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What's your next adventure?

Saturday
Mar142015

New Statestman review of Prank book

This came out this week in the New Statesman...somehow I never get around to saying how much I love public pranks- Virginia Woolf dressing as an Abyssinian Prince and visiting a Royal Navy battleship comes to mind, as does Jaroslav Hasek sending fake science reports full of learned references to the Czech version of Nature. Private pranks are practical jokes...which aren't as much fun for some reason..maybe because the crime is never victimless- or the victim is us- or the joker is a self-righteous git...not sure, anyway here is the article:

Click here

Friday
Mar132015

nano adventures

My esteemed fellow adventurer Alastair Humphreys has made a great job of popularising micro adventures, yet only the other day I thought- some times the day is so short there isn't even enough time for a microadventure! Of course it's largely psychological, one should make more time, de-stress, take it easy etc etc...and yet- sometimes all you need is a nano-adventure. This is the tiniest possible division of adventure possible- there is none smaller. A nano adventure is so potentially short, time doesn't really come in into it- it is pure experience. Here are a few I've had: walking across Corfe common knowing it was Enid Blyton's choice for Kirrin Common in the Famous Five books; brewing up in the lee of an outdoor loo in a storm using an M kettle (I know, it takes all sorts); nightwalk from Chapman's rocks to pub in Worth Matravers; climbing a dartmor tor in the snow wearing inappropiate and very slippy DM shoes; spending two hours at midnight in a vigil reading the Kasidah at the grave of Richard Burton on the 100th anniversary of his death; circumnavigating Portland Bill on foot; sit on top canoeing through rock arches near Salcombe; sneaking under a locked door at the bent Pyramid at Dahshur; finding a horned viper 3km from Cairo's ring road; fishing for grey mullet using a hazel stick and a bent pin and bread paste; locating a standing stone on a map and finding it; driving through flooded roads with water coming in under the doors; tickling trout; running the undercliff at Lyme Regis; walking across stepping stones on any river you choose...simple stuff that takes less than an afternoon- start looking for potential nano-adventures in your life!

Tuesday
Mar102015

Tibetan monks raise body temperature

 

In Magic and Mystery in Tibet Alexandra David-Neel talks about the incredible ability of certain Tibetan monks. They are reputedly able to raise their body temperature at will. She writes of monks draped in wet sheets at -35 degrees C and great gouts of steam rising from the wet cloths as their superheated bare torsos turned the icy garment into something like a steaming pudding cloth. Other travellers have also made passing mention of this technique but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Western science was able to catch up with Eastern expertise.

Greater knowledge of Tibet and her monks- whether they live on the Indian side or the Tibetan side of the border, indicated that the monks involved were practitioners of gtum-mo- (pronouced ‘dumo’) a form of breathing found in the teachings of the Tibetan Vajrayana. This was derived originally from the Indian Buddhist Vajrayana tradition.

Gtum-mo is a combination of breathing exercises and meditative concentration. The basic form involves performing ‘the vase’- this is a breathing technique where air is brought deep into the lower abdominal region and held there, making a pot belly or ‘vase’ of the stomach. There is a forceful version of this where the air is sucked in, held and then expelled with great vigour. There is a also a gentler version where the transitions are far less marked and the intake and exhalation of breath, though deep, is gentle.

Accompanying the breathing are two varieties of meditation. For the forceful breathing (which is used to ramp up body temperature quickly from ‘cold’ so to speak) the meditation is to picture internally an inner flame, something like a Bunsen burner flame, roaring hot, that starts at the navel and shoots up to the crown of the head. You have to imagine that flame in all its heat, roaring noise and light burning up through the core of the body.

For the more gentle variant of body temperature manipulation the mental image is of a surging sensation of bliss and rising warmth throughout the body.

In January 1982 Professor Herbert Benson[1] reported in the august pages on Nature on his studies into what he termed gTum-mo yoga. Conducted in the Dharamsala monastery of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, three monks were able to raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by a creditable 8.3 degrees C. This is rather impressive- certainly it would make the difference between frost bite and frost nip or merely coldness. If climbers and others who venture into highly refrigerated environs could learn these techniques many digits might be saved.

