Our most savvy readers will know the name Mark Forstater in connection with Monty Python. Mark is also extremely experienced in yoga and mediation techniques. He’s recently released the CD The Age of Anxiety: A Guided Meditation for the Financially Stressed (available online).
We reached out to Mark hoping that he might be kind enough to find the time for a quick Q&A session with In Pure Spirit and to our absolute delight – he agreed!
You produced the most fantastic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Thank you. Did your interest in yoga and meditation begin before your exposure to the Monty Python crew?
My interest in matters spiritual and philosophical started in 1972 when my first wife worked in the Acumedic shop in Camden Town. This was the first Traditional Chinese Medical establishment in London and its bookshop at the time consisted of one of those revolving racks of paperbacks. Here I discovered Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and started my love affair with Taoism.
I think I had picked up a copy of The Tao Te Ching in the early 60s when I was at university in the states, but I remember being completely mystified by it. It wasn’t until the 70s when I had done more reading (and perhaps more living) that I started to get a glimmer of what the book was about.
All of this was just reading and thinking, intellectual stuff only, and there were no practices associated with this interest. That all started in 1989 when my second wife decided I should learn to meditate. I started with TM, moved into Buddhist meditation and then Taoist, and along the way added other practices such as Tai Chi, Hatha Yoga, self-massage etc.
In Pure Spirit believes that old, even ancient, wisdom can still sometimes be applicable to today’s hustle and bustle. What’s your view on this?
I believe that you should take the word ‘sometimes’ out of the above sentence. Ancient wisdom is no different than present day wisdom, and it gives us the same aid in living as the ancients achieved. Although our technology has drastically changed, what it is to be human has not changed, and so we live through the same emotions today that the ancients felt. People have always lived through the discriminating mind, looking mainly for advantage for themselves. Hence the quest for fame, wealth, power, and sex are the same today as they were in the past. Clinging or attachment to desire is the root of our suffering, as the Buddha said, and this has not changed. So we can look to ancient wisdom as a kind of spiritual medicine for the illnesses that we suffer from – the old problems of ignorance and delusion.
As the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 22) says,
Of old it was said ‘yield and overcome’.
Are these hollow words?
Once you completely conquer your self,
All things return to you.
Another translation of the same chapter:
The old saying
‘crippled becomes whole’
Is not empty words.
It becomes whole and returns.
Becoming whole; conquering the self. This has always been the aim. If we can do this, we live better, healthier and happier.
Is there anyone alive today who you think comes close to the likes of Confucius or Lao Tzu?
It’s obvious that the Dalai Lama is an incredible human being and he must bear comparison to the old sages of China. We know of him because of the political role he plays in Tibetan society, but there must be many other sages who have decided to stay hidden. We don’t know who they are since they have not tried to market themselves or create celebrity cults around themselves like so many of today’s gurus.
What’s your view on techniques like yogalates which claim to borrow parts from yoga and Pilates?
Yoga is over 5,500 years old, and Pilates just over 50. Yoga is a practice designed to control the mind and increase spiritual awareness, while Pilates was devised to help dancers strengthen their body. For most people today, Yoga is also a body culture, an exercise regime to keep the body healthy and supple. So there is no problem in combining two body-oriented practices like Yoga and Pilates to create a new synthesis. But where has the spiritual part of Yoga gone?
The yoga asanas were originally a preparation for meditation. You could say the asanas, especially the cross-legged sitting postures, were designed for meditation, but meditation has become a very small part of contemporary yoga.
Why did you decide to produce The Age of Anxiety CD?
I had three reasons to produce The Age of Anxiety, and they are all mixed together in my life. Firstly, there is a pure and selfless reason, which is to use my knowledge and experience to help other people who are suffering. If only a handful of people find the CD of use and it helps them to gain some control over their emotions and deal more effectively with their financial and other problems, then I will be happy. Secondly, there was a desire on my part to create a new audio, one in which I used my voice and mind to make something that was an expression of my own life experience. This was prompted partly by a crisis in my life, my separation from my second wife. Thirdly I have had some success with people downloading the audios of my previous books, and I wanted to add a new audio to my collection. This is the financial reason, number three.
Do you have a view on the credit crunch? Has this crisis been caused by greed or is this the ‘natural’ ebb and flow of the economy?
I think the ‘natural’ ebb and flow of the economy has been magnified many times over by the effect of instantaneous digital communication, so that whereas before we had booms and slumps, like the 20s and 30s, now the highs and lows are both exaggerated by the instant trading that takes place. So the possibility of more economic crises in the future is very great.
The banking system operates though greed, and as long as the capitalist system remains in place, then there will be recurrences of the financial crises that we are currently experiencing. The banks now know that their profits (and bonuses) are theirs to keep, while any losses can be passed on to the rest of us. This can only encourage more toxic investments in the future.
What are your top tips for coping with stress and anxiety?
There are two ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. One is an immediate help which deals with the symptoms, but leaves the basis of the anxiety unchanged, and the other is a longer term plan to get rid of the underlying causes of fear and anxiety.
When we are stressed out or feeling anxious, the first thing to do is to sit or lie down and just breathe into our belly slowly, deeply and calmly. That immediately slows down our system, alters our heart rate, and begins to calm the nervous system. Once the breath becomes more settled, then the body and mind settle as well.
Anxiety involves three interlocking symptoms- a confusion or chaos of thoughts and feelings in the mind, the stress response from the hormones and nervous system, and a disruption of breathing. Since the breath is the link between body and mind, settling the breath allows the body and mind to also settle.
In the long term, the aim is to transform fear and anxiety into something more like courage. To do this, we have to permanently alter all three of our interlocking systems- body, breath and mind. Those of us suffering from anxiety and fear have locked old emotions and traumas into our body in the form of tension and blockages. The way to remove them is to work on our own psychology (how our mind works, what these fears represent, how and when they arose), on our breath (aiming to free our respiratory system through belly breathing) and on our body (through massage, self-massage yoga etc). All of these must be done at the same time, with the intention of uprooting these old tensions and feelings. It is through meditation in particular that we can examine our mind, alter our breath, and free our body. This is a practice that will take some time, but it’s better to get rid of the causes of anxiety than just to keep dealing with the symptoms.
Do we have a responsibility to try and conduct our own lives in a way which minimises the stress we might cause others?
We have a responsibility first to ourselves, and then to other people. If we can’t solve the problem of self, and help to eliminate our own stress, then we will not be successful in minimising the stress we cause to others. If we can establish well-being and peace in our own lives, then we naturally extend this to all those we come in contact with.
In Pure Spirit
If you’d like to tap into Mark’s wisdom then we recommend checking out The Age of Anxiety online.
What do you think of the points Mark makes. Do you agree?
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