Blogs inspired by the material taught at the School of Meditation on Holland Park Avenue; The school teaches a philosophy called Advaita Vedanta, literally One without a second. These notes are taken from the material taught at groups early in 2019…
2019’s first session was about letting go and desiring nothing. This, apparently, is the way to contentment.Continue reading →
North Kensington is an area of high economic deprivation with stark contrasts in wealth between the haves and have-nots and creeping gentrification. Neighbouring the conspicuously affluent Notting Hill and Holland Park areas, North Kensington is a livelier, multi-cultural area with large Caribbean, Moroccan and white British communities, among many others. It is the bright glow of North Kensington that reflects so well on its neighbouring districts and attracts the tourists. But the growth of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East is having a profoundly troubling effect on the area as geopolitics collides with family life and a simple explanation for the phenomenon isn’t easy to come by.
In recent times North Kensington has gained media attention with a number of high profile examples of recruitment to ISIS. Internet searches for details of these North Kensington individuals provide plenty of macabre coverage and voyeuristic media fascination. A former classmate of two young fighters wrote a piece expressing his shock at seeing his former friends on television and stated his hope that “If someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back”.
Identifying what turned these local children in to men travelling to Syria and Iraq in the name of “jihad” is no simple task, and I spoke to a number of people in the affected North Kensington community to find out their views and to try to grasp the extent of how what happens in the Middle East affects the communities left behind. All the names have been changed.
‘Muhammad Ali’, a 50 year-old Somali community leader in North Kensington told me that the ISIS phenomenon is a “cause for concern” in his family and he now keeps a close check on his son’s movements and timetable. He says that he believes ISIS attracts those that are “not succeeding” in the UK, but that there are exceptions to this rule.
Muhammad told me about a local Eritrean who he knew throughout the boy’s primary and secondary schooling who ended up going to fight in Syria. He says the boy used to attend Muhammad’s Saturday school for local youth and he saw the boy struggle after his father died of cancer. On seeing that this young man had joined ISIS, Muhammad says that it was “a shock…the mum was in shock, a lot of distress”.
Like all of the people I interviewed, Muhammad pointed out that the ISIS view of Islam is completely un-Islamic: “You can’t kill a civilian, how many times does this need to be in the Qur’an before they understand it? There’s no verse that allows you to kill Shia or kill non-Muslims”.
Muhammad identifies UK foreign policy as a pertinent issue, seeing the spread of ISIS’s reach to the UK as a spillover from the Iraqi Sunni-Shia civil war that was caused by the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq. This has nurtured a sense of victimization of Sunnis, he says, who often feel like they are viewed as second-class citizens in the UK. “Being told you’re a second class citizen, even if you have a degree in medicine (as his son has) is also a factor. I know we already have to work harder than the English, but ISIS affects the poorly educated, the unemployed, those with criminal records, those affected by the police’s stop and search tactics”.
‘Nour’, a middle aged Moroccan community activist who has lived in North Kensington for 17 years, describes the impact on local communities as “devastating. Parents are suffering in silence.” He tells me that local parents have been unable to get their sons’ bodies sent back from the Middle East, saying that he knows the families of Moroccans, Somalis, Syrians and Iraqis aged between 19 and 26 who have travelled to join ISIS.
Nour connects the appeal of ISIS to the materialistic culture of the UK that is especially prevalent in London. By travelling to Syria, these people are offered “money for clothes, for travel, it is a very sophisticated recruitment drive” in which the economic inequality of life in North Kensington “plays a big part.” The average price of a flat in North Kensington is over £600,000, just under one million US Dollars, so the vast majority of young people have no option but to live at home with their families, often in overcrowded accommodation and without realistic prospects for upward social mobility.
Add to this what Nour describes as “an unreal age where these young people don’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s in the digital world” and the fact that the ISIS recruits are “extremely impressionable” and there is the perfect storm for young people to look for a cause to fight for, to “search for an identity as they develop their personalities”.
