Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Acting vegan

During July I went vegan as part of a fundraiser called “Dry July.” Dry July has been going for ten years, raising funds for services that support cancer patients in Australia. As the name suggests, the idea is to stop drinking for the month in order to inspire your friends and family to support the cause. When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to do this, she spotted a problem: “But Juzzeau, you don’t drink.” Oh, yeah. 

I decided to up the ante, and go vegan as well. I thought of this not only as a way to make the fundraising effort more compelling, but also as a chance to try out a lifestyle experiment that appealed to me. When I stopped drinking alcohol altogether for a period of time, I found the experience very interesting. Since I’ve never been a big drinker, the main challenge was social: dealing with reactions when I refused the offer of a drink. Early on I felt awkward about this, but most people didn’t bat an eyelid. When there was a reaction, I noticed that it was mainly due to a reflex of self-examination on the part of others, rather than any real scrutiny of me. In time, people started confiding in me about their own relationship with alcohol, including struggles and doubts around this. I felt as if a door had opened, letting me see into an aspect of experience that had previously been hidden. It also felt good to practice resisting the (largely internalized) pressure to conform to social norms around drinking. Going vegan promised similar benefits and challenges.

When I began my vegan July, I initially assumed that vegan friends would approve of this venture. One did send enthusiastic messages of encouragement, as well as “motivating” information about animal cruelty in the dairy industry (the scare-quotes indicate my sense of the complex impact this kind of information has on the desire to make ethical changes). However, when I made an appeal for vegan recipes and tips, another friend retorted that all her recipes were very yummy, so not the kind of thing that would inspire people to pay money. With the shock of a suddenly altered focus, I realised that going vegan for a month to raise funds for cancer patients might strike a committed vegan as offensive - a bit like deciding to go Christian for a month to raise funds for animal welfare, or Jewish for a few weeks to raise funds for, I don’t know, the local life-saving club. Good cause, sure, but the end doesn’t necessarily excuse the profane ignorance implied by the means…

Veganism is not a religion, of course, but in some respects it does resemble one. It involves a strong code of ethics, and at least for some vegans, to consume animal products comes pretty close to sinning: not just wrong, but horrifying and disgusting, due to the ways animals are treated in the process of creating these products. On the flipside, to refrain from using animal products can resemble a religious process of purification and ascetic restraint. Personally, I find this ascetic dimension attractive, drawn as I am to monasteries and monastics, but it can lead to arcane discussions, where an all-or-nothing attitude condemns honey as just as polluting as bacon, and figs are regarded as illicit because the fruit is fertilized by a wasp that dies in the process and is then absorbed into the fig.

There is also a proselytizing side to the movement, with some vegans actively seeking to convert others to the cause, in the interests of reducing cruelty to animals. The counterpart to this is that to be vegan is to be part of a strong sub-culture, a community based on shared values and a distinctive way of life. As for any social group, there are rules that define insiders and outsiders. In hindsight, I realised that signing up for a month-long vegan challenge was an ostentatious badge of my outsider status, rather than a smart way to sidle into the group.

During July, in between grazing on vegan treats, and reflecting on my ambivalence about participating in social groups, I also read the wonderful gothic thriller by Matthew Lewis, The Monk. Its opening chapter is prefaced by a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

            - Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone.

Food is barely mentioned again, which was probably fortunate for my vegan aspirations, given that the novel is all about succumbing to sensual temptation. Via many twists and turns, the plot traces the downfall of a brilliant and charismatic, but excessively strict Abbot. Early on, he is seduced by a novice who turns out to be a woman in disguise, but a woman with so-called masculine qualities: she is highly intelligent, resourceful, and independent.

Noting that Lewis never married or had children, his biographers have speculated that he may have been gay; the fact that his Abbot quickly gets into an illicit sexual relationship with a woman who not only dresses, but also behaves like a man may lend some support to this idea. Then again, it may simply indicate that Lewis appreciated women’s capacities for intelligence, resourcefulness, and independence. In any case, as D. L. Macdonald points out, to identify Lewis as a homosexual would be anachronistic, given that the word was not used as a noun until 1912. Foucault suggests that although the recognisable social existence of homosexuals predated this linguistic development, it is a relatively recent phenomenon:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more that the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage… (History of Sexuality, 1: 43)

This can be seen as one consequence of the more general rise of concern with personal identity and responsibility that occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of European history and intensified at the time of the French revolution. This was when The Monk was written (it was completed in 1795), and also when the noun responsibility first appeared in both the English and the French language. From this perspective, the novel can be seen as a highly engaging, and still relevant meditation on anxieties about sexuality, conceived as a dangerous matter of individual and political responsibility, tightly linked to personal identity.

