Monday, 21 April 2014

A Northern Goddess

As a Work Exchange Volunteer at Easter Bhakti Gathering, a weekend spiritual festival in the South of England, I wasn’t entitled to a bed in a dorm. Instead I was expected to sleep on the hard floor of a beautiful wood-panelled dining room which turned out to be, essentially, an oversized fridge. I’d borrowed an inflatable mattress but, regardless of the effort my fellow roomie and I put in to get the thing pumped up, it was having none of it and, in frustration and exhaustion, I gave in and slept on my yoga mat.

Well, I say, “slept” but you should read “shivered with cold and discomfort”. Boy, did I feel sorry for my little self. I was feeling so miserable with the pain of the hard floor that colluded with the sub-zero night-time temperature to ensure I didn’t get any sleep, that I actually cried with self-pity. And you know when you can’t sleep and you get to thinking? Well, I got to thinking.

I got to thinking of something I always push to the back of my mind in the hope that it’ll go away: of how agonising it is that I can’t imagine myself having children. You see, the model I see all around me of parenting is nothing short of horrific: babies bawling relentlessly for hours; bad tempered children playing up in public places; depressed, disconnected teenagers skipping school to get wasted; disillusioned university graduates working jobs they hate; knackered parents at the end of their tether from frustration and a lack of sleep and/or money; state schools with teachers forced to focus on academic results instead of the pupils’ needs; a society that divides us and makes us compete with each other… and a pharmaceutical industry raking it in from the catastrophic mental health problems created from this highly dysfunctional system.

Who in their right mind would want to bring a child into this? Not me, that’s for certain. I couldn’t do that to myself, let alone to another human being. “Where do I go from here?” I silently but desperately asked the air around me. “What’s the answer?” I admit I felt lower than I’ve felt in a very long time, and was certain I was asking in vain. My thoughts were broken by the squawking sound of a baby coming from the mountain of duvet in the corner of the room. I’d got in bed late with the lights off and hadn’t seen who else was in the room. “Terrific,” I thought. “With a baby in here, sleep is definitely out of the question.” But that was pretty much all I heard – two squawks and nothing else all night. Unusual, for sure.

By dawn I felt like hell. My back was hurting from the floor and I’d barely slept in the struggle to keep warm. I tried, half-heartedly, to join in with the singing in the kirtan marquee but I just wasn’t feeling it so ended up slumping in the chai tea tent not wishing to connect with anyone because I’m not the same as these people, you see, and we have nothing in common. Even the event organiser is a married Asian woman with a phenomenally cute young baby and a wonderful husband who plays tabla (hand drums) to accompany the singing – so, other than the event organising thing, she and I are dramatically different.

My roomie who’d tried to help with the stupid mattress that wouldn’t inflate came to sit opposite me in the chai tent and she looked a bit blue. Turns out her back was hurting from the hard floor and she’d barely slept for shivering all night from the cold. Hm, OK, perhaps I could relate to her... She's in her early 20s. I found out she was brought up in a community where everyone looked after everyone else and she was home-schooled until her early teens when she then went to a Steiner school. This bright, young thing left school with no qualifications, not because she couldn’t get the grades (she was well spoken and clearly intelligent) but because her particular school didn’t offer them! Instead, they’d go camping in the woods, they’d learn crafts such as how to build an outdoor stove, how to live sustainably, make clothes, grow food, and their creativity and well-being were the main focuses of their education. She now works in an ethical, organic establishment which sits beautifully in line with her own values. She told me that those of her classmates who wanted to go to uni did so and having no formal qualifications was of no hindrance to them. She “loved school” (I’ve never in my life heard anyone say that!), stays in touch with the teachers (what?!) and regularly goes back there to help out with lessons. (Wild horses couldn’t get me back through the gates of Crossley and Porter Grammar School! I winced just typing that.)

My roomie and I hung out a bit discussing ways of getting ourselves a cosier sleeping environment which ranged from simply asking them to put the radiators on to sneaking all the blankets off the chai tent sofas to sloping into dorms looking for spare beds. (We went with the radiator thing but by some miraculous twist of fate, I ended up with a bed in a dorm next to a warm radiator and spent the whole night in blissful gratitude for something that I would normally take for granted – I sure noticed the lesson in that.)

