How the ‘demon’ Lady Gaga got me thinking about God

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated May 27, 2012

I am still aghast at the fact that some 500 people actually went out and protested Lady Gaga’s concert on Monday night. It wasn’t about artistic differences, the protection of local artists, or anything resembling reason. In fact, it had nothing to do with reason at all. The protest was held on the ground that the protesters perceived Lady Gaga to be a Satanist, or worse, the devil herself. And to top it all off, a Prince of the Church, one Bishop Arguelles, called for the banning of the concert for the same reason.

Reactions in cyberspace were quick and fast, and furious. Twitter and Facebook overflowed with comments, shoutouts, complaints and condemnations of the call to ban the concert. The ratio was almost 50 to 1, with the majority incensed and exasperated at the protest.

Religion has become a sword dividing people on issues such as the RH Bill, contraception, the acceptance of gays, gay marriage, divorce, women priests, celibacy, the handling of pedophilia in the church. There are other issues as well — science vs. creationism, prayers in school, secularism and even the question of whether hell and devils really exist.

To complicate matters further, the proponents of every issue seem to be adept at quoting the Bible to back up their moral stance.

Through the years, I’ve observed the different kinds of people who embrace the conservative religious values of their faith, and those who have a more liberal appreciation of it, some of whom even leave the faith and embrace a religion that allows more diversity in thought, action and beliefs. Some even become atheists. There are also those who have dropped all religious affiliations and say that they have simply become “more spiritual.”

Some people I know grew up happy-go-lucky, with no cares whatsoever about anything that had to do with religious practice. They were the last persons you would see going to Mass, or praying the rosary or performing any activity that could be seen as even remotely religious. Until they undergo serious crises in life — the loss of material fortunes, the breakup of a marriage, the onset of a serious medical condition, or heavy addictions, etc. I observed that the way they coped with their problems was to turn wholeheartedly to religion. They totally and completely surrendered to it and embraced it without question or reservation.

A great many of them seem to have discovered solace and comfort in the arms of a God they had only recently begun to consider seriously for the first time in their lives. Their experience of God was clearly life changing. It’s as though, in the midst of the confusion and uncertainty of their lives, they found a center or an anchor. And most of the time, they end up joining a Christian sect where they do Bible study, witnessing and other trappings and practices of the Christian religion that the early adherents practiced.

I observe that the newly converted can be quite dogmatic and judgmental, and what some may see as intransigent and unbending in their stand on issues. However, these “born again” Christians do not see it that way. What others see as a closing of their rational thinking or an embrace of new biases, they regard as faithfulness to the word and living their faith in action.

My brother Jesse, lamenting such behavior, put it this way: “Those who never had solid catechism when they were growing up and embrace the faith only as adults, cling to it in a way that betrays a lack of depth of understanding and compassion.”

They see everything in black and white, with no shades of gray. Their faith is often simplistic: those who believe in what they believe are saved, and the rest will burn in Hell, for that is the word of God.

On the other hand, I have also seen classmates and friends who, despite undergoing solid catechism lessons while we were growing up, and even taking their religion seriously for the most part of their lives, have decided to leave the Church, their faith in the God they grew up with in shambles. They have outgrown God, as they knew Him. Furthermore, they are incensed at the behavior of Church leaders, especially on issues regarding the handling of pedophilia cases, gay acceptance and the RH Bill.

It took many years for them to finally admit that they had doubts about their faith and are now ready to leave it for greater authenticity. In their new experience, God is as real as ever, unfolding in the modern world, but they have stopped buying into the narrow, intolerant views of the Church leadership who claim to represent God. They want to experience God without the middleman, outside the franchise of religion.

So we have the once-heathen who now embrace the faith, and the once-faithful who now abandon it. I can understand it when both claim they come from an honest place regarding their new beliefs, and yet they can be so far apart in their understanding of the nature of God and how to act this out in the world.

I have a conservative classmate who told me that his belief in the catechism as he learned it in grade school, had not changed in any way up to now. He is 60 years old. That got me to thinking about one of the earliest lessons I learned in catechism and it is the answer to the question, “Why are we here on earth?” The answer we were taught was, “To know, love and serve God.”

