Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dear Almighty Follow-Up Letter


Dear God or Powers that Be or Whoever Else is in Charge,

Man with drill and welding mask
Yes, it is me again. Remember I wrote you an open cyber letter about two and a half years ago on June 2, 2011 to be exact? It was desperate times then, and my humor was a fool's cap hiding my tension, distress and anxiety. I was in dire straits to say the least, see the picture on the left for a re-enactment thereof (photo is courtesy of Chris Koelbleitner).

Then one Thursday evening I felt the weight of helplessness turn into pure and seething frustration. I had not found the stable job I was looking for and, in fact, the most recent gig had fizzled into thin air. It turned out that I had merely embarked upon an already sinking ship. So in this mood, I entered a drug store that Thursday evening and out of the blue I received a call for an interview for the following day and was hired a mere few hours after the interview! My life changed in a flash!

Things thanks to you improved drastically thereafter. I got to teach subjects I loved the most; I enjoyed the work environment and got along very well with my boss, co-workers and students, and I had the relatively stable income I had been looking for. So the following month I bought the wished-for and promised iPad for my son's third birthday. And I also ended up buying the flat-screen TV and the Blu-Ray player mentioned in my previous letter. Taking out my family for lunch or dinner became a more regular pastime as I did not have to worry about making next month's rent.

(True, a good chunk of my savings then went towards my son's dental surgery, but again thank you for making him come out of it just fine! Those were anxious and tear-filled two hours, but it is now a thing of the past, and I am grateful for it!)

So as we both can see you have fulfilled everything I have asked of you! It has been even beyond my expectations and only reinforces my belief in asking and thou shalt be given. I asked with an open and honest heart, and you indeed blessed and showered me with all those gifts. My gratitude knows no bounds.

In fact, if I look at my checklist of things I would like to do, it has become much smaller now. My blog was published as a book (although not a bestseller but still), and I have been involved with some level of film-making (this Halloween our student film club made an interesting short film: Zombie Zone) as well as the occasional book review (whenever I get some free time).

This year of 2013 has been very good to us. It has not had the ups and downs of previous ones, but that is a good thing. The summer was amazing, and we got to do many things. There was also enough time to catch up on movies and TV series. I had a rather sick Christmas (not in the slang sense of an awesome one, but I was actually sick myself and so was my family). But thank goodness again nothing too serious, and we are all on the recovery road again.

So what am I asking for now? The continuation of how things have been both job and health-wise, again if possible and if it so pleaseth you. Of course, being a petty human who is never fully satisfied with what they got, I would like to have a little bit more fame (perhaps a rush of visitors to my blog?) and also be able to afford my own home somewhere down the misty lane of life. But again, no rush.

On the good side I have reached a steadier and calmer outlook on life. I realize that I am generally happier with who I am and where I find myself. And I find myself closer to the spiritual world. I will try to practice this and not let it escape my grasp; I am also aware that one cannot grab things, but must learn to let things go, to simply be and roam freely. So again my constant plea remains that if possible give me the necessary shove here and there so I do not stray from the Path.

One thing I have realized lately that it is important to be good and serene within, but that one must also act out those good intentions. I will try to be so, more in acts than faithful words. One of the things I have started, which again you already know, is to read the Bible. I am trying to comprehend it and read between the lines to understand what it is you or your spokesperson is asking of us humans. Though at times I get more confused, but I blame this on religious spin doctors and not on your Word or Truth. In the meantime, I continue to read and reflect upon philosophy to sharpen my mind and soul and to be better at grasping or recognizing some bit-sized truths on existence should I stumble upon them.

But for now, I am happy as ever and wish everyone a very happy new year. May 2014 bring us all blessings and perhaps a little bit more peace and tranquility within and without.

As usual and always with love,

Your humble servant A

Sunday, December 29, 2013

We are what we believe: A Book Review of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

Book Cover with a Pillar and Clouds

Well, first things first: I really loved this book! Sorry, but I had to unabashedly get this off my chest. Here is the erudite philosophical self-help book that I always intended to write, but was beaten to it, and then some. Its full title is even longer than (yet quite similar to) my own blog address: Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. And its author Jules Evans is uncountable steps ahead of my idea to start a philosophy support group that cherishes life's joys and mysteries. All said and done! To make matters worse, he is the same age as me (actually I believe he is younger)!

But the similarities do not end there. Here is an excellent and resourceful book that examines the history of ideas with a focus on ancient Greek and early Roman philosophers and relates it all directly to the practice of modern daily life. All of this is done with a healthy sense of humor that does not distract but only adds to its philosophical weight and significance.

The journalist-philosopher Jules Evans treats philosophy very seriously and with passionate enthusiasm. When he claims that philosophy is for life (both crucial for one's existence and as a lifelong practice), he really means it. Philosophy has, if not saved his life, at least given him purpose and direction for his own existence. The practical aspects and emotional benefits of philosophy are examined by looking at how it has influenced psychology and how there are a number of direct offshoots of the Socratic method, including CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and Positive Psychology to name a few.

In fact, CBT functions on the following assumptions that go back to the great Greek philosopher Socrates. The first step is to try to know oneself through vigorous and relentless questioning of one's core beliefs. Once our automatic, subconscious and irrational beliefs come to the foreground, they are rationally analyzed and if valid, accepted; if not, they are discarded and replaced with a new way of thinking. The final step is to continue this new behavior until it becomes automatic and part of one's core identity.

This seems rather simple, but it is very difficult to do as we may lack complete honesty, resolution and / or discipline to follow through. For example, let us say that you are socially anxious and think that people are always thinking negatively about you. Then, you would check this belief for its validity. Is it true or it is merely your own fear or your own lack of acceptance of yourself projected onto others?

If it is true, then you might need to evaluate reasons why you are not liked or accepted and perhaps adjust your behavior accordingly. If it is all in your head, then you might want to change your negative ways of thinking and replace them with a more positive and, of course, more realistic outlook of how things are (it is indeed quite unrealistic and counterproductive to want to be liked by everyone!). Many focus too much on their failings and let their many successes go by unnoticed or simply shrug them off as matters of sheer luck, which only fosters negativity and low self-esteem.

