Getting What You Deserve

February 25, 2012

A Self-styled Dame, Housewife, Superstar

My friend Chris refuses to have an internet in his home. I used to just think it eccentric, but now I believe his avoidance of the internet is a symptom of something more serious. He has applied for many better paying jobs over the years. In his contact information he includes his cellphone, street address and an e mail which he rarely ever checks. He has been invited for job interviews by e mail and because he does not check it he has missed more than a few chances for advancement. It is my belief that what he is doing, unbeknown to himself, is sabotaging himself because a part of him does not believe he deserves to do better.

He is hardly alone in this. Tabloids are full of celebrities who, after years of public adoration, press the self-destruct button. It is almost as though they reach a point where they feel they do not deserve the praise, the fame, the riches. Closer to home, we all can think of teenage girls who have dated rebel boys that are so blatantly not good for them. “I can change him,” they say. Or, “He is misunderstood.” There are the obese women who, after months of punishing dieting, reach their ideal weight, only to put it all back on again. It used to amuse me to see all the smokers outside of the cancer hospital, sitting in their wheelchairs and hospital dressing gowns, tethered to an IV tube, still unable to give up the habit that got them into that state in the first place. And what can the reason be for gay men to still engage in risky behavior despite thirty years of HIV in their midst? It is almost as though we have a little voice inside us telling us “this is what you deserve”.

Less dramatically, but no less damagingly, we limit our selves by the choices we make. My niece settled for a career as a Physician’s Assistant while her brother headed off to medical school. She gets peeved when people ask her why she didn’t pursue an M.D. as well. When I was furnishing my apartment I decided upon Barcelona chairs. The authentic ones were sumptuous, but I was happier with their Chinese knock-offs.  I often buy second-hand furniture, or purchase clothing from the discount bins or during January Sales. I call it thrifty but I have to wonder,  does a part of me feel that I do not deserve top quality goods?

The opposite of this are the people  who brim with self-confidence. They are not shy about aiming high, driving the best cars, living in the fanciest homes, moving socially upwards. Their very body language says:  “I deserve only the best”. Sometimes this internal dialogue is conscious, but often it is subliminal. We all begin life with undefined potential, but soon our families, our peers, our culture define us by setting limits. Of course, if we over-step our ambitions others do not hesitate to push us back. Sometimes I think the whole function of the high school guidance counsellor is to mock people’s dreams. Teachers have subtle ways of  evaluating us beyond the grades they assign. Bullies make it their life’s work to keep people in their place. Anyone who is not male, not white, not beautiful, is reminded by every magazine cover, every TV show that he is a bit-player in life.

However the fault it not wholly with others, we define ourselves with our choices. As a fiction writer I understand very well that to breathe life into a character I need to describe in detail his choice of hairstyle, his career, his diet, even what he wears to bed. All of this minutiae reflects for the readers the character’s inner personality. It seems to me that we humans are compelled to continually keep defining ourselves to the world , albeit  sub-consciously. “That dress is me,” says the fashionista.  “Those are my people I am defending,” says the soldier. “My god is the only true one,” screams the fanatic. Artistic/ intellectual/ Conservative/ Buddhist/ bi/lesbian/ young/ old/black/Asian and the rest, are all more than labels, they are the bricks of our very identity. It is as though without these definitions we might cease to exist. We feel vulnerable, unsafe without borders to define us. Are we using fear to feel safe?

But what exactly would happen if we stripped our identity of all its definitions, what would be left? Maybe, just maybe our real selves. And what could that possibly feel like, beyond the initial fear? How would it be to have no gender or age, no race, no sexuality? To be part-less, unassailable, unchanging throughout time and ever the same in every place, to be complete, needing nothing, nothing to prove, nothing to achieve?

It feels like home.


Centenarian Fauja Singh completed the Toronto Marathon.

Exercise and I have had an on-off relationship. Back in the Eighties I too was caught up in the workout-for-vanity craze of that era. This time round however, the push came from my cardiologist. My ejection fraction, the amount of blood the heart pumps out with each beat, was so low that he thought of installing a defibrillator into my chest cavity. I didn’t much care for having an electronic device surgically attached to my heart. Reluctantly I began to use the treadmill in my building five times a week. That was three years ago. Now I only ever miss a session if I am sick, or out of town. I keep going back because I have discovered that exercise has a few other benefits rarely talked about.

