Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Im Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD

Photo by je@n

It was my research editor who told me it was completely nuts to willingly get fucked at gunpoint. Thats what she called me when I told her the story.

Mac McClelland recounts her battle with PTSD after covering sexual violence in Haiti, and the experience that finally helped her push it out of her system. Its honest writing at its most raw.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Delinquents of a Hasidic underground


Photo: kk+

In which Robert Hirschfield says no to drugs and observes a conversation in Jerusalem.

I ENTER Chaims living room thinking this cant be. The old Hasid in his long black coat has invited over a friend for Torah study and a toke. Chaim extends his roach to me. I refuse. Seems too much like a bribe. If I take it, I will feel obligated to study with him.

Maybe I should. To get high and delve into Jewish holy books in Jerusalem may be the antidote to my childhood memories of being entombed in a dusty yeshiva classroom while spring rubbed its green head against the window.

I see Chaim, once a San Francisco lawyer for Rolling Stone Magazine, as a branch cut off from his worldly tree and self-smuggled into the arbor of God.

I am caught in the crossfire of a learned debate about this Talmudic rabbi and that Talmudic rabbi.

My own life, by comparison, seems so straightjacketed. I wanted to be a writer when I was sixteen, and I still want to be one. Maybe if Id aired out my mind in Chaims snow globe of drugs (I was part of the amphetamine crowd.), I too would be able to leap back across time into an ancestral black coat and find that it fits.

Chaim makes a place for me on the couch between him and his friend, a younger, black-coated version of himself. I am caught in the crossfire of a learned debate about this Talmudic rabbi and that Talmudic rabbi.

I admire the ease with which the two men juggle tradition and behavioral heresy. It feels good to be among the delinquents of a Hasidic underground. Robert, Chaim says to his friend, writes about Palestinian nonviolence.

I didnt know there was such a thing, the young man says. I say nothing. I want to write a psalm dedicated to a Hasid who abandons God for the weed but who cant abandon the clich tumored in his gut.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Selectively compassionate and rarely altruistic

Jed Purses ponders love and compassion toward others, then realizes he forgot one thing. Himself.

WAKE UP, meditate, do yoga. Shower, dress, leave. Cravings arise for a parantha from the street vendor next to my favorite juice stall. The juice stall is suffering from a power outage. I feel disappointment. I remember the principles of a recently completed vipassana meditation course equanimity in the face of impermanence the craving for the juice subsides, but not for the parantha.

Sitting at the food stall while the boy makes the parantha, daydreams ensue about how a lazy Saturday will be spent. Granola at the cafe and hopefully running into the woman I have a crush on. Read, write, nap. Let the day dictate the action.

The truth experienced is much more powerful than any intellectual understanding.

My daydreams are interrupted as my eyes catch the ankle of a man sitting on the street across the way. Im curious as his ankle seems to be in a physically impossible position. Is experience deceiving me?

In the vipassana course the teacher emphasized that the truth experienced is much more powerful than any intellectual understanding. Looking further to rectify what intellect tells me against my experience, I observe the base of his leg before his ankle. Its touching the ground as if he has no ankle and foot.

Yet, his ankle and foot lay flat next to where the base of his leg is touching the ground, everything is still connected. The awareness works its way to other parts of his body his other leg is prosthetic, his hands are suffering from leprosy, his face is without expression. His eyes work in conjunction with one extended hand to follow the passers by. An empty tin cup and crutches lay by his side.

It becomes painful to observe him anymore. Squeamishness arises. Im feeling compelled to act, but dont know what can be offered to improve his situation. The resulting thought pattern becomes unpleasant, uncomfortable and soon my attention returns to the boy making the parantha.

Parantha Dough

Photo by author

You like to cook? says the boy noticing my attention to his work.

Nodding, I ask in return, That dough is just flour and water, yeah?


And the filling? Alloo, mattar, coriander? Anything else?

Onion, garlic.

Before rolling it out, he takes the dough ball and stuffs the potato filling into the middle. He then encloses the filling by pulling the dough around it, making the dough ball look like a pillow.

In vipassana meditation, students are allowed to use as many pillows as they want to make sitting for 10.5 hours a day more comfortable. The pillows help delay the pain, but never make it disappear. One could build a throne of pillows, but eventually the physical pain throughout the body must be faced.