In 2002 Harvard Gazette reported 2 monks- of Western origin and living in Normandy- who were able to raise their body temperature using gtum-mo techiniques.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that a more comprehensive set of tests and a general survey of previous attempts  was made. In the previous thirty years it had been found that raising peripheral temperatures- of hands and feet- could be made quite easily through various easily taught meditations, and, in fact, by training people to use simple biofeedback techniques. Typically a digital thermometer would be connected to sensors on the subject’s hands and feet. By sensing a greater awareness of the temperature of the hand or foot, whilst avoiding trying to force it up, the temperature could be made to rise as long raising temperatures was what was on the agenda.

But complications entered the field when it was found that raising core body temperature did not accompany raising peripheral temperatures. One theory suggested that various forms of muscular contraction served to raise hand temperature.

In the 2013 tests Dr Maria Kozhevnikov and her colleagues[2] showed that unlike biofeedback results, gtum-mo genuinely raised core body temperatures- so much so that the wet sheet dried by body heat alone was shown to be fact not fiction.

Kohevnikov located one of the very few nunneries where a body temperature raising ceremony exists. This was at the 4200 metre high Gebchak convent close to Nangchen in Qinghai province. The ceremony was held annually and the nuns participating would wear only a short skirt, shoes or sandals with a wet cotton sheet draping the rest of their body. It would be performed in winter when air temperatures would be dry but -25 to -30 degrees C. Anyone who has dipped their hand in water at these temperatures will know the extreme discomfort involved, and how hard it is to regain skin warmth after drastic colling like this has happened. Ranulph Fiennes dipped his hand in icy sea water to release a sunken sledge and did not dry and warm the hand immediately. He later remarked that these two minutes of carelessness cost him the finger tips of that hand. I’ve swept a frosty tent surface with a bare hand at -15 degrees C and found the hand still cold even ten minutes later after wearing a mitten. Such anecdotal evidence makes even the existences of the sheet ceremony all the more impressive.

The nuns were aged between 25 and 52 years old and some performed the forceful variety of gtum-mo and some the more gentle kind. It was reported that the forceful kind could not be sustained for very long, so it was used to warm the body up, after which the gentle type would be used when walking and wearing the wet sheet.

Nuns raised their peripheral temperatures easily by 1.2 to 6.8 degrees C. More importantly the forceful type of gtum-mo raised core body temperature by over a degree. One woman was able to get it higher and only stopped because she felt uncomfortable. Another stopped because she was developing fever symptoms.

If peripheral temperature raising results in a lowering of core body temperature then using techniques to merely warm the hands might actually hasten hypothermia. However, if, as the gtum-mo tests show, you can raise core body temperature and peripheral temperature you have the means to withstand great cold- as the nuns show during their freezing sheet ceremony.

As a control a group of westerners who had some experience of yoga or meditation or kung fu, were taught the gtum-mo technique. Very quickly they were able to show similar effects of raised body temperature as the much more experienced Tibetan nuns. Something that appears mysterious and oriental turns out to be rather ordinary after all. I for one will certainly be using it when I next find myself shaking with cold in some Himalayan fastness.

 

 



[1] Herbert Benson “Body Temperature changes during the practice of gTum-mo yoga” Nature 295 21 Jan 1982

[2] Maria Kozhevnikov March 29 2013 PLoS ONE “Neurocognitive and somatic components of Temperature Increase during g-Tummo meditation”.

 

Wednesday
Feb252015

Some info on the Dalai Lama

In his memoir Seven Years in Tibet Heinrich Harrer records his time as the tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama- who at the time was only 14 years old. Fascinated by the outside world the Dalai Lama has had translated from English into Tibetan a recent seven volume history of WW2. He is mechanically inclined and very adept. Despite not being able to read the endglish instructions the Dalai Lama has taken apart and put back together again the film projector he enjoys using. It seems appropriate that Hollywood should have embraced so wholehearted in later years the cause of the Dalai Lama. He was himself fascinated by film and even shot some early movies himself- along with Heinrich Harrer. HH throws himself wholeheartedly into teaching the Dalai Lama everything he can. A discussion of the atom bomb leads to talk about elements and metals- for which there is no separate word in Tibetan. 

