October 28, 2013
Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.
As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?
And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.
I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?
From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.
How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown. The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food. Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?
In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.
If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.
Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?
August 12, 2013
Sandy is young, bubbly and very sick. Once in a while I get to meet a patient as thoughtful about her sickness as Sandy. She, like many other heart patients and trauma survivors, have experienced what is commonly (and wrongly in my opinion) known as Out-of body experiences, or OBEs.
You break through the limits of your own body’s senses. You experience sights, sounds, memories and feelings that do not belong to your own body or mind. You inhabit the universal and that includes your body lying there on the bed. In fact I think the term out-of-body is an oxymoron because in this state of hypersensitivity you experience sensations within your own body much more acutely. Once you have experienced the world from this perspective, you cannot ever see the world in the same way again.
Out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, happen spontaneously during extreme trauma such as car accidents, or during medical events such as heart attacks. They can also be induced through hallucinogens such as LSD or anesthetics. More commonly, they are a byproduct of meditation practices, or through lucid dreaming with the aim of taking a trip into the subtle worlds.
In my lost youth I eagerly devoured the books of Robert Monroe on Astral Projection. The idea of taking mystical journeys fascinated me and though I never experienced what he claimed I would in his books, I did have my first taste of meditation. I would lie still, enter a catatonic state where my body was asleep but my mind was fully alert. It was a scary sensation at first, a feeling of being trapped, yearning to escape. In this state it occurred to me for the first time that the mind might be a separate entity from the body. Gradually, with practice, the mind is encouraged to lose its fear of roaming away from the body. It is something it naturally does during dreams. OBEs are fully-conscious dream-like experiences.
Modern neurology has attempted to debunk OBEs by inducing them in subjects. By stimulating various parts of the brain electronically, they hope to prove that OBEs are a simple neurological phenomena. But they miss the point because they are asking the wrong questions. What they should be asking is: Does the mind live inside the body? Or does the body live inside the mind?
Sandy and I sat for two hours exchanging ghost stories. She recalled visitations from the departed as glowing, warm presences without the human form or costumes (O how Hollywood has that wrong). As fascinating as ghost stories are, they reaffirm the revelation of OBEs that the mind and body are indeed separate entities. During her procedure Sandy saw prayers from her church members ascending towards her (another very common phenomena). While in this state neither she nor any other OBE experiencers felt threatened or afraid. To a man they report a feeling of deep peace and joy. Much more than that, they feel a wholeness with others after they survive the OBE itself. They are more empathetic in significant and unalterable ways. Surely, there is more at play here than stimulated neurons?
For me the experience of OBE was prolonged and I experienced different degrees of it. The times when my heart stopped completely, the experiences were more intense and vivid to other times during the coma, I heard, saw, felt events happening outside of my hospital room. Events I was later able to verify with the people saying, doing, experiencing them. Yet I was aware of my body the whole time. To this day I question this accepted notion that the mind resides within the body. It felt so natural, so normal to be wondering around while the body lay there tethered to tubes and machinery that I think it is the body that resides within the mind.
The mind is this enormous, shapeless presence that houses this body. The very fact that OBEs happen to so many people, of all ages and in every culture, proves that OBEs are a clue to the reality of our existence. To me this is what is worth investigating. It is unfortunate that this term has entered into everyday speech as a way of describing extraordinary desserts, dresses, film stars. (“When Brad Pitt looked at me I thought I was having an out-of-body experience.”).
This phrase means so much more.
July 29, 2013
Ursula and I load our cart each week with DVDs, games, and magazines. Each week we roam the patient wards and the waiting areas of the cancer hospital offering a chat, a sympathetic ear and the contents of our cart. We are peddlers of distraction for people burdened by waiting. Mrs. B. might be waiting for her procedure. Mr. C. might be waiting for the results. Some wait for loved ones to feel better, while others await their own death.
No one likes waiting. They all wear that fixed-upon-nothing stare. I find it curious that no matter how educated or professional, waiting people pick out the tabloid gossip rags most often from our trolley. It makes sense when you think about it. These people are waiting for something significant to happen; some turn of fate they can grip their teeth into. Gossip magazines are filled with the highlights of other people’s significant events (even if they be untrue).