Through this process the student learns that the experience of physical pain is a tool to observe how our minds react to uncomfortable situations. If one cultivates equanimity, just observing the pain for what it is a rising and falling sensation and by its nature impermanent then the pain eventually dissolves. The sooner the student develops the courage to feel and observe the pain, the sooner it can be dissolved.

Realizing how my mind had reacted to the man across the street I end the diversion and face him. What circumstances led him to this condition? My judging mind immediately assumes drug and alcohol abuse.

In vipassana, students learn through experience that all our outside circumstances are a direct result of what happens in our minds. These circumstances can change if we have the courage to face ourselves and patterns of thought. I wonder if this mans situation is that simple?

Compassion fuels action to relieve suffering. The action taken is unique to the capabilities of each person.

Not too long before observing this man, I ended my morning meditation the way the vipassana course taught, with mehta loving kindness and the wish for all living beings to experience love and compassion, for myself to give only love and compassion, for all beings to be free from pain and suffering, to view all beings as friends.

No one can change the mans past circumstances that led to his current condition, I think, but by observing him, one becomes aware of the current situation and in response feels compassion. Compassion fuels action to relieve suffering. The action taken is unique to the capabilities of each person.

Feeling satisfied after finishing breakfast, I look across the street and wonder what can be done in this moment to help. I feel love and compassion for the man and feel compelled to act out of these simple feelings, and nothing else.

One more parantha please, for the man across the street. Ill pay for both, I say, standing up.

I hand the boy money and head out of the stall. The man across the street begins to stir in preparation to move on. The boy shouts across the street telling him to stay because Ive bought him some breakfast. Feeling awkward, I put my head down, not wanting to be acknowledged as I leave. Still, the man across the street speaks to me some words in Hindi. I look up with a short smile to acknowledge and move on.

Now Im on my way to the cafe to run into my crush. I dont pat myself on the back or feel proud, Ive already forgotten about what Ive done. Only later, after sitting and thinking, do the circumstances of my giving come back to mind. I wonder to myself, at the age of 29, have I just acted altruistically for the first time in my life?

Dharamshala Landscape

Dharamshala, India. Photo by author

Or, did I miss some deep-rooted, self-interested emotion in the moment of giving? I cant remember another circumstance of giving where I had no expectation of return, not even the expectation of feeling good about myself. Is this what true compassion yields? Have I really lived this long without ever giving in this way?

Back on the street and walking briskly, I hear a women say to me, Hallo Babaplease? I look down and observe an elderly women with a similar case of leprosy, cracked spectacles, and torn clothes. After a glance I walk past, ignoring her.

Later, the circumstances of my selective compassion become apparent. Why the first man and not the second woman? What are my responsibilities as a person with relative privilege? My bank account tells me that I could have offered health care, food, and clothing to the second woman.

Should I choose to do this for one, must I do it for others in a similar condition? If so, Id run out of money pretty quickly, and martyrdom is not appealing nor does it seem to be a solution. Without clear-cut answers the expectation that I should perform perfectly compassionate in every situation lingers, and Im upset with myself over my lack of perfection.

This time I dont refer to vipassana to explain the circumstances, although Im sure it could. Rather, I recall something out of a book Ive been reading about compassionate communication. An axiom of communicating and moving compassionately, says the book, is to first have compassion for yourself.

Looking back on how Ive been treating myself over my choice to give, I notice theres another layer of selective compassion Ive missed compassion for myself.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Understanding the war in Kachin

KIA Vice Chief of Staff Gen.

KIA Vice Chief of Staff Gen. listens to views on the renewed fighting in the Kachin State (Photos by Ryan Libre)

After almost two decades of uneasy peace, war has returned to Kachin, a resource rich region in the far north of Burma.

KACHIN BORDERS CHINA, and the current fighting broke out near controversial Chinese hydropower projects. The Burmese government approved these projects and promised to provide security around the dam sites, but the dams are opposed by most Kachin people, whose homelands will be impacted by the flooding and who will not see much of the money or power produced by the dams.

In December, 2008 I spent one month in Kachin working as a journalist alongside the photographer, Ryan Libre. Ryan and I were guests of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) whose military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is now at war.

