The Late N Train

homeless_platform

The N train into Brooklyn was running late. I wasn’t rushing anywhere important, only running errands.  Nothing notably spectacular was going on.

I had just come from yoga and my head was clear. My mood was a very perceptive one and I was ready to share the good feelings. The train pulled up and I stood in front of the closed doors. I felt a slight breeze as they parted and I walked in. I gazed to my left and saw a homeless man sprawled out with his belongings; a few large rocks, torn magazine pages, and a couple half-smoked cigarettes. He took up the entire side of the cab. No one dared sit near.

I took a seat across the aisle, between two very doubtful subway riders. They gave up their positions as soon as the subway approached the next stop. I watched this man organize his belongings over and over. His eyes drooped with fatigued and his pupils dilated with inebriation. Every few moments he’d fumble his feet and slur some words, grabbing random railings to steady himself. He was contained in his solitude, not looking to escape. He was of no harm, nor meant any ill will. He was in pain. He was hurt.

The rest of the train scowled. As we approached new stops, passengers entered only to exit, leaving this car for the next. Some held their nose, others held back their stomachs. The man was filthy, but he was still a man. I kept my gaze on him, trying to see myself in his eyes, but the only thing I could see was the separation between myself and the crowd.

This man was on trial, for crimes he’d already commit and the verdict was guilty. He had no home, no job, no money. He smelled like trash and urine, looked like he rolled around in garbage all morning, and sounded like a madman. His actions were unfamiliar and made others uncomfortable. He was homeless. Less than human.

I started to feel bad. My sympathy was overwhelming, so much so that a deep valley of compassion was carved in me. I hoped there would be help to uplift the despair on this train. I sent love to the depths of the ignorant. I asked how I could help change the reality of it all. How could I be a beacon, an example of kindness, love, and empathy? And amidst the glares, judgements, and beckons of the other passengers, I sat firmly in my seat, smiling at this gentle, homeless man.

The people on the 2:34 N Train into Atlantic Avenue made my heart sink. Their disdain and utter disregard for another human being was so cold, so unyielding, that this man never had a chance to change. His position in this world was sealed by the reactions of his peers. His peers—yes, because we are all living on this Earth together—who were going about their days running from work to home, home to work, store to store, place to place, could not afford to give him a simple gesture of kindness. Not even a smile.

Not even an empathetic thought.

I felt bad for that people on that train. For each and every one of them. The only soul that escaped that late N train without an ounce of my worry, was that homeless man clutching his bag of half-smoked cigarettes and absurdly large rocks. He was safe in depths of his solitude from the follies of mankind.

But then again I wondered, how could I love the others? They were me, too.

Pain.

There is nothing worse than the feeling of pain. It stings. It burns. It penetrates. It hurts. Pain is the bitter end of a faded sweetness. It is a remnant of a decision that influences all future decisions of the like. It is a signal, and like all signals, it is meant to guide. Where and how we left pain guide us is completely our choice.

On a physical level, pain is a sign to stop doing something. Get your hand out of the fire. Don’t walk barefoot on broken glass. Get away from that beehive. Pain is the body’s recourse for conscious decision-making; it is a physical action that is translated into a mental activity. Neurons react to exterior stimuli, sending messages to the brain that implement positive change. On a physical level, the necessity of pain is blatantly obvious: survival. 

It is less obvious to see the purpose behind pain in the mind, or suffering through emotions. Much like physical pain, mental pain is also a necessity to living a healthy life, but the difference between the two is that mental pain comes in forms of emotion. These less tangible—but often more painful—forms of suffering can include general sadness, anxiety, depression, and anger. These “negative” emotions cause varying levels of stress, and this stress is the signal that tells the mind something needs to change. (I keep negative in quotations because every emotion is positively relevant in the pursuit of experience and therefor cannot be condemned to a positive or negative judgment). Just like physical pain, mental pain is attempting to teach the mind a lesson.

As hinted to earlier, the main difference between physical and mental pain is tangibility. Physical pain is much easier to spot and—subsequently—fix. If I am stepping on a rock, I understand that that rock is causing infliction and removing it solves the problem. It is more difficult to identify and solve mental pain.