Sleep:– I used to have very erratic sleep, often waking in the night, unable to return to sleep. Since I began regular exercise my sleep patterns have stabilized. It is not only the quantity of sleep that has improved but the quality. My dreams are less wild, I feel more rested now when I awake. Which has also improved the rhythms of my…

Appetite:  I now actually feel hungry. Eating is a pleasure  and not just something I have to do for the good of my health. In particular, I am drawn to fresh fruits and vegetables. I enjoy making my own meals because I trust the healthy ingredients I put into them. I believe both the sleep and the eating rhythms are tied to….

Breathing: Cardio improves the respiratory system as well. To maximize this effect,  while I run on the treadmill I deliberately breathe deeply. In yoga, breathing and movement are closely synchronized, but people seem to forget about that in other activity.  By focussing on the breath, the heart, and the lungs I get the full benefit of the half-hour. I see so many people on the treadmill with their i-Pods or their magazines. I prefer to be aware of what is happening within my body during movement. The spill over of that attention is that I am more mindful when walking down the street. When walking along the street, or doing mundane physical work, my attention returns to deep, rhythmic breathing. Even sitting on the subway, or in a movie I habitually focus on my breathing and that helps with …

Moods: Regular exercise normalizes the hormones of the body, the serotonin and Dopamine and other feel-good body chemicals. I find I can handle stress much better than before. I have more mental stamina to think about deeper things, read more meaningful books. The world feels less scary now that I exercise, as though I have taken back some control. This means there has been an improvement in my…

Relationships: Having that half-hour to myself daily has afforded me the luxury of self-reflection. I find my mind spontaneously reviews the previous day’s activity and my behavior in it. Regret is not always a bad thing. If it is combined with compassion, it can lead to remorse and an improvement in how one relates with others.  Plus I have met some great people in the exercise room, which has led to more….

Friendships: There are some great people in my building who lead interesting lives, are caring and compassionate people. Some are fighting off aging issues such as imbalance, painful joints, or cardiac problems. Being around good company brings with it greater peace of mind, which helps with…

Awareness: Meditations are deeper, more insightful and rewarding. They seem to carry over effortlessly into daily activity. All of which feeds into improving the above aspects of life. A kind of virtuous circle is set up. As far as I know regular, moderate exercise is only panacea there is for a balanced, healthy life.

These benefits accrue over time. Moderate but regular exercise is the key here, which of course helps develop patience. Oh, and by the way, my ejection fraction improved significantly. My cardiologists decided I did not need a defibrillator at this time.

Everyday Sages

February 15, 2012

Everyone can learn serenity

It is not unusual for ordinary people, when faced with the unusual, to behave extraordinarily: the aftermath of 9-11 is an example. Neither is there anything unusual about “not sweating the small stuff”. All civilized people routinely shrug off minor inconveniences and big city rudeness. It seems to me the true measure of maturity is how skillfully a person handles the personal challenges of  daily life: The shop clerk who knowingly gives you the run around, the bank teller who stubbornly recites company policy instead of finding ways of helping you. We all have had to deal with these situations hundreds of times. The more there is at stake for us, the greater our frustration. It is then that we revert to our default nature, whatever that might be. The less grown-up yell and throw things, or invoke pity, or retreat to a corner and sulk. This is behavior that worked on our mothers when we were three, yet even some men in their eighties still act from this reflex. It is not our fault: we simply do not have enough tools in our bag to skillfully handle frustrating situations. And role models are few, it is no good looking to the Dalai Lama, he never has to line up at the supermarket. The good news is that there are  everyday people who do behave extraordinarily within ordinary situations. Here are a few examples from my life.

The Charmer:  I once had the privilege of working for a Parisian caterer named Daniel. The man was charm personified. He had a soft, non-threatening voice with a romantic French accent, a dimpled smile and manners sweeter than the fruit tarts displayed in the window of his shop. However, it was in times of personal stress that Daniel’s true charm was most evident. I have worked for other small businessmen who, for example, when confronted by a bank clerk who refuses to release a cheque, would get huffy and threaten the manager with legal actions. Not Daniel. He would walk back to his store, fill a mug with his best, most fragrant hot coffee, and hand it to the bank clerk – along a flirty wink and a strawberry tart, “Here you go, sweetie.” The bank clerk would visibly melt, the day’s stress lifted from her face. She was now willing to bend any rule for him. While I may not be blessed with his good looks or his natural charisma, I did learn a lot from this man. It always helps to keep your cool and think about the needs of the other person.

