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Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Nomadic Life

In a few hours’ time, I’ll be returning back home from my summer house. By this time, I should get used to move back and forth between the two houses during the summer break. My family has been doing it almost every year since I was a child.

But this entry isn’t really about moving back to another house. It’s about home and its place in our life. For, throughout our lives, it appears to me that we’re searching for home where we find security. Where we are safe, uncomfortable and free from the problems of the world. Yet, I believe that although we think of “home” as a location in time and place, this isn’t the case.

Our lives is in a constant state of change. We may only guess that tomorrow things will be almost the same as usual but, in truth, tomorrow remains unknown. We may feel happy with our life right now and we do well to enjoy what we have. On the other hand, we must be careful not to base our happiness on what we have. No, not even get attached to our physical homes as there will be one day when we have to change everything.

And, when we lose what we had, we might discover an emptiness borne out of a false happiness. Indeed, even if we live in homes (if we’re lucky), a home remains a building of wood or stone. We’re the ones who imbue it with properties beyond itself.

I sometimes think of my life as a nomadic existence. I don’t know if you can understand. I have undergone radical changes in my life when I thought I had finally find fulfilment and happiness. I believed that change would lead me to a better life if I attained a goal or got a new gadget to play with. I found out that I had been misguided.

Like a nomad, I must learn that I will, one day, have to move on. Like a nomad, I need to find the strength and support to adapt to new realities. Like a nomad, I need to accept the fact that what I have can be snatched away from me without warning.

I confess that I share these thoughts because I know that soon I’ll be moving on once again from my winter home to another place. While I’m excited by the prospect of gaining more independence, there’s still a sadness and fear of moving on to an unknown place and to an unknown future.

Perhaps I need to recognise that I can only find true refuge in my heart and mind. That’s my home which I must dwell in until the moment of my death.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11: An Open Wound?

I have already talked about the terrible events which took place in the United States on September 11, 2001 last year in the  post entitled 10 Years of Fear. Eleven  years have passed and we do well to remember the memories of those who died on that day and those who died as a consequence of 9/11. But it would be wrong to stop there and not be ready to move on, and, yes, let go.

For, horrible as 9/11 was, this event isn’t actually the cause of all the distrust and intolerance that we still witness to this day. Hate and revenge have always been a dark part of human nature. If you look closely and reflect on what might have caused 9/11, you may be surprised that there’s a very rational explanation to why we have reached such levels of hate and violence.

The fact is that even before 9/11, there was fear. But accounting for 9/11 in terms of fear may appear too simplistic and unsatisfying. Thus it’s important to qualify how fear operates at different levels. Thus, we can speak of the:

Fear of Change

As long as some do not accept that the world has changed, they will try to externalise their frustration through hate speech and violence. Thus, we have ideologies that misappropriate religion for their own political interests. Recent examples include the American Christian Right and Ismism. All promise to return to a world where they feel safe and control because they cling to a false belief that only one view of the world is valid.

Fear of Loss

Some of us  feel threatened by the ‘other’. There is a tendency for us to believe that our view of the world is correct. A false belief that we are independent selves and that we’re better or more superior than other people. We feel threatened by difference because it challenges our map of reality. We are ready to cling to beliefs that are irrational or incorrect. We justify violence because we see it as a way to protect who we are - or who we think we are. Thus, we have sexism, racism, disablism and so on and so forth. In a sense, we become slaves to the labels we give ourselves.

Fear of Losing Self

Finally, perhaps the subtler of fears. The fear of losing our self. In a way, this can be compared to the fear of death. But, the only difference perhaps is that this fear is more present and a real possibility. We fear to face who we are may be because we are not really sure of who we are. We keep holding on to our convictions not out of genuine effort but because we know that, if challenged, we are defenceless. We want to retain control and fear change because we were never on a solid foundation to start with.

There are no easy solutions to fear. However, what is sure, is that closing our minds and hearts to others who we perceive as different, foreign or as a threat, won’t heal the wound. Indeed, this may worsen the cycle of violence and hate that exists today. There remains a mistrust in our world which is somehow justified.

