Mental House Cleaning

December 31, 2012

mentalclutterEarlier this year I visited the home of a hoarder. I was completely unprepared. Oh I have seen the reality shows on TV about them, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. I felt claustrophobic among all that clutter, there was barely room to move, I couldn’t breathe. Needless to say the man had a pathology. All this clutter was the result of many, many years of neglect. I have since found out that hoarding is a growing phenomena (pun intended). Though I wonder, is it even new? Perhaps it is a regression to the hunter-gatherer instincts of our ancestors?

I am seeing this primitive instinct at work all around me. This being Boxing Week, shoppers are out on the prowl for bargains. In the US during Black Friday, people have been known to be trampled to death in that stampede to acquire bargains.

Then there is New Year’s Day with its resolutions. People vowing to give up smoking, cutting down on fatty foods etc. Of course most will probably fail. It seems hunting and gathering is innate, but letting go is monumental: left unattended this is the pathology of hoarding. I always get a chuckle over this airport announcement: “Please do not leave your baggage unattended.”  I wish that announcement were ubiquitous, we need reminding all the time. Though most of us may not hoard material things, don’t we accumulate emotional baggage of the past, collect fears about the future? When we leave this mental baggage unattended, doesn’t it gather into mental clutter? And guess what, it is exact same pathology of hoarding at work.

I know I am not alone in collecting hurts like precious trinkets; squirreling away my own secret stash of guilt and regrets. And the joke is that we give great value to these discards of the past. Just like hoarders, we safeguard them, polish them and examine them often, then carefully put them back in pride of  place. I find it astounding that geriatric patients devote their hospital stay (often their final days alive) to cataloging their emotional baggage. I wonder what evaluation the Antiques Roadshow appraisers might give to these collections? “ Your stack of vintage grievances should fetch at auction…..” I think we all know the answer to that one.

With all that mental clutter, is it any wonder that new meditators complain that their minds are so crowded? I am tempted to reply to them: “Of course your mind is a mess, when was the last time you did any tidying-up?”

Allow me to recommend two highly effective cleaning agents: acceptance and loss of curiosity.

People instinctively assume the way to de-clutter is rejection. Rejection is actually the enemy of de-cluttering. Granted, it is a natural reflex to shun undesirable, unpleasant emotions and feelings from our minds, however, each time we do that we bury those feelings deeper and deeper into our sub-conscious. The feelings have to be acknowledged. Their presence accepted. Which does not mean we need to act upon them. Simply acknowledge them and  see them for what they are: transient, amorphous disturbances of consciousness. Deprived of attention, they starve and disintegrate. And make no mistake, rejecting them, fighting them, pushing them back is feeding attention.

Once the mental rubble has been junked, keep it from gathering again by losing curiosity. Feelings and emotions accumulate in our consciousness because of curiosity. Think about it, all hobbies, every collection of stamps, coins, Spode china figurines and what have you, begins with curiosity, an interest in finding out more. Then later comes the need to possess them. Then some more and more of them. If one is at all sincere about emotional and mental house cleaning, then a life of awareness is essential. One has to be alert to what is going within one’s thought process while interacting in the world. It requires intelligence and a great deal of care. One of the great things I have left behind of my youth is that sense of curiosity for the objects of the world. Not my sense wonder, let me hasten to add. Age and experience bring perspective, there is a fatigue borne of knowledge that none of those things has lasting meaning or value.

One of the many things I learn from the homeless men at the shelter where I volunteer is their spirit of generosity. If one of them as two coats and another man has none, he will hand over the spare coat to the one without one. It is ironic that in life those with much tend to hoard whereas those without are generous.

Happy New Year!


What Is The Nature Of Time

December 24, 2012

Salvador Dali's rendition of Time.

Salvador Dali’s rendition of Time.

This time on last New Year’s Eve, I was in Times Square, New York, among a million others marking the turning of the clock with a ritual. Though deep in my heart it felt contrived. I could not shake the truth that the concepts of New Year, the turn of the Millennium, December 21st 2012, were all human fabrications. As such they have a life only in our collective imagination. But make no mistake, the human imagination is very potent.  To illustrate with another example, think of the famous photograph of planet Earth taken from space, The Blue Marble. What is most striking about this image is the absence of borders and boundaries. Prior to that picture we were used to seeing our planet in atlases, sliced up with black lines and contrasting colours. The Blue Marble shows the reality of Earth as a unified whole. And yet those imaginary lines dividing nations are still very real to humans. So real we are prepared kill or be killed for them. Similarly, the concept of time is imbedded in our psyches so profoundly, we find it hard to accept it as a fiction. We cherish special dates (Year 2000) or give significance to end of world dates (some even disposing of their property in anticipation).