Mr. Pacific: I have known Vikram for many years and he is not a tidy man. Every apartment he has lived in soon gets cluttered and messy. However, one thing he is fastidious about is his peace of mind. One day we were walking along a busy  downtown sidewalk during a downpour. It was cold as well as raining and commuters were moving more anxiously than normal. We waited at an intersection for the lights to change, a puddle had accumulated between the sidewalk and the tarmac. As we proceeded to cross, a motorist who should have waited for his turn, cut us off, splashing Vikram and me with cold rain water. My instinct was  to thwack the motorcar with my umbrella, but Vikram stopped me. “Anger,” he said “is punishing  yourself for the crimes of others.” I didn’t quite appreciate what he meant at the time but now I understand. Had I exacted revenge on the motorist, my own conscience would have troubled me. y blood pressure would risen, my heart rate gone wild. That would have been punishing, and the crime wasn’t even mine!

The Film Guy:  Harvey works in the film industry and hopes to one day become a director. I think he will make a good one because he has always been a look-at-the-big-picture kind of guy. I travelled with him to India once where we had the opportunity to stay at an ashram in Kerala. The retreat was a lush paradise with large fragrant gardens and wild parrots singing on the trees. There was an ornate white marble temple on the premises that we decided to visit. We left our shoes outside the steps, as is the custom. Upon returning I was annoyed to find that Harvey’s expensive Birkenstocks  were missing. This being his first trip to India, I was concerned he might start cursing the hosts, berating the culture. “Why?” he shrugged, ” The temple was  a pleasure to visit, our hosts are very generous in their hospitality, and the food is delicious.” I told him I admired his calm. “Always look at the bigger picture,” he advised.  I try to.

The Comedian: Sue had ambitions of becoming a stand-up comedian, it was the Nineties and Sienfeld-wannabes were common. I regularly used to get wrong-numbers on my home telephone from a teenage girl looking for a “Tracy”. One day I mentioned to Sue how annoying it was that this girl kept making the same mistake afters weeks of my correcting her. “Don’t get mad,” said Sue, “have fun with her. Play along.” The next call that came began, in that same juvenile twang, “Hi, is Tracy on her way?”  This time I pretended I was Tracy’s brother. “Just a minute, now, I’ll check.” After a suitable pause I said to the caller, “Tracy is at Debbie’s house this evening.” There was a long silence. “Okay then,” the caller replied sadly. I  never had another wrong number from her ever again, though I did wonder what might have transpired at school the next day. Nowadays I make up stories when telemarketers phone. It is more fun than getting annoyed.

All of them have found ways of remaining reasonable under unreasonable circumstances. Who are your Everyday Sages?

Not Mine! Not Mine! 

My friend Dennis loves content sales. He trolls Craigslist daily in search of them and is ever alert for street posts about garage sales. Not that he needs more stuff, he just cannot pass up a bargain. Needless to say his apartment is cluttered, but he cherishes each and every bargain in his overstuffed closets. I sometimes like to accompany him on these treasure hunts, not to shop of course but to remind myself every now and again that ownership is onerous.

I went with him last fall to the estate sale of a diseased elderly man. The man evidently had good taste and the disposable income to indulge it. I suspect he might have been a gay man since the only beneficiary of his estate was a nephew who had flown in from Calgary ‘to be rid of all this junk’. The nephew made it clear he was keen to sell the apartment and return home to his wife. The apartment was immaculate and orderly, the furnishings were old but stylish. The brass on the Tiffany lamps was polished, the wood on the Noguchi coffee table was scuff-free and glossy with care, the many Royal Doulton chachkas were lovingly grouped and tenderly cared for. No doubt the man must have paid a considerable amount of money for the items in this apartment. Yet the nephew had piled his clothing into cardboard boxes  marked ‘For Salvation Army’. More than one of the sweaters was cashmere, some of the shirts were Brooks Brothers, there was even Armani. How this man must have treasured his possessions, surely he must have taken pains not to spill food on the cashmere, worn the Armani only on special occasions, perhaps had fretted about break-ins when he was away from home. In the end it will all end up in the dollar-bin of a charity shop, or it would sit marked-down at an estate sale, waiting to be haggled further by someone like Dennis.  No doubt the nephew’s appraisal of the worth of the uncle’s precious items was coldly objective, dispassionately utilitarian, but were these objects really more valuable than that? Isn’t it the weight of sentiment that had made these objects more valuable of their previous owner?

