No wonder he looks unhappy.

Sleepless nights, tossing and turning: you just can’t get that man (or woman) out of your head. It could be a persistent bully, or it could be an irritating colleague. Either way he or she gets under your skin like an itchy bug, burrowing deeper and deeper into your consciousness. The more you think about him, the more entrenched he becomes. One memory links to another, one incident finds a connection to a previous ones. Soon a pattern emerges about your experiences with this person. Your imagination expertly weaves a narrative, constructing an invincible giant of a monster out of him. Whether that person entered your system by invitation (as a friend who turned enemy), or barged in uninvited, it never ends well.

I once had an underling at work who was irritation in human form. He was lazy, stupid, insolent and enjoyed undermining my work–imagine a stubborn toddler and age him by fifty years. At first I thought I must be imagining it, making a monster out of a molehill. It turned out HR had a six-inch thick file on him. Many of his previous supervisors had determined to terminate his employment. Yet he prevailed. I worked for the military you see, and his previous supervisors had all been officers who were deployed after a couple of years. They were lucky. It got to the point where the very sight of him tensed me up. His voice was as grating as nails on chalkboard. The mention of his name was enough to raise my blood pressure, accelerate my heart rate. At that point I could not leave him behind at the office. He followed me home, was never far behind in my leisure and he even took up residence in my dreams. It was because of him, I believe, I had my heart attack. The military finally succeeded in getting rid of him after that, but it was too late for me.

Looking back on this unhappy time I realize now that what irks me the most was my inability then to control my emotions. I wish I’d had a mental concierge, like the one at my condo building— 24/7 security who screens all potential visitors. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a guard at the gate of my consciousness, questioning each visitor whether he or she has any rights of entry. Because once an interloper gains accesses to your inner sanctum, he wrecks havoc with your peace of mind. With it out goes your intelligence, your wisdom, your clarity and your objectivity.

This happens routinely in romantic relationships also. During the dating phase everyone is on his best behavior. All is sweetness and light. You spend sleepless nights weaving intricate portraits of the beloved in your mind. You soon get attached. Then he or she dissapoints you. In love or in hate, either way, you’re screwed, buddy.

Sometimes it isn’t even anyone you know personally. What about that annoying celebrity who refuses to go away? (I’d give an example of one but there are so many to chose from). Politicians like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter make a career out of getting under people’s skin. A friend even complained to me about a television drama he had seen. The situation portrayed was so horrific to him, it kept him up for two consecutive nights. With the pervasiveness of social media our mind is no longer a private sanctuary, it is a public dumping ground where anyone from casual strangers to fictional personalities are free to dump their garbage.  So what can we do to install that doorman at the entrance of the mind?

By giving attention –by attention what I mean is a detached, non-judgmental examination, bringing all of your energies, every last ounce of it, into observing the machinations of the emotions. Think of it as watching a cinema. Careful though. Don’t watch it as the film’s director, shaping the contents. Nor as a censor, suppressing parts you find offensive. And please don’t be a film critic, running commentary on what you observe. Rather, watch like a dedicated movie fan, seated comfortably on a velvet chair, pop-corn in hand, enjoying in the darkness of the mind this melodrama unfold. You know it is make-believe, nothing to get too worked up about, but you are interested, you care what is going on.

It is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes time to master, but is worth the effort. Haven’t we all put in time and effort into the things that are worthwhile? Education, careers, family? This skill is the start of intelligent living. Out of the seven billion on this planet, you will become one of the rare few living a mature, rational way of life.


Is This Man Saying F-You?

Once a year the streets of downtown Toronto are taken over by the Gay Pride parade. Over a million spectators line the streets to see the flamboyant floats and the outrageous costumes (or lack of). It is meant to be a political statement: a very public rejection of the shame and guilt thrust upon gay men and women. Some participants make a spectacle of their ‘queerness’, a grand F-You to those who beat them up in the school yard, those who shunned them within the family, those who bullied them in the workplace. But does this act of retaliation cancel out the  the original insults? Beneath the bravado, is pride really all that different from shame?

Shame begins as guilt. People condemn or criticize you for a defect, something you did or said (or didn’t do). Guilt is a nagging sense of yearning to rewrite the past. It is so persistent that with enough repetition you start to own that guilt. When that guilt is complete owned, when it invades your identity it is called shame. Shame is a sense of worthlessness, of being defective, less than everyone else.  You feel self-conscious of your difference and cut-off from others. This non-belonging is deeply uncomfortable because it is unnatural. The truth is all of us are part of the one indivisible whole, therefore banishment from the whole is painful. Not so bad if you genuinely erred, if it is behavior you can correct, but devastating if it is “shame” about something you cannot change — perhaps you look different from others, your nose is too big, you are too short, or your skin too dark. You may have many other talents, but this one trait defines your identity, and along with it the pain of being excluded.When I was young I was made to feel guilty, then ashamed of being brown (colonial attitudes  still prevailed in my English school).

