Taking a Beginner’s Class in Life

monk paradeCall it synchronicity or coincidence, but when some image, item or theme repeats itself, I pay attention to it.

It’s 5 am and the day is breaking on my first day in Laos. I hear dogs barking outside my hotel’s bedroom window and as I look outside, to my amazement, I see a parade of Buddhist’s monks doing their daily ritual of alms giving. To see their bright orange robes in the pale morning sunlight sparked joy and excitement in me. Then fast forward later to an introductory ice breaker at my new school when I am asked to select one picture that I resonate with and explain why. I saw an image very much like the one here in this blog post of the monks.  Obviously, the morning experience had left an impression on me, which is why I believed I was immediately drawn to it, but then as I started to explore it more deeply,  I thought it is what the monks represent to me: contemplation and discipline. But to what?–that is what has plagued me and woke me up this morning at 4:14 am.

If I believe that every detail in my life has a message of the divine in it, then what would this repeating image of parading monks mean to me? This urge to understand is what got me leaping out of bed this morning. As soon as my feet hit the ground, it occurred to me that it is the ideal that monks strive towards, a  Beginner’s Mind:  having an open mind and heart, allowing for the mundane in life to become a fresh experience and to invite the magic of living back into awareness.

Moving into a new country, it is easy in many ways to have a Beginners’ Mind because there are all these new “adventures” that you get to explore like food, culture, and scenery. thich-nhat-hanh-quote-beginners-mind.jpgBut what about other elements that are not as novel, like our attitudes towards things, in particular, relationships. These relationships could be anything like how we feel towards our loved ones or how we feel towards mosquitos. It’s hard to enliven these stagnant attitudes with a new point of view. But for me, I think seeing these monks reminded me of the importance of the commitment to keeping open to the possibility that maybe something that I believe to be true may have another version worth exploring. Ideas that popped immediately to my mind were my personal relationships, how I feel about aging and my ideas about living with nature. Can I examine these ideas with a fresh perspective, remaining deeply curious and in awe of its presence in my life?  Although I am not sure what benefit this approach may yield, I am setting an intention to examine the dogma in my beliefs and observe how it impacts my decisions and feelings. I am going to liken this introspection as a taking a  beginner’s course in life. And today my course starts.

 

 

Spring Cleaning for the Mind

It’s another holiday here in China–May Day, Labor Day, and we have off from school. One of my big projects is to go through my stuff and get rid of things that I don’t plan to bring to Laos. I’ve come to appreciate time off from work, not because I am tired and need rest as insomuch that I appreciate this down time and space to reflect and pursue interests and projects–a bit of “spring cleaning” for my mind. Every little holiday I have a deep need to either travel, to read, and/or to learn something new. I don’t want to squander my time because I know how immensely precious it is. I have come to crave this time in which I can be creative, taking the time to entertain new ideas and challenge my existing dogma. This is the power of creating space and gaps in our mundane lives.

Innnovation happens in the white space, it happens in the gaps between the things we think we are supposed to be doing. But if we are squeezing all of the white space out of our lives by filling it with actiivity, then we are not pruning and saying no to things on occassion then we are not going to have the space to innovate and think.

-Todd Henry- Author of The Accidental Creative

I can hear you thinking: “But Judy, you are lucky–we don’t have the amount of time off that you do!” Well, that is probably true, but there are numerous ways to create this space in your life. I am going to share 5 ways.

Practice Mindfulness

Are you breathing? Good–then you can do this! So, I am starting with the easiest, in my opinion, to do because EVERYONE can spend 1-2 minutes a day being mindful. All it takes is paying close attention to something, most commonly your breath. Right now, you can do this. Close your eyes to limit your distractions, and breath in, filling your lungs and belly with breath. Hold it for 3 seconds and exhale. Repeat 2 more times, paying close attention to your breath. Takes about a minute to do this, but your brain went offline and carved out some new neural real estate for new ideas to emerge in your brain’s network.

Increase Your Bandwidth

Another way to create space and cultivate a higher quality of life is by quitting your addiction to “junk food” for the brain. This could be watching senseless cat videos on YouTube or the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model or Jersey Shore. I know that this seems obvious but many people find “tuning out” a really important way to decompress after their day. The only problem is that this activity doesn’t actually allow for your brain to recover.

The average American is watching television an average of 4 hours a day. 4 HOURS OF TELEVISION.

4 hours of television over the average adult life span means that they spend about 13 years sitting in front of the boob tube. So they are watching television for 13 years–that’s over a decade! People have a lot more time than they think they do.

