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Today we took the Philosopher’s Walk, beside a narrow canal under the cherry blossoms. As the water flowed downhill, the individual cherry blossom petals fell into the water, becoming more and more numerous until the whole surface was covered in a carpet of pink.

Kerri and I looked at all these individual petals floating down, swirling here and there, bumped aside by koi leaping, snagged in branches, flowing over rocks in the shallow stream, but all moving on together, and we were charmed.

We walked on, pausing here and there, stopping for morning refreshments at a tiny restaurant, passing by and through temples, pathways, up and down hills, and eventually taking a train back to the city.

Here for another day before our wider travels continue, leading us back to Australia on the First of May.
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Wednesday nights are pretty thin cabwise. It's a good evening, ramping up to the weekend and not many cabs on the road, so there is money to be made.

But I pull out before seven, just as the rush subsides, gas the cab up, go home, change out of my uniform, tuck Kerri into Greg the Golf (I'm Greg's driver) and have a couple of hours at Gorman House in Braddon.

School of Practical Philosophy. There's six of us attending term two. We're learning how to be happy and fully living life in the moment. I know it sounds flakey, but honestly, I've been carefully monitoring the thing for any signs of cultishness or sprituality, and there's nothing along those lines. Religion is mentioned in general terms (the Christian tradition, the Eastern tradition and so on) but we don't get into anything supernatural.

Tonight's session was on the Platonic virtues. There was a typically dense and difficult quote from Plato, which we decoded successfully. Two sets of virtues: Divine (or cardinal):
1. Wisdom
2. Temperance
3. Justice
4. Courage

1. Health
2. Beauty
3. Strength
4. Wealth.

Not wealth in the Plutonic sense, but apparently something different I couldn't quite grasp. Perhaps riches in a different sense.

The key is that by aiming for high scores in the human virtues, we miss out on the divine, whereas if we focus on the divine virtues, the human ones follow naturally. For example, temperance is not abstaining from strong drink, but rather moderation. Don't take the last biscuit. Or the first. Something I have trouble with as a night cabbie, where meals are choppy and the temptation of fast food ever-present.

Tempering the desire to indulge yields benefits in all four human virtues. Fast food costs money, for example, and dropping the burger budget channels wealth into other directions. In the Plutonic sense, I guess. I've been putting my tip money into Kiva microloans, for example, rather than Kentucky Fried.

The charm for me has been the question, "What would a wise person do?" A question phrased differently in other traditions, but still familiar.* Given that we can't always pick up the phone to ask a wise person for advice on the immediate decisions in our lives, we have to find the answer within ourselves, which means that somewhere inside us, we are our own wise person.

This is important. We ARE wise. We generally know exactly what the wise people in our lives would do in any given circumstance. Would Gandhi eat the last cupcake? No, he'd give it to a hungry person. Along with a bowl of rice and beans.

All it takes is application of the four divine virtues, of which perhaps the hardest is courage. Courage to do what is right instead of what is convenient.

Likewise, we can always be happy. Our tutor gave the example of a wise man in captivity in the most desperate circumstances. If your world is four stone walls and a bowl of rice each day, there's no point in fretting for easy freedom and beauty. Find beauty, find happiness, find wisdom in the materials to hand. Make others happy - that's an easy one.

I listen to the quotes and the discussion, and participate and think on what is being said. I can glimpse where this is leading. I can see the processes at work in myself. I'm a better, happier, wiser person than I was six months ago. A year ago. Five years ago. A long way to go, of course, but I'm getting there. BookCrossing and cabdriving have been good beginnings, but the School of Practical Philosophy has helped immensely.

I spend a lot of the session deep in thought, looking at each insight, turning things around in my mind, looking at them like pieces in a jigsaw to see where they fit, and where they don't. The missing pieces of lessons and semesters ahead are dimly discerned. I can see where this is heading and I'm not uncomfortable with it.

If it didn't feel right, I wouldn't do it. If it depended on some hidden or supernatural resource, I wouldn't touch it. But there's no priesthood or chanting, no god in the sky or voice in a box. It's just us and the wise people of the past, present and future.

Afterwards, Kerri and I talk about the points the lesson raised as I drive her home. And then, I'm feeling rather exhausted from thinking, and the prospect of spending another six hours in the cab for the dregs of the night shift is less than tempting. I can put that time to better use. By sleeping, for a start.

– Pete

*I've got to wonder about how some people perceive Jesus, given their answers to the question, "What would Jesus do?" Firebomb an abortion clinic or beat up gay people, that's how Jesus would do it. Right.
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Or no time for one, anyway.

