Tuesday, September 07, 2010

2. Faith

Deamon God

The tyranny of dogma

The stagnation of a culture or civilization, is often described by historians as its 'dark ages'. It is the inevitable outcome when the outflow of new ideas is stemmed by a slavish attachment to old ones. The shadows of time lengthen as the illuminating evolution of thought is driven to a standstill by tradition, where civilisation itself is held hostage by out-dated perceptions. This strangulation of a civilization's creative output has often coincided with - because they have often been the result of - dominance of religious or dogmatic faith within the political power structure.

A religion's demand of an unquestioning belief in its doctrines, in itself, is not only acceptable but may even be necessary for a person's spiritual growth; the same way that a training routine and a rigorous coaching regime is necessary for athletes to hone and improve their skills. Yet, religious doctrines which have enjoyed monopolies in satisfying our 'need to believe' has been exploited by politicians who had a keen interest in exercising total control over their subjects. Religious faith, where it has been used to claim political power and justify its execution, has enabled rulers to enforce their demand for compliance on a broader population. In most - if not all - of the present and historic examples we have, leaders who had both a religious backing to claim and maintain political power, have had far less incentive to be tolerant of those who dared challenge the political and religious dogmas they sponsored.

Political oppression that was sponsored by religious dogma has done much more to destroy our trust in religion than it has done to tarnish our trust in politics. The reformation, which was a religious movement both in its inception and at its core, when it swept through Europe and much of the world, has been unseating monarchies and dictatorships and establishing republics in its wake since the middle ages. Centuries on, the questioning spirit of the reformation has not only been democratising the political sphere of humanity, but has also led to the resurgence of the human intellect in the creative arts as well as the pure and applied sciences.

Ironically, this spirit of free inquiry that was borne out of the religious reformation, which actively encouraged subjecting dogma to reason, has led our threads of logic and reason on a collision course with the very foundations of what constitutes all 'faith'. Though aided and enabled by the manipulative power of religion, the oppression of free inquiry, the violent punishments meted out to those who exercised the innate curiosity of their human intellect and the discouragement of all intellectual pursuits is essentially a political exercise. These political practices may have evolved over the years to take different forms such as media censorship, the curtailment of public funding for education and the subjugation of research and knowledge creation processes to political and commercial interests. Limiting the efforts of their intellectual resources to only meet political or commercial interests has plunged constituencies around the world at different ages, into cycles of stagnation by stifling human creativity and expression.

The political power and influence of religion over their subjects has often been used by tyrants of history to justify their persecution of those who questioned the state by alluding a direct link between political action with religious doctrine and the claim of sovereignty by the ruling classes with a Divine ordination. The collusion between religious leaders and politicians that enabled the oppression of entire civilizations across many generations has eroded our trust in religion. The practical obstacles that stand in the way of separating religion from the state that are evident even today, continues to undermine any trust that is left in both religion and politics, even after centuries of constitutional and legislative reform of the political process.

The ability to manipulate the faith of its subjects is still an essential tool for every form of government. Some politicians do so by aligning themselves with what their constituencies believes to be just and acceptable systems of distributing the wealth of a nation; be it socialism, communism or capitalism. Societies that believe in the Divine anointment of their rulers may be prone to accept dictators or monarchs while those who believe in their own sovereignty would demand democracy. The people's choice of economic and political systems is therefore based on what they 'believe' to be fair and just. No political or economic system can be absolutely fair and just, yet we accept them because of our persistent 'faith' in the ideals they espouse. Therefore, because our political choices are also based on ‘faith’, the ability of laws and processes to separate the religious influence from politics will continue to be a significant challenge as far as most of what constitutes our faith is seen to be heavily concentrated and structured within a religious framework.

Perhaps there has always been a political and evolutionary imperative therefore, to find a counterbalance to the power of religion in human society. Perhaps there was always a necessity to find something visible to believe in, that is not a deity; and be able to seek its help without having to rely on the intercessions of an organised priesthood. But we are no longer merely sentient beings. We are cognitive beings; so why ‘believe’ when we have the power to ‘know’? Our ‘recently’ acquired ability to create machines and manipulate the environment in ways that previous generations may have thought impossible, has inclined us to underestimate the existence of a greater power than ourselves or a greater knowledge than what we already know (or more modestly put; what we think we can know). Technology seems to have empowered us to believe that we are in control. Therefore it is no coincidence that the twentieth century witnessed a significant shift in the balance of power away from the religious path of spiritual inquiry into the scientific path.

On a fundamental level therefore, religion and science share these common values despite their distinctively different approaches to uncovering 'higher truth'. For all the common ground that science and religion share however, our limited comprehension of both processes have pitted them in a fierce battle by placing them at opposite ends of our intellectual pursuit of knowledge about the world and of ourselves and a meaningful justification of the role we play in it. In the absence of absolute knowledge about anything, we still have no choice but to believe in good faith, much of what we think we know; regardless of whether they are based on logical experiments or reasonable theoretical assumptions about the nature and evolution of the universe.

For centuries, our 'faith' has been monopolised by religion, but now, notably in the realms of theoretical physics and evolutionary biology, science is fighting to posses the awesome power of this singularly most essential and uniquely human, cognitive tool. Though distinctly different in their approach, they are both borne out of our propensity and need to know the unknown and make believe the unbelievable.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

1. Faith


The battle to own our minds 

The word "faith" is often associated with religion and mystic beliefs. It generally implies a blind acceptance or unquestioning belief of an idea or a set of ideas and therefore the opposite of 'skepticism' and 'doubt'. Faith forms the link between what we perceive to be 'known', and that which we admit as "unknown". The word itself is often used synonymously with "religion", but that has been primarily because religion has always been the exclusive domain of everything that we did not or could not know; and therefore required "blind acceptance" or "unquestioning belief" to subscribe to. Our conscience however, is a complex web of beliefs that are continuously changed and enhanced by the thoughts we bear and ideas we entertain. As much as humanity is characterised by our curiosity, skepticism and ability to doubt even what seems apparent, there are two distinct forces raging deep underneath our questioning skepticism; one a rational desire to know and the other an irrational need to believe.

Each of us have a varying capacity to distinguish between what we know and what we do not know. It is the ability to identify what we do not know, combined with the curiosity to discover that drives us to acquire new knowledge; to make the unknown; known. Sometimes we feel threatened when an idea we hold to be 'true' is challenged by evidence to the contrary. At one extreme, we are be driven to feel insecure when certain beliefs we hold close to our hearts are challenged, while at other times taking much delight in being presented with new discoveries that may revolutionise our understanding of certain matters. Either way, our 'faith' is defined both by what we have chosen to believe as much as that which we have chosen not to believe; both without the support of reason or logic. Our faith either directly or indirectly becomes the dominant influence on all our preferences, choices and decisions. Therefore, the unique make up of each individual is defined more by their faith than perhaps any other factor.

Our irrational need to believe, has conjured divine forces with promises of heavenly rewards or threats of eternal suffering to make those beliefs compelling. Much of our behaviour and judgements are influenced by our conception of heaven or nirvana or hell - entities we believe to exist even when there is no logic or reason to support such beliefs. But faith drives our secular lives as well. Because of the dominant influence that faith has on our commercial decisions and political preferences, it has always been coveted by those who have any political or commercial interest in us. It is only natural therefore that commercial product advertisers seek to brand their products and link those brand images, not directly with the needs that would require us to buy them (because need would compel us to buy the product anyway), but with our beliefs which in turn influence our preference for one brand over another.

The authority to govern people is always derived from the ability to control their beliefs. Organised religion has not only given structure to our irrational beliefs, but also a sense of security in holding on to them by assembling a vast community that would share those beliefs with us because holding on to irrational beliefs in isolation would make us seem delusional. By virtue of having such an emotional hold on us, religion has been able to dictate how we should behave and sometimes even what we are allowed to eat and the way we ought to groom ourselves. Therefore it is equally unsurprising that those who assumed religious leadership throughout the ages has always been courted and pandered to, or have been in conflict with, those who assumed political leadership. The unmistakable evidence lies in the history of the Papacy and the mistrust between Protestants and Catholics that has been transmuted for centuries stemming from a chiefly political conflict that was triggered by the protestant revolution. The protestant revolution itself, though inspired by religion, has had far more political rather than religious repercussions on societies all over the world. Similar trends can be identified in the conflicts between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists sects which competed for political patronage for centuries in Sri Lanka and the influence that unelected religious leaders still exercise over democratically elected secular states in all parts of the world. The desire of those who assume political power to monitor the ideas and thoughts of their subjects is fuelled merely by their concern about how those thoughts and ideas may ultimately influence or change their subjects' beliefs.