Nour is critical of sensational media coverage of ISIS, which he suspects may make the group more attractive, but he stated clearly that he thought that to blame UK foreign policy is “an excuse.” He focuses instead on the UK government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy which he says is “failing to talk to Muslim community leaders. They don’t understand the intricacies and don’t seem to have a clue.” He says that the government should instead facilitate the promotion of “real Islam”.
Nour’s approach chimed with the government and media view that these young people are ‘brainwashed’ in to joining ISIS. But 30 year old British Somali ‘Mustapha Bakr’ asked me the rhetorical question: “Some are already radical, so why does the government label them as ‘radicalised’?” He calls this approach “disingenuous”. By blaming a process of ‘radicalisation’ the government don’t have to tackle the fact that there are UK citizens who are already radicalised and ready to go to war. “People would ask them: ‘what are you gonna do about it?’” Mustapha explains, “and the government don’t want to explicitly say that this (ISIS) is Islam, so they use the narrative of preachers of extreme hate”.
In North Kensington, Mustapha says that ISIS recruits, “from the dole (those receiving unemployment benefits) to the well-educated ones, they get trapped in a small world of wanting to do something. With the social cleansing and gentrification of London, they instinctively link this to foreign policy, such as our military aid to Egypt”.
Add to this the “egotistical thing – ‘I need to be the big boy’ – and the fact that these people can’t say what’s on their mind for fear of being labelled ‘radical’ and you have people with fear and resentment of the authorities in London. Then you have white, British guys fighting with the PKK, supporting the Kurds, and they get welcomed home as heroes”.
I asked Mustapha about the cases he has knowledge of in North Kensington. He says that quite a few people have started by seeing the opportunity to do some charity work to help the Syrians, but they then feel a strong urge to act on the injustice they witness. He tells me about a North African resident of North Kensington, who “definitely wasn’t radicalised. He went to Syria. He was a nice guy, he was well educated. You have to speculate about why he went there. Maybe his friends went. Just like that, he was gone. There’s no conveyor belt, and a common denominator isn’t simple to find”.
Not far away, on a housing estate near Latimer Road underground station, British-born Moroccan father-of-three ‘Zico’ tells me that he has seen people from his estate and a friend of his in Morocco go to Syria.
“We used to see this guy on this estate; he was quiet, educated, about 20. He used to say ‘Salaam’ but would never stop to chat. Next thing we knew he’d made a YouTube video and all the reporters came around here. His mum didn’t even know, she thought he was going off to study in Germany.” Why would he join ISIS, I asked Zico. “You have to have some kind of gullibility, to see Syria as ‘my jihad’ or ‘my way to paradise’”.
Zico also identifies anger against UK foreign policy as a cause – “while you’re in other people’s countries slaughtering their people, there’s going to be a backlash” – and says that a “minority” start with a genuine wish to help Syrians in need but a majority probably see no difference between themselves and British soldiers in Iraq, with “an attitude of take no prisoners”.
Of his former friend in Morocco, Zico tells me he was a successful businessman with a large house, who “left everything and went. He died fighting the Kurds three weeks ago. His three brothers and dad went too. He took his wife. Their daughter was born over there and a week later he was killed, it’s deep. Only one brother is left, plus his mum and son.” Zico saw his friend change over time, becoming more introspective. “I thought he was deep in thought about his shop, but it turns out he was thinking about Syria”.
Zico describes the reaction in Morocco as similar to that in North Kensington. “Parents in Morocco are asking the government ‘why are they taking our kids?’” And he identifies poverty as a motivating factor. “Kids in Morocco are on £3 a day, it’s not enough to survive and the internet’s opened up their eyes”.
Zico’s advice to the potential British ISIS recruits: “Do not bite the hand that feeds you…this (the UK) is the best country you can live in. IS? Sharia law? I don’t think they can handle it really. Here, we have the freedom to do all that, we can live as Islamically as we want. You can’t beat freedom”
“And why choose Syria? You can go and live the Sharia life in plenty of countries. Once you go to Syria, you ain’t coming back.” As the balance of power continues to shift in the Middle East, the North Kensington community is experiencing its impact first hand, and the truth of this succinct statement is all too clear. And while the motivations of those joining ISIS may be difficult to fathom, the tragic consequences are not.
