September 22, 2014
When Toronto’s combative Mayor announced his cancer diagnosis, a chorus of sympathy arose from supporters (few) and detractors (many) alike. They sang from the same hymn book, so to speak: “He is a fighter, he will beat this.” It is a sentiment I hear routinely at the cancer hospital from the families of patients. Once upon a time the mind-body connection was the stuff of fairy tale. Yogis trampled upon by herds of elephants and surviving unscathed. Daredevils chained in underwater cages escaping certain deaths. Mind over matter, we were told to our amazement.
Now, the whole notion of mind-body and healing has come to be accepted as mainstream. (Thank you, Deepak Chopra. Take a bow, Miss Oprah). The problem is, in our haste to be enlightened, have we failed to think things through?
Whenever a terminal diagnosis is given, it is warm and fuzzy to believe that my loved one (or I) will beat the odds because he is strong-willed, or because she has the faith of a saint. We somehow take is as gospel that there is a kind of jihad going on between the body (which is falling apart) and the mind (which is struggling to keep it together). So the logic goes, think postive thoughts, stay cheerful and determined, and this fatal illness will be defeated. What we conveniently ignore is that the body is born with its own destiny: it is in our DNA. Yes, a happy mind is good for your well-being, but worry does not grow tumors in the brain, hatred does not clog up the arteries of the heart. Were wishes indeed powerful enough to overcome DNA, trust me, I would be six-foot four! And if being “young at heart” were enough, Viagra need never have been invented.
Think of all the thousands of hospitals in the world: almost every patient who enters their double doors have some pretty solid reasons to live (children, youth, or simply the universal urge to survive) yet not every patient will leave the hospital alive. I once heard a patient (a Jehovah’s Witness), say to his roommate, (a Hindu), that if he were to accept Jesus as his saviour his cancer would vanish. (Hey buddy, then how come you are also tethered to a chemotherapy IV?) If we could cure ourselves based upon will, or the power of faith, cemeteries need never exist.
Where the mind does have a gigantic clout however, is in our habits, which have everything to do with healing. A mind trained in self-discipline will effortlessly adhere to a medication regime. A self-controlled mind will exercise the body without fuss, it will not struggle to choose nutritionally beneficial foods, and perhaps most importantly, such a mind will shut off when rest is required. If, on the other hand, say your mind fights obesity and fails, perhaps it is powerless to keep its promises to stop drinking into alcoholic stupors (or crack-laced tirades). Seriously, can such a mind be considered “strong” enough to fight a fatal diagnosis? (Are you listening Toronto?)
I am reminded of my late guru, the great Swami Chinmayanda, who, when I met him, was globetrotting with three-quarters of his heart dead. The last cardiologist who examined him exclaimed: Why is this man even alive? Those of us lucky enough to have observed him closely knew the reason. His was a very strong mind indeed, his discipline was the opposite of that of Toronto’s mayor. He could catnap at will, he could slow his heart rate to almost nothing, make his breathing almost invisible. I had the opportunity to quiz him about his seemingly miraculous control over his body. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “The body will do what it needs to. Rise above it. Don’t get too concerned.” His words sounded abstract at the time, but strangely personal.
Little did I know then that twenty years later I would be in a coma with the same cardiac condition as his. Many factors helped me but key among them were years of training in disciplining my mind. As long the mind is in conflict with the habits of the body, it will bring pain. His words helped me to accept the outcome of the body, whatever it might be. My mind reached a place of quietude which, ironically, calmed my heart rate enough for the body to recover.
Sadly, I have witnessed patients struggle to the bitter end because their mind was never trained to let go of the body. Any kind of conflict is painful, be it the struggle to adapt habits or the conflict to deny the inevitable. They died in greater agony than was necessary.
There is indeed a body-mind synergy but it exists at the foundation of the conscious mind. With practice anyone can learn to access the common foundation of both the body and the mind through ending conflict. In other words by learning to let go gracefully, the miraculous is possible. Though even this has its limits. Ultimately, Swami Chinmayananda’s body succumbed to its destiny. None is immortal. There is nothing any of us can do except learn to be at peace with this. Now that is strength.
