BOUNDARY STORIES 8: By Chants

“There is more to being human than meets the eye
We think we know who we are
But if we fix the image
We will never see our truth”

Edwin received the next message on his doorstep on a grey rainy English day that matched his mood.

In truth, he liked this sort of weather. It felt cozier than any summer’s day with a bright blue sky. A point he viewed with perplexed amusement.

In the light of being solo again, he had taken himself off to a meditation retreat where he had learnt some Tai Chi, practiced Zen meditation and enjoyed American Indian chanting as he had braved a hot sweat-lodge ceremony. A smorgasbord of hippy-ness that fitted his variable mood.

He had forgotten about the anonymous messages, despite the fact that it was they that had provided the original impetus to attend the retreat. Something very different for him that reflected a new found drive to better understand himself.

Two days later he received a call that his mother’s condition had deteriorated and that she was not likely to last the day. After some frenzied packing he drove to the home where she lived, reflecting gratefully that he was glad he had gone to see her more in the recent months.

When he arrived an attendant showed him to his mother’s room and commented that the day had been a difficult one for her. His mother had become unconscious and was having trouble with her breathing. Edwin’s heart went out to her because he knew her worst fear was of drowning and not being able to breathe. It was as if at the gate of death such fears had a life of their own and were purposely confronting her, attracted by such a weakness.

As he sat by the bed his mother, seemingly sensing a change, became more panicked, grasping at her breath as though clinging to the last straw of life. It was then that he received as a gift – he could think of no other word for it – an intuition that he should sing to her. And so he began a chant that he had learnt on the retreat – pitching his voice soft and low, timing his chanting to match the rhythm of her breathing.

It was if a switch had been thrown, providing a light in the darkness. She immediately relaxed and began to breathe calmly as he kept up his chanting. He brushed a stray hair back from her forehead, feeling the wonder of how life changed and how it was that the child became the comforter to the parent.

It was only a short time later that, as if his mother had been waiting all day for him to arrive, her breathing slowly became more shallow and reduced. As he carried on chanting her breaths became less frequent and finally…

Naturally…

Stopped.

He carried on chanting for a few minutes more – rather for himself than for his mother.

When he stopped, his tears came – quietly – matching the peace of her death. They were not angry or upset tears but rather – fulfilled – rightfully placed.

After seeing to the details he walked back to the car feeling somehow more whole, as though this was a moment he had been meant for, a seminal point in his life. He had carried his mother over a threshold, gently and lovingly laying her soul to rest in a safe place where he knew that whatever followed, it would be right for her.

Despite all his shortcomings and self-doubts this was one thing he knew he had done well.

Homage to a Gentle Seer

After many years of feeling the loss of my father its only recently that I have reflected more deeply on why I find myself missing him so much. He died back in 2001 the day before 9/11, almost as though he knew there would be work to do!

I can get caught unawares and then end up crying like one of the Lost Boys from Neverland. The most recent episode being when I was watching the latest Cinderella film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Despite the Disney heritage it was a surprisingly good production and the scene that caught me unawares was the one where the old king, played by Derek Jacobi, was dying and telling his son to marry for love. Yeah – ok – clichéd or what? Also Mr Jacobi is someone who strongly resembles my father in his later years so it was probably no surprise that this scene reduced me to tears.

But I wanted to understand just where this sense of loss was really coming from.

I remember my mother commenting about Dad and saying how he was a dreamer. He would see things differently and was a very gentle person who loved children very much, seeing something great in them – a facet he inherited from his mother who was always looking after the waifs and strays of the neighbourhood. I particularly remember how he could just sit with my daughter and just ‘be’. He had a way of sitting back in his mind’s eye, holding back his preconceptions and waiting to see what the world was really showing him.

It was when I saw his nature in this light – that it hit me between the eyes. He was one of those rare folk who could SEE. I don’t mean visions & things, I mean he could see BEHIND what the world was presenting and give it a bit of deeper experiential thought.

In this time of surfaces and quick fixes it is something I truly miss.

It is worth recounting one of his family anecdotes, a great story from his younger years. He was not well educated, having left school at an early age and from there becoming a consummate dancer and small-time actor – though you couldn’t tell from a performance of his in one of the Ealing comedies!

He once told me about a time when he was listening to friends from work as they were discussing something about current affairs. His friends were all highly educated and of an intellectual turn of mind and until this point he had always been shy of joining in, feeling that his lack of education held him back. However, the more he listened to the conversation, the more he realized that his friends didn’t have a clue about the issues, despite their education, and that in many cases he could see things more clearly than they could.