All of this seems most useful for those who are suffering from depression or have had traumatic experiences in the past. One of the things that one learns is to see the world from a different and more rationally balanced perspective. For instance, there are things that we are responsible for, mistakes we have made in the past, both big and small. Sure, but that does not mean that one should club oneself over the head for the rest of one's life. At some point, one has to accept it, try to rectify it (if possible) and then move on.

The strange thing about the past is that it is not real. It is emotional baggage that we carry around with us, and it is to a large part our own choice and decision, whether we realize this or not. However, unless we deal with it effectively, it will always come and haunt us and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have had your share of abusive relationships, it is important to focus on the opportunities of the here and now instead of harboring on your negative experiences of the past.

In this book, there are real life examples of people who have been sexually abused as children. This is a horrendous experience that I think must be rather impossible to shake off. But this is not about repression or denial. What happens is that victims tend to internalize the blame and see themselves somehow responsible for what has happened to them.

This goes hand in hand with the belief that everything that happens to us is our own doing or rather undoing. But that is definitely not true. There are many events and setbacks that are completely out of our control. For example, it seems silly to think that we can control the weather, that we can make it rain or shine. It is equally absurd to believe that we are responsible for today's thunderstorm. Along the same vein, the child did not seek sexual attention, but was abused by others. That child is not responsible for those horrible experiences and must not believe it to be so.

I think the fact that we can let go of the past and not be too obsessed about the future can give us a tremendous amount of legroom and freedom. It is breaking the karmic cycle, the negative loopy prison we have gotten used to and caught up in. We can start anew, at anytime, but especially right now. Of course, we cannot create miracles, but we can eventually get somewhere one thought at a time.

This is where Stoicism becomes quite relevant. I have previously blogged about how stoicism can change our life, and Jules Evans not only agrees with me but puts it into clearer perspective. His journalistic quest gives us ordinary people from different walks of life (including soldiers, gangsters, astronauts, and anarchists to name a few) for whom stoicism has made a substantial impact.

Again, we may not be able to control our environment or things that happen to us, i.e. our fate or destiny, but we can channel our reactions towards them. Evans gives us examples of resilient war prisoners who have even endured torture. Their core beliefs in Stoic philosophy has given them the strength not only to withstand the pains and pressure, but to survive these experiences. They did not break down mentally; they did not let the enemy get inside their heads, and despite all the traumas they came out as victors.

One may think of examples of martyrs who withstood pain and death to the very end without giving up or renouncing their beliefs and ideas. It is true that Christianity was strongly influenced by and consciously embraced philosophical strands of Stoicism. In fact, Stoics believed in a kind of unalterable fate ruled by a mysterious Logos and that whatever happens to us needs to be accepted without complaint, just like Job had to go through numerous slings and arrows of misfortune and somehow made it through them all.

But this insightful book does not merely look at the Socratic method or Stoicism (they are merely appetizers here), but it comes as a complete menu that includes delightful dishes, including Epicureanist, Platonist, Aristotelian and Cynic morsels, flavors and spices. Jules Evans also successfully made me see that Heraclitus is not the material philosopher I took him to be, but that he was actually rather mystic in his views.

We also meet the Skeptics, and their current growth and offshoot linked with atheism and based and fed on by science. They fight against religion with rather crusade-like fervor and with at times equally dangerous dogma. One thing that science must have learned from its history is that facts do no always remain facts but can easily be replaced by other facts and that our knowledge is tentative. Hence you cannot be completely sure of anything and real skeptics ought to be skeptical of that and subscribe more to its agnostic sibling instead of dismissing religion as a whole.

Rarely has philosophy been so much fun and easy to follow (just like Arash's World?) and it is amazing how much information is condensed and distilled in these 200+ pages. In fact, Evans has done his research, and he also aptly and suavely references current pop media and film (anywhere from Star Wars to E.T. to Memento) as well as politics. He summarizes the beauty and magic of ancient Greek philosophy without dusty jargon but with pulsating lifeblood. He is not spoon-feeding you philosophical opinions and does not have hidden agendas (except perhaps to make you appreciate philosophy more).

In fact, this book gives you the option to choose to set your own moral compass or dance to your own philosophical tune with whoever is to your liking. At the same time, Evans scrutinizes and evaluates each branch or movement in an unbiased and balanced manner and gives each philosopher a fair hearing. There is much to be learned and commended by this. It is a book that poses the question how one should live and offers different viable interpretations to select from. It is a book of enormous value in a world where values need to be valued more than ever.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Teaching and the Difference between Being Educated and Having an Education

Picture of an empty sidewalk with brown leaves
What does it mean to have an education? And how could it be different from being educated? Are the two not one and the same thing? Should they be?

That depends on one's philosophy for teaching, which, in turn, strongly affects the method of teaching. Throughout Western history (with some notable exceptions during ancient Greece), the role of the teacher has been predominantly to instruct and provide knowledge by instilling, ensuring and maintaining discipline. 

Students in this view were seen at best as tabula rasa, empty vessels or blank sheets of paper that needed to be filled or written upon. This is what is commonly referred to nowadays (at times in a derogatory manner) as lecturing (something that pretty much every teenager abhors).

Indeed that is how lecturing works. The idea is that the teacher has knowledge that they will impart upon or transfer to the students in order to instruct or correct them. Knowledge is regarded as something that can be possessed alongside with the framed document that goes with it; you will find that the particular student mentioned on the diploma has managed to reproduce (or regurgitate) knowledge in a satisfactory manner.

The extreme form of such a type of learning is the imposing headmaster at his pulpit threatening with sticks and other forms of punishment. Students then are to memorize the works of famous learned people, and in this way they would be able to reproduce and demonstrate anytime and anywhere the information they have received. Such students are often referred to as walking dictionaries. They can give you the facts, dates, and numbers on merely any event. They live under the maxim that knowledge is indeed supplying power to them.

Yet they do not really have power. Put them in a difficult situation, and it becomes apparent that they are lost even with all their knowledge and information in their heads. In current times, they are easily replaceable with a smartphone that can do what they do and with much more accuracy and detail to boot. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is rather useless since it is rigid and inflexible and cannot be applied to different fluid and complex situations.

If we look at teaching, it does, more often than not, follow that sort of scheme even today. We give our students certain facts and expect them to be able to recall them in oral or written exams. If they differ from what we deem right they are often penalized and denied a passing grade. They would have to repeat the motions until they satisfy the teacher who is a kind of gatekeeper, while the student may be at times as bewildered and desperate as Kafka's Josef K.

