hungerWhile the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain  from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.

She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.

I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?

It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.

The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?

Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.

I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.

What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.

Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.

Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.

Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.

And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.

Is Art Redundant?

January 14, 2014


DSCN2336_1322My ten-year-old grand-nephew was gifted a sketchpad and pencils. He was so perplexed about what to do with them that I sat him down and gave him a few pointers on the fundamentals of drawing. Is art even still taught in schools? Perhaps to his generation it is about as useful as penmanship or the art of letter-writing. Doesn’t every kid have a cellphone with which to snap pictures of anything remotely interesting (thereafter to be Instagramed). So why should they bother mastering the skill of drawing or painting?

In my day (yes, I know I sound like an old fogey) we learned to draw before we could write. It taught us to hold the pencil correctly, to discovers shapes and curves, all of which I think made reading and writing that much easier. As soon as that first pencil was placed in my hand I fell in love with drawing. It was a way of making sense of the chaos of colors and shapes in a world which was still new to me. It is a hobby I have since cherished throughout my lifetime and as I matured, it has gifted to me new skills at each step of the way.

In my youth I sat through many life drawing classes, and yes, we drew nude models. “Is it very sexy to draw someone naked?” was a question I used to get asked repeatedly. “No,” I’d say. “We are taught to see shapes, textures, tones. We don’t have time to think of sex.” People rarely believed me. But it is true. Life drawing is training ourselves to deconstruct what we see. It is a skill that stays with you outside the life drawing workshop. Sexy magazine covers and advertising cease to hold sway in our minds. We learned not just to see, but to observe critically.

Whenever I travel I like to spend time in art museums. I am always amused by the young who do not know the art of observation. In Paris there is the Musee de l’ Orangerie which houses wall panels painted by Claude Monet of his garden at Givenry. The panels are curved such that if you sit in the correct spot you are as though transported into the garden itself. As I was sitting, a young tourist walked into the room with that typically bored stance of a put-upon teenager. Camera in hand, she snapped about a dozen images in the thirty seconds between her entrance and exit from the room. She had not been taught to put herself in the skin of the artist who painted the Les Nympheas. She did not have the faculty to experience, she could not share his feelings and his moods as he was composing this masterpiece. She is not alone in this; the camera serves to prevent tourists from observing or experiencing the very places and people they have come to see.

I am tempted to remind tourists that people literally died to preserve these art treasures. During the Second World War, one of many atrocities the Germans committed was the plunder of European art. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is now known, the German army surrounded the city for nearly three years and yet the residents put up a noble fight. They were cut off from all food supplies and electricity, yet they were determined the Germans should not get their hands on the art housed at the Hermitage Museum. The curators removed the canvases from their frames and hid the art in between walls in local homes or buried them in farmers’ fields. The curators hoped that when the city did inevitably fall, these works might be spared. They survived doing this work inside the museum by eating the glue that had held the canvases to their frames. The same happened in Paris. The French too risked their lives to save their treasures because to them it was much more than beautiful pictures they were saving, it was the very soul of Europe.

Of course the billions of digital images we now take so frivolously are destined for that invisible delete bin in cyberspace. We may have a laugh taking a selfie on the cellphone, but the masters delved deep into themselves to retrieve the images they painted. Learning to draw and paint teaches you the path to the unconscious mind. Drawing and painting requires the simultaneous consideration of so many skills (dexterity, tonal understanding, color, perspective, mood and atmosphere) that waking consciousness is not enough. It can only give attention to one thing at a time. However, the sub-conscious is where the fruits of practice and habit reside. The sub-conscious can juggle many things if the conscious has given attention to them in the past. The more you practice art, the better you understand the sub-conscious. So if anyone wants to seriously change her habits, the good and the ugly, she must work at them in the sub-conscious level. (No, Virginia, New Year’s resolutions do not work).

Of course no spiritual introspection is ever possible without understanding these deeper levels. That may be why all religions use art so freely.

I find myself now rediscovering my love for painting. This time round I am not so much concerned with the technique, but art as language. The unconscious mind speaks to itself in images, as anyone who has given attention to dreams can attest. I still love words but I also recognize that words are specific to a time and place, whereas art is universal. Art speaks the language of the collective sub-conscious, the underlying unity of all humanity.

I was very pleased to hear that my grand-nephew has now began drawing lessons after school. He asked his father (my nephew) if he could swap hockey practice for art in the New Year. If I played any small part in that then that is my gift to him.

