Saturday 16 June 2007

Diving Into Nirvana - The Happiness Quotient

Dedicated to my three beautiful children, because thinking of you in your absence fills me with as much joy as time spent in your presence.

Happy Monks

Anyone who has tried to hold down a job, raise a family, be a decent person, and actually snatch away some time to enjoy it all, all in the same week, might not be surprised to learn that monks are happier than the majority of us. If the happiness quotient of monks really higher than that achieved by the rest of us, is it because they simply have more time than we do to contemplate what makes life worth living, or do they actually know something we don't? Is it possible for those of us rushing through the bloodstream of the body of modern capitalism to have at least a little taste of some of that happiness elixir if we can just get a little more time, or should we be looking for the source of that elixir in some ancient pool of arcane knowledge?

Food for Thought

Perhaps it's all that meditation that does it, the opportunity to listen to and interpret oneself all at once. Perhaps where the monks have us is that, in those many moments every day when all of us are alone with ourselves and our thoughts, everyone listens to herself or himself, but the monks actually use the opportunity to intpret themselves. Perhaps we fail to realize that those moments are critical moments, and, in our busy lives, we often let them pass as if they were nothing, or do nothing to try to make more of them.

Meditation for the Nation

My position is that that is what meditation is. To meditate is to focus intently on a process, any process. It is not some far-out tripped-out thing that only freaky Buddhists, lost souls, and hippies do. It is merely taking a few moments to stop, listen to one's internal processes, and interpret them. In that definition, I am in fact meditating right now, and you are part of my meditation. For that matter, I would go so far as to say that many of the people you see who capture our interest so much that we accord them great acclaim and material reward meditate too, that everything that they have created was done as a result of meditation. I'm sure many successful people whose job was in no way related to athletics would admit that their morning run is where they get their best ideas, or that CEOs have their most blinding flashes of insight outside of the boardroom. Why? Because a nice but overlooked benefit of meditation is the process on which you focus, whether it's silencing your mind or fixing the shed, will be improved.

Living the Dream

Perhaps that is even the reason that so many great ideas come out of sleep - dreams may be just another way of interpreting processes within and without us when we are finally alone with ourselves. A lot of us probably think that being a movie star is the pinnacle of success, but my suspicion is that the actors and any others who are paid, handsomely, to meditate deeply and exclusively on others, the characters they portray, including their own public personnas, must make those souls quite susceptible to losing the ability to define themselves. Would it surprise us to learn that the truly successful ones are the ones who know how to stop an take the time to interpret themselves in equal or greater measure than they meditate on others? I doubt it's a coincidence that Oprah loves to curl up with a good book.

Lama Grin
Whether it's isolation, meditation, or something else, I take the monks’ apparent contentment as something of a challenge. Most of us don't really need to be told that those moments that we have with ourselves should be seized, dissected, studied, and understood, but who has time? I know that the results of my own meditations are, or at least should be, more important to me than those of tv producers, economists, and scientific experts, but half the time I'm just too busy or too tired to fight it, and I'm quite content to just sit back and let it entertain me. I admit that all my livelong days are not packed to the rim with bliss, especially on those days, and weeks, when the kids are cranky, I have a headache, my wife is mad at me, a big dental bill comes in, and I can’t do anything right professionally. I’d love to see the Dalai Lama pull his trademark grin out of that one. But even with all that, I still feel that there must be a way that we can wear the lama grin, not one pasted on but one that spreads naturally across the face and comes from a sense of profound well-being.

Into The Burning Flame

A common form of meditation is called visualization, where the pensive soul fixes itself upon contemplation of a single object, trying, as it were, to form an exact picture of that thing in the mind's eye. Rumour has it that if you are able to perfectly re-create in vivid detail an image of that thing, say a burning candle, then all things outside of that contemplation will fall away and you will be left with a heightened awareness of and relation to the universe. I don't disagree that such an attainment is both desirable and spiritually healthy. In fact, my approach is to take visualization one step further, although its proponents might call it a step backward, away from the light and retreating toward darkness. If you can focus on one thing and by exception of all else reach some kind of spiritual realization both personal and universal, then imagine how many things there are in the world that you could use to reach a similar kinds of realization via many different paths.

