Connecting with strangers

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 31, 2014 – 12:00am

It was 1974 when I first traveled abroad. I remember my first trip to New York. I was 22 years old, fresh out of college and was walking along 7th Avenue in utter amazement at everything I was experiencing through my senses. There was a crowd of people walking briskly in the direction I was going. On my left were stores, bistros and shops.

Just as I was about to enter a clothes shop, I heard someone from somewhere shout, “Harang diyan.” I looked around and all I saw were strangers’ faces. No Filipino in sight. Just the same, I looked forward and shouted, “Salamat” in the hope that whoever warned me about the store would hear it. About 20 feet forward, I saw a hand wave in acknowledgement amid the throng walking ahead. I smiled in delight. Someone must have noticed how innocent I looked and saved me from a possible shopping rip-off.

I have no doubt that most people have experienced kindness from strangers. It is good when people lend a helping hand.

But these things seem like a rarity to many. People in general try not to engage with strangers. People hesitate to approach other people who are in need for various reasons. They also hesitate to ask for help. Often, they feel that the other person’s problem is really none of their business. The hesitation comes from two reasons: one, they may feel that they are intruding and so decide to ignore the person and just go their merry way; and two, they may not want to get involved because it may be too much trouble.

I had a recent experience that I posted about on Facebook last Monday. Read on.

“Was sitting outside of 12 Monkeys bar awhile ago taking pictures of the skyline. On my right I could hear a young girl crying quietly while smoking and drinking beer and whiskey. I wasn’t minding her at first until she started really sobbing loudly. I hesitated to talk to her since it is really none of my business, but I thought that she was seated too close to the low railing of the balcony that opened to five floors down the street. What if she was depressed and was thinking of jumping? You never know.
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“Finally, I went up and asked her what was wrong. It was like a dam suddenly broke. She said she was heartbroken. BF cheated on her and she was drowning herself in alcohol. She hadn’t slept for three days. Nakikinig lang ako. She poured out the sordid details. I guess it is quite easy to talk to a stranger who shows no judgment. Sometimes, it is good to just listen. After a while when she calmed down, I told her not to do anything crazy that would cause her harm. She asked me what to do. I said to stop drinking, go home and just sleep. This bad feeling will also pass.

“She thanked me for my concern. I said I was there as one fellow human being present for another. I excused myself since I had to go in and watch my friends perform.

“Whoever you are, I hope you are okay and got some sleep. At least you did not jump.”

Soon after, I got a deluge of responses from my Facebook readers. I continue to do so. It seems an overwhelming number were touched that I had reached out to someone in need.

As for me, my reason for doing so was quite simple. I did not want to take the chance that this poor girl could be severely depressed and may even be suicidal. I don’t think I could live with it if she did end up committing suicide and I had a chance to prevent it but did not.

Before I approached her, I considered the possible scenario that she would tell me angrily to leave her alone. That wasn’t a problem since I know I can handle rejection pretty well. And so I approached her and it seemed to have resulted in something good.

I was actually more baffled by the fact that many readers thought that it was quite a big deal for me and/or anyone to reach out to someone who needs help. I ask myself why? Have we come to the point where we have become so alienated from each other that it has become a dilemma to care and do what needs to be done?

We now have all the material tools to connect to each other. There are smart phones, Internet, email, social sites, etc. which do connect us in some ways. But they also keep us at a distance from each other. We can pop in and out when we want, talk while enjoying mostly superficial interaction. We can even shut out or block people off.

But as humans, we want more physical intimacy and closeness. There is the need to reach out in a human-to-human way, to touch and be touched as persons, something that many of us in this age hesitate to do. If we do it at all, we do so with much doubt and discomfort. Vulnerability is still scary. And no one wants to be accused of being a meddler.

Every time I find myself involved in these situations, whether as a giver or a recipient, I wonder if the Universe is indeed depending on people to do certain things. One of them could be to stop humanity from going any crazier than it already is and to move consciousness to something higher.

And so the Universe resorts to serendipity and creates the right moments, or occasions for people to be in the right time and place and carry out what needs to happen. It is unfolding in a divine manner. As Deepak Chopra describes it, “Synchronicity is choreographed by a great, pervasive intelligence that lies at the heart of nature, and is manifest in each of us through intuitive knowledge.”

