This is a conversation I had recently with journalist and fellow battle rap enthusiast, Pete Cashmore (pictured, left). Both he and I have battled mental health problems for a number of years and thought it would be good if we could discuss how hip-hop has helped us in our respective struggles to battle our respective demons. Pete was also especially keen to learn more about autism given that a few battlers from various parts of the world have the condition, notably Charron from Canada and Zain Azrai from Malaysia. The former is one of the top 10 battlers in the world and I think that being on the autism spectrum has been a huge advantage in terms of mastering an art-form that requires a lot of preparation, creative intelligence, linguistic fluidity and, if necessary, the skill to improvise or freestyle, which is extremely difficult to do.
Anyway, here’s our chat:
Pete: I’ll get the ball rolling, shall I? My first question would be: I’m bipolar and you are an ‘Aspie’, as in Asperger’s Syndrome. I think a few people have a rough idea of the meat and potatoes of what bipolar involves, but maybe Asperger’s less so. Can you sum it up as best you can?
Tom: Okay, basically Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition that affects how I perceive the world and relate to others. It’s not an illness but a difference in neurology that has both good and bad sides. On the one hand, it enables me to focus on tasks for extended periods of time, to take in large amounts of information and in my case, to speak numerous foreign languages fluently without any trace of an English accent. On the other hand, I struggle when it comes to things that come quite naturally to so-called ‘neurotypicals’ (a term we Aspies use for those who aren’t Asperger’s) such as navigating the social world and generally getting on in polite society. We Aspies tend to be at the extreme end of being introverted individuals and basic skills such as engaging in small-talk really don’t come naturally to us. In fact, being in a large gathering or in a noisy venue like a pub or club can be especially distressing for us. Autistic people tend to see life in much higher resolution and our brains often take in too much information and go into a sort of shutdown. This makes it extremely difficult to form lasting friendships, find romantic partners and schmooze our way up career ladders. While our unique talents, whether programming, linguistics or engineering, are often prodigious, we generally underachieve in life many of us languish in unemployment often due to an inability to get past the interview stage.
Pete: Thanks for that. This rather begs a question that I was expecting to come later but there’s so much in there that directs me towards it, which is: Do you think this informs your love of rap music in some way? It is, after all, the most information-heavy of modern musical forms. I’m also interested because I know battlers with Asperger’s who seem to be very good at preparation on short notice, as if there’s a heightened sense of focus.
Tom: Definitely. I was speaking to Dan Bull, a UK rapper very popular on YouTube who also has Asperger’s, about this the other day. There seems to be a natural affinity for those on the autism spectrum with lyric-heavy genres like hip-hop. Our neurotype gives us a unique love of patterns and the rhyme schemes and repetitive loops of hip-hop really seem to sit well with us. I would say it’s actually quite therapeutic. Dan himself, attributes his unique talent for wordplay, assonance and rhyme construction with his differently-wired brain. Like him, I’m a very awkward middle-class interloper in the hip-hop genre but my astounding memory for lyrics, album titles and rap trivia made me quite popular with the cooler kids at school. As far as preparing for battles, I’d imagine Asperger’s is a real benefit. As soon as we get down to a task, there’s really no stopping us and our ability to focus with laser precision on the job until it’s done perfectly makes us suited to doing things on short notice.
Pete: I’ve found that the battle community is home to all kinds of mental health phenomena and also that it’s kind of the ideal place to, if not leave them at the door, then certainly embrace them, because it’s such a non-judgmental place. All of humanity is in there.
Tom: Definitely. Battling is a great leveller where people from all backgrounds and of all different temperaments can get together and have a good old laugh at each other. We live in an era of stifling political correctness where people are too afraid to broach certain topics or aspects of a person’s being. The fact that battling can break certain taboos without being malicious makes it a very unique artform and one that promotes an egalitarian atmosphere. There’s something very humane about the experience of battlers exposing their weaknesses, foibles or defects to a large audience at be able to have a beer with them afterwards. For autistic people, who tend to be highly anxious and sensitive, facing one’s fears like that head on I imagine can be a very cathartic experience, t
Pete: As you know, I spoke a lot to depression and bipolar sufferers in the past and the general response seemed to be: What’s the worst anyone can say to me, given the thoughts that I have had myself? I think it was Mr 13, the west London rapper, who said that depression had given him a granite head, which is a quote I liked.
