successYou bet I was pumped, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting on Earth. I practically skated down the hallways of La Lourve, ignoring millions of dollars of art along the way to glimpse this fabled masterpiece. And she looked lovely – if you were one of the lucky ones at the front of the scrum, the rest of us schmoes elbowed each other for air space, raising our cellphones or cameras as high as our arms and toes would allow. “It’s a fake, you idiots,” I yelled to those at the front, “the original has been stolen so often they hang a repro.” They pretended not to hear me, or perhaps I did not say it out loud. Regardless, they continued to click away. Walking slowly back I took my time contemplating the B-pictures I had rushed past in my haste toward the star attraction. Each painting was more brilliant than the next, some by artists I knew nothing about. The Mona Lisa is the most expensive painting in the world, it is also the most Clipart’d, Snapchat’d, Facebook “Liked” and Youtube-shared painting in the world, but is it the best? Is it even Leonardo Da Vinci’s best? It made me question; is popularity ever a measure of quality?

In this age of instant celebrity it should be obvious that popularity can be bought and sold in the time it takes to post a Tweet. Haven’t seen the latest in the Star Wars franchise yet? What’s wrong with you, it is so cleverly marketed that everyone you know has, so what are you waiting for? Popularity is now so cheap they are calling this the “post-fact era,” meaning you can make up any absurd fiction and if any people click your link then it is the truth. Just as Mary Poppins once predicted, “If you sing it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious.”

Despite all this obviousness, in my daily life I still struggle to divorce popularity from quality. Its not my fault, humans are hard wired for approval and affirmation, it is oxygen for the ego. How I salivate upon seeing the “like” stars on my blog posts. Somehow, more stars substitutes for better writing in some deep, dark recess of my brain. Yet the posts I have struggled with the most to write got very few, if any, ‘likes’, though strangely those were the posts which brought for me the most clarity on their respective topics. Popularity is intoxicating, it has a knack for waylaying wisdom, making me forget the real purpose for writing this blog; this blog is about sorting out the muddle of ideas in my head. If my musings occasionally help others to do the same, bonus.

Presently I am trying to maintain that same clarity about a modest showing of my art, a series of oils at a local art supply store. Artist friends from my drawing sessions took the time to go view the pieces, then showered me with praise. I admit, their generosity was intoxicating, a psychological boost up the wazoo, but I must remain guarded. They are more accomplished artists than I am, I see the evidence weekly in their work. I will not let their well meaning flattery carry me away from looking for flaws in my technique. There is no “best”, there is only striving for better. One benefit of being raised in a household where praise was meagre is that you learn to self-evalute very early on in life. You give more weight to your own goals and strive to please your inner ideals rather than feed off compliments from others. I wonder, could clarity of purpose be the definition of humility? Does being humble mean you don’t confuse your own popularity for quality?

 

 

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cpap-marilynmonroeLately going to sleep felt as though I were at a cinema playing The Bourne Trilogy in a continuous fast-forward loop, in other words, chaotic, confusing and pointless. The only rest from these disturbed dreams were the multiple trips to the bathroom in the night. Ah, how I missed those childhood sleeps, when I woke with my eyelids glued shut, surprised that so many hours had passed by without my knowing. Oh, I employed all the usual tricks of good sleep hygiene: no TV one hour before bed, meditation, no eating four hours before bedtime, sleep in a dark quiet room, experimented with pillows and posture. All these things helped for a time but the disturbed sleep got gradually worse. Then my cardiologist insisted I go for an overnight sleep study. No, he did not advice me, he booked the appointment and ordered me to go. My cardiologist has been known to use threats, blackmail, waterboarding, whatever it takes to get his patients to do right and I love him for it.

