Looking down on it all from 30 000 feet
A few days ago I found myself in a bar called Chez Vous. Chez Vous is run by Belgian Korean adoptees in Itaewon - the international district of Seoul. It used to offer massages in the daytime and be a bar at night. Now it is a just a bar. I guess the owner got worried that the place might be seen in the wrong light. It did not help matters that the massage therapists kept disappearing and stealing the clients as they went.
I went by the place on Korea's big national thanksgiving holiday (Chuseok) and I got talking to a contemporary dancer from Minnesota. The dancer also happened to be a Korean adoptee whom had been raised overseas. I had planned to go that way to check out the Itaewon fesitval, but I discovered the festival was not happening. So I dropped by Chez Vous to say hi to Sebastian from Belgium and I ended up talking a few hours about the subject of identity with the dancer.
Chez Vous was closed that day and was holding a private party for friends; and all the friends happened to be adoptees....adoptees from France, Belgium and Canada and America. All seemed to be looking for some kind of other home in Korea. Korea pulled them there with its alluring mystery and dispenced many a frustration, as well as lots of unexpected questions and answers.
I spent my first 18 years on and off in England. I then moved to South America for a year. Then, it was to Los Angeles, which I called home for much of my twenties. Along the winding path, l have lived in Aberdeen, Scotland for a summer, and that was sandwiched between a spring and winter on a houseboat on the river Thames. More recently I have been living in Paris, the Czech Republic, Spain and Korea. Last year, I spent a month in India.
I am writing this from 30 000 feet - or whatever is the cruising altitude of a modern jet plane trying to make its way somewhere. I am en route to Singapore to visit a person I dreamed about lately....and then I will be travelling on to Chennai, India. Life is quite extraordinary. A wise teacher used to ask me if we ask our finger nails to grow. It was his way of pointing out that not all forces in life are immediately apparent...some sit under the surface, like buried treasure waiting to be discovered. I listen to dreams very carefully. This one had a special resonance. Hence my trip to Singapore.
I am leaving Korea after almost a year there. It is one of the most homogenous societies I have ever lived in and one of the most small-minded and racist. There are many rigid rules in Korea - rules born of an archaic Confucianism that seems to have a firm grip on the Korean mind. Slowly change is coming about.
A few years ago Korea was poor and the country worked damned hard to be where it is today. In general, I found Koreans cunning, (yet there were plenty of wonderful exceptions too). I do not know if they are more argumentative than other cultures. They eat almost everything with hot spices and they drink more alcohol per head than pretty much every other nation; maybe that explains the hot tempers.
Technologically, Korea is second to none really. The subway system is immaculate and the buses are on time and clean.
It is hard not to offend people when you speak in generalities. That does not mean that generalities do not have a certain value. Parisians have a reputation for being rude and arrogant to visitors...Some Indians seem to be quite wary of doing business transactions with other Indians often, whilst they are quite comfortable working with westerners. My friend joked that it was because they get to see themselves when working with another Indian. "It is like looking in the mirror" he said, "what is seen is not always pleasant." All of this may be worthy of bearing in mind...but it should also be remembered that humans are human beings and fear and love are universal possibilities.
We all have a dark side and nations are no different. I try to focus on the positive and look beyond the past and appearances. Even so, suffering fools gladly is not a recipe for happiness in a dysfunctional world.
I have never been comfortable with cliques and never impressed by any brand of nationalism...even Gandhi's brand of nationalism that made an honored place for the rest of the world...leaves me unsettled. Remember the childhood quarrel in the playground where young boys threaten each other with their fathers: "My father could easily take out your father." I have a healthy distaste for group mentalities, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant they might seem.
From soccer hooligans to royal families, the politics of specialness concerns me ...no matter how enticing specialness might seem, it always has an ugly flip side. It is isolating by nature and breeds prejudice.
Differences are not always easy to overlook though. I found eating with Koreans quite difficult. Koreans eat their food with their mouth wide open, which is a tough thing to get used to when you were raised to see such behavior as the height of bad manners. In the Far east, the idea is that by loud open-mouthed chomping you get more flavor from your food.
I remember a renowned teacher once commented that more often than not the greatest teacher comes from our own cultural background and on many levels it makes sense.
I do not mean the kind of "teacher" who challenges you to be more patient and more tolerant. Such a "teacher" can be a sloppy room-mate, an annoying co-worker or a trying family member or some cross-cultural challenges that circumstances force you to face . Such people and circumstances have their place in all our lives.
