successYou bet I was pumped, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting on Earth. I practically skated down the hallways of La Lourve, ignoring millions of dollars of art along the way to glimpse this fabled masterpiece. And she looked lovely – if you were one of the lucky ones at the front of the scrum, the rest of us schmoes elbowed each other for air space, raising our cellphones or cameras as high as our arms and toes would allow. “It’s a fake, you idiots,” I yelled to those at the front, “the original has been stolen so often they hang a repro.” They pretended not to hear me, or perhaps I did not say it out loud. Regardless, they continued to click away. Walking slowly back I took my time contemplating the B-pictures I had rushed past in my haste toward the star attraction. Each painting was more brilliant than the next, some by artists I knew nothing about. The Mona Lisa is the most expensive painting in the world, it is also the most Clipart’d, Snapchat’d, Facebook “Liked” and Youtube-shared painting in the world, but is it the best? Is it even Leonardo Da Vinci’s best? It made me question; is popularity ever a measure of quality?

In this age of instant celebrity it should be obvious that popularity can be bought and sold in the time it takes to post a Tweet. Haven’t seen the latest in the Star Wars franchise yet? What’s wrong with you, it is so cleverly marketed that everyone you know has, so what are you waiting for? Popularity is now so cheap they are calling this the “post-fact era,” meaning you can make up any absurd fiction and if any people click your link then it is the truth. Just as Mary Poppins once predicted, “If you sing it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious.”

Despite all this obviousness, in my daily life I still struggle to divorce popularity from quality. Its not my fault, humans are hard wired for approval and affirmation, it is oxygen for the ego. How I salivate upon seeing the “like” stars on my blog posts. Somehow, more stars substitutes for better writing in some deep, dark recess of my brain. Yet the posts I have struggled with the most to write got very few, if any, ‘likes’, though strangely those were the posts which brought for me the most clarity on their respective topics. Popularity is intoxicating, it has a knack for waylaying wisdom, making me forget the real purpose for writing this blog; this blog is about sorting out the muddle of ideas in my head. If my musings occasionally help others to do the same, bonus.

Presently I am trying to maintain that same clarity about a modest showing of my art, a series of oils at a local art supply store. Artist friends from my drawing sessions took the time to go view the pieces, then showered me with praise. I admit, their generosity was intoxicating, a psychological boost up the wazoo, but I must remain guarded. They are more accomplished artists than I am, I see the evidence weekly in their work. I will not let their well meaning flattery carry me away from looking for flaws in my technique. There is no “best”, there is only striving for better. One benefit of being raised in a household where praise was meagre is that you learn to self-evalute very early on in life. You give more weight to your own goals and strive to please your inner ideals rather than feed off compliments from others. I wonder, could clarity of purpose be the definition of humility? Does being humble mean you don’t confuse your own popularity for quality?

 

 

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loveSo I am sitting with a group of younger friends when the topic inevitable turns to the perils of dating in the digital world. Wonder of wonders, apparently people on dating sites lie! Stop the press, write to your local M.P.

As if “in my day”, when people met face-to-face (as oppose to Facebook to Facebook), they were honest and upfront about their flaws? I wish. Dating has and always will involve conscious deceit: we all want to present ourselves in the best light so we bend the truth, exaggerate a little here and there, pad the resume as it were. Humility and modesty are admirable virtues but  not, it seems, in the dating world. “If only I could find that special one my life would be so perfect,” sighed one young man.

Dude, are you serious?

Apparently he was. All his problems would magically evaporate in the magnificence of “The One”, who coincidentally should be a mirror image of himself.

Is this how he believes relationships actually work? I sealed my lips but my smirk gave me away.

“Why? Is that not how it works?” He asks. Big mistake, Bud. Never invite a curmudgeon to pontificate.

Okay kiddo, where do I start? First off, there is no such thing as “The One,” there are dozens, if not thousands of compatible people you could spend a lifetime with, providing  if (and this a huge, gigantic IF), you have the skills to navigate relationships.

He looked deflated but still aroused, wanting to know what I meant.

“Do you believe once you meet your special someone you will just walk off into the sunset, finishing each other’s sentences?”I asked.

