North Stars

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 24, 2013 – 12:00am

Scouting was an activity I truly enjoyed as a young boy. I loved the idea of being with a “troop” and exploring things, learning skills like building a fire, cooking outdoors, studying rudimentary first aid, pitching tents, hiking and camping. I liked doing things like tying different knots, and carving and cutting things with knives — that kind of stuff. There was also the Scout’s Creed which I can still recite to this day.

It was in scouting where I first heard about the North Star, also known as Polaris. While I am not familiar enough with the spread of planets, constellations and stars in the night sky, I know about the North Star’s practical use. It is one of those shiny objects in the night sky that other stars seem to gravitate towards and so, it is a useful guide for explorers as they traverse both lands and oceans.

I mostly appreciate it as a metaphor. “True North” is a term used as a reference to where one’s moral compass, or life’s direction, is supposed to be pointed. As a navigator of life, it is important to know where one’s True North is, or risk getting lost.

To have a North Star means to have direction, and to have direction gives you purpose. One’s True North is a metaphor for one’s fixed and set values. To know them is to choose the life path that coincides with the values and morals you hold dear to your heart. And that is important.

I watched the premiere of the movie Lincoln the other night. Lincoln used the North Star metaphor quite engagingly. In the movie, he tried to explain to Senator Stevens, an ally and staunch supporter of anti-slavery, that one may know where one’s True North is, but with that knowledge does not come the location of swamps, sinkholes, etc. that stand in the way of getting there. That is why to stay on course, one may have to proceed with caution and be ready to make a few turns to avoid being stuck. I thought that was wonderful, practical advice.

Abraham Lincoln and many people during his time held the burning belief that all men were created equal in the eyes of God and so therefore it ought to be the same in the eyes of the law. He abhorred slavery. This belief cost the US a terrible civil war and it personally cost Lincoln his life. Needless to say, it altered the US and, perhaps, world history forever and for the better.
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In the course of following one’s True North, one will realize that it is not easy to stay on course all the time. Or at least it may seem that way. Obstacles will stand along the way. You can get stuck, waylaid, confused and may even seem to encounter insurmountable blocks or forces bigger than yourself. It is so easy to give up in the name of practicality and realism.

But where you realize that a straight line between two points (you and your goals, for instance) is simply not feasible, or even possible at certain junctures, one must be creative and daring in finding alternative routes. One must be observant and practical as well. There is a proverb that says, “A sailor must have his eyes trained to the rocks and sands as well as the North Star.”

But sometimes, one is left with nothing except the unknown. Someone once said that to discover other lands, one must be willing to lose sight of the shore. That moment of seeming drift, where one seems to be neither here nor there requires boldness and steadfastness and even faith in the belief that something awaits on the other side. Or to borrow another metaphor, one must be willing to knock on many doors until you find one that will open. And it requires that, deep down, you know there is at least one door that eventually will open for you.

In a journey that seems lost, stuck, or pulled down by disappointment, we must be ready to extemporize, to ad lib, to improvise along the way until we find ourselves again in a position where the goal is more visible and attainable.

Among negotiators on both sides of the peace panel on the Bangsa Moro issue, I can imagine the tensions they feel. Questions like, how much are we willing to put on the table? Or to put it in a scarier context, how much more must we give up, is a question that can be challenging to answer. Giving up something you now have for something that is dreamed of, desired but not assured in the future can be quite a fearsome challenge. It is like stepping into the dark not knowing whether your shoe falls on solid ground or not.

All the “what ifs” can suddenly appear and even cast doubt on the wisdom of negotiating with the enemy. What if in the end, we gave more than what we got? What if everything fails again as it has happened so often before? What if people blame us? Nothing is sure, that is for sure. But nothing changes without people trying to change things. That is why ardently following one’s True North is for brave men/women with big visions. It is not for the small, the petty and the cowardly.

But what happens when you realize that you have been looking at the wrong star all these years? I have met a few people who have had the predicament of discovering they wanted to do or be something else after years of specialized schooling. I have met former rebels disillusioned with a movement they were once ready to die for. I have met individuals who had woken up realizing that their avowed True North was actually a pipe dream, an illusion built on nothing more than an egotistic vanity or aspiration, or an inherited “duty” dictated by their parents to them.