Our curiosity and the rational desire to know has, in the meantime, driven us to explore and discover reasons to justify our beliefs. The word we use to describe this exercise is "science". There would have been a time when a vast majority of humanity would have depended on their religious faith to answer their most fundamental questions about how things are and how they came to be the way they are, including questions about life and death. Indeed there would have always been skeptics too.

Yet the fact remains that religion espouses 'faith' or actively demands it, while science has despised it and sometimes ridiculed those who gave priority to their faith over reason. It was perhaps an inevitable coincidence that the foundations for the glorification of 'reason' and the vilification of 'blind faith' were laid down in the religious reformation which was set off by the devout German monk - Martin Luther. But why would our desire to know and the need to believe - both of which spring from the same deep cognitive recesses of the human mind - be in conflict and fighting one another to prove the other wrong or typecast them as inferior? If the domain of religion is 'faith' and the domain of science is 'reason', how can there be a conflict between the two since they are totally independent of each other?

Some may argue that the conflict between science and religion is actually a battle to establish which is more superior between 'faith' and 'reason', but that would be to unfavorably compare 'faith and reason' as well as misunderstand the nature of 'science and religion'. As pointed out earlier, authority to govern is derived from an ability to control people's beliefs. The relationship between religion and science does not have many parallels with the previously discussed uneasy relationship between religion and the State, because this is a more fundamental battle. The interests of those who seek authority to governs and those who define and interpret religious doctrine are often complementary, because they often have to work together to gain political authority by manipulating peoples beliefs. Science and religion on the other hand are fighting a more fundamental battle - to actually posses faith itself and gain outright ownership of our most basic and fundamental beliefs. It should be an even battle, but science is currently doing considerably better - but that is because it is cheating!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Transcript of a prayer

Angelic host

What I really want to write about is 'faith'. However, I somehow feel I need to begin with my own beliefs. My faith consists of both what I choose to believe and what I choose not to believe. They lie outside the realm of what I can comprehend using my own reasoning and logic - because I don't need faith to 'believe' in what I can 'know'. So faith constitutes what ever that is left after I have separated the known from the unknown. So it follows that we all 'believe' in what we do not 'know'. God, Karma, Nirvana, Rebirth, Reincarnation - are all articles of faith. We can choose to believe in them - and I think it is perfectly rational to do so - but we cannot yet 'know' for sure that they exist. I believe in God, but I am also aware of the nature of my faith to be honest enough to admit that I don't actually know for sure whether God really exists. I don't find it a paradox, perhaps because I understand 'faith' and 'reason' to be mutually independent. This is where my personal faith in God differs from most established religious doctrines. I am acutely aware that my faith is not 'reasonable', because faith - by definition - cannot be reasonable

Therefore my belief - my chosen faith in God - do not conform to any theological doctrine outside of my own conscience; and I suppose it is only natural that my prayers don't either. Perhaps for that same reason, I am not overtly religious. In fact I surprise myself by publishing this. But I am keen to separate my beliefs from the few things I know or hope to know. I do not subject my faith in God to be dissected by reason because I think it is a useless exercise. Neither do I want to substitute my faith in God where I should rather apply logic and reason, or opt to 'believe' things which I should rather seek to understand. Reason and logic has never lead me to, or away from God.

So yes, I believe in God, but I don't pray to God nearly as often as I ought to. Then again, I don't know anyone who does. When I do pray though, my prayers usually go like this one which I penned many, many, many many (four) years ago.

I hope you don't get too distracted and assume it's all about a girl; because it is not. It is more about 'life' itself and the need I have to include 'God' and 'prayer' in it.

Me: Lord, can you spare a minute for me?

God: Hey… it’s been a while… how's life?

Me: What do you mean "it's bean a while"? I was in church this morning!

God: Oh… yeah... right... I should have remembered… sorry! (Grins…)

Me: Do you ever pay attention to anything that goes on in church...?

 God: No… I mean YES... of course... What is it you want to talk about?

Me: Well… it's a bit complicated… there's a fair bit to explain. That's why I asked you whether you are free… are you sure you've got enough time?

God: Well, I am ok with time I suppose… but why don't we get started and see how far we can go… if we run out of time, we'll do the rest some other time. Does that sound ok?

Me: Well, that's fine… how have you been holding up?

God: Not too bad… not too bad at all… a bit busier than usual, but I am not complaining. I mean… I do like my job, ‘I find it exciting and challenging’ (smirk)… so ‘the hard work usually is its own reward’ (grin). Now tell me what's bothering you.

Me: Nothing is bothering me… well… then again, maybe something is… I mean… as I said, it's complicated.

God: Ok... just go on… spill it out. I am not going to interrupt you

Me: Thanks! And another big "THANKS" for sticking with me during the past couple of months… Getting the thesis out of the way took quite a bit of work – and you know… I couldn't have done it without you. I mean… you were really awesome.

God: Gosh… you are welcome man!

Me: Hey… you said you won't interrupt!

God: But I didn't… (And turning to Cherubim beside him) did I interrupt him?

Cherubim: Technically you didn't, but…

Me: Hey… sorry… nothing personal Cherubim… just that this is about something a bit personal… so I would appreciate some privacy…

Cherubim: Sorry... you should have said so earlier…

Me: No it's ok… honestly! I didn't mean to be rude. Shall I continue please?

God: Yeah… you are not going to be here all night…

Me: Thanks for reminding me. Anyway, as I was saying, it's not really a problem… it's actually this little puzzle… I mean… I don't even know whether it's a puzzle in the first place… that's sort of why I came to you… to find out for sure whether it's a puzzle in the first place… Do you get what I'm saying?

God: Is that a trick question?

Me: Hey, don't play dumb with me… I know that you know exactly what I am talking about!

God: Maybe I do know what you are talking about, maybe I don't. But what do you expect me to do?

Me: Hello… I would appreciate a few clues here… I mean… please…

God: Heh… heh… if it's a puzzle, its up to you to solve it and find out the answer for yourself isn't it?

Me: So are you saying that it IS a puzzle?

God: I didn't say that!

Me: Here… seriously… I don't need this… You know I have had enough of this… you tempt me with these puzzles and I end up spending a lot of time and energy and emotional capital on them… and it has all been a total waste of time… not to mention the disappointment. All I am asking is to know whether this is real. Isn't it only fair that you at least tell me whether this is real or not?

God: "Emotional capital"? Hold on… don't tell me that this is just one big business proposition for you!

Me: You know what I meant by that! Don't twist my words… I would never expect you to twist my words. I take your point though… but the thing is it's quite an accurate description of the situation. I mean, you know I am quite a sucker for these things… but as I mature, and with every harsh experience, I feel like I am gradually becoming insensitive to my own feelings. I don't want to be like that. I want to be able to empathise with others and feel and appreciate my own emotions. But that's beside the point. I want you to tell me if this is my real puzzle.

God: What makes you so sure that I know? As I said before, maybe I do… maybe I don't…

Me: Are you kidding me… you know everything!

God: Who told you that?

Me: Actually a Lot of people say that.

God: They also obviously told you a lot of other crap that they had no freaking clue about. I am surprised to see that you have just taken their word for it. How convenient for you!  It all depends on how you act out of your own free will… you know that!

Me: Fine… but I sort of like these arguments. I really miss having someone around who could sustain an engaging argument with me.

God: Well… I am always around if you want…

Me: Yeah right! (Laughs)… Well, thanks… I know that… and I always appreciated that. But what I meant was…

God: (Laughing) Yeah... I know what you meant. So this girl you like… do you think she could "sustain an engaging argument" with you? (Still laughing…)

Me: What girl…?

God: Now you are kidding me!

Me: But even I don't know whether I like her. I mean… we barely know each other! Besides…

God: Are you giving excuses… trying to cover up your feelings…

Me: You just interrupted me again!

God: Sorry… but I had to… and now you are trying to avoid my question.

Me: You know… its amazing how you always turn these conversations around.

God: What do you mean?

Me: I came to ask you whether this is the real puzzle this time. You know very well that I am not in the mood for any silly games or decoys… but before I know it, you are asking me whether I think this girl is the sort who could "sustain (an engaging argument with) me"… if you didn't understand me the first time, let me be a bit more blunt – how about you tell me whether she'd be able to sustain an argument with me? How about you tell me whether she's the centre piece of the puzzle we are talking about?

