August 5, 2013
Jack sits cheerfully on his bed in the Hematology ward of the cancer hospital. After a successful stem cell transplant, he is soon to be discharged. “I’m going home with a new blood type,” he says with a grin. “I used to be A Positive, now I’m O Negative.” The whole ward is full of people with their bone marrow replaced by that of the donors’ (some of whom are strangers with very different DNA). Very sci-fi, very Invasion of the Body Snatchers!
I can’t help thinking about Jack as I spend time with our newest family member. Almost since the day he was born, my grand-nephew has been the cause of minor family rivalries. His mother’s side see themselves clearly in him, while his father’s side are equally sure his good looks come from us. He himself is uncanny at distinguishing relations from strangers. He is not unique in this. Scientists at the Yale Infant Cognition Centre say all babies come hard-wired with a familial bias. The body is me and those with my DNA are my friends and protectors. This is inborn wisdom. We grow up without questioning it. Now, startling research from the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project is challenging this notion that our bodies are our own.
Microbes, bacteria and fungi live in key parts of our body, this much was known, but it turns out these organisms are in every part of our bodies and without them we would die. They help fight infections in the lining of the nose, they help digest nutrients in the stomach and intestines, they even help our skin stay healthy by living on its surface. So all of these microorganisms co-exist like this whole other ecosystem within our bodies, feeding off of us, as well as nurturing us. The old idea was: my body is a temple. But now it seem, the body is more like the river that runs besides the temple, with the creatures living in it.
Except that these microorganisms are so numerous that ninety-nine percent of the DNA in and on our bodies is actually microbial DNA, and not mummy’s and daddy’s. There’s millions and millions of these things. So many that when you look into a mirror, the image you are seeing has ten times more microbial cells than human! Mind-blowing stuff. Add to that the fact that even the mitochondrion within our individual cells (the 1%) have their own independent genome, independent to our cell’s nucleus DNA, and it is also much more akin to the DNA of bacteria than to human. (Who knew, there is an Occupy The Body revolution going on).
For me these are more than scientific curios to quote at cocktail parties (though they are impressive conversation fodder). They have further helped me rethink my ‘elitist’ relationship with my body and the world. Is my body mine or ours? Am I in fact an ecosystem, not an individual?
A more healing question might have been: “Who do you belong to?” This changes how we think about illness. The virus within my body is no longer an interloper, but an immigrant that I must help assimilate. There is even evidence that all these little microbes in our bodies also affect our moods and behavior. In which case, does ‘being upset’ really mean an imbalance within this microsystem? Might it explain a sudden feeling of being blue for no good reason?
Embracing this notion of my body as ‘ours’ opens up the whole world. Not only does the issue of race become redundant, but even other species are no longer alien. One feels whole with the grass, the tress and the birds that live in them.
So if I am not the temple’s deity, then who am I? What is my function within this river’s ecosystem? Perhaps, I am the sun: my presence vitalizes this microsystem. That I AM
June 24, 2013
Warning: This post contains bad puns. Reader discretion is advised.
Magazine covers, fifty-foot billboards, widescreen movies: sex sells and marketers know it. Being overwhelmed by magnified body parts, it makes one realize how comical this whole business of sex really is. Some body parts are stars while others are background extras. A woman’s bust-line is in your face, but a plumber’s cleavage is the butt of jokes.
To shake hands with a stranger is a show of friendliness, but to touch his feet is deference. Isn’t this a kind of discrimination against feet? I mean, the average hand carries some fifty viruses on its surface, where as a foot, protected by socks and shoes, has almost none.
Oh I know we love of all our body parts as though they were our children, but don’t we have our clear favorites? We are so proud of our eyes we show them off to everyone and his grandmother. But the anus, well that is hidden away like a shameful mistake. Yet we could live without our eyes (plenty of blind people live perfectly fulfilled lives), but not a one can survive without his anus. (So now whenever someone calls me an A-hole, I say, “Why, thank you. Yes indeed I am indispensable.”)