November 11, 2013
“It was like a thousand pounds were lifted off my shoulders,” said the corpulent mayor of Toronto after his confession that he was a crack addict. The city was stunned. It was as though the said thousand pounds were now upon the citizens. He had confessed and was asking for our forgiveness. If we refuse him that forgiveness then we were the ones morally in the wrong. I wonder, is that how confession really works, by shifting the guilt?
We keep secrets because we are ashamed. We know what we are doing is wrong and that others would disapprove if they knew. ‘Fessing up, it seems to me, only relieves the burden of keeping something hidden. In my time I have witnessed many ‘pride’ parades: I grew up in England in the Seventies when the “Keep Britain White” movement was at its peak. These parades through the centre of town were designed to encourage other people not to feel ashamed for feeling hateful. These racists were publicly confessing their beliefs not as an apology, not as contrition, but for as affirmation, for seeking approval. By coming out as a racist the fear of being caught out was gone, so the mind feels lighter. “I have nothing more to hide,” said Rob Ford. But beyond that, is there any other benefit?
“Depends,” says Ralph, a recovering alcoholic. “Confessing is not the same as professing. You can admit to doing something wrong, lots of criminals do, but if it is not accompanied by active remorse then it is useless.” He should know. Ralph has spent each monday night for the past four years attending AA meetings where he stands up in front of strangers as he admits he has an alcohol problem. His confessions is step five of the famous twelve-step program. In fact he says making amends and taking preventive actions is the most important of the twelve steps. It is also much more difficult than just admitting guilt. Specially when you are backed into a corner.
I think Rob Ford confessed only because the evidence of his wrongdoing was no longer deniable. Isn’t such a confession self-serving? The relief he enjoyed is that of hope. Hope that he will survive without consequences the discovery of his guilt. It is the same reason why spouses sometimes confess their infidelity. The wife thinks, “Better he hears it from me than a stranger.”
At this point I suppose I should make a confession of my own: I am a squealer, a rat, a snitch. Throughout school and my work life I had no hesitation about reporting to authority the wrongdoing of others. That may be why my most successful career was that of an auditor. But being a squealer means I find myself confessing to people when I could have easily got away with it. Last year I applied to a hospice to work as a volunteer with the dying. The interviewer must have liked me, she spent two hours chatting with me. Then I made a shocking confession: I have a blog called awarenessisfree. That in this blog I write about events from which I have learned and grown. Apparently that violated the hospice’s rules. Despite my assurances, she was unsure that the patients’ confidentiality would be respected. When I received her rejection in the mail, I did chide myself: why did I confess? There is no way she would have known I have a blog. I appreciate I take steps to be respectful of patients’ privacy, but I also appreciate that I am squealer. I live by my conscience. The truth is important to me. Even if it means I shoot myself in the foot.
Oh, I am sure there are better examples of this type of confession. Every so often you hear about someone who calmly walks into a police station and confesses to an unsolved crime. The consequences are far greater than the loss of some volunteer job, but they feel compelled to confess by their conscience. Such confessions comes from a knowledge that you will grow in leaps and bounds because of this confession. The punishment is mere payment for that growth.
Of course confessions need not always be public. Diaries are a private confession, as are prayers. Art is a kind confession. So is talk therapy. However all of these types of confession have the same underlying mechanism. They work upon the ego, this sense of me. We are each burdened by the certainty of this ego, which is a very strange creature indeed. It demands that it not be judged. It demands it be liked by everyone all of the time. It cannot ever be told it is wrong. Confessions come as a relief because momentarily the stranglehold of the ego is released. By allowing another into its secret, by permitting judgement the ego is stripped of its power. In that moment it has self-doubt. It is open to the possibility that it is wrong. If however it shies away from corrective actions then the stranglehold returns stronger than ever. For stubbornness is also the nature of the ego. As Rob Ford has demonstrated by his refusal to step down.
May 20, 2013
We have a toddler in our family. Certain sights /sounds/tastes/emotions attract him but the rest of the world just makes him cry. He is sensitive about whom he goes to. Makes sense. He has come into a world not of his making. A world which is a mixture of the pleasing and the scary. He is protecting himself. But then as adults we mature in our outlook. Or do we?
