bird1This was an extraordinary question to be asked from a man who is in the final few days of his life. This is a question that has caused me to pause and reflect upon everything I know.

I had befriended Carlos when he first arrived at the hospital with his leukemia diagnosis, back in January. He was a spirited man, full of stamina and a relentless determination to fight his prognosis. Over the months I have listened to him as he grappled with each step of his body’s slow and painful decline. There have been days when he was filled with hope, and days when despair overwhelmed him. My role as Volunteer at the hospital has meant that I was limited in my help to listening to him, which turned out to be exactly what he needed. His wife could only cope with her impending widowhood through denial: she refused to believe the doctors, she refused to entertain the possibility that he might die, and even now when it is imminent, she will not allow anyone to speak of it in her presence.

There is a clearly defined pathway towards death among those lucky enough to die in controlled environments, over a defined period of time. The senses pack up one after another: taste is the first to leave, then smell. Patients lose appetite weeks before they stop eating entirely. Next, sight packs up, the eyes lose details, they only see shapes. Touch is among to last to leave, so hand-holding is particularly a comfort to them. Speech becomes more slurred as the lungs fill with fluids and loved ones, unable to understand the dying, sometimes stop speaking to them because they assume the patient cannot hear either. In fact, the last to leave is sound, compounding to the patient’s frustration. Most maddeningly, the mind speeds up as though it is picking up the slack for the other faltering senses. Often patients become so restless that they are unable to sleep. As the final end nears, it is as though the mind is rattling at the cage of the body, demanding to be released. It reminds me of wild birds when they are first caged. Or perhaps more aptly, of wild men when they are first jailed, pounding their fists on the metal doors, screaming to be let out.

We forget how trapped our minds and our desires are within the confines of our torsos and limbs. As long as we have the ability to walk to the shopping mall, to drive to the restaurant or the night club, we delude ourselves that we are free to chase our desires. “Free at last,” chanted the Civil Rights champions of the American ’60s, against the shackles of “For Whites Only” restrictions imposed upon their mobility. Oppressed peoples around the world are keenly aware of the limitations placed upon their desires. They imagine that if the laws are somehow changed, that national boundaries rearranged, then they would be free. But is that really so?

Aren’t our desires stifled by our very bodies? Not even Bill Gates, not even Mr. Putin is able to satisfy all of his visions. Even the young and the healthy are unable to soar as high as their imaginations. We kid ourselves that someday, when we have enough money, when we have enough time and fewer obligations, we will be able to accomplish all that we have dreamed. But when the body becomes immobile, when we are left staring at a hospital ceiling, that quiet panic inside grows louder and louder. We can no longer deny that our body is this heavy iron manacle we have been lugging around all of our lives. Then the mind yearns to be released from its fetter.

Death is seldom the way it is in the movies: think of the annoyingly virtuous Miss Melanie in Gone With the Wind, softly whispering her final goodbyes. And yet those violin-scored deaths of Hollywood are not entirely fiction. Some thirty years ago I witnessed my own mother’s passing. In her last moments she displayed such other-worldly grace that it permanently shattered the atheism of my youth. My mother, like Miss Melanie, belonged to those generations of women who valued the needs of others before their own. In doing so they figured out tricks for managing their own desires, a concept that sounds alien to contemporary ears. We have lost the skills to be aware of our desires, we no longer have the tools with which to question, to deconstruct, and to dismantle our desires. We are helpless to resist consumerism and only know to indulge our wants.

As I said my goodbye and stood up to leave, Carlos grabbed my hand and pleaded with those bulging, black eyes of his to give him some kind of peace. What could I say or do? How could I tell him it was much too late? There is no quick fix, no magic mantra, no holy oil. That the work should have been done when he was fit and coherent, that real spiritual calm takes years of dedicated self examination?

Rest in Peace, my friend, rest in peace.



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.

The Secret to Having Patience

September 16, 2013

DSCN2249_1287Is there such a thing as a bok choy emergency? Seriously, I was in a grocery store, perusing the eggplant and the oddly shaped ginger roots, when a flustered woman elbowed me, “Excuse me, excuse me.” What is the matter? I asked. “I need to get through,” she said, breathlessly. She grabbed a bunch of bok choy and ran to the cashier. Living in a big city, instances of impatience are routine. Don’t these people realize that impatience is the fastest route to a heart attack. I should know. Impatience increases blood pressure, the body is flooded with adrenalin, the day’s pent-up aggression acts out during dreams and one wakes without feeling refreshed.