Yes, the obvious answer to why some body parts are sexier is that they have a denser concentration of tactile nerves than other parts do. But that does not explain why the mouth and anus are treated so unequally. Anatomically similar, both orifices have a border of soft, sensitive tissue packed with nerve endings, and it is arguable which of them is the cleaner (though I suspect each has its own set of resident bacteria). Yet kissing on the mouth is an act of love, but kissing ass is a humiliation.
It may be cultural bias that compels us to regard some body parts as sexy and others as unworthy, but I do think it is beneficial to personally re-evaluate our relationships with our body parts.
Earlier this week I found myself in the waiting room of my local hospital. The clinic was backed-up, we all prepared ourselves for a long wait. Then in walked two very different kinds of women: a mother with a toddler, and Mandy, one of Toronto’s most notorious transexuals. Mandy changed genders later in life, she had the means to undergo every procedure in the Cosmetic Surgeon’s catalogue. Her high-heels were open-toed, exposing ruby toenails. In fact every part of her was calculatedly feminine. Unlike the mother with the toddler, who took her womanhood for granted. Mandy is outspoken about her flip-flop and she often repeats that standard line of having been “a woman trapped inside a man’s body.”
I could not determine if the talkative but cute toddler was a boy or girl until the mother enlightened us. Nothing in his speech, his manners or his appearance was male or female. He was what we all are basically: a person. This reminded me that a hundred years ago parents dressed little boys and girls alike, in frocks and curls. I wish there had been a way I could advice him to hold on to that wisdom he now owns naturally: that inside he is neither a boy nor a girl. That despite his skin tone, inside he is not black, or brown, or white. But soon he will learn to play with his ‘outie’ and then he will behave differently to those with an ‘innie’. I want to warn him that even though the two organs are not dissimilar (Mandy had her outie made into an innie), he will give too much importance to them. The world will persuade him that they are as far apart as Mars and Venus. I would like him to always remember that each is a person trapped inside a body, no matter what shape of the externalities. But I know it is too early for that.
Soon after my cardiac event, I was lucky enough to speak to a very wise man about my fears and anxieties for a future with a partially dead heart. He advised me to re-examined my relationships with my body parts. He told me to question the values assigned to each of them. He said were I to do this, I will reach a stage when I am able to witness the deterioration of my body with utter acceptance. He was right.
I sometimes meet patients who are grieving over the amputation of a leg or a foot. Or people who are distressed about losing their hearing, their sight, their mobility, due to old age. I wish I could somehow share that advice with them. But I know it is too late for that.
November 6, 2012
Everyone knows being selfless feels good. But if you give charity to feel good about yourself, then is it still selfless? I know I have struggled with this. Toronto is full of public buildings named after donors. Plaques tell us who gave that park bench, those theatre seats, that brick at the opera. It often feels like giving charity is an expression of vanity. And another thing, if giving selflessly means leaving behind the ego, then is it to be done robotically, without heart?
I have began to volunteer for a charity that helps people living with HIV/AIDS and we are putting together a Christmas event where we hope to give away door prizes to as many attendees as possible. This means we the committee have to go knocking on business doors to ask for gift certificates, entrance passes, good and services. Most within the committee declined to help with this task, so I stepped up. I sent out letters, e mails, telephoned, asked in person as many businesses as I felt appropriate. The committee was impressed by the sheer number of organizations I had approached. They asked me: “Don’t you feel ashamed asking for donations? What if they turn you down, don’t you feel rejected?”
I was startled by their insecurity. I replied that no I was not ashamed to ask for donations because I was not begging for myself. I was doing so on behalf of others, and so my pride was not on the line. Therefore, when a business rejected a request, their rejection was not personal. I did not feel disrespected, hence I was not shy about asking.
