31 March 2010

Transforming

At the weekly Monday meditation evening a newcomer came up and asked what work I did. Ohmigod! For most of my life that's been the most anxiety-producing question imaginable. Last Monday I just smiled serenely and answered, "Oh for the last 15 years I was a writer. Now I'm transforming."

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" my father constantly asked me as far back as I can remember. After my parents divorced when I was 10, he still called most days to find out what I'd done in school. He paid me $20 for every A on my report card. "You're smart and if you get good grades you can be anything you want," he loved to tell me. "The wider your horizons, the more choices you'll have in life."

The notion of infinitely wide horizons and deciding what/who 8-year-old me wanted to be when she grew up was terrifying. I craved small manageable horizons. I understood that while Dad promised a world of work options, he implicitly dismissed many potential career choices as inappropriate. I could grow up to be anything I wanted as long as it was a reputable profession like doctor, lawyer or anything that required lots of studying at a prestigious university. (Dad started out as a doctor and at age 40 switched to become a lawyer.)

"What does XX's father do?" Dad asked about every childhood friend I played with and every guy I dated through high school. "What does XX do?" he asked the adult me about the men I dated. For many years I never shared such information with him because I knew instinctively that "motor trader," "weird Austrian author," dope smoker," "itinerant musician" or "industrial firebrick layer" wouldn't satisfy his criteria of acceptable career choices. Once I proudly introduced him to a "math professor" I dated in the late 1970s even though this guy was fundamentally nuttier and more dysfunctional than any of the others.

As for my own "profession," I spent the first 28 years of my life assiduously avoiding the issue. I dropped out of college after the sophomore year and spent five years working at increasingly bizarre temp jobs in Swinging London. I returned to the US in 1972 and waited tables in the Napa Valley for a couple of years. Eventually Dad offered to put me through court reporting school in San Francisco. He probably figured that as long as I wasn't going to be a lawyer, at least I could sit in rooms with lawyers and breathe lawyer air.

I type super fast and was acing the court reporting course until I developed tenosinovitus (repetitive motion injury in today's parlance) in my wrist and dropped out. Perhaps Dad finally accepted my overt and covert resistance to "professions" because he gave up on his dream of my getting one and told me to find a job.

Getting a job was easier than choosing a profession. I became secretary to Dr. K., a Hong Kong scientist who ran a research lab at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. During the 15 years I worked for him—1975 to 1990—my title changed from "secretary" to the slightly tonier "administrative assistant." Neither sounded like the sort of "profession" I'd been brought up to covet.

After ending up in Thailand and become a published writer in the early 1990s, I felt better responding to "what do you do?" questions. I called myself a freelance writer, not to be confused with the professional journalists who all seemed far worthier of the writing title than I. People often complimented me on my pieces, yet their praise felt undeserved because I never embraced my own talent.

In late 2008 a slowly developing case of systemic candida invaded my brain. I could barely think straight, much less write coherently. The last magazine article I wrote, a 3,000-word destination piece, would normally have taken a few days to write. This one took a month and ended up being completely rewritten by the editor. I was mortified. I started a very strict anti-candida diet in early December 2008 which gradually cleared up the worst symptoms after a few months. My mind returned but my desire to write had vanished.

Even a few months ago, writing a simple email was a daunting and scary task. Sifu H insisted the block was mental, not physical and after the month-long session that ended on the 10th of this month, I suddenly became psyched about writing a blog. For the first time in years, writing has become so absorbing that playing Scrabble on Facebook, plucking chin hairs or the many other time fillers I relied on no longer appeal.

So far I haven't figured out how to show how learning Qigong has transformed my life so drastically. I'll just keep noting changes on the blog and stop tying myself up in knots trying to explain everything.

What I do know with certainty is that "transforming" is the best job I've ever had!

30 March 2010

A New Spirit of Place

Sunday evenings have been reserved for Movie Night at Bob's for almost as long as I've lived in Bangkok. When I first met Bob he lived in an old wooden house behind Suan Plu market. I quickly became a regular among the small band of movie buffs who'd crowd onto his bed to watch videos on a 14" TV screen. I was there when Bob graduated to a DVD player and 21" TV screen, and also when he moved to a spacious house surrounded by gardens some seven years ago.