Rising to the Challenge

So here's what I do to manage the lama grin, as often as possible, and hopefully more often than the worried frown. What follows is an example of some of the processes on which I meditate, the icons that help me reach my own place of spiritual discovery. I figure that when I'm able to do a pretty decent job balancing off those moments of challenge with even longer periods when I do find the flow, my positive bliss indicator has to come pretty close. I’ll put the pleasure of a job well done, the laugh of abandonment of a happy child, or a wild ride with the missus up against humming along with the spheres of the universe any day of the week.

Picture This...

For example, I challenge anyone with an orange robe and sandals to have a day better than today, filled as it was with the simple pleasure of doing simple things in a safe space filled with love. Setting is, of course, important to energize the space in which simple pleasures can occur, and so it doesn't hurt that it was in my backyard, and it was hot, sunny, and spent by the pool with my three kids. If that sounds too entitled, I've done some hard time, I've earned it. If it sounds mundane, read below and answer me this question; are these the most trivial things less worthy than the spheres of spiritual contemplation, or can be they take the place of the burning candle as even clearer reflections of the spheres themselves?

These are the things I did today:

Becoming Aquaman

1. Got my 6-year-old son, who is as scared of water as I was when I was a kid, into the deep end, without his "security blanket" floating ring. Watching his glowing response to the fanatical applause of all onlookers, even from those who had teased him about the ring minutes before, was the parental equivalent of a kid at Christmas about to open a big, wrapped present.

Natural Curiosity

2. Figured out together with my 9-year-old younger daughter what she was really, really good at doing, and then came to the mutual realization which career might possibly let her do what she loves and what she's best at. We were talking while pool frolicking how to important it was to do something with your life that makes you happy, and shortly after, I brought out the laptop on which I write this for some wireless fun at poolside. Before reading through this page, I asked her to explain the meaning of the word 'coincidence' to my six-year-old son, as he didn't know what it meant. She gave him an example; here is what she said. "Suppose that you move into a new house in a new neigbourhood, and you find out that the people living next door have the same last name, and they've named their son the exact same first name and middle name, and therefore have the exact same name as you." Anyone familiar with the successful imparting of any type of knowledge knows that there is no better way to teach than by example, so, of course, he got it, and we proceeded to go through every coincidence on the page in detail. I was even proud of their conclusion; that most of these things didn't really happen, but if they did, in the unlikely event that they aren't made up, then there is a higher mind messing with us, perhaps the reptilians (see item #7). Imagine how proud I was when my daughter even found some holes in the stories, including the one about the reptilians, or at least she came up with some unanswered questions that I would have certainly liked to know. Journalistic note: it's amazing what having a smart nine-year-old read your stories can do for your writing.

Kids Say the Darnedest Things

3. As part of this Internet surfing safari, I answered questions from my two younger kids about, among other things 1. what happens in the precise moment of and in the moments after a human embryo is created 2. whether this guy (item #5) really had a chance at succeeding where Jesus, Mohammed, etc. had failed (ie. an earthly kingdom) 3. what gross things my oldest daughter might have to do in movies if she ever became the actress she wants to be, and, last but not least 4. whether or not I'd eat someone if I were stuck in a lifeboat with a few other people and, if so, who I'd eat.


4. Helped my 12-year-old older daughter invent a new pool game, the simultaneous triple cannonball, wherein the three of us, upon a count of three, leapt into the air and tried to hit the water at the same time with cannonball dives, also making sure that we sunk right to the bottom still balled up, like true cannonballs would.

Pause for Refreshment

5. Had the equivalent of a snowball fight in June with my son, using ice cubes that hadn't yet melted from the cooler used to house last night's party drinks.

What, No Cartoons?

So, whoever said reading with your kids had to include cartoon characters, cute furry animals, and intellectual pablum, or that spending time with them had to always involve acting like an adult?

