I have come to the conclusion that Mindfulness is probably a bit of a misnomer.
But more of that later.
All of my life I have endeavoured to live as undenatured a life as possible. Of course, the planet upon which we live was becoming denatured from long before my birth; as I have written at length, my mother taught me to live in such a way that my natural intelligence would be able to look after me as best it could, despite the unnatural way of things and the many poisons and toxins infecting the human environment.
The word endeavoured is important; I tried very hard and I failed utterly to live at all naturally on so many occasions, and for lengthy periods of my life. Frequently I ignored the little voice inside, advising me against what I was doing, gently suggesting I conduct myself in a particular way; often I acted with appalling disregard for the well being of both myself and others around me. For many years I struggled with self delusion, depression, addiction, anxiety, suicidal urges, misdirected rage and resentment, oscillating between hubris and self effacement. I too easily became cynical and negative, believing that there was nothing to be done in the face of the irreparable fuckedupness of the world, believing that the only strategy was to fit in, mechanically to follow the habits of generations and subsume my consciousness into some solipsistic hobby or individual pursuit – in my case, reading philosophy, scribbling down my thoughts in notebooks and writing unconventional philosophical tracts. At the same time I always held out a hope that my agency, if combined with the agency of others, would actually change things for the better.
During recent years it has become easier to attend to the voice of natural intelligence. Age is a great teacher and cancer was a right kick up the arse. And yet from time to time I still do stupid things. This, it seems to me is a basic condition common to all of humanity; to be aware that things could be better – both for myself and for others – and to be willing often to act in order to make things better, but to be capable at any moment of falling into very bad habits and patterns of behaviour, to forget that the way things are is perpetuated by powers and laws more interested in what they should be, rather than what they could be, to blame others for the ills of the world and my own difficult emotions, and to wallow in self pity, thereby becoming complicit in the general fuckedupness of things, while subsuming and negating my own agency. Somehow it is often easier to act mechanically and without any hint of mindfulness.
Throughout my journey I have always been aware of my body in a way that I have discovered only quite recently is very different from the general ideas about these things that permeate established discourses. I have always felt, for example, that I know my body and what is going on inside it a lot better than doctors – who are only interested in diseases and symptoms, without any understanding of the fundamental relationship between nutrition and health. Being aware of my own body in this way put me into conflict with established medical knowledge from an early age, and it laid down principles of thinking that have also put me into conflict with almost every element of conventional wisdom, not to mention many institutions of society. But it has taught me a great deal, most importantly that although human beings are not machines, they act willingly according to habit, and often behave mechanically, habitually and without any hint that they are aware of what they are actually doing, or how this will effect the lives of those with whom they come into contact.
More recently, my experiences of dealing with a new generation of doctors has inspired me to greater optimism. In The Netherlands, when I was diagnosed, the attitude I encountered was frankly appalling; the very fact that I did not immediately accept the authority of medical opinion and take the medication, was sufficient to have me branded as difficult. In my more benevolent moments, I put this down to the fact that the health system there is entirely financed by insurance companies, at great expense to individuals – six years ago, just before I came back to Scotland, my monthly premium for only basic cover with a substantial ‘own risk’ component was about €125. In comparison, the Scottish Health Service is a breath of fresh air; I remember clearly my first visit to an oncologist here in Scotland, at St John’s Hospital in Livingstone, where there was an early available slot. I discovered not only that I did not need to show my passport or any other form of identification, but also that what the oncologist told me was advice and information, that I was always free to decide my own course of treatment. Even although I still had issues with the reductionism of the science behind it all, I felt I was being treated like a human being with agency, and not just as a productive unit in a complex assemblage of insurance and pharmaceutical capital that would be profitable for a limited period and then written off.
I have blogged at length about my journey hereafter, taken my story to the point where my experience has become so positive that my attitude has changed radically. I have no doubt that had I been living in a state of nature, undenatured, I would be dead. The pain of spinal cord compression is so unbearable and overpowering that I would have crawled off to a quiet place, lost consciousness and soon become carrion – just like any other beast dying in a state of nature. My own understanding of my body had come to an end. As I was blue-lighted to hospital, I handed over management of my body to medical science, suspending my own sense of my body and trusting that the doctors knew what they were doing. I have already written about the details of my hospitalisation, and do not feel inclined to repeat any of it, but it seems important to emphasise here that during this period I was coming to the conclusion that two processes, mechanistic and natural, which I had hitherto believed to be incompatible were actually working in parallel, that the doctors were relying as much on my natural healing powers as I was – only they were adding into the mix a bunch of specific chemicals and a couple of huge blasts of radiotherapy that they knew would have particular positive effects.
