Odin and the Buddha

Watching the fine documentary about the life of the Buddha that premiered Wednesday,7th April 2010,on Public Television (PBS.org) in the USA, I was moved by many elements of the Buddha's life story and message, but by one aspect above all: the emphasis on compassion in Buddhism. This is seen not simply as an ethical teaching--that it is nice to be nice to other people and living beings--but also as a crucial spiritual practice, that helps us to feel more connected to others in the world, and to the world in general, and to thus get beyond our egotistical selves. This spiritual dimension of connectedness and compassion is something that I find missing in most modern Norse Paganism, and I suspect that it is not well-developed in other forms of Paganism too. I see this as a failing both of Pagan spirituality and Pagan ethics, but I believe it can be remedied.

There is a lot of discussion of ethics in Norse Paganism or Asatru, but much of it revolves around the idea of warrior honor and loyalty to one's family and tribe. I don't doubt that these are good values, but I still see them as inadequate in comparison to the Buddhists' larger sense of connectedness and compassion, which is also echoed in other religious traditions, and might even be said to represent a universal human value.

Is there any basis in Norse Pagan lore for inferring anything like a concept of universal compassion? Certainly there is no direct statement of any such thing. On this basis, it might be deemed justifiable to reject this whole idea, and I don't doubt that some Norse Pagans might reach that conclusion on reading my words.

The closest direct parallel to a concept of compassion is the discussion of the importance of hospitality. There were a number of thoughtful essays on this topic in the latest issue of Idunna , the Troth.org publication. The viewpoints on hospitality in Idunna and elsewhere in modern Norse Paganism tend to emphasize being a good host to visitors and reciprocity ("a gift for a gift," as this is often expressed) in relation to others within one's own circle of close and trusted associates.

Since we live in a world where we must interact and share the common social space with many others, not only people who we know well or might identify as our "tribe," I find this interpretation of hospitality intriguing and illuminating of the original medieval context of Norse writings, but ultimately insufficient both as a moral guidepost and as a spiritual practice.

Let me therefore explain how I see other possibilities inherent in Norse Pagan lore and traditions.The Norse text that probably contains the most discussion of hospitality is the Eddic poem the Havamal. There is much here about how a person should should behave cautiously as a guest and graciously as a host. The text clearly speak to a medieval world of dangerous conditions where travelers were much at the mercy of those they encountered. The text repeatedly states how good it is to find a friend, to make a friend, to maintain friendship through mutual caring and sharing. Nowhere does this poem state that one should limit their friendships to those within one's own tribe, village or kingdom. In fact, the idea of travelers relying on hospitality suggests a larger view of human relations, with the expectation that one might easily find themselves in a larger social universe and needing to behave in that larger community in such a way as to merit respect and protection. The text also says much about the need to protect oneself in potentially dangerous situations, so this is not all sweetness and light, but the focus is on protecting oneself, not attacking or provoking others.

I would therefore argue that there are thus at least two ways to interpret this text as regards social relations and hospitality. One way, which I have found often expressed among today's Heathens, is a conservative, suspicious view of the social universe, stressing the need to be on guard, ready to defend one's property, honor and person, hand on the hilt, finger on the trigger. Hospitality in this perspective is to be limited to those who prove worthy of close companionship. My own, alternative way of interpreting the text is to see it as arguing for the benefits of securing an ever-wider circle of friendly relations through behaving graciously and honorably both as guest and as host, whether at home in one's own neighborhood, or anywhere else one might travel to.

Having lived in different countries and not always been sure where I stood with those I met or broke bread with, I can certainly vouch for the practical value of this viewpoint. Beyond that, though, I perceive in this the kernel of a notion of universal compassion and self-transcendence. We are all vulnerable creatures in need of others' help from time to time; and we all have the opportunity, if not indeed the obligation, to treat well, and if possible provide assistance to those whose paths cross our own, both for the practical fact that good relations may redound to our benefit in the future, but also because it is the right thing to do by any reasonable moral analysis of the human condition that goes beyond simple selfishness and greed. Considering our mutual vulnerability and dependence can help us develop compassion, not unlike that preached by the Buddha. And, just as compassion in Buddhism serves as both moral value and spiritual discipline, this expanded sense of hospitality can connect us to a larger world that brings us beyond our everyday, limited view of who we are and who we belong to or are obligated toward.

