Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Swearing off the profanities

Opinion – The Straits Times, Monday, June 18, 2012

Swearing off the profanities

PROFANITY on the Web is so common these days that it has lost much of its impact. It is poor substitute for wit or a clever argument, of course, but it's a no-brainer for some bloggers when words fail them.

Consequently, swearing for effect tends to be seen in a negative light, as noted by Glen Mattock, formerly of the Sex Pistols, in a television interview: "It's pathetic when people just swear for the sake of it." He should know, as the punk band didn't do itself any favours by spewing vulgarities fair no apparent reason on the most inappropriate occasions.

What is appropriate, of course, depends on the context of a group and a verbal exchange. In working class interactions and the online chatter of the young, foul words are so routinely traded that some would consider it a way of merely building rapport.

Hence, the measured response to the expletive-filled blog post of a junior college student commenting on this year's annual Pre-U Seminar where Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean was the key speaker. The student deleted the post afterwards and apologised for his words, which an Education Ministry spokesman noted were "rude and unbecoming". The spokesman added: "We hope to turn this into a teachable moment both for the student blogger and students in general."

More troubling than just the language was the student's attitude - he wanted answers to national issues, from the minister rather than to be asked for his views on them. It spoke of a lack of understanding that citizens own and shape the societies they live in, not government leaders or officials. Carried to extremes, this much lamented what's-in-it-for-me attitude is antithetical to fostering social cohesion and consensus on the way forward on the many challenges this country faces. Beyond this, the swearing incident raises questions of public manners and how public discourse should be conducted.

Even so, it would be unrealistic for language gestapos to even try to stamp out such conduct entirely. Swearing is so much a part of popular culture that it has surfaced every everywhere, from acclaimed books like J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye to the HBO drama Deadwood. In real life, however, if the intent is to show disrespect or desecration, it can spark a chain of reactions that can spin out of control.

Worse, profanity for its own sake can vulgarise a community and degenerate the tone of public discussions. It could foster a cynical culture, more ready to knock down than to nurture and build. With maturity, the young may come to see that it is all a question of time, tone and place. Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Wandering Minds

At this very moment your thoughts are buzzing like a swarm of bees. The reduction of this fevered complex to a unity appears to be a task beyond all human power. Yet the situation is not as hopeless for you as it seems. All this is only happening upon the periphery of the mind, where it touches and reacts to the world of appearance. At the centre there is a stillness which even you are not able to break. EVELYN UNDERHILL

IN 1994 SVEN BIRKERTS WROTE The Gutenberg Elegies, in which he predicted that in a decade or so the electronic revolution would have changed our world beyond recognition: "We will be swimming in impulses and data-the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse."

Today, we know just how accurate his prediction has become. We click through an endless stream of Internet links, multitask in numerous media, write a daily blog, check our e-mail every few hours, text friends and others regularly throughout the day. Neuroscience studies are now showing that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly so that our capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.

Of course, everywhere we go we hear people complaining about our wired world-about how complicated it has made life and about how frustrating it is-all the while utilizing every technological gadget at their disposal. The truth of the matter is we enjoy our technological gluttony. It is all so stimulating and interesting.

Actually, the Internet culture is only a surface issue. Our problem is something far more fundamental. This deeper, more basic issue can be summed up in one word: distraction. Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day. The Internet, of course, did not cause this problem; people were distracted long before it came along. Blaise Pascal observed, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." The fact that our schedules are piled high and we are constantly bombarded by multiple stimuli only betrays that we have succumbed to the modern mania that keeps us perpetually distracted. The moment we seek to enter the creative silences of meditative prayer, every demand screams for our attention. We have noisy hearts.

Sadly, our Christian worship services are of no help here. Today, for the most part, they have become one huge production in distraction. Worship meant to draw us into the presence of God has become little more than an organized way of keeping us from the presence of God. So it is little wonder that when we are first learning meditative prayer, we need help in how to control a wandering mind.


The first counsel I would give regarding a wandering mind is for us to be easy on ourselves. We did not develop a noisy heart overnight, and it will take time and patience for us to learn a single-hearted concentration. Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers wise counsel precisely on this point: "The first thing to remember is not to get impatient with yourself. Do not cramp yourself in despair at the wandering of your thoughts. Just sit down each day and wait patiently. If your thoughts keep running away, do not attempt to restrict them. It is no bother to let them run on to their destination; then, however, take up the place or the person to whom they have strayed into your prayers. In this way you will find yourself back at the text, and the minutes of such digressions will not be wasted and will not trouble you."

The inner chatter we experience the moment we try to be still and listen to the Lord no doubt tells us something about our own distractedness. It is not wrong for us to devote the whole duration of our meditation to learning about our own inner chaos. Beyond this, sometimes we need to gently but firmly speak the word of peace to our racing mind and so instruct it into a more disciplined way.

Often I will keep a things-to-do pad handy and simply jot down the tasks that are vying for my attention until they have all surfaced. Then the buzzing thoughts can settle down, and I can be still.

If one particular matter seems to be repeatedly intruding into our meditation, we may want to ask of the Lord if the intrusion has something to teach us. That is, we befriend the intruder by making it the object of our meditation.

