In pursuit of passion

A passion is something you find yourself pursuing with great concentration, love and conviction. It is something that gives us a purpose, fulfillment and affirmation. Some of our passions we discover because we enroll in a class to study something like pottery, or guitar. But sometimes, it just creeps up on us and, before we know it, we’re hooked.

I have many passions. One might say they are love affairs my soul indulges in to keep the rest of me animated and alive. I intensely enjoy music, reading, teaching, writing and photography. There are many other things I enjoy, but I would like to talk about my intense joy in capturing light and making sense of it through that instrument called a camera.

As a kid, I liked looking at pictures. I remember staring at photos of my family with extreme fascination, wondering how outside reality could be captured on something called film inside a contraption called a camera. The first photos I ever saw were in black and white. It never occurred to me then that black and white photos lacked all the other colors of life. Perhaps the very wonder of seeing people I knew on photo paper in family albums was too tantalizing an experience to notice the absence of the other colors. It was the same with photos on sepia. To me, they just looked natural and life-like.

I remember spending hours just looking at pages upon pages of old Life, Look, Time, and other magazines. The pictures taken by their outstanding photographers were a constant source of delight.

But alas, cameras and the joy of taking family photos were luxuries in our family of 10 kids. There were other more pressing priorities when it came to what we could spend on as a family. The prospect of having regular photo sessions, much less having my own camera, was just not within the reality of any wish list I could come up with. As a result, my sibs and I have very few pictures as children. Family photos were just too expensive to indulge in.

In my teenage years, I indulged a bit in developing and printing pictures in a dark room owned by a friend. Those were moments of real discoveries and wonder which, when I think about it now, may have made what has become my lifetime love affair with photography a done deal. But it would take a long time for me to afford and actually indulge this passion on a regular basis.

Cameras, film, printing were just too expensive. It was like having a high-maintenance girlfriend. All I could do was lust after it from a distance. But it did not matter to me if the prospect of owning a real camera and affording this passion was a “someday” thing. All I knew was that I was hooked.

I was in my 30s when I could live more comfortably and could thus indulge in some luxuries. I bought myself a point and shoot camera but graduated to an SLR within a few months.

I took lots of family pictures, with a few attempts at “artistic” shots. I just liked looking at photos of my loved ones and other people I knew. That, to me, was the thrill of photography for a long time. It took a while before I took it up seriously as a hobby that I wished to excel in.

One day, I discovered that I had this ambition to have a picture I took published in a magazine. I called my friend Thelma San Juan who was a magazine editor and asked her if I could show her my photos. To my great surprise, she asked if I was interested in shooting the cover for their April issue! I was floored. She told me I had to shoot the cover with a medium format camera. I nodded my head, even though I had no idea what she meant. The magazine was to provide the film and she needed everything done a week from that day. And, oh yes, the model would be my good friend G Tongi! Whoa! It’s as if the heavens opened up and smiled at me.

I couldn’t believe my luck. This went way beyond my initial goal of seeing just one small picture published. I immediately called my friend and mentor Eddie Boy Escudero to ask what a medium format camera was. He said he had one and he was willing to lend it to me, along with his lights. He would also light up G Tongi for me the way I wanted it done.

My first “professional” photo cover got good reviews. Soon after, I was shooting for other magazines, and calendars, album covers, fashion pages, ads and billboards. And I was doing it with such passion that with every photo shoot I learned something new.

I now have far better cameras than my first point and shoot. I also take better photos. I had to develop new instincts when I switched to digital cameras. With film so expensive then, I learned to be deliberate and mentally focused on every shot I took. And it generally took an excruciatingly anxious three days to confirm whether my settings, framing, lighting, etc. were correct. Nowadays, with digital technology, I know instantly if the shots I take are good.

The first question I ask myself every time I look through a lens is, what story am I seeing? I believe that for a photo to be engaging, it must be compelling enough to tug at the viewer emotionally. If I can’t find a story, I know that what I am looking at is just a snapshot.

Passions are personal pursuits. It would be good to have friends, partners who like the same thing. The worst thing is to drag someone who has no interest at all to a photo shoot and worry about that person as you try to do your work.

I believe that creative dreams and pursuits should be shared initially only with those who will encourage you to go the distance, until you are confident enough of your skills. When passions are discouraged, or when you are made to feel guilty for pursuing a passion or a hobby, you can doubt your own sanity and question why you are so driven to do something.