For, the modern war (if you may use that word) is increasingly becoming an individual matter. Everyone can be an enemy. It may even be a friend, a relation or someone you know. The recent shootings in Aurora, for example, exemplify how easy it has become to commit  individual acts of violence. There, are of course, suicide bombers still killing others they want to destroy and killing themselves in the process.

Thus, it’s now not only a matter of nations or world leaders whether there’s world peace. Then, it follows that it becomes more important that we are the ones who work for peace. Yes, there is the fears I discussed above.

We fear change. But, in truth, change is part of life. Ironically, we cannot change the fact that things change. It’s not a good or bad thing because change leads to growth and can lead to progress. Rejecting change means that we remain in a world that, however safe, is not real.

We fear difference. Perhaps because it challenges our view of ourselves. Accepting difference might mean to abandon our idea that wee are better than other people. Even labelling others as ‘less fortunate’ is a false belief that we don’t have any control over our lives or that injustice and inequality is natural and inevitable. Yet, while we are different on some levels, we are all human beings who share in the joy and suffering of life. Whoever we are, we were born of a mother, we all get sick, we all get old and we will all die. In this respect, our identity will not change this - even if it may change how we deal with these processes.
 We fear to lose who we are. But, how much of who we are has been given to us by others. Our names to start with. The fact is that there is no constant self. We aren’t who we were ten years ago. We’re not the same selves we were when we were children. This will change. Thus, our fear will not help and denying the fact that there are people who may be different than us leads nowhere but self delusion.

What does all this have to do with 9/11? The tragic events that happened on that day didn’t happen just like that. They happened because of many factors, one being fear. The fear of reaching out to others, a fear to accept things as they are and fear of losing our identity. A fear that has continued feeding into a cycle of violence. A cycle emerging out of a failure to communicate and reach out to others. A failure to correct injustice and poverty because of national interest.

It’s a failure to look at people who appear different than us as being part of us. Part of one human family facing the same challenges and all having the potential to improve the world.
We can’t afford to remain insulated in our own worlds of beliefs. We need to challenge and change who we are. Silence may help but if that means we stop talking to each other, it can be destructive.

Today, humans have the potential to build a better world but, at the same time, they have acquired weapons that can reap havoc and even destroy the whole planet in a matter of hours. Peace is the only rational choice. For, whether we like it or not, we are all in this world together. And while it may sound rather naïve to use such language, the truth is that we may need to start outgrowing the idea that we are distinct human beings but rather consider to be people with differences rather than different people altogether.

For history has shown that violence only breeds more violence. By continuing this violence by pretending to defend ourselves from another 9/11, we would be doing the same thing the hijackers did on that day. We would be killing our ‘enemy’ but, at the same time, we would be killing ourselves.

I believe that renewing a dialogue based on peace and mutual respect and cooperation is the only way to honour those who died (and are dying) as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

It may be the only way to prevent more 9/11s…

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Wisdom of Pearls

Pearls remain one of the most valued objects today with the smallest costing from a few hundred dollars to ones costing up to thousands. There may be many reasons people are priced so high. After all, they are produced by a natural process, by a mollusc, a living being, and, yes, they evoke a certain beauty and perfection.

It was at a seafood restaurant that I wondered about pearls. In theory, molluscs such as mussels may produce one. But pearls are often associated with oysters. But, if oysters and other such organisms, are capable of producing a pearl, why don’t we find one every time we get on? On doing some research, I discovered that the pearl, in fact, is the product of an oyster’s attempt to gain relief from discomfort.

Indeed, since molluscs are confined to their shells, there is no way to remove a splinter such as a speck of sand. So, using a substance called “nacre”, it gains relief from its discomfort. Incidentally, “nacre” is the same substance it uses to create its shell. Thus, one can say that a pearl, is in fact, created because the oyster wants to get some kind of peace and rest.

That is why not all oysters which grow in nature have pearls. In a way, oysters who are forced to form a pearl are unwell. Yet, we value the most those pearls which, out of their attempt to gain freedom from pain, create one of the most beautiful object, we - as human beings - find of value. Yet, for the oyster itself, a pearl is somewhat not unlike a scar that cannot be removed but lies there as a constant reminder of an unhappier past.

