Friday, May 18, 2007

Threshold Nightmares

I have vivid dreams.  Lately they have become unusually extreme.  Some are nightmares others are so bizarre and fast-moving I can almost feel the wind blowing my hair back (hey, it’s my dream, I’m allowed!).  In most of the nightmares there is some element of being in prison.  One was a Thai prison, the others were Laos prisons.  There are three dreams I want to talk about.  One was from nearly a month ago, the other two happened yesterday.

The month-old dream/nightmare was family-oriented.  I was in a alpine climate, maybe the forest near Chang Mai.  All my family was going to be there.  My niece, Abby, was wearing a lot of makeup and she was not my niece, but instead my deceased grandmother.  It confused and frightened me to see her.  It made me cry.  She smiled in a very friendly way and assured me everything was alright.  I walked down a long outdoor hallway and turned a corner only to be confronted by the Thai police, arrested (no charges) and told to clean toilets.  I laughed in their face which caused the number of toilets to triple.

The second dream was during my afternoon siesta yesterday.  In the dream, I was in a slightly large yet still remote ban (village) in northern Laos.  There was a row of wood-frame houses on a dirt road (imagine that, a dirt road in Laos!), they looked very similar to the type of buildings one finds in Dawson City, Yukon.  I was making friends with the owners of these buildings when a group of people wearing red uniforms and red French Foreign Legion hats got off a bus and started walking through town.  Everyone wanted to know who they were, so they asked me to find out.  I approached two of the strangers and as I got closer, I recognized them to be tango dancers (although their costumes were not tango attire at all).  As I approached, I wanted to say something, but my tongue had turned solid in my mouth.  I choked on it.  I could not move my mouth, I could not find any words.  With a tremendous amount of effort managed to find the right language and spit out the word “Hola!”.  The phone in my real life rang and I awoke from the dream before they could respond.

The third dream was last night.  Again, I was in prison – this time much more like the real Laos jail in Vientiane.  There were some worn mats on a small platform, corrugated metal walls and roof, and very frightening inmates and even more dangerous guards.  A homosexual tried to touch me so I slept on the floor with the rats.  In the dream, my laptop was stolen due to my own negligence.  When I discovered the theft, I again struggled to make my tongue move, yet found myself incapable of expressing myself.

This is a bit of a segue to my point, but interesting so I include it.  The part about my niece being my dead grandmother is significant.  In Laos, it is believed when an ancestor visits you in your dreams, it is considered a very powerful omen.  It could mean that your ancestor is keeping guard over you or it could mean they are warning you to be careful – that you may be overstepping your bounds.  Thanks, Abby, for the conduit service – message received, Rose.

Now, getting to the gist of why I am talking about these three dreams and the threshold aspect of them.  The first dream had to do with my learning to deal with the culture.  An expat had told me that one way to deal with being confronted by an authority who might be looking for a bribe or something is to simply tell them “No”.  According to the expat, it has a way of stopping them dead in their tracks, as if all synapse fail.  Laughing in the face of the Thai guards was an exaggeration of this advice and got me into a rather nasty situation.  This ties slightly to the next two dreams.

In both cases of yesterdays dreams, I found myself incapable of communicating.  Only with tremendous focus and effort could I eek out a simple “hello”.  I think what is happening is that my mind, and maybe my ancestors, are trying to tell me that I must learn to communicate and that I am on the verge of doing so.  My frustration with not being able to speak – not being able to say much more than chicken, water, thank you, hello, my name is…,– is getting to me and my mind is telling me that it is time to approach the Tango dancers and try.  I have to try.  What would I be if I didn’t even try?  Certainly not a Tango dancer, probably a convict.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Will it do any good?

A friend of mine often says “If I could save just one…”

He is a good man; he has a good heart. He helps a lot of people in Laos. Sometimes it is an hour a day giving English lessons to a disenfranchised prostitute. Other times, he will pick up a gift of colored pencils and a pencil case to give to the school children. He will send money from overseas to help pay tuition or to assist in paying some medical expenses. He dreams of building a school for the children in a remote province. Some might say he is a sucker, a fool, but that doesn’t seem to stop him. Last night, he told me he often doubts that his efforts are doing any good.

How do you know if your good deeds are changing anything? Does it matter?

If we know that our benevolence will be well received, there is a comfort in that and the comfort can help encourage us. But if we do not know the results, do not know the effectiveness, our generosity, patience and loving kindness should not waver. I think, often times, people want reassurance that their efforts will be appreciated and worthwhile. People frequently will refrain from helping someone because they “know it won’t do any good.”

How some people have figured out the method of predicting the future is a mystery to me. They know a good deed will go unappreciated only because they believe that life, the world, the universe, the cosmos is static. I don’t live in a static existence. I live in a world of fractals, constantly building and growing and reacting and adjusting. I think I know which direction I’m going, but I have no guarantee that I will continue in this direction for one moment more. It’s chaos, but it is also quite organized… if I can only step back far enough to see the whole picture.

A number of years ago I was the patient of a very well respected psychotherapist, Dr. Robert Akeret. He is well known for his book titled, Photoanalysis: How to Interpret The Hidden Psychological Meaning of Photos, as well as his book, Tales from a Traveling Couch. In Tales, he tracks down a number of his former patients to see how they did or did not benefit from his work with them. It’s an interesting read.

