Jan 23, 2015

Bangkok Body

After renouncing worldly ways at Wat Suan Mokkh, I jumped right back into it when I took the overnight train to Bangkok – Thailand's bustling metropolitan capital.
The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, Bangkok

During the 10-day meditation retreat, the teachings expounded on the structure of
effort --> nature/law/way --> wisdom (Sangha --> Dhamma --> Buddha). Everything is Dhamma, all connected to the Supreme Dhamma. In other words, everything has its own nature, all connected to the supreme law of nature. A physics law of centrifugal force, the nature of how a tree grows, the way our bodies age – whether we understand them or not, they are there, following their own "Dhamma."

So one question I asked myself at the retreat was: how much effort do I put in to understanding my own body? Most of the time, I don't – like most people, I view my body as what lugs my mind around from place to place. So I decided to spend the week in Bangkok focusing on my health, to learn the "Dhamma of my body." Why Bangkok? Because it has cheap, high quality medical care. If there's anywhere in Southeast Asia you want to visit a clinic, it's Thailand.

Perhaps the Dhamma of my own body is not so interesting to other people, so I'll paraphrase my journey into the useful points I discovered:

Neck/Shoulders

I carry stress in my shoulders, which causes a lot of tensing and neck pain (I'm sure if you're reading this hunched over an iPhone, you feel this, too). Swedish massages are very popular in the Occident for their relaxing nature. They're nice at the time, but as soon as I leave I feel my muscles tightening back up again.

Yoga and meditation have helped correct my posture, but I still had set-in muscle ache. Solution? A Thai massage. It's firm and painful and holy cannoli you feel blissed out by the end, like your body's made of jelly. At one point the masseuse asked me to turn over and I realized I couldn't! Her elbow under my shoulder blades had loosened such tight muscles that I couldn't get them to tense again just to move.

A well spent $24 USD for one hour.

Teeth

Do: visit a dentist in Bangkok.
Don't: walk into the first one off the street, without Googling their community reviews, and make an appointment on the spot (like I did).

The dentist pointed to every tooth with his metal cleaning pick and said it obviously had a cavity (even the teeth with fillings already) and he'd be happy to fill/re-fill them all in for me for –– wait, he had to get his calculator –– $264 USD. Um, no thanks. If I'm gonna spend serious money on my teeth, it's going to be a dental office where I can actually swallow the tap water.

As it was, I got my teeth cleaned and polished for $32 USD.

Henceforth I'll be adding more Vitamins A, D, and K2 to rebuild tooth enamel, and see if I can't prevent having to get any more fillings. [If you're interested, here's an article about how to rebuild tooth enamel.]

Foot Reflexology

Pressure is not pain, pressure is not pain... I had to keep repeating this to myself as the Thai-Chinese reflexologist (the "Foot Master" and no, I'm not making that up) squeezed the muscles in my feet with his strong, precise grip.

Reflexologists believe that areas and points of the feet are connected to different organs, and that by putting pressure on these areas it has a beneficial effect on a person's health. I felt tingling in my organs, but was I imagining the connection? I wasn't sure.

At one point I did feel pain, under the pinky toe of my right foot. I winced and reflexively pulled my leg away. The reflexologist was surprised and kept the pressure there extra light. Later I looked up what part of the body it corresponds to: the shoulders/neck. Hmmm. It seems stress and improper posture alignment in one area have a larger effect on the rest of our body than I realized.

$22 USD later, and I floated out of the shop with "happy feet" and a new subject to research. [Here's an article I'm reading on how to improve posture.]

Check-Up

I went to one of Bangkok's Westernized international hospitals for a cancer screening check-up. I have never had this type of check-up before, and I was very anxious. I'm young! I'm not sick! Why was I bothering to go in at all? I felt like I was imposing on the doctor's time while a lobby full of middle-aged patients waited for their turn. The nurses who took my vitals seemed surprised when I said I was only here for a check-up. I felt surprised too, thinking what am I doing here?

The answer came back just as strong: I don't want to be a "if only we'd caught it earlier, we could have saved your life" case. The check-up was uncomfortable, time-consuming, and expensive ($90 USD, all told). The results came in an email a few days later: all clear. Was it worth it?

Yes: I started a healthy yearly routine I must continue for the rest of my life. I'm 26 – there's no more delaying my responsibilities to my own body. My grandmother had (and survived) cancer; it runs in the family. I'm not "above" getting it just because I willfully don't want to. That's youth talking, not sense.