What does this have to do with us? Well, in today’s society we tend to look at pain of every form as the great evil awhile we view pleasure as the most desirable. But, we forget that while pain and discomfort may not always be necessary, at times we must go through a certain degree of pain and discomfort to grow. And while, during hard times, we may be tempted to escape from an unpleasant reality, the fact that the more we resist our discomfort, the more it will hurt us.

Here, perhaps we can learn from the oyster. While the oyster cannot get rid of a splinter, it uses its own body to make it part of her. However, it does not stop there but keeps the painful intrusion at a safe distance. In this way, while the oyster and the pearl remain connected to each other in one way, the fact is that the oyster is also able to gain relief and carry on with life.Thus, it accepts the pearl into her home but, at the same time, is detached from it.

How many times in our life have we made mistakes>? How many times were we in pain or in an uncomfortable situation? How many times have we felt ashamed of ourselves? I can say that there were quite a few in my life. Yet, can I change them if they happened years ago? Can I change them if their cause remains beyond my control?

The thing is that many times, we cannot change our pasts. So, like oysters, we need to accept that discomfort. However, with the benefit of hindsight and experience or our “nacre”, we can turn our pain into something that is of value and precious, the way we live our life, or our “pearl”. Even if, unlike oysters, we all have to face splinters of pain or discomfort, we all have the potential to change something that is negative into a positive future.

But, first, perhaps we must stop fighting reality if we know we can do nothing about it. And, yes, we cannot avoid to go through a degree of further pain and discomfort to start to heal.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Ethics of No Self

Last Friday, I found myself in the front garden of our summer home waiting for a van that seemed will be delayed. I had to wait. But, as I breathed in the fresh air of the summer morning. As I felt the gentled breeze of a cool morning on my face and hands, I felt at peace. I was lost. I felt no pain. The only thing I noticed was perhaps the cool air filling my lungs. But, eventually, I wasn’t there any more.

I was still aware of my sensory perceptions. Yet, at the same time, I was there but not there. I had, at that moment, no pain, no worries and no wants or needs. In that state of awareness, it didn’t even matter who I was any more. In a way, it was like sleep. Indeed, it was like I was dead to the world. Everything was alright. It didn’t matter what happened to me. And, in truth, I had no real control over many of what happened in my life.

And, as I emerged from that state of no self, I realised that what seemed like a very long time was actually just about five minutes. Where was I during that time? Was death just the cessation of all suffering that is caused by our attachment to a self? Indeed, was the self, a delusion and had no basis in fact? I pondered my thought further. For, what I felt or did not feel, during that moment was a realisation that I shouldn’t fear death that much.

Here, I’m not saying that life is to be wasted or that life is devoid of value. What I am saying that, often, it is that we become so attached to our ‘self’, that we forget that our ‘self’ constantly depends on our minds and bodies, on our world and on the people around us. In addition, there will be a time when we are not. And that is not an unfinished sentence. For, yes, when we die, we will not be who we (think) we are today. Indeed, it wouldn’t really matter to us who we are for we would not be able to conceive a separate identity or even of a ‘self’.

Of course, there was a time when I was not. A time when none of us were. For me, it was just before the 1980s. Yes, the time before I was even conceived! In this sense, there was a time when who I was wasn’t important. A time beyond self. And, this might be the truth about who we are. Or, rather, about who we are NOT. For, whether we believe it or not, our self may not be based on reality because an ‘objective’ reality never exists for us or any living being. This is because we will always experience our world through our senses. In a way, none of us can claim to have authority over truth.

Again, I’m not saying that there is no truth. What I am saying that we don’t have the capability to know absolute truths. There will always be a piece of the puzzle missing or, indeed, we may not have the means to find that piece in the present. We live in our own realities, if you may, and our sense of self may help us to better connect the fragments together. Yet, it would be a mistake to conclude that our final picture is the truth.

Who would we be without feeling? Without thought? Without emotions? Without society? Without the world? Without language? I could go on asking and asking more questions. But, I believe, that the answer to all these questions is simply that we would be not. After last Friday’s meditation, I realised how futile it is for us to give our ‘self’, an existence and importance as if we could exist without the smallest of living beings and without our brothers and sisters who form part of our human family.

Understanding this, I believe, is understanding the ethics of no self. For, if who we are closes our hearts and minds to others, then we are living the delusion of the self.