We surround ourselves with the objects that please us, the music of our liking, the people with whom we feel a kinship. Then there are those other areas of town we never stray into. The people of whom we are suspicious. The strange smells and textures of ‘foreign’ cuisines. All that falls into the ‘other’ which we avoid and we also advise our children to avoid marrying.
It seems to me this instinctive self-preservation we come into this world with, remains with us of our lives. Unless, that is, we challenge it.
I had one such opportunity this week. Most of the guys I give free haircuts to are very polite and grateful. To serve them with love is really no effort at all. Then sat Mr. John Sebastian in my barber’s chair. He glared at me from the start with a look I recognized from my distant childhood. A look of unmitigated contempt. I suspected he was a racist and an overt one at that.
He did not disappoint. He came out with multiple slurs against various racial minorities (while carefully avoiding references to mine). He said nothing original, the same tired words we have all heard many times before. I knew at the outset whatever I did for him would be scorned and his dissatisfaction would be vocal. Sure, I could have refused to cut his hair. I could have reported him to the manager, a woman of obvious African ancestry. I chose not to. Not out of weakness, but as a test of strength. I wanted to push the limits of my ability to see merit in everyone–especially those biased against me.
O it is easy to see the goodness in those who are good to you. Any toddler can do that. But to see the goodness in a man despite his blatant contempt for me? Now that’s a challenge. I was grateful to him for that.
In my volunteer work I usually look for the goodness in others by focusing on the light in their eyes. It is this light which is pure consciousness. The same consciousness which gives life to my own body.
But when I looked into his eyes, I was continually met a look of contempt. Can I look past that at the life force which enlivens his body? The body’s electricity, as it were, which is impartial to what action and words it illuminates.
As I snipped and combed I observed his negativity with a neutral, disinterested eye. I did the same with the emotions it was bringing up within me. In the past I have fiercely spoken out against racial bias. I don’t hesitate to call people out on it. Some people are so overtly racist I have avoided their company. He would have been one of them. But here I was giving him loving service.
Later that same day, our condo had its Annual General Meeting. A kindly and gentle neighbor ( a white woman) whom I had never met before instantly displayed profuse and undeserved love towards me. The complete opposite of the abuse earlier that day. It seemed to me that on this day life had chosen to show me its fearful symmetry.
William Blake wrote: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry”
The day was bookended by displays of hatred and love in equal measure. Fearful symmetry indeed!
That night, as I reflected on the day’s events, I wondered if perhaps all of life is in such balance. Perhaps over the years the love and laughter we receive is duly balanced by pain and contempt. I realize the young man spewed bile because he was filled with that at this particular juncture in his life. Similarly, the elderly woman oozed love and warmth because that is the contents of her mind at this moment in her life.
And me? I was a witness to both. I didn’t take the woman’s love personally, neither did I take the young man’s wrath personally. I feel just that little bit stronger for having done this experiment. It is the kind of strength I suspect Mahatma Gandhi must have cultivated before he took on the British Empire. Stayagraha, which is sometimes translated as truth force, has to be about adhering to that inner light in those who vocally proclaim hatred against you. It has to encompass both the pleasing and the repulsive. Isn’t that what growing up is about?
April 22, 2013
Eileen collapsed at home from a massive heart attack. She was lucky that her neighbor heard the thud and cared enough to summon the superintendent. Eileen is a fearless woman, she has had to be since her husband died some twenty years ago. When you are eighty-six, living alone is not for sissies.
She glowed while recalling the kindness of the nurses during her two months of hospital stay. All except for HER, that evil one with the round spectacles and cold, mean face.
I wondered which nurse she meant: most of them are very compassionate. Then in walked Nurse Ratched. She was after blood and she yanked Eileen’s fragile arm. Poor Eileen winced as the nurse stabbed her vein as though with a dagger. She was unmoved by Eileen’s pleas of pain and kept up her patrician facade.
When the nurse left Eileen began to list all the slights and meanness this nurse had inflicted upon her. Her litany consisted of the standard behavior of an abrupt, uncaring human being. “I don’t understand what I did to make her dislike me?” said Eileen. This question had so disturbed her that she submitted a formal complaint against the nurse.
