The present is the only thing that's real

Time for a little reflection.

We run around so much these days, juggling multiple activities, thinking about what we need to get done or analyzing what we did yesterday. We worry. We feel anxiety when we're delayed on our way to an appointment or when something deviates from our plans; when we're stuck in traffic; when our children are late coming home. We worry when we lose control of our timeline or when things don't jive with our expectations.

When you look at how we go through our days it becomes apparent that we live a great part of the time in the world of our thoughts, in the virtual reality of our minds.

When feeling stressed, and in search of serenity or some tranquility, try turning down the volume in your brain. Many people find it useful to consciously focus on the present, to become aware again of the senses and experience this particular moment in these surroundings.

Sometimes, the mind is like a runaway train. And we make things worse by letting ourselves get further distracted by the car radio, for example, or the mp3 player, the video game, the television or the computer. We may be in one place physically, but our minds are too often somewhere else.

A useful technique to improve awareness is highlighted in the book "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. His suggestion is to visualize your thoughts as if they're a series of images on a screen, to see them as a movie. Don't analyze them, just observe them without judgment.

As you see these disjointed thoughts running on the screen, you come to the realization that the room is filled with another presence -- the watcher. And the watcher is also YOU.

But how can this be? This means there's another "you" that is not a part of those thoughts up on the screen. The more you connect with that "watcher", the more your presence focuses on the "other" you; the you that is set apart from all the mental noise or static. As you practice this, the easier it becomes to disconnect at will from uncontrolled mind activity and the easier it becomes to focus on the present.

There are other techniques to focus on the present, of course, like conscious breathing exercises, yoga, etc.

The bottom line, according to the experts, is that you start to feel better the more your body and mind synchronize with the "now", with the surroundings and situation that defines the present.

Only the present is real; the past is a movie in your mind and the future is also just a series of images, also in your head. As humans , we can only truly live one "here and now'' at a time. The more we can fully experience this, the better we will feel. Tolle points out that our minds are so polluted that this has become difficult to do.

But with a little practice, living life a little more "unplugged" can make you feel better.
It's worth a try.

Photo courtesy: Greg Hill, stock.xchange

Religiously-motivated militancy: a new form of fascism?

I heard a term on the radio the other day which hadn't really registered with me before, but now it's sticking and I cannot rid myself of it. I don't know what to make of it. It has a visceral effect on me.

Those who defend it applaud its use because they argue the time has come to call things very clearly, to call a spade a spade, as the saying goes. But I'm wary of labels, because once they enter into common usage, people tend to apply them far too easily and loosely, and this often leads to injustices and discrimination of the worst kind.

The topic being discussed on the radio was terrorism linked to certain armed Islamist groups.

The term being used was "Islamofascism": modern Jihadist ideology linked to fascism.

Is this reasonable?

Columnist and author Christopher Hitchens* offers an interesting examination in a recent article in He argues the two movements are both totalitarian in nature and share many characteristics.

"Islamofascism" is a controversial term: a person using it risks sounding like someone who sees most Muslims as people who support terrorism. And yet, Hitchens does not hold back and draws intriguing historical parallels between fascist movements and the present ideology of anti-Western jihad.

While he is careful to point out that fascist tendencies have been seen in other religions in the past, including Roman Catholicism and even Judaism, he focuses his attention now on those who support and belong to groups like Al-Qaeda. He runs through a list of similarities that makes the blood boil in any defender of free choice in a society of shared and accepted humanitarian values.

If he's right, Hitchens does offer a ray of hope: he argues that many totalitarian movements have within them the seeds of their own destruction, a sort of "death wish," as he puts it; a willingness to see the movements destroyed rather than compromised in any of their ideals.

It's bleak and disconcerting. How accurate is this assessment?

It's up to each one of us to observe, consider and decide for ourselves.

* Christopher Hitchens is a writer for Vanity Fair and is the author of "God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything"

Photo courtesy

Finding a better way to move people in a metropolis

On this day in 1904, the New York City subway system opened for the first time.

In those days, the streets of Manhattan were crowded with all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles and congestion was the order of the day. So New Yorkers thronged to try this new underground railroad. When the subway opened to the public at 7 PM that day, more than 100,000 people rode the line. It cost a nickel to board the train.

The first line traveled about 15 kilometres and stopped at 28 stations. It ran from City Hall in lower Manhattan to Grand Central Terminal and then on to Times Square and north all the way to Harlem. New York City mayor George McLellan was invited to inaugurate the line that afternoon of October 27th, and he was given the opportunity to drive the train. reports that he liked the experience so much, he stayed at the controls from City Hall all the way to 103rd street.