During my time in the chai tent I was entertained with card tricks from little girls, eavesdropped on stories told by excited and breathless little boys about what they found in the woods, and met the chilled out 6 month old baby girl (who had failed to compound my belief about babies and sleep), and her beautiful older siblings. Their family lives in a community in Wales where they share home-schooling and practise non violent communication. I also chatted with a fabulously sexy and colourful character (it’s rare I can use those words to describe a mum, it’s more often “tired and frumpy”) who is learning Shakti dancing and plans to go and teach it in Goa at the end of the year. Her young teenage daughter can’t wait to visit India to experience the culture.

By the third day, I had stopped wandering aimlessly trying to “bed in” and began to feel some genuine love for and connection with the people around me. I felt grounded and finally joined in wholeheartedly with the ceremonies. I helped to create a mandala (symbolic picture of the Universe) from rose petals and sang my heart out to the devotional music of Tim Chalice which, I have to mention publicly, just speaks to me.

And it was while Tim’s music connected me with the Universe and everyone around me, while I sang with such eternal happiness that tears soaked my cheeks and dripped off my jaw onto my lap and I didn’t care, that the penny just dropped like a bag of gold coins from heaven.

I glanced over at the organiser’s husband with his happy baby on his lap while he played the drums, I looked at his wife singing and swaying also with tears in her eyes, I watched the home-schooling mum dancing with her children around her, I noticed the sexy Shakti dancer rest her head emotionally on the man next to her. And I saw a new model. I looked sideways at my roomie sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, a shining example of the end result of this model of creative, nurturing, non-violent, self-sustainable community parenting brought about by two spiritually wide-awake parents. Right here was the answer to my conundrum.

I sat there in timelessness, as I let go of the repressed agony and my heart swam in joy at the realisation that I could do this – I could be a parent. Me.

At that moment I felt a trickle of blood escape and realised I’d entered my menstrual cycle. Then, as the music subsided, all the children - some dressed as bunnies - entered centre stage carrying chocolate eggs. I laughed and sobbed at the same time. Of course: the egg and the rabbit, symbols of woman’s fertility; and Easter, its roots in the Pagan festival of Ostara, a celebration of Eostre, the Northern goddess of fertility!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Analysing the finger

Before I begin I need to make it clear that it’s not my intention to “bash” or promote any spiritual path – we all must follow our own yellow brick road – I’m simply offering my observations and I know there are others with an entirely different perspective. And that’s fine. But this is going to be controversial, so hold onto your hat…

I’ve spent a decent amount of time around Buddhists in different locations, and the same with followers of Osho, and the stark differences between the behaviours of these two groups claiming a path to spiritual enlightenment is nothing short of staggering. 

Obviously I have to generalise here as not all Buddhist followers are alike, and not all Osho followers are alike but there are some very strong and noticeable themes in the overwhelming majority of those whom I’ve encountered, and I believe this is owing to the main types of meditations they practise. 

I must clarify at this stage that those I’ve met who tell me they follow “Zen Buddhism” do not seem to show quite the same characteristics as the other Buddhists I’ve met – they seem a lot more serious and a lot less joyous (sorry, but they do!) – and I can’t speculate why this is as I know nothing whatsoever about Zen Buddhist meditations but I believe they are not the same as the two main Buddhist meditations outlined below. So in this piece I’m talking about Buddhists in general but NOT Zen Buddhists.

Where did I get my experience?

Buddhism: I completed the Introduction to Buddhism Course at The Buddhist Society, London, and spent many evenings at the Buddhist Centre in East London, UK. I spent an intensive eight days with 280 participants, plus monks and nuns at the Lam Rim (teachings of the Buddha) course at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, and a further four intensive days with 10 participants and monks at an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism course in Pokhara, Nepal. I lived for six months and attended many meditations at the Ganden Buddhist Centre, Halifax, UK, and have read three books by the 14th Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists), as well as having dipped into several books by Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (the founder of The New Kadampa Tradition) and have read several other books on Buddhism.

Osho: I spent two months living in Pokhara, attending a small Osho meditation centre for daily meditations, followed by two months living in Pune, India, a few minutes’ walk from the Osho Meditation Centre, mingling with Osho followers on a daily basis, as well as spending full days at the centre many times during that period. I attended a full day of meditations commemorating the death of Osho at a centre separate to the main ashram in Pune , and I spent three months at Angsbacka, Sweden, living in close contact with several followers of Osho.

