Sunday, November 27, 2011

Those Were the Days: What it Means to be Human

I just saw what I think is a very clever commercial from Nando’s restaurants in South Africa. You can check out the link but in summary it has several dead dictators playing like kids to the tune of “Those were the days”. I won’t spoil the punch line. Now, I know some will think the video tasteless and perhaps making light of wrongs doings but I ask you to see the other message. Okay, the other “other” message — the one that is not funny and not tasteless. That is, the message that says regardless of the evil committed, a part of our humanity remains intact.

To be human means many things but it includes feeling sad, lonely, fearful and angry as well as the lighter sensations of joy, desire, playfulness and contentment. These feelings may be hidden behind layers of selfishness or cruelty but they are there, however untouched; however unexpressed. Those emotions are part of our humanity.

Every dictator was once a child. They were once a little baby, a new born with only curiosity and innocence to accompany them as they started walking the path of life. Who really knows what makes humans turn against their fellow beings in cruelty and cold-heartedness? What percentage is genetic? How much does the environment factor in? Or depending on your belief system is it part of a spiritual lesson? I don’t have the answers but I do know that everyone was once a baby: naive, curious and innocent. To be human is to recognize that we never lose that childlike essence, however hidden; however denied.

The video reminded me of an energy session I gave to a man in detox about ten years ago. I knew of this man, let’s call him “John”, or at least had heard of him, from his girlfriend, “Mary”. Mary had been a regular in several of the other agencies in which I worked. Through these sessions I heard stories of abuse at the hands of John. I also heard how she loved him and would never leave. Unfortunately, Mary died from complications of a fall… perhaps a push. John was suspected but never charged. About a month after she died, John applied for detox and appeared on my massage table.

It was almost more than I could handle having John in the room. He talked a lot of Mary: of his love for her and how sad he was that she was gone. Although he never mentioned his own failings, in fact, just the opposite, his grief was real; his misery complete. As a practitioner, I knew I had to do something to be present in that room for his humanity. The only thing I could think of was reminding myself how John was once an innocent babe. Connecting with that thought allowed me to see him in another light. I don’t know why or how he became the man he was, but at that moment it was unimportant. It was a small child, a child who lives within each and every one of us, who was reaching out. It was to him I offered compassion.

I never saw John again after that session so I don’t know if my attempt at open heartedness was helpful but I like to think it was. Maybe, just maybe, having that part of himself seen and heard helped him grow. Then again, maybe it didn’t. All I really know is that opening my heart helped me grow.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


This is a Tibetan story by Anam Thubten Rinpoche as retold by Barbara Helen Berger. I found it in Parabola: Tradition, myth and the search for meaning, Vol.32; Issue 1.

Once there was a humble ani, a nun, who loved the enlighten lady Tara* with all her heart. Ever day when the sun was rising over the mountains she climbed up to her rooftop. There in a loud voice, with palms together, she chanted her prayer to Tara. And the man who lived next door couldn’t help hut hear it.

He winced as if the sound hurt his ears. The ani chanted the prayer with so many mistakes. She never got all the words right. She even left some out. The man was a scholar and knew very well how the prayer ought to be done. Yet he was puzzled. For every day in the light of the rising sun, he saw the glorious Tara herself limping to the roof next door.

How amazing, he thought, how strange that Tara was coming to visit the ignorant ani. Why was she limping? Surely it must be due to all the mistakes in the prayer.

So he went next door and the ani greeted him with a smile. The scholar said, “I am sorry, but you are not chanting to Tara properly. You are doing it wrong.”

The smile fell from the ani’s face. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t worry,” the man said, “I can teach you.”

So the ani tried hard to learn, little by little, until at last she was able to say each syllable right, each word in the proper order, leaving nothing out. Then every morning, the scholar was pleased to hear her chanting without a single mistake.

After a while, he noticed that Tara never came to visit the ani anymore. He puzzled over this. Finally he went next door.

