The need to connect

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 28, 2016 – 12:00am

I want to write about addiction. It is clearly the scourge of our time. Right off, I would like to say that I am no expert on the subject. I only write based on my limited experience.

I first got interested in the topic almost two decades ago when I met people who told me about their journey to recovery from alcoholism and meth use. Their accounts moved me and left me extremely curious about addiction and how to deal with it.

They talked about the many rehab efforts they went through before they finally succeeded in quitting. Some rehab centers physically harmed and beat up addicts. But there were other enlightened programs that spared them from violence. The ones that worked according to them were the latter.

From what I have gathered, addiction is a multi-faceted problem. It is not just an extreme physical longing for a substance. It also has emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions to it.

Recently, I watched a “Ted Talks” episode where the speaker told of a lab experiment with rats. They were put in solitary cages and given a choice to drink pure water or some that was heroin-laced. All the solitary rats chose the heroin-laced water and sooner or later became addicted.

In another experiment, scientists put many rats together in a large cage and gave them unlimited food. They also had space, a wheel to run on and a lot of opportunities for sex. The two types of water were also offered. To their surprise, the rats consumed the pure water over the heroin-laced one.

The same speaker also said that during the Vietnam War, 20 percent of the US soldiers were using heroin during their stint fighting the Vietcong. The US military establishment was worried that when the war ended, many soldiers would come home heroin-addicted. But strangely enough, it did not happen. There was no heroin addiction boom that followed. Many went home and merely resumed their normal lives.

In their explanation of why the results are what they are, the researchers concluded that a key factor that prevents addiction is “connection.” When individuals (and rats) live in a community where they were connected with loved ones and friends, they were not attracted to drugs.

It is no wonder then that sick people who are given massive doses of pure heroin in hospitals to fight pain do not turn into addicts when they return home and connect with their loved ones.

Loneliness, boredom, alienation and social deprivation may be central in making people susceptible to addiction. Everyone is looking for love, for peak experiences, and the feeling of being whole. Drugs can delude us into thinking we can get these things chemically.

The few people I talked to who survived addiction affirmed that reconnection was a big factor. And, they added, the struggle also had a strong spiritual dimension.

Going through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program was a game-changer. This program is a searingly honest examination of oneself aimed at getting right down to the core of who you are. In the process, you encounter and hack away at all the bullsh*t and delusion that feeds the addiction. It is a severe reality check and yes, it is life-changing.

The AA 12-Step Program has been around for decades and is still recommended by many professionals who treat addiction. It has saved many lives.

Going back to connectedness, it seems to make sense that when people feel secure, loved and in touch with people who matter to them, drugs lose much of their allure. Being connected also means being in touch with one’s own thoughts, feelings, dreams, the sense of what is right and wrong and our deep humanity. In other words, it means staying grounded.

In real life, many of us are not. I often forget or deliberately ignore my inner callings. It is too scary to know oneself sometimes. It is easier to live hiding behind the masks that we wear in the world and believe in the delusion that we are being real.

I do not have the stomach for extrajudicial killings or the willingness to give up due process even if I support the campaign against drugs. I value our hard-fought human rights. I am glad it is not in my hands to decide who lives or dies. I know people who are addicts. I love some of them even if I know how much their families have suffered because of their addiction. I do not wish it on anyone.

A successful recovery is always inspiring because it is a story of redemption. While rehab is expensive and unaffordable to many right now, it is perhaps one of the rescue mechanisms that we really need to solve this huge drug problem. We must do more of this in place of killing people outright. I personally believe in second, third, sometimes even fourth chances. I have seen people recover from drugs permanently.

Look outside our families and into our larger communities. Do you see much connectedness? Are people reaching out to each other? Do we have real personal relationships with people who live near us?

Everyone is going through something difficult at any given time. It is so easy to not care. After all, we do not like to be bothered by problems that do not concern us.

While not all of us are called to actively catch pushers or users, we can volunteer to be our brother’s keeper. We can initiate healing connections with people who need it. Let’s start with our own families, relatives, friends and neighborhoods.

We need to connect with each other now, more than ever.

Answering the call

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 21, 2016 –

I watched the movie Ignacio de Loyola a few nights ago. It is a wonderful movie. I was impressed with the script, the acting, direction and the entire production. Needless to say, I loved it. I must confess that it touched me in many ways, both good and disturbing.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Atenista from my first day of school in prep to my college graduation, the Ignatian ethic was always being rubbed on me.

