Dream Caused by the Flight of Bees Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Waking by Dali

What is the emotion Salvador Dali captured in this picture?

The hospital was offering CPR training at a nominal rate for its volunteers. Naturally, I signed up. I live with a cardiac survivor and also my neighbor has been hospitalized numerous times with heart issues. I was so grateful for this chance to acquire the skills which may one day save someone’s life that I had not given any thought to the date of the training nor its location. As I sat in class, our jovial instructor began by asking, “Who do we give CPR to?” Before anyone could answer he delivered the punch line, “To dead guys.” Humor was his way of connecting with his students, most of whom were either medical students or foreign-trained physicians awaiting residency. They had seen it all.

He continued his stand-up routine, comparing the symptoms of a heart attacks between men and women. An odd realization ran through me. Not only was this class being held at the hospital where I was treated, it was directly under its Cardiac Critical Care. What is more, the class was held very near to the anniversary of my near-fatal trauma. Something about the confluence of time and place overwhelmed me with an emotion I could not name. It was not anger, his humor was satirical but respectful; how was he to know I was once that dead guy receiving the chest compressions and electric shocks he was joking about. I wasn’t sad; I don’t fear death anymore. In fact I ran through the list of known emotions and eliminated all of them. Yet I felt something. But what?

Is it possible that some emotions are so unique that they cannot be identified?

Lately I find myself thinking a lot about my niece, who at eighteen, suddenly finds herself thrown into adulthood. She has just began university and is living away from home for the first time. Gone is the caring gaze of her parents, gone are the high school teachers who spoon feed knowledge, gone are the childhood friendships the closeness of which is never again to be repeated. This is a niece who shares her uncle’s love for words; yet, when she is asked how she feels, she is at a loss to describe.

I wonder if unidentifiable emotions happen more often than we realize? After all, emotions reside in the Amygdala, a part of the brain inherited from our reptilian past. It was never designed to process the complex nuances of modern urban living. No wonder Torontonians are at a loss for words over the bizarre behavior we witness daily at City Hall (curtsey of a drug-addict, wife-beating, gangster mayor). Over the past six months we have gone through the spectrum of all the usual emotions, and now we are strangely silent. We can’t describe it as numbness, which is an absence of feeling (we definitely feel a fullness of emotion). To call it shock is also inaccurate; shock is a state of medical trauma caused by a lack of blood (and we surely feel a surge of blood when we think about what the mayor has done).

As the news channels go on recounting the salacious events, it occurred to me that “the news” is all about unidentifiable emotions. News is sensational by nature. It intrigues us with tales about tsunamis that sweep over dozens of countries in one swoop. It fascinates us with  earthquakes that shatter metropolises as big as New York. The news is only ever about the incredible and the extraordinary, but I wonder if we recognize the novelty of the emotions we feel when we hear about these sensational events. I was too young to recall the JFK assassination but I do remember 9/11. None of us was able to articulate the emotion we were experiencing. The news media did their best to identify the unidentifiable, name the unnameable. In the end all failed. Yet we felt something. But what?

Isn’t it interesting that the question people ask is,”Where were you when John Lenon was shot?” and not, “How did you feel?” This is because our memory cannot file away what it cannot name. The best it can do is recall the events leading up to it and around it.

I am lucky enough to be acquainted with many poets. It seems to me that they dedicate their lives to describing the indescribable. They resort to abstract imagery and metaphors in an attempt to invoke in our memory the freshness of that unidentifiable emotion. Sometimes, if we are lucky, they succeed and we enter the realms of the sublime. But perhaps we stumble into the sublime in daily life but just do not have a name for it?

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The Secret Life of Desire

January 23, 2012


The chatrooms are full of men looking for NSA, no-strings-attached, sex. But is there such a beast? Once upon a time, in the boyish days of puberty, sex was a solo act and purely a physical sensation. Then over the years other, more complicated needs crept silently into sex, bloating it into something big and important. This change occurred so secretly that we did not even notice, not until it was too late anyways.