Writer Angela Monet wrote, “Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”

I have learned that when you are passionate about something, details about the object of your passion are easily knowable. It is as if your mind and your emotions are a constantly growing library of knowledge. There is a reason to wake up every day. In fact, it is what living is all about. And the mistress of passion demands that she be constantly pursued, sometimes relentlessly.

My philosophy teacher once talked about how one can be so in love with a person even when no one sees anything good about him or her. He said the reason is that only the one who loves is privileged to see what others cannot. In a sense, this applies to one’s passion. But there is a subtle difference.

I have friends I can talk to about photography for hours. Some of them can get so fanatical about it that in their pursuit of the latest gadgets, they hide their purchases from their wives in order to avoid arguments about expenses. While I laugh and tease them about this, I can fully understand. Whoever it was who said that “love is often gentle, but desire is always a rage” was absolutely correct.

In defense of the unnatural


Most everyone I know, without even thinking about it, is in praise of anything natural. What is perceived to be “natural” is good and “as it should be.” As consumers, we go out of our way to buy natural foods versus processed ones, the natural versus the synthetic. We talk about acting “naturally” as opposed to being contrived. We are in awe when we see “natural” talent. We appreciate human and nature’s processes that we see as natural, and therefore wholesome and good for us.

And often, the criteria for what is natural is anything that has not been touched, changed, altered by man and science.

I take a slightly opposite view. I am in awe of many things that are contrived, “abnormal,” unnatural or contrary to the processes of nature and life as we think we know them. I therefore write in praise of what has been touched, altered, improved or shaped by the artistic, logical, rational and scientific mind. These “unnatural acts” have made life easier for all of us.

Throughout history and even as I write this, there have been many “unnatural” interventions, discoveries, actions that have, in fact, been good for mankind and have helped us evolve as a species.

Let’s be simple and talk about the control of our bodily functions. There is no argument that it is natural for anyone to sweat, urinate, defecate, along with other human urges. But it is a great blessing that we learned to control when and where and how we must give in to these urges, even if only for sanitation purposes, not to mention the attendant and important social benefits that we enjoy when we rein them in. It is true also for our urges that are sexual in nature. There is indeed virtue in taming these natural urges.

When we watch children play, we are in awe of their natural state. But we react with annoyance when we see them doing other natural things such as having a tantrum, crying uncontrollably, being insolent and behaving in a spoiled manner. This is where the intervention of good parenting is needed and desired. In this case, leaving children in their “natural” state, without the benefit of discipline, will make them sorry adults later.

People tend to douse cold water on those who have lofty aims, goals and ambitions that strive for a higher experience, by pointing out that what is being attempted

goes against the grain of how things are, or even how God intended them to be. They imply that by doing what has not been done we are going against nature.

“If God wanted man to fly, he would have given him wings.” This was the argument long ago against flying, and it remains the spirit that ties the hands of many would-be innovators to this day. And the intended mention of “God” is supposed to lend an authoritative, dogmatic tone to the argument.

The scientific mind constantly challenges things as they are. Technology, one may argue, is man’s attempt to alter or intervene in what appears to be the natural state or order of things in order to get a different experience. But in fact, when we look at it closely, what the scientific mind is up to is trying to understand on a higher level the same natural laws of science that may not be obvious without microscopes and other scientific instruments. These are the not-too-obvious laws and processes of nature which, when understood and manipulated, bring us new inventions and life-altering experiences. So, in this sense, one might say that there is nothing “unnatural” about science since it operates within the laws of nature.

And because of this, many things that were considered “unnatural” or impossible in the past are not only possible today but are now taken for granted as natural. The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment have affected our concepts of governance, laws, formal education and other social engineering endeavors. Then there’s central heating, automobiles, refrigeration, cooking, eyeglasses, anesthesia, watching TV, hearing aids, calculators, vitamins, fashion — I could go on and on — which are, thanks to science, now part of how we live our lives. We hardly even question them as being “unnatural” interventions that may be bad for us.

It should be of no surprise that the spheres of religion and science, which have collided many times in the past, are again, and will continue to be, at odds. It is because the two spheres on the surface can seem like a battle between God (natural) and science (contrived rationality). While centuries ago, religion may have basked in its victories with the persecution of Galileo and other men of science, it has had to eat its words and apologize belatedly five centuries later.

I suspect that the more the Church lives in an increasingly secular scientific world, the more it will have to get more enlightened as an institution. And it will have to make many more apologies sooner or later concerning its stand on many other issues.

