cruise 049Some time ago I found an ornate, black stick on the stairwell of my building. It looked like one half of a pair of Geisha hair sticks. I kept it, intending to give it to someone. Months later I have taken up calligraphy and now my desk is full of nibs, penholders, and inks. Searching through a drawer I came across that Geisha hair stick, gathering dust at the back. I immediately recognized it for it is–a pen holder. And I was looking to buy myself another one! It made me wonder: was it just a random find? Or was this a sign from the Universe that I was pursuing what I was meant to do?

In Asian cultures people tend to believe in omens, signs and portents. They take comfort in this secret language which hints at order behind the chaos of the world. “Nonsense,” said Todd, “there is nothing rational behind it.” Todd fancies himself as a scientist because he studied chemistry in college, even though he is a pen-pusher for a big national bank. “The world is chaos and everything happens randomly, including life.”

One of my writing mentors, Wayson Choy absolutely believes is paying attention to signs. It is how his illustrious writing career got started. He was in a writing workshop taught by Carol Shields where the students were asked to pick a random piece of paper from a hat. Each chit had the name of a flower and the assignment was to write a short story using their serendipitous  flower. Wayson’s chit said peony. He was at a loss for a story with peony as its theme. Later that day he visited his aunt for tea. She handed him a gift, a jade peony that had once belong to his mother. In that instant the idea struck him he should write about his upbringing as the child of indentured Chinese labourers in 1930s Vancouver. The short story, titled “The Jade Peony,” so impressed Carol Shields that she submitted it for the UBC Alumni Chronicles. It has since been anthologized a dozen times and it spawned a full-length novel, The Jade Peony which won the Trillium Award for best fiction. “Be alert for signs,” he advised me with a knowing grin.

I appreciate Wayson’s ability to link seemingly unconnected events, it informs much of his writing, yet I struggled with it. Did this mean that whenever obstacles clutter my path, I am to read them as signs that I was pursuing the wrong thing? The writing life is fraught with rejections, some of them entirely random. I know from experience at a literary magazine that submissions are sometimes rejected wholesale because the reader was not in a good mood, perhaps she was hungover or just wanted to be somewhere else. If I or Wayson or any other writer were to give up because of these obstacles, then there would be no more writers left in the world. Sometimes obstacles are meant to be overcome, they teach us to improve ourselves. I believe in facing challenges by developing new character skills. I worry that reading signs can sometimes be an excuse for defeatism and weakness.

Whatever the logic or illogic behind signs, these facts are indisputable:

1) The  world is experienced ONLY through the medium of the mind. Take away the mind (as in sleep) and there is no world.

2) If the medium is chaotic (like that drunk editor), the information processed through it will be a confusing mess.

3) If the medium is uncluttered, then the information processed through it will be orderly and sensible.

So perhaps Todd and his kind, who experience the world as chaotic, do so only because their minds are confused and chaotic? (Todd’s personal life is as messy as his apartment). Then perhaps persons like Wayson who see omens and signs everywhere, do so because their minds are beginning to de-clutter? Hence for them the world has some purpose and order?

Perhaps. I don’t it is always clear-cut which obstacles are worth fighting, and which are signs that it is better to give up before you punish yourself further. While I don’t have all the answers, I find a clear mind does helps to distinguish when to fight and when to admit defeat.

Of course the whole issue of signs and portents leads to big questions about destiny versus free will. If signs are real than does that mean I am a mere puppet of the gods? If all is preordained than do I have any choice at all? I’ll save that question for next week’s post. Who would have thought a simple pen holder could raise such huge questions?


outofboodySandy is young, bubbly and very sick. Once in a while I get to meet a patient as thoughtful about her sickness as Sandy. She, like many other heart patients and trauma survivors, have experienced what is commonly (and wrongly in my opinion) known as Out-of body experiences, or OBEs.

You break through the limits of your own body’s senses. You experience sights, sounds, memories and feelings that do not belong to your own body or mind. You inhabit the universal and that includes your body lying there on the bed. In fact I think the term out-of-body is an oxymoron because in this state of hypersensitivity you experience sensations within your own body much more acutely. Once you have experienced the world from this perspective, you cannot ever see the world in the same way again.

Out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, happen spontaneously during extreme trauma such as car accidents, or during medical events such as heart attacks. They can also be induced through hallucinogens such as LSD or anesthetics. More commonly, they are a byproduct of meditation practices, or through lucid dreaming with the aim of taking a trip into the subtle worlds.

In my lost youth I eagerly devoured the books of Robert Monroe on Astral Projection. The idea of taking mystical journeys fascinated me and though I never experienced what he claimed I would in his books, I did have my first taste of meditation. I would lie still, enter a catatonic state where my body was asleep but my mind was fully alert. It was a scary sensation at first, a feeling of being trapped, yearning to escape. In this state it occurred to me for the first time that the mind might be a separate entity from the body. Gradually, with practice, the mind is encouraged to lose its fear of roaming away from the body. It is something it naturally does during dreams. OBEs are fully-conscious dream-like experiences.

Modern neurology has attempted to debunk OBEs by inducing them in subjects. By stimulating various parts of the brain electronically, they hope to prove that OBEs are a simple neurological phenomena. But they miss the point because they are asking the wrong questions. What they should be asking is: Does the mind live inside the body? Or does the body live inside the mind?

