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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Living Out of Control

If you think about it, we are living a life that is out of our control. Indeed, while we may believe that we have enormous choice and the freedom that we assume comes with it if we earn a decent wage. Yet, even if we don't make a lot of money, we still believe we have a lot of choice about many of the things we have in life. 

Upon reflection, however, I realise how many times, we give too much credence to this idea that we have choices. Of course, we do have some choices but, nowadays, as we are depending more on people other than us, one has to re-evaluate our perception of choice. Sadly, if we assume we have greater control over our life than we actually do, there's a risk wee live with pretentious and with an attitude of arrogance thinking that we have the absolute right to a service or a product with out even   bothering to thank those who provided us with the means to achieve our goals with a polite expression of gratitude.

Granted, many times it's just not possible to thank all the people who have enabled you to fulfil your goal or need. Yet one should at least acknowledge the fact that behind the decisions you take there were people who have been instrumental to give rise to the necessary causes and conditions to enable you to make a choice in the first place.   

I feel that, today, I must acknowledge the contribution, however small, of anyone who made a thing possible.

I started meditating one morning as I was being driven to my office. It is here, of all places, that I realised how many people I depended on to get to work. Obviously, I depended on the driver and his motor skills. But, then when I thought about it there are plenty more. More than would fit in an entry without making it read as the first chapter of Genesis. But, it's worthwhile if we recognised a few - perhaps just seven:¬

  • 1. The driver. 2. the people who designed and manufactured the van and all its mechanical components.. 3. The garage people who performed regular maintenance. 4. The ones who distribute the fuel for the engine and are responsible for transport and delivery. 5. The other drivers on the road who respect traffic regulations. 6. The people constructing the road network. 7. The environment itself who permits people to sustain themselves to be able to do their work.

The seven categories in themselves may be expanded almost infinitely. At the same time, given that we live our life in time and space, the environment remains fundamental to all else. Without the environment, life is impossible.

It's here that I felt that while I choose to ride that van on this particular day, many things had to be in place for me to be able to make that decision. This includes having had a proper breakfast and taking my medication which are individual needs to the wider context, including the social and political atmosphere of my time. For, indeed, while we have a choice over how we deal with our life situations, there are many aspects of our lives including individual mobility, in my case, that are out of our control. In this, it is worthwhile to think and reflect on this reality because it is diametrically opposed to our Western myth of a an independent, or self-made, person.

By acknowledging that we are no one without others isn't, I believe, a sign of weakness. Rather, it's recognising the fact that we are co-dependent beings - that we can't be without others for others provided us with a name and a basic identity.

I may have believed that I didn't have to thank those around me in a proper way. Yet, I now feel that it's important at least to express my gratitude to all those who made living possible and who continue to make living possible.

This is, I think, what being human is all about! 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where were you on September 11?

Today, the world remembers the terrible events that took place in New York. More exactly, we are invited to spare a minute for the many innocent lives lost to the terrorist acts of a terrorist organisation we now know is called Al Qaeda. I have shared my thoughts and reflections on this tragic event every year on this blog since I launched it. Undoubtedly, the events which took place on September 11 changed the course of our futures for ever. Yet, now I am a bit reluctant to write because enough has been said and written that any word I add appears superfluous and, indeed, a way to draw praise.

On the other hand, in spite of risking to go with the flow, I feel that I can’t just let the day pass by without reflecting on the implications September 11 had on the world and how we relate to each other. In addition, I was lucky enough to have gone on top of the World Trade Centre (WTC) when I was visiting my relatives who live in the US. In fact, when I heard the news, my thoughts turned to my relatives abroad and, for a minute, it seemed I relived the times I had been one day there as a tourist.

Moreover, since the WTC, one of the buildings hit by the planes hijacked by the suicide bombers was also place where people from around the world could work together, it can be argued that the attacks against that particular building was an attack on the whole world. Obviously, it’s natural that after people learned of the people behind the attack, many hearts were hardened and the minds were poisoned by hate and resentment of the other, the “enemy”.

The fact that we would learn that Islamic extremists were behind all this would also fuel the growth of anti-Islamic sentiments still evident across the world. What should be a religion of peace which shared with its monotheist sisters - Judaism and Christianity - continued to transform itself, in people’s minds - to a religion of hate and violence. Thus, enforcing the divisions that already existed between peoples. A division that would erode any hope of peaceful dialogue and peaceful communication as the majority of the West chose to employ the very means of war and violence it had so heavily deplored.

