A linguist told me about a satire that changed his whole way of thinking about gender-neutral language. I just read it, and it made me laugh and think deeply in equal measure. It’s not a quick read, but it’s worthwhile: A person paper on purity in language.
I was wandering through the grounds of Wat Umong, an isolated forest temple in northern Thailand. Everything in the shade seemed to be covered with moss, everything in the sunlight scorched, baked and faded. As in a lot of Thai temples, many trees are considered sacred, and bear the orange robes of the order. Many more carry little plaques inscribed with pithy Dharma quotations.
It’s an ideal space to have fun with a camera.
I was caught by a strange inscription on the ground, and studied it. As I did so, a young Monk approached me, clutching a piece of paper. Pronunciation exercises. He pointed, and asked in very broken English how to say “cupboard”. He was not quick to take in the new sounds. But he was eager to chat, in any language.
He took me on a tour of out-of-the-way parts of the temple. The broken-down crematorium, the head monk’s quarters. Our English lesson deteriorated; we resorted to Thai and conversation started to flow. So I learned his story, of how he used to wait bars in the den of decadence in Bangkok that is Kao San road, then entered some backcountry monastery before arriving at Wat Umong only that week. He had taken his vows to make merit for his parents, and guessed he would not stay in the order for much longer than a few months. His spirit was wild and not ready for the confines of monastic life.
We parted. Seeing the rich, dark green foliage behind him, and feeling the soft diffuse light of an overcast late afternoon, I risked pulling out my camera.
Koh Tao is one of the best places to go in Thailand. I’ve been there several times, and although the trip from Bangkok is long and arduous, after I arrive I normally make the effort of crossing the island’s treacherous network of roads and tracks to the East coast, which has some isolated and beautiful beaches. This time, however, I was with my brother, and he hadn’t slept a wink on the overnight sleeper train, and so we crashed as soon as the catamaran had pulled up to the main beach. And that is where we stayed for five days.
I love this island. Even the most developed place still has a laid-back feel.
My brother and I have both transformed ourselves from pitifully weak swimmers into being able to swim a mile or two without any problem at all. I have to thank the TI technique for getting me to where I am now. The greatest thing about being here was being able to try-out this amazing skill away from the pool. (If you’ve never known the frustration of wanting to swim but being unable to, you may not understand how awesome it feels for me to finally do it well.)
On the second day we slapped on sunscreen, did a few stretches, and then donned our goggles. After admiring each other’s new strokes (he learned in England, I in Thailand, and we had not yet seen each other in action), then set out in earnest. Our destination: as far we needed to go to find some good fish.
I’ve never known freedom like this! We swam on and on, cutting through the water, not tiring. We saw a diving boat ahead and agreed to head for it. When we rolled-up, and then dove down, we saw why they had anchored-up here: we had found our tropical fish. Joy washed through me as I bobbed up and down with the small waves, soaking in the intensely blue water and pale sky.
Come evening, we feasted—as one likes to do in Thailand—and then found a cool beach bar. As we ordered our drinks, we got chatting to a couple of Australians. Settling down on comfy cushions spread on the sand, we enjoyed the fire show.
Of course, I couldn’t sit still for long. As the others continue the conversation, I tried out a new lighting technique. With the camera on a tripod, I triggered the shutter with a cheap infra-red remote control. The on-camera flash triggered a manual slave flash, gelled with +1 CTO orange, held by yours truly. I aimed this hard light directly onto the poi artist’s head.
You can see the difference between throwing some light onto the poi artist (the standout shot shown above) and no light (these silhouettes).
Poi has been one of those on-and-off hobbies that I’ve had since first getting into the festival scene in England in 2007. There are some really talented fire spinners in the south of Thailand, and they’ve inspired me.
These are shots from an intense session in my apartment recently.
We act the way we do because of our genes and our environment. These are our reasons. If someone treats me with cruelty, I don’t need to get angry at them, because they have many good reasons for acting the way they do. But if I get angry, that also is okay, because I have my own reasons.
Breathe. There is no Great Bookkeeper of sins. We are free.
Healing is about become free of our reasons. If you have reasons for living a life of resentment, then fine. Live like that and be resentful. But if you see a way out of that, snatch it with both hands. Find a way to get free, and find a way to live a life as though the reasons were never there.
In the second level of Reiki, students are given a way to send healing back to their childhood self. This seems ridiculous, but there is power in it. It is the reasons of the past that obstruct our full living in the present. You can understand the healing in a mystical or a psychological way (or both, if you’re like me), but what is important is that you are unlocking the chains.
You have every reason to stay unhappy, to stay in that abusive relationship, to keep eating crap food. You will not be held accountable for these things, because you have your reasons. But within you is the power to change; you are free to find a way, any way, to break free from your reasons and start a new way of life.
At sunset the Jialing River flows east
and thousands of pear petals chase the river wind.
What twists my stomach as I watch the river flowers?
Half have fallen in the river, half drift on the air.
Petals Falling in the River, Yuan Zhen (779-831 AD)
I love a good drink. If I make the effort to cook-up some good Italian food, I usually open a bottle of wine. To be honest with you, I hope I will always be able to enjoy alcohol like this. This is healthy drinking.
The unhealthy side is when I use alcohol to ease inner tension. It’s very easy to spot when I am doing this, but I often do not want to see the truth: some time about mid-afternoon, I get a bit tired (after spending too long in front of a computer) a bit tense, a bit on edge. It’s just the way my daily cycle goes at the moment. For a long time, this feeling was a cue for me to drink, or at least to look forward to drinking when the working day was done. I would ride an edginess that promised a future resolution: the fresh taste of a nice cool beer. Ahhh, relaxtion, the good life, letting-go.