A good example is the all to common problem of missing someone. Everyone at some point has to say goodbye to someone they care about. It could be a lover, a friend, a family member, or even a pet. When we walk along our individual paths and have to leave something important behind, it hurts. Identifying this type of pain is very easy, but understanding why it’s there is difficult. Many reasons seem plausible. In the case of longing questions like: Am I missing this thing because I need it? because I want it? because I am accustom to it? because I am afraid of not finding it again? etc, car arise. Here, the “rock” is identifiable, but the reason for its infliction is buried. This makes solving the problem ever more challenging. Yet, solving the puzzle of pain is only the first part, learning from it is entirely another challenge.

As mentioned, the point of pain is to learn. Learning from pain points us in the direction of not having to feel that pain again. In order to learn from pain, we must understand everything about it: what hurt me? why did I get hurt? how can I stop the pain? In emotional pain, the answers may not be so transparent, but they do exist. Reaching them requires patience, a willingness to feel the extent of the pain, and an open mind to understand what choices led to these consequences. 

We so often repeat the same mistakes, only to be brought back to the same problem, the same pain. Many denounce pain and run from it. Often times I fail to understand that my suffering is the greatest teacher I have. It is a stern instructor that does not bend under the suffering of its students. It is a consistent reminder that there is a better way to live life. Pain’s ultimate goal is to provide its subject with an evolved way of being. Pain is the path to self-evolution.

Although I hate feeling pain, I know deep down that whenever I feel it I have the chance to grow. Pain makes us feel alive because it threatens our stagnation; our comfortability. It gets us moving when we have become still. It pushes us to expand the limits of our selves. Whenever I feel pain and can pull my ego out of self-pity, I know that I am on the verge of doing great work.

A yogi friend of mine once told me, “The depth of our pain carves out our ability to feel empathy.” I understood this as “the more pain I feel, the more I can relate to the pain of others,” which is correct. What I was missing was the empathetic knowledge of the self: the more pain I feel, the more I understand myself. Becoming intimate with aversion brings one closer to knowing affection. And through pain I understand more about who I am and how deep I can become.

My Dying Grandmother

By Dark Grey

In Tagalog—one of three native Filipino languages—the word for grandmother is Lola. It is pronounced quickly, with a gentle flip of the tongue. The sound rolls of out of the mouth and is delicate to the ears. It is a beautiful word that conveys love and kinship.

As a child learning to speak, this word was difficult for me to pronounce. I couldn’t curve my tongue enough to pronounce the first “L”. My “Lola” was in fact an “Ola”. And since I was the first of nine grandchildren, Ola was her anointed title. It was incorrect, bad Tagalog and lovingly adorned. She took the name that was given and made it her own. She loved it in all its imperfection. She loved it in its complete perfection.

24 years later with death stalking from around the corner, my lola is still as positive as ever, finding ways of turning life’s mistakes into her cherished answers.

A few weeks ago, it was brought to my attention that my lola’s health had taken a turn for the worse. She had left the doctor’s with an expiration; an estimated date to see her through. It had been nearly two years since my last visit and with this news I came to see her.

The day after I arrived, I sat with her over breakfast. She was vibrant, quick and alive. Although her body had slowed down, her mind was racing. She answered questions, spoke philosophically, and laughed wholeheartedly.  Her smile was that same beaming grin I grew accustomed to as a baby. Her soul was as present as it had ever been. Her mental strength left me pondering if there was indeed anything wrong. Had this been an incredibly tasteless joke?

That evening, my questions were answered.

Between bouts of excruciating pain and a state of near comatose, it was clear that my lola was approaching the end of her life. She spent most of her time sleeping or fending off discomfort. She could barely stand, let alone walk, and she had a slew of medications that took up sizable counter space. Her life was certainly not what it was two years ago.

It was a disconcerting experience watching her body decline, yet my sadness and fear never had the chance to take over. I was too busy feeling inspired.

Despite her physical malady and inevitable future, her spirits were valiantly high. She used each moment to connect with those who to listened. She breathed each breath to invoke a sense of calm and compassion for those around her.  And when she was too exhausted to speak, her eyes told her fearless story. More than anyone, she knows what is happening to her, yet she persists to enjoy the moments she has left.

The idiom that comes to mind is taking lemons and making lemonade. In her case, she was using the last moments of her life to enrich the few she had left. She received what she was given and made the best of it. This lesson has been preached by so many great minds in so many different ways, each one translating a timeless message: happiness comes from within.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

My lola may be dying, she may be surrounded by an emotionally distressed family, she may even be scared, but the one thing that she isn’t is looking for more. She is content with her situation simply because it is hers. And because it is hers, she chooses to love it. Just as she loved her name.