What did I notice?

The (majority that I’ve met of) students of Buddhism come across as open, grounded, present and friendly. Their general outlook on life is one of positivity and acceptance which makes it easy to be friends with them, to work with them, and to get to know and understand them. Generally, they’re able to express themselves in a healthy manner by asking for what they do or don’t want, and saying what they mean, kindly but clearly. The longer they’ve been following Buddhism, the more prominent these characteristics.

Conversely the (majority that I’ve met of) Osho followers appear spaced out, out of touch with reality and unable to communicate effectively. They can be unapproachable, it’s difficult to connect with them, get to know and understand them, they’re confusing, you’re not sure where you stand with them, and they can be moody and seem very lost and deeply unhappy. They often have a far-away look in their eyes like they’re not present. Generally, they’re unable to express themselves in a healthy manner, apparently hiding their emotions with blank looks and soft words that strongly suggest a mismatch between what they’re saying and what they’re feeling. The longer they’ve been a student of Osho, the more prominent these characteristics.

Why could this be?

In Buddhism, the two main meditations are Mindfulness: being present in the moment, very aware of your surroundings instead of allowing the mind to wander – and Meta Bhavana or Loving Kindness Meditation: sending out prayers of love and kindness to oneself and others. These two meditations cultivate qualities that make life as a human being easier to deal with. Rather than being upset about the past or worrying about the future, these meditations help us to focus on the here and now which is very freeing, and to love and take care of ourselves and everyone we encounter, which makes our day to day a lot less of a struggle. The positive effects of both of these meditations are immediately noticeable, and improve the more times they’re repeated.

For followers of Osho, the two main meditations are Kundalini and Dynamic.
In Kundalini meditation, the first parts of the meditation are to allow the body to shake, and then dance to music. The idea is to help energy move through the body, allowing it to come without forcing it and, in doing so, release the day’s tensions. This is followed by two stages of staying still, witnessing what is going on inside. It’s an individualistic meditation that focuses purely on oneself and what’s inside, and doesn’t take into account anything outside of oneself. It stands to reason, then, that a person regularly practising Osho’s Kundalini meditation can become very internalised and appear out of touch with other people and what’s going on around them.

In Dynamic meditation, which is to be practiced first thing in the morning ideally every day, the focus is on expressing one’s emotions in whatever way they come. As those who usually seek spirituality or religion are struggling with something, this means that the emotion that comes up is often (but not always, of course) distressing and dramatic and most often involves crying and/or shouting, as well as physical body movement. Another aspect of this meditation involves 15 minutes of jumping with one’s arms in the air. It’s common that the first time a person practises Dynamic Meditation they don’t enjoy it or get anything out of it and are advised that they must go a few times to notice the benefits. Drama and exercise are very addictive and so it’s easy to see how 15 minutes of jumping and 15 minutes of crying/screaming/wailing each morning can quickly become depended upon, and once addicted, it’s easy to see how an “addict” can think that their daily fix of exercise and drama is actually benefiting them. No addiction is a good thing because it’s masking something that needs addressing, but an addiction to this drama is particularly damaging because what we focus on perpetuates. So although it’s entirely healthy and, indeed, essential to feel and release emotions, when the same emotion is expressed repeatedly (in this case, because of the addiction that builds to expressing it on a daily basis) it becomes stronger and more real. If the emotion being expressed is distressing then it’s easy to see why someone regularly practising Dynamic meditation could become deeply unhappy.

In a nutshell

If, like a Buddhist, you focus on your physical senses in conjunction with your surroundings and cultivate a loving mindset, you will learn to become connected with the present moment and attract loving relationships.

If, like a follower of Osho, you focus purely on your own physical and emotional feelings with no regard for anything outside of yourself, you will learn to become out of touch with your surroundings and disconnected from other people.

It’s actually not rocket science, is it? What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Where the Truth Lies

If you want the truth...

don't look to science. Science is not a set of unchanging facts and figures but a process and does not have all the answers.

don't look to religion. Religion is a set of complex stories from which you may extract other people's truth, but not all religions have the same answers.