When I finish my shift I recognize that same foggy, unfocussed look on the people in the streets and in the subways. The world is like this huge airport lounge, people frantically waiting to get somewhere: waiting for one thing to end, waiting to finish another, waiting for others to do whatever thing for them. Most office workers at day’s end are tired of work, not with work(unlike labourers). I wonder, are we really tired because of waiting for something meaningful to happen?
Looking back at my own life also, I think it is ironic that even though we hate waiting but we spend most of our lives doing exactly that. In youth we can’t wait to grow up, we dream of the day our perfect mate might turn up, in working life we count the months and years to retirement. Once in a while there are significant moments where we are wholly engaged, fully living, the rest of the time, it seems, is about waiting.
And just like the patients at the hospital, we fill that wait with distractions. We learn hobbies, we gossip, we surf the net, we watch TV, etc.. “What do you do in your spare time?” people ask. Don’t they really mean: how do you occupy yourself while you are waiting for life to happen?
The bride at the wedding reception I attended gave a moving speech and something she said has stayed with me. She described the moment after her wedding as the most perfect moment of her life. A moment she had dreamt of all of her life, she said. And she wished she could somehow live in that moment forever. That, seemed to me, summed up nicely the tragedy of our lives. We desire, we dream of the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect people saying and doing the most perfect things. But aren’t our desires, our dreams, our ambitions all a form of waiting? When you think about it, desires and ambitions are postponements of happiness. When I get this, or when she goes, then I will be more happy than now. We set conditions for happiness. We put up limits. Then we wait for those conditions to be met, putting our happiness on hold while we wait. Why do we do that to ourselves?
Of course a few times in our lives we get to experience a moment as perfect as the one we had imagined. All limitations and conditions satisfied. Abraham Maslow called these Peak Experiences.
Peak experiences leave a person joyous, alive, whole, fulfilled and integrated. They can occur through art, spiritual events, or those rare moments when life aligns itself in a perfectly desirable way. As it did for that young bride on her wedding day.
In my work with the geriatrics I have come to realize that Peak Experiences are not always conducive, and sometimes they are not even desired. Yet they leave that same indelible mark upon the individual as the experiences of rapture. I believe I will always remember Luka, aged ninety-four and a half (he insisted on adding the half). He loves to speak of his experiences during the Second World War when he was captured by the Germans and held at a POW camp in the Ukraine. He and his colleagues escaped after a visitor smuggled in wire-cutters by baking them inside a cake (seriously, it actually worked). Luka then hid from the Germans under their very noses by escaping into Berlin. He tells his story with such animation, such detail, one feels one is experiencing a big budget Hollywood movie. He does not talk about his life before or since much, there is little doubt to me that those years of living on the edge of danger were Peak Experiences for him. He was alert, he was wholly present in the here and now. He was fully alive.
Instead of waiting, one has to wonder if there is a way to rewire the brain to be always alive to the moment? To be truly awake and alert and enjoying all the small, non-events that make up most of daily living? I believe it can be done right now, right here, through awareness and attention. I have made it a hobby to notice quiet moments of perfection within mundane, routine events. In my experience, to wholly and truly realize the absurdity of waiting is to slowly let it go.
June 10, 2013
One striking aspect about visiting terminally ill old people in hospital is their casual attitude about their imminent end. When I first began volunteering I had expected them to be depressed about death. Perhaps a rare few might offer a philosophical gem about death and dying, I thought. But none of that has happened. Instead, time after time, I come across people totally at peace with leaving the world.
For me there was a disconnect here. After all, aren’t we mortals supposed to be dogged by fear of death? Our every action is curtailed, informed in some sub-conscious way by the fact that some day we will perish. And here are people face to face with that fact and not the least bit concerned.
Having just recovered from a bout of illness myself, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the feeling of being sick and how it changes awareness. Naturally there is much attention upon the body and its aches and pains, but look a bit deeper and you notice something is missing. Gone is the mundane chatter of daily concerns: the worry about this and that, the concern with what is happening on the street, etc. When I am sick I do not care to log into my e mail, the news does not interest me, I don’t care who has phoned, in fact, nothing much of the world seems as important as it did before. Not money, not pleasures, not even eating. The attention is solely upon the basics, the breathing and heart beat.
I found this interesting because this is exactly the technique of meditation. Most styles of meditation teach suspending the outside world in some way. Find a quiet spot to practice meditation, they say. Close your eyes to shut out distractions, they advice. Now turn your attention to your breathing, simply watch the in flow and out flow.