It strikes me that the historical shift from imputability or accountability for acts, to responsibility for one’s person, is also relevant to the social complexities of becoming vegan (which incidentally is a very recent possibility: the term was coined by an English animal rights advocate in 1944). It is one thing to refrain from consuming animal products; it is another to defend or claim the identity of “being” a vegan. However, in a social space dominated by identity politics and the concept of personal responsibility, it is near impossible to do the first without engaging with judgments in relation to the second.

Having said this, during my July experiment, "acting" vegan turned out to be surprisingly easy, thanks to the fact that many businesses have identified the vegan as a potential consumer. Capitalism is remarkably nonjudgmental; it doesn’t care about your ethical commitments, or lack of them, or whether you’re a true believer or a heretic in the eyes of any particular social group. As a consequence, vegan options were available everywhere I ate out, from the chicken shop in Ashburton to the Ethopian restaurant up the road. I didn’t strike any incomprehension or hostility in response to requests for vegan food in restaurants. On the contrary, my tentative inquiries about dairy content were often met with the question, “Are you vegan?” followed by a ready list of what they could offer me; in one Thai restaurant in Darlinghurst, I was presented with a separate menu for vegans. And since I live within walking distance of Terra Madre, a “health food store and wellness clinic” in Northcote, aka nirvana for foody hipsters, I had ready access to multiple products catering specifically to the vegan market, such as “Premium Omega-3 table spread” and vegan cheese (truly a contradiction in terms).

In reflecting on the ease of shifting to a vegan diet in this place and time, it occurred to me that catering for vegans may have become more economically viable and socially acceptable since the rise in food allergies, since this means that more people have dietary restrictions that intersect with vegan dietary choices, but are not linked to any challenging ethical positions or minority social identities. On the other hand, perhaps the increasing adoption of a growing range of dietary restrictions is not merely a consequence of health pathology, but an expression of hunger for ascetic restraint and simplicity in this over-stimulated, consumerist century. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Nobody Knows

My exploration of the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda continued last week with a viewing of his 2004 feature film Nobody Knows. The film is based on a real case from 1988 of a family of four children abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves over a period of about nine months, in a small apartment in Tokyo. Koreeda’s version is restrained, leaving out the more shocking details of the true story. As one reviewer puts it:

Koreeda possesses a superior talent for pulling on the heartstrings without ever forcing overt ‘sadness’. Nobody Knows is a story told through close-ups with no tears shed and no dramatic outbursts. Because who needs drama when you can linger for a second too long on those tiny shoes and shatter your audience into a million tiny pieces? (Amy Bowker)

Yûya Yagira as Akira in Nobody Knows
All the children in the film are engaging, but the film encourages us to identify and suffer most acutely with the eldest, Akira, a 12-year-old boy who is given the responsibility of caring for his three younger half-siblings (each child has a different, indifferent father). He valiantly struggles to fill the parental role his mother and her lovers have abandoned, although in some ways, his precocious maturity shows most poignantly when he attempts to remain a child in spite of the burdens placed upon him. Successes in joining in the conventional activities of other boys of his age are brief, however, and each episode of early adolescent exploration or pleasure is rapidly followed by further disintegration of the fragile order at home.

Having come across the psychological term “parentified child,” I initially assumed that this boy, Akira, was a classic, albeit extreme example of this type – a child forced to take on the role of parent, quite literally, due to the failure or inability of their parents to do so. However, as I subsequently discovered, in the literature on family systems, parentification is specifically defined in terms of an emotional role reversal, in which a parent looks to a child to meet their emotional needs, e.g. for affection and intimacy, approval and reassurance, stability and control, because they are not being met by a partner or by other peers. The child may enjoy playing this special role in a parent’s life, but it predicts relationship difficulties the child’s own later life, such as lack of trust that others will be there for them in times of distress, and fear of losing relationships because they cannot meet the other’s needs.