Is Imperfection A Blessing?

December 23, 2013


DSCN2329_1304The dinner table looked fabulous. The centerpiece was formal yet festive. The cutlery sparkled and its layout would have made the butler on Downtown Abbey proud. Each dish served tasted exactly as it was supposed to and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Then one of the guests returned from the bathroom and requested a  toilet plunger. Never a good thing! Amidst all this sophistication, despite the attention to perfection, the drains chose to back up grease and gunk.

At first it felt like a slap in the face. But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was for this toilet disaster. That night, before I retreated to bed, I sat for a few minutes to empty my mind of the day’s events. This has been my routine for many years and I find it helps me to sleep well. Except on occasions when the day goes all too perfectly. Days when there is an abundance of joy, it is very difficult to turn my back on the day and retreat into the rest of sleep. The mind wants to relive the day. Despite a tired body’s demands, the mind recalls again and again each and every perfect moment.

On this night, even though the evening was a great success otherwise, I was able to shut it out from my mind because of this one mishap. So might there have been a technique for getting a good night’s sleep thrown up the drain along with the debris? Perhaps the secret to unwinding, the trick to falling into effortless sleep might be to find the small failures in the greater successes, the little sadness contained in that triumphant news. Oh I don’t mean one should cultivate an unhealthy pessimism, merely that whenever we desire to unburden the mind, we can use this little trick to stop it from ruminating uncontrollably.

 As a long-time meditator I appreciate the bliss of mental stillness, the other-worldly peace of inner nothingness. In the beginning I too used to be frustrated by daily upsets and routine worries. Strange that novices always seem to give attention to negating the bad stuff. They struggle to forget the unpleasant encounters, they labor to push back stressful memories. But in my experience, the ugliness of life is much easier to reject, it is the pleasant and the perfect that seems to take up permanent residence in the mind.

I can’t count how many young cancer patients I have encountered who are fearful of death precisely because they grieve the loss of all the happiness they have previously enjoyed. Not a one of them regrets leaving behind financial worries or the physical misery of old age. It is the love of their families they mourn to leave. It is the absence from their daughter’s graduation, the non-attendance at the son’s wedding that brings emotional pain. Misery is something we forget naturally because our pride forbids us from revisiting old failures. Yet we indulge in what I will call crudely (but aptly) mental masturbation upon the happy successes in our life. Unable to let go of the happy and the beautiful, we then  complain: meditation is so, so difficult.  

The other day I wished a patient at the hospital a Merry Christmas simply out of polite habit. He glared back at me with a frown and then said, “Everyone is pressuring everyone else to have a perfect Christmas.” He then collapsed exhausted into his bed. I understood his frustration. Christmas, more than any other holiday, is supposed to be greeting card perfect: a light dusting of snow, a warm fire, a cheerful array of gifts under the tree and of course, congenial family sharing quality time together. No wonder Christmas has the highest suicide rate of the year. Many have no one in their lives. Some are too sick or too poor. And those of us who will attempt a Disney celebration will encounter clogged drains and other disasters.

And thank heavens for them. They are reminders of the imperfection of daily life. No matter how carefully we plan, we just can never shut out the ugliness. I was rather amused by a news snippet about the six-hundred-million-dollar lottery jackpot in the US recently. The news report suggested the lucky winner could purchase a Fijian island with his or her winnings. The unchallenged implication was that with enough money one could buy oneself a piece of paradise. What an awful idea.

Anyone who has experienced the perfect stillness of the mind will attest that that itself is paradise.

Famous Last Words?

December 2, 2013


A merry widow

A merry widow

“I told you I don’t want to talk about this any more,” Irving shouts into his cellphone, the strain of which unleashes a coughing fit. I hand him a glass of ice water from his lunch tray which, as usual, is uneaten but thoroughly picked over. The old and the sick seldom have good appetites. “And the same to you too!” he shuts off the phone and throws it upon the bed. “Damn gold digger!” A green knot of veins threatens to burst through the paper skin of his neck.

A television is speaking in the background; it is set to one of those 24/7 news channels that continuously run a scroll of the stock market numbers. His red-rimmed lizard eyes dart back and forth catching the scroll. Wiithout looking away he reaches for his vial of pills, but knocks them over. As I pick them up off the floor he again coughs heavily, then apologizes by saying he has been a four-packs-a-day smoker since he was a teenager. Irving is in the end stages of terminal emphysema.