The New York subway has now grown to 26 lines, operates 24 hours a day, and carries more than 4 million people every day.

For more information see:
This site has a lot of information about the history of the subway, but also about what goes on in the subway system every day. It's more than just a transportation system, with many activities for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

For maps of the system and other information, here is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority site...also quite interesting:

Photo courtesy of humdizzy
From...The stock.xchange (

Why do we merely play with our tools?

An invitation to a social event crossed my desk today that shows a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci's famous sketch of Vitruvian Man from 1492.

I got to thinking about how technology and science are changing our lives, and how Leonardo himself innovated in art, science and mechanics. He used the technology available to him to advance our knowledge of the universe. He studied nature. He used his brushes to represent human experience on canvas. He used available tools to design and build machines that were years ahead of his time.

But what is technology without thought?

In today's world, it seems to me that we often play with new devices because we succumb to the allure of slick marketing campaigns. We buy gadgets and learn how to use them; and too often end up doing only that -- learning how they function. Then we repeat some those functions over and over again. Think, for example, how many of us use a computer only for e-mail; how many of us sit on the couch and use the remote control to surf aimlessly up and down the dial. We fill our time with media consumption that is based on access to it; not necessarily to accomplish something.

What a difference it makes when we apply technology to some higher purpose.

I read on the back of the card that Leonardo drew Vitruvian Man after reflecting on the observations of an ancient Roman architect, Vitruvious. It was Vitruvious who saw the human body as the model of perfection. It was he who observed that the human body, when seen with arms and legs extended, fits into both of the so-called "perfect geometric forms": the circle and the square. He used these ideas of human proportion to design buildings.

So Leonardo was simply using his talents to draw a visual representation of Vitruvious's earlier thought. The same can be said of another genius who lived after Leonardo, Shakespeare, who based so much of his celebrated work on earlier stories from classic Greek and Roman literature.

Real credit goes to our predecessors, on whose thoughts we build our world. The works that endure are those that relate to deep, shared aspects of the human experience.

Technology is always just a tool.

The treasure chest that opens when we sleep

The more researchers study the human brain, the more impressed they are with the findings.

When we sleep, it appears that our brain, freed from the demands of bodily motion and conscious thought, switches into a new form of activity that is surprising scientists with its unique powers.

We've heard this before, but now the results of a rich body of studies is pointing to some important conclusions about learning and memory.

In an insightful article in the New York Times, Benedict Carey writes this about our slepping brain: "Once seen as a blank screen, a metaphor for death, it has emerged as an active, purposeful machine, a secretive intelligence that comes out at night to play — and to work — during periods of dreaming and during the netherworld chasms known as deep sleep."

It's great reading because it highlights our body's potential.

The New York Times website lists the article as one of it's most e-mailed this week.

You can read it here.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng.

Harvard University digs up its Native American past

Something unusual is happening at Harvard University.

America's oldest institution of higher learning, founded way back in Puritan 1636, is rediscovering it's Indian heritage. The Boston Globe reports that in the middle of Harvard Yard, where students sun themselves on warm days, an archaeological dig is unearthing artifacts from the university's brick building where whites and Native Americans studied side by side.

It's a long forgotten fact that Harvard, the venerable Ivy League school of the elite, early in it's history welcomed the area's native inhabitants. It was an age when the future of the university and of New England was anything but certain.

In a rare precursor to our more modern notions of integration and multiculturalism, the university's 1650 charter laid out its mission as "the education of the English and Indian youths of this country, in knowledge and godliness."

Students working on the archaeological project, led by the school's Peabody Museum, are finding lots of small items, including pieces of a printing press that may have produced the first Bible printed in North America. It was a 1661 edition written in the Wampanoag dialect of the Algonquin language.

Coincidentally, one of the students working on the dig, Tiffany Lee Smalley, 18, of Martha's Vineyard, is -- the Globe writes -- the first Aquinnah Wampanoag admitted to Harvard as an undergraduate since the 1660's. She says the experience is bringing her closer to her ancestors.

Researchers hope to learn more about how the early English settlers interacted with the local Native American population.

Four hundred years ago, wampum -- beads of polished shell --were legal tender in New England. According to the Globe, Native students paid 1,900 beads for their tuition, while the equivalent sum for English settlers was 1 pound, 6 shillings, 8 pence in English currency.

Sadly, the link of multicultural scholarship was broken in 1675 when war broke out between the settlers and local inhabitants in the region. Many years passed before Native American students returned.