Of course, this is just one man's view of how Norse Pagan lore MIGHT be interpreted and its meaning expanded upon in a certain direction. I would never claim this is the only meaning or "the" true meaning. We must each make of these things what we will, and I do not scorn or blame those who disagree with my thinking or sit back, shake their heads and laugh at my words. As your host on this page, I encourage you to enjoy yourselves as you see fit. Have a laugh on me if you like.

I would however offer certain additional points in favor of my "Buddhistic" version of Norse Pagan morality. It seems to me that in the mythology of Odin, there are hints that can lead us to such a broader view of morality, self and universe.
Odin is first of all a constantly wandering god who acquires much of his wisdom and abilities through interaction with other beings in the universe. He does not stay at home, sitting on his throne, safely protected behind the walls of Asgard, and close off his relations to those outside his tribe or circle of trusted associates. He is always open, always voyaging, always learning. If we take this aspect of Odin as any kind of moral signpost, it is one which points us away from closed or narrow conceptions of our place in the world.

Then there is the myth of the death of Odin's son, Baldur. Without the warrior bravado that is indeed quite common in Norse mythology, this death is presented as a terrible tragedy that is an occasion for deep mourning. Indeed, the Prose Edda version of the myth tells us that if all living beings had shared in weeping for Baldur, he might have been saved from death, but a grim giantess, the trickster Loki in drag disguise, refused to cooperate, and so Baldur stayed among the dead in hell (Hel). What is this tale if not a provocative illustration of the need for universal compassion?

Of course, the narrow-minded could argue that the myth only tells us that the death of Baldur merited widespread tears; perhaps in the case of others, their suffering or death is of no concern, and we should all just take care of our own and to Hel with everybody else. This seems to me an extremely hard-hearted, if not thick-headed view of the text, and so I prefer the alternate view, seeing this incident as another possible Norse kernel of compassion.

My third example is of Odin's shamanistic self-torture on the tree of Yggdrasil, slashing and hanging himself in nine days and nights of agony in order to receive the magical wisdom of the runes. Why does he undergo such a wretched ordeal? To get the wisdom, of course, but what, and who is this wisdom for? It is to be shared with others, to help mankind and perhaps other beings as well. Killing and then reviving himself, he transcends himself, with the ultimate goal of aiding others. This parallels both Christ on the cross, as often noted, but also Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Similarly, his position as the master of the warrior-hall of Valhalla is ultimately for the purpose of protecting mankind. Of course, the warriors there gathered are practicing the arts of war, not chanting Buddhist sutras, but the ultimate aim is to save the world, not to win glory or goods in war. As Odin has foreknowledge of the world's destiny, it would seem he knows that the whole enterprise is doomed to failure, Odin himself fated to fall against the Wolf, but he persists in preparing nonetheless. In this, he is like a Bodhisattva who undergoes self-sacrifice for the sake of others, even if the others may be deluded, unreasonable, or self-destructive.

And in the end, the world is miraculously renewed, but it is not restored by force of arms. The great battle is unsuccessful, the greatest warriors fail, but after all who fight have fallen and all seems lost, the world reemeerges, fresh and green. There is hope beyond war. I would argue that this sequence of events might even represent a critique of war, suggesting that war can destroy the world, for sure, but it cannot save it.

On this point, I would note that most people in the Viking period were not glorious warriors, but farmers, craftsmen and fishermen, who might well have dreaded rather than glorified war and violence. They might have enjoyed Viking war poems and myths in much the same way your average Joe today enjoys watching war movies and police programs, as colorful, larger-than-life entertainments, but not necessarily as a serious guide as to how to conduct themselves in daily life. I find it quite interesting that Thor, the most macho of Norse gods, the god who is famous for crushing giants' skulls with his hammer, is also the god who receives the most mocking and humorous treatment in such texts as the Thrymskvida . His hammer is oddly short in the handle, a little bit lacking in a way that Dr. Freud might find most interesting. Perhaps this also tells us something about alternate views of violence and war in the imagination of the authors and audiences of the Norse myths. Also, laughing is known to induce a sense of common human foibles and frailty, another step on the path to compassion.