If you want the truth...

look inside yourself. Develop your intuition through spirituality and be guided by it. Your intuition can be relied upon to always steer you in the right direction.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Photo of a Monk

If you're like most people I meet you're vaguely interested in Buddhism and have heard "good things". Well, I'm going to give you some really cool examples of how it helps me in my daily life - I think you'll really like these; read on..!

A few weeks ago I had a few days where I felt I was struggling with life - as you do - so I took myself to the gompa (meditation room). I sat before the shrine and, looking into the eyes of a photo of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (a fabulous monk who's written a lot of important books), I asked for help. "What am I missing?" I pleaded with him, tears in my eyes. "I gave up everything - everything! - and now I'm back living the life that I've chosen, doing the things that please me. Why do I feel unfulfilled? Why am I looking at others' lives and thinking I should be doing more?" His pensive smile told me he had the answer so I held his gaze for a few moments before feeling myself drawn to the bookcase at the side of the room. I picked out one of his many books on Buddhism. "How to Solve Our Human Problems, The Four Noble Truths" it was called. I opened it at the first chapter entitled, "Desire", a shockingly short chapter of only two pages which included the following paragraph:

All our problems - our unpleasant feelings - come from our delusions of attachment and self-grasping ignorance, therefore these delusions are the main cause of our problems. We have strong attachment to the fulfillment of our own wishes and for this aim we work very hard throughout our life, experiencing many difficulties and problems. [...] If we had no such attachment, there would be no basis for experiencing suffering and problems at their loss.

Well, that was the answer I needed - I was grasping at fulfillment! All I needed to do was let go of the delusion that things "should" be a certain way and my mind would be calm. I meditated on that thought for a few minutes and then left the gompa, grateful and smiling.

I had a similar experience last week, something was troubling me enormously and so I took myself to the gompa and asked for help. "She's driving me crazy!" I told the Gyatso's photo. "I have no choice but to have her in my life right now but she's making it so hard that I'm always feeling anxious and upset which is beginning to make me ill. What do I do?" Again he smiled his knowing smile. I looked at him hopefully for a few moments before, once I again, I found myself picking out a book from the shelf. "Eight Steps to Happiness - the Buddhist way of loving kindness". A page had been marked with a small piece of cafe pad and so I opened it right there. My eyes were drawn immediately to a paragraph in italics:

The person who is harming or disturbing me is in reality encouraging me to practice patience; and since it is impossible to make progress on the spiritual path without developing the strong mind of patience, he or she is of great benefit to me.

This person in my life - that's been driving me crazy! - is here to teach me patience in order for me to make progress on my spiritual path. Just wow.

My third experience of this nature happened today. After being surrounded by like-minded, spiritual people in the community in Sweden, I'm finding it difficult to no longer have that valuable support from a group of people whose values reflect mine. I explained this to the photo. "I need to be with others who understand what I'm doing; I need some support," I told him. Again, I found myself picking out a book, this one entitled, "Modern Buddhism", which had two bookmarks marking page 319. "Going for refuge" was the title on the page. I read a little bit of it, not fully understanding what it meant but feeling it was somehow relevant. A monk entered the room "What's refuge?" I asked him. He explained it's when you come under the shelter of the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I knew that Buddha is the teacher, Dharma is his teachings. "What's Sangha?" I asked. "They're your spiritual community," he told me. That's what I need, I thought to myself, a spiritual community. A few hours later I sat in the cafe above the gompa to do some writing and met a few people who'd been meditating. One invited me to join them tomorrow for the third day of what he called their "refuge retreat". I'd been given exactly the support I'd asked for.

And these are just three neat illustrations of the many ways in which Buddhism helps me in my day to day. If you're struggling with life, as most of us do from time to time, I highly recommend visiting a Buddhist Centre for a beginners' meditation course. You don't have to be a Buddhist, everyone is welcome, and you'll be among friends. Or if you don't have a centre nearby, come and ask me a question on my agony aunt website where I give first class advice to help you with whatever you're going through.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

An intuitive New Year's Day walk

I set off walking, it was overcast and I could feel it would rain. I took the longer way around away from the traffic of the flyover that I've seen many times before but ignored, only to find the exit bricked up, forcing walkers on a less pleasant route. I could almost feel cold fingers grip the back of my collar, "No, Sunshine, you'll go our way." So, back around I went to the main road, past the signs barking, "No Parking!" No "please", no "thank you", no "you may park at X place instead", just an order not to do something and a sign saying you'll be clamped and fined with 14 days to pay. I saw our human rights, the ones stating that we're free to roam the planet we were born onto, slip into a hazy cloud in the distance, crying for me to save them as they're trampled by our police state.