Yet, the truth is that those who were and who are responsible for acts of violence and atrocities aren’t Muslims but, rather, using Islam to achieve their political ambitions and to eradicate all those they perceive to b a threat to their position and power. Yet, military action, as we have seen in the past, rarely achieves its aims. The more our response is that of violence and the more we cling to our feelings of hatred and resentment, the more we fortify the image of the “other” as the “enemy”. Thus, we may fail to understand that, even behind the most atrocious human acts, there’s a reason. Irrational, yes, but it is there.

For everyone justly spoke up against the attacks of September 11 but, I suspect, only a few of us really tried to understand why all this happened. While those leading the immoral cause of Islamism or to force the whole world to convert to Islam according to Al Qaeda, may be motivated by power and control, the people supporting and helping them may really believe that they have suffered too much misery when under Western rule that the only solution is to bear arms and fight.


We can’t forget our responsibility as our Western powers can’t be said to have been totally innocent and didn’t or aren’t still exploiting the natural resources of nations of the majority world* to build their own technology and infrastructure. Have we forgotten the many innocent casualties of random attacks/? In no way, does this justify violent and terrorist acts. However, we must be aware that we are also responsible for certain realities present in other nations simply because we value the land instead of the people who inhabit it. We’re ready to poison water supplies, cut down trees and keeping in power those we think we can trust not to oppose our authority.

Of course, there is also a lot of good we do, as Western nations, in the world to alleviate suffering. And wile it’s debatable whether September 11 could have been prevented, it’s true that it was a result, in part, of a collective arrogance and indifference in the ways we often act in countries where we think of people living there as somewhat beneath us.


What the world has gone through on September 11 should be a reminder of the urgent importance of keeping our channels of communication open. To listen and engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations when we can’t agree. To open our heart and mind and truly listen to what the “other” is saying. To remember the victims on September 11 burt to be prepared to let go of all our feelings of enmity and distrust. To be prepared to work together as we remain human beings who share a lot in common. Humans who share in our hopes and dreams, who have our fears and nightmares, and who want, ultimately to live a happy life.

Yes, I remember September 11. Yet, my thoughts also go out to Syria and to others who are dying right now because of famine and conflict. t. Thankfully, it was decided that, at present, no military intervention will be carried out against Syria but the path of dialogue and negotiation will be now pursued. Have prayers been answered? Or, more likely, the voices of peace have been heard and taken note of. Favouring one side over the other - who both claim they’re protecting the people - would have meant certain disaster and more bloodshed and acts of violence from both sides.


I conclude by asking the question which is also the title of this entry:

“Where were you before September 11?”

This isn’t a question to know where you were then. It’s rather a question that is intended to provoke you to think about how you viewed the world before September 11.

Have you thought about such a horrible thing happening?

Did you support peace and justice or did you go on life without caring?

Did you choose not to care about people who you thought were far away and, thus, insignificant?

Don’t worry if you answered yes to all these questions.

The truth is that, if anything, September 11 made us aware of the fact that we are connected with each other more than we thought. Even if it did harden some hearts, it should have awakened us to the fact that we depend on each other. We can’t afford to be indifferent to the injustices against others. We can’t ignore the environmental impact we’re having on our planet as all of us depend on it.


To truly honour those who died or would die as a consequence of the attacks on September 11, we must do our part in ensuring that our world remains a peaceful place that fosters an environment of mutual respect and cooperation.

One good place to start is within our own social circle and community.

But first we must cultivate the seeds of peace and compassion in our own hearts and minds!

I prefer to use the term "majority world" as opposed to "developing world" or "less developed" countries as the latter terms are making a value judgement about other nations and people assuming they are somewhat inferior. "Majority world" also reflects that the majority of the human population lives there. The opposite is true if I use the term "minority world".

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Day of Victory: Whose Victory Is It Anyway?

I've pondered on war and the consequences of violent conflict since we started hearing of the escalating violence in Syria. Yet, I considered writing about war and violence in earnest since in Malta, we celebrate Victory Day today, the 8th September.

