went over to Raglan, home to one of the most famous left hand point breaks in the world at Manu Bay, to do a spot of surfing. On arriving at the backpacker hostel I was less than impressed to be honest - it was a bit on the tatty side and my 'double' room left me with just enough space to put the mat down. As I mentioned to a friend who also came down to try out the waves, lucky I don't actually do Garba Pindasana yet because only an expert could have managed it in that tight little spot without headbutting the skirting board.

Anyway, after a couple of days the whole place really started to grow on me - the lodge was in a beautiful little valley full of fern palms, glow worms and sharp contrasting late afternoon shadows and clear blue sky. Even the paltry excuse for a kitchen began to seem adequate.

The surfing itself was perfect for those at the learner stage - not too big but nice and regular and uncrowded. Wainui beach is wide and basically empty at this time of year, even over a holiday weekend. And I just love being in the water! It brings a smile to my face at the time and afterwards too. Wetsuits required of course but that gave over 2 hours of comfort with just the feet getting a little chilly.

Having wanted for so long to learn to surf I am actually now doing it and as luck would have it the yoga is of course a huge help, not just for the balance and rythmn of the activity but also in terms of attitude, physical condition and upper body stamina and strength. I was beginning to catch and surf waves almost at will, though the takeoff needs to get a lot cleaner and the rides can definitely get longer; and they will, in time. The pleasure of paddling out, watching and observing the swell and sets, duck diving the waves to resume sitting on the board, all of it brings such peace and calm, a feeling of unity and exhilaration perhaps best labelled as joy. And just once, unexpectedly and without thinking I turned, paddled, felt the board begin to slide down the little wave face and popped up perfectly onto the middle of the board, steady and balanced, eyes forward and ready to go, the timing absolutely right, the attitude right, the feeling right, the sum of it all just right.

All of which found me in the board shop in Napier yesterday, looking at 7ft4in boards and accoutrements - but the stumbling block for me is the idea of having to lug that thing around Indian railway stations, streets and airports. Talking to a mate last night we both agreed that even a backpack seems like a hassle sometimes. Now, I haven't investigated the Indian surf scene, though I gather there is some, but for me the main focus is Sri Lanka where I know that down south there are some good breaks to be had, handily near to a yoga centre I plan to visit in the new year. So the dilemma is whether to buy now and cart the thing around or rely on being able to get some kind of half decent board in Sri Lanka when I get there. Hmmm.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The natural order of things

One of the most important things about the internet and BBC World Service is that together they are keeping my brain alive. At the same time this gives me an opportunity to examine the nature of the sustenance required. It’s pretty varied.

To produce 1kg of rice approximately 5000L of water are necessary. In Bangladesh, a country with a population of around 200m, rice accounts for 70% of an individual’s calorific intake. The recommended maximum is 50%. In the mid-1970s, when the World Food Programme began to supply food aid to the nation, approximately 70% of women and children there were malnourished. Today that figure is estimated to be around 50%. In part this may be due to aid, but another contributing factor is the improvement in yields from rice crops due to crossing varieties of rice. Now genetic engineering offers the possibility not only of improving yields but also of dramatically fortifying the nutritional content of this staple food. ‘Golden Rice’, with an orange yellow tint, contains beta-carotene producing DNA transferred from daffodils. Genetic engineering thus offers the possibility of rice containing vitamins and other nutrients not naturally present.

Only 1% of bacteria and viruses can be cultured and examined under laboratory conditions. This means that the remaining 99% are therefore a relative unknown. Microbiologists are working in a very murky and incomplete knowledge environment.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity produced the famous equation E=mc2. This has no practical value within normal bounds of everyday experience or orders of magnitude. Outside of these however it means that, among other things, as an object accelerates towards the speed of light its mass actually increases. In addition, if it attained the speed of light its mass would by definition be infinite. Thus the impossibility of travelling at the speed of light since the energy required to do so would be infinite too. Another prediction of the theory says that time will pass more slowly for a clock at a given altitude above earth’s surface than for an identical clock on the surface. This concept, though, is actually observed to be the case and is factored into software for devices such as GPS satellites and equipment.

