Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Choose to live

Recently, I was invited to the town of Santa Maria, in southern Brazil, by a group of concerned citizens and public officials to talk to them about the time we are living in. It was the place where 250 young people lost their lives in a fire at a nightclub in January, 2013.
It's very hard to forget the scenes of horror that were all over the press at the time, especially for families who lost loved ones. We know that life is hard, that tragedies happen - some preventable and others not. Buildings fall, ships sink, earthquakes and tsunamis destroy. In this case, it was a series of human errors, both before the event, as well as on the day of the disaster. The list of errors that contributed is long:
  • There was overcrowding that night.
  • The singer held up a flare on the stage.
  • The sparks hit the foam roof and started the fire.
  • The fire extinguisher at the side of the stage didn’t work.
  • The exits were too small to let so many people out.
  • Etc. etc.
As always, when such human disasters happen, we are left holding the pieces of a sad reality and the memories of what could have been. Despite the suffering, life goes on. Nevertheless, we owe it to those who perished – to extract the right lessons, both technical and human. We punish those who need to be punished. We mourn the lives lost. However, the greatest tribute to the beings who left their bodies in the fire is to learn all the lessons we can, to prevent similar disasters in the future. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee it will be so.
As always in such situations, we fall over ourselves looking for solutions. We follow Emerson’s phrase above to the letter. In this case, across the country, local governments mobilized to review permits for nightclubs and other indoor environments and to increase security. But hindsight and its lessons only serve us if they form the basis of a new and more comprehensive foresight, based on more solid choices. No point in getting into unreal verb tense - "if we only had or had not done something, we could have done such-and-such." It happened. Let’s move forward, but with more awareness.
In the lecture, I remembered the beginning of the classic by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, about the time of the French Revolution in which London and Paris were contrasted:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…"
This phrase shows the choices we have in all ages, and more especially this present one.
It is crucial to learn to identify the lifestyle choices that we have between the best and worst and to develop the power to discern which is the basis of making the right choices. Inner power comes from the practice of meditation and personal reflection, which help us to have less and better thoughts.
Someone who tries to see the world only through the eye of their own selfish interests, ends up seeing the world not as it is, but as the ego says it is. If we open our perspective , we naturally see more. If we see more, we understand more and choose better.
In a year like the one we have had until now, I can’t think of a greater gift for anyone of any age than to have the power of discernment. We are bombarded 24 hours a day with verbal, visual and written information. A human being who lives in a big city today learns more in one day than someone at the time of the French Revolution learned in his whole life. There is a continuous buffet of offerings for our senses. With so many varieties of products, services, courses and forms of entertainment it is hard to know what we want and to navigate well in a changing sea of ​​truths and falsehoods.
The power to discern is the ability to see the difference between two or more objects or situations. It is an important compass in these troubled times. It becomes one of the most powerful weapons for success, not only in our personal lives, but also in our professional ones.
Finally, if we have the power to discern, we can choose how, where and with whom we celebrate life.
Sydney Carton, the hero of 'A Tale of Two Cities', having traded places with a friend to die at the guillotine, says just before the axe falls: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” 
Until the last minute, we choose our way.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The real basis of happiness

He looked admiringly at his newly acquired collection of bossa-nova CD’s. Somehow, the rhythm and unusual chords that characterize this form of popular Brazilian music had grown on him since his visit to Rio last year. He took out the Tom Jobim CD and put it on.
On his way to the veranda, he picked up his favourite, pineapple juice, crushed ice and mint, and moved out through the glass doors. For the hundredth time since he had bought the place, he drank in the sight. At 1000 meters, he was surrounded by sub-tropical rainforests. A string of deep-blue lagoons stretched out below him, some of them opening into the turquoise sea that was only five kilometres away. The sun was throwing a magical play of light on the whole magical scene.
“Your lasagne is ready, honey,” his wife called from the dining area. He had married her just a year ago. Though it was his third marriage, it seemed that finally he had found someone who he could share his life with. She made great lasagne.
“Bring it out. I see table is already set.”
“Coming up,” she said as she came rushing through with the steaming porcelain dish. She was flushed and that made her look even prettier. Maybe it was the pride in having made a great dish.
“Smells delicious. I'm feeling starved. Something about this mountain air makes me ravenous.”
A few minutes later, he was just about to put the first forkful of cheese, tomatoes and pasta into his mouth when the phone rang. Annoyed, he put down his fork and said, “I’ll get it. How come every time I sit down to eat the damn phone rings.”
He rushed to the phone. From the veranda, his wife could see him nodding and exclaiming.
When he came back in he was a white as a sheet. “What happened?” she asked. “You’ll feel better after you eat.”
He stumbled over the words. “I've lost my appetite. That was Mum’s doctor. The tests have just come back to him. She has a tumour in the liver. Malignant. It doesn't look good.”