He nodded.

Well, Kid, Hollywood lied. Shocking, I know, but they peddle fiction, as do Romance novelists. Relationships don’t end with you ‘finding the One’, rather that is how they begin. And it is work, let me tell you, moment to moment. Sure, there is a honeymoon period when love is blind and all is peachy sunshine but slowly reality returns and the work begins of maintaining a healthy relationship. Despite having many things in common with your other half, this is still a union of two individuals and your moods, wishes, dreams and wants are never going to align perfectly every waking moment of your time together. For example, you may need quiet time for some personal reflection and deep breathing yoga while Love of Life needs to hear his/her favorite track Mental Banshees by the band Death Metal Steroids.

The art of Compromise is the first skill you will need to cultivate. Suggest for Love of Life to use headphones while you work on your heart chakra.

Despite nimble backroom deals, despite displaying a flexibility that a teenage gymnast would envy, said Love of Live will still retain a talent for driving you crazy. Know how to set limits: “Look, you can keep a pet alligator in the bathtub but I draw the line at you belting out Celine Dion in the shower. One more verse of My heart will go on and on and my ass will go on and on outta here.”

All of this maneuvering and contorting should be offset by the benefits of being in the relationship. Partners fulfill needs, often unspoken and deeply rooted psychological needs of which we ourself may not be aware. Needs such as a sense of security, a sense of being needed, companionship. Your partner should make you feel as though he or she has your back.

I hear so many reluctantly singles complain about their status, but what is more pathetic is that they blame the wrong things for their loneliness. You are not single because you don’t spend enough time at gym or don’t follow the latest fashion fad, if only pretty people found mates the world’s population would be no more than sixty-three. It has nothing to do your lack of wit or your inability to quote Proust in French either. Neither is it because you still live in your mother’s basement that you scare off suitors. Rather, finding a mate has everything to do with a person’s ability to listen to others, have empathy, negotiate, do things to please another even though it is personally abhorrent. These are skills worth investing in.

There was a potent silence in the room. One of the youngsters threw me a resentful glare. It was quick but I was not too old to have missed it. Then they went back to complaining about the problems with their latest dating app.

Ah well. I’ll just gather up my pearls and cast them elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 


whisperMy neighbor was a woman of steady habits. She picked up her morning newspaper not long after it was delivered, except on that dreadful day. Something in me recoiled, like a sea creatures into its shell, when I saw that newsprint still sitting untouched where it had been left by the delivery man. Irrational? I know, but an eerie panic rattled through me nonetheless. Perhaps she was having a well-deserved lie in? Maybe she was out running errands? No amount of rationalizing placated this panic as the day went on, in fact it grew louder and more insistent. Did I do anything about it? Of course not, I trust my rational brain way too much. Gut feelings are the domain of kooks and poets, we are told. Smart, rational people must not trust the unfathomable, the unscientific. Yet this feeling of dread persisted as though it were not mine to control.

My neighbor was eighty-two and lived alone. I recalled a conversation I had with her in the hallway after her partner moved into a care-home. “Do you mind if I keep an eye on you, now that you are alone? I worry about you.” She smiled, “That would be lovely.” Since then she kept me informed if she travelled, or when she needed a helping hand. For years she and I had been exchanging keys whenever we went away. All of this contributed to my worry about that newspaper laying on the threshold till evening. I knocked repeatedly but got no reply. I checked to see if her car was still parked in her usual spot, it was. Then I asked the building’s security to fetch the skeleton key to the apartment. When we entered the lights were on and a radio was blaring from her bedroom.

To my horror she was prone on the living floor, cold and rigid, her face blue from the blood that had seized circulating hours ago. This was not what I had wanted to discover, despite that nagging voice inside me warning me so all day long. I like being right as much as the next guy but in on this day I seriously wanted to be wrong. On the elevator ride up to her apartment I half prepared to apologize to the security guard for having dragged him up there for no good reason. Instead there I was calling for an ambulance despite the evidence, still hopeful something could be done.