Swimming in Still Waters
And whoever said there were more important things to do in the world than putting the racing mind to rest, finding a spot not to hide from the world but to dive into it, and spending simple time? I'm sure the monks would agree that when you can take pleasure in working on your free throws into the swimming pool basketball hoop, when you can sort out all the knots and roll up the extension cord and actually have fun with it, or you can take enough time to appreciate how well your tomatoes are growing, you have something close to peace of mind, the pool that holds those still mental waters of nirvana?

So, the question becomes, how to take that one step further. Children are not always happy, to be sure, but few would argue that those kids who are fortunate enough to be nurtured in a safe and loving environment, are at least experts in being at peace in the moment. To learn to take that succession of moments that make up the days by life's swimming pool and multiply them such that they outnumber significantly those in which we are preoccupied by the future and the past, is to learn how to take the monastic life out into the world.

The Happiness Quotient

My suspicion, as I try to keep my happiness quotient up there with the monks, is that it is human relationships that act as the multiplier and afford the greatest opportunity for a favourably balanced equation. So, where H is happiness, R is relationship with visible and invisible creatures, Q is quality, O is openness to new relationships, and L is luck, here is my version of the equation.

H = (RQ * O)/L

Do The Math

So, whenever I start to fall behind the monks, whenever the waters become turbulent and the complexity of randomly-generated numbers fills the moment, I try to step back and do the math.

Unless I have a headache. Then I need a calculator.

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Friday 15 June 2007

The Power of Language - Antennae Into Our Hidden Minds

This post is for all those striving and struggling to learn a language.

When I had a group of English As A Second Language students in my Canadian language school, and I knew the group could handle the content, I used to pose a question that, upon collective reflection, was always certain to provoke a collective shaking of heads in wonder. The reason? This was not just about language; it was about the potential of the human brain.

Dreaming in a Second Language
Anyone who has tried to learn to speak another language by placing himself or herself in an immersion experience will recognize an interesting phenomenon, often experienced but seldom noticed. This situation occurs when you've been in the host environment for a certain period of time and have been passively exposed to the deluge of a foreign language hour after hour, day after day. At some point, you will begin to have dreams during sleep in which one, or sometimes even all, of the characters in your dream is a native speaker of the host language, speaking in the host language that you're trying so heroically to learn. So, for example, if you're studying Spanish in Venezuela, and you've been there for a few months, you will eventually dream of a Venezuelan as s/he exists in waking life, speaking the language (Spanish) s/he uses in waking life.

A Simple Question?
This may seem natural enough, but some thought into the mechanics of it takes you into another realm. I have asked a simple question to almost everyone I have met who has reported experiencing this phenomenon. For explanation purposes, I'll continue with the example of studying Spanish in Venezuela.

"In your dreams, was that Venezuelan speaking Spanish the way s/he usually does, or was s/he speaking it the way you do (ie. accented, bad grammar, etc.)?"

The answer was almost always the same.

The Simple Answer
"Of course the Venezuelan was speaking Spanish perfectly; s/he is a native speaker!"

So, my next question?

"Was that Venezuelan in your dream repeating what s/he may have said to you before, or spontaneously producing language?"

After some thought, it usually came out that the Spanish from that dream Venezuelan was indeed being produced spontaneously, or at the very least copied and pasted in a coherent way, and not just regurgitated from what the learner had heard during waking life.

How Did I Do That?
Take a moment to consider that. How is it possible that someone struggling with a foreign language, quite far from using it competently, can conjure up completely within the limits of his/her own mind a character who not only speaks the language well but natively?

Does that not suggest that somewhere within that learner's mind, there exists not only the potential but the actual ability to understand and speak the language fluently?

Expanded Possibilities
And forget about just language...what does that say about the ability of the mind in free flow, outside of altered states, to access and intelligently process that kind of information? Of what else might that mind be capable? And, most importantly of all, how on earth can our waking minds tune into that kind of processing power?

The SleepTraveller
I am a person who has explored many peaks and valleys in the landscape of dreams, from night terrors as a child to rising from my bed, as a young adult, in the middle of the night, getting dressed, going outside and starting my car before learning that I was dreaming. There were many incidents durng which Morpheus used me as a vessel for amusement, but one dream incident above all convinced me that even my own hidden mind had untapped potential, if I could ever learn to control it.