Some of the big debates of our time involving issues of sexuality, such as gay marriage and human reproduction, come to mind. Both science and religion appear to be confident and headstrong in addressing these issues with both sides insisting theirs is the correct view. Science (through history, humanities, social research and even religious tradition) points out that depriving gays of their full human rights is akin to how certain races were delegated to slavery and regarded as less human. It is discriminatory, plain and simple, and harkens back to medieval ignorance.

The Church, on the other hand, argues that homosexuality is an unnatural state, an aberration, and therefore a sin; it is immoral and must be suppressed.

The rest of us who are not scientists, nor religious leaders or scholars are left sifting through the arguments, and in the end, we will have to come to our own conclusions.

I think the difficulty lies in fundamentalism and dogmatism, in both science and religion.

Science can be a big bully when it insists that only what can be empirically observed, tested, validated and revalidated is real. In this view, faith, poetry, mystical experiences and the world of the unseen, though humanly experienced and felt, is gobbledygook. But this dismissive attitude does not explain the perennial experience of transcendence, the mystical experience of consciousness, or the spiritual that has been around since the beginning of time. Are those things unreal, or are some things simply immeasurable? Science cannot see what is not in its domain.

Religion, on the other hand, can be exasperating too when it proclaims as dogma ideas that have been debunked by rationality. The world is round and it revolves around the sun and no interpretation of any verse in the Holy Book can change that. Condoms do prevent AIDS, contrary to what Pope Benedict insists.

Joseph Campbell points out that the major mistake many religious believers commit is to treat holy text as scientific text. To do so would not only leave it open to debunking but demean its true power, which lies within the deeply symbolic and the holy spheres.

As a modern person, I do see the importance of science but I know its limitations. I also see the limits of religion and so I am drawn to the wider arena of mysticism and spirituality. I have long ago decided to embark on a path of knowing God and life not just exclusively through an established religion but in such a way that God is not reduced to a cookie-cutter deity and experienced as a franchise. And life is certainly more than a beaten path already trodden by others for me to simply walk on.

I choose a worldview that understands life from the unique natural instincts and intelligence I was born with, which are creativity, expansiveness, openness and reason.

I do not automatically accept what others insist to be true. I want to see, discover or awaken to it myself with full consciousness. From actual experience, I hope to find my truth.

Sacred and profane questions

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated November 15, 2009 12:00 AM

People like to imagine that there is a place and a time where all things will be settled, when everything will be accounted for and evened out, when all our thoughts and actions, good or bad, will catch up with us and our enemies. Most of us see that happening in the afterlife. For Christians, it’s judgment day. For Buddhists and Hindus, it’s the law of Karma.

There has to be such a time. And it has to be sometime after we die since the world as it is seems hopelessly unjust. Someday, when all of us are dead, justice will play out and everyone will get their comeuppance, or their vindication, and though everyone’s faults will be pointed out and everyone will eat some humble pie because of it, everyone will also have a chance to relish some I-told-you-so moments. And for many, this is one of the values of believing in an afterlife, and in a heaven and a hell.

While that may be something to look forward to, I am not too obsessed with finding justice even in the afterlife. I imagine and look forward to a different thrill when I die. I believe that the joy to be relished in the Promised Land of the afterlife is the reward of finally knowing all the answers to questions that bugged us in life with finality and surety. The jig will be up. We will know everything!

Knowing the unknowable, unraveling the secrets that life and the Universe have kept close to their chests, and finally deciphering correctly the coded signals that one imagined in moments when nature, when the very configuration of life, seemed to talk to us: this is what I am suggesting.

Imagine knowing the outcomes of what our lives could have been if we had taken the roads we opted not to take? Imagine how life would have turned out if we had chosen another career, another partner, another school, religion, etc? Or knowing whether God was actually talking to me at particular times in my life or was that only my own voice in my head?

Here’s a list of things I would really like to know, or would at the very least give me a chuckle knowing the Universe’s choices on the matter. A caveat: this is a list of deep and not-so-deep inquiries.

1) Are biological ties on earth existent in the afterlife or are we all spirits there, and thus “faceless” and without anatomy? How do I find my loved ones like my mother? Will it even matter that we find them? Or does the fact that we have become spirit mean we have become One and indistinguishable from everyone? Does it mean that we don’t need to find anyone since we have become “everybody”?

