The right amount of wine

For many years I enjoyed half a bottle of wine with my evening meal. I think that’s roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol my parents consumed while I was growing up, though they drank beer rather than wine.

Although I imagine it’s more than most of my contemporaries, I have been comfortable with that amount because I’ve never exceeded it, at least not regularly. My reasoning was that if I had more than half a bottle one night, I’d be left with less than half the next.

I know it’s always good to monitor our drug and alcohol consumption, even if it’s firmly under control. So when I received my regular blood test results about six months ago, I asked the GP if he could see signs of excess alcohol consumption.

He said no. I asked the same of my nutritionist, and she agreed.

They probably recognise the mental health benefit of drinking a modest amount of alcohol each day, and that half a bottle a day is less than what most problem drinkers consume.

Nevertheless I continued to question the half bottle. Aside from the cost - about $10 over two evenings - drinking that amount meant that my head was not clear enough for me to do any serious reading after dinner. I thought that I would like to be able to read more at that time of day.

So I decided to have a quarter of a bottle a day instead of half a bottle. That worked in that I did not notice any loss of enjoyment of the wine and I had a clearer head afterwards.

Then a few weeks later the National Health and Medical Research Council released its updated guidelines. They suggested that 10 standard drinks each week is the most we should consume if we want to reduce our risk of harm from alcohol. A standard drink is 100ml of wine - half a glass, or a little more than an eighth of a bottle.

I decided that I would try keeping to one standard drink each day. This is less than the 1.4 standard drinks allowed but it assumes I will have more when I go out.

So far it has worked, and arguably my enjoyment has increased because I’m learning to savour wine rather than drink it.

Have an evidence-based Christmas!

A week or two ago my neighbours across the street erected an inflatable decoration with the greeting 'Have a Magical Christmas!'

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I found the emphasis on magic more thought provoking than most Christmas or holiday greeting sentiments.

It affirms this as the 'silly season', suggesting that Christmas is rightfully a time to suspend our usual behaviours in order to give momentary credence to irrationality and wishful thinking.

Magic is based on illusion rather than evidence. We are briefly putting ourselves under its spell so that we can recharge the batteries of our rationality.

It is important that magic does not become the year-round norm for us - as it is for some, including leaders of some of the most powerful nation states.

When my neighbours' greeting went up, I was pleased to see the way they were highlighting the need for our annual refocus so that we can better confront the serious challenges before us.

But circumstances changed quickly and now Sydney's silly season must be suspended until the virus can be brought under control. The message has to be negated. Don't have a Magical Christmas.

Whether or how effectively the virus is brought under control is entirely dependent upon our ability to suspend silliness and keep our minds tuned and eyes open to the evidence. Instead of letting down our guard, we're to wear masks and accept mandatory mask wearing if it is decreed.

It is of course unfortunate that the deliberate emptiness of the 'silly' season is routinely conflated with what Christmas is intended to celebrate. That is the Christian believers' moment of hope for a better world that is real. Arguably this hope is something that rationality depends upon but can't itself deliver.

The Sunday Obligation lives on for a diminishing minority of Catholics

When I was growing up, practising Catholics were very aware of the requirement to attend Mass on Sundays and certain feast days that were designated 'Holy Days of Obligation'.

In a society that was still to some extent sectarian, it did not seem fair that we Catholics were compelled to go to church while Protestants were free to choose. But the Sunday Obligation was a loathsome marker of Catholic identity that you did not question.

I hated having to go to Mass and would often go by myself to an early mass, to get it over with, so that I could enjoy the rest of my Sunday.

To be fair, Sunday mass had some positives. These included its music and theatre, and the engaging craft of some of the priests. But for me, all of this was negated by the Obligation.

When I reached adulthood and developed a broader and quite significant appreciation of certain aspects of the Catholic faith, I grew out of my cultural need to honour the Sunday Obligation.

Indeed, on Sunday mornings to this day, I experience a mild sense of euphoria in being free from its yoke. I would even suggest that this signifies that I suffered from a form of PTSD associated with the Obligation.

During the pandemic, the Sunday Obligation has of course suffered something of a blow, with church authorities having to endorse the state's ban on mass attendance.

I'd hoped that this might have had a lasting effect post-pandemic, with Catholics taking responsibility for deciding on their mass attendance in general, in the way that all citizens are now taking decisions about how to act appropriately in social gatherings.

But last week, Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher put paid to this in his pastoral letter 'Come Home to Mass!' He said:

'I rescind my decree of 20 March 2020 dispensing the faithful of Sydney from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and the Holy Days of Christmas and the Assumption. Under canon 1247 attendance at Mass on those days is now obligatory once again.'

Leaving the Sunday Obligation in its state of being cast aside might have usefully helped Catholic church leaders demonstrate humility in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

The need for this arises from the Royal Commission finding that power dynamics in institutional cultures allowed sexual abuse to flourish. But Archbishop Fisher's pastoral letter - and a similar one from the Archbishop of Hobart - has shown that they are determined to exercise a powerful grip on the lives of the faithful.