Tom: Exactly. It can be quite a relief to acknowledge the hard truths about conditions like Aspergers rather than have people in polite society pussyfooting around them. When somebody confronts you with it head on in a battle it often elicits a laugh. Through the medium of rhyme and humour, a battler can reveal the deep recesses of trauma and pain in the subconscious of his opponent and this can be an immensely satisfying experience for an audience to watch. I think that’s why battle rap has such enduring appeal among its faithful. For a brief time in the battle rap arena, you feel oddly at peace with all the paradoxes and divisions in the world. Nothing seems quite as bad as it might do in the outside world and the use of humour, wordplay and creative insults has the effect of ‘levelling the playing field’ between individuals often travelling very divergent paths in life.
Pete: When you have a creative spurt… Let me rephrase that, actually. Do you, as I do, have ‘spurts’ of creativity when the writing seems to pour out of you? The bipolar condition kind of makes this a given, some days it’s like you’re not even in control of it, you’re just a conduit. Is it the same with Asperger’s or are you ‘on’, as it were, all the time?
Tom:Well, around 50% of people with Asperger’s also suffer with depression and I happen to be in that 50%. That depression appears to a manifestation of low self-esteem, at least in my case, and this certainly hampers my productivity when it comes to writing. I write quite sporadically, but when I do I do so for very long periods of time, sometimes without sleeping or eating. Generally I rely on a spark or an idea that really gets my creative juices flowing. I wish I were one of those people that is able to summon up great ideas at will but unfortunately I’m not. Depression also has an uncanny ability of making you feel as though your life is meaningless. Such a mindset is hardly conducive to you producing great works of literature. I managed to find a period off from my depression, a window of about 3 weeks, and it was in that time that I wrote my memoir ‘The Autistic Buddha’. I actually lost a stone in weight during that period as a result of skipping meals and subsisting entirely on a tin of Celebrations.
Pete: Sleep is actually a massive issue with depression, I don’t think people realise quite how much. But I digress. Tell me about the appeal of Buddhism.
Tom: Buddhism really isn’t what a lot of Westerners think it is. The Dharma is a kind of psychological method that allows human beings to cope with the very hard truth that life is full of suffering. It by no means offers a trite solution to suffering but it what it does do is enable its practitioners to live nobly in the face of it. Unlike a lot of Western psychiatry, where the emphasis is on you and digs deep into your past, Buddhism focuses entirely on the present (the notion of mindfulness) and encourages you to adopt more altruistic behaviours. Science reinforces the idea that being more compassionate and less self-absorbed leads to a calmer, more contented existence. It was after having read about Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk reputed to be the world’s happiest man according to scans done on his brain, that I was encouraged to start reading and practicing meditation. It really has improved the quality of my life and the best thing is, I didn’t have to abscond to the Himalayas, renounce all my belongings and sit in the lotus position all day!
Pete: This is interesting, because what I’ve found with CBT and various other therapies is that altruism is very much off the menu. It seems to be all about what’s good for YOU, what makes YOU feel better, how to treat YOU as best you can. Now, I have crushing self-esteem and self-loathing issues and I find that when I start doing that, all I feel is: You’re a selfish piece of shit. I have a touch of anhedonia to go with the bipolar, I find it difficult to take pleasure out of anything. Which again takes us back to music because, unlike sex, unlike alcohol, unlike comforting food, that and film are basically my two sources of pleasure without self-flagellating guilt.
Tom: Yes, which is why I think Western psychological methods like CBT could learn a lot from the Buddhist emphasis on compassion, empathy and altruism. You know when you do something good for somebody like volunteering for needy people, you feel good, right?
Pete: You see, I don’t. This is how my mind is wired up. When I have done charity work or acts of kindness (and, I mean, I once went into a war zone dressed as Santa Claus dragging 15 stone of presents on my back) I have somehow programmed myself to think: This isn’t genuine good because ultimately you’re doing it for you.
Tom: That’s true. You are ultimately doing it for you, but does it really matter? If it’s making their life better in the process as welll as making you feel better, then it can only be a good thing. The Buddhist philosophy is that we’re all interdependent and that being ego-centered is at the root of misery in the world. Acknowledging the fact that we are all reliant on others for our own happiness makes us naturally more inclined towards altruism in pursuit of a better world. It sounds highfalutin, but just doing simple things like making your mum tea, making time for your elderly relatives and helping your partner cook dinner are habits we can all cultivate in our daily lives. Such acts take the focus off the constant chatter of negative thoughts and dissolves the division between subject and object. That is when you know you’re engaged in something meaningfull. Your nervous system is even attuned to tell you by gifting you with a nice hit of dopamine.
