Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Important but Difficult Task of Letting Go and Buddhist Non-Attachment

Father giving a helping hand to toddler son to get up from snow

The Buddhist idea of non-attachment is highly commendable, and it is, in fact, a brilliant piece of philosophical advice, no matter what your religious beliefs or intentions may be. It goes hand in hand with the underlying notion of life being a temporary stage or a “loan.”

I see life more as a loan than a gift. It is not really mine; I have been given life for some time, yet one day, it has to be given back. It is like borrowing a book from the library. You can take advantage of reading the book, or you can ignore and reject the pearls of wisdom that it contains; either way, you do have to return it at a given time.

Apart from searching for truth and trying to understand our relevance or reason for existence in the endless cosmos, there is still the matter of non-attachment. As I am going forward in life, I cannot help but attach myself to all and everything. I get attached to my family, my friends, my school, my work, my neighborhood, my blog (!), and my possessions. The list is endless really. If you are like me, you keep all your souvenirs from ages ago and will not want to throw anything out!

One of the common misconceptions of non-attachment is that it means uncaring. That is far from the truth. Loving and caring for all that you deem important in life has little in common with grabbing onto everyone and everything and never wanting to let them go! In fact, the measure of love is indeed how willing you are to be non-attached; to love somebody and not to have a claim on them, not to see or treat them as your personal possession or little toy.

It is like the painfully difficult, yet beautiful stage when our children can finally stand on their feet and go out into the world, establishing their own life and leaving their very own footprints in the make of society. It is allowing others to make their own mistakes and to learn from them instead of constantly trying to protect them from harm and ultimately doing them more damage that way. And it is the most painful but unavoidable fact that at a given unknown and unpredictable time, we and also the loved ones will leave this plane of existence. Nobody lives forever, as they say.

And it is this leaving behind your cherished ones that I find the most difficult aspect. It is not so much death itself but a non-presence of protecting and caring for the ones we love. The task grows more difficult once you have a family. It is not so much holding onto myself then; rather, I would find it difficult to part with and from the kind of life with its intricate web and intimate connections that I have established here.

Yet to return the example of the borrowed library book: No matter how much I may love the book, no matter how much I would want to keep it and hold onto it under my pillow for comfort and consultation, one day (but in this case I will be given a specific date) I will be asked to return it to the “authorities.” And the less attached to it I am, that is, the more grateful for the temporary possession of the item I am, the easier it would be to face the due date.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who is Counting Anyway: How Age and Birthdays are Nothing but Numbers in our Lives

Mostly eaten birthday cake
On the cusp of yet another birthday on the rising (or declining) slope of life, I cannot help but ponder upon my new accumulated age. But I do not feel any older really. In fact, I have stopped feeling older for the past ten plus years.

It is strange how we are keeping count. In addition, we have more or less clearly defined areas such as the unpredictable and rambunctious teenage years, the realm of young adulthood, the wild, decadent and engulfing middle age and the supposedly subsiding re- and declining phase of old age. Most of these phases have been categorized and classified eloquently by the psychologist Erik Erikson. Yet in reality, closing in on the middle part myself, I do not feel much different about entering this most recent stage.

That said, I must admit that circumstances have actually changed. I may not feel older, but I feel different. What interested or fascinated me in the past has been adjusted to my current situation. Having my own family affects my outlook on life. But that has not so much to do with age but rather with circumstances.

What I do not appreciate, however, is being told how I am supposed to feel or act at a certain age. It reminds one of childhood where parents would always claim that one is immature or childish for one's age! We often do likewise by complaining how so-and-so does not act (or sometimes even look) their age.

There are no real guidelines for how one ought to behave. Of course, living in society one must adhere to certain rules. A lot of it is organic though. I do not enjoy what I had enjoyed in my bachelorhood. I do fantasize about it occasionally, yet I would prefer a dinner with my wife and son to a wild drunken romp in the night / strip club (though there is nothing inherently wrong with that). We just adapt to the circumstances of the current flow of life.

The problem becomes more pronounced when one feels that one is lagging, when society expects you to do or have done something at a certain age, such as having a well-defined career, getting married and starting a family, buying a house and keeping a dog as a pet. One of my personal goals was to have published my first (of course best-selling) novel by the age of 27 (It never happened).