The good news is that they are fighting a losing battle, with an increasing 90 per cent majority of Catholics rejecting the Sunday Obligation.

Tattoos that heal the scars of war

On the train to Canberra yesterday, I read a newspaper review of the Ink in the Lines tattooed war veterans exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.

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I've avoided visiting the War Memorial because expert commentary I've followed depicts it as a propaganda tool in the culture wars. But I decided to see this exhibition because it seemed different. And it was.

Its focus was on veterans getting 'inked' as a way of dealing with the trauma of war, including killing and witnessing the killing of comrades.

That trauma is now referred to as PTSD, but it was originally labelled 'shell shock'. I remember my mother explaining that her father had experienced shell shock after serving in the First World War.

To me it explained why my grandfather always seemed distant, and it occurred to me that this must have had an effect on his style of parenting. I'm sure this is not uncommon.

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As depicted in the exhibition, tattoos are able to tell the stories that veterans keep to themselves because they are too painful to verbalise. This is how Elaine put it:

'A transformation’s just happened after the tattoo got put on, and it’s like an armour for me to say, "Wow. There is life after. You can recover. You just got to reach out and ask for help."'

I've never thought about getting a tattoo because it's not something that those of my generation and social grouping do. That is unlikely to change. But when I consider the scars of my years of institutional living, I can see how tattoos can help with the healing.

How not to help people who seem to be struggling

A few months ago somebody complimented me on my positivity. But I also remember another person earlier criticising me for my positivity, insisting that I didn't know what it was like to be in the dark place he was.

He rejected my constructive and rational solutions to his lamentable situation.

'You're not helping', he told me.

'How do I help?', I wondered.

Last week I read an article in The Independent in which a psychologist recalls a book that influenced her practice.

The book's author Dr Irvin Yalom was always keen to avoid diagnosis, which he argued was useful only for 'accessing a particular service'.

'You have to tailor your treatment plan to fit the actual person in front of you'.

That reminded me of the approach of the elocution teacher I had as a ten year old. I was terrible at memorising poems to recite, and I rebelled. She got me to write stories instead, and I excelled.

If her brief was to prepare me to win voice-speaking prizes at eisteddfods, she would have failed. Instead she considered it more important to help me to find my creative voice.

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Last week I also read an interview with American talk show host Trevor Noah, who has developed rapport with a white homeless man who sleeps near his TV studio.

'I remember once, when I first got here, I felt guilty. I was like, "Hey, man, can we do anything?" He said, "No…I'm fine living the way I live".'

Moreover the man challenged Noah's world view: 'He's homeless, but he'll say super-racist or sexist shit to my employees, like the women.'

'It's a really interesting dynamic. In the rules of wokeness, I don't know how it works. I don't know what the rules are.'

Noah's instinct was to immediately call out the man's racism and sexism. But he came to realise it was smarter to first understand it.

Listening to our body

Yesterday somebody I was talking to posed an important question for self-reflection: What do I find calming?

Then last night I visited a tantric masseur's blog that I discovered two years ago, about the same time as I considered the suggestion of a friend that we 'listen to our body'.

She was referring to diet, but the principle also applies to physical exercise, as well as attempts to avoid the over-thinking that can undermine our calm, and much more.

The tantric masseur is a young Frenchman named Florian. He presents himself as a life coach focusing on intuition and 'emotional presence'.

I guess intuition makes him some kind of clairvoyant, and the primacy of emotion is archetypically French. His approach is non evidence-based, unashamedly so. It's intended, as he says, to 'complement ... actual therapy'.

His English and French websites are different. On the English he talks about 'Shadow Work' allowing us to 'understand and integrate the mechanic of our emotions, our [troublesome] subconscious behaviors which repeat themselves in our life'.

Meanwhile on the French, he explains his role as a masseur: 'As I lay my hands on your body, I feel your blockages'.

He goes on to discuss the reality of 'corporal' expression and the need to listen to what our body is saying.

'Your body ... knows what it has to do. It knows [when] it needs to move, what it needs to put in order. It knows and it speaks to you, through pain, and through well-being'.

How to overcome the fear of failure

After I wrote that I'd been meditating, a relative reminded me of a previous discussion in which we both indicated we'd sworn off meditation after our earlier negative experiences of it. Mine involved a brutal power play by the novice master not long after I began my Jesuit training as an 18 year old.

After that, I always felt diminished when I attempted meditation. However in recent years I've developed the confidence to reassert myself pursuing various activities I'd struggled with earlier in life because of a power imbalance between myself and another person.

'Power imbalance' is used to describe the exploitation of one human being by another where the exploiter has significant power and influence over the exploited. It can involve the sexual gratification of clergy or politicians where the victim is a minor or a junior staff member.

But it can also be a more insidious assertion of the cultural dominance of all-powerful institutions.

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Catholic schools were infamous for having certain teachers who would try to get their students to make something of their lives by telling them they would never make something of their lives.

Some students took this as a defeat, while for others it was a challenge.