2) What is the “face” of God? Is it a human face? Or, considering that we are no longer human but spirits when we die, is God a “feeling,” a zeitgeist? I ask this because when we get down to it, every description of God in mankind’s history, every holy text in every religion and time is conceived by man. “God as father” is a man-centric description, isn’t it? Even if one argues that holy texts and metaphors were inspired by God, it is still expressed by men for the understanding of earthbound beings and thus has its limitations. This is probably why some religions do not even attempt to portray God in any image or likeness because they honor that unfathomable aspect of the Creator.

3) Do things happen to us or do they happen for us? Is there something deeper going on in our lives all the time? I was struck by this question when I read it as a tweet from Tony Robbins. Imagine the ramifications if, indeed, everything that appears or happens in our lives, the good and the bad, the important and insignificant, are in fact, actually there because they were tailor-made and sent to us for our growth, or our misery, or whatever? Imagine that every person we meet is an angel sent to us for a reason. Even without knowing whether this is true or not, just assuming that all this is true can awaken your consciousness to a point where there is nothing insignificant that is happening. Which can lead one to speculate on the meaning of everything that comes our way. There is nothing but God, and nothing more but the task of doing what is asked.

4) Are Hitler, Pol Pot and the other baddies of history in heaven? Neale Donald Walsch, the author of the bestselling Conversations with God says “Yes.” He asks, “What does God’s unconditional love mean, if not everyone is welcome in heaven?” This question has affected me profoundly because it makes me realize how great God’s love can be. And the mere prospect of it has expanded my own capacity to love and accept people a great deal more than I ever could before.

5) Is evolution the story of life and the Universe awakening to its own consciousness? This is a practical question because it leads us to understand why the states of consciousness throughout man’s history have been expanding rapidly. If the Universe is a young mind, it seems to be opening up to its own awareness in exponential ways. Is there an end to consciousness, like an apex where everything unknowable will be known?

6) Why did God, complete and perfect a being as God is, create man? Surely, it was not out of need since being God, He/She/It needs nothing. Could it have been have been because of a mere preference, or an act of will? Could it be because, as Ken Wilber speculated provocatively as simple a reason as, “no one wants to have dinner alone”?

7) Do we ever return to earth after we die? Is there reincarnation? Are the Buddhists correct? Or is the whole idea of reincarnation just a metaphor of how open-ended man really is? Is Walt Whitman correct when he says, “I know I am deathless. No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before. I laugh at what you call dissolution, and I know the amplitude of time”? Or upon death, do we just gaze at the earth we left and marvel at how the living are wasting their lives living in a state of relative unconsciousness?

8) Are there other beings out there in other worlds? Are they of a higher intelligence? Have they really been visiting us and intervening in our lives throughout history?

9) Will mankind ever experience lasting peace? Ah, yes, the question of the ages.

One can wax mysterious and feel these questions deep in one’s being. But no definitive answer will be forthcoming. As the Bob Dylan song goes, “The answer is blowing in the wind.” That’s as clear as it will get.

Since we are still earthbound, and cannot always manage to lift ourselves higher into the stratosphere of the imponderable questions, let me end with the more profane and shallow queries that, however ordinary, are also still not answered with finality. They continue to be asked over and over again. I am talking about the lighter, sillier questions which “matter” but have not been satisfactorily answered. And these are some of the questions that talk show hosts, the media, and a crazy public like to dwell on, and what keep weekly gossip magazines selling like hotcakes. Though these questions are not imponderables, they are surefire curiosities.

• Boxers or briefs? Which is healthier? Sexier?

• Ateneo or La Salle? Which is the better school?

• Can a Virgo ever have a good relationship with a Sagittarian?

• Does a man’s shoe size reflect the size of his penis? Are so-and-so and so-and-so an item? Are they in fact a gay couple? Kapuso or Kapamilya? …ad nauseam.

Honestly, now: which questions did you find more engaging?

How do you know when a relationship has gone sour?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated November 08, 2009 12:00 AM


Computer graphics by REY RIVERA

It is not uncommon for slight acquaintances to get married, but a couple really have to know each other to get divorced. — Anonymous

I recently twitted to a friend: “While I believe that as much as one is called to marriage, one may also be called to end it.” She responded with a question: “How do you know when you’ve given it your all?”

Now, this exchange may seem quite flippant considering the gravity of the subject, but it only seems so because of the nature of the social networking apparatus of Twitter
requires that exchanges be succinct and short (140 characters per tweet).

But it got me thinking. Indeed, how does one know that you’ve given a relationship that has gone sour your best shot? Is it measured by the years one has “sacrificed” to make it work? Is it justified by what one has given up and not gotten in return? Or does it have something to do with the severity and validity of the reasons for separating?