Then there is being proud, which at first glance seems harmless, beneficial even. People are routinely proud of being American, of being tall, of being white/black/Asian. But hang on, doesn’t  pride require that you identify so completely with one particular trait over all others? A trait over which you might have no control. Perhaps you were born with a certain, popular look, you cannot change it? Pride is membership into an exclusive club, and it necessarily involves exclusion of others. Pride may feel energetic, rousing when you are with others of the same club, but it too isolates one from our natural oneness with all humanity. In fact pride always requires an audience: it is impossible to be proud all alone. Sometimes pride makes a man feel so special he gives himself license to hate, to oppress, to kill ‘the non-members’. The neo-nazi’s are an example of this. Just read the latest headlines, if there is one thing we learn from the bombings and murders going on in retaliation for an anti-Muslim video, it is that pride is a fragile, highly volatile emotion, it easily gets contaminated with other strong emotions. How pathetic that sometimes we hear of families killing their daughters who “brought shame upon the family”. The irony here is that the killers feel they are restoring family honor, but to the rest of us the murder is the family’s real shame.

This is because both pride and shame depend on your perspective–whether you are in the club or a non-member. Pride and shame operate out of the same isolation mechanism, both involve allowing one trait to dominate over all other abilities and characteristics. In both pride and shame one trait defines who you are. But if you are among a sympathetic audience, you experience the euphoria of pride, if however you are deprived of that sympathetic audience, you feel isolated and vulnerable (shame). I wonder whether the fathers responsible for those ‘honor killings’ still feel proud of themselves when they are alone in prison? Do they feel shame?

So if pride is not the antidote to shame, then what is? Perhaps it is self-acceptance. A sedate, respectful acceptance of yourself in all your totality — your flaws, your quirks, your talents; all that makes you unique but also all that intrinsically links you to all of humanity. Along with that is the recognition of the flaws and contradictions which make up humanity itself. None of which is something that causes anyone to march in the streets. In fact self-acceptance is a deeply private emotion.

How do I feel about being brown today? I recognize now that my ancestors came of a region of the world which was among the first to be civilized. Those ancient cultures not only traded their wares and ideas with each other, but also their DNA. The reality is that our bodies are a melting pot of many cultures and races, and hence all of human history is our history also. When you view your race in the context of history, society, and the wholeness of your being, it becomes absurd to feel either pride or shame about your ethnic origins. Sure, others may still have a problem with my skin tone, but now I am able to dismiss it as their stupidity, their ignorance. Their derision no longer has the power to topple my self-worth. I have reached self-acceptance, a Gestalt context for my skin color and my self-identity. Do I feel the need for ‘brown pride’? Absolutely not. A parade in celebration of brownness? I think not. A murderous hatred for non-browns? Now that would be shameful.

The Benefits of Pain?

September 10, 2012

Detail from Giovanni Bellini’s The Agony in the Garden.

The moment we left our mothers’ wombs, a doctor or midwife smacked our bottom and made us cry. Welcome to the world. We are born in pain, we die in pain and in between we experience both physical and emotional pain throughout our lives. Why? Is there any benefit to it?

I once read about a rare medical condition where a child had an inability to suffer physical pain (Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA)). The parents had to monitor the toddler 24/7. He constantly had new bruises because he’d either put his hand in the fire and leave it there, or he’d poke his leg with a knife. You see he had no pain reflex. The parents even  bandaged his hands to stop him from biting them off. Clearly, physical pain is nature’s way of alerting us to danger. It compels us to withdraw from harm. Also the memory of past pain keeps us away from similar situations.  But what about emotional pain, the aching grief of losing a loved one, does that have any use?

I know when I lost my mother the grief was unbearable. I was only young, and did not have the skills to cope with it, and neither did anyone else I knew. Lots of people offered platitudes: Time heals. She is still with you as long as you remember her. None of those hit the mark.

The thing about pain (physical or emotional) is that it changes. For example, the morning after my throat operation I had a sharp, stabbing sensation each time I moved my neck. If compelled me to keep it still, which aided its healing. In the days and weeks following, the pain changed daily. Sometimes it was a throbbing pain, sometimes it felt as though there were strings stuck in my throat, then finally there was only a small tickle. Pain can never remain constant. Could this fact perhaps be the key to understanding the function of emotional pain?

Emotional pain, just like physical pain, draws attention to a problem area. Be careful, take special care of this, it says. You need to make changes in this area in your life. In the the example of my throat surgery, there were certain foods that were too irritating and had to be avoided.  Similarly, might the experience of emotional pain be drawing attention to something I need to modify in my behavior? Perhaps the intense pain of grief indicates I loved too selfishly, perhaps I should become less dependent on others? Possibly.

