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.
October 15, 2012
Navel-gazer! Self-absorbed! Selfish! Harsh names sometimes given to those us devoted to self-care. We meditate, we introspect, we dissect our daily lives. We fuss over what to eat and what to avoid, we are disciplined about exercise. Heck, we are disciplined about discipline. So is the criticism fair? Are we just glorified narcissists?
The question startled me when it was posed to me by Mary, a young woman whom I have known for many years. I had observed her during her turbulent adolescent years but now she has managed to find her grove by helping others. Initially her question knocked me sideways and then it made me look at myself critically (but of course).
I think people misunderstand self-care because they confuse it with self-indulgence. Wanting the best for yourself does not mean over-indulgence. Starlets such as Lindsay Lohan are examples of over-indulgence that is detrimental to self-care.
In my own volunteer work I come across any number of less famous persons who do not take care of themselves: substance abusers, gamblers, the socially challenged. Such people end up requiring a great deal of assistance from strangers and institutions. At homeless shelters, at hospitals, at welfare offices, and of course the prison system. Let me hasten to add that I am not a Republican nor a Conservative. I do believe in a compassionate society. I accept that people have greater and lesser capabilities. Some of the people needing assistance did not chose to be in that circumstance. That said, I wonder how many of them would have been better positioned to cope with adversity had they acquired the skills of self-care during better times?
I grew up in family where we had little money to go around. Which meant we learned early on how to manage finances, how to prioritize expenses, when to be thrifty. Skills which are paying off to this day. There was no ‘helicopter parenting’ in those days. We were left to independently discover the skills for better living. And I am grateful for that. Coddled children seem to grow up under-equipped for the stress of adult life. We had no Papa Walton to sort out our problems, and June Cleaver was not there to mend our clothes and pack our school lunches. If we needed clean clothes, we figured out how to do laundry. You want to eat? then better learn to cook. If you want nutritious meals, then read up on what is good for you and which is harmful. Sure, we made some errors along the way (even a few massive ones), but we acquired the skills of independence, self-reliance and self-care.
Of course none can go it totally alone. Self-care does not preclude seeking out external assistance when required. But it does involve liking yourself enough to want the best for yourself–the best health, the greatest happiness, the least stress. It requires self-respect.
One of my patients, Marty, jokes about swallowing a fistful of pills, thereby ending his predicament (he has had a leg amputated and is due for several more surgeries). I do not believe his threat is sincere because he puts in so much graft in getting better. He soaks up advice, he follows his medication regime, he is diligent with his physiotherapy. As he lays in his hospital bed he sometimes gets frustrated by the enormity of the recovery ahead of him, hence he speaks of overdosing on pills. But lying in that same hospital bed he also plans the changes he is going to make in his life when he returns to his apartment. After years of self-neglect, he has discovered self-care and therefore I do not believe he is serious about suicide. The two things are contradictory. He said that thanks to me he now has self-respect. People with self-respect do not self-harm, we have others skills at our disposal for mitigating our suffering. We have had ample practice.
Whenever you take an air flight, there is the mandatory safety instructions before take-off. Interesting that we need to be reminded that in the event of an emergency “to secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting your children and family members.” Self-care feels counter-intuitive. But rationally it makes sense. You can be of no use to little Johnny and baby Jessica if you are gasping for air yourself. The same applies in daily life. How can you help people around you if you yourself are struggling? You need to have credibility before others respect your advice. I very much doubt that I would have inspired self-respect in Marty had I not had it myself.
Which brings me back to Mary. She got so caught up in helping so many others that she burnt out. She was hospitalized from exhaustion, both physical and emotional. Her family had to intervene to get her back to functioning. So to answer her question, no Mary, self-care is the opposite of being selfish: if you don’t give yourself adequate attention, you become the center of attention for others.
August 27, 2012
I have a confession. I am an addict. I’m hooked on silence. I get high from sitting with an empty mind and I just can’t get enough of the stuff. One day, anxious for my daily fix, I rushed into my bedroom and slammed the door shut. Just as I closed my eyes, my stupid roommate burst in, “Get the f###! out, can’t you see I’m trying to get a bit of f***ing peace!”