Ryan is back in Kachin now, making photos of the Kachin war council. He is working hard and barely sleeping typical behavior for him and on June 18th he gave me the following report from KIO headquarters in Laiza:

In Laiza spirits are high. There is a vibrancy in the air and the KIA/KIO leadership talk of their options with optimism. Many civilians have huddled into churches and makeshift refugee camps right on the Chinese border. Those left in the city do not look scared.

The KIA is the third largest army in Burma, but their forces are massively out-numbered and out-gunned by the Burmese military. Their survival hinges on a dual strategy of intensive public relations and determined guerrilla warfare. Fighting can buy the Kachins time, but their long-term success depends on diplomacy, international awareness, and political legitimacy.

There is no freedom of speech in most of Burma, where the government controls the media. In contrast, the KIO promotes a free press, invites foreign reporters into its territory, and encourages the growth of civil society. The Kachin media has covered the conflict in detail, and Kachins living outside of Burma are busily emailing each other the latest news.

KIA/KIO officers

KIA-KIO officers gathering around to read the latest news story written about the renewed fighting in Kachin State

When the body of a Kachin soldier was returned to his base as part of a prisoner swap last week, photos showing his apparent torture went viral, landing in my inbox over and over again first a photo of the soldier when he was alive, then images of his puffy, purple face, his arm shredded by stab wounds, a gaping hole in his belly. Finally there was a photo of an old soldier with bent shoulders looking at the young body of the dead soldier as it lay on a blanket in the dirt.

Last night the Burmese government finally issued a statement about the fighting. The statement was reported by the AP and the BBC, and illustrated by a photo of a KIA soldier wearing a yellow bandana over his mouth. This photo struck me as odd, because in all my time in Kachin, on military bases, at a military academy, at checkpoints and on the front lines, I never saw a soldier wear a bandana in this fashion.

The message sent by the bandana photo is that the soldier is a rebel, an insurgent, an illegal combatant. My guess, though, is that he just wanted to keep dust out of his face, and the photo was chosen because it fits a pre-established narrative of third-world insurgency. (See the photo is here.)

Kachin is not a remote jungle backwater. The Kachin people are not tribal head-hunters or extremist insurgents, and the KIO is an established political entity.

The narrative of insurgency and rebellion, though, is just as misleading as news reports that describe Kachin as tribal and remote. Kachin is not a remote jungle backwater. The Kachin people are not tribal head-hunters or extremist insurgents, and the KIO is an established political entity. The territory at stake is one of the most economically important and politically open parts of Burma, and the Kachin people are fully aware of how their situation fits within a contemporary global context.

Many Kachins can speak eloquently about their political dilemma in at least four languages, including English, Chinese, Burmese, and Jinghpaw. The political leadership is expert in diplomacy and eager to develop and democratize. Their goal is to gain a political role within a federal union of Burma that guarantees human rights for all religious and ethnic groups.

Officers up late

3 KIA/KIO officers stay up into the early morning receiving, translating and sending information about the renewed fighting in the Kachin State.

Kachin leaders like Gun Maw, a chief negotiator for the KIO, embody an alternative leadership for a new and democratic Burma. Unlike the sclerotic and ineffective domestic Burmese opposition, led by the National League for Democracy, the KIO leadership is seasoned by the experience of governing through challenging times.

Historically, the Kachin quest for international recognition and political legitimacy was hamstrung by their involvement in the drug trade, but since a 1994 ceasefire and especially in the past three years the KIO has campaigned extensively against the cultivation, distribution, and use of opium and other illegal drugs. The Kachin gamble was that political legitimacy and international awareness would prove more valuable than money from the drug trade.

We need a lot of help, commented a Kachin leader during my visit in 2008. We need moral support, material support, political support, and legal support.

Much is at stake in Kachin. The KIO is calling for Beijing to mediate the current conflict. Whether or not the fighting intensifies may depend on the extent to which the front line units of the Burmese army will answer to their military command. It may also depend on the willingness of the international community to address a conflict that is playing out in Chinas backyard.

