August 6, 2012
Imagine meeting your younger self from twenty years ago. I once wrote a fanciful piece of fiction lie that. Then, the other day, while searching for something in my notebooks, I stumbled upon a journal entry from 1991. What a gift! A time capsule, a message in a bottle sent across the ocean of time, a photograph of my younger mind. I read it eagerly, along with other older note book entries. I was curious to see how I had evolved. Had these intervening twenty years taught me anything at all?
Journaling for me has been a record of my experiments in living wholly and authentically. In my youth I was introduced to a book by M.K. Gandhi called The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It is his personal record of slow and deliberate evolution from a flawed, awkward child into a saint. He stresses in this book that he was not born good, but rather he earned goodness through experimentation. He read ideas (the Geeta, Tolstoi, Bible), thought about them, then tried them out in his life to see if they worked. The book is a record of these trials, both his successes and his failures. He maintains at the end of the book that anyone can do what he did. He was not born special. I think that is important. Since first reading that book I began to use journaling as a way to record my own experiments with the truth. Though my life may not be of the kind played upon the stage of history, it is as valid for me as Gandhi’s was for him.
I not only write down incidents and events that have excited me or disturbed me and also how I handled them. A review, impartial, non-judgmental of what aspects were handled skillfully, and which could be improved upon. By recording skillful behavior, it becomes concretized. It is like a pat on the back, a substantial reinforcement. Recording the parts which could have been handled better allows reflection on ways and means and motives for such behavior to adhere as a permanent part of my character.
Some events arouse strong emotions, such as fear, anxiety, paranoia which can be debilitating. I find journalling a great way to let go of those strong emotions. Burying strong emotions, or denying them would be harmful to my mental health. By recording them I acknowledge them, but at the same time am able to create an objective distance between me and the negativity. I record them coldly, truthfully, without any editing. The writing will never be seen by anyone. It is for me and me alone. The feelings have a safe outlet. It prevents me from saying those things out loud, and later having to apologize
After my illness, journalling took on a greater significance in my self-experiments. While the medical profession is great at taking care of the physical symptoms, they tend to ignore or deny the emotional effects of maladies. After my heart attack I had to relearn how to live: how to walk, how to eat, even how to breathe. My journal became my scientific record of the results of changing the variables. For example, in learning to sleep better, I tried different pillows, different positions, I varied the bedtime routine. I noted what worked and what didn’t (TV before bed did not work to relax me for sleep, reading did). My journal became my confidante as well. In all honesty, no one else really cares about the daily minutiae of your living. But your journal does.
When faced with a dilemma, for me writing down my thoughts is a way of organizing the mental chatter. It clarifies the solution.
I value my dreams. I consider them to be missives from the sub-conscious. While I do not subscribe to symbolic meaning in dreams, they do have a language of their own. I keep a journal at my bedside for whenever such inspiring dreams occur. The act of recording dreams often clarifies their meaning, which are unique for each person. In the same bedside journal I also record contemplative, meditative thoughts. The beauty and wisdom of them is tempting to own, but I know deep down that they are the property of humanity. The reality is that there are no such thing as original thought. It all belong to the universal mind. We think, feel and discover on the shoulders of those who came before. The very process of thought requires language, which is the property of humanity. Journaling helps me to unload the burden of false ownership. Writing it down it releasing the thoughts back into the world where they belong (instead of cluttering up my mind).
For this insight, I am grateful to myself for keeping diaries most of my life.
March 16, 2012
The geriatric patients at the hospital where I volunteer love to tell me about their lives. Some have only months to live and others may be dead by the time I come in for my next shift. They talk to me about how much they are suffering right now and the topic soon turns to what else they have suffered in their lives. Read any novel, or watch any film, and the narrative is the same. It is often said that in fiction there are only about seven stories which get repeated and reworked through the ages. I disagree. There is only the one story. Take these very common examples.
A young woman meets a young man, and she immediately takes a shine to him. She spends hours imagining what it would be like if he were her man. They date and as the relationship progresses, she finds herself extremely happy. After a few months, he calls her less often, their dates are less frequent and he seems more distant. Then one day she finds out that the man is now seeing someone else. The young woman suffers. Other variations on this narrative are that after years of marriage, one of them dies and the other is left grieving.
Consider another scene. A couple dream of owning their own home. One day they find enough finances to purchase their ideal house. They spend years fixing it up the way like. Then one or both of them lose their jobs, and they can no longer pay the mortgage. They are forced to walk away from their house. Naturally, they suffer. Variations of this are, the house burns down in a fire/flood/earthquake. Or perhaps instead of a house it could be a child, a friend, a car, jewelry, designer clothes, anything tangible.
Final scenario, a young man works hard and becomes a success in his chosen career. He enjoys all the rewards of that success, praise, respect, admiration. Perhaps he is even acquires fame. Then one day he falls ill with a serious condition, perhaps cancer. Or he simply ages and loses his edge. He is no longer admired and respected. He suffers.