The family expressed generous gratitude to me but I still harbor a guilt because I did not listen to that inner voice earlier. Had I pushed the panic button when I first experienced it, might we have found her still alive?

As the days pass I have bigger questions. To whom did that voice belong? Was it my better instincts, a sum of my life’s experiences? Or was it something more? Could that silent knowing have come from a place beyond myself, an untapped well of collective wisdom?  Or perhaps do the dead speak through that silence? Did some aspect of her linger, unable to rest till her loved ones had found her body? Perhaps I was her only hope of being found and so she persisted with me? All I know for sure is that the voice was without words and not my intellectual logical self. Since my rational mind was fighting the voice all day long, it must have been other than my rational mind.

I now think we give too much importance to our rational mind. It knows what it knows. It holds firm to what it has expererinced and what it has been taught by the culture to which it belongs. Instinctual knowledge, on the other hand, is where I go when I am lost in creating a painting or a story. Perhaps it is through those same mysterious laneways of understanding that I can access the totality of wisdom, the living and the dead.  Since this tragedy, I see now that instincts are wiser than the intellect.


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.

 


Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Geraldine is a chatterbox with a mind far quicker than her eighty-eight-year body. As I sit listening to her I discover I hardly need to nod or interject the obligatory ‘yes’. After she is done telling her rich life story, she throws me a curveball. “When I fell sick and they brought me to the hospital’s emergency, honestly, I just didn’t care what was to happen next.” She kept her gaze steady before her, not bothering to see if I was startled her frank remark. “It’s not that I wanted to die, but truthfully, I have lead such a full life that I didn’t care if it was time for me to go.” Had she bothered to look at my expression, she would not have seen even a hint of surprise. I hear such sentiments from the elderly on a routine basis.

Yet a few months back one ninety-year-old man ignited a debate in Toronto by electing to choose the time and manner of his own exit from the world. John Allan Lee was an intelligent and self-aware man. He was a professor at a prestigious university and the author of several non-fiction books. He chose to leave the world now, before infirmity and dementia had set in. He did not want the indignity of waiting for death in an institution: having strangers change his diaper, being told when to eat and when to sleep. A practicing Buddhist, he knew that his awareness would not diminish, it would witness the agonizingly slow decimation of  both his mind and his body.

His methodically planned suicide caused many of us to think very deeply about what choices we might make when our time comes. There was a time in my life when my immediate response would have been to dismiss any such notion as unethical. I used to believe strongly that if a person takes his own life he is then doomed to return in his next life to the same set of circumstances and/or difficulties that compelled him to end his own life. I am no longer that dogmatic.

As I listened to John Allan Lee tell the world of his reasoning, I was nearly convinced that his decision was a wise and reasonable one. Then he said, “”I’m finished. I don’t have a bucket list. I don’t have an unfinished agenda.” Since he was no longer able to physically pursue the activities that had once brought him joy, he saw no purpose in lingering.

It seemed to me there was a huge flaw in that logic. Speaking as someone who has undergone a transformative physical journey because of my own terminal illness, I too once felt as Mr. Lee did. That life was over, it had been swell and what is the point of taking my pills and keeping alive. But that physical journey was also accompanied by a psychically transformative journey. I was no longer useful to society doing what I used to do, but I still had much to contribute. I discovered new joys, new strengths, new skills I had never imagined.

Co-incidentally that same week a young father expressed to me more or less the same sentiments as Mr. Lee. This younger man was left physically debilitated by cancer and his desperation was obviously from emptiness, and not from fullness. “I won’t be able to do things I used to,” he complained. “I won’t be able to help my sons in the way a father is supposed to.”

“But what about helping them with a calm, reassuring presence?” I asked.

I am fortunate enough to have a large and loving family network. Recently I spent a week with my two-year-old grand-nephew who brought me such joy by his presence and his being. He taught me that I could share in his natural joy without having to do anything in particular. I had simply to be there with him. He does not have full language yet, but he sure understands  the link between love and attention.

It reminded greatly of my own toddler years when there were many such loving adults who visited our home. I still remember them with fondness, though I cannot recall their faces or what they said or what they played with me. I simply recall the security and love of their presence.