In just over a week I will be starting a course of chemotherapy, six cycles of 21 days, which according to clinical studies is likely to add between 18 and 22 months to whatever nature has in mind for me. In the meantime, in order to manage the pain, I am taking a baseline cocktail of Oxycodone, Gabapentin and Diazepam, with Lidocaine patches during the night. Every month I am injected with a drug called Degarelix, which drops testosterone to levels equivalent to chemical castration thereby suppressing the disease. In the morning I also take a drug called Tamsulosin that ensures I empty my bladder properly and so do not risk infection. In addition to this lot, I have been prescribed a number of other drugs and preparations to attenuate the side effects of the above – amongst which Metoclopramide for nausea and Lorazepam for panic attacks. I cut out the first quite quickly because it was contributing, along with the large doses of opiates, and the other effects of Diazepam and Gabapentin, to hallucinations; the second I have not yet felt the need to take, and probably never will. I was discharged from hospital half way through January, and with the help of my wife, family, neighbours and palliative care services, I am gradually coming to terms with this new normal. But it is not easy – both for my wife and for myself. My life revolves around medication – in particular not forgetting to take the stuff that provides pain management, and deciding whether or not to take a powder called Laxido (the clue is in the name) to mitigate the crippling effects on my colon of Oxycodone. The most important thing about all this is that I am aware of what I am doing. Having decided to take the medication, I have also taken responsibility for this by actively knowing what is going on in my body. Just as my mother taught me.
My experiences in the mountains undoubtedly contribute to my knowing what my body can do, but there is an element to my bodily awareness about which I have not written very much; cycling. Even before I moved to the The Netherlands I was an avid cyclist, I owned one of the first ever mountain bikes in Scotland, took it into The Pentland Hills near Edinburgh and packed it up with panniers as I traveled on holiday round the Highlands and Islands in autumn, at a time when people still stopped to ask about the bike because they had never seen such a thing. Back at the end of the 1980s, I used it to take me as far as possible up the paths towards the summits of Suilven and Canisp. I took this bike with me when I emigrated and used it until just after I became a messenger, when it succumbed in a collision with the front of a car coming out of a side street. The insurance money enabled me to build a new bike which I used to work with until I discovered that owning several bikes – each for a different function – was a much better idea. At the height of my career, I had a mountain bike for occasional trips to bits of Germany and Limburg where there are real hills, a racing bike for Sundays in the peloton, a holiday bike for travelling, a city bike for general use, assorted other home-made machines, for a while a Brompton, and a couple of fixies for work. During the course of the almost twenty or so years I worked as a messenger and cycled recreationally, I travelled a distance equivalent to circumnavigating the planet ten times. I still own five bikes.
All this only emphasises the intimate bodily experience of being an element of a special kind of machine, the thing that comes into existence when a human being and a bicycle have been connected together for such a long time that there is no longer any difference between them. More importantly though, being a messenger put me into contact with the most incredible international community I have known. It is a little known fact that apart from academics, it was messengers who used the Internet for the first time, from about the mid 1990s, to organise events and to get to know each other; from 1998 I attended European and World bicycle messenger championships, and for a couple of years I was president of the International Federation of Bicycle Messenger Associations.
It would be wrong to say that this community is perfect, that many of its members are not damaged by these fucked up societies, that it is not riven with divisions and that it does not still have a problem with a certain toxic masculinity; but it is the one collection of human beings I have known that does not exclude anybody, that always makes genuine efforts to discuss difficult issues in public, and that comes together every now and again to celebrate its diversity, accepting without question differences of style, conviction, sexuality, choice of bicycle and so forth. For many years too the community has been influential, innovative and creative, always developing tools and methods to ease human powered urban delivery, clothing and bag design, cargo bikes in many grades and weight capacities, with most notably in recent years the Omnium from Copenhagen, the lightest and fastest yet to hit the streets. It is also arguable that the messenger community, by using shoulder bags for delivering stuff and discovering, almost en masse, just after the turn of the millennium that a fixie is probably the most efficient choice of bike in a city, inadvertently prepared the ground for the emergence of hipster culture.