That Tuesday night, I felt that I was invited to the choreography, and was “chosen” to intervene in some stranger’s life.

Maybe all of us should be more open to doing this! Some will call it a Good Samaritan act, compassion, etc. Others may think it is dangerous to expose oneself to strangers and “crazies.” Whatever it is, when you open your heart to a stranger, not only is the stranger helped and possibly saved; but in some divine way, you feel wonderfully liberated too, knowing deep down that the simple act of extending yourself has made some positive difference in the life of another. And in yours, too.

Do you ‘chindogu’?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 24, 2014 – 12:00am

I do.

And it’s one of the most fun things I require my students to do.

As part of the Special Topics in Performance and Practice subject I teach at the ADMU, I ask my students to submit a chind?gu for the creativity module of the course. What is a chindogu? I am sure you are already asking right now.

To quote Wikipedia, “Chindogu is the Japanese art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that, on the face of it, seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem. However, chindogu has a distinctive feature: anyone actually attempting to use one of these inventions would find that it causes so many new problems, or such significant social embarrassment, that effectively it has no utility whatsoever. Thus, chindogu are sometimes described as “unuseless” — that is, they cannot be regarded as “useless” in an absolute sense, since they do actually solve a problem; however, in practical terms, they cannot positively be called “useful.”

In short, I ask them to look for a problem and find a chind?gu solution to it.

This is the 7th semester that I am teaching at the Ateneo Communications Department and in almost all of the past semesters, I required my students to make a chindogu. And as I’ve always done, I invited a “chindogu expert” who happens to be my brother Raffy to decide on the presentations. There are only two ways about it. A ‘two thumbs up with the word “chindogu” uttered by Raffy spells an A, or “No chindogu“ with thumbs down spells an F.

The fear of the students about this assignment is palpable especially on the day they have to present. But there is always a big sigh of relief when they realize that they are mostly on the right track.

The students this year had great presentations. Here are some:

Problem: How to put on lipstick in a hurry and still get it exact

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Solution: Use a mask where lips are already cut out. Apply lipstick avoiding smudging on the face.

Problem: How to tell the time on watches without numbers written on its face

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Solution: Bring this gadget.

Problem: How to save time using a toothpick

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Solution: Invent a device with multiple toothpicks applied and calibrated to different teeth at the same time.

Problem: How to catch flying cockroaches
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Solution: Make a big, efficient “swatter.”

Problem: How to solve coldness in planes and uncertainty about who owns the armrest when you sit in the middle seat

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Solution: Make a shawl with built-in arm- rests.

Problem: How to prevent cellphone from dropping

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Solution: Put “rings” behind it so you can grasp it easily. It also makes it “burglar free.”

Problem: How to stop nails from scattering all over when you cut them

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Solution: Use a plastic bag as nail catcher.

The real aim of the assignment is to experience the fun and challenging aspect of creativity. Chindogu is perfect since the first requirement of any chindogu is, it must exist. In short, you can’t just talk about it or present a theory or a drawing. You actually have to do a prototype and present it. You have to actively create something and bring it to life which means overcoming self-doubt, inner criticism and boldly executing your own creative ideas.

Creativity is play. Sometimes, playing crazy is a wonderful, therapeutic thing. Long live chindogu.

Comedians laugh because they do not want to cry

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 17, 2014 – 12:00am

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I love comedians. I love watching comedy. Good comedians, in my view, are some of the most awesome people in the world. They can fill a dreary moment with laughter and lightness, and gift us with the feeling that all is right with the world. It’s almost as if they control the reset button that can change our disposition from sad to happy.

Robin Williams was one such comedian. It is no wonder that the world reacted with deep sadness and loss when he died a few days ago. It’s as if a very bright light in the world suddenly dimmed.

I felt the loss personally. I have been an ardent follower of his comedy from his earliest days. I watched in awe as he shared his genius on TV and in the cinema. He was witty, compassionate and inspiring. He was my idol.