One could make excuses, the woman may be in a hurry because she has something pressing waiting for her home, though I think impatience is ultimately just habitual. It is ironic that bed-ridden people in hospitals are called patients. Though they have no where to go and nothing to do, the nurses will tell you they are routinely anything but patient.

So what to do? Well this guy walks into his psychiatrist’s office and says, “Doctor, I need to learn patience, and I need it fast.” It is an old joke, I know, but still relevant. We know impatience is not good for us, but we don’t have the patience to cultivate patience. Catch-22 anyone?

In my own struggle with cultivating patience I have found an unlikely ally in calligraphy. Beautiful penmanship cannot be hurried and in cultivating it, one figures out a thing or two about how to acquire beautiful patience. Calligraphy requires careful precision as well as elegance with each minute hand movement. It is the most unforgiving art I have ever practiced. Pencils and charcoals can be erased or smudged over. Stitching can be undone. Clay can be reformed. But misspell ‘then’ for ‘than’ with ink and the whole parchment is useless. In other words, patience is not an option, it is a prerequisite.

I fell in love with calligraphy when I attended an exhibition of Renaissance Art at my local gallery. On display were dozens of 15th century bibles, lovingly hand written by monk-scribes. Capitals were gilded and adorned with intricate drawings. Imagine writing out a whole bible without a single error! One couldn’t help but be in awe of the monk’s patience is executing these works.

I think it was the love and admiration for what is possible with ink and paper, as well the sheer joy I experience in this archaic art form, that has inspired me to cultivate the patience necessary to succeed in calligraphy. I now see that impatience is always a symptom of a lack of love. We hurry because we don’t like what we are doing and so want to get it over with as soon as possible. Perhaps that woman hated shopping, hence her frantic dash  for the bok choy. Patients do not want to be sick and can’t wait to be home, hence they are impatient. So can the solution to impatience be to cultivate love in whatever you are doing?

Everyone has the capacity for patience. Everyone has infinite patience when they are doing what they love. But to simulate that when you are being packed into an over crowded subway train is no easy task, but it can be done. I used to find crowds stressful because I could not tolerate people’s thoughtlessness. Now I still notice the casual acts of stupidity but I try to see them as comedic, material for my fiction writing. This may not work for everyone, I know. Each person has to find his own excuse for making the stressful and unpleasant into a labor of love. But the key is being aware of this fact and giving it attention.

Another thing calligraphy has taught me is to temper my desire for perfection with the need to feel joy. Because when you are too focussed on perfection, it saps the joy out of any activity. This is as true for daily life as it is for calligraphy. We get stressed because people don’t behave as we believe they ought to, things don’t go according to our plans. The outcome is not what we imagined. So we either give up that activity, or we soldier on mechanically while watching the clock. This is how impatience becomes habitual, a way of life.

Calligraphy has taught me that while my inner critic is useful for learning and improvement, but at some point I need to silence him. When I look back at the paintings and drawings I did in my youth, I am astounded at the competence. But back then, all I ever saw in them was the imperfections, the mistakes. I am determined not to make the same mistake with calligraphy. Perfection comes with practice, and a lot of joy in the doing. I guess I’ll just have to be patient.

Habit Management

July 2, 2012

Some habits feel larger than life.

Joe, a friend of a friend, is a classic grumpy old man. Now in his seventies, he has but one friend. He is not short of money but he is certainly short of charm. Worse, he is set in his ways. He knows what he likes and people and things must behave accordingly. Naturally, everyone irritates him. This is a classic human folly: we are sensitive to other people’s habits but oblivious our own habits. Why is that?

Did Joe not recognize when his own habits were fossilizing inside him? Probably not. Habits have a way of taking over unawares. Sarla’s thrift habit made her into a hoarder. Mark’s shyness with women caused him to be fired because he was surfing porn during work hours. Brandon used to be popular in school because he always had interesting gossip. Now he has no friends because he just cannot keep secrets. Habits begin as harmless, but at some point they take over, growing big and powerful. Then it is too late. We are helpless to stop.

But here is the joke: habits are primitive and follow a predictable path. By observing them ( that is, through experimentation) we can uncover the innards of habits. Then we are in position to unlearn habits, as well as to cultivate better ones.