Authors note: Ryan and I first visited Kachin with help from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. You can check out our articles, video, slideshows, and blog posts at The Kachin Struggle for Freedom.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Finding my spiritual home

The author

Photos by author

Rebecca Ashton found home in a place shed never visited before. How does that happen?

NOTHING PREPARED ME for the overwhelming feeling I had when I stepped off the plane in Cairo. A sense of relief ran through my body. I was back where I belonged. I was safe again. I thought this strange, though, seeing as I had never stepped foot in Egypt before.

Why did this foreign land feel like home? It was 1994, a few years since I finished school. I had always loved my ancient history lessons so I was thrilled to be seeing the pyramids and Sphinx up close. But this feeling was something else.

The rocks under my bare feet feel as familiar as an old friend; the air I breathe, warm and calming; the silence is my teacher.

Since then, the Middle East has been a magnet to me. Is it the air? Is it the light? The colour of the earth perhaps? Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Qatar, and Jordan all followed. The Wadi Rum was when it hit me the hardest. This is a place that feels like my own personal, spiritual precinct.

The rocks under my bare feet feel as familiar as an old friend; the air I breathe, warm and calming; the silence is my teacher. I belong here. But not just a feeling of belonging to this land. This land is me and I it. A place I can never leave for too long because leaving it feels like leaving my spirit, a stealing of the heart.

Wadi Rum

The Wadi Rum was the first time in memory that I have truly experienced silence. Not a bird song or a breeze through a tree. Not a seducing stream or a leaf falling through branches to earth. Just pure silence. And who would have known that silence can be deafening? Silence is also powerful; more powerful than our persistent, nagging internal chatter. Silence will completely envelop and destroy it and any small semblance of our own self-importance.

Lying against the earth at night, a sky full of infinite stars the last thing I see before drifting off to sleep. Being completely in tune with the cycle that is night and day; understanding the ancients celebration of returning Ra. This is what I feel when Im in my spiritual home. A lifting of the veil between here and the other side.

A quote from Robert Christopher summarizes this perfectly:

Allah removed all surplus human and animal life from the desert so that there might be one place for him to walk in peace.and so the Great Sahara is known as the Garden of Allah.

For me this means not a separate God walking alone in the desert, but the discovery of the internal god that is in us all. Sitting in stillness with that part of us we so often neglect.

How can one feel such a deep, passionate connection to a place they have never been to before? A pure knowing of some unexplainable but very real connection to a certain part of the world? Is it just a spiritual resonance, where we vibrate on the same level and so have access to a deep healing? Is it hereditary memory inherited from an ancestor who lived or visited the place?


Or is there such a thing as past lives? Could we have once lived in these places? There is no proven explanation for any of this. Is it just our deprivation of nature, experienced from living in the city, that places like this create such a contrast? Finally we get to reconnect.

But why is it mountains for some people, oceans for another, and why is it usually a very specific place? Maybe a little of each is true. But those who have experienced the emotional explosion of finding their spiritual belonging know of its importance.

I have a friend who loves Afghanistan. Loves it to the core. At any possible opportunity he goes there. Hes not a soldier; hes not a journalist; hes just someone who loves Afghanistan. Most think hes a little insane. For a relaxing holiday would you choose Thailand or Afghanistan? I dont think hes insane. I just think that hes found his spiritual home. I understand that.

Some of us have homes. And some of us have a spiritual home. A place where the soul soars, a deep and calm presence is surrendered to, and fear no longer exists. Some of us are blessed to return. Have you found your spiritual home?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vancouver riots: The dark before the light

Volunteer cleaners

Volunteers help clean up the city. Photos: With permission by Sylvain Martel (Facebook)

In which I try to make sense of something that doesnt seem to make much sense at all.

the more it becomes clear that to be is to quarrel and pursue your self-interest, the more you are compelled to recognize your need for enemies to support you. ~ Alan Watts

IVE BEEN READING The Book by Alan Watts lately. Its one of those books (for me, anyway) that needs to be read over and over again for the message to sink in. Its not easy to penetrate but when one starts to get the overall sense of what he is saying it becomes quite profound.

What I am getting out of it is that, despite us thinking that we are these individuals that exist as separate beings from each other and the world, we are actually defined by our surrounding environment (and, hence, part of the whole).