Anyhow, those rules of thumb or guidelines for “exemplary” life are always merely suggestions and you should follow them if and when you feel comfortable with them. In the meantime, you may get older physically but you still remain the same “young” person within, regardless of what bizarre and random number may show up on your driver's license.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Flaws and Dangers In The Democratic System

Ancient Roman senate
We have experienced it first-hand recently in the crucial mid-term elections during Obama's presidency. The powers can shift, and the course of politics can change within the blink of an eye. It may be people voicing their opinions and dissatisfaction, or it may be an inherent flaw in the system. Either way, democracy at its best and worst is both noisy and messy. There are usually no quick resolutions and rarely do people see eye to eye. It will run and function on one condition only: the hope of compromise.

Each individual ought to be given equal rights, and opinions must be valued in equal proportion. Debates will seem never-ending, and democracy is generally more talk and theory than concrete action. The election may be a culmination of talks and discussions, questions and answers, but even the occasional election is merely a moment, and then the democratically elected officials are back again on the drawing table discussing and debating issues.

This is one of the reasons why democracy does not have a place in the military, for example. In the military structure, there is a clearly defined and laid-out hierarchy; those beneath must all obey unquestioningly the orders of those at the top. Although ideologically one may disagree with this structure, pragmatically it is the best - and perhaps only - way such organizations like the military could function. In the moment of battle, quick decisions need to be made and that is delegated to the person in charge. On this particular individual rests all responsibility and that is the reason why the commander will usually get all the praise or all the blame in any given situation.

As can be seen, in a way, democracy stagnates progress. To have to take in the opinions of all the members will create clashes and delays. Yet there is another drawback with the democratic concept. It gives too much power to the concept of majority. In other words, the majority is seen as always “right.”

If the majority decides certain issues, the decision needs to be respected. But numbers, in my opinion, do not always make acts justifiable, and ironically, those whose voices are not heard, those that democracy is supposed to protect in the first place, could be the ones oppressed in the democratic system.

Of course, constitutions and charters of rights are there to protect us from cruelty and discrimination, while guaranteeing and ensuring the essential right of freedom of speech to voice one's opinions. The danger, however, could be that those creaky voices might not be heard and be suffocated in a system that thrives on majority.

I think one should find the system that is the most efficient and that works best in a large number of given situations. On paper, democracy may be the best option; in reality, it is a stumbling block and a cacophony of (white) noise. Masses are swayed and controlled rather easily by media; politicians lie and make false promises to get elected only to reveal their own hidden agenda at a later date.

Politicians are not held accountable for what they had initially pledged during their campaign. It seems to be a sad fact that the public suffers from amnesia after the elections, but it could be also that the process does not allow, or makes it extremely difficult, to recall these people from office once they are elected.

Likewise, a politician, during campaign or in office, might become populist and try to appeal to the masses. As a result, they may make decisions seen as “good” on a short-term basis, but which may be devastating for the country in the long term. Politicians, in general, have a limited term in office, so they often shy away from long-term goals and benefits and are mostly focused on the present and the immediate. And during the whole time, the eyes are steadied on the next upcoming election to prolong one's position of power.

Due to a lack of longevity, there is often no clear map, so the ship of state can be steered and jerked this way and that way with each upcoming election; sharp turns either to the left or the right of the political spectrum are commonplace. Advances will be nixed, and everybody starts from scratch and redoes and undoes laws and policies.

Politics nowadays is not that different from entertainment shows. Those who are better looking, tell us what we want to hear, are good at acting and become emotional on cue will win our votes. It is often as simple as that. Nobody would want an ugly or painfully direct president or prime minister regardless of their abilities. The majority prefers beautiful lies to the ugly truth and want people who are diplomatic and moral, whatever that may mean. Whether these elected people are capable or indeed the best option for the country are questions that are often ignored or disregarded.

Democracy would really work when people are informed and free to think for themselves and are able to make up their own minds. If they are swayed by what others think or believe, if they make decisions based on trivial and superficial criteria, democracy will be caught in a vicious circle and will end up going nowhere.