Tuesday, August 19, 2008


A few months back I read an article about a female weightlifter who was forced to rearrange her life due to the unexpected demands of a son diagnosed with autism. Wailing and screaming and smearing his own shit on the walls on a regular basis, this kid, as much as she loved him, stretched the limits of her parental affection.

"This is not what I signed up for," she told her pastor.

"This is exactly what you signed up for," he said.

What does that mean, exactly? That a lifetime of caring for a non-responsive child incapable of reciprocating affection is what she secretly had in mind all along? Or is there a deeper, more philosophical layer to be discovered within the seemingly glib answer provided by her pastor?

Eckhart Tolle's book A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose reminded me of this woman's story.

I guess you could call it a 'new-age' book (if that term is even still in use), seeing as it concerns itself primarily with questions revolving around life, living, and the ultimate meaning of everything. Oprah picked it for her book-club, and even extended her reach by doing a series of an online, interactive interviews and seminars with Tolle.

It's actually quite a fascinating examination of two facets of human existence that we all too readily take for granted: the nature of time, and the nature of our own ego.

Let's take the first one -- time.

We tend to live either in the past or the future, constantly re-running previous mistakes (or victories) in our mind, or else longing for some yet-to-arrive moment that will magically land us in that place where we know we truly belong.

As Tolle points out, though, the reality is that we live in a constant stream of 'now'. There is only ever this moment, a continuous, free-form flow of 'present tense'. There is no 'future' to get to, because we only experience life in the present.

Consider this extended quotation from the book:

"...There are three ways in which the ego will treat the present moment: as a means to an end, as an obstacle, or as an enemy...To the ego, the present moment is, at best, only useful as a means to an end. It gets you to some future moment that is considered more important, even though the future never comes except as the present moment and is therefore never more than a thought in your head. In other words you are never fully here because you are always busy trying to get elsewhere.

When this pattern becomes more pronounced, and this is very common, the present moment is regarded and treated as if it were an obstacle to be overcome. This is where impatience, frustration and stress arise, and in our culture, it is many people's everyday reality, their normal state. Life, which is now, is seen as a "problem", and you come to inhabit a world of problems that all need to be solved before you can be happy, fulfilled, or really start living -- or so you think. The problem is: For every problem that is solved, another one pops up. As long as the present moment is seen as an obstacle, there can be no end to problems. "I'll be whatever you want me to be," says Life or the Now. "I'll treat you the way you treat me. If you see me as a problem, I will be a problem. If you treat me as an obstacle, I will be an obstacle."

...A vital question to ask yourself is: What is my relationship with the present moment? Then become alert to find out the answer. Am I treating the Now as no more than a means to an end? Do I see it as an obstacle? Am I making it into an enemy? Since the present moment is all you ever have, since Life is inseparable from the Now, what question really means is: What is my relationship with Life?"

Admittedly a little abstract and hippy-dippy, Tolle's thoughts nevertheless resonate. How do we approach the present moment, since that's all we will ever have?

Tolle's approach to the Ego is equally fascinating (at least to me).

We tend to to take the Ego for granted. It's the part of ourselves that wants and needs, desires and craves recognition, or achievement, or a constant state of more.

But what is it, exactly? What is this 'self' that we strive so hard to protect?

Eckhart recommends, essentially, taking a step back from your thoughts so you can become aware of your own consciousness.


"...I usually congratulate people when they tell me "I don't know who I am anymore." Then they look perplexted and ask, "Are you saying it is a good thing to be confused?" I ask them to investigate. What does it mean to be confused? "I don't know" is not confusion. Confusion is: "I don't know, but I should know" or "I don't know, but I need to know." Is it possible to let go of the belief that you should need to know who you are? In other words, can you cease looking to conceptual definitions to give you a sense of self? Can you cease looking to thought for an identity? When you let go of the belief that you should or need to know who you are, what happens to confusion? Suddenly it is gone. When you fully accept that you don't know, you actually enter a state of peace and clarity that is closer to who you truly are than thought could ever be. Defining yourself through thought is limiting yourself."

Ah, yes, but Western society pretty much demands that we 'define' ourselves from the get-go of life, and this definition gains the most currency when it is solidified as power and strength to the nth degree. We exist in a continuous stream of antagonism in which we are told that in order to succeed, we must be better than others. When others fail, we win. That seems to be North American ethos. We must 'succeed' by harnessing our energies towards some future moment that may or may not arrive, one that is usually attained by ensuring others are not as agile as ourselves are left by the wayside. The present moment is nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome so that future 'happiness' can be ensured, independent of others, fixated only on our own longings and craven wants.