Most people have heard  about Pavlov and his dogs. He was the scientist who discovered stimulus-response association. He rang a bell each time the dogs were fed. Over time, the dogs associated the bell with food and began to salivate when they heard it ring. Habits are built from this simple repetition of association. There has to a stimulus or trigger (the bell for the dogs), a behavior or response(salivating) and a pay off that drives the whole loop (the food reward in that case).

Our habit may appear more complicated than that, but in reality they are wired to this primeval brain function. They vary only slightly from those of dogs or mice. Some key things to understand about human habits.

1) They are flexible, no matter how deeply ingrained. And yes, you can teach an old coot new tricks. Provided, that is, he is sufficiently motivated. I know in my case, a near-death was motive aplenty to make radical changes in my life. So much so that I am now grateful for my heart failure. For others a belief in God or some higher power acts as a motive.

2) The pay-off or reward that drives the habit loop is often hidden. It maybe primal and unrelated to the behavior (just as the bell and food for Pavlov’s dogs). For example, some gay men indulge in promiscuous behavior not because they love sex, but rather because they are lonely. Obese people sometimes eat for comfort, not for the love of eating. Some get addicted to TV out of boredom.  If we can suss out the root reward, we can then address that need more appropriately (and be more fulfilled).

3) Habits operate in intertwined networks. That is why they feel so big and powerful. Undo any one component of the network, and the whole things becomes pliable. For example, I used to have problem with tidiness (even though I hate clutter). I tried using will power to stay vigilant throughout the day, but that was exhausting. Instead, I made a simple change. Each morning upon waking, I resolved to make the bed before doing anything else. Nothing more. This simple change opened the way, quite effortlessly, for other changes in the breakfast routine (plates now got put away without my noticing), and so on throughout the day. It is what some call a keystone habit, changing which changes all others.  This is useful when trying to change the habits of others, such as noisy neighbors.

4) Ask to change only small specific behavior. We in big city apartments will, from time to time, be forced to endure people above or beside us who disturb our quietude. I had a family with small children living above me, the children liked running on the wood floors with their shoes on. Asking them to be more quiet and respectful of me did not work. It was too non-specific and implied they had to watch themselves every single moment for my benefit. But when the parents were asked to not let the children roam about with shoes on, it had the desired effect of making the whole family more quiet. The request was specific and small, very doable and reasonable, not big and general as before.

5) Habits are not a bad thing. They are tools which, when used skillfully, help us to do the job with minimum effort. The keyword is skillfully. No one teaches us the mechanics of habits. So we flounder through life, by trial and error, without ever understanding our own compulsions and obsessions, nor those of people in our lives. Our needs evolve over time, but we do not know how to change the habit that no longer suits. Understanding habits means we can rebuild better tools that evolve with our needs.

Is Beauty An Illusion?

June 25, 2012

Aishwarya Rai

“At seventeen I learned the truth,” sang Janis Ian, “that love was meant for beauty queens.” And so those of with ravaged faces, presumably, hung out at the library, consoling ourselves we were beautiful on the inside. Beautiful people get all the breaks: better service, more respect, even better jobs. They mesmerize us. Our minds stop, we lose ourselves for a moment in their presence. But we also feel inadequate, imperfect as human beings.  Heck, even unattractive people discriminate against plain people. What can be done? Short of running to a cosmetic surgeon? Is being beautiful what we imagine or is it just another myth?

Think of the most beautiful woman ever. Elizabeth Taylor, GretaGarbo, Ashwarya Rai? Whomever you pick, the chances are she is an actress. This is no co-incidence. For beauty is a kind of acting. It is a make believe. I was greatly impressed when MAC Cosmetics employed Ru Paul to its spokesmodel. Ru Paul appears to be a typical,  blond bombshell. In fact he is a rather nerdy looking, skinny black man. But he, like many drag queens, knows how to work the beauty trick. We are lied to using lighting, make up, hair design, clothing, accessories, posture, walk, voice, facial expression, digital enhancements, cosmetic surgery. Famous beauties may need less work, nevertheless they employ the same bag of tricks as drag queens. At best this is cheating, at worst we are being deluded.