Watching the movie brought back a lot of memories. The letters AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam) was something we wrote on top of our test papers. We wrote it on every essay we crafted, every assignment and exam we took. It was written on the blackboard daily. The Loyola crest shown in the movie was painted on the chapel doors, and the Prep School gate. Early on, I memorized St. Ignatius’ prayer for generosity which goes:

Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that of knowing that I do your will.

I find much comfort in this prayer to this day.

What disturbed me in the movie was not anything about its technical or artistic aspects. The elements that a good story told in that medium were well executed. What I found troubling was the story of Iñigo himself. He was a man of high social standing, a true knight in the most traditional sense who was willing to fight for the glory of love, honor, and loyalty to his king and country. And he most certainly did all that, until complications set in.

In a battle to protect the motherland, he suffered a broken leg which left him with a limp — a crooked gait that ended his dreams of knighthood and all its attendant glory and pride. Crippled and recuperating in bed for four months, he had nothing to read but the lives of saints and of Christ. There, in the midst of pain, despair, regrets and boredom, he accepted God’s invitation to leave his old life and walk in His path.

Watching the movie, Iñigo’s response to the call made me feel afraid, for my own sake. It was the path unknown, the one less traveled. I felt that if God called me to a life of service, I would probably find every excuse to refuse Him.

Would I be willing to be a foot soldier who would deny all my worldly connections if God demanded it? The answer is, I do not know. If I said yes, I would probably argue with Him every step of the way.

If we truly listen, God is probably calling us to do something, but we are too distracted or cowardly to hear it. Is it something dramatic or earth-shaking? We do not know. But I am sure it is something that will shake our individual lives if we follow it.

Some are called to live big lives that can affect a lot of people and change a lot of things for good or evil. Smaller callings, though not as dramatic, are as important. Touching one life with an act of kindness could set the wheel turning for a series of events that could lead to something bigger.

When you look back and review your life, you will catch themes and meanings that can give you an idea of how you have spent your time, and what is important to you. Or it may suddenly dawn on you how little you have done that matters to you or to anyone.

We moderns like to think life is about the pursuit of happiness. Ignacio reminds us that more than the worldly pursuit of happiness, however we define it, life is about obeying God’s will for us. It demands sacrifice, obedience, and discernment.

It is so simple yet so radical. Are we ready? Many of us are probably not and never will be. Perhaps that is why great unexpected interventions happen in life, like what happened to Ignacio. Fate brings us great disappointments to break us out of our comfortable lives and pursue a new path. It may not be the path of least resistance, but a more challenging one that will make us happy, not with riches but with meaning and purpose.

Learning how to detach

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 14, 2016 – 12:00am

I see myself as a more or less easygoing, happy individual. I can live without spending much. I am not really picky about what I eat even if there are certain foods I won’t touch, mostly for health reasons. I don’t need to dress impeccably. I do not need signature clothes even if I am happy when I am gifted with some. I am what I would describe as a low-maintenance person.

I know many people who are the same. We are generally optimistic and adaptable people who can, most of the time, take disappointments and setbacks.

There are people who tend to be the opposite. Mostly, I find that they are unhappy, lonely and discontented with what they have. They are always looking somewhere else for solitude, peace and satisfaction. They are generally pessimistic, expecting the worst in any situation. And not surprisingly, they experience more disappointments than the optimists.

Whichever type of person we are and whatever our default mood is, we cannot be perpetually happy or sad. Being human, our moods change all the time. We are all capable of running the whole gamut of emotional highs and lows.

One of the things I am continuously learning to do is to step back and watch myself as I go through my experiences. Even when I am going through some intense moments, I am often able to watch myself as a third person and I find that I can detach on some level even as I am emotionally involved.

Maybe it is an adult life skill to be able to cope this way and not get overwhelmed by emotions and feelings. It is sometimes good to distance one’s self from one’s moods. Sure, you can be happy, but don’t cling to the feeling. Just enjoy it as long as it lasts. And when in the midst of overwhelming sadness or anger, it helps to be able to tell yourself that this, too, shall pass. You must be able to let it go after

And so it is with every mood we have. They are too transient to own and keep. They are like storms, or a carnival that visits, but don’t stay long. Thank God.

But being able to detach is not the same as being in denial. Denial is pretending an ugly mood you are feeling does not exist. It does.

I remember a woman I met in Zen training who had been a practitioner for years. She told me a story. One night, she woke up at 2 a.m. Her teenage son had come home late driving the family car, which had smashed headlights and a broken fender. He reeked of alcohol. She got angry and scolded him. Her son retorted by asking, after all her years of Zen practice, why was she so angry and livid? Shouldn’t she be calm, collected and speaking to him softly? Shouldn’t she be more forgiving? She looked him in the eye and told him that this ugly mood was where she was at right then, in the moment, and she was not going to pretend otherwise and deny it.

