Let’s talk about pain

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 27, 2014 – 12:00am

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 5.56.19 PM
Illustration by REY RIVERA

Pain is part of the human condition, something we have to go through from time to time. Some go through a lot more of it than others. It could be easy or hard, but pain is there. It is an inevitable part of life.

Still, we wish to avoid it as much as we can. Civilization is all about making things easier and avoiding pain. It is the purpose of all development to overcome inconvenience, discomfort, hardship and pain. We want life to be as pain-free as possible.

And yet, pain still happens, and sometimes we see so much of it that we are shaken to the core. When we watch the news, war, violence, tragedy, racism, discrimination, hunger, alienation, social inequity and emotional trauma shove pain into our faces. It is hard to fathom how people who actually experience these firsthand can cope. Those of us who are far from such events may feel the pain less, but we can’t really escape it.

Pain comes with being alive in the world. When you think about it, all our attempts at maturity, religion, wealth creation, economic, social, medical progress, governmental efforts, etc. are created and evolving to control pain somehow and make a “better world” for everyone.

But do you see that, ironically, the ways to avoid pain still require that we undergo some pain?

Of course. But the difference is, the pain we must go through to improve the world is necessary pain, not the mindless type that only creates havoc and tragedy.

Here are some examples.

To be educated is to feel far less pain than to remain ignorant, at least in theory. To be healthy is far less painful than being sick. To be mature helps us deal with pain without losing our composure.

But in order to be educated, healthy and mature, we need to undergo the pain of discipline, delayed gratification, emotional control, overcoming laziness and keeping ourselves challenged and motivated. Doing all this can be painful, but it is better to tolerate the “good” pain than allow unnecessary pain to keep happening.

We relate to pain in many ways. Some of us can take it for what it is, while others may offer it to God as a form of sacrifice, and still others see it as way to shape their character. We may turn to religion and meditation to help us understand pain and suffering. But for those who are otherwise inclined, there are painkillers to help them cope better.

Spiritual teachers and some religions tell us that one way of freeing ourselves from pain is to embrace it. When we do, we remove the power of fear that threatens to overwhelm us and we end up melting the pain. That’s what it means when they say, “What you resist, persists.” We must go with the flow.

This actually works for me. Another thing that helps me is objectifying pain. Though I feel physical, emotional or spiritual pain, I try not to identify with it, or allow it to define who I am. Instead of saying, “I am sad,” it helps when I say, “I feel sad.” There is a big difference there. The first refers to an identity, the second is a feeling. And we all know that feelings come and go.

Physical pain is a bit more difficult to handle. But I can still ease my suffering by reframing the experience and telling myself that it is “my body” that is feeling the pain. It’s a way of looking at my body as an object that is in pain, separate from the “me.”

Some people, and even entire societies, can see themselves as “pained.” They can completely identify with what they have gone through and adopt trauma, pain and suffering as their identity. Pain is who they have become.

They have reframed their personal and social narratives as, primarily, stories of pain and suffering. In the world they inhabit, they are fearful, and see life as mostly about suffering. While they may look at themselves as being somewhat heroic for enduring the pain, sooner or later, they will go through self-examination and consciously decide to shake off what has become a victimhood identity.

I am not belittling other people’s suffering. All I am doing is putting it in a different perspective.

Ken Wilber, one of my favorite writers, says that man is, first and foremost, “spirit.” Instead of thinking that we are inhabiting a body, a room, a building, a town, a country, earth and the universe, we must be aware that these are not “out there” but all inside “spirit” which knows no boundaries. In his view, only the ego thinks the opposite and believes it is man who inhabits them all and so he feels all the pain of living in the world. But how can spirit be pain when it can witness pain happening?

“If I rest as Witness, the formless I-I, it becomes obvious that, right now, I am not in my body, my body is in my awareness. I am aware of my body, therefore I am not my body. I am the pure Witness in which my body is now arising. I am not in my body, my body is in my consciousness…

“The ego adopts the viewpoint of matter, and therefore is constantly trapped by matter — trapped and tortured by the physics of pain. But pain, too, arises in your consciousness, and you can either be in pain, or find pain in you, so that you surround pain, are bigger than pain, transcend pain, as you rest in the vast expanse of pure Emptiness that you deeply and truly are.”