It occurred to me that I had hit upon the essence of selflessness. The very motive of my action (asking for donation) was without personal gain or profit, that is the essence of selflessness. Sure, I employed all of my abilities in securing donations, this ‘me’ was very much involved in that, but it was my intent which had no trace of ‘me’ in it. And it felt very liberating.
Gone was the anxiety of rejection, gone was my natural shyness, all my fears and insecurities. I am sure if I were in the unfortunate position of begging for change on the streets I would not be so bold and fearless.
I had a similar experience at the homeless shelter. Years ago, in my lost youth, I had undertaken a course in hairdressing. I had dedicated a year to it but after I graduated I found working with live clients caused me to have debilitating panic. I would sweat profusely, I was unable to focus on the haircut. I was fired after just one week at the salon. I gave up hairdressing– until now. Homeless men are discriminated against by barber shops. Some charge them exorbitantly more in order to discourage them from coming into their shops. Barbers fear for the sanitation of their chairs and equipment, and the risk of infecting other clients.
So I asked the homeless shelter where I give out food if I should offer free haircuts to the men. They were delighted. When my first client sat in the chair I was worried that the old panic would rear its ugly head. But I need not have worried. I found myself calm and in full control. Even when the men asked me to do something I not done before (trim a beard) I felt no apprehension. I simply did the best I could, without regards for his praise or complaints. Whether I am thanked or not is irrelevant. If my contribution is recognized that is incidental, but that is not my motive for doing these haircuts.
And that was the main difference from before: I think I used to get nervous because I was cutting hair for praise and compliments. I never feared the clients themselves, I had feared their disapproval, their displeasure. Now, with the homeless men, I cut hair so that they feel cared for, so that others may treat them more kindly, perhaps some of them might even land a job because of their scrubbed-up appearance. This time the haircuts are all about them. The intent is selfless, hence no panic, no sweat.
The best part about this feeling of selfless intent is that it is a transferable skill. It can be applied to any daily tasks where I experience panic and anxiety. By identifying and removing the need for approval from my routines, I find I am more content, happier. It is a simple internal adjustment no one else needs to know about. It is my little secret. Well, powerful little secret.
August 6, 2012
Imagine meeting your younger self from twenty years ago. I once wrote a fanciful piece of fiction lie that. Then, the other day, while searching for something in my notebooks, I stumbled upon a journal entry from 1991. What a gift! A time capsule, a message in a bottle sent across the ocean of time, a photograph of my younger mind. I read it eagerly, along with other older note book entries. I was curious to see how I had evolved. Had these intervening twenty years taught me anything at all?
Journaling for me has been a record of my experiments in living wholly and authentically. In my youth I was introduced to a book by M.K. Gandhi called The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It is his personal record of slow and deliberate evolution from a flawed, awkward child into a saint. He stresses in this book that he was not born good, but rather he earned goodness through experimentation. He read ideas (the Geeta, Tolstoi, Bible), thought about them, then tried them out in his life to see if they worked. The book is a record of these trials, both his successes and his failures. He maintains at the end of the book that anyone can do what he did. He was not born special. I think that is important. Since first reading that book I began to use journaling as a way to record my own experiments with the truth. Though my life may not be of the kind played upon the stage of history, it is as valid for me as Gandhi’s was for him.
I not only write down incidents and events that have excited me or disturbed me and also how I handled them. A review, impartial, non-judgmental of what aspects were handled skillfully, and which could be improved upon. By recording skillful behavior, it becomes concretized. It is like a pat on the back, a substantial reinforcement. Recording the parts which could have been handled better allows reflection on ways and means and motives for such behavior to adhere as a permanent part of my character.