It turns out this particular nurse was notorious for her mood swings. She has a complicated domestic life and when she begins her shifts the other staff take bets on which way the wind is blowing that day. Rationally I knew that the nurse was not singling Eileen out. Her dislike for people was more general than that. But I also understood why Eileen took it so personally.
When I got home I had a long think about the times people have taken a dislike to me. Sometimes the dislike has been justified, over something I did or said. Fair enough. But other times the dislike is based on ethnicity, gender, age, or any number of factors over which I have no power to change. More often than not, it hasn’t been about me at all. The person was stressed, in a foul mood, or just had some bad news. I couldn’t help taking it personally. I too questioned what was it that I had done wrong.
Then I had a long think about the times I had done the same to others. If I can forgive myself for inflicting that on them, don’t these others also have a right to do so to me? Is it necessary that everyone, at all times, in all places, should like me?
It is highly irrational and yet, even the most socially and intellectually powerful people have difficulty accepting not being liked. I know liberal democrats who go on marches with placards about freedom of speech–except when a friend or acquaintance does not like them. Then it’s, “He shouldn’t say that about me.” They sign hundreds of petitions advocating freedom of expression, but privately : “She has no right to treat me that way.”
The other day I was walking on a side street near my home, lugging a bag of groceries. Most times I walk slowly because of my damaged heart, my strides are sometimes laboured. A man bicycled past me, stared and laughed at the heaviness of my pace: “You’re a pussy,” he exclaimed. No doubt in his world that is what I am. At first it disturbed me that he felt at liberty to insult me, a stranger who had done him no wrong. Then I quickly recognized his right to his snap judgements and erroneous opinions. He is a flawed and ignorant human being–just like me.
I now find it interesting to observe whenever that sensation arises in me of why doesn’t he/she like me? This is when the ego exposes itself in all its rawness. The ego normally hides in plain sight, lurking behind our joys and distractions. In rare moments when it shows itself I get a chance to examine it, to question it. I have long admired an art piece of Yoko Ono where she invites the audience to cut slices into her dress while she sits silently on stage. I wonder what she thinks and feels? Does she also witness her raw ego?
It takes some effort at first, but I find it very liberating to accept others’ right to dislike me. It makes going about my business that much easier and so much more pleasant. While wanting be always liked is a human trait, it is a terrible burden to carry. I don’t mean being disliked in a threatening kind of way. That is something against which I take a stand. But the casual unfriendliness of acquaintances, the gossipy dislike of friends or colleagues. I recognize that insults and dislike can escalate into violence, however most times they do not. I am now comfortable with that type of not being liked.
Those of you who take the time to ‘like’ my posts and perhaps even ‘follow’ my blog, I want you to know it means a great deal to me. If however, you think what I write is piffle, I accept your right to your opinion.
December 17, 2012
At 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.
October 22, 2012
Manipulators exist everywhere. Not all are obvious grifters and hustlers, some are co-workers, acquaintances, clients, even family. And that is precisely the problem: they appear benign, but slowly and steadily they seize control. Just as bullies stake out victims, so do manipulators, though not always consciously. Our one defense is to remain vigilant of red flags. Whenever I encounter more than one of these within the same person, I know to keep a distance.
Effusive Flattery: Manipulators are charm personified–but only when they need you. I once had a patient repeatedly tell me that all of the nurses were dumb and lacking in common sense. But me, I was the one exception. I fell for it at first, but soon clued in to what his game was. Then he did not hesitate to slag me off also.
A variation of this is the threat of being disinherit by a grandparent (if you marry the wrong person).
Divide and Control: The British built an empire with this technique, and it happens at the office also. One such manipulator was hired as my co-worker. He soon confided to me that his wife was dying of cancer. Oh and, please don’t tell anyone else, because I trust you but not them. I felt burdened by his deeply personal secret. I extended favors to him out of obligation. What I did not know was that he had confided the same ‘secret’ to a few others within the organization. By drawing us individually into his curtain of secrecy, he effectively created a divide among the rest of us. The others were also feeling obligated to do him favors.
Milking Pathos: They are expert at using guilt to make you run after them. Financial hardships, extreme ill-health, a family tragedy, all are exaggerated for effect (passive-aggressive). Bob routinely calls our house, breathless and panicked: Help, I’m dying. Last week he was dying because of a malfunctioning DVD player. We have learned not take his cries seriously anymore. He is The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I wonder what will happen when he does have that fatal health crises, will his friends just assume it is another cry for attention?