It is hard to awaken from such a dream. But if you are courageous enough to dissociate from a dream that was unknowingly forced upon you, or a false one, then all is not lost. In fact, all may be gained back since this great self-realization will awaken you to your true purpose. You will carve your own path and follow this road you have made and which was made only for you. Your sense of purpose will shine like a clear star in the uncertain darkness. Simply put, by discovering your North Star and courageously following it with great wisdom borne of pain and fearless creativity, you will become a North Star yourself for others to be guided.

Changing yourself

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 17, 2013 – 12:00am

Have you ever found yourself suddenly not enjoying something you used to enjoy before? Did you ever wake up with the realization that some of the beliefs and ideals you used to be willing to die for have become meaningless or trivial? Or how about losing interest in friends, hobbies, work or causes that you used to look forward to and spending a lot of time on?

This has happened to me a few times. Maybe it was part of a prolonged midlife crisis spell. Some, as it turned out, were just temporary moods or feelings. But there were some that became permanent changes.

People change. They do all the time. That’s a fact. Sometimes it is easy to change. At other times, it can be very difficult to handle.

I remember hearing about a macho bully boxer from my older brothers’ generation. He had an irrational hatred of gays and used to beat them up, until one day, he suddenly came out of the closet openly and became a screaming, out-and-out cross-dressing homosexual.

I have met priests who changed their minds later on and left their vows to get married. One of them was my teacher who married Lydia and I. I’ve also heard of formerly shy, submissive women who overnight transformed into assertive people aggressively pursuing big dreams. We all have our own stories to tell.

I was recently reading about last year’s Oscar awards and came across something interesting. Mother Dolores Hart, a nun, was there to attend the show because of a movie about her life. You see, she had led a very interesting life and some producers made a documentary about it. It was in the running for some awards.

As a young actress decades back, she held the distinction of having given Elvis his first onscreen kiss. She was a fast-rising actress then who had done movies with some big Hollywood leading men during her time. In fact, she had already inked a million dollar contract at her young age. But when she was 23 years old, she found herself visiting a monastery for some peace and quiet, and decided to stay there — for life! True as it is, I find it hard to believe something like this happens. And yet it does. It is very similar to the story of St Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier, playboy who gave it all up for the spiritual life.

These are certainly compelling stories of change, to put it mildly. What sets these apart is that, while we all do change from time to time, many of the changes that happen to us are not conscious ones. They just seem to happen suddenly and they catch us by surprise. They don’t seem to be born of conscious decisions. More accurately, they are more like the results of a lot of unconscious internal struggling and processing that probably was percolating inside us for some time, unknown to our conscious minds.

The unconscious mind is “below the radar” of our thoughts, so to speak. But it has a lot of energy and also wants to express itself through us. And it will, often without our conscious permission. That’s why we often perceive change as something that only “happens” to us. They are not acts we willfully chose unlike those of Mother Dolores Hart, and St. Ignatius, etc. They never entered our conscious thoughts.

Okay, but if we sincerely, and with full knowledge and consent, want to deliberately change, how do we do it? How do we get the unconscious and our unthinking, kneejerk habits to go along with us? Is it even possible?

I notice that a lot of mature people have greater chances of success at changing themselves for the better, and do so when they want to. They have a developed ability to look at themselves objectively and dispassionately. And that is one of the crucial primary skills we need to be able to recognize our defects before we pull off personal change. It involves being able to suspend the ego’s “fight or flight” function and just learn to observe ourselves. We observe ourselves without vanity, emotional investment or narcissistic interest.

By simply observing, you learn a lot about yourself and you begin to understand how and why you do things, and why you outgrow other people, including yourself.

Each time we find ourselves falling into familiar negative emotional patterns that are triggered by certain situations, we can pause and think and decide whether we want to indulge them instead of being “hooked” by them as what usually happens. Only by catching ourselves doing them can we consciously start to really change our reactions to responses.

Think about this if you find yourself always having the same pattern of fights and arguments with certain people. How often has this happened before? Isn’t it always all too familiar on hindsight? And yet when it happens, don’t you habitually bite the bait without thinking until you are again completely entangled? And you always feel surprised and ask yourself how/why it happens again and again. And you feel victimized because you felt provoked and couldn’t help but react the way you did. Once again, you have been seduced into falling for toxic patterns that keep you “crazy” and unhappy.

