Wednesday, 20 July 2016

A Midnight Sun Adventure - A Week of Kayaking, Summitt Trekking and Glacier Hiking in Svalbard

After having experienced a week of days limited to just two hours of sunlight per day in the Finnish Far North, I felt encouraged to revisit the Arctic during the other extreme. This time during Midnight Sun season, where the Sun doesn't set for up to six months. Visiting the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean, I found that not only do the extremes of lighting at northern latitudes have different effects on the landscape, but also on mind and body.

The Midnight Sun shines brightly over Svalbard's Isfjorden

A Norwegian territory located on a latitude of 78 degrees north, the Svalbard archipelago is located about halfway between the northernmost part of mainland Norway and the North Pole. Being so far north means that the Sun is still high in the sky as late as 1.00 am, not even going behind the mountains! Spending a week camping under the Midnight Sun on Svalbard not only took me right out of my comfort zone but, being in a largely untouched landscape away from many modern conveniences e.g. wi-fi.

It is understandable how Norway's landscape of steep-sided fjords, bays and inlets, together with the difficulties much of the landscape presented for farming and overland travel, were made use of as transportation networks by the Vikings. Most likely, curiosity aroused by wondering what was on the other side of the horizon led them to build strong ships to embark on voyages into what then was the unknown. One of the first reminders of the world that the Vikings lived in that Svalbard presents is the Isfjorden, a long fjord that cuts through Spitsbergen (the archipelago's largest island) around where many of its settlements, including the largest Longyearbyen, are based. Apart from the road that links Longyearbyen to the airport, there are no roads on the archipelago, making sailing one of few viable ways of getting around, using the fjords as natural sailing routes. With little of the now known world then explored, heading out to the open sea could very easily have seemed, within their mindset, like heading out to the 'ends of the earth', not knowing what was over the horizon, including encountering any unexpected hazards. Though such mindsets now though are largely a thing of the past with Google maps and satellite navigation technology, there are still some challenges nature presents on which one can't rely on technology to navigate successfully to avoid collisions or pitfalls. Instead, one has to rely on their intuition, concentration and presence of mind, including making use of all five senses.

Two such experiences I had in Svalbard included kayaking towards the front of Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen) before later hiking on the glacier using crampons and an ice axe. An active glacier, carving, Esmarkbreen creates its own tides and waves when large chunks of ice break off the glacier into the sea making thunderous sounds which the Vikings could have mistaken for the sound of Thor's hammer! Svalbard's existence was confirmed by Dutch explorers who discovered the archipelago in 1596. It is possible but unconfirmed as to whether it had previously been visited by Viking explorers. Though there is a description of Svalbard in the Viking sagas, meaning 'cold shores', it is perhaps more likely that they refer to parts of Greenland's coastline.

Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen), Svalbard
The very name Svalbard may have meant cold shores to explorers over 800 years ago, but being in the Gulf Stream, Svalbard's shores can be surprisingly warm during summer. Kayaking towards the front of Esmarkbreen, I felt I had to be alert at all times using all five senses, listening for thunder sounds from the glacier to anticipate and prepare for  any sudden waves while keeping an eye open for floating pieces of ice approaching. Floating ice for a glacier can be very deceiving to the eye as, often only a small part of the ice is visible about the water surface, so you don't know at first whether an ice chunk is either relatively harmless or a major obstacle. When rowing towards floating ice, I found it useful to, where possible tap piece of ice to see if they could be pushed aside easily or if they were too heavy to move and I needed to steer around. As large pieces of ice carved from the glacier break up in the water they gradually spread out forming a ring, almost simulating Saturn's rings on Earth. Finding space to row a kayak through a ring of ice pieces was difficult and even harder work rowing through it when an opportunity came. With the ice moving constantly in the water, I to to be quick to row through before the gap became too narrow and I would get stuck!

Practising Crevice Rescue
After kayaking towards Esmarkbreen's mighty front, the next adventure was to walk up it. As well as an opportunity to practice mindfulness of walking, setting foot on a surface that is not only obviously outside of one's comfort zone, but despite having previously walked on glaciers, Esmarkbreen presented a completely different challenge.Unless one does it regularly, stepping on a glacier feels like learning to walk again and re-learning tying your shoelaces when putting on crampons. For much of the year, Svalbard's glaciers are under heavy snow. Even after much of the snow has melted during summer, there are still patches of thick snow on the ice into which one can sink. Numerous deep crevices in the glacier also present a hazard. Before going any further up the ice flow, groups trekking Esmarkbreen are instructed in crevice rescue should one be unfortunate to fall in. Being roped together in a trek team provided assurance that should you fall into a crevice or get your foot stuck in thick snow to help pull you out if they can.