Certainly, there are more and more movements in education toward applying critical thinking and other types of skills. The students are expected to fulfill a list of learning or performance outcomes to show that they have learned what has been taught to them. It is better than merely learning by heart as they are given the opportunity to apply their knowledge.

This can be best illustrated by giving the example of mathematics. There you may memorize the formula, but you need to use it under differing circumstances. In that sense, the knowledge or skills are the magical formula supposed to help you attain good worthwhile jobs and, more importantly, to get you through life.

The benefit of this method is that there is at least some direction in accepting that students are not as “empty-headed” as first assumed. In fact, we are building upon or refining some of their skills. A more student-centered approach will also give them some leeway to express their skills in more unique or creative ways instead of prepacked and fabricated chunks of information.

That is, of course, as anything of value, easier said than done. As instructors we still have an image of the exemplary student in our minds and whether subconsciously or not we do compare our actual students with our mental notes or prototypes of them. The danger is that while we may assume students did not learn a thing, they might have done so in their own ways. Furthermore, it could turn out that our methods of evaluation may turn out flawed or distorted. A student may have anxiety of exams and hence not do well on any of them.

But that is not all there is. Education is not just about knowledge or skills that can be acquired or possessed. The problem is, in our materialistic world, we are so obsessed with possessions that if something does not give tangible results, we automatically assume it is a failure. For example, if a person lacks wealth or a good job, many of us will deem that person a failure. But money on its own or the possession of knowledge does not immediately signify success.

Let me give an example. There are people who are very good at jumping through the hoops of education. They can provide the answers their instructors are craving to hear, and they are very good at giving the impression that they are indeed educated. But it may turn out that it is more about appearance than true education. They are not ignited with the passion for learning. Education is not something that ends with your degree; in fact, that is only the starting point.

My take on teaching is that our message as teachers needs to vibrate within the soul of our students. Something must click within them or at least partially open their eyes to the world and themselves. They must learn to ask questions instead of following authority blindly albeit respectfully. They should gain curiosity about the subject that they did not have previously. Education then is like sampling food making you want to eat the whole dish.

In fact, food is a great and fitting metaphor here. Education should be like the wafer of the body of Christ that is assimilated and resonates with one's whole being. It should not be confined to the classroom or the duration of one's degree. It has to be woven intimately within the fabric of one's essence and being.

Critical thinking and curiosity are two things that need to be practiced at all times. While as teachers we may end up teaching our students discipline, it is up to them to eat and drink up our own passion for knowledge. In other words, being educated means that they have got the message and that they have changed through this contact. It is intellectual, emotional and also spiritual.

The student develops and starts paving and carving his or her own path. And whether they passed the course with a high grade or not is of lesser value here. In fact, it is our materialistic thinking again that focuses and places too much value on grades. If the course has changed your way of thinking or touched you in a unique way, it has been successful. A degree should not be just a piece of paper; it ought to be engraved deep within your heart. 
 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Robert Reich on Inequality and the Steps to Fix it

A thank you chocolate note from organizers


I've been worn down by the economy” was the entry line of Robert Reich, the renowned economist who served both under Presidents Clinton and Obama. It was a clever remark because not only did he set a succinct tone of humor from the onset, but he dissolved the first impression that was on every person's mind, namely his height, or to put it bluntly, the lack thereof. By openly and humorously acknowledging it, he immediately shelved the issue and now the audience at the Orpheum Theater could fully focus on what he had to say instead of harboring on his physical height.

Apart from being entertaining, there were many points and observations of interest. His main concern was that our world though globalization and technology has re-shifted the labor force and that the current state of economic affairs - mainly in the US but also a growing worldwide trend - mainly benefits those who have-a-lot and who get almost all the gains, while everyone else is struggling hard to survive or get by.

This causes an ever-widening gap of inequality leaving most of us at a disadvantaged position. In the meantime, the government is too busy working out the best deals for the 1%, whereas the 99% have been unfairly designated to carry the burden. Reich explained that the sectors and jobs that are the most valuable and beneficial for society as a whole end up being underpaid. For instance, the American government does not invest sufficiently in education; in comparison to other jobs it pays very little to educators.

It was during his talk that I realized the gravity regarding the shutdown of the government at the time and the impending debt deadline. Reich said that it would have had disastrous effects on the economy, but it is a good thing that clearer heads have prevailed since. However, Reich also pointed out that American politics is often too entrenched in ideology and what's worse name-calling and laying blame. The best thing would be to put those conflicts aside and to try to make veritable progress.

Reich also pointed out that there are a number of practices that used to work in the past but are not followed due to misplaced and shortsighted greed. The United States economy was continuously growing until the 80s when it suddenly swerved and started taking a nosedive.

Yet according to Reich the best economic practice for an owner was to treat the workers well and to pay them good salaries. One of the most pronounced examples in history was Henry Ford. His decision to give his workers more than decent wages forced other companies to try to keep up resulting in an overall much healthier and balanced economy.

That in turn led to more profits for Ford since his workers not only produced more, but, more importantly, they were able to afford Ford's own cars. Although some have disputed that particular claim, this wage increase helped solve the problem of turnovers because workers who get paid well are willing to work harder and produce more, and they do not want to lose their jobs. Hence that extra incentive or effort could only benefit the economy.

This was the best case scenario, a win-win situation. Relying on natural resources and exports is tricky because they are dependent on a host of factors outside of one's control. But if your consumers are your own people, then everyone would benefit, and this would create not only economic but also political stability. There would be no need for radical groups on either the left or the right since most people will be content with what they have.

To get to that point of progress and stability, we need to also compete with other countries. Both the US and Canada need to ensure that they have a particular and very valued resource, namely, skilled trade. This is where education would pay off dividends and a nation can indeed profit from it. 

By turning one's people into valuable and sought-after assets and resources, one would also be able to weather the technological storm that is making certain jobs, such as cashiers and bank-tellers more and more obsolete. There are many things that machines cannot do as well as humans and that is where most focus needs to go on. In other words, this brings us back to the caring professions, such as nursing or teaching.

One of my questions was that if there are people like Reich in influential positions, why are things not changing. My own answer is that things might be more complicated than that and even good people may not be able to make a definitive and lasting change. 