This is no play on words. There is a lot of truth to what Wilber has said. He has been meditating for decades. People who do a lot of inner work can process pain much better than people who do not. Yes, we will still feel the pain of the world but will suffer less if we understand this.

Unsolved mystery on death & the afterlife

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 20, 2014 – 12:00am

For me, there is no greater drawing power than the unknown. When the unknown presents itself in our lives, we experience all kinds of things, from curiosity to fear to fascination, to jaw-dropping surprise and a respectful awe, deep admiration and appreciation.

Just look at how the whole world has focused on the story of missing Malaysian Air MH370. As of this writing, there is nothing sure about what really happened to it. Everything we know is an assumption or speculation. And with each day that passes where nothing is found, the hungrier people are for some explanation as to how a large aircraft could have simply vanished.

There are strong forces that seek to solve every mystery in the world. Science is one of them. Science sees empirical data and tries to make heads or tails of it. Scientists want things demystified. And yet the good scientists will say that the more they know about something, the more they really don’t know about many other things. Ironically, it is as if the bigger knowledge gets, mystery returns the favor by becoming even more mysterious.

I view mystery as a gift. It inspires, motivates, and moves me to enter it and get to know the treasure I might discover. Mystery entices and draws me ever closer to even greater mystery. An encounter with mystery makes me feel alive and in awe of everything, including my own life.

Take the mysteries of death and the afterlife. Everyone has thought about it many times. Some religions have figured it all out. In their scheme of things, there is a heaven that is wonderful and a hell that is awful. These descriptions come from a human perspective of what is pleasing and what is terrible to the physical body, human emotions and the human mind.

Many people subscribe to this. But I’ve often wondered why pain and pleasure should be determining factors about the afterlife since, once we die, there is no more physical body to speak of.

Death and the afterlife are just two of the universe’s greatest secrets. No one has come back to give us direct empirical evidence about what really happens after we die. But psychics, priests and other religious will tell you what it’s like, with great confidence in their own faith and knowledge. Science, on the other hand, has little to say about the afterlife since there is little scientific data to affirm or even disprove that it exists.

Some may speak dogmatically on these topics, but the authority they assume, at least from a scientific point of view, is simply imagined. However, I don’t blame them if they do. After all, people want and need to hear about what’s out there after they die.

The unsolved mystery and suspense on what death and the afterlife are about can be overwhelming, and scary. And because there is no hard data to hold on to, we cling to what is presented to us in holy books, the testimony of so-called authoritative people, religious beliefs, dogma, etc.

For many of us, believing in some kind of narrative is better than having no narrative at all. If you can’t calm or assure yourself through some sort of belief or faith, the curiosity and anxiety and the meaninglessness of the mystery can kill you. But often, the very assurance that dogma adopts is what can kill these beautiful mysteries.

The problem with dogma, or religious literalism, is that it stops us from engaging further in mystery. It simply says, “The masters of mystery have spoken and THIS is what we think it is. Accept it.”

A mystery connotes many things. Dogma and literalism signify only specifics. It is the same difference between a symbol and a sign. Mystery is endless territory. Dogma is a gated community. When mystery connotes, it opens you to something far greater than what you can fathom. It is open-ended and enriching, yet it remains true. A symbol does the same; it is bigger than what it is.

When literalism denotes, it kills the search for answers and meaning. They’ve already processed the meaning for you, reducing the richness of symbolism into a mere signage, no different than, say, a traffic or road sign. There is no other interpretation except the literal one. It does not open you to a bigger reality.

On this Easter morning, as I contemplate the risen Christ and what it means, I ponder the question I have always asked myself: Did He literally rise from the dead? I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps when it comes to faith, what we should be looking at is not historical or factual accuracy. What is important is what the resurrection connotes, and that is, to live and be human is to dream of a heaven, and to yearn for triumph over adversity and death, to transcend limitations, and yes, to see the continuity of life even after death, or the experience of immortality.

From reading mythologists like Joseph Campbell, I have learned that many ancient religions share similar themes of a man-God triumphant over death. There is also the theme of virgin birth, which is not unique to Christianity. Maybe these are universal yearnings that are recurring themes in human history. They are certainly rich in meaning and wonder and open us to mystery.