Here, however,I am speaking specifically of people who challenge us to come upon our essence...who point to new perspectives and share significant questions.
I remember at the age of seventeen I took a boat to Belfast with a friend of mine. I was embarking on a European tour. In Belfast there was another friend. This guy had an inquiring mind. It was a catalyst for my own.
Somehow my schooling had never really served up the kind of mind that I really resonated with. I spent much of my childhood alone in the woods collecting leaves and watching birds.
I played on the school hockey team, debated on the debating society, thrived in the science labs, mused in english classes and awkwardly made my way through the french classes. I felt very happy in the art room. My enthusiasm for melody was muted by the stale approach of the music teacher. I was very interested in the Religious Education we received and pondered often the insane history that it pointed to (everyone else just seemed intent on preying on the vulnerabilities of the tender Irish man who taught the class).
I dreamed of going places beyond the stuffy four walls and unfeeling assignments in geography. Math was symmetrical and aloof....but none of all this served me any synthesis. I needed some mystical glue to stick it all together.
I remember arriving at the quay in Belfast. stayed there a couple of days. Belfast is full of stories of conflict and my friend knew them well. He knew about the troubles, about the way people spoke about things or did not speak about things. He knew about the way people wore their clothes and who wore what clothes and how they gestured.. and what it all meant. To hear him talk about this bruised microcosm of the world which he had tried to fathom...I felt like I had met a mind that reached for answers that traced important issues to their roots.
Few of us realise how much violence and pain lies knarled and twisted under the surface. My friend identified it in Belfast and in human nature as a whole. I battled with it myself in the trials I went through with my family and as I came of age in an angry world.
I wanted to go to India. I wanted to go to Tibet. I wanted to go to Nepal. I wanted to know where we came from, where we were going, what was at the heart of life. Somehow distant kingdoms figured in the search before me. I could not explain precisely why.
Physics and chemistry, for all their genius had not the same intensity of allure as biology did. Biology means the study of life processes. I was never comfortable with labels. I had read a wonderful physicist who had turned his mind to biology. I warmed to his bright mind...he could roam across boundaries others feared to cross. He was not limited by conventions and so his work was highly original.
In my own case, I recognized that I could breathe air, I could follow the whale...I could empathise with all of that....but the star that twinkled so far away and the atom that fused it all, seemed so out of reach...marvelous, yes.... yet they did not captivate me like a seabird or a fern.
I was a born poet. A poet who trusted science, but a poet who wanted answers, who roamed easily.
I remember once in the Pacific Ocean I was working on a Whale Research boat. I was barely 18 years old. My head was full of questions. And a young marine biology major with whom I was working turned to me and said, "Nathan, you ask too many questions. You would do better if you gave brain a rest." I lost something I had once thought to be quite precious at that point. I have never regained it.
I lost my feeling that science had all the answers. Perhaps, Vance (the student) was right on one level. My brain needed a rest. But he was dead wrong about the questions. We do not ask enough. Certainly not enough of the right questions and pursue them to their logical end.
I was still consumed by a journey to track down my identity. I think we all do it. Yet we do it with varying degrees of passion and with varying degrees of seriousness. My friends veered off and headed for Budapest while I headed north ... then further north. I travelled across Germany in a day. I traversed Sweden into Norway. I went as far as the train would take me, then I hitchhiked to Hammerfest.
I believe it is the most northerly city in the world. There is a statue of the polar explorer Amundsun in the town square. There were reindeer walking nonchalantly in the street. The Lapplanders (Sami people) in their bright blue and red attire were engaged in their daily lives. I was a stranger in a world that was as foreign as the moon, and yet I felt at home. It was light almost all the time. It was the height of summer...
Somehow, I got back to Stockhom and took a plane to London Heathrow. I had ran out of money by then and had to hitchhike out of the terminal. I got several lifts...finallly ending up being delivered to my door by a very kind couple of London rogues who were going north.
I did not go to university. I did not go to India. I decided everyone went to India: everyone who wanted mystical answers from a journey. The East had that kind of draw on many westerners. I did not relish being typical and I was not sure whether I would get the best of what India could give me at such a young age....I thought South America would be more accessible and less overwhelming. I did not know what to dedicate myself to and so I put off university.
I knew that a good university education was fitting of my background and birth...but I saw no clear path ahead - everything interested me, nothing was off limits or out of the question. It seemed like the worst thing I could do was specialize. I needed a broad breadth of experience to satiate my appetite for life. I went out and found exactly that.