Sleep

Zzzzz.... On the meditation retreat, we all slept by 21:30 and woke with the 4:00 morning bell. I thought this would be the hardest part of the experience, but I soon learned that the mind can be trained to wake, alert and aware, even without an alarm. Even after the retreat, I'll wake up at either 5 or 6 am, wide awake and ready for the day. This has truly been an immeasurable gift; it's these morning hours I use to write on my fantasy novel.

What I learned from this experience is our addiction to the snooze button is more psychological than physical. Of course, sleeping on a wooden pillow at a monastery does decrease the desire to go back to bed, but for us mere mortals, I think a few minutes after the snooze button isn't so bad, either.

I've found the benefits of waking up early far outweigh the extra hours of sleep... There's something really special about the soft darkness before dawn, the light of sunrise coming in through the window, hearing the birds start to sing. After I've written 1,500 words I can start the day with a feeling of satisfaction – I've already accomplished something important before breakfast. I feel happy everyday... and that in itself is a small miracle :)



~ ~ ~

Jan 16, 2015

Insights from Ten Days of Meditation

As the surrounding Thai countryside welcomed the new year with gunfire and fireworks, I laid my head down on a wooden pillow and tried to fall asleep before the 4 am wake-up bell rang. So began 2015, the first of ten nights at a vipassana meditation retreat.

Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage

To write one post about all the experiences, epiphanies, and difficulties of those ten days is impossible — so, I'll share with you one of the major insights I had near the end of the course:

One monk showed us a mandala (image of the symbolic universe) with the realms of hell all the way around to the heavenly abode of those who solely practice loving-kindness. He explained that even those in this heavenly realm suffer from dukkha (defilement) because they love “too much.” The Buddhist ideal is to be neither sorrowful nor joyful, but instead completely at peace ‘in the center, following the Middle Way.’

This was a crisis for me!

Before this retreat I would have told you I didn’t have any anger or fear (save for the occasional furry spider, of which the hermitage had plenty). Through the ten days, I realized that everyday my mood would follow a cyclical pattern of alertness, joy, contentment, boredom, anger, and sleepiness; emotions that play out in the background all the time, but I was quiet enough inside and out to be aware of them. I found that I did have anger, and I was especially afraid of anger because…

Everything I do stems from this fear of potential physical or emotional pain.

For the monk to explain that even loving-kindness can bring a kind of suffering, I had an inner crisis: if even compassion can cause harm, must I throw it away in order to completely protect myself from all forms of pain and suffering? If practicing peace involves strict discipline cutting off all your attachments, where does compassion for others spring from?

These thoughts began to form on the evening of Day 8. Day 9 was the only day that practitioners couldn’t ask questions to the coordinators during meditation break; I had to wrestle with these questions alone. And I did wrestle with them. I felt myself pulling away from Buddhism, as if it had hurt me with its truth, and I was going to avoid even such a thing that had helped me find peace and guidance along the path of spiritual awakening for years... Where could I turn now?

Then, I thought of my Takashina babies — those wonderful, joyful, full-of-love-and-energy elementary students I had the blessing to teach and play with in Japan. Every time they come to mind, I smile from way down deep in my heart. Was there suffering in my loving them so much? Of course; when I had to say goodbye, or when one of them was hurt, or when I thought of them going through the rigorous Japanese academic testing system, my heart squeezed with ache. Does this inclusion of “suffering” change my feelings about them, or how I would have been around them? Never, ever in a million years!!

So, if living in this world means that to give up suffering you must give up joy, I accept both of them. I willingly suffer to increase love for others, and willingly love to decrease others' suffering.

In other words, I choose to live this life!!!

I chose my life!! I don’t have to renounce the whole world — what a revelation! I was trying to be the perfect bhikkuni (Thai Buddhist nun) by shaving my head, locking away nearly all of my belongings, and even brushing my teeth with my fingers at one point because I saw a video once of Zen monks living that way.

I went to an “extreme” to learn that perfection (even in the “Middle Way” between extremes) is not the way to peace. As another meditator at the retreat aptly put it, ‘Maybe there’s a middle way to the Middle Way.’

At times during the retreat I thought, ‘This is incredible! I want to stay here forever!’ Other times I felt so much fear at the prospect of further delving into the mind I wanted to quit before the ten days were up. (It’s not until Day 11, when the silence is finally broken, you learn you’re not crazy because everyone else felt the same way through their experience.)