Which is odd really. Because each of us suspends time on a regular basis. Each time we sleep, the very concept of time vanishes from us. Even in our dreams time is very elastic. A two-minute dream can feel like it played all night. You might age forty years within a thirty-second dream. I know under my heart attack coma I lived through several lifetimes, each one vividly real to me. While simultaneously, for my family in the waiting room, the seconds felt immovable. I know because last month I sat in the very same waiting room while someone else underwent a heart attack.

Time is also very elastic as we age. I recall as a child when being told to wait for five minutes, it was an eternity. As I age I now complain,”where have the years gone?”

Then there is the whole issue of when the counting of the clock began. It all depends on which culture we are referring to. For the Hindus this is year 5121, for the Chinese this year is 4710. Then there is the issue of solar calenders versus lunar calenders. Therefore, dates, months, hours, minutes exist in our imagination as solidly as the waves on the ocean.

Does that mean there is no such thing as objective time? I don’t know. That has been debated by greater minds than mine for generations, with no consensus. What I do know is that time commemorates the interval between two events, it marks change. And for change to be noted,  a changeless background is essential. Take a movie for example, it requires an unmoving screen for the changes in the film to register to the human brain. Project a piece of film over a stormy ocean and Mr. Brad Pitt will not be seen leaping off canyons. So then the question becomes: what is that universal unchanging background  upon which the passage of events, is perceived?

Surely it is consciousness. I do not believe the concept of time can ever be considered without consciousness. It is something like the old philosophical question of if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound? Similarly, if events transpire and there is no consciousness to witness them, has anything happened? Has time elapsed? What of the countless galaxies that implode in remote vacuums of the cosmos? Or what is the meaning of time for the suns which are pulled into black holes like water into drains? Or come to that, does time exist in the depths of our oceans where there is no life to experience it? And if there is life, how is time experienced by those creatures?

I recall years ago I was sitting in meditation in a temple in India when I heard a buzz of insects all around me. I opened my eyes to find the whole temple floor carpeted by these moth-like creatures. Some were crawling, others were mating, and some had shed their wings in their death throws. I was assured by a local that this was normal. Once a year, during the monsoon season, these insects erupt, and within a few hours live out their full lifespan: they grow up, they mate, they die.  I have also been in the midst of California Redwoods that were 5000 years old and growing. How can time be experience uniformly by creatures with such varying lifespans?

What is that unchanging, uniform background that makes the passage of these events noticeable? Surely it has to be universal consciousness. And that greater consciousness is called eternity. Many people mistake eternity for a long period of time. Eternity is the absence of time, it is the centre point around which time rotates.

And that eternal point is within each of us. It has to be. How else would we know the passage of time?

Will time ever end? The end of time did not happen on 2012 for all humanity, nor will it on any other date. Each of us will reach that point at his or her own pace. But reach it we will. Not as abstract as it sounds.

In moments of deep mediation, we can reach that stillness which is eternity. At these moments the mind ceases to exist. All that is left is the pure awareness. With practise a day will arrive when the mind ceases permanently. Stillness alone will be our experience. And that is the end of time.

Happy New Year.

Why Is Goodness Uncool?

December 17, 2012

flandersAt a restaurant, upon discovering that I was a vegetarian, that I rarely drank alcohol, an acquaintance stared at me in mock horror. “Here I am ordering steak and booze, I feel so corrupt.” He was being funny, but I suspect there was some truth in his humour. This may be the reason why I have many acquaintances, but so few genuine friends.

I remember being told many years ago that goodness was like honey, it is more attractive than physical beauty. I was assured that people will flock to me once my goodness matured. But that was said some twenty years ago. I am generally liked by people, but they maintain a respectful distance. Could it be that people are intimidated by goodness?

Back in 1964, when Mary Poppins declared she was “practically perfect in every way” — that was cool. It cemented Julie Andrews as an icon of virtue. Fast forward forty years to the downfall of Martha Stewart, who was  vilified as “the woman who does everything better than you.” People practically danced on the streets when she was convicted and jailed. Her attentiveness and sense of discovery came across as the ultimate know-it-all. And who would befriend one of those?

I wonder if all people who work at self-improvement give off a holier-than-thou vibe? If your hobbies are helping others, well then that is not hip. Today Ned Flanders is the foil for Homer. His job is to make Homer’s selfishness seem endearing.

But then we live in a time when our heroes not only have feet of clay, but we insist upon it. Celebrities of old were not only expected to look perfect, but behave perfectly as well. Can you imagine if Audrey Hepburn had leaked a sex tape? Or if Cary Grant had had repeated run-ins with the law?  Today there seems to be a social schadenfreude about raising up a celebrity or president on a pedestal, then collectively pushing him off. It is almost as though their humungous imperfections make us feel better about our own smaller ones.