“Doesn’t matter,” he swings his naked legs from the side of the bed like a petulant child. “I’m eighty-six. Its not as if I’d have  more years without it.” They are as pale and fragile as dessert grass. After a moments pause, he has another little moan about his wife, with whom he had been quarreling over the phone. “I’m not even dead yet and already she is decorating her next home in her head.” She is much younger than him. I imagine her as a classic trophy wife, all jeweled and coiffed as she escorted him to his soirees with politicians and CEOs. Hard to imagine that this frail Gecko of a man once held sway over the destinies of people like me.

Mid-sentence he is distracted by the television. “Damn, Blackberry is down again.” It turns out a chunk of his fortune is invested in those stocks. By the the time the nurse brings the replacements for his pills, he has clear forgotten about them. “What are these for? I already took my pills.” I remind him that he had not. I rewind the events to when he ended his phone conversation. “Oh that gold digging floozy.” He sets off on another tirade about her, and then back to complaining about the bouncing Blackberry stocks.

By the end my visit the tone of his voice has softened. “Will you come and see me again?” I promise him that I will, and true to my word, I begin my next shift by heading to his floor. I am surprised to see that another man is occupying his room, sleeping in his bed. I locate a nurse and ask if Irving was discharged. “No,” the nurse gives me one of those apologetic, pursed smiles. “He passed away.” As volunteers we expect to lose patients, but we still feel a certain sadness about it. As I walk away I couldn’t help wonder, what were his last words? “That damn gold digger!” or perhaps his last thoughts were about the future of Blackberry? I can’t decide which is sadder: that he is gone, or that he spent his last days and hours stressing the banal?

Death is very rarely (if ever) the way it is in the movies: all angel choir and violin crescendo. More routinely there is a cacophony of  arguments, stress, and worries for a future in which you have no part. I think many of us have a fantasy that our last words will be something profound.

“It is very beautiful over there,” said Thomas Edison on the moment of his death. “I see a black light,” reported Victor Hugo. We imagine in our dying breath the mystery of life will be self-evident. Perhaps one may commune with his or her personal god. But as I walk away from Irving’s last place of unrest, I wonder if that is even a realistic expectation?

I mean, many people do not have the same luxury as Irving had had: death will come to many unexpectedly. As it did for a healthy young woman named Soraya Nanji. She was crossing the street on one of the busiest intersections in Toronto. “Well, have a great trip,” she wished her friend on the cellphone. A truck hit her. She was dead.

Over her grave, mourners wished her, “Rest in peace.” And perhaps Irving’s merry widow might raise of glass wishing him the same. But shouldn’t we have wished them that while they were still alive?


Dream Caused by the Flight of Bees Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Waking by Dali

What is the emotion Salvador Dali captured in this picture?

The hospital was offering CPR training at a nominal rate for its volunteers. Naturally, I signed up. I live with a cardiac survivor and also my neighbor has been hospitalized numerous times with heart issues. I was so grateful for this chance to acquire the skills which may one day save someone’s life that I had not given any thought to the date of the training nor its location. As I sat in class, our jovial instructor began by asking, “Who do we give CPR to?” Before anyone could answer he delivered the punch line, “To dead guys.” Humor was his way of connecting with his students, most of whom were either medical students or foreign-trained physicians awaiting residency. They had seen it all.

He continued his stand-up routine, comparing the symptoms of a heart attacks between men and women. An odd realization ran through me. Not only was this class being held at the hospital where I was treated, it was directly under its Cardiac Critical Care. What is more, the class was held very near to the anniversary of my near-fatal trauma. Something about the confluence of time and place overwhelmed me with an emotion I could not name. It was not anger, his humor was satirical but respectful; how was he to know I was once that dead guy receiving the chest compressions and electric shocks he was joking about. I wasn’t sad; I don’t fear death anymore. In fact I ran through the list of known emotions and eliminated all of them. Yet I felt something. But what?

Is it possible that some emotions are so unique that they cannot be identified?

Lately I find myself thinking a lot about my niece, who at eighteen, suddenly finds herself thrown into adulthood. She has just began university and is living away from home for the first time. Gone is the caring gaze of her parents, gone are the high school teachers who spoon feed knowledge, gone are the childhood friendships the closeness of which is never again to be repeated. This is a niece who shares her uncle’s love for words; yet, when she is asked how she feels, she is at a loss to describe.