On the subject of life after death, I ask, “Does it matter to the future what we do now while we are alive?” If the answer is yes, then there is life after death. Yes, we are part of the future. The good we do will continue to reverberate in shaping the evolution of humankind and God’s creation. Our life, if lived for others, can indeed be redemptive.

As humans, we literally cannot know the answers to mysterious questions, things that Buddhism calls the “inexpressibles.” We simply hope that there are answers. But rather than categorical yes/no answers, mysteries leave us in awe, and draw us in to find insight instead. God holds the cards. But at least we know there are cards!

The meaning of a mystery changes often and it becomes deeper as it does. It remains ever fresh, new and inspiring as we keep going back to it.

May the message of Easter open you to greater engagement in its mystery.

What I believe

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 13, 2014 – 12:00am

Many will agree that the world is screwed up.

Global warming, according to a UN report, will affect everyone on the planet. Everyone will suffer its adverse effects. No one will be spared. That should scare anyone, but it hasn’t. People are still burning fossil fuels, cutting trees, overfishing, and emitting toxic gases while the ice caps melt at ever-greater rates.

The world economic system is undercutting the middle class and increasing the numbers of the poor in many countries.

Russia is expanding again by annexing the territory of its neighbors. China is flexing its muscles all over Asia trying to grab as much land as it can from other countries. Iraq and Egypt are a bigger mess than ever.

So, what is not wrong with the world?

It can be so easy to fall into despair and cynicism, and be negative about everything. But there are things I believe in and rely on that keep me immune from pessimism. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but these I believe to be true:

1. There will always be a day after. Sometimes we feel so trapped in a situation that it can seem like we will be stuck in it forever. By just trusting that there will always be another time, another tomorrow offers new hope and possibilities. Nothing is the end.

2. Nothing is permanent. While this thought can make some people uncomfortable or anxious, I embrace it, most of the time. I fully accept the fact that, as trees shed their leaves and plants grow and die, so does everything change. I remember being young once and getting older every year. Now I am in my early 60s. Ironically, the youth narrative of people my age has become the old story, and our aging is now the new one. Time is short and life is always in a state of flux. In time, we leave the old and experience the new.

3. Life is what you want it to be. There is nothing that is written in stone. There is only history that makes it seem like there is. But even the trajectory of history can be changed. And it has changed, many times. Unknowingly or deliberately, we create and recreate everything.

We can be anything we choose to be, and we can create the world into any image that we desire. Often, I look outside and wonder in whose image the world was created. I can be sure it is the collective creation of some people. If they can do it, so can the rest of us.

4. Changes are always started by the few, not the many. While sometimes, it is easy to despair at the ignorance of the masses and the oppressiveness of the status quo, history tells us that societies that have changed have done so with a small group of committed people initiating the change. It is not always the majority’s interest to change things. Change is, more often, instigated by a few committed individuals who believe its time has come. Nelson Mandela was once a lonely voice plotting behind bars against the apartheid status quo. Before the Catholic Church was formed, there was only Jesus and his 12 apostles. People power started years ago when just a few people got together and defied the dictatorship. It took Ninoy’s death in 1983 to galvanize society to act against martial rule. It only takes the ideas and commitment of very few people to get something rolling.

5. People get wiser with age. For young people reading this, wisdom may not be something you are interested in right now. Many young people think they already know everything. Believe me, everyone will commit mistakes until they die. But I know that as one gets older, one learns many things from past experience so that, hopefully, one does not repeat them too many times.

6. The moon reflects on both the big lake and the small puddle. This is a Zen saying. Wisdom, truth, enlightenment are not the monopoly of one class of people. Regardless of one’s station in life, truth is self-evident and attainable. It is good to know this because it makes us open up to knowledge and wisdom not just from an elite class of thinkers but from everyone else. The bright idea can come from anywhere and anyone.

7. Evolution is an upward spiral towards greater freedom and knowledge. During Roman times, fathers were allowed to kill their children if they brought dishonor or disrespect to the family name. Not too long ago, women were not allowed to vote. There were also slavery, and other inhumane practices. It was just a little over a century ago when governments in Europe still hanged criminals in public squares.

I believe that as societies become more enlightened, their laws and beliefs also evolve into something more noble and progressive, including and accommodating the rights of the greater number of people.

A great portion of the world still persecutes women, gays, people with deformities, people of color, and other so-called lesser beings. But I believe that the wheel continues to turn forward towards more progress in the areas of equality, education, opportunities and human rights.