Pete: Do you have any particular artists who help you out of ‘the bad places’?
Tom: Yes, especially artists with a down-to-earth sort of style. I’ve long been a fan of Verb T’s music. I can tell just from listening to him he’s a super nice guy, the sort of guy I’d like to be more like in fact.
Pete: He really is, I love his battling style as well. It’s good when people maybe shy away from being so demonstrative and let their words do the work.
Tom: Yeah, man. Totally unassuming presence. Really admire him for that and the fact he’s been in the game for so long.
Pete: There’s a triptych of Blak Twang tracks – Real Estate, Dettwork South East, Kik Off – that just kill me. They feel like… the universal London experience. Compressed.
Tom: Absolutely. Music, especially hip-hop, is especially good when it has a strong sense of place. Not usually a fan of the guy, but Kano’s last album ‘Made in the Manor’ was dope for that very reason. Loved the fact he asserted a kind of London-patriotism much like Blak Twang did.
Pete: One person we’ve neglected to mention in all of this is Charron. Now, Charron is severely autistic, to the point that he has to travel with a helper to enable him to deal with simple tasks like actually getting to a venue. And yet in terms of ability he must be among the top 10 in the world, battle-wise. Do you look at him and think, “I fully understand why”?
Tom: Absolutely. I always suspected Charron was autistic given how much time and energy he has evidently devoted to perfecting his craft. His style is one that harks back to the battle rappers who, rather than being stand-up comedians, really tried to degrade their opponents. Autistic people stick to a formula they know works as they tend to dislike uncertainty (something that might explain Charron’s travel anxieties). Charron has evidently hit upon a formula that works well for him which is to get to the core of what really bothers his opponent. He pokes them in their most sensitive spots repeatedly in a very clever, well-structured and forceful way. That said, he’s also studied the humourous elements of battle rap and incorporated them into his rap. I notice even his humour, much like his rhyme structure and delivery, sticks to a pattern which is what the autistic mind likes best. We see life as patterns within patterns within more patterns.
Pete: As an aside, did you see Juan’s autism flip against him?
Tom: I didn’t actually. What did he say?
Pete: Well, Charron ‘pocket-checked’ him and Juan said, “Why did you do that? I thought you people don’t like change…”
Tom:Awesome. See, this sort of stuff is good in a way as it brings autism out into the open even if he’s being sort of teased by his opponent. It broaches a difficult subject in a way that demonstrates knowledge rather than ignorance about the condition which is a good thing. By the way, I’m curious, do you know much about Charron’s life and what he’s like as a person outside battle rap?
Pete: I know nothing at all. And I have looked, but whereas a lot of guys almost turn their outside life into a soap opera, Charron’s is very guarded. He’s this guy who lights up on stage but stays away from the general push and pull of the outside life, which is in itself very interesting. Having briefly spoken to him he is a genuine enigma. He’s like the polar opposite of, well, Enigma.
Tom: That’s interesting. Autistic people tend to be very private people who require a lot of personal space. One thing almost all people on the spectrum speak of is a “social hangover” after say a big gathering. The need for alone-time is pronounced in us autistics. In my case, I need several days of isolation to recover from information overload at say a DF event. Autistic brains are said to experience reality in much higher definition. Sound is more amplified, small details most filter out are more noticeable to autistic minds and social interaction in the form of small talk does not.come naturally and so requires a concerted intellectual effort to read facial expressions, non-verbal cues etc.
Pete: That is absolutely fascinating. The amplification of sound – and at battle events, that basically means interacting with people – must be quite an exhausting thing.
Tom: I’m guessing Charron is committed solely to the art-form and is less preoccupied with the social side of battling.
Pete: Yeah, I’m guessing that when they talk about ‘The Zone’, his must be so much deeper than many are used to. Can I bring Soul into this for a minute?
Tom: Yep. The exhaustion can quickly spiral into anxiety, sleeplessness and yes, you.guessed it, depression. The bitch goddess of all mental illnesses.