Off I went to the sleep lab, which did not take long as it was literally across the street from my home. The technician joked that perhaps I could sleep in my own bed and he would run the tubes and wires out the window and into mine. I had enough tubes and wiring attached on my scalp and my legs to bring Frankenstein back from the dead. Throughout the night the technician monitored every twitch, each turn, my heart rate and my breathing. When the results were analyzed by my newly appointed sleep specialist (I now have so many doctors in my circle of acquaintance that I should qualify as upper middle class) it surprised no one who has heard me snore that I had severe Sleep Apnea. About once every minute I stop breathing in my sleep, which explained the disturbing dreams, my mind actually needed me roused so we could breathe again. The way my throat, jaws and gullet have shifted with age, even just lying supine causes my breathing to constrict. Though the young can also experience sleep apnea, it does become more problematic as one gets past age fifty.

“There is nothing else for it,” she said, “you will have be on a CPAP machine for the rest of your life.” I yelled NOOOOOO!!!, then picked up my chair and smashed it through her surgery window. My neighbor, an old man of eighty-five, has one of those CPAP devices. When he dresses for bed he wears Hazmat headgear attached to a Hoover vacuum cleaner circa 1952. He says the noise from his sleep machine keeps him up all night. He is a cardiac survivor and long term, untreated sleep breathing obstruction was a major factor in his heart disease so he puts up with it.

Much for the same reason, I reluctantly went to be fitted for a CPAP machine. Being the Luddite that I am (no cellphone) it was a genuine surprise to me that technology has come a long way. The new CPAP devices are quiet and portable. The mask I chose resembles an oxygen tube they put under your nose when you go in for surgery.

Over the months there were a few side effects that I resolved through research. CPAP machines can make you gassy, high pressure air is being forced into your nose and throat to keep your air passages open, and you can’t help accidentally swallowing some of it into your stomach. The built-in humidifier can get steamy in the summer if you don’t turn it down (resulting in wet mouth). In the winter you might get the sniffles if you forget to turn up the humidifier for the season. But these glitches are minor compared to the uninterrupted and restful sleep I am now enjoying.

They say one in five adults live with untreated sleep-disordered-breathing (SDB). SDB has been blamed for early onset of beastly conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, and diabetes, as well as traffic accidents and obesity. Luckily, treatment is getting slicker and more practical, though it is still shamefully unsexy. When Marilyn Monroe was asked what she wore to bed, she replied, “Channel Number 5.” We now know Marilyn had a sleep disorder which led to her depression. Had she forgone her sexiness for CPAP therapy she might well have replied, “Why, a Resmed Airsense 10.” And she could have survived to a ripe old age!

 


whisperMy neighbor was a woman of steady habits. She picked up her morning newspaper not long after it was delivered, except on that dreadful day. Something in me recoiled, like a sea creatures into its shell, when I saw that newsprint still sitting untouched where it had been left by the delivery man. Irrational? I know, but an eerie panic rattled through me nonetheless. Perhaps she was having a well-deserved lie in? Maybe she was out running errands? No amount of rationalizing placated this panic as the day went on, in fact it grew louder and more insistent. Did I do anything about it? Of course not, I trust my rational brain way too much. Gut feelings are the domain of kooks and poets, we are told. Smart, rational people must not trust the unfathomable, the unscientific. Yet this feeling of dread persisted as though it were not mine to control.

My neighbor was eighty-two and lived alone. I recalled a conversation I had with her in the hallway after her partner moved into a care-home. “Do you mind if I keep an eye on you, now that you are alone? I worry about you.” She smiled, “That would be lovely.” Since then she kept me informed if she travelled, or when she needed a helping hand. For years she and I had been exchanging keys whenever we went away. All of this contributed to my worry about that newspaper laying on the threshold till evening. I knocked repeatedly but got no reply. I checked to see if her car was still parked in her usual spot, it was. Then I asked the building’s security to fetch the skeleton key to the apartment. When we entered the lights were on and a radio was blaring from her bedroom.

To my horror she was prone on the living floor, cold and rigid, her face blue from the blood that had seized circulating hours ago. This was not what I had wanted to discover, despite that nagging voice inside me warning me so all day long. I like being right as much as the next guy but in on this day I seriously wanted to be wrong. On the elevator ride up to her apartment I half prepared to apologize to the security guard for having dragged him up there for no good reason. Instead there I was calling for an ambulance despite the evidence, still hopeful something could be done.