Let's see. Working backwards. Sunday was lazy day. Finished off taxi envelopes for week before last. Finished my Brodburger post and tweaked it here and there. Watched a rare bit of TV: Landline at lunchtime and Borderline Security and Air Ways after dinner. DD and I love shows about people getting hassled at the airport!

I booked a car for the Boston to Chicago leg of the April trip. We'll spend a night in the hostel that will be the base for the August Uncon, then pick up the car from the airport, drive to Montreal one day, Ottawa the next, Niagara on the Lake after that and then we have three nights in Chicago.

Some research, trying to get the best possible rates. Highly variable, depending on site. Looked at one place offering a 300C for about a thousand dollars for the week and resigned myself to something like a Taurus.

Then came good and I could get a 300C for about $300. Awesome!

I scrolled down a little more, and it said they had a Mustang convertible available. I checked and rechecked everything, and then booked it!

Subject to confirmation, the site says. Let's hope they don't try to fob me off with a Sebring. The price? £212 which works out to less than $400! Awesome, for a week of Mustang!

I also got some work done on planning for the 2011 Washington DC trip. My day driver and I are planning a roadtrip – it's all roadtrips nowadays – and I spent a lot of time looking at Route 66 pages.

Faddled around with the weekend papers. Spent an hour on the phone with a young lady in Brisbane – we used to live together in student accommodations at uni and after, and she's not short-winded on the phone.

Saturday involved getting up early after finishing early at about 0200. Lots of work around, but there was a philosophy activity at 1030. I spent a bit of time writing a post for about a political thing.

The philosophy activity involved labyrinths. These are things you walk along in a small compass, the paths recurving and spiralling in. Not a spiral - it's more complex than that - but you start on the outer, go to the middle and back out and it's a bloody long way to walk in a small space.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims who couldn't go crusading against the Saracens walked a labyrinth on their knees to make the total distance a bit at a time and show their piety.

God would give them new knees in heaven.

Anyway, there are labyrinths in the modern age. And websites. Thousands of them around the world. The Canberra one is here, just scroll to the end of Blackall Place. it's a kind of maze with a tree in the middle.

There's a community labyrinth on the back of Mount Ainslie, made out of branches and stones, jarred out of alignment by kangaroos and echidnas.

We learnt a bit about labyrinths. There's a World Labyrinth Day on 1 May, which is when Kerri and I fly back in from San Francisco where Grace Cathedral has a matched pair. Probably won't be in a fit state to walk the local one.

We drew a labyrinth on paper. Quite easy, once you know the trick. Of course, there are various sorts, but we did a classic mediaeval one.

Then we put on hats, went out into the sun and walked it. One at a time, our own pace, the ten of us meandering around the paths, drawing closer and apart. Bit of congestion in the middle, and back out again.

Basically, it's a walking meditation. I was almost getting high just watching my feet go one after the other through the gravel. A metaphor for life's journey, a journey into your mind, a way to focus.

And then I came out again, walked the larger paths around the site and back to the meeting room, where we had tea and bikkies.

The week was pretty quiet. We had a good deep session on Wednesday.

No, I'm not getting all spiritual. I'm learning more about myself and humanity in general. I'm enjoying it.
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I'm spending so much time blogging, but little of it here. In fact I've been rocking my brains trying to come up with a domain name for a companion blog to covering the rest of the world. Farego and Ringbear are taken, as are just about every other good short name.

Let's see. Working backwards.

It's wet here. steady rain for a couple of days. Water in the carport, mud collecting at bottom etc. Time to call the plumber on a dry day to fix a few problems, most urgently the blocked pipes under the sink.

Can't have been fun for the weekend driver last night. Wet streets, few passengers, roadworks clogging up, minor accidents.

Day driver got tickets for a concert last night, suggested we join him and his darling wife (he's a darling too, but people look askance at one if one suggests it) at the convention centre. James James Morrison Morrison: superb jazz trumpeter and pianist and car show presenter. Monica Trapaga: singer better known as a Play School presenter. Doug Parkinson: man with amazing big voice. Tiara three willowy singers doing backings and the occasional medley. And a bunch of musos who whacked out solos and made some amazing music together.

Fabulous concert, though Canberra audience a little restrained, or maybe lost in large venue.

JM told some great stories, especially a long one about his Royal Command Performance, complete with drum rolls as he dangeled helplessly twenty metress above Royalty and ten thousand others.