Greeting the ani with palms together he said, “I am the one who made a big mistake. Please go back to chanting as you did before.”

So she did. Joyfully, the ani prayed as she always had. Her face shone with devotion. She sand out in a loud voice with her whole heart. She didn’t say all the words right. She even left some out. But know the scholar heard only a voice of pure faith. And sure enough, every day in the light of the rising sun he saw the glorious Tara herself come limping** back again.

* Tara is also called the great compassionate mother, the embodiment of wisdom and the great protectress.
** Tara limps because “the story is not meant to excuse our own sloppiness or lack of knowledge, but to assure us that a pure and deeply felt intention is always stronger”.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thinking Beyond the Extreme

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about extremism. She was okay with the existence of extreme views as they provided the bookends in defining an issue. I was more uncomfortable with an extremist stance but agreed that without the parameters they provided we would have less creative thinking. Solutions to life issues can arrive when we bump up against the rigidity of the extreme and look for compromises and new pathways. The problem, of course, is that extremism tends to promotes resistance which can set up its own form of extremism.

Extremism of any sort comes down to black and white thinking: this is good; that is bad. We all do it to varying degrees: “organic food is good”; “pollution is bad”; “democracy is good”; “capitalism is bad”. Most of us, however, are willing to state our view but also hear the opposing side. Yes, pollution is bad but what causes pollution can also provide jobs. Yes, organic food is good but is it still good when it travels 1000 km to our plate?

Extremist views — the rigid kind, the ones not open to debate —are based in fear. If I don’t believe or act this way, something bad will happen. If I compromise, I will be seen as weak, or maybe even die. If I don’t believe this, then who am I?

Fear, as I’ve written before, is a factor of the bystander effect and is what gives bullies their power. It creates victims and pyrrhic victories and is what keeps us from acting interdependently. Fear, however, is not a “bad” emotion (even if there was such a thing). It is part of what makes us human. Fear lets us know where there is danger or something unfamiliar. It helps us be cautious and provides the adrenalin to get us into action. The problem comes when fear is unacknowledged. Unconscious fear sets the stage for unconscious expression: we lash out or hide, hurting ourselves or others. This kind of fear stops us from manifesting our humanity and brings on the rigid, uncompromising extremist beliefs that polarize our communities.

I just read about an abortion conference that took place last year in Princeton’s University Center for Human Values. Both sides of the abortion debate, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, were present and the extremes of both sides were well represented. In reporting on the conference, William Saletan wrote an article on how the two sides of the abortion debate can learn from each other— how they could seek an understanding that is progressive rather than threatening or hostile. How, in other words, pro-lifers and pro-choicers could step down from their fears and be more creative in their thinking. I’ve included the links to his article below.

Part one is “What pro-lifers can learn …

Part two is “What pro-choicers can learn …

I invite your thoughts…

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ring the Bell

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

L. Cohen

More reflections on how to step up to the plate of interdependence.

Sometimes the answer is simple yet so profound. Take this example from Plan International’s report, Because I am a Girl: So, what about Boys? The study argues that gender equality is good for both boys and girls and that “there needs to be a shift in thinking from ‘men and boys as part of the problem’ to ‘men and boys as part of the solution’”. To that end, men from diverse countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, El Salvador and India are coming together and discussing topics such as “gender-based oppression and violence, power dynamics within the family, intimate relationships, sexual and reproductive health, human rights and democracy”. From these discussions projects such as ‘Ring the Bell’ in India are not only promoting gender equality but stopping violence.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

"In 2008, men and boys started to break the cycle of violence against women in India with a simple, effective action: when they heard a man abusing a woman inside a nearby home, they rang the doorbell or found another way to interrupt the violence. They made their presence known. They halted the violence simply by lifting one finger.

This campaign, produced by the organisation Breakthrough, known as ‘Bell Bajao’ (‘ring the bell’ in Hindi), has now touched 130 million people, won a Silver Lion Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and become a metaphor for stopping abusive behaviour in any form. In addition to inspiring thousands of people to ‘ring the bell’, Bell Bajao has led to an increased awareness of laws against domestic violence and increased reporting of the crime.