Now, if we are to deal substantially with the problem of a wandering mind, we need to begin before the actual time of meditation. It is important to find ways in our contemporary circumstances to crucify the spirit of distraction. A beginning way might be to practice a Sabbath time from all electronic media. I would suggest a fast from all our Internet gadgetry for one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year. See if that helps to calm the internal distraction. I have a friend who when leading retreats asks the retreatants to turn in (not just turn off) their cell phones and BlackBerries and iPads. She reports to me that when she makes this request, people look at her as if she had just asked them to cut off their right arm.


I want to offer a counsel for focusing a wandering mind that may seem strange to you at first. I am talking about the selective reading of poetry. Three things make poetry especially helpful in settling our mind.

First, poetry startles us with its economy of words and beauty of language. This is unusual in our wordy world where advertisers and politicians are constantly prostituting words for sales or votes. Words, carefully chosen and beautifully written, have a way of slowing us down and focusing our attention on essential matters.

Second, if you are anything like me, you simply do not understand what the poet is saying on the first read. This forces us to stop and go back and read the words again. And again. If we are patient, our racing mind slowly will become present to the poem. A poem most often has a double meaning, and it takes us a little while to move past the surface subject of the poem to the deeper issue the poet is after. As we begin to understand the poem, we realize that the racing of our mind has calmed down considerably.

Third, the mind is often captured by the metaphor of a poem. A metaphor, of course, takes two very different things and shows one way in which they are similar. We are employing a metaphor when we call that small, gray computer device we use every day a "mouse." Or think of Robert Frost comparing our life to a journey: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I---I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference." Our mind is captured by the image of the fork in the road, and that focuses our attention as we think about the choices we have to make in life. So the metaphor in the poem helps to center a wandering mind.

Briefly, I would like to recommend to you three poets: John Donne, George Herbert and a contemporary poet, Robert Siegel. Of course, you may have a favorite poet of your own, or perhaps you enjoy writing poetry yourself.

John Donne is perhaps the greatest of the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. We know him, of course, from the famous line, "No man is an island, entire of itself. ... Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." I like him especially for his vivid imagery and overwhelming emotion. Consider this fragment from his Holy Sonnets:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me; and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

George Herbert, of course, was a contemporary of Donne. He wrote an excellent book on spiritual formation in the context of a pastoral setting, The Country Parson. But smack in the midst of all the ordinariness of his parish life-births and deaths, broken marriages and anxious parents, pastoral visits by the score and cups of tea beyond numbering-Herbert was also writing the most astonishing poetry. And something in his poetry has a way of settling our minds and hearts. You can get the idea quickly from a brief selection from his huge collection of poems called The Temple:

If as a Flower doth spread and die,

Thou wouldst extend me to some good,

Before I were by frost's extremity

Nipt in the bud.

Robert Siegel is a wonderful present-day poet. He is already being compared to Keats and others. I am not qualified to comment on such matters, but I am deeply drawn to his uncanny ability to see in the natural world small epiphanies of ordinary life. He writes on all manner of topics, but when he turns to the created order, something mysterious, almost mystical, occurs. Consider this poem which provides the title to his newest book:

Yellow flames flutter

about the feeder:

A Pentecost of finches

Some have called poetry the language of God. I can see why.


It feels almost sacrilegious to transition from words that have been cut and chiseled and polished to something as prosaic as a meditation experience. Nonetheless, I want to provide you with a simple handle for dealing with a wandering mind. I call this meditation experience, for lack of a better name, "pull the plugs” ii

Find a comfortable setting that is free of distractions. Perhaps a favorite sitting chair. In your imagination you may want to picture Jesus in the chair across from you. He smiles and nods.

Begin by reading or rehearsing in your mind a favorite biblical passage, perhaps the Lord's Prayer or the Twenty Third Psalm. There are plugs on all ten fingers and all ten toes, and when you are ready, pull these plugs and watch as a cloudy liquid flows out and into a drain in the center of the floor. The liquid represents all the distractions and concerns that occupy your mind. The regrets of yesterday, the responsibilities of today, the fears of tomorrow. As the liquid flows out, you watch as the level drops down, down, down until it is all gone. You then replace the plugs, and Jesus, smiling, comes over, opens the top of your head and begins to fill you with a bright, crystal-clear liquid. This represents the Word of God, which is filling you to such an extent that there is no room anywhere in you for distraction of any kind. Your body is full of the Word of God. Your mind is full of the Word of God. Your heart is full of the Word of God. All distractions are gone, and in this posture you listen for the Word of the Lord.

Franyois Fenelon wrote, "God does not cease speaking, but the noise of the creatures without, and of our passion within, deafens us, and stops our hearing. We must silence every creature, we must silence ourselves, to hear in the deep hush of the whole soul, the ineffable voice of the spouse. We must bend the ear, because it is a gentle and delicate voice, only heard by those who no longer hear anything else." Oh, may you, may I, hear nothing else.

John Donne, 1573-1631; George Herbert, 1593-1633.

In Celebration of Discipline I describe another meditation experience with a similar purpose called simply "palms down, palms up" (p. 30). You, of course, are welcome to create your own meditation experience

Extracted from Richard Foster's Sanctuary Of The Soul