These are just a few hints that I feel suggest the possibility of a moral system in Norse paganism that was, is and can be more than just tribal ethics or a code of warrior honor, as Norse Pagan morality is often taken to be, but include a vision of the world animated by a self-transcending sense of compassion, like other great religious traditions.

I would not deny at all that my interpretations here push Norse Paganism beyond what it is commonly thought to be. This is definitely not a strict and traditionalist reading, and I do not pretend that it is such. I believe this expansion and amplification of the meaning of Pagan tradition is, however, justifiable in light of a critical historical fact: that the natural development of Norse Paganism was interrupted at a rather early point by the rise to dominance of Christianity in Europe. I believe that the strongly martial character of many Norse texts may have more to do with the social conditions of the late Pagan age, when war with Christian forces was an overwhelming reality, than an essentially warlike cast to Norse Paganism. The points in the myths where war fails, where the war gods are ridiculous, where there is laughter and weeping, suggest something more to me. I furthermore would assert the view that if Norse Paganism had been able to survive the Christian onslaught and continue to develop in conditions of peace and tolerance, it would have taken on new forms and embraced a larger view of the world, a world beyond war and conflict, in which the more spiritual and compassionate sides would have been given greater play.

Today, we have the opportunity to undertake such further development, to start imagining further extensions and directions, including borrowing from other traditions and perspectives, possibly even Buddhism. Though the more traditional minded might find this heretical, I would point out that there is indeed precedence for such borrowing. The Germanic tribes and Vikings borrowed much from the Roman world, including the runes, which many scholars believe to have been modeled on the Roman alphabet. The gods' mighty fortress of Asgard may well have been modeled on the then-impregnable fortress of Constantinople, where King Harald served in the bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor for a time. Most interestingly, a small Buddhist figurine was found in a Viking hoard in Sweden in the eighth century, no doubt acquired through Viking trading across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Though it was most likely simply collected as an exotic bauble, perhaps there was something more to it than that?

Make of it what you will.


Just patient.....

Reluctantly and with great regret I made the decision yesterday to stand down as candidate in the upcoming election.

There were many reasons for this and I won't go into them her or now but I daresay I'll come back to them all one day.

The next four weeks are going to be very difficult for me, but with my illness they were going to be anyway- I don't need to look for anything else.

So whilst my political colleagues- and I mean all of you, from all persausions- even the wrong ones and the very wrong ones *resists tempatation to specify* are out pounding the streets I will be working just as hard on something that I dare to suggest is just as important- myself.

Thanks to everyone who has contacted me to wish me well and whatever you are doing in the upcoming election I wish you well (unless you are a tory or a nat obviously!)

Political Patient

So without being actually able to categorically say it, here we are, on the eve of the day that was supposed to signal a good time for me, a great time. It is widely expected that tomorrow, Gordon Brown will call a general election.

Those of you who know me well and probably those of you who don't even know me very well will know that I am an all or nothing kind of girl, I don't do anything by halves. I suspect I am the first Labour PPC in North East Fife (12500 Lid-Dem majority) that stood up at a selection hustings and said-

"many people say that North East Fife is an unwinnable seat for Labour- I disagree, we just haven't won it yet and I believe I can help us do it."

Now I wasn't big headed or foolish enough to believe that my 4 years spent on various committees, boards and groups, writing press releases on beach cleaning, lamppost design, dog fouling and school buildings, painting planters on roundabouts, cleaning litter from schools, serving tea and sandwiches to pensioners, familiarising myself with the Local Plan and learning more about planning regulations than is healthy was going to be enough to convince the voters of North east Fife to do the right thing on May 6th (or whenever). But I was passionate about my role and absolutely determined to do the right thing by the people I sought to represent. I love elections and I was particularly looking forward to this one.