-Brendon Burchard-

However, there are countless other ways to promote mental hygiene and create some space and relaxation in your life. Going for a walk, exercise or doing yoga are the best replacements because these activiites inspire new cell generation and increase the flow of oxygen to your brain. But if you are feeling lazy then reading a good book or looking at the stars provide you with a brain break and are a fix for the mundane in our lives.

focus on becoming

Build Meaningful and Inspiring Relationships

What you spend time on is just as important as WHO you spend time with.  The quality of our relationships can really impact our emotional lives. Building real relationships with people who can fuel you rather than empty your tank is super important. No one wants to be around a “Debbie Downer” and the reason is that you actually have a chemical response in your brain that depresses you. Surround yourself with positive and interesting people so that this personal network helps you to discover new ways of
thinking and opens you up to fresh perspectives. Bumping into these novel ideas helps you to reframe your current mindset around ideas that may be causing you stress, or at least puts on a “pause” button from your worrying mind.

Schedule some Deep Thinking Work for 1 hour a week.

alberteinstein1.jpgI believe that thinking is becoming a lost art. Our attention to social media makes it so much easier to confuse someone else’s opinion as our own. However, if we were to take some time for introspection, examining our values and beliefs, then we would uncover what is our truth and our purpose in life. That sort of thing is extremely liberating and fulfilling. Spending some time weekly to journal and write about what has inspired and interested you this week makes it easier to prioritize our tasks and can be extremely motivating. This “Power Hour” is game-changer.

So how do you carve out this time? Well, one way is to wake up earlier so you have an uninterrupted moment of calm (this is what I do) but not everyone is a lark. So another effective productivity hack includes clustering similar tasks that use the same amount of cognitive power in order to create blocks of time to do work that is meaningful. You can create a theme for the day or for those blocks of time so that you can really focus on converting the “to do list” to be the “to done list”.  You would be so amazed at how a little reorganization in your schedule can have a big effect on your week. Once your time is organized, you will definitely see gaps and space emerge which can be devoted to more exciting pursuits and opportunities to examine solutions to problems you face in your personal and professional life.

Travel

Travel is, in a lot of ways, the easiest way to jostle your brain and expand your horizon. You don’t need to plan a 10-day vacation to Bali to do it either, it can be as simple as driving/biking/walking to work using a different road or path. Or taking a trip to your local museum or park. What about having a picnic outside instead of eating at the kitchen table? No matter how small or large the journey, this break from the norm creates novelty in your brain and builds new networks and connections.

They say that “time is a luxury that most of us can’t afford”, so I hope these ideas inspire you to think about how you might “clean up” your time so that you can engage in more meaningful work or stimulating perspectives.

When Your Cultural Identity is Adrift

Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.

I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.

But technically I haunaltered home.jpgve lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.

For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.

In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antirumi field.jpgdote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.

Perhaps I will see you there.

To Africa, with Love 

A long time ago I had a friend from Senegal who used to admonish me for telling kids at camp to finish their food because “there are starving kids in Africa”. He would tell me that there is so much more to the continent of Africa than kids with bloated bellies and he didn’t want me to spread this message. It has taken me years to finally grasp what he meant. I owe him a sincere apology.

I reckon most people from the western world don’t travel to countries in Africa unless they want to go on safari or are involved in some religious/charity work. I don’t know what compelled us to journey to South Africa exactly but we ventured there during our long Chinese New Year holiday. It’s been, hands down, the most amazing time spent as a family.

From the moment we boarded our Ethiopian Airline’s flight in Shanghai, the whole atmosphere of the airplane was different. It was a full flight with seeming strangers but I immediately felt like we were apart of a community, in which fellow African passengers helped each other with their luggage, made jokes and referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”-even though they were not even related.  I am not a person who knows much about the history and culture of many African nations, but it was obvious to me that they shared some common values which were easy to connect with, no matter the age or language barrier between them. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Needless to say, it left an impression on me.

I’ve known quite a few people who feel drawn to the soils of Africa and now I totally get what they cherish about it. Even though I only spent time in Addis Abbas and Cape Town, I believe that you can be anywhere in Africa and have a similar experience. And what experience is that? An experience of breath-taking beauty–not just of nature but of the human spirit. And it was a place full of contradictions, particularly between poverty and wealth. It’s really hard to even relate this in words. Words can not capture what it is that I want to say, but I am utterly grateful for my experience there. And, I urge you, the reader, to go visit and experience for yourself. And if you keep your mind and heart open, I believe that you will have an unforgettable experience that will leave an indelible mark on your consciousness.