Reflections on the first day of the New Year

The following is taken from a journal entry written on January 1, 2015 in an attempt to record my thoughts on the first day of the New Year as comprehensively and plainly as possible.

After a year of continuous teaching, I was feeling dispirited and frazzled by the hectic pace of the Summer and Midyear semesters, my increased workload and responsibilities during the First Semester, and the holiday insanity complicated by the academic calendar shift, so, a few days before the end of 2014, I went to Chiang Mai–a supposedly laidback province in Northern Thailand that has been on my travel bucket list since 2012–and worked for some days with other volunteers in an organic farm in the district of Samoeng under the direction of a former Buddhist monk and his Japanese wife.

Though this isn’t the first time that I greeted the New Year away from home, it’s the first time that I celebrated it without a midnight feast or fireworks, being hugged by a company of strangers inside a Buddhist temple. The “strangers” are travelers from Australia, Chile, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the US, and UK. We’ve all come to Thailand for various reasons, and met at this small farm in Pang Term village up the mountainous district of Samoeng. I miss my family, but I’m glad to be away from the noise and pollution of Metro Manila and begin the New Year in a radically different way.

We spent New Year’s Eve meditating, chanting, and listening to a Dhamma talk by a Thai teacher, translated into English by our host, Pinan Chinnaworn, a former Buddhist monk, inside the village temple; this temple, very unlike the grand, ornate temples that populate Chiang Mai proper, was packed to the full with locals and visitors of various nationalities, all thinking about how life is both happiness and suffering, and how understanding and accepting that is the foundation of peace.

We are devoting the first day of the New Year to reflection and complete silence. Instead of doing the usual routine at Pinan and his wife Noriko’s farm, where we are staying—morning run and yoga, cleaning, breakfast, volunteer work, lunch, skills sharing, dinner, and meditation—Pinan asked us to ponder the question, “How do I live in an imperfect world with a calm mind and a peaceful heart?” and to reflect on our past and think about our “next step forward.”

Though Pinan said that I could stay in the farm and sit under a tree to meditate, I think better while moving, so this morning I walked and walked on the dusty dirt roads of Pang Term, passing huts and vegetable patches and fields near the river, until I came to the next village, where I saw another temple. Leaving my sandals at the foot of the steps leading up to the threshold, I went in, sat in front of the Buddha, and thought about what I should change and how to live life this year and the coming ones, processing what the Dhamma talk meant, what happened in the past year, what’s stuck with me for the past 24 years, what and whom I need to let go.

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While walking, I thought about how I could live in peace and kindness, given that I’d always been a bundle of worries, ambitions, frustrations, and anxiety. Letting go and letting be don’t come easily to me—it’s telling that the motto in my high school yearbook page reads: “First say to yourself what you would be, then do what you must to make it happen.” I’m also a bit of a misanthrope, and am predisposed to feel aversion to most people and their company, a tendency that I am striving to overcome. So I thought and thought about the questions Pinan posed, and I realized that I am able to be more kind and empathetic when I feel happy, contented, and at peace. And I feel peace when I have learned to accept something, decided on a suitable course of action, and am able to follow through my plans and decisions, especially regarding the things that most matter to me: my relationships with myself and other people, and my work.

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First, I thought about my relationships, because as I get older, the more I find meaning not only in largely solitary pursuits, such as my studies and hobbies, but, more importantly, with the sense of connection I feel with other people, including my family, my friends, my students and colleagues, and my community, as well as with the authors I read, the strangers I meet in the street or on hiking trails, in cafes, in yoga classes, in buses and cabs.

I thought about the issues I encounter in my relationships, especially in the most binding and transformative ones—with my family, close friends, and romantic attachments. I realized that problems arise because of: one, my profound selfishness; two, my lack of tenderness and empathy, and; three, my propensity for emotional restraint and distance.

When I say that I am selfish, I don’t mean that I am miserly with my resources—I am often quite willing to share not only what I have, but also what I am—my time, my skills, my knowledge. No, I am selfish in that I think only of myself when I make plans for my life—I do not plan it with regard to how other people might share in it, how another might be part of my ordinary existence, including my journeys, joys, and pains.

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the reasons for this is that I don’t expect other people to care about me or to stake something in my life, even when I feel the same for them. This is because when I realize that they don’t care about me in the way in which I wish they would, I feel lonely and annoyed with myself, because this realization brings to the fore the awareness that in feeling there is no self-sufficiency—as philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it, “Our emotional life maps our incompleteness,” and I wish to be whole. So when I am sad or angry, I usually keep it to myself, and even when I talk of it to my friends, I do not reveal the depth  of my feelings, which I prefer to process for myself. Though I readily listen to and try to support those I care about when they come to me with their problems, I don’t expect them to do the same for me. But I have realized that with this attitude—with this lack of trust rooted in fear of disappointment—I do my loved ones and myself a disservice. So this past year, I have tried to foster meaningful, mutually supportive friendships, and I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with other people.