Compared to the old Suan Plu days, movie watching at Bob's Ramkamheng abode is a sophisticated affair held in a large living room with sofa, chairs, wide screen and surround sound. The one constant remains Bob's commitment to screening a diverse and fabulously eclectic selection of movies from around the world. Bob's understandably proud that movies we've watched over the years always appear in lists of the world's Top 100 best all-time films.

Anywhere from four to 12 movie watchers can turn up for the Sunday night screenings. As one of his most consistent attendees, Bob started calling me his Spirit of Place. Ol' insecure me loved feeling "special" and to justify the title I devised a list of dedicated SoP movie chores. Apart from arriving early, I'd switch on the upstairs light, arrange chairs, turn on the aircon and the various electronic devices. One everyone had taken their seats, I'd put the DVD in the player and switch off the room lights.

By far SoP's most important self-imposed task was shepherding kibitzing attendees from the kitchen to the living room for the 7:30 pm start time. Some folks might not have seen each other in ages and were deep in conversation. Others arrived late but acted like they had all the time in the world to chat. During the process of cajoling people into the living room I felt more like a whip-cracking lion tamer than a shepherd! Probably that's how everyone else perceived me too.

Through learning Qigong with Sifu H, I've come to realize how tightly I've always clung to the myth of CONTROL. Intellectually I can spout that change is the only constant in life. Acknowledging it deeply is another matter. I've always proudly described myself as an aging hippy who lives an eccentric and unstructured existence, though deep down I was extremely unhappy. Punctuality, order and ritual fed the illusion that I was in charge of my life whereas actually they only underscored my fear of change and the unknown.

Qigong's given me a gut-level awareness of my inability to control the constancy of change. Today's Spirit of Place feels imbued with a loving and caring spirit instead of a controlling one. I "see" how furniture arranging, lighting setups, clock watching and people herding contribute nothing to my sense of self worth. So I've relinquished those tasks. What's so crucial about starting at precisely 7:30 pm anyhow? By letting go of the patently false notion that exercising control means I'm powerful and important, I've opened myself up to the possibility of meaningful and heartfelt interactions.

P.S. I can almost hear Sifu H reminding me that attaching to what a fabulous new SoP I've become is just as dangerous as attaching to feeling powerless and insignificant. Awful or fabulous is all an illusion in our minds anyhow, he'd say. I'm not quite at that level of awareness, but at least I'm finally walking the walk instead of merely talking the talk!

25 March 2010

Screws and Snaps

I'm off for a US passport renewal photo and all all aquiver about what to wear for a picture that'll end up showing nothing below my Adam's apple. I've ravaged my small closet and can't come up with an unrevealing sleeveless top! For Thai documents requiring photos, local photo shop employees happily use Photoshop to hoist up an overly sexy d├ęcolletage or remove unsightly wrinkles and eye bags. Obviously such manipulations are unthinkable for nitpicking US government agencies! Finally I find a garment that'll look suitably prim if I pin the floppy V-neck front shut.

Now the accoutrements. Out goes the nose stud. But what about the five earring holes on the right ear and the one on the left? On the right I've worn the same four stainless semi-circular earrings for years — mainly because it's a huge pain to screw in the teensy stainless balls on the end. Lately I've changed to wearing colorful vintage 1970s plastic earwear from Chatuchak market in the circa-1965 holes at the bottom of each ear.

I contemplate whether I'll really want to keep looking at a passport photo of me wearing big dangling plastic earrings over the next 10 years and decide not. This necessitates inserting a fifth stainless semi-circle earring in the bottom right hole and finding another unobtrusive one for the bottom left.

Cop out photo of earring instead of me!
It's 32° in my river-view pad at 4 p.m. when I begin the dreaded end-ball screwing process. After 10 minutes of hoisting my right elbow up and unsuccessfully trying to get the threads of the minute 2.5-mm stainless ball to engage with those on one end of the earring, the temperature feels more like 40°.

Suddenly I hear Sifu H's voice in my head. "Relax your shoulders, relax your arms, relax your breath, relax your mind." I drop my elbow and shoulder, relax all the tension and breathe. Presto chango, the stainless-to-stainless connection is effected! Now for the photo.

