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Across the Ocean to Swim or Sink

As featured in Inspiration-Letters 17, a biographical account of a journey in search of self; a journey in search of the sunlit path.

Dr Paul Morris, Victoria University WellingtonHe was a bear of a man, with a bear-like, straggly grey beard, the last vestige and visage of the Rabbinical life-path his Hebrew parents had probably intended, in a preacher-like occupation—Religious Studies professor and faculty head—secular Rabbi to the hundreds of truth-seeking youth who passed through his lecture theatres and tutorial rooms each year. Post lecture, sermon from the mount of Intellectualism, dozens would congregate around him for curriculum advice or, just as likely, words of learned wisdom. For a while, those many years ago while I was under his tutelage, I felt it my mission in life to tread the knowledge-paved road of academia, climb the spiral staircase of learning’s ivory tower, one heaped stack of books at a time. Thus I found myself in his office one afternoon discussing a post-graduate pathway, when a throw-away comment made more of an impression than all the academic advice combined. Like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle only I was building, something about this comment fit into place, rang true within the broader tapestry of my life’s finely woven experiences. “I left home and went to India when I was a teenager, convinced that the world was an illusion. I soon found out that it was very real...” I was far more interested in this apparently banished, near-forgotten youthful self than the mature one behind the desk before me—the version of my Religious Studies professor that could be ambitious, audacious enough to believe that everything around him, everything he knew might be wrong, than the version convinced that everything he knew was right. You see, I too used to think the world was an illusion, and I too found out that it is real, or at least not to be lightly, easily denied. * * * The Boyds were our neighbours for several years, a family of five in a yellow, L-shaped two story house, just over the neatly trimmed hedge from my Mother and I. Mr and Mrs Boyd, their two cats and three “spirited” boys—spirited to their grandparents maybe, highly mischievous to anyone else with two unclouded, unrelated eyes—soon became friends as well as neighbours, parents spending time and company upon gold velvet lounge suite worth a year’s wages to some, watching living room centre-piece walnut cabinet inlaid television set often conversation-piece as well, while children were banished to invite trouble in myriad ways—starting fires in the backyard to test the efficacy of a toy fire truck; firing stones a hundred metres or more down the cul-de-sac street to mayhem and collateral damage unseen, using slingshots made ingeniously and very dangerously from dressmaking elastic and off-cuts of two by four; exploring a just larger than juvenile body size tunnel whose length was never satisfactorily determined because a working party of concerned parents, not as unaware of our childhood havoc as we might have hoped, permanently filled it in. It was a time when televisions might still be made somewhere other than Japan, and the faux gold lounge suite matching floral pattern wallpaper tracing its way round window and door was fashionable in its own right, rather than in a retro sense, and one suspects, looking back over broader, taller shoulders, that Mrs Boyd, alone all day long in upper middle-class, neatly trimmed and weeded suburbia while Mr Boyd approved mortgages and balanced ledgers in a city bank, might have been quietly going cuckoo, or to use the New Zealand parlance, had a few sheep running loose in the top paddock. Conversations would turn more often to her two cats than matters walking upright and on two legs, and aside from quite magnificently managing the kitchen which produced our Sunday lunches, the rest of her time appeared to be spent assembling kit-set tapestries, cushion covers and floor-mats—all featuring embroidered cats—and reading books more fringe than her hand-crafted rugs. One book in particular stands out in my memory, its cover still visible in mind’s eye where others have faded. Funnily enough I never actually read it—at that stage of my childhood I hadn't graduated to the adult section of the library, let alone books on fringe science on dusty, taller shelves—but a few comments made by Mrs Boyd as she pressed it upon my Mother lodged in a very curious mind. “You know that working watches, thousands of years old, have been found by miners deep under the earth. And that there was once an advanced civilisation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?” Microwave ovens were big at the time, and the conversation soon rotated to plastic container cooking techniques. Although borrowed by my Mother, I suspect this book was never read by her either, as it unceremoniously became prop under right corner of our living room piano. Impossible to prise from beneath hundreds of kilograms of badly tuned keys and wooden frame, one word, more important than thousands of others unread, was prised from a single, capitalised and bold sentence on a pyramid illustrated, rather crushed cover—“EVIDENCE FOR THE LOST CONTINENT OF ATLANTIS!” The thought that civilisation could be older than commonly accepted, and, in a broader sense, life be full of hidden mysteries, at an age where—Santa Claus unmasked and tooth fairy banished—life was fast losing its magic, was a powerful fascination to this child—a siren’s call to a shore of promise existing still, just beyond sight. Something felt right in the idea that there was more to life than met a still immature eye, just as it also felt right that “I” had existed longer than my two handfuls of years. Television programs like Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not became weekly tuned to, never missed favourites, watched eagerly for anything to do with lost civilisations, and I spent an entire school holiday mostly indoors, reading every book I could both find and carry home on Atlantis. It was an age and spirit of curiosity, fascination, even seeking, and I could think of nothing more fulfilling than being an archeologist or explorer, crashing through jungles, sifting through mud and sand, searching needle in haystack like just to capture some remaining proof and vestige of glories lost, knowledge drowned. And if it such couldn't be found, I was desperate to get to heaven, just to finally have the answer to earthly mysteries I assumed none who were living had. Interests come and go in childhood, especially when one has not the means or resources to further them, and after reading every author I could lay my hands upon, and no few crackpots imitating such, Atlantis slowly sank from my mind, replaced by more age-typical concerns like the momentum and trajectory through the air of foot and cricket balls, or how to acquire music when tapes and records cost weeks of pocket money. 