Spring blooms elsewhere

Here, alas, summer hath not “all too short a date.”

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Notes on training in the exercise of solitude

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From a Facebook status update posted on January 11, 2015:

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I went on a guideship climb with Trail Adventours in Mt. Batulao yesterday. Since our group had a number of first-time hikers, the other guides and I paid close attention to participants who needed more assistance. There was one girl whom I stayed with a lot–during ascents and descents, she seemed so scared that she couldn’t stand upright and walk, and just slid her butt along the ground, so I carried her bag and held her hand throughout much of the climb. I held her hand high so she wouldn’t try to bend over to touch the ground or blades of grass and lose her balance, and gave her tips on footing and what to do when she’s starting to slip. It struck me, though, that by the end of the climb, she still clung to my hand. Obviously, feeling secure about footing doesn’t happen in the course of one climb, but the girl got me thinking about this holding-hands thing and its relation to my own “issues.”

As we descended the mountain, I thought about how one must learn to stand on one’s own feet and walk alone, because people won’t always be there to walk with you or hold your hand. This is a truism, yet it amazes me to know so many people who can’t be alone, who always feel the need for other people to walk with, talk with, eat with, who feel lonely and incomplete without another’s company and attention. I do not understand these people, or, rather, I do not wish to understand, and therefore empathize, with these people, because to do so would destabilize my fundamental acceptance of existential loneliness. We live alone and we die alone, and to say that we can share our lives with other people is not to say that they can live our lives, too. No, we think our own thoughts and tread our own paths and process our own lessons from living.

This existential loneliness pushes us to sociality, but it is what we return to every night, locked in our own heads, in our dreams. All company is fleeting, all sense of unity with another being or a social entity, a necessary myth we willfully suspend disbelief to be comforted by, to derive a sense of value from.

That said, sometimes loneliness makes me want to believe that this were not so, that one day, somebody would live my life with me. There are moments that bring this truth to the fore along with a desire to rail against it: getting off a plane from a long trip and wishing that somebody’s at arrivals, waiting for me; walking home alone at 3 AM from a night of working in a cafe; sitting at a table in a crowded restaurant, facing a plate of good food that’s too much for me to finish. I respond to this longing by planning another solo trip, or thumbing the whistle around my neck and securing my bag in case of an attack, or dividing the food on the plate into two and asking the waiter to have the other half wrapped. I breathe deeply and think that desired company is a gift, but I can do stuff on my own.

2.

It’s a tradition for me to do something creative for Valentine’s Day, especially when I’ve no romantic partner to pass this Hallmark Holiday of Mass Hysteria over with. This year, I made a Relationship Venn Diagram to print, mark, and give to those who pry about the state of my heart:

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My heart’s still pumping blood through the circuits of my body, thankyouverymuch, and I’ve been trying to raise my cardiovascular fitness by running.

Actually, I think I’ll do more running in the coming weeks to strengthen my heart, since I got the damn organ in a state of anaphylactic shock yesterday by pushing someone to more sharply articulate his rejection of my affection, so that I might finally jump from the intersection of “umaasa pa, i.e. tatanga-tanga” and “busy” to simply “busy” (the ultimate goal is, of course, to enter the “halaman” sphere of no desire but for gentle flourishing, drawing energy from the earth, rain, sunlight. Because fuck longing in its unsatiable behind). It was a selfish move, and I believe it pained him to say he could not love me, but I needed to hear it, I needed to kill all traces of the hope that’s infected me for several months, so it could stop producing toxins to our friendship. The treatment hurts, of course, but not as much as I thought it would–there’s something to be said for frequently indulging in pain that’s merely thought into existence, as a kind of pre-emptive measure against the onset of pain with more concrete causes.

So, that’s it, I prefer to think, I’m through. I’m setting arrested affect free to roam and starve and die–so I might grow.

EDIT (March 2015): That is not it, I am not through, this is more difficult than I thought it would be, are there no shortcuts to being halaman?

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.