I admired his genius and his audacity to be completely himself. He trusted his talent and allowed it to go beyond places where others dared not tread. Robin could comment on anything and his takes were always brilliantly funny, like precious gems spilling out of his mouth. He could talk about religion, politics, social behavior, personalities — anything — and often came up with absolutely hilarious and outrageous insights. Robin was always spot-on.

Many were surprised that his sudden demise was brought about by severe depression. It was a suicide. While I, too, was shocked by that, I could somehow understand it on some level.

Having been in showbiz for a long time, I have managed to meet and hang around with all types of people, comedians among them. Let me just say that there is so much more to comedians than you will ever see on stage.
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They come in different shapes and styles. There are purveyors of slapstick, the cerebral funny men, the self-deprecating, etc. There are also impersonators and those who get their laughs by picking on other people. And there are those who do not need to do anything since they have earned the reputation of simply being funny, so anything they do elicits laughs from their audience.

For those who do it for a living, comedy is a mode of thinking, and of being. Comedians turn it “on” when they are performing or are around people. When they are good, they are quick and sharp as knives, fabulous, lovable, hilarious, and completely charming. They have great timing and can thoroughly destroy any defense you may put up against having a good time. They can conquer you effortlessly like a magician who pulls large chunks of surprise and delight out of a hat.

But there is a side to comedians that the public hardly sees. You have to be in close physical or emotional proximity to them to experience it. I am talking about the pain that many comics harbor deep inside. Many comedians are wounded human beings; I would even use the word neurotic to describe some of them. And doing comedy may be the fastest and surest pathway for them to deal with the pain.

An Italian writer who once mused why people do comedy answered his own question with, “We laugh because we do not want to cry.”

I have seen many comedians, big and small, old and young, newbies and established, on various occasions. They are a study of contrasts. During their “off” days, when they are not “performing” for anyone, they can be very quiet, pensive, somewhat withdrawn, and are often not eager for conversation, especially when they are expected to be funny.

Some of them could engage in serious conversation without going anywhere near anything funny. I have seen some comedians get drunk, and believe me, they are anything but charming. On such occasions, it’s as if they are wrestling with their demons. Sometimes, I feel that their funny moments onstage are their respite from pain.

Comedy is performance. It involves creating material, timing, confidence, delivery and showmanship. I know how great it feels to pull off a critically successful show. It is a high like no other.

But offstage, it is something different. One may want to be in “off” mode. One can be caught off-guard and not be funny in any way. I know a comedian who seems very friendly but who can actually be bitingly mean-spirited and cynical. To the audience that only sees a comic’s smiling face, it can be shocking to see one in a foul mood. Social critic and philosopher Mokokoma Mokhonoana observed: “Ninety eight percent of all comedians feel obliged to be funny when interviewed. Less than two percent succeed.”

It has been said that comedy is tragedy, plus time. Given a few years, everything, even tragedy, can become comedy material. But the comic pays a high price when he makes a joke out of tragedy that has not been totally “processed” by the audience. Up to now, few comics in the US dare make jokes about 9/11.

Sometimes, just the fact of being a comedian can cost a person. While others can deal with pain and suffering in the usual way, the comic must process his own pain and somehow make it palatably funny. Or he may deny his own pain and use the pain of others for his or her comic material.

As the comedian Jim Jeffries pointed out, “Some comedians have to invent crazy stuff for themselves. I’m lucky. Crazy situations just seek me out, and I’ve learned to exploit the bad stuff for laughs.”

Whatever kind of comedian one may be, the comic’s job is to deal with whatever is playing in his or her life, and squeeze some humor out of it.

From showbiz to spirituality

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 10, 2014 – 12:00am

I discovered the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by the venerable Tibetan Buddhist meditator Chogyam Trungpa, 12 years ago. He wrote the book for anyone who is on a spiritual quest.

I have been wanting to write about it since.

In the book, Trungpa talks about the many pitfalls of the spiritual journey, and describes spiritual materialism as “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”

I seriously began examining my spiritual life some 20 years ago. I was in my early 40s and was starting to go into a mid-life crisis. I was discontented with much of what constituted my existence. Among other things, the world of showbiz and entertainment was losing its appeal. I felt it was not the answer to what I was really looking for. I was tired of all the ego-stroking going on day in, day out in my line of work.