Sitting on an uncomfortable stool on the hot 2nd floor of a Sukhumvit photo shop recreates the same kind of angst/dread as screwing on teensy earring balls. Once more I recall Sifu H's relaxation tips. Keeping my body erect with eyes facing forward but relaxed, I again breathe to release the tension in my mind and body.I abandon thoughts of opening my eyes wide so the wrinkles won't show and allow the corners of my mouth to turn up in a gentle smile. I hold this facial pose without moving or changing during three blinding flashes. Surprise surprise. The photo turned out much better than I anticipated. (And I successfully cajoled the technician into reducing the intensity of a dark circle under my right eye to match the lighter left one.)

All this tension reduction is a major step forward. Nonetheless I still missed several opportunities for applying Qigong awareness to daily life situations.

•  I'm still too attached to the exterior trappings of clothing and accessories. (And passport photos are far too small to showcase them anyhow.) Only overworked airport check-in staff and immigration officials scrutinize them and what do they care about clothes or looks? As long as I vaguely resemble my picture and my passport says I'm not a terrorist, I'm OK in their minds. So why don't I feel OK in my own?

•  Intellectually I accept that I'm aging and can't possibly look as young as I did in the current 2001 passport photo—although I definitely look more relaxed in this new one. Nor do I look as old now as I will in 2020 when the new passport expires. Sifu H constantly reminds me about the inevitability of decay and death. I hear the words but am nowhere near grokking the concept!

23 March 2010

That Sinking Feeling

After going with a friend to the Monday night meditation at Ariyasom Villas and eating a divine Arab meal at Petra afterward, I came home around 11 and crashed. Around 4:45 a.m. this morning I suddenly awoke to loud sounds of gushing water. It took barely a minute to realize the source was a ferociously strong jet of water gushing out from under the sink and spraying across the living room with fire hose intensity!

Yesterday the building handyman replaced the kitchen sink faucet. When he went to shut off the main water valve in the corridor he discovered it doesn't completely shut off the flow of water. While changing the faucet, he noticed a slightly cracked plastic joint nut in the pipe under the kitchen sink. He changed the reinforced rubbery connector hose (with nuts on either end). The plywood cupboard floor got wet during the process and I'd left the cupboard doors open overnight open to dry it out. Apparently the handyman's cobbled together pipe repair weakened other joints and allowed the water pressure to burst through.

My tiny place has an L-shaped "kitchen" area consisting of the sink unit in the short part of the L. It creates a small divide between the living room and the tiled indoor balcony/dining area. The long part of the L is a counter top and waist-high cupboards running along part of one wall in the living room. End to end, the living room is just long enough for the three forward lunges in the final part of the 7-star form I started learning with Sifu H in March 2009 and continue to practice every morning.


All the floors are parquet except for the 1.5-meter wide tiled indoor "balcony" that runs horizontally along the windows fronting on the river. It creates the minuscule dining space, bathroom and bedroom plant area. The floors are as old as the apartment or at least my landlord's ownership of it. I've been here 12 years and he lived here before that. Sunlight streams in through huge windows all day and over the years the varnish has starting wearing off.

I raced out to the corridor and shut off the water valve except, as I'd discovered yesterday, that didn't entirely cut off the flow. Yesterday this was a minor inconvenience, but today it was a major one because even though the jet of water no longer sprayed across the room, water still streamed inside the plywood sink unit.

I started mopping up the puddles of water that ran from the sink across the living room to a small cabinet with a Bose CD player and phone/fax machine atop it. Fortunately they didn't seem too wet and I put them on the dining table to dry. Meanwhile water continued to run out from under the sink unit and onto the parquet floor. I tried stuffing the cracks with two chamois-like cloths and ran downstairs to get the guard to wake up the handyman.

Unlike their counterparts at snazzier buildings, the guards at Thai Sathit Condo aren't hired to actually do anything, especially in an emergency situation at 5 a.m. This guy was entirely too kreng jai to knock on the handyman's door. I tried knocking myself, yelling (politely) and phoning his mobile, all to no avail.