Pete: Absolutely. Now, Soul has been extremely open about his OCD, but I personally only know a bit about this condition and am not sure I could talk at length about it but it strikes me, again, that here is a condition – fastidiousness, the need for complete rectitude and order – that lends itself to battling. But what interests me with him is – when do you get to that point where you turn yourself off? When do you think: Okay, I can leave these bars alone now, they’re hosed? And, as I suppose I ask of guys on the autism spectrum, when does it become a curse? Because as someone who has battled, I know it can become a HUGE pain in the ass when you can’t just let your bars go to sleep so that you can too.
Tom: A lot of people with autism develop OCD symptoms, especially when their “special interest” becomes their entire fixation in life. They often have to find a sympathetic therapist who’ll find ways of organising time more effectively and encourage moderation in one’s life. Obsession and perfectionism can drive people to greatness but in many they can real curses which inflict terrible suffering on an individual. OCD is no fun for those who experience it genuinely. People trivialise it or laugh it as though it’s some benign quirk, but it sure ain’t.
Pete: That’s the dichotomy, isn’t it? You’re between a rock and a hard place, the ‘this will help you’ rock and the ‘you’re betting all cards on this’ hard place. I know that the things that were helping me personally with the getting used to bipolar, eventually became the things that were exhausting me. I’d be fascinated to talk to a Soul or a Charron or a Bender on that point because, well, the things that can ease our pain also can kill us.
Tom: That said, obsessive people often exceed what ordinary people can manage. But that means constant rumination, added anxiety and physiological damage from poor diet and lack of sleep. I collapsed from exhaustion in public once after an entire night spent writing my book. Not good at all.
I’m a cowardly person by nature and I’m not afraid to say it. Given the choice, I would rather avoid conflict than engage directly in it. When it comes it things I’m afraid of, such as standing out to bullies or admitting to lies I’ve told, I run away and retreat into a protective bubble rather than summoning the courage to voluntarily face them. So when a self-described “intersectional feminist” countered some remark I made on social media and proceeded to accuse me of being a bigot and a misogynist, I caved in and eventually deleted my whole account. I had no real tools for standing up for myself and, to put in bluntly, I was “owned” by this especially aggressive individual.
Around the same time as this incident occurred, a Canadian professor of psychology whom I’d never heard of called Jordan Peterson was courting huge controversy for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns. Certain radical sections of the social justice movement retaliated and accused Peterson of transphobia and bigotry for refusing the compelled usage of what he considers to be the linguistic constructs of a radical hard-left fringe who are especially active on university campuses. While I didn’t especially like the tone in which the professor expressed his ideas, I couldn’t help but be enamoured of his courage. I thought to myself: “I want to be more like that guy.”
I became more interested in Dr. Peterson as a person and began watching the vast number of lectures he’s uploaded to his YouTube channel which is now incredibly popular. In these lectures he discusses human psychology with a strong emphasis on religious themes and archetypes. This excited me as I have a strong interest in the philosophy of Buddhism and Daoism, as well as the more mystical strands in my native Christianity. Jordan Peterson had a way of bringing life to ancient stories and mythology that many modern people simply dismiss as superstition and frequently refers to the Jungian concept of archetypes which I found absolutely fascinating. His way of expressing ideas also reminded me that I was by conditioning and culture still a Westerner and still, in many ways I wasn’t even consciously aware of, still a Christian, albeit not a religious one. The virtue of courage in Christianity is one that I’d often neglected, preferring to cultivate love and compassion without realising the necessity of standing up for oneself by uttering the truth. The courage to tell the truth and the courage to not give in to negative emotions that weaken oneself such as self-pity, despair and anger and the courage to voluntarily face one’s suffering directly are such essential features of Christianity and, I was soon to realise, also Buddhism.
The Buddha himself is similar to Christ in his emphasis on enlightened courage. He didn’t retreat into the safe space of his father’s luxurious palace, but instead chose to voluntarily confront the deplorable poverty and starvation outside of his palace walls. Only in voluntarily facing that suffering was he able to transcend it. It was upon realising this fact that if I were to truly follow the Buddha dharma, the path I felt offered me a way to properly orient myself the world, I would have to cultivate the sort of courage evinced by Christ and Buddha by facing my enemies.