The family expressed generous gratitude to me but I still harbor a guilt because I did not listen to that inner voice earlier. Had I pushed the panic button when I first experienced it, might we have found her still alive?

As the days pass I have bigger questions. To whom did that voice belong? Was it my better instincts, a sum of my life’s experiences? Or was it something more? Could that silent knowing have come from a place beyond myself, an untapped well of collective wisdom?  Or perhaps do the dead speak through that silence? Did some aspect of her linger, unable to rest till her loved ones had found her body? Perhaps I was her only hope of being found and so she persisted with me? All I know for sure is that the voice was without words and not my intellectual logical self. Since my rational mind was fighting the voice all day long, it must have been other than my rational mind.

I now think we give too much importance to our rational mind. It knows what it knows. It holds firm to what it has expererinced and what it has been taught by the culture to which it belongs. Instinctual knowledge, on the other hand, is where I go when I am lost in creating a painting or a story. Perhaps it is through those same mysterious laneways of understanding that I can access the totality of wisdom, the living and the dead.  Since this tragedy, I see now that instincts are wiser than the intellect.


Strong mind, strong body?

Strong mind, strong body?

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.

 

 

 

 


Just as nutritious as mom's?

Just as nutritious as mom’s?

Shivakumar’s  hospitable food arrives cellophane wrapped, the main dish of boiled cauliflower and some kind of brown meat patty is obviously microwaved because it cools quickly and the fibers have that lacerated quality to them. I am embarrassed to serve this food to my elderly Sri Lankan patient. He is accustomed to his wife’s delicately spiced cooking. I have no doubt that were she still alive she would bring him lovingly-prepared tupperware containers of curried prawns and string hopper noodles. I also have no doubt that as a consequence, his recovery would be so much swifter.

One can hardly blame the hospitals for their low-cost approach to feeding patients. They survive on ever-shrinking budgets. Patients’ needs and tastes are so diverse that it would require  the skills of a master chef to keep each patient content for his entire length of stay. Although all meals are vetted by a trained nutritionist, I can’t help but wonder: does food nourish more than body?

Of course, any master chef will tell you that food which is presented aesthetically, with the right color combinations, fresh green garnish, on beautifully crafted ceramics will taste better to the recipient than if the same meal were slopped together on a styrofoam container. They say we taste with our eyes as well as our tongues. Isn’t that because a thoughtfully presented meal signals to the mind that care and attention has been lavished on this meal? Isn’t it this tenderness that tastes so delicious?

Recently I was treated by my sister to a week of meals I had not tasted since my childhood. As we reminisced about our mutual upbringing, I was unaware that she was making notes of the flavors and tastes that I was sub-consciously missing. She continually surprised me by making for me obscure dishes I had forgotten I loved. Nothing elaborate, street foods, perhaps even peasant comfort foods one might say. Yet nothing ever tasted quiet so good to me (and I have dined at some of the best restaurants). Was it the care she put into the meals? The love and attention? Yes, plus one other vital ingredient.

A few years back I eagerly accompanied my friend to a newly-opened restaurant in our neighborhood. We had observed the extensive renovation done to the building and had high hopes for the food. Being vegetarian I am accustomed to having limited choices in menus. The sole vegetarian dish listed was a pasta dish which I verified was carcass-free with my waiter before I ordered it. As soon as I bit into the meal I was assaulted by the crunch and fetid taste of a dead chicken. I summoned the waiter and sent back the meal. He took the plate to the kitchen but returned apologetically, explaining that the chef thought that there was so little meat in that dish he didn’t expect that I should mind it. I was appalled by the blatant disrespect this chef had for me and my choices. To this day I hesitate to dine in that place.