It brings to light how necessary even enemies are in order to identify ourselves. I cant be a nice guy if there are no jerks around. With this in mind, last night I watched the media report on the riots that took place in Vancouver after game 7 of the NHLs Stanley Cup playoffs.

Being from Vancouver and a lifelong Canucks fan, it hurt me like hell to witness the car fires, window smashing, fighting, and looting that was happening on the streets that I was walking just a few days prior.

Volunteer cleaners

Like most residents, Im sure, I felt ashamed for the city and embarrassed to the world. Then I logged into Facebook. One of the first posts on a friends wall I saw was an event called Post Riot Clean-up Lets Help Vancouver. It was an open invite for anyone to join in at 7 AM the next day to help clean up the streets in the downtown core. When I first saw it within a couple hours of the riots starting there were 8500 people attending (at the time of writing almost 20,000).

A post to the wall late in the afternoon said, The city is so sparkling clean, thanks to everyone who did such a wonderful job! I got there at 10am and theres not a speck of garbage left. Yay Vancouver!

Another Facebook group called True Canucks Fans has popped up, their mission being to show everyone that the real Canucks fans have integrity (their logo includes a picture of Boston in front of the Stanley Cup with the caption Congratulations to the Bruins) and also to help support the local businesses that were affected by the rioting.

Nothing unites a community so much as common cause against an external enemy, yet, in the same moment, that enemy becomes the essential support of social unity. ~ Alan Watts

Without a question, the rioting that occurred in Vancouver was a major tarnish to the city and it unfortunately overshadowed the great season the Canucks had. But with that happening, it also offered the opportunity to the residents of the city to define themselves.

Against the contrast of the looters and hooligans, the caring and compassionate emerged. Without the haters, there are no lovers. Despite our disdain for those responsible for the mayhem, we are all part of the whole.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How a fly reminded me its never personal

Photo: junCTionS

Our perception is our reality. No one and nothing can force it upon us.

[Note: I originally posted this at my personal blog, but got such a positive response that I wanted to share it here.]

I WAS MEDITATING in my parents living room (Im here because I am in Vancouver for TBEX 11). Id just finished doing a bit of yoga so it didnt take much effort to get into a meditative state. I noticed, however, a single fly buzzing around the room.

The low drone would go from one ear to the other as it criss-crossed the space. At times it made its way between the window and the horizontal blinds, then did that thing that all flies do in that position: smack themselves silly between the two, trying to find a way out. My first instinct was to get annoyed one of those frustrated annoyances, because you know there isnt much you can do about it (other than kill it, but that was out of the question).

So my thought process changed. It kinda went like this:

  • That fly is just being a fly. It doesnt know any better.
  • Its not purposely buzzing around trying to annoy me.
  • Why am I fighting it so much? Why do I cause myself suffering?
  • Can I just accept it?
  • Is there any way that I might even be able to find joy in the buzzing sound?

As to that last question, I couldnt. But that hardly mattered. It was more about my resistance to it. I didnt need to embrace it or find joy in it, I just needed to accept it for what it was and allow it to be. In the end, I did still feel slightly annoyed but, hey, its a work in progress.

Nothing anyone does to you is personal.

So what does the fly have to do with anything? Everything. Its in the flys nature to buzz around the room. Thats what it does. Just as it is in every humans nature to seek happiness. Once this idea is accepted, it makes it easier to understand others; to have compassion for others. Nothing anyone does to you is personal.

On the surface that might be hard to understand. When someone is (seemingly) purposefully being a dick to you, its easy to take it personally. But really its just that person trying to make himself happy. That he tries to achieve it by making you feel less happy is not really the point. Our taking it personally and getting angry, upset, annoyed is the choice that we make. It is not forced upon us.

In Mans Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl has a lot to say about this. Frankl spent years in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. He observed how other prisoners reacted to the environment and situations, especially as time wore on. He observed that, despite being under the most horrific and trying circumstances, some people were able to keep their spirits up.

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedomsto choose ones attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose ones own way.

It is always our choice. When someone has done you wrong, step back and try to see it from her point of view. Understand that even if you cant understand why she would do what she did, it really isnt about you. It never is. Its her trying to deal with it the best way that she knows how. She is seeking happiness, just like you are.