During my illness, all this happened effortlessly. Because the breathing was laboured, my attention naturally fell upon its ebb and flow. I found it curious how it affected my sense of “me.” When the breathing was near-normal, this feeling of “I” was at its strongest. When the breathing was faltering, the “I” lost significance, and along with it, all the things “I” considers important. The fact of being alive, the life within my body was the one and only constant.
It made me wonder if illness can be perhaps be a natural form of meditation?
The other odd thing about fever is the vivid and surreal dreams. In fact, even normal thinking has that phantasy characteristic when in the grips of fever. It is no coincidence then that many great artists and writers had bouts of prolong illness, particularly in their youth. Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, James Joyce, the Bronte sisters, among others, all retreated into their imagination during their illnesses, as did artist Frieda Kahlo. While none of them were saints, all of them did plunge deep into their psyches and explored the underbelly of daily living with insight. Isn’t that a kind of meditation?
Once the fever broke and normal thinking resumed, it struck me that the images of daily thinking are just as unreal and surreal, only we take them oh so seriously. I was reminded of the classic descriptions of near-death experiences, you know, the beings of light that appear before you. They do. Except they appear before you even when you are not dying. They appear before you nightly in dreams as well as in routine thinking. Imagine anyone you love. Isn’t that presence of him or her in your mind made up of a kind of light? The light of you own awareness?
I believe this explains why prolonged illness is so profound, so life transforming for people who survive it. In effect, we are in a prolonged state of meditation. It not only affords a person the time to reflect and contemplate upon his life, it affords attention. Normally we are too burdened, too distracted, too entertained by the ideas and plans of our own mind. Illness enforces a lovely letting go, a temporary freedom from the cares of the world.
It may explain why seniors in hospitals, who usually experience multiple illnesses in the final years, are so at peace with dying.
A painful body is no picnic but it does compel a person to find a centre within where there is no pain. If this is done with awareness, then you quickly realize the body is a shell which houses your essence. Even done without awareness, this knowledge grips hold at some level, without being verbalized.
Finally, I had an idea about that other classic NDE, the tunnel with the light at the opening. In my opinion, the light people see is one’s own essence, only the mind objectifies it as out there. The darkness of the tunnel is the stillness of an unfettered mind. The light you see in NDE is your true self.
None of us are immune to sickness of the body. While I do all I can to remain healthy — eat right, moderate exercise and take reasonable safety precautions, I no longer fear being overwhelmed by a virus or worse. As age advances, and with it the decline of the body, I take comfort in what someone said to a friend on his seventy-fifth birthday: When you get over the hill, the view is so much more spectacular.
March 25, 2013
The dog barked incessantly for over three hours. A whimpering, agonizing bark. I could not contain myself any longer. As soon as I stepped out into the hallway to investigate, the grumpy woman next door held her front door ajar to do the same. In the apartment across the hall from us, a dog was locked inside, alone. It was barking for help. As an animal lover it was the distress of the dog which upset me. For my neighbour it was the loudness of the noise which made her grumpy (she is a nurse who works nightshifts). A third neighbour soon joined us. He is a Condo board member and he was angered by the violation of the pets bylaw.
It was fascinating that the same sound had elicited such very different, but strong emotions from each of us. It occurred to me that perhaps sound is the most potent of all the senses. While sight is essential to navigate our movements through space, it is sounds which delivers our emotions, passions, and moods. I recall reading a sardonic definition of pop music somewhere: “That which is too foolish to be spoken is sung.” So I wonder, does our relationship with sounds destine our relationship with the world? Does are ability to cope with noise determine our peace of mind?
The other day I decided to escape the noise of my neighborhood’s construction by visiting my local park. Seated on a park bench, I was enjoying the pleasant sound of birds. A jogger ran past, her iPad plugged into her ear, insulating herself from the park’s natural sounds. Opposite, a pair of lovers sat canoodling on the grass. Their intimate whispers effectively shutting out all other persons. It occurred to me that all three of us, the jogger, the lovers, and myself, were attempting to find some peace by isolating ourselves from our environment. Each of us was using sound to distract from what is here and now. We each craved peace, and we were all doomed to fail miserably.