Again, consider:

"...The world will tell you that success is achieving what you set out to do. It will tell you that success is winning, that finding recognition and/or prosperity are essential ingredients in any success. All or some of the above are usually by-products of success, but they are not success. The conventional notion of success is concerned with the outcome of what you do. Some say that success is is the result of a combination of hard work and luck, or determination and talent, or being in the right place at the right time. While any of these may be determinants of success, they are not its essence. What the world doesn't tell you -- because it doesn't know -- is that you cannot BECOME successful. You can only BE successful. Don't let a mad world tell you that success is anything other than a successful present moment. And what is that? There is a sense of quality in what you do, even the most simple action. Quality implies care and attention, which comes with awareness. Quality requires your Presence..."

Success as 'a successful present moment'? This is not what we are taught in school. Success means getting, hording, accumulating, crossing the line first, leaving others in our wake.

Yet, in the midst of illness, we see that Tolle's words make sense. When one is stricken, there is nothing to 'get'. You are immobile. You are inert. All you can do is exist in the moment, independent of anything else. In a world where most believe that those with the-most-toys-at-death win, such a notion is, indeed, almost revolutionary.

Part of his approach to the 'moment' I find somewhat fascinating, if only because it's simplicity hints at a larger complexity. There is our inner purpose and our outer purpose, Eckhart believes, and most of us are obsessed with our outer purpose.

For example: Let's say you want to cross the room to open the window because it's a little bit hot inside. If asked the purpose of crossing the room, most people would say: "Well, I'm doing it to open the window." Eckahrt says, in essence, no. You are crossing the room to cross the room. That's your inner purpose. Your outer purpose is to open the window; your inner purpose is to be present in the moment, and in the moment you are crossing the room, so that thus becomes your purpose.

Another example: You are ordering food at a restaurant, talking to a waiter or a waitress. Your outer purpose is to order food; your inner purpose is simply to connect with the person you're talking to. The ordering of the food thus becomes a by-product. When you are seeking to connect, regardless of the intent, then life itself becomes that much more smoother, and enjoyable, and fulfilled.

The problem lies in our ego, that aspect of our consciousness that wants to be loved (or feared). Some people's egos are plain to see, based on their cars, their looks, their expressions, their demeanor. Others are more covert, but we all have them, these egos. The secret is that everybody feels insecure inside, uncertain of life, but we have to pretend that we're not, and so the more we achieve, the more we can show others that we are not insecure, even though we are. We are slaves to this desire for prominence. All squabbles, conflicts, games and wars are founded upon this notion: In order to feel good about myself, I must prove that others are inferior. If I fail to do so, then that must mean I am inferior. So I need to train harder, work harder, to prove that this is not so.

And what is this strange, constant voice that is doing all the talking? That ego in the back of our heads. But if you are aware of that voice, conscious of its insistence, then that is the first step in rendering it moot. There is the awareness (the ego), and the awareness behind the awareness (your true being).

Or perhaps I should say, 'Being', with a capital 'B'. As Tolle states:

" As you long as you are unaware of Being, you will seek meaning only within the dimension of doing and of future, that is to say, the dimension of time. And whatever meaning or fulfillment you find will dissolve or turn out to have been a deception. Invariably, it will be destroyed by time. Any meaning we find on that level is true only relatively and temporarily.
For example, if caring for your children gives meaning to your life, what happens to that meaning when they don't need you and perhaps don't even listen to you anymore? If helping others gives meaning to your life, you depend on others being worse off than yourself so that your life can continue to be meaningful and you can feel good about yourself. If the desire to excel, win or succeed at this or that activity provides you with meaning, what if you never win or your winning streak comes to an end one day, as it will? You would then have to look to your imagination or memories -- a very unsatisfactory place to bring some bigger meaning into your life. 'Making it' in whatever field is only meaningful as long as there are thousands or millions of others who don't make it, so you need other human beings to 'fail' so that you your life can have meaning.

I am not saying here that helping others, caring for your children, or striving for excellence in whatever field are not worthwhile things to do. For many people, they are an important part of your outer purpose, but outer purpose alone is always relative, unstable and impermanent. This does not mean that you should not be engaged in those activities. It means you should connect them to your inner, primary purpose, so that a deeper meaning flows into what you do..."
(pg. 263-264)

Is this 'inner' primary purpose' to be found in constantly doing more, getting more, working more?

What of the weightlifting mother, the one with the autistic child? Her dreams of a loving, nurturing bond between herself and her child have been shattered. There is nothing for her to do, get or work towards for her child, because he will always be alone in his own little bubble.

But she has the present moment to live within, and perhaps that is enough. As Tolle quotes the secret to life from the mouth of a mystic: "I don't mind what happens to me."

You are exactly where you are supposed to be, because there is nowhere that you are supposed to go.