Vulnerability is another issue for me, because I am loathe to feel it, much more to express it in front of another person. And I do not like it when my vulnerability consists in attachment to certain people, such that their distance, absence, or rejection cause me longing or loneliness. As a result, I have often opted for emotional restraint, even coldness, because I do not want to be the one who is left, whose love is not returned. This, too, I have tried to work on in the past year, by letting people know that I care about and appreciate them, even with the threat of my affection being  rebuffed, misunderstood, or trivialized. But I know that I have a long way to go in this regard. It is easier to do with friends and romantic interests, because to a great extent, those relationships are forged by choice. It is more difficult with family, especially with parents, because they are our oldest relationships, and as such, resentments there can run very deep. So this year I will try to resolve those resentments and forgive myself and others in love, by trying to understand why people have become the way they are, and by being brave in expressing not only affection but also disappointment.

I have also decided to forgive those who have profoundly wounded me—who had, at some point, destroyed my trust in the good intentions of other people and eroded my sense of the significance and sacredness of my self as a being with hopes, fears, passions, and dreams. I recognized that, for lack of consciousness and moral will, I had allowed myself to be debased. I had been naïve and careless, and as a result, I was hurt, and I hurt other people. For this, I forgive myself and those who have wronged me, I have sought forgiveness from those I have wronged, and I have tried to act with good judgement, in accordance with my principles.

For the sake of my relationships, then, I pray for courage to accept and express vulnerability, for trust in the goodness of other people, for understanding that is the foundation of empathy, and for grace and forgiveness.

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For my work—my studies and my teaching—I pray for discipline and patience.

Since I started working, I have noticed in myself a tendency to get easily bored. Coupled with my desire to achieve so many things, this has led me to try to fill my days and nights with as much activity as they can, to my exacting mind, hold, and to be impatient with anyone or anything that gets in the way of my plans or “wastes” time I could have spent doing what I wanted to do.

I have realized that this practice feeds my selfishness by necessitating that I allot almost all of my time to personal and professional pursuits, often at the expense of nurturing my relationships. Thus they suffer, and so do I—in spreading myself thin and inviting overcommitment to responsibilities, I pave my own way to anxiety and burnout, which in past years led to months of depression, a lack of interest in life, in anything at all. So this year I intend to develop the discipline to take on only work I can realistically accomplish without sacrificing my own needs, like sleep, and more pressing responsibilities to self and family.

I also need to practice discipline in my pursuit of knowledge and experiences. Just as I am easily bored, so are my curiosity and interest stoked by so many things.  This has led me to develop what Christy Wampole calls an “essayistic” approach to the accumulation of knowledge and experience—I sample everything, sometimes with little discrimination, often going wherever my curiosity takes me, often wasting hours learning information that I subsequently dismiss or fail to fit into a coherent framework that would allow me to understand a topic in, say, politics or philosophy, more broadly and deeply. As a result, I am becoming somewhat an intellectual dilettante, or, as I prefer to call it, an intellectual flaneur, surveying the landscape of various fields of knowledge without adding to, absorbing, or inhabiting them—something that I find troubling. For if “research is organized curiosity,” then my failure to achieve such organization is detrimental to the development of my career in scholarship. I am turning 25 this year, yet I have not published an academic paper or presented at a conference or completed my master’s degree.

Thus, this year I’m going back to my studies in philosophy so that I may gain the competence to examine literature from a philosophical perspective, which is the preoccupation that makes the most sense to me, given that it’s literature that most beautifully and vividly captures human thought and experience, and it is philosophy that gives us the tools with which to parse our reality and ponder what it means to be human.

Patience, I need for both my studies and work, for occasional drudgery is inseparable from them. There will always be tasks that I would rather not do but that need to be done, and during periods of dull toil I must remember what it’s all for and why it’s important.

Cultivating my mind and others’ is no light obligation, and for this I must develop patience and discipline, both in myself and my students.

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Lastly, I have thought about spirituality. I haven’t considered myself a Catholic since I graduated from high school and saw how narrow organized religion can be, especially as regulated in the Philippines, with its characteristic broken social institutions and elitist hypocrisy. I do, however, recognize that Christianity, like other religions, provides scriptures and rituals rich with underlying insight, so I have tried to follow its moral precepts that make sense to me. But broadly, I identify as a deist—I believe, or want to believe, in the divine in what is, and I think that apprehending the sacred is approached by refining the mind and realizing that, in the end, there is something higher than intellection. This year, however, I will also try to learn more about Buddhism and practice its five precepts and follow its noble eightfold path, because its emphasis on cultivating peace and happiness in an inescapably imperfect world appeals to me. I would like to be at peace and to be happy, which would help me to be kind, and thus ease the suffering of others, and I think that Buddhism, which seems to me a very practical system to guide thought, speech, and action, would help me achieve those things.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on the first day of the New Year

  1. Pingback: 13 before 30: another partial bucket list   | tenant on the top floor

  2. Pingback: Byeeeee 2015! | tenant on the top floor

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