God: Loosing the temper are we? Besides, is that what you want from a relationship – someone to argue with?

Me: You know I never loose my temper… and you also know that I know when you are avoiding my questions. But the answer to your question is a complicated "yes"!

God: A "complicated yes"?

Me: Yes. I mean… the fact that you can sustain an engaging argument with someone tells you a lot about your relationship doesn't it. I mean, to sustain a meaningful argument, both parties have to be mature enough to understand that an argument is not a fight and that it's ok to disagree. They also have to have a great deal of respect for each other. And when an argument heats up and some of the words seem harsh sometimes, you should know enough about each other to trust… no, not just trust, but know for sure… never doubt each other’s love… you need to know that the argument itself is secondary and that the love you share is unconditional… disagreements open up opportunities to really get to know each other… They are like stepping stones to a deeper understanding. But you also need trust, to know that the other person is speaking the truth… and respect the other to be truthful yourself. You need to be able to rely and depend on the other never to get judgemental or personal. So in a way, I guess there's a good chance that I could have a healthy relationship with someone whom I can argue with. (Smiling…) Besides… an argument can be a real turn-on… (Laughing…)

God: Hmmm… interesting point of view… and come to think of it, we could take it for granted that this relationship is a good example of that! (Laughing…)

Me: Don't get your hopes up. You don't have a hope of ever turning me on… (Laughs…) Now I have answered your question… but you haven't answered mine!

God: So is that what I am here for now… just to answer your questions?

Me: No… ok… I'm sorry. But I told you I need your help with this. I mean… I need your help most of the time… but especially with this.

God: But you like puzzles. No, you Love puzzles… so why can't you solve this and find out for your self… I will help you if you like. We have done this before haven't we?

Me: Sure we've done this before. But I am the one who's got anything to loose!

God: Don't say that!

Me: But isn't that the truth? I am the one who always suffer. And for what? I mean… why should I bother to find out anything when all I've found out so far is what a sad excuse for a man I can become when I open up myself to be so vulnerable? All I have found out is that it's not even worth trying to find out. I have never progressed beyond "finding out" anyway. I have tried to be noble about it, and never rationed the out pour of my heart, yet all I have ever found out was that everything I have earned so far is for my own keeping – that I will never have the joy of sharing them with anyone.

God: "Anyone" or "Someone"?

Me: Is ‘semantics’ all you care about? Or do you care at all?

God: I do care. I know you know that I do. But you make it sound as if your whole life has been nothing but miserable and lonely... and that all that you have achieved amounts to nothing.

Me: So it's my fault now?

God: Nobody is at fault. But, you have no reason to feel sorry for yourself - if only you learn to appreciate how much courage it takes to let yourslef become so vulnerable. I hope you don't give up the fight because I want to know you have what it takes to pick yourself up and take those risks all over again. There is no other way to face life! If that's not 'being a man about it' tell me what is?

Me: But I don't have time to waste. Tell me when the real thing comes by and I will do it all over again. Untill then, I can't be bothered.

God: What you fail to admit is that if ever you are able to appreciate the real 'puzzle' one day, it is because you know what the fakes are. You have lost nothing. You may have not yet got what you wanted, but that doesn't mean you've lost anything. But it will be sad if you cannot appreciate the things you've gained out of each experience.

Me: But I think I would have been able to appreciate the 'real puzzle' anyway. I didn't absolutely need all this rubbish to "heighten my appreciation" of all the things I don't have.

God: Looks like hindsight has made you wise. I know you are smarter than to actually believe what you just said. So I won’t argue with you for the sake of an argument. If we are to gain anything from this, we both have to respect each other enough to be honest like you just said. You know that I am only trying to make you find the answer for yourself. I am not asking for much… just admit what you already know so that we could have an honest conversation here! How difficult is it for you to admit that your life has been full of deep satisfaction and an abundance of good things all the way. Even despite the fact that you had to bear those joys and a few tears all by yourself?

Me: The point is, I don't know what to think. That's why I came to you in the first place. I mean, this is a whole new experience for me this time. I am confused. But I feel this connection… the amazing bond between our souls that I have never felt before…

God: You are over dramatizing this…

Me: Ok... maybe I am making it sound too dramatic… but would you care to explain how all the dots connect with this one? I mean… look at what's been going on… the shear coincidence of meeting her in two different places when the odds are so remote – not to mention the facts that made me notice her. Then I find out that we are not so far apart in many ways after all.

God: Yeah… But you placed all those dots on the board and you yourself connected them. I can imagine what a pleasant surprise the picture would have been! (Grinning…) But what makes you think I have been conjuring a secret plan "behind the curtains"? (Laughs…)It's all in your mind.

Me: Is this one big practical joke for you? I am sorry, but I am not amused. Whose genius was it then to give me hope of a chance to meet her again? What sort of coincidence is that?

God: I thought you of all people would know that there is no such thing as coincidence!

Me: Actually, I don't know that. And I am not going to speculate anything at this time. That's precisely why I decided to ask you. And please, you owe me an honest and straightforward answer this time.

God: I don't owe you anything. And you don't owe me anything either.

Me: No… I didn't mean it that way… I don't come to you to settle debts – you know that. But if I may borrow someone else's words, why can't you just "tell me and end this torment"? You know very well that I can't afford to speculate. I can't afford to be hopeful about the hopeless. I don't think I can survive that anymore. I am scared… I really am. Sometimes I doubt. For once, I just want to know. It doesn't matter what the truth is, I just want to know.

God: Do you really? But you don't… I know that about you. You never wanted anyone to tell you how things are or how they are going to be. You always wanted to find out on your own, in your own time, by your own methods.

Me: Hmmm… why are you doing this? I mean… how is it that you know precisely where my weaknesses are and exactly when to strike them?

God: Is that what you think I am doing?

Me: No… I mean... I suppose they are actually my strengths and you sometimes turn things around so that I can focus my strengths instead of my weaknesses on the problem.

God: Was that a "Thank you"?

Me: You are a sucker for appreciation aren't you?

God: Don't insult my modesty.

Me: Hey… tell that to the people who are obsessed with the idea that the whole point of their lives is to "sing your praises" and "worshiping" you. They are the ones who are insulting your modesty!

God: This conversation is not about them. It's about you.

Me: Yes. Forgive me for that. I didn't mean to look down on any one. I mean, I am quite sure each individual is free to think and do as they please and it's not for me to judge them. But getting back to the point, I don't think I have found the answer that I was looking for.

God: Are you sure you are asking the right questions?

Me: Give it up. If you are trying to sound like the Dalai Lama, you suck at it! (Laughing…)

God: (Laughing…) Geezzzz… I didn't mean to. Can't you be a bit more subtle with your insults! But seriously, what's your problem anyway. I think you should be more than happy to go all the way and find out for yourself. I mean, keep an open mind. Try not to get infatuated with the idea… I mean… you got to go with your instincts… and just be yourself. I am sure that's good enough.

Me: The problem is… I'm not sure anymore. I mean, I used to trust my instincts and I sure thought I had this sixth sense about people, but I don't know that anymore. I am not sure whether I can trust my instincts because I have been wrong on occasions. I realise that there's a chance that I may be wrong this time as well… that even when my assessment of certain things is accurate, there is so much I simply do not know, and those things can reverse everything I do kno.

God: I know what you mean. But the thing is, if you don't trust yourself, how can you expect someone else to?

Me: Well… actually, I don't expect anyone to trust me per se.   What makes you think I expect that?

God: Ok, let me rephrase. Do you think your family and friends trust you?

Me: Hmmm… I suppose so. At least some of them trust me… as for some; I am not sure if it is trust they have in me or just expectations. I mean… I like the fact that people expect a lot from me… and I realised that I want to live my life in such a way that people will always expect the highest and the best from me.

God: It doesn't matter whether it is trust or expectations… have you ever let them down… have you betrayed their trust or disappointed those who expected much of you?

Me: I honestly don't know the answer to that. I honestly think I may have sometimes. I have tried my best to do what I thought was right. I often tried to follow my heart… but sometimes I have sacrificed what I wanted so that I could please someone else… I have sometimes tried to fill the gaps between people's expectations and my responsibilities. There are times I have been selfish too. But I don't know whether I have let them down in any way. You will have to ask them about that.

God: I think you have done a pretty good job so far.

Me: Am I having this conversation with my own ego-possessed conscience?

God: That was a compliment, but if you don't know how to take it, that's not my problem.

Me: But, I didn't come to you to satisfy my own ego.