I don't want to turn this blogpost into a party political broadcast, I want to use it to tell an uncomfortable truth- but at the same time I'd hate to miss the chance to say this.

I really believe that the people of North East Fife have put up far too long with a reputation that perpetuates the image of the constituency as a giant holiday village or a rural suburb of Edinburgh. The truth is we are beset by the same housing, employment and social problems as Central and West Fife.

Scotland's oldest university on your doorstep makes no difference if you leave school at 16 with no qualifications. Blue flag beaches in the neighbouring town are great if you have the time, money and transport to enjoy them.

We are in the grip of a housing crisis all over North east Fife and communities are struggling daily with problems caused by anti-social behaviour, poverty and drug and alcohol misuse.

North east Fife is "not deprived" enough to attract much in the way of funding to establish projects and initiatives to help communities, groups, families and individuals combat these problems in fact it has been an effort to get recognition that these issues even exist.

I live in North East Fife and I make no secret of my adoration for my adopted home but I know it's not the utopia it's painted as, I know it's the same as everywhere else. I really believe the people of North East Fife deserve someone to stand up for them in Parliament, to make things better- for the many, not the few.

And there endeth the lesson! Now on to the real reason for my post and the reason there haven't been any others.

Those of you who read my blog will know that at the end of October last year, the Non-Political parent decided to end our seemingly lovely coalition, I'm not going to rehash it, you can read all about it below.

This event proved to be the catalyst for one of the most devastating things I have ever faced and something that will change who I am and what I do, how I see the world and how the world sees me. That's if I ever willingly leave my house again!

Now true to form, I will start in pedantic mode as the definition I am about to use for what I have been through is actually meaningless and isn't in fact a clinical term, but I think it will serve to explain to those of you that haven't had the extensive education I have had in the last few months about such things.

I had a nervous breakdown (at least once!)

As devastating a 'diagnosis' as that may seem I don't think it comes close to describing the pain, fear, sadness and uncertainty that I have experienced lately.

I don't want to go into the various diagnoses that have been punted my way recently, I want to use this as an opportunity to 'come out' I suppose. What my labels may or may not be isn't important, but what this experience has taught me about myself, others and mental health is.

What has it taught me about myself? Well I had neglected my mental and emotional health, as many of us do. My coping strategies for dealing with stress were not mentally healthy and I'm assured it was only a matter of time before I ended up where I am now- reluctantly, I concur!

Something I'm much less comfortable about is that my own experience has shone a light on my prejudices- prejudices I believed I didn't have, being a good lefty and all that.

I was ashamed in a way I wouldn't have been if I had been incapacitated by a physical illness or accident, I hid and lied as I was unable to say "I am depressed" partly because me being anything seems to scare people- I've spent 30-odd years being "Zoe" but also because I had derided depression and was one of the "yeah, get over it" or if it's really bad "yeah, take drugs and get over it" brigade.

Don't get me wrong I don't generally lack compassion I just never realised how debilitating depression could be. I have had brief dalliances with depression in the past but my determination to "get a grip and get over it" whatever dodgy coping strategies I employed seemed like a good enough answer. It wasn't.

I'm not ashamed now to say that I have mental health problems *noise of future career in politics being flushed down the toilet* but I am ashamed of my previously held beliefs. I'm not quite at the point yet where I can say I'm glad my misconceptions have been challenged in this way but I will be.

My recent illness has taught me a lot about other people and their reaction to mental health too. Those I have 'come out' to assure me that if anyone can beat this I can. Whilst I'm delighted by their optimism, this statement often belies a need from others for me to go back to being who I was before. The truth is I will never be who I was before- who I was before was very efficient but not particularly happy, balanced or healthy.

Living in what is essentially a giant village and having a bit of a public profile is difficult as well. The receptionist at the local (brand new Labour built) hospital could barely hide her surprise when I turned up for my psychiatrist appointment- she hasn't looked me in the eye when I've booked in for the subsequent ones and I dread running into someone that wants to talk about planning, green belt or housing when the only contact I have with the outside world is watching Glee on a Monday.

