Is birdsong peaceful?

Is birdsong peaceful?

The dog barked incessantly for over three hours. A whimpering, agonizing bark. I could not contain myself any longer. As soon as I stepped out into the hallway to investigate, the grumpy woman next door held her front door ajar to do the same. In the apartment across the hall from us, a dog was locked inside, alone. It was barking for help. As an animal lover it was the distress of the dog which upset me. For my neighbour it was the loudness of the noise which made her grumpy (she is a nurse who works nightshifts). A third neighbour soon joined us. He is a Condo board member and he was angered by the violation of the pets bylaw.

It was fascinating that the same sound had elicited such very different, but strong emotions from each of us. It occurred to me that perhaps sound is the most potent of all the senses. While sight is essential to navigate our movements through space, it is sounds which delivers our emotions, passions, and moods. I recall reading a sardonic definition of pop music somewhere: “That which is too foolish to be spoken is sung.”  So I wonder, does our relationship with sounds destine our relationship with the world? Does are ability to cope with noise determine our peace of mind?

The other day I decided to escape the noise of my neighborhood’s construction by visiting my local park. Seated on a park bench, I was enjoying the pleasant sound of birds. A jogger ran past, her iPad plugged into her ear, insulating herself from the park’s natural sounds. Opposite, a pair of lovers sat canoodling on the grass. Their intimate whispers effectively shutting out all other persons. It occurred to me that all three of us, the jogger, the lovers, and myself, were attempting to find some peace by isolating ourselves from our environment. Each of us was using sound to distract from what is here and now. We each craved peace, and we were all doomed to fail miserably.

As soon as the jogger removes her iPad, the world will flood back in. As soon as the lovers part company, the waiting cares and emotions will resume. As soon I return home, that pneumatic drill will be there to disturb me. The peace of selective sounds is highly fragile.

It seems to me that pleasant sounds merely alleviate some of the symptoms of inner restlessness, but they do not cure the root cause. Much in the same way as balms and aspirins help symptoms of physical maladies without treating the original cause.

So then we go looking for peace through perfect silence. The phrase peace and quiet  is so commonplace that we have assumed they belong as a pair. Of course religion also confuses peace with quiet. In every house of worship the world over music and silence are used to simulate peace.

But let us look at this logic. If quiet equals peace, the absolute silence should bring about absolute peace. I wonder what those criminals locked up in solitary confinement would say about that logic? And if absolute peace really results from silence then most of us are screwed. There is nowhere on Earth where there is absolute silence. And so we pursue relative silence: the lull of the ocean waves, the cooing of dolphins, the whistling of a breeze through tree leaves. It is the closest we can imagine peace of mind, but we never quite reach it.

Then where should we be looking? What exactly is peace? Maybe peace is there all of the time. Perhaps peace is what we experience when we are meaningfully connected to the world. Restlessness is when we are isolated from the world.

I like to think peace is related to sound in the same way that a white canvas is related to a painting. Peace is that blankness upon which the colours of daily sounds, and the emotions which they shape, reveal themselves.  Peace is there before the first sound of the day is heard. Peace is there  after the last sound before sleep. Most importantly, peace is there passing through each and every sound of the day. Peace is there while that pneumatic drill is going. Peace is there while that stranger is insulting you. Peace is  there while your friend is complimenting you. In other words, peace that passes all understanding. (Yes, Virginia, this Eastern idea is universal).

To be aware that peace is the background for all sounds, is to be freed from the burden of noise. To understand this relationship intellectually is a start, but when this insight comes from your own observation you begin to have a choice about the emotions contained within sounds. You then have a choice about how, and if, you will respond to an insulting tone of voice. You have a choice about what you say, as well as what you hear. You have a choice whether or not to be disturbed by construction noises or Rap music. And that is the beginning of freedom.

Now that really is peaceful.


DSCN0951_1275Lloyd is a poet who lives in shelters, yet he refuses to accept government assistance or pity. He pays his $10-per-night fee at the shelter by selling poetry chapbooks on the streets. The poetry is his own and  the man knows how to write. He should: he has a B.A. in English Literature and he was mentored by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most brilliant poets. When asked why he refuses government welfare, he jokes it is his bourgeois upbringing.

Being a product of the middle-class myself I understood what he meant. For those born rich,  money is as mundane as tap water. Those without also do not get worked up about where the next meal is coming from, or how they will make rent. For them it is just how life has always been. It is those of us in the middle who bear the extraordinary burden of money. It so dominates our lives that we do not even notice its power, except perhaps in a crisis.

This is tax season (or as I call it, Accountant’s Christmas) and people like us stress to gather all of the receipts and we jump through hoops navigating the tax forms which seem to get more convoluted by the year.

I took some time from worrying about the consequences of not filling in Box#68 to ponder the bigger picture. Given that money is imaginary, it struck me as ludicrous that to be so fussed about it. Money has reality and value only because we humans decided it has. Our pets do not stress about it. All of us are born without personal wealth, and we certainly leave this world without it. But in-between, o boy!, does it ever matter.