God: I was just trying to show you that a lot of people in your life trust you, and that you have earned that trust well. So there's no reason for you, not to trust yourself.

Me: Should I trust myself just because others trust me?

God: No, it is almost always the other way round. But you just said that you are not sure whether you could really trust yourself. So I pointed out that there are many others who trust you… and therefore it must be because you actually trust yourself.

Me: Impressive logic! You are good.

God: I am not here to satisfy my ego either. (Grins…)

Me: Ok. Where were we?

God: We are right here. You don't have to back-track to find your answer. The point is that you need to trust yourself - because you can trust yourself. There's nothing wrong with your judgement. It's just that your mind sometimes gets cluttered and you fail to hear the little voice in the back of your head. Keep that in mind and just carry on. You should be fine.

Me: But I am still not satisfied, because you haven't answered my question yet.

God: Do you mean to say that you have found what you came looking for, even though I haven't answered your question?

Me: Sort of… actually, I don't think I could extract anymore information from you than I already have. Even if I bug you for millennia, you are not going to tell me what's to come.

God: You have better things to do with your time than interrogate me, expecting me to give you a horoscope reading. Trust me!

Me: Better things like what?

God: Like get on with life. Be enchanted by its mysteries, solve its wonderful puzzles, appreciates the precious gifts that life has to offer and embrace its laughter and tears with the same zest. Give it your best and see... after all, there's much to gain from all that.

Me: But what about her?

God: Which "her"?

Me: There's only one 'her'! Don't bother tickling my sense of humour… it's all but worn out.

God: What a pity. I liked your humour.

Me: Why are you trying to distract me? (Frustrated…)

God: Ok… help me out here… I mean… what about her? If you are asking me again, whether she's the one, well, I am sorry I may never know that because it's up to the two of you to figure that out. "It takes two" you know. You guys take chances everyday. Some calculated risks and some uncalculated ones. Each day brings you many moments that take a bit more courage than the rest… or moments that stands out because they are more joyful... or sorrowful than the rest…. or ones that make you doubt… others that are reasuring. Some moments are more memorable than the rest… your days and hers are strewn with such moments. Sometimes you create those moments and sometimes others do it for you. What you get out of them depends on how you react. So, what you do and how you both react will determine the answer to your question. You can't always make good things happen, but you can give it your best and see what happens. Remember this though; while you try to fulfil your own desires, you have no right to expect others to give up their own.

Me: Isn't this getting a bit too philosophical?

God: Why should that bother you? You told me you had all but lost your sense of humour! So I thought you'd be in the mood for a good dose of philosophy. Sad people like philosophy.

Me: I would have cracked more jokes if I knew that the lack of humour was going to make you get overly philosophical…

God: Is that what's left of your humour?

Me: Yeah… sadly! Anyway… thanks. It was nice talking to you…

God: Cut out the formalities…

Me: See, you interrupted me again! (Grinning…) No…I really meant it. The humour and the philosophy… all of it were just great… and I found it very meaningful…

God: Don't you find that all our conversations are meaningful?

Me: Err… no… I mean, kneeling through some of those "prayer meetings" used to be dreadful… and some of those songs were unbearable... Don't get me wrong, the choir and all was great... but then again, there were some nasty sermons you've made me endure… (Laughs…)

God: Oh please… don't get me started on those! Anyway... what are you complaining about? I am the one who had to listen through all those hours without ever getting a chance to utter a word in reply! (Laughs…)

Me: Is that why some of those prayers went unanswered?

God: None of those prayers went unanswered.

Me: None?

God: Why do you think we are having this conversation? What makes you oblivious to the fact that this very conversation is proof that every single prayer is answered and always has been?

Me: Honestly I don't get that logic.

God: Now who's playing dumb?

Me: I never got that mountain bike I prayed for. And so I rest my case.

God: I don’t own bloody Lumala, so go get one yourself! Court dismissed.

Me: But the attorney has not even entered the court yet.

God: She may already be in court for all you know… or on the other hand, maybe she will never come. Either way, you will be ok. What you need is a psycho therapist if you ask me!

Me: Well, you did make me in YOUR own image!

God: True, but I may have been a bit distracted by the donkey I had created a few minutes earlier.

Me: Ok… let's cut it out. I get your point. And hey… Thanks again.

God: Anytime Brother!

Me: Am I supposed to say "Amen"?

God: Amen.

Me: Amen. (Grins…)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To save human lives or save humanity?

Twilight Mist

Advancements in medical science in the last two centuries have saved billions of human lives. By improving the chances of the aged, sick and enfeebled to live on and survive, it has dampened the influence of external forces of natural selection on the human evolutionary processes. We have increased the chances of survival for all - not just the fittest. Advances in medical sciences have - generally speaking - given the weakest and less adaptable among us an equal chance of survival and propagation in the human gene pool. Together with standardised education systems and general social welfare, we have leveled the playing field a bit for everyone. Might and physical endurance are nor longer the only criteria that determine the dominating hierarchy within our species; making way for intelligence, dexterity and mental resourcefulness to also pack a heavy punch. Modern medicine is perhaps the best example of how we have been able to apply our intelligence to overcome physical deficiencies. We have invented a vast array of prosthetics, antibiotics and steroids to help us overcome our common physical ailments.

Long before the advent of modern medicine, we learned to apply our intelligence to build tools - and indeed weapons - that would multiply our physical strength in fights for domination. Since then, it was no longer sheer physical strength and endurance, but the ability to apply our 'intelligence' to solve problems and overcome challenges that determined our evolutionary path. Arguably, this is very much a part of the process of 'natural selection'. Given that the tools we have built far surpass our own power and capabilities in many ways, physical prowess have become less vital for our survival. Our ability to manipulate and design our immediate environment has all but removed the imperative for us to adapt to its changes. In fact, our ability to do so has become the most dominant factor in determining our survival.

So now, it is no longer a question of how capable we are of adapting to our environment, but how capable we are of changing it to fit our needs that matter - or so it seems. This reversal of the 'natural selection' process is a relatively recent phenomenon - only a few generations old - and therefore its long term effects are not yet evident. We do not yet know how it will effect our chances of long term survival as a species. In fact it could take centuries - if we survive that long - for us to find out. That is because the recent changes in our evolutionary priorities have not yet been tested. Indeed global warming and our growing population's increasing demand for scares resources are testing the sustainability of the global Eco-system that sustains us. The true extent of our ability to control the environment will be tested - probably for the first time - when our consumption levels tip over the ability of our environment to replenish it. 

The inconvenient truth that lies at the heart of most global issues such as border protection, the greenhouse effect, political conflicts and conflicts between humans and our environment however, is that they are all consequences of the human population level that is increasingly becoming unsustainable.

An instinctive aversion to death and sickness is shared by all beings. The tendency to care and nurture the dying and impaired however, is relatively rare and found only among the more intelligent species with complex social structures. Our ability to love and care for one another is a defining characteristic of the human condition and arguably one of our few endearing features. Yet they may also be the biggest obstacles in the way of opening up an objective discussion about the human over-population crisis facing the planet today. Could we prevent ourselves or anyone else from intervening to prolong the life of a cancer patient even when it seems inevitable that the decease would soon claim its victim? If a man and woman has twelve children, which one of them could we recommend that they rather shouldn't have had? Indeed our emotions get in the way. Death or abandonment of another human being in peril is impossible to advocate, and even the practise of  contraception has long been frowned upon.

It is one thing to be warned about the depleting natural resources and the question of human over-population in the 21st Century; but strangely at this point, even at the risk of contaminating the subject with an unintended religious undertone, I can't help but recall the words of Jesus Christ at the eighth station of the cross. On his way to Calvary to be crucified, the Gospel according to Luke in its 23rd Chapter, from verse 28 to 31 record the words of Jesus as follows;

28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’  
30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’  
31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Centuries of civilisation and culture has conditioned humanity to glorify the fertile and denounce the barren, value life and creation over death and destruction - and for good reason. However, infant mortality, deadly decease and occupational health are modern metrics. They were not issues that the old world had to grapple with, because death and sickness should have been accepted as daily realities before the miraculous interventions of medicine. It is only in the past two centuries that medical miracles have created an impression that it is within human capability to fight death and sickness and expect to win more often than not. The wonder works of modern medicine reinforces our false perception of death and sickness as the result of negligence or human faults, rather than inescapable facts of life.

The pharmaceutical industry also feeds into the unyielding human desire to avoid sickness and prolong life, by feeding on the rich chemical resources of the natural world including protected plant and animal species for producing medicines. In less than a century, it has risen to become one of the most powerful commercial lobbies that dictate world politics and economics today with exclusive rights to exploit entire species of plants for profit.