This can be distinguished from the situation when, often for economic reasons, a child is asked to assume a parental role with younger siblings while the parents are absent or otherwise occupied. In this case, the “helpful child” takes on the responsibility of caring for younger children, rather than that of meeting a parent’s emotional needs, and this responsibility has limits, so long as the parent remains clearly in the role of parent when they are present. In contrast to parentification, this experience is usually positive for a child’s development, predicting resilience, capability and personality strengths in later life (Teyber, 2006: 209-211).

In Nobody Knows, the character of Akira shows traits of both the parentified and the helpful child, making it hard to categorise him neatly in terms of this distinction. Early on we witness him attempting both to support and discipline his charmingly playful, but unhappy and impulsive mother. However, we are also made aware of the societal pressures that lead this single mother to hide the existence of her younger children when the family moves to a new apartment, and the difficulties that force her to rely on the older children to help her care for the younger ones. In this role, Akira shows himself to be remarkably capable and resourceful. 

As filmmaker Kenta McGrath observes, Koreeda displays great visual eloquence in evoking both resilience and loss:

As the film progresses, many of the filmed objects are recycled – symbolically by Koreeda, literally by the children – and assume new functions once their initial ones are fulfilled. Empty bowls of Cup Noodles house plants, unpaid bills turn into sketch pads, a suitcase becomes a coffin. Objects and gestures are what linger long after the film ends, reverberating as symbols of resilience, resourcefulness, misfortune, dreams put on hold. (Kenta McGrath)

The children’s creative improvisation, however heartening, is not sufficient to overcome the adversity they face. As it becomes evident that their mother will not return, Akira is left without any reliable adult to turn to when he is unable to meet the needs of the family alone. Not simply parentification in relation to his mother, but distressing prior encounters with the welfare system have engendered a deep lack of trust that others will be there for him or his siblings in times of need. And this lack of trust appears well-founded: although it is obvious that many adults become aware of the children’s plight, nobody chooses to “know” or to become more than superficially involved. This benign neglect leaves the children isolated amid prosperity, abandoned not only by their parents, but by a whole atomised society.

For me, Koreeda's the film elicited a painful moment of recognition: I realised I have witnessed this phenomenon here in Melbourne, many times over. Recently, I have been conducting interviews with people who are or have been homeless, asking them about their own resilience. They have recounted sometimes astonishing examples of the ability to keep going and adapt under conditions of extreme difficulty. Their stories, like that of Koreeda’s film, have also shown me that unsupported, individual resilience is not enough to protect people from intense suffering. The capacity to connect and be seen as part of the wider community in times of need is vital to survival, and this capacity crucially depends on the willingness of others – others in proximity, but also others in positions of power and influence – to pay attention, to “know” what is happening and to respond in a humane, flexible, responsible way. Too often, in these neoliberal capitalist times, such willingness seems to be in distressingly short supply.

It strikes me that the problem highlighted by Koreeda’s film, and by increasing rates of homelessness in a wealthy city like Melbourne, should not be seen as a failure of empathy or compassion. These virtues are attractive but cannot be compelled, and in any case, they are entirely absent neither in the film, nor in the experiences of my interviewees. Rather, when disaster strikes the vulnerable and their suffering is not mitigated by social supports, this is a failure of social responsibility.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

After Life

Last night at the Melbourne Cinematheque, I saw an unusual, thought-provoking film called After Life, made in 1998 by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. It depicts the first stage after death as a week-long stay in a run-down institution, where the newly dead are given three days to reflect on their lives and select a single memory. Once the choice is made, the staff in the institution recreate and film the memory. Finally, these memories are relived via a group screening at the end of the week, allowing each individual to “move on” immediately to a place where their chosen memory will be all they recall, with the rest of their life erased.