However, as Reich claimed if people start taking more political action, if they are more aware of the issues facing them, then they could make the government more accountable, and that is how real and lasting change might occur after all. So as they say, crisis represents opportunity, and this would be our time to bring about those necessary changes and to diminish the gaps of inequality that our North American societies are riddled with.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Being a Father – Five Years Later

Boy showing five fingers to his father


It seems both baffling and amazing that a handful of years have already passed since that fateful and fortunate day fatherhood with all its thrills and responsibilities was heaped upon me. My son has started his path of formal education this year, his kindergarten. And I am thrilled to say that he has a general and overall liking and enthusiasm for learning and that he enjoys being in an educational setting. (I myself was never able to sever my ties with education, which is why after my own studies I embraced teaching, an occupation that continues to be my passion.)

On the down side, we have been plagued with a number of diseases and infections that resulted from the sudden social mingling of many kids in closed spaces. It took its sad toll on the health of my son, who very regrettably missed most of the first two months of school because of it. I sometimes wonder whether it is a good idea to start school in the fall right in the midst of 'flu season.

In terms of my relationship with my son, I must say that I find it even more pleasurable and satisfying than a few years back, my last post chronicling events and happenings around age three. My son's reasoning skills and imagination have taken interesting leaps and bounds, and I often find myself more on the defensive when confronting his many questions.

To give an example: My son has been told and is aware that pregnancies mean that there is a baby inside. We told him that he too appeared from his Mommy's belly. Now since I as a father need my share of contribution as well we told him that it was I who put him there. This explanation seemed to satisfy him ... until recently.

The moment and question I had been afraid of had come: Daddy, so how did you put me in Mommy's belly? Through hugs and kisses was I believe my answer. Now I am awaiting more grueling questions on the subject perhaps sometime soon.

He also surprised me with the observation that certain animals are meat. He claimed that cows and chickens are forms of meat and hence different types of animal altogether, whereas dogs and cats are simply animals and not meat. Part of me shuddered as we are decided non-vegetarians at this point of our lives, but he took it as a matter of fact that some animals are meant to be eaten, and that's that.

The other day the matter of tails came up. My son expressed the desire to have a tail, so I told him that we used to have one at some point of time. That must have been cool, he claimed, but so what happened then? This led me to introduce to him the theory of evolution. I said we have evolved from apes and monkeys and all he did was look at me with a quizzical look and say: You are kidding, right, Daddy?

As such, you can tell that our conversations have become a genuine pleasure. I do not try to overburden him (if he still cannot embrace natural selection I am fine with it for now) and I am ready to merely listen to him and marvel at his ways of reasoning. The other day I told him that our dead goldfish was an angel in heaven; I was hoping to carefully tread or perhaps circumvent the painful topic of nonexistence, and he turned to me and said, Oh, I thought that sort of thing was just a fairy tale. On many occasions I get schooled by my own wee one.

Yet it is through his own desire that he has discovered the pleasures of reading or at this point, being read to. I know that some parents try hard to instill a love of books in their children and have their bedtime stories routine dating from the stages of infancy. I have never been a fan of that because I do not like forcing things upon my child even if it is meant for his own good.

So when he asked me to read the story of Chip, the little teacup from the Beauty of the Beast, I did not hesitate a second. For the past year we are taking out books from the library, and I read to him almost every night. His literary taste has gotten more sophisticated over time and now he has taken a liking to superheroes, ranging from Spiderman (who he dressed up as for Halloween) to Iron Man and X-Men; these days he is curious about all the characters of Star Wars, instilled and awakened by his most favorite game of Angry Birds.

Here is my five-year-old boy who listens to Abbey Road nonstop (love the album and choice of music but listening to it ten times every day is a bit too much) and who beats me when it comes to the iPad. I have told him that I cannot wait for him to take computer science classes so he can help me to try to make heads and tails of this thing called technology. I can't wait for that to happen, but at the same time, I enjoy the path there. No rush for my little one to grow big yet.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Meister Eckhart and the Constant Presence of God

Book Cover of an angel sculpture with clouds in the background


Dedicated to John O'Donahue (1956-2008)

Meister Eckhart's vision of religion is remarkably beautiful and simple. This enlightened master strips away the unpleasant and tedious bits of religious dogma and turns them into a mystical harmonious song. For the most part, Christian religion or rather its supposed spokespersons tend to focus on grave matters, such as penance, suffering and death.

There is often too much emphasis on the pain and suffering that Jesus had to endure to wash away our endless and never-ending sins, alongside the harsh judgments that God will bestow upon us in the afterlife, the everlasting burning flesh and spirit that would await us if we stray from the righteous path. In fact, God's eyes and ears are always following us at every turn of life, evaluating and judging every thought that crosses our minds, while at any moment he that giveth can taketh it all away.

These views if believed and harbored upon fervently may make a sane person psychotic. The fear of God is incited within each of us, and we are told that we are worthless sinning machines that basically do not deserve his gracious love. In fact, to most of us, this god seems distant, high up there beyond the clouds, and he often turns a deaf ear to our pleas and desires.

But this is not Meister Eckhart's view and interpretation of religion. In fact, his God is always present, never far away from us. It depends on our willingness and decision to have contact and a personal relationship with him. All this time he is always there, either inside of us or at the door, waiting for us to invite him in. And he would never refuse an invitation even if it came from the lowliest and most sinful persons.

Eckhart's views on sin are not tragic, heavy or pessimistic compared to mainstream religion. God is both fair and loving and looks beyond the multitude of sins we may have committed. In fact, the most important thing is to be at peace with oneself and to disregard sins, acts of repentance, and atonement. Even a sinner or criminal who fully accepts their punishment as fair and just is blessed in the eyes of Eckhart's God.

Such a view is uplifting because it is all-embracing and inclusive. The focus here is less on one's actions, the Catholic idea of good works and acts of repentance, but rather one's inner life. It is there that one can have a meaningful relationship with God; it is there where the true Church of God exists within each living being.

In fact, Eckhart's views are Buddhist when it comes to the sense of detachment. He says we need to be poor, not in terms of giving away all our wealth, but rather in spirit. We need to “empty” ourselves of all that is impeding a meaningful relationship with God, that could be, for instance, our own selfish wishes and desires, or our greediness and constant quest for pleasure and gratification; instead we ought to accept and fill ourselves to the brim with God.