Emotional Blackmail: This is more sinister. If you do confide some deeply intimate secret of your own to a manipulator, he or she will not hesitate in using it against you. Make no mistake, manipulators are utterly selfish. And thoroughly shameless. They don’t care if you get hurt, just as long as they get what they need.
Win or Lose: Just like card-sharks manipulators are excellent at concealing. And they have the patience to call your bluff, should you try to resist. Stan went for a meal with his long-time friend, Cathy, a seasoned manipulator. Stan was fed-up of always picking up the tab. He decided to ignore the check when it was placed on the table. His defiance did not go unnoticed. Though the annoyed waiter kept on hovering, Cathy went on chatting for an hour after the check was presented. Finally Stan caved in to the waiter’s glares and paid up. Cathy knew he would, for manipulators it is all about control. For manipulators it is a game of win or lose. They do not believe in win-win.
Non-listener: A subtler signal of a manipulator is that during conversation you can’t a word in edgeways. It is all about him. If you do manage to interject something from your life into the conversation, it flies by without response. Such one-sided conversations are harbingers of wholly one-sided relationships. Keep away.
Possessiveness: Manipulators see you as their property and hence expect you be at their beck and call. If you make a vague excuse why you cannot help them, they get indignant and demand to know what is so urgent that you have to leave them. They are resentful of other people in your life. Because I am soft-spoken and empathic, I am sometimes mistaken for a chump by manipulators. Particularly in my volunteer work, where my role is that of carer and giver, hence just tailor-made for a one sided relationship–NOT.
I am ever vigilant for these red flags, though I refuse to give up on being kind.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Please do share any other tactics that have been used against you.
September 24, 2012
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.
September 17, 2012
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.
May 27, 2012
I remember as an infant there being an imposing portrait of Gandhi over my bed. My mother had been deeply moved by him when he had passed by her home during his famous Salt March. As an adult I am, like him, a British-educated Indian from Africa. And the only movie star I have ever been compared to is Ben Kingsley. But here ended the resemblance. I am sure my mother must have been disappointed that I had quick temper. Other boys in school thought not fighting back was weak and cowardly. Part of me agreed. But as I grew intellectually, I admired Gandhi’s brilliance, his tenacity and the ideal of non-violence. It made perfect sense. It is rational and civilized to abide by the truth, to return love for hate, to stand your ground without a sense of ‘the other’. Practically, however, I struggled against the force of my own reflexes. It was instinctive to reply racial insults with equally caustic ones. It was natural to bark at shopkeepers who cheated me. It felt normal to assert my presence when strangers treated me as though I were invisible. People in a big city tend to move about with a sense of entitlement that always trumps everyone else’s needs. Intellectually I understood that these problems were minor compared to those of people in war zones or very poor places. All the same, when I felt threatened, revenge came effortlessly. All of Gandhi’s wisdom and truths would return in a flood of guilt afterwards.
I should not have retorted. But what was the alternative? To meekly accept the scorn and disrespect of others? I imagined Gandhi would have. However, that did indeed feet weak and cowardly. There developed in me an intense conflict between the ideal that Gandhi represented( as I then understood him) and my own inability to live up to it. The loop was vicious: provocation, retort, regret, self-condemnation. There seemed no way out.
Then one day I realized that I had misunderstood Gandhi rather profoundly. The principle of satyagraha, was not simply a doctrine of passive resistance. It was really about actively engaging in non-violent conflict resolution. Far from being a weak doormat, Gandhi challenged injustice when it was appropriate (usually for the benefit of the many). He questioned people’s basic assumptions without belittling or insulting their intelligence. He put forward his case, only he did so without malice or hatred. This was a very transformative insight for me. It gave me such strength. And strength was what I had been lacking. To be stubbornly polite in the face of hostility requires enormous spiritual muscle. To stand your ground calmly and objectively when your instincts tell you that there is danger requires great courage.