Comment:  We set up our castles of illusion on the unrealistic premise that nothing can ever happen to tear them down. Sometimes, just bad news can make us oblivious to the favourites of our sense organs. We don’t hear the music, smell the air, see the sights or even taste the food. We are not aware even of the company around us. Something happens that we can’t understand. It doesn’t fit into our ideal world.

Real happiness isn’t based on the things around us but our understanding of them.

Short story from the book,"Reflexões para uma vida plena" by Ken O'Donnell , Editora Integrare, São Paulo (link)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ego's ugly side

It’s 12:45pm. You only have another 15 minutes for lunch and then back to the office. You had to stop by at the supermarket to get a couple of items for the night's special celebration. The queue is long, even for those with 10 packages or less. You jump to a shorter line and for some reason it stops. You see the queue you just left is starting to move faster. Meanwhile, the guy in your line at the cash register starts to question the price of something. After a few minutes, it is sorted out and then he decides to put credit on his mobile. Another few minutes pass due to an error with his number. By now, you start to fume and make nasty comments to the person behind you. No result. You turn up the volume of your voice so that the girl at the cash register hears. Maybe you hope to make her feel guilty and get things moving. As you come closer, you see that the guy has a guide dog on a chain waiting patiently on the other side. You feel embarrassed and look for somewhere to hide.
Congratulations, your ego has just raised its ugliest side. You in fact, are the blind one.
From both Latin and Greek the word 'ego' just means 'I'. Even though the concept has been used by Freud as the mediator between instinctual urges (id) and reality, the more common use refers to a sense of self-identity or self-importance. Usually it is associated with arrogance or selfishness. The problem is not the ego itself, but how it is used. After all, 'I' am just 'I'. 'I' am not anyone else. 'I' can be the best or worst me. It all depends on how I see myself in relation to others and events. 
In the above example, because of the rush, the person in the story can only see his own needs and is totally unaware of the needs of the blind man in the queue. This myopic self sees the world as a function of itself. This limited ego is a sun and other people and things revolve around it. 
Through meditation practice and an understanding of some basic rules of the game of life, I can start to associate with a greater sense of self. I am a spiritual being. As such, I am a child of the source; we call God, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva or whatever.  I have a wider and deeper vision of the world. I see others in their own right and not as a function of my needs or desires. I see how the past impacts on the present in any scene and its future consequences. By being broader and deeper in my approach, I am emotionally more stable. Spiritual effort therefore is not to annul the ego but to really elevate the sense of self and see things as they are and not as I am. 
In the Jewish tradition, this ugly side of the ego is described as a giant standing at the crossroads threatening people with a huge axe. The impatient ones run from it or do what it wants. The observant ones notice that the giant doesn't have any feet and remain unconcerned with its threats.
Let's do a re-run of the previous scene:
It’s 12:45pm. You only have another 15 minutes for lunch and then back to the office. You had to stop by at the supermarket to get a couple of items for the night's special celebration. The queue is long even for those with 10 packages or less. You notice that the people in your queue really have very few items. You wait patiently your turn and things start to move. As you come closer to the cash register, you notice a guy with a guide dog trying to sort out the cost of something. You subtly empathize with him. It's your turn and you pay for your items. You still have 5 minutes to get back to your office around the corner. You feel good. Mission achieved.     