It occurred to me then that we invest too much trust in the persons cooking our meals. It is a well-known food industry trick that should a guest act belligerent, rude or snooty, the cooks and the servers have ways of getting even. Having once worked in the food industry I have personally witnessed cooks spitting into the food, waiters pissing in the soup, then watching as the clueless guests devoured their just desserts. And yet we continue to trust the people working behind those steel doors of restaurant kitchens?

Materialists would argue that food is only about the nutrition in the thing eaten. Five-star gourmet meals comes out the same mess in the toilet bowl as the machine-made TV dinners. Spiritualist say that beyond the aesthetics, food is a reflection of the person who cooks it. They say the moods and emotions of the cook are transferred and digested through the meal. Eat the food cooked by an angry or depressed person and you ingest his hate. Likewise, eat the food of one who is cheerful and loving and that meal will nourish you emotionally as well as physically. I think one reason your mother’s food is always the best is because it is psychologically linked to your first meals from her bosom. It is no small coincidence that the most influential chefs of today have a joyous sensuality about them: Jamie Oliver, Padma Lakshmi, Nigella Lawson.

In Toronto there is a restaurant called O Noir, which serves food in complete darkness. As soon as you enter there is only pitch black, a blind waiter guides you to your table. When the food arrives you can’t see what it looks like. You don’t know if it is exactly as you ordered. You don’t know who served it and who cooked it. You taste it based on, well, blind faith.


hungerWhile the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain  from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.

She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.

I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?

It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.

The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?

Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.

I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.

What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.

Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.

Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.

Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.

And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.


whomeTom is a life-long smoker and has no intentions of quitting just because he has emphemsyma. He has never exercised in his life, loves his fried foods and lots of it. The more we chat the less respectful he is about my self-care lifestyle. “What, you are trying to live forever?”

No, I say, but before I can finish my sentence he is in the midst of a violent coughing fit and I have to fetch his nurse. In a way he answered his own question, though I doubt if he will understand that. I do not expect to live forever. I do not even expect a normal lifespan given my condition. What I would like though would be to go gracefully and without too much fuss. To that end I take great care of my nutrition, I exercise, I try to sleep well and I meditate. I do everything within my power to ensure quality of death.

Yes, I said quality of death. We are in such denial over death that we prefer to use the term quality of life instead of what we really mean. After all, isn’t quality of life what Tom has been pursuing all his life? He has done precisely whatever made him happy, damn the consequences. “Divine decadence,” as Sally Bowles famously called it. In that iconic song of hers, Life is a cabaret, she speaks of her friend Elsie who lived fast and died young but was the happiest corpse she had ever seen.

All fine and dandy in fiction but statistical research says otherwise. People with a history of alcohol abuse, drug usage, obesity not only die sooner but worse, they have a prolonged and agonized descent into death. Then I meet Angela. As I troll the cancer wards, I see that life is never as simple as that.

Although she is one-third of Tom’s age, Angela is also undergoing the same excruciating  regime of chemo as him. Her skin is a yellow-green, her bald head is wrapped in a scarf. She asks, “Why me?” It is oh so tempting to dismiss Angela as suffering from an overdose of self-pity. After all, isn’t the unspoken half of why me?: “Why not someone else?” But not so fast. Angela is a self-confessed health-nut, a semi-vegetarian, a dance teacher and so she exercises for a living, a non-smoker, a social drinker and has never used even so much as an Asprin, never mind street drugs. When Angela asks, “Why me?”,  I truly have no answer.

Perhaps it is bad genes. Perhaps Angela is plain unlucky, whatever that means. I even had one young woman say to me that she believed her cancer and imminent death were the result of a curse put upon her by someone who hated her. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. Much of death, as well of life, is random, mysterious, follows no logic or reason. Oh, yes, we can weave whatever narrative we feel comfortable with but there are always far too many exceptions to ever explain away everything.

As I walk home I question why is it exactly that I do all the many things I do for my long-term good when realistically, my long-term is not going to be that long? Is it because it makes me feel pious and somehow better than others? Am I as selfish as the people who never move past “Why me?” Perhaps. I also know that my self-care increases my stamina and pain tolerance. People who practice self-care are better able to withstand extreme trauma such as bone marrow transplants or severe heart attacks.

