Lessons of the Bonsai

Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.

The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.

By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.

Lessons of the Bonsai

(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)

As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.

Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.

I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.

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The World’s Worst Housemate

I would like to interest you in someone to share your home, a housemate. He often smells like old cheese and rotting leaves and seldom bathes. His breath would stagger a rutting moose. He will demand that you prepare his meals. He’ll scream gibberish at guests and then do rude things that embarrass them. He will have you drive him to medical appointments and leave you with the bill. He’ll shamelessly use your yard as a toilet and never pay rent. Are you interested?

Funny you said no because 35% of Canadian homes have at least one of the country’s 5.9 million dogs. In the United States, it’s a similar 36%, meaning that there are 68 million hairy, gnarly American housemates.

Why? Why do so many people endure from a dog what they would never accept from a human? Surely it can’t be because they’re so damned cute. After all, there are a lot of adorable-looking, sad-eyed people from whom such behaviour would never be tolerated. And they even have the decency to wear clothes. Let’s think about it. Why own a dog?

Chemistry

According to psychologists who study this kind of thing, playing with a dog floods your brain with dopamine and serotonin. They are natural neurotransmitters that reward us with feelings of peace and happiness. It’s why therapy dogs are such a big hit at retirement residences.

But what about another chemical? Adrenaline. A jolt of adrenaline races your heart, tenses your muscles, and tightens your innards, causing a gastroesophageal reflux that drops a metallic taste in your mouth. You are ready to fight or flee, say because you’re being chased by a grizzly. Or, maybe it’s the sight of your dog with one of your new, expensive shoes in its slobbering gob or perhaps he’s sitting proudly, with tongue a-dangle and eyes wide, before a table leg that he’s just chewed into impressionist art. Again, it’s chemical.

Loyalty

Dogs were our first domesticated pets. Archaeologists suggest that people began living with dogs about 32,000 years ago. Dogs descended from wolves and wolves run in packs. So when you bring a dog into your home you are inviting him to join your pack. A well-trained dog recognizes you as the pack’s alpha male and so he obeys orders.

It’s a nice idea but a 2010 Psychology Today article called it bollocks. Studies of dog’s memories show that despite their ability to act on command, dogs have quite limited long and short-term memories. It’s been proven that when you leave, you’re forgotten. Reunions are always nice but dogs don’t pine away in our absence. Scientists dismiss the idea that dogs feel loyalty as a “modern invention”, sappy sentimentality, or our sad habit of anthropomorphization, where we Disneyfy animals by attributing them with human characteristics.

Health

It has been demonstrated that owning a dog increases people’s physical fitness by getting them off the couch, even in the worst weather, to walk around the block. Anything that gets people moving is a good thing.

One has to wonder, however, about our self-discipline and dedication to health if it takes a jumpy dog’s pee dance to drag us out the door. Further, even in the absolute worst cases of slavery, when people were robbed of their very humanity and forced to live in unspeakable conditions and do appalling things, there are no examples of slaves being forced to trail their masters, wait for them to poop, and then scoop it into a bag and carry it home. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that if aliens hovered over the earth and observed this practice they would conclude that dogs are the planet’s master species, feel sorry for human beings, and cite the relationship as the universe’s cruelest example of slavery. Perhaps going for a walk every day without toting a little bag might be okay.

Welcome

There is no one, no one in the world, who is happier to see you than your dog. Arrive home from work, stressed and tired, and watch your mood suddenly change when he explodes with the simple joy of your being. What can be more affirming?

Do we keep a dog partly for this welcome; this non-judgmental, boundless affection that we reward with a demand for absolute obedience? Is it that we like the idea that no matter what in our lives spins beyond our control and how many people determine what we do, and when and we’ll do it, that there is at least one thing, one living thing, over which we have dominance? Is our secret embrace of that shameful feeling at the core of our enjoying our joyous welcome? Or, is a hole in our soul so deep that our ache to be loved is so mightily profound? Or, on the other hand, are dogs just goofy, good company and fun to have around?

The World's Worst Housemate

(Photo: Saved By Dogs)

As you may have guessed, I don’t have a dog. I don’t want one. But I had one as a teenager. He was a big, floppy, black and white, mutt-face of a guy who was born on February 10. From then to now there is not a February 10th goes by that I am not warmed by a kind thought of my old friend. I know. Dogs are hard to explain.