It began to rain and I remembered a group song sung with a group of spiritual souls bringing a ray of sunshine to a cloudy day, and so I willed the wind to blow the rain clouds away, and it did. Down the road I noticed a family walking toward me with a black spaniel - I felt so much happiness seeing the dog and I could see it felt the same as it strained on its lead to get to me. I remembered how in India dogs live outside; they don't "belong" to anyone, they're free to walk wherever and whenever they choose, and I questioned how we came to the conclusion that a creature could become the property of another.

Upon reaching the park I felt peace. Under the giant, gnarled trees at dusk watching the birds circle the sky, I felt an affinity that I just couldn't muster for the nearby family with the boisterous children. I stopped a while near a waterfall to let their chaos pass, and then continued to the lake.

I started to take the well-trodden path but the wind blew so hard it felt against nature to resist, so I surrendered and, in doing so, found a river I hadn't known was there. I joyfully followed the flow of the river and intuitively the path through the woods, where again I felt complete peace.

A train track led me to a cafe that I'd hoped would be open but imagined would be closed today, however the lights were on and it looked very busy. I decided to go in anyway even though I was thinking I'd like there to be fewer people. I wanted a window seat, vegan hot chocolate and plain crisps and within five minutes I had all of that including the quiet, as almost everyone left.

I sipped my hot chocolate while trying to view the rolling hills beyond my reflection in the window. When a young family with a baby came to sit at the next table my knee-jerk reaction was to think, "Oh no, here we go..." but they were unusually tranquil! The baby seemed happy and at ease and the parents spoke to each other kindly and quietly instead of in the aggravated manner I'm used to witnessing. It was a joy to be near them and I told them so, and why, and they seemed happy to hear it. When I left the cafe I waved to the baby and the whole family waved goodbye.

Back outside, the cold had crept in, the evening had fallen and the trees and buildings stood in black silhouette against a dusky mauve sky. I zipped my coat to the chin, and stuffed my chilly hands in my pockets as I passed the lake, streams and waterfalls. Completely free and alone with the nature that surrounded me I felt that this represented the world I ache to live in; the strangled, suppressed world that, in society's frantic scramble for more, more, more... is becoming less, less, less...

Monday, 12 November 2012

A question of digestion

Here's a question for you: "If everything is energy and, if ethics are rules created societally rather than universally, what difference does it make what we eat?" What potential for animated and colourful philosophical debate, hey?!

And indeed it all got quite lively when discussed recently, the ideas of which I took away with me and, after some digestion (sorry), here are my thoughts:

Different types of foods carry different energy and the yogic diet categorises them thus:

Static foods - which can lead to a duller, less refined state of consciousness - such as meat, cheese, onion and mushroom.
Stimulant foods -  which can promote restlessness in the mind - such as coffee, dark chocolate, salt and some spices.
Sentient foods - which can assist clarity of mind - such as most fresh fruit and vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds.

If we consume more foods from the sentient foods category and less from the other two our mind is likely to be calmer, our meditations deeper and more meaningful and because of that we will be more likely to become more conscious and therefore more compassionate and happier. (And the reverse is more likely if our diet is heavier in the other direction).

What does it actually matter?

Well, technically it doesn't if you're a believer in "what is just is" and accept that everything is perfect exactly as it is, suffering and all. In fact, if that is the case then critical thinking will lead you to the conclusion that, whether we like it or not, rape, torture, murder and consumption of flesh (human or animal in all cases; there's nothing to distinguish them in critical thinking) is perfect exactly as it is; it's all happening just as it is supposed to.

But, if what you're trying to create during your time on Earth is less suffering for yourself and others, then it matters a great deal what you eat as the energy the foods carry affect your mind, which affects your attitudes and behaviours which can and do strongly affect those around you.

What can we do?

We can continue to eat foods that dictate we operate at a lower level of consciousness and therefore continue to perpetuate suffering. Or we can alter our diet to help elevate our level of consciousness and, slowly but surely, perpetuate compassion and joy. But it doesn't stop there. As we are all a part of and connected to the universe the energy that we perpetuate doesn't stop at our planet but radiates outward, through space and time...