The Boston Globe article, with slide show, is located here.
(You may have to register on the site to get to the free page.)

For details on the archaeological project conducted by the Peabody Museum, here's the museum's newsletter page.

For more information on Harvard's history, see the Harvard web site.

The 1650 Harvard Charter is photographed here.

Driving to Boston

It's autumn at it's best: we're driving along the I-90 in upstate New York on a warm October day. Skirting the Finger Lakes, continuing east along the Mohawk River, across the Hudson at Albany and onto the Massachusetts Turnpike, through the Berkshire Hills and then gradually downhill to Boston and the ocean.

The mantle of tree cover seems to go on forever. To the north in the Adirondacks; to the south, the Catskills. A perfect fall day. October 20 and the sun in the northeastern United States is warmer than usual for this time of year. The trees show their many colours: reds, yellows, gold and still much green. The land rises and falls; we climb hills and dip into valleys; cross rivers and pass sloping farmland; and everywhere the trees frame the landscape in a gigantic quilt. It almost looks like this blanket was placed over the country by an invisible hand, to protect the land, or maybe to dress it for presentation.

Our destination is Cambridge and we arrive in mid-afternoon. Hundreds of people strolling; it's Harvard on regatta day on the Charles River. Parks full of people of all ages. Harvard's football team is playing at home vs Princeton; the college spirit is alive and well.

Later the Boston Red Sox lift the city's spirits as they beat the Cleveland Indians in a do-or-die playoff game, and the cheers from the bars spill onto the streets under a clear moon.

Oxygen, a simple prescription for better health?

One of the most basic of human activities could hold the key to better health. It’s so obvious that most people usually don't think about it.

That activity is breathing.

Yoga practitioners are promoting the benefits of “breath control,” known as "pranayama" (the Sanskrit term). Some say improving one’s breathing is the simplest way to promote better health and, yes, also to achieve some degree of inner peace.

Swami Ramdev, a teacher of this form of yoga, in an interview in the Toronto Star, sustains that “breathing is a form of medication because it increases the oxygenation to your cells and hence the blood to your body. This generates more energy and balances your internal system, including your hormones.” Ramdev claims that people who follow his techniques for 30 minutes a day, and stick with a vegetarian diet, can noticeably improve circulation and prevent a number of diseases like diabetes, for example.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the noted proponent of "integrative medicine," also believes in the benefits of certain breathing exercises. He propose three specific exercises and says on his web site that "practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders." You can read more here.

One of the leading authorities on stress relief through improved breathing is the Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

For a general overview of pranayama exercises, see this link to

Photo courtesy "Stock.xchange":

Enough food to go around

As I walk through my area supermarket I’m struck by the variety and quantity of food that is available to North American consumers.

Contrast that with yesterday’s marking of World Food Day. At a conference in Rome, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched another appeal for the world to do better to feed millions of hungry people.

Jacques Diouf, FAO General Director, reflected on the supermarket paradox: “Our planet produces enough food to feed its entire population, yet tonight, 854 million women, men and children will be going to sleep on an empty stomach, without justification and without adequate compensation.”

Horst Kohler, the German President, issued a blunt assessment: “Poverty has two main causes: not being able to share sufficiently in globalization – mainly because of a lack of economic power and good governance and being disadvantaged by states and private players who pursue their own interests with no regard for others.”

Lack of economic power. Poor government. Greed.

Although we’re making continuing progress in world development, it’s clear there’s much work to be done.

Photo courtesy "Stock.xchange":

Would you want to vote for a World President?

Will it ever be possible to create a world democracy to govern the planet? Something that could replace the United Nations, perhaps, and allow people from all countries to participate in an international democratic government? Could such a government help us overcome the challenges of global warming, for example?

These are some of the intriguing question posed by a world-wide project called "Why Democracy?"

The project revolves around a series of documentaries; ten unique films. The documentaries are being used to stimulate a global discussion about democracy.

One of these films is called "Please Vote for Me." It's a gripping, personal story of eight-year-old children voting for Class Monitor in a school in Wuhan, China. Director Weijun Chen conducts a clever experiment to see how democracy might be received if it developed there. He explores the question of whether democracy is a shared human value, and he does it in the heart of a country where elections only take place strictly within the Communist Party.

The "Why Democracy" project presents another nine documentaries, most of which have been shown at international film festivals and won awards.

"Why Democracy" has a website,, that is run from a house in Cape Town, South Africa, where young people from different countries coordinate the project. They also produce an interesting blog, that you can see here.