Yet, I could not see the wood for the trees. I could see the trees were complex...I could see the world was beset with problems - at least the part of the world that man participated in...and I wanted to find my place...but outside of an institution; at least for a while. Around that time my mother gave me a book by Lauree Lee..."As I walked out one midsummer morning." I took the hint....if it was a hint it was a subtle one...but I guess she could see what was coming and knew the poet in me would never stay in one place for long at that time.
I walked out one autumn morning...very, very early with a one-way ticket to the unknown.
I resolved to roam and to try and find some clues. I wrote to the British museum and asked if I might be able to volunteer for any zoologists in Ecuador....I took a job teaching English in the Andes....and figured it might lead somewhere...anywhere that wasn't here - that was all that mattered then. By the time that old travel friend was getting married almost ten years later....I myself had been married then divorced and still I had not found myself. However, I had picked up some insights along the way...from some very diverse - even disparate -relationships.
I have been a nomad for so long. I like it. But there is something spellbinding about coupling with another human being. If you don't get attached...love can enter.
My friend and I had crossed paths over the years - in America, in London, in my home town...and he was still a good friend. But I missed his wedding. A series of events in my life had let the cat out of the bag in my quest for meaning. The cat was heading for India and I dutifully followed.
I wrote to my friend and apologised. I remember he had given me prayer beads from Nepal once. He was someone who understood that strange drive in me that was not bothered about being identfied with a place or a job...but who saw the hypnotic allure of self-inquiry that quietly had me hooked.
We feel very comfortable around very good friends. They know what drives us. A good friend of mine has a similar drive. I remember walking with him around the ruins of Pompeii once. I saw this goddess. She had dark wavy hair. A dream of a woman. Red cotton dress, dark eyes, warm gypsy olive skin, graceful flowing movements. God she was beautiful. Like an appariton. I think we both saw her. Maybe he was not as captivated as I. But he could empathize with the exotic spell that I was under....and it did not stop with women. It knew nothing of the landscape of an unquestioned life.
My friend showed me Belfast. He showed me the Orange day parade, the cruel ironies of the city, the tough streetwise ways of the people, the way people walked, the way they spoke, the way it all weaved itself into a distinctive tapestry of identity and, in a couple days with him, I felt like a man without a history. I felt no kinship with Liverpool or Cheshire. I could say very little about them by comparison...though I liked the Liverpudlian sense of humor.
I fitted into no community, no church, no belief system. I felt inspired by nature and troubled by history. I could never be English. I have touched down in England over the years for a few days....after forays in hot California deserts and after weathering a cold winter in Eastern Europe, and I see how my body is celtic. It is attuned perfectly with the green, green grass of England. It is part of the rain and the leaves and the rivers of blood that go back centuries. Yet, I am not English.
At the bar in Seoul, the Korean American dancer talked about dancing....about how difficult it is to dance with a partner. How you must let go and let boundaries dissolve. She talked about how identity is a question that has captivated her her whole life. Raised as an Amercian, but always something other at the same time. And now as I travel through the dark night, above and through the clouds....I am reflecting on who I am. An Englishman who is not quite English, who is something other.
I discovered the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti when I was in my early twenties. He was not long dead. I heard him say "truth is a pathless land"...those words rose from the page and hit me between the eyes. He said that man lives in a nightmare world of images which he pastes together into identities... that the world is busy talking, talking, talking... but that very, very few actuallly communicate. I heard him say that identity was our downfall. And, like Colin, who once said to me on a glacier in Iceland. - "Nathan, you would hate the army, it is all about rules. Rules that have no meaning in your life." (I was musing about what army life might be like...)...what he said resonated and made sense.
Now I am going to India and I just read something Gandhi said - which I said to a customer in a bookshop I worked in in Paris a couple of years ago (I never knew Gandhi had said the same thing though back then). You see Gandhi was once asked: "What do you think of Western Civilisation?" and he replied "Well, I think it would be a good idea." In the bookshop, the question I was asked was a little different. Someone approached me, looking for a particular section in the shop: "I am looking for Western Civilisation." and I responded..."Me too. I have been looking all my life....but I have yet to find it."
What is it that seeks an identity? It seems to be something very significant - the search, I mean. It is a question that brought all those Korean adoptees to Korea, it is something that gave Colin such an amazing feeling for Belfast's history...something that takes me to India over my "brother's" wedding. It seems that the most passionate seekers of an identity...those that scratch beneath the surface of a clothing style or a shared musical taste....are propelled to go deep by a powerful, and sometimes subtle, underlying conflict.
