Erection Time

Oops, that was a typo – I meant to write ‘Election’, but now that I have your attention, it is nearly that time…On December 19, Lee Myung-bak (aka The Bulldozer) will be goneski and the people will vote for a new president.

The leading Conservative candidate is politician Park Gyeun-hye. She is interesting for two reasons: she is a woman and she is the daughter of former president/dictator Park Chung-hee. The left are painting her as a privileged right-winger who is power-hungry and not too bothered with the commoners, having a market-oriented political stance.

Her opponent is former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in who is representing the Democratic United Party. He is portrayed as the erudite, do-gooder Christian and political activist who is for the people. He has a record as someone who fights for the rights he believes in, even if it comes at a personal cost.

Ahn Cheol-soo

However, the most interesting candidate is Ahn Cheol-soo. Or should I say ex-candidate because he recently pulled out of the race in order to give his side (the Democrats) the best chance of winning. He has worn many hats in his fifty years: medical doctor, professor, dean, entrepreneur, philanthropist. He is an almost Bill Gates-like figure in that much of the wealth (millions of dollars) generated by his anti-virus software has been given to charity. Oh, and he also gave his software away to citizens for free.

Why should we care about this man? Because he is a pioneer, a maverick and an anomaly – someone who offers hope in an unmeritocratic society that is so often plagued by corruption and greed.

According to an article in The Economist, “Mr Ahn is a rare self-made success story in an economy dominated by family-run conglomerates. That makes him a role model for many young Koreans.”

In a presentation given to students at prestigious Ewha Womans University, he explained that: “What you do accounts for two thirds of your entire achievement. The remaining one third of the achievement is accomplished by help from society and supporters.”

This is an important message in a hyper-competitive climate that is becoming increasingly individualistic and cutthroat – to realize that one person needs to be responsible for their own actions and achievement, but also that they need support.

Too bad he pulled out – he would’ve gotten my vote (if I could actually vote).

North Korea Blues

I was hustling through town the other day, looking for a new screen cover for my iPad. I was all in a tizz because I have an iPad 2, and since the iPad 3 has been released, all of the accessories for the former have become obsolete and disappeared from the shelves. It was cold and raining and I was getting fed-up, but I was adamant that I would find what I was looking for. Eventually, I found a store that still had some. I bought one and the shop assistant kindly put it on for me. End of drama.

It’s funny how we can get so wound up and frustrated over small things like this – the daily annoyances that piss us off and put us in a bad mood, like not being able to find a parking space, having to wait 15 minutes for your friend to show up or finding that the washing machine has eaten one of your favorite socks.

Shin Dong-hyuk talks about his book, Escape from Camp 14

The way we lose perspective of some things has been on my mind lately after reading my friend Barry Welsh’s interview with North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk.

Born into a prison camp, Shin witnessed the execution of his mother and brother (brought about by his own actions), was treated as a slave and tortured. He managed the almost-impossible act of escaping and defecting to the South where he currently lives and works as an activist.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of books written and published by defectors who, through having their accounts translated into English, bring their experience and message to an international audience. It is one way to raise awareness of the abhorrent plight of those on the wrong side of the border, but it is not enough.

Often, it is incomprehensible to me that just a two-hour drive away from where I live is a country in which 24 million people suffer under a totalitarian regime that denies their freedom and independence. Over 100,000 citizens languish in prison camps while others are denied basic necessities such as food and electricity.

The best and most heart-breaking book I have read on the lives of North Koreans is

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. She closely follows a range of North Koreans over several years, both in North Korea and in the South after their defection. Each experiences a level of pain, humiliation, deprivation and loss that most of us will never encounter. Their emotional and mental resourcefulness, as well as their resilience and determination allows them to endure starvation, poverty, unemployment and stigmatization. It is a stark reminder that life is really fucking unfair.

In my own experience, I once volunteered to tutor a woman from North Korea through an NGO that supports defectors as they set up their lives in Seoul. We met once and I was struck by her small, lollipop-like frame – a result of childhood malnutrition. Despite the language barrier, she managed to communicate something of her story which involved making it to China, eventually to Shanghai where she taught herself Mandarin, worked for several years in “Import/Export” and finally to Seoul. I didn’t dare probe too much into her past as it is commonly known that females from the North have an easier time getting out as they have something to sell: themselves.

Unfortunately, she became ill with kidney disease and we never met again. Although, I sometimes think of her, especially when I’m having a bad day and remind myself to keep things in perspective and be grateful for what I do have. As Christmas nears, and I am surrounded by festive lights and hyper-consumerism, I wonder about those less fortunate and how we can help them?

