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KNOWING vs. BELIEVING

A conversation is recounted in the book # Shantaram  in which the character, Khaderbhai, says: “There is no such thing as believing in #G...

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Saturday, 24 October 2015

TAKING A STAND FOR THEMSELVES: #FeesMustFall

This past week has brought with it #student #protests against #tertiary #education fee hikes, the likes of which commentators say South Africa hasn't seen since the Soweto riots of #1976. My son Stefan, himself a student, suggested that protesting has become the only way anyone can get heard in this country. That certainly seems to be the trend.

In our day (admittedly some years ago), when 90% of us had sufficiently affluent parents to help us through university, the only thing we could think of against which to protest was the apartheid system of the day. The police were more pragmatic then, thrashing those of the students whom they could catch with sjamboks (a South African whip) and detaining the student leaders indefinitely without trial under the various security laws in force at the time. However, the thing with protesting white students in the 1970's and 1980's is that, for the most part, they weren't directly adversely affected by apartheid.

Today, the benefactors of our protests are faced with their own direct challenges: How do they pay for the tertiary education which offers the hope of escaping from the cycle of poverty in which their parents and grandparents found themselves? Truly, for many students coming from homes where their parents are cleaners and manual labourers, they simply have no access to funds, but see for themselves a way out of the poverty trap by getting a decent education. This has been an issue for children looking for an uplifting future ever since apartheid crumbled in 1994 under a promise by the new ANC government of free education. Some basic education is now free, but that's it.

Nearly 40 years after Soweto, students have once again courageously and decisively taken a stand for themselves. In the context of good old fashioned police brutality against unarmed students - rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades - yesterday the ANC Government finally woke up, capitulated and agreed that there would be no fee increase for the 2016 academic year. Ironically, this morning on the radio I heard an ANC spokesman disingenuously saying on the radio that they had always supported the students' call for a zero fee increase! Quite frankly, the crisis arises because of the ANC Government's short-sightedness, failure to prioritise social issues properly and inability to contain corruption and abuse of public spending.  Now they have only themselves to blame for the quandary in which they find themselves: how to find the money to keep the tertiary education institutions going.

What's to be learned? 
  • If you want something badly enough, take a stand for yourself and make a noise
  • When no one's hearing for you, keep raising the volume of the noise until it is uncomfortably loud for the decision-makers
  • Understand that you are a decision-maker in your own future: only you can make it happen
  • Making it happen can require sacrifice (which word interestingly stems from two Latin words meaning "to make holy")
  • The youth of our country - in fact all countries - know what they want and at some level will always demonstrate what the future holds for the country, because they are the future leaders
Having witnessed their leadership of the past week, I feel hopeful that South Africa will one day be in sensible hands.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

#MTB: THE THRILL-SEEKER'S MEDITATION

Last weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of riding the #BergandBush 2 day mountain bike (MTB) ride through the beautiful Winterton area, including a brutal climb over the famous Spioenkop mountain.

The Berg and Bush has just celebrated its 10th year as an MTB event and is truly one of the most thoughtfully organised and best MTB races on the South African calendar, with farmer Gary Green and his family working every year to make an impeccable event better and better. For one who does no other MTB racing whatsoever, this was my 6th Berg and Bush, a testimony to the regard in which I hold the race.

However, the point of my story is something different. It occurred to me over the weekend - in fact as I rode down the 13km breath-taking descent from Spioenkop - why it is that I so love riding my MTB. 

There is always an element of the risk of falling off a MTB, which I guess is why adrenalin seeking thrill-seekers with partially reduced frontal lobes can scream downhill with no regard for personal safety. That's not me: although I enjoy the excitement of doing something a bit risky, I still prefer not to push the envelope beyond my comfort zone. I'm more of descender intent on self-preservation. 

Whichever way you do it, however, one thing is for sure. If you are not 100% focussed in each moment on where your front wheel is going next, inevitably you will find yourself making involuntary contact with mother Earth. And for so long as you are focussed on your path, there is simply no room for extraneous thoughts and distractions.

Isn't that more or less what Buddhist (and other) meditation is about? Staying present and focussed in the moment, following your path (preferably a path of righteousness), avoiding obstacles, completely engaging with your surroundings and feeling joyful about what you are doing?