Because when we embrace God, our will unites in his. In a mystic sense, God and I become one, the same way husband and wife are meant to be of one flesh. In such a state, everything becomes a gift and a blessing of God, as he knows, tailors and measures everything, good and bad, according to each individual need and capacity.

For example, not everyone is supposed to be or can be a saint. God will give you what you can handle and not overburden you with what is beyond your capabilities. We would need to accept and embrace what he gives us, both the good and bad because either becomes divine when it has come into contact with God.

Eckhart gives a beautiful metaphor involving food. He says we may feel that certain food is good and bland according to our taste buds. But when you are imbued with the light of God, then your taste buds become like his and everything will “taste” divine. You will master bouts of suffering equally well and easily as you do with periods of happiness. Your feet may be grounded on the earth but the face of your spirit is always looking towards heaven. And this applies to every single human being on this planet.

As we can see, Eckhart's view is of an upbeat, loving and personal God, someone who does not impose himself upon us, who does not burden us with rules and laws of obedience, someone who neither punishes nor strikes back. It is rather a God that is there for us in times of need and in times of happiness, who always has an open ear and heart to our conditions, and who is always and everlastingly present and close by.


Postscript: It had been my intention to share this piece of writing with the late John O'Donahue, who apart from being a poet was also an expert in Eckhart's “cathedral of thought.” In fact, his foreword to Eckhart's collection of sermons that I was reading was impressive and put many of Eckhart's views in clear perspective urging me to want to share my ideas with him.

Unfortunately, he has left us and all too soon. So I would like to dedicate this post to him. John claims that the soul is our “door to the divine,” and I believe that he has passed through it to be where the vast silence of Being is voiced

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's Wrong with the American Political System?

Political Spectrum according to Liftarn


The current news about the US government shutting down, at least partially, and the looming debt crisis that could take both the American and the global economy for an undesirable and unpleasant spin is rather baffling, to put it mildly. How can a government just shut down is my main question and concern here.

Some of the main problems with the American political structure are due to its two-party system. There simply is not enough diversity in the government body; since they are more often split evenly that can cause serious problems when it comes to decision-making.

We can see it as the bickering between two people. In relationships sometimes negotiations can also come to a halt and one avoids addressing the other. This would continue until one party accepts concessions and incites and invites the other to have a dialogue again.

When things get to an impasse, we would need a somewhat impartial third-party to help us smooth our differences. In our relationships, this could be a friend or a relative who helps us see beyond our own narrow and set views.

Likewise, the Democrats and Republicans have their own love-hate relationship. Since the powers are split quite evenly, things can easily come to a standstill. But in most other countries, there are more parties to go around – the more the merrier – and so if you wanted to make such vital decisions, you would have to consult and would need the support of others to get it done. In other words, it would be more difficult and cumbersome to shut down the government.

Yet it is not only the limited amount of parties that is of issue here, but also the lack of clear ideology. Most of the times, the US feels like a one-party government. There are so many overlaps between their positions that it is at times difficult to discern who represents which party.

One of these examples is the occasional switching between party lines. It then seems like a game of hot potatoes where people simply change their allegiance. If the parties were significantly different from each other along the political spectrum this would be a very rare event since the left and right wings would rarely meet each other halfway on the centrist path.

My second point relates to the startling history of both parties. In fact, in the past, it was the Democrats who were the “bad” guys and who were broken up into War and Peace Democrats, while great Republican heroes and thinkers like Abraham Lincoln fought unjust laws and regulations, such as slavery. As a visible minority your vote used to go to the Republicans who initially took civil rights to heart.

Then the parties became mirror images of each other. The Democrats became champions of civil rights and justice especially after Roosevelt's New Deal, while the Republicans generally opposed such rulings or liberal ideas. The country became split similar to Civil War times where the South differed significantly in ideology from the North.

It seems to me bizarre that both parties could overhaul their historical records and positions. It astonishes me because it does not give us stability and accountability in views and ideology. In other words, this gives the impression that any party could go in any direction at any time at a whim. That would make voting much more difficult and as reliable and trustworthy as reading your horoscope.

All in all, there is not enough choice offered in American politics. It is chicken breast or thighs, but both parts come from the same animal. Since the spectrum of political views is not covered sufficiently, there is not only more bickering but also more variation among the politicians themselves and within the party. This leads to contradictory statements about Democrat presidents having been the best Republicans in office, and vice versa.

Since there is so much leeway and lack of alignment within one's party, we have movements such as the Tea Party, which is giving the whole Republican party a dangerous turn towards the right. Within the party, there is a lack of harmony because it includes a dissonant and desolate body of voices and opinions. Perhaps it would be good idea and time to separate such minor factions and to turn them into viable opposition parties.

Indeed as polls suggest about a third of the American population consider themselves as Independents, perhaps waiting to align themselves with an alternative third party. Because next time, people vote for a party, they will want to have more security and assurance to get who and what they believed voting for in the first place.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On Hamlet and Nightclubs

Gate to Shakespeare Summer Event



On a midsummer Saturday night I had the fortune of witnessing a modern adaptation of Hamlet at the Bard on the Beach festival. It was my first time to attend the annual event the flapping tents of which had been tempting me for quite some time. I have no qualms with modernized versions of Shakespearean plays as long as the text with its incomparably beautiful language is left intact and is not tampered with.


As this is the longest (and in my view the most ambitious and profound) of Shakespeare's plays I expected some cuts and edits here and there due to time constraints. When I feel like taking in the full unedited version, I will always faithfully turn to Kenneth Branagh's magnificent and faithful film version of the tale at the comfort of my abode. In fact, no matter how interesting or engaging the play may be, sitting on one's behind for four hours straight surrounded by hundreds of strangers and without any access to crispy snacks is indeed a challenge even for hardened Shakespeare fans.


Again I did not mind that swords were generally replaced by guns. I also found the multimedia aspect of this version rather interesting. The characters are mostly in modern business suits, and Hamlet has an ever-present prop and gadget in his hand, his android, which was occasionally used for taking pictures and heavily used as a music-playing device. The music itself ranged from techno to The Beatles (the Revolution track in particular) to a bizarre but amusing use of Velvet Underground's “I'm sticking with you.” There were also TV monitors displaying the news on CNN regarding the political actions of Fortinbras.