Everyone who takes his faith seriously (whatever it is) probably keeps this mantra close to his heart. But the problem lies in the fact that we do not all know God in the same way, and so there is confusion in how to love and serve God. If your experience is of a petty, punishing, judgmental God, you will probably act in a petty, judgmental way. The experience of a generous God will make one more inclusive and welcoming of others who are different from you.

Perhaps it is not enough to believe in a God. One’s belief must be accompanied by great humility in knowing that one’s knowledge and understanding of God is minuscule and limited. And because of this, one must grant that other people’s understanding of God are valid and true as well. I am talking about tolerance here, without which there is a hardening of positions which, when you think about it, is a form of spiritual materialism, where it becomes a contest of whose God is bigger, and right.

If people of faith do not take this stance, the tolerance and humility so necessary for us to live with other believers and be good servants of God, fly out the window, and hostility and hatred set in. Strangely, all this can and does happen in the name of God.

The average person knows the wisdom of tolerance and that is why so many reacted negatively to the attempt to ban Lady Gaga’s concert. Those who marinate in misguided religious fervor miss the message that the foundation of every religion is peace and goodwill to all men. They marinate in their own pride and self-righteousness, in the process whipping up their own hysteria against those who differ from them.

It seems the mystics were correct when they said that God and ego cannot exist in the same place. We have to kill ego and put humility in its place for God to claim the space.

Then, maybe, we can really know, love, and serve God as He deserves to be known, loved and served.

If health is wealth, how best to spend it?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated May 20, 2012

Lately, I’ve been hearing upsetting news about classmates, friends and relatives my age who are suffering from serious health problems. While I know that we have reached the age of greater vulnerability, it is still quite unsettling when it happens.

In the late 1950s, when my classmates and I were in prep classes at the Ateneo, we would run down the corridors and climb the monkey bars in the schoolyard with glee and with mischief on our minds. We were bubbling with life. Our cup of health was running over like a fountain that would never dry up. Youth was what we were all about — boisterous, carefree, wild and unhampered. We were in the pink of health.

Getting old, being sick with life-altering illnesses never crossed our young minds. We could not relate to the idea of a life-long illness. If it came to mind at all, such a thought was immediately dismissed as something that happened to other people who were older and distant. And if accidents did happen to people we knew, we thought that they would just magically bounce back the way they did in cartoons. Everyone could get fixed up like new by doctors, and all in a short time.

The march of time has made many of my contemporaries less healthy. Diabetes, cancer, emphysema, arthritis and various aches, pains and medical conditions have slowed down a number of us. It is to be expected. Like an old car, body and engine parts begin to perform less than their optimum levels and become brittle.

Graying, hairlines receding to total baldness, protruding stomachs, weight gain, wrinkles, poor eyesight, slower movements and memory lapses are getting more common. And we laugh when we notice these in ourselves, feeling collective comfort that we are all going through these together.

We are learning to accept the symptoms of aging, since, quite frankly, we have no choice. And acceptance is not a one-time event. It happens in stages of increasing gravity and we are forced to deal with it more and more as we are faced with less and less physical capabilities. The thing about health is, it is always in flux and demands constant reassessment.

In hindsight, my personal approach to health has been realistic and probably correct. I knew in my 40s that my body had reached its apex, health-wise. I remember Dr. Alran Bengzon telling me that my state of health then was as good as it could get. In other words, it was going to be downhill from then on, and what was important was how I could slow down the descent. That made me hopeful since I was rather healthy and did not have any of the great contributors to health decline like smoking, high blood pressure and stress. I had quit smoking more than 20 years earlier. And in the years that followed, I was exercising, biking, stretching, doing weekend scuba dives and had taken up meditation.

But I always worried about my heart since cardiac arrest, heart attacks and strokes are nasty things that have happened to elders on both sides of my family. Around five years back, I underwent stress tests in Sydney to see how healthy my heart was. After the tests, the doctor gave the thumbs up and said that I was healthy enough to pick up tennis as a sport, and theoretically, I was strong enough to make love after playing three sets! Needless to say, I felt very good about that.
These days, I hardly indulge in heavy exercise. My regimen is simple: eat healthy foods, do daily meditation, rest when I need to, get a good sleep and execute 80 push-ups daily. When in Sydney, I bike occasionally. I also like to walk. But more importantly, I try to be engaged with life by doing things I am passionate about. I like to be around people, especially with my loved ones, do photography, sing, write music, read books and write essays, teach, conduct workshops, and look for opportunities to laugh out loud.