I also felt that what I had learned growing up Catholic was inadequate to explain many things I was going through. I had a spiritual yearning to know and find answers to the biggest mysteries of life. I was hungry for authentic experiences.

While I valued my faith, more and more, I felt that religious rituals could not satisfy my quest for real answers. I wanted to bypass traditional religion and discover God, not through intermediaries or religious franchises alone, but through direct experience.

That’s when I began to read a lot and engaged in book club discussions. In my quest, I even wrote my own books and joined a Zen meditation group which I am still part of.

One’s spiritual journey could be different from another’s. Chogyam Trungpa writes about how one must overcome the greatest obstacle to enlightenment — spiritual materialism.

As spiritual journeys go, one may discover many wonderful things that move him/her to speak with passion and great zeal. There are many moments when you may experience profound insights into the meaning of life and the universe itself. These divine moments can touch you to the core, leaving you in a kind of joyous ecstasy.

But often, what can also be happening, side by side with the spiritual awakening, is the ego aggrandizing itself, which the traveler may not even be aware of. The ego is a genius that will use anything, including spiritual techniques, to present itself as a winner in the world. No doubt, it will find new tools, including spiritual ones, to feed on and project itself better.

I have seen many people embrace a new spiritual path where the “new” God they discover is one that assures them that their material wishes will be granted. They also truly believe that only they will be “saved.”

Frankly, I do not know what to think about that. The God that “gives” you the new car, or house, or whatever it is you wish for, is the same God that “allows” cancers, accidents and deaths to happen. So why do we say “Praise God” only when so-called “good” things happen? Why not say it also after we hear of a bad health diagnosis given to our loved ones?

Is God there to make us feel good emotionally? Or does God want to break us so that we can get out of ourselves and learn real, egoless compassion and serve others? Is God there to take away all the “bad” and give us only “good” things? But what is good for some may be bad for others.

The idea of a sunny spirituality that does not fully accept and understand pain and suffering, and seems to suggest that everything can be solved with positive thinking, can be a shallow one. While I believe that suffering is undesirable, it is a part of life and cannot be avoided.

A big portion of the spiritual quest that many go through involves self-improvement or the healing of past trauma. This appealed to me. But the major part of spirituality is about compassion and attention to others more than the self. One must always be aware of the balance.

In a spiritual journey, narcissism can easily creep in, and often does so undetected. Self-discovery and self-indulgence may be indistinguishable to many. It takes years of honest reflection and/or a good teacher who can spot one’s B.S. and point out one’s self-absorption. As Trungpa put it in his book, “No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.”

Everyone who embarks on a spiritual quest will discover soon enough that while one can be profoundly moved by truth, one must also cultivate the practices that a deep spirituality requires. Spiritual awakenings, complete conversions, are not one-shot affairs. There is no magic wand. Enlightenment, kensho, satori, conversion or whatever else you may want to call it must go beyond emotions. Feelings come and go; spiritual growth must include practices that one does regardless of how one is feeling at any moment.

It is equally bogus to readily believe in so-called miracle cures. Spirituality does not mean readily believing in so-called special, gifted teachers who claim to be directly connected to the divine source. While there are authentic spiritual guides, one must constantly do due diligence regarding their claims.

There is also the great temptation to believe that one has become special, different from the rest of humanity, because one has “seen” or realized something that others have not. When this happens, you can almost be sure that the ego is at work here.

“The path of truth is profound — and so are the obstacles and possibilities for self-deception,” writes Trungpa. Sadly, many do not realize that the ego can hijack the spiritual quest from an honest yearning to know Spirit into an insidious earthly materialism.

Spiritual materialism is when we believe that we have gained some superiority over others because we think we understand God better than others. Underneath all the spiritual talk often lie pride, conceit, intolerance and, yes, even greed. It can also be driven by the feeling that one is special, chosen, and therefore above the rest of humanity because he/she is on the “right path” worshipping the One True God.

Vanity is indeed insidious. When the ego takes over, the burden of becoming a vessel of the truth often becomes an ego massage. It is entitlement more than enlightenment.

Compassion, which is an integral virtue often seen among the truly spiritually awakened, can be easily and unconsciously upstaged by the ego’s insatiable desire to make points and look good.