Professor Peterson often expounds the Christian concept of the Logos which can essentially be boiled down to true speech. In articulating truth as best we can as individuals, we can work out difficulties, reconcile differences and make peace without recourse to violence. Truth, he says, “snaps everything into perfect synchrony” and this telling of the truth also includes not omitting important details or avoid dealing with inconvenient facts that may contradict one’s worldview. It’s not an easy or comfortable habit initially, but once you practice it, it becomes second nature and you feel much stronger as a person. In fact, you may even feel physiological changes in your body as you do so. In my case, I am still practicing this habit of telling the truth and not capitulating to people’s attempts to browbeat or bully me, which unfortunately happens quite regularly as many still see me as a bit of a pushover. However, I’ve noticed that confronting those that are fanatical in their beliefs and who engage in ad hominem attacks with cold, truthful logic and facts and then standing firm invariably works. The sword of truth is penetrating and it is my greatest weapon against those who, like the person I mentioned earlier, are so deeply convinced of their own moral rectitude. As a result of Peterson’s emphasis on courage and truthfulness as core Western Judeo-Christian virtues that must become a part of someone if they to stand up to pernicious ideologies in the world, I feel calmer, more at peace, stronger and even able to sleep better. I don’t ruminate on the negative and am able to put all the bad things at bay knowing that the truth nested in the abounding love that Christ and Buddha spoke of is something I can rely on without fear.
This isn’t a subject I particularly wanted to talk about. I never spoke about sex at home and generally shy away from the very mention of it. It’s quite strange therefore that sex and reproduction are also fundamental aspects of human identity, belonging and biology. The vast majority of us are sexual creatures with often strong and intense desires to seek out a partner for physical affection and intimacy. Autistic people are no different in this regard. Most of us in some point in our lives will have a yearning to satiate our natural biological urges and to keep on doing so over extended periods of time with a stable romantic partner. Unfortunately, many autistic men like me languish in the dark, twisted world of involuntary celibacy where opportunities for having sex with someone are slim and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer.
In my case, I’m 28 years old and, to put it bluntly, I’m sexually frustrated. Not being one to make small-talk or to engage in flirtation, my opportunities for sex thus far have been limited to say the least. Flirting is something I still cannot grasp intuitively or intellectually as a concept due to a failure on my part to be able to read body language and to recognise more subtle non-verbal cues. If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it. In fact, people I’ve been with have berated me in the past for missing chances to flirt with members of the opposite sex who have apparently given indications of romantic interest. I drifted through my teens, my college years and my early twenties having had zero contact with the opposite sex. And I mean none. Not even so much as a handshake. At university, I even gained the nickname “The Monk” for my celibate lifestyle. On my part, this was certainly not driven by some puritanical religious conviction and the stigmatising label only increased my feelings of inadequacy and despair.
In 2013, I decided I needed a fresh start in life and moved to China where I taught English. Being a white European in China made me quite desirable in the eyes of many women (light skin is seen as an feature attractive across Asia) and many vied for my attention, openly asking me if I would be their boyfriend. For me, a sexually naïve young man, it was a huge confidence boost and a very erotic and exciting experience. Eventually, I went out with a colleague called Wendy and it was then that things kind of went pear-shaped. On the one hand, I had the attention of a beautiful Chinese girl and a huge boost in my overall confidence. On the other, I was abysmal at showing affection towards her in the typical way romantic partners do and had immense difficulty navigating the complex world of romance. I was a neglectful boyfriend to say the least and one who dodged phone calls, never thought to buy gifts or to engage in playful behaviour. Worst of all, while I had summoned the courage to hug her, I did so begrudgingly due to my dislike for physical contact, we never had sex. It was for that reason that we agreed mutually to terminate our very brief romance. She had apparently been hinting to go to the bedroom for a while but I’d been quite oblivious to it, and when it came to it, I couldn’t face the physical intimacy of being up close to somebody, what with my sensory sensitivities and all. I cannot tell you the frustration of simultaneously craving sexual intimacy and at the same time not being able to engage in it due to an instinctive aversion to touch.
Like many autistic men, I face the rather grim reality of remaining involuntarily celibate for life. It’s not a nice truth to have to acknowledge and it’s a subject many are squeamish about even broaching so I felt the need to do so. I’m not proffering an answer because there simply are no trite solutions to this vexed and rather unpleasant conundrum. I’m simply telling things as they are for many us, including many autistic men I’ve spoken to privately.