I mean, don’t we all look good some of time?  Each of us, even the plainest among us, has a few good photographs: when the light is right, at the right angle, and when our outfit is flattering. Greta Garbo was (and is still) considered the epitome of perfection. Make up students are told her face proportions are the most ideal. The Swedes didn’t think so. Greta was an average starlet in her native Sweden. Then she came to Hollywood and met Louis B Mayer. His team of make up artists created a special make up for her. Couturiers designed a look.Photographers created magic. Her flawlessness was manufactured. It was as big a lie as Ru Paul.

A young pretty face is so powerful that it implies the body must taste like ice cream, it must smell of fresh fruit. Where as an old, ugly face is assumed to be attached to a body that smells like a sewer. So powerful is this illusion that people sometimes pay good money for an intimate taste of young pretty flesh. But here is a reality check: The secretions of the beautiful are no less rancid than those of unattractive people.  No matter how firm the flesh or smooth the skin, when he or she wakes up his mouth reeks, her skin is oily and the hair is a mess. You just never believe it when you see these demigods in print. These thoughts may sound strange at first, but they are a reality-check to the beauty myth constantly sold to us.  The truth is everyone of us needs a plethora of soaps, shampoos, deodorants, colognes, mouthwash, toothpaste, talcum powder to keep from stinking. I mean, would any of us want to travel inside a sewer pipe? Probably not. What is inside a sewer pipe comes from human bodies (the old and the young, the pretty and the plain). If you think about what the human body is made of, it is food. And food is a perishable commodity. Leave out food for any period of time and it will stink. Leave the body unwashed and it too will stink. Beauty is not even skin deep. That watercolor complexion you see in magazines is, literally, made up.

I am not proposing that we constantly remind ourselves how odious the human body really is, rather I am suggesting we give ourselves a reality check whenever we feel captivated by the body beautiful. Or perhaps repelled by a hideous one. Haven’t we all dismissed off a grubby old homeless man on the street? Ordinary people make assumptions about the worth of a person based on the absence of beauty as much as the presence of it. I am saying that if we remind ourselves that beauty is an illusion it cannot overwhelm us. The spell is broken. Thereafter we can behave as rational, compassionate human beings towards all. I believe part of the reason the aged and the homeless are invisible for city dwellers is because of the value placed on appearance. If however, you were to look into their eyes, you will see beauty. It is the only part of the human body that is beautiful. Specifically, it is the light in the eyes. When a body dies, that beauty disappears. When we speak to a person, the light of eyes are the only part of them worthy of looking into. The rest is all window dressing.

There is a rather extraordinary man I encounter each week during my shift at the homeless shelter. At first, he puzzled me. He lives on the streets and yet has a quiet dignity about him. He is unable to make eye contact if I speak to him, but he is clearly respected by his peers. He is polite, reasonable and respectful of others and their property. He helps out at the shelter and in return is allowed to sit indoors (away from the cold) in the afternoon and watch TV. He  loves tea, and takes great delight in preparing it for  himself. I have seen the other men come to him for advice and whatever I have overheard was very sensible. I wondered what his story was and tried to engage him in conversation several times, but with no success. He is unable to look me in the eye and feels very shy. As a volunteer,  I am, apparently, the ‘other’.

It occurred to me that this man has a great deal of self-respect but very low self-esteem. I have always used those terms interchangeably, but I now see they are very different.

Self-esteem is the term that gets all the press. I think of it as very American, very Oprah. Self-esteem is your sense of worth based upon your peers, your family, your status in society. It is about comparison, it is a judgement based on guesswork. The very word esteem is derived from estimation. You estimate what others estimate you to be, that is self-esteem. It seems to me it is entirely dependent upon external criteria. I am a man of modest means, I do not go on expensive vacations, I do not drive fancy cars or wear designer clothes. Yet at the homeless shelter I am a rich man. We can observe this shift in self-esteem  among the working class Westerners who land in Cancun or Bangkok and suddenly find themselves treated ( and behaving) like royalty. Self-esteem is fragile because it is dependent upon time, place and peers.

Self-respect, it seems to me, is internal. It is about what you think of you. Only you know how far you have come because you now where you started from. You are intimate with your hardships and have a sense of the skills and values you employ in facing them. We may lie to the world, but it is very hard to lie to yourself. In childhood, my Christian teachers at my school used to talk about conscience. This is now a very dated term but it is key to self-respect. I believe that when you consistently act according to your conscience, you gather self-respect. A guilty man can never have self-respect.