Initially, when walking on Esmarkbreen, I found that it was difficult to distinguish between ice and snow surfaces with the eye alone when I got my foot stuck in patch of snow! This was where, for the next stage of the trek that the ice axe became invaluable, almost becoming like a 'sixth sense' to test whether the immediate yard in front of me was solid enough to walk on, or if I would have to take a diversion. All glaciers have their own individually shaped surfaces in accordance with their surrounding conditions, their flow gradually carving their own landscapes within the mountains. As with trekking in any landscape, it helps to adapt to it with an open approach, making using of the forces and properties of nature, including using the ice shapes as steps, and where necessary, carving steps in the ice with the ice axe, while at the same time having a conscious awareness of whom you are roped to, offering assistance where needed.

View from Varmlandsryggen
Making the forces and properties of nature your own by adapting to and going with them, it also enables one to see the journeys that natural processes bring, not just down the mountains, but through the seasons, where the effects of Svalbard's five seasons are visible. Svalbard has five seasons, As well as Spring, Summer and Autumn, there is also Light Winter and Dark Winter. During Dark Winter which there is no sunlight for up to five months, known locally as the 'Polar Night'. Though Svalbard must feel like a different world during Polar Night, the effects its seasons bring don't exist in isolation, but are inter-connected with the rhythms and flow of nature and time. Ascending the Varmlandsryggen, a steep 575m, in summer there is still a lot of thick snow at the summit, around which much of the landscape would be covered by during winter. But looking down the surrounding ice flows towards the shore, a different landscape of glacier carved fjords and inlets, permafrost and huge amounts rocks and sediments deposited by melted ice flows (moraine) is revealed. Coming down the mountain, the journeys that the snow and ice bring are revealed when running water is sighted. Most interesting is the route by which the flows of water find their way into the Isfjorden, which isn't often obvious. it often appears that flowing streams from the ice flows seems to suddenly 'stop' at large deposits of moraine before they find their way to the Isfjorden. But just like one finds their own way, at their own physical level, to the summit at Varmlandsryggen or to inner peace in a meditative context, each stream finds its own way into the Isfjorden going through or around the moraine deposits.

Wild Reindeer
Bearded Seal
During a season without darkness, such physically demanding activity was necessary to ensure that I would get to sleep later, but even with such excess physical activity, it felt difficult to get tired under the Midnight Sun. This provided me with a little reminder though of how I used to find it very difficult to 'switch off' and relax most of the time before I started practising mindfulness. Though even now there are times when I still find this difficult, with mindfulness I feel as though I have more control. I felt I managed to sleep under a very bright Midnight Sun, though even when feeling exhausted physically, it took a lot of effort. During the evening hours, campers had to take it in turns to be on watch duty, in case a polar bear, one of few animals that will attack and eat humans if hungry enough, came near the camp. When going beyond Longyearbyen, visitors to Svalbard must be accompanied by a guide with a rifle in case of an encounter with one of Svalbard's 3,500 polar bears. Though on this occasion the King of the Arctic didn't make an appearance, there were some traces that a polar bear had been in the area hunting their prize prey of ring seals, including footprints and seal skin. Wildlife that I did see from a distance though included a bearded seal floating on ice near Esmarkbreen's front and some wild reindeer.

Gokstad Viking Ship, Oslo
Returning home via Oslo, I had a reminder of lost worlds I felt I had a glimpse into during a memorable week in Svalbard when visiting the Viking Ship and Fram Museums, the latter dedicated to polar expeditions .During the kayaking expedition, I felt I was able to experience a mentality that existed in the minds of the Viking sailors of 1,200 years ago and during the glacier hike, a mentality that polar explorers of the early 20th century, may well have experienced. Though many written histories still often portray the Vikings as brutal raiders, pillagers and plunderers (many of which were written by those to whom they were fierce enemies), underneath that, as suggested by some of the artefacts in the Viking Ship Museum, there was also a sophisticated civilisation that made great technological advances for their time, especially in shipbuilding. With that they gave us a spirit of travel and exploration, which has taken human ingenuity to testing environments including the North and South Poles and the Moon, and who knows where next? The impressive Gokstad and Oseberg ships in Oslo's Viking Ship Museum, serve as a reminder of how testing human ingenuity in such extreme conditions leads various innovations worth having that make up the present day world we may often take for granted.

As so often when travelling, something that I felt I brought back from Svalbard was an intuitive awareness and understanding of a completely different environment in which I had to adjust and adapt to regularly. In relation to being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, getting use to environments different from what is the norm for me as well as managing and adapting to change isn't naturally easy for me, but coping with it by being present with it I find enables greater confidence in myself. Having said that, when I arrived home, it took me at least a week to get used to darkness again!

Huge thanks to Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions and their fabulous guides for all their help and support during the camp.



Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Noticing Patterns - From Construction of Ancient Monuments to Classifying Galaxies

Of things that the human brain can still do so much better than computers, it is in being able to recognise patterns and inconsistencies in data, something that people with Asperger's Syndrome can excel in, including in software scripts. This is why the amateur can still make significant contributions to science, particularly astronomy.

Stonehenge viewed from the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
The ability of the human brain to observe and recognise patterns goes back many thousands of years together with the nature to keep the mind both active and occupied, which is evident in the construction of ancient monuments, including Stonehenge. Though Stonehenge’s function is still largely unknown, it is commonly accepted that it served  as a solar calendar. What is also highly likely is that its construction originated from observation of patterns in the movement of the Sun. Over time, another aspect of the human mind would lead us to find out why such patterns occur, one often commonly found in people with Asperger’s Syndrome, curiosity. 

It can be an easy assumption for one to make that the further known reaches of the universe at inter-galactic level, the technology needed to go so far is only available to professional astronomers working in observatories. Though technology required to collect and process astronomical data is largely the realm of professionals who have access to the equipment needed, analysing and classifying data, including noticing patterns is where the amateur astronomy enthusiast can not only still make a significant contribution the further into Deep Space we explore. In astronomy, an advantage that the amateur can sometimes have is that he or she has freedom from the often rigid nature of professional frameworks and classification systems. In this way public participation can be an invaluable resource to scientific research.

Hubble's Turning Fork, system by Galaxy Zoo used for classifying galaxies
At an introduction to Sunderland Astronomical Society’s public open evening, Graham Darke, a long-time member of the society, explained why with Galaxy Zoo. Galaxy Zoo is an online citizen science project that gives the public access to astronomical data obtained from the world’s largest telescopes from the ground based observatories of La Palma in the Canary Islands and Gemini South in Chile’s Atacama Desert to those in orbit including the Hubble Space Telescope. In his introductory talk, Darke explained that as well as the human mind being better at recognising patterns than computers, members of the public often have the spare time to analyse it than the professionals who are busy collecting the dataWith the huge amounts of data on other galaxies throughout the universe being collected, it had initially been thought that to analyse, classify and catalogue so many galaxies would take many years, but courtesy of Galaxy Zoo, more than 50 million galaxies have been classified by over 150,000 people since the project was launched in 2007.

Within the universe that observable to humankind with current technology, there is estimated to be over one hundred billion galaxies, which are enormously variable in shape, size and composition and yet also similar, ranging from large spiral-shaped galaxies like Andromeda and smaller irregular shaped galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. Much can be learned about galaxies from their shapes, including the possibility that larger galaxies formed due to a merging of two or more smaller galaxies. Also interesting are the surroundings of galaxies, including their gravitational fields and radio waves and X-rays emitted from their centre. Public participation through Galaxy Zoo further has opened up humankind to an ever-expanding universe, including the recent discovery of gravitational waves, caused by merging black holes. 

Heelstone, Stonehenge. Just behind it there is an arrow
show the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
Meanwhile, present-day visitors to Stonehenge marvel at how it was constructed without modern technology, not just in being able to move such large and heavy stones, but also the accuracy of the alignment of the stones are in accordance with the the Sun's position in the sky during different seasons. Traditionally a favourite site for Summer Solstice celebrations, the original purpose of Stonehenge may rather have been to mark the Midwinter Solstice as there is a 'sunstone', or 'heelstone', placed in the direction of where the Sun would appear at the Midwinter Solstice. Whereas in the present day, most of us have access to conveniences to keep us occupied when we feel 'bored' such as smartphones, iPads or indeed Galaxy Zoo, apart from hunting, chanting and telling stories, our Neolithic ancestors would have had little else to do to keep themselves occupied, but to make a game of tracking and recording the positions of the Sun in the sky from sunrise to sunset and the Moon and stars during the night. Without present-day light pollution, they would have been able to see so many more stars on a clear winter's night. So like mass participation in classifying galaxies, 5,000 years ago, it could possibly have been the participation by many prehistoric sky watchers that enabled the construction of Stonehenge.

It is well-known that being able to recognise patterns through eye for detail as well as working to set set of rules and classifications is where aspects of Asperger's Syndrome can present strengths. Going beyond this, a curious mind, through wanting to find out reasons for why such patterns occur opens us up to new theories and possibilities, including being able to notice interdependent existences, including our own. as with all life, we depend on Earth and the Sun for our existence, yet also exist independently. But to exist independently, it helps to be able to make the Sun's strength our own, including for agricultural purposes (when to plant and harvest crops) as Stonehenge was very possibly used for. Together with the other planets, Earth and the Sun depend on each other for their existence, yet also exist independently. Further afield, the Sun is depends on the Milky Way for its existence, while the Milky May depends on the Local Group of Galaxies and the Local Group of Galaxies depends on the larger Virgo Cluster for one another's existence and their place in the universe. Yet within one another's interdependent existence, they also exist independently, their independence being enabled by interdependence.  

When applying the ability to recognise and interpret patterns together with curiosity, these factors can become one, thus enabling us to expand our awareness. With our awareness expanded, we can then notice that time and space merge into one from within 5,000 years since the construction of Stonehenge to within billions of years during the formation of the Solar System and further beyond that, the formation and evolution of galaxies of all shapes and sizes.

Galaxy Zoo, including information on how to participate in classification of galaxies, can be access at  

More about Sunderland Astronomical Society can be found at

To find out how to participate in astronomy locally elsewhere in the UK, you can find your astronomical society at the following link 

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Crane Bird Aurora - Night Sky Magic and Messages in the Finnish Far North

Arriving in Muonio, Finnish Lapland, with its very short hours of daylight in winter and extensive pine forests, one can believe that, of the many present-day etymological theories on the subject, the reason why Finland got its name was because it was thought to be where the known world 'finishes'.
Snow-covered pine trees in Pallas-Yll√§stunturi National Park, Finland

Similar to what I have found on meditation retreats in forests, within the heavily snowed pine-forest landscape of Pallas-Yll√§stunturi National Park , there is no obvious horizon. An effect that this can sometimes enable on the mind is that one's mirror neurons begin to turn towards you and where you immediately are. Whereas with a horizon, one may wonder what is on the other side, perhaps questioning whether the 'grass is greener', that you may forget what you have not only where you are but within also.

Peering upwards through the trees though and looking over the frozen lakes, there is something though that has aroused human curiosity for thousands of years, the night sky. Following a rainy Christmas market in the capital Helsinki and after checking the local weather forecast for Muonio which suggested cloudy skies with intermittent snow, I was surprised to see a clear night sky during my first night in Muonio. But quite often though, when looking for clear skies for astronomical purposes it can be that the weather forecast and the weather as it happens are two very different things. In Lapland, weather conditions can change very quickly from one extreme to another, making it difficult to provide an accurate forecast. I also heard from the local aurora forecast that solar activity had been very strong over the last two days, which meant that there was a good chance that the Aurora Borealis could appear.

After experiencing a glimpse of the lights from Tromso, Norway, a year ago with a professional aurora chaser and photographer, I was eager to see a clearer and hopefully brighter aurora display from Muonio in the far north of Finland. During my first night in Muoni, I went down to the banks of nearby Lake Jeris, wrapped up warmly in temperatures of around -10 degrees to practice astrophotography techniques with a recently acquired digital single lens reflex camera and tripod. Using an exposure of 15 seconds, used by most astrophotographers as it is the right balance to allow enough light from the stars without making trail movements, when playing back my images, I spotted a green tinge that I didn't immediately see with the naked eye. But refocusing my eyes on the sky, after a few minutes, a faint glow of green slowly began to reveal itself. This time, I had found my own way to the Aurora!

The Aurora Borealis seen from the banks of Lake Jeris, Finland
But it was on the second night of my stay that the lights more than just merely turned up, but they were spectacularly bright. Once again, I had the fortune of a clear sky at just the right time indicated by the huge number of stars that appeared, making some of the constellations less obvious. The longer hours of darkness north of the Arctic Circle also contribute to a prolonged display of aurora activity. After noticing a glint of green from my cabin window, walking down to the same spot where I had been the previous night, the lights truly began to reveal themselves.

A Crane Bird-shaped Aurora, Lake Jeris, Finland
After applying my external attention and noticing to appreciate what I felt was being present at the 'Greatest Show on Earth', for a brief moment I then took a step back and turned my attention inwards. applying the effect that the forest location initially had on me upon arrival. As well as being able to get in touch with one's feelings and emotion through focusing attention inwards, one can also get in touch with their creative side. Of the shapes I noticed that the Aurora appeared in that night, one resembled an origami crane bird that I had made in Japan. 

Memorial to Sadako and her 1,000 crane birds, Hiroshima, Japan
The crane bird became an international symbol of peace in Japan after Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl in who was two-years-old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her native Hiroshima 70 years ago this year in 1945. Exposure to radiation during the blast and its aftermath saw Sadako develop leukemia in 1954. Following treatment, Sadako was given at most a year to live and in that time, she learned how to make origami crane birds and together with her room-mate, made a thousand crane birds upon which she made a wish to recover from her illness. Sadly, Sadako's wish never came true, but the legacy she left leaves us with a warning to humanity of what technology we have invented can do to us if we use it for destructive purposes.

That night, as well as an obvious sight of beauty, I also felt that in the run-up to Christmas, the Aurora brought a message, to live in peace, thus helping find happiness within.

Merry Christmas Everybody, and a Happy, Peaceful New Year!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Eye for Detail, Imagination, Creativity and Patience - Mindful Railway Modelling

Arts and crafts are well-known for their therapeutic qualities, as well as providing a space for one to express their creative side. For many people on the autistic spectrum, it can also be a way of expressing their thoughts, feeling and emotions, especially if their ways of thinking are more visual, making it easier to communicate their needs.

Mindfulness doesn't necessarily change an individuals interests, pastimes or pursuits, but can change the way one approaches them, thus enriching one's experience. It is well-known that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, have so-called special interests. It is not un-normal for anyone, whether on the autistic spectrum or not, to have an interest from which one gains great enjoyment. But when linked to autism, sometimes such interests can become an 'issue' to others around them with presumptions that they can be isolating or possessive, to the extent that they become associated with stereotyped Asperger behaviour. When taking a mindful approach with more awareness to such interests, whole new visual and sensory experiences slowly unfold, thus deepening one's relationship with their interest and how it relates to their surroundings.

Of late, I have begun to notice this with one of my longer term interests, model railways. A pastime that I have been very keen on from when very young, that I have 'shelved' every so often due to other commitments and responsibilities, when returning to it fairly recently with a more mindful awareness, I have begun to notice in more depth the artistic side of the pastime, its relationship to full-sized railways, including adding realism. A theme largely advocated by Cyril J Freezer, the late former editor of Railway Modeller, realism applies not only to making a model railway layout look more realistic through the addition of scenic detail and weathering, but also to train operation, track layout and setting.

It can be very easy for one to be put off taking up railway modelling in a monetary sense when one sees the retail prices of model locomotives, rolling stock and accessories, including power and control equipment. Space can also be an issue for many. The idea of railway modelling as a pastime confined to the wealthy was a myth that Freezer looked to disprove. Fair enough, when starting out in model railways one may find themselves spending quite a bit of money to acquire one or two locomotives, some rolling stock, track and power appliances as well as time and effort in acquiring some space in which to build a layout.  However, through patience and intuition, going deeper into it need not be too expensive. As well as being in many ways more affordable, techniques Freezer described in Railway Modeller and the many books he published on railway modelling, including scratch-building (making models from readily available raw materials) and kit-bashing (altering or adapting a commercial kit) to fit a limited space, also help add and further deepen an individual uniqueness to a model railway or diorama.

After many years of enjoying making commercial card building kits by Metcalfe and Superquick, whose products are a familiar sight on many model railways, including my own, I found that I had amounted a large reserve of waste card, including unused patterned card e.g. brick, tiled etc. Additionally, I had also amounted a sizeable stock of modelling materials and tools, including several colours of modelling paints. Though I had previously kit-bashed or put individual touches on card buildings I had made from Metcalfe and Superquick kits, I hadn't previously attempted scratch-building. Through being able to notice and gain an appreciation of the textures of different raw materials that had amounted from my modelling activity, including waste card and wood offcuts as well as a spatial awareness of the scale, including proportions, I saw there was a way I could make use of amounted raw materials rather than them going to waste. Looking at examples from old railway photographs I had seen online or in books, I put together the following small buildings/structures:

Cattle dock, made from card and matchsticks
Locomotive coaling stage, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
Coal depot, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
An aspect of realism that I have begun to enjoy adding, is placing and in some cases painting figurines depicting people in various leisurely and working roles, including rail enthusiasts with spotters notebooks, porters, a station master and engine crew. As well as adding depth to a layout, placement of figurines and small details, such as trolleys, suitcases etc. also helps to further enhance the imaginative side of building a layout. As well as being a therapeutic activity, painting figurines (many I have painted so far are supplied by Dart Castings) also helps to bring then beyond a figure-shape cast in white metal almost into an individual character.

An eager rail enthusiast chats to the station master
Such scenes may be inspired by books or films where rail travel features heavily or in my case, through being interested in recreating rural branch line scenes that were once common throughout Britain until many were closed after the Reshaping of Britain's Railways by the government in the 1960s, when private car ownership and motorways were still largely in their infancy. As well as in miniature, the realism encouraged by Cyril J Freezer has much relevance for full-sized railways in opening us up to lost rail networks in an era where roads have become heavily congested and certain towns, villages and housing estates remain remote from public transport. As well as providing alternatives to car use, local lines can also serve as a link with the mainline networks, including proposed high-speed routes.

Two young enthusiasts chatting to driver,
based on a well-known  Southern Railway poster
For me, railway modelling has been a good way for me to apply imagination to eye for detail, which I have long considered a personal strength. Turning it into something creative though requires a lot of patience cultivated through mindfulness, which I hope will be rewarded the more I work on my layout, which I have named Bretherbury.


Friday, 10 July 2015

Going Deeper into the Forest Within - Templestay at Woljeongsa

People with Asperger’s Syndrome are often described as having difficulty in not being able to see the woods for the tree. Historically, professionals have referred to this as ‘weak central coherence’. Such a weakness though can translate to a strength, eye for detail. Through initially noticing such strengths translated from weaknesses, by starting with what one has, it can open one up to hidden qualities and further possibilities.

To notice and acknowledge strengths and qualities that one may have, including in relation to how they are affected by their Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, it helps to find an environment where one can step back from the flow, free from distractions. Staying at Woljeongsa, a Buddhist Temple in South Korea, I felt that I was able to notice with clarity where I was able to notice with awareness where strengths Asperger’s Syndrome can have can be expanded upon, including being able to see where small, often obscure detail fits into the bigger picture.

Main meditation hall and nine-story pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple
Situated in an expansive fir tree forest in Odaesan National Park, around 140km east of Seoul, Woljeongsa provided me with an appropriate setting for me to help expand my awareness. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I tend to focus on and become interested in very specific details, but seeing where such details fit into a plot or setting can still sometimes be quite a challenge for me. Being able to notice sensations and sounds in a very peaceful countryside environment gave me an opportunity to expand my field of awareness beyond the tree into the woods and beyond.

It is fascinating as to how when many of us find ourselves in environments that are outside our comfort zone, including the comfort zone of our thought patterns and the daily routines and actions that arise from them. On my first meditation retreat, I was also able to notice how much I continuously talk to myself.  During my stay at Woljeongsa, I felt I noticed as well as how my autopilot mode is often a response to my thought patterns, but also how easily distracted I am by them, and how such distractions can become over-obsessive.

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, even now, I still find it difficult to adapt to social situations, including being able adapt to topics of conversation especially where I don’t know anybody so much that behind closed doors I find myself having to almost practice conversation and non-verbal communication. But what can’t be practised behind closed doors is being able to respond in conversations, especially as it is difficult to anticipate how someone may respond to you. In this way, I began to notice how my speech can sometimes feel almost ‘scripted’, perhaps coming across as repetitive, and sometimes out of context through not always being able to read the mood of the conversation or situation.

For the duration of my stay I was given a temple uniform to wear and I slept on a thin mattress on the floor, in accordance with the eight precepts that Templestay participants have during their stay, one of which is not to sleep on luxury high beds. An effect that I noticed when sleeping on the floor was, and something that the thinness of the mattress contributed to was in being able to notice the sensation of contact of my back against the floor, thus opening me up to being able to notice the effects of my breathing on the body. This was very conducive to me being able to sleep soundly. Quite often, distracting thoughts can keep me awake. But, as I was to find when waking up at 4.00am in the morning going to the Zendo (the main hall for practice) for the first meditation and chanting session, a sound night’s sleep helps to ‘still’ the mind. Whereas a mind distracted by excess thoughts, many of which arise from outside influences, can feel full of waves, a mind that has been stilled through being able to ‘switch off’ in such a way can feel very calm, thus enabling openness. The mind stillness I felt was enhanced during my first sitting meditation practice.  
In my temple uniform

As well as morning and evening chanting and sitting meditation sessions, another activity I took part in during my stay included making the 108 prostrations practiced in Zen Buddhism alongside making a chain of wooden beads, adding a bead for each prostration. A prostration is a triple bow made for each 108 actions to help purify 108 defilements (unwholesome states), with the bow and adding of the bead to the chain representing the action. Though such practice may appear to some as just ritual, from a mindfulness perspective, I found it helpful not only in noticing sensations with the body in what was an unusual position and performing an unusual action for me, listening to the English translation of each prostration, it also helped me notice and get in touch with my consciousness. When performing rituals or stretching exercises including yoga stretches, it can be easy for one to be caught on autopilot, possibly also engaging in repetitive movements. Getting in touch though with my consciousness with each prostration though while focusing on the sensations of my physical movement and in putting each bead on the chain, enabled me to be aware of each action. I also felt I was able to concentrate effectively while being mindful of physical movement involved in each prostration.

Through being able to get in touch with my consciousness in this way, I felt that I was able to look deeper inside myself, and how I can be so oblivious to my consciousness, including emotional feelings. The Vipassana retreat I participated in last summer enabled me to look within myself to an extent that I was able to notice myself more clearly in a sensory context, including how physical sensations to which I am mostly oblivious to directly and indirectly contribute to shaping my thought patterns, which in turn determine my moods and actions. During my experience at Woljeongsa, I felt my awareness went deeper, opening me up to being able to change the way I respond my thought patterns, including noticing the restrictions they can sometimes bring. The openness a calm mind contributed to I felt enabled me to go deeper in this sense, enabling me to notice aspects of my consciousness that normally I am oblivious to.
Going deeper into the forest, Odaesan National Park

My visit to Woljeongsa was, physically, a retreat into an expansive fir tree forest, in which the trees depending on each other for their existence together with the fertile land which allows them to grow, yet each also exists independently. Mentally, within I also felt there was a journey into the forest, into which going deeper enabled me to notice the inter-dependent existence of body and mind with much more clarity. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Being Alive to Each Moment - Sunrise over Mount Fuji and the Zen Way of Life

In many cultures and beliefs, mountains are considered sacred, including as places where gods and deities reside, where pilgrims and spiritual leaders seek refuge or as heavenly abodes to where the deceased retreat. Mount Fuji, at 3776m Japan’s highest mountain, a subject of many great works of art with its almost symmetrical shape, is considered divine in Japan’s two major faiths, Shintoism and Buddhism, with pilgrims visiting to make mini-shrines to their ancestors to keep them out of reach of evil spirits.

Mount Fuji peers above the clouds over Lake Ashi, Hakone, Japan
But mountains also have much in common with humans, not least in that they are ever changing and renewing through the weather and micro-climates that their altitude contributes to. In this way, mountains are almost expressing their emotions as to how they ‘feel’ in accordance with their ever-renewing existence in accordance with changing seasons, rather like how humans may express their emotions through non-verbal communication and facial expressions. Often shrouded in mist, the summit of Fuji can often be obscure to tourists hoping to view it from Lake Ashi, Hakone. In this way, Fuji is a ‘shy’ mountain, rather like how some people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel.

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I find that it helps for me to go deeper into myself to understand my own emotional thought processes including their sources through stepping back from the flow away from distractions, enabling me to look inwards more, thus enabling more control and awareness. Similarly, to experience the features and qualities of Mount Fuji, I felt it helped to go deeper within the surrounding forestry and mists before making the ascent towards the summit. The trek towards the summit opens one up to a highly varied multi-sensory experience, including huge differences in temperatures and different physical sensations from walking on different surfaces and through different levels of sunlight, air pressure and temperature, including noticing cooler temperatures once I had got above the tree line.

The Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
Prior to climbing Fuji, during my visit to Japan I had visited the Daisen-In Temple in Kyoto, which features a Zen landscape garden. Made up of white sand and rocks, the Daisen-In garden represents one’s lifecourse as a river flowing into the Great Sea, represented by an expansive spread of white sand, where one is of free of the trappings of greed and avarice. To reach the Great Sea though one must overcome the great wall of doubt, represented by a corridor over the garden. The journey along the stream shows highs and lows of different lifecourses on their way into the Great Sea.  The different rock shapes of subjects flowing down the stream that eventually leads into the Great Sea, including that of a turtle trying to swim against the flow of the river, show that you can’t go against the flow or back into the past. From this, much frustration and suffering can result, but each subject can eventually find a way to reach the Great Sea that they can manage at their own level.

The Wall of Doubt on route to the Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
In the Daisen-In garden, I felt I could almost ‘see’ aspects my life before me, at the point of and after my Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, including the regret I remember feeling at what I had missed out on in relation to the turtle swimming against the flow in not receiving my diagnosis earlier in life as well as the uncertainty of how the next part of my life was going to be once diagnosed represented by the wall of doubt. Similarly, when ascending Fuji, such ‘walls of doubt’ appear before trekkers in the form of steep ascents walking over volcano ash and as it was the first Fuji climb of the season, there was still some ice and snow. When walking across slippery surfaces, one becomes much more conscious of the sensations experience with each step, to be able to adapt to different conditions.

Sometimes, certain physical sensations experienced on a mountain trek can be uncomfortable, including sensations that certain items of outdoor clothing can bring, much different to clothing materials that one may normally wear, including cotton and denim. But rather than resisting them, it helps to open up to them where we can by being with them. When opening to them, we find that we may have a lot in common with the mountain itself, starting with the elements they is formed of, some which are present within our physical body. The different physical experiences I felt when climbing Fuji, which was formed by three volcanoes, also reminded me that the planet itself experiences physical sensations as a result of activity at its molten core, similar as to how we experience sensations at the physical level that arise out of bodily feeling, including tension.

At Fuji's 7th Station on the Yoshida route
As with Kilimanjaro, the trek to the summit began through the night, with the intention to reach the summit in time to see the sunrise. With only a head torch to light the first few yards of steep gradient in front of me, I found that my attention became more diverted to how I felt within both mentally and physically, including noticing the drop in temperature and that keeping on walking helped me to stay warm. Though Fuji isn’t as high as Kilimanjaro, what I felt made it as demanding a challenge in its own right was that the route towards the summit, the Yoshida route, was uphill all the way, whereas the Lemosho Glades route I took to Kilimanjaro was up and down, and also had acclimatisation periods. Each mountain though is a challenge in its own right with the different weather and micro-climates it creates, which is why it helps to approach a challenge using beginners mind, including seeing each moment as training, and being alive to it. 

Magic Moment - Sunrise from the summit of Fuji
Eventually arriving at the summit, watching the sun rise over Fuji and its neighbouring peaks, lakes and forests was a truly memorable experience. As well as a visual spectacular, it was also a way to see the Zen concept of inter-dependence in action, with Mount Fuji and its formation being dependent on the Sun and it being at the right distance from Earth for Earth to receive enough of its heat to have an active molten core and plate tectonics that enable mountains to be formed through volcanoes. Fuji’s near symmetrical shape which contributes to its visual beauty and thus its place in Japanese mythology, is enabled by it having formed at a junction between three tectonic plates. Meanwhile, the mists, forests and lakes that surround Fuji are dependent on Fuji for their existence, existing independently, but not in isolation from one another.  

Ash slides on the route down
Where I felt that more physical sensations though and where I felt I had to come out of my comfort zone more was on the way down. A sizeable portion of the way down involved descending steep paths of volcano ash and sand. More strain can felt on the joints when descending after a climb, especially since keep balance can be hard on a steep path and it can be easier to slip when walking on ash. Motor coordination has often been a challenge for me in relation to my Asperger’s Syndrome, but what I found helpful during my descent down ash slopes was to make use of the surface by leaning back slightly allowing myself to ‘slide’ down the slope, almost like skiing! Through this technique, I felt I was able to get in touch with and find my centre of gravity.

As well as a physical challenge, the journey to and from the summit of Fuji was also a journey within with regards to the journey through different physical sensations experienced throughout the trek. In this way, mountain treks are analogous to the ups and down experienced in my own life regarding as to how I am affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, similar to the lifecourse expressed in the Daisen-In garden. Coping with different challenges within a challenge, as well as making life interesting, also helps one deepen their understanding and appreciation of their abilities when opening up to them rather than shying away from them. Having said that though, I still feel I have some way to reach a personal state of a Great Sea!

At the summit
Special thanks once again to G Adventures and to Fuji Mountain Guides, for their guidance in reaching the summit of Fuji.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Brave Acts of Donkey Work

Of previous jobs I had prior to Autism Works, one of the most enjoyable and fascinating was working on Durham County Record Office's Image of the Soldier project. Recently, I took the opportunity to revisit this in seeing the play Man and the Donkey at South Shields Customs House Theatre. Based around the life of John Simpson Patrick, a stretcher-bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) during the Gallipoli campaigns of the First World War, Man and the Donkey commemorated a lesser-known yet highly commendable act of bravery a hundred years later with a very passionate and moving performance from the cast.

Working on the Image of the Soldier Project involved scanning, cataloguing and classifying images and records of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) before linking them to an online database enabling the public to access them, including being able to research ancestors involved with the DLI. What especially fascinated me was finding out more about often forgotten roles of those involved in supporting and supplying soldiers in the front line with food and medical needs, who often had to take huge risks under fire with little or no protection in making sure soldiers fighting in the front line had enough to eat and the wounded were attended to.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey, South Shields
John Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915), also known as 'Jack', was one such man. Born in South Shields, Jack worked with donkeys giving rides along the beach at South Shields during his youth before joining up with the Territorial Force before joining the Merchant Navy in 1909. In 1910, Jack deserted the Merchant Navy while in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. After working in various jobs as a steward and stoker on Australian coastal ships, Jack enlisted in the Australian Army as a stretcher bearer under the surname Simpson (his mother's maiden name) to avoid being identified as a deserter, possibly in the hope that it would eventually bring him back to South Shields to see his family again.  
Duffy, a handmade souvenir, made by cast member Viktoria Kay

At Gallipoli, Private Simpson would put his experience of working with donkeys back in South Shields to good use. In the early hours of following day after landing at Gallipoli, 26th April 1915, while bearing a wounded soldier, Private Simpson saw a donkey and made use of it to carry fellow soldiers. Fearless of going back and forth within the line of fire, Simpson and his donkey helped to rescue more than 300 soldiers, carrying them from the frontline to the shore where they could receive treatment. Private Simpson used at least four donkeys to help carry the wounded, after the donkeys themselves had been killed or wounded in action. On May 19th, after 24 days of negotiating 'snipers alley', Private Simpson himself was killed in action by machine gun fire, aged just 22.

John Simpson Kirkptarick, a man who gave his life so that others could live, has since been the subject of many petitions to be awarded a Victoria Cross or Victoria Cross of Australia. A hundred years after his death, the cast of Man and the Donkey Jamie Brown, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Gary Kitching, Dean Logan and Jacqueline Phillips made a very passionate and compelling case for John Simpson Kirkpatrick to be given the recognition his very brave actions were worthy of. Despite being reviewed in an inquiry, Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour, the tribunal for this committee decided in 2013 that no further awards were necessary as Simpson's bravery was representative of all other stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance.
'Lest We Forget', an ANZAC wreath in Brisbane, Australia

Though Simpson's story is well-known in Australia, back in Britain, including in South Shields, until recently Simpson's heroic deeds at Gallipoli have been nothing more than a historical footnote. Sometimes, history can have a short memory when commemorating those who gave their lives so others may do their duty and survive during conflict. Attention to detail, a quality expressed by some people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, shows us that historically, much less honours have been given for exceptional bravery by those from non-fighting personnel involved in conflict. What I remember feeling so pleased with after the completion of the Image of the Soldier project was that it gave aspect of war was given the recognition that it deserved. As respected military historian Andy Robertshaw said at the launch of the project, military history isn't just about soldiers and guns, but also the personnel supporting them, including engineers, signallers and those supplying food and medicine to the front line, who often have to be just as brave.

Over 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, now is as good a time as any to recognise and commemorate this often forgotten aspect of military history, looking at those who both risked and /or gave their lives, so that not only others could be saved, but also enable peace for future generations.  The Image of the Soldier project still provides a very invaluable resource to show us what our ancestors both fought and served for. Meanwhile, after the impact of Man and the Donkey residents of and visitors to South Shields, will likely take a moment to notice Simpson's statue with a strong sense of commemoration and pride for a forgotten local hero.

In memory of those who lost their lives during the First World War 1914-1918

RIP Jackie Fielding, director of Man and the Donkey, who tragically died just as the show finished its run following a brain aneurysm. No doubt she will have been delighted with the reception the show has had and the performances of the cast.