Akeret and I went different ways after a year or so of counseling. At the time, I was pretty short of funds. He and I made an agreement that I would remit full payment for his services once I got back on my feet. After a few months, he sent a rather harsh letter reminding me we had made an agreement and he expected full payment even if I was not happy with the results of the work we had done together. It was clear from his letter that he believed I was angry with him and the result of the therapy and he implied in the letter that I was planning to welsh on the agreement. Other than sending a check for payment in full, I never corresponded with Akeret again.

I find it ironic that a man who wrote a book about following up on the progress of his former patients would jump to this conclusion. I did not then, nor do I now, hold any animosity towards the man. In fact, I am quite grateful for his role as a catalyst to a change in my life which was long over due. Akeret, I think, is one of those people who doubts whether he is being effective. Unless he stumbles across this blog, he will probably never know the gratitude I have.

How our actions and words shape the world, we most times never know. It is very easy to doubt that our efforts have been squandered. However, it is just as easy – and, I think, easier – to have confidence and dismiss doubt all together. There are plenty of people out there that are probably grateful for things you have done in your life. Maybe you smiled sweetly at an old man having a bad day and prevented him from putting his head in the stove. Or maybe that sweet smile simply made his morning coffee a little bit nicer. Maybe you said something in kindergarten that you don’t even remember, and it encouraged someone to strive to “love everyone (except those that hit)”. The list of maybes can go on forever. But itemizing the maybes is a quest for fools. The wise person sticks to proper action not because of the maybes – the results – but because it is the right thing to do. Do not doubt the benefit which you can offer the world with a smile or a helping hand.


I am stuck on Nekkhamma parami, renunciation.

Ever since I was very, very young, I have had many questions about religious concepts and practices. I used to think a lot of religious practices had to be very stiff and proper. Often this idea aligned with what others thought. As I got older, I had to dig up, discard and backfill a number of those misperceptions. One was the illogical confusion between prudish and pious and how they applied to religious practice. I thought a spiritual seeker had to be both prudish and pious. In fact, I thought they were the same thing.

Prudish or exaggeratedly proper, didn’t sit well with me. Being somewhat rebellious, I resisted embracing anything to do with prudishness, and therefore, I resisted religious practice. To satisfy my thirst for spiritual pursuits, I had to devise my own philosophy – my own religion, so to speak. I decided that I would do whatever I wanted and, if I kept my heart in the right place, everything would work out fine.

Where is the right place? To me, it certainly isn’t walking about in itchy robes with frankincense, myrrh and a balcony full of choirboys. Churches and priests and things like that used to make me think of death and the macabre, not life and exuberance. If the God-and-heaven-and-eternity story ends up being true, I don’t want to be wearing an uncomfortable suit and a pair of dorky buster browns. If I have to act prim and proper and stodgy with God for eternity, the right place is going to be pretty rotten for me. God probably isn’t going to have a very good time either.

My “do what ever I want and, if I keep my heart in the right place” philosophy, gives me a healthy respect for the cause and effect principles – this includes where I may have to spend eternity. Nice, comfortable, pajamas-and-ice cream eternity – not splintery wooden bench in a cheap suit eternity. That’s the right place for me.

Fortunately, there’s Puritanism. Puritanism is not necessarily acting like the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. It is not necessarily wearing one of those funny hats or uncomfortable buckled shoes. It’s not necessarily making bentwood furniture in eastern Pennsylvania. It’s not necessarily splintery wooden benches. It can be this, if you like, but it doesn’t have to be.

The definition of the word Puritanism, ‘having, showing, or expressing reverence for a deity’ gives me plenty of leeway. Puritanism doesn’t say anything about having to act like smelly Uncle Ernest living alone with dusty books in a stone house in the country and insisting on being addressed as “Sir”.

As a Puritan, all you have to do is keep in tune with the reverence of “all that is” – which could be loosely translated to a form of deity. Puritanism allows for doing the things I want to do, as long as I don’t forget to keep my heart in the right place. Not only does it allow for this, it encourages it.

To show how this can manifest, let’s use the example of sex. I could use a different example, but people like sex (sometimes as much as pajamas and ice cream) so it will be easier to keep focus.

First consider prudish sex. Ok, that’s enough of that.

Next, consider non-puritan sex. A hate-shag, a meaningless screw, a revenge-f*ck, a rape… very ugly thoughts, and sadly not all that uncommon, are examples of non-puritan sex. Depending on how deep those horrible feelings are within the heart – how not-right-place they are- it will likely increase the odds of going to hell or some other form of misery.

Now consider puritan sex. You can have puritan sex – more commonly called tantric sex – by keeping your heart in the right place. When you yoke your mind to the higher plains of existence, your heart is in the right place and, in essence, you are being a puritan. If you can sustain that state and stimulate the body and mind and soul in a sensual and sexual way, you are now having puritan sex. This is when the funny hat and buckled shoes become very awkward but if it works for you, that’s ok, too.

