On being ‘The One”

One of the questions in a psychological test for government employees in the U.S. sometime in the ‘60s went something like, “If God spoke to you, would you tell anyone about it?”

I am sure many people who had to answer that in the affirmative must have grappled with it. The writer, M. Scot Peck, understood why. And I am pretty sure that today, just like before, there would be more people who would probably answer the question in the negative.

How do I know this? I asked the same question on Twitter and got more negative than positive responses.

Think of people in history who were called by their God, or their destiny, fate, or other voices. They must have grappled with the question, whether they were hearing a true voice, a real calling or were they just hearing themselves talking?

Gautama Buddha, Saul the tax collector, Moses, Muhammad, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the thousands of priests and nuns and men and women in the past and the present who were called to a life of service and dedication, must have had their doubts, too, before they said “yes” to the call.

The doubt is real and excruciating to face. One may need to pray over it for a long time, to ask for discernment before committing. And even when one is so close to the point of commitment, he is still not sure. Affirmation only comes once the irrevocable “yes” is given, which means it comes at the point when one can no longer turn his back anymore. It is only then that peace comes to the chosen one, and only for a while.

There must be something unbelievably scary yet beautiful, inspiring and totally life-changing when responding to the call to Be The One. It must feel like being privy to the thoughts of one’s God, since God is talking to you directly, and you are personally called upon to carry out a mission.

When it happened to Moses and Saul, they were completely converted and their lives changed radically. Gautama, upon enlightenment, must have felt like the entire universe and its secrets had opened up to him.

Being The One is probably not easy. And it is understandable that many turn it down when they hear the call because it asks one to leave one’s old life and embrace a new one that is most uncertain. “Many are called but few are chosen,” as Jesus himself said. That was true then as it is now.

And yet, to heed the call is to know that one has been chosen, and is, in a profound way, being asked to respond to a special divine request. That can be flattering. But, for all the VIP treatment (the call, or sometimes even a ‘visitation’), one can be sure he or she will be asked to do something difficult.)

To answer the call is to be asked to shout a message from rooftops, pulpits, gatherings or any venue that is presented. The message is often not an easy sell to the unconverted. You risk ridicule, disdain, contempt and may even be subjected to great physical challenges for espousing the message.

Saints have died for the faith, and in primitive societies, many shamans have lost their sanity. But that is how it is. And no matter how difficult the task can become, the deal between the divine and the mortal is simple, and it is this: You have seen the truth. You have glimpsed heaven. Now you must share it.

I do not think, however, that such a deal is offered exclusively to those who get the call as described above. In a sense, we all get called. To a lesser but equally important degree, anyone who answers or pursues a vocation, or who lives in this world faces important challenges.

Every year, there is a long list of people who take the qualifying exams to become doctors, nurses, CPAs, lawyers, etc., and join the workforce. There are also young men and women who marry and become parents, and the many who end up working for the government. Common to all these vocations are the oaths or promises they swear to do in the practice of their calling.

In fact, whatever it is one eventually does, even outside of those mentioned above, there are surely instances when one is faced with hard choices. And many of these involve issues of honesty and fidelity to what one has sworn to uphold. These are the moments of truth when one has to choose between being true to one’s profession or one’s conscience, or give in to the easier and more convenient path of mediocrity, or worse, dishonesty. In short, these are the moments when one is asked to answer the call to simply do the right thing as best as one can.

Everyone undergoes “the test,” not just once but many times. Everyone is asked to prove who they are or what stuff they are made of. These involve situations where one’s professionalism and abilities, talent, integrity and yes, one’s character is tried.

We have seen many people in public life fail the test, and their stories splashed all over the media. Many of us fail as well in our private lives. It is not just the policeman or public official who gave in to a bribe, or the lawyer who lied, or the spouse who cheated who fail, but also people who simply do not deliver an honest day’s work or live lives lacking in authenticity.

Being The One therefore is not something that happens only to so-called ‘special people’. That call is also heard by regular, ordinary people as they go about living life and minding their own business.