Surely, there must be a way out of all this.

I remember an emotionally troubled friend of mine who had been seeing a shrink for more than 10 years. He once asked his doctor if he was “getting better.” Was he progressing? He really wanted to know. The psychiatrist smiled. He told my friend that when he came in as a patient, he was like a fool who was always bumping into furniture in a dark room. But after 10 years of therapy, he had learned to stop bumping into the same furniture. He can now navigate the dark room and was now bumping into other furniture inside other rooms.

This may sound funny but it is a perfect metaphor to explain what was happening to my friend. It is this; he was learning more and more about himself. His unconscious psychological habits were slowly but surely becoming more known to him. His neuroses were being “uncovered” through therapy and brought to the light of conscious self-awareness. Now that they were out in the open for him to see, they had begun to lose their power over him.

Carl Jung liked to say, “What is forced hidden becomes fate.” I love this. It simply means if you deny who you really are or refuse to recognize your own feelings, they will “come out” on their own, and often impolitely. And they can bite you. It is good to uncover chunks of your rich unconscious, elevate and bring them to the realm of the conscious and be enriched by their gifts.

I once attended a life-changing seminar where the facilitator asked the question, “What kind of life would you have if you stopped blaming anyone for whatever you are going through?” That blew me away! I was stunned at the implications. To me, it meant taking full responsibility for one’s actions. It meant being 100 percent aware and actually choosing your responses instead of merely just reacting. That takes a lot of courage and training to commit to as a life practice.

Hard as it is, the wonderful payback (if indeed you can develop the habit) is the liberating feeling of unbridled freedom. You are living life on your terms. You can stop expending energy blaming other people. You know your wants from your needs. It is your own life you are living, and no one can force you into doing anything you don’t want to do!

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Making exercise socially relevant

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 10, 2013 – 12:00am

I have a love/hate relationship with exercise and gyms. Maybe it is because I was once a certified couch potato, a card-carrying member of what someone on Facebook describes as the Fitness Protection Program who, in moments of weakness, actually biked and ran and went to the gym — and shamelessly enjoyed it.

While I am all for staying fit and healthy, I am ambivalent about the whole idea of going to a venue designed for this type of activity and doing stretching and exercise routines designed by a so-called expert.

Studies say that to stay healthy, one must walk 10,000 steps a day. That’s to keep the circulation going and for leg muscles to remain firm and not atrophy. Other studies will tell you that the lifestyles of most people who live and work in cities is downright unhealthy. That all that sitting on one’s butt in front of a computer is harmful in so many ways. It hampers blood circulation and wreaks havoc on one’s posture, causing a host of medical conditions. That constant typing will cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and staring for long hours at a computer screen will destroy one’s eyesight.

These are just some of the reasons why experts say we should exercise. And I agree, though grudgingly.

I am back to exercising these days. But on the days that I have designated to go to the gym, around two to three times a week, I find that I have to psych myself and engage in self-motivation to actually do it. While putting on my running shoes and my gym shorts and T-shirt, and preparing my water bottle, towel and bag, I struggle against a great inertia that suggests I forego all this trouble.

But I end up doing it anyway. I have long ago been convinced that when you consistently perform an activity 21 times straight and on schedule, you have already made it a habit.

I believe in physical activity. I believe in balancing the body, mind and spirit. I believe that a perfect body with an infantile mind, or a repressed, dark spirit will not do the world any good. So all three areas must be cared for and balanced.

What bothers me about exercising and gyms is why I even have to engage in them, even if I have already found many perfectly good reasons to do so.

Let me try to clarify. The whole idea of exercise is a bane of modern living. Think about it: men and women lived for many centuries without really “exercising.” They were fit because they had to survive by hunting, gathering food, tending cattle, training in the art of fighting, carrying heavy things and doing manual labor, or perish. All those activities made them fit. No gyms, no fancy outfits, no memberships, and no trainers (except maybe for the warriors).

I am an old-fashioned guy who likes to make crazy sweeping statements, and I say the modern age has made narcissistic sissies of everyone. When was the last time you were actually in danger because you were hunting an animal for your family’s dinner? When did you ever have to go to a corn or rice field to gather food to bring home? When was the last time you held a spear to drive away invaders? Our ancestors did all these (quite regularly, I assume), and without watching themselves in big mirrors! They knew backbreaking work and the rewards it brought. I dare say, they knew how to live a full life and even die majestically with their boots on!