Many couples I know have separated, and sadly, the numbers keep growing. Some called it quits after just two or three years while others ended after two or more decades. I can’t really draw a profile of which couples get lucky and stay together and which ones end up separating. They all seem so beautiful and promising in the beginning until the years unravel their character flaws and differences.

What I have noticed though is that some separate with a lot of acrimony and bitterness while others seem to handle the dissolution of their union in a gentler, less destructive fashion.

A classmate once told me that he and his ex-wife get along so well that they recently went on a double date. They each brought their current partners and had dinner together. They had a great time and plan to do it again. My classmate and his ex are two easygoing people who married late and have one kid. When it was clear that they weren’t getting along, they decided early on that instead of being miserable together, they might as well separate and save what was left of the goodwill they still had toward each other. He says that their decision to separate was one of the best and smartest moves they ever made in their lives.

Another friend had the opposite experience. After being married close to 20 years, he and his wife parted bitterly and with much hostility. His wife had fallen for another guy and, without warning, told him that she was not in love with him anymore and that she was leaving him for her new boyfriend.

This was quite a shock to my friend and to their kids. For one, save for the usual fights and the “distant one day/close the next” cycle that they were constantly going through, things seemed to be more or less stable in their marriage, at least on the surface. The whole separation was like an explosion that my friend and his children still seem to be reeling from more than a decade after.

Through the years, he and his ex have tried to be more civil about the configuration of their separate realities, but more often than not, the peace is broken and blaming and accusations start to fly, making a mess of things all over again.

I also have friends who have been separated for years now and have managed to pick themselves up from the wreckage. Some have remarried and have a renewed belief in the promise of forever despite having failed the first time. I notice that the peace they have and their renewed belief in love come from the fact they have learned to forgive and not look back.

Who did they forgive? Their spouses for the real and imagined hurts done to them. But many of them said that there was no release or closure until they could forgive themselves as well. They learned that by forgiving others and themselves, they could start their lives anew and move forward with new partners, forever leaving the past behind. And even when they had to revisit aspects of their former marriages for whatever purpose — legal, social or whatever else — they were surprised that they could do so with grace and very little anxiety.

Every marriage, no matter how seemingly solid, has its dysfunctions and problems. Sometimes your Significant Other feels like your Significant Bother. And I suspect that every partner in a marital union that has lasted 20 or more years has imagined or daydreamed what being separated from his/her partner would be like, especially when things are not going well.

I like St. John of the Cross’s description of spiritual journeys as consisting of “great faith, great doubt, great effort.” Coincidentally, Psychology Today once described the cycle of relationships in three stages: the promise, the disappointment or betrayal, and the courtship.

To my friend on Twitter who asked me how one knows when to give up, I answered that if you find yourself in “great doubt” or disappointment and betrayal, try and move things forward with “great effort” or courtship to get the cycle moving again.

But in situations and circumstances when people have lost the will to move the cycle forward, I added in another tweet that only she could decide whether to heed the call to continue the cycle or to call it quits. But in reality, it’s not even as simple as that.

A close friend of mine who after filing for legal separation in court pulled a big surprise by announcing, on the day the judge was going to issue the final verdict, that she and her estranged husband had decided to get back together. That was more than 10 years ago. And they have no regrets. Sometimes, you may think that it’s the end of the line, but perhaps waiting and giving it another great effort may be what is needed to turn things around.

In marriage, the thrill will evaporate, and the romance will wither as time goes by. But I have learned that these sensual states, while fleeting, can and do come back in cycles and waves. Even so, sooner or later, adrenaline, hormones and the sheen and attraction of youth and newness will fade, and other qualities must take over to bring the cycle to play in higher and nobler ways — qualities such as maturity, perseverance, loyalty, fidelity, constancy and humor, to name a few.

Not every old married couple would be so lucky to possess all those qualities at the moments they are needed to tide them over during bad times and sustain the relationship. But we do learn the value of showing up even when the feelings are not there. Recovering alcoholics learn to “fake it to make it” to get them through temptation. In a marriage, this would be the same as exerting “great effort,” which somehow leads to a new state of “great faith” and promise.

So what am I saying? That after the glow has faded, marriage is, in reality, a spiritual journey requiring great faith and great effort to keep the great doubts at bay. I guess the same can be said of all life’s relationships, commitments and projects. It only ends when we stop the cycle.