Tara Brach and Forgiveness

One of the overhangs of my Catholic upbringing is my propensity to forgive people.

Jesus is famously about forgiveness. (Unless you’re gay. In which case, according to many Christian doctrines, you’re going to burn in a lake of fire. And people wonder why I don’t ascribe to Catholic doctrine any more…)

Someone recently said that it was possible for people to push her too far; she would be in a place where forgiveness was not possible.

I’ve always felt that forgiveness is possible, and it should be possible. But outside of the teachings of Jesus, I didn’t have a hook.

In this lecture by Tara Brach, she outlines the reasons for forgiveness. Often, the person we first need to forgive is ourselves. Then outward to other people. Releasing blame and allowing ourselves to forgive another also allows the healing to begin for ourselves.

One important line that I took away: forgiveness of an action does not mean that we condone the action. We recognise that someone may be suffering, and in turn has directed suffering towards ourselves.

A Pot Full Of Memory

Arthur Koestler, the Dada movement, and James Joyce believed that creativity can be found in taking old art and remixing in new and interesting ways. How this remixing happens could be as deliberate as direct editing, or as random as pulling words of a cut-up manuscript from a hat.

I found remixed creativity in a transcription service.

I have a bad habit of not writing out scripts for shows before I perform them. Instead, I write down the major topics I want to cover, and kind of make-it-up-as-I-go-along while I’m on stage. When I’m not constricted by a pre-written script, I have a theory that I ad-lib ideas, jokes, and other turn of phrases.

(I called this a bad habit, as it also means I’m continually thinking ahead during the first two or three performances. I’m not always connecting to the audience as my mind is otherwise occupied. I’m intending to makes a complete script before my next performance, and many rehearsals!)

I recently made use of a transcription service to write out the script of my stage show “Rough Science: LIFE.” I didn’t envy the task that the transcriber faced; I pulled the audio from a video of the show, so the sound isn’t always clear. For the most part the finished transcript is very accurate, though littered with a number of sections where I’ve gabbled, been muffled, or I’ve used a not-so-common turn of phrase. The poor, faceless transcriber has done their best, yet some of these moments have clearly been befuddling.

For instance, according to the transcript, I said to an audience member: “Nick. Hi, Nick. You’ve got bunny ears.”

At another point, I apparently got a touch of Tourette’s:

Okay, okay. Well, eventually scratch that one off. Okay. Okay. No writing. Don’t write the equipment. Okay, there we you go. Any representatives of the museum here? Oh, bug off.

More strange interactions with the audience:

Male Speaker: Just now little seekers. Okay.

Speaker 4: Thank you, sir.

And the odd moment of poetry. Instead of “an apocryphal memory”, the transcriber heard “a pot full of memory.” I think I’ll keep that one.

Erich Fromm and the hill that was

I do like owning a lot of books. When friends come over and we get discussing novels, I end up throwing a few in their direction to take away and read. I have a small shelf of “absolutely must keep”, while the rest (several bookcases) are in flux. Currently my library is at about 50/50, which is to say around half of them I’ve read. I’ve instituted a new scheme with the unread books: They have until the end of the year to demonstrate their worth, or I’ll be passing them on.

To this end I picked up “To Have or To Be?” by Erich Fromm from my shelf of “To Be Read”. This ended up in my library as a gift from a friend, which in turn was a gift to her. When I’ve finished it, I’ll pass it on.

The theme of the book instantly resonates. But today I want to share this line from the introduction, which just happens to be something I’ve been thinking about recently:

…we have tried to solve out existential problem by giving up the Messianic vision of harmony between humankind and nature by conquering nature, by transforming it to our own purposes until the conquest has become more and more equivalent to destruction.

Near where my parents live is a block of land that for the last five years has been a rolling hill covered in grass. It is now up for development, and I’ve watched it over the last few months be heavily excavated. When I saw it a few days ago, the hill had been transformed. It was stepped, such that houses could be built on it. The steps had been shored up with stone walls, and soon eveless suburban boxes will roll off the developers’ blueprints and onto the land.

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Rather making a house to suit the land, the developer wants to change the land to suit the house. I’m not a builder, but I do wonder what the lifespan of a house is that has been built on a newly disturbed hill, sliced apart because its gradient didn’t suit.

What would happen instead if we asked the hill what sort of house would it prefer to be built on it? What sort of shift in our psyche would be achieved (or be needed) to change our dwellings to suit the land, rather than shape the land to suit our dwellings?

Mindfulness and the God-shaped hole

People who know me well will have heard me speak of the God-Shaped hole. Many years ago when I eased my way out of the Catholic system, I discovered that there was still in my mind all of the wiring around belief and worship with nothing specific to believe or worship. Into the God-shaped hole might fall other things that I might for a time start to worship like God: girlfriends, the concept of breakfast, Batman.

I have been meditating regularly every day, using guided meditations by Stephan Pende Wormland, Sam Harris, and Tara Brach. The common thread from these is understanding and seeing thoughts as arising in my mind, but not being drawn into the story behind them.