1980's synth-pop and MTV-imagery became my lucre sought for a while. Atlantis rose again in my imagination several years later when, age 15, summer holidays and boredom turned cohorts and captured interest in idle hands, prompted me to visit a new library where a wealth of books on the lost continent could be dredged. Somewhere, amidst tenuous theories based on yet more theories and scratched together half-fragments of evidence, arose something unsought and unexpected: “psychic” evidence. Framed in parenthesis as soon as dreamily uttered, mixing together fact and fantasy as readily as hallucination and dream, psychic evidence is empirically the most tenuous evidence of all, but it wasn’t the veracity or otherwise of anything spoken over a crystal ball that caught my imagination, but rather a single idea first discovered. Atlantis, the well-thumbed, often withdrawn book suggested courtesy of a psychic of unknown repute, was the obverse and reverse to our civilisation of present day, opposite side of coin to our physical, materially-centred culture—a civilisation where that which was inner was light to our outer dark of night. It was heady stuff to my younger self, the idea that everything around one could in a sense be false—that inner landscapes could take precedence, have higher importance than the bricks and mortar of outer surrounds—so heady in fact that I woke one night from fevered, reality shaking dreams, previously stable concepts like ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘self’ beginning to tremble, the house of my reality starting to subside. It was a two in the morning existential crisis, a wide-awake bad dream, and like self proscribed and administered medicine, I pretty much dropped the ancient civilisation quest there and then. Chopping at the roots of the reality tree is a dangerous occupation when your own reality, barely teenaged, is more a sapling and still growing, and though hugely enamoured of those new found, mind-altering metaphysics, I was still young enough to push to one side something that, neither cricket bat nor football, couldn't be caught or passed in the right here and now. It would be university before I wrestled with and attempted to wield the axe of knowledge once more. * * * Swami VivekanandaJust inside the entrance to the Religious Studies Department, a Victorian era former suburban home encroached and eventually swallowed by an ever expanding campus, next to the main office where students would queue to ask procedural questions or get copies of lecture notes, was a poster of Swami Vivekananda, pre-eminent disciple of Indian spiritual master Sri Ramakrishna, be-turbaned, arms wrapped powerfully across chest, twinkling eyes piercing infinity and far, far beyond from an original poster for his immortal 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions address, where, with the simple opening words “Sisters and brothers of America” he near single handedly introduced and charmed the Western world to the colossal spiritual heritage of his native land. Opposite the Indian spiritual giant and atop descending staircase, as if warning of academic failure and some slippery slope that lay beyond, a poster depicting scenes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—the seven lower worlds, gleeful fiery demons and the torments of hell. I was on a slippery slope when I entered the Religious Studies Department, and I would wince awkwardly, almost guiltily in front of Vivekananda’s iron, soul-penetrating stare. I had started meditating almost two years before, and after an extended honeymoon period of experiences and near daily unfoldment, was now the living embodiment of the smouldering poster on the opposing wall. Whether tormented for some karmic transgression of a previous lifetime or just the follies of this one, my experiments with self-styled spirituality had lead me down slippery slope to more unhappiness rather than less, confusion multiplied rather than decreased. I had attempted to transcend the here and now, yet was increasingly struggling to live the minute by minute. You wouldn't have picked my torment outwardly. I cruised through my Eastern Religions paper with ease, answered questions on Hindu deities and Buddhist philosophy almost as easily as if the answers were already written upon the page, but when it came to living, breathing spirituality, to the happiness and joy which even the textbooks will tell you every religion promises as its core, you could say I knew nothing at all. In the quest for self-knowledge I had armfuls of knowledge and nothing more. * * * University wasn’t what I expected it to be. While I had drifted through high school with neither inspiration nor enthusiasm, passing but never applying self to anything studied, university I had hoped, in the vague plan of my life that didn't really follow any plan, would change all that, finally be the “it”, golden shore and destination that something deep inside said life could be—something to be inspired by, enthusiastic about, seized with both hands rather than dropped or avoided. I didn't go to university for any conscious reason or aspiration—I had no idea what I wanted to be or do, and had no enthusiasm or feeling of having found what I was looking for in anything offered from the dictionary sized academic prospectus, but I had always assumed I would go, and in the end chose subjects somewhat at random—Philosophy, Psychology and German pencilled into an application form as the lesser of many evils. I ended up failing everything that first semester, in part because none of the subjects, or university itself for that matter appealed, and in part because for the first time in my life not applying myself ended up having a price. But failure did lead me to finally apply myself in an altogether different direction. Unenamoured of anything I studied, almost at my wits end and desperate for anything that might give me meaning and hope, I was quite randomly reminded of my passing interest nay obsession with Atlantis years before, and how there had always been one book in particular, source and reference for many others, that I had never been able to find: Edgar Cayce on Atlantis. * * * Edgar CayceInside the City Library, past the music section where self-conscious, befashioned youth with dyed hair and knee-high black boots flipped through racks of CDs while trying not to catch the eye of other youths dressed just the same, past the book worms who didn't care for catching eyes beyond those dotted on the page, was the spirituality section, a dusty after thought in the far corner of the second floor where the predominant foot traffic was to the bathroom just beyond. Despite being listed on the Library computer, I didn't find that particular book amongst those lonely shelves—it had been stolen so many times the exasperated librarians had stopped replacing it—but I did find a biography of Edgar Cayce, and within its pages, quite considerably more. Born to a simple farming family in Kentucky, 1877, Cayce was a photographer, Sunday School teacher and devout Christian now better known as “The Sleeping Prophet” and “Father of the New Age”, who by accident discovered the capacity, from a self-induced trance state, to quite simply explain the miraculous. From yet to be invented medical cures to the history and spiritual destiny of mankind, the trance uttered, never charged for words Edgar Cayce were a total revelation, and he and the truths he revealed became a life-transforming figure for me. What was the purpose of life? “To become one with God,” Cayce intoned sagely from a sleep like state. How to do this? “Through meditation, and the example of a spiritual master like the Christ” he asserted, with the same voice that could diagnose disease and prescribe cures from a distance of thousands of miles. That was all I needed to hear, the illumining words I had been pacing aisles and scanning shelves to find my entire life. In the midst of nothing at all—disinterested academic failure and discouraging living squalor—I had found my life-purpose and mission. I started meditating the very same day. In Edgar Cayce and the practise of meditation, I found certainty and surety where previously there had been none, the belief that there was truth in the world and a purpose to life, and that truth, just like knowledge of some lost civilisation, could be found in the here and now. Truth and the ultimate knowledge—self-knowledge—could be found within. * * * Somewhere along the way, countless books and myriad authors read—I travailed the alpha to omega of that library’s spirituality section over the next few months—I gained the impression that the spiritual life is, in practical terms and application, more a mixture of self-discipline, iron will and self-analysis than peace, love and joy. With a ready-mixed, perhaps not fully baked combination of the New Age, Eastern Philosophy and Jungian Psychology, I began, together with daily meditation, a Nietzschean quest