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Statler and Waldorf and the Gift of Now

This is a confession. I have become Statler and Waldorf. Those of a certain age will recall that Statler and Waldorf were Muppets. Watching the show on stage from their private box in the Muppet theatre, they were constantly critical, harumphing and grumping away. I felt like that last Saturday, but with a twist. My band was playing a gig and I was channelling my Muppet friends, an old fart observing, but this time from the stage watching the audience. I’d seen it before, of course, as we all have, but this time, right in the middle of singing and playing Peaceful Easy Feeling, and with only half my brain on the lyrics, melody, and guitar lines, it struck me.

You see, the crowd was good and with a line up at the door. Everyone looked like they were enjoying a good time. The band sounded tight and, like usual, we were having more fun than should be legal for grown men in public. The Canoe and Paddle pub is a gift to our community, run by great folks; it’s a gathering place for neighbours and friends and those who soon will be. But then, near the end of the first set, I noticed it.

Statler and Waldorf

At one table were two couples and all four were staring into phones, swiping the screens. I scanned the room. There was another young couple ignoring each other and the fun of the room, tip-tapping away. At a table with six obvious male and female friends, four were staring at phones. I counted four other people ignoring friends or spouses, intently concentrating on Steve Jobs’ gift to us all.

Why?

Are we information addicts? Is it not interesting that we can be out with friends or family, with good food and drink before us and engulfed in music and laughter, and yet be distracted by a vibration, buzz, or ding? When we tap the button to investigate are we not saying, “I have no idea who or what this is, perhaps a friend who just posted a picture of her dinner, or maybe a bomb blew up in Caraccas, but whoever or whatever it is, and I have no idea, I already find it more interesting than you and so I am going to ignore you now and check this out.” It seems to me that unless there is a babysitter back home or teenage children on the town, what can possibly be more important than the people with whom you have chosen to share this sliver of time?

Are we public diarists? Diaries used to have locks. Now they have megaphones. Psychologists often recommend that people keep diaries, or journals, to slow the pace and allow the rich rewards of reflection. Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, on the other hand, invite us to reflect by reflecting a mirror on our lives outward. We post what used to be private to the whole world. We then keep track of how many noticed and liked our latest entry and, indirectly, how many people like us. Psychologists agree that those who regularly post and read Facebook are more likely to experience angst and depression for they compare the ordinary of their lives with highlights of others. And there at the pub on Saturday were all those good folks more concerned with recording and sharing what was happening rather than truly immersing themselves in what was happening.

Do we need a witness? American soldiers moving through Italy and Europe often stopped to paint a crude cartoon of a man peering over a fence and wrote, “Kilroy Was Here”. A drive just north of our community takes you through the stunning Canadian Shield with tremendous sheered rock faces. It is tough to drive long without seeing that someone has spray painted their name, usually along with that of their true love. When our life ends, we have our name more permanently recorded, this time carved in stone. All three practices seem to be about the same thing: we have a need to let others know we are here. Our phones allow us to instantly summon witnesses to our existence without fighting a war, climbing a cliff, or dying. All those people on their phones last Saturday, while I was singing an Eagles song, were like the Whos on the clover held aloft by Horton the elephant yelling, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”

The song ended. Lots of fine folks applauded. I said thank you and glanced at those on phones. Three had put them down and were smiling and laughing with others. Good. But I noticed three new victims of our times ignoring the now. The now is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. I may be a Statler and Waldorf grump from the wrong generation but it seems to me that the present is something that won’t last and so it’s worth savouring, for just a moment, without distraction.

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The Queen and the Problem with Problems

The village was grumpy. Everyone seemed to be complaining about something. Marriages and friendships were fraying, folks were miserable with each other at work, children were grouchy at school and teachers were frowning too much. Old men met for coffee and biscuits each morning to gripe that things were better before. But the Queen was wise.

She gathered everyone for a meeting on the grand lawn of the village square. She announced an edict. Everyone, even the kids, was to take from the great, long table a black marker and a clear plastic bag that contained five white balls. The Queen said that everyone was to find a spot on the square to be alone, sit down, and contemplate their five biggest problems. They were then to write them on the five balls, put the balls back in the bag, retie it with the gold ribbon, and bring it back to the circle.

The Quenn & Problem with Problems

The people were quizzical. There were harrumphs from a few and a couple of teenagers threatened to leave. Soon, though, everyone was on their own, pondering, and writing. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with inscribed balls in the bag before them. The long, gold ribbons gleamed in the sun.