I wonder if unidentifiable emotions happen more often than we realize? After all, emotions reside in the Amygdala, a part of the brain inherited from our reptilian past. It was never designed to process the complex nuances of modern urban living. No wonder Torontonians are at a loss for words over the bizarre behavior we witness daily at City Hall (curtsey of a drug-addict, wife-beating, gangster mayor). Over the past six months we have gone through the spectrum of all the usual emotions, and now we are strangely silent. We can’t describe it as numbness, which is an absence of feeling (we definitely feel a fullness of emotion). To call it shock is also inaccurate; shock is a state of medical trauma caused by a lack of blood (and we surely feel a surge of blood when we think about what the mayor has done).

As the news channels go on recounting the salacious events, it occurred to me that “the news” is all about unidentifiable emotions. News is sensational by nature. It intrigues us with tales about tsunamis that sweep over dozens of countries in one swoop. It fascinates us with  earthquakes that shatter metropolises as big as New York. The news is only ever about the incredible and the extraordinary, but I wonder if we recognize the novelty of the emotions we feel when we hear about these sensational events. I was too young to recall the JFK assassination but I do remember 9/11. None of us was able to articulate the emotion we were experiencing. The news media did their best to identify the unidentifiable, name the unnameable. In the end all failed. Yet we felt something. But what?

Isn’t it interesting that the question people ask is,”Where were you when John Lenon was shot?” and not, “How did you feel?” This is because our memory cannot file away what it cannot name. The best it can do is recall the events leading up to it and around it.

I am lucky enough to be acquainted with many poets. It seems to me that they dedicate their lives to describing the indescribable. They resort to abstract imagery and metaphors in an attempt to invoke in our memory the freshness of that unidentifiable emotion. Sometimes, if we are lucky, they succeed and we enter the realms of the sublime. But perhaps we stumble into the sublime in daily life but just do not have a name for it?


kkkDillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?

According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.

When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to  shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.

In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling  among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same.  In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.

Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?

Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.

So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?


Contrite or Self-serving?

Contrite or Self-serving?

“It was like a thousand pounds were lifted off my shoulders,” said the corpulent mayor of Toronto after his confession that he was a crack addict. The city was stunned. It was as though the said thousand pounds were now upon the citizens. He had confessed and was asking for our forgiveness. If we refuse him that forgiveness then we were the ones morally in the wrong. I wonder, is that how confession really works, by shifting the guilt?

We keep secrets because we are ashamed. We know what we are doing is wrong and that others would disapprove if they knew. ‘Fessing up, it seems to me, only relieves the burden of keeping something hidden. In my time I have witnessed many ‘pride’ parades: I grew up in England in the Seventies when the “Keep Britain White” movement was at its peak. These parades through the centre of town were designed to encourage other people not to feel ashamed for feeling hateful. These racists were publicly confessing their beliefs not as an apology, not as contrition, but for as affirmation, for seeking approval. By coming out as a racist the fear of being caught out was gone, so the mind feels lighter. “I have nothing more to hide,” said Rob Ford. But beyond that, is there any other benefit?

“Depends,” says Ralph, a recovering alcoholic. “Confessing is not the same as professing. You can admit to doing something wrong, lots of criminals do,  but if it is not accompanied by active remorse then it is useless.” He should know. Ralph has spent each monday night for the past four years attending AA meetings where he stands up in front of strangers as he admits he has an alcohol problem. His confessions is step five of the famous twelve-step program. In fact he says making amends and taking preventive actions is the most important of the twelve steps. It is also much more difficult than just admitting guilt. Specially when you are backed into a  corner.

I think Rob Ford confessed only because the evidence of his wrongdoing was no longer deniable. Isn’t such a confession self-serving? The relief he enjoyed is that of hope. Hope that he will survive without consequences the discovery of his guilt. It is the same reason why spouses sometimes confess their infidelity. The wife thinks, “Better he hears it from me than a stranger.”

At this point I suppose I should make a confession of my own: I am a squealer, a rat, a snitch.  Throughout school and my work life I had no hesitation about reporting to authority the wrongdoing of others. That may be why my most successful career was that of an auditor. But being a squealer means I find myself confessing to people when I could have easily got away with it. Last year I applied to a hospice to work as a volunteer with the dying. The interviewer must have liked me, she spent two hours chatting with me. Then I made a shocking confession: I have a blog called awarenessisfree. That in this blog I write about events from which I have learned and grown. Apparently that violated the hospice’s rules. Despite my assurances, she was unsure that the patients’ confidentiality would be respected. When I received her rejection in the mail, I did chide myself: why did I confess? There is no way she would have known I have a blog. I appreciate I take steps to be respectful of patients’ privacy, but I also appreciate that I am squealer. I live by my conscience. The truth is important to me. Even if it means I shoot myself in the foot.