8. People change. Indeed people do. And I believe there are enough of them who have changed and will continue to change to meet and avert the challenges posed by the human disasters headed our way.

How do I know that? Our own government just recently signed a peace pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which represents the Bangsamoro. We also got the Supreme Court to recognize the constitutionality of the RH Law. I never imagined these things would happen in my lifetime. As I said, all we really need are a few good men and women who will step up to the plate and inspire everyone to alter the future.

And that, I believe, is already happening. And the momentum will be unstoppable.

A simple love story

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.45.43 AM

I heard this love story from my mom, and I have never forgotten it.

She knew of a couple which were dating. This was around the early 60s. They discovered that they were compatible right off the bat. She liked his openness, attention and the strength and the caring he exuded. He liked her for her simplicity, her humor and the love she seemed to project. They went out a few times and not too long after, they eventually fell in love.

After a few months, they decided to get married. But there was just one problem. The guy had a very low paying job. It was around 200 pesos a month during that time. He was living with his parents.

While the girl’s parents liked him, they naturally were quite alarmed. How would he be able to support their daughter? What if she got pregnant early? Where would he get the money in case they had a child? They were full of questions and anxieties.

But the girl and the guy were too far in love to change their minds. It seemed like a deadlock that couldn’t be solved without some unpleasantness and pain.

Finally, the guy decided to do something. He went to talk to the girl’s parents and presented their case.

“I hope you do not doubt that we are truly in love’, he said.

‘No, we can see you are truly in love and that you have the best of intentions for our daughter’, the father answered.

Finally, the guy took a deep breath, faced them and asked with the most serious face he could muster the following question. ‘Would you let 200 Pesos stand in the way of your daughter’s happiness? I know I will not.’ He said. ‘And I also know that life is not static and I know good things will come my way in time. And with our love as our inspiration, we can overcome any problems we may encounter and create opportunities for more happiness.’

The parents were baffled. How indeed could they let a simple obstacle like a 200 Pesos salary jeopardize the happiness of their daughter. They thought about it in silence for a few minutes. It was the longest silence the parents and the guy had ever experienced.

Finally, throwing away their misgivings, they gave them the blessings to marry.

And yes, theirs was a marriage that lasted and was happy.

I thought that story was so romantic then especially since it was a true story. When I started dating my wife-to-be, I found myself often in the same boat as the young man. I had no money. All the other guys who were after Lydia were rather rich. They had cars. They would invite her to fine dining, and give her flowers and gifts.

Aside from taking her to the movies, I could hardly afford going out to do anything else much less take her to some expensive dining place.

One of our earliest dates was in Luneta. My cousin who had a car dated Lydia’s sister who was our designated chaperone. the arrangement was so convenient. At least we had a car.

When we got to Luneta, the 4 of us went for a long walk around the park and to the sea wall while we chatted away about so many things. We told jokes, exchanged stories while flirting. At the end of the night, my cousin and I bought our dates balloons which was all we could afford. But we enjoyed ourselves.

This may sound cheesy but to Lydia and her sister, we were quite unique. They were used to more ‘proper’ dates. My cousin and I were different and exciting to them. On our next date, we went to La Mesa dam to take their pictures under the big trees.

The best thing about this was it set the tone for us. When we got married, we hardly had money and only spent what we could afford which was not much. The reception was at home. We served cocktails, not dinner. But everyone present enjoyed the celebration. There was a ring of sincerity to it.

My father-in-law calculated how much we had spent and gave us a corresponding check as his gift. From our only set of ninong and ninang, we got some more and that was enough to get us started.

These days, I see people going all out for their weddings and a few years later finding out that they are not meant for each other.

Love is not about THE peak experience that you get by manipulating or controlling the outside world to give you the mood and thrill you desire. Lasting love is simple. It’s more about the peak experience between the two of you where the outside world may hardly even matter.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.48.51 AM

What a man must be

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 6, 2014 – 12:00am

The making of a boy into a man is a life-long task. I am not even sure I am using the right term when I say “making.” What I am referring to is a boy’s journey from boyhood to a state of self-recognition — an arrival of sorts, to that feeling of confidence in his self-identity as a male in society.