to make myself into something more than human. It was like Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s odyssey for perfection of the body, but the subtle body rather than body physical—an attempt to sculpt heart, mind, thought and emotion as though limbs out of shape, transform weakness into strength as though training with weights—through repetition and force of will alone. With its roots in the idea gained all those years ago in a book about Atlantis that the outer world was less real than the world within, I developed my own version of spirituality in which everything in life could be made secondary to will and truth, and began the Herculean task of attempting, a little like the Deconstruction Theory popular in universities at the time, and very much like my world-denying Religious Studies Professor years before, to reduce the people and events around me to something more essential—eagerly sought for, otherworldly phenomena. I had without realising it started down a well-trodden path, the path of Jnana Yoga or “Path of Knowledge”, and a major sub-branch, Advaita Vedanta—the ancient Indian philosophy of Non-Dualism. Founded by the philosopher Shankara in the 9th century, Advaita Vedanta is the belief that the world and all its phenomena are ultimately a “Lila” or play of God, an illusion produced by and inseparable from the workings of the Divine Forces. While not untrue or mistaken in a philosophical sense, denying yourself and the living, loving breathing realities around you is not the ideal starting point for self-knowledge, and if spirituality can be described as a myriad of different routes up a mountain, the path of denial and negation is hardly the sunlit one. In fact, the path I had begun picking my way over was more akin to scaling a cliff-face, if not traversing a giant ravine. Constantly digging, dividing, negating and scouring for a glimmer of truth, some bedrock of reality upon which to stand safe and secure upon, I succeeded in nothing more than making myself more and more helpless and insecure. You can negate your family as arbitrary, this life-time only human relations; relegate friends as people unaware, ignorant of truth; push aside the entire world as materially based and imperfect in every way—and root out every trace of same in yourself—but in trying to shed your humanity like the skin of a snake, just like a snake you are trapped on your belly, crawling only in the mud. The problem with self-analysis is that you tend to miss the wood for the trees, run the risk in turning over rocks of only finding dirt instead of nuggets of gold. Spending your time thinking about your weaknesses and failings is neither affirming nor strengthening, and not at all a basis upon which to build true self-knowledge. Furthermore, in self-analysis you become trapped within the very imperfect, leaky vessel which most needs to be perfected, stuck within the unlit, always tending towards doubt reasoning mind—the limited human mind that is barely capable of seeing or embracing the infinite reality into which we all must grow. Of course, if I had been following Advaita Vedanta strictly, I would also have known about the necessity of studying under a Guru...
“You want to realise God, but it is through aspiration that you have to realise God, and not through self-analysis. If one expects to go to God through analysis he will be on a very long, tortuous, almost impossible path. The mind is constantly protecting itself by its human logic. If the mind says today, "This is the truth," tomorrow it will say that that very thing is falsehood. The mind contradicts itself at every moment, and when you become one with the mind you just enter into a sea of confusion.” —Sri Chinmoy, The Hunger Of Darkness And The Feast Of Light, Part 1
“Yeah hello, I'm calling about the meditation classes advertised?” The man on the end of the line sounded busy, and despite being the owner of the answerphone’s cheery new age tones and wafting, soothing flute music—encountered on several previously discontinued calls—seemed neither embracing nor interested in conversation. “They start next week, Monday at 7pm...” ‘Was there anything else?’ the unspoken but implied, impatient following line. I persevered. “Well, see, I've been meditating for a little while already, and was wondering if you could tell me a little about the course?” Meditating by myself for two years, at a complete loss with how to deal with the morass of my own making I was stuck within, I was desperate to just talk, swap notes with a fellow practitioner, meet a kindred spirit who might know a little about what I was going through, perhaps be able to offer some guidance or advice on treading the inner road, more muddy trail I was knee deep within. “On Sri Chinmoy’s path we consider everybody to be an absolute beginner...” I ended the call none the wiser than before I made it, yet further resigned to the fact that life had, dead ends if not gaping ravines on every side, construed to leave me no course of action but to follow the sunlit path, next Monday evening. * * * Waiting for the first night of the meditation course, I read a book by Sri Chinmoy, and the words of the God-realised master struck a chord, rang an inner bell. Sri Chinmoy’s poetic, deceptively simple writing matched, nodded in agreement with everything I had gleaned so far, but my university over-educated mind was unable to grasp the simplicity therein, was prone, like a lecturer, to talk over the top of the deeper, plain-spoken truths on every page. In the Indian tradition within which Sri Chinmoy has his roots, a single word like “God”, “Truth” or “Love”, said as mantra and repeated countless times, is enough to lead one to enlightenment through realisation of the ultimate truth contained, but if truth was a coin, I was a greedy magpie, too intent on collecting and hoarding than spending or recognising the wealth I already possessed. Love, devotion and surrender are dictionary words we can all know the meaning of, but each can take lifetimes to fully realise. I read of love, the spiritual heart, God and the soul in Sri Chinmoy’s writings, even had my share of fleeting glimpses of all, but was unable to identify or hold on to any because, like drawing water from the ocean with a woefully tiny cup, I was attempting to do so with the reasoning, intellectual mind. This is why Sri Chinmoy advocates meditation in the spiritual heart as the safest, surest way, shortcut and golden path to self-knowledge and God. The heart identifies, expands, embraces and loves—it has the capacity to become the very thing it focuses upon. If meditation in the mind is a treacherous, rocky path, meditation in the spiritual heart is safe and sunlit.
The mind knows That there is a sunlit path, But it refuses To walk along the path. —Sri Chinmoy, Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, Part 25
I walked around the city block for a second time, heart palpitating, sweat forming, not from exertion but an irrational, sourceless fear. I had arrived early for the central city Sri Chinmoy Centre meditation course, and every ounce of my being was screaming to turn around and go back home, just forget about the classes, do them some other time. Meditating by myself for so long, the whole time spent wanting to find and join others who also meditated, I now for no reason any finger could be placed upon wanted to join only myself, as though, no longer looking for truth under rock or stone, the light of sun was far too intense. In this case, over-practise of mental gymnastics and force of will really did come in use—I simply spoke, yelled over the top of panic and fear, told my mind to shut-up, climbed the stairs to the second story venue as if symbolically reversing down the academic ivory tower. “Is this the meditation course?” I asked a smiling, welcoming lady sitting behind a small classroom style desk. “It certainly is,” she said, her smile doubling as she offered me a registration form, “welcome to the sunlit path...”

