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.

Can Memory Be Trusted?

October 7, 2013

Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

With Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” laments Jacob. A nurse directs his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper she always keeps in front of him. It contains his full name, the name of the hospital he resides in, the floor and his room number. But these clues do not help Jacob’s disorientation. He has Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember his family. He cannot recall where he was born, or his occupation, or the places he has lived. It seems obvious to state that who we are is about our past. Everything we know about our character, what we believe, the people we love, our skills, the things we like and don’t like, all rely upon our memory. But wait, new research is saying that what we remember may not be what we actually experienced.

Scientists say it is very easy to trick the mind into remembering events that never happened. Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 in which she was able to convince 25% of her subjects that as children they had once been lost in a shopping mall. She showed them photoshopped images of themselves lost in a mall as proof. The mechanism of memory is highly flawed. Our imaginations, our dreams, even movies can trick our brain into believing we actually experienced an event in the distant past that never happened.

This is why eye witness testimony is notoriusly unreliable. The Innocence Project, thanks to DNA, has freed dozens of men, including Rubin Carter, who were wrongfully-convicted of horrific crimes solely based upon eye witness testimony. It is not that the witnesses were deliberately committing perjury, they genuinely believed they saw Mr. X do whatever he was accused of.

Not only is memory highly suggestible, it remembers differently at different times. Couples when they bicker usually disagree over widely divergent memories of the same events. It is a lot like that Steve Lawerence song from the film Gigi, Oh Yes I remember It Well. “I did the shopping last week,” says one spouse. “No I did,” argues the other. It is not that one or both parties are liars. They truly remember the past differently and the conflict arises because both of them trust the accuracy of his respective memory.

To get conclusive proof of the unreliability of memory, you don’t need experiments. Your dreams are made purely from memory. Anachronism are routine (You are at a family gathering where everyone is as they are today except for your thirty-five-year-old nephew who is three). People and items are mislocated (you dream of your childhood home but the couch is the one you have now). Such errors are routine because in sleep the memory does not have clues from our senses or the collaboration of other people. In waking life we fill the gaps of memory by deduction, we infer, we assume, we trust. Dreams are raw memory and memory is not recollection but re-imagination.

This is the reason why when we fall out with someone close to us, we re-imagine our mutual past to align with the shift in our new opinion of that person. We re-interrupt our mutual relationship so convincingly that we conveniently forget contrary events. We might even swear    ‘remembering’ them saying and doing things they never actually did. (Isn’t it amazing that every young person who dies tragically was a living saint?)

Which brings me back to Jacob. It may be stating the obvious to say that who we are is about our past, but if our data is unreliable then should we trust our conclusions? Even for those without Alzheimer’s, Jacob’s question is still relevant. Who am I? I believe I know but that belief changes depending on who I am with. Sure, the physical descriptions do not change (race, gender, height) but internally who I am is a flux. The facts of my name and location do not vary from moment to moment and so I do not experience Jacob’s disorientation. But if I am being honest, when I look back over the years to find an answer to who I am, I am as befuddled as Jacob.

At first this notion is scary. Terror is always about the unknown and the unexpected. But once you get comfortable with the uncertainty, it can bring about a flexibility in your relationships. When you acknowledge that your memory might be flawed, you allow the possibility that  others may be right in what they remember. When you lose faith in your memory the world is  a more nuanced and layered place. I love how infants, who have no past and therefore no concretized definition of who they are, move about with a perpetual sense of discovery and wonder. Might an acknowledgement of the unreliability of our memory allow us to experience some of that astonishment about life?

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.

Marie Antionette’s attempt at good rest.

Millions of people purchase lottery tickets in the hopes of striking it rich. We dream of all the new possibilities open to us should we beat the odds. We expect our problems with financial insecurity, debt, unhappiness to just melt away should we win. But have we ever thought about the opposite? What in my life will remain unchanged if I were to  win $10 million?

Health: The expensive pleasures of life cannot be enjoyed without good health. Travel etc. can be made more comfortable with money but it cannot end physical pain, a bad heart, laboured breathing or a tumor. Money may buy better medical care but it is a poor substitute for good health.

Sleep: A good night’s sleep is not more restful with money in the bank. If one has financial worries, one may have difficulty falling into sleep. We see that people who are content with their behavior during the day are able to drop everything and get a good night’s rest. Both rich and poor who behave badly are haunted by their unskilful behavior and thus cannot sleep. And the state of dreamless sleep, once achieved,  is the same for all,the rich and the poor.

Connectivity: We have a deep-rooted need to belong, to connect meaningfully with others. A lottery win will not diminish this need. You may attract more friends if you have more money but are they real friends? Long-term true friendships, unconditional lovers, nurturing families, all require a lifetime’s work to build and maintain. If you do not have the skills to relate to people before your win, you will not have after.