I think at every step of life we have to make a choice: pleasure now or avoid pain later. It is  rarely a clear-cut choice and often I make the wrong one, but overall I opt for the greater good because that is my nature. There is no right or wrong in that. I am no better or worse than Sally Bowles or Tom or Angela. I don’t discount there are statistical probabilities for sickness and death, but ultimately both are random. So instead of asking, Why me?, I prefer to ask, Why not me?

Is Art Redundant?

January 14, 2014


DSCN2336_1322My ten-year-old grand-nephew was gifted a sketchpad and pencils. He was so perplexed about what to do with them that I sat him down and gave him a few pointers on the fundamentals of drawing. Is art even still taught in schools? Perhaps to his generation it is about as useful as penmanship or the art of letter-writing. Doesn’t every kid have a cellphone with which to snap pictures of anything remotely interesting (thereafter to be Instagramed). So why should they bother mastering the skill of drawing or painting?

In my day (yes, I know I sound like an old fogey) we learned to draw before we could write. It taught us to hold the pencil correctly, to discovers shapes and curves, all of which I think made reading and writing that much easier. As soon as that first pencil was placed in my hand I fell in love with drawing. It was a way of making sense of the chaos of colors and shapes in a world which was still new to me. It is a hobby I have since cherished throughout my lifetime and as I matured, it has gifted to me new skills at each step of the way.

In my youth I sat through many life drawing classes, and yes, we drew nude models. “Is it very sexy to draw someone naked?” was a question I used to get asked repeatedly. “No,” I’d say. “We are taught to see shapes, textures, tones. We don’t have time to think of sex.” People rarely believed me. But it is true. Life drawing is training ourselves to deconstruct what we see. It is a skill that stays with you outside the life drawing workshop. Sexy magazine covers and advertising cease to hold sway in our minds. We learned not just to see, but to observe critically.

Whenever I travel I like to spend time in art museums. I am always amused by the young who do not know the art of observation. In Paris there is the Musee de l’ Orangerie which houses wall panels painted by Claude Monet of his garden at Givenry. The panels are curved such that if you sit in the correct spot you are as though transported into the garden itself. As I was sitting, a young tourist walked into the room with that typically bored stance of a put-upon teenager. Camera in hand, she snapped about a dozen images in the thirty seconds between her entrance and exit from the room. She had not been taught to put herself in the skin of the artist who painted the Les Nympheas. She did not have the faculty to experience, she could not share his feelings and his moods as he was composing this masterpiece. She is not alone in this; the camera serves to prevent tourists from observing or experiencing the very places and people they have come to see.

I am tempted to remind tourists that people literally died to preserve these art treasures. During the Second World War, one of many atrocities the Germans committed was the plunder of European art. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is now known, the German army surrounded the city for nearly three years and yet the residents put up a noble fight. They were cut off from all food supplies and electricity, yet they were determined the Germans should not get their hands on the art housed at the Hermitage Museum. The curators removed the canvases from their frames and hid the art in between walls in local homes or buried them in farmers’ fields. The curators hoped that when the city did inevitably fall, these works might be spared. They survived doing this work inside the museum by eating the glue that had held the canvases to their frames. The same happened in Paris. The French too risked their lives to save their treasures because to them it was much more than beautiful pictures they were saving, it was the very soul of Europe.

Of course the billions of digital images we now take so frivolously are destined for that invisible delete bin in cyberspace. We may have a laugh taking a selfie on the cellphone, but the masters delved deep into themselves to retrieve the images they painted. Learning to draw and paint teaches you the path to the unconscious mind. Drawing and painting requires the simultaneous consideration of so many skills (dexterity, tonal understanding, color, perspective, mood and atmosphere) that waking consciousness is not enough. It can only give attention to one thing at a time. However, the sub-conscious is where the fruits of practice and habit reside. The sub-conscious can juggle many things if the conscious has given attention to them in the past. The more you practice art, the better you understand the sub-conscious. So if anyone wants to seriously change her habits, the good and the ugly, she must work at them in the sub-conscious level. (No, Virginia, New Year’s resolutions do not work).