As soon as the jogger removes her iPad, the world will flood back in. As soon as the lovers part company, the waiting cares and emotions will resume. As soon I return home, that pneumatic drill will be there to disturb me. The peace of selective sounds is highly fragile.
It seems to me that pleasant sounds merely alleviate some of the symptoms of inner restlessness, but they do not cure the root cause. Much in the same way as balms and aspirins help symptoms of physical maladies without treating the original cause.
So then we go looking for peace through perfect silence. The phrase peace and quiet is so commonplace that we have assumed they belong as a pair. Of course religion also confuses peace with quiet. In every house of worship the world over music and silence are used to simulate peace.
But let us look at this logic. If quiet equals peace, the absolute silence should bring about absolute peace. I wonder what those criminals locked up in solitary confinement would say about that logic? And if absolute peace really results from silence then most of us are screwed. There is nowhere on Earth where there is absolute silence. And so we pursue relative silence: the lull of the ocean waves, the cooing of dolphins, the whistling of a breeze through tree leaves. It is the closest we can imagine peace of mind, but we never quite reach it.
Then where should we be looking? What exactly is peace? Maybe peace is there all of the time. Perhaps peace is what we experience when we are meaningfully connected to the world. Restlessness is when we are isolated from the world.
I like to think peace is related to sound in the same way that a white canvas is related to a painting. Peace is that blankness upon which the colours of daily sounds, and the emotions which they shape, reveal themselves. Peace is there before the first sound of the day is heard. Peace is there after the last sound before sleep. Most importantly, peace is there passing through each and every sound of the day. Peace is there while that pneumatic drill is going. Peace is there while that stranger is insulting you. Peace is there while your friend is complimenting you. In other words, peace that passes all understanding. (Yes, Virginia, this Eastern idea is universal).
To be aware that peace is the background for all sounds, is to be freed from the burden of noise. To understand this relationship intellectually is a start, but when this insight comes from your own observation you begin to have a choice about the emotions contained within sounds. You then have a choice about how, and if, you will respond to an insulting tone of voice. You have a choice about what you say, as well as what you hear. You have a choice whether or not to be disturbed by construction noises or Rap music. And that is the beginning of freedom.
Now that really is peaceful.
March 11, 2013
He was burly and robust. His cheek had a fresh cut across it, suggesting he had recently been in a fist fight. He pointed to his overgrown mane of blond hair with both hands and smiled broadly. I have to admit I was nervous about him sitting in my barbering chair. You don’t want to mess up on a guy like him. But as soon as my comb began stroking his hair, he visibly relaxed. He spoke to me gently and carefully, in his deep baritone. While I was cutting his hair, it was almost as though he were a little boy again.
I experience this time and again with men who live in shelters. Marginalized and isolated, often in and out of prison, they rarely experience nurturing. I can’t help wonder, if no one nurtures you, would you become anti-social? I believe that is my role at the shelter. Not cutting hair, but nurturing. Sometimes they do not want to leave the chair after the haircut. They go on talking, these solitary, street-smart men.
I sometimes see them on the sidewalk, curled up in a sleeping bag in a fetal position. Mothering is so nourishing that the toughest of men regress to infants in their sleep.
Is perhaps the desire for sex really about seeking our nurturing? Is that why people risk themselves in the bars, or online? In its rawest form, sex is about touching, holding, pampering. Might those gay men who cruise darkened, public toilets and park shrubbery be looking for a kind of anonymous nurturing?
It is a curious contradiction that people with a great capacity for nurturing are highly desirable. Even more so than physical beauty. I mean, Mother Theresa was no Miss World but she attracted admirers aplenty.
Later that week my sister was speaking to me about her sons. She is the epitome of a nurturing mother to her boys, and at times has been a substitute mother for me. “Everyone wants to be taken cared of,” she moaned. “But who is there to take care of me?”
Good question. Who nurtures the nurturers?
Is it something you can do for yourself? Or is it like currency, you have so much of it to give, and then you run out? After all, so many relationships break down because one party does all the giving, and the other makes no effort to replenish the nurturing of the giver.
I used to think it is a skill you can acquire through practice. The more you nurture the greater your capacity for nurturing. Then I came across certain nurses at the hospital, who after thirty years of service, do not bother to hide their contempt for patients. I wonder if they are that way because no one at home emotionally nourishes them. It seems to me the ability to nurture is a skill, but it requires something extra from the outside. A fuel. A fuel that has a source external to me.