In essence, I just have to be the best me I can possibly be.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

You don’t need to be an expert to do something interesting

We live in a world that is over-specialised. Just take a look at the field of health care. There are specialists for every part of the body - eyes, ears, nose, face, bones, blood and so on. In the field of emotions, there are experts on phobias, manias, syndromes, relationships. The list is endless. Law has become so complex that even for simple things we need to consult a lawyer. I remember talking to the president of the Sao Paulo city council when I went to give a talk there a few years ago. He told me that his aim was to reduce the 11,000 municipal laws to 8,000 within a period of two years. Everything in our lives seems to be regulated, but in the chaos of Sao Paulo, things certainly don't seem to work in a regulated manner.
As we become experts on the different fragments of reality, we have probably lost sight of how it all fits together. Furthermore, we have come to rely more and more on those who are just specialists of fragments. In the poem The Rock (1934), T.S. Eliot expresses this very clearly:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, But nearness to death no nearer to GOD. Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

In the search for deeper meaning of the pieces of life's jigsaw puzzle, we are mostly intimidated by the way experts are valued in our society. Many believe that they need a diploma and years of experience before they do something important. This may be true in some cases. We certainly need to have studied surgery to perform it. Who would want someone representing them in a tricky legal matter who didn't have the necessary qualifications and experience? However, in terms of living and interacting with the world, the only qualifications we need are to be sensible, curious and determined.
Several years ago, I had an idea to create a DVD with visual meditation commentaries and only music in the background. There would be no words, thus making the project incredibly accessible. No words means no translations. As human beings, the greater part of our communication is connected with feelings and vibrations and the fact that we have common aspirations related to love, peace and happiness. Words are sometimes even superfluous. So I figured that by preparing some simple videos and making them available, people would become interested.
I am not an expert on graphic design or video production. In fact, I would consider myself to be just a dabbler in these areas. Unfazed by my lack of expertise, I prepared a demo and gave it to a friend in India who subsequently posted it on Youtube. Now, a few years later, that simple inspiration has been viewed 3,246,644 times (on the day of posting this blog). If you are interested click on this link.

Really, you don't need to be an expert to do something interesting and for the benefit of others. Also, don´t get lost in the fragments.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Things are only strong when they are used in their context

The squalling winds had settled down to a stiff breeze as the young boy alternately sauntered and skipped across the beach. Suddenly, a strangely shaped object whitened by the action of the elements attracted his attention. As thick as a man’s leg at one end, curved and tapering out almost to a point at the other, it came almost to his shoulder.

Laying it out in front of him with the care of newly born wonder, he picked up a nearby rock and started to pound it to see what it was made from. After fifteen minutes of profuse sweating and little headway its hardness defeated his efforts.
With a gleam of joy in his eyes he came to a definite decision. Picking it up and dragging it through the sand, he hauled it slowly up the rise to his home a few hundred metres away.
There, his father and elder brother were halfway through the building of a new brick fence to replace the wooden one that had been flattened by the worst storm in recent memory. Seeing his young son puffing and dragging a huge curved thing across the grass he cried,
“What do you have there?”
“I don’t know Dad, I found it on the beach. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Taking it in his hands and examining it from different angles his father stated simply,
“It’s part of the backbone of a whale. It must have been washed up on the beach during the storm. Why did you bring it here?
With innocent pride the boy announced his excellent idea,
“I thought you could use it in the fence. It’s so strong.”
“No doubt about its strength, son. Many fishing boats have felt the power behind a whale’s swishing tail. But it would be out of place in the fence. It just wouldn’t fit in with the bricks and mortar. Instead of helping it would probably make the structure weaker.”
Uncomprehending and with a forlorn cast of his head he turned to lug it back to the beach.
“Then you can’t use it?”
“No, son. In spite of its strength, it can only have curiosity value.”
Things really only have power and strength when used in their right context. If I have all the patience in the world, yet the situation requires determined action, my internal structure is weakened and therefore any protection it could have afforded me is lessened.
If I have unabated enthusiasm to act yet the circumstances necessitate perseverance, I’ll not be able to withstand the pressures they bring.

Meditation helps me to accumulate spiritual powers and virtues so that they are at my disposal when and where I choose to use them.

Short story from the book,"Reflexões para uma vida plena" by Ken O'Donnell , Editora Integrare, São Paulo (link)