The Dalai Lama recognised all manner of different aeroplanes from his books about the war. Anything mechanical he finds fascinating, though the bulk of his training has been in philosophy and history. He gives Harrer his own lessons in the latter, for which HH seems most grateful. In a moment of modest pride the Dalai Lama shyly shows Harrer an exercise book where he has been attempting to transcribe roman letters. Harrer agrees to teach him English.

In his spare time the Dalai Lama wore a red jacket he had designed himself. He was very proud of it. Copying designs he had seen in books he had incorporated pockets – which are not to be found in any traditional Tibetan garb. Harrer writes: “Now like every other boy of his age he was able to carry about with him a knife, a screwdriver, sweets etc.” He also now kept his coloured pencils and fountain pens in his pockets. He loved clocks and timepieces and had bought, with his own money, an omega calendar clock. Before he attained his majority the only money he had was that which was left at the foot of his throne by well wishers.

Attracted to magic the Dalai Lama explained to Harrer that he was making a study of all the methods by which his conciousness could be in one place but his body would be in another. This is a common magical technique- you find similar spells and references in most magical traditions. Almost certainly it is connected to the much reported Near Death Experience of being able to travel anywhere you please while your body stays in one place. Harrer is rather sceptical and claims he will convert to Buddhism if the Dalai Lama can be in two places at once. And yet, in later life, we see him as such an inveterate traveller, and so spoken about, that it seems by western technology he has achieved the ability to be in many places at once.

 

Friday
Jan302015

Slow-venturing

My Pal Rich Lisney runs a blog called The Bimbler, carried away by his enthusiasm I have been looking at slow-venturing, which, after excursions into zenventuring, looks slightly promising. Of course slowness is far from being the be all and end all, it is merely the alibi for taking a broader, more considered look at a thing. Adventures where you use cars and powerboats or make speed attempts up hills or down dales are all very well…but…they can get a bit boring. It’s the boredom paradox. One teacher I had in Japan made us do aikido moves again and again until you were screaming with boredom, and then, like breaking through a wall, you suddenly comprehended a whole world of subtlety you’d been missing. In an instant it all became fascinating, as if one had suddenly put a higher power lens on the microscope. But fast, initially exciting things soon pall- the first 30 seconds I spent in a jet boat was…wow!!!...and then I was bored: thumpety thumpety thump it went hitting all those predictable waves.

Going from boring to fascinating – long distance walking can offer moments of intense boredom before flashing into mesmerising oneness and everything=interestingness (this new film ‘Wild’ captures this); I think it has something to do with getting into a rhythm. I think we understand the importance of rhythm and alignment but because these things often result in greater speed we think it is speed itself that is the key. You see the appeal of slowness in martial arts where an old master will have far ‘faster’ reactions than a young whippersnapper simply because he is looking further ahead- he ‘aint faster, he’s just seen it coming much earlier because he isn't flustered. A friend of mine once interviewed Michael Schumacher whilst Schumacher was driving- what surprised and interested him was how far ahead along the road this race driver was looking. Most of us are staring at the tarmac a few feet in front of our bonnet – which means things take us by surprise, and require instant reactions.

Thought for the day: don’t act faster, just look further ahead.

Back to slow-venturing. Slow-venturing doesn’t mean being tyrannised by slowness for the sake of it, it means USING initial slow conditions to find a rhythm that suits whatever you are doing, and thus getting ‘outside’ time into the world of ‘flow’ experience.

Here’s a slow-venture: going up stream instead of downstream. Paddling a canoe downstream is actually pretty dull. Unless there are lots of rapids, caves in the cliffs to explore or other side attractions it’s a bit like sitting in the back of the car. But going upstream is a real challenge. And because you’re fighting every inch of the way you get your nose rubbed in the river. You get to know that river better than anyone else. There is however a few ways going downstream is a slow-venture and that is when the river is too shallow for the boat, or too narrow; it slows you down and makes everything more interesting.

To create a slow-venture think of a normal adventure and slow it right down. Take a really heavy rucksack and only walk five miles a day…turn your canoe into a bicycle trailer, load it up and tow it behind your bike. Naturally ultra-fast ‘alpine style’ assaults on mountains are seen as purer than a siege involving miles of fixed rope, ice screws and bolts, and yet part of me admires that ponderous way of climbing. When de Saussure first climbed Mont Blanc he had 18 assorted guides and porters, several ladders and a host of poles, staves and ropes for crossing crevasses and other obstacles.