At some point in our journey through adolescence we began to contemplate sex more and more often. We imagined creative new scenarios, began to anticipate them, plan for them. It is said young men think about sex every four minutes. What started as entertainment grew into a hobby that perhaps came close to an obsession. Have you noticed that with sexual desire, more than any other, it feels pleasurable merely anticipating it? This may sound harmless enough, but there’s a serious catch. We each experience the world through the colors of our thinking and not objectively. For example, a musician hears rhythms in city sounds, a politician sees voters. Spend too much time thinking about sex and soon people are either ‘attractive’ or ‘not attractive’. You may have observed with your friends that when they are with those whom they find attractive, they are at their charming best. Conversely, when with those whom they find unattractive they make no effort to behave well, as though the undesirable are invisible to them. May I suggest that if sex becomes a thing of importance in our lives we may begin to confuse admiration, respect, even friendship with sexual desire. It is easy to forget that love for another human need not involve sexual attraction at all. Of course, when people are viewed through the prism of sex, they can easily turn into labels: tops, bottoms, femm, butch, chubs, twinks, Rice queens, curry queens and on and on. Then where is their humanity?

Then there are the complication that come with the secondary pleasures of sex: approval and acceptance. One reason cruising for sex is so addictive is because of the buzz of being ‘selected’. The chase is more thrilling sometimes than the win. Although this thrill too comes with a hefty price: any man who subjects himself to the gaze of others soon hits the gym, dresses a certain way, preens endlessly. It is as though more efforts are put forth toward getting sex than enjoying sex.

Perhaps because being considered attractive by strangers is so pleasurable, we forget its shadow – rejection. In bar rooms, chat rooms, clubs, baths, men size each other up in a matter of seconds. Judgements are quick and harsh. We reject others at a glance but don’t forget others also reject us in an instant. Handling rejection is never easy at any age. Add to this the narrow societal ideals of desirability with regards to masculinity, race, height, weight, facial features and its no wonder many men find themselves feeling inadequate in ways they cannot change. Naturally their self worth and confidence pay the price. As if the fear of rejection was not enough,along come other fears. We could catch something, something possibly incurable that may kill us. We have to be ‘careful’, be ‘safe’. Sex, once a pleasant distraction, has now become dangerous. We could meet the wrong person and we could be robbed, beaten perhaps, even killed.

As a man matures he may come to believe that being in a committed relationship is the way to enjoy fearless sex. After all, cultural norms, religious upbringing, peer expectations all point to this ideal. But now the committed man finds that sex takes on yet another layer of significance: as a communication of love. And in the bargain he enjoys a sense of security for companionship in his old age and illness, perhaps even financial security. Sounds like a good deal, but hang on there: what about the jealousy if other men flirt with his partner? Then there is the partner’s jealousy about other men also. If a man strays he fears losing the companionship and the security of his relationship. There are even men who are lonely within a relationship, they feel unloved and unappreciated. Suddenly not having sex now has as many consequences attached to it  as having sex used to.

Is there some way to strip away all these add-ons and restore sex to the innocent pleasure it once was? There are men, either because of illness or because of age, who no longer crave sex, their minds no longer lust. If such men are at all self-aware, if they are sensitive to their desires and interested in their own well being, they will discover this fact about sexual desire. It coagulates, it co-mingles with other unrelated urges till it becomes big enough to dictate whether we are happy or miserable. By skillful observation, we can segregate and hence discover new ways to satisfy all those other needs ( security, companionship, approval, acceptance, love) without ever using sex. By cultivating the habit of honest observation, awareness without judgement or condemnation, we can free sex of with its cultural, religious, political and social trappings. It requires one to be highly sensitive, to be keenly aware of what is going in the mind, in the body, in life itself.  We might then discover a new kind of freedom. We might then be free to observe other desires also gang up against us and similarly dictate to us joy and sorrow. This alertness then opens the gateway to freedom. The freedom to choose which desire to indulge and which to ignore.
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