Okay that never happened, well not exactly anyway. But it is a familiar scenario. Laughable when presented this way, but I wouldn’t be the first or last person to “strive” so hard for inner peace that in the process I trampled over whatever little calm there was to begin with. We all have known people who used be fun, happy-go-lucky and never passed judgement on anyone, that is, until they found religion. Now they are irritable, oh-so serious and slowly, imperceptibly, they start looking down their noses at most everyone (ah the vanity of piety). It doesn’t matter which religion people discover, we find this type of contrary behavior among devotees of all faiths. Why does this happen? It is one of the reasons religion has a bad rap (that and atrocities in the name of god). Isn’t religion supposed to make people joyful, more compassionate? Hey, I am the last one to condemn these individuals, for I have been in their shoes (but not the atrocities part). As ludicrous as it is, it is important to understand how this happens so I can avoid that pitfall.
Much of it, I think, has to do with being overambitious. At the start of any project you have high hopes, big dreams, grand plans. Plans perhaps not realistic with the resources, talents, time available at your disposal. But that never stops anyone. When we first begin to read about self-awareness, the unassailable essence of our own existence and other such impressive ideas, we are intellectually convinced. But our ability to experience them is, perhaps, lacking. Old habits are deeply ingrained. You feel their force only when you try to resist them. So perhaps is that the answer: more realistic goals? Don’t bite off more than you can chew? Perhaps. I found having smaller manageable goals more satisfying, more fulfilling. And a more fulfilled me is a more peaceful me, which makes reaching inner peace that much more feasible.
There is another problem with trying too hard. I remember being at a meditation retreat once in Northern California. Most of the students were Indo-Americans in jeans and tee-shirts, all except this one geek wearing a kurta, a saffron kurta at that, with large Shiva beads around his neck. Talk about trying too hard! That geek was me. I must have looked like one of those desperadoes usually seen at single’s events, you know the one: doused in cologne, shirt unbuttoned to his naval, hair greasier than a BP oil spill. You can just hear the women scream in unison, “Just be yourself, man. Don’t try so hard.” The same applies to meditation. It is about being. The act of trying, the fact of making an effort, shatters the experience of your natural being.
That is the golden dilemma: If you don’t strive for inner peace, you will always live with conflict, but the fact of striving will breed its own conflict. So what to do, you ask? There you see, what a reflex it is needing something to do. Don’t do anything, simply undo. Just be!
We are compelled to always do something. We are hard-wired to achieve a specific outcome. We go through our entire lives achieving things (or not, as the case may be), be it a good exam result, a successful job interview, a relationship. There are goals, there is the exuberance of striving, there is the rush of competing, the thrill of success. All fine and good for the material world. But for the inner world, it spells utter and complete disaster.
So what is the answer. No really, there must be an answer. All schools of mediatation (Vedanta, Zen, Tibetian) say to witness the stream of consciouness, but not to take part. Don’t get caught up in it, and don’t feel disgusted by it. “Effortless effort” is what my guru used to say. Sounded like an oxymoron, a near-impossible skill to master. But for me help has come from an entirely unexpected source: neurobiology. It is a booming science, new discoveries are happening daily. The equipment for looking inside a functioning human brain is getting ever more precise. Neuroscientists now know that it in within the left-hemisphere where focus-oriented tasks trigger neural activity. While the right hemisphere is designed to look out for new experiences, the left wants to relate them to known information. When I sit for meditation and find myself trying way too hard, you can actually sense the intense energy focussed in the left frontal lobe. Be aware of it and by this awareness alone, this ingrained, primeval habit of ‘doing’ subsides temporarily. I have discovered that by being sensitive to the areas of the brain that are being fired up, I am able to watch what is happening to the mind without condemnation. The brain is a physical organ, functioning exactly as it was designed to do. There is no need for self-blame.
The bigger question is what is the nature of the entity giving attention to this? Is this type of attention present all the time? Even during sleep? When did it first appear? At birth, or before, Or much, much later? Congratulations, you are now in deep meditation.