We become The One when we do good, or respond to situations in a way that is congruent and true to our beliefs and conscience. We are The One when we stand up against the world and challenge things that are wrong or oppressive.

Lastly, we are The One when our words and actions raise the possibility of experiencing greater and higher authenticity in our daily lives.

Because we are awake to meaning and purpose, we see higher possibilities, and so we must do the work of being The One by sharing it.

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1) Join me in a Songwriting Workshop on Saturday, October 8. Learn what comprise good songs and songwriting from melodic, structure, lyrics, arrangements, etc. It uses a very hands-on approach. Students will actually write during class. The class is from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 0916-855-4303 or write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. Classes are at P5,000.

2) The Art of the Nude — A photography workshop on Oct. 15 from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. Limited class.

3) Walking Photography Class — Explore a place and learn to capture light, tell a story, frame a photo, and more under different lighting conditions and settings. Class is on Oct. 22. Venue to be announced.

The Universe inside your head

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated September 11, 2011

No matter where you go or what you do, you live your entire life within the confines of your head.­ — Zen saying

I posted this quote on Twitter and Facebook and was quite surprised at how many people related to. So I thought I’d explore the topic further.

Knowing that the whole phenomenal world is perceived and appreciated through our body, senses and the grey matter that resides inside our heads, has many implications. Whatever is out there, it can be safely assumed that no two people can and will appreciate it in exactly the same way. Whatever we experience, even the collective things, will have their own unique nuances that will make the same time, place and event different for each of us. Perception is always personal. Such is the uniqueness of being alive.

Around 18 years ago, I read a question a writer had posed which asked, “Do you control your mind or does your mind control you?” I was immensely fascinated by the question which shook my being completely. I started reading about the topic and in the course of doing so, I was led to the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master.

While the book did not actually answer the question, it led me to a greater field of interest. The book begins with the phrase, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” This insight, which to me at that time seemed so radical and which went against the grain of how the world was, questioned everything I knew about what an educated person should be. I started to examine what many believed to be the “learned” mind as opposed to the “open” or empty mind which the author was writing about.

I reflected on all the years and all the effort I spent in school learning facts, figures and bodies of knowledge. Much of it had not only changed since I learned them but some had even become irrelevant. I came to the conclusion that as much as learning them was necessary to pass my classes, the greater value was in learning to learn, to discern, to think things through and respond to whatever situation life presented. This was more important than having prior knowledge about anything.

And I also realized that knowledge itself is the same as any other possession in the world. One must not be attached to it like dogma but must be ready to dispose of it when it reaches its expiry date and when something more true and useful comes along.

Zen and Suzuki opened me to many dimensions of nuanced thinking about dichotomies and unities such as form versus emptiness, and form being emptiness itself and vice-versa. It pointed out how our minds are constantly pulled here and there by conflicting concerns and spoke of a state where one can rise above all that and rest on a clear, empty mind. Not only that, reading the book gave impetus to my meditation practice which continues to this day and probably will never end.

The mind is a wondrous thing. But it must be mastered or it can drive you crazy. And the person who can explore and understand his own mind will know that a big part of it is the cultivation of one’s inner life and how it opens itself to states, levels and lines of subtle thoughts, insights and experiences. It begins with thoughts but soon becomes something bigger which is consciousness.

When I started to do Zen meditation (zazen) with regularity, I began to notice that aside from what I knew of myself, there seemed to be a witness that made possible my knowing this self. The witness watched this self that resided in my body that appeared to live a life. It was a rather small self compared to the one witnessing it.

This witness watched the small self who was called Jim Paredes. It could see this self as a third person. It was like there was two of me. The witness was vast and borderless, an infinitely larger “Self.” And recognizing the witness who was making itself aware as consciousness was a huge awakening of sorts for me. I discovered that I was actually infinitely bigger than I ever imagined. I was more than my personality, or the persona as the world knew me. I was the entity who could see behind the details, the labels and the name of what the world saw.

There was, in fact, the big “I” and that was my true self. I was not just the one living Jim’s life but the one witnessing Jim’s life being lived, while watching everything else in the world that was unfolding and arising.