My Japanese Brother

A visit to a Zen monastery in Japan, meeting with a monk, more similarities than meet the eye.

Mr Nagai San, Zen monkHotel Mets, Ofuna, Japan. On the outskirts of Tokyo, a city that begins and then never seems to end. I am here on a whirlwind, week long visit with Sri Chinmoy and students, sharing a room with a friend already awake before dawn, his the unusual habit of beginning the day with a coffee. And I do mean beginning—before hitting the shower and immediately after hitting the bedside floor. Thoughtfully, hotels in Japan cater for the most extreme caffeine addiction, machines vending blackest gold located conveniently on every floor. And pretty much everywhere else for that matter. In other places you might call this commercial opportunism. Like in my country, where ATMs are more prevalent on street corners than police officers; the cynic would reply that they are more profitable to run. I will happily admit that my glasses are green-tea tinted, but will argue from more than just a position of Nihon-bias that not everything in Japan runs to a profit motive; like the incense imbued atmosphere of a Shinto shrine, the air here is thick with a culture of sacrifice and service. And sincerity too. Try asking someone for directions at any train station. Often unable to speak English, a person may not be able to help you, but certainly will want to help you. I was personally guided through three stations and multiple connecting trains to the very door of the Shinkasen bullet train by a local who did know English and was going my way. We exchanged business cards afterwards, but I value much more the sincerity of heart he offered me that day. Examples of what could be termed the Japanese quality of thoughtfulness abound, like here at Ofuna Station, starting point for my journey this day, track-side platform pre-marked with lines approaching trains will sure as the rising of the sun come to a halt alongside, each and every sliding door precisely aligned. Perhaps more accurately one could call this trait “mindfulness;” it is as though the practise of Zen Buddhism has entered the national bloodstream. Do I have time for a coffee from a station vending machine only feet away? Where there is a lack of will it seems there is always a caffeinated way, Suntory Boss: World Executive Blend, served ice cold this humid, mid-summer morn, can bearing moustached emblem not unlike a youthful Fidel Castro. The boss in question perhaps, or was something ‘lost in translation?’ As in all countries civilised enough to believe in the value of society over the primacy of individuality, the Japanese Rail system is a pleasure to use. Clean, swift and punctual. But as I may have already intimated, it would be hard to imagine Japan any other way. The train journey to Kamakura from Ofuna is two stops and barely five minutes. A short distance in truth, but uncomfortable humidity and sense of urgency have already declared it too far to walk. Swift and punctual is my express aim; an appointment with friend and Swiss-German cameraman, fellow contributor to online podcast my must-not-miss imperative. Said cameraman has made one point more than clear to this occasionally absent-minded presenter: lateness is a cultural no-no here in Japan as well as Switzerland, where trains to even the most remote alpine villages are said to run on time. Being dilatory is not a usual quality for me, but sensitivity to being lectured just may be, so I took the diatribe in typically Japanese fashion—polite, silent stoicism. United outside Kamakura Station in full morning rush hour, we embark on foot to Kenchoji Temple, first Zen temple in Kamakura and founded in 1253, later pioneer of Zen Buddhism throughout the whole of Japan, with intent to film an episode of Inspiration News, permission gained by phone to interview a monk about his practise. The road from the station to temple is lined with vending machines, glass enclosed temptation so prevalent you could navigate at night by confectionery-lit glow. The road is passage for tourist pilgrimage rather than devoted darshan these days—one million tourists a year and obviously thirsty; but seven hundred years ago the entire nation orbited around this site, the Japanese Shogunate centred in Kamakura, Kenchoji its most important temple. The Rinzai Zen sect with some 500 branch temples was here overseen; seven main buildings, 49 sub-temples and at least one thousand people. Kenchoji Zen Temple, Kamakura, JapanThe first priest of Kenchoji was Chinese, not Japanese, Zen master Priest Doryu Rankei (1213-1278) of Zhejiang Province near Shanghai, invited as founding priest by Zen devotee and fifth Hojo Regent Tokiyo Hojo (1227-1263), patron and founder of a temple no local at the time was sufficiently qualified to officiate. Of the entire complex, only the Bonsho or temple bell stands from the year of founding, numerous fires and an earthquake in 1293 having damaged or destroyed every other structure. Designated a national treasure, it weighs 2,700 kilograms, and is too fragile to be tolled except on New Year’s Eve, when it is rung only 18 times instead of the traditional 108. Entrance to the Hojo or Chief Priest’s quarters begins with a large foyer lined with shelves for shoes. The interior proper begins past this point, floor raised about six inches, obvious differentiation between areas where shoes should and should not be worn. All aspects of the interior bespeak of perfection; of the stillness and clarity of the states of concentration and meditation. Lines are perfectly straight, lacquered black beams to finely sanded and then polished wooden floors. The meditation room is to the left, entry forbidden to visitors except between 5.00pm and 6.00pm on weekends, an hour long zazen or sit-in meditation open to laity, but the sliding doors are open, temptation to disappear into nothingness inside. Everything is still and perfect here, and familiar in a way I can’t place in memories living. I am quite disinclined to continue with the official reason for our visit—the reason for mine has already been met. We are led along a spotless, paper lined wooden framed hallway to a small room, offered seats on a contemporary style sofa in front of a traditional style Japanese low table. Although my companion did phone the day before to arrange our visit it transpires that no one here is familiar with our purpose—the filming of a monk and his practise, and there is ten minutes of polite consternation as a succession of people enter and leave the room with questions, whispered conversations apparent outside. In the end we are told that filming will be possible, but only for a ¥30,000 fee, a fee unable to be waived no matter how pure non-profit motive. Talking however is without charge, and seeing as paying for a filmed interview is beyond our non-existent budget as well as beliefs, we settle for this, questions to be asked by myself and translated by friend brought especially for the purpose, cameraman now largely redundant. The interviewee monk's minder, an officious young man of powerful build, obviously the senior, although not in apparent spirituality, leaves the room without payment, signal for the interview to begin. Mr Nagai-san, as the adept opposite us introduces himself, is a Zen monk of ten year’s practise and almost thirty years old, virtually the same as myself on both accounts. His father was a priest but gave his son the opportunity to choose a career life; like his father, he chose the spirituality and discipline of the monastic life instead. I ask as to whether he has aspirations, whether in time his duties will change, position or responsibilities raise, the unspoken question whether he might one day achieve a position of responsibility like his father, but he appears slightly offended at implications unintended. “Mr Nagai-san only does what he is told to do. Mr Nagai-san eats when he is told to eat, and what he is told to eat. Sleeps when he is told to sleep. He does not perform any action with intent or desire for self-reward.” I laugh and apologise, “I certainly did not mean any offence!” He tells us of the typical daily practise here in the monastery, an existence of simple chores and spiritual activities. Practise, in the widest sense of the word—for all activities undertaken in the monastery have a purported spiritual purpose, begins at 3am and finishes at midnight , and consists of cleaning, gardening and cooking, meditation in between. We are all amazed at the austerity and intensity of such an existence—I for one barely function on six hours a night. “Does Mr Nagai-san only sleep for three hours a night?” “When Mr Nagai-san is ready for this, then yes” is his reply. We are unable to get a more direct answer on this topic, returning again and again to variations of “One who follows the teachings of the Buddha will live in this manner.” It appears that three hours of sleep a night is his ultimate goal, but progress towards and readiness for such a level of discipline is judged by others; it is probably dishonourable for him to pass further comment on his own status in this respect. We continue talking for a while, telling him of our own meditation practise as members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, like tradesmen swapping notes, all the while sipping green tea provided and nibbling discreetly on sweetened rice crackers, trying our utmost not to lose a single crumb on the spotless floor. It is somewhat uncomfortable to be asking questions of him so directly, even though such a practise is standard and in fact required of the form of journalism we are engaged in; for me at least, keenly felt Japanese sensibilities dictate a discussion of polite pleasantries and shared affinities, a circling of the outer edges of but never crossing boundaries unspoken of acceptability. You could say, as we sit asking questions of this monk, that I am indulging a personal affinity with his lifestyle quite unnecessary of words. Many years ago at age six I was allowed to choose for myself a book on an occasional outing to town. I choose a picture book on Japan, a children’s travel book full of descriptions and photos, a kind of A-Z of the land and it's culture. I would read this book over and over, staring for hours at the photographs of a people and land strangely dear to my heart, pictures of bath houses, bullet trains and samurai warriors jostling with stories of seppuku and juken jigoku (examination-hell) for centre stage in a lively imagination. At age seven I began karate lessons, at my own insistence and pacifist Mother's reluctance, and was soon counting from one to ten over and over in Japanese while performing endless exercises and very occasional martial arts; "praying to the Lord Jesus" as instructed by fearful Mother during the several minutes of silent meditation at the beginning, ostensibly for my own spiritual protection but in truth welcome distraction from the impossibly hard task of wrestling to stillness writhing thoughts. Seeing the same robes I used to wear on these temple bound monks brought all this back to me, and something more, a deeper familiarity that was the originator of my Nihon interest, then and now. Only rice-paper thin proof of reincarnation perhaps, but were I to have more it would be very un-Japanese to share... Interview over, we depart with smiles and bows. We all have planes home to catch this day, but for me at least it is a farewell without sadness—I have found a second home, as much inside me as beneath red, rising sun.