Seeing my grandmother embody such grace and commitment to look beyond the surface, has invoked a loss of judgment in my life. Who are we to think we know how life works? We experience just a fragment of reality and impose our opinions. I see now that it is better to enjoy what is, rather than fight for what isn’t.

Her ability to see beyond the imperfections, to accept what is as the divine and to make the best with what’s given is a gift I will always carry with me.

I will remember her for this. She’s my Ola with one L.

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” ~ Mister Rogers

Good ol’ Jesus

“I seek not my own will, but the will of the one from which I come.”

I came across this quote in a video about Tai Chi.  One might ask “Isn’t this a strange place to find the Christian Messiah?”  The answer to this depends on the vantage point from which you search.  Oddly enough, this is also the divergent point that separates the god-fearing churchgoer from the spiritual devotee.

Jesus and I have had a weathered relationship.  It began with Catholicism.  As a good half Filipino boy, I went to church (about half the time).  I also went to Catechism, which later turned into Confirmation.  For those unlearned in the Catholic ways, I spent one night a week for 4 school years  learning the ins and outs of Catholicism.

As a curious young boy, I had many questions.  I was also a mischievous little twerp, who enjoyed pushing buttons.  And it just so happened that my favorite button was the how-does-god-exist-if-fill-in-the-blank button.  If it weren’t for the kind Christian morals of restraint, I believe I might have been the one hanging from the cross.

=)

Despite the enjoyment of giving hell to the sisters, I was genuinely concerned with the lack of answers I was receiving.  Nobody could explain concepts that conflicted with the church.  I got plenty of “because God says so’s” and faith was often used as conspicuous deterrent.  I was not convinced.

Later down the line, with my sights of skepticism aimed directly at religion, I stumbled across Zeitgeist, an independent film based heavily in conspiracy and cynicism.  The first part of the documentary tears apart religion and attributes Jesus to nothing more than a repeated fable.  In fact, the director ultimately claims the fiction of Jesus and all other messiahs are metaphors of the sun. Convinced it was all a plot to control the world,  the idea of Jesus was nothing more than an elaborate story.  That was until I had a visit to Iowa that re-aligned my beliefs.

In a very spiritual town, based on principles of Eastern meditation, I was rapidly learning about my spiritual consciousness.  I was surrounded by many consciously aligned people who were adept in the language of experiential spirituality (as opposed to professed spirituality).  In learning to meditate and by having my own spiritual experiences thought to be unobtainable in religion, I naively gathered anti-religious ammunition.

One morning, I was talking to the mother of a friend who was hosting me for the summer.  In the conversation, Jesus came up.  She described a man who was an exalted teacher—much like the teacher who brought me this form of mediation—who wanted to help humanity find their true strength from within.  I was shocked.  How could a super conscious person who I greatly respected believe in the myth of Jesus!?

Praying = Meditating

Much like a germinating seed waiting to break through the dirt, this idea laid dormant in my consciousness for the next few years.  As I began to grow and understand more, my eyes began to see the full picture.  Hints of Jesus in spirituality arose and I began to draw connections between his teachings and the teachings of others.  Now better seen as a flower ready to bloom, my understanding of Jesus was on the cusp of realization.

The final straw that broke my dogmatic doubt was a book by Paul Ferrini entitled, Love Without Conditions.  Ferrini provides an invoking re-interpretation of the words of Christ that echos the teachings of every other greatly accept truth: God is within.

After reading his book, I began to accept that my rejection of both Jesus and religion was my own problem.  Religion and all its characters were born out of the same underlying principle: to enlighten.  My problem with religion and Jesus was that I did not have the eyes and ears to hear what they were saying, nor the compassion to forgive the trespasses of the church.  As I reread some of the Christian scripture, I began to identify the unifying message of all spiritual paths.  Everything I was learning in Eastern philosophy was reflected in Christianity.

So why didn’t I get it the first time?  Well that could be an entire article on its own, but summed up quickly it is because I was not ready, I needed to find my own path, and the ways in which popular religion has grown did not properly translate its eternal message.

So did Jesus exist?  Who really knows.  All I know is that if he did, it was to teach humanity that we are beings of unlimited power, capable of miraculous action.  In this light, I see him as a friend rather than a foe.

As he said,  “The kingdom of God is within you.”