Isn’t that plenty?

Ultimately I think the right to die is a personal choice but I do have concerns that sometimes people do not consider the serendipitous happiness that might lay before them. I have concerns that people underestimate the contributions they make to the lives of others without any conscious effort. I question whether the Right to Die is really the same as Dying With Dignity?

 


Pic054

Chapel of Love CLOSED.

Another Valentine’s, another rejection. Sometimes I think the only reason this secular holiday is popular is that everyone has been rejected spectacularly at some time.

My shift at the cancer hospital happened to fall on Valentine’s Day this year. My partner and I were tasked with delivering personalized love notes, along with a heart-shaped candy, to each of the three-hundred or so patients. Even the severely sick were visibly moved by this small gesture from the volunteers. Each managed to put aside his considerable agony to beam a smile. And then there was Yvonne.

She was seated on a chair, fully clothed and so well groomed that an innocent might have mistaken her for a visitor, not a patient. She saw the candy and card in my hands and even before I could speak, she curtly said, “No. Thank you.”  She was the only patient in the entire hospital to have rejected a token of affection made by people who sought nothing in return.

Was it against her religion? Was she simply unkind? I could not figure it out. The more I struggled to understand, the clearer it became to me that I was asking the wrong questions. Why did her simple rejection bother me so? What was this need in me that compelled me to devote all this effort, all this time in unravelling the reasons for her rejection?

The very same week I had a phone call from my niece who is in the midst of a job search. Being a fresh graduate she is inexperienced, and is getting rather dejected from her avalanche of rejections. Being the old coot that I now am, I indulged her in a trip down nostalgia lane because, you know, everything in the old day was so much tougher. We didn’t have internet back in those days, I said. We looked for work by literally pounding the pavement, handing over hundreds of resumes to disinterested receptionists.

At times the receptions would give a sneering perusal then place them in tray, no doubt to be emptied into the trash. This is not the same as critique, which allows for negotiation. A person can learn, can improve from criticism, whereas rejection has a finality about it. Perhaps that is why it feels like a mini-death. As the rejections mounted, I recall it took more and more willpower to rise up each morning and start the job search anew. Being young I had so few tools with which to deconstruct the rejections. It was very easy for others to tell me to not take them personally. But on that typed CV was a summary of all my achievements, all my worth, all that I believed was best about me. Of course the rejections were personal.

Little had I realized then that these rejections were only the appetizers for adulthood. There would be rejections in love. Rejections from friends. Rejections from publishers, banks, the tax office. Rejections based summarily upon race, age, gender, sexuality. It seems to me life is choked full of rejections, both big and small, and each rejection scars our being like an  indelible tattoo, with more accumulating over time. The most striking aspect about my work with homeless men was how burdened by rejection these men were. Rejected too often by others, in time they displayed a kind of self-rejection. It showed in how the men carried themselves, the way they sat and the way they looked at me.

Of course rejection is unavoidable, it is woven into the very fabric of existence. Without rejection, evolutionary natural selection would not be possible ( you and I would still be amebae). Without rejection we would retain the toxins from the food we eat. The freedom of choice we so value would be impossible. In fact, without rejection the world might be a bland, mediocre place, thoroughly devoid of accomplishment or excellence. And wouldn’t acceptance lose its jumping-for-joy sweetness? In fact, I realized, Yvonne’s solo rejection of my Valentine had highlighted for me that every other patient had deeply appreciated the same gesture. Then I thought about her cancer, which by definition is unchecked cell growth. In other words, when the body fails to reject new growth, it is fatal for the organism.

I think sometimes rejections feel personal because we forget that everyone is rejected at some time. Harry Potter was reject by twenty seven publishers;The Dallas Buyers Club was rejected by movie studios eighty-seven times across twenty years, and Van Gogh only ever sold three paintings in his lifetimes (bought by his brother out of pity). Even though none of us can avoid being rejected, I do think we have the power to stop the rejections from shaping us.  All too often we have a habit of shrugging off rejections as though they don’t matter, but if we ignore them they stick around permanently. I prefer to neither accept nor avoid rejections but to look at them, to question them, to find their context. In my experience by doing that the rejections disappear from our posture, from the furrows on our faces and the creases of our clothes.

