Being Vegan

March 26, 2012

When a living plant is attacked, hacked or eaten, it emits the chemical equivalent of a scream. Who knew? A startling new study from the Plank Institute in Germany has scientifically proven the existence of chemicals known as Green Leaf Volatiles, or GLVs. We know the scent better as the perfume of freshly mowed grass. I found this study fascinating because years ago I owned a house with a generous backyard and a front garden. I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding because afterwords there a palpable sadness about the garden. I would feel guilty, and pained, it really felt like the yard was weeping. I now wonder if subconsciously I might have been reading their signal. I have always been a deeply sensitive empath (the opposite of a sociopath) who has intuited a living connection  with the world around him. This is why the idea of eating meat is so abhorrent to me. I mean, if plants give out a chemical scream, then what to speak of the animal world. When I look at roadkill, still bloody and recognizable, a stab of pain shudders through me, more acute than the scent of freshly mowed grass. I find it agonizing to walk past the butcher’s aisle at the supermarket and worse is seeing the dead carcasses of skinned animals strung up  outside the windows of Chinatown or Kensington Market. I do not see any of these as food, I only feel the violence and death. The feeling of pain permeates every fiber of my being.

Science is only proving what mystics have said for centuries, that the whole cosmos is a living whole. The more my practice of meditation deepens, the less tolerance I have for the look or smell of dead flesh. When shopping for shoes, I get the same pained sensation when I smell leather or suede. Though it is very difficult to find footwear in Canada that is not made from animal products, I shop and shop till I find it. If the scent of the violence the animal felt when it was slaughtered still lingers, then how much more of it is there in the meat product itself? However one may dress up the labels (Veal, mutton, bacon, steak), let us not forget what you are consuming – the rotting corpse of a slaughtered creature.   This includes the hormones of despair it released at the moment of its death. Is it any wonder then the following headlines are appearing with greater frequency? Reports that red meat can shorten the average span.  Mad Cow Disease, Listeria, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, HIV, are the the result of humans eating animal corpses. Then there are the countless tainted meat recalls .

There is a popular saying that goes something like this: You are what you eat. I disagree. I think it is more like: You eat what you are. Don’t we all eat according to our mood of the moment? Typically, breakfasts around the world are about grains and cereals, fruits, milk, breads. Very little meat, if any at all. This is because we are at our most serene after a good night’s sleep. I generally love spicy food, though never at breakfast. Now think of the guys who love their steak rare, perhaps with the blood still wet.  Are they the gentle, contemplative types, or the aggressive, rugby player types?  This may be a generalization, I know, but please observe the truth behind it for yourselves. It is hard to image compassionate persons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa devouring a fresh kill. We see that people who are serene, compassionate in nature have a taste for  fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables. And we can all agree that to eat human flesh is savage and primitive. Perhaps we are repelled by cultures who eat animals whom we consider as pets: dogs, horses, cats. Societies where locusts and cockroaches are a delicacy feel strange and backward to us. Now you understand something of how I feel about eating cows, pigs, chickens.

I am grateful to my mother for many things, but the chief among them is that she did not force me to eat meat when I was not old enough to make an informed choice. Thanks to her wisdom, whatever mistakes I have made in my life, one thing I am proud of is that no animal has ever died to feed me.


Amazing Grace

March 21, 2012

Grace is one of those abstract religious terms that I, like many people, have problems understanding. It implies a kind of divine intervention, a spiritual magic that baffles the logical mind. That said, in looking back over the course of my life there has been an undeniable pattern, and at certain moments undeserved benediction. What is more, these graces seem to be have been of five distinct varieties or intensities. I have to state at the outset I do not believe in a personal god, the notion is too simplistic and unreasonable. However there can be no denying the existence of a universal consciousness. Universal consciousness is. Even to deny its existence requires that the one denying be conscious. In fact to say, “There is no consciousness,” is a paradox. While it is tempting to anthropomorphize  universal consciousness in the same way one might humanize a pet, I think that would be a disservice to oneself.  It would cease inquiry into the nature of this consciousness. The human mind naturally moves to conceptualize, to understand and to possess. And when it thinks it knows, it stops investigating, it ceases to be curious. With these twin intentions, to investigate but to refrain from humanizing, I have attempted to objectively analyze some inexplicable events in the course of my life.