The first task for the staff is to gently guide each person in the process of reflecting on their life and choosing a single memory. There are no selection criteria or guidelines, although most people choose a moment of simple happiness. For some the source of joy is sensory – cherry plum blossoms falling in a garden, flying in a light aeroplane through clouds, the feeling of a warm breeze enveloping the body during a childhood bus ride. For others it is bound to relationships – the adoration of an older brother, a late moment of companionship within a long marriage. Some begin with conventional visions of pleasure and later abandon them for more authentic memories, although there are hints that they remain somewhat uncertain of the value and details of these as well. Most challenging for the staff are the few who cannot or will not choose a memory. Various reasons for this difficulty are implied: a view of life so dark that the person cannot retrieve a convincing moment of happiness; anxiety that nothing achieved during life was sufficiently significant or met early ambitions; the conviction that to remember everything is a burden of responsibility that must not be evaded.  
Hirokazu Koreeda (1962 - )
At the end of the film (which involved more than I have revealed here), the friend sitting next to me asked if I had been thinking about what my chosen memory would be. A few thoughts about this had crossed my mind, but mostly I had identified with the staff of the institution, rather than the dead people. The film reminded me of work I have been doing as a provisional psychologist in a big public hospital: listening, asking about, and reflecting upon patients’ accounts of their experience, attempting to create a space in which they can set aside pressures to conform to conventional expectations or judgments, discover what is important to them, and freely share those memories that rise to the surface of the vast flow of a life. Of course, the memories people share with a psychologist are not typically accounts of simple pleasure. Rather, people come because their connection with what brings joy has been clouded. They have memories that cause suffering or confusion, and need to be shared and allowed to shift in their meaning, rather than fixed for eternity. As in the case of the characters in the film who cannot choose a memory, the process also involves uncovering habits of thinking and feeling that tend to block the vital connection to positive experience.

Late in the film, one of the staff says he cannot bear to keep doing his work, constantly saying goodbye to people. This struck a chord, coming in a week in which I had final sessions with several clients. Many of them had shared life experiences of great passion and suffering during our work together. These exchanges had been very meaningful for me as well as them, creating a strong sense of connection between us. In most cases we were ending the therapeutic relationship, not from a sense of natural closure or completion of the work, but simply because my placement at the hospital is finishing next week. There was often a sense of loss and regret on both sides that we could not continue.

However, keeping therapeutic relationships short is recommended in contemporary clinical psychology. “Time-limited interventions,” like the time-pressured process depicted in the film, are in favour. During the day on which I saw After Life, I also went to a presentation on early intervention for young people with borderline personality disorder, given by Professor Andrew Chanen, Director of Clinical Services at Orygen in Melbourne. He explained that the treatment offered there is concluded after an agreed number of sessions, “no matter what” (his rather weary, care-worn expression intimated what this short phrase might encompass in the case of his client group). In part, this practice is based on the view that if a client does not benefit during the standard time of treatment, this indicates that the treatment approach is not working, and more of the same is unlikely to help. In this sense, the discipline is as much for the therapists as the clients, assisting them to let go of any ego-based need to prove they can help by holding onto a client who is not responding, and helping to ensure they do not get caught in relationship dynamics that are part of the client’s problems. 

Musing about this in the wake of the film, I imagined a variant on the theme of After Life, a story in which human lives are seen as opportunities for “time-limited interventions.” Guardian-angel-therapists (devas, perhaps) are given the predetermined span of a single lifetime to help their allocated humans relinquish the delusions and cravings that feed dissatisfaction, with the therapeutic goal of teaching them how to rest in contentment. No guarantees of success, and no extensions of time...


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Valiant Resistence to Father's Day

The first attempt to establish fathers’ day (in 1908)
Was overshadowed by a hot air balloon show and circus performers.
These took over the headlines, and the fathers
(Those left alive after a nearby coal mining disaster)
Showed more interest in the aerial acrobatics and the strong man act
Than in a church service organised in their honour.

The formidable Jane Addams tried to get in on the act a few years later,
But although she managed to found the profession of social work in the US,
And later won the Nobel Prize for Peace,
She couldn’t get Fathers’ Day going.
When she proposed a city-wide celebration of fathers in Chicago,
The people in charge (fathers, for the most part) said, in a word, no.

Jane Addams, not happy
In 1957, a female senator from Maine,
Observing that Mothers’ Day had been going strong for forty years,
Accused Congress of “the worst possible oversight…
Perpetrated against the gallant fathers… of our land…”
“As a daughter, as a woman, and as a United States Senator,”
She declared the lack of Fathers’ Day, “the most grievous insult imaginable.”

The men of Congress appear to have united in ignoring this.
They “gallantly” held out held out for another 15 years.
But in 1972, Fathers’ Day finally became a national US holiday,
And from this year onwards, fathers across the land
Were forced to stop work, and accept soap-on-a-rope
and other mildly insulting gifts, on an annual basis.