Some events arouse strong emotions, such as fear, anxiety, paranoia which can be debilitating. I find journalling a great way to let go of those strong emotions. Burying strong emotions, or denying them would be harmful to my mental health. By recording them I acknowledge them, but at the same time am able to create an objective distance between me and the negativity. I record them coldly, truthfully, without any editing. The writing will never be seen by anyone. It is for me and me alone. The feelings have a safe outlet. It prevents me from saying those things out loud, and later having to apologize
After my illness, journalling took on a greater significance in my self-experiments. While the medical profession is great at taking care of the physical symptoms, they tend to ignore or deny the emotional effects of maladies. After my heart attack I had to relearn how to live: how to walk, how to eat, even how to breathe. My journal became my scientific record of the results of changing the variables. For example, in learning to sleep better, I tried different pillows, different positions, I varied the bedtime routine. I noted what worked and what didn’t (TV before bed did not work to relax me for sleep, reading did). My journal became my confidante as well. In all honesty, no one else really cares about the daily minutiae of your living. But your journal does.
When faced with a dilemma, for me writing down my thoughts is a way of organizing the mental chatter. It clarifies the solution.
I value my dreams. I consider them to be missives from the sub-conscious. While I do not subscribe to symbolic meaning in dreams, they do have a language of their own. I keep a journal at my bedside for whenever such inspiring dreams occur. The act of recording dreams often clarifies their meaning, which are unique for each person. In the same bedside journal I also record contemplative, meditative thoughts. The beauty and wisdom of them is tempting to own, but I know deep down that they are the property of humanity. The reality is that there are no such thing as original thought. It all belong to the universal mind. We think, feel and discover on the shoulders of those who came before. The very process of thought requires language, which is the property of humanity. Journaling helps me to unload the burden of false ownership. Writing it down it releasing the thoughts back into the world where they belong (instead of cluttering up my mind).
For this insight, I am grateful to myself for keeping diaries most of my life.
April 8, 2012
“Sorry.” The word trips off our tongues mechanically. We utter it so routinely that we don’t even bother framing a complete sentence. Who is sorry, and for what? No wonder are apologies are rarely accepted. What then makes for a heartfelt apology?
I believe we can learn as much from an insincere apology as from a sincere one. Here are some familiar examples.
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is so weak it barely qualifies as an apology. It lacks the fundamental quality of an apology – ownership. If you regret what you said or did, then own up to it. Be specific about what your error was. Taking responsibility indicates to the listener that you understand the hurt you have caused.
“I don’t know what came over me.” Then, how about you do some self-reflection? The person you are asking for forgiveness from is not your therapist. I once had someone who misbehaved in my home call me afterwards to help her understand why she sometimes acts out of control. I was is no position to help because was I too busy cleaning up after her.
“The Devil made me do it.” Or the modern equivalent of devil could be society/alcohol/bad parenting. Don’t blame others for your errors. Calling it a ‘misunderstanding’ is also an excuse. No one buys excuses. People don’t forgive on the strength of your extenuating circumstances. They forgive because they sense your remorse. “I made a stupid mistake, I am sorry,” has an authenticity about it because it signals to the listener a willingness to change.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” After a culprit is cornered, almost any apology he offers will be motivated by self-interest. The apology should be spontaneous. Express your remorse as soon as you realize your mistake. If you wait till you are caught, then you are merely sorry you got caught.
“Well, I guess we were both to blame.” An apology is not the U.N. There is no room for negotiation. While it takes two to argue, you are sorry for only your part in the argument, nothing more. If your apology is well received, the other party will ‘fess up to his own role in the skirmish. It is not your place to point out his faults.
“It won’t happen again.” If the listener is to believe this he needs to know what corrective steps you plan on making. The more concrete the steps, the more believable your apology. This requires some contemplation. It requires awareness of your actions and its consequences. “I’m sorry for the effects my drinking has caused you. I have now joined AA,” is specific and there is a concrete plan of corrective action.
“How long are you going keep this up?” I come from a family and a culture where emotions are worn on the sleeves. We fight large, we hug larger. I happen to live with someone who is from a family and culture that withdraws. It has taken me a while to understand this. Give the other person as much as space as he or she needs.