An Intervention: During moments of crisis something has been there as an intervention. I was near-dead, in a coma and statistically not expected to survive. Yet I did. I have vivid memories of being in the coma, and also the ten minutes when my heart was stopped. I existed. Never was there a moment when I ceased to exist. What is more I know I existed. The quality of that knowing was different to anything I recognize in my waking consciousness. At times my mind did superimpose a shape and a persona to this greater awareness, sometimes it was in the shape of my guru, or my mother, but yet it was more. Much, much more. I now call it GRACE.

A Support: During the long and difficult recovery from that medical trauma, the memory of that intense and profound experience was my emotional crutch. While there were many medical personnel to help with the physical recovery, I found little solace from those around me for emotional support. And why should they know what I was going through? The most lonely feeling was not being able to talk to anyone about the amazing experience of, well, dying. It slowly dawned on me that whatever it was I had experienced was still very much with me. It became my support. I used it to get up again and start living. This too was GRACE.

A Respite:  When we move into a new apartment or house, it is just that, a house. Then with time and attention, it becomes ‘home’, a place we feel safe, where we can regroup our energy, where we do not abide by anyone else’s dictates. In my work with the homeless it has astounded me how cheerful many of those who live on the street are. Some are coping with mental or physical disabilities in addition to being homeless. Yet they manage to put on a smile on their faces. How is that possible? It occurred to me ‘home’ is not a physical structure, it is state of GRACE, open to all.

Surrender: As children we have  lots of trust. Perhaps too much trust  at times. But the longer I live the more I have lost trust in the outer world’s ability  to provide me safety, well-being or lasting happiness. Far from being negative, this is GRACE matured. Because another kind of trust has replaced it, the knowledge that the only times I am truly happy is during deep contemplation and self-inquiry. Surrender of everything that binds me to my body and the things associated with it, is the GRACE of awareness.

Fearlessness: When one has inquired honestly and  consistently, when one has questioned without bias, all that is, was and will be, then the past no longer haunts, the present is accepted exactly as it is, and anxiety for the future feels like a massive joke. There is no more dependence. There is acceptance, there is contentment. There is simply being. In that feeling there is no room for fear. This is the final phase of GRACE, it comes of its own accord, totally unasked or unearned.

Looking back it is now clear that the events which seemed the most painful turned out to be the ones that led me greater happiness. This is GRACE. Isn’t it amazing?

Why All This Suffering?

March 16, 2012

Van Gogh knew about suffering.

The geriatric patients at the hospital where I volunteer love to tell me about their lives. Some have only months to live and others may be dead by the time I come in for my next shift. They talk to me about how much they are suffering right now and the topic soon turns to what else they have suffered in their lives. Read any novel, or watch any film, and the narrative is the same. It is often said that in fiction there are only about seven stories which get repeated and reworked through the ages. I disagree. There is only the one story. Take these very common examples.

A young woman meets a young man, and she immediately takes a shine to him. She spends hours imagining what it would be like if he were her man. They date and as the relationship progresses, she finds herself extremely happy. After a few months, he calls her less often, their dates are less frequent and he seems more distant. Then one day she finds out that the man is now seeing someone else. The young woman suffers. Other variations on this narrative are that after years of marriage, one of them dies and the other is left grieving.

Consider another scene. A couple dream of owning their own home. One day they find enough finances to purchase their ideal house. They spend years fixing it up the way like. Then one or both of them lose their jobs, and they can no longer pay the mortgage. They are forced to walk away from their house. Naturally, they suffer. Variations of this are, the house burns down in a fire/flood/earthquake. Or perhaps instead of a house it could be a child, a friend, a car, jewelry, designer clothes, anything tangible.

Final scenario, a young man works hard and becomes a success in his chosen career. He enjoys all the rewards of that success, praise, respect, admiration. Perhaps he is even acquires fame. Then one day he falls ill with a serious condition, perhaps cancer. Or he simply ages and loses his edge. He is no longer admired and respected. He suffers.

