I can hear a bleating gong that seems to signal the coming of the monks for giving of alms. My neighbors will bring out in bags and baskets food for the monks, as they pass by and give their good wishes and blessings. And this is how the day begins, an ebb and flow of giving and take within my neighborhood. It’s 5:45 am here in Laos and I am trying to prepare my mind for going to school, for a day of unexpected experiences as I am getting to know my new school community as well as the delightful students who are in my care. Not only that but my little nuclear family is trying to figure out what will be our new normal and establish a semblance of routine. Although I can identify my feelings of unease as a natural part of adjusting to these new concentric circles of culture (my family, my work, relationships outside of work, my neighborhood, Laos) it doesn’t make them go away and I wonder how long will I stay in this tentative emotional state.
Although this place is special, it is not unique, meaning that I have encountered so many of the same frustrations in other countries. At first, I found this ambivalence akin to having still not arrived here, feeling that somehow a part of me is still in transit, being processed and on its way to this destination, and was an odd feeling to grapple with. But I have come to realize that in this new life here, I, like a piece of solid iron, am being smelted by this experience, reformed and fashioned for a new purpose. I know to decide to be happy, to enjoy how quirky and different everything is here, is surely the first step in this appreciating the transformation. I am trying to find some sort of ritual, some sort of antidote to these simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward our new life in Laos.
I am reminded that my thoughts become my words and my words become my actions and my actions become my habits, and my habits become my character, and my character becomes my life. So I have decided to start making lists of things that create small moments of happiness in my life, like air conditioning at a restaurant, the beauty of lightening as it races across the sky, and the contentment I feel when Hannah enjoys local food. I want to find the beauty in this world and in my new life.
So I thank you, dear reader, for allowing this blog post to help me expedite my shift and define who I will become in this new environment, articulating this idea. I hope that wherever you are in the world, you too can find the beauty in it.
It’s winter time here in Wuxi, which can be incredibly dreary. I have to remind myself that though the sun may seem obscured by the clouds, even though I do not see it, I know the sun is still radiating its light and heat. And I often rely on this example as a metaphor for my life: there are moments in one’s life in which everything seems bright and going smoothly, and then there are other times that are clouded, disorientating and confusing. I often use “this too shall pass” as my mantra to remember how temporary and fleeting the joys and the struggles are in life. My breath also exemplifies this quote from the bible–as it is natural that we move in and out of experiences.
With that in mind, I’ve been contemplating this yoga teaching lately:
The more shallow your breath, the more shallow your nerves. And the more shallow your nerves, the more shallow your thoughts. The more shallow your thoughts, the more shallow your whole life is. So consequentially, the deeper your breath, the deeper your nerves, the stronger your nervous system, the deeper your thoughts and your experience of your life. -Guru Jagat-
It’s an interesting argument for meditation, that is for sure, but what has drawn me into reflection is the ability to embrace the moment and see its opportunity for our growth–really taking a moment to look at my thoughts, are they shallow and dim, full of doubt and gloom? Or are they deep and engaged in possibility, seeing the available good that can come from obstacles and opportunities? Can I penetrate through perception to see the truth?
And then, after “breathing it all in”, having the power to let it go and “breath it out”. Observing my thoughts in this way could provide the space to let new ideas emerge. If I attach to what is “wrong” or “right” about a situation, then this too clouds my judgment, sort of speaking, because I have a level of expectation that muddles my thinking; and it also creates more highs and lows in my emotional state. As I aim to be content, no matter what, I think balancing my emotions helps me to see situations more clearly and act in more conscious ways. Of course, this is a work in progress, one that is never done. And so I keep breathing, in and out.
If your mission in life is to make a positive difference and not to prove how smart you are and right you can be, then you will appreciate the message of the Empty Boat.
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.
-Chuang Tzu, a Chinese Taoist philosopher
I love this reminder–that no one is intentionally acting maliciously toward us. Just as an empty boat that rams into us isn’t aspiring to injure us, so too people who act unkindly are unconsciously acting out of their own desires. It’s nothing personal. We are not victims of circumstance and until we realize this, we will remain imprisoned by this offense. However if we can shift our focus, assuming innocence and not attaching to it emotionally, then we can experience greater freedom and joy in our lives.
So, as we sit in our boats, we are always at choice as we traverse the rivers of life. So what can we choose?
Well, as I see it, there are 3 directions that I can cast my gaze when reflecting upon how I engage in life:
- Looking inward: my thoughts and judgements of myself.
- Looking outward: my thoughts and actions towards people.
- Looking at the environment: my response to the changes which I have no control over.
I know that I have to take personal responsibility for the emotions I feel, and I am at choice to greet these “empty boats” with anger or amusement. It’s a habit that I wish to cultivate, in which I can view these aspects of my life with non-attachment and acceptance.