Close the Window

Sun over Pacific Ocean by Jaitra GillespieOut of the corner of my eye someone is waving to me. Out of corner of hearing, headphones on and music playing, someone is speaking to me. “Excuse me...” Seat 23A, right next to the window, United Airlines flight 870 from Sydney to San Francisco, several hours in and several thousand kilometres into journey, I'm in a world of my own high above this world, listening to music while the Pacific Ocean shines, sparkles below. “Excuse me, can you close the window?” The man in same aisle, opposite row has caught my attention, silenced music’s refrain, redirected reverie’s wander with gesticulating hands and insistent tone. I am perfectly happy with the window open, pleasantly lost in clouds passing and distant ocean’s flow, but I am a veteran of these cross-Pacific, daytime into nighttime and back again flights, time and significant money spent practising meditation twice-yearly with Sri Chinmoy in New York for more than a decade, and closing the shutter at start of movies or onset of nighttime is as routine as jetlag upon landing. So, on the off-chance I have missed an official announcement, and the by-chance that I am by nature an accommodating person, I draw the blind as requested, close eyes to a peaceful world below to keep the peace up above. In Japan, “wa” or harmony, is considered important above all. What may be seen as lack of individuality or assertiveness from a Western perspective, in Japan is a long-studied, always conscious effort to keep the orchestra of society playing in tune. To a Japanese perspective, one’s individuality should not impact upon, should not detract from the freedoms and needs of others, and when it does, one breaks not only a social contract, but what is seen as the very law and fabric of the universe. In feudal Japan, sticking your head out so could on a bad day be enough to lose it. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to interrupt, but could you please close the window next to you as we are about to start the in-flight entertainment service.” Barbara the stewardess, with timing more perfect than drawling Californian delivery, enforces with public announcement what moments before I delivered unenforced. I don’t need to be instructed how to keep harmony; as though raised Japanese, despite being born over 5000 miles away, it is a private announcement I must always follow. Blinds closed, lights dimmed, attention dims, movies follow movies but are not followed as I drift in and out of the comfort of a sleep that is never comfortable. Check watch, read a book, stretch legs and shift weight, don’t check watch and read a book again, force my mind into passing time as cabin night—no stars above, few stars on B-grade screens—less than willingly passes into day. What should be a first resort is my last; at last I meditate the time away. Someone is tapping on my shoulder... Strangely, in the extreme lack of personal space that is modern coach travel—air, leg room and body heat all one and shared—it is still a shock to be deliberately touched by the person shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee with for over half a day, and my eyes jerk open as though woken straight from a dream. “Someone wants you to close the window”, owner of arms and legs says. “What, why?” ...first words to mind and then mouth as I scramble to remove headphones, leave stillness of meditation, gain my bearings. The lady sitting next to me shrugs, points to the aisle beyond. “Can you close the window please?” The same man as before, four seats across but not nearly far enough away, is gesticulating, motioning with up and down gesture to once more close the blind I had opened, movies now watched and half-forgotten, just a short while before. Something within me disagrees. Something about the man disagrees. I will not be complying or accommodating him this time. Two hours into flight, point of departure’s night yet to be flown through and movies yet to start, sure I’ll close the window. Two hours to go, breakfast about to be served and movies closed, no way, not a chance. “Why?” I retort, not merely a question but forceful, deliberate challenge. ‘I'm happy with it unclosed,’ my unspoken, implied justification, ’and who are you enforce your will on all of row 23?’ Trapped between open window and wide open pride, I will not be backing down. “I can't see the film!” His face is turning red, and his voice, climbing above dull drone of aircraft engines, has reached a pitch approaching a whine. You can tell a lot from a person the first time you see them—first impressions do not lie as the saying goes; first thought, best thought same adage by another name. This is what I trusted in challenging Mr 23E’s request—I followed my heart, acted upon what felt right at the time. Woken from quiet reverie two times, face to indignant face a second time, with near blank mind and meditative calm, the part of my being that reacted so strongly was the right part, the trustworthy part: the plain, dependable truth of my heart. ‘His request is selfish and unreasonable,’ my heart spoke, ‘more about him getting his own way,’ its clear explanation. ‘He does this sort of thing all the time, do not give in to him’ the inner instruction, and in a flash, less than a single second, action right and response appropriate were decided, chosen without a moment for pause or consideration. “I can see it just fine” I reply, calmly, strongly, a statement of truth, fact to take or leave rather than apology or excuse. Trapped in his seat by more than buckle and belt, he squirms, searches to and fro, looks as if for Barbara the stewardess the come to his aid, but like his manners, she is nowhere to be seen. Humpf!”, 23E mutters in disgust, muted, half-beneath his breath. He turns away, defeated, harmony not I the victor over his inconsiderate demand. I have put a bully in his rightful place, and I have put harmony back in her place, visible like the through window open, strolling freely up and down the aisle. Sri Chinmoy taught that in today’s world it is no longer appropriate to turn the other cheek when wronged, keep the peace at any cost at all. Rather we must illumine ignorance when we cross it, and put wrongs right where we can, not as in an eye for eye and tooth for tooth, but by defending ourselves, staying the hand of one who would give us a slap. In turning not our cheeks, we prevent another from doing wrong, and slowly, action by right action, make the world a better place.
So we have to be very careful when somebody does something wrong to us. It is not that we are threatening them. Far from it. Only we have to feel that by allowing him to do the same thing again, or indulge in the same wrong action, we are taking him away from his own divinity. At each moment, just as we should always try not to do anything wrong ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, we should also not allow another person to do anything wrong. We know that our encouragement of his mistake is in no way serving as kind of compassion. No. If we encourage him to do the wrong thing again and again, then this is not compassion. This is our self-imposed weakness in the name of compassion. —Sri Chinmoy, Earth’s Cry Meets Heaven’s Smile, Part 3

The Urban Dictionary

Emo

Juvenile most of the time, reviled some of the time, but never banal, the Urban Dictionary provides an alternative take on the everyday, and the night-time in-between.

It is dressed downwards of mature sometimes, maybe most of the time, but that is why it is the “urban” dictionary—just like a city, you do not visit this place with your mother:
You do know what LOL means right? OMG!!1! Lol, Mum pls stop using teh internets!1!!
Clearly, the Urban Dictionary is by and for the “Google Generation,” the generation which, to quote from the horse’s acne spotted mouth, was:
brought up by doing their homework using Google, as in ’damn, all these kids in the google generation get A's’.
You'll note that being educated by a search engine has not necessarily been a step forward for grammar. Likewise, in this dictionary, proof-reading and spelling are out of step, lagging far behind. Did somebody say spelling? On this topic, the juvenile consensus of the Urban Dictionary is remarkably mature:

Spelling

  1. A lost art.
  2. What people are incapable of doing on the Internet.
  3. Absent from the internet.Spelling, O Spelling, where art thou? Along with grammar, punctuation...?
The internet may still be predominantly American, but in matters of pronunciation, the Urban Dictionary is at times refreshingly international, waving the global flag for the Queen’s English as the rest of the world, with stiff upper lip or otherwise, correctly enunciates it:

