Friday, August 28, 2015

We are all very scared...

Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff taken off The Guardian

... of this monstrous, alien thing they are calling a 'migrant crisis', a 'swarm of migrants', an 'influx', 'flood', etc, etc. The first question I have to ask is: how is it okay for the media to dehumanise people like this? Yes, people, just like us, our brothers, sisters, parents and children. How would we feel if our loved ones (and indeed we ourselves) were discarded as some kind of epidemic?

I feel like a little disclaimer is necessary, so here it is: I am not an expert in international affairs; I am aware that this is an age-old, multi-faceted problem; and I'm not trying to paint myself as some kind of Mother Teresa. I just think it's important, amid all of the negative discourse surrounding this issue, that we re-humanise these individuals; that we strip back the words and phrases that we too easily resort to, take a good long look at ourselves, and face the situation for what it is.

We are all aware of the circumstances these people are fleeing (and if you're not, a quick google search will suffice). We know that these people are desperate - desperate enough to repeatedly risk their lives and endure merciless journeys just to get away. Even a rickety tent in a refugee camp, on the border between two countries, is preferable to civil war on their doorstep. And yet we fail to acknowledge their struggle. 

News channels and indeed nation leaders themselves have constructed a narrative using plenty of neat labels which help us to forget this struggle, like an inconvenient truth that lies beneath. They call it 'the migrant crisis', they call them 'illegal immigrants' or worse, dreaded 'economic migrants'. These labels, coupled with images of people climbing fences and clashing with the police, scare us. We are scared to the point where we adopt a numb, one-dimensional response to the situation: them or us. We are scared to the point where we feel like these people, this problem, this CRISIS, are all impinging on our lives unnecessarily. Go away! we think (or even say).

Our fear is not unfounded when the narrative is depicted in this way. The reality, however, totally distorted by this toxic discourse, is less extreme: Migrants do not want to steal our jobs or our benefits. They do not want to impose their religion onto us, or crush our local culture. They are simply seeking the most fundamental human need, the foundation for a dignified life: freedom. It is our duty as human beings and nations to grant them this freedom, even in its most basic form.

Everyone needs to wake up to the fact that it is more convenient for world leaders (particularly those who lean right) to depict the situation as unsolvable. In reality, the EU has enough money and power to mobilise resources and put a proper scheme in place, in which migrants could be processed much more efficiently, without the mass hysteria and fear-mongering. But why would they, if their voters want the migrants out? If you are one of the people who wants the migrants out, I can assure you that metal fences, policemen and dogs will not stop anyone who is only leaving behind suffering and oppression. 

The only sustainable solution is to demand that our governments do more to put effective schemes in place. But this can only be made possible when we, on an individual level, let go of the fears that the mass hysteria has instilled in us. We must lose our fear of otherness; lose our attachment to the medieval principles of nationalism that claim migration is a 'threat' to our identity. Crisis or no crisis, migration is a fact of life in a rapidly changing world. People are more mobile than they have ever been before - America will be predominantly mixed-race in a few decades. If we want to move forward, we need to accept these realities, and come to terms with the idea of living in more diverse societies, without seeing this as detrimental to our local cultures.

Of course, I am proud to be Maltese. I am also proud to be a citizen of London, where I currently reside. But I am first and foremost a human being, and a citizen of the world. If I am not prepared to extend my morality beyond my own borders, then I am living in fear and denial and shirking my human responsibility.

It is time to stop questioning their nationality, and start questioning our humanity. Only when we do this can we begin to see beyond the political rhetoric that has been set up for us, beyond the fear and prejudice, to see an image of a thousand faces, a thousand real people, who possess the same capacity for love, for fear, for joy, and for life, as each and every one of us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Do you believe in fate?

Pronunciation: /feɪt/
noun: The development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power.
While most days in our lives are, for the most part, underwhelming and ordinary, there are moments which stand out as important, even life-changing. I think these moments, that might steer our lives in a different direction, can be reduced down to unexpected events - over which we have no control - and our own decisions, whether they are big or small. Thus the narrative of our lives is moved forward via the ebb and flow of external occurrences and personal choices.

My first, extremely cringe-worthy, idea for a tattoo, was something along the lines of 'life is a collision of choice and coincidence' stamped in typewriter lettering across my forearm. Thankfully, I never went through with it, and as embarrassing as the outcome would have been today, that sentence basically sums up my stance on fate: I don't believe in it.

A lot of people believe in fate or destiny. This means, as the dictionary definition spells out, that what I call the 'ebb and flow' (namely events and decisions) is out of our control, following a pre-existing plan that governs us all. If you follow this belief system, my question is, who decides? If it is God, then I guess my questioning stops there (otherwise I'd just be opening a can of worms on who God actually is). If it isn't God, then who or what is it that controls the course of our lives?