Coming to this epiphany was like the Universe had opened itself to me in its full splendor. It was a state of full consciousness as clear and empty as the sky. Life’s events, thoughts and concerns were mere clouds that floated by. All of a sudden, there was no individual thing that existed. Everything and everyone was of the Oneness playing out. It was like what Osho, the yogi, said where one “falls in tune with the whole.” The limits of time and space could be surmounted and glimpses of eternity could be experienced in the mundane world. There was no such as thing as an ordinary thing, much less an ordinary life.

The brain is a body of nerves, synapses and stuff where a lot of things happen. It is located in the cranium or the skull. This is where, one might say, our knowledge is stored physically. But there are states of mind that go beyond the plane of knowledge and ordinary perception. To be in full consciousness or in an awakened state is to realize that there is a reality that goes beyond what mere senses or regular cognition can speak of, and that the one who perceives this, this consciousness, is non-local. Truly, the exploration of the mind beyond logic, ego and into awakened consciousness can lead one to spirit.

No, I do not smoke anything to have such experiences. And before I sound any more esoteric, I do not claim to be in this state 24/7. But I will admit I have been there a few times, even if at other times I still get lost in the pull of everyday emotions and concerns. And yes, I still have blind spots and my ego can still want to be in control, and it still desires to win quite often. But the profound experience of awakening to the witness has made the landscape and contours of my inner life quite different. What used to be just thinking before seems to have moved toward the greater state of being consciously aware.

And all this has nothing to do with acquiring knowledge or achieving any intellectual feat. It has everything to do with not trying to grasp anything and letting things go. The practice of emptying the mind and making room for the untainted, unblemished present unfolding is a spiritual exercise. You see things just as they are, without artifice or spin. A Japanese Zen master could not have put it any simpler when he said, “Don’t seek the truth; just drop your opinions.”

And what used to be a constant battle to escape the world and its attendant pains has become more and more an acceptance and accommodation of it.

If, as the saying goes, everything we do or experience happens within the confines of our head, we may as well awaken the mind-spirit to its eternal radiance and “borderlessness” so that the entire Universe and more can fit inside it.

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1) Join me in a Songwriting Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. Learn what comprise good songs and songwriting itself from melodic, structure, lyrics, arrangements, etc. Very hands-on approach. Students will actually write during class. 9 to 6 p.m. Call 0916-8554303, or write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. Cost: P5,000. Limited Class.

Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop: The best awakening-to-creativity workshop you can experience. This is the special six-session run from Sept 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19 from 7 to 9 p.m. Call 0916-8554303, or write me at jpfotojim@gmail.com for info, reservations or any questions. Visit http://jimparedes-workshops.com.

The last lecture

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated September 04, 2011

After a talk I gave at an event in the University of the Philippines, I and the two other speakers were asked questions by members of the audience in an open forum. One question I remember quite clearly and got me thinking since I attempted to answer it; posed by their teacher, Ms. Data Canlas, it went something like this: “Are you familiar with Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture? If this was your last lecture, what would you like to impart to the audience?”

Randy Pausch was a college professor in the US who was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. When his doctor told him this, he immediately went around to different schools and audiences, giving his now famous “Last Lecture” series of talks, where he expressed what he thought was true and important enough to share.

When Ms. Canlas asked us the question, we were stumped. This wasn’t your regular Ms. Universe question that one can answer by merely skimming the surface or by being cute and poised while answering. I tried to give my take on it and, to be frank, I must have done so with only passable eloquence.

This article is my second chance at coming up with clearer and better-thought-out answers as I retry tackling this most intriguing and important question, without the urgency or the wisdom that comes with knowledge of one’s impending demise. Here it is:

If I were to go very soon, I would like to share with you what I think this thing called life is all about. My answers will not be unique since there have been others who have stumbled on these same insights. And hopefully you find in them the ring of truth.