Sure, MTB has some tough elements about it. Gasping for air up Spioenkop was a good example. We don't necessarily enjoy the challenges that Life delivers us at the time when we are going through them, but if we are able to transcend them successfully and allow them to lead us to the next step in our lives, then there is a gratitude we can feel for those challenges.

You don't have to have a MTB to feel joy and gratitude, but it sure helps.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

WHAT I WASN'T TAUGHT AT SCHOOL

A couple of weeks ago our 40th High School reunion took place in Johannesburg at a St Stithians College which is virtually unrecognisable from that which I left so long ago. I have to say that a number of my old classmates (I guess I have to include myself in that grouping) were also not terribly recognisable, but somehow or other for the most part we could still connect and see the essence of the people we were in the 1970's.

Despite having learnt at school all about the reproductive cycle of the schistosoma haematobium, Virgil's Aeneid (in Latin), good stuff in algebra and geometry which I have never used, the adventures of an Afrikaans man called Bart Nel and the woes of Hamlet, it came to me quite clearly on Friday how little I actually learnt at school and how much we get from the informal lessons which Life has to offer.

Some of the things that I was never taught, but have nonetheless had to teach myself as best I could include:
  • How to fall in love, stay in love and be lovable
  • How to keep contributing to a relationship to ensure it survives and thrives
  • How to stay committed to a relationship when it's going through tough times
  • How to deal with disasters when the Life I think I know starts crumbling around me
  • How to set boundaries and be firm with others without being unkind
  • How to persevere against the odds
  • How to deal with resentment
  • How to engage at a heart (rather than head) level with others
  • How to bring up children to be the best they can be when they go out into the world
  • How to be no more nor less than I am, but just to be my authentic self
  • How to find Life's gifts which are so well hidden in times of adversity
  • How to access my creative self when a part of me is encouraging me to dumb down and just do what I've always done
  • How not to run away from trouble 
Oh yes, and how to read a balance sheet!

And so much more. School sets some solid foundations, and for those I am grateful. However, quite frankly, with the exception of the balance sheet, the school system couldn't teach most of the above, even if it wanted to.  Ultimately our greatest learning experience is derived from the lives we each live and all of Life's deliveries, whether or not we ask for, want or like them and how we choose to deal with them.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

THE ART OF GROWING OLDER (GRACIOUSLY)

On the eve of yet another birthday, it's time to confess that I don't think I'm getting older very graciously. No matter how often I get told how distinguished grey hair looks, I remain a fan of the glossy dark mop I used to have. Besides which, what does that platitude mean? Who wants to look distinguished? Isn't that the same as poncy? Distinguished from what? Those poor folk who haven't yet experienced the joy of grey hair?

There is also something infuriating and frustrating about not being able to do physically what I used to, but instead being prone to the physical frailties occasionally visited upon me. Instead of being out rowing or canoeing up I storm, as I write I find myself on my bed with a buggered back. I must say that I quite liked the indestructible warrior of yore. Then of course im not sure that I really appreciate the growing network on my face of smile, frown and worry-lines. These apparently give one character. Bring back the character-less smooth face, I say. Where rising at 4.30am for a run or ride used to be a daily joy, rising nowadays an hour later to go to work has become something of a chore.

So, with that whinge-fest out of the way, the true question is: what's this all about? My friend and mentor, Ann McMaster, reminded me a few weeks ago what a hiding to nothing we are on if we keep comparing ourselves with others. I didn't think that I do that, but clearly at some sub-conscious level I do at least keep comparing myself with Andrew Jr, the 20-something year old Adonis that I must have thought I was (in all my youthful arrogance).

The truth, however, is that whilst I may have slowed down a bit physically, I'm fundamentally the same human being I always was: inherently kind, loving, caring and so on. Nothing has changed in that sense. However,  the massive advantage I now have over Andrew Jr. is the life learning and experience for which I would have given my eye teeth in my 20's. That's the trade off between youth and middle age, and so long as I can tap into that life experience and all that goes with it, I can be truly grateful at a spiritual and emotional level for my advancing years. In that sense I'm perfect, just as I am.

Besides which, I do love birthdays.