I really can't grasp the idea that my day-to-day decisions add up to some cosmic scheme. 'It was meant to be!' some people exclaim at an unexpected meeting with someone in a cafe. For me, that translates to: my decision to go somewhere on a particular day happened to align with the coincidence of that person being in the cafe. Out of the millions of possibilities of event and choice across the billions of people in the world, funny coincidences - and some which actually turn out to be crucial in the course of our lives - are bound to happen on a daily basis.

Is it really OK to justify accidents, disease, death, bad luck, by fate?

I understand that the idea of it can be consoling, particularly when bad things happen. Fate is one way of rationalising the chaos of life; something to grasp onto when there are just no answers. But for me, renouncing my free will, and the course of actions that I have taken which bring me to the point I'm at now, is a total fallacy, and a denial of my own responsibility. I feel it's too easy to put things down to fate, especially when there's no real basis for it. Where does it originate?

Here is somewhat of a manifesto against fate: Rather than believing I was 'destined' to be born where I was, and had all the opportunities I've had, I put it down to luck and coincidence, and am therefore extremely grateful for my circumstances. Rather than justifying all of the wrong in the world by saying it's part of some supreme plan, I acknowledge it for what it is and do what I can to change it. And rather than believing that all of the good things in my life were 'meant to be', I recognise the steps I took and decisions I made to reach them, through my own free will, and a few chance encounters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Mindful Journey

Anyone who knows me well enough also knows that I am a big fan of yoga. Far beyond just a form of exercise, yoga (whose 21st-century popularity negates the need for introduction) is a way of life for thousands of people, as it encompasses a philosophy of thinking, acting, moving, and ultimately living, that is refreshingly simple, providing refuge from some of the unnecessary complications of Western life.

When I was 15 years old, I attended an international summer camp in Denmark where each week, we would gather round a fire and our counsellors (camp leaders) would tell stories, sharing a little bit of their wisdom with us. I remember being struck by a speech which was truly unexpected, coming from the slightly eccentric and reclusive camp chef.

He was basically talking about how when we are faced with a tedious task - like washing the dishes - we have two options: The first is to allow our minds to take over, filled with thoughts of boredom and reluctance to the task, racing ahead, thinking, 'what am I going to do after this?', making washing up a miserable experience from beginning to hurried end.

Alternatively, we can make a conscious effort to stop our thoughts from infiltrating, and instead focus, with a quiet curiosity, on the way the warm water feels in our hands, the turn of the ceramic plates and metal pots and pans in the sink, and anything else that is sensory, moment by moment. This way before we know it, the dishes will be clean, and the 'dreaded' task transformed into something neutral, perhaps even enjoyable.

Back then, this unexpected dishwashing anecdote was a striking bit of insight that struck a real chord with me for all its simplicity. I remember thinking, 'this makes so much sense!' It was later that I realised that this was my first 'raw' encounter with the philosophy of mindfulness that is the foundation of a yogic world view.

Years later, when I was writing my BA dissertation and studying for my final exams, I thought it would be a good idea to try a yoga class to counteract being hunched at my desk for hours on end. My mum had sworn by yoga for years, and I always thought I would just find it too slow and wishy-washy. Within a couple of classes I was hooked, mainly by how loose, light, energetic and focussed I felt in the evening afterwards.

With time, yoga's effects on me extended far beyond the physical. Beyond being just a (remarkably) good stretch, I started to notice my daily temperament changing. I was beginning to take life step by step, or movement by movement, as I did on the mat in my classes. I began to feel myself slowing down, losing my ties to predisposed thoughts, frustrations and prejudices, and simply reacting organically with each passing instance. These 'calculated' reactions were made possible by the cultivation of a deep awareness of my body, stepping away from my mind.

The cumulative effect of these classes, as well as reading further into topics of mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, was transformative in every sense. It gave me a strong sense of purpose and direction, as I felt that every practice was making me a more open, kind, healthy and happy human being. It also provided me with a solid foundation within myself, to turn to when things didn't go to plan, or when something made me unhappy. I felt my reliance on external events and commodities wither away, finding peace and contentment in quiet, contemplative moments, alone or with other people.

The best thing about yoga is that it is a journey ('of the self, through the self, to the self'), and one that never ends. Yoga allows us to look at life for what it is, cleaning away the clutter we build up in our minds. In the same way my camp chef explained that we could be mindful about washing dishes, we can find the deepest joy in something as simple as a touch of grass, a hot cup of tea, or a subtle stretch. Yoga has opened my eyes to the reality that these simplicities are already enough to live a life full of meaning and purpose.