Most of this worked for me and the highlight was the play to catch the king that involved mini-cameras filming a dollhouse projected on a big screen. It had a Lynchean feel to it. The scene where Hamlet confronts his mother and reprehends her for choosing Claudius over his own father by showing her pictures of each person on her iPad was rather ingenious.


A number of personal reactions struck me as I was watching the play unfold before my eyes. The timelessness of Shakespeare came to mind. In terms of plot and subject matter this play has not aged a bit. Nor has it regarding wisdom. There is so much knowledge and insight contained in these three or thereabout hours that it makes one's head spin. Having it performed live surely helps since one can pick out a variety of puns, which the reading eye may not catch to its full resounding extent.


Moreover, Shakespeare gives his characters life and dimensions; he fleshes them out carefully and then throws them into action. Hamlet who had always struck me as a neurotic à la Woody Allen can come out as a deeply troubled, if not insane, young man.


His quest for answers concerning life and death resonates in every philosophically or spiritually-inclined person. His musings are ours; our doubts, hopes, fears, desires, frustrations are reflected therein. That there is a time interval of four hundred years is no matter here; the questions are as freshly troubling as ever, the answers equally elusive.


With those ideas throbbing and pulsating in my mind I decided to walk home. I crossed the Burrard Bridge and enjoyed the nighttime view from above occasionally stopping to take a snapshot with my iPhone. I imagined Hamlet in my situation perhaps deliberating whether to jump or not to jump. In my case, I was thrilled with the warm mid-summer night air, while my spirit was replenished with masterful art; in fact, I even wished I could travel to the stars and hug the glowing moon.


My walk lasted about half an hour. After the bridge I reached a bustling street that had its share of young people all dressed up and ready to dance, to party and to get drunk. Some of them were already in an inebriated state.


Many of them were waiting in line to get to the hotspots, the most popular and thriving nightclubs in town. They were excited. I could see it in their faces, their hand gestures, their body movements, and I could hear it in the timber of their voices. Some of them had come to have a good time with their friends, to vent off steam from life's many pressures and/or to find a temporary and dispensable sexual partner.


The women looked great. They had brought out their sexiest outfits for that specific moment. During the day, they would clothe and hide themselves in appropriate office wear, but at night they would give free reign to the sexy tigress within them. Some of them perhaps just felt good to look attractive; others may have had other objectives in mind.


As all these people were chatting loudly and passionately about God knows what I realized how much I was out of place. My thoughts were revolving around Hamlet, art and existence and here there were these young folks who did not give a six-pence or farthing for any of that. They were here to devour life, to take it by its horns and to drink it with gratifying pleasure.


My own ideas of pleasure felt at odds. Even in my younger years I preferred the company of a good book or movie over the wild and bustling throngs of people. Nightclubs never really appealed to me. They were too loud. One could not have a decent conversation in there.


One could not talk about philosophy, life, and Hamlet in those stuffy and often smoke-filled rooms. Beer and alcohol dulled, not sharpened the mind; they lulled one's speech; they distorted one's equilibrium. They brought out baser or more instinctual pleasures to the foreground. They also had the bewitching power to make (almost) everyone appealing and desirable.


That was never my world. Sensual pleasures, unbridled, free and selective does appeal to me at times (in thought not in deed!) but I still prefer the life I have. My wife and my son and my days of going to family events, watching movies and TV series, or reading and blogging are what matter to me.


These are my pleasures, pure and simple. I remember once being asked in my psych class what was the most pleasurable thing that had occurred to me that week. Without hesitating I answered that it was buying the latest Sting CD. I am sure I am missing out on some pleasures. But at the same time I am profoundly happy how things are and the way I am and deep inside I do not think I am actually missing or missing out on anything of real importance. I was and hope to be true to mine own self. 
 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Does God of the Old Testament fear Humans?

Glass skyscraper pointing to the sky



This may seem like an absurd (and blasphemous) question at first sight. God is considered perfection personified with all good and commendable attributes elevated to the nth degree, their highest and most extreme form. God is omnipotent; he can change the course of history, slaughter humans and animals alike, close and open wombs, split seas, burn bushes without leaving a trace, create miracles out of thin air and humans out of sheer dust.


Interestingly, Adam was created in the image of God. So in a sense if he is not a mirror image, then at least Adam is similar in likeness to his Creator; in other words, he is like God. Adam can be seen as the child or student, and God his father and master. Nonetheless, it is made clear from the outset that God is and must be at all times superior to Adam. God commands full and complete obedience from his creation.


Yet it so happens that there are two trees in the Garden of Eden. Whether God put them there on purpose (generally not a good idea since it would imply a self-defeating act) or they were there to begin with, namely that heaven ispo facto comes with those trees in the very midst of the garden, or whether perhaps someone else had planted them there, these are all questions and speculations beyond the scope of this current post.


It seems that neither Adam nor Eve paid too much attention to this; they knew of the existence of the Tree of Good and Evil which God forbade them to eat from at the expense and punishment of death, but they showed no particular interest or inclination towards it. This changes, however, when the Serpent points out the “benefits” of eating from the forbidden fruit, often referred to as apples due to its Latin similarity of its root word malum denoting evil.


I imagine that both Adam and Eve started pondering whether they should have of it or not. They do not want to disobey or displease their God, yet the seed of curiosity is budding within them. The serpent had assured them that they would not die, but rather their eyes will be opened, and they will see and be like God; they will know the distinction between good and evil and become wise.


At that time, they are still shielded and protected by a complete ignorance of evil. But what if they were able to cast aside their naivety and open their eyes to both sides of the spectrum? They would not only gain knowledge and learn to distinguish good from evil, but they would be able to make a choice, to have an operating and functional will.


Although this is often depicted as transgression or disobedience towards God, I see it more as an act of empowerment. It may look like willful or sinful rebellion, yet their actions in my view are not ill-intentioned because how could they know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong at that stage? You cannot blame someone for doing wrong or for being unethical if the concept of and distinction between right and wrong makes no sense to them.


God's reaction is very interesting here. He gets furious. He expels them from paradise, blocks its entry with cherubim guards and a flaming sword and curses the ancestors of humanity with labor (in both senses of the word) as well as death.


But why? Sure, they did wrong, but so does everyone else who is innocent, naive or lacks knowledge about the world or ethics. Adam and Eve are not perfect, and I do not think they fully knew what they were doing nor were they aware of the grave consequences of their action. All they did was to eat some fruit. Big deal.