Hang on! Through space and time? This would mean that what we eat affects everyone and everything that ever existed or will exist in the entire universe!

Gulp! A tough nut to swallow, huh?

For the record, I don't follow a yogic diet, I'm just using its categories to offer a simple explanation of how food can affect our state of mind but, since having it brought to my attention through the Ananda Marga philosophy, it's something I'm going to read a little more about and experiment with (within the parameters of veganism) for myself. All the best to you on your own path.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

It's hardly quantum physics!

Now, I ain’t gonna lie to you: I’m no expert when it comes to Quantum Physics (haha, no shit!) BUT, what I am gonna do is explain to you what all the hoo-ha was about a few months ago because, if you’re like most people (and me, until not so long since) you’re probably wondering, 

“What the chuff is a Higgs Boson?”

I’ll help you with that. I’m not going to give you lengthy scientific explanations (as if I could!), but I’ll give you the bare bones of it. So, quit hovering over the mouse pad; this is gonna be REALLY simple and basic. You will not walk away from this a physics genius (unless you already are, of course) but you WILL have a rough understanding of what quantum physics is about and you’ll maybe even become a little bit interested in the subject – imagine that!

“What is quantum physics?”

All scientists are trying to do is to understand what’s going on. Through experiments, they’re trying to work out a set of rules to explain how and why things do what they do – they want to give everything a formula. You know, like the laws of gravity – there’s a formula to explain what’ll happen if you drop a piano out of a second story window. With these rules they’re ultimately striving to explain the big picture - why we’re here, where we’re from, where we’re going but, you know, we’re kind of a long way off that yet.... But, the questions we ask when we stare at the stars at night? The stuff that religions and spirituality sometimes offer explanations for? There are scientists trying to figure this stuff out – cool job, huh?
And Classical physics (or Newtonian physics, named after Sir Isaac Newton) has rules to explain how everything works for things above the size of an atom – ace! Then someone came along and split the atom and realised that the tiny stuff making up atoms doesn’t adhere to the same rules – bugger; back to the drawing board!

So, what physicists have been trying to work out for about a hundred years is the rulebook for the tiny stuff that makes up atoms and that’s what quantum physics is concerned with – finding the formula to explain the behaviours for the tiny stuff. And although there are theories, it’s only on 4th July this year that scientists at CERN think they may have decided which one is correct.

"What’s CERN?"

CERN is a nuclear research centre in Switzerland from where the World Wide Web (t’internet!) was created. It’s also home to the Large Hadron Collider which is a gigantic piece of equipment built underground and shaped like a tyre about 17 miles in circumference. Scientists conduct experiments by firing particles through the LHC to hit each other and use the results of these experiments to work out which of the current scientific theories may be correct.

"What scientific theories?"

So, there are two types of physics:

Classical or Newtonian physics (named after Sir Isaac Newton) which is the stuff you were taught at school and includes things like the rules about gravity, and cause and effect, and is all very neat and tidy, and applies to everything above the size of an atom. 

Then there's Quantum mechanics which has theories about all the tiny stuff at atomic level and below that do not follow the same rules AT ALL as the bigger stuff. Basically, there is maths to prove that the little stuff (particles and waves) cannot be pinned down in terms of location, and measured in terms of speed because, as soon as you observe them, they respond to your observation so there's no way of measuring what they're doing when you're not looking! (A bit like the toys in Toy Story or naughty children – when you watch them they behave differently to how they behave when you’re not looking...)

So the really tiny stuff has its own set of rules different to the rules used by the bigger stuff, and scientists had to work them out and came up several theories, the favourite being one called the “Standard Model”. The Standard Model says that the whole universe is made up of 12 different types of particles, and four different forces. It’s currently believed that these 12 types of particles that make up everything in existence cannot be split into anything smaller. However, the problem is that according to the Standard Model, matter inherently has no mass, and the Standard Model does not explain where mass comes from. 

"What’s mass?"