It is not clear precisely when and how this blow to American manhood spread…
To Australia. Here, at least, there has been
No suggestion of a public holiday.
An internet search reveals the counterfactual but valiant statement
That father’s day in Australia originated in pagan sun worship,
And recommended gifts include swimming with whale sharks.

In deference to the fact that when I was born
Father’s Day wasn’t really a thing, even in the US,
This year I have refrained from purchasing soap-on-a-rope
Or buying into any other American claptrap.
I’ll simply say, you’re a top bloke, Dad.
(And if you want to swim with whale sharks, just let me know.)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Flutters and flights of mindfulness

A few days ago, I felt inspired to take down a book that has been sitting unopened on my bookshelf for many years, although I read it from cover to cover when I first received it as a gift (thanks, Tess and Will). I opened it at random, and fell upon a passage about the yogic concept of kriyas, defined by the author as “powerful spontaneous releases of physical energy” associated with rapture:

Through concentration or other techniques of practice one often experiences a buildup of great energy in the body. When this energy moves, it produces feelings of pleasure, and when it encounters areas of tightness or holding, it builds up and then releases as vibration and movement. (p123)

The book was Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, and the chapter was entitled, “The spiritual roller coaster: Kundalini and other side effects.”

Over the past year, I have become much more familiar with kriyas, thanks to the teachers at Kundalini House in North Fitzroy. They use the term kriya to refer to the series of exercises practiced in a kundalini yoga class, with each series promised to promote specific, often extraordinary benefits. When I turned up for my first class, I had completely forgotten ever encountering this exotic word. But perhaps Kornfield’s discussion of kriyas sowed a seed that, tended by a lovely and inspiring yoga teacher called Onkartej, has now shot up suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly into the practice of holding my breath and pumping my stomach (many times) while listening to a Punjabi chant that translates roughly as “Wow! dark-light!” usually at ungodly (or as many spiritual traditions would have it, particularly godly) hours of the morning. As part of a communal yoga “challenge,” I have committed to practicing this kriya each day for the rather Biblical period of forty days. We’ll see if any dramatic releases have taken place by the time I emerge from this meditative Punjabi desert…

Thar Desert, Punjab-Haryana-Kathiawab region, India

(While searching for images of the Punjabi desert, google kept asking if I would prefer to look at Punjabi desserts, but I resisted this temptation.)

Kornfield points to two basic attitudes toward the unusual states that can be provoked by such practices. Some schools see them as states of transcendence essential for true spiritual awakening or transformation. Consequently, they encourage students to do what it takes to induce altered states of consciousness: Kornfield mentions techniques involving repetition, intensity, pain, powerful breathing, narrowly focused concentration, koans, sleep deprivation, visioning. To this list, I would add the use of entheogens such as ayahuasca.

Other schools promote an immanent rather than transcendent approach to awakening. In Kornfield’s words, they “do not set out to climb the mountain of transcendence, but set out instead to bring the spirit of the mountaintop alive here and now in each moment of life.” (p120) They teach that the divine is already present in each moment, only our distracted and grasping mind keeps us from recognising this. To open to this reality, it is necessary to resist the potentially addictive attraction of extraordinary experiences, instead recognizing that altered perceptions and visions are illusions, impermanent phenomena. In the words of Ajahn Chah, founder of the forest tradition in Thai Buddhism, they are “just something else to let go of.” This approach is associated with meditative practices of “bare awareness” or “just sitting,” which encourage a profound opening to what is happening in the present moment.

Ajahn Chah
Kornfield takes a conciliatory middle way between these positions, suggesting that transcendent and immanent paths are both expressions of the Great Way, each able to lead to liberation. Transcendent states can be profoundly healing and transformative, while an immanent approach can infuse our whole life with a sense of the sacred. Alternatively, either approach can become mired in complacency, hubris and self-deception if we become overly attached to the effects of these practices and blind ourselves to further possibilities of transformation.

These reflections reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a friend about the value of mindfulness as it is taught in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course developed by Zen roshi Jon Kabat-Zinn. Tim was somewhat skeptical about whether this immanent, integrative approach to meditation and awareness could lead to authentic mindfulness. He argued that in the Buddhist tradition, particularly as it is explained in a book he’d been reading by Alan Wallace, an American expert on Tibetan Buddhism, mindfulness properly refers to states of mind cultivated by meditative practices designed to produce highly focused and sustained concentration – in Kornfield’s language, transcendent states. As a consequence, Tim felt it might be a mistake to identify the more readily accessible forms of attention and openness to experience cultivated in the MBSR course with the Buddhist concept and experience of mindfulness.