Yet what if that act had given them unprecedented power? While they may have been in the likeness or appearance of God, they were not equal to him in their powers, imagination or mental faculties. But what if suddenly they had come a step closer towards enlightenment or godhood?


Adam and Eve had acquired knowledge, but what was missing was the everlasting strength and power. Yet incidentally next to the Tree of Good and Evil, there was the Tree of Life. Now if they had also eaten from that tree, they would have been given eternal life to boot. They would have been on par with God Himself! God gives voice to his fears – as he is talking either to himself or to a companion - claiming that man was becoming like them; should Adam and Eve also eat of the Tree of Life, they could live forever.


By acting quickly, expelling them and guarding the gates of heaven with heavily armed angels, it seems that God made sure that day would never come. To make matters worse - for us and not for him of course - he gave them mortality. He let them struggle for survival; they had to sustain themselves by their own means via constant work. Gone were the heavenly days of bliss and idleness and ever since then humans have to work with the sweat of their brows for a piece of bread.


My second example is the Flood. What if God destroyed almost all of humanity not merely because of their purported evil ways but because he had effectively lost control and say over them. Perhaps they were getting too independent or insolent for his taste. It seems that in the revolutionary minds of those people, obedience was the last thing on earth they would have embraced. Yet God sees that if he killed them all, his own work and diligence would become futile, so he saved one of the best of their kind for posterity, good old Noah.


After this clearing of accounts and new tidings, we have another instance, namely the Tower of Babel. This is the most explicit example where humans try to reach (for) God. Yet this stairway to heaven was not welcomed by God. Why not?


God could have dismissed it as an idle and innocuous threat, but instead he took it quite seriously. We do not know the actual intention or motivation of the people in Babel. Did they simply wish to contact God or did they want to besiege and take over his territory?


Either way, the consequence is quite clear. God is telling someone (again whom???) that humans have become too unified and strong, so he brings about confusion by confounding their tongues.


It seems that the unity of nation and language had created a possible threat to the dominance of God. It is mainly through this united front that they conceived and dared to engage in such an ambitious feat, namely to construct a tower so high that it can reach the very top of the firmaments, the zenith of the skies. Just like Adam, they too are banished and spread out around the globe, and instead of harmony, discord is created amongst them.


Now it may be that all of these speculations are misguided and that God would never fear humans because he is at all times and in all aspects and respects superior to all of humanity. Perhaps it is that the God of the Old Testament is merely demanding and strict. He does not tolerate the slightest disobedience from his creatures.


According to the Old Testament, any other hobbies or pastimes, not to mention other gods, are strongly discouraged, and such transgressions are often punished with death or exile. In fact, worshippers are told to wash their hands and feet before praying or else they shall die. These types of pronouncements seem too harsh, if not petty or unjust, in our modern eyes. Maybe it is that the God of the Old Testament is indeed a jealous god as he himself proclaims on certain occasions.


If it were not for Moses's ardent pleading, God wanted to kill them all for their offense, namely for praying to and idolizing the holy calf. God insists on being faceless and ought not be symbolized or represented in discernible ways (this is all pre-Jesus times of course). In the end, God accepts to sign another covenant or treaty with humans forgiving them once again for their sins and trespasses. It is only over a long period of time that God and humans manage to slowly build trust and a hopeful and lasting relationship with each other.


The question still remains whether God is indeed afraid of the capabilities and potential of humans. Yet if God is indeed jealous, then he is more in our likeness than we would care (or dare) to admit. He would be plagued with the same uncertainties and demons, but then that would be a contradiction in terms to the superior and excelling qualities we generally attribute to God. It would take Jesus with his new gospel and the New Testament to come in-between God and humans, and he would redeem the latter and console the former to attain lasting peace between each other.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Food Rituals and Culture around the World

Photo of a Sample of Iranian Food



On one of those sleepless summer nights I caught moments of a French CBC radio show (strangely enough that channel is my antidote to insomnia) in which there was talk about food and its influence and connection with culture. In this social anthropology of food, the main observation was that ethnic food from relatively poorer or developing countries, such as India, Thailand, Mexico, and parts of Africa are more popular and known - not to mention tastier - than Western food. So they looked for possible underlying reasons for this phenomenon.


One of the factors that influences the preparation and consumption of food is family harmony. In fact, food brings the family together at the table, and it is shared and eaten as a kind of bonding ritual. This is mostly the case in collectivist countries in which family is given more importance and priority, and food becomes its indispensable ambassador.


In Mexico, I was often surprised how poor people who barely have enough money for their daily expenses do not tamper with nor moderate their amount of food consumption. They eat well regardless of their economic status, and they would even go to extremes of pawning their belongings to offer their guests abundant quality food. It is seen as a major embarrassment if there were a lack of food or drink at a get-together, and countries that appreciate and value these bonds are known to be the most hospitable.


In such economies, the patriarchal structure is still prevalent. Women are often responsible for cooking. They usually take and spend a lot of time in the kitchen to prepare sumptuous and delicious meals for the family. It is all made with love, and they become the glue that can create and sustain family harmony. For modern Western ears, this may sound as a serious case of sexism or male chauvinism, and to a degree this is in fact so.


But since women are often not pursuing careers in those countries (although this is beginning to change), they perfect their cooking. Strong flavours are more common in such societies and food is seen as both pleasurable and sacred. The delicious taste relaxes the tired and hardworking bodies and fills and renews the souls. Time stops and tomorrow (or mañana), with all its work and pain and suffering is kept at bay for the time being.


Ethnic food is recognizable by its strong, pungent and easily recognizable smell, whereas it seems that Western food is embarrassed of any types of odors even if they be pleasant. Since time is often perceived as money, food becomes merely important for its physical properties, namely as fortification of the body.


The less time one spends on cooking food and the faster it can be consumed, the more hours of work and hence income would become available and possible for the individuals. This may be a reason why in Western societies, family is not a top priority, and food becomes diverted to more shallow and less expensive forms of nourishment, such as junk and fast food.


In addition, there are other factors that influence the type of food, such as the choice of ingredients. In tropical climates, the taste of these ingredients is often richer and more natural, whereas in colder industrial climates, we eat for the most part genetically modified and manipulated food that looks good, but has no particular taste.