And why not? It is far less work to feel good by delighting in others’ misfortunes. Being attentive to your flaws and then rooting them out is arduous. Not for the lazy or faint-hearted.   While do-it-yourself home improvement stores are ubiquitous, do charm schools still exist even? Are elocution teachers extinct? Would an updated version if Emily Post’s Guide To Good Manners ever compete with Fifty Shades of Grey?

In the coming new year as people make resolutions, I wish for them to be more accepting of goodness. I realize people resent being judged. And I admit, sometimes those who are working on goodness may be tempted to feel morally superior. But if you are constantly working on your flaws, you are so aware of them that you can’t help stay grounded.

Is it perhaps that people who strive to always do the right thing are more prone to being snitches? Perhaps. We do find it harder to understand others addictions or unwillingness to help themselves.

However, being self-awareness leaves no room for comparisons with others because it is about deep empathy with everyone–a feeling of there but for the grace of God go I. Awareness means also being alert to moral condescension. I suspect the real problem might be that we become for mirrors for others, it makes them self-conscious. And people no longer look inwardly. Following your own conscience is out-of-date. People are unaccustomed to looking at themselves. If they see what they don’t like, they blame the mirror.

I don’t believe I am judgmental but I do feel the need to be vigilant for my safety. A mild, open manner invites bullies and con-men. They assume we are dupes though they could not be more wrong. Perhaps this vigilance is misconstrued as judgmental, sanctimonious? Although it is far from it.

In large cities good neighborliness is now suspicious. If you inquire after the people in your apartment floor, they wonder if you are ‘an interfering busybody’. And heaven forbid you should show friendliness toward their children. I recall sitting across from a mother and small boy on the bus going home. The child was no more than three or four, he was drowsy and the mother was distracted. When she finally realized her son was looking for a snuggle, I smiled at the scene. The mother fixed me with stare warning me off.  I understood her point of view. There are men about who molest children, but at the same I felt very sad that we live in self-defense all of the time. I  now only show affection towards the dogs of my neighbors.

I suppose we get taken for granted. People assume we will be there when they need us because that is what good people do. We are the reliable stand-bys in life, never the featured players. No efforts need to put forth with our friendship because we are ‘low maintenance’.

Well, that is enough self-pity for now. And self-pity is definitely not cool.

social hygiene

I just saw a young man walking towards the exit of our building while having his index finger up his nose. He then used the same index finger to press the “open” button. I shudder to think of the next unsuspecting resident who touches that button.

This comes on the heels of last evening, the first of this season’s Christmas functions or as I call them–the Holiday Flu functions.

Lots of strangers crowded into a small room, much kissing cheeks and the obligatory handshaking. Here is a little secret about men: we rarely wash our hands properly after peeing, if at all. Then there is the uncooked finger food, spread out for the attendees to inspect, some coughing while examining. Then we come along and pick up the food with our fingers, the same ones with which we have shaken hands (with the guy who did not wash his hands after peeing).

I know at least one harried hostess (who shall remain nameless) who, when she ran out of plastic wine glasses, decided to reuse the discarded ones without even washing them.

Then there are the people I have observed returning food from their plates back to the buffet trays (they changed their minds after one bite).

Also the ones who use their personal cutlery to scoop out dips such as salsa and humus from the serving bowl.

Of course all of the above is exasperated by alcohol, which not only weakens the immune system but makes one distracted, less aware.  It is no co-incidence that flu season and Christmas party season are one and the same.

There was a time when ladies wore gloves to soirees, children were taught to cover their coughs, men carried handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. Those hygienic niceties are now relics of the  formal past.  As people live in ever more dense cities, one would expect them to be more aware of social hygiene, but we find the opposite–people care less and less. Of course we have a built in immune system, but it was never designed to handle high density living or instant global travel. We saw with the SARS epidemic how quickly a virus spread from Hong Kong to the entire world.

I rarely shake hands with anyone anymore. While this may seem socially awkward, there are many polite alternatives. The Michelle Obama Fist Bump is a current and cool alternative. As are many Asian alternatives. The Japanese head bow might feel too formal, but the Namaste greeting of folded hands leaves no doubt about your friendliness. But if a handshake is socially unavoidable, I carry a pocket hand sanitizer wherever I go. (It is also great for the supermarket after having touched so many public surfaces.) But at functions you need to be discrete, as people sometimes take offense. i usually make frequent trips to the bathroom for hand washing.

And that is the trick with practicing social hygiene, juggling politeness with awareness of high-risk situations.