It determines how we are treated. It dictates whom we attract as friends and spouses. It decides how much power and influence we sway in nearly every area of life(including in court). It unleashes powerful passions of greed, envy, hubris and domination. Yet money is as imaginary as those borders between nations when viewed from space. But try to opt out of the system of money and you find yourself booted from the human race. As has happened to Lloyd.

Actually, Lloyd reminds me somewhat of Hindu sadhus or hermits. They are individuals for whom the desire to transcend the passions of the mind is so intense that they abandon their homes, their families and their wealth. By eschewing money, they seek to gain true freedom. They subsist on the currency of kindness. In return for food they trade spiritual counsel, and solace to the grieved. Perhaps the most famous sadhu of all time is the Buddha, who succeeded spectacularly in supplanting goodness as a global currency.

Which brings me back to Box#68 of my tax return. Is there a way in which I can borrow that  attitude of those sadhus but still  participate in this monetary merry-go-round of taxes and mortgages and insurance?

It is a tough experiment but necessary for the good of my well-being. I seem to have a high tolerance for emotional and physical pain, but financial woes really leave me anxious and exhausted. So now I am questioning whether I have given the concept of money more value in than it deserves? Perhaps if I too replaced the dollar for goodness as my currency of choice, at least within my consciousness, I may get less worked-up about it.

I would like to believe that the universe operates on a quid pro quo system, i.e. it pays back exactly what you pay out. If you move about like a total A-hole, well guess what bud, it is how you will be paid back. If karma exists for the bad, then surely the converse has to hold true? If you do good to others, goodness is paid back to you?

I was reminded of this just this week at the homeless shelter. A smart-looking young man in a business suit requested a hair trim. I thought to myself: who does he think he is? I donate this service to the homeless, not to jerks in business suits. Luckily I held my tongue. As I trimmed his hair he began speaking. He had recently returned from the Congo where he was doing humanitarian volunteer work for the past year. After two-hundred resumes being submitted, he had finally landed a job. His suit was $15 from a charity shop. He wanted to make a good impression on his first day on the job, but with two dollars left to his name, he did not imagine he would ever find a barber to trim his hair. He happened to drop by at the shelter to thank someone when he spotted me and the sign for free haircuts. Co-incidence? Or is it the grand barter of the universe? Was this young man owed goodness because he had paid out enough of it into the world?

I believe the latter. It occurred to me that this young man just confirmed for me what I had been thinking. He paid me for his haircut with this confirmation. Quid pro quo. Each time I struggle with the latest tax bureaucracy, I will think of him. I will tell myself these are only numbers. In the grand scheme of things, they have no meaning. Help will come from unexpected places when needed. Meanwhile, just keep putting out goodness into the world regardless.

Is Nurturing Undervalued?

March 11, 2013

The Hugging saint.

The Hugging saint.

He was burly and robust. His cheek had a fresh cut across it, suggesting he had recently been in a fist fight. He pointed to his overgrown mane of blond hair with both hands and smiled broadly. I have to admit I was nervous about him sitting in my barbering chair. You don’t want to mess up on a guy like him. But as soon as my comb began stroking his hair, he visibly relaxed. He spoke to me gently and carefully, in his deep baritone. While I was cutting his hair, it was almost as though he were a little boy again.

I experience this time and again with men who live in shelters. Marginalized and isolated, often in and out of prison, they rarely experience nurturing. I can’t help wonder, if no one nurtures you, would you become anti-social? I believe that is my role at the shelter. Not cutting hair, but nurturing. Sometimes they do not want to leave the chair after the haircut. They go on talking, these solitary, street-smart men.

I sometimes see them on the sidewalk, curled up in a sleeping bag in a fetal position. Mothering is so nourishing that the toughest of men regress to infants in their sleep.

Is perhaps the desire for sex really about seeking our nurturing? Is that why people risk themselves in the bars, or online? In its rawest form, sex is about touching, holding, pampering. Might those gay men who cruise darkened, public toilets and park shrubbery be looking for a kind of anonymous nurturing?

It is a curious contradiction that people with a great capacity for nurturing are highly desirable. Even more so than physical beauty. I mean, Mother Theresa was no Miss World but she attracted admirers aplenty.

Later that week my sister was speaking to me about her sons. She is the epitome of a nurturing mother to her boys, and at times has been a substitute mother for me. “Everyone wants to be taken cared of,” she moaned. “But who is there to take care of me?”

Good question. Who nurtures the nurturers?

Is it something you can do for yourself? Or is it like currency, you have so much of it to give, and then you run out? After all, so many relationships break down because one party does all the giving, and the other makes no effort to replenish the nurturing of the giver.

I used to think it is a skill you can acquire through practice. The more you nurture the greater your capacity for nurturing. Then I came across certain nurses at the hospital, who after thirty years of service, do not bother to hide their contempt for patients. I wonder if they are that way because no one at home emotionally nourishes them. It seems to me the ability to nurture is a skill, but it requires something extra from the outside. A fuel. A fuel that has a source external to me.

Oh, there are spiritual types who will insist that you need no one else to replenish nurturing. They claim the source of it is divine. Saints are said to have an inexhaustible ability to nurture because they have tapped into the well itself. But I wonder if that is true? Every saint, every guru seems to move about with a retinue Mariah Carey might envy. O how the retinue pamper, feed, and flatter them. Is that how they really recharge themselves?