 I later found out why Yvonne had rejected my Valentine’s. She had just discovered that her body had rejected the bone marrow transplant which might have saved her life. Now that really is personal.

hungerWhile the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain  from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.

She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.

I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?

It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.

The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?

Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.

I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.

What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.

Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.

Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.

Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.

And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.

Is Art Redundant?

January 14, 2014


DSCN2336_1322My ten-year-old grand-nephew was gifted a sketchpad and pencils. He was so perplexed about what to do with them that I sat him down and gave him a few pointers on the fundamentals of drawing. Is art even still taught in schools? Perhaps to his generation it is about as useful as penmanship or the art of letter-writing. Doesn’t every kid have a cellphone with which to snap pictures of anything remotely interesting (thereafter to be Instagramed). So why should they bother mastering the skill of drawing or painting?

In my day (yes, I know I sound like an old fogey) we learned to draw before we could write. It taught us to hold the pencil correctly, to discovers shapes and curves, all of which I think made reading and writing that much easier. As soon as that first pencil was placed in my hand I fell in love with drawing. It was a way of making sense of the chaos of colors and shapes in a world which was still new to me. It is a hobby I have since cherished throughout my lifetime and as I matured, it has gifted to me new skills at each step of the way.

In my youth I sat through many life drawing classes, and yes, we drew nude models. “Is it very sexy to draw someone naked?” was a question I used to get asked repeatedly. “No,” I’d say. “We are taught to see shapes, textures, tones. We don’t have time to think of sex.” People rarely believed me. But it is true. Life drawing is training ourselves to deconstruct what we see. It is a skill that stays with you outside the life drawing workshop. Sexy magazine covers and advertising cease to hold sway in our minds. We learned not just to see, but to observe critically.

Whenever I travel I like to spend time in art museums. I am always amused by the young who do not know the art of observation. In Paris there is the Musee de l’ Orangerie which houses wall panels painted by Claude Monet of his garden at Givenry. The panels are curved such that if you sit in the correct spot you are as though transported into the garden itself. As I was sitting, a young tourist walked into the room with that typically bored stance of a put-upon teenager. Camera in hand, she snapped about a dozen images in the thirty seconds between her entrance and exit from the room. She had not been taught to put herself in the skin of the artist who painted the Les Nympheas. She did not have the faculty to experience, she could not share his feelings and his moods as he was composing this masterpiece. She is not alone in this; the camera serves to prevent tourists from observing or experiencing the very places and people they have come to see.

I am tempted to remind tourists that people literally died to preserve these art treasures. During the Second World War, one of many atrocities the Germans committed was the plunder of European art. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is now known, the German army surrounded the city for nearly three years and yet the residents put up a noble fight. They were cut off from all food supplies and electricity, yet they were determined the Germans should not get their hands on the art housed at the Hermitage Museum. The curators removed the canvases from their frames and hid the art in between walls in local homes or buried them in farmers’ fields. The curators hoped that when the city did inevitably fall, these works might be spared. They survived doing this work inside the museum by eating the glue that had held the canvases to their frames. The same happened in Paris. The French too risked their lives to save their treasures because to them it was much more than beautiful pictures they were saving, it was the very soul of Europe.

Of course the billions of digital images we now take so frivolously are destined for that invisible delete bin in cyberspace. We may have a laugh taking a selfie on the cellphone, but the masters delved deep into themselves to retrieve the images they painted. Learning to draw and paint teaches you the path to the unconscious mind. Drawing and painting requires the simultaneous consideration of so many skills (dexterity, tonal understanding, color, perspective, mood and atmosphere) that waking consciousness is not enough. It can only give attention to one thing at a time. However, the sub-conscious is where the fruits of practice and habit reside. The sub-conscious can juggle many things if the conscious has given attention to them in the past. The more you practice art, the better you understand the sub-conscious. So if anyone wants to seriously change her habits, the good and the ugly, she must work at them in the sub-conscious level. (No, Virginia, New Year’s resolutions do not work).

