Hey, Which Way Is Up?

November 24, 2016

M.C. Esher, Relativity.

M.C. Esher, Relativity.

Okay, I admit I am feeling the whole world is topsy-turvy at the moment, (or should I say topsy-Trumpy?). It is as though Albert Einstein applied for a professorship at M.I.T but Americans gave the job to Sherman Klump instead (The Nutty Professor played by Eddie Murphy). Overnight, common sense and decency have been  replaced with an Orwellian double-speak (Truth is lie, lie is truth). But is this sense of disorientation in the world really anything new? If we are honest, the promised world-view of mothers, of teachers, and of preachers has been challenged routinely since grade school. Hard work and talent don’t always get rewarded; cheaters do prosper; crime pays, sometimes in the billions; and if you are honest and kind chances are good that you will be duped and used dozens of times. So utterly brainwashed are we by a Pollyanna world-view that we spend a lifetime trying to reconcile the reality we daily experience versus “what should have happened.”

I am a firm believer, however, that there has to be something of value to learn from all those disappointments.

I have been thinking lately of the times I unexpectedly lost a job, or when my family was uprooted by a similar wave of misguided jingoism. Sure, it was devastating in the aftermath, with no clear path forward. There was anxiety aplenty over paying bills, and the world seemed scarier because the map with which I navigated through the world was no longer valid. With hindsight I can now see that each of those shakedowns was followed by a of period deep reflection, intense insight, and of charting a new path forward that was better than the one I had been following.

Just the other day in my life drawing session I was reminded of the mechanics of this in a very succinct way. I was feeling very pleased with myself over a portrait I had just completed of the class model. Then a seasoned artist suggested I take that drawing of which I was so so proud, and turn it upside down. When viewed topsy-turvy, to my astonishment, I discovered severals major flaws to which I had been blinded by the good parts. Of course I immediately corrected them and ended up with a better work than I had before. Other artists might view their paintings through a mirror with the same affect. Oh, we do fall in love with the progress we have made in life, don’t we? Problem is, in our smugness we tend to filter out the flaws. The shock of turning things topsy-turvy makes the familiar seem unfamiliar again and we are able to review our social and spiritual progress in a fresh light. It challenges us to work harder, it shakes off complacency.

It made me rethink the way I was feeling about what is happening presently in the world.

As I mature, the brutality of the world accumulates in my consciousness but it shocks me less and less. I wonder if perhaps the wisdom of age owes itself to the same topsy-turvy perspective. I once met a young woman named Maya in the cancer ward, she was barely thirty years of age and still had the gleam in her eyes that only the young possess. She had just been handed a fatal prognosis with the proverbial six-months- to- live. She was struggling to comes to grip with it all. She pleaded, “Does anyone ever make peace with dying?”

Well yes, many elderly people look forward to a graceful exit from a world in which they feel increasing disoriented. A lifetime of accumulated disappointment at the unfairness of the world has permanently torn asunder the map by which they navigated the world in their youth. Now they see life through the rear-view mirror, and the view makes the familiar seem unfamiliar again. The good bits of life no longer obscure the unfairness of the world. Seen in upside perspective, the world appears as the asylum it really is. They are ready to move on. Only the young and foolish want to live forever.



Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Smart pagans.

As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?

And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.

I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?

From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.

How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown.  The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete  knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food.  Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?

In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon  in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.

If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.

Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?

Happy Halloween!

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?

What Is The Nature Of Time

December 24, 2012

Salvador Dali's rendition of Time.

Salvador Dali’s rendition of Time.

This time on last New Year’s Eve, I was in Times Square, New York, among a million others marking the turning of the clock with a ritual. Though deep in my heart it felt contrived. I could not shake the truth that the concepts of New Year, the turn of the Millennium, December 21st 2012, were all human fabrications. As such they have a life only in our collective imagination. But make no mistake, the human imagination is very potent.  To illustrate with another example, think of the famous photograph of planet Earth taken from space, The Blue Marble. What is most striking about this image is the absence of borders and boundaries. Prior to that picture we were used to seeing our planet in atlases, sliced up with black lines and contrasting colours. The Blue Marble shows the reality of Earth as a unified whole. And yet those imaginary lines dividing nations are still very real to humans. So real we are prepared kill or be killed for them. Similarly, the concept of time is imbedded in our psyches so profoundly, we find it hard to accept it as a fiction. We cherish special dates (Year 2000) or give significance to end of world dates (some even disposing of their property in anticipation).

Which is odd really. Because each of us suspends time on a regular basis. Each time we sleep, the very concept of time vanishes from us. Even in our dreams time is very elastic. A two-minute dream can feel like it played all night. You might age forty years within a thirty-second dream. I know under my heart attack coma I lived through several lifetimes, each one vividly real to me. While simultaneously, for my family in the waiting room, the seconds felt immovable. I know because last month I sat in the very same waiting room while someone else underwent a heart attack.

Time is also very elastic as we age. I recall as a child when being told to wait for five minutes, it was an eternity. As I age I now complain,”where have the years gone?”

Then there is the whole issue of when the counting of the clock began. It all depends on which culture we are referring to. For the Hindus this is year 5121, for the Chinese this year is 4710. Then there is the issue of solar calenders versus lunar calenders. Therefore, dates, months, hours, minutes exist in our imagination as solidly as the waves on the ocean.

Does that mean there is no such thing as objective time? I don’t know. That has been debated by greater minds than mine for generations, with no consensus. What I do know is that time commemorates the interval between two events, it marks change. And for change to be noted,  a changeless background is essential. Take a movie for example, it requires an unmoving screen for the changes in the film to register to the human brain. Project a piece of film over a stormy ocean and Mr. Brad Pitt will not be seen leaping off canyons. So then the question becomes: what is that universal unchanging background  upon which the passage of events, is perceived?

Surely it is consciousness. I do not believe the concept of time can ever be considered without consciousness. It is something like the old philosophical question of if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound? Similarly, if events transpire and there is no consciousness to witness them, has anything happened? Has time elapsed? What of the countless galaxies that implode in remote vacuums of the cosmos? Or what is the meaning of time for the suns which are pulled into black holes like water into drains? Or come to that, does time exist in the depths of our oceans where there is no life to experience it? And if there is life, how is time experienced by those creatures?

I recall years ago I was sitting in meditation in a temple in India when I heard a buzz of insects all around me. I opened my eyes to find the whole temple floor carpeted by these moth-like creatures. Some were crawling, others were mating, and some had shed their wings in their death throws. I was assured by a local that this was normal. Once a year, during the monsoon season, these insects erupt, and within a few hours live out their full lifespan: they grow up, they mate, they die.  I have also been in the midst of California Redwoods that were 5000 years old and growing. How can time be experience uniformly by creatures with such varying lifespans?

What is that unchanging, uniform background that makes the passage of these events noticeable? Surely it has to be universal consciousness. And that greater consciousness is called eternity. Many people mistake eternity for a long period of time. Eternity is the absence of time, it is the centre point around which time rotates.

And that eternal point is within each of us. It has to be. How else would we know the passage of time?

Will time ever end? The end of time did not happen on 2012 for all humanity, nor will it on any other date. Each of us will reach that point at his or her own pace. But reach it we will. Not as abstract as it sounds.

In moments of deep mediation, we can reach that stillness which is eternity. At these moments the mind ceases to exist. All that is left is the pure awareness. With practise a day will arrive when the mind ceases permanently. Stillness alone will be our experience. And that is the end of time.

Happy New Year.

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