Impending Illness
I was heading to bed one night in a bit of a foul mood, because I had the kind of heavy head and scratchy throat that I knew would mean that I'd be coming down with a nasty cold by morning. I don't know about you, but, to me, one of the worst parts about getting sick is that moment when you know it's going to happen and it's still all ahead of you. The being sick, I can handle. The knowing I'm going to be sick, that's part I hate.

Anyway, I fell into the kind of in-again out-again sleep that I'm very much used to and spent most of the night in that state, tossing and turning. Just before morning, however, I fell into a different kind of sleep, the kind that makes you sweat as if you'd been bathed in the water of your dreams. I had a dream then that, laying there in my bed, sleeping, I felt with my tongue a hair in my mouth, that I badly needed to dislodge. With my fingers pinched, I reached deep into my mouth with my hand and was able to locate the end of the hair and clasp it with my fingers. As I began to pull the hair out of my mouth, I realized that the hair was in fact quite long, stretching all the way down into my throat. I pulled the first part of the hair out of my mouth and then brought in my second hand to continue pulling it out, as if my hands were gripping a rope and I were pulling a bucket out of a deep well.

Healing Dream
I pulled and pulled for what seemed like forever, a ball of hair accumulating in my right hand as I gathered more and more of the hair coming out from deep in my throat. Finally, I felt not only the single strand of hair but an entire ball of hair coming up through my throat, rasping against the sensitive skin as it came and making me gag as it passed into my mouth. As the huge ball of hair was expelled into my hand, I remember feeling an enormous sense of relief, perhaps even pleasure. A few moments later, I woke up, soaked in the sweat of a healing sleep, and my sore throat was gone.

Hidden Broadcasts
It is said that we use only a small portion of our brains during our daily waking lives, and it is known that we organically process only a very small percentage of the information in our environments (how many radio waves or atoms have you seen lately?). Yet we also receive tantalizing signals from time to time, through antennae that we possess but do not know how to control. What if we could teach ourselves to tune into those broadcasts, to process at least a little more of that all thrashing, ennobling information that is everywhere around us all the time?

This is a question that is very important to me, and is one whose importance to others I hope I can demonstrate. Please stay tuned.

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Wednesday 13 June 2007

What Daughters Need to Know From Fathers About Sex

This post is dedicated to the Movie Lovers who will one day make their way into our neighbourhood cinema.

Don't Just Leave it to Mom
Every father is unsure about when and how to breach the subject with his daughter of the ins and outs (!) of the world of sex. Many Dads are quite happy to leave this to Mom, which is okay in part, but really, who knows the male animal like us males? What follows is a primer for breaching the difficult subject, based, of course, on experience, and the belief that the more our daughters REALLY know about sex, and the male view of sex, the better decisions they will make and the better their sexual relationships, and probably overall relationships, will be.

What They Don't Teach You in School
This does not cover STDs, pregnancy, and protection, which are, of course, extremely important, and tend to be extensively covered at school, usually in a way that would try to scare kids away from the whole experience. That's the thing about school; it teaches us what we need to know to make careers but not about how to live our lives. In fact, this particular journal entry was conceived (sorry!) primarily as a counterpoint to that whole approach, important though the "don'ts" side of the equation certainly is. My focus here was to concentrate on the "dos". And yes, I do know that the world is not made up of two kinds of people and that appearances and even initial patterns of behaviour are not always a true reflection of the person beneath. The most instructive thing I can say in defence of this is that I myself have been both types of boy in decidedly different circumstances.

Who Do You Think You Are, Dr. Phil?
I have no qualifications other than experience, but I think my kids have a pretty good read on the whole thing. Having been a teacher, I also know that asking the right questions teaches more than having the right answers, so you'll notice that the questions as phrased below are specific, to test real understanding, instead of the general "Do you understand what I've said so far", which is a terribly passive way to approach such an important subject as human sexuality. Perhaps the analogy offered below is overly simplistic, but I've learned that there are few types of verbal communication more powerful than the combination of a well-constructed analogy and a relevant example. A great thing about talking about difficult topics by analogies (mine below is watching movies), is that difficult questions can come back to you using the language of the analogy, which makes them a lot easier to answer! I think the advice below can be applied to avoid heterosexual bias, with a few changes in terminology, but I confess that I haven't tried doing so.