Now, all we do is simulate the muscle movements the ancients used to do while being supervised by instructors in the comfort of an air-conditioned gym with machines, gadgets and TV sets as we watch and ogle ourselves and others sweating before big mirrors. We are largely removed from anything life-threatening (unless, of course, a big machine falls on you, which is as improbable as the church supporting RH). Sadly, that’s what we moderns do to feel good and macho. Where is the “living” in that?

Okay, I know I am being facetious; but isn’t there something askew with this picture? Isn’t there something comically perverse here? I think that gyms are no different from sex shops where people can buy sex toys to simulate the real thing. Or gyms are like libraries where we live vicariously while reading about the lives of others instead of living our own. Or they are like Disneylands of the body where we simulate and pretend we are in actually dangerous adventures and fantasies come to life complete with adrenalin rushes, but with the assurance that we will never be physically hurt.

Have I driven home the point that all that strenuous effort we exert in the gym is just in place of the real, compelling physical activity our ancestors had to do to survive? A mere shadow of the real thing!

American writer Robert A. Heinlein points out, “Sex without love is merely healthy exercise.” He has a point. To our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it may well have been, “What good is all that stalking, waiting, running, and throwing spears and shooting arrows if we have no dead animal to bring home?” “What’s all the huffing and puffing and trying to blow the house down for if the wolf doesn’t get the pig?”

Which brings me to a novel and noble idea I wish to espouse. What if we could convert all that physical activity that happens in gyms to something really tangible? What if we could transform all the energy we expend doing pull-ups, stationary walking and running, push-ups and stretching, into electricity? What if exercise machines were connected to the electric grid so that every time they are used, they produce power for everyone to use? I once saw a man on TV connect a stationary bike to a contraption that ran his TV set. If he wanted to watch TV, he had to actually pedal and produce the power to run it.

If this could be done, exercising in the gym would make more sense and have a greater social dimension. Going to the gym would be much more than just plain old narcissism but an activity with a positive social dimension to it. Personal vanity and social responsibility can actually go together. Think about it: weightlifters would not just be buffed-up human curiosities, they would be admired for helping produce power that runs modern life! People like Sylvester Stallone would be true heroes in real life!

Now imagine if we could bring this technology to our homes. To run the ref, you have to do 50 pushups. Your electric fan will run on low mode for the next three hours if you do six sets of 15 reps of leg curls. Surfing the net would require stretching and touching your toes. You want hot water for bathing? Do jumping jacks to produce enough electricity to run the pumps that bring up the hot water to the shower!

I would be more than gung ho about exercising if it were like this. Aiming for a flat stomach, or nice cuts on my aging physique, would constitute a truly productive, altruistic and noble act! How cool is that? It would be on everyone’s shoulders to prevent brownouts!

Okay, let’s start the treadmill and let’s get physical.

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Hey Singapore, I am having my 2nd Photo Workshop there on Feb 23. I will teach you how to take great pictures. You will learn not just the basics but a whole lot more. Call now at +6582336595 and ask for Earla. This will be a cutting-edge experience. Let’s have fun and shoot!

Retreating to silence

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 3, 2013 – 12:00am

It is a noisy world we live in. Especially if you live in a part of Metro Manila where the sound of cars engines, tricycles, horns, sirens, construction and the general noise of life is quite evident. I notice that even when people are walking the streets late at night, they talk to each other loudly — loud enough to be heard through the window of my bedroom, which is beside the street. And yes, they are loud enough to disturb my calm before I go to sleep.

I am also sure that most of you, dear readers, have had your experience with unwanted karaoke singers who love hearing their echo-y voice traveling through the night and keeping you from sleep. That is probably the most irritating of all.

When I am in Australia, I experience quite the opposite. I hardly hear cars passing. When I do, the sound is quite muted. People do not blow their horns nor play their car stereos loud. They don’t drive at very high speeds in the villages. Neighbors are generally quiet — too quiet — sometimes you don’t even know if they are home. There are also no roosters crowing in the morning. Even dogs do not seem to bark at night.