The Queen then instructed that at the count of three they were to toss their bag high in the air and into the centre of the circle. And for a moment, it was magical. All the bags were aloft at once, all the problems of all the people floated, weightless, for just a second, beneath the cloudless blue sky. Kids laughed as the bags landed and bounced and settled in chaotic heaps. The Queen then said something startling.

“No one’s life,” she said, “is without challenges. Everyone has troubles, regrets, and things they wish were different. Everyone has said and done things they wish they hadn’t and didn’t say or do things they wish they had. But I have good news. All of your problems are now over. You just threw them away. Now, please, wander the green, take your time, and read the balls within the bags. Then, choose any bag you wish and return to the circle.”

The people were stunned.

“Really?” asked an 8-year old girl, glancing at the mean girl who had been teasing her lately.

“It will never work.” grumbled the fat old doctor whose foot ached with gout.

“I promise,” said the Queen, “choose whatever bag you wish in exchange for your own.”

The people moved slowly, gingerly, at first. Soon though, they were walking about the square lifting bags, reading carefully, dropping them, and moving to another. There were a few gasps. The librarian began to cry at one point and needed to rest for a bit. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with a bag at their feet.

“Now,” said the Queen, “Take up your bag of chosen problems, return to your homes, contemplate what just happened here, and choose to be happy.”

There were broad smiles around the circle. There were more than a few hugs and even a tear or two. They all knew, as did the Queen, that after having been offered the choice, everyone, every last one of them, had chosen their own bag of problems. They all walked home, many hand-in-hand.

And they all chose to be happy.

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Seeking the Universal

The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.

She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?

Seeking the Universal

(Photo:Dreamstime.com)

We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.

Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.

Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.

If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.

A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.

The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.

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The Power of No

The most powerful word I know is no. I have determined to embrace its elegance to urge the bright and positive from its deceptive negative.

No to My Phone

My phone is a tool that has too often made me act like one. I shake my head at couples in restaurants tapping phones while ignoring each other and at teenagers huddled as pet shop puppies but engaged with others elsewhere that they probably don’t even know. But then I feel that drip of dopamine when the thing dings. No more.

When in a restaurant it will remain in the car. When with friends and family it will remain in my room. When in a meeting it will remain in my office. I will still use it to read news in the morning and tweet things I find funny, interesting, or infuriating, to bank, and, like now, check Facebook once every other day or so. But I will stage my coup d’état and conquer my phone by saying no to its addictive lure.

No to Coffee and Wine

 This one hurts. I sing in a little pop band and about a year ago I noticed that some notes were getting harder to sustain and some actually hurt. I was dreadfully hoarse the day after rehearsals and gigs. I felt like there was always something in the back of my throat. The doctor said, as doctors often do, that it could be nothing or it could be cancer. Great. Three months later (living with those options made days interesting) a specialist said that I had laryngopharyngeal reflux. Great again. I’ll live but can’t pronounce my ailment.

It means that stomach acid has been heading up the esophagus and, without causing the usual heartburn, damaging tissue by my vocal chords. After a discussion of my lifestyle and habits, he recommended that I continue running (that’s good), cut songs at the top of my range (rats), and say no to things that cause the acid reflux (good God!).

For four weeks now I have said no to snacks after 7:00 pm, no to red wine, and no to coffee. The snacks and wine were easy. Cold turkey on coffee rewarded me with three days of booming headaches. I had been an addict. Every morning I still have a dreadful yearning for that old jolt which is, I guess, like an alcoholic passing a bar. But I’m proud of my no.

the-power-of-no

No to Stuff

Last summer my brothers and I emptied my Dad’s house. He had lived there for over 40 years and we had been children there. It was hard. Most fascinating was the four of us transitioning from smiles over sentimental keepsakes to throwing junk in the dumpster. We gave a lot to a committee supporting two Syrian refugee families and more to charity. We took a few things and sold others but most went into the big steel box in the driveway.

I have always believed, as minimalists do, that you should love people and use stuff and not the other way around. The summer experience reinforced that notion and led me to attack the relatively small amount of stuff I have. There were trips to the dump and to the charity drop off. Old records, dozens of books, old clothes, and much more went out the door. Dumping stuff was made easier by my wondering what was in the back of my throat.

Last summer reminded me of time’s ruthlessness, life’s frailty, and what truly matters in the end. It confirmed the belief that the last thing I ever want anyone to say about me when I’m gone is that the guy sure had a lot of nice stuff.

No to Negative

The Enlightenment tricked us into thinking that progress is linear and things will always get better. Last year reminded us that time moves not in lines but circles. Recall that Germany gave us Beethoven and then the Holocaust. Trump and Brexit and those now selling the same anger, fear, and misinformation and flat out lies remain distressing. But all tyrannies, whether of people or ideas, all of them, fall. Always. Think about that. Always.