As the time, I responded by speaking about what Bhikkhu Sujato has called the “two wings of mindfulness,” that is samadhi, a state of absorption or one-pointed concentration, and vipassana, or insight, based on a broader sense of awareness, directed to observing the processes of the mind. My idea was that mindfulness as it is taught in contemporary psychological settings might be more closely aligned with investigative vipassana than with deeply concentrated samadhi. However, Tim accurately pointed out that both these meditative “wings” involve intensive practice and highly cultivated states of consciousness. In that sense, they are both transcendent approaches to spiritual practice, and belong to the same bird, as Bhikkhu Sujato’s metaphor implies.

Eurasian Eagle Owl (scientific name: bubo bubo)

Similarly, MBSR involves both practices designed to calm and focus the mind, and practices designed to enhance awareness (as well as acceptance and appreciation) of what is present to consciousness in a given moment: in this sense, it also displays the “two wings” of mindfulness. The difference is that rather than requiring seclusion and intensive meditative practice to invoke the marvelous, soaring flight of this bird, the emphasis is on encouraging it to swoop rapidly but repeatedly in and out of ordinary moments, like a swallow before the rain, transforming the experience of worldly life without withdrawing from it.

While the swallow of secular mindfulness may seem a small and distant relative of the great eagle owl of samadhi and vipassana, the beauty and skill of the swallow’s flight should not be underestimated. I suspect that to swoop so close to the surface of worldly life without crashing into it may involve a form of mindfulness just as demanding and powerful as that involved in soaring or hovering motionless, far above. After all, to maintain mindfulness amid the pressures and distractions of worldly life can be more difficult than attaining deeper states of concentration under retreat conditions specifically designed to support them. Even on retreat, or in monasteries, interactions with others, and ordinary tasks like preparing meals, can prove more clearly testing of mindfulness than long periods spent undisturbed in meditation.

But this contrast may be misleading: if the mindfulness attained in deep meditation is not illusory, it can be expected to increase mindfulness in worldly interactions; conversely, the cultivation of robust mindfulness in everyday life makes deeper states of concentration more accessible. Perhaps mindfulness is a shape-shifter, appearing now as a swallow, now as an eagle owl, now as a laughing kookaburra kriya, now as a dove carrying the promise of new life… but regardless of form, always the same in its capacity to arouse pleasure and wonder.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

On choosing a mattress

Tree bed by Shawn Lovell

In Buddhism, there are five precepts or ethical trainings for lay people. They cover pretty familiar moral territory: you are asked to do your best not to kill, steal, have illicit sex, tell lies, or get drunk. However, if you go on retreat with Buddhist monks or nuns, you are usually asked to respect not just five, but eight precepts for the duration of the retreat. The extra three require you to avoid eating at certain times (such as after noon); to refrain from dancing, singing, music, shows, wearing jewelry and cosmetics; and to refrain from using high and luxurious seats or beds. The precept on sexual misconduct also gets upgraded to refraining from any sexual activity.

It makes sense that on a silent meditation retreat, you don’t want people dancing around singing, playing music, or dressing up in attempts to seduce each other. Observing limitations around eating also has practical benefits for cultivating a clear mind for meditation. But what’s the issue with high and luxurious beds? I guess they might add to the temptation to stay in bed instead of getting up to meditate well before sunrise, but even so, I could never understand why beds get a whole precept to themselves – I really couldn’t see why a comfy bed should be a significant obstacle to enlightenment.

That was until I decided to buy a new mattress.

On the advice of my brother, who had recently bought one himself, I started my search at Snooze. A sales assistant, who happened to be an attractive blonde woman rather similar to the young woman who had successfully helped my brother, guided me through the huge display room of mattresses to a special computerized test bed.

As you recline on the high and luxurious surface of Snooze's bedMATCH® bed, a video plays on a TV monitor positioned on an angle just over your head, informing you that although you may think you already know what kind of mattress you want, *scientific research* has shown that 95% of people DO NOT KNOW what kind of mattress is best for them. Having sown the seed of doubt about your own capacity to successfully choose a mattress, the voice from the monitor goes on to reassure you that it’s OK, because the bed itself will be able to identify the optimal choice for you, based on a *scientific analysis* of your body shape and weight. The bed then gives you a little massage, and like a modern day oracle, reveals whether you need a firm, medium, soft, or super-soft mattress. 