It seems to me that these, and any other narrative you can imagine, have the same underlying arc. There is a desire which promises lasting happiness. The person purses that idea, attains it and enjoys it for a time. Then something or the other beyond his control brings that desire fulfillment to an end. Either the object of desire perishes or the person loses interest in that object. Isn’t that what all suffering boils down to?

When I look back over the course of my life,  I see that it has been only the one mistake responsible for my emotional pain. Time and again I have expected people, places, things of the temporal world to bring me lasting happiness. What an unreasonable expectation! This world is time bound, and so of course everything within it has an expiration date. When the object of my happiness is destined to either decay, fade, break, or die, investing emotionally in it will certainly bring heartache. And the amount of suffering I experience is directly proportional to the happiness that thing or person or place had brought  to me.

Now that I know this fact, is there a way out of my suffering? Can being acutely aware, each and every moment, about the fragility of life make me immune to hurt? I believe it can. To the extent that I am able to keep mindful, to that extent I feel free. This does not mean I cannot enjoy the things of the world when they present themselves. Though I do not hanker after them  anymore. I can’t get obsessed about anyone or anything. When the time inevitably comes to say goodbye to the objects of pleasure, I helps to expect it. I am more ready for its loss. This has diminished my pain greatly.

What is more, some lesser desires have evaporated altogether. Reduced hankering has meant reduced agitations of the  mind. And a calmer mind is a happier mind.  A calm mind can fade into oblivion, and at such moments there is a glimmer of a lasting, unassailable happiness which is independent of everything.

Fiction writing may not have given me fame or riches, but it did give this valuable insight. For that I am grateful.

In stillness there is perfect reflection.

At first glance these two seem unrelated. One is mystical, Eastern and trendy, while the other is cliched, Christian and old school. But hang on, is one possible without the other? Upon inquiry we find that the two are so intrinsically linked as to be two sides of the same coin.

Meditation is something I have practiced for years and so people sometimes query me about it. The other day a young woman, whom I shall call Rosie, was telling me that she had  been sincerely trying to mediate but “my mind just won’t co-operate.” I asked Rosie what she understood to mean by mediation. She replied that she thought it required emptying the mind and that when she attempted to do so, memories of past hurts came flooding back to her. Even as she recounted this, her eyes flooded with tears. I was not surprised. I have known Rosie for many years and she has suffered more than her fair share of pain during her young life.  She is a  deeply compassionate woman who has been taken advantage of time and again by the very persons she has attempted to help. Boyfriends have mistreated her, female friends have  left her holding the bag for their collective mischief. Her judgements may have been lacking, but she has never been a mean-spirited woman.

My advice to her was to stop  meditation, at least for now. I know intimately where she is on her journey. For years I too struggled with my mind throwing up years of buried emotional pain. It is something akin to trying to fall asleep while your arm is bleeding. No matter how many sheep you count, rest will not  be possible until you take care of that hemorrhaging. And emotional pain is a kind of hemorrhaging, it bleeds your psychic energy. First and foremost, take care of that pain.  Forgiveness is the balm as well as the bandage.

Then the golden question becomes, how? How does one go about forgiving someone who has done deliberate, lasting harm?  Well, firstly, forgiveness can never be a superficial thing. It requires a deep understanding of the situations and motives that led to your hurt. It requires letting go of your certainty about the narrative of events. It requires a willingness to see things from the perpetuator’s point of view and this calls for deep compassion for him or her. It requires revisiting some very dark places.  I do not believe confrontation is necessary to forgive. Often it is not even practical. Even if you do have the opportunity, it is unlikely the perpetrator will co-operate with a sincere apology. If he maliciously hurt before, he might just aggravate your pain. The good news is that forgiveness is best done  alone, within the silence of the heart. Just like meditation.