It seems to me that these, and any other narrative you can imagine, have the same underlying arc. There is a desire which promises lasting happiness. The person purses that idea, attains it and enjoys it for a time. Then something or the other beyond his control brings that desire fulfillment to an end. Either the object of desire perishes or the person loses interest in that object. Isn’t that what all suffering boils down to?
When I look back over the course of my life, I see that it has been only the one mistake responsible for my emotional pain. Time and again I have expected people, places, things of the temporal world to bring me lasting happiness. What an unreasonable expectation! This world is time bound, and so of course everything within it has an expiration date. When the object of my happiness is destined to either decay, fade, break, or die, investing emotionally in it will certainly bring heartache. And the amount of suffering I experience is directly proportional to the happiness that thing or person or place had brought to me.
Now that I know this fact, is there a way out of my suffering? Can being acutely aware, each and every moment, about the fragility of life make me immune to hurt? I believe it can. To the extent that I am able to keep mindful, to that extent I feel free. This does not mean I cannot enjoy the things of the world when they present themselves. Though I do not hanker after them anymore. I can’t get obsessed about anyone or anything. When the time inevitably comes to say goodbye to the objects of pleasure, I helps to expect it. I am more ready for its loss. This has diminished my pain greatly.
What is more, some lesser desires have evaporated altogether. Reduced hankering has meant reduced agitations of the mind. And a calmer mind is a happier mind. A calm mind can fade into oblivion, and at such moments there is a glimmer of a lasting, unassailable happiness which is independent of everything.
Fiction writing may not have given me fame or riches, but it did give this valuable insight. For that I am grateful.
February 9, 2012
My friend Dennis loves content sales. He trolls Craigslist daily in search of them and is ever alert for street posts about garage sales. Not that he needs more stuff, he just cannot pass up a bargain. Needless to say his apartment is cluttered, but he cherishes each and every bargain in his overstuffed closets. I sometimes like to accompany him on these treasure hunts, not to shop of course but to remind myself every now and again that ownership is onerous.
I went with him last fall to the estate sale of a diseased elderly man. The man evidently had good taste and the disposable income to indulge it. I suspect he might have been a gay man since the only beneficiary of his estate was a nephew who had flown in from Calgary ‘to be rid of all this junk’. The nephew made it clear he was keen to sell the apartment and return home to his wife. The apartment was immaculate and orderly, the furnishings were old but stylish. The brass on the Tiffany lamps was polished, the wood on the Noguchi coffee table was scuff-free and glossy with care, the many Royal Doulton chachkas were lovingly grouped and tenderly cared for. No doubt the man must have paid a considerable amount of money for the items in this apartment. Yet the nephew had piled his clothing into cardboard boxes marked ‘For Salvation Army’. More than one of the sweaters was cashmere, some of the shirts were Brooks Brothers, there was even Armani. How this man must have treasured his possessions, surely he must have taken pains not to spill food on the cashmere, worn the Armani only on special occasions, perhaps had fretted about break-ins when he was away from home. In the end it will all end up in the dollar-bin of a charity shop, or it would sit marked-down at an estate sale, waiting to be haggled further by someone like Dennis. No doubt the nephew’s appraisal of the worth of the uncle’s precious items was coldly objective, dispassionately utilitarian, but were these objects really more valuable than that? Isn’t it the weight of sentiment that had made these objects more valuable of their previous owner?
It was not long after this that I had occasion to fly to New York City on business. One Saturday afternoon I found myself in the midst of the annual Christmas shopping frenzy of Fifth Avenue. Hordes of tourists and locals jostled each other (and me) to peek at the artful window displays – watches, perfumes, and name-brand hand bags. Matrons with shopping bags shuffled couture racks as though decks of cards, eager youths snatched clothing from shelves faster than the clerks could restock them. The clang of the cash registers was deafening. It is not only the hype of Madison Avenue that gives value to these objects, but the price tags themselves. Don’t we believe that a 3000-dollar Prada bag is better made than its cheap sidewalk knock-off? While these expensive items look so glossy in the windows of Saks or Winstons, I couldn’t help but remember that man’s estate sale. All of these lavish trinkets are destined to one day be part of someone’s estate.
To escape from these throngs, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. There are rooms upon rooms of treasures that once belonged to emperors, kings and other elite. Objects that they killed for, sometimes literally. Wars had been fought, millions of people had paid for these items with sweat and blood. Just as I was enjoying the beauty of these treasures, I noticed one of the curators enter a glass doorway where others were joyfully setting-up for a display not yet ready for public viewing. I envied them, they were custodians of all this artistic beauty, but free from the stress of its ownership.
As I pondered this it occurred to me that it was not the aesthetic merits of an item which make it desirable. People feel possessive about the most trivial of things. I see this every week at the homeless shelter where I volunteer. Men will get into arguments over a bagel, taking someone’s seat might warrant a fist fight. It is from this attitude of ‘mine’ that all the problem originate. As soon as I returned home I decided to make changes in my relationship with my belongings. From now on, I will be their custodian, not their owner. I will look after them, enjoy them, but will not lose sight of the fact one day they will no longer be mine. I feel a weight off me already.