It is difficult for a man to say he is “complete,” whatever the word means or implies. There is always something more to do, to learn, to surrender, to acquire in the pursuit of manhood, or personhood, till the end of one’s life. One’s cup is never filled completely and although some may find the contents sufficient or even overflowing from time to time, it is not permanent.

With the following list, I am sharing my thoughts directly from my experience as a male person. This is not an attempt to dictate what all men must do, be or have in order to become “certified” men. I do not mean to be dogmatic and I am not excluding gay men. I believe much of what I will share is common to all males, but what I am sharing today is what I have personally been through.

1. A man must learn to delay gratification. It is important to learn sacrifice, patience and suffering to be able to savor and appreciate all good things that come his way. Hardship builds character.

2. A man must be respectful of women. No ifs, and/or buts here. We must see women as different but equal in all ways.

3. For a boy to become a man, he must “break his mother’s heart.” I first heard this metaphoric phrase from an eminent psychologist and I immediately felt the truth in it. While we will always love our mothers, somewhere along the way of growing up, a boy will most likely feel the urge to do something that will shock and upset his mother. Call it a stage he must go through on his road to independence. This assertiveness is a way of “coming into his own” as a man who has stopped being a “mama’s boy.” It is the boy discovering his manhood and power-flexing.

4. A man must accept and understand his own sexuality, his own unique needs, tastes and preferences. I have learned that this arena covers a wide latitude when it comes to individual self-expression. It does not mean he must engage in sex every time it moves him. Rather, he must have great control over it. While sex is a drive, it must be engaged in with mutual consent always.

It is interesting to note one difference between men and women when talking about past relationships: Men tend to pad the number of partners they have had while woman downplay it.

5. I recommend that boys be circumcised, not at birth but somewhere near puberty. In these days of modern parenting when kids are being raised with hardly any rituals and rites of passage, the simple act of circumcision is a clear signal to a boy that he has gone some ways forward to manhood and that is important.

During tribal times, a boy was physically separated from his mother, and he and other boys his age were made to undergo physical pain and mutilation before they were deemed worthy to be called men and warriors. Today, when as parents, we are confused and unsure about how our kids should be treated and raised, it is not surprising how many kids have taken it upon themselves to distinguish themselves from their parents. Many have gone “tribal” with body piercing and tattoos (forms of self-mutilation) and pursuing their own fashion, lifestyle and music. It is their way of saying, “I am no longer the child you know. I am now grown up and different from you.”

Circumcision, getting a driver’s license, earning certain privileges are rituals young men go through at certain stages that help make them feel surer of themselves as they find their place in the world.

6. A man must have his heart broken at least once. It is such a great opportunity to learn to take the pain, stand up and move on. I’ve always believed that this is “almost necessary” to become a person of substance.

7. A man will never ever completely understand women. This being the case, it is important to resolve to develop patience as a lifelong student in the study of and appreciation of the opposite sex. This attitude will improve one’s capacity to acquire emotional intelligence — a necessity if he is to live harmoniously in a world where women hold up half the sky.

8. A man must learn to be responsible in all ways. He must learn to back his own words, answer for his actions, and when necessary, suffer for what he believes in. No hiding. No passing the buck. He must be the pillar of strength, not someone who hides behind one. Especially in this age of social media, anonymity is not a real man’s way. He must have the courage to speak for himself and as himself.

9. A man must learn tenderness. While it is important to be tough and all that, it is as crucial that he can also open himself to vulnerability, in order to become a great father, lover, brother, son. To borrow a phrase from Billy Joel, he must know when to “leave a tender moment alone,” and when to engage it.

10. A man must develop his own means to take care of himself and support his loved ones. He must contribute and be productive, even if not in monetary ways. It is possible that his partner may earn more, but a man will not lose his self-worth if he builds the capacity to be strong and keep things on an even keel. There are many househusbands who are not bothered about assuming traditional women roles at home. They are often as nurturing and reliable as housewives.

11. It is important that a man is morally grounded and believes in a greater power higher than himself. Most men, at a certain point, will likely start and have a continuous conversation with his God about the very mystery of life.

12. There are five areas in man’s life that he must pay attention to: money, career, relationships, his bodily intake and his spiritual side. The last one includes his reflective nature and also his aesthetic sense. Most of the time, we do not have a handle on one of the above, which would be tolerable. But to fail in two or three could make life quite dysfunctional and unbearable.