Growing old gracefully is tough to do and does not come easily to many people. In my case, meditation and my own spiritual journey have led me to argue less with time and accept more easily that I will be progressively vulnerable to health problems as I age. I will also look less youthful and appealing, feel less healthy and more mortal as the years pass. And that is okay by me. Frankly, I think I have done a pretty good job coming to terms with aging, so far. I surely still have my vanities, but I have been indulging these to a much lesser degree.

I probably have ample good years left before serious health issues really slow me down. I still want to do many things. On my wish list is for Lydia and me to do the long El Camino Santiago de Compostela trek from France to Spain spread out over a few weeks. I still like to travel, and I want to be around and healthy enough to enjoy more grandchildren.

A quote attributed to the Gautama Buddha reads: “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.” The healer, Carolyn Myss added to this: “Your Biology is your biography.”

While we are largely responsible for our health, we must also recognize the influence of bad genes that we have inherited. Yes, things can and do go wrong even when we take care of our bodies. But even so, with proper attention and control, we can take care of our bodies and avoid serious issues as far as we can. I am not talking about a fanatical obsession with health. I ascribe to what the American journalist Sydney J. Harris wrote: “Those obsessed with health are not healthy; the first requisite of good health is a certain calculated carelessness about oneself.”

“Health is wealth” we have been told since we were kids. But while we must tend to our health, a body’s got to have a life, too. From a book whose title I can’t recall (probably due to aging), the author cheekily pointed out that while the body is a temple, it can also be a nightclub! What good is being alive if all you do is stay at home, or avoid all the fun for fear of getting sick?

So if you are healthy, go and enjoy that extra large slice of steak, and that night out with friends once in a while. If you are not, at a certain age, it shouldn’t matter too much anymore. So let’s live it up and enjoy what we can while we can. Health, like wealth, will have to be spent inevitably. It can’t be passed on to your loved ones. And you can’t take it with you.

Let’s talk about money

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated May 13, 2012 12:00 AM

I have been wanting to write about money since it is the one thing we all deal with in our lives. We all have a relationship with money.

Money, as the song goes, makes the world go around. Money, as the saying goes, is also the root of all evil. Money changes everything, says Cyndi Lauper. If you look for quotes about money on the Internet, you will find a lot, and most of them, per many people’s experience, are quite true.

When I was growing up, I had very little money. My baon for school was barely enough for a complete meal and a soda, and I had to save enough for the bus ride home. But I didn’t feel deprived. Not at all. The world was simpler then. Many things were free. We did not have to buy bottled water. Gasoline was dirt cheap. We spent nothing to make phone calls. A date with your college girlfriend was simple and inexpensive. And Quezon City where we lived was so uncongested I did not mind taking long walks and enjoying the open space and fresh air. And so I saved money on bus fare.

In today’s world, it’s hard to imagine life without money. Everything costs a lot more today than 40 years ago. And aside from what you can’t live without — food, shelter, water, electricity, medicine, transportation — everywhere you turn, commerce has something tantalizing to sell to you that you’re supposed to need.

With many people feeling they have little money to spare even for the basic stuff, life has indeed become a pressure cooker. You struggle to stay afloat in a sea of expenses. And as you watch the affluent spend money with ease and with nary a care, you could feel shut out of the so-called best things that life can offer.

I know many people for whom the main (and almost sole) aim in life is the accumulation of wealth. They claim that they are doing what they can to save money for a better future for themselves and their families. So they work very hard while they deprive themselves of many comforts they could actually opt to have, just to save money.

I am kind of like that, but to a lesser degree. I work really hard at what I commit to. In good or bad times, I can manage to live quite simply and frugally, more or less. I am not a slave of fashion and do not feel compelled to go with the crowd on many things. I enjoy eating in cheap restaurants, and I do not mind buying pre-owned stuff. This perhaps comes from my middle-class upbringing and growing up in a big family where I had to wear hand-me-downs.

Once in a while, I spend on something expensive like a laptop, a camera or some new gadget. But when I do, I know I will get my money back since I use what I buy to make money, or at least to pay for what I spent on it. I fret when I have little cash, not so much because I fear hardship for myself but more because I do not want my family to be inconvenienced.