Therefore, it is more likely that our efforts to avoid sickness and prolong life will continue with more vigour, empowered by further advances in technology. The sum result of the advances we have made in medical science has enabled an explosion in human population that has tilted Eco-systems out of balance. It is perhaps a failure of the socioeconomic model of capitalism, that the motives of our society and those of the economy need not be aligned for them to work together. Thus while the result of our advances in medicine is healing and the prolongation of life, the motive that drives the industry is primarily its financial rewards. In a democratic world order that is spurred on by capitalism, it is unlikely that anyone - least of all politicians - would be willing to advocate steps to stem the growth of human population and the rate of our consumption of our planets shared resources. It seems there is not a single notion in our moral make up that lets us objectively decide between a human life and the greater good of the human species, let alone choose between a human life and an entire species of plant or animals. The dominance we have gained by virtue of our superior intelligence and dexterity will always ensure that we prevail even at the cost of other species.

Medical marvels may have given us a false sense that it is within our power to dictate terms to death and sickness, but that false sense of security stands in the way of addressing the issue of human over-population which is critical to the long-term survival of the planet and many of its species, including - ironically - humanity itself. As much as it is nevertheless possible for the human population to increase exponentially still, it would also be inevitable that limits imposed by the natural ecological systems that sustain us will eventually rectify the balance. Studies of overpopulation in the animal world suggest that when this happens, it is more likely to be a sudden collapse in our population than a gradual wind-down. Sadly, a sudden collapse of the human population would inevitably result in the loss of the collective knowledge that we have accumulated over thousands of years. Given the volume of information we stand to loose in such an event, it will be like the burning of the library at Alexandria all over again - about hundred million times over.

Ironically, the process of natural selection generally favours the resilient and most adaptable. Therefore, it is intriguing to think about who will survive in the event of a sudden collapse of the global human population. Will it be those who are physically strong, those with the best immune systems, or will it be the most intelligent or educated, or the More resourceful, and adaptable, or a combination of the above?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What is Trinity today?

"The last charge goes thundering, Towards the twilight goal..."

Address to the Trinity College Assembly on 21st June 2010 on behalf of the Batch of 2000 to mark our 10-year reunion

The Principal, Vice Principal, members of staff, Batch mates and fellow Trinitians:

My name is Harendra Alwis and I am here with my classmates from the batch of 2000.

We are sincerely thankful to the Principal for giving us the opportunity to be here with you and consider it an honour to speak on behalf of my batch mates today.

Ten years ago, Trinity was more than a memory to us, and today, it is a great privilege to be able to come back to school after a decade since we last wore the white uniforms and sat at assembly like you do now.

We are all delighted to be here. Though only a few of us are here in person, many are here in spirit.

On a day like today ten years ago, Trinity - led by David Luchow, had won the first leg of the Bradby; 32 points to 25, in a thrilling game at the Sugathadasa Stadium. It is surpassed in my memory only by the game we witnessed just over a week ago. Perhaps it was the sweetest coincidence; that both games started off with Trinity scoring within the first two minutes in almost identical three-quarter moves. Despite the seven point margin we had created on the 18th of June ten years ago, it took two brave and unforgettable penalties from the boot of Thisal Jayawardena our full-back – including one from the edge of the 40 meter line in the dying minutes of the second leg at Bogambara - for us to retain the shield that year.

The fate of this year’s battle, its heroes and the unforgettable moments that some of you may recall ten years from now, are still waiting to be etched on the sands of history. We wish you well.

Today I would like to place one question in front of you. Just one question... perhaps a challenge. Much like the result of the Bradby Shield of 2000, what Trinity has been in the past is already known and analysed in great detail. The question I place in front of you is; “What is Trinity today”? Like the result of the Bradby Shield of 2010, the answer to that question will be shaped by the results of our actions, and decisions we take in our lifetimes. What matters is the present moment, where the hopes and dreams of tomorrow are ground into the fine sands of time. It is the slate on which our history is being written. The achievements we look back on will not merely be shaped by the aspirations we have today, but rather the accumulated results of what we say and do in the present moment.

It was more than twenty four years ago, that I and my colleagues of the batch of 2000 walked into Trinity for the first time, with fourteen years’ worth of lessons to be shared in front of us. The friends we found during that time remain the most treasured and trusted even now. Fourteen long years would pass by, where we would survive bone-breaking tackles at Pallekele, scorching bouncers at Asgiriya and the terrible food at Candy Corner!

The last six or seven years in school were perhaps the most memorable for us, not because they were the most recent, but because they were the best. It was those few years at Trinity which opened our eyes to the realities of life, our minds to the richness of the world, our shoulders to responsibility and our hearts to love.

Looking back at the decade that has passed since, our presence here today bears testimony that our Trinity education did not end when we left school. In fact, it was years later that we really understood most of the lessons learned here at Trinity. Let me give you one example. Whenever we wanted to meet the vice-principal at the time, Mr Paul Jeyaraj, we had the habit of peering into his office to see whether he was free and if he was, we would knock on his door to speak to him. This was an experience which often turned out to be what we jokingly called “Marking the register at the zoo” because the vice principal insisted that we 'monkeys' and 'donkeys' had better make a prior appointment if we wanted to see him. We never understood the reason then, because we often met him when we felt he wasn’t very busy. Yet by that he taught us not to take for granted, another person’s time let alone our own.

However, it is not just our attachment to such memories as well as the people and places associated with them that brought us back to our Alma Mater. As I mentioned earlier, the Trinity education does not end when we leave school, because we are all 'Trinitians' for life. That is our privilege and our burden. The way people get to know and experience Trinity depends on our ambassadorship.

The forefathers of Trinity in Colonial Ceylon, when they pioneered the teaching of Sinhala, Agriculture, Buddhism and Social Studies, were deeply aware of their mission to produce leaders who would be able to understand, deeply, the people they would eventually lead in a free and independent nation. They placed lasting reminders of their vision in legends they inspired and embedded their message into the Trinity they built – most overtly in the College Chapel and monuments such as the Asgiriya Stadium. I would like to invite you to meditate with me, about the murals on the eastern walls of the Chapel.

The story of the Good Samaritan epitomizes the spirit of service and care for fellow men. Trinitians are inspired to be compassionate and selfless in the service of leadership.

Those of us, who are most familiar with the bearded depiction of Christ in western art, would be moved at first glance to search for Jesus in the ‘Washing of the feet’. Here the artist highlights an act of leadership that is made extraordinary by its humility where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. David Paynter invites us to identify Christ in that mural, not by his looks, but rather by his actions. So it is that the world should recognize us as Trinitians, not by the colours of our flag, the jersey, tie or blazer we wear, but by the way we act and behave.

The third mural of Christ’s crucifixion gives emphasises the fact that leaders are called above all, to sacrifice, even suffering and painful hardship.

If you look around you, such qualities of leadership, the spirit of service, humility and sacrifice are rare characteristics among those who assume leadership in our community and in the world.

Trinity has produced a great variety of leaders in the past. The mantle of responsibility to rediscover and renew the vision of leadership that has made this institution a beacon of light for Sri Lankans, and indeed the world, is upon us today. This place and moment of history that we occupy, often tempts us to think about positions of leadership in terms of the power and prestige they offer us. The founders of Trinity had a more timeless and enduring image of leadership for us implanted in the painting in the side Chapel instead. The first of David Paynter’s murals in our chapel, it captures the moment when the mother of James and John – two of Jesus’ disciples – came to plead with Jesus, to let her two sons sit at his right hand and left hand when in heaven. Jesus asks in return “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink?”

As Trinitians, we too are privileged enough to aspire for high status. Perhaps we are not all consumed by a desire to sit beside God in heaven, but many of you will sit at executive boardrooms and even the legislature of the country and governing bodies in the country and of the world. The question posed to us is whether we are ready to bear the great responsibility that comes with great power and to endure the hardships, trials and tribulations that are associated with honest and forthright leadership. Having seen more of the world during the last ten years, I can reliably warn you how you would often be tempted, to wilfully ignore your responsibility to lead with courage or fail to defend the ideals that Trinity would have taught us; and how many times we would yield to such temptations and forgo that responsibility in fear that we may lose your entitlements to convenience, comfort and safety.

