What are we searching for?
Posted on 29 July 2010, 14:59
What are we searching for? And what solutions are to be found? In former times, if you wished to know the answer to such questions, you left your hovel, walked a day’s journey through the forest, crossed the wide river and climbed the steep hill to arrive at the cave where the sage lived. There, he would sit in quiet contemplation while the synchronicity of the universe spoke through the clouds, the stream or sticks of divination, making all things clear.
These days, however, things have changed. The sage is just something you put in your stuffing and the answers you seek are not a day’s journey away, but as near to you as your computer and the Global Monthly Keyword Search on Google – a facility which gives a fascinating insight into what’s on everybody’s mind. And as I trawled this ocean of information, I confess to being seriously surprised by the catch.
It was a friend of mine who told me about this new source of wisdom. He’d just discovered that over 9 million people clicked on Depression last month, which left him depressed and me wondering what exactly it was that was getting everybody down? I also wondered about where people were turning to for answers? If the Keyword search could tell us the problems, then perhaps it could offer some solutions too? My research threw up some interesting answers - and proved very good news for one person at least.
So what’s worrying the world? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Climate Change is a cause of concern with 2,240,000 hits; though beating that by some way is a more personal issue: our self-image and weight. There were over 4,500,000 hits on Diets or Slimming, which suggests that what we see in the mirror, is more pressing than what we see on the news; though I note that Terror and Terrorism combine to over 15 million.
According to the statistics, however, there’s an even darker cloud looming over us; one which dwarfs all other problems. There are some clues to its identity along the way. Who would have thought, for instance, that in this day and age, people would still be worrying about Hell? Yet last month, it received an enormous 24 million hits. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Only last week, a friend of mine and life long atheist now dying of cancer, told me how concerned he was about ‘the fiery place’, and so it seems are others. More of us, however, dream of paradise, with 25 million finding comfort and hope last month by clicking on Heaven.
With these statistics to hand, we’ll not be surprised to learn that according to the Global Keyword Search, by far our biggest worry is Death, with a staggering 68 million hits. On one level, this is understandable. After all, death and taxes are the only two things we can be sure of. But perhaps I’m shocked that so many take this concern to the internet, and not to friends or family. As a former priest, I remember people would often raise the subject with me, but maybe those days are passing. Is the internet the new priesthood where we take our deepest hopes and fears? It’s a rather lonely image of the modern world, but perhaps a true one, and it paves the way for perhaps the bleakest statistic of all: last month, 11,100,000 couldn’t see a way out of their difficulties and put Suicide into their search box.
But if those are our fears and our worries, what are our solutions? Where do we turn for answers – or at least for a bit of cheer? Of course the celebrity industry is always there to offer distraction, providing a real life soap opera amongst the rich and richer. To this end, Simon Cowell managed 1,500,000 hits, George Clooney, 1,830,000 and Brad Pitt a cool 6 million. But none of these could compete with the ladies. TV star, girl band singer and on/off partner of a famous footballer, Cheryl Cole received a barn-storming 9 million hits last month, as did the Queen of TV emotion, Oprah Winfrey. Whether Cheryl will be receiving similar attention when she’s in her sixties is open to question; but the ageing yet still lean Rolling Stones are doing just that, with 9 million rock and rollers eager for the latest on Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie. However, even more entertaining for us over the past few weeks have been the ups and downs of two other celebrity lives, with Angelina Jolie receiving 11,100,000 hits and Tiger Woods, 13,600,000 - not all of whom, I suspect, were there for the golf.
But another lean man beat them both. With 30 million hits to his name, President Obama is a true icon of the present day; and just to upset the Stones, also receiving 30 million clicks were another British band from the ‘60’s, called The Beatles.
So what are the millions looking for in these celebrity figures? That’s not information we’re given, but in the end, the numbers alone prove that each of them is an icon in some way; and everyone finds themselves in their icon, their hopes and their dreams lived in and through another. That’s why they’re icons.