Oh, there are spiritual types who will insist that you need no one else to replenish nurturing. They claim the source of it is divine. Saints are said to have an inexhaustible ability to nurture because they have tapped into the well itself. But I wonder if that is true? Every saint, every guru seems to move about with a retinue Mariah Carey might envy. O how the retinue pamper, feed, and flatter them. Is that how they really recharge themselves?
I have been fortunate to have observed more than a one such saint up close. I particularly think of a female Hindu saint known as Amma, or The Mother. Her capacity to nurture is indisputable. She hugs each and every person who attends her gatherings. Men, women, young, old, rich, poor, she stays till the last person has been hugged. In a crowd of 20,000 or more , that might not be until the early hours of the following morning. She sits in the same spot, without food or water or bathroom breaks, sincerely hugging each and every one. She speaks not a word of English, yet foreigners flock to be hugged by her. Like beggars at a feast they wait in line, their faces light up in rapture when their turn finally arrives. What is her source of nourishment?
Perhaps the answer is a combination all of the above. Perhaps nurturing is a nourishment so essential we take it wherever we can find it. When deprived of it completely, we wither and turn anti-social. A rare few are able to go past the human mind right to the very well of it. In deep meditative states, when my mind has stopped, I see glimpses of this source and it enriches not only me, but I believe, those around me.
That is just one way I replenish myself. These days it is rare that someone nurtures me. More routinely, whenever I perform a service for strangers, I seem to walk away feeling refreshed and recharged. The act of being selfless transcends the rut of the mind and there again is that glimpse of the source. In this sense my relationship with the homeless is symbiotic: I nurture the guys with free haircuts, and they in turn nurture me in another, deeper way.
Whatever it is, I reckon it is a force vastly undervalued. Peace and joy to all those in the UK observing Mother’s Day, both to those who are, and to those who have had mothers.
January 28, 2013
Oh to sleep like a teenager again! How I miss the capacity to fall asleep on cue, and more importantly, stay asleep until, well, lunch. If only my bladder would co-operate. It demands (and I mean a collection agent demand) that I empty it at 3.00 a.m. sharp. Then there is the problem of noise. Teenage me once slept in a Manhattan nightclub with my head against the speaker. Now any passing garbage (and garbage truck) is enough to break the ironically named sound sleep.
I wish there were a magic bullet. A simple one-size-fits-all solution. But alas, the reasons for poor quality sleep are as countless as the sheep. What I did discover is a process whereby anyone can help himself.
I begin with the most urgent. When one or more of the body’s physiology is in disharmony, the first symptom is poor sleep. It is the body’s alarm for danger. Consult a reliable physician for any underlying health issues. But, good luck with that. I have found most physicians to be shamelessly dismissive about sleep apnea, pre-diabetes and other ill harbingers. (Perhaps because as interns they worked for months without any sleep). I had to train myself as my own GP (I even purchased a white lab coat). I researched. I quizzed family members (we have enough professionals to open our own hospital). I surfed the net. I read a book or two (okay, two dozen).
Next, I beautified my environment. It may seem like stating the obvious that a clean, tidy bedroom is conducive to good sleep, but in my experience (don’t ask me how I know) for some people the bedroom is the messiest room in the house. The other day I saw a homeless man fast asleep in the island of a highway, in the middle of morning rush hour yet! For about two seconds it made me question whether environment is at all important. I realized he was passed out from intoxication. For the rest of us, proper furniture placement, high end bedding, ambient lighting, pleasant scents and soothing sounds all contribute their little bit. More subtlety, it suggests to the mind that sleep is a luxurious pleasure to be enjoyed. Though I am thrifty in other ways, I do invest in high-thread count sheets and orthopedic pillows.
Thirdly, find yourself a nice temporary bed companion. The least expensive, and definitely the least clingy, is a diary. I used to keep mine on my bedside stand and each morning I recorded the quality and quantity of sleep. I stopped only once it improved significantly. In it I also used to note the main points of previous day. It is a basic but neglected fact that the quality of your sleep is a reflection of your waking hours. Try this simple test: spend the day at a rock concert, indulge in wild orgies, eat a dozen varieties of jalapeno, then observe the quality of your sleep. You get the idea. Sleep is so holistic that it is affected by every other aspect of your waking life, from your stress levels to your nutrition and leisure activities. In disciplining one’s sleep, one ends up disciplining every other aspect of one’s life. People seem to forget that waking and sleep are two sides of the same coin.