Liverpool and the north-west of England might have produced the Beetles and been a gateway to the New World....but they were not the war zone that Belfast was. And I knew so little about the place that I had grown up in compared to Colin. Conflict drove him to question something that never even concerned me. He had a sense of place and a sense of history amongst people. I had a sense of place in the animal kingdom, in nature...but that was as far as it went. I never felt like I belonged to anything other than the estuary or the wood or the oceans that beckoned me in far away dreams of travel. The hockey team, the county, the country...none of those ever cut it for me. And as for family, I was always the lone black sheep, part of the flock, but a strange undecided representative, almost a species apart. The loved loner connected by art and affection...dislodged by common questions that I could not put down.
I think it took me a while to get really interested in people psychologically. I was fascinated by trees and mushrooms and wading birds and fox prints in the snow. I never saw the allure of the mind...until I arrived in Los Angeles at the age of nineteen fresh from the Amazon jungle. That urban jungle hooked me. I was ready for it by then. Not before. I began to see that on this long journey of life, understanding our thoughts and emotions is the key to understanding the causes of suffering. That insight drives me forward.
Yes, the flower is far brighter than any description or praise we can give it. I agree now with Walt Whitman, who once said...."You should not be to precise about the plants and the animals." (I am paraphrasing his words from memory). I have moved away from my need to catalogue the cosmos, as I set out to do as a young child. I have moved away from the need to be accepted....to find a linear path in a world that has little reason. I hear Krishnamurti when he says: "what does it say about you if you fit into this world....after all the world man has made is a rather sick world." I hear the inspired song that keeps me an outsider looking in....a traveller along the way, someone not easily lured by compromise.
I am not looking for acceptance. Is that what the Korean adoptees who come back to the land of their rivers of blood are seeking? Perhaps. I wonder if it is at all meaningful though. Democracy seems to sell us many illusions. Equality and acceptance are amongst them. Equality is the heart of the democratic ideal. Yet we seem to practice it very badly: surely because of the identities we create or because of those that the world around us projects on to us: we are victimiser and victim both. Do we ever ask what is it that wishes to be accepted?
I am not trying to create an identity for myself. My search is quite different. Michelagnelo was once asked how he created David. "I took away all that was not David." There seems to be wisdom in that line. Real creativity is about discarding what is false and refining what is undistilled and sublime. The only identity that ends our inner conflicts is the one based on honesty.
To be honest you have to have guts. You have to deal with you fear and uncertainty. You have to wander in a pathless land. You need to be actively questioning what freedom is; if freedom is. You need to be disciplined, but not governed by meaningless rules. You need to be open to love, and I suppose, if there is one thing I can say about love,...it is that it destroys all made-up identites, all transitory masks...and it leaves you face to face with the man in the mirror. Naked and without a community - at least a community that is capable of isolation from the whole.
My face has changed over the years. My diet too. My thoughts...my hairstyle, the things I am drawn too...even my accent has transformed itself over and over again. A friend commented - "when you get to India your voice will change." He is dead right. I will be a little more Indian in my speech. It is the chameleon in me. The colors change. Though the colors are surface details, not to be confused with the real issue.
It does seem that the exotic and the unknown are suitable mirrors for a man who is looking for something to stir his soul. I have an Indian friend that celebrates the Eest. He has studied in England and wants to go back to major in law. He likes that he can play cricket there, that the streets are relatively clean and that you are not overloaded with smells and beggars. He wants to live in England, not India. He hates India.
I, on the other hand question Western civilisation. I question India too...I take no sides. I marvel at the science of Copernicus, Gallileo and Newton. I take my hat off to that "western civilsation." I think Freud opened a door that needed to be opened....but I think he did it in a rather convoluted way. I think there is a great hidden story that Freud tuned into in part...a story which most of us hardly ever scratch the surface of. Unwillingness is a very large part of what we confuse ourselves to be. It need not be that way. Yoga (authentic yoga: the yoga that leads beyond the shadowlands of desire) seems to be alive to this. (Are you?)
Civilisation is all these things and the uneasy backbone of civilisation is religion. Religion means "to link back" in Latin. Similarly, yoga means to "link something" in Sanskrit.
Yet, I do not think the Bible does a very good job of linking what needs to be linked..in parts it does, but that does not mean we have the ears to hear it. I do not think Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam necessarily do a good job of it either. I do not feel comfortable with priests that bless battleships or with Popes that sit on pedestals. I think civilisation has been damned by hunger for power....and that hunger is often masked in the robes of piety and I think that is a great, great cause for concern.