Of course, September 8 also marks an important feast on the Catholic calendar as it's the commemoration of the birth of the Virgin Mary which is still a significant figure for a large number of Maltese citizens who tend to identify themselves as Catholic - even if they may not practice the faith. However, it's also a national holiday since two important events crucial to the history of Malta happened on that fateful 8th September.

The first event occurred in 1565 when Malta, then under the rule of the Holy Order of the Knights of Saint John, who with the help of the inhabitants managed to force a retreat of the forces coming from what was then an expanding Ottoman Empire. Apart from preserving the Christian religious identity many Maltese had adopted back then, historians have argued that if the Ottoman Empire had captured Malta as it had Rhodes, the whole of Christian Europe of the time would have been under threat.

The second victory happened in 1943 when Malta was saved from sure famine as convoys with essential food and supplies got to Malta thanks to the surrender of Italy. At the time, Malta was, once again, under foreign rule. This time, our country was a British colony.

If one thinks about it, none of these conflicts were initiated by the Maltese inhabitants themselves. One was taken up by the Knights of Saint John and, the other, by the British Empire. Granted, our descendants had it in their interest to protect their land and the limited resources they had from imposing powers and the intervention of our colonisers has, undoubtedly, saved us from certain invasion.

It’s also worth noting that our former “enemies" don’t exist as such any more. Italy is no longer fascist. The Ottoman Empire has disappeared. The same can be said about our past colonisers. Britain is no longer a great empire, even if it preserves some of its former aspirations, in a way, through the Commonwealth. As for the Knights of Saint John, it has no land of its own and only functions today more like a philanthropic organisation.

It can be argued that these victories ensured that Malta became the country it is today. Yet, these victories may be said to be victories for Malta but not necessarily belonging to the “Maltese” inhabitants. At the same time, those we had so vilified in the past are no longer our “enemies”. In fact, descendants of the old colonisers now join us in Europe and are our partners as well.

Unfortunately, some may celebrate Victory Day for the wrong reasons. Indeed, some appear to rejoice in Malta having slaughtered the invading soldiers of the Ottoman Empire or, else, celebrate the many deaths sustained by the fascist Italian forces and their humiliating defeat..

True, we may find the values that our “enemies” held , inconsistent to our own principles and ideals or even find them morally deplorable. However, we must not lose sight that beyond the "monstrosities" we project upon our "enemy", there are still human beings just like us. Besides, each side in the conflictt lost lives.

And many times, it is the younger generations who suffer the most in bloody conflicts since they are the strongest and usually the healthier people of a population and end up fighting the battles of others. Here, it's important to ask ourselves why? Why all this loss of life? One sure thing is that all this happens again and again. It is happening again right now in Syria and wherever there is violent conflicts taking place.

Granted, there may be various reasons for war. However, all may be rooted in a failure of communication. A failure to see other human beings as being our brothers and sisters. Clinging to power and control because we desire more. We become unresponsive to the pain of other humans because, in our mind, they cease to be human but become symbols of beliefs we despise. Violence and war becomes our only response to people we feel we lost control over.

In this sense, I find it a bit confusing to speak of victory on “Victory Day”. Yes, it’s a day when we remember all those who have died and whom made it possible for Malta and the Maltese to be what they are today. Yet, it shouldn’t be a manifestation in which we express our pride for having killed off invaders. Rather, it should be an occasion to remember all those who perished because they believed that they were fighting for a good cause - even if they might have been blindly following their leaders and superiors. Even if they might have been unaware of the ulterior or perverse motives of those who should be leading them.

On both occasions, Malta’s inhabitants where only trying to defend their land. Indeed, being an island, it was the only piece of rock they had. On the other hand, it must be said that both the Knights of Saint John during the Great Siege and the British during the war, protected Malta mainly due its location in the Mediterranean between Southern Europe and North Africa since it offers both powers with an ideal strategic position to conduct military operations against their enemies at that time. Strictly speaking, their effort to protect Malta wasn't an act performed out of any altruism or motivated by a genuine concern for the inhabitants. In fact, to the British of the time, Maltese people remained natives and naturally inferior to the English.

In truth, the divisions both us and the colonisers might have set remain creations of our minds and of the societies of our time. In fact,as history changed, we realise how meaningless many of the national values we believed in back then. And, except for a number of extremist and xenophobes, we don't don't explicitly believe that there are inferior and superior peoples.

But what does all this have to do with Syria?