One can’t exist in a bubble. One has to interact with the world. I drink alcohol slowly and in small quantities because I enjoy keeping aware. I also think it is important to boost my immune capabilities with foods rich in vitamin C and anti-toxicants. Kiwis and critic fruits, for example, boost immune functions. As does ensuring a good night’s sleep and regular exercise. Although the latter can expose one to more hazards. I routinely observe people not sanitizing before or after using a machine at the gym. I carry my own towel at the gym. People assume I use it for wiping off sweat from by face, but I really use it wipe off theirs. I use it to cover machine bars and surfaces.

Part of being self-aware means you notice your hand gestures, even when not in public. I rarely rub my eyes or bite my fingers because this is one of the ways we invite bacteria and viruses into our bodies.

Which brings me under the mistletoe. This kissing under the mistletoe tradition sometimes leads to the inebriated office grope–or so I am told. There is no such thing as sanitary sex. It’s all about exchanging saliva and touching, well, everything. While sex with a co-worker may be ethically questionable, there is no question it is physically messy. Only an overdose of eggnog will convince a person otherwise–and it sometimes does. I consider myself fortunate to have reached an age where sex is a very low priority in life.

Though ironically, I am also at an age where reaching out to others leaves me vulnerable to more infections than casual sex ever could. I cut hair at the homeless shelter and some of those guys don’t bathe. I wear latex gloves but there is nothing I can do about the odors. I have to remind myself that that is natural scent of the human body. And that these people are more than the sum of their body parts. Their essence is consciousness, which has no scent. This helps me stay cheerful and calm, and that aids my immune system.

Therefore, I try to remember the same about those Holiday party guests, no matter how unsanitary their habits.

bucketlistSince the 2007 movie, the phrase the Bucket List has entered the vernacular. It is a wish list of activities a person hopes to accomplish before he “kicks the bucket”. The internet is crammed with people’s lists, inspired by the movie, they consist of thrills: hang-gliding off the Grand Canyon, climbing Mount Everest and so on. But really, will accomplishing  high-risk thrills allow you to leave the world more fulfilled, more whole?

In that era before the Jack Nicholson movie (when fire had been newly discovered and my loin cloth of choice was saber-tooth) we complied out lists while young, not after a fatal illness. We called these our life’s goals, and these too were about the things we wished to achieve before our time was up.

During the 80s I had a young tenant in my house who absconded without paying his rent. He left me to clean up his mess, among which was his diary. What impressed me most, about this unimpressive youth, was this one entry: My goal in life is to be happy all of the time. 

It seemed to me this was an entry worthy of anyone’s Bucket List, particularly when the list is complied at the beginning of adult life. While no one would disagree with the pursuit of happiness, there is debate about the definition of happiness. For me thrills are about pleasure, not happiness. Excitement and sense stimulation are pleasing as long the stimulus lasts. The joy of those moments does not stay in the memory.

The contentment of good relationships, the fulfillment of helping others, the peace of mind from doing the right thing–these are all things which have mileage. They last even beyond the grave.

Common wisdom says that we leave the world empty-handed. I wonder if that is really true. Is it possible that we take our character with us into the hereafter? The pursuit of goodness, and the cultivation of inner peace might then be ‘transferrable skills’ in the world beyond.

Even if we don’t believe in any kind of hereafter, then surely we have accept that we will live on the memories of the people whom we leave behind. I wonder what they might say about us at our wake?

“That Frank, he was a miserable S.O.B. He was tyrant who was rude to everyone,  but bless him, he did manage to swim with the dolphins before he died. And that’s what I’ll remember about Frank. Not his mean-spiritedness, not the pettiness, but that he fulfilled all of his Bucket List.”

Really? Will anyone ever say that?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against making a Bucket List. I am simply questioning the importance given to costly and high-risk thrills. To me it feels like some giant marketing scam to get you to spend your savings on the frivolous.

Why not leave behind a legacy of good works, of grateful people, of fond memories. I think touching another’s heart is for keeps. After my heart attack I had many angels taking care of me, but one nurse stands out. Her name was Kayla and I felt she tended to me above and beyond her duties. There was a compassion in how she nursed me. While many things from that difficult time are a haze ( I was heavily medicated and hallucinating), the memory of Kayla is clear and fresh. She touched me beyond what the eyes can perceive.

Touching as many hearts as possible is at the top of my Bucket List. And it does not cost a penny. My personal list is made up entirely of items along the same vein.

Spreading happiness to as many people as possible.

Leaving no unresolved conflicts.

To find goodness:

I may not achieve all or any of these before death, but I’ll die trying. It seems to me the effort is worth more than success. Because the effort multiplies in unexpected ways. That I think is the main difference these and the thrills type of Bucket Lists. I am reminded of the character of Larry in Somerset Maugham’s best novel The Razor’s Edge. In the end he found “goodness” and the author felt sure that he would attract many others to goodness “like moths to a flames”. That Larry would leave the world a better place than he found it. But Climbing Everest?—not so much.

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