Paying attention

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 24, 2016 – 12:00am

To see the World in a Grain of Sand and Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour. — “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake

Today, my eyes are opened to the littlest details I see. I am trying to notice everything, to really look at the world with the freshest of eyes.

Is that even possible? Yes. I do this often.

When I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, I break the world down into parts I can handle.

I look around me and I am filled with fascination. Sometimes, I see the beauty and the reverence in all things.

As I write this, I am looking at the tree outside my window and pondering the beauty and complexity of its being. How does it grow? What is the process? How does the relationship

Its branches are swaying with the light breeze as I look at it. Where did the pollen that found its way on this spot to someday become a tree come from? Or maybe it was planted by someone years ago. How can God create something as beautiful as this?

Why does it make me sigh? How is it that something like this tree, which can hardly catch my attention on certain days, can suddenly seem like my entire universe?

Why do I feel a song in my heart as I marvel at it?

I also often wonder about the paths I walk along in life. Sometimes I think they were put there for me. I know I still choose the path I take, but I wonder if someone set it there even before I started walking on it.

Could it be that someone actually walks with me at all times? Is this why I feel like I’m being “guided”?

Why do I feel that I am not alone when I pray, wish for, or create anything? Is it possible that no one actually creates anything by himself?

Often, as an artist, when I summon inspiration, it shows up. I am helped along by something or someone. It always happens and I trust it. And I try to apply this summoning and trusting in daily living, as best I can. I still have a lot to learn in this wider arena.

Sometimes, days, weeks, months, years can pass, and we feel that life has nothing new to offer. We are mostly in “passive” mode, waiting for blessings to come or way. We want life to bring us gifts and we expect these gifts to look a certain way or to be within our expectations. But often, when they do show up, it is not as we expect them to be. And we are disappointed that our prayers have not been answered.

During such times, I remind myself that something important is happening. I am being led to something else, away from what I expected. I am being asked to go along and trust the process. It is a new challenge and it can be scary.

One of the spiritual exercises I try to do, mentally, is to look at the world without any judgment or opinions. It is difficult, but I just try and allow things to unravel in the present, without me coming from any past experience to color it with judgment. I let the moment open by itself and show up without any contamination from the past.

The result can be amazing: things are always new, and I come from somewhere fresh. I have spontaneous feelings, like I am having an entirely new experience, not a repetition of anything I’ve known before.

I feel alive, reborn, child-like, and it cleans the lens of my perception.

The quality of our lives depends on what — and how — we pay attention to things. If we see everything as a mere repetition of things past, they will seem like repetitions of things past. But if we see them as coming from a moment that has never happened before and will never happen again, the world becomes a magical and holy place. We will act with great awareness and attention. And everything around us will feel holy.

If you look into things deeply and imagine where they came from, you will stumble upon the serendipity that brought them into your world. The people who made each thing have their own unique life situations and they released their creations into the world without knowing where they would end up. Look at the meal before you, the chair you sit on, the glass on the table, the table itself. When you look at everything this way, their ordinariness evaporates and everything becomes… special.

The key to this is to pay attention. The transformation actually happens not in the outside world, but inside ourselves. We give life the awareness it deserves.

And that is something awesome.

The best things

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 17, 2016 – 12:00am

My favorite author, Joseph Campbell, wrote, “My friend Heinrich Zimmer years ago used to say, ‘The best things can’t be told’ because they transcend thought. ‘The second best are misunderstood’ because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, and one gets stuck in the thoughts. ‘The third best are what we talk about.’”

This should be reason enough to stop being a writer if one wants to discuss the really important stuff. Words are insufficient in the first realm of best things. They do get in the way. In reality, no discussion is even possible.

Silence is the only thing that will suffice here. Spirit talks without words. One must awaken and be present to hear its truths. This is why in Zen practice, there is no talking allowed in the zendo except when the sensei gives teisho, which is similar to a homily, or if one is consulting with the sensei.

So now, I am attempting to write about the second and third best things and I have no doubt that I will be at least partly misunderstood. But still, I am called to do it. Should I just give up on the second and just jump to the third best things? Should I just stop writing? Or should I continue to attempt to come close to explaining the unexplainable?

At worst, I could fail. But that’s okay. I can live with that.

Sometimes, I worry that the gift of silence is fast disappearing in modern life. The world is becoming an increasingly noisy place. We continue to mindlessly indulge in a world of titillation and sensory stimulation that makes us, unknowingly, lose our own center. In the process, we lose contact with our own selves.

The world’s noise and dust are distracting us from our true selves and making us believe that we are incomplete and lacking. We are led to believe that we need the things of the world to “complete” us. The world is out to own us.

Am I the only one who sometimes feels the world is trying to kill my soul? As a human being, I feel it is out to numb me from feeling any compassion for other people. On social media, I often hear people shouting to give them Barabbas. Vox populi, vox crazy! The pressure to conform to the will of the crowd, to be cool as defined by worldly templates, the need to always appear to be a winner — these are extremely tempting.

Under such circumstances, we can feel lost and confused. We lose touch with the greatness and sacredness we were each born into. We are forced into narratives of living not of our own choosing. We are controlled, boxed, and find no meaning in our own lives. We are cogs in someone’s big machine, players in other people’s dreams. We stop dreaming our own dreams.