Aluminium

How the entire world (except the Americans) say aluminium. Why? Because that's how it's spelled. Brit: Aluminium is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust. American: You mean Aluminum? Brit: No, I mean Aluminium. Moron.
Everything is not as it seems in the Urban Dictionary. Words do not just mean what they mean, or even what they have evolved to mean, for on these mean, new, lexicographical streets, words are melded into new and wonderful shapes, twisted, turned and bent in a manner that would give Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary, a meltdown. You could say that in the Urban Dictionary, words become like plastic:

Plastic

A materialistic, fake man or woman. In particular, someone who is attractive yet lacks any sort of depth whatsoever. Everyone in this club is plastic.
It is perhaps not surprising that there is no entry in the Urban Dictionary for the author of 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, for his child, now generations removed, has been herein defined to door-stopping, fly-swatting irrelevancy:

Dictionary

A very large book full of information about how words are spelled, pronounced, used in a sentence etc. Although originally intended for reading, the dictionary serves many functions: it can be used as...
  1. a stepstool
  2. a flyswatter
  3. a paperweight
  4. a doorstop
  5. firewood
  6. etc. etc. etc.
Likewise books are deemed no longer relevant by the precocious Urban Dictionary, and without search field and ability to instantaneously edit or copy and paste, depressingly one dimensional and linear. Which to paraphrase your English teacher is a shame, because despite their page turning, stitched and bound irrelevancy, books will never cease to have hidden dimensions of imagination and mind, dimensions not always apparent in their noisier, brasher successor:

1. Book

an object used as a coaster, increase the hight of small children, or increase the stability of poorly built furniture. where do you want me to put your drink? oh, just leave it on top of that book.
But every rule and just coined and spun at home homily admits an exception—who would have thought of the just consigned to paperweight and wastebasket book becoming a synonym for “cool”?

2. Book

Cool. In the T9 predictive text on cell phones, the numbers 2665 spell both "book" and "cool," but "book" is the first word to display. To save time, it is left and understood to mean "cool." be there in 20 book. see ya then.
Every generation adopts and adapts words to make a language all their own; if you didn’t grow up watching nursery rhymes on DVD, the Urban Dictionary is your looking glass to a wonderland of language you have probably never heard:

Meew

One of the best words ever.. can be multi-purposeful... basically it's a cat noise.. and implies confusion/question... Billy: OMG I went and got a trichi today... Sally: Meew?
While much in the Urban Dictionary can be classed as new and unfamiliar, one can not always assume all that is from beyond the horizon of right now is even a twisted path to making sense—clicking on the dictionary’s random button serves up words and phrases so nonsensical that a team of untrained monkeys could not have typed their way to a place of less sense:

Tocka

rapper from the Nasti Nati it's a new craze going into a new phase merk out and do the down da way -tocka
In the Urban Dictionary, sense and meaning is often found in a popular culture context. The respective 1970s and 1980s martial arts and ninja crazes give the following contemporary stereotype its brick-breaking cultural pin-point:

Basement Ninja

A person, usually male aged 13-35, who practices inferior self-taught fighting, killing, or stealth techniques in the basement of his/her parents' home or in a basement apartment. Typical hobbies include collection of decorative 'ninja' weapons for the purposes of practice and display. Typical behaviours include exhibition of martial arts proficiency, provision of stealth tips, and demonstration of human pressure points. Anybody who carries nunchucks to a 7-11 is a basement ninja.
Are you spending too much time online to avoid doing work offline? You’re a procrastinator, and the Urban Dictionary has got you coined:

Procrastinator

One who will do anything, including spending an entire day looking up random words on urban dictionary, to get out of doing work. This habit often has a terrible effect on that person's relationships, work, or grades. I am a procrastinator
Yes, this internet age dictionary is broad and multi-participational—anyone can submit a definition or word, anyone else can vote it up or down—but no matter which dictionary you use, the rest of the world just does not understand Canada:

Canadian Heritage Moments

Commercials made by the Historica association of Canada, outlining Canada's "achievements" in 60-second shorts. Considered by Canadians to be hilarious, people of any other nationality just don't get them.
Serious and overbearing from a distance, Germans are a people also often misunderstood, but not by the all-embracing, always glib Urban Dictionary:

1. Germany

A country that is ambitious and misunderstood. Everyone wants to be like Germany but do we really have the pure strength of will?

2. Germany

The country Hitler wasn't born in. Guy 1: Hey, do you know where Hitler was born? Guy 2: Not Germany. Guy 1: k.
Oh the youth of the today, they are so shallow, so infatuated with the temporal and passing, can we find any wisdom in any of what they say? Of course we can, but first we must understand the contemporary parlance within, the internet age idiom of cynicism and heavy sarcasm. Translated so, the following are as cutting and subversive as the polemic of any time:

Illegal Immigrant

Anyone who is Mexican and anyone who is mowing your lawn. Anyone who runs across the U.S. border with Mexico Mommy, look at that guy mowing the lawn. Look away, George. He's Mexican and he's an illegal immigrant, and he'll steal your ice cream if you keep looking at him.

Television

The early 21st century drug of choice. A shared illusion, making its addicts think they have friends, a life, access to good information, and the critical thinking skills to form valid opinions. Fatal in large doses. Paul spent the day eating Cheetos and watching Television, then had a light heart attack in the evening.

McDonalds

A place where people eat alot, get fat, and then sue to get money. I ate at McDonalds everyday for 7 years and now I weigh 500 pounds, so I'm gonna sue them to make some cash.
No matter the culture, no matter the time or clime, the feeling and spirit of the human heart will always beat and breathe to the one timeless tune. Once upon a time and century distant, love-lorn haiku poets wrote of these same sentiments, under the very same half-clouded moon that shines today:

Ear Synch

If you miss someone a lot and are away from them, you can both listen to the same song at the same time, and you will feel a deep connection to the other person, you will imagine what they are doing and feeling. It is different than talking on the phone. Both people get a strange feeling of bittersweetness and connection while the song is playing.
There is something soothing, reassuring about such moments of zen-like connectedness occurring in the most nontraditional of situations, and it is a reassurance that no matter how far we as human beings run, with iPod on and iPhone charged, from our cultural and social roots, we will never be able to SMS or Wikipedia ourselves away from the basic human condition:

Zen

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form Q: Does a cow have Buddha Nature? A: Moo
The final word on the Urban Dictionary to a seer-poet and library vast of his work, Sri Chinmoy Library, in haiku form:
E-mail is man-connection, And not God-communication— No, never!Sri Chinmoy

What Hope a Decent Brew?