The 510 Bus to Harlow was packed yesterday morning. Many passengers had to stand but I was fortunate enough to find a seat right at the front. Generally I don’t like people sitting right next to me, but I’m generally more tolerant than I used to be as long as they don’t touch me, breathe on me or, worse still, start a conversation with me. Given how crowded the bus was, I’d accepted the inevitability of someone being in an uncomfortably close proximity to me. A few minutes after I’d got on, the bus started to fill and the dreaded happened. A man with a distinctly loud voice and a beaming smile took his seat next to mine. Grouchy so-and-so that I often am in public, I looked away and did my best to ignore him and any hint he might give of wanting to initiate a dialogue. But, much to my discomfort, I could see the man staring at me in the window’s reflection. He kept on staring at me and I could feel his brown eyes burrowing their way into the back of my head. Slightly vexed, I turned slowly to face the man but as I did so, I was filled with a rush of guilt. The young chap, who was very sweet and innocent, had Down’s Syndrome. Immediately I smiled at him out of politeness and he responded enthusiastically with a happy “Hello!” I said a slightly taciturn “Hello there” back and immediately this was his cue to initiate a conversation which is precisely what I wanted to avoid, not being a fan of small-talk and all.
People with Down’s Syndrome are generally very different in terms of social ability compared to people like me on the Autism spectrum. They are often extroverted, highly sociable and possess a high degree of emotional intelligence. I’m quite the opposite to this. At best, I’m a semi-social creature who prefers to live in my own thoughts than in the external world for the most part. In the mornings, I’m especially averse to interacting, too. My new neighbour, who introduced himself as Calvin, was only too eager to ask me questions about my day. I answered politely, if slightly reluctantly, a range of questions from what I was doing that day to what my favourite flavour of ice-cream was. With each question, I softened towards Calvin, a short and friendly man with a warm smile and a natural ability to dissolve one’s petty fears and apprehensions about the upcoming work day through his effortless charm. He made me less up-tight, less grouchy, more open and more positive about the day ahead. By about the 20th question (I think it was whether or not I prefer trains or buses), I’d warmed to this young man who I’d desperately wanted to avoid any interaction with at first.
Not long after, it was time for him to get off the bus and head to a centre for people with learning disabilities that he attends by day. He waved to me and shouted at the top of his voice “Bye, Tom!” for all on the bus and probably the entire road to hear. I waved to him as he got off and out of the window as it whizzed past. He left me smiling to myself and much more relaxed for the rest of my journey to work. That day, I was gentler in my interactions with colleagues, more open to making small-talk, more generous (I made everyone tea) and above all, more at ease with myself. Calvin enabled me to integrate a softer side in my nature into my everyday experience and for that, I am grateful to him. I hope we can meet again and you can fire away with questions to your heart’s content!
We crave the protection of being “exclusive” and of belonging to the “nice people”. We devalue the outsiders, the “bad people” and call them names without attempting to understand their position. Your defenses against the “bad people” lead to yet more division and more insecurity which you in turn have to build more defences against. If you want to find unity and to pursue something meaningful, communicate with those whose opinions you find loathesome and allow them to teach you new things about yourself as they allow you to teach them things about themselves. Engage in a process of death and rebirth in the form of conversation, allowing your old attachments in the form of your prejudices to die and new ideas to come into being. Don’t live in an echo chamber, communicating only with those who confirm the ideas that give you security. That will get you nowhere.
Meditation 2: Step Outside Your Safe Space, Face Suffering and Grow
The Buddha voluntarily faced suffering and was therefore able to transcend it. He didn’t hide away from it in the ‘safe space’ of his father’s opulent palace. Now I don’t mean that facetiously, I am deadly serious about it. This is truly not a laughing matter. Courage to face the unknown and to articulate one’s own conscience at the risk of discomfort and derision is the only thing that allows us to grow as human beings. There is no nobler vision than a willingness to voluntarily encounter the unknown. As human beings we are designed to go beyond what’s comfortable in order to grow and to develop. This growth is measured in large part by how bravely we face suffering in the forms of conflict, disagreement, disappointment and grief.
Meditation 3: Cultivate Love for Every Sentient Being
Every sentient being on this Earth wants to escape suffering. Don’t add to their suffering by being cruel. Be kind and realise the need in every human heart for love and unity. This doesn’t mean being agreeable. Disagreement is necessary in life in order to solve problems, but don’t approach someone suffused with anger, bitterness or resentment. This is a recipe for harm.
