Have you ever noticed that you feel differently about yourself with certain people? Some people are a joy to be around, others make you cringe. I have been giving attention to this phenomena and I believe it’s because other people are a mirror to ourselves. When we are with people who love us, like us, respect us, then we like that reflection and thus enjoy being with them. And the opposite holds true also. When we are with people we have had a disagreement with, some have unresolved hostility with, we dislike that reflection and we would rather not spend time in their company.

If my own reflection is so dependent on who I am with then it raises a much bigger question: Am I a figment of my own imagination? It certainly feels very much like that each morning I wake up. Those precious moments between sleep and full waking I am a blank slate. I am fully aware that I am. Nothing more. I am not this man or that role. I am neither happy nor sad. I just am.  Very promptly and deliberately there is a process of inventing myself all over again. Remembering where I am, what day it is, the things I need to accomplish. This persona enters like a flood, crowding over that blank canvas of I AM.

These days politicians and rock stars create a brand image for themselves. Spin doctors and publicists create backstories, a look, a manner of speech– all fabricated to suit that image. We may not be movie stars but don’t we do this to ourselves from a young age? As children we  we wanted ‘to be like’ certain people. As teens we experimented with hairstyles and clothes to find a look that said ‘me’. Be good, don’t be violent, be happy, don’t be a jerk.–we tell ourselves. Haven’t we manufactured who we are?

Not such a bad thing on the face of it. But here’s the catch: other people randomly, unwittingly, also shape this persona. By the way we are treated, by snap judgements, by assigning labels to us. This pretty persona we began sculpting of ourselves at a young age turns into a hideous paper mache mask.

And we take this mask so so seriously. We trust in it blindly. And that is where the trouble begins. I see myself as a good, kind person. A stranger may call me mean-spirited for whatever reason. I feel insulted. Why? Is it because the other person’s image of me is contrary to the image I have crafted about myself? Insults are nothing but contradictions to our self-image. Of course when someone has an image that concurs with the one we have of ourselves we find it pleasurable. We call that praise. And we like being around such people.

So we go through life yo-yo-ing between praise and insults. Between crafting our own persona and having it added to and chipped way by other people. Is it any wonder that happiness is so unreliably variable ?

Not only is this guy ever-changing, sometimes he is not there. When I fall into sleep he is gone temporarily. During my near-death coma I was acutely aware of how variable and fragile he really was. I was aware of his tricks and inventions but gone was my faith in him. He had lost the power to deceive me.

But what would happen if I permanently stopped having faith in him? What if he was never able to deceive me? I think I would discover that he was the source of most of my problems. By virtue of his very fictitious nature he requires constant reassurance. He feeds on praise. He finds criticism to be literally “cutting” to itself. Like any phantom, this persona can only exist when it is given attention (but not full attention; he will vanish under the intensity of full attention), but a half-attention. Just like ghosts and UFOs, this phantom is also only ever seen in half-light.

Whenever I give this persona the full glare of my attention, it seems to lose its grip over me. It falters, it fades. In never seems to  die, rather it waits in hiding. And when my attention is preoccupied, it re-establishes itself. Though each time it is weaker than before. One, one day soon, it might just vanish into to the nothing it came from. I can hardly wait.

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In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s wittiest play, the newly eloquent Eliza Doolittle makes formal small-talk at the races and gets it hilariously wrong. In Shaw’s day the art of conversation was formalized, people were trained to conduct small talk.They knew how to navigate the social landscape because they were given a road map. Today the very idea of cultivating a small-talk repartee is as quaint as Eliza’s parasol. Gone are the days of raconteurs, bon vivants, and wits. And we moderns are lost in the woods of social interactions.

Oh I don’t mean the casual conversation we have with the people we live with or the intimate chit-chat with close friends. I am talking about the skill of initiating and sustaining interesting conversation with new acquaintances at dinner parties, pleasant banter with clients, congeal small talk with colleagues and neighbors. These are skills we longer give attention to, with the result that most of us do not know how to conduct a conversation in formal situations. And when we do attempt it the results are not so entertaining as Miss Doolittle’s. People kvetch, they ramble, they bitch, or they stay silent, letting the other party carry the burden.

The other day I had the misfortune to sit across the table from a “know-it-all”. He was an expert on any and every topic of conversation at the table, or so he believed. He didn’t converse, he lectured. The rest of us were merely an audience to show off in front of. Guys like him (and it is usually men) break the first rule of conversation: being respectful to the one with whom you are speaking. Conversation is a tennis game, a back-and-forth between two or more persons of equal standing.  One of the impressive qualities of Queen Elizabeth is that she is known to put all ranks of persons at ease with her conversation. Something to be learnt from that: treat the person you are speaking with as your equal, be he a beggar or a billionaire.

Occasionally, very occasionally, I come across people who know how to mould the most mundane events into amusing and entertaining anecdotes. Good writers learn this skill also, but good conversationalists are able to do it spontaneously, without deliberation. In contrast, some people mishandle even a startling event into a dull and tedious tale by providing too much irrelevant detail, by being unaware of proper rhythms of speech, by poor word choice, and by jumbling the order of the narrative.