The other night I was at dinner party where we were eating till 11.00 p.m. It was a rich, starchy supper, topped off with coffee and a sugary dessert (the host threatened us with espresso). Needless to say sleep was difficult that night. I generally avoid nighttime snacking and also suppers such as pasta, rice and potatoes, which turn liquid a few hours after digestion. Breads on the other hand absorb liquids and are an aide in sleeping through the night. The nocturnal digestion of starch activates insulin, causing blood sugar levels to dip, which then prompts the adrenaline to fire up. Presto, you are wide awake at 4.00 a.m. for no good reason.
It is infuriating. The more annoyed I get, the harder it is to fall back asleep. Now I play a trick on my own mind. I discovered 3.00 a.m. is the perfect solitude for mediation. It beats being angry at the interruption of sleep. This change in attitude has helped me fall back asleep much more quickly. Failing that, it has led to some deep, deep meditative states. Win-win I say.
Not surprising really because sleep and meditation are not dissimilar. Sleep is also an altered state of consciousness. The same skills, the same dedication and the same vigilance cultivated in meditation come in handy in attaining better sleep.
And so I observe my bedtime rituals rather earnestly. It works because the human mind is highly habitual. I avoid violent TV just before bed, specially the news. I find reading before bed a better option, though never fiction. Fiction is designed to put images in your head. I prefer philosophical writings that blow my mind wonderfully out of day’s cares.
If that sounds suspiciously like an endorsement for a life of awareness, that’s because it is. Of course the quest for good sleep (just like the quest for love or happiness) is never-ending. It has to be fine tuned daily according to life’s changing demands.
January 21, 2013
This is a true story. After my friend died I telephoned her credit card company to cancel her card. The Customer Service Rep who was mechanically sticking to his script replied, “I’m sorry sir, but only the cardholder can make changes to that account.” Isn’t this what we find most frustrating about public service personnel: they don’t listen!
There is a reason why I patronize this one barber shop instead of a dozen others in my neighborhood: my barber Pat knows the art of listening. While I am waiting for him to finish with his present client, I enjoy watching his effortless way of prompting the gentleman in his chair to speak. Pat is chameleon-like in his ability to become all things to all people.
It’s a trick that served me well this week. I was visiting with one of my geriatric patients when she revealed to me that she was feeling rather depressed. Earlier that day her oncologist had advised her that her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and because she was eight-four, there was not much that could be done. I did not know what to say to make her feel better. I remembered Pat and decided to just be a blank page. I gave her loving attention but allowed her to be comfortable with her silences. Slowly, haltingly, she opened up about her fears and anxieties. By the time her niece arrived for a visit, she was back to her smiling, stoic self. As I was leaving she sincerely thanked me for “our little chat”. I had hardly said a word.
I see around me young people voluntarily tuning out the world on the sidewalks of downtown with their ubiquitous Ipod. There are people crossing busy streets while texting on their cellphones. Does anyone listen anymore?
As a writer I appreciate that the truth of good fiction resides in the inferences and the nuances between the words. Perhaps people read less literature nowadays because we have forgotten this benefit of skillful listening. I was reminded of this fact this week at the homeless shelter. A long-haired, bearded man sat in my chair requesting a haircut. He had a slight Indian accent and as he spoke I was impressed by his vocabulary and clarity of thought. He was obviously an intelligent and educated man. Inbetween my small talk I gently cued him to speak about how he had ended up living on the streets. He was cagey. Usually the men I barber are eager to unburden their story. He said he had inadvertently thrown away all of his I.D. and that was the reason he was homeless. I asked no more. I understood he was in Canada illegally. He was playing the system. As much as his words tried to conceal this fact, the silence inbetween had told the truth.
The pay offs are plenty in relationships but the real prize is in solitude. These days everyone is interested in ‘meditation’ without being clear about what that entails. Meditation is nothing but the skill of listening to yourself. The real reason your mind keeps chattering is because you do not listen, hence it keeps repeating the same verbiage over and over again. When we learn to listen to ourselves, our sleep is more restful, with less crazy dreams.