Of course no spiritual introspection is ever possible without understanding these deeper levels. That may be why all religions use art so freely.

I find myself now rediscovering my love for painting. This time round I am not so much concerned with the technique, but art as language. The unconscious mind speaks to itself in images, as anyone who has given attention to dreams can attest. I still love words but I also recognize that words are specific to a time and place, whereas art is universal. Art speaks the language of the collective sub-conscious, the underlying unity of all humanity.

I was very pleased to hear that my grand-nephew has now began drawing lessons after school. He asked his father (my nephew) if he could swap hockey practice for art in the New Year. If I played any small part in that then that is my gift to him.

Is Imperfection A Blessing?

December 23, 2013


DSCN2329_1304The dinner table looked fabulous. The centerpiece was formal yet festive. The cutlery sparkled and its layout would have made the butler on Downtown Abbey proud. Each dish served tasted exactly as it was supposed to and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Then one of the guests returned from the bathroom and requested a  toilet plunger. Never a good thing! Amidst all this sophistication, despite the attention to perfection, the drains chose to back up grease and gunk.

At first it felt like a slap in the face. But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was for this toilet disaster. That night, before I retreated to bed, I sat for a few minutes to empty my mind of the day’s events. This has been my routine for many years and I find it helps me to sleep well. Except on occasions when the day goes all too perfectly. Days when there is an abundance of joy, it is very difficult to turn my back on the day and retreat into the rest of sleep. The mind wants to relive the day. Despite a tired body’s demands, the mind recalls again and again each and every perfect moment.

On this night, even though the evening was a great success otherwise, I was able to shut it out from my mind because of this one mishap. So might there have been a technique for getting a good night’s sleep thrown up the drain along with the debris? Perhaps the secret to unwinding, the trick to falling into effortless sleep might be to find the small failures in the greater successes, the little sadness contained in that triumphant news. Oh I don’t mean one should cultivate an unhealthy pessimism, merely that whenever we desire to unburden the mind, we can use this little trick to stop it from ruminating uncontrollably.

 As a long-time meditator I appreciate the bliss of mental stillness, the other-worldly peace of inner nothingness. In the beginning I too used to be frustrated by daily upsets and routine worries. Strange that novices always seem to give attention to negating the bad stuff. They struggle to forget the unpleasant encounters, they labor to push back stressful memories. But in my experience, the ugliness of life is much easier to reject, it is the pleasant and the perfect that seems to take up permanent residence in the mind.

I can’t count how many young cancer patients I have encountered who are fearful of death precisely because they grieve the loss of all the happiness they have previously enjoyed. Not a one of them regrets leaving behind financial worries or the physical misery of old age. It is the love of their families they mourn to leave. It is the absence from their daughter’s graduation, the non-attendance at the son’s wedding that brings emotional pain. Misery is something we forget naturally because our pride forbids us from revisiting old failures. Yet we indulge in what I will call crudely (but aptly) mental masturbation upon the happy successes in our life. Unable to let go of the happy and the beautiful, we then  complain: meditation is so, so difficult.  

The other day I wished a patient at the hospital a Merry Christmas simply out of polite habit. He glared back at me with a frown and then said, “Everyone is pressuring everyone else to have a perfect Christmas.” He then collapsed exhausted into his bed. I understood his frustration. Christmas, more than any other holiday, is supposed to be greeting card perfect: a light dusting of snow, a warm fire, a cheerful array of gifts under the tree and of course, congenial family sharing quality time together. No wonder Christmas has the highest suicide rate of the year. Many have no one in their lives. Some are too sick or too poor. And those of us who will attempt a Disney celebration will encounter clogged drains and other disasters.