“It’s tiger blood.” Humility is everything in an apology. An arrogant tone of voice exasperates the hurt. A calm, measured tone of voice implies contrition, and careful choice of words informs the listener there is intelligence behind the apology. I once had a houseguest who’s habits and routine apologies made it clear the man was a complete fool. When he said to me on his final day, “It won’t happen the next time.” I agreed. There should not be a next time. Forgiveness does not mean knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way, that is stupidity.
“What can I do to make it up to you?” A willingness to make amends is sign of sincerity. “I’ll do your laundry this week.” “Let me buy you dinner.” Though be sure to see through any reasonable offer you make.
Actions speak louder than words. In intimate relationships, sometimes the things you do afterwards negate the need for a verbal apology. Caring gestures can demonstrate the depth of your true feelings far more eloquently than words. Your partner may not like you at this moment, but you can show to him or her that you still care.
“Where’s your messiah now?” Okay, this is no apology but I had to include it. As someone who is known to purse a spiritual way of life, forgiveness is expected from me, and so sometimes people don’t bother to say the words. While I do work at compassion, and will probably think up a dozen excuses to forgive you, it does make the whole processes faster for me to hear those words. Remember, when and if the injured party forgives is up to him. You may ask for forgiveness, but please take it for granted.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If not, yea well, whatever.
March 16, 2012
The geriatric patients at the hospital where I volunteer love to tell me about their lives. Some have only months to live and others may be dead by the time I come in for my next shift. They talk to me about how much they are suffering right now and the topic soon turns to what else they have suffered in their lives. Read any novel, or watch any film, and the narrative is the same. It is often said that in fiction there are only about seven stories which get repeated and reworked through the ages. I disagree. There is only the one story. Take these very common examples.
A young woman meets a young man, and she immediately takes a shine to him. She spends hours imagining what it would be like if he were her man. They date and as the relationship progresses, she finds herself extremely happy. After a few months, he calls her less often, their dates are less frequent and he seems more distant. Then one day she finds out that the man is now seeing someone else. The young woman suffers. Other variations on this narrative are that after years of marriage, one of them dies and the other is left grieving.
Consider another scene. A couple dream of owning their own home. One day they find enough finances to purchase their ideal house. They spend years fixing it up the way like. Then one or both of them lose their jobs, and they can no longer pay the mortgage. They are forced to walk away from their house. Naturally, they suffer. Variations of this are, the house burns down in a fire/flood/earthquake. Or perhaps instead of a house it could be a child, a friend, a car, jewelry, designer clothes, anything tangible.
Final scenario, a young man works hard and becomes a success in his chosen career. He enjoys all the rewards of that success, praise, respect, admiration. Perhaps he is even acquires fame. Then one day he falls ill with a serious condition, perhaps cancer. Or he simply ages and loses his edge. He is no longer admired and respected. He suffers.
It seems to me that these, and any other narrative you can imagine, have the same underlying arc. There is a desire which promises lasting happiness. The person purses that idea, attains it and enjoys it for a time. Then something or the other beyond his control brings that desire fulfillment to an end. Either the object of desire perishes or the person loses interest in that object. Isn’t that what all suffering boils down to?
When I look back over the course of my life, I see that it has been only the one mistake responsible for my emotional pain. Time and again I have expected people, places, things of the temporal world to bring me lasting happiness. What an unreasonable expectation! This world is time bound, and so of course everything within it has an expiration date. When the object of my happiness is destined to either decay, fade, break, or die, investing emotionally in it will certainly bring heartache. And the amount of suffering I experience is directly proportional to the happiness that thing or person or place had brought to me.
Now that I know this fact, is there a way out of my suffering? Can being acutely aware, each and every moment, about the fragility of life make me immune to hurt? I believe it can. To the extent that I am able to keep mindful, to that extent I feel free. This does not mean I cannot enjoy the things of the world when they present themselves. Though I do not hanker after them anymore. I can’t get obsessed about anyone or anything. When the time inevitably comes to say goodbye to the objects of pleasure, I helps to expect it. I am more ready for its loss. This has diminished my pain greatly.