Autistic people are known for their scrupulous honesty. It’s a common stereotype and, for the most part, that stereotype does end up being true. Except of course when it doesn’t. For almost a year of my life, I substituted growing feelings of isolation, loneliness and bitter resentment at the society that had rejected me with the raw thrill of evading security staff and stealing whatever took my fancy.
It all started when I was in a supermarket close to the student digs I was living in at the time. I saw the people I lived next door to buying beer and snacks for that evening. They’d already had a few drinks by that time and were all merrily tipsy, had wrapped their arms around one another, and were laughing inanely at one another’s witty remarks. They saw me, a lonesome figure in a faded red Manchester United jersey, ill-fitting burgundy tracksuit bottoms and luminous green sports shoes holding a shopping basket. A girl from the group sniggered at me as she walked past, amused in her inebriated state at what she perceived to be my eccentric and childish dress sense. Compared to me, all in the group were all looking attractive, done up to the nines in expensive outifts and all had great hair (I was losing mine prematurely because of stress). As the group bought their booze and exited, the girl who’d mocked me before shouted at the top of her voice: “Have fun, Dopey!” The group burst out laughing and walked away quite brazenly and without regard for my feelings.
Suffused with rage, I had dark thoughts of lashing out violently or perhaps even throwing a sharp object into one of their backs. I was livid. I felt as though in the space of a few minutes I had been rendered absolutely worthless as a human being. In reality, I didn’t have a violent bone in my body to retaliate and nor was I able to think quickly enough to shout back a witty riposte. Instead, I grabbed a chocolate bar, stuffed it in my pocket and left the store. I felt after having been roundly humiliated that I was entitled something. Not having any friends at university made me dwell on the event on my own for hours on end afterwards. This of course only made things worse.
The next day, I saw one of the people in the group in the line for lunch at the university canteen. This time he was sober and appeared much more civil than that Friday evening. This alone annoyed me further that an otherwise sensible, smart person could go along with the crude teasing of another human being and not protest against it. As rage built up inside me again, I grabbed a sandwich off the display without paying. Nobody even batted an eyelid. It felt good to get away with it and it felt even better to know that the douchebag who’d laughed at me was paying for his lunch and I wasn’t.
Before long, I wasn’t paying for any shopping. At the Student Union shop, I’d hide in a secluded corner away from staff and security cameras and fill my backpack with all the food, drink and stationery supplies I wanted. Walking out of the shop for the first time with a bacpack full to the brim with stolen goods, my heart felt as though it was pounding out of my chest I was so damned nervous. But, as soon as I made it outside undetected, that nervousness turned to an indescribable rush of sheer elation. And it was that rush that I kept craving over and over again.
Over the next year, I became bolder in my shoplifting exploits, stealing high-end food items such as truffles, albacore and even whole Iberico hams. I became better and better at evading cameras and security staff and felt emboldened by every triumph. That was until I became complacent and finally, after nearly a year of criminal activity, I got caught. On the way home, I went to a local shop which I thought would be a nice, soft easy target for a bit of pilferage. I didn’t have much space left in my bag so decided just to grab a jar of pasta sauce and a slice of parmesan cheese for dinner that evening. Just as I was about to walk out, I felt a firm hand grab me. A security guard with a take-no-shit attitude dragged me to the back room. I felt the blood rush from my head and had rushing thoughts of a long stay behind bars. Thankfully, the store manager decided the goods I’d attempted to steal weren’t enough to merit prosecution and I was let off the hook. The hawk-eyed security guard literally threw me out of the shop and instructed me never to step foot in the store again. My brief career as a petty criminal had officially ended. I’d decided after that incident it was too risky.
I still don’t know why I started shoplifting but I suspect it enabled me in some strange way to wrestle back control over a society I’d become increasingly alienated and disillusioned by. I stopped doing what I did not so much because I felt regret, but because I simply out of a fear of being caught again. That said, it was a terrible road to go down and not one I recommend to anyone regardless of how hellish a place they find themselves in. It just isn’t worth the risk.