It was obviously one of those great epiphanies for him and thereafter he stopped holding himself back, and allowed his more experiential take on the world to blossom into a truly foundational wisdom.

There are times when I could do with hearing some of his wisdom

But what it has given me is a deep thankfulness for his beautiful parenting, his wise words and his insight that great education does not necessarily lead to great wisdom.

It is worth noting that although he might like this post, he would feel deeply embarrassed on the outside and most likely crack an awful ‘Daddy’ joke to defuse the feeling!

But what the hell.
Here’s to you Dad, a gentle teacher and seer.

STUDY DIARIES : Introduction

Over 20 years ago I was a parent of 2 young kids, and we wanted to find a decent pre-school provision that was more about creativity and play rather than about cramming kids heads with facts. My wife and I found a gem of a kindergarten that was run on Steiner principles and so impressed were we that we joined with the other impressed parents and got on with founding a Steiner lower school. I even became trustee Chair at the time!

But there was more to it for me than just the education of the children. I connected strongly to the underlying philosophy that Rudolf Steiner brought to the world. He had a different take on epistemology – or the theory of knowledge – i.e. how we come to know things, that very much resonated with how I felt about the world. For the past 20 years this has resulted in me studying – on & off, though more on than off – some of Steiner’s prodigious output.

It is this that I want to start blogging about now in these Study Diaries. I have been shy about this until now – primarily because Steiner covered some fairly tricky areas, namely the generation of what he called a spiritual science and what it had to say about a spiritual world and associated beings.

So I want to start by making it clear how my path has been into his work.

Initially Steiner was an expert on Goethe’s work and hence was asked to edit the Goethe archives at Weimar in 1888. As some of you will know from my previous posts about Goethe and phenomenology, it was Goethe who began raising warning flags about the problem of over-hypothesizing , something that has become endemic in our modern scientific method and something which badly affects those of us who work with modern technology.

It was from this philosophical foundation that Steiner started his work, coming out with his seminal book: The Philosophy of Freedom, which addressed the issues of being truly free in our thinking. He named this sort of freer thinking: “Living Thinking”, and he characterized it as a spiritual activity.

It was his philosophical work that attracted me first, along with his adamant stance that no one should just believe what he said. He wanted people to listen and consider for themselves what they could take on and understand. He was deeply uncomfortable with anyone who treated him as any sort of guru, and it was this that caught my imagination since it is congruent with his wish that people remain free in their thinking. Indeed a foundation of his ideas on ethics is that human morality is defined internally, not imposed externally, but more of that later.

Thus I have always felt that I could respect the man – despite there being a lot of his output that I cannot take on or understand. And this respect is something that has not changed over those 20 years as I have learnt more.

The studying I have been doing – usually on a Friday evening – has been on a very small percentage of Steiner’s work. Though it is the quality of the study that matters, not the quantity, and there is a very definite ‘holographic’ nature to it – i.e. it doesn’t matter which part you cover you can still get to the main ideas. I have also been working with someone I met during the early years of founding the local Steiner school and we have since become close friends as we have traveled on this study path together over the last two decades. I am no longer involved with the running of the school, though my friend is, since it quickly became apparent that understanding Steiner’s philosophical thought, so radically different as it is, was going to need some focused work.

It is worth noting that Steiner touched many areas of human endeavour, I consider in a positive way, though of course there are some detractors who would contest that. Such areas have included: Education, Medicine, Architecture, the Arts, Social reform and Economics to name a few.

I have decided to start writing about this aspect of my life, and you are welcome to read along or not, but I must mention the initial disclaimer that, although I am not a religious person and do not go to church, I do think we have a spiritual aspect to our nature. Now in my experience this is not something you can prove or disprove, you either can go with it or not. If not, then perhaps these Study Diaries will not be for you.

But all I would ask is that you hold an open mind and – just as Steiner would wish – take on only what makes sense to you. Hopefully, in whatever small way, you might even find something helpful in the Diaries.

Thanks for reading.

Dancing Just For Fun

Keeping the promise I made in the last post to tell you about a dancing experience in Liverpool – here we go:

I recently attended a stag-night weekend of a nephew of mine in Liverpool. This consisted of a visit to a karting track on the Saturday, followed by a night out on the town in Liverpool. I along with my brother, brother-in-law and father of the bride were some of the old farts in the group and I confess to thinking – what am I doing here? Surely this should be an event for the younger members? I am not that great at holding my drink! In the end it was a great family time out and worked well.