Obviously my timing sucks so I've had to share some details of my health problems with local party members. Again, for the most part members have been sympathetic but I am 'the candidate' and I promised to do a job and there is a huge expectation that one day soon the drugs will kick in and I'll be facing Ming and Miles at a farming hustings in no time. as much as I'd like this to be the case- it's unlikely. I am getting better but it takes more than medication- it takes time and help.

It's too late now for me not to be 'the candidate' but I will not be the candidate I promised to be. What I would like is for others to see just what an achievement it will be if I can make it to the count with a smile on my face, an air of calm and a freshly ironed rosette- that's my goal. If it helps- imagine I did have a bad accident at the beginning of November!

I am currently absent from work and generally out of the loop. One of the hardest things is admitting I can't do it, I need to recover. I haven't read a newspaper for months let alone followed local, national and UK politics in the way only we political anoraks do! I miss it and I'm still vain enough to hope it misses me.

Again, many of you have proved to be great friends, at a time when I have been less than communicative- I haven't Tweeted in over two months and my Facebook status has been static too. I don't answer my phone (nothing new there!) and again email is my friend. I'd like to say thanks to those of you who have kept in touch.

I missed Scottish Conference and I am devastated that I am missing out on the election. If I'm honest I'm dreading the 'starting gun' being fired tomorrow or whenever. I am bombarded daily with emails from the party, assured that the following days and weeks will bring more emails, texts messages and even conference calls- at a time when I have to put 'get up, get dressed' on my to-do list (and today I have yet to do it- it's 3pm). I have come a long way on my recovery journey but I still have a long way to go.

Just in case you were all worried that I'd turned my back on politics completely, I will now seek to reassure you.

When I am better, NHS Fife and the Scottish Government will be sorry! I am astonished and disgusted by mental health care provision (or rather lack of it) it's a system that just can't cope and nobody seems in a hurry to do much about it. Accessing services seems to depend a lot on health professionals 'doing each other favours' and squeezing patients in where they can. The waiting list to see a psychologist in Fife is 9 months!

Specialist treatment for some conditions is based on outdated qualification criteria- imagine a heroin addict being told they don't take enough heroin to qualify for rehab and you have a good idea of what it's been like to be told that however sick you are you're not sick enough to get the treatment you need. Inpatient treatment provision is poor and generally believed, within the profession to be detrimental at best for most patients due to quality and type of care available.

Mental health problems tend to be very pervasive- in my case the children have had to go and live with the Non-Political parent (aka The Catalyst/That Bastard) away from their home, schools and friends as I am unable to care for them. I am not at work and the longer my illness continues the worse the effects become- not just on me but on others too.

NHS Fife are in no hurry to provide me with the services I need to get well and, comrades, to my shame, I wished I had private medical insurance in order to access the treatment I need- now.

I am lucky that I have a very good GP and have been blessed with a fantastic CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and without them I wouldn't have got as far as I have but they are as frustrated by the fight for services as I am. It is difficult not to feel hopeless in the face of it all.

I am analogising as I don't want to publish my medical details but lets just say I currently have a broken leg- I was referred to someone to have it plastered on the 30th of November- I have an appointment for the 17th of May. There is no consideration for the effects of this delay on my family or job. This all comes at a time when I am least able to be my own advocate- if this was happening to anyone else I would be campaigning on their behalf.

So there you go, I am ill, not as ill as I was but a long way off being well. It's taken ages for me to come to terms with my illness, its effects and implications but I'm getting there and going public is all part of that process.

So this election will largely pass me by and I am heartbroken.

I would like to wish all my fellow PPC's, MP's and activists lots of luck and energy for the campaign and I would like to apologise to everyone for the awful timing of my illness but I will be back at some point. Hopefully better for the experience.

Finally, any mental health organisations looking for a very hard-working, sympathetic lobbyist can contact me via the blog- though you may want to wait a little while!