“Go to the French cafe by the departure gate. It's got really good coffee, and sandwiches too.” Dressed like a character from a Jack Kerouac novel, a connoisseur of places subterranean, my friend knows his coffee, and the city he lives in does too. Forget paired and halved slices of bread, I have been in Melbourne three days, Australia’s second city and first city of art, culture and coffee—soon to be largest city by upwards trend of statistical metric—and sandwiched in an airport coffee lounge queue, post check-in and pre board-on, I am going to steam it, pour it, drink it one last time, order it extra strength in a double sized cup. I should have known better when I saw the queue. I should have called it quits then, turned around and walked away. I should have seen past hope and expectation for reality’s cold, half empty glass. Not the size of the queue but the position, the opposite side of the food cabinet, the opposite side of common sense. Till and people queuing to the right; food, barista and people waiting for coffee to the left—this café expected people to queue, order and pay for food that they could not see, and such little touches nay blindly splayed brush strokes on the canvas of life suggest a business run without a clue. What hope then a decent brew? “Hi, do you have any sandwiches that are vegetarian?” At the head of the queue, face to face with girl taking my order, I had to ask for a recital of the food cabinet contents that could not be sighted. I had left the carry-on bag to briefcase packed queue to inspect the uninspiring, un-kosher selection of ham and cheese condiments earlier, losing my place in doing so to a pair of airline pilots, accustomed on ground as in air to being in front of everybody else, but hope against hope, thought it worth asking if something, anything solid might be joining my liquid, caffeinated must. In life hope is a welcome, cheerful friend, but disappointment a more consistent companion. Preferred company unavailable, the girl behind the counter answered my question with a lack of understanding bordering confusion, and with no small effort, shifted sideways to double check what comprehension could not. Unwillingness, written on face in letters larger than the blackboard behind, remained firmly in place. “Um... no, they’ve all got meat in them.” And then silence. No other suggestions forthcoming, even half-consideration a cup drained bare. She shifted back, impatience joined us for company. “Then could I have a croissant?” Although chalked in white and capitals on the menu one row below “obvious”, this request may have been confusing too, because the girl, furrowed brow, tangled thinking as apparent as gaudy lipstick, queried that which common sense and opening question had already answered. “Did you want the ham croissant?” Something other than the croissant in this cafe appeared to be served plain. “No, plain, thank you.” I am well used to this sort of treatment. I have been swimming vegetarian in a stream of meat-eaters for fifteen years, and am not the kind of person who paints the entire world white just because it is the colour I’ve chosen to wear. Callousness and deliberate unwillingness though are harder to swallow. Perhaps the “croissant toasted with butter and jam” description of the menu was optional, perhaps for me only imaginary, for I was handed a “plain”, room-temperature croissant, sans condiments and toasting in a white paper bag. The only thing toasted about this croissant was my starting to burn at the edges temper. “I’ll have a mocha too” I added in measured, deliberate tone as total was added, note proffered, change returned, no recognition of my request shown other than correct price charged. Taking croissant in hand, taking bad with bad, I moved to the opposite side of queue and counter willingly, with relief, to the barista and coffee machine, where two shots of heart-palpitating happiness would be made. Things were looking up, my welcome, cheerful friend returned, hope a half full growing fuller coffee cup. About eighteen, about eighteen years away from mastering his trade, the barista emptied coffee grind from the previous shot with a rushed, hasty jolt, then returned handle to head without cleaning it. Live long enough, pay attention to memory and intuition close enough, practise meditation well enough, you get a foretaste, premonition of the outcome of every action before you act. I could taste the coffee being made as though already drinking it, and it tasted dirty, gritty, acidic, as though drinking from the bottom of a used, uncleaned mug. My cup grew fuller quickly with a dark, brooding, dirty brew, hope drained quickly away, cup half empty, now gone. On second thought, but thought too late, my well-meaning, well-discerning friend had said to go to the French cafe by the departure gate, and the only thing French about this café were the stale croissants, baked so long ago that they could have been shipped from Paris. The clock struck boarding time, the airport announcer chimed, I made my way past duty free stores and just free, just arrived passengers to Gate 24. With a queue for coffee almost as long as passengers boarding the plane, the café I should have gone to was literally next door.

Long White Cloud by Alan Spence

My stories often have their origin in something that actually happened - an incident, a memory, something heard. (In this case it was the leap out of a plane at 12000 feet - one of the scariest things I've ever done). It's then a case of finding a voice, letting characters take shape, coalesce round the incident. Then I see how they deal with it, where it leads, and in the process I figure out what the story's really about. (Usually it's mortality, that great resounding bass note that's always present in our lives).
So writes Alan Spence, award winning poet, playwright and author about his short story Long White Cloud, and what a story it is, a sketch descending at terminal velocity from personal experience, a death-defying, fear-facing leap from a plane evoking cloud covered memories of other lives lived, lake surface below reflections on mortality and what may lie beyond. Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, Spence clearly knows from cover to cover the topic he teaches. He takes the stuff of personal experience—a trip to New Zealand, a leap from a moving plane—and gives it voice, clothing, personality; characters and narrative germinated from the seeds of emotion and memory, a flower beautiful to behold, story compelling to read the final, blossoming result.
“The kind of thing that had happened to him before. Memories that were not his own. Once in Japan, he’d looked at himself in the mirror, seen someone else entirely looking back at him,  a Japanese man with the intense gaze of a warrior.  Someone else, and yet.”
Reincarnation, memories of past lives, visions of samurai warriors encountered in a 12,000 foot plunge into nothingness and empty space? Not so far-fetched when your next life is getting closer at 200 kph, and not so far-fetched when the airbourne author runs a meditation centre—the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Edinburgh—where presumably he practises daily the cross-legged, back upright and breath relaxed equivalent of descending from the heavens at a rate of knots. “All paths lead to Rome”, as Sri Chinmoy himself once said, “but one may get us there a little quicker or easier.” In his mid 50s, Spence writes as if he is the same age as the students he teaches every day, as if 50 is the new 30 as his opening lines muse, energetically merging lyrics from a song by Blur and prostrate checks with meditations on mortality and the vapid thrill-seeking of youth, as if the author’s practise of meditation has infused his writing then spilled beyond, branched out from the meditation cushion and taken root in every life and situation met. His most recent long player, The Pure Land, “a modern epic, at once a rattling good adventure, a heart-wrenching love story and a journey of the spirit”, was translated into 19 languages and his most successful book, but if this recently written short story is any indication, Spence is warming up, building momentum for an even greater work. Read the short story: Long White Cloud by Alan Spence.

Airport Anxiety or a flight down memory lane

The following story has sentimental value for me far beyond whatever worth it may possess of its own right and writing. Not only was it written in Japan, penned during the final hours of first visit to a land that has always had a mysterious, wasabi-strong pull, but it was more or less my first ever attempt at writing—first attempt at composing words just for the sake of writing, just for the sake of telling a story. Yes, I had written before this point—tens of thousands of words and nearly sanity as well unburdened in the course of an Arts degree; public relations and journalism also attempted to varying degrees of success; even published and paid for doing so once by a glossy nationwide magazine; but here marks the point and starting line crossed of daring to call myself a “writer”, even if doing so was prefaced and footnoted with self-effacing, pride-protecting excuses. To completely frank, reading this piece now makes me cringe—it is self-indulgent, unfocused, of unclear voice, metre and metres wide of aim and intent—but then it should be—you don’t get to here without starting from there, and with hundreds of stories now behind me, if I can’t see progress made and ability progressed, it would be time to admit that I never will. So I will resist the urge to tinker and rewrite, edit and rework, and present story and bared soul just as I wrote it: Airport Anxiety—energetic, coffee fueled prose composed in a Tokyo airport coffee shop, with considerable debt and mention owed to Waiter Rant.