I like running- pretty slowly I might add- but the idea of running a long distance walk appeals. So surely that means going fast? But, in a way, running when you are in rhythm seems slower than walking in a rush. And of course: increased amount of time for dawdling at tea shops, pubs and standing stones etc.

In a rush: this doesn't mean moving fast, or making split second decisions, it is simply feeling ragged and roughshod ridden and generally stressed out. We all need to be stretched- and slowing down can actually stretch us more by making us look more closely at a thing. But no one needs the strain of being in a rush.

Thursday
Jan292015

De-skilling society

Recently I have been revising my notions about helping people. I mean helping people in the abstract, in the potential sense of the world not the real and immediate sense. It would be perverse not to like having the opportunity to help someone fix a tyre – especially when they admit they’re stumped themselves; or open a stuck jar for a helpless cook; or revise some piece (short hopefully) of hopeful writing by a neophyte. These are all likely to get you thanked - rewarded help you might call it.

Then there's doing stuff you don't like to help others: babysitting, perhaps; or coaching maths that you can barely remember having studied yourself. But at least you're giving someone what they want. 

Unrewarded and unnoticed help too: washing dishes in a house full of inveterate dirty dish leavers, picking up litter, paying for something without telling the person benefiting. 

But there is also the more abstract sort of helping. Putting grit down on the road, providing a waste bin, signposting the nearest town. All very helpful.

 

But a few months ago I was in the Naga hills, an area to the far west of India that borders Burma. Right near the border I visited a village and leaving one house I found myself faced by a short slippery muddy slope to the road. I thought: “If I lived here I’d cut steps here, put in a handrail. What about an old person? They’d have a hard time right now.” But just as I spoke, an aged gent of no less than seventy skipped past me up the slippy slope to the road.

In Indonesia once I’d been in an open truck speeding away when a chap who had told us earlier that he was 75, ran and jumped into the back- a moving truck…

In the Sahara I’ve seen a 67 year old Bedouin sprint up a sand dune and beat a fit looking 17 year old from England.

 

Maybe it starts with cutting the steps in the muddy slope. We don’t really need them. In fact they provide very good exercise in balance and using muscles we don’t normally use. We’ve paved the road and made everything flat- for cars, mainly. And now people suffer from all kinds of foot and knee problems because the human body sure as hell wasn’t designed for walking on uniform flat surfaces. In fact, bar the odd dried up lake bed and limestone pavement I can’t think of any.

 

We need variety in everyday life. We need challenge in everyday life. That muddy slope and the skittery scamper it promises may be just what you need.

But what about wheelchair access? I have a good friend in a wheelchair which he can’t wheel himself. He’s taking the Trans-Siberian railway with his Dad later this year. They’ll need help I’m sure from time to time- real immediate help as opposed to abstract potential help- and they’ll get it. Requiring help is far from being helpless, in fact the ability to elicit aid from others is just as much a skill as getting up a slippery slope unaided. Again, a few months ago, I found myself at 4000 metres and feeling very poorly. I had to give my pack to someone else to carry. I needed help- but so what? We’re not all the same. Naturally If was confined to a wheelchair I'd hate not being able to get around on my own. I'd love every place to have wheelchair access. But try to keep that thought in place without rejecting what I now have to say:

 

If I put the steps in I’m not only removing a good exercise opportunity for myself, I’m removing a challenge for others. Instead of seeing that muddy slope as something primitive, I now see it can be viewed as sophisticated too.

 

.

 

 

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Monday
Jan262015

on the natural tendency of things to reverse their initial intent

Because we live in an upside down world- we think it is made of things and mechanical processes- ttcch- we need to keep reminding ourselves that pushing one thing too hard will result in its reverse happening. Democracy- when pushed too hard results in a kind of brainwash- that we are all the same; sameness becomes over valued and difference marginalised. Instead of breeding tolerance the over reverence for democracy builds an intolerance of others- anyone who is a little different. Of course we institutionalise such things as racism and sexism with good intentions- without realising inevitably these will, in turn, become new forms of intolerance. Democracy is the tyranny of the majority- and just because it's popular doesn't mean it isn't tyrannical.