The thought of a universal arbiter watching me and noting my actions in a huge ledger which is compared to a massive tome of rules, has been a pervasive and automatic response in my mind. Into that God-shaped hole fall people around me, and I become sure of two things: they are judging me, and it matters. Logically I know instead that it is possible they are judging me, and either way it really doesn’t matter.

Mindfulness is allowing me to unlearn the automatic thought of being judged, and highlight the automatic thought when it arises, and I can see it for what it is rather than be drawn into its story. The mental infrastructure around the God-shaped hole is being unwound.


About this time ten years ago I travelled for a week in Japan. Towards the end of my stay, I took a shinkansen south from Tokyo to Hiroshima. On the way I passed the time memorising the kanji of the cities the train passed through. I hadn’t really appreciated before the trip just how Japanese writing worked, with each character taking a specific syllable sound, and once memorised, I began to see them repeated in other words.

東京 To-kyo
京都 Kyo-to
大阪 Osa-ka
広島 Hiro-shima

I was travelling to Hiroshima in order to see the peace park that had been constructed after it was bombed in 1945. I had been told the story of Sadako (貞子) and the one thousand paper cranes when I was in grade 6, and learned how to fold an origami crane. Some time later while at university, I wrote a philosophy of science piece about the Little Boy bomb in the moment it was suspended above Hiroshima and below the Enola Gay, using actor-network theory to explore the stories that rolled from it.

When I told people that I was going to/had been to visit Hiroshima, the first thing they ask was “Isn’t it radioactive?” I’ve always thought that it was the bombing of the city that changed the way we approached the word “radioactive.” Before this, radioactive material were seen as wonder stuff, with health spas advertising their health-giving waters that contained traces of radium. After the bomb, and when Time magazine sent in a photographer to record the destruction, the world saw effect the demon touch of high density gamma rays could have on concrete, wood, and flesh.

The residual radioactive material in and around Hiroshima today is very minimal. The mass of uranium used in the Little Boy was 64kg, which would amount to a volume a bit less than a soccer ball (enriched uranium is very dense stuff). When the bomb exploded, a little of it was converted to energy, while the rest was scatter over the city and surrounding country. When I was there, this radioactive fallout that killed many of the survivors with strange varieties of cancers had long since been diluted by 60 years worth of time.

I had spent the afternoon in the peace park, visiting the museum, reading and seeing stories of individual survivors of the blast, with word rolling around my mind like searing, flesh, hanging, rags, heat, blast, crying, wreckage, rubble, burning, fire, blaze, melting. I went and stood on the hypo-centre of the bomb, and looked up, imagining a human-made sun blooming above my head. I made a paper crane and left it in the park.

To clear my mind I walked a block away into a mall, and into Japanese normality. Teenagers were hanging in groups laughing and talking to each other. Shoppers hurried between stores, carrying bags home in the evening peak hour. Music played. It was a summer night in a city.

Having reached my cultural threshold, I bought McDonald’s, and a bottle of saki. Walking back to my hotel, I walked over a bridge where guitar players were singing covers of Elvis. That night, I got drunk, ate maccas, and fell asleep watching a Korean horror movie.

Some time later, in London, I bought a folio of atomic test explosion photos by Michael Light off a remainders table for two pounds.

Daily Risk Generator

The school that author John Marsden founded, Candlebark, (possibly) has a motto: “Take care, take risks.”

(Which, incidentally, because things sound better when said in Latin, is: “Providendum est. Assumam extrema temptaturum.”)

I wonder how someone, who has learned to live without taking risks, can learn risky behaviour?

Ultimately, I guess, the object is to explore an outcome-space. I like to think of it like the decision tree of an adventure game. Sometimes, to get to those outcomes over there you might need to step off the edge of a cliff. Or pick up a snake. Or run with scissors. Carefully.

So maybe a lists of daily challenges for someone to explore perceived risk, and learn not to fear risky behaviour?

Try this: Roll a die. Or hit this random number generator.

Now use that number to define your risk:

1. Climb a tree.
2. In a public space, spin on the spot 10 times.
3. Ask a stranger for their phone number.
4. In a public space, stand in the Karate Kid “Crane” pose for 5 seconds.
5. Lock eyes with a stranger. (If they question you, tell them why you’re doing it, and challenge them to take a risk.)
6. In a public space, sing the theme to “Astro Boy”. (Lyrics.)

Take the risk before the day’s end. (And take care!)

Got suggestions for daily risks? Share them in the comments!

The Value of Giving Up

I passed a man in an alley who was standing in front of a brick wall, slowly beating his head against it. His forehead was bloody, and it was clear he was in lots of pain.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

*thump* “I need to get through this wall,” he told me. *thump*

“Dude! You’re hurting yourself!” I said.

*thump* “I know.” *thump* “But I mustn’t-” *thump* “-give up.” *thump*



I’ve grown up with the mantra of “don’t give up” and it works really well for many situations. Sometimes I have needed to hold course and endure.

And sometimes I’ve found myself in a cul-de-sac, and I’ve worked and worked and worked, and haven’t moved. And in those times I needed to stop, and climb out.