Oh, I am sure there are better examples of this type of confession. Every so often you hear about someone who calmly walks into a police station and confesses to an unsolved crime. The consequences are far greater than the loss of some volunteer job, but they feel compelled to confess by their conscience. Such confessions comes from a knowledge that you will grow in leaps and bounds because of this confession. The punishment is mere payment for that growth.

Of course confessions need not always be public. Diaries are a private confession, as are prayers.  Art is a kind confession. So is talk therapy. However all of these types of confession have the same underlying mechanism. They work upon the ego, this sense of me. We are each burdened by the certainty of this ego, which is a very strange creature indeed. It demands that it not be judged. It demands it be liked by everyone all of the time. It cannot ever be told it is wrong. Confessions come as a relief because momentarily the stranglehold of the ego is released. By allowing another into its secret, by permitting judgement the ego is stripped of its power. In that moment it has self-doubt. It is open to the possibility that it is wrong. If however it shies away from corrective actions then the stranglehold returns stronger than ever. For stubbornness is also the nature of the ego. As Rob Ford has demonstrated by his refusal to step down.


Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

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.

Smart pagans.

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?

Happy Halloween!

Can Memory Be Trusted?

October 7, 2013


Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

With Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” laments Jacob. A nurse directs his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper she always keeps in front of him. It contains his full name, the name of the hospital he resides in, the floor and his room number. But these clues do not help Jacob’s disorientation. He has Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember his family. He cannot recall where he was born, or his occupation, or the places he has lived. It seems obvious to state that who we are is about our past. Everything we know about our character, what we believe, the people we love, our skills, the things we like and don’t like, all rely upon our memory. But wait, new research is saying that what we remember may not be what we actually experienced.

Scientists say it is very easy to trick the mind into remembering events that never happened. Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 in which she was able to convince 25% of her subjects that as children they had once been lost in a shopping mall. She showed them photoshopped images of themselves lost in a mall as proof. The mechanism of memory is highly flawed. Our imaginations, our dreams, even movies can trick our brain into believing we actually experienced an event in the distant past that never happened.

This is why eye witness testimony is notoriusly unreliable. The Innocence Project, thanks to DNA, has freed dozens of men, including Rubin Carter, who were wrongfully-convicted of horrific crimes solely based upon eye witness testimony. It is not that the witnesses were deliberately committing perjury, they genuinely believed they saw Mr. X do whatever he was accused of.

Not only is memory highly suggestible, it remembers differently at different times. Couples when they bicker usually disagree over widely divergent memories of the same events. It is a lot like that Steve Lawerence song from the film Gigi, Oh Yes I remember It Well. “I did the shopping last week,” says one spouse. “No I did,” argues the other. It is not that one or both parties are liars. They truly remember the past differently and the conflict arises because both of them trust the accuracy of his respective memory.

To get conclusive proof of the unreliability of memory, you don’t need experiments. Your dreams are made purely from memory. Anachronism are routine (You are at a family gathering where everyone is as they are today except for your thirty-five-year-old nephew who is three). People and items are mislocated (you dream of your childhood home but the couch is the one you have now). Such errors are routine because in sleep the memory does not have clues from our senses or the collaboration of other people. In waking life we fill the gaps of memory by deduction, we infer, we assume, we trust. Dreams are raw memory and memory is not recollection but re-imagination.

This is the reason why when we fall out with someone close to us, we re-imagine our mutual past to align with the shift in our new opinion of that person. We re-interrupt our mutual relationship so convincingly that we conveniently forget contrary events. We might even swear    ‘remembering’ them saying and doing things they never actually did. (Isn’t it amazing that every young person who dies tragically was a living saint?)

Which brings me back to Jacob. It may be stating the obvious to say that who we are is about our past, but if our data is unreliable then should we trust our conclusions? Even for those without Alzheimer’s, Jacob’s question is still relevant. Who am I? I believe I know but that belief changes depending on who I am with. Sure, the physical descriptions do not change (race, gender, height) but internally who I am is a flux. The facts of my name and location do not vary from moment to moment and so I do not experience Jacob’s disorientation. But if I am being honest, when I look back over the years to find an answer to who I am, I am as befuddled as Jacob.