Of course no spiritual introspection is ever possible without understanding these deeper levels. That may be why all religions use art so freely.

I find myself now rediscovering my love for painting. This time round I am not so much concerned with the technique, but art as language. The unconscious mind speaks to itself in images, as anyone who has given attention to dreams can attest. I still love words but I also recognize that words are specific to a time and place, whereas art is universal. Art speaks the language of the collective sub-conscious, the underlying unity of all humanity.

I was very pleased to hear that my grand-nephew has now began drawing lessons after school. He asked his father (my nephew) if he could swap hockey practice for art in the New Year. If I played any small part in that then that is my gift to him.

Is Imperfection A Blessing?

December 23, 2013


DSCN2329_1304The dinner table looked fabulous. The centerpiece was formal yet festive. The cutlery sparkled and its layout would have made the butler on Downtown Abbey proud. Each dish served tasted exactly as it was supposed to and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Then one of the guests returned from the bathroom and requested a  toilet plunger. Never a good thing! Amidst all this sophistication, despite the attention to perfection, the drains chose to back up grease and gunk.

At first it felt like a slap in the face. But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was for this toilet disaster. That night, before I retreated to bed, I sat for a few minutes to empty my mind of the day’s events. This has been my routine for many years and I find it helps me to sleep well. Except on occasions when the day goes all too perfectly. Days when there is an abundance of joy, it is very difficult to turn my back on the day and retreat into the rest of sleep. The mind wants to relive the day. Despite a tired body’s demands, the mind recalls again and again each and every perfect moment.

On this night, even though the evening was a great success otherwise, I was able to shut it out from my mind because of this one mishap. So might there have been a technique for getting a good night’s sleep thrown up the drain along with the debris? Perhaps the secret to unwinding, the trick to falling into effortless sleep might be to find the small failures in the greater successes, the little sadness contained in that triumphant news. Oh I don’t mean one should cultivate an unhealthy pessimism, merely that whenever we desire to unburden the mind, we can use this little trick to stop it from ruminating uncontrollably.

 As a long-time meditator I appreciate the bliss of mental stillness, the other-worldly peace of inner nothingness. In the beginning I too used to be frustrated by daily upsets and routine worries. Strange that novices always seem to give attention to negating the bad stuff. They struggle to forget the unpleasant encounters, they labor to push back stressful memories. But in my experience, the ugliness of life is much easier to reject, it is the pleasant and the perfect that seems to take up permanent residence in the mind.

I can’t count how many young cancer patients I have encountered who are fearful of death precisely because they grieve the loss of all the happiness they have previously enjoyed. Not a one of them regrets leaving behind financial worries or the physical misery of old age. It is the love of their families they mourn to leave. It is the absence from their daughter’s graduation, the non-attendance at the son’s wedding that brings emotional pain. Misery is something we forget naturally because our pride forbids us from revisiting old failures. Yet we indulge in what I will call crudely (but aptly) mental masturbation upon the happy successes in our life. Unable to let go of the happy and the beautiful, we then  complain: meditation is so, so difficult.  

The other day I wished a patient at the hospital a Merry Christmas simply out of polite habit. He glared back at me with a frown and then said, “Everyone is pressuring everyone else to have a perfect Christmas.” He then collapsed exhausted into his bed. I understood his frustration. Christmas, more than any other holiday, is supposed to be greeting card perfect: a light dusting of snow, a warm fire, a cheerful array of gifts under the tree and of course, congenial family sharing quality time together. No wonder Christmas has the highest suicide rate of the year. Many have no one in their lives. Some are too sick or too poor. And those of us who will attempt a Disney celebration will encounter clogged drains and other disasters.

And thank heavens for them. They are reminders of the imperfection of daily life. No matter how carefully we plan, we just can never shut out the ugliness. I was rather amused by a news snippet about the six-hundred-million-dollar lottery jackpot in the US recently. The news report suggested the lucky winner could purchase a Fijian island with his or her winnings. The unchallenged implication was that with enough money one could buy oneself a piece of paradise. What an awful idea.

Anyone who has experienced the perfect stillness of the mind will attest that that itself is paradise.

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