You, the Trinitians of today, and us, the Trinitians of ten years ago, and a generation in between have grown up knowing mostly the violence of war and the rule of brutality and might. We are already disadvantaged for having been conditioned to take the violence, hostility and the rule of might in our society for granted as facts of life. It is against such a backdrop that you and I are called to lead, inspired by the vision that the founders of the school had for us. They portrayed their vision of the Trinitian not merely from the palette of their manifestly Christian ethos but the universal values of selfless service, humility and sacrifice.

It seems the expectations that we have of ourselves today - such as passing exams, winning the Bradby or earning a comfortable living, seem too modest sometimes. We need our own expectations of ourselves and the expectations others have of us, to be higher and more substantial. We also need to learn to use those high expectations to inspire us to greater things rather than consider them a burden.

The challenge before the Trinity Family today is; to understand that it is not enough that we win the Bradby Shield or the big match, but also to know that no matter where we go or what we do, we are representing one of the greatest institutions in the land and indeed of the world. Being a Trinitian is an obligation to uphold the spirit of Trinity and of your families and everything else you represent, with courage and honour.

Sitting as you do in the College hall, or when you are wearing the jerseys at Pallekelle or whites at Asgiriya captured in the glory of the moment, you may not realise that this is only the beginning. Your time at Trinity; even though it may be by far the most memorable and enriching, is the first of many great journeys and memorable times that await you in life. The significance of the results of a game or the achievements of a season will eventually fade over time. The way the lessons you learn at Trinity mould your character will last your individual lifetimes. However, the glory you bring to the school by your conduct and show of character in difficult times both during your student days and thereafter, will inspire many generations.

So Trinity, in our generations and our lifetimes, will eventually be defined by the purpose of our actions, the wisdom of our decisions and the integrity of our lives. Wherever you go in the country and in the world, the fact that you are a Trinitian will open more opportunities for you, and make you partakers of privilege, authority and responsibilities of leadership and high office. As such, we will not merely be the heirs of the future, but as part of its workforce, priests, artists, journalists, as voting citizens and leaders of a country and of the world, we will actively shape the future of nations, the destiny of humanity, the conservation of forests, the preservation of species, the course of rivers and even sea level.

I invite you to consider the answer to my question “What is Trinity today?” in light of how you and I will make manifest Trinity in the world and future we are called to lead. Trinity of yesterday belonged to those who have passed before us and the Trinity of tomorrow belongs to those who are yet to come. Today, Trinity is you and me. David Paynter’s masterpieces on the cold and motionless granite walls of our Chapel, speak to us compellingly through the ages, in a timeless and wordless language, about what Trinitians ought to be. Yet today, you and I are called to living paintings of the mission and values of Trinity in the world we inhabit, and are called to lead.

Ten years on, as we remember and celebrate how Trinity has enriched our lives, we of the batch of 2000 share a hope and a fervent wish that the greatness of our school may not be measured by what we achieve in a season, or in a year, but in how well we mould the leaders of each generation and how well we lead our nation and the world by example. We need to have the humility and courage to ask ourselves, without fear of what the answer might be, whether we are still able to inspire the new generations and provide opportunities for them to be the best they can be. We need to remember to set our goals high, and make sure that our vision is clear and our will is strong, to serve with humility.

Respice Finem!

Thank you all very much.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Home is where the heart is

Glimpse, originally uploaded by halwis.
Melbourne, Australia (20th May) - My sleepy eyes have outdone the conscientious alarm by thirty minutes. I lie awake grudgingly, because sleep would elude me for at least another 24 hours. Emboldened by a hot shower, I am over confident about my ability to forego the mandated quota of sleep. While going through a mental checklist of what I have packed, I sense a hint of nostalgia when I accidentally catch a glimpse outside my bedroom window, of two garden recliners in an overgrown backyard. I feel compelled to frame the sight with my camera and end up snapping a few shots of my books including one that still loiters on my table – kept out of the shelves because of its enticing epilogue which I had read many times over even though I had finished reading the book the previous week.

The ride to the airport with Suraj (on board faithful old ‘Berta’) is held up by a pile-up on the freeway. I realise we’ve come too far to get to an alternate route and it makes me a bit nervous for not having allowed much time for the unexpected. The delay means however that I waste no time loitering in the Duty-Free shops or wondering about impatiently for a boarding call. I secretly commend a nameless security officer at the emigration counter whose act and candid talk hides all implicit suspicions of any terrorist inclinations I may have. While subjecting me to my first ever body check in Australia in nearly seven years, he asks me where my destination is and perhaps having read my thoughts, tries to console me with the suggestion that I would have enough time to rest and sleep during the flight. I tell him in all honesty, that I like flying too much, to waste that time on sleep. Perhaps he cared enough to know.

I had diligently reserved a window seat to enjoy the sights, of mountain bridges that link the flat Earth to lofty clouds and giant vessels crawling feebly but unintimidated, across the vastness of the sea. Even though I fly more often now, The wonder of human flight and the sights it afford have not yet lost their ability to delight me.

I descend on an escalator to the departure lounge and come face to face with the behemoth that would part the clouds to take me over arid desert, oceans, rivers and rain forests, dwarfed mountain peaks and scenic valleys, on my way to a place I long to see. Sparing only a few minutes to snap a few shots of the aircraft which is has not yet dislodged itself from my imagination of the future to become part of the present reality. The years have gone by too fast and there is so much left for me to learn to believe - just to catch up to the present moment.

I notice slanted markings on the tarmac spelling out “Home”. As I take my seat on the upper deck, the usual expectations and thrill associated with ‘going home’ evades me even in my attempts to will it into being. ‘Home’ is a name of a place I find increasingly difficult to recognise or define anymore. I don’t know whether I am leaving home or going home. It seems I am leaving home to go home because I no longer have a single place I can naively call ‘home’. There is not one place where I can swear my allegiance to without forsaking another or a narrow patriotism that I can focus on one place that falls within any given set of lines on a political map of the world.

I am yet to set out on the long and arduous journey both intellectually and also in terms of worldly experience, to be able to present my credentials as a citizen of the world. My worldview is not broad or tempered by many travels, but it has pierced the shell that defined me in terms of where I live. Perhaps I am simply a nomad whose sojourns have uprooted the concept of ‘home’ in his conscience.

I buckle in my seat belt and leave aside the book in my hand to try and define this journey in terms of my attachments to the place and dependence on the people at my destination, or for that matter, those that I am temporarily leaving behind.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

1. Thinking Analog in a Digital World

Fallen stars

Our digital world

We live in a digital world of our making. The pictures we see on billboards and on TV, the music we listen to, the whispers we exchange on mobile phones and the letters and words on newspapers and books we read, have at some point, been reduced to a series of on-off bits to be stored on an iPod, designed, edited and published on the Internet or to be transmitted over great distances. As we spend time in front of our TVs and computers and increasingly rely on mobile phones and social networking applications to interact with our family and friends, a significant portion of our information consumption and exchange has essentially become and exchange of abstract 'bits' of 'on' and 'off' signals representing hypothetical 'ones' and 'zeros'. Of course most of us still do talk to people face to face and can find more delight in watching the sunset on a beach. However, sound waves are made up of discrete molecules and light is made up of individual photons, which - theoretically at least - makes them digital experiences too, but that's for a later discourse.

It is the advent of computers that is widely considered to have triggered our rapid drift into the digital realm. Machines are credited - not unjustly, but rather inaccurately - for starting the 'digital revolution'. However, early in the 17th century, Francis Bacon realised that letters of the alphabet could be reduced to sequences of binary digits. Long before that, the Indian writer Pingala developed advanced binary mathematical concepts to describe prosody (poems). Binary logic as we know it today, is in many ways a tool that could not only simplify and encode numbers but distill even the most complex of our thoughts. We can take it for granted once we are familiar with how high definition video and true surround sound can confuse our senses about what's real and what's not, to enhance our experience of a movie in a deep, rather emotional level. Yet it would have taken a powerful mind for Pingala to realise how complex expressions of thought such as poetry can be encoded and derived almost mathematically using no more than two digits, in an age where there weren’t any powerful computers that could execute or demonstrate his thesis.

The equipment and technology that digitises our creative expressions and words today are based on the much older discovery of binary mathematics. The idea that any number can be represented as a sequence of one or more digits would have been apparent to ancient shepherds, but a systematic counting and arithmetic based on two digits is believed to have been first discovered by Indian mathematicians in the second century BC. It was a pioneering step in a quest spanning close to a million years; to find a deeper underlying order and logic in binary numbers. But I would like to invite you on a journey now, to decipher the more profound and mysterious duality underlying our understanding of the universe.