Many years ago I met a master of silence during a retreat in Northern California. Though his height was modest, he seemed to tower higher than the sequoias around us. It was his gaze. Intense, penetrating and personal. I felt naked in his presence. His ability to answer my questions the instant they arose in my mind astounded me. I was sitting in the front row of the tent, waiting, along with a hundred others, for him to begin speaking when I silently wondered to myself if he really could read my mind. He abruptly turned his head in my direction, looked me in the eyes and said, “I am not interested in reading the confusion in your mind.”
His name was Swami Chinamayanda, and he went on to say that people often marvel that he reads minds but really, he just knows how to listen. He gives attention to the pauses, the silences, and we supply him the rest. I understood what he meant because at that time I had the privilege of living with a cat. The only way I could anticipate her moods and her needs was by slowing down, learning to give silent attention. Just watch any mother with a newborn and it is a skill she soon acquires.
Excuse me while I plug in my Ipod before I cross the street and text at the same time. And thanks for listening.
December 31, 2012
Earlier this year I visited the home of a hoarder. I was completely unprepared. Oh I have seen the reality shows on TV about them, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. I felt claustrophobic among all that clutter, there was barely room to move, I couldn’t breathe. Needless to say the man had a pathology. All this clutter was the result of many, many years of neglect. I have since found out that hoarding is a growing phenomena (pun intended). Though I wonder, is it even new? Perhaps it is a regression to the hunter-gatherer instincts of our ancestors?
I am seeing this primitive instinct at work all around me. This being Boxing Week, shoppers are out on the prowl for bargains. In the US during Black Friday, people have been known to be trampled to death in that stampede to acquire bargains.
Then there is New Year’s Day with its resolutions. People vowing to give up smoking, cutting down on fatty foods etc. Of course most will probably fail. It seems hunting and gathering is innate, but letting go is monumental: left unattended this is the pathology of hoarding. I always get a chuckle over this airport announcement: “Please do not leave your baggage unattended.” I wish that announcement were ubiquitous, we need reminding all the time. Though most of us may not hoard material things, don’t we accumulate emotional baggage of the past, collect fears about the future? When we leave this mental baggage unattended, doesn’t it gather into mental clutter? And guess what, it is exact same pathology of hoarding at work.
I know I am not alone in collecting hurts like precious trinkets; squirreling away my own secret stash of guilt and regrets. And the joke is that we give great value to these discards of the past. Just like hoarders, we safeguard them, polish them and examine them often, then carefully put them back in pride of place. I find it astounding that geriatric patients devote their hospital stay (often their final days alive) to cataloging their emotional baggage. I wonder what evaluation the Antiques Roadshow appraisers might give to these collections? “ Your stack of vintage grievances should fetch at auction…..” I think we all know the answer to that one.
With all that mental clutter, is it any wonder that new meditators complain that their minds are so crowded? I am tempted to reply to them: “Of course your mind is a mess, when was the last time you did any tidying-up?”
Allow me to recommend two highly effective cleaning agents: acceptance and loss of curiosity.
People instinctively assume the way to de-clutter is rejection. Rejection is actually the enemy of de-cluttering. Granted, it is a natural reflex to shun undesirable, unpleasant emotions and feelings from our minds, however, each time we do that we bury those feelings deeper and deeper into our sub-conscious. The feelings have to be acknowledged. Their presence accepted. Which does not mean we need to act upon them. Simply acknowledge them and see them for what they are: transient, amorphous disturbances of consciousness. Deprived of attention, they starve and disintegrate. And make no mistake, rejecting them, fighting them, pushing them back is feeding attention.
Once the mental rubble has been junked, keep it from gathering again by losing curiosity. Feelings and emotions accumulate in our consciousness because of curiosity. Think about it, all hobbies, every collection of stamps, coins, Spode china figurines and what have you, begins with curiosity, an interest in finding out more. Then later comes the need to possess them. Then some more and more of them. If one is at all sincere about emotional and mental house cleaning, then a life of awareness is essential. One has to be alert to what is going within one’s thought process while interacting in the world. It requires intelligence and a great deal of care. One of the great things I have left behind of my youth is that sense of curiosity for the objects of the world. Not my sense wonder, let me hasten to add. Age and experience bring perspective, there is a fatigue borne of knowledge that none of those things has lasting meaning or value.