Mass is the thing that stops stuff moving at the speed of light (about 300 million miles an hour). If you had no mass you’d move at 300 million miles an hour, you’d have to, those are the rules. But, seeing as you are able to move more slowly and, indeed, stand still, you obviously have mass. And this is where Peter Higgs and his science crew stepped in and said there must be a “field” – they call it the Higgs Field (after Peter) – that particles pass through or bounce off in order to slow them down. 

What they said is if the Higgs Field DOES exist then, after the passing through/bouncing off process, there’ll be a particle left over, which they named the Higgs Boson (Higgs after Peter, Boson is just the name for a particular type of particle) - and that is what was found by scientists working at CERN in July; a particle that behaves in the way they expect the Higgs Boson to behave. Which means that the Higgs Field probably exists.

Now, it’s early days; they’re still not 100% certain that this particle IS the Higgs Boson but, if after more experiments, it is found to be, that would make the Standard Model theory correct and would mean that science has found the scientific formula to explain how the little stuff works – hurray!

“If the Higgs Boson is the “God Particle” does this mean they’ve found God?!”

No, it means nothing of the sort. The God Particle is a label made up to sell newspapers – just ignore it.

“This is all too abstract. What does it mean in the real world?”

Excellent question. Remember I said that the small stuff doesn’t behave like the big stuff? Well, the main difference is that the small stuff behaves differently when it is being observed. What this means is that waves (of energy) only turn into particles (of matter; stuff you can touch) when they are being observed. Otherwise they remain as energy, waiting to be turned into something. WHAT?! OK…

In any situation, there is the potential for several things to happen – these potential happenings are called “superpositions”. These superpositions exist in the form of waves, i.e. they haven’t turned into particles of matter and so they don’t yet exist in our reality. When an observer witnesses the outcome, only then does the wave turn into a particle and come into existence, i.e. become what we see as reality. Yes, I know this is a very peculiar concept to understand but, like I said, the small stuff doesn’t behave like the big stuff AT ALL. To make it easier to grasp there’s a famous thought experiment that could help you get your head around it, called, “Schrodinger’s Cat” – I’ll also simplify it so make it more straightforward.

In this thought experiment (you don't have to worry about the cat, it didn’t really happen, it’s just something to help you understand the concept), a cat is placed inside a sealed metal box along with a thin glass tube of poisonous gas. If the tube of gas were to break, the cat would be instantly poisoned and die. There are two superpositions (possible situations) here:

1) the glass tube of poison is still intact and the cat is still alive (yay!)

2) the glass tube of poison is broken and the cat is dead (booo!)

While the box is sealed and the cat is not visible, both situations, or “superpositions” potentially exist in wave form. It’s only when the box is opened and an observer can witness the cat that one of the superpositions becomes reality – that the waves of energy become particles of matter and the glass tube is either broken and the cat is dead, or the glass tube is still intact and the cat is alive.

However, there are two schools of thought with quantum physics. One is that ALL possibilities come into existence, i.e. if you open the box to see the cat is dead, at the same time another you in another parallel world opens the box to see the cat is alive. This school of thought that there are infinite universes with infinite situations going on is called the Many Worlds Interpretation. The other theory is that all other possibilities disappear (or wave function collapse) and you’re left only with the one you’re witnessing (i.e. the cat being either alive or dead) – this is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. Just for info. ;o)

We don’t yet know whether there are infinite parallel universes (Many Worlds Interpretation) or whether there’s just the one (Copenhagen Interpretation) – what do you reckon? Is there an infinite number of you wandering around doing infinite stuff somewhere out there? Would this explain the feeling you sometimes get of déjà vu, or the stories you see in dreams..?

“Is there a Theory of Everything?”

If it’s the case that our observations affect what happens at the sub atomic (tiny) level, and that everything at the sub atomic level is what makes up everything in our “big” (human) world, could it be that our observations/thoughts/intentions, affect what goes on in our human world? There are a lot of people will tell you that it definitely does. But although there are scientists working on trying to find a set of rules that includes everything from the huge to the tiny (with incomplete theories such as string theory, superstring theory and M-theory) as yet, none have been proven accurate with experiments… If in the near future one of these theories of everything become complete then perhaps we can talk again.

In the meantime, I hope this has helped you to get a basic grasp of what quantum physics is about. 

(Science boffins out there, if there’s anything here you know is not accurate, please do let me know so that I can edit it – like I say, I’m no expert and I’ll very much appreciate your help!)