It is a quest that was born out of the first conscious human thought and continues to this day. Binary mathematics is the primary enabler of the present digital information and communication systems, but it is not merely the language of our machines. Our minds are also binary machines at a very fundamental level. The digital revolution was not a result of the advent of computers, but rather its cause and enabling force. The digital nature of our thoughts not only made the invention of digital machines possible, but a part of the logical evolution of our conscience - made significant by the fact that they are the first primitive examples of tools with which we have externalised our own conscience. The digital revolution actually started when we began to think... when we became sentient beings. It has merely made itself more visible as an extension of our conscience by taking the form of computers, iPods and LED TVs.

Surely, we must be a lot different from computers? Surprising though it may sound, the digital revolution precedes the invention of the computer and binary mathematics. Its origins lie buried in a time far more ancient than Pingala’s delightful insights. It started at the very dawn of human intelligence, when we first learned logic and reason; in a time immemorial. 'Yes' and 'no', 'true' and 'false', 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong' - though contradictory in meaning, can only be understood as the opposite or the absence of the other because the bipolarity of our thoughts and logic is also intimately woven into our vocabulary. It is not a coincidence that these would be the first words we need to understand, when we begin to learn a new language.

Vestiges of the binary origins of our thoughts and reasoning becomes even more conspicuous if we can tune ourselves to notice an underlying duality in the way we try to understand and describe the world and our thoughts and experiences of it. The most fundamental of our perceptions and beliefs are based on juxtapositions of opposite ideas. For example, we appreciate light, relative to our experience of darkness; we revel most in happiness, when we have languished in the depths of sadness. We take for granted that what is beautiful cannot be hideous; that a good person cannot do bad things, because we are wired in our brains to treat each perceptive thought, each idea and judgement as mutually exclusive of its opposite. It seems not only the most complex of our belief systems and emotions, but our basic logic and reasoning which forms the basis of knowledge, is hinged on a set of imperceptible dualities that is made bare in our vocabulary.

This duality in the way we think and the way we form our opinions is naturally reflected in the way we reason. It is still a useful cognitive tool that has formed the foundation of our logic, mathematics and science. In this way, the present digital age can trace its evolution through the strands of primeval logic that enabled the earliest human self conscience that we can still relate to our origins. Perhaps we are still infants in the long path to truly enlightened thought and reasoning, suckling on the first conscious human thought, clinging to the moment when human reasoning and intelligence was born - if ever there was such a moment. Perhaps there is a 'digital' grain in our very make up - to which our collective conscience is just waking up to?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The (beautiful) limits of being human


We human beings are remarkable in our ability to empathise and therefore to comprehend the inner thoughts and feelings of another without self experience. It suffices that one remembers how it feels to be sad or happy, to be able to share in the sadness or happiness of another. Even without memory or self experience, we have an amazing ability to imagine and therefore approach an understanding of the innermost feelings and emotions of another person.

And yet, precisely because of these wonderful gifts of empathy, memory and imagination, we will never truly understand each other; because no two memories are alike and imagination is no closer to reality than empathy is. What we are able to discover anew about each other will therefore be confined by the narrow boundaries of what we already know and the relative differences in how each of us have experienced life.

However, it is only when we are able to acknowledge the limitations of our understanding, that our hearts can be lifted from the murky waters of vanity and pride. And only love can make us abandon the safety of what we already know, and gives us the courage to venture into the knowable unknown; to be vulnerable. It is only when our hearts are lifted out of the safety of the amniotic fluid of preconception and prejudice, that we are able to see and understand another for who they are. It is through love therefore, that we strive for ever deeper and more intimate understanding of one-another. It is only through humility - that love is able to unravel our hearts, so that the spirit can roam free; to venture in search of deeper appreciation and truer discovery of ourselves, of our loved ones, and of the beauty and mystery of the world around us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Words

Sand and Palm

When I tell you that ‘I love you’, I will be sharing with you, in words, a fragment of my soul.

I want you to know that these three words are not merely a plot born out of my desire to drown with those words, in a vivacious smile in your eyes… or to laze in your tender embrace; even though I am not completely without such selfish desires. The treasure I am seeking whispers to me from within the quickening rhythms of your heartstrings… revealed in the lightness in your step and the pitch of your voice. It is a reminder of the shrill and shiver I feel, when my lips touch yours or when I hear the sound of your laughter...or when I breathe in your long, soft, cascading waves.

It means I want to climb mountains and paddle down the rivers with you... and to sing guitar-songs and camp out under the stars. It means I want to write songs for you and compose the sweetest tunes and sing them to you... sing only for you – all the songs I could ever sing. It means I need to dance with you on luscious, blue, wet grass beside the setting sun, and hold your hand as we pray in the flickering candle light before we go to sleep at night.

I say those words because you are the creator of my dreams, not its creation. For love would not dock your heart to mine, or mine to yours, but rather set our hearts free… to love… to give with generosity and take without misgiving... a love that is neither a restraint nor a burden but one that will be our wings when we soar high and a pair of gills when we dive deep.

‘I love you’. I know not any other phrase that could describe how I would like to draw a portrait of you after the years have wrinkled our skin and turned our hair white. They are three over used words, ever struggling to preserve their meaning, yet they hold within them like no other words can; the hope that my passion and impatient desire for your love will be greater than my fear of the agony I would feel if you choose to withhold it from me. I feel their inadequacy because I will need more than words to steal your heart, everyday, for the rest of our lives.

Sometimes our quarrels may be fierce, but when I tell you that ‘I love you’ it means that I respect and admire your wisdom. It is a promise that I will seek to understand and not judge, to stand by you before I question and to trust you enough to be truthful. Because, when I tell you that ‘I love you’, it is a promise that our love will always be unconditional. Yet it is also an acknowledgement of the fallibility of its human vessel, my heart; which may falter in its sacred commission to express in its depth, or personify in its true sublimity, the devotion that love inspires.

The day is yet nestled among the folds of unseen, unknowable tomorrows, and the time lies buried within the sands of life’s unfolding mysteries that trickle through the narrow, ever present moment; when I shall blow these words into the winds, scattering the delightful secret that I have treasured for so long. For that day, I have much to prepare, as I wait for time to reveal your secrets to me and find out what you mean when you tell me, you love me too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A walk with the soul

Soft landing

A couple of weeks before the finals of my second year in ‘tertiary education’, I was feeling a bit worried, not so much about the exams themselves but about the holidays that would follow! This would seem very eccentric on the outset, but the cause of all the confusion was about what I was supposed to do with nearly six months of holidays! It was then that the idea crossed my mind that maybe I should start off by making a decent effort to get my life back in order again and what better way to do it than to try the ancient art of meditation! My parents were thrilled about the idea and so too was my friend Miron who was delighted to join in. We had grown up in a society which boasts of a 2500 year ancestry and the culture we inherited by birth in this land is both ancient and rich. The traditions and practices of this society have been almost entirely carved out by the chisel of Buddhist philosophy. While being Catholics by faith, this was never going to be a totally novel experience for us, because the practice of meditation has always been a component of our culture, though a relatively neglected one in recent times. We made plans about the trip soon after our exams and it did not take long to set it all motion.

I had decided to make the trip by bus, but the unexpected sight of Miron’s jeep under my porch brought a sense of relief mixed with a feeling of depravation, because I did not expect to start off on a luxurious note. That is because my mother had been trying her best to test how serious I was about meditation, with monstrous descriptions of the ‘very basic’ facilities at the meditation center and the vegetarian meals there. This is why I felt that any craving for the luxuries right at the beginning could weaken our resolve. But I also knew that Miron has been travelling for over three hours from the sandy beaches of Negombo, so the suggestion to take a one and a half hour rickety old bus ride with all the heavy luggage wouldn’t be music in his ears. We decided to stop for lunch on our way and loaded our bags with a few soft-drink cans, biscuit packs and chocolates; ‘just in case the food isn’t great there’.

The road to peace stretched tightly around the Hantata Mountains with twists and turns that traced the contours of the slope it hugged and disappeared around the edge of a hill in the distant horizon. Small waterways peeped through tunnels underneath the narrow road and nourished the majestic waters of the Mahaweli River that flowed right beside the mountains like the veil of a bride drifting along the isle. The great Hantata Mountain range forms a formidable south-western wall, where Kandy the ancient hill capital of Sri Lanka rests peacefully at its foot, secured on one side from the mountains and the great river flowing right around it. The mountains are mostly covered in velvet grass with spots of pine forests and tea estates cascading down from the crests. Concealed on its far side nested on a steep rise above the tea estates of Nilambe – a remote village between Kandy and Galaha - is a small cloister where many ‘souls’ from all over the world come in search of inner peace and spiritual light.