Sandy and I sat for two hours exchanging ghost stories. She recalled visitations from the departed as glowing, warm presences without the human form or costumes (O how Hollywood has that wrong). As fascinating as ghost stories are, they reaffirm the revelation of OBEs that the mind and body are indeed separate entities. During her procedure Sandy saw prayers from her church members ascending towards her (another very common phenomena). While in this state neither she nor any other OBE experiencers felt threatened or afraid. To a man they report a feeling of deep peace and joy. Much more than that, they feel a wholeness with others after they survive the OBE itself. They are more empathetic in significant and unalterable ways. Surely, there is more at play here than stimulated neurons?

For me the experience of OBE was prolonged and I experienced different degrees of it. The times when my heart stopped completely, the experiences were more intense and vivid to other times during the coma, I heard, saw, felt events happening outside of my hospital room. Events I was later able to verify with the people saying, doing, experiencing them. Yet I was aware of my body the whole time. To this day I question this accepted notion that the mind resides within the body. It felt so natural, so normal to be wondering around while the body lay there tethered to tubes and machinery that I think it is the body that resides within the mind.

The mind is this enormous, shapeless presence that houses this body. The very fact that OBEs happen to so many people, of all ages and in every culture, proves that OBEs are a clue to the reality of our existence. To me this is what is worth investigating. It is unfortunate that this term has entered into everyday speech as a way of describing extraordinary desserts, dresses, film stars. (“When Brad Pitt looked at me I thought I was having an out-of-body experience.”).

This phrase means so much more.

Body as garment. Michaelangelo, Last Judgement

Body as garment. Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement

Jack sits cheerfully on his bed in the Hematology ward of the cancer hospital. After a successful stem cell transplant, he is soon to be discharged. “I’m going home with a  new blood type,” he says with a grin. “I used to be A Positive, now I’m O Negative.” The whole ward is full of people with their bone marrow replaced by that of the donors’ (some of whom are strangers with very different DNA). Very sci-fi, very Invasion of the Body Snatchers! 

I can’t help thinking about Jack as I spend time with our newest family member. Almost since the day he was born, my grand-nephew has been the cause of minor family rivalries. His mother’s side see themselves clearly in him, while his father’s side are equally sure his good looks come from us. He himself is uncanny at distinguishing relations from strangers. He is not unique in this. Scientists at the Yale Infant Cognition Centre say all babies come hard-wired with a familial bias. The body is me and those with my DNA are my friends and protectors. This is inborn wisdom. We grow up without questioning it. Now, startling research from the National Institute of Health’s  Human Microbiome Project is challenging this notion that our bodies are our own.

Microbes, bacteria and fungi live in key parts of our body, this much was known, but it turns out these organisms are in every part of our bodies and without them we would die. They help fight infections in the lining of the nose, they help digest nutrients in the stomach and intestines, they even help our skin stay healthy by living on its surface. So all of these microorganisms co-exist like this whole other ecosystem within our bodies, feeding off of us, as well as nurturing us. The old idea was: my body is a temple. But now it seem, the body is more like the river that runs besides the temple, with the creatures living in it.

Except that these microorganisms are so numerous that ninety-nine percent of the DNA in and on our bodies is actually microbial DNA, and not mummy’s and daddy’s. There’s millions and millions of these things. So many that when you look into a mirror, the image you are seeing has ten times more microbial cells than human! Mind-blowing stuff. Add to that the fact that even the mitochondrion within our individual cells (the 1%) have their own independent genome, independent to our cell’s nucleus DNA, and it is also much more akin to the DNA of bacteria than to human. (Who knew, there is an Occupy The Body revolution going on).

For me these are more than scientific curios to quote at cocktail parties (though they are impressive conversation fodder). They have further helped me rethink my ‘elitist’ relationship with my body and the world. Is my body mine or ours? Am I in fact an ecosystem, not an individual? 

The other day I was looking at photos of myself as a child. I had no doubt that cute kid is me, but a friend commented, “Is that really you?” I have to admit my face today has changed radically from the image of that boy. Perhaps it is much more accurate to say that my body is like that river. I mean, there is that old, Guru’s saying that watching the mind is like stepping into a river: never the same water. Isn’t the body also like that? The contents change, even the shape changes, but still we give the same name to the river because of its continuos flow. Except in the case of the body, the flow is so gradual that one barely notices the movement. Usually. When I woke from my coma I had the hardest time accepting my reflection. I had skipped two weeks of time, and it seemed to me my long beard had sprouted instantly. I had lost so much weight my legs and arms looked like someone else’s. The meds had changed my skin tone. I would look at my reflection and ask, “Who the hell are you?”

A more healing question might have been: “Who do you belong to?” This changes how we think about illness. The virus within my body is no longer an interloper, but an immigrant that I must help assimilate. There is even evidence that all these little microbes in our bodies also affect our moods and behavior. In which case, does ‘being upset’ really mean an imbalance within this microsystem? Might it explain a sudden feeling of being blue for no good reason?

Embracing this notion of my body as ‘ours’ opens up the whole world. Not only does the issue of race become redundant, but even other species are no longer alien. One feels whole with the grass, the tress and the birds that live in them.

So if I am not the temple’s deity, then who am I? What is my function within this river’s ecosystem? Perhaps, I am the sun: my presence vitalizes this microsystem. That I AM

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