“No matter how turbulent life becomes, there always exists an underlying stillness that is available to everybody. Meditation simply leads us to it”.That is the simple and enticing message on the home page of the School of Meditation website.Similarly, an excellent radio programme on meditation used the phrase Don’t just do something, sit there to advise people on how to use meditation to cope with busy, overwhelming lives.
Following up these leads, there are ample podcasts and articles extolling the multiple benefits of meditation. Some of these sources focus on the small, subtler effects, while others emphasise the potential for spiritual enlightenment and self realisation.
Your two authors, both healthily sceptical new meditators, had a brainstorming session and come up with a few thoughts of our own. We found it useful to try to capture the impact of meditating while the concepts and practice were still fresh, before the benefits had become internalised and part of our normal lives. We found plenty of common experiences, thoughts and feelings.
Meditation has helped stop the cycle of repeated, anxious thoughts. While both of us believed that meditation somehow involved thinking deeply in the contemplation of existential dilemmas, we found that the opposite was true; the act of meditating is simply letting go and just being. The results may be more profound, but the physical act couldn’t be simpler: just sit in a chair.
As repetitive, anxious, multi-tasking thoughts have reduced there has been a sharp increase in mindfulness and focus. Our thoughts have been calmer and sharper, finding their natural time and space, rather than having to fit in to the proscribed regimen of a to-do list. Like us, many people report feel lighter and more energised as a result of meditation.
Meditation also creates space for more pleasant, creative thoughts and there is a spike in idle, happy day dreaming, which has been allocated more space to operate.
Doing nothing is anathema for busy people and at first sitting for just five minutes was excruciating. Doesn’t sitting and doing nothing constitute avoidance bordering on the irresponsible? On the contrary, meditation allows you to acknowledge thoughts and feelings, then let them go, depriving them of their power to dominate you.
There is then less focus on how things should be and acceptance of how things actually are.
The real fruits of meditation come when you re-engage with the world again in the hours and days after meditating with more perspective and with a renewed sense of bravery and willingness to engage with life.
One of the biggest positives we discussed was that our empathy has increased. This is turned outwards to others; the calm that has replaced over-thinking allows us to better judge the moods and needs of other people, freed from viewing them only in the context of our own concerns. Empathy is also turned inwards and the sensitivity shown to others is replicated in the renewed sensitivity we can show ourselves as our awareness of our own inner world increases.
So what happens when you meditate? At first the chattering in your head continues. Veteran meditators of many decades report that the chattering never completely goes, but with practise it dissipates. Often, incessant chatter in the first few minutes of meditation is replaced by calm, deep meditation over the subsequent minutes. If you are unable to meditate because of overwhelming stress or unstoppable chat in your head, experts advise you to just give up and try again later.
We found our scepticism had been based on false assumptions. Was there something religious about meditation? Was it religion for the non-religious? While all religions promote the practise of meditation, there is also plenty of evidence rooted in science about its benefits. One of the participants on the four week meditation course was a GP who had been advised to research stillness and mindfulness in order to best advise her patients.
Our scepticism defeated, our open-mindedness could be rewarded. Meditation is free and always with you. It has the multiple small and subtle benefits we have described, which combine to create profound changes. There is also a physical aspect to meditation; stillness is a pleasant feeling, relaxing and slowing; you emerge refreshed. When meditating with others, the experience is enhanced. Does the intensity increase because you know other people are there? Or is there something more mystical at work? We remain too sceptical to make a judgement on that one just yet.
At the School of Meditation on Holland Park Avenue, regular open evenings and short courses are available. There are other local meditation centres, in Shepherds Bush, Kensal Rise, Queens Park and others all easily findable on the internet.
The Holland Park School is in a building with a distinct sense of peace and a long history rooted in centuries old Indian tradition; the school can be contacted here, with a wealth of information available in its publications or from arranging a visit, which we strongly recommend…