Problem Solving: The ability to deal with life’s challenges appropriately and effectively is a learned skill. Money may help you avoid some challenges (such as having to wait at the check out of the grocery store) but it brings with it a new set of challenges (physical  safety, for example). If you had a tendency to over react or under react before, this will not change with money.

Communication Skills: Communication is about how you express yourself as well as what you put out. In the old days of computers the phrase used was “garbage in, garbage out”. Many rich people bungle through life saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.

Emotional Well-Being: Many of us feel emotionally scarred by life’s unfair treatment. Having pots of money will do nothing to heal this hurt. Deep and honest inquiry is the only cure for emotion pain.

Being Comfortable in Your Skin: I would say the majority of people are made to feel that they were cheated in the genetic lottery. Those with huge disposable incomes sometimes attempt to correct this by paying for expensive cosmetic surgery. But does injecting your body with silicone, Botox and breaking cartilage or sewing up loose skin really make a person comfortable in his skin? We see that such people repeatedly find faults with their bodies and have more and more surgeries. If anything they are more uncomfortable in their skins. If you don’t like being short, dark or old, $10 million will not change that.

Self Worth: Another basic human need is being recognized and feeling appreciated for some quality, some unique talent. A sense of self-worth is never measured by dollars. It is a personal feeling that comes from having added value to the lives of others. Sure, Bill Gates may give in generously in charity but I suspect his sense of self worth comes from being recognized for his contribution to the spread of the internet. Being able to generate wealth itself is a talent that will contribute to self worth, but a lottery windfall will not.

Fear of Death: Will having lots of cash erase your fear of death? Of course it cannot. And the fear of death is the root of many other fears in life. Fear of old age, being alone and neglected are seen in the very rich also. Some super-rich, like Howard Hughes,  turn recluse because they fear the world itself. Fear is a great impediment to happiness and money only solves the fear of immediate financial disaster.

All of these things add up to a significant chunk of what constitutes a happy life. They say the odds of winning the lottery are astronomical. However, the odds of being happy because of the win are even worse.

Lucid Dreaming

December 13, 2011

   About a year ago I  discovered that sleep can be a spiritual exercise. Who knew! Most things that are good for me generally require that I make time   in my day, and establish a new habit. However all that Dream Yoga requires is that I approach differently the act of sleep and dreaming. By making some adjustments, I try to make my sleep mindful and aware. When I first heard this idea it sounded like an anomaly to me. Sleep by definition is a state  of non-awareness. In deep, dreamless sleep, one does not know anything. Upon waking there is a sense of missing time and an after taste of bliss. Dreams feel real while dreaming, have their own time frame  and one is unaware of the physical body or the physical world. If I were to remain aware during sleep and dreaming, wouldn’t I be just awake all night?

I discovered the answer to that is no.

Let’s talk about the dream state first. Everyone dreams but most people believe that the dream world they have created is real until they awake. The emotions experienced in dreams are so real that our heartbeats and breathing reflect the emotional experience being lived in the dream. People have been known to weep, to scream and kick during particularly vivid dreams. Psychologists tell us that dreams are the communication of our sub-conscious mind. Buried feelings and unresolved issues ignored in the waking state present themselves as dreams. By learning to be aware while dreaming one experiences lucid dreams. I make a decision to continue with the dream but I know that the dream is of my own creation and that it is a message from the depths of my mind. The next step is to realize that I have the power to effect the outcome of this dream scenario. I used to experience vivid recurring dreams where the outcome was always fearful. In one particular dream I would enter my home and find it to be a watery, damaged mess. I would usually grieve, sometimes weep helplessly. After months of practicing lucid dreaming, I occurred to me that the mess was really within my own psyche, my real home. Once I realized this I would allow the dream to continue but create a different conclusion. I would give myself a mop in my right hand and begin to clean up the water from the floors and furniture until the apartment was tidy again. When I awoke I felt clear, well and with a tidy presence of mind. Although this example is general and simple, we can work of specific and complex issues at a very fundamental level during dreaming. The mental shift can be profound.

To be aware while in deep, dreamless sleep takes far more practice, but the experience is worth the efforts. There is a level of bliss far beyond any pleasure we ever experience in the waking state.

It is said by the Buddhists that the act of falling asleep is a daily rehearsal for death, the Big Sleep. Each night we withdraw from our bodies, we detach from all five sense, and finally we let go of even our thoughts. We leave behind all that we hold dear, our family, our spouse, our homes and careers. And we feel happy for having abandoned them all. In the next blog, I would like to explore this topic  further.


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