We have a civil war escalating in Syria. Again, we witness a struggle of powers whom have defined one another in one of two main camps. Those who support the regime and those who want it destroyed. Some minorities find themselves excluded from both and threatened by an uncertain future. Battling parties are all competing for power and control. Some because they are being unjustly persecuted, others because they want to cling to power. Others even support one side over the other simply because they are seeking their own interests or justly fear that change might destroy them and deprive them of their freedom.

This is human nature. Everyone seeks to survive or gain advantage because they fail to acknowledge a common humanity. Even if war and violent action may be justified when parties persist in destroying the innocent and put lives at risk, it should be only the last resort and it should be moderate. I suspect that the path of war and violence appears to be favoured by Western powers depending on their affiliations with Syria in this case. So, it’s disheartening to hear that the US is close to undertake military action against the Syrian regime. However, I fear that this might cause greater waste of life and enforce divisions between the Syrian people - who will be the ones losing out in each case. Yet non-action would be equally devastating and unacceptable. That’s clear.

Yet, has the world took time to explore whether there are possibilities of peace and dialogue. Have we thought of ways of bringing justice to Syria by holding the perpetrators of violence accountable to their actions and intervening with a motivation to foster peace and not violence.

In this I join in the appeals of both HH Pope Francis and of his HH the 14th Dalai Lama in their call for the world to seek peace rather than war.

In war, there are no victors but what remains are broken families who lost loved ones. What remains is a taste of resentment that outlives any war.

What remains is suffering. Suffering that we create ourselves.

Violent action rarely achieves its objectives. It might bring about more immediate results, but it doesn't address the real root of the problem but only treats its symptoms.

I recall the saying that history is written by the victors as I conclude reflecting on victory day and on the events taking place in Syria. We may rejoice at the fact that Malta hasn't fallen to our past "enemies". Indeed, some attribute our survival during the Great Siege and World War II to the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary since, as I explained earlier, the 8th September is the feast of her nativity. However, while it may be pointless to speculate whether Malta would have been worse off if we had fallen to our past "enemies". But, I am sure that if history had turned out differently and Malta became Malta Arabia or Malta Fascista, I'm sure that there would be celebrations going on of a different kind. And I wouldn't be who I am today if I would have been ever been born in such a parallel Earth. Yet, I am here today and, thus, I have to carry my own responsibilities and do the little I can to make the world a better one than when I found it.

Granted, we have little or no power to change the world on our own.

Yet, we cannot afford not to care while thousands of people around the world, human beings like us, are suffering unnecessary suffering because they fail to appreciate the fact that they depend on one another and no one can claim to be better than the other.

I hope in peace - even if I know war is looming.

I still believe there’s a place for dialogue - even if the world seems to have drawn its own conclusions.

I believe that the only victory is a victory over the enemy within that seeks to fill us with vain pride that forces us to crush our fellow brothers and sisters.

Remembering the fallen is good, yes, but clinging to what we think we are is but a harmful attachment.

May there be peace in Syria and around the world.

May no more people die in vain.

May today be a better day. For our tomorrow depends on it!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Opening to The Intimacy of the Soul*

I come to write again after taking time to consider where my life is leading to. I admit, I am still confused about the direction I want to follow in life. I regret that the things that appeared to be of absolute importance to my happiness have become perhaps less important to me at this point in my life. This doesn’t mean that my disability activism, for example, is no longer important to me or that I don’t value the principles of inclusion I believed in before. Principles I dedicated lots of time and energy to promote. Rather, I feel that my calling is elsewhere.

I can understand if only a few readers might relate to my situation. It’s as if, more than ever, I feel a sense of emptiness. Of insignificance. It’s not because there’s emptiness within me. It’s because I realise that, as a human being, I am insignificant when compared to the extend of the cosmos. A cosmos that we can only barely understand with our scientific advances. A cosmos, that we may never be able to really understand.

In this state of silent contemplation, I only find myself confused and lost in an ocean that engulfs my whole being. An ocean which I want to escape from and be rescued from.

Yet, an ocean which I must cross to discover the place I need to be if I want to find more lasting peace and happiness. The refuge of the soul*. The cosmos that appears to mock my pretentious humanity is really drawing me to an authentic understanding of my real nothingness. Like the ocean, I am faced by my sense of nakedness and shame of having to declare my vulnerability and essential nothingness.