I laughed because it broke the stereotype of what it means to be on a spiritual path like Zen. The truth is there is nothing special about Zen practice. We don’t walk in the clouds. We are not above others. We are still human, though perhaps a little more conscious about our being human and more accepting of it.

Detachment is also not indifference. You could be involved in a drama, an argument, or whatever the situation is. You can even participate with passion. But you know deep down this is just something you are doing at the moment. Like a movie, it begins and ends sooner or later and has nothing to do with who you really are.

That capacity where you can distance yourself from what you are feeling suggests something intensely profound. For one, it raises the question: Who is the one experiencing and who is detaching? Is there a bigger “you” that no mood, event or experience can affect or alter? Who are you, really, without your moods or feelings? Who are you without your opinions, thoughts, biases? Do you know who you really are?

These questions are something to ponder and can lead to bigger questions. It may take more than a lifetime to find the answers to them.

Ten things I owe the world

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 7, 2016 – 12:00am

We breathe the same air. We live on the same planet. Our own survival depends on one another. We are capable of the same feelings. We have the same dreams. We all need food, homes, education, jobs, security, opportunities, human rights, freedom, happiness.

Everything each of us does has an effect on someone or something. It may seem small or insignificant but it does create some kind of ripple in someone’s life. Even when we are alone, our state of mind, our consciousness, the thoughts we have and the things we do, matter somehow. They either make us better or worse than what we are. And that matters every time we engage each other. When we grow physically, emotionally, spiritually, the world is impacted positively, however small. And when we are selfish and irresponsible, the impact is negative.

When a person enters the world, he or she is mainly concerned with “finding him/herself.” Yes, there is a “self” to discover during the early time in our lives. When we get older, we redefine that same self as something bigger and inclusive of more people, until it collectively becomes all of mankind. We lose the small egotistic self and discover that, indeed, “we are the world,” as the song goes.

I have been thinking lately about how things are going in the world, and I have not been happy with what I see. People seem to be more prone to and affected by negativity than positivity. Bad news reigns. More often, pessimism gets more traction than optimism. There is a scarcity of goodwill, tolerance and kindness.

It could be just me. I don’t know.

But since we all live and affect each other, I would like to think that while we, individually, want to pursue happiness, we must also think collectively. The connectivity we share as humans forces us more and more to think collectively and consider the rest of mankind, even when we make many individual decisions. World events, and even social media have shown us how we affect each other. Good and bad things go viral and probably define how we view things on a daily basis.

In short, we cannot live just for and by ourselves. There is no escaping from one another. Here is list of some of the things I believe I owe mankind, if I am to live and love and pursue happiness in a world-centric way.

1) I owe every human being the recognition that he is more than a statistic, a nationality, a part of a race, a member of a social class and gender. Everyone is a person, a human being, unique, with a personal history and a purpose on earth.

2) I owe everyone respect just as I want respect from everyone.

3) It is my duty to honor, promote and defend everyone’s human rights.

4) In choosing between something that degrades humanity and something that uplifts it, I must choose the latter.

5) I must try and love everyone as well as possible. It is important to try and see God in everyone. Even my so-called enemies have what in Zen is called “Buddha nature.” If I cannot love fully, I must at least insist on giving the minimum required, which are respect and justice.

6) I owe it to the world to keep educating myself so that I may understand more and thus deliver the compassion and love that are most needed.

7) I owe everyone, especially future generations, a better, healthier, more sustainable planet.

8) I owe it to everyone to consume less of the earth’s resources and when possible recycle, revive and renew the planet.

9) I owe it to humankind to stand on the side of hope, positivity and, when faced with negativity, hate and hopelessness, to pursue positive action.

10) Lastly, I owe everyone a life of purpose for myself that makes me happy and creative. The happier I am, the more I can give. I cannot give what I do not have. And that purpose that makes me happy, helps me make life better and kinder for everyone around me.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. This is a turning moment in the history of mankind. Values we built through the centuries that promote rationality, human rights, inclusivity, equality, tolerance are being challenged. And once in a while, we have seen that the world has a capacity to go berserk, as history has shown us. The polarization seems to tell us that we must either move upwards in evolution or move backward. Now is the time to consciously be aware and do the right thing.

The world needs help. Sometimes, what is demanded is a big act of compassion. Sometimes, a smile or a “thank you” is enough. We must do what we can to spread more kindness and happiness around.