Self-esteem is a scale. On any given day you can be anywhere between one and ten. Self-respect is binary: either you have it or you don’t.

Some of these celebrities who crash and burn (Whitney Houston, Charlie Sheen) demonstrate a lack of self-respect. They abuse their bodies and their gifts, but they have high self-esteem because of their wealth and status. The result is arrogance. Self-respect combined with high self-esteem is self-confidence.

Among terminally ill people (such as HIV or cancer) I have observed that only some people follow a regime of  self-care. They exercise, eat nutritious meals, wear clean clothes, take their meds and come to blogs like this one for support and information. They may not always feels good their situation, but they have self-respect. Others are angry, resentful, bitter. They demonstrate their lack of self-respect with drug-abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity. Even suicide.

A man with self-respect will show compassion when a friend or neighbor has a difficulty. A man with no self-respect may relish the misfortunes of his acquaintances because it temporarily boosts his self-esteem.

Having self-respect can inoculate you from  low self-esteem. I recall as a schoolboy that popular students were particularly self-conscious if I (a nerd) attempted to initiate a conversation. They would give me the old up and down look-over, then avert their head away from me. The same dismissiveness can happen in the dating scene. It used to bother me back then. I used to think there must be something wrong with me. It effected my self-esteem.  Now in my fifties, I do feel the need for approval of strangers: I now have self-respect.

Is Happiness Imaginary?

April 15, 2012

When the payout for an American lottery reached 640 million dollars, there was a buying frenzy for tickets. It is easy to understand why. To even imagine having over half a billion dollars is enough to make anyone smile. That imagined happiness is so real that it has a name in Sanskrit, priya.  The people who stood in line and purchased a ticket experienced a slightly greater joy. They had a chance at winning this lottery, albeit a remote one. That anticipatory joy is still in the mind and it too has a name, moda.  Out of the millions who purchased a ticket, three people had the winning number. They cashed their fat cheques, relished their luck and began to to consume and enjoy with this windfall. That happiness too has name, pramoda. Surprisingly, it too is imagined.

This feels counter-intuitive. If I love my dog because he is cute, loyal, loving, then isn’t the dog which is responsible for bringing me happiness? No. Somewhere over the years you made a decision that you liked cute animals. You have a value for loyalty. Loving the dog was a decision made based upon several interconnected needs and wants. The needs and wants existed within the mind. Hence their satiation could only be within the mind.  Take any other example, ice cream, diamond necklace, a fast car. The happiness of consuming them happens only in the mind.

When a man is clinically depressed, he finds no happiness in anything he previously enjoyed. That is the symptom of depression. When you and I are fast asleep, if people were to present you  with gold and riches (as long as they did so quietly) we would not derive any pleasure from owning these objects. Why? Because the mind is not available to enjoy them.

And speaking of sleep, is there anything as blissful as good night’s sleep? Where are your loved ones in sleep? Where is the car, the house, the career? Clearly, happiness is intrisnic. This begs the question, are external objects really necessary to make me happy?

I have tried this experiment. I sat alone in a quiet room and imagined myself happy. Unreasonably happy. Without any cause or justification. Just blind, abstract happy. And you know what? It is as good as the real thing. Because it is the real thing. Then it occurred to me, so why not be happy all of the time?

It did not take long to discover why I was not able to stay happy all of the time. Needs and wants stood in the way. The neighbors should not be making so much noise. My friend should not be suffering from cancer. Something ought to be done about cleaning the house. And on and on. It became evident to me that desires were not the vehicles of happiness, but rather they were bandits. They hold us for ransom, demanding that all their conditions be met before they release happiness: that house with the swimming pool be purchased, that you marry this type of spouse, that you sit in that spot by the window. The only reason we go to lengths to satisfy desires is because they are inherently uncomfortable. By satisfying a desire – it goes away. At least temporarily. But it soon rears its head, just a little stronger each time.

Needs and desires create a sense that you are in control. That by deliberately acting on situations and people you can affect the outcome in predictable ways. Then we get frustrated when it does not happen. And no matter how often we are disappointed, we still harbor this illusion. I now consciously try to be mindful that I do not have control. I simply do the best that I can. I accept life for what it is, or isn’t. This is as much control as I actually have.