I once had a student in one of my workshops who told us he had lost about P100 million in a business venture and he was now down to his last P60 million. The other participants with way humbler means listened in utter disbelief. Was he telling us that he is now “poor” with just his “last” P60 million left? That brought us to the realization about money and wealth — that wealth and abundance are not fixed sums. Abundance is our attitude about what we have. To the very rich, a million pesos is nothing. To most people, it is a big deal. And yes, it takes a truly wise and evolved person to know how much money is “enough.”

In raising my kids, I always made sure they accounted for every centavo of change when I asked them to buy something. It was not as much a lesson in accounting as it was in honesty. I wanted them to learn that money is not something to be casual about. And stealing is a no-no under any circumstance. Whether you steal five centavos or P5 million, it is stealing.

No matter how many times I have heard stories about how people’s lives turned miserable after winning big in the lotto, I still want to win loads of money since I “know” (like everyone else it seems) that I will handle things differently if I win. I will be generous and share it with family and friends. I will donate to charity. I will help the poor. I will donate to the needy.

It’s so easy to make promises when the money is not there yet. But I have asked myself many times, if I ever actually happened to win the lotto, how many of the promises I have made myself will I actually keep? Will I feel “deprived” giving a portion of my wealth away? Will I have anxieties about being generous?

Money issues, according to chakra teacher Carolyn Myss, can hit us physically in our gut and genital area. When we worry about money, we feel it in those low chakras where survival concerns are dealt with. Watch how your tummy tightens when you think of money problems. We can’t begin to go up and cultivate the higher chakras if pressing matters are unresolved down below.

Our attitude towards money says a lot about us. I have met many people who discovered the “true” character of otherwise “decent” people after arguments and differences about money. For many, money is the test. People have cheated, lied and killed for money. Presidents, chief justices, judges, businessmen, holy men, etc. are subjected to the test not just once but many times. And yes, a great many of them have failed.

We like to say that money can’t buy happiness and proof of that is there are many poor people who are generally happier than the rich. That could be true. But with money, one has a choice to suffer the misery of one’s choosing — drugs, sex, gambling or any addiction one fancies. And when you are through messing up, you have the money to clean up the mess. There are those who believe that even the miserable state of one’s spirit can be rescued if you have money. There’s rehab, and once you are “fixed,” you can enjoy your money better.

I am constantly reminding myself that when you get down to it, money is simply a form of energy. It can’t be left unused for long, otherwise, it dissipates. Money must be spent, and while many will advise that it must be spent to make more of it, I think that it should also be spent for something as simple as “joy.” There is the joy of family bonding, the joy of travel, the joy of learning, the joy of indulging in a passion. Choose your joy. One need not quantify or account for these expenses scrupulously since, in truth, they are worth more than we realize.

Money is good for many things but not for all. And one must be wise to know when it serves us well and when it doesn’t. The sooner we develop a right attitude towards money, the better we will be. I read a quote on the net from an unknown source which goes, “If a person gets his attitude toward money straight, it will help straighten out almost every other area in his life.”

Many make the mistake of going for money as an end in itself. Mark wrote in the gospel, “For what does it profit a man if he gained the world but loses his soul?” Indeed.

A more effective quote that sobers me up is from a robber’s common spiel which goes, “Your money, or your life?” We must always be aware when the choice has gone down to this, and know how to choose.

Strangers in our midst

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated May 06, 2012

Illustration by REY RIVERA

The Dalai Lama preaches compassion. So does Jesus. And so do many other spiritual teachers. Mostly, they speak of a universal love or compassion for humanity which, in the Dalai Lama’s case, involves every sentient being on earth.

As much as I have tried to consciously cultivate a spiritual practice along those lines, I do not know if I can ever love ALL of humanity. Sure, it is easy to love certain people, especially if they are easy to love, for whatever reason. They could be good- looking, pleasant, affable, or they could fit into certain stereotypes that appeal to our collective cultural psyche that makes them loveable.

It is a fact that not everyone is lovable, or at least not that easily lovable. Some people may appear obnoxious or despicable in our eyes, and some may just be too culturally different. The wide swathe that separates us may be too wide. It could be a religious, racial or social divide that makes rapport close to impossible. The best that can happen is a polite ignoring of each other.

What has always interested me is how people can bridge this gap so that there is more communication, rapport, and perhaps, eventually, an openness to greater compassion.