This has been true for personal relationships and professional jobs. Enduring has been causing me more harm than walking away.

The question is: how do I recognise the difference between the thing I should endure and the thing I need to give up?

Sometimes, it’s not a matter of giving up entirely. Sometimes, I might just need to rethink my approach.

Recognise that I might be using my head the wrong way to get through a brick wall.


I saw Vincent Van Gogh today. He was driving a car, but I still recognised him from his red hair and red beard. He was wearing black-framed glasses, which suited him, but I imagine he only needs to wear while driving. Traffic police, if they ever had cause to pulling him over, might notice this while mispronouncing his surname. Slightly more educated police end up calling him (still incorrectly) Van Go, which Vincent might chuckle at, thinking that it would make a nice name for a courier company, or a mechanic specialising in Ford Transits.

Young Louis Pasteur

I think this story is apocryphal, like the tale of the monk running from Brie to Camembert and took the secret of cheesemaking with him. I like the idea of Young Louis Pasteur…a bit like Young Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps he could hunt vampires in his spare time.

Learn her cycle


A few days ago an Instagrammer called rapikaur_ uploaded a series of photos on Instagram on the theme of her menstrual cycle. Instagram took them down. She put them up again. They removed them again. Internet outrage ensued, and Instagram finally relented with an apology.

During this there was also a large amount of outrage against the photos, most of which seemed to be some version of “ooh, yuk.”

I believe that this is a learned societal taboo, and we can change this attitude. Menstruation is something that one-half of the population has to deal with on a near-monthly basis. For a lot of guys in relationships, the menstrual cycle is A Thing That Happens To Her. Anything more than this, and guys run off with their fingers in their ears singing “Ta-La-La.”

Far be it from me to lecture other men about knowing someone’s fertility cycle, I instead want to present a challenge. And it’s all about information and communication.

When I was younger, I was vaguely aware of what girls around me were going through during ‘their period’, but only just. The first lot of sex ed at school was when I was twelve, and consisted of a general FAQ told to the whole class, followed by splitting girls and guys into two separate groups so that we can watch videos about specific (and secret) things happening to our discrete gender.

(This was a Catholic education. It included the dichotomy of “Yes, God says that condoms are evil, but please use a condom.” The Authority Of The Church was rendered toothless by puberty.)

To tell the truth, there was plenty we thought we knew as teenaged boys at school; making jokes about it being so-and-so’s time of the month, and the time we made a huge deal out of finding a tampon in the boy’s toilets.

I was well into my twenties and the menstrual cycle was still a complete mystery to me. And I’m sure it is to many guys out there.

To demystify it, I have a challenge for every guy who is in a committed relationship: learn her cycle.

Step one: get permission. Please don’t start collecting information about her body without her knowledge. So at least start a conversation. “I want to learn more about your cycle,” is a good start.

Second: if you don’t have a diary, get one. If you do have a diary or online calendar or something, then make a mark or entry on the first day of her period, which is to say, the first day the bleeding starts. Be discreet with this mark. The last thing you want to be doing is writing in big bold red lettering “THE FIRST DAY OF HER PERIOD”. In my experience, diaries tend not to be the bastions of privacy that we might like to think they are, so emblazoning it so that other people can read it at a distance is the height of misusing the information given to you in confidence. All you need is a mark, something that you know the meaning of. An asterix, smiley face, the letter p. Whatever works for you.

And that’s all it is. Make a mark in your diary for first day of the every period.

The rest you can figure out from this information: Firstly, just how long your beloved’s cycle actually is. Most average out at about 28 to 30 days. Some might be longer, like 35 days. Others might be much shorter, around 25 days. Remember, deviating from the societal mean is to be expected; every body is different!

Now you can also determining ovulation. The rule of thumb is about halfway between periods, but again it’s different for different people. For a few days she experiences lots of great hormones that can make sex is intensely desirable. It is also when she is at her most fertile, so this is the time to be trying for babies, or being really careful with your own emissions. If you don’t want to get her pregnant, then use a condom (remember, they’re only 98% effective.) Also be aware that your sperm can survive for some time inside her. I have read sources that say sperm can live up to five days inside the female body. I’ve read other sources that say ten. The short of it is that unprotected sex before ovulation can lead to pregnancy. This is both you and your partner’s responsibility, and being aware of her cycle is a great way to start that conversation.


I’ve always thought that both people should own the sexual health of a partnership, and that’s includes the crampy, difficult times. In my experience, women experience different levels of pain. Some women just take few pain killers and walk out into the day. Others are struck hard with gut-wrenching agony. As guys, there is nothing biologically equivalent that we experience. Be at the ready with hotwater bottles, cuddles, a warm hand on her belly, and compassion.

And yes, you can have sex during this time. There’s some research (and plenty of anecdotal evidence) that says that period pain is lessened by orgasms and vaginal stimulation. If you’re squeamish about the blood, remember there’s plenty of other fluids involved in sex; this is just one more. Put down a towel. You can have a shower later.

Information and communication. This mix isn’t going to work for all couples, but do start a conversation. Find out what works for you. At very least, don’t be deliberately ignorant of her cycle.