It was not long after this that I had occasion to fly to New York City on business. One Saturday afternoon I found myself in the midst of the annual Christmas shopping frenzy of Fifth Avenue. Hordes of tourists and locals jostled each other (and me) to peek at the artful window displays – watches, perfumes, and name-brand hand bags. Matrons with shopping bags shuffled couture racks as though decks of cards, eager youths snatched clothing from shelves faster than the clerks could restock them. The clang of the cash registers was deafening. It is not only the hype of Madison Avenue that gives value to these objects, but the price tags themselves. Don’t we believe that a 3000-dollar Prada bag is better made than its cheap sidewalk knock-off? While these expensive items look so glossy in the windows of Saks or Winstons, I couldn’t help but remember that man’s estate sale. All of these lavish trinkets are destined to one day be part of someone’s estate.

To escape from these throngs, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. There are rooms upon rooms of treasures that once belonged to emperors, kings  and other elite. Objects that they killed for, sometimes literally. Wars had been fought, millions of people had paid for these items with sweat and blood. Just as I was enjoying the beauty of these treasures, I noticed one of the curators enter a glass doorway where others were joyfully setting-up for a display not yet ready for public viewing. I envied them, they were custodians of all this artistic beauty, but free from the stress of its ownership.

As I pondered this it occurred to me that it was not the aesthetic merits of an item which make it desirable. People feel possessive about the most trivial of things. I see this every week at the homeless shelter where I volunteer. Men will get into arguments over a bagel, taking someone’s seat might warrant a fist fight. It is from this attitude of ‘mine’ that all the problem originate. As soon as I returned home I decided to make changes in my relationship with my belongings. From now on, I will be their custodian, not their owner. I will look after them, enjoy them, but will not lose sight of the fact one day they will no longer be mine. I feel a weight off me already.

Can The Mind Be Trusted?

February 4, 2012

One of the less appealing aspects of an examined life for me is this whole notion of ‘mind control’. It sounds as though you are being abducted by aliens. Even when it was explained to me that ‘mind control’ was about me taking charge of my own mind, I still didn’t care for it. It meant  being on guard against every thought, every impulse, each spontaneous emotion. Live life as though an android, it seemed to me. I did try it for a while. And the predictable happened: there was an initial sense of peace and well being, but that peace was very brittle. It made for a rather disciplined personality which in turn was intolerant of the chaos of others. I saw this same outcome in other practitioners also, those who were attempting against nature to be orderly and ‘in charge’. Sooner or later, this artificial dam did burst in all cases. All the suppressed  emotions and desires spewed forth with a volcanic vengeance.

As I became more and more sensitive to the temperature of my inner world, I realized that my mind was something I knew very little about. I began a journal to record this onslaught of thoughts that we call the mind. For me, objectively recording on paper this stream of consciousness, without editing or censorship, made for an almost clinic method of measuring the temperature and pressure of the mind. Soon the  intricate network of desires, emotions and habits exposed their workings. It was at once uncharted and fascinating.

The mind appears to fluctuate between one of three states. It is either content, dynamic or withdrawn. While all three states in themselves have their uses, the problem occurs when they are out of synch with the optimal state required. At work I need to be dynamic, but if I am feeling agitated or in a lazy stupor, then I am not at my best. Similarly before bedtime I need to detach from the world and sink into myself in order to sleep, but what if I feel excited over a dynamic idea or am worried about something? Where is the rest? Further, the human mind is an expert time-traveller. It can beam itself on a whim to any point on the space-time continuum. Everyone has had this experience of sitting in an important meeting and the mind suddenly teleports to an unrelated daydream. Highly embarrassing! The problem is obvious: this mind is highly illogical! I soon realized how disintegrated my inner life had become. But how to integrate the mind without turning into some kind of compulsive-obsessive android/Vulcan.