The karting was a blast as ever with the Tolman family team fielding 10 drivers out of 40 and getting 1st and 2nd place along with having 4 out of the top 6 (and 6 out of the top 10) drivers from the family team! Hmmmm. There must be something in the genes?

But I digress.

In the early evening sunlight ‘da lads’ all congregated outside the hotel ready to hit the town, with eating being a first priority. Now, you may or may not know that I truly love dancing, especially Argentinian Tango.

I made it abundantly clear to the younger members of the group that I was NOT planning to go out and get rip roaring drunk, BUT I DID intend to go dancing and that they were under orders to accommodate the wishes of this particular old uncle. They happily agreed to this and so we set off. After having eaten we began to tour the pubs of Liverpool ending up in a road called Wood Street which seemed to be a centre of activity.

I have not been out to clubs for many a decade and found it a highly surreal experience. There were many young ladies skimpily dressed with dangerously high heels – presumably in order to be accepted into the clubs. [I suspect business will be booming for chiropractors in future]

As I was still intending to go dancing, I stayed with the group through the evening although the other older members had decided to return to the hotel. At around 1am we arrived at the Ruby Sky nightclub. By this time I was itching to get on the dance floor and duly started doing some dancing with my son and another nephew joining me. As my son said, he had not expected to be out clubbing with his Dad!

I am not a raver, preferring at least some modicum of melody to dance to, however I just wanted to get dancing because in order to stay with the family group, I had given up the possibility of going to a tango milonga further north in Preston and the feet were itching to move.

Sometimes any beat will do.

I was surprised when by 1.30am the younger members had also returned to base leaving me on my own – but I was enjoying myself too much dancing to leave so early!

When I free dance like this I tend to mix in bits of tango, tai-chi and anything else I can think off that might feel and look ok. I will also close my eyes when solo dancing as I try and concentrate on freeing up the body to move.

I am a fairly good dancer but nothing special – so imagine my surprise when I did eventually open my eyes. I had an audience of youngsters just watching the old guy, including taking vids on their phone cameras! No doubt I am out there somewhere in the social netsphere. Thankfully some others joined in to ease my embarassment and it was all very good natured and friendly.

In the end I decided to make my way back to the hotel at around 3pm, having enjoyed the social contact with the younger generation as well as having kept a clear head.

I couldn’t help notice that there is a very real demand for some good styles of social dancing, perhaps older ones brought up to date and not necessarily involving choreographed ‘Strictly’ routines.

You know: Dancing Just For Fun.

BOUNDARY STORIES 5 : War Damage

“Peace should never be taken for granted.
The wise never forget this fact.
Frequently the young do – to their cost.
The pain of war passes unheeded through the generations.”

When he first read the next note, he found it difficult to connect to its message. All that changed in the next six hours.

Edwin visited his mother.

His visits were far too infrequent but he had always blamed that on her being Difficult – Capital D – which always sapped his energy. He loved his mother of course but their relationship had always been strained. She was getting on now but still had a big enough collection of marbles. They had a lovely meal and somehow their talk turned to her wartime experiences.

Edwin always liked to hear about these times as he felt it gave him a window on a very different time in history. Little did he know that this story would have a big impact on him.

The subject was the boat trip that her parents, herself and her brother of four years had taken from the Mediterranean back to England in 1942. She had been eight at the time. The ship came under attack from enemy planes and she and her brother were placed in the care of two sailors as the aircraft began to strafe the vessel. As they were climbing up a ladder to another deck her brother and guardian sailor went first followed by Edwin’s mother and her guardian. But as her guardian climbed the steps he was killed by machine gun fire from the aircraft and fell back to the deck below with three red dots on his chest marking the exit wounds from the bullets.

It was at this point that Edwin almost dropped his teacup on the floor as his mother related this fact as if commenting on the weather.

He suddenly realized how such an experience must have affected his mum, only eight at the time, and it was as if a door had been opened onto another room of his mother’s psyche. No wonder she was Difficult. Capital D.

Edwin left his mother’s house filled with a new respect and love for her but with a sense also of loss. Had he ever really known her? Had her experience of an external war somehow unconsciously fomented his internal war?

When he arrived home and re-read the note, his tears fell on the paper as they washed away the scales from his eyes. He now realized how blind he had been to the nuances of one of the most important relationships in his life.