With many other people I know, I find myself sighing at how crazy the world is becoming. Often, I actually tear up when I think of the insanity that is being inflicted on humanity. I am aghast at how world leaders can’t see how important it is to save the planet. Do they have another place to go? I am shocked at how people can kill and inflict evil on others in the name of God and religion.

I am saddened by the cruelty that is inflicted on the poor, the special children, the helpless. It seems that modernity has given us more tools and outlets to express racism and hatred. It has created more toxic divisions than healthy, loving connections among people.

If sometimes it feels like the problems of mankind are intractable, I go back and remind myself of the first best things. Maybe we need to meditate on transcendence itself and awaken to Oneness and connection with everything and everyone. We may not find there a list of concrete things to do but we can experience the solution, even if we come out of it without words. That’s okay. At least we will know who we are without the craziness imposed on us.

I don’t know if it will solve the problems of the world immediately or in some measurable way, but it can at the very least make us get in touch with what is good inside us and stop contributing to the noise and dust.

We spend so much time talking about the “third best things.” These are our daily conversations about money, fashion, current events, politics, relationships, social media, showbiz, the problems of the world, and other concerns that crop up in our daily lives. It could do us a lot of good to just stop talking and retreat into the silence. We will be better off not talking too much but having a deeper understanding of the best things we should be spending our time on.

And maybe — just maybe — the world will somehow be a kinder place.

Making peace with religion


(The Philippine Star) | Updated January 10, 2016 – 12:00am

My wife Lydia recently found my dad’s old rosary and prayer book. The rosary was broken with some parts missing. She looked for similar-looking beads and fixed the rosary herself before giving it to me.

My dad died in 1957. This means the rosary had not been used in over 50 years. When Lydia gave it to me, I was moved by her gesture. I held the rosary in my hands, feeling the beads and imagining how many times my dad must have used it. He was, after all, a very devout and prayerful Catholic.

I’ve used the rosary a few times, and while I cannot remember all the mysteries, I pray with my dad’s rosary fervently.

The past few months, I noticed that I am somehow being drawn back to the faith I was born into, which is Catholicism. For years, I have not been going to Mass except during Christmas and Easter, more as a tradition than anything else. It goes with the feeling of Christmas and Easter. But I go to communion whenever I am at Mass. One might say I was not a model practicing Catholic.

Perhaps our new pope has something to do with my looking back at my Catholic roots. Because of his views and statements, I have started to see the faith through more human eyes. His openness to other religions, including atheism, his admission that he is a sinner, and the way he has given new understanding to love and compassion have made me look again at what it means to be a Catholic.

Many of us were introduced to Catholicism and faith accompanied by threats of hell, guilt, fear and dogma that made religion seem joyless and controlling. But as I grew up and matured, I met a bigger God who seemed to understand what being human was all about. I learned to be forgiving of others and of myself. I learned to believe that God’s unconditional love dismisses the possibility of hell. If hell exists and we are meant to go there if we do not follow God, that would go directly against what unconditional love means. Unconditional love asks for nothing. We are already loved. The hell we experience is because we are not awakened to this love.

For more than a decade, I have spent countless hours doing Zen meditation. In the silence and in a state where ego seems to be inactive, God has manifested Himself to me. I now feel the same thing when I am in a meditation chapel. The trimmings may be different but the experience is the same. You awaken to presence that totally defines you.

I am not into dogma. I still cannot believe that the Apostle’s Creed is literal in its entirety. I am not too concerned whether or not I am considered a Catholic on paper.

I once attended Mass for the old and sick Jesuits at the Faculty House in Ateneo de Manila University. It was held in a very small chapel. I saw a few of my once vibrant teachers now old, faded and in frail health. I was touched when I saw one of them walk to the altar very slowly to receive communion. It took a few minutes. It was as if he was undertaking something so important that he had to use all the strength left in his body to do it. I imagined him as a young priest who dedicated his entire life to following and serving an inner voice that called him to the priestly life. And here he was, still a priest way into his last days.

Faith is believing in something intangible but very real. It is as real as love. While you can’t see, touch or taste it, you know it is real enough to make it the foundation of everything in your life.

Materialists will scoff at that statement, and in a way, I understand them. But love, faith, compassion, spirit are real and there is no way science can measure them or dismiss their reality as something merely psychological. But neither should faith deny the reality of human existence.

I straddle these two worlds. Everyone does. But I am looking more at the intangibles and trying to explain it to myself and to other people. Perhaps it is age that is driving me back to my faith. I am not even sure if I want to return to it completely or just stay within its periphery.

But I believe it is intrinsic to our being human to search for the meaning of why we are even here. We never tire of asking the age-old questions that remain unanswered through the rigors of science. Perhaps the lure of the world is simply not enough to give us the full life we seek.

In the few times when I would attend Mass in the past, it was always a struggle. I was always arguing in my mind with the priest, the homily, the prayers, etc. These days, this doesn’t happen anymore. I just humbly sit and appreciate what shows up. I know there is always a gift there. I just have to be humble enough to see it.

I am in my 60s. I have done a lot in my life. Maybe I am coming full circle. Maybe I am finally wise enough to really understand what my religion is all about, without the pain and guilt that turned me off for so long. Whatever it is, I am starting to make peace with it.