And thank heavens for them. They are reminders of the imperfection of daily life. No matter how carefully we plan, we just can never shut out the ugliness. I was rather amused by a news snippet about the six-hundred-million-dollar lottery jackpot in the US recently. The news report suggested the lucky winner could purchase a Fijian island with his or her winnings. The unchallenged implication was that with enough money one could buy oneself a piece of paradise. What an awful idea.

Anyone who has experienced the perfect stillness of the mind will attest that that itself is paradise.

Famous Last Words?

December 2, 2013


A merry widow

A merry widow

“I told you I don’t want to talk about this any more,” Irving shouts into his cellphone, the strain of which unleashes a coughing fit. I hand him a glass of ice water from his lunch tray which, as usual, is uneaten but thoroughly picked over. The old and the sick seldom have good appetites. “And the same to you too!” he shuts off the phone and throws it upon the bed. “Damn gold digger!” A green knot of veins threatens to burst through the paper skin of his neck.

A television is speaking in the background; it is set to one of those 24/7 news channels that continuously run a scroll of the stock market numbers. His red-rimmed lizard eyes dart back and forth catching the scroll. Wiithout looking away he reaches for his vial of pills, but knocks them over. As I pick them up off the floor he again coughs heavily, then apologizes by saying he has been a four-packs-a-day smoker since he was a teenager. Irving is in the end stages of terminal emphysema.

“Doesn’t matter,” he swings his naked legs from the side of the bed like a petulant child. “I’m eighty-six. Its not as if I’d have  more years without it.” They are as pale and fragile as dessert grass. After a moments pause, he has another little moan about his wife, with whom he had been quarreling over the phone. “I’m not even dead yet and already she is decorating her next home in her head.” She is much younger than him. I imagine her as a classic trophy wife, all jeweled and coiffed as she escorted him to his soirees with politicians and CEOs. Hard to imagine that this frail Gecko of a man once held sway over the destinies of people like me.

Mid-sentence he is distracted by the television. “Damn, Blackberry is down again.” It turns out a chunk of his fortune is invested in those stocks. By the the time the nurse brings the replacements for his pills, he has clear forgotten about them. “What are these for? I already took my pills.” I remind him that he had not. I rewind the events to when he ended his phone conversation. “Oh that gold digging floozy.” He sets off on another tirade about her, and then back to complaining about the bouncing Blackberry stocks.

By the end my visit the tone of his voice has softened. “Will you come and see me again?” I promise him that I will, and true to my word, I begin my next shift by heading to his floor. I am surprised to see that another man is occupying his room, sleeping in his bed. I locate a nurse and ask if Irving was discharged. “No,” the nurse gives me one of those apologetic, pursed smiles. “He passed away.” As volunteers we expect to lose patients, but we still feel a certain sadness about it. As I walk away I couldn’t help wonder, what were his last words? “That damn gold digger!” or perhaps his last thoughts were about the future of Blackberry? I can’t decide which is sadder: that he is gone, or that he spent his last days and hours stressing the banal?

Death is very rarely (if ever) the way it is in the movies: all angel choir and violin crescendo. More routinely there is a cacophony of  arguments, stress, and worries for a future in which you have no part. I think many of us have a fantasy that our last words will be something profound.

“It is very beautiful over there,” said Thomas Edison on the moment of his death. “I see a black light,” reported Victor Hugo. We imagine in our dying breath the mystery of life will be self-evident. Perhaps one may commune with his or her personal god. But as I walk away from Irving’s last place of unrest, I wonder if that is even a realistic expectation?

I mean, many people do not have the same luxury as Irving had had: death will come to many unexpectedly. As it did for a healthy young woman named Soraya Nanji. She was crossing the street on one of the busiest intersections in Toronto. “Well, have a great trip,” she wished her friend on the cellphone. A truck hit her. She was dead.

Over her grave, mourners wished her, “Rest in peace.” And perhaps Irving’s merry widow might raise of glass wishing him the same. But shouldn’t we have wished them that while they were still alive?

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