I began mustering every ounce of strength I could to restrain any impulse I had to react. All that is needed is a few seconds of will-power for the adrenalin rush to subside. Then the rational thinking steps in. It assesses the situation, it gauges the degree of danger and then formulates an appropriate response. I discovered that by not reacting externally, I had the upper hand in any conflict (rude bank clerk, racist shopkeeper, ignorant name-callers on the street). I was seen by others as the morally superior one. The perpetrator was exposed as the one in the wrong. This exactly what Gandhi had done against the British. His behavior was so unassailable that in the end even the British themselves agreed they were morally corrupt.
Initially breaking this habit loop felt like pretending. Inside I would be seething. But the tone of my voice was measured, my speech was polite and truthful. The more success I had with this new habit, the more natural and effortless it became.
Very often in a conflict, when one complains to authority, it is your word against the other’s. I see now that by always taking the moral high ground, one gains a respect and a reputation for being truthful and fair.
It is true that doing nothing is weakness. It is cowardice. But I see now that a sissy fights injustice with his fists. A weak man fights with violent words. But a strong man fights with reason.
May 16, 2012
There is a rather extraordinary man I encounter each week during my shift at the homeless shelter. At first, he puzzled me. He lives on the streets and yet has a quiet dignity about him. He is unable to make eye contact if I speak to him, but he is clearly respected by his peers. He is polite, reasonable and respectful of others and their property. He helps out at the shelter and in return is allowed to sit indoors (away from the cold) in the afternoon and watch TV. He loves tea, and takes great delight in preparing it for himself. I have seen the other men come to him for advice and whatever I have overheard was very sensible. I wondered what his story was and tried to engage him in conversation several times, but with no success. He is unable to look me in the eye and feels very shy. As a volunteer, I am, apparently, the ‘other’.
It occurred to me that this man has a great deal of self-respect but very low self-esteem. I have always used those terms interchangeably, but I now see they are very different.
Self-esteem is the term that gets all the press. I think of it as very American, very Oprah. Self-esteem is your sense of worth based upon your peers, your family, your status in society. It is about comparison, it is a judgement based on guesswork. The very word esteem is derived from estimation. You estimate what others estimate you to be, that is self-esteem. It seems to me it is entirely dependent upon external criteria. I am a man of modest means, I do not go on expensive vacations, I do not drive fancy cars or wear designer clothes. Yet at the homeless shelter I am a rich man. We can observe this shift in self-esteem among the working class Westerners who land in Cancun or Bangkok and suddenly find themselves treated ( and behaving) like royalty. Self-esteem is fragile because it is dependent upon time, place and peers.
Self-respect, it seems to me, is internal. It is about what you think of you. Only you know how far you have come because you now where you started from. You are intimate with your hardships and have a sense of the skills and values you employ in facing them. We may lie to the world, but it is very hard to lie to yourself. In childhood, my Christian teachers at my school used to talk about conscience. This is now a very dated term but it is key to self-respect. I believe that when you consistently act according to your conscience, you gather self-respect. A guilty man can never have self-respect.
Self-esteem is a scale. On any given day you can be anywhere between one and ten. Self-respect is binary: either you have it or you don’t.
Some of these celebrities who crash and burn (Whitney Houston, Charlie Sheen) demonstrate a lack of self-respect. They abuse their bodies and their gifts, but they have high self-esteem because of their wealth and status. The result is arrogance. Self-respect combined with high self-esteem is self-confidence.
Among terminally ill people (such as HIV or cancer) I have observed that only some people follow a regime of self-care. They exercise, eat nutritious meals, wear clean clothes, take their meds and come to blogs like this one for support and information. They may not always feels good their situation, but they have self-respect. Others are angry, resentful, bitter. They demonstrate their lack of self-respect with drug-abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity. Even suicide.
A man with self-respect will show compassion when a friend or neighbor has a difficulty. A man with no self-respect may relish the misfortunes of his acquaintances because it temporarily boosts his self-esteem.
Having self-respect can inoculate you from low self-esteem. I recall as a schoolboy that popular students were particularly self-conscious if I (a nerd) attempted to initiate a conversation. They would give me the old up and down look-over, then avert their head away from me. The same dismissiveness can happen in the dating scene. It used to bother me back then. I used to think there must be something wrong with me. It effected my self-esteem. Now in my fifties, I do feel the need for approval of strangers: I now have self-respect.