During this process of forgiving do not neglect the other person in this blame circle, and that is, oneself. He too needs to be forgiven. There are many people in the world we blame for all kinds of atrocities, but they don’t insist their presence when we sit quietly for mediation. An integral part of emotional pain is that there is self-blame, and it is often so painful that we cannot even bare to think about it. Though it too must be healed.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not advocate ‘forgive and forget’. Why should you forget a lesson you paid for so dearly? Forgiveness, however, is a letting go of  emotional pain so that you are left with peace of mind. And isn’t that the goal of mediation also? Mediation is nothing but letting go. It requires turning away from the thinker and all his obsessions – all that you think you are, all that you  believe you were, all that you wish to become. It is a state of being comfortable with – well, just being. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose. Nothing to protect. Just be.

The Last Laugh

Give me a child until he is seven, says an old Jesuit motto,  and I will give you the man. I was six years old when I was molested. He would beat my skull with the sharp edge of a wooden ruler till I did as I was told. The abuse lasted for months. It helped him that I had been prepped in kindergarten by bullies who stole my lunches. The bullying lasted throughout my school life. Oh, and I was fatherless at aged three. Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man. Well, yes and no. Yes because these three major wrongs did impact the way I reacted to the world, and no because I refuse to let them have the last laugh.

People always wonder why I never laugh out loud. You know, the clutching-the-belly kind of laughter. I suppose I lost that ability to be playful, as though that hurt child within needed to be shielded from the big bad world. In my youth I was the sober one in the bar while everyone else was punch drunk. And serious people rarely have make friends, if at all. How I envy the bonding ritual of others: girls giggling silly together, boys black-slapping, elbows poking one another. They say that when a child is molested the inner parent emerges (even at aged six) to shield the child from harm. But the inner parent also isolates. I tend to distrust people until they prove themselves trustworthy (salespeople and con artist have a tough time with me). It is exactly as though there is a parent sitting on my shoulder, wagging a finger towards that man with the shifty eyes. Being isolated never feels secure, despite the inner parent. It makes you more vulnerable.

Worse than any of this is my tendency to react with anger when strangers bump into me, or encroach on my space. “Where did that come from?” people ask, when I react out of proportion. I do not know, I used to reply. I do now though. I now realize that at these moments that hurt child emerges, it is he who is reacting to the bullies, the abusers whenever I am touched without invitation. There is no denying that what happened to me before aged seven shaped the man I became, until that is, I realized that it had. It has taken many years of reflection, and the help of a good therapist, to see the pattern of damage in my psyche from those early years. But the beauty of introspection is that once you realize what the problem, it gets fixed. It is as though a strange spell had held me in its sway all these years. Recovery does not happen suddenly. It is a process, but realizing the cause brings awareness of what is at play. Awareness is power. Awareness is freedom.

Some say that the inner child then needs to be hugged in order to heal. To this end they use dolls which represent their childhood self, they feed it, dress it, put it to bed. If it works for them, go ahead and do it. For me, I found another way to nurture him that makes sense to me. I look for him in the eyes of people who are worse off than I am. No need to go to the slums of Mumbai to find such people, there are plenty right here in Canada. I have encountered a homeless man who is undergoing chemo, another one who is blind and unable to walk. I constantly meet old people who have been in hospital for months without a visit from their sons and daughters. People suffer from isolation, loneliness, sickness, loss. Having found others suffering, I try to do something to ease it a little. I like the old Boy Scouts’ motto: do one good deed everyday. It need not be anything life changing, it can be as small as making someone feel appreciated.

I think that the worse part of having been bullied and abused was that I was treated as a non-person. In a big city, how often do we treat strangers as non-persons? To be watchful of that is an act of no small kindness. Holding the door open, acknowledging others in line before you, being mindful of not cutting off others, these are all good deeds. Living near the hospitals I often see elderly people with walkers standing at the top of the subway stairs, wondering how they are going to manage down those stairs. And dozens of younger people will walk or run past them without acknowledging their existence, let alone their plight. I don’t feel the need to literally do at least one good a day, but I do so whenever the opportunity arises. Sometimes, within the eyes and in the smiles of the people I have helped, I see my child self. It makes me weep. It is those tears which wash away the hurt of that boy under seven. He has the last laugh.

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