Airport Anxiety

Almost home. Not that I without regret to be leaving Japan—in fact quite the opposite, for this country has just made the top of my “All time favourite places that I have visited and would like to be born in next lifetime” list. Not a long list to be honest, but a list probably in need of a shorter title. There is always an end to everything in life, and responsibilities’ voice tells me that I have a job and numerous commitments to return to. And a pocket fast running out of money. I get off the free hotel bus at Terminal 2, Narita Airport, Tokyo. Or should I say "de-bus", for I am at an international airport, and here only Japanese and American English are understood. Call me a crank, but one of these days I will refuse to leave my seat when I am asked to "de-plane"... But returning to the topic of poverty's pinch. I have just spent three nights at the Narita Hilton, and am now seriously out of pocket. At this point you may question the wisdom of staying in a four star hotel when one is on a budget. While I do occasionally suffer from delusions of aristocratic grandeur, delusions that I have yet to precisely place, in my defence I got a very good price via the internet, after failing to secure a reservation at six cheaper locations. Also in my defence, neither the website, nor the barely comprehensible American call-centre operator named Chuck, who processed my credit card, said a thing about the fact that breakfast, gym use and internet would be additional. Thank goodness for hotel room push-ups. I have timed poverty's approach to approximately the door of airplane. Once on board I will no longer need coin or currency, and I am almost there. A quick check of the entrance-way terminal map, and I head straight for the Air New Zealand check-in desk. And then back again to the map. "Yes, Air New Zealand, Aisle D" I confirm mentally—it says so right here in English. Again I traverse the Great Wall-like queue at the Air China desk in vain. "Um, excuse me, this is Aisle D, but there is no Air New Zealand counter in sight" my internal monologue continues unbidden, and completely rhetorically. And then out loud to a semi-articulate but genuinely helpful lady at the information counter near-by. "Air New Zealand-da, Flight-ta 90-a, check-in-na at-ta 4.45pm", is her answer, but not the solution to my problem. And no I can't enter my frequent flyer airline lounge without checking in, and besides that particular lounge is in Terminal 1—this is Terminal 2. "American-Express-a lounge-a 2nd-da floor. Pay at door to enter-a?" she offers helpfully. It is only 11.30am and I am near broke in the airport of the most expensive city in the world. Too broke to even eat the wax food effigies that double as menus in the restaurant windows. With a full five hours to kill my first thought is getting rid of my bag, seeing as it doubles as a portable film studio and is ridiculously heavy. After all I've already had my hotel-room work-out this morning. Conveniently placed behind the check-in counter where I can't yet check-in is a bag storage service, slightly more expensive than the lockers, but the only option when one is travelling jumbo size. I hand, or rather bodily lift my bag to the attendant, and fill in the proffered baggage check form, noting the charge of ¥500 per day (about US$5) with the practised nonchalance that only having a well-paying job can bring. "Do you take credit cards?" I ask blithely, for only in hindsight will I remember that this is Japan, possibly the most technologically advanced nation in the world in all regards except it's banking system—the use of foreign issued credit cards is everywhere a lottery. "Yen only" he replies. "Pay-a on pick-up-u." I mumble near incoherently something resembling "thank-you" and "I'll find some cash"—not that clarity is a top priority when people don't speak more than 10 words of your language—for it has just occurred to me that I spent my last ¥-flavoured coinage of note on an iced-coffee from the hotel lobby store. The attendant smiles politely, as everyone in Japan does. It's not that Japan doesn't have ATMs, for it has almost as many as the ubiquitous roadside coffee and soft drink vending machines, but ATMs that work with foreign cards are another matter. As are foreign issued cards that are over their limit and then some. I am wander around the terminal in a financially motivated panic-induced daze, clarity of thought deserted, wondering how on earth I am going to retrieve my bags with neither coin nor linguistics. Call me hopelessly attached, but I am quite keen to leave the country with everything with which I came. The world changes when you are poor—mentally if not substantially. Suddenly, to my eyes, everyone I see possesses a security which having money brings, a security which I now lack. It may be only a perception, and the wiser part of me knows that perceptions are just that—changeable, relative and often mistaken, and on these terms easy to dismiss—but this perception is gripping me tight, like the sense of fear gripping my throat. Childhood memories of losing a parent in a public place are revisited, and a similar almost uncontrollable fear and sense of helplessness is pressing strongly against the poise and detachment that I normally practise if not embody. Then an event happens which is hardly conducive to my slightly shaken and stirred state of mind—I am stopped by two policemen and asked for my passport. Polite and friendly in a very sincere way you will almost never find in other countries, none the less I still have to swallow a new feeling: slowly rising, angry indignation. The officer who asked for my passport begins examining the finer details of my nationality, copying them to a piece of paper which already contains several names, while the other asks my occupation. "Designer" I say quickly, making a mental calculation as to which of my various job descriptions will most easily be understood. He looks slightly confused, so I move to what is the universally understood occupation of our time: "website developer" ("film star" wouldn't have been true). "Ohhhh, website-u designer-ah" he nods approvingly, repeating phonetically the same in Japanese to his colleague, whom to my relief has so far politely avoided making any comment upon my more than unflattering passport photo. "This is YOU?" or "Sir, are you on medication?" the unspoken commentary that springs to mind. So it seems that I do not pose a high enough risk to airport security to warrant further action, action which, although it may have helped pass the remaining time in hand is, I suspect, best avoided. Perhaps they were after another "handsome, European male of average height and powerful physique." Or completely short-sighted. I walk past people in café windows laughing and drinking coffees. Something which, financially thirsty, I cannot do. Laughter may still be affordable, but I am not in the mood. In the process of simultaneously looking for a working ATM and considering ever more fantastic outcomes to what common sense tells me is really a minor predicament, a brief moment of clarity intrudes, and I remember to check the change pocket of my wallet, currently heavy enough to be a bodily appendage in it's own right. In one of those fortuitous moments of cosmic synchronicity which can never be planned, yet occur daily in even the smallest details of a seeker's life, I have precisely ¥500 in change—not a "go-en" less or more. My deposited bag is secured; so is my poise. Jolted from the self-sustaining feedback loop of fear and worry, worry and fear, confidence re-emerges like the sun from behind a cloud, and in its' secure warmth I find my way to a more than tiny Post Office in the shadows of the Terminal basement—the one dependable place in Japan for securing currency with international cards. With ¥500 already in my pocket, and like a gambler drunk on sudden success, I am going for broke—I may yet strike a coffee and cake jackpot with which to pass the time. In the end I was a winner—¥2000 yen remaining on an assortment of magnetically stripped plastic cards whose balances I dared not read. Enough to buy, against my waistline's better judgment, a white chocolate latte and cinnamon danish from "Starbucku", and to my further delight, access to a wireless internet connection in same. Glazed with minor fortune and fueled with caffeine, the first draft of this post was the result, a giddy stream of infectiously confident prose written in a single take in a Narita coffee shop. It was all a minor predicament of course, made larger than lifelike through my thoroughly fanciful imagination, but in final judgment, another valuable lesson in the meditative prerequisites of calm and poise—core subjects in a life-long course I intend to master.