But not all seek the distraction of celebrity. The commercial success of Richard Dawkins’ books has made atheism fashionable again, and while he personally scores an impressive 550,000 hits, (which ironically, is exactly the same score as his nemesis the Pope,) Atheist and Atheism combine to register a solid 2 million. To put this in perspective, they easily beat Vegetarianism, which shows a disappointing return of only 110,000. But before the champagne bottles pop in the household of rationalism, it should be noted that Psychics – those who talk with the dead - received 2,740,000 hits, whilst Paranormal ghosted in with an effortless 11million.
This all suggests that the world is not quite done with mystery yet, still believing in things that go bump in the night. Others, however, think only of things that go bump on a football pitch, with 11 million clicking on World Cup, while a world community of 25 million put their faith in a different set of balls, and clicked on Lottery.
But there were other sources of comfort. 450,000 people wondered if they might return to earth in another form, hopefully a better one, clicking on Reincarnation; and 1 million, considering the benefits of essential oils on their mood or health, clicked on Aromatherapy. Back with body image, and perhaps goaded by air-brushed celebrities, Implants, for those considering a little nip and tuck, received a significant 4 million hits. (Though be warned: Tummy Tucks Gone Wrong scores 1000, which is 1000 very angry people.) And when it comes to comfort, we’re not done with the stars, either – only this time, it’s those found in space. Though most read their horoscopes more for entertainment than enlightenment, there remains a strong sense that personality and human affairs are in some way related to the relative positions of the celestial bodies, with 5 million hits recorded on Astrology last month.
And talking of things celestial, anxiety about life and death tends to be good for religion, a fact reflected in the figures. Religion itself received 13,600,000 hits, while individual religions and their leaders fared variously. The Dalai Lama scored 1 million, as did Spirituality; Buddha registered 6 million, Hinduism 5 million and Islam 13,600,000.
Whatever our beliefs, however, about contact with a heavenly world, our need to be in contact with this world is equally important, with Mobile phones receiving 16 million visits. Interestingly, in the religious sphere, both Jesus and God were way ahead of the others, each receiving 45,500,000 visits from earth. I’m not sure what this proves about us, especially as I then discovered that Army scored exactly the same amount. Apparently we like God, but also like a fight.
Perhaps things were simpler when it was just the sage on the hill, for with so many statistics to hand, it’s possible to end up knowing everything, but understanding nothing. Certainly the Global Keyword Search reveals a world busy with both problems and solutions, and though the numbers are huge, behind every click is a real person with real hopes and fears and seeking something. I wish each of them well.
But there remains one more statistic to give, because although we’ve named some very famous and much sought-after individuals, we haven’t yet named the person who came top of last month’s Global Keyword Search. I said the results were very good news for someone. Who might it be? With a staggering 124 million hits, please put your hands together for the flamboyant female singer, Lady Gaga.
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Meditation: mad or marvellous?
Posted on 19 July 2010, 15:52
Meditation is like marmite: it tends to divide people. ‘I remember the bloke with a beard,’ said a friend of mine recently when the subject arose. ‘And I remember deciding then and there that meditation was a load of nonsense.’ He was referring, slightly uncharitably, to the Maharishi Maresh Yogi, who founded the Transcendental Meditation movement. It was a form of meditation that caught the media’s attention in the 1960’s when the Beatles grew beards and found love and happiness – if only briefly.
But while the Beatles split up, TM continued and is back in the news now as medical experts claim it’s more effective than both diet and exercise in removing stress from everyday life. At the heart of TM is the use of a mantra or repeated phrase, used throughout the day when circumstances allow. The repetition of this single phrase is designed to centre you, to gather your fragmented self and help create inner calm. But does it?
The Meditation movement is bigger in the USA than here. There, 1 in 11 adults practiced meditation last year which is a substantial 20 million people. Once thought of as dubious and weird – and by my friend, still viewed in that way - the shift of acceptance across the Atlantic has been widespread, with claims that it helps with concentration, immune function, blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety and depression.