When to "Have The Talk"
In my view, the right time to "have the talk" is right now. In fact, it has already started. All communications that you have with your kids about sex are part of the talk, and it is never too early to start talking about it. As they grow, they should be given as much as you know in terms that are as simple as possible for them to understand. The terms will change as they grow older, and the message may as well - the most important thing is that the conversation is taking place.

The Image Lovers & The Movie Lovers

What Sex Feels Like
Sex is about using your body to express your feelings, and because different people express themselves differently, you will find that not everyone will be comfortable with expressing themselves physically. Sex is not much more than touching that feels especially good. Some parts of your body are more sensitive to touch than other parts, and it feels nice to be touched there. These parts are different in different people. Part of the fun of sex is in discovering where those parts are. In the same way that any kind of touch, like a hug, is much better when both people involved want to do it, sex itself is much much better when both people involved want it to happen. Just as when you see someone in your family or one of your friends and you both know that you want to hug each other, there are some people that you will be with, when you will know that you both want to kiss each other, or touch each other in other ways. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and no specific set of actions or time frame; in fact, it is a little different, and sometimes a lot different, every time. It will be much better if you just go where it takes you, and not try to direct it to what someone might have told to do. Liken it to watching a movie you really like; enjoy it as if it will never end, and hope that, when it does end, it has a good ending that you'll remember. The touching is always supposed to feel good; when something doesn’t feel good, you should stop and do something else. And just like going out to watch a movie, you want to choose your company carefully; mostly only people with whom you enjoy spending your time will be good partners.

Think of how many people now that you really enjoy spending time with; now how many of them are boys?

The Image Lover
Although of course there are as many types of boys as there are boys, you will, broadly speaking, meet two types of boys, . There will be one type of boy whose primary goal it is, after he has met you, to have some kind of sex with you. Quite often, he will say whatever he has to say, do whatever he has to do, to accomplish his goal. For him, sex is for him and about him, and what he wants. This type of boy is like someone who wants to watch enough of a cool movie just to get the idea of the story, either because he can't be bothered to watch the whole thing or even just so he can tell his friends he saw it. So, he may rent the movie, watch the last scene, and then believe he knows what it's about, or say that he has seen it. Let's call this type of boy the Image Lover. The boy's image of himself, or his friends' image of him, is what he really enjoys.

Do you know any boys like that?

The Movie Lover
Then, there will be the type of boy whose primary goal it is to get to know you, who will do anything and say anything he has to do or say, to spend time with you and find out more about you and what you like. For him, sex, if and when it happens, will be about both of you, and about when both of you are ready. Viewed as a movie, he wants a good ending as well, but, like you, he knows that, the better he understands the rest of the film, and the more he understands and enjoys every scene, the more he'll enjoy the overall movie and the ending. Chances are also very good that he'll want to watch it again after it's finished. Let’s call this type of boy the Movie Lover.

Do you know any boys like that?

Which type of boys do you think are easier to find?

How To Tell Them Apart
It is not always going to be easy to tell these two types of boys apart. Until you know him, you will often mistake one for the other, but the thing with sex, as with watching movies, is that it will be a lot better the first time, and most other times, if you learn to tell which boys are which. The Movie Lover will often take longer to get to the ending, or even to start watching the movie, because he knows that the ending is just one part, one good part, of the movie, that will happen after you have already enjoyed lots of other scenes. If you're not enjoying it, you always have the opportunity to put the movie on pause, for as long as you want, until you want to go back to watching it. You can also leave it altogether, especially if you start to suspect that you really have an Image Lover. That's another way that sex is similar to watching a movie; if you're not enjoying the movie, you certainly won't enjoy the ending. If you do choose an Image Lover, the movie is all in the ending, which he of course will not appreciate after the movie is finished. It is not a disaster to have this experience with the type of boy you don't want, but it's generally true that you'll enjoy the first experience more, and all similar experiences to come, if you choose your company well for the first one.

How do you think you can tell an Image Lover from a Movie Lover?

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