At first this notion is scary. Terror is always about the unknown and the unexpected. But once you get comfortable with the uncertainty, it can bring about a flexibility in your relationships. When you acknowledge that your memory might be flawed, you allow the possibility that  others may be right in what they remember. When you lose faith in your memory the world is  a more nuanced and layered place. I love how infants, who have no past and therefore no concretized definition of who they are, move about with a perpetual sense of discovery and wonder. Might an acknowledgement of the unreliability of our memory allow us to experience some of that astonishment about life?


"You have no idea how dreary my life is."

“Oh! You have no idea how dreary my life is.”

Every once in a while I come across a patient who forces me to re-examine my life and the way I move about within it. Mary is 89, small and fragile. Yet she wields a strength far in excess of anything Mr. Schwarzeneggar can muster. You see, she lives in a complete state of gratitude. In response to my simple inquiry about how she was doing, she became emotional that I, a stranger, cared enough to ask after her. She told me everyone at the hospital was taking such good care of her and,”Do you know, they bring me something to eat every single day.” She could no longer hold back the tears. The very idea that strangers loved her enough to feed her three-meals-a-day was simply overwhelming.

I was captivated. I am used to patients who complain about the meals, the water is not cold enough, the tea is not hot enough. They, like me, have expectations about how they should be treated. We are burdened by entitlement, we are afflicted by our rights. Mary is not. She effortlessly abides in gratitude. And her beauty is overpowering.

At first glance she may appear innocent, even naive. You would be wrong. She is a survivor of a World War, and a refugee from a Communist revolution. She has seen much too much ugliness to be naive. Then what makes this woman so unique? I strive to understand because I think it would be wonderful to experience her ecstatic state of gratitude.

As I attentively listened to her story I realized Mary had dedicated so much of her life to caring for others that now, after eight  decades, her ego had been knocked off centre stage. Almost every single sentence she uttered was focused on other people, their needs, their concerns, this despite her own significant difficulties. Don’t get me wrong, her deference to others was not a kind of oppression. I have met people who have been so humiliated, so beaten down that their own needs and desires were suppressed. Such people exude pathos. Mary exudes joy and contentment. This is because she took care of others whom she loved. She put their needs ahead of her own out of choice, not duty.

Over the years I must have spoken to countless people who were angry, frustrated, or depressed because they had suddenly lost the capacity to be independent, useful members of society, but Mary is the only person I have met to express gratitude in that same circumstance. It makes sense. All of us need to feel useful. We need this to survive as much as we need oxygen. The difference with Mary is that even while she lies helpless on a hospital bed, her gratitude rubs off on anyone lucky enough to come into contact with her. We in turn spread that gratitude to others in our lives. Thus wheelchair-bound she contributes to the well being of society at large. No wonder she has none of the self-pity and bitterness common to people newly diagnosed with a debilitating sickness.

Very soon we in Canada will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Once a year we are collectively to be grateful for the bounties of this land, (as opposed to the defeating poverty and endless strife of less fortunate nations). There is something selfish about this type of gratitude; an uncomfortable thank heavens it is them and not us subtext. That may be why we do not grant gratitude is just due. We in the West are told as children: “Finish your supper clean, there are children starving in India.” Such guilt-induced gratitude is passive and impotent. Whereas pure gratitude, like Mary’s, is empowering because it is born out of an appreciation for others. (By the way, the children of the middle class in India are never guilted into finishing their meals. All leftovers are promptly distributed to the said starving children, who are conveniently at the doorstep.)

It no longer surprises me whenever a homeless man complains about the free meal being served to him by volunteers. I understand it now. Ingratitude is human, ordinary, no effort required. Gratitude on the other hand, takes conscious effort. It requires you look at the glass as half-full, but it is an optimism tempered by constructive action. 

Thanks to Mary I get it now: Gratitude is appreciation of the other’s point of view. She has shown me it is worth the effort to do what she has done unconsciously most of her life. I fail gloriously at times, but that is okay. I am grateful for my failures also because they set me up to succeed the next time.

It is against hospital rules for volunteers to touch patients. I did not care. I asked Mary if I could give her a small hug. She has moved me and for that at least  I am eternally grateful.

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