Today, more and more men and boys are ringing the bell. And around India, a conversation is happening. It is challenging social norms and changing behaviour. And it is making violence against women, which was once seen as acceptable, unacceptable."
North Americans are not immune to gender-based violence or inequality. The question as always … what can we do as individuals to ring the bell?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hiding in the Stairwell

It is wash day and I carry my two loads of dirty clothes down the stairs and into the laundry room. I happily spy both washers idle; I load the machines, feed them coins and go on my merry way. Half an hour later I come down to do the exchange and find, of the two dryers, one is running and the other one stopped but occupied, supposedly finished. Inside are two items of slightly damp clothes. Laundry ethics come bubbling up: what do I do?

Most apartment blocks in which I have lived tend to have unspoken rules about laundry etiquette. Queue jumping is a universal no but when to take another person’s load out of a machine is fraught with independent notions of right and wrong. I tend to be on the side of time: once your drying time is over, you best be there to care for it or, damp or not, it ends up on the table. That was, however, a theoretical stance. I’ve never had to put it to test … until today.

I looked at the facts and explored the possibilities. There were two items of slightly damp clothes sitting in a stopped dryer. I could wait for their owner to come down and put more coin in the machine or I could take the clothes out and lay them flat on a table in the suggestion of care. As the machine was stopped when I got down there (for who knows how long) and my dithering added more time, I figured I had already given the unseen owners at least five, maybe ten minutes to be time attentive. I weighed the options and made my decision. Out went their clothes, in went mine and off went I, merry once more.

An hour later I came down to retrieve my dry clothes. I was just about to open the laundry room door when, hearing voices inside—a man and a woman—I stopped. I knew with gut certainty that one of them was the bearer of damp clothes and, although I felt righteous in my decision, I wasn’t in the mood for confrontation. It was nighttime, I was tired and not a little defensive. I did the sensible thing and hid in the stairwell. I figured I could wait there until they left, how long could it take? Meanwhile I practiced poses in case someone came upon me: “oh, you surprised me, just walking down the stairs was I.”

It took awhile but finally the man’s voice left the room and headed for the elevator. I breathed a sigh of relief and decided to wait out the other. Minutes went by. As the cement stairs chilled my patience my gut urged me to accept the truth: the woman was not going to leave. In fact, she was probably waiting for the dryer thief to make his or her appearance. I looked into the proverbial mirror of my soul, agreed, and entered the laundry room.

It was Eunice. Now Eunice and I have a history of laundry day tactics. She once accused me, falsely I must say, of queue jumping and you could see her reviewing my sordid past as she confronted me again. I leaped to my defence before she could get in a word and convinced her of the rightness of my actions. She begrudgingly agreed so I magnanimously apologized for my part in her disrupted routine. Whew, friends again. Federal politics have nothing on what happens in the laundromat.

I bring this up because every day we make decisions which we either take responsibility for or, in avoidance, hide in the stairwell. Take last week for example. My father, who lives a good two to three hours away, had a short stay in hospital. I bussed out to his place and when he was released, stayed a day and a half to make sure he was okay. Standing at the bus stop, the morning I left, I was overcome by feelings of guilt: I should stay another day; I should care more; I should cancel my appointments in town; I should prioritize; I should, I should, I should.

Finally, my rather opinionated gut stepped in again and said, STOP! You’ve made a decision, now take responsibility for it. In other words, stop hiding in the stairwell of guilt and get on with life. And so I did. Once I put the “shoulds” in their proper place, I was able to review my decision to leave and come to peace with it. My father does not need my guilt or overwrought care. He does, however, deserve my respect and compassion. I can respect him more when I not only take care of my needs but take responsibility for the decisions I make however right or wrong they may be. Plus, in taking that responsibility, I can have more compassion to both him and myself.