When the silence was over, the people I’d been meditating, eating alongside, and doing chores with felt like old friends… though we hadn’t exchanged a word, only gentle smiles. It wasn’t until after ten days I learned their names, or even their nationalities. Instead of the customary, ‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’ we asked each other questions like, ‘What were some of your insights during the retreat? Did you find it as hard as I did?’ Sharing our experiences and insights with each other deepened the entire retreat experience. We were deeply present in our conversations, and it felt safe to be open to each other about anything and everything.

I learned that the smallest things I did had big effects on the people around me, from knocking on my neighbor’s door at 4 am to make sure she had woken for the morning bell, to volunteering to read a morning passage to the entire group of 160 people. And I was affected in return; the same neighbor came armed with a broom to help me shoo the spider living beside my doorway, and another girl approached me after the retreat to tell me my morning reading was so gently spoken and well done that when she meditates she hears my voice! (I’ll carry that compliment in my heart forever.)

At this very moment I’m in Bangkok, and every day I meet up with another friend from the retreat, and I can see the joy and light pouring out from their faces. How incredible to be a part of their lives!!

This is my present life: joyfully aware and content to put my effort into living open-eyed, open-hearted, and open-minded.


~ ~ ~


Are you aware of this present moment? Take three deep breaths. Each new breath is a new beginning. <3


~ ~ ~

Jan 12, 2015

2015

Happy New Year!!!


2015 is already underway, and I hope it's been a great new start for you! I've just returned from a two-week meditation course at Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage. I plumbed the depths of my mind and found that what I felt I was lacking from the world was within me all along. This sounds like a cliché, but I found it to be true. I would love to tell you more about my experience in the next post.

Before I left for Thailand I wrote for the blog explaining my lack of internet for two weeks, but didn't get a chance to publish it (*headsmack*). Sorry about that! Allow me to backtrack a little with a snapshot of my time in Singapore:

Christmas 2014


Christmas Lunch (while you could still see the table before we piled on the platters)
Current and former Ishikawa JETs reunited in Singapore to celebrate Christmas together! なつかし!

Thank you Nat, Anna, Thor and Faith for showing us around your fascinating city-state; and Clarissa and Martin for the memories stand up paddleboarding and watching the sunset from the futuristic Skywalk [below]. I love y'all so much, and look forward to when we reunite again to speak "Japanglish" and reminisce about our special piece of inaka (countryside) Japan.

Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay



~ ~ ~

Dec 21, 2014

Asking the Important Questions

Hindu Temple


Galungan is the most important holiday in the Balinese calendar. Twice a year everyone in Bali prepare masses of offerings for the religious ceremony that celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma (good over evil).

It’s also when the spirits of deceased relatives “return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings” to them for ten days.

Every house welcomes them with a roadside penjor — bamboo poles with suspended offerings on the end:

Penjor

Five of us foreigners joined the Suastika Guesthouse family, all decked out in festival sarongs and lace, to the neighborhood temple. One British girl was the younger college-age sister of a woman who’d recently moved to Ubud, and she was on holiday visiting. She seemed dwarfed by her older sister’s maturity and grace, lacking confidence by worryingly asking permission to photograph her surroundings, and living her life from behind the viewfinder of her massive DSLR camera.

Galungan Prayer Offerings (Flowers)

On the way back from the temple, she talked about how she wished she would have known photography was allowed on the temple grounds, then she could have captured more shots. I told her Bali was full of beautiful photo opportunities, and no doubt she’d fill her camera with them in no time.

“I have a 4 terabyte hard drive full of photos,” she replied, “and already filled 2 of them." (They come in that size now?)."I don’t know if I should sell them or how to make a living from it, y’know? I keep catching myself watching from the camera and not being actually there.”

“I worry about that, too," I told her. "I’ve got thousands of photos but I rarely look through them. After this year, I’m gonna buy a real instant film camera and only take photos of special occasions. Why do you love photography? I mean, why do you take photos?"

She was introspective, and really thought about the question before saying, “I guess that’s what I really came to Bali to figure out.” After this exchange, she seemed encouraged and later saying goodbye with earnest thanks. I hoped that I had somehow been a helpful mirror at a time when she needed some self-reflection.