The term ‘mind control’ was not just a matter of semantics, a by-product of poor translation by non-English speakers. I read several books on the topic that went so far as to describe the mind as ‘the enemy’. Who wants to live at war with such an intimate aspect of himself? By all means, one should tame the mind, but must I sacrifice the joy and the spontaneity?

I struggled with this issue for a number of years. The only thing that made sense to me is that with complex things, for example machines, knowledge is control. Consider your personal computer. Surely to master it you need to learn how to operate it, not subjugate it. This was the bridging concept for me. To control the mind all I need to do what is understand its functioning, its patterns of behavior, its switches. No need to do battle with it. Master is my observation, attention without condemnation, and that does not feel arduous or living like Mr. Spock. To live with greater sensitivity to the pulse and rhythms of my inner world feels natural and enjoyable, as the insightful life ought to be.

Why Do Relationships Fail?

February 1, 2012

Hand-holding to Finger-pointing. 

Recently an acquaintance of mine died. She was eighty-three and in poor health so that was no surprise, however the legacy she left behind was. There were family she was not on speaking terms with, friends whom she had had bitter feuds. Although she had travelled much, and had belonged to many social and recreational groups, she died all alone, having collapsed in her bathroom and there was no one there to pick her up or call for an ambulance. She had not been without empathy; she gave much to charity both in time and money, and yet she was often impatient with siblings, she could be irritable with her friends, and co-workers had suffered her insistence on other people’s efficiency.  I do not hold her up as an object of ridicule, but rather as a mirror for myself. Who among us, if we are being honest, has not racked up enough dead relationships to fill up a cemetery?

When I pondered over this question with a young, rather handsome friend of mine, he remarked in utter frustration, “It’s easy to start a relationship, but keeping it, that’s a whole other ball-game.” I had to agree with him. But what could the reason be for that? It’s not as if we don’t get enough practice with relationships. It got me thinking about my own relationships over the years, both the successful ones as well the disasters. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could isolate the single underlying culprit responsible for failure in all relationships.

I began my inquiry with my most successful relationships, which have been with animals ( surprise! surprise!). Personal pets and other people’s cats and dogs instantly bond with me and I to them. Even when a dog has bit me or a cat has scratched me, I did not feel the urge to punish it. Then why not with family and friends? How come I seem to resent their biting remarks, and I don’t always forgive their aggressive behavior. Could the difference lie in the fact that with animals I have no expectations? I seem to expect the people in my life to follow some unspoken script, say the ‘right’ things, act  ‘properly’. Whereas I accept animals just as they are.

I began to think more  about the role of expectation within my other relationships. I do volunteer work at a homeless shelter where I serve food to the needy, and I also visit with geriatric patients at a hospital. At both these places they seem to return my care with love and appreciation. Mind you, neither the homeless nor the elderly are always on their best behavior. The elderly are known to make casually racist remarks. The homeless are ever ready to combat if feeling threatened. But with time I have learned to listen beyond their spoken words and even their tone of voice. I find that I am able to  respect their right to say and act according to their present predicament, I cannot reasonably expect them to conform to my idea of ‘normal’. Yet with family, friends, and co-workers I am less patient of their moods and less accepting of their right to be wrapped up with their own problems. Of course, only a fool would not appreciate that the problems of the elderly, who are sick and nearing death, and the desperate plight of the homeless are so much more obviously urgent than my needs. Perhaps that is why I am so readily able to drop all expectations.

Furthermore,because of the dire their predicament, I fully understand in advance that the elderly and the homeless will never repay me for my kindness.  Thus I am freely able to give selfless service to them. Yet I have fallen out with various family members because there were absent when I most needed them. I have had friendships fizzle out because, in my opinion, I was giving far  more than getting back. What if I had been able to free my personal relationships of this burden of expectations as casually I do in my volunteer work?

I suspect I would have more compassion and forgiveness for my family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. Perhaps I might recognize their right to be moody, to be selfish when they are too burdened with their  own problems to be there for mine. Maybe if I had demonstrated more compassion towards them in the past, they too might have responded with more forgiveness towards me whenever I too was preoccupied with myself, was ignorant of their needs, or thoughtless in my words.

While it is impossible to rewrite the past, what is possible is to move forward with lesser expectations. Who knows, perhaps when my end comes, it won’t be while lying prone upon a cold bathroom floor, with no one around me to hold my hand. Though I now know better than to expect it.

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