If that is true, then is there anything I can do now to avoid being hurt emotionally in the future? If the pain is situational )for example, getting involved with the wrong sort of partners) then yes, that type of situation can be avoided. Desires can be modified. Through reflection needs can be untangled. We can prevent some pain in the future by better defining what we need in our relationships, by sorting out the clutter of wants and desires. But I don’t believe emotional can ever be totally bypassed. There is ‘no getting used to’ for emotional pain. No’weight training’ whereby you can acclimatize to endure greater and greater quantities  of pain. No philosophy, no amount of faith can build immunity to hurt. Maybe that is a good thing.

Because through pain we seem to grow. I know I have grown the most since my heart attack. It has motivated me to change many important habits. I am healthier now in some ways then before. The possibility of early death has focussed my priorities in a way nothing else ever could. And I am one who has read umpteen self-help books, attended a gazillion self-improvement lectures. Yet it was a near-death and the subsequent mental pain that forced me grow, to use the considerable theoretical know-how I had accumulated. There was an urgency to it. It was literally a case of grow or die.

I know there will be other painful events in my life. That knowledge does not make me a pessimist: it makes me a realist. It still does not mean I am looking forward them, whatever shape they might take. But when they do arrive, I hope to have the wisdom and the skills to use them as fuel for another spurt of growth. Perhaps that it is the whole point of emotional pain.

In my youth I was so desperate for wisdom, for inner peace, for self-acceptance that I used to say I was willing to trade my right arm for them. I now have those things to some measure, and I also still have my right arm. What I did give up was the left half of my heart instead. I have no regrets about the trade.

Why Does Flattery Still Work?

September 3, 2012

Neil Armstrong said he was “small”, but YOU are great.

“Say baby, you must be tired. ‘Cause you’ve been running through my mind all day long.” Isn’t too much cheese unhealthy? Don’t most of us have a strong BS meter? We need one: marketers shamelessly flatter us into buying this product or that one, (“Because you’re worth it!”) 

 At its worst, flattery can be a weapon to make you feel obligated. ” Honey pie, I survived the operation because of your love and support.” Try walking away from that relationship after such flattery. I have become so suspicious of flattery that I rarely give it out myself.

Which is a pity really, because flattery is ubiquitous. We employ flattery when we can’t think of anything significant to say, but wish remain congenial–the modern equivalent of the handshake, it lets strangers know you come in peace.. When Neil Armstrong visited India, not long after his moonwalk, he was presented to then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Following the introductions, there was an awkward  silence and so one of the PM’s staff commented: “Mrs. Gandhi stayed up till 4.00 a.m. so as not to miss your landing, Mr Armstrong.” To which a self-conscious Armstrong counter-complimented, “I’m sorry Madame Prime Minister. Next time we will be sure to land at a more earthly hour.” Flattery is a small talk, it is a pleasant way to fill silences. There is often no agenda, no hidden manipulation.

And Neil Armstrong was no stranger to clever use of flattery either. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” included all of us in his historic moment. He flattered the entire human race for the success of the NASA scientists. No wonder he was universally mourned when he died.

 Apart from being a nice guy, might flattery serve a more important purpose? Don’t we get our sense of reality exclusively through confirmation from other people? For example, we know there is a lamp-post on the sidewalk, that we are not imagining it, because we see other people walk around it. I remember when I was confined to a hospital bed for weeks, I began to hallucinate. I had difficulty distinguishing between what I was thinking, dreaming, and actually perceiving. This happens to many patients  precisely because we are deprived of external confirmation of whether or not a thing actually exists. A fact we take for granted in daily life. That is why, irrespective of how wary we are against insincere flattery, it is one of the ways we confirm or deny our perceptions. We need to be careful though because we all have our weak areas. As a writer I am most vulnerable to praise about my writing. Which is dangerous because it could lead to a false sense of my ability. People who surround themselves with sycophants risk becoming self-delusional. Only if the same compliment is repeated by different people at different times, do I begin to accept that perhaps what is said refers to something ‘real’. (Of course the same applies to insults too).

Perhaps it our very dependence upon flattery for confirmation of reality that leads us into trouble. Sometimes we desperately want something to be true. “Does my butt look big in this?” Well, if you need to ask, you probably know that it does but you so require it to be untrue that you’ll settle for even a coerced compliment. When we chat with friends or relations we repeat the same stories to confirm our interpretation of events, our version of sanity and goodness. For its role in confirmation of reality, flattery does get you everywhere.

It dose not require a genius to figure out the flattery should be sincere. But what constitutes sincere flattery? Well, the other day, one of patients at the hospital was showering me with  compliments. I figured she just wanted to make sure I would keep visiting her and helping her. Then she said: “You have such lucidity in your eyes.” That remark threw me. I mean, who uses a word like lucidity in daily conversation? The compliment was so specific that I allowed it to penetrate my defenses. Perhaps she said it because she noticed this fact and thought it worth a mention. Perhaps she had no ulterior motive.

Thanks for reading this blog. I must say, of all my readers, YOU are the smartest. (Did you really believe I’d resist that.)

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