1) I believe in the whole Oneness thing — that we, humanity, and all sentient beings and the entire Universe are really One. The great tragedy of living is thinking we are all separate from each other, and sadly, the whole world and its values seem to be anchored on this. But we are lucky to occasionally experience short epiphanies from time to time brought about by random things that make us stop in our tracks and find ourselves in awe of this truth. These are the moments when we see the humanity and commonality we have with other people, even with those we do not like, or even condemn. They stop being the “other” and in many ways begin to be part of us. It stretches us and makes us bigger when we can see through the walls that divide us. When we can identify ourselves with all of life, then we have realized the Oneness.

Don’t we often feel empathy when we see others suffering? Don’t we feel uplifted when we see people break world records? And don’t we resonate with the words and actions of others when they act with noble purpose and pure intentions? Our yearning to connect, in person or even through the Internet, is testimony to the truth that we seek the physical Oneness we all feel deep down.

2) The only time is NOW. The present is always new and fresh if it is experienced in the now. And every present moment is in fact a “now” point. It’s as simple as that. Yet many find this complicated because they unwittingly bring in the past and future into the present and thus end up contaminating its unsoiled reality. Now is the only time we have. To speculate that the future will be better, or to bring up the past, is to create pain and devalue the only real thing we have.

But it is also true that we must understand and accept the past to deal with its consequences. In fact, not to do so is unwise. But to overly stress on the past is not the answer. The answer lies in the present and the full acceptance of it. It is the only thing that can free us from the past or change the course of a future we do not like. The gift of being in the present means constant renewal and creativity to experience a reality we truly desire.

3) Happiness is self-generated. We do not need anyone to “complete” us. Sure, we love other people and find great happiness being with them. And we love our precious objects of desire. But to make them “responsible” for our happiness is to diminish the definition of love that we give and receive. Love is not “trade” wherein we love someone only if we are loved back. Love is unconditionally given and accepted. To make our giving love dependent on whether it is accepted or not is to reduce it to a deal or contract of mutual benefit, no different from a common business transaction.

In the world today, it is difficult to believe this truth because so many commercial lures and media narratives about what love is deny this reality. We have been led to believe in the idea foisted on us that we “need” certain things and people to make us happy. Everything we need is already inside us. We are the fire and breath of our own souls.

4) Every spiritual quest is doomed to fail. Before you shout and throw invectives my way, let me explain. How can you find something that is already “here”? It has always been and it will always be here. To go on a quest for it is to deny it. God is here, there and everywhere. To say that God is not where you already are, is to deny the reality of God and insist in a deity that will answer our self-created needs.
Contrary to what some believe, heaven is not a place we go to when we die. Eternity is not something that starts upon death. Heaven is the experience of the timeless and eternal that we mortals, though bound by time and space, are capable of. It can be experienced in every “now” and we do not have to die to get there. Heaven does not wait; it is we who delay experiencing it.

The spiritual quest therefore is not really a quest but more of an “awakening” to transcendence in everyday living. It is the discovery of both our human and divine capacity to experience in a fresh, untainted way what is already here — the world as it is.

5) When all is said and done at the end of life, I would venture that the only important and worthwhile question to answer is, “Did you love?”

Everything we do on earth is an attempt to love ourselves or someone or something. And all throughout life, we are endlessly trying to understand what love is.

Our attempts at love that create wealth, stature and everything physical however will not last another second to serve us after we die. What will remain is the love we gave with authenticity and truth. It is those moments when we felt a loss of personal borders because we opened ourselves totally to love. It is the love we made, and the people whom we felt the Oneness with, that will keep the love alive beyond our mortality.

And it is the love for others that answers the eternal question of why life was even created in the first place. I believe life was created because the Oneness is love and Love is the Oneness. It’s as simple and as profound as that.

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1) Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop: The best awakening-to-creativity workshop you can experience. This is the special six-session run from Sept. 12 to 16, and Sept. 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. Call 0916-8554303, or write me at jpfotojim@gmail.com for info, reservations or any questions. Visit http://jimparedes-workshops.com.

2) Basic Photography Workshop: Go beyond the point-and-shoot experience. Know your camera like a pro. I am offering a class on Basic Photography this Sept. 10, Saturday at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, QC. Cost is P3,500. To reserve a slot, please e-mail me at jpfotojim@gmail.com or call 0916-8554303.