Also, a high consumption of food may slow down the metabolism, which makes people sleepy and leads to laziness. This may be a taboo word in Western culture, but it is generally accepted in others, especially Latin countries that still insist on the practice of siestas, with the potential aim to sleep off one's meals.


Lastly, food is also its presentation. We are rather squeamish when it comes to it. There are many things we do not eat, and we want our food to look presentable. Having a fish with its head and eyes staring at you from your plate will not make your mouth savor.


But Mexicans and Chinese, for instance, are not so concerned whether their food looks delicious but are more preoccupied with its taste. And there are indeed very few things considered taboo in those cultures, including blood and brains, food we often attribute to vampires and zombies respectively.


It is a shame that food is not as celebrated here as in other countries. It is not the same ritual for us. Food as celebration is usually delegated to the outside, namely to restaurants, picnics or barbecues. Few, to my knowledge, have sumptuous feasts (the occasional festive days excepted) in which the aim is to devour delicious treats in the name and for the sake of harmony between family and friends.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Catharsis and Purification: INLAND EMPIRE as Religious Viewing Experience

Poster of David Lynch's movie involving capital white letters



There has been quite a lot of criticism on David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE so that I felt intimidated approaching it despite a generally favorable penchant for this director's work. My Lynch initiation happened with the sublimely mysterious Blue Velvet, followed by the entertaining and surreal, at times downright creepy series Twin Peaks (first - and most likely only - time I saw cherry pie combined with Zen Buddhism on television).  

Wild at Heart disappointed and left me cold the first time around but I saw its merits and comedic value after repeated viewings. Lost Highway I did not care for much, and although overall praised I did not think Mulholland Drive to be that outstanding. Good yes, but for Lynch it seemed rather "average" (though the silencio scene does still creep me out). Heck, I even enjoyed the generally panned Dune, but I simply adored the straight-edged road movie Straight Story told with a heart.


Normally, I would have simply overlooked the negative reviews had it not been for the unpleasant experience of watching Eraserhead, a film that was praised by most but I thought that it was Lynch just being weird for no clear rhyme or reason. As one critic had said, all the characters in Eraserhead seemed to have undergone lobotomy treatment; what was fodder for amusement felt silly or rather unfunny in this case. (But again I must give it another chance and perhaps I did not get it the first time around.)


So when critics compared INLAND EMPIRE with my nightmarish experience of confusion and boredom of Eraserhead, it was enough to keep me at bay (plus its almost three-hour running time and the fact that Lynch had apparently improvised as he went along added only fuel to my existing doubt). It took me more than seven years (a symbolically appropriate number in itself) to approach this underrated gem of a movie. And just like previously panned movies like Goya's Ghosts or The Soloist, many critics plainly got it wrong. (Though I must admit that a lot of them got it right too and, in fact, they praised this wonderful movie for its various merits.)


But back to the movie itself. The movie is not without its flaws (I still think it is a little too long and errant for my taste) but the same flaws are also its strengths. By rambling through scenes, Lynch is immersing us deeper and deeper into the psyche of its main character(s), while holding and balancing us gently but firmly in its narrative web. It may lack polish (pun intended) and a coherent script (!), but none of this takes away from the unique experience of this film; it rather adds an irresistible nightmarish aura to the movie.


Some have commented that the movie is incomprehensible and plot-less. The latter is true as the story is not linear nor does it have a discernible sequence of events or actions (all we are told is that actions have consequences). A movie without plot is not a bad thing per se, at least nobody could claim that it has any plot-holes since there is no plot to begin with.


Hence I shall do away with the elements of plot, and at the same time reduce the chances of spoilers by simply looking at some of the many themes that this movie covers or deals with. My main focus here will be on the medium film and its spiritual or emotional repercussions on the viewer.


First off, there is the quest for identity or identities. This is not only about identity in our lifetime, but also across time and perhaps even involving past lives. Yet it is also about “losing one's identity,” that is to forgo what one sees and defines on a superficial level (name, looks, status) and to dig deeper into the core of who one really is. Equally, it is about losing one's identity - or sanity for that matter - in order to immerse oneself in a created or fictional identity, the character one is supposed to “play.”


The movie also sheds light on the barrier between fiction and reality. In this case, the film they are shooting within the film is related to “real” events, that is real in the sense that fiction becomes meshed up and embedded with reality or that the imagination may become as real as the real thing. As the movie is cursed from its onset, any repercussions of this fictional entity will have consequences upon the real lives of the actors, as Nikki finds out with Sue.


But it is not only that. The life of the actress Nikki becomes altered because of and through her role and interpretation of the character Sue. She not only embodies her, but also takes on, Christ-like, her problems, sins or suffering upon herself. This is why I think that the movie is a religious experience involving a sense of atonement.


After Nikki goes through hell, she redeems both herself and her character, who in this case turns out to be a real person watching and following closely Nikki's performance and actions. Although Nikki is acting, she is also improvising and redirecting her own actions as can be seen in the crucial scene of the movie theater towards the end when time stops and becomes the present. By overcoming evil, Nikki paves the way for Sue to become purified, and Sue feels overwhelming catharsis in the process as most of the time she has tears of relief streaming down her face.


If you have no clue what I am talking about, do not worry because I will try to put it in more abstract terms. The movie makes also a statement on the viewing experience. It is a blend of Rear Window and Vertigo. We become the ones who are watching, but this experience changes us consciously as well as subconsciously.


Similar to having this actress reli(e)ve her demons from another person, we are getting rid of our own in the viewing process. We become, well temporarily and symbolically at least, purified and released from the grip-hold of evil. It is a cathartic experience that we can grow from if we open ourselves to this journey.


Although these themes have existed in most of Lynch's movies, they have never been as clear as this one, which is an ironic statement I know this being his most enigmatic work. But for me there was a feeling of closure, which many viewers and critics must have missed out on, not a logical closure of loose ends, but an emotional and subconscious one.


The final song and dance number, so typically atypical for Lynch, alongside the group of girls with bad attitude who are reminiscent of a Tarantino film on acid, combine to culminate in a spiritual release. The penultimate song is emotionally uplifting and liberating, while the final dance is spiritually entrancing and enhancing. This movie then turns from a nightmare of a woman in trouble into a prayer for good while seeking and beseeching the guidance of the Lord.