I do not see the sense in politicians that talk of peace and who are all along preparing for war. I do not want to be a part of a tribe...because it seems tribes inevtiably clash and fight. My faith is in the individual and in unravelling the mind...My sights are set upon a level of awareness that sees clearly the impact of suffering and appreciates the causes of suffering.
My faith leads me out of the halls of science, out of the smoky dens of bohemia and the stuffy libraries of the intellect,.. away from the blind preachers and the rallies of the protesters and the podiums of the powerful. My faith has me rough-riding on the back of a meaningful question: - "what am I?", the wellspring of all other questions.
This question takes one out of the labarynth of thought. After all, a saint or wise person - the pinnacle of civilisation - does not make a movement or sell a cause or invent a slogan....they just ask "Who am I?" with sufficient humility to discern the sacredness of life. The individual who is alive to such a question is an individual whom you cannot employ or mold. His "me" is very small. He goes beyond identity and finds himself... at home in oneness, and a foriegner everywhere else. He is never apart from anyone, and never with the group.
To him nowhere feels like home: nowhere but the unchartered trail of his inner urgency. For, it is that urgency which brings our questions out of the frame of uncertain possibilities into the realm of sacred meaning; it is that urgency which guides us faithfully every inch of the unchartered way.
That urgency, when it is a living, breathing force gives us permission and bountiful reason to love the beautiful woman and the cruellest murderer. It allows us to feel without imposing judgmental limits. It leads out of the fearful prison of choices to a land where we are one amongst equals...even if those around us do not see the equality, but choose instead to draw swords and run from fear howling. When there is real urgency, the search for identity finally discovers an undiminishing source of sustenance and significance.
It seems that India has always had space for quiet piercing questions....no matter how crampt and corrupt it might appear on the surface, no matter how uncivilised the rest of the world might be. Having said this, I am most conscious of making idols. We all do it - whether it be the body or chairman Mao or Buddha or the age of enlightenment. We like to have things to coat in an aura of specialness. Inevitably though, disappointments follow when things do not match up to our ideals or expectations...cracks appear that become burdens which need to be looked at rather than hidden. There is always going to be disappointment in seeing anywhere as a promised land.
This world is not perfect. It is decidedly screwed up and a mishmash of chaos and order. Somehow, though, many look to dissolve the disorder and find harmony. Even those that don't attempt this, aspire to do so in their hearts. If we can be sober and keep on the track of the authentic and continuously be clear about our limits....I think we can discover the eternal laws in life that are meaningful.
Ultimately, where you are and what you are doing does not matter too much. What matters is whether what you think you are is attuned to what you actually are. Undoing the illusionary divide between our thoughts and reality is the challege of being human. It is the daily work of wisdom.
There is an invisible realm of sorrow. There is an invisible realm of joy. This, we all know instinctively. How many though, ask what it is that dies when the heart stops beating and the blood stops flowing into the brain stem?
Throughout the ages there have been witch-hunts. Man is a suspicious, frightened animal. He wants to control what is beyond his control. A few amongst us seek insight over ignorance, prefering to look dispassionately upon the demons in our humanity.
It is true there is evil in this world and others. Yet, there is no such thing as absolute evil. An exorcism frees an entity of a dark and malignant wound. The light of intelligence forgives the tragedy of our projections. Other forces wait in the wings for an unearthly silence to saturate our hearts...
There is a vital source that is not a part of dreams. Link with that, and the nightmare we sort to invent, vanishes into the emptiness from which it never came and all meaningless identities are lost in the wash.
"You were created by love. Love holds no grievances."
A Course in Miracles
It is said that man can move mountains...that peace is possible...I neither believe nor disbelieve. I only question. I don't settle for verbal answers nor for ideas. I am learning to respect the limits of the body and the mind.
I know that honesty is the same as courage, that self-reliance is indispensable, that happiness is unfathomable without virtue...Is there such a thing as remembering I am not the body nor the mind? Is that the blessing of awakening?
The Great Indian sage Ramana (M) on suffering:
Q: There are great people, public workers, who cannot solve the misery of the world.
M: They are ego-centered, hence the inability. If they remained in the Self, they would be different.
Q: Why did the Self manifest as this miserable world?
M: In order that you might seek It. Your eyes cannot see themselves, but put a mirror in front of them and then, and only then, do they see themselves. Similarly with creation. See yourself first and then see the whole world as the Self.
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