What is more, some lesser desires have evaporated altogether. Reduced hankering has meant reduced agitations of the mind. And a calmer mind is a happier mind. A calm mind can fade into oblivion, and at such moments there is a glimmer of a lasting, unassailable happiness which is independent of everything.
Fiction writing may not have given me fame or riches, but it did give this valuable insight. For that I am grateful.
February 9, 2012
My friend Dennis loves content sales. He trolls Craigslist daily in search of them and is ever alert for street posts about garage sales. Not that he needs more stuff, he just cannot pass up a bargain. Needless to say his apartment is cluttered, but he cherishes each and every bargain in his overstuffed closets. I sometimes like to accompany him on these treasure hunts, not to shop of course but to remind myself every now and again that ownership is onerous.
I went with him last fall to the estate sale of a diseased elderly man. The man evidently had good taste and the disposable income to indulge it. I suspect he might have been a gay man since the only beneficiary of his estate was a nephew who had flown in from Calgary ‘to be rid of all this junk’. The nephew made it clear he was keen to sell the apartment and return home to his wife. The apartment was immaculate and orderly, the furnishings were old but stylish. The brass on the Tiffany lamps was polished, the wood on the Noguchi coffee table was scuff-free and glossy with care, the many Royal Doulton chachkas were lovingly grouped and tenderly cared for. No doubt the man must have paid a considerable amount of money for the items in this apartment. Yet the nephew had piled his clothing into cardboard boxes marked ‘For Salvation Army’. More than one of the sweaters was cashmere, some of the shirts were Brooks Brothers, there was even Armani. How this man must have treasured his possessions, surely he must have taken pains not to spill food on the cashmere, worn the Armani only on special occasions, perhaps had fretted about break-ins when he was away from home. In the end it will all end up in the dollar-bin of a charity shop, or it would sit marked-down at an estate sale, waiting to be haggled further by someone like Dennis. No doubt the nephew’s appraisal of the worth of the uncle’s precious items was coldly objective, dispassionately utilitarian, but were these objects really more valuable than that? Isn’t it the weight of sentiment that had made these objects more valuable of their previous owner?
It was not long after this that I had occasion to fly to New York City on business. One Saturday afternoon I found myself in the midst of the annual Christmas shopping frenzy of Fifth Avenue. Hordes of tourists and locals jostled each other (and me) to peek at the artful window displays – watches, perfumes, and name-brand hand bags. Matrons with shopping bags shuffled couture racks as though decks of cards, eager youths snatched clothing from shelves faster than the clerks could restock them. The clang of the cash registers was deafening. It is not only the hype of Madison Avenue that gives value to these objects, but the price tags themselves. Don’t we believe that a 3000-dollar Prada bag is better made than its cheap sidewalk knock-off? While these expensive items look so glossy in the windows of Saks or Winstons, I couldn’t help but remember that man’s estate sale. All of these lavish trinkets are destined to one day be part of someone’s estate.
To escape from these throngs, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. There are rooms upon rooms of treasures that once belonged to emperors, kings and other elite. Objects that they killed for, sometimes literally. Wars had been fought, millions of people had paid for these items with sweat and blood. Just as I was enjoying the beauty of these treasures, I noticed one of the curators enter a glass doorway where others were joyfully setting-up for a display not yet ready for public viewing. I envied them, they were custodians of all this artistic beauty, but free from the stress of its ownership.
As I pondered this it occurred to me that it was not the aesthetic merits of an item which make it desirable. People feel possessive about the most trivial of things. I see this every week at the homeless shelter where I volunteer. Men will get into arguments over a bagel, taking someone’s seat might warrant a fist fight. It is from this attitude of ‘mine’ that all the problem originate. As soon as I returned home I decided to make changes in my relationship with my belongings. From now on, I will be their custodian, not their owner. I will look after them, enjoy them, but will not lose sight of the fact one day they will no longer be mine. I feel a weight off me already.