There’s just too much misunderstanding, distrust, and fear in this world so I try my best not to contribute to heightening it further. Or at least, I try to be conscious enough to remind myself to temper the negativity.

I want to share with you my experience with strangers. I am generally open to strangers. To me, it’s a conscious step towards more compassion.

I have mostly had good, pleasant experiences with strangers. A number of times I have found myself in inconvenient situations where I needed to reach out and ask for help from people I did not know and I am amazed and grateful at how helpful many of them have been.

People have stopped in the rain to help me push a stalled car. In foreign places, strangers have pointed me to the right train or street, the better store with the better bargain. Once, on a bus in Brussels, passengers actually shelled out money when my group and I did not have the local currency to pay for our fare.

More often than not, you can have a decent conversation (at times, even an interesting one) with a total stranger you meet in an airport, a train station or anywhere else. I recently had an eight-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur and found myself not running out of stories chatting with a man I had just met. We talked about issues that were important to us, our children and spouses, and life in general. By the time we boarded the plane, it felt like we’d been friends for a while.

It is quite easy for us to open up to people we do not know. For one, we have no shared history. We have no past to refer to and that is good. The past is often the place where we have formed judgments, opinions, and biases about people we know. And these limit our appreciation of who they are or could be. Whatever we hear or see about persons we already know is filtered through our set impressions of them.

Maybe it’s because we are not comfortable with surprises or we do not want to be disappointed, or be proven wrong in our judgments. We want a predictable world of relationships and so we feel safe putting people in pigeonholes. Fairly or unfairly, everyone is reduced to a judgment. In our eyes, for example, anyone who has committed a hideous crime like rape or murder will always be a rapist and a murderer. They will never live that down no matter how much they may have repented and have tried to turn a new leaf. Our “common sense” tells us that it is only a matter of time before they do it again.

Sometime ago, I read an essay on pornography and the writer said that that the big no-no about porn is not the sex. Sex is a big deal in our being human and almost everyone likes sex. The obscenity about porn is that it distorts reality by reducing it to just one thing. Pornography is ONLY about sexual prurience. There are no real multi-dimensional people making love in porn. There are just body parts, sex organs pleasuring each other. In many ways, one can say that the reduction of the totality and complexity of a person to an act, a characteristic, or an event he may have been involved in comes close to pornography. Don’t you agree?

On three occasions, I have invited complete strangers to my house for dinner. I invited people I did not know through the Internet to share a “night of passion” over dinner and conversation. I always had a great time. Each one of my guests was interesting and had something to share. This exercise has only strengthened my belief that when we bravely open ourselves up, the world decompresses and unravels with all of its gifts and surprises. The good, interesting people show up.

By the same token, I am quite amused when people who have been following me for a long time as a public person are surprised when I sit down with them and we chat extensively. I am taken aback when they say that they are surprised how easy I am to talk to, just like any regular guy. And they say this about almost every famous person they meet and share a moment with.

But isn’t this true of everyone, famous or not? Aren’t people generally friendly? I once summarized this in a book I wrote in a line that reads, “You will know me when you forget my name.” It is my testimony to the false myth of celebrity. Labels, judgments form hierarchies, and breaking them can produce pleasant surprises.

Every time we make the unfamiliar familiar, the unknown known, or when we welcome the strange, the different, the “other” into our zone, we not only learn the art of accommodation, we also actually expand ourselves. We get more comfortable with the diversity, the mystery and open-endedness of others, and of life and all its peculiarities. Soon we begin to notice in us an openness to new music, art, books, types of people, ideas, and beliefs that can only enrich us.

I would like to end by sharing the following inspiring thought from The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration, a book of quotes by Vera Nazarian:

On the late afternoon streets, everyone hurries along, going about their own business. Who is the person walking in front of you on the rain-drenched sidewalk? He is covered with an umbrella, and all you can see is a dark coat and the shoes striking the puddles. And yet this person is the hero of his own life story. He is the love of someone’s life. And what he can do may change the world. Imagine being him for a moment. And then continue on your own way.

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This is your chance to learn to take great pics this summer and all year. I will be having a Basic Photography workshop on Saturday, May 12.

Cost: P3,920

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Time: 1 to 6:30 p.m.

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Call Olie at 09168554303 or e-mail me at for inquiries and reservations.