It is better to celebrate the best of us than despair the worst of us. I will say no to impugning motives and being enraged by the dopy and dangerous incuriosity of others. I will do it secure in the belief that the pendulum will swing as it always does. Darkness, after all, is defenseless against light.

No to Gremlins

We all have them. They are the negative thoughts that haunt us; the little voices in our heads that remind us of mistakes and say we’re just lucky or not good enough. I have another book coming out in April. The gremlins will be shouting. Like every author I have read good reviews that make the gremlins laugh in disbelief and bad reviews that have them waggle their crooked little “I told you so” fingers. When I hear them whispering about my book and other aspects of my life I will steal their power by saying no. I will do so by acknowledging their existence and then telling them to bugger off.

So, I’m off for another trip around the sun in a year I will need to play by ear. I’ll travel confident that the power of no will bring the rewards of yes to the happiness I seek for myself and those I love.

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Why Laughter Matters

It was Red Skelton’s fault. From ‘30s vaudeville then radio, movies, and on to television, Skelton’s gentle humour always induced howls of laughter. In 1950, broadcast engineer Charles Rolland Douglass taped Skelton audiences. He then played snippets during a Hank McCune TV show. It worked. Folks at home were prompted to laugh along with the supposed studio audience. When it was reported that people found shows with laugh tracks funnier than those without, the “Laugh Box” was soon employed by all comedies. Without knowing it, generations of people perched before radios and televisions were laughing along with Skelton audiences. We laughed. And that’s no laughing matter because laughter matters.

Public speakers know. Regardless of the weightiness of the address, every good speech begins with levity. An audience becomes connected with each other and the speaker and so more willing to consider messages that come through the simple act of a shared laugh. Teachers know. Any educator who fails to see the link between entertainment and teaching knows nothing of either. Humour makes even the most mundane material more accessible and so learning, rather than just teaching becomes more likely. Preachers know. Witness the erasing of the wafer thin line between laughter and tears at every funeral when funny stories are told about the deceased. Permission to laugh offers permission to grieve.

All laughter is not good. Too many YouTube videos and cheap Comedy Channel programs rest upon enjoying the misfortunes of others. Leave it to the Germans to have named that sad brand of humour. They called it schadenfrude. A Leiden University study confirmed that we are embarrassed when laughing at others tripping, failing, or being humiliated. While we know it’s wrong, though, we just can’t help ourselves. The study also showed that narcissists, and folks with low self-esteem or mean streaks find schadenfrude particularly pleasurable. Picture Hitler laughing.

The Navajo people understand laughter’s mystical value. Their rich and complex culture portends that when a baby is born it is of two worlds – the spiritual and the earth. Adults await the child’s first chuckle. The first belly laugh, that bursting of pleasure that all parents treasure, signals that the child has completed the birth process and fully joined the family and community. The first laugh brings the A’wee Chi’deedloh or Baby Laughed ceremony. People gather and pass by the baby with plates brimming with food and exchange gifts of salt. The symbols of health and rejuvenation not only welcome the child fully to earth but also imbue the notion that a good life is one of generosity. Whoever induces the first laugh pays for the party so it is not uncommon for Navajo people to ask nervously when presented with a newborn, “Has this child laughed?”

Human beings are not alone in laughter. Chimpanzees, gorillas, apes, and rats also laugh. Chimps love magic tricks and literally roll with laughter when surprised. Rats laugh when tickled and will move toward a hand or feather to enjoy it again. Koko the sign language expert gorilla surrenders to schadenfrude as she laughs when her handlers perform pratfalls. Humans are unique, though, in spending so much time and money, the equivalent of animals surrendering food, just to laugh.

Laughter Matters

(Photo: http://www.sciencenews.org)

So wait for it. Wait for it at the coffee shop or office. No matter how heavy the baggage lugged along, wait for it at family gatherings. The bursts of laughter are the shattering of barriers and linking of hearts. If only for that moment we become one. For that moment, we make gentle the harshness of the world and remember that we are here not to soil our souls with ambition or the gathering of stuff but simply to be happy; to be happy simply.

A young John Lennon once angered a teacher for when his class was asked to compose something on what they wanted to be in life he wrote, “Be happy.” The teacher said, “You did not understand the assignment.” Lennon replied, “You don’t understand life.” Red Skelton would have laughed.

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