Tolle's work is not for everybody. It requires a belief system that is non-dogmatic, beholden to no single religious or spiritual principle, and it's out of step with what today's cultural mores deem relevant. And it is, of course, more than a little, well, flaky.

But I'm more than a little flaky, too, so I appreciate his desire to expand human consciousness. And I'll probably write a bit more about this book in the near future, so -- you've been warned!

As the title suggests, there is a 'new earth' we are all unconsciously developing. And if you believe in evolution (as Tolle certainly does) than where are humans headed? What are we evolving towards? Surely he-who-conquers-most-and-survives-with-the-most-toys-and-the-hottest-
trophy-wife can't be the point of it all. If we started as fish in the ocean, then made it up onto to land, then transformed into apes, then transcended into humans, well, what's next? This can't be the end of consciousness.

Perhaps in ten thousand years our distant ancestors will look back on us with great mirth, at these stressed, anxiety-ridden individuals so obsessed with proving our own significance through ultimately silly and pointless ritualistic games and facades. Everyone practically panicked with pride, locked into the past, terrified of the future, ignoring the present moment that truly connects us with each other, not realizing that life itself is exactly what we signed up for, and everything else is an ornament.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I didn't catch the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics last week, but the general reaction to the whole spectacle seems to have been: "Wow."

Which is what the general reaction to the opening ceremonies of any Olympics should be, but it seems like this 'wow' could have had another thought added to the end, namely: "Wow -- so this means China is serious, I guess..."

Serious about what? Global domination, becoming a world superpower, ensuring that Asia's rise will keep on rising?

Something like that.

The thing is, I feel like we in the West (even though I'm writing this in the East) constantly underestimate Asia in general, at almost every level.

How can that be? Countless books published on what seems like a weekly basis trumpet China's rise, and India's rise, and yet I feel like there's a still a certain amount of ignorance as to what Asia is all about. What it represents, where it's been, and where it's going.

(Of course, the label 'Asia' is largely meaningless, given how vast a landmass it is, and how varied the various countries underneath that generic label actually are, but we humans like to categorize, so 'Asia' it must be.)

A few months ago while working in Japan I read an interview with an American translator of Japanese, who was raised in Japan by American missionaries. She made an interesting comment, one that I'd never before considered from that particular angle. Westerners, she believes, tend to unconsciously dismiss Japanese ideas and beliefs. This is not to say that Westerners are ignorant of them; one only has to review how paranoid everybody was twenty to twenty-five years ago about Japan buying up American land and companies to recognize that the Japanese influence clearly made itself felt. Yet we tend to look at Japan mostly through the prism of its entertainment, its kitsch, its odd but alluring history. Films like Lost in Translation and The Last Samurai celebrate a Japan immersed in its own foreignness, impenetrable to western understanding. Everything Japanese is seen and depicted as either somewhat goofy, or strange, or funny, or downright weird. (Or else noble and dignified.)

Keeping what that American translator said in mind (whose name escapes me), I think it's not all that much of a stretch to extend her criticism towards the way that Westerners look at Asia as a whole. We take the strange parts, the exotic parts, and fetishize them for our amusement. Everything is either locked in the past or part of some odd, futuristic frenzy. We see the surface and the glitz, without bothering to take the contraptions apart and study the somewhat greasy and ordinary nuts and bolts that make them tick.

This is not to deny how fun the pop culture of these Asian lands can be, or negate what joy sheer entertainment, for entertainment's sake, can truly exude.

But the startled, surprised and amazed reaction to the Olympics' opening ceremony made me think that we in the West are no closer to understanding, or more importantly, anticipating what Asia is up to than we ever were, despite the advances in communications and technology.

My own pet theory? That Canada and America as countries are adolescents, full of energy and optimism to burn, and we're not all that interested in lands with cultures and traditions that were ancient even before we were born. We don't like to listen to our elders, and besides, we're not too interested in what they have to say in the first place. They're up to something, to be sure, these old folks are, but we have better things to do, and more interesting avenues to explore.

There is a big difference between countries and civilizations that are thousands of years old, complete with their own indigenous languages, and those that are mere hundreds of years old, still figuring out who they are and what they stand for.

I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that we will keep being surprised by Asia in the decade to come, again and again, and we will not wonder why we are surprised, which will, perhaps, be the scariest thing of all.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Coming back to the Philippines from Japan, from a first-world country to a third-world country, I'm constantly reminded in unexpected ways about how much Filipinos love their nation, and also about how so many of them want to get the hell out.

I just saw a jeepney outside on Session Road, the main strip of Baguio City. Jeepneys are sort of pseudo-buses, smaller than a school bus, narrow, and fronted by a facade that resembles the U.S. military jeeps that originally gave these vehicles their names. The drivers of these cheap cabs (that can fill anywhere from fifteen to twenty people, or more, depending on whose hanging off of the sides) often paint the front and the rear and the sides and the tires in bright flashy colours; these are, after all, almost their homes, given how long they spend inside of them each day. (I'm guessing twelve hours, minimum, is a safe estimate.)