But this sucks. It’s alcohol dependency. It was every day.
Now that I’ve consciously clocked these processes, and decided to make a positive change, things are getting interesting. When I feel uptight and in need of a drink, I tell myself that I’m not going to get one. Chug-stutter-groan- Can you feel the gears shifting in my internal universe? Can you feel metal grate on metal?
I’m left without my comfort blanket and am out in the cold. But I get to ask some interesting questions. Why did I let myself get uptight? Why didn’t I take breaks from my computer, from thinking? Why didn’t I do some stretches, and breathe some beautiful air?
This is all basic stuff. If you put bad food into a human, you get bad humanity coming out. If you force your brain into over-activity for extended periods of time, you get stress. You put a sedative in and the stress goes. Or you stop the stress building-up in the first place.
But now that I’m sitting out in the cold, I’m quite enjoying it. Blanketless, the chill night air touches my skin, and I feel. Consciously. Aliveness beckons and says to my groaning being that more freedom is possible.
I know someone who alternately drinks way too much, and then goes for a year without any alcohol. I think he is right when he says that it’s easier to drink nothing than to drink just a little. But I will try and walk this space in between: to drink only for joy, not for comfort or tension relief. To drink as a celebration of good life, good food, and good company.
part one: letting go
Was Gandhi aware that the currents of micro change he worked for would become macro currents that would reverberate for decades after his death?
A teacher once spoke to me: ‘There’s only one person you can change in this world: yourself.’ So that’s what I did. And although it’s opened me to criticisms of selfishness, I’ve let go of all my grand causes, checked that the world still continued after I stopped trying to prop it up, and then opened my eyes to the demons that stopped me being the person I wanted to be.
During the five years since then, I’ve almost completely stopped following the news, which tells us as it does how panicked we should be about the state of our neighbourhoods, local and global.
When I tell people that, they look at me funny.
part two: beggars
Call me hard-hearted, but the one-armed beggar that drags himself, face-down, around Pratunam, Bangkok, doesn’t really affect me. It’s too staged. The only reason this guy decides to move back and forth over the bridge all day—instead of sitting cross-legged like all the other beggars—is to evoke pity. He wants to emphasise his one-armed-ness. ‘If only I had two arms, dragging myself face-down along the streets would be really easy!’ Fair enough, he has a business to run, and this is what he does to maximise profits. But I don’t like being manipulated.
What has never stopped affecting me, however, is the rubbish people. Now there are two types of rubbish people in Bangkok. First, there are those that ride the great stinking green lorries, stained brown and grey as they spew out thick black exhaust into the grey dawn. I’m not talking about these salaried collectors, who have protective hand gear.
I mean the second type, the ones that sort the bins before those professionals get there. The ones who are so desperately poor that they pick through my garbage, hoping to find something to wear, or to sell to the recycling centres.
I’ve wanted to help these people, who instead of crawling around with a begging bowl are doing something constructive for the city. Many times I’ve wanted to run over to them, weeping, and empty my wallet into their filthy hands. But something about that never quite felt right.
Enter Khun Manakham. When I sat down outside Hua Lamphong train station for part of my four-hour wait for a train to Laos, I saw him bin rummaging. When he didn’t find anything, he sat down opposite me, and rolled a cigarette. Our eyes met, and held each other for longer than the time allotted us by convention. Our smiles met each other too.
For the next five minutes, I wrestled with how I could give him money. With whether I should give him money. But at last, it came: he would be my model, and I would pay him.
The results are technically poor and not even very well composed, and I certainly wasn’t brave enough to start messing around with a new off-camera flash that I’ve bought. But this stands as the first in what I hope becomes a series of portraits of the kind of Thai people you don’t see in Siam Paragon.
(Click to zoom in.)
I gave him a hundred baht, an amount that approaches a day’s wages for a labourer. Or approaching the price of a small beer in Siam Paragon. And his eyes lit-up: ‘I can eat!’
Sometimes I feel like a moth drawn dumbly to a tungsten bulb. I hit myself against it, get burned, but unfailingly come back for more. Why do I do this?
The ever-alluring light source is religion. Why do I seek illumination there when it is possible to live a radiant life outside religion? You know, a life lived deeply, authentically, swimming through the currents of the universe with a thinking mind, an open heart, a joy that is kindled in the midst of pain, and a belly that laughs, rumbling full of contentedness? You can live like that without religion.
But for better and for worse, I always go back. After quitting a religion (Christianity) six years ago, finding a new one (the New Age) a year later, and then slowly slipping out of that one, I find myself unable to stop reading holy books, meditating, and even sneaking a listen to the podcast from Mars Hill church.
We already know that religion is a tool of violence, a way for those in power to further their domination over all others by mixing money, weapons, and theology. We know this from the crusades and we know this from the Middle-East today. This is why we leave.
But religions are more than that; to our amazement they are the carriers of centuries of wisdom, and experience of a great un-nameable love that grows within us. Have you ever met religious people who have been transformed by something undeniably good? People who draw you like a warm fire on a cold night. A fire that gives shelter, glow, not a light bulb that mockingly burns.
Religion, though not strictly necessary, many times is the carrier for this kind of transformation. And the transformation is not a given; it is a gift.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed during World War II for his involvement in the resistance to the Nazis. The letters and papers he wrote from prison sketch what he calls religionless Christianity. The church he envisioned:
…will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people…proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom…Until then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair…
I have been silent for a long time, but it is now time to start talking.