Things would never be the same.

© Charles Tolman 2013.

People & Technology : The Boundary Problem : Home Life

If you have seen my earlier post you will know that I am concerned about our lack of awareness of the subtle effects of computer technology on our lives. My deepest concern is about the effects on young children so in this post I am going to talk about the boundaries my wife and I imposed on computer (and TV) use within the home and some of our experiences.

I have been a computer professional since before the early days of the “Personal Computer” boom when we could hardly contemplate that everyone would have their own computer! Many certainly did not even dream of the phenomenal proliferation of “microprocessors” that would take place. That was the word that was used a lot: microprocessor – which highlighted the fact that it was just a super-chip for the electronic nerds like myself. You hardly hear the word mentioned nowadays, but they are still there, usually called just “processors” although thousands of times faster and more powerful and with more fancy names like Core i7 or Phenom.

I also remember sitting at a screen (which was not integral to the computer) typing in commands well into to the late hours at work. But at that time of day I was using an early computer game called “Adventure”, and if you really got into a pickle you would just keep getting the response: “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.”, regardless of the command you typed. Such things used to happen at work since that was the only place where you had enough tech to run the games program. Remember no Personal Computer – or PC – yet!

So I was aware from the early days about the addictive nature of this particular beast. Not only was the game playing addictive, but the programming was (and is) addictive. 4 hours can pass in the blink of an eye if you get “in the zone”. According to folks like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book “Flow”, this is because so much attention is required for the task that we do not have enough attention for noticing the passage of time. This is a central facet of computer technology. It sucks in your attention. No wonder there are social problems. How can you give attention to other people if your computer or phone is taking it all? But I am getting ahead of myself…

Back to home life – my awareness of this addictive nature of technology was shared by my wife and we both decided that it was inappropriate for our young children to use them. I know a lot of the world does not agree with me (yet!), and we knew that we could not stop them playing with computers at their friends’ houses, but we decided on the following rules:

Rule 1: No computers/mobile phones/electronic games AT ALL until the children were 12 or 13.
Thats right – none. Occasionally my work would require me to bring one home, but this was closed away in the box room and the kids were not allowed near it. Especially NO COMPUTER GAMES. Of course when they went to their friends houses they did have games, but in our house it was traditional toys: wooden train sets, building blocks, Lego and so on. [Also, due to our involvement with the local Steiner school we preferred natural materials over plastic. Hence our preference for wooden toys. I currently think plastic toys are ok, but the wooden ones have a nicer feel.]

Well the kids seemed to be ok with not having computers – but the next rule definitely caused complaints…

Rule 2: No TV.
Eventually we would watch DVDs once the children were 10 or so, but NO TV. And no DVD watching in the bedroom. In fact this was when we got the first family computer in the house to watch the films. If we wanted to watch a film we would congregate around it and have our evening sandwiches watching the film as a family. Why only films? Mainly to place a boundary around our viewing – with TV it is too easy to keep on watching just the next programme, and the next, and the next, and so on… We still have no TV despite me working in the business, and my wife and I are quite happy with that state of affairs.

So what about our experiences with this regime?

Certainly there was some complaining from both our daughter and son about how all their friends had these games, or could watch TV. But we were quite firm and simply said something like: “Yes I know my loves, but we don’t agree with that for you at the moment.”

As I said above, the games issue was not a problem, possibly because (a) I was so sure it was a bad idea and was very firm about it, or (b) they really enjoyed their own games that they would make up themselves. They both have wonderful imaginations and we have many happy photos of them playing without a computer in sight.

The “No TV” was more difficult especially as we would go to their grandparents and they would be allowed to watch TV or a video. This was why we introduced watching family films at around 10 years, although with such great imaginations we had to be careful about the content, even though they were age-appropriate films and seemed innocuous to an adult, the children could get quite scared by some scenes. I think adults too easily assume that the consciousness of children is very similar to their own.

There is an important story about our experience related to the “No TV” rule:

One day a friend of the children came around to play and had a shock when he could not find the TV! He was quite bewildered. Meanwhile our children got stuck in and started putting the wooden train set together. He just sat and quietly watched what they were doing, initially without taking part, until my son and daughter pulled him in and started showing him how to play. I was amazed and later found out that at home he was allowed unlimited access to the video player and would keep rewinding and replaying his favourite scenes over and over again. This boy had partially lost the “knowledge” of how to play! In the past this would have been considered a pathological problem, and I am convinced this is becoming more of an issue for the children of today.