Armed with this revelation, the sales assistant then leads you to a few mattresses of the designated type that cost from $2,000 up. They are all, without exception, high and luxurious – so high that you will probably have to buy new sheets, because the thickness of the mattresses means a normal sized sheet would never fit over them. You are then encouraged to lie on a few of these mattresses in an attempt to detect the subtle differences between them. The sales assistant tries to stop you from lying on too many, though, because (research has no doubt shown that) if you do, you’ll get confused and leave without buying anything.

Actually, psychological research has shown that making too many choices can lead to “decision fatigue” a state in which your powers of self-control are depleted. In this condition, you may allow yourself to be nudged towards an irrational decision by someone else, or your own automatic impulses, or you may become overwhelmed and feel you just can’t make another choice. The sales assistant, with the help of the test bed, has the tricky task of making you feel sufficiently daunted by the huge range of mattress options to rely on her advice, but not allowing you tip over into full scale decision fatigue, a state in which you may become unpleasantly emotional as well as incapable of remembering the pin for your credit card.

The risk of decision fatigue while shopping for a new mattress is high. There are choices to be made, not only between a multitude of brands, and ranges within brands (do you want something from the exquisite, enhance or aspire collections?), but also between different kinds of “mattress technology.” Do you prefer pocket-springs or coil springs? Do you require silk, or can make do with wool, or perhaps organic latex in your pillow top? Then there is the choice between ordinary, non-sentient mattresses and those made from "memory foam," a material developed by NASA in 1966, and now used in some of the most expensive mattresses you can buy. You are encouraged to weigh all these options with care since, as mattress sales assistants will remind you, you spend about a third of your life sleeping and the quality of your sleep impacts everything else you do.

The more time I spent trying out mattresses, reading online reviews of mattresses and talking to friends about their struggles to choose a mattress, the more I became convinced that our society has an unhealthy obsession with high and luxurious beds: the Buddhist precept is more relevant than ever! Anyone who can afford it, and many who can’t, have become like the girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, who arrives at a royal castle drenched by a storm and claims to be a princess. The mother of the prince decides to test the young woman by surreptitiously placing a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather-beds, and inviting her to spend the night in this extraordinarily high and luxurious bed. The girl emerges in the morning, complaining that she was kept awake all night by something hard in the bed, which she is sure has bruised her. The prince is delighted: only a real princess could be so sensitive.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac
It would be easy to see contemporary princes and princesses, tossing and turning due to the lack of a silk pillow top, or a defect in their space age memory foam mattress, as products of contemporary consumer capitalism at its most psychologically manipulative. But it seems the problem is much older than contemporary marketing techniques. The folk tale recorded by Anderson suggests that the link between social status, hypersensitivity, insomnia and excessive bedding has been around for centuries; contemporary mattress sellers have simply tapped into an enduring human weakness. And as the ancient Buddhist precept suggests, it’s on a par with the desire to seek distraction through entertainment, or indulging in food.

For those who have trouble sleeping, Buddhist teachings offer an alternative to expensive mattresses in the quest to obtain an optimal night’s sleep. It is said that peaceful, restful sleep (as well as a beautiful complexion) is a side-effect of practicing loving-kindness meditation, which involves consciously wishing for the well-being of oneself, others, and all living beings. So, may you be well and happy, peaceful and at ease; may you (and any little ones in your household) come quickly to complete enlightenment, or at least to sweet, sound sleep!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A shift at the Crisis Centre

I’ve been working at the Crisis Contact Centre in St Kilda for about six months now. Lately, it’s been a particularly intense experience – the level of need out there is higher than usual during the Christmas holiday period, partly because a lot of other services close, while we remain open 24/7, and partly because it’s an emotional time of year for a lot of people. I’ve noticed we’ve been getting a lot of calls and drop-ins from people in various levels of not just housing, but also psychological crisis.