We had passed the beautifully landscaped campus of the University of Peradeniya and travelled about five miles when a small yellow notice by the left side of the road proclaimed in black lettering that “Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Center” was a further two miles up the mountain. It gave prominence to a small byroad that would otherwise have easily scrambled up to the mountain unnoticed. The extra climb which only the four-wheel-drive could have managed so easily took us to the cloister, where we had come to spend two days to meditate and discover ourselves.

We were welcomed by Priyantha at the ‘office’ with a sincere smile. The way he spoke and the very few gestures he made reflected a deep and mysterious sense of control and a powerful personality. After we had registered our names we were briefed about the daily routine that is followed by the ‘inhabitants’ and we descended to our rooms along a flight of paved stone steps with a few booklets on meditation, pillows and blankets in hand. My mother was right about the ‘basic facilities’ but nothing actually seemed as horrific as the picture she had been able to paint in my mind. The tiny room I occupied was just wide enough to contain the bed and a small side cupboard. A luggage rack was fastened to the wall above the bed. Despite the limited space and basic furniture it was clean, comfortable and warm. My chamber was by no means a luxury suite; there was no cable TV or even any electricity but it was good enough to make me consider even extending my stay later on.

We had made our entry at about one o’clock; during the lunch break which extends till 2.30 pm to allow time for the inhabitants to read and rest. But then, we were in a different time zone altogether because the time there was read half an hour late or ‘the real time’ as they called it. The library had volumes covering many interesting topics where subjects such as Yoga, meditation and Buddhism were heavily featured. But my attention focused on a book titled “Absolute Truth - The Catholic Church in the world today” by Edward Stourton to which I returned at almost every possible break I got, during the two days that followed.

We were invited to join the group meditation session that was to start at 2.30 pm and we made use of the time at hand to get our rooms in order and get used to the environment. The first thing I noticed was how very silent the surroundings were. It occurred to me that there is so much noise around us city-dwellers sometimes and our ears feed on it like vultures feed on rotting carcasses that we have grown to almost fear the power of silence. The steady breeze was soft and cool enough for the warmth of the sunrays that beamed down through the clouds to stir a magical sensation of delight. I do remember pinching myself a couple of times in disbelief that I was actually doing this and asking my self “what am I doing here?” But I knew I was there for a purpose, if not anything else, at least on a mission of adventure!

Peace and serenity was not what I was looking for; in fact I was looking for just the opposite. I had gotten used to a lifestyle that I preferred to describe as rather laid back and relaxed, even though most others would have called it ‘lazy’ and boring. I was fond of postponing things and indiscipline had grown into my days and ways like a cancer; for which I was now desperately searching for a cure. So I actually came to speed up my life, ‘rev it up and to shift on to a faster lane’. During the past year or so, I had gradually cut myself off from the world and drifted into seclusion and I had often happily proclaimed to have ‘crawled back to my own small corner of the world’. Now I wanted to come back out again and make the most of the days that were drifting by; idle and often quite empty. I wanted to spend meaningful time with those people who meant a lot to me – my family and friends and ‘to live each day to the max’ without being constantly distracted by things that are beyond my realm of control and influence.

We progressed through the first meditation session without much of a clue as to what we were doing or should do. But it gradually came to us and the booklets we got as well as some meaningful discussions with the teachers about the purpose of meditation and the common problems encountered by novices like ourselves enabled us to gain a deeper appreciation of what we were doing. Probably the toughest task for me on the first day was to get up early morning at 4.45 am (Nilambe time!).

The atmosphere was most conducive to meditation with perfect silence maintained throughout the day except for half an hour from 4.00 pm to 4.30 pm each day (except on poya days) during which time ‘practices of proper speech’ were cultivated. The group meditation sessions also were a great source of motivation for us to constantly engage ourselves in quiet thought. The long hall with its matting floor and low roof had a cushioned concrete platform around it attached to the walls where we sat during meditation. We were also encouraged to break the routine at intervals to shift to ‘standing’ and ‘walking’ forms of meditation. Here the objective was to focus the mind and guide it through the being of our physical body from the crest of the head to the toes while paying detailed attention to all the organs of our physical being. This coupled with Yoga exercises early in the morning and at dusk enhanced my ‘awareness’ of some muscles and joints in my body that I never knew existed! I paid equal attention also to explore my mind and what I found really amazed me! Yet it is not difficult to imagine that I could have made these discoveries at any point of my life without the aid of ‘meditation’ or ever going to a meditation center. But in practice Nilambe offers the ideal atmosphere and motivation for any individual to engage in reflective thought with proper guidance sans the distractions and deterrents of our day-to-day attachments and activities.

During all these times, one chief cause of distraction for us though was the food. Good food was something I knew I couldn’t live without, and knowing how I peck and choose at mealtimes, my mother had given alarming warnings beforehand. A vegetarian diet wouldn’t pose much of a problem, but how am I to digest rice without the usual dhal curry? These fears were short lived. Even though the fashion was to ‘go light’ on dinner, the ‘mung-eta-kiribath’ with roasted peanuts and the fresh fruits that adorned the table regularly was simply ‘out of this world’!

The one thing which attached me to the hills of Nilambe above all else was the stunning scenery; the beauty of which I could not fully absorb despite climbing up the leach infested mountain several times or now personify in your imagination through mere words. The cloudy skies never allowed us the luxury of witnessing the legendary sunset from the mountainside during our stay there and the leaches which attached to our feet in dozens with every step we took, did not allow for too long a stay on any of our excursions. The large pond that was nestled between two hills and the grassland and the forest that merged at its banks created a sight that I had only seen in picture postcards before. Ice-cold water from the pond rushes through the taps and the showers offer a most soothing bath to the courageous souls who dare step in under them. It is almost like I can still hear the sound of the soft bustling of tall grass wavering in the breeze calling me to climb into the bosom of the great mountain and enjoy the blissful and soothing views it has to offer.

The chanting of ‘pansil’ or the ‘five precepts’ is a Buddhist tradition that is still widely practiced in Sri Lanka and at Nilambe it is done just after sunset. The hall which was lit entirely with candles and lamps that were placed on the floor and the chanting which echoed within a range of only a few semitones attracted my attention like the light of the oil lamps attracted insects. The combination of these elements created an atmosphere of both mystery and enchantment. Even though I was unable to actively participate it was probably as beautiful a sight for me as much as it was a meaningful spiritual exercise for those who took part.

The group discussion in the hall after dinner opened up a forum where all of us could share our experience and thoughts, and it was a very insightful practice as it gave all inhabitants most of whom were outlanders, the chance to understand the different circumstances that had brought us there.

Meditation is not a practice that can be confined to the practice of quiet contemplation in isolated surroundings. On the contrary, it is something that can be incorporated in our daily lives and at all times. ‘Working meditation’ sessions in the morning was a good opportunity to ‘put theory into practice’ where we would attempt to engage in some sort of activity such as washing, cleaning or rearranging with a deeper sense of awareness than we usually do. And as with all other ambitions in life, here too success is buried under countless layers of failure. The effort could be made collectively as a group or as individuals, but the emphasis is not on ‘achievement’ but on ‘attempt’.

Even though we considered staying on for a third day, we decided to leave having spent exactly two days at the meditation center. This was not so much a difficult decision because we were sure that we had fulfilled the purpose of our endeavour. I was sure that as an individual, I had taken a successful first step on a journey that may last forever. Though it was a fact that I hadn’t changed much noticeably within those two days, the essence of all the changes that took place during that time had taken root within me. I found out that both Miron and I had a somewhat altered outlook to life, where life itself had more purpose and verve in it.

I am sometimes surprised how the experience I had at Nilambe has been so productive for me, even though I had chosen the path of meditation for reasons that are opposite to those of most others who make the same choice of path. Among the lessons I learned was that there are no instant cures for any of the real problems in life. Meditation is no magic spell that can give you superhuman powers, but a tool that anyone can and indeed should use to strengthen their human powers – of courage and determination. It is a path that stretches through the jungles of introspection and one that leads you to your own heart – but also to the hidden regions of it that you have not yet discovered. I am mostly amazed about how much I managed to ‘get done’ in just two days of introspective contemplation, where I was free to run about and play with my mind like a child, to sing and dance with my consciousness and to take a quiet walk with my soul in the garden of awareness.

Originally published in The Sunday Times Plus sometime in August 2003... I think.