I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
And nothing happens!
Nothing… Silence… Waves…
—Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
- Juan Ramón Jiménez
(Spanish poet, Nobel laureate)
– New York based artist Peter Stults
Click on the image for more.
Last night I came across a New York Times article on Suffering by Pico Iyer:
“I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency; when he was a boy, he said, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.
Yet none of that begins to apply to a child gassed to death (or born with AIDS or hit by a “limited strike”). Philosophy cannot cure a toothache, and the person who starts going on about its long-term benefits may induce a headache, too.”
The article relates suffering with passion, with growth. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that a writer of Iyer’s stature could make such a mistake. There’s a difference between wilfully bearing hardship and unwittingly falling on bad times. The same difference that exists between hunger from fasting and hunger from poverty. In one of the two, you have a choice. That choice matters.
I am wary of those who try to make sense of, what is most often, senseless suffering. Attempts to give it meaning reek to me of an egotism so profound that even in the random misery of another it tries to project its mental image. Reading shapes in the cloud isn’t a marvel of nature, but of the human mind. Only some marvels are more perverse than others.
I recently found the fascinating research by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif on scarcity and cognition. The economist-psychologist duo work on how having too little – being in a state of helpless scarcity – affects individuals’ capacities to think. They noticed drops in standardised IQ tests in periods of stress and scarcity. The research throws out the window the romantic idea that we grow through pain and misfortune. On the contrary, we have very little mental bandwidth to spare on the more esoteric of human pursuits. Survival becomes the sole objective. Resilience in the face of hardship is often the instinct to survive oversold as ‘triumph of the human spirit’. Just read the press after a socio-politically powerful city has been bombed.
But to bundle up all suffering into one neat pile and proclaim “philosophy cannot cure a toothache” seems ill-thought-out too. There is suffering we choose for ourselves. Through discipline and voluntary denial. And in that, I suppose, there is the chance to find deeper understanding of oneself. Because all suffering strips away the excess, brings into focus that which is most necessary. Only when the suffering is chosen, fear and uncertainty are also stripped away. What remains is clarity and pain – a potent combination to any mind open enough to receive and learn. Dealing with suffering of any kind – chosen or befallen – will show you the limits to which you can go. But your chances of emerging the wiser are starkly higher in the former than the latter.
I stumbled into the world of fasting quite by chance. I was young, 15 or 16, and wanted something that would test my will and resolve. As a New Year resolution, I’d given up watching television the previous year; it wasn’t particularly challenging. So, when a Muslim friend suggested I fast with him in the month of Ramazan, I took it up. And I’ve been hooked ever since.
I write this as I draw to the end of a 56 hour fast. And as I write, I am having a conversation with my body. It is a conversation long due. And one I don’t have quite often. As you might imagine with any such conversation, it is awkward at first, even uncomfortable. Like two people who’ve intimately known each other but drifted apart over time. But as I start talking to me body, I remember, as an old lover might, every aspect of it – the sensitive parts, the hidden nooks that respond to the most subtle of touches. Its pains and its pleasures, its groans and its aches. With time, I get pulled deeper into the conversation, and I feel every sinew whispering to me. I can’t always gather what it says, but it is a relief to be listening at last.
My stomach churns and my conscience is directed at the centre of my body. The cold breeze hits my face and I am acutely aware my shivering self. I walk up the stairs as each step draws energy from my legs. It is beautiful.
As a man, I’ve always wondered if women are aware of their bodies differently. Most of them, for a significant time in their lives, menstruate. Wouldn’t that force a conversation with one’s body? The awareness of its imminence, marked by changes that are unknown to everyone in the world but yourself, must make one listen. If such is indeed the case, then men must talk to their bodies more often. And what I’ve known so far is that such conversations are almost always triggered by discomfort of some sort. The awareness needed to direct your energies within is caused by physical and mental discipline.
And I don’t quite know how to end this. Because half my attention is still within my body. I’ll leave it at that.
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
– Gary Provost (first seen here).
I think I have broken just about every rule I ever made for myself. It has been a shatteringly liberating process. So now as a rule, I don’t make more rules. As you can sense, I am in trouble again.
– Nithya Shanti
My thoughts on Bombay have changed. It maybe a good city to visit, not to stay. I have issues with large cities. Even in Australia, Sydney nauseated me. Brisbane seems to have it just right. Bombay has horrible weather, is bursting at the seams holding 12 million people with infrastructure for less than half that number. It is impersonal, it’ll chew you and spit you out. Over three quarters of people live in slums. All the lovesongs and self indulgent books written about Bombay romanticise it. The pleasures of Bombay are only for sale to the highest bidder. Its vanity is valorised by a small section of the bourgeois society. The problems are too many to deal with here. Also, it depresses me, so fuck that.