Late that evening I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (a long essay about asking the question, “Why do people get married and what does marriage mean?”). Before she married the second time, Liz wrote a list of her “Top 5 Personal Faults” for her husband-to-be, like a premarital release statement that “this is what you’re getting into, bub.”

I thought this would be a good activity for myself, like naming Rumplestiltskin as the only way to rid yourself of him. How can I work around my shortcomings if I don’t define them to myself? So I made my own list, careful to be objective and not slip into self-hate.

But more than that, the second page of the list turned into something of far greater import: I wrote down the important questions of my life that, really, this whole year to myself is really about answering, or at least beginning to answer. Questions like “Why am I traveling for a year?” and “What do I want to accomplish with my life?"

That’s when the connection between the meek photographer and my list struck me: Sometimes we aren’t looking for answers so much as a reminder/articulation of what the questions are that we need to know for ourselves. You can’t answer “Rumplestiltskin” without the question, “What’s my name?”

This is what people mean, I think, when they are out to “find themselves.” Isn’t it really to “define themselves”? Not so anyone else can - so they can. Or at least ask how to.



On Turning Twenty-Six


Another note: tomorrow is my birthday. Twenty-six years old! Holy aging cannoli.

When I was a little kid, I remember telling my grandmother with absolute authority that you were deemed officially O-L-D once you hit 35. Then it’s all over — you can kiss your sweet spent youth goodbye. I mean, naturally, how could anyone live to such a momentous age without getting worn out in the process? (har-har)

I had a similar feeling sitting on the tatami of my Nanao apartment and talking with Anna, a fourth-year JET who was 26 at the time. Her age seemed very far away, way over in the Land of the Mid-Twenties (I was newly 24 and still clinging to my expiring citizenship of the Early-Twenties Territory). 26 felt as far away as if I was 16, or 6, instead.

Then, surprise! 25 disappeared in a *poof!* and now I’m the one turning 26… and it feels different than any other birthday I’ve yet had. When do you cross the border from Young Adult to Real Adult? What does being a Real Adult mean, what responsibilities does that entail? Am I trying to grow up too fast again, concerned I’m spending away my youth when it’s really still in front of me?

I used to joke I would stop counting my birthdays and instead refer to them as the “Anniversary of my 25th Birthday.” There’s this pervasive fear of not being perceived as young anymore. Why is the idea of “youth” so important in our culture? I can’t answer that for everyone, but I know what it really means to me: that I’m out of time, caught in the act of… doing nothing. It all boils down to the fear that I’m not accomplishing what I’m supposed to.

If I was born expressly to write stories/books, where are they? Several authors I’ve read have the same opening line when they’re expounding on good writing advice: Take writing seriously. It’s my lifetime commitment and I must commit! I don’t want to half-ass it. After all, age doesn’t matter, right? I want to use the time I have to do the best I can!!!

You may be much older than me, and thinking how young 26 is and how foolish I seem worrying about “squandered youth” (I’m traveling around the world for Pete’s Sake!), but this is the oldest I’ve ever been; I have no experience beyond this point. I only know how I feel right now.

And, smiling, I can tell you I feel twenty-six.


~ ~ ~


MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR!


~ ~ ~

Dec 16, 2014

The Worst Part of Traveling

from The Princess Bride
This week I don't have a lot of adventures to share because I spent most of my time either at a clinic or in bed recovering. What put me out of commission was a GEA infection, also known as gastroenteritis, food poisoning, or, locally, "Bali Belly."

This is the third time in my life I've suffered from this (and my last, please!). The foreign bacteria in the local food is usually manageable, but it multiplied due to dehydration and exhaustion (my fault), and caused increasing abdominal pain. The solution? An overnight stay at a medical clinic with an IV hooked under the skin of my right hand.

The whole episode has made me very... thankful. I'm thankful for my good health, when I have it, and the ability to recover when I'm sick... Someday I'll be old and I won't be able to so easily. I'm thankful for the wonderful, good-hearted family of the Suastika Guesthouse who drove me to the clinic at night, made me rice porridge for every meal until I regained my strength, and generally kept my spirits up. I'm so lucky I was under their good care when I became sick.

I missed out on the last few days of yoga classes, but in a way I think that's fitting, too. Focusing on my body these last two weeks, I was now reminded of its limitations, and how easily your health can just be wiped away! No one knows how much time they have before sickness, old age, and death overcome them. What are we doing with our health while it's still glowing strong from within us?

I'm going to keep going.



~ ~ ~