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samedi 23 juillet 2016


I have been traveling continuously since 1993, when I left the flat in London on a journey to Malaysia, even though I had not lived anywhere permanently since 1986. What would be chaotic for many became normal for me. My travels in these twenty years have been mainly in Asia, Europe and the Americas, all involving long journeys. Countries visited often included: Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cochin in Kerala in Asia; Paris, London and Brussels in Europe; Miami in the USA, La Habana in Cuba, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Sao Paolo in Brasil, and an array of smaller cities such as Leticia in Colombia, Hanga Roa in Rapa Nui.

Being an anthropologist, the world then becomes your field of observation, your ears become tuned to nuances, accents and cultural pretensions. What is honest and real becomes separated from falsehood, immodesty and shallowness. One of the earliest observation was that most of the interactions during the course of the day is less than five minutes long and one has to know the symbols of interest to the party concerned so that you can transact that symbol without insulting the person. Plus these interactions often involve a request for help or some form of civic assistance or in my case some form of assistance with travel: flights, hotels, upgrades, transfers. It is very important to keep in mind that in the few minutes you have in most of your interactions, not to insult the other person, a common practice to make the speaker feel good about themselves. It is better to know your own prejudices and practices before these interactions as the “bottom line” as the Americans say is to have a smooth flowing day with some pleasantness about it.

One country I have not mentioned about, without geographical borders, is what we refer to as “Indian Country”, the villages where American Indians live. I have been extremely fortunate to spend time with them, in fact it is that connection over a long period of time that brings me back over and over to them.
In my early days with them, I noticed how quickly they could correctly conclude about the characteristics of a person whom they don’t know at all. I clearly remember an elder Indian waiting to interview a young white lady who was seeking a job with the tribe: As he looked at her, he muttered, she will not be good for us. For many other reasons, she was not hired but I was impressed with this innate ability of the Indian to know what the person is thinking or is actually about. I had long conversations with many elder Indians and I wanted to learn it as it would be so useful to me, during my multiple interactions of the day during my travels.
I attached a name to it, even before I could explain it: Transaction of Symbols. I wanted to learn about it, for my own daily life to become smoother, and also to see how I could use it in healing of the Indians and others if the interactions involved Illness. (I am a consultant Physician to some tribes of Indians in USA)
At first I tried to explain using a metaphor of sending and receiving messages. The person and you are both able to receive and transmit message. When you look at that person or talking to the person, you are sending a message, encrypted symbolically of course, and your impression is formed by whether or not that person is able to receive your message and reply to it.

In my consultations with Indian patients, I began finding ways of inserting myself into their world, thus making a connection, which would later be used to transfer health related knowledge. When I meet an Indian for the first time, I do not enquire about them, but about their family. Let us say, a patient has a name Walker, then I would enquire, who was your grandparents, what were they called? Who are your relatives? Thus their world is open to me, before I particularize the enquiry into their medical query, for example, why their cholesterol is elevated?
I realize it is a metaphor and mechanical but I had been fortunate enough to have good teachers. My first teacher, who recently passed away to the other side, was “Dry” Brown, a Meskwakia elder. She washed away little by little all the false pretenses that had been heaped upon me during my Australian adolescence and the medical student days in London and Miami. When an Indian is sitting in front of you, she used to say, whether it is the leader of the Eagle Clan (and you may not know it) or a 13 year old boy, show them respect. Do you realize that boy has enough cultural knowledge to be awarded a Ph.D.?
So, I got rid of the false pride, I am the doctor attitude and learned humility when you know and are being told that a 13 year old would know much more than you would ever know.
Later on, she said in a hush tone into my ears: If you learn to love the Indian, your life will never be the same.