It's been raining for two days now. Unheard of in Canberra, and people are beginning to panic. The drains, stuffed full of dead kangaroos and decades of fox droppings are overflowing and the roads are awash. This doesn't help with the roadworks. The morning paper has a feature on how every choke point in Canberra's traffic grid is locked by poorly co-ordinated roadworks. Not a major problem for a night driver, though there are areas I tend to avoid at peak hour unless someone else is paying for it.

Getting government staffers to and from the airport is likely to be a major money-earner for the next year as they redevelop a crucial intersection. Thank goodness they don't go in for night roadworks when there's no traffic but cabbies whipping through construction zones at 50 km/h over the limit, dodging foxes and collecting roos.

Booked the tickets for April. I might have to declare bankruptcy in May, but that's OK. Struggling to find accommodation in Kyoto - we managed to select cherry blossom time, and while it's going to be spectacular, the crowds are going to be immense. Tulips will be out in Istanbul and Amsterdam, I'm hoping.

Looking forward to road trip from Boston to Chicago via Ottawa in three days. If I can swing it, I'll get a Chrysler 300C rental. Breathtakingly spirited in design, it's a delight to drive. A genuine Yank tank.

And we'll finish up in San Francisco, where I'm going to establish six months worth of presence in three days. And ride over the Golden Gate Bridge again.

Airbus 380 home via LAX.

Not my usual style of travel, maximising legs and distance. Travelling with Kerri who sees the destinations, rather than the journey, as the destination. So I've gone for direct flights where possible.

Mum's out of hospital, recovering steadily. Kerri and I will go and see her one weekend soon.

Canberra's back to normal after summer break, and earnings are picking up nicely.

Kerri and I have started another philosophy course, enjoying it. Thought-provoking and satisfying. Learning about guna: sattwa, rakas, tamas from the Eastern tradition. This sounds a little offbeat, but it's not. Very wary of any hint of sprituality or the supernatural, but so far the teaching has been beneficial and practical, and I'm getting a lot out of it.

For example. Last week there was an accident on Northbourne Avenue at rush hour, slowing traffic to a crawl and diverting the peak flow onto side streets not designed to handle the loads. A trip I can do in four minutes from Civic to Dickson at 0200 turned into forty minutes.

I would have fretted, once upon a time, thinking of alternate routes I could have chosen, stewing and fuming over the traffic. Instead, I put on some restful music, turned the meter off, chatted with the passenger and just did my best to get him to his destination. Fare was $13.50 at the end. I looked at the meter, said, "ah just make that ten dollars, compensate for the delay a bit." and he gave me fifteen, saying, "keep the change, it was a pleasant trip."

Which it had been. The accident and the congestion weren't my fault, and while if I'd made an earlier decision to go up the back way I might have avoided some of the traffic, like as not the overflow from Northbourne Avenue would have gone along there as well. It was going to be a tedious trip whichever way we'd gone, and while I was able to make a few good decisions to get through intersections, saving a minute or two, my focus was on just making the best of a bad situation.

It also helped that the passenger enjoyed the Barbra Streisand album I was playing. If he hadn't, I would have hunted something else up for him. Having six CDs and a well-stocked iPhone makes for a lot of choice.

Reading a book about Indian Philosophy - "is there a companion book?" I asked – and a book about microloans, which is really inspirational. Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

I'm finding ways to structure my life differently. I'm less inclined to stay out until four each morning, spending an hour on an empty rank to get a short fare. I can use the time better at home, sleeping. I might not be the cabbie I could be, maximising the income for the owner (and myself), but what's the point in always being tired?

I'm even cleaning out decades of clutter. Slowly, but surely emptying out the boxes and crates of stuff. Long way to go, but I probably won't need my old battledress uniform again.

On beauty

Nov. 20th, 2009 11:04 am
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The topic for tonight's philosophy class was Beauty. The facilitator pointed to a vase of flowers, asking us to consider the lilies, the beauty of the petals, the fragrance, the arrangement. Easy to see them as beautiful, he said.

I made a comment that I loved flowers, and that at the annual Floriade flower festival, I could admire an individual bloom out of the hundreds of thousands, but that after a couple of hours... I was overwhelmed by beauty.

Kerri stuck an elbow in my ribs. "Two hours? You've NEVER lasted that long!"

We moved on to a whiteboard marker pen. Was it beautiful? How so? In what way? Was the beauty of design, of utility a similar beauty to that of the flower? Perhaps there was some quality of beauty we could isolate as common to both.

"You could draw a picture of a flower with it," I suggested, indicating the whiteboard.