A number of media organizations are supporting the project, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The CBC and the Metro Express chain of commuter newspapers have been interviewing famous people on the subject of democracy. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali noted that "in a great part of the world 50 per cent of the population are illiterate" and that this represents an obstacle to democratic participation, particularly for women, who are more disadvantaged than men in many parts of the world.

The democracy project asks a number of intriguing questions in its web polls.
Here are a few:

Who would you vote for as President of the World? (Boutros Boutros-Ghali picked Nelson Mandela.)

Is religion more powerful that politics?

Are democracy and capitalism compatible?

It's an interesting project and a wonderful dialogue.

Enjoying the raking

When I started raking the leaves under dark skies this morning, my natural inclination was to complain to myself about the chore. So many other more pleasant things I could be doing, I thought. The mall, the TV, books, the sofa.

But then I suddenly realized how ridiculous that notion was. I woke up. How fortunate, how absolutely friggin' lucky I am to be out here doing these things, my conscience reminded me.

I remembered how it felt to come out of the hospital after even a short stay, or how it was to step outside the door after a bad flu or some other ailment had kept me bedridden or just indoors. When you move around again, you feel joy in being alive and in being able to do things. Life is for living. This freedom is special.

How difficult it is, in comparison, for those recovering in hospital from a heart attack, a round of chemotherapy, a debilitating disease; how frustrating it must be to be confined to a bed or be forced indoors by some form of disability. What some people would give to be out here just raking leaves, for God's sake.

As I said, I woke up.

I quickly realized how fortunate I was to feel the cool wind on my face, to smell the wonderful odour of autumn, to feel the fresh dew on the grass, to hold leaves in my hand, to live in safety, to live in Canada.

An issue we cannot ignore

The proposal to fund multifaith schools in the Province of Ontario has been defeated with the re-election of the Liberal Party in today's election. While it was the key issue that dealt the mortal blow to Progressive Conservative leader John Tory, it was also one that, thanks to Tory's campaign, motivated voters to reflect on the essential imbalance it presents in today's education system.

While other provinces have abandoned the concept of school funding based along religious lines, Ontario continues to move along with its established system, based on precedents from the 19th Century (see post of September 23rd); a system whereby Roman Catholic schools receive public money and maintain a parallel education structure to the secular one. Jewish schools, Islamic schools and those of other faiths do not receive tax revenues and depend on private funding to remain open.

During the campaign Tory argued the system is worrisome and unfair. He was concerned that students in some of these schools are not necessarily meeting the standards of the Ontario curriculum because of the lack of funding and public oversight. Standing on principle, Tory said that public money either goes to all of the religious schools or none of these schools. He chose the path of across-the-board funding because he felt that was the preferred approach.

In doing so, he raised a crucial point that no one seems to want to tackle; it's the elephant in the room no one wants to address. It is, of course, that in today's multicultural, multifaith Ontario, perhaps what we ought to be doing is considering the removal of the right of Roman Catholics to send their students to separate schools. It is a funding practice that comes down to us from another age, and maybe the time has come to change direction. A tough choice, one that is politically very risky, as we have seen.

John Tory's position on multifaith school funding cost him the election. However, we are indebted to him for having opened a debate that perhaps was long overdue and that we will have to tackle squarely again in the future.

Picture of the day

Here's a great photo from the public domain picture exchange site, "stock.xchng."


Get out and vote

Apathy and indifference are the enemies of democracy.

In many Western countries, for some reason (a sense of well-being, a growing distaste for the weaknesses of the political process?), the electorate has been participating less and less in the democratic process. In the United States, for example, voter turnout in the presidential elections in recent years has hovered around a miserable 50% of eligible voters. In the UK, the figure has been close to 60%. One fortunate exception is France, where, during the last presidential election in April, voter turnout was an inspiring 84% of that country's 44.5 million registered voters.

On October 10th, voters in the Province of Ontario will be going to the polls. If you're eligible to vote, please get out and do so. It's a fundamental duty of every citizen. This year's election is especially interesting because of the referendum related to the mixed-member proportional system that's being proposed.

As flawed as the democratic system is, it is still the best participatory system we have. It would be dangerous and irresponsible to allow this hard-fought system to simply slide into irrelevance or into the hands of those who would manipulate it for their own selfish ends. We should heed Thomas Jefferson's warning: "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories."

The media has been collecting and disseminating useful information throughout the election campaign. Take the time to read, listen, watch and reflect -- then vote. When we look around the world and see what's happening in countries without functioning democracies, we see the perils we could be facing. Don't slide into apathy.

Voter turnout in the last provincial election in Ontario was 56.5%. Let's do better this time.