The meaning of those prophetic words took some time to sink in, as my attitudes towards plants, animals and other human beings became influenced by the gentle nature of the American Indians. I was a keen student, I had now the tools of Anthropology at disposal and not just that of a Medical Doctor.
I came to the conclusion, emphasized by very many of my Indian teachers, it is your purity of mind that creates the world for you in which you would remain happy. It is not someone else that brings happiness to you but it is you that would bring happiness to others and in the process you would remain happy.
At around the same time, I had the chance to reject the middle class petite bourgeoisie attitudes of the people I was living with in Jamaica and USA, Australia and UK. I clearly remember a song by that prophet without a name, Bob Marley: when one door closes, another one opens.
Cuba was the new door. Emphasizing the need to be of help to others, not to judge people harshly or not at all. In both the situations, American Indians and Cuba, I was in the position to help, that desire to help and ability to help, satisfaction of helping pushed me into a period of life of bliss which continues to this day.
In 2008, an energetic Yoga teacher, Vandana Yadav, from Bombay came to KL at the invitation of my dearest friend Mun Ching Yong and that was my introduction to Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. While Vandana talked, later on Mun Ching also would also discuss, I noticed the similarity between the philosophy of American Indians and Patanjali. The more I delved into both, more similarity at the root of their thinking, after all both are more than 2000 years old and American Indians having been around longer and continuously in this land they call the Turtle Island.
In the book by Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra of the Yoga Institute, Santa Cruz, on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one comes across this.

What’s the principle involved in knowing the other person’s mind and to what extent?
In summary, of sutras III, 19, 20, he says, by concentrating on one’s own mental process then we can know the mind of the other person. We come to know our own thoughts so well, so well after performing a SAMYAMA on it, that we can find out very easily how another person is also thinking. (I recommend you reading this commentary by Dr Yogendra about knowing the content of other person’s thinking. P 357)
In both these ancient philosophies it is your mind that needs to be cleansed, do not look outside for happiness, no single person would bring it to you, and many would complement your happiness.
Indians over the course of the years have taught me how to keep your mind pure and clean in interactions. In this way, you can interact with people of all places, all ages and all educational levels. Most of the people who would help you in this life are not from your social class or educational level, so no need to have false pretenses about your class or education. Indians with whom I have an extraordinary good relationship, no single Indian has ever asked me where I went to medical school. It is not of concern to them, the fact that I respect them is what they look for.
A good friend of mine, the good family doc, Jim Kerr of South Dakota, gave me an epithet when visiting Miami: You are Homeless but you are Upper Class. The upper class life (not based on salaries or gifts or endowments) is only possible through the “kindness of strangers”!

As mentioned earlier, most of the interactions in life are short, and for a traveler it is varied. During the month of August I will be at airports in Miami, Paris, London, Muscat, Cochin, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Phoenix, Omaha, Orlando, Panama, Havana, Mexico City. Imagine the multiple number of interactions. Uber Drivers, Hotel receptionists, Executive Club attendants, Flight Attendants, Lounges, Restaurants.. Not to mention family and friends in London, Miami, Mexico, Havana, Cochin, KL. It is the collective contributions of each and every one of the people that contributes to this euphoria of living... Helped by the fact that Indians have taught me to transact symbols of everyday life and turn that into the contentment and pleasure of living, pouring this onto the interactions with friends and patients and other lovers who pass by.
American Indians, Yogic Philosophy of Patanjali and Cuba. These are what guardians of my life’s happiness are at the moment.

No comment on the Yogic philosophy would be complete without referring to Krishnamurti, the contemporary Indian philosopher
Living with yourself as you are:
In this solitude you will begin to understand the necessity of living with yourself as you are, not as you think you should be or as you have been. See if you can look at yourself without any tremor, any false modesty, any fear, any justification or condemnation -just live with what you actually are. - Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known,69

 I was thinking of Vandana Yadav of Bombay, Mun Ching Yong of Kuala Lumpur and my teacher Patricia Brown of the Meskwakia when I was writing this. Thanks to hundreds of others in and out of Cuba who contribute to my daily contentment and bliss.