When Chloroform, which overcame many of the disadvantages of Ether, first became available for general use as an anaesthetic in the mid 1800s an enormous debate was ongoing within and without the medical community as to whether it was ‘right’ to use anaesthetics at all to perform major surgery. Some practitioners adopted the new technology while others chose not to do so.

Today we might assume that a concept like the elimination of pain to facilitate life saving surgery might exist in a relatively neutral moral and ethical space. However, in general we now make a value judgement based principally on medical science and individual 'experience' that pain above a certain level of intensity is both bad and unnecessary. This in turn informs ethics and social sensibilities. We can eliminate pain and so, in the instance of open heart surgery, it is both expedient and necessary to do so.

Previously however it seems that medical science was perhaps informed more by social and religious perspectives than its own set of value judgements based on modern concepts of rationality. Society did not view pain as a simply negative experience. Perhaps God guided individuals through the infliction of pain, helping them to make decisions or influencing their lives. Pain was to be borne as it fortified the character and spirit, improving the individual and thereby providing a pay off to wider society. Pain represented punishment and by extension a lesson to others, and a deterrent. Pain was a purifier, a good thing that often preceded a cure or resolution. Pain was simply part of life and so to tamper with it might not be in our best interests as it simply formed a feature of the way the world was, the natural order.

All of which looks like a nice neat, if glib, piece hinting at issues of cultural relativism and contextualisation. The thing that occured to me subsequently however sits roughly along the following lines:

Prior to the publication of the General Theory of Relativity in 1915 the concepts of space and time were seen as existing separately but together in a fixed environment which itself was unaltered by events within it. After the General Theory it seemed that this was no longer the case. Space and time were linked together and existed in a dynamic state whereby they both exerted an effect on, and were themselves effected by, their environment the universe. This paradigmatic shift in thinking has reverberated outwards across art and science ever since and I wonder how much it can be seen to have given rise to the now much criticised concepts of post-modernism which were still dominant, though beginning to look a little tired, while I was at University. The idea that all things are relative to one another and their environment, be that physical or philiosophical, had become something of a mantra as well as being extremely useful for those wishing to subvert ingrained and dominant bodies of thought. But how much do Cultural Relativity and General Relativity really have in common?

Ah well, it keeps me amused anyway.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Be alert, NZ needs lerts.

I almost laughed outloud, but the laugh was beaten to it by a groan upon reading that Ashtanga is to be a demonstration Olympic Sport in Beijing.

I particularly like the proposed 'logo' for the event, and the fact that it is being included 'along with BMX biking'. Does anyone even do that anymore?

I loved the sneaky jibe 'The organisers feel that with the inherent implicit competition present in Ashtanga Yoga, it was not too much of a stretch (groan) to include it as a sport.'

By the time I got to 'The event will be structured similarly to the decathlon. There will be 6 different rounds held for men and women, each representing a series in Ashtanga. Competitors who make it past the first round of the Primary Series will then compete in the Second Series round and so forth.' I was about ready to give it up and find something else to do in life which most immediately included writing to the poster of the article and lambasting the jaunty, relief tinged timbre of the report - 'At last it will be acceptable to openly ask "what posture are you at?"'.

Fortunately I noticed in the byline that it was post on April 1st.

With April 1st a Sunday there was no local media to provide similar entertainment so we kind of missed out. Last year there was a great one in the paper about how the region was going to get an international airport shortly at a tiny community called Bridge Pa. The plans involved practically bulldozing the few dozen pastel shaded clapboard houses which surround the Mormon church out there and then uprooting a few hundred hectares of prime vineyard in order to construct the runway.

The other newspaper joke that springs to mind is from about 1998 when I was working in the City of London. The Financial Times ran an advert from BMW alerting the public to 'fake BMWs' on the market. You could practically feel the shudder run through the cohorts on the dealing room floor. Luckily there was an easy way to spot the fakes; the distinctive blue and white check logo at the front of the bonnet was a mirror image of the authentic ones. Traders breathed a sigh of relief and returned to their screens and the vitally important work of the day, which normally included a fair bit of eating, reading The Sun and leering at anything female within a 200m radius of their phones.