Because of the silence, I am more likely to notice the sound coming from a dripping faucet, or the light, shaking noise a closed door makes when constant wind blows on it. That’s how silent it can get. As a result, I get great sleep almost every night. In the mornings, I wake up when I am ready to awaken. No unwanted noise jolts me out of bed. I often wake up after an 8-hour sleep to the soothing, happy chirping of birds.

But wherever one resides, there is noise to contend with for sure. Even in Australia, strange as it may seem, they also complain of noise pollution. I read a study somewhere that almost all over the world, noise is escalating. As life gets faster and more modern, it is inevitable.

There are the other kinds of chatter that hound our lives in the course of the day. Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, texts, social media, television, advertising, office deadlines, meetings, obligations, petty conversations constantly engage us and bombard us with information even if many are unwanted and not needed. Everyone and everything is vying for our attention.

Since when did life get so noisy and hectic? I don’t recall it being like this some 20 years ago. There were clearly more spaces for silence then. Not anymore.

I know quite a number of people who don’t seem to think all this noise is an issue. There is this theory that frogs can live and adjust without noticing their water habitat getting warmer until they just snap and reach their boiling point. Maybe some people are just like frogs. They unconsciously adjust to the noise. They are not aware how much it is affecting them till they reach their breaking point.

We all need periods of silence for our own sanity and a better quality of life. But with the way life is going these days, we must really make efforts to have those quiet moments where we can enjoy some respite from busy-ness and also wipe clean the dust of the world that constantly accumulates in our minds and spirits. We need to detox from mindless noise and engagement. We need to occasionally detach ourselves from the demands of the world.

You can’t always find a quiet place, or drop everything and retreat to some ideal Shangri-La somewhere. But you can go to a place within yourself where you can have your silent sanctuary. You can do yoga, meditation, long walks, Zen, exercise, and a host of other activities. The idea is to immerse yourself in a singularly focused activity or practice. That is all you do, and as you do it, you become present to everything that is happening, and also to what is not happening. And even when nothing seems to be happening, there is really a lot actually going on. I have learned that by simply engaging in the practice of being present, it is already doing me some good.

When you learn to quiet your mind, you learn to leave all concerns behind, and your wandering thoughts and feelings that normally control you begin to lose their power. You simply watch them come and go. Emotions and anxieties and other frantic states fade away and become benign and distant. This momentary freedom becomes the only thing that matters. And it feels physically and spiritually liberating.

I have been meditating for more than 14 years now, even if off and on. Let me tell you that meditation is one of the very few things that continues to keep me grounded especially in this crazy showbiz world I often live in. Without this practice of going inward, I would have fallen on the deep end of extreme ego aggrandizement long ago and gotten stuck there for good.

When the meditation is good, it is amazing. When it is not so good, it is still good. When you have been doing any practice for sometime, you will notice that you have easier access to the door of the sacred space and it gets easier to go in and out of it.

Meditation brings you to ground zero, the solid, unchanging reality where everything, including our own lives arise and play out. The difference is, we are present as witnesses and spectators. Life is fleeting. We begin to see and accept reality without our ego insisting it should dictate how things should be. The net effect is we begin to learn to stop judging and clinging to the world by simply surrendering to the arising moment. We discover peace in the stillness.

In meditation, I often feel wide-eyed, alive, and connected to everything. I have this feeling of wholeness, oneness and gratitude. The world is a wondrous place. There isn’t a moment or a thing that is not living, breathing and trying to connect with me on some level or capacity. Everywhere I look, on my left and right, top and bottom, I see life unfolding, rivetingly playing out and affirming life itself and my part in it. There are no hierarchies of importance. Everything rocks! Everything matters.

The felt experience is, I am IT and IT is I. I am the event and witness, spectacle and spectator, the experience and the one who experiences. I do not need anything to complete me. I am already whole. There is nothing outside of me. And all this is all there is. There is only awesome aliveness here.

This activity is my antidote to the endless noise and chatter so common in everyday life. Noise can lull us to boredom and sleep, while silence so deep and encompassing which we can only find inside us can roar so loud it can awaken us completely to life.

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If you live in Singapore, I will have a Photo Workshop there on Feb 23. Please call +6582336595 and look for Earla regarding details and reservation.