August 13, 2012
I was appalled when a visitor from Germany expressed contempt that Canada would spend tax money on public art. Where is the value in it? she asked. Her practical nature could see any utilitarian value. I, as a writer of fiction, felt duty-bound to explain for her the value of art. She remained unconvinced.
Then, the very next day a group of friends met for our monthly Sunday brunch. I look forward to sharing stories with them. They too, of course, have stories they are eager to tell about the highlights of the past month. Unexpectedly joyful events, or imminent disappointments, storytelling, it was obvious to me on that Sunday, is the very bricks of our lives. We are entertained by both true and make-believe stories, either in person or in books or on film. When we connect with other people, be it over the internet or in person, it is through the medium of our mutual life stories. We are characters in each other’s biographies, but the protagonist in our own.
Of course there was a time when spirituality was transmitted by way of stories and art. That said, I wonder, what is the significance of the professional storyteller in this contemporary, secular society? What is the contribution fiction writers(and other types of artists) make to our community? Is that German visitor correct?
In my opinion, the artistic contribution is vastly underestimated. As the world moves ever forward, writers and artists are taking on ever new roles. It seems to me that at times being a writer or artist is a spiritual occupation (or should that be preoccupation?). I mean, the very process of creating itself demands spiritual maturity. Take the example of creating a fictional character. I, as a South Asian male, do not only write characters who are exactly like me. Sometimes I might write from the perspective of a young English girl, or an African muslim perhaps. This requires the ability to set aside my ego and see, hear, feel, taste and touch from the skin of another human. When creating characters, I find it liberating to think of people I have known and then strip away the superficialities of their race, gender, age, styles of clothing, habits, and search for the essence of their humanity. The very process forces a writer to question what exactly is the self, and which is clutter. What is more, if a writer’s work is to communicate with his readers, he requires the virtue of empathy with his invisible audience. To create a sympathetic drama, he must feel compassion for the people who live in that world. To connect with alien cultures, he needs to discover his core unity with the world. If all of that sounds rather spiritual, that’s because it is.
When you think about it, the process of creating is parallel to spiritual practices. Both require solitude. Both ask us to dive deep into our sub-conscious, where, if we are lucky, we discover pearls of wisdom. Both seekers and writers find significance amid the mundane. We uncover order amid seeming chaos. The very act of creating requires a writer to be self-disciplined. He must possess concentration, and clarity of mind. It demands that he be brutally honesty and question objectively all that he takes for granted. Strange, these are the same skills that my guru tried to teach to me. Make no mistake; writing is a type of meditation. And reading can be a meditation also.
Whenever I go to an art gallery it feels to me as though I am in temple or church. I experience the same awe, the same wonderment. My mind dissolves temporarily. I am removed from the realm of mind and thoughts. I am thrust into awareness. Not all paintings speak to me but some certainly do. There a communion that happens which is really incredible when you think about it. The artist created that painting in another place, in another time; the fact that it communicates illuminates that the awareness which is common to both the artist and me the viewer is beyond time and space. And that awareness is one. Without the common medium of awareness, how could there be a communion through distance and time? I seem to spend hours in a gallery without being conscious of the passage of time. Isn’t that proof that art transports us out of the space-time continuum?
Great fiction, like any good scripture (though one may argue that all scriptures are fiction), has the ability to redeem. I know for me creative writing was a tool if lifting me out of depression. At a recent Descant meeting, we heard about the success of one our programs with young offenders. Whitney French conducts poetry workshops with delinquent youths. We were informed by the people who run that institute that in the last fifteen years this is the only program that has affected a positive change with the young men. By learning to write poetry, these young men also learned to examine their own feelings and inherent goodness. Now if that is not proof of the power of art to rehabilitate, I don’t know what is. Great art can indeed reshape the way we see the world and our place in it.
We live in a time when political conservatives want to portray artists as being irrelevant. More and more funding is being slashed from the arts because they, like the German visitor, see no utilitarian value. They consider what we do as somehow frivolous and our work does not contribute to society in any meaningful way. In this age of atheism, I put it to you that art fulfils the needs that religion used to once. It enlightens, it inspires, it helps make us better people. At least it has for me. Art is indeed the oxygen of my soul.