If we fast-forward to the present day, both kids are now at university, both have their own laptops, both have them in their own bedrooms, both watch DVDs in their bedrooms. It is now a different phase of their life and they need to be part of the current culture for it is to be their culture. We will see how it develops.

But perhaps some concluding thoughts:

Boundaries must be placed around our use of such gadgetry and in writing this post I have come to see that it is all related to Attention.

The Boundary Problem is giving rise to The Attention Problem.

Our social human communications should not take second place to our electronically mediated communications. You can see an earlier post where I talked about some of the problems inherent with the latter.

Attention is a special thing that we give to the world. Currently we are giving too much attention to our machines, when we need to give more of it to our fellow humans.

People & Technology: The Boundary Problem : Bringing Work Home

At last the mainstream computing world is beginning to catch up with my warnings about unbridled technological use. The latest “Communications of the ACM” has an article entitled “Living in the Digital World” about the effect of gadget use on people’s social behaviour.

I have been a member of the ACM since 1986, having managed to get one of the early super short sexy email addresses ct(at)acm(dot)org so beloved of Unix types. Usually I have been severely unimpressed by most articles from the ACM folk about the existence of any problems with technology use, let alone a balanced view on what those problems might be. Most press has been heavily for technological use, even down into Kindergarten, with what they call the K-12 curriculum.

Oh dear me.

As someone who has programmed computers since the mid 70s I can tell you that coding for this stuff definitely does affect your social skills. I am not your usual uncommunicative nerd type – I like to think that I have quite good social skills – well – as long as you don’t get too close! What I have noticed is that the necessary criticality required to do the “day job” can spill over into your close relationships. This was a primary influence that led to the break-up of my first marriage, although of course as ever there were faults on both sides. But bringing my critical nature home definitely adversely affected my first wife, resulting in her developing allergies galore. My favourite anecdote is that apparently most of these allergies disappeared within a month of me leaving.

Hmmm…

When I found myself doing the same thing again in my second marriage, even I was not stupid enough to think that it was all the other person’s fault. I have now toned down my critical nature when at home and my kids, now of University age, are not backward in coming forward to tell me to “Chillax”. After having realised the problem existed I was extra watchful of myself during their early years and my wife and I have definitely been “good-enough” parents – or so the kids seem to think – honest!

[A problem with parenting is that it is too easy to try so hard to definitely NOT make the same mistakes our own parents did that we “slot-rattle” to the other end of the spectrum and guess what… the effect on our children can be similar to what we wanted to avoid. It seems to be a psychological law.]

So why do I call this issue of technological use The Boundary Problem?

Lets look at a number of places in my own behaviour where I did not have appropriate boundaries:

Without realising it I brought the thinking techniques from work back to the home.
I now know that the highly critical thinking required for software work must be heavily constrained within a close relationship. Of course we need some critical thought, especially if we are parents, but – as a teacher once said to me – there is value in developing a “Nelson’s Eye” and not chasing every little thing. This is easier said than done, especially when it means trying to respond rather than react to a situation that is pressing your buttons!

I was not aware of the effect of programming on my psyche.
This is a biggie and applies to almost every computer professional. In my early years it never crossed my mind that there could be a problem. Soon after the realisation hit me, I went to a computer conference and ran a session to discuss the personal aspects of being a software developer. You should have heard some of the comments! “Navel gazing” was the least abusive one. It is understandable since most technical types like to play with the toys and gadgets. Nowadays things have changed a small amount and with more “techies” you can see the penny starting to drop. I think this is mainly due to what we call “Agile” software development techniques, where you really need to focus on your programming process as well as your technical knowledge. When recruiting programmers the question “Are they aware of how they learn?” is as important as “How good is their technical knowledge?”. If someone cannot take critical feedback it can be very difficult to have them on a software team.

Of course the drive to earn more money just reinforces the “boundaryless” behaviour. You cannot expect companies to control their call on their employees’ time.

Another interesting observation is that when I was younger the gadgetry was much more enticing to me than it is now. I have spent far too many late nights programming computers into the early hours of the next morning to only see the glamorous side. You may see a nice phone. I see just how many hours coding are required to make it work well.

Well that is a small view from the inside of the industry.

In the next post on this topic I will talk about how we as parents dealt with The Boundary Problem at home: A house without computers or TV!