Capoeira: A Journey to Find Your Whole Self

Me vs. Contra Mestre Omi

I cannot say what led me to this incredibly complex and intricate Brazilian martial art. It is so physically and mentally challenging that it is like constantly swimming upstream, or trying to find calm in a vengeful storm, requiring strength, grace and equanimity. The first classes I took in New Zealand were demanding, but I was buoyed by the warmth and camaraderie of the other students. There was something exotic and mysterious about the movements, with their African roots. The strikingly handsome Brazilian instructor embodied every universally desired masculine physical trait and moved with a strength and elegance I had never seen before. I was a fish out of water.

To witness a game of capoeira is to be mesmerized and enchanted by its beauty and playfulness. Accompanied by singing and music, it is incredibly seductive and draws both players and spectators alike into its grip. To play it, especially in the beginning, is to sometimes feel anxious, vulnerable, intimidated and as clumsy as a drunk monkey. Maybe trying to be that person who can contribute something so beautiful, powerful and graceful to the world is a reason to persist, to feel the energy surging through your body and being part of a group where everyone feels the same intensity and ecstasy.

Instructor Zumbi in Action (left)

At my first festival (Batizado) in Seoul, I was spellbound by the mental and physical acrobatics I saw and questioned by own perceived limits. There is a depth and agility to capoeira that can never be defined. It is infinite and unfathomable. Instructor Zumbi, imbued with manna and projecting the spirit of the Brazilian warrior he is named after stood firm in front of the participants and told us to look around at those in the room. We are gathered here in friendship and fellowship, he said, and the people we sit beside now will come to play an increasingly important role in our lives as we continue this journey.

Mestre Acordeon (2nd from right) and Mestra Suelly flanked by other capoeira royalty (Tico, Kenta, Versatil, Chicote).

Mestre Acordeon, a brilliant and revered man who bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, has achieved incredible accomplishments, both within the capoeria universe and out. He has taken capoiera out of the roda (circle) and into the world through activism and philanthropy. His lectures were profound. I took away one simple truth: “Capoeira is about awareness and perception.” By his side was Mestra Suelly, the first female capoeira master born in the United States.

In a traditionally male dominated art, and one that places value on masculine traits (physical prowess), how inspirational to see a woman with such high status. Always firm and strong, she was in complete command, her singing dramatic and spine-tingling. She scrawled her wisdom on one of our girl’s instruments: “Stay long on the path of capoeira.” These words provide a reminder that sometimes the most challenging path can be the most rewarding. Slowly, ginga by ginga, there is a deepening of understanding and awareness, a new way of being in the world.

Mestre Acordeon getting his players ready for action

Of course, Mestre Acordeon in his infinite wisdom must have the last word. In writing about the day he ‘baptized’ Mestra Suelly to the rank of master, he reflects, “In essence, capoeira is a ritualized combat that functions as a vehicle of individual expression through which the capoeirista –­ a fighter, a philosopher on an introspective journey, and ultimately an artist that practices her art with her own body, emotion and spirit — finds her whole self.”

It’s True: Lying is a Co-operative Act

In my previous post I wrote a little about deception. In light of recent events of a personal nature (more about that later), it got me thinking about the complexities of lying. Among my 4,000 pet peeves, being lied to is probably at the top of the list. Nobody likes being lied to, even when it is done with good intentions (as an act of protection or to avoid discomfort).

Of course, it is easy (and natural) to feel anger towards the liar and to feel like a victim, especially when the lie has serious consequences. However, I recently stumbled upon some interesting information related to this topic that has really got me thinking about this whole deception schtick.

Part of living in a culture in which saying “no” is taboo means that lying, particularly white lies, becomes a part of everyday life. These lies are of little consequence and act as a social lubricant. I’m as guilty as the next person for telling the odd white lie.

As writer Amy Bloom puts it: “I cannot shake my dependency on the white lie, because I was brought up to be nice. And I’ve never figured out the nice way to say, ‘I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than come to your house for dinner.’”

What is interesting about lying (white and otherwise) is that it is a co-operative act. If, like me, you are somewhat sensitive and intuitive, often you know when someone is lying right to your face (or your computer screen). The crazy thing is that you don’t call them on it.

Lie expert Pamela Meyer outlines the dynamics of this in her fascinating TED talk: “Think about it, a lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance. Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie…if at some point you got lied to, it’s because you agreed to get lied to.”

In other words, we willingly participate in deception! And why? For many reasons: to avoid conflict, to save face, to maintain an illusion, to remain in denial. Maybe we are scared to transgress social mores and norms. We don’t want to come across as psychotic/paranoid/delusional/accusatory and so we play the game.