How does this relate to Nekkhamma parami - renunciation? I bring up prudish and puritan to help shed another clue on the subject. Look at the example above. What is being renounced is not the act of sex (often mistakenly categorized as desire) but rather the lower plains of existence, the dimensions of hate and fear and greed and lust.

The way we have perverted both the idea of “giving up” and the meaning of the word “desire” has turned puritans in to prudes and depleted the church, the monastery, convent, and the pool of those people who practice reverence. I don’t think the great prophets and messiahs wanted anyone to refrain from being alive by giving up giving and sharing – even on the physical aspect (king’s and queens might have added that stuff in later). I think the message is to put your heart in the right place, put your thoughts in the right place and live as fully as possible.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Little More Renunciation

I want to talk a little more about Renunciation, Nekkhamma parami, the third Buddhist Perfection. I want to talk about it because it is one of the trickier ones. The point I last made on the subject was, “my biggest possession – the most significant shackle around my ankles – is my thoughts”. When I wrote it, I knew I was leaving out a big part of the picture, but time was of the essence, so I let it be. Now, I want to expand on renunciation of thoughts.

“O seeker!
Give up desire.
Shake off your chains.”
- Dhammapada – The Sayings of Buddha

In case you haven’t noticed, desire is a very big part of our lives. We have entire cultures who thrive on desire. We desire things. We desire others. We desire being desired.

But there are other thoughts, thoughts we need to help us advance. Within our cultures, the same cultures that thrive on desire, we thrive on thoughts which move us along the path towards a greater good.

Health, contentment, and trust
Are your greatest possessions.
And freedom your greatest joy.
- Dhammapada

So do not make the mistake so many people do in faiths: do not highlight the juicy part and disregard the boring part. Do not think that, in the early stages, you will successfully wipe out all thoughts and abandon all possessions. Instead, accept your thoughts, try to harness those, use those which are positive for your advantage. Take it a little bit at a time, lean away from desire and towards trust. Do not dismiss sexual desire and forget to be silly. Do not rise above vanity and disregard cleanliness. Do not seek a better life and renounce reality.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Regarding my last post titled, Closing Lights. I want to make a few things clear. Prostitution is illegal in Lao PDR. Furthermore, any romantic or sexual relations between Lao nationals and foreigners is a criminal act. Do not believe any claims that such transgressions of the law are not enforced. It is advised all visitors stay clear of such relations. Any comments I may make are purely conjecture or based on heresay. I have no definitive knowledge of any criminal acts occuring in these establishments. My comments are in no way to be construed as an accusation or implication of any individuals or establishments.

I chose to include the names of specific establishments only to help promote awareness of good dance clubs in Vientiane. Other locations were not named for various reasons.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Closing Lights

Many people know about my aversion to closing lights. Closing lights are the bright lights that go on in the bar after last call. It’s at this time that people are at their worst. It’s at this time that men get that last chance gleam in their eyes, when digits are being exchanged, advances refused, when bad decisions are being made, when prostitutes are sizing up wallets and drunkenness.

Joni Mitchell said it perfectly in the song Down to You on her album, Court and Spark. I love these lyrics because they are universally true:

A few drinks later you’re not so choosy
When the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this brand new flesh you’ve found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
You hurry
To the blackness
And the blankets
To lay down an impression
In your loneliness

The past few nights I’ve been checking out the nightclub scene in Vientiane. It is excruciating for me to go to these places. Over the years, I have ruined my ears with concerts and clubs; I now prefer a quieter environment where I can talk and listen. I swore off going to nightclubs back in 2003 when I left a club called Loft 6 in Vancouver only moments before some “gangsters” showed up and shot a few people – I took this as a warning and decided my clubbing days were over.

However, in my research here in Laos, it is necessary that I get at least a cursory understanding of the club scene in Vientiane. In the city center, there are a few such as Baw Pen Yang and Don Chan Palace. Outside of the center there are quite a few more clubs which cater mostly to Laos people with only a few falang. One place is called Top Dance near That Luang, another is called The Future on the northern end of the city, I can’t remember the names of the others. Most clubs have at least some degree of sex tourism going on. This is something I have a hard time watching and a hard time looking away. Last night, after Linkin’ Park, Cranberries remix, the very popular Happy Birthday and slew of other bad songs, this was the scene.

Some wealthy businessmen had ordered about a half dozen girls-for-hire to join them at one club. The girls were in their early twenties, the businessmen in their fifties. One of the men had found one of the selections suitable. The other two I think were a little disappointed with their choices. As the closing lights grew near, the two unsatisfied men began looking to neighboring tables for better selections. This was bad enough, but from the girl’s side, it was worse.

As each girl realized they would not be selected, they began looking around for who else might be interested in an hour or two contract. The look in their eyes – their very business like eyes – made me quite sad. My friend leaned over to me and said “If I could save just one…” I shook my head. There is no saving the worker until the market changes and company closes its doors.

Go to a nightclub. Listen to the music. Chat with your friends. Have a few drinks. Meet some people. Dance. When the closing lights come on, go home. Go home alone and play with yourself if you really need it. In the morning, think about why investing in temporary slavery would have been only you ‘laying down an impression in your loneliness’.