Our main role is to provide immediate crisis accommodation, mostly in cheap motels, basic material aid, and referrals to appropriate services for people who have fallen (hopefully temporarily) into homelessness. We don’t have resources to deal with any serious level of mental illness – you can’t place someone in a hotel if, like one of my callers last night, he says he needs emergency accommodation because he fears for the safety of his flat-mates, his head feels like it is “ticking like a time-bomb,” and he “goes off” at night and starts kicking the walls.

An even more distressing case last night was a caller from a town in regional Victoria, who rang saying he had slept in a park the night before and had nowhere else to go. He was in a very fragile state, crying through much of the call, and reporting that he had tried to self-harm during the day. He’d recently been on a bender, using methamphetamine (ice) eight days straight, plus some cocaine. He repeatedly said that he felt "lost." Again, booking him into a hotel was not a safe or viable option. I persuaded him to allow the police to take him to the local hospital to spend the night there, and get some medical assistance. I’m told that cases like his are clogging the emergency departments of hospitals throughout Victoria – increasing abuse of methamphetamine has placed considerable strain on mental health and emergency services.

I will relate just one other, more unusual, case from my shift last night: early in the evening, I took a call from a volunteer from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. He was calling regarding a Burmese man, with little English, who had been discharged from hospital in a country town near Melbourne, only to find that his landlord had evicted him in his absence. Apparently he was two weeks in arrears with his rent. I pointed out that the eviction was illegal, and the volunteer agreed, but said it may well have been a pretty dodgy tenancy arrangement from the start. In any case, the client had left the property and was now at the train station. I immediately rang the local housing service, and minutes before they closed managed to get them to agree to fund the client for the night. As usual, this was conditional on him presenting to their service the following day.

Bagan, central Burma (Myanmar)
Feeling pretty pleased with having achieved this, I then spoke to the client through a telephone interpreter. This was an interesting, somewhat frustrating experience – the contrast between the softly spoken, somewhat tentative female interpreter and the strong, rapid speech of the client was marked. As often happens, there seemed to be a lot more said in Burmese than was related to me in English. 

During the assessment, it emerged that the client was now on a train, on his way to a station in outer east Melbourne. I couldn't get a straight answer about why he was heading there, but he seemed to know people in the area. He told me he had a history of drug use (ice and marijuana) but hadn't used for over a year, and had no mental health issues. It was unclear why he had been in hospital, but he said something about chest pain, and receiving an injection. He said he was OK now. He also reported that he was on a Bridging Visa which had expired, but was getting Centrelink payments.

We always ask people contacting us by phone to present at a police station for an ID check before we place them in accommodation. This client agreed to go to straight to the police station on arrival at his destination, and call us again from there. I was concerned that his limited English might make this process difficult, so I rang the station to let the police know he would be arriving in the next couple of hours, supplied the client's name and date of birth, and asked the police officer to call us when he turned up. One of the other workers in the Crisis Centre had told me that Burmese people only have one name, which explained why his first and last names were the same, an interesting piece of cultural information that I also took it upon myself to share with the officer.

So far, so good. I considered scoping out hotel vacancies in the area, but decided to wait until I heard from the client again – we were busy, and it seemed possible he had friends in that area who might end up helping him out. In a certain sense, that did turn out to be the case.

Several hours later, I got a call back from the police officer to inform me that my client was a missing person from the psych unit of the local hospital. By this stage he was back in the ward. The officer said I should call the hospital to get further information or to make contact. I said that wouldn't be necessary, as our role was to provide emergency accommodation, and this client now clearly had some accommodation available to him. "Yeah, I think they'll be keeping him in there for quite a while..."

Although my input had very little to do with it, that was one of the success stories of the night – a client who had somewhere to go, and judging by the fact that he had voluntarily returned, seemed to have some faith that his mental health needs would be effectively addressed there. 

This was a contrast to the first caller I mentioned, the one who was kicking the walls. He’d already had pretty extensive experience of the mental health system in Melbourne, and was reluctant to return to a hospital where the drugs he’d been given had reduced him to a state where he said he had had trouble walking. In any case, given the lucid and polite way in which he spoke to me, escalating into anger only when he spoke about a brother who had died overseas, it was unlikely any overcrowded city hospital psych ward would have admitted him. He told me of one mental health service that he’d had good experiences with. The best I could do for him was to urge him to contact them the following day, and to impress upon him the fact that his mental health problems needed to be addressed before his housing issue could be resolved.

I’m beginning to think the same might be said for the entire state of Victoria. May 2015 bring some progress on this front...