I myself find great benefit in meditation, and often think of it as a breakwater. Like a seaside town flooded by a storm-tossed waves, we can be overcome by circumstances. They can creep up on us slowly or hit us suddenly and without warning. So we need to develop breakwaters in our day, to protect us from the surge of circumstance. Without this, our psychology is constantly flooded, as life crashes through us and over us.
TM is not the only form of meditation. In Zen practice, for instance, you’re more likely to be sat in front of a blank wall than chanting a mantra. The aim here is to experience the purifying effects of nothingness, where we give up playing the expert, and allow ourselves to be emptied of stale knowing and false impressions. Although the idea of nothingness can seem frightening, it can also be viewed as something full of possibility - like an artist sitting down with a blank canvass in front of them. Walking round the Royal Academy’s Van Gogh exhibition recently, I was struck again by the fact that each of these masterpieces started out as an empty space. So it maybe that half hour in front of a blank wall is more creative than you think; though my own version of this is to contemplate an empty bowl, which I brought back from Rhodes, for just this purpose.
The number of converts is certainly increasing. ‘I find it makes me a better listener,’ said one American politician who meditates for 45 minutes every day, before going to work in the Senate. ‘My concentration is sharper, and I get less distracted when I’m reading. It’s like I see through the clutter of life and can penetrate what’s really going on.’ He discovered meditation on retreat, and on retreats I’ve led, the practice has proved an eye-opening experience for many. I remember one hyper-active entrepreneur announcing that he’d ‘never lived in the moment until now!’
On that occasion, we were using mindfulness meditation, a practice rooted in present experience. If Zen asks us to contemplate emptiness, mindfulness invites us to focus on our breathing, which is always wonderfully present. Wherever we happen to be, we focus on what is happening now – our thoughts, physical sensations, emotions – without either judging them or avoiding them. ‘Awareness of present experience with acceptance’ is perhaps the classic definition of mindfulness meditation, and ‘acceptance’ is an important part of the equation. If we are not accepting emotions as they emerge, we are rejecting them, which takes us into the dangerous waters of denial.
Breathing exercises are a simple and profound way into mindfulness because they gift us with the present. Wherever our thoughts or emotions may be taking us, backward or forward in time, our breathing is reassuringly present; and invites us to join it there.
And so at various times in the day, I might take a minute or two and count each breath in and each breath out. It’s inwardly strengthening to be returned to the present. It does us good because it’s where we’re meant to be; it’s like putting a plant in sunlight.
As we breathe in and out, distractions will appear; one thought after another will try and snatch us from the moment. We note each distraction kindly, however many there are; and return each time to our breathing; to being present, to being strengthened, to being conscious.
As a therapist, I’ve noticed meditation can be particularly helpful in instances of bipolar disorder and depression. The reason for this is simple. Universal in all mediation techniques is their focus on the body and their disregard for our head thoughts. For bipolar sufferers, attention to breathing takes them into their body and away from the endlessly destructive use of their mental perceptions and imagination. ‘I’ve learned to detach from my thoughts,’ said a young female sufferer. ‘I observe them like clouds moving across the sky. I sometimes reach out and grab them, but then I remember they’re just passing, and so I let them go. I feel much better letting go of my thoughts because they drive me mad.’
For the depressed, there is also value in meditation that leads them to the present. To live in the moment is to be free of stale things - past happenings and old perceptions which frequently fill the depressed like a soaking sponge. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, which is always the gift of being in the moment.
Meditation can be practiced anywhere and any time; the bus stop is a regular venue for me. It’s a discipline, of course, but then so is everything of value; and with ever-increasing evidence for both its psychological and physical benefits, with no prescription necessary, meditation could just be the best free offer you get this year.
Go here for my meditative Conversations with Meister Eckhart.
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