I have been fortunate to have observed more than a one such saint up close. I particularly think of a female Hindu saint known as Amma, or The Mother. Her capacity to nurture is indisputable. She hugs each and every person who attends her gatherings. Men, women, young, old, rich, poor, she stays till the last person has been hugged. In a crowd of 20,000 or more , that might not be until the early hours of the following morning. She sits in the same spot, without food or water or bathroom breaks, sincerely hugging each and every one. She speaks not a word of English, yet foreigners flock to be hugged by her. Like beggars at a feast they wait in line, their faces light up in rapture when their turn finally arrives. What is her source of nourishment?

Perhaps the answer is a combination all of the above. Perhaps nurturing is a nourishment so essential we take it wherever we can find it.  When deprived of it completely, we wither and turn anti-social.  A rare few are able to go past the human mind right to the very well of it. In deep meditative states, when my mind has stopped, I see glimpses of this source and it enriches not only me, but I believe, those around me.

That is just one way I replenish myself. These days it is rare that someone nurtures me. More routinely, whenever I perform a service for strangers, I seem to walk away feeling refreshed and recharged. The act of being selfless transcends the rut of the mind and there again is that glimpse of the source. In this sense my relationship with the homeless is symbiotic: I nurture the guys with free haircuts, and they in turn nurture me in another, deeper way.

Whatever it is, I reckon it is a force vastly undervalued. Peace and joy to all those in the UK observing Mother’s Day, both to those who are, and to those who have had mothers.

Love or compassion?

Love or compassion?

Yesterday, during my rounds on the geriatrics ward, I chatted with a woman who was being visited by her son. Throughout our conversation, she continually referred to him as her husband. She has dementia, she gets confused. I asked her if she had been told when might the hospital discharge her. Her son replied that it would not be until a suitable nursing home was found. “They asked me if I would take care of her, but I can’t,” he explained, even though I had made no judgement. “I have never had children, you see, nor a wife. I wouldn’t know how to take care of her,” he shrugged.

I sympathized with his dilemma. I am certain he loves his mother because he visits her daily. But might he be lacking in compassion that he cannot adapt himself to taking care of his mother? It got me thinking about the difference between love and compassion. Commonly confused, I know I have often mistook one for the other in my life.

Love is personal, it’s messy. Love is taking a swim in the emotion sludge of the beloved. When the beloved is happy, we are happy. When the beloved feels guilty, betrayed, or grieved, we feel likewise. Parents/spouses/offspring/friends–all these relationships exist because of interdependence. They fulfill our needs and we theirs. Thus love arises from a sense of self.

Where compassion is selfless. It is impersonal because it can exist without any relationship at all. I do it weekly at the homeless shelter. It would be disingenuous to  say I love them when they are strangers to me and I to them. Yet I have unreserved compassion for them. The liberating thing about it being impersonal is that it comes without emotional baggage. Compassion does not demand anything in return. That is why I can still feel compassion even when they are unappreciative or even abusive. I would help my worst enemy if his life were endangered. Compassion is unconditional.

Whereas love brings with it expectations of the beloved. We reward or punish behavior, sometimes deliberately, sometimes tacitly. We punish the beloved for traits which we do not approve of. During my youth people used to speak of unconditional love. Back then we accepted it as a universal truth. Now, as I get older, I wonder if it is merely a utopian idea? I mean, if parents had unconditional love, why are some offspring more favored than others? If mothers have unconditional love their sons, then why did some mothers abandon their sons in droves in the early days of the AIDS epidemic? If a husband loves his wife in sickness and in health/ for richer, for poorer, then why do half of all marriages end in divorce? Love is by nature so conditional that I wonder if we really only love the relationship, rather than the person?

Though love and compassion are distinct, I see no reason why the two cannot coexist within the same relationship. This fusion, it seems to me, is the nearest thing there is to unconditional love.

But how does one go about blending love with compassion in relationships? I have spent the entire past week hunched over a sewing machine attempting to do just that. After spending a day mastering the straight stitch, I felt comfortable enough to tailor a kimono for myself. It was made from cut up old shirts and it now proudly sits among our dish rags. However, it and its descendants did set me on course to learn much about sizing, cutting and other tricks of the sewing trade. Tricks that will one day be of benefit to others as well as myself. I have decided to keep adding new skills to my character resume.

Why? Because compassion is a kind of generosity. And, like money, you need to have plenty of it before you can give generously. Practical skills are one way by which you can introduce compassion into your relationships. Practical skills such as carpentry, cooking, and sewing, allow  poor folk  like us to squander compassion as though Bill Gates. Practical skills afford a son the capacity to take care of his senile mother.

The latest research in neuroscience has discovered that learning new skills changes the very structure of the brain. New brain cells grow, the brain enlarges incrementally. People who learn new skills throughout their lives build up cognitive reserve, so much so that if old age dementia does set in, others don’t even notice it. In other words, continually learning new skills would have made that mother so capable that when her senility did arrive, she would have no need of her son to take care of her.

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