True enlightenment is a burden to carry. It demands active humility and commitment. Often, it requires one to go against the grain of how the world conducts itself.

Trungpa says that, in the end, “Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.”

It has to be.

Searching for the ‘elite’ experience

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 3, 2014 – 12:00am

I never cease to be amazed at the easy availability to so many people all over the world of so many goods and services. Practically everything we want is within reach. Every time I use a cellphone, or the Internet, or a microwave oven, or even a ref, I marvel at how much more resources, convenience and power I have within my reach, even than what the royals had a century ago.

Aside from the endless variety of goods and services, there are databases, online libraries, knowledge and wisdom of the ages that were previously inaccessible to many, which we can reach by merely pressing a few keys.

Travel, too, is so easy these days. Cheap airplane tickets, hotels and visa-free travel make seeing huge chunks of the world very convenient and within reach.

I remember what it was like to call overseas in the ‘70s. One had to place a call with the telephone company and wait, sometimes for as long as five hours, to be connected. You can imagine the inconvenience since Manila and the US are in different time zones. And the calls were so expensive that one ended up saying hello and goodbye with hardly any content in between. Today, we have Skype, Viber, Tango, et cetera, which allow us to call anyone, anywhere, anytime for free.

Travel, when it was rare and expensive, was something one embarked on with great seriousness and purpose. One needed a visa and a big bank account to go on a trip. When I was growing up, I observed that people traveled to study abroad, or migrate, or work overseas. They hardly traveled for leisure, and they immersed themselves in the culture of the places they went to. It was a wholehearted undertaking. But today, more people travel just for leisure and fun.

One can also taste food from any part of the world. We do not need to go far to taste the exotic cuisines of other cultures. There is always a restaurant somewhere that will serve the exact taste one would look for abroad.

With everything more accessible than ever before, I ask myself, in all seriousness, if this is a good thing for the most part.

What experiences or states of being has technology not touched on?

Thankfully, there are still a few goals and pursuits that are pure, untouched, unchanged, and not made easier and more accessible by modernity.

The pursuit and formation of character is one. You can’t buy an app that will give you patience, compassion, perseverance, courage, dedication, inner strength, etc. These are cultivated in the same old-fashioned way through the guidance of mentors, and real-life experiences. We may have all the gadgetry and technology but if we are unable to concentrate long, or delay gratification, or learn the value of listening, suspending judgment and analyzing complex problems, our lives will make no sense, not just to ourselves, but to the world.

Another is spiritual awakening. Whatever religion or spiritual practice we may have, we must know how to be still and resist the pull of the world and the lures of materialism. There is no app for this. It takes practice and devotion. It is not about speed or instant reward, it is about sacrifice.

When a Japanese Zen master was told that there is now a way to reach the mind states of kensho and satori (enlightenment) via a theta wave-inducing machine, he simply sneered knowing that while science may induce it, it cannot possibly measure an unquantifiable state and conclude that it is “true.” Only a hard-core Zen sitter would know if he has awakened to an enlightened state or not.

Still on the topic of religion and spirituality, how can one have ethics, scruples and morals if these are not taught or passed on properly? Reading alone or searching the net will not do that. It is not downloadable.

The cultivation of common sense is also immeasurably important. It takes a lot of thinking, observation, experience, and instinct to be able to develop it. While there are many people with measurably high IQs, there are actually very few who have the common sense and “smarts” to discern issues and situations, and make the correct decisions.

These are things we can only learn the hard way, which means experiencing them many times and learning the lessons until they become part of us. It has been so through the ages and is not likely to change anytime soon.

If we cut through the clutter of our wants and needs, we will find that many of us are really in search of the defining “thing” that will make our lives more whole and fulfilling. It’s not about endless thrills, entertainment or titillation. And it is unlikely that we will find it in the gadgets and all the technology we have surrounded ourselves with. Perhaps what we are seeking is not something out there, but something inside us that only we can find. It is that which makes us feel alive and truly connected, even without our gadgets.

And that is the ultimate irreplaceable “elite” experience that man has sought through the ages. Will everyone in the world find it? Not likely. It is still only for an “elite” few.