And what of other objects? An old item of clothing. Old slippers, perhaps. Old, tattered and smelly, but redolent of years of service and comfort. A childhood toy, a fading picture of grandparents. "Or the grandparents themselves," I offered. Perhaps not widely seen as beautiful, but beautiful to some.

Someone else noted that we didn't have to study over beauty. There was an immediate response. A sunset didn't have to be evaluated and measured against inner criteria to be seen as beautiful. We looked, we saw, we knew beauty.

"It's an unconscious thing," I said, taking advantage of the freedom to blurt out my immediate thoughts, "Those tatty but beautiful slippers, they might be Freudian slippers."

Other things. A painting, a mathematical proof, an eloquent speech, a concept. Things with no material existence, but beautiful nonetheless.

Or a child's delight at seeing something new. A smile. A younger student offered the sporting ability of Shane Warne, a cricketer whose talent was beautiful to observe. I don't swing that way myself, but I love the elegance of a nicely turned double play. There is a beauty in it.

I thought of something beautiful.

"I'm a night cabbie," I said, "and one of my problems is how to deal with drunks. Sometimes they have too much to drink and they misbehave, or throw up over my beautiful taxi. I once remember a pair of friends, and when one of them asked me to pull over quick, I was anxious. But we stopped, he opened the door, and his companion held onto his belt as he leaned out, leaned way out. It was a practiced, practical performance. It was beautiful. Not one drop on the car."

The facilitator smiled, and we hurried on. He read out a quote from Plato:

He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty - a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another... but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change... - Plato "The Symposium"

This was difficult and dense. He read it out again, and we spent a useful, thoughtful half hour discussing it. I was immediately struck by the Taoist overtones, though I couldn't see how one might completely perceive the complete nature of wondrous beauty.

A student wondered about how a flower or a pen could hold an everlasting beauty.

"The pen might be a permanent marker," I noted. I was getting the hang of this philosophy lark now.

"What is the purpose of beauty?" another student wondered. "Is there some evolutionary advantage?"

Someone described a Leunig cartoon, where herdes of wildebeeste followed their ancestral migration trails across the land, crossing rivers and braving dangers. A small wildebeeste asked an older, wiserbeeste, "Why do we do this?" and the older beeste replied, "Why do you ask?"

Perhaps, I verntured, beauty allows us to see the true way. A spider, for example, might spin a perfect, beautiful web. Maybe we could go to wikipedia, or some other website to find an answer. The class groaned. I was enjoying this.

"Perhaps beauty is in the observer," suggested the facilitator. "If you see a beautiful sunset, for example, perhaps there is something beautiful in the person seeing it, to recognise the immediate beauty."

"Think of the most beautiful thing you've ever encountered," he continued. I reached out to take the hand of my wife. "And, and..." The whole room was smiling. I don't think he ever finished his sentence.

Instead, we went onto another quote:
Saint Eknath ventured to take holy water from the Ganges. On the way, near a town, a dead dog was lying on the road. He was asked to avoid it because of the bad smell. But then he was close to it and he walked on, saying “The teeth of the dog are very white and bright”. He ignored the smell. After some time he saw a donkey lying on the road nearly dying of thirst. He gave donkey the holy water. Very soon the donkey was full of energy. Having used all the water, Saint Ekhath just prayed to the Lord to whom he was taking the water saying, “ I was asked by thee to fetch holy water from Gangotri to pour over you, but fortunately, you have just met me on the way, so I have happily performed the duty”. The voice of the Lord came to honour the deed.

"What does this tell us?" asked the facilitator.

I knew the answer.

"Sometimes, God is an ass."

The class derailed itself again. I pondered some more.

"Sometimes, I'm an ass."

"why didn't he just give the donkey some tap water?" a student wanted to know.

"Because it was the act of giving the special holy water that was important to him," I said, remembering my recent trip to San Francisco, where I'd pass the city-sponsored homeless folk and give them whatever change was in my pocket. They weren't beautiful people, they smelt, they probably weren't going to use a few quarters and dimes for any good purpose, but it was the act of giving that put a glow on my heart.

Joking aside, I got an amazing amount out of that class. Often I was engrossed in my own thoughts. The discussion stimulated my mind to an astonishing degree. I love the sense of expansion, of betterment, of insight, that these sessions are bringing to me.

I can't possibly set down all my insights in a blog post, but perhaps to summarise the session, beauty is everywhere, and the everyday sights and sounds that we regard as beautiful are reflections of a deeper, inner, everlasting beauty, which may be found within us if we look deeply enough.

Beauty isn't necessarily the perfect shape of a beautiful woman. It is in her heart.


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September 2010

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