I have noticed that the most boring conversationalists are the ones who do not listen. They ramble on without regard to the response of the listener. They lack the ability to read the faces and body language of the other, hence they do not adjust what they are saying. They regurgitate the events of the recent past as though speaking out loud what they are thinking. A piece of advice I recall from my youth, though I do not remember who gave it to me, said: To be interesting, be interested. Look them in the eyes, smile and be genuinely sympathetic to their story. Learning to listen well is most of being a good conversationalist.

So is having a great memory. The parts of the brain that process these two things must be the same. A witty man is able to recall which stories and anecdotes he has already told to whom. He does not bore people by repeating the same few stories. He remembers something about the lives and interests of the persons with whom he converses. Hence he introduces topics he knows they find relevant. His memory also allows him to recall jokes and clever quotes. He remembers people’s names, and items from the news with which to progress a conversation with that particular person.

Good conversation skills is important because it is the doorway to good friendships. And good friend are as vital to health and happiness as exercise, nutrition and meditation. I do not have a wide and varied circle of friends because, I believe, I never master the art of conversation.

What can be done about it? I believe it is never too late to cultivate this art. It requires attention and practice. To that end I now listen as a student to the conversations around me, both the inept and the expert, trying to glean the invisible ingredients that go into this art. But good conversation is not a recipe you can just imitate. It requires practice but also research.  I  read online and in print topics which previously I had not bothered about. Like many people of my age, I know more and more about less and less. I can conduct a competent conversation about pre-Christian era Sanskrit texts, but who is there who finds that fascinating? I realize I need to widen my net of interests, in order to be interesting.

I hope to correct this important aspect of self-development, and the proof of my proficiency will be when I have a wider and more diverse circle of friends. Wish me luck.

Is Charity Ever Selfless?

November 6, 2012


Giving alms outside the temple.

Everyone knows being selfless feels good. But if you give charity to feel good about yourself, then is it still selfless? I know I have struggled with this. Toronto is full of public buildings named after donors. Plaques tell us who gave that park bench, those theatre seats, that brick at the opera. It often feels like giving charity is an expression of vanity. And another thing, if giving selflessly means leaving behind the ego, then is it to be done robotically, without heart?

I have began to volunteer for a charity that helps people living with HIV/AIDS and we are putting together a Christmas event where we hope to give away door prizes to as many attendees as possible. This means we the committee have to go knocking on business doors to ask for gift certificates, entrance passes, good and services. Most within the committee declined to help with this task, so I stepped up. I sent out letters, e mails, telephoned, asked in person as many businesses as I felt appropriate. The committee was impressed by the sheer number of organizations I had approached. They asked me: “Don’t you feel ashamed asking for donations? What if they turn you down, don’t you feel rejected?”

I was startled by their insecurity. I replied that no I was not ashamed to ask for donations because I was not begging for myself. I was doing so on behalf of others, and so my pride was not on the line. Therefore, when a business rejected a request, their rejection was not personal. I did not feel disrespected, hence I was not shy about asking.

It occurred to me that I had hit upon the essence of selflessness. The very motive of my action (asking for donation) was without personal gain or profit, that is the essence of selflessness. Sure, I employed all of my abilities in securing donations, this ‘me’ was very much involved in that, but it was my intent which had no trace of ‘me’ in it. And it felt very liberating.

Gone was the anxiety of rejection, gone was my natural shyness, all my fears and insecurities. I am sure if I were in the unfortunate position of begging for change on the streets I would not be so bold and fearless.

I had a similar experience at the homeless shelter. Years ago, in my lost youth, I had undertaken a course in hairdressing. I had dedicated a year to it but after I graduated I found working with live clients caused me to have debilitating panic. I would sweat profusely, I was unable to focus on the haircut. I was fired after just one week at the salon. I gave up hairdressing– until now. Homeless men are discriminated against by barber shops. Some charge them exorbitantly more in order to discourage them from coming into their shops. Barbers fear for the sanitation of their chairs and equipment, and the risk of infecting other clients.

So I asked the homeless shelter where I give out food if I should offer free haircuts to the men. They were delighted. When my first client sat in the chair I was worried that the old panic would rear its ugly head. But I need not have worried. I found myself calm and in full control. Even when the men asked me to do something I not done before (trim a beard) I felt no apprehension. I simply did the best I could, without regards for his praise or complaints. Whether I am thanked or not is irrelevant. If my contribution is recognized that is incidental, but that is not my motive for doing these haircuts.

And that was the main difference from before: I think I used to get nervous because I was cutting hair for praise and compliments. I  never feared the clients themselves, I had feared their disapproval, their displeasure. Now, with the homeless men, I cut hair so that they feel cared for, so that others may treat them more kindly, perhaps some of them might even land a job because of their scrubbed-up appearance. This time the haircuts are all about them. The intent is selfless, hence no panic, no sweat.

The best part about this feeling of selfless intent is that it is a transferable skill. It can be applied to any daily tasks where I experience panic and anxiety. By identifying and removing the need for approval from my routines, I find I am more content, happier. It is a simple internal adjustment no one else needs to know about. It is my little secret. Well, powerful little secret.

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