Be all this as it may, as a member of this community, my perspective changed, my attitude to others moved towards compassion and respect, leaving behind indifference and suspicion. In my own workshop, I was not afraid to bend the rules of bicycle building in order to service the needs of my customers, many of whom were also messengers, and then later hipsters. All these diverse and beautiful people throughout the world welcomed me into a very special family of urban cyclists, who look out for each other, and who know what it is like to be creative, marginal, vulnerable, fiercely independent and unwilling to kowtow to the norms and values of established powers.
And so back to mindfulness and it being very probably a misnomer.
At the very least, its meaning depends on how the constituent parts of the word mindfulness are emphasised; is the point simply to be mindful, in the sense of attentive to matters at hand, and to conduct oneself with awareness of what one is doing, or should we expect that with practice, at the end of some process of development or a course of teaching, individual minds will become replete with a kind of wisdom? If the former, then a sniper could be as mindful as a teacher; if the latter, then everyday games of power will quickly infect everyday mindfulness and ultimately undermine its meaningfulness.
My experience of cancer, of putting into practice the ideas about health I learned from my mother, of clambering about the Scottish mountains and of many years riding my bike in cities as part of messfam, suggest to me that mindfulness might best be thought of as coming to an understanding of the causal factors and processes by which bodies move in the world, how they relate to each other and how their being alive is on the one hand limited by powers over which they have no control, and on the other enhanced by their cooperation, the love between them and ordinary everyday compassion.
At the same time, being mindful must also be an ability, a power to reflect on and to apply an understanding of what bodies (can) do, from moment to moment, to know what is causing the bodies present during any encounter to be doing what they do. From an individual viewpoint mindfulness is then understanding your own body, what makes it do what it does, what are its contributions to every encounter it experiences, and endeavouring at all times to conduct yourself with compassion towards all others. Mindfulness becomes then less about self reflection, discovering what is going on inside a mind, and more about conduct.
In short, mindfulness must be a kind of ethics.
A great deal is entailed by this perspective, perhaps most crucially that being mindful involves coming to realise how much of what a mind is doing at any moment is actually irrelevant to what is happening here and now, in the actual living present. From which it follows that the most vital training any particular mind must undertake should be directed towards finding peace amongst the noise and clutter of consciousness, without attaching to any kind of solid identity, and instead coming to experience the essential impermanence of things.
There are many different techniques available out there by which an individual may learn to focus entirely on the present and then to come to realise that most of what is going on in a mind at any particular moment is related not to the present, but to the future or to the past – hopes, plans, fears, regrets, memories and so forth. My preferred meditation techniques are to focus entirely on my own breathing or on some small nondescript object in the near distance; though everybody with a mind to do so should be able find their own path and preferred techniques. With practice, you will discover that being mindful is an attitude that can be taken into the minutiae of everyday life. Even when peeling potatoes, the point is always to be with what your body is doing. Thereafter seeing there is no difference between yourself and your body, nor any identity. Only peeling potatoes.
So as I sit here, happy in (medical) retirement, hardly able to believe that I made it this far, I feel truly blessed.
Seven years ago, when I was still in The Netherlands and as I was beginning to sense that there was definitely something not at all right going on in my body, I wrote this on the Facebook:
A month ago I thought I would never cycle again. In that cold, when I willed my muscles with all my power, nothing happened. I also developed pains I did not recognize. But now, a month later and twenty degrees warmer, these old legs are spinning like dervishes. From which I conclude that pessimism is a much better policy that optimism. For while an optimist will always be disappointed, a pessimist will experience from time to time the joy of things not turning out for the worst after all!
During the years following this, I thought I was going to retire again, and again – even after the diagnosis I discovered I could still work on my bike, delivering stuff. I have also freed myself from the dichotomous thinking that opposes pessimism with optimism, and persuades us that experiencing anything must be either one thing or another, replacing this with an understanding of difference, qualitative difference, of the infinite diversity of being human, of the absolute necessity of learning what bodies can do as they experience this precious opportunity to be alive and breathing, here and now!
It is almost a year since I cycled my last shift as a messenger and six months since I took a proper run on a bike. I do not feel any loss; for during my life on a bike I travelled all over the world, met many inspiring, beautiful and creative people and became a respected member of a very special family. Although I maintain a hope that one day I will get back up a Munro or two, when weather permits, I am now enjoying gentle ascents of some of the prominent hills in Fife, walking along shorelines, through woods and fields with my lovely wife, where there is time enough mindfully to watch more closely the beauties that surround us.
And even though my cycling days are over, I will never forget the power and speed my legs once enjoyed, nor the love of messfam.
At last I feel as if I really have retired.
Love and peace.