Then is there a another way to quieten desires? Yes. Desires do not withstand scrutiny. When the whole process is examined critically, it disintegrates. It takes work initially and many times you cannot muster the  patience or will-power.  But over time, this habit of questioning becomes routine, effortless.  Sure, I still fail sometimes. Though more and more, I feel happy without any reason.
Just imagine a day when nothing or no one gets in the way of happiness. Unreasonable, effortless, happiness 24/7. Now that would be like winning billions of dollars.

Why All This Suffering?

March 16, 2012

Van Gogh knew about suffering.

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.

Getting What You Deserve

February 25, 2012

A Self-styled Dame, Housewife, Superstar

My friend Chris refuses to have an internet in his home. I used to just think it eccentric, but now I believe his avoidance of the internet is a symptom of something more serious. He has applied for many better paying jobs over the years. In his contact information he includes his cellphone, street address and an e mail which he rarely ever checks. He has been invited for job interviews by e mail and because he does not check it he has missed more than a few chances for advancement. It is my belief that what he is doing, unbeknown to himself, is sabotaging himself because a part of him does not believe he deserves to do better.

He is hardly alone in this. Tabloids are full of celebrities who, after years of public adoration, press the self-destruct button. It is almost as though they reach a point where they feel they do not deserve the praise, the fame, the riches. Closer to home, we all can think of teenage girls who have dated rebel boys that are so blatantly not good for them. “I can change him,” they say. Or, “He is misunderstood.” There are the obese women who, after months of punishing dieting, reach their ideal weight, only to put it all back on again. It used to amuse me to see all the smokers outside of the cancer hospital, sitting in their wheelchairs and hospital dressing gowns, tethered to an IV tube, still unable to give up the habit that got them into that state in the first place. And what can the reason be for gay men to still engage in risky behavior despite thirty years of HIV in their midst? It is almost as though we have a little voice inside us telling us “this is what you deserve”.

Less dramatically, but no less damagingly, we limit our selves by the choices we make. My niece settled for a career as a Physician’s Assistant while her brother headed off to medical school. She gets peeved when people ask her why she didn’t pursue an M.D. as well. When I was furnishing my apartment I decided upon Barcelona chairs. The authentic ones were sumptuous, but I was happier with their Chinese knock-offs.  I often buy second-hand furniture, or purchase clothing from the discount bins or during January Sales. I call it thrifty but I have to wonder,  does a part of me feel that I do not deserve top quality goods?

The opposite of this are the people  who brim with self-confidence. They are not shy about aiming high, driving the best cars, living in the fanciest homes, moving socially upwards. Their very body language says:  “I deserve only the best”. Sometimes this internal dialogue is conscious, but often it is subliminal. We all begin life with undefined potential, but soon our families, our peers, our culture define us by setting limits. Of course, if we over-step our ambitions others do not hesitate to push us back. Sometimes I think the whole function of the high school guidance counsellor is to mock people’s dreams. Teachers have subtle ways of  evaluating us beyond the grades they assign. Bullies make it their life’s work to keep people in their place. Anyone who is not male, not white, not beautiful, is reminded by every magazine cover, every TV show that he is a bit-player in life.

However the fault it not wholly with others, we define ourselves with our choices. As a fiction writer I understand very well that to breathe life into a character I need to describe in detail his choice of hairstyle, his career, his diet, even what he wears to bed. All of this minutiae reflects for the readers the character’s inner personality. It seems to me that we humans are compelled to continually keep defining ourselves to the world , albeit  sub-consciously. “That dress is me,” says the fashionista.  “Those are my people I am defending,” says the soldier. “My god is the only true one,” screams the fanatic. Artistic/ intellectual/ Conservative/ Buddhist/ bi/lesbian/ young/ old/black/Asian and the rest, are all more than labels, they are the bricks of our very identity. It is as though without these definitions we might cease to exist. We feel vulnerable, unsafe without borders to define us. Are we using fear to feel safe?

But what exactly would happen if we stripped our identity of all its definitions, what would be left? Maybe, just maybe our real selves. And what could that possibly feel like, beyond the initial fear? How would it be to have no gender or age, no race, no sexuality? To be part-less, unassailable, unchanging throughout time and ever the same in every place, to be complete, needing nothing, nothing to prove, nothing to achieve?

It feels like home.

Not Mine! Not Mine! 

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.

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