More often though, as Meyer points out: “Lying is an attempt to bridge a gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies, about who we wish we were, how we could be, with what we’re really like.” Truth schmuth. I totally rocked that purple, shoulder-padded Lady Gaga-esque pleather dress last night. My friend told me so.

Sam Harris, who has on him a very large brain (he’s a neuroscientist), has written lucidly on the subject of lying. He argues that, “People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.”

According to Harris, there are generally two kinds of lying – things we do (acts of commission) and things we fail to do (acts of omission). We judge acts of commission more harshly, while the latter – failing to correct false impressions and assumptions – allows the liar to get away with a lot more. For example, someone may lie to you about their marital status (“no, I’m not married”), only for you to find out later that they are, whereas an act of omission means they never tell you their marriage status in the first place.

Harris takes a conservative approach to lying and veers on the side of honesty as much as possible with some exceptions (because who wants to sound like one of those annoying and brutally honest four year olds who often blurt out ‘you are fat/ugly/stupid/bad at Connect Four’ etc.).

He argues that: “by lying, we deny our friends [family, lovers] access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.”

In my own case, when a male friend (and potential romantic interest) omitted the tiny fact that he is married and had recently became the father to a new born baby because he wanted to get laid, I was livid. Then, when I calmed down, I realized the way in which I had cooperated in this façade. Over the course of several months of correspondence, I had asked questions, had some suspicions and intuitions but stopped short of probing further, even though my instincts told me I should. There was something for me to gain by being naïve, an attempt to bridge the gap…my access to reality had been denied by his omissions, yet it was partly my own fault.

To revisit Amy Bloom: “The meaningful lie, the kind that involves being untruthful or deceitful about important stuff to those you love, is like poison. Telling the truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. Lying kills love.”

The Faux Guru

Hipster and Prankster Vikram Gandhi

Jaded, cynical and anti-religion film maker Vikram Gandhi is out to expose the commodification of spirituality in America and comes up with a brilliant yet ethically dubious social experiment: what if he were to start his own Indian religion, find some followers and capture it on film to show how gullible and foolish people can be?

With the help of an orange robe, a blingy Gandalf-worthy staff, and some feral facial hair, the transformation of New York hipster to Indian guru (known as ‘Kumaré,’ a variation of his middle name, Kumar), is complete.

Kumaré travels to Arizona with two pretty actresses who act as his assistants. He is a striking and charismatic figure who exudes charisma and serenity. He soon attracts a dozen or so followers who engage in chanting his name, devour every word he speaks (“I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion”), practice his made-up yoga and welcome him into their homes.

Fake Guru in Action

The plot thickens when halfway through the documentary Vikram/Kumaré starts to feel uncomfortable with what he is doing and questions his motives. He becomes fond of his devotees, feels connected to them and genuinely enjoys their company. He decides to unveil and come clean with the truth. However, he can’t go through with it. “As I sat in that circle,” he tells us later, “I realized I’d connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”

I won’t spoil the ending, as it really is a film worth watching. But, there are several striking aspects of the film worth briefly considering:

  1. Seriously, who (apart from Sash Baron Cohen), would have the gall to undertake such an unethical project and deceive people like that?! Especially vulnerable people who are seeking some kind of spiritual comfort (or is that what ‘real’ gurus do anyway?)
  2. Wow, is it really that easy to start your own religion and are people really that trusting and gullible?
  3. Vikram’s own transformation as he comes to relate to his devotees and question his own (lack of) faith. It is interesting how his new persona takes over and he comes to identify more with his made-up self than his original self.
  4. What happens to his devotees during the course of their relationship with him is very interesting. As his followers, they start to make positive changes in their lives, aided by his support and encouragement. One woman loses 30 kgs, another follows her dream of becoming a yoga teacher. An attorney starts to meditate everyday and vows to get out of debt. A couple in a rocky relationship re-commit to each other.

Kumaré puts this down to a concept in Buddhism – the idea of killing the Buddha. That is, you should not become fixated on a leader or guru. You must realize that he is empty, an illusion and you are seeing what you want to see.

As ‘Kumaré’ states on his Website: “The person you see before you in the mirror each morning can be very convincing, but do not let your reflection define you. You must visualize your desired self, emanate it, and become it. Take control of your destiny, and you can accomplish anything!”

That’s right. He has his own Website complete with teachings and workshop information. I don’t know whether this is a part of the prank or if Vikram is being serious and has really become Kumaré. I guess the joke is on me.