The Irish born actor Gabriel Byrne tells of overcoming the negative aspects of his Catholic schooling, to become an actor, in his memoir Walking With Ghosts. I read this last week, after getting to know him through watching all 106 episodes of the TV series In Treatment - in which he plays a therapist - as part of my lockdown routine earlier this year.

He writes about how he learned acting: 'Sealed off in a windowless room, I dare to take risks. To free myself from judgment. Battle with doubt and fear of failure. Marry movement to emotion. Be brave. Be still. Trust myself. This Sisyphean pushing of a rock up a hill; slowly gaining confidence.'

News junkies who meditate

As US president-elect Joe Biden's early disappointment was being reported on Wednesday afternoon, I was arriving at the home of friends at the other end of Newtown.

I mentioned the count and was stunned to hear them say they knew nothing about an election taking place. Moreover they did not seem to care when I expressed regret that the envisaged 'blue wave' had not materialised.

They explained that they did not follow the news, it seems not even on Facebook. I was meeting them for meditation, and implicit in their attitude to me was that I should calm down.

I asked how they informed themselves on how to vote when there's an election in Australia. One explained that he simply trusts and votes for the political party he favours. The other appeared unconcerned.

Earlier in the year, I was attending an event and got into discussion with two other participants. They both thought it was a good thing that Trump had got elected and shaken up the political establishment.

I was shocked but agreed that international politics could benefit from fresh blood, to hasten progress on urgent matters such as climate action. However I remained disturbed by the thought that the world's most powerful leader would leave the world a much more dangerous and less co-operative and gracious place to live when he eventually departed office.

On Wednesday evening I was in a Zoom reflection meeting. I mentioned my discovery earlier in the day that I had friends who appeared not to care about the world. Another participant, who portrayed himself as a fellow 'news junkie', was also carrying the weight of the expectation of another four years of Trump. He understood both my concern and my excess news consumption.

I sometimes joke about being a news junkie. But I do believe that we have to continually inform ourselves if we want a better world. However I have to confess that I too can cover my eyes when the news is too bad to bear. I remember doing this earlier this year when I heard that mining company Rio Tinto had blasted and destroyed the two ancient Aboriginal rock caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

Such events beg action. But not without the perspective that activities like meditation can bring, when they help to ground and protect us from excess. The paradox is that we have to close our eyes to meditate.

Saving money for good karma

On Saturday I caught a bus home from the city. Despite the rain, I got off at the stop before the one closest to my house, to ensure I paid the short journey fare and saved 68 cents. I got slightly wet but was pleased that I'd saved the money.

Yesterday I read journalist Rick Morton’s new short book On Money. It's an essay about social inequality, with reference to his own relationship with money, which could hardly be more different to mine.

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His friends tell him he's ‘terrible with money’ and he doesn't deny that. He writes that he didn’t own a car for a month after moving to Canberra for work. But instead of catching a bus to the office every day, he spent $600 on taxis. Later he mentions paying $75 for a valet to park his car while staying at a hotel in the Sydney CBD.

Morton grew up in poverty and was never taught to save or invest. He's only now earning enough to think beyond his own basic needs. He's reached the milestone of being able to help his still financially struggling mother by providing a few comforts including a $14,000 bathroom renovation.

I was brought up quite differently, in a middle class family where we learned to save and invest for the future. I believe that some degree of financial education is the key to avoiding falling into poverty or relative poverty. My father made sure that I understood about compound interest, and the difference between good and bad debt.

Good debt is absolutely essential for maximising our investment potential. However after paying off my house, I've decided that I prefer the karma that comes with having no debt.

Leaving aside the purchase of essentials and the occasional luxury - and supporting good causes - I've come to believe that money is meant for saving more than spending. Its purpose is to provide cross-generational security, and we are its stewards. In the way that we take care of the natural environment for those who come after us.

The bastards and other unwelcome visiting forces

This year one of my Melbourne University student nieces has been living in a house in Park Drive, Parkville, not far down the street from where I lived in 1980-81 while a student myself.

I have fond memories of my house companion Father Arnie Hogan, an Irish Jesuit moral theologian who'd made his life in Australia. In facing the demands of his religious superiors, he had a battle cry - Don't let the bastards get you down! - which he'd sometimes express in Latin to give it elevated status.

His sense of self-preservation came to mind a few days ago while I was listening to an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in the podcast On Being.

She urges us to have compassion for ourselves. She was speaking about 'equanimity', which is the capacity of our hearts to stand back and see what we're being put through, by others and ourselves. It's the ability to hold these things at a distance in an attempt to avoid having them cripple us. It's keeping in check 'visiting forces' such as greed, hatred, jealousy and fear. The bastards in our lives.

Over the years, my visiting forces have included Catholic guilt and other forms of self-loathing. Fortunately they have substantially fallen away and these days I care about different things, such as respecting the people around me, and the cultural and environmental heritage of the world I live in. These sound like motherhood statements but they're real for me.

If I want to, I can catch a glimpse of my past self-loathing by going to my bookshelf and picking up one of the diaries from my tormented teenage years. However I choose not to do that. Instead my meditation is on the equanimity of my life now, even if my 'inner city elite' state of privilege puts me out of touch with many of my fellow human beings.