Monday, 3 May 2010

Treat everything as ‘practice’

There are three ways in which the noun ‘practice’ is used [NB: in UK English, 'practice' is the noun and ‘practise’ is the verb; in US English, the usage is different]:

1. Custom, habit – as in ‘it is my practice to go for a run every day’
2. Repetition, rehearsal – as in ‘I do my piano practice every day’
3. The specific Buddhist usage where meditation and mindfulness practice are referred to just as ‘practice’, in an interesting usage which also combines (1) and (2) above.

If you seek to practise mindfulness or awareness, then everything, every action, every moment, every situation can be regarded as an occasion of practice. I want to expand this idea into another field.

For some time, I have been developing a practice (usage 1, and aspiring to be 3) of treating disruptions to normal life as ‘practice’ (usage 2, and aspiring to be 3) for a future affected by climate change and peak oil (by the way: the US military has joined the ranks of those of us concerned about peak oil). Assuming that our governments aren’t going to take sufficient action, sufficiently quickly, we are all going to face failures of our infrastructure and interruptions to our normal supplies of energy, food, goods and services. So, when temporary glitches cause this to happen now, treat it as practice: (2) a rehearsal (get used to the idea, get used to handling it and being resourceful); and (3) a personal mental discipline leading to equanimity in the face of irritations or worse.

There are many opportunities for this kind of practice. When my nearest local Post Office was closed (in the recent spate of closures) it caused considerable inconvenience. I had done my bit in the campaign to keep it open, but that failed as we knew it would (the ‘consultation’ was a sham), and I had written various letters in protest – this isn’t in any way an argument for passivity or political/community disengagement. But when it happened, I thought: ok, lots of things are going to close or disappear, or reduce the service offered – treat this as practice.

More recently, I fell and fractured my wrist, which means I’ve had several weeks being unable to drive (yes, I know I shouldn’t be driving at all, and I minimise it and use public transport wherever possible – but the state of public transport where I live means that not all things are possible). I’ve discovered bus routes I didn’t know existed and, consequently, I’ve discovered that some things I thought I had to do by car can, in fact, be done by bus, though they take three or four times as long and are much less convenient – treat this as practice. This is practice for many things: I may at some point in the future become permanently unable to drive for some reason; I hope to be able to give up my car completely when I retire from being employed; the price, or shortage, of fuel will at some point make driving absurd anyway (even more absurd, if that's possible, than it is now in the face of climate change).

And of course the really big one has been the Icelandic volcano. We can’t fly! Treat it as practice! When the volcano erupted I had recently returned from Bruges (where I fractured my wrist) via Eurostar, so was very glad to get home before the trains got filled up with desperate ex-air-passengers. As the no-fly period was extended, spokespeople for the airlines were saying that the real longer-term worry was that people might conclude that going abroad by air was too risky, and that overall flying might decrease. ‘Yes!’, I thought, ‘Result!’. And, more generally: treat this as practice. Let’s all start assuming that we can’t just assume that we can fly anywhere whenever we want to.

I know this is relatively easy for me – I haven’t been in an aeroplane since 1985 (long haul) and 1987-ish (short haul) – I don’t have a life that depends on flying, I don’t have family living abroad and very few of my friends live outside western Europe. But even if you do have a life that depends on flying, do have family living abroad, and do have friends all over the world, you can’t assume that you will always be able to jump on a cheap flight to see them. This is going to change, either gradually or, more likely, suddenly. It could be fuel prices that do it; or fuel shortages; or another, bigger and more dangerous volcano. Treat this one as practice – and of you weren’t personally caught up in it, treat it as a thought-experiment for practice.

As it turns out, there weren’t food shortages (except, I gather, prepared pineapple chunks from Ghana unavailable in Waitrose!), but if the problem had gone on for longer, there would have been. This is a wake-up call about food security, both in terms of growing-our-own at home, and also in relation to British agriculture. However, even with this short interruption to air-freight, there were farmers in Kenya losing money they can’t afford by having to throw away roses and green beans, among other crops. So our dependence on air-freight causes insecurity not only for the final consumers of produce, but also for everyone along the supply chain. In a short opinion piece in The Guardian, Rosie Boycott (‘From ashes to radishes’) used the incident to urge us to grow-our-own.

Peter Preston (‘Smiling in the face of ash’) urged a more prosaic version of ‘treat it all as practice’: "smile, whistle and hope for the best . . . muddling through with a grin . . . shrugging at a world we can’t control". And a theologian friend sent me this: “The air-travelling public is encountering all the dissonance that comes, as Moltmann pointed out, when our conviction that our life can be planned comes up against the evidence that it can't.” 

George Monbiot devoted one of his weekly columns to the effects of the ash cloud  and wrote,
"Complex, connected societies are more resilient than simple ones – up to a point. . . But beyond a certain level, connectivity becomes a hazard. The longer and more complex the lines of communication and the more dependent we become on production and business elsewhere, the greater the potential for disruption. . . . We have several such vulnerabilities. The most catastrophic would be an unexpected coronal mass ejection  – a solar storm – which causes a surge of direct current down our electricity grids, taking out the transformers. It could happen in seconds; the damage and collapse would take years to reverse, if we ever recovered. We would soon become aware of our dependence on electricity: an asset which, like oxygen, we notice only when it fails. . . an event like this would knacker most of the systems which keep us alive. It would take out water treatment plants and pumping stations. It would paralyse oil pumping and delivery, which would quickly bring down food supplies. It would clobber hospitals, financial systems and just about every kind of business – even the manufacturers of candles and paraffin lamps. Emergency generators would function only until the oil ran out. Burnt-out transformers cannot be repaired; they must be replaced. Over the past year I've sent freedom of information requests to electricity transmitters and distributors, asking them what contingency plans they have made, and whether they have stockpiled transformers to replace any destroyed by a solar storm. I haven't got to the end of it yet, but the early results suggest that they haven't.”
This (and the rest of his article) points us to the ‘rehearsal’ aspect of ‘practice’ – we need to be prepared, we need to be practised; and the practice we need is spiritual, psychological, emotional, and very, very practical. 

And, specifically for Britain at the moment, whatever kind of government we end up with at the end of this week is going to have to take drastic action to deal with the country's financial deficit - see Madeleine Bunting's gloomy-realistic assessment, 3 days before the polls. The party leaders have only told us a fraction of the truth about this, and public services will be severely affected - treat it as practice, while staying politically engaged.
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The next Good Lives weekend (‘ . . . because we can’t eat money’) will address some of the issues about access to resources raised in this article. 

1 comment:

  1. A quick note to non-UK readers of this blog: I'm delighted to have readers around the world, and really pleased when you want to comment - but please post your comments in English! Thanks.