So you have many jeepneys painted with American basketball team logos (as the Filipinos are absolutely crazy about basketball), or characters from their favorite action movies, or vibrant images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary.

You also often spot jeepneys illustrated with flags. The flag of the Philippines, of course, but also the national flags of the countries they want to work in, or the countries their relatives are already living in, grinding away at jobs as nurses and caregivers so they can send home the pay to their poor relatives over here.

Today's jeepney? TORONTO, it read in blue, emblazoned across a beautiful rendition of the Canadian flag, each point of the maple leaf scarlet and clear.

I've also noticed a jeepney around town with a similar design, this one declaring: CANADIAN DREAMING.

So many Filipinos work overseas that they have an official title: OVERSEAS FOREIGN WORKERS. There's a special space for their information on the custom cards they hand out in the airplane, and a special line reserved for them at immigration in Manila. Almost everybody you meet has a relative in Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, or the United States. Most young people you talk to want to work overseas.

Again, it's not because they hate the Philippines. The Filipinos are probably more patriotic than most first world peoples, because they see the corruption endemic to their society, and it sickens them; it taints the joy and goodness that almost supernaturally emanate from the people themselves.

Realistically, though, money is hard to come by, so many have to go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Anytime an oil rig is hijacked in Nigeria, I know, absolutely know that a Filipino will be one of the crewmen. They will go to the ends of the earth -- and do, every day -- to support their families.

For most foreigners, working abroad is a lark, an adventure, a way to 'find' ourselves.

For Filipinos, working in Dubai or Liverpool is simply an economic necessity.

So, whenever I see these jeepneys, filled with locals squeezed in tight-tight-tight, I also remind myself to stare closely at the colourful exteriors on display, so often doubling as aspirations for a different, better life. They are so creatively celebrating who they are, now, and sometimes hinting at where they would like to be, at some distant, perhaps mythical point in the future.

Friday, August 01, 2008

"WHAT kind of a model, did you say?"

Having taught English in Asian countries for more than a little while now, I've become quite used to talking to total strangers about their lives, their hopes, their hobbies, their jobs -- but I have to admit that today left me a little stumped.

Usually non-native speakers of English are, understandably, shy and nervous talking about themselves in a foreign tongue, so talking about their jobs is a natural conversation starter.

Today, while eating spicy-chicken and rice at Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food staple, two young women asked if they could sit in the seats next to me. (The place was crowded as hell, as Jollibee usually is.) I said sure.

They asked me what I was doing in Baguio. I told them. I asked what they were doing in Baguio.

One was a Baquio resident, studying computers at a local college.

"What about you?" I asked the other one. Turns out she was up visiting from Manila. "Are you a student, too?" (Both looked about twenty-one, tops, so I thought it was a pretty safe question.)

"No," she said. "I'm a model."

"Oh," I said, never having got that answer in nine-plus years of the classroom. (Granted, this wasn't the classroom, and Filipinos are, essentially, native English speakers, so this wasn't a typical ESL experience, but still.)

"What kind of model are you?" I asked. (The question sounded strange to my ears, but I didn't quite know how else to word it.)

"I'm an underwear model," she said.

At first I thought she was putting me on, but no, I soon realized she was serious.

She modelled in Manila, and she modelled underwear. Had been doing so for two years, now.

I found myself stuck. Where do you take the conversation from there?

I asked if it paid well; she said it did. I asked if she wanted to do other kinds of modelling; she said she had. A shampoo commercial.

And that was that.

Usually, simply because it's such an easy topic to discuss, I probe people about their jobs, because it tells me a lot about who they are.

But asking endless questions to an underwear model felt very, very odd. (And I suddenly felt very, very old. And slightly sleazy.) She didn't seem embarrassed, or arrogant; she was matter-of-fact. Not conceited. Almost shy, the way that a lot of Filipinos can seem when speaking to a foreigner.

Even so, what more could I ask? Every avenue open to me seemed to lead either to embarrassment or innocuous questions that would inevitably sound strange, no matter the intent.

So, other small talk was made. About computer schools, and trips to Italy, and boyfriends who are nurses in London.

I said good-bye, and left them to their rice.

I kept thinking: What an odd job for such a young person, especially in a Catholic, conservative country like the Philippines.

How did she get into it? What did her parents think? Is the underwear-industry in the Philippines sleazy? Is it an entry into other, more dangerous areas? How do you train to be an underwear model? Is underwear all you model? Can you make a living just by posing in your gotchies?

Alas, some questions are better left unasked.

(Especially in a family restaurant.)