I was a child who wanted to know more. Indeed, I was thirsty for answers of why I was here. I admit that the death of my brother David a few months after my birth appears to have profoundly affected me. I realise this fact the more I develop my practice of meditation. It’s as if my need to make sense of my life - or why I am here - has become more important to me. More than anything else, I feel that I must face the challenge posed by an infinite ocean and the nakedness that the eternal cosmos reveals. For, in contrast to all this immensity, I am an impermanent nothing.


I once aspired to become a famous writer in my life. Indeed, this, I admit, was one of the motivations I had to write as a child. To perhaps join in the ranks of those many authors I found on the library shelves (I could reach). Yet, I wrote not just out of vanity but because, the more I wrote, the greater I felt free. There were moments when I wrote continuously, others when I stopped writing for days on end. It was both painful and cathartic to write. It was hard to have to put into words what I felt inside as what I wrote may have sounded brilliant but it never captured the complexity of my thoughts. And, even as I write

today, I am sure that what I finish will always be incomplete and dissatisfying. Hopefully, it is closer to the truth of my being but words and language are only mirrors of a far richer reality we may call the “soul”*. I am aware that while we may place a lot of weight on the words we use or the symbols we communicate, these don’t exist in their own right. A sentence, a book, or any form of expression, will mean another thing in another time or socio-cultural context. Yet, even if we may chose silence, it has also its meaning. However, at least, silence provides us with an opportunity to listen and contemplate on the significance of our human existence.

It may help us to free ourselves from the shackles of ignorance and open that little the intimacy within. 



I know that my life may be misinterpreted as a tragedy. Yes, it appears I lost a lot in the course of these 31 years I’ve been here on the planet. I lost my brother, David, before I could know him. I gradually lost my ability to walk independently, I lost a significant amount of vision and I am just slowly regaining my health and strength. Yet, my life isn’t exceptionally tragic to any degree. Defining me in those terms failsto acknowledge my humanity. I have only experienced more in life than usual, yes, but this doesn’t guarantee that my experience automatically brought with it any wisdom or exceptional insight.

 

A belief that is often implied whenever I talk to a few “religious” strangers. Indeed, I, myself, may have ben deluded by that demon of pride. A pride that seeks out to make one feel that one has the understanding and has the right outlook on life. A pride that refuses to listen and thus be unresponsive or hostile to other views. Views, which may be indeed wrong, but which must be taken notice of for hearts and minds to perhaps change and be more open.

These words would have been outrightly dismissed by my past self. But, these words are the ones I needed to hear.



I am a human being. I am disabled by a society that still considers people, like me, who have impairments, lives apart. We are not heroes, saints, villains, pitiful beings, abnormal, differently-abled or even “special”. Yet, I realise that while I recall all I believe in, I know there’s a deeper longing within that compels me to go beyond my work as a disability activist. For, while this cause is worthwhile and to be commended, I feel a strong need to go beyond impairment and focus more on the wider context of being human.

The fact is that since I grew in my understanding of Buddhism, thanks to the works of HH Dalai Lama and other scholars, I realise how important it is, for me, to reach beyond my self to others. Not because the experiences I have gone through life have made me any wiser. Not that I am special in any way. But because I feel that I must seek the source of my emptiness. To find refuge in knowing that all I have is impermanent and all will end, including my being. To approach this realisation, not with despair or despondency, but with mindful compassion and appreciation of every breath we take.

In doing so, we can wake up and release ourselves from the spell of pride.A point of awareness where we can see the afflictions borne out of hate, greed and desire melt into nothingness. A point where, even if we’re not totally free from our delusions, we are ready to open our heart to others and to all that is around us.
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I feel that unless I fully open my mind and heart to this greater need and purpose, there will always be that sadness in my heart. A dissatisfaction that, whatever I did in my future, all will be overshadowed by the knowing that I didn’t pursue my deepest yearning. That I put aside my call to compassion and to contemplate the purpose of my existence because I wanted to live a relatively comfortable life.



In doing that, I would have violated the intimacy of my soul*! 





* In the context of this article, the meaning of the word “soul” is not to be understood in terms of any religious interpretation. In this sense, the soul may be taken to simply mean conscious awareness in the present - in light of the fact that the “soul” or “self” is, in itself, not a static property of the mind and may indeed cannot be said to have a distinct location in the body but rather arises out of the interplay of the brain and the nervous system.