One of the many things I learn from the homeless men at the shelter where I volunteer is their spirit of generosity. If one of them as two coats and another man has none, he will hand over the spare coat to the one without one. It is ironic that in life those with much tend to hoard whereas those without are generous.
Happy New Year!
December 24, 2012
This time on last New Year’s Eve, I was in Times Square, New York, among a million others marking the turning of the clock with a ritual. Though deep in my heart it felt contrived. I could not shake the truth that the concepts of New Year, the turn of the Millennium, December 21st 2012, were all human fabrications. As such they have a life only in our collective imagination. But make no mistake, the human imagination is very potent. To illustrate with another example, think of the famous photograph of planet Earth taken from space, The Blue Marble. What is most striking about this image is the absence of borders and boundaries. Prior to that picture we were used to seeing our planet in atlases, sliced up with black lines and contrasting colours. The Blue Marble shows the reality of Earth as a unified whole. And yet those imaginary lines dividing nations are still very real to humans. So real we are prepared kill or be killed for them. Similarly, the concept of time is imbedded in our psyches so profoundly, we find it hard to accept it as a fiction. We cherish special dates (Year 2000) or give significance to end of world dates (some even disposing of their property in anticipation).
Which is odd really. Because each of us suspends time on a regular basis. Each time we sleep, the very concept of time vanishes from us. Even in our dreams time is very elastic. A two-minute dream can feel like it played all night. You might age forty years within a thirty-second dream. I know under my heart attack coma I lived through several lifetimes, each one vividly real to me. While simultaneously, for my family in the waiting room, the seconds felt immovable. I know because last month I sat in the very same waiting room while someone else underwent a heart attack.
Time is also very elastic as we age. I recall as a child when being told to wait for five minutes, it was an eternity. As I age I now complain,”where have the years gone?”
Then there is the whole issue of when the counting of the clock began. It all depends on which culture we are referring to. For the Hindus this is year 5121, for the Chinese this year is 4710. Then there is the issue of solar calenders versus lunar calenders. Therefore, dates, months, hours, minutes exist in our imagination as solidly as the waves on the ocean.
Does that mean there is no such thing as objective time? I don’t know. That has been debated by greater minds than mine for generations, with no consensus. What I do know is that time commemorates the interval between two events, it marks change. And for change to be noted, a changeless background is essential. Take a movie for example, it requires an unmoving screen for the changes in the film to register to the human brain. Project a piece of film over a stormy ocean and Mr. Brad Pitt will not be seen leaping off canyons. So then the question becomes: what is that universal unchanging background upon which the passage of events, is perceived?
Surely it is consciousness. I do not believe the concept of time can ever be considered without consciousness. It is something like the old philosophical question of if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound? Similarly, if events transpire and there is no consciousness to witness them, has anything happened? Has time elapsed? What of the countless galaxies that implode in remote vacuums of the cosmos? Or what is the meaning of time for the suns which are pulled into black holes like water into drains? Or come to that, does time exist in the depths of our oceans where there is no life to experience it? And if there is life, how is time experienced by those creatures?
I recall years ago I was sitting in meditation in a temple in India when I heard a buzz of insects all around me. I opened my eyes to find the whole temple floor carpeted by these moth-like creatures. Some were crawling, others were mating, and some had shed their wings in their death throws. I was assured by a local that this was normal. Once a year, during the monsoon season, these insects erupt, and within a few hours live out their full lifespan: they grow up, they mate, they die. I have also been in the midst of California Redwoods that were 5000 years old and growing. How can time be experience uniformly by creatures with such varying lifespans?
What is that unchanging, uniform background that makes the passage of these events noticeable? Surely it has to be universal consciousness. And that greater consciousness is called eternity. Many people mistake eternity for a long period of time. Eternity is the absence of time, it is the centre point around which time rotates.
And that eternal point is within each of us. It has to be. How else would we know the passage of time?
Will time ever end? The end of time did not happen on 2012 for all humanity, nor will it on any other date. Each of us will reach that point at his or her own pace. But reach it we will. Not as abstract as it sounds.
In moments of deep mediation, we can reach that stillness which is eternity. At these moments the mind ceases to exist. All that is left is the pure awareness. With practise a day will arrive when the mind ceases permanently. Stillness alone will be our experience. And that is the end of time.
Happy New Year.