Once upon a time, all most of us knew of China was from Hong Kong, a tiny nibble off the edge of a vast country with 34 provinces and 5 autonomous regions. Our narrow preconceptions consisted of a rather limited range of anglicised faux-Cantonese classics like the electric pink sweet and sour pork, the greasy spring roll and the gloopy wonton soup offered by takeaway kitchens catering to British customers unused to flavours from abroad. Over time as many of us became cognizant that China in fact has many regions, each with their distinct cultures and cuisines, we grew more curious and adventurous in our tastes.
Jason Yue, owner of Oriental Phoenix Supermarket on Hockerill Hill is keen to emphasise the variety of Chinese food and culture his country has to offer. His native city of Shenyang in the far north east of China is a world away from Hong Kong, several thousand miles in fact, with a cuisine renowned for being robust, spicy and wheat rather than rice-based, the speciality of his region being ravioli-like pork dumplings called jiaozi. He is part of a new wave of Chinese from the mainland in Britain bringing with them their distinct regional flavours.
A warm, friendly man with a beaming smile, you wouldn’t necessarily realise from his relaxed and chatty demeanour that Jason’s story hasn’t been an especially easy one. Struggling with the language, a new way of life, having a brush with an unscrupulous landlord and being so far from homeland has been a challenge, but what has kept him going the most is the warmth of the people of Bishop’s Stortford and the friendships he has established by reciprocating their kindness.
Arriving in the UK as a student, he was taken aback initially by the freshness of the air compared to that of polluted China. “It’s so clean and you’re not coughing all the time. In China, every day is foggy because of the pollution. The houses are smaller, not like the big high-rises we have back home and the streets have so many trees. It’s nice.”
Around half of his shop’s customers are British, the rest mainly Chinese and southeast Asian. Many come in for speciality ingredients for Asian dishes you simply couldn’t find in an ordinary grocery, while Asian customers tend to buy staples like sacks of rice in bulk. The store stocks a variety of key ingredients in Asian cuisines like rice wine, soy products, wasabi and a range of Korean and Japanese snack foods.
In the middle of my conversation with Jason, a British lady enters the shop asking for Thai-style rice noodles to go with a red curry she plans to surprise her husband with later, while a couple of young lads pick up some Tsingtao beer for a Chinese New Year party they plan to have later that day. He tells me many Brits will enter the store with a recipe in mind, and given his cooking experience, he can advise them on what to buy and how to best prepare the ingredients he sells them. No matter how adventurous people may be however, he admits that we Brits still have a propensity to stick to the familiar classics: “British people still love things like dim sum and beef and black bean sauce. But it’s okay; if they enjoy it, then good for them.”
Jason hopes to stay in Bishop’s Stortford for the future. “I have built my life here since I arrived as a student. My daughter was born here and everything I do is for her. She goes to nursery and is about to start school in September. She is making friends and starting to learn English well.”
When I ask about his mum and dad back in China, he is a little upset, tearful even, but resolute that one day they can come and live with him in the town: “The problem is getting a visa for them, but I hope one day they can stay with me. I just worry they cannot make friends in the UK because they don’t know English.”
We both agree that is the influence of Confucian ethics of selfless service to one’s family and the wider society are what make Chinese people a valuable part of any culture in which they live. “In China, we work not for ourselves, but for the family. We respect people and their rules and carry out our duties efficiently and quietly.” He also values the integrity and decency of the people of Bishop’s Stortford. “Here, a deal is a deal. People are really very honest. We work well together, because Chinese people never cause problems and British people always help us. We are always well-behaved.”
His daughter Michelle, an adorable and charming young girl is sitting politely on the couch behind the counter as I talk to her father, watching Chinese cartoons on her iPad while eating a bowl of noodles. She has started to make some friends at her nursery and responds to some of my questions in the English she has learned from her playmates. Her father is keen for her to learn English in order that she can get on in life and go on to get a first-class British education. I ask him if her daughter prefers Bishop’s Stortford or Shenyang, to which he responds: “She happiest as long as she’s with her mum and dad.”
“The Chinese have a strong heart. We work hard no matter what because we love our family very much”, he says. “If it weren’t for the friendly people I have met here, I would be back in China.” Indeed, the power of solidarity and love are what sustain us all, but for many living in a culture distinct from one’s own, they are of even greater importance. In Bishop’s Stortford, a town of many cultures and parallel lives, we can find commonality in a shared love of family, food and friendship, whether British, Portuguese, Polish, Chinese or many of the other nationalities living side-by-side in the town. The warm human interactions, above all else, are, in my opinion, what make the town truly wonderful.