Elly McDonald

Writer


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The right track (18 May 2014)

Towards the end of my brief and wretched stint as a high school teacher, I would lock myself in the Media Studies classroom, “my” classroom, slip Johnny Cash’s Live At Folsom Prison onto my portable CD player, and turn the volume right up.

Then I’d bellow along to my favourite track, Orange Blossom Special, which I’d play repeatedly till I was exhausted: “Waall I don’t care if I do die do die do die…

Hard on the heels of Orange Blossom Special came Long Black Veil, a maudlin narrative sung by a ghost: “Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me…

One might ask, how could it be that “nobody knows”, given my capacity to bellow is extreme? Is it possible no one could hear the soprano Cash-ette, trilling hysterically in the re-purposed wooden church building on the farthest corner of the campus?

Look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
Hey, look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
It’s the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin’ my baby back

Did no one ask, “That Miss McDonald… She’s more than a bit odd, but do you think she might need help?”

Well, I’m going down to Florida
And get some sand in my shoes
Or maybe Californy
And get some sand in my shoes
I’ll ride that Orange Blossom Special
And lose these New York blues

Apparently not.

I won’t rehash the whole horror story. Suffice to say it’s sometimes said of a teaching career that you come out ahead if there’s just one student you impact in a positive way. It feels like karmic justice that I’m now able to take so much delight in the success of my one special student: as dark as my teaching experience was, thanks to that talented student, those memories are now lit up by starbursts of joy.

I cannot claim credit for Sean Rodrigo’s success. Could be that my failure as a first year teacher, attempting to teach Year 12 Media Studies, only added to the challenges Sean faced in his final years at school. It was Sean’s own talent, Sean’s commitment, that enabled him to surmount the challenges he faced. Sean already had more technical knowledge about filmmaking than I will ever have. He had a visual sense, and he knew what he wanted to communicate through film. Where other students were storyboarding short films about massacres and rapes, Sean crafted a moving short film titled ‘Peace’. Sean’s film Peace screened at a number of short film festivals and won the Audience Choice award at the Blue Dandenongs Youth Film Festival.

Once Sean had hurdled the obstacle course that was high school, his talent took flight. He studied at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), where for the past three years he has sat on the Program Advisory Committee for the Diploma of Interactive Digital Media, Advanced Diploma of Screen and Media (Interactive Digital Media), Advanced Diploma of Multimedia, and the Advanced Diploma of Electronic Design and Media courses. (He also guest lectures.)

He developed a career as a multimedia specialist, then as a commercials director and producer, before taking the bold step of putting all his efforts into his short film project, Nerds In Love. Nerds In Love stars Lawrence Leung (best known as a comedian), Tessa De Josselin and Stan Walker (best known as Australian Idol’s 2009 winner).

So far Nerds In Love has been screened in Sydney as an Official Selection at the Flickerfest International Short Film Festival (Academy Accredited & BAFTA recognised) and repeatedly on Comedy Central, New Zealand. This week it screens at Cannes Court Metrage – Short Film Corner Market at the Cannes Film Festival in France. On Friday, 23 May, it screens as part of the St Kilda Film Festival (Academy Accredited), as part of the Comedy Screening at the Astor Theatre.

Say man, when you going back to Florida?”
“When am I goin’ back to Florida? I don’t know, don’t reckon I ever will.”

Am I a proud pedagogue? You betcha. Am I thrilled by my brush with fame? I am star-struck!

And I am here to testify that sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is not the Orange Blossom Special bearing down, but is the bright klieg lights of blazing talent. The damsel is no longer in distress, no longer tied to the tracks, but is dancing off the rails, still bellowing, a cheer squad.

Ain’t you worried about getting your nourishment in New York?”
“Well, I don’t care if I do-die-do-die-do-die-do-die!

Hey talk about a-ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Talk about a-travellin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
It’s that Orange Blossom Special
Rollin’ down the seaboard line

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Let there be lights!


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Buddhist thoughts at Easter (18 April 2014)

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In my yoga teaching, I believe the most important part of the session is the concluding practice, which is generally termed Savasana. But the meditation that concludes most yoga classes, valuable though it is, is seldom “savasana” in the classical yoga sense. Instead, many yoga teachers, myself included, substitute some form of guided meditation, often a visualisation.

The meditation I often use to end classes, especially prenatal classes, is some form of metta meditation, “metta” being a word from the ancient Pali language – the language of the Shakhyamuni Buddha, the historical figure Siddhartha Gautama – often translated as “compassion”. It is perhaps more accurately translated as “loving kindness”, and in the book Cultivating Compassion (Broadway Books, New York 2001) author J Hopkins translates it as “unselfish and unconditional kindness to others”. A distinction is held between “loving kindness” (metta) and “compassion” (karuna), with “loving kindness” understood to mean “the desire to promote the happiness of others” and compassion understood as the desire to alleviate the suffering of others, “the heartfelt wish that sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering” – a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

The metta meditation itself is translated various ways, which you can locate easily via google. The version I most often use is this:

May you be safe
May you be well
May you be happy
May you be free
May you be at peace

I guide my yoga students into a meditative state, focusing on the breath, then cultivating the image of a soft golden-white light that gently pulses from their heart centre throughout their upper torso. Then I introduce them to the phrases of the metta meditation. I ask them to mentally repeat each phrase after I speak it. First we go through the meditation with each phrase directed to themselves: to their own well-being and happiness. Then I ask them to visualise a person they love, and we go practice with each phrase directed to that person. Then I ask them to visualise someone they have neutral feelings towards, perhaps a workmate or an acquaintance, and we direct each phrase to that person. Then I ask them to think of someone they have difficulties with, suggesting that they not choose the person at the very top of their “problem people” list, as the negative emotions evoked might be too strong for them to engage with effectively in the context of this yoga class, tonight: they might need to work up to directing metta towards someone they’re really struggling with, emotionally. Then I ask them to think of a category of people to whom we’ll direct the metta meditation phrases: a group, who might be a family, a community, a special interests group, an ethnicity, a nation.

Finally, I ask them to take their focus back to that soft, living, glowing white light at their heart centre, to visualise this soft healing light as an orb, and to release it towards the mental image of that category of people towards whom we’ve just directed metta phrases. This is based on a Tibetan Buddhist practise known as tonglen. Releasing the golden-white light towards the image of these people in no way diminishes the healing energies pulsating throughout the meditator. Instead, it extends love and compassion from that person – that mind-body that generally experiences itself as “separate”, as an individual – out into the environment to the wider community and by extension into the oneness that is our true state.

I love the metta meditation. It never fails to flood me with benevolent, healing feelings, and I believe almost always has a similar effect on my yoga students. Very often after practicing the metta meditation my students are reluctant to rouse themselves to conclude their yoga session.

Why am I writing about this, today?

This week I am struggling with metta. Truth to tell, metta is not always my default emotional state. Too often I hold onto resentments and mistrust.

In Buddhism, metta and karuna are considered to be incompatible with anger, hatred, envy and jealousy. Metta and karuna are two of the Four Sublime States, the Immeasurables, known in Buddhism as the Brahma Viharas. The two others are mudita – joy in others’ joy (the opposite of the German term Schadenfreude) – and upekkha, which is equanimity, being calm and even-tempered. Needless to say, I’m not a natural at these, either.

Given I need to consciously direct my attention to generate loving kindness, compassion, joy in others’ joys, and equanimity, I was extremely interested recently when psychologist and neuroscientist Rick Hanson shared on his Facebook site an academic research paper on the efficacy of meditations based on the Brahma Viharas when used in therapeutic contexts: variously, for psychiatric states such as depression, anxiety, chronic anger, personality disorders; and also for the relief of chronic back pain and other chronic medical conditions not considered primarily psychiatric.

The paper was published in Clinical Psychology Review 31 (2011) and is titled Loving Kindness and compassion meditations: potential for psychological interventions. Its authors are Stefan G Hofman (Boston University, USA), Paul Grossman (University of Basel Hospital, Germany) and Devon E Hinton (Harvard Medical School, USA). You can access this research paper via http://www.wisebrain.org/media/Papers/MettaPsychotherapy.pdf

In this paper, the authors cite the classical formulation of the metta meditation, from the Buddhist tradition Book 1, uraga vagga [the Snake Book], cunda kammaraputta sutta:

May this person be free from enmity
May this person be free from mental suffering
May this person be free from physical suffering
May this person take care of him/her self happily

I like this very much and have resolved that across the Easter period I will meditate on this rendering of the classical language, even though it’s a bit more unwieldy than the simpler version I’m more familiar with, and even though at Easter, Christian meditations might seem more appropriate. I love the Christian tradition, too – but in honesty, in terms of practical tools (how to cultivate love for my neighbour? How to cultivate love for my sibling, at those times when frankly I’m not feeling it?) – the Buddhist tradition gets down to brass tacks.

At the Last Supper, Jesus instructed his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I love you, you should love one another” (John 13:34).

We know we should. The issue, sometimes, is how.

So this week I am using the toolkit that is the Brahma Viharas to honour the life, and death, and life again, of that great Buddha, that great Awakened Being: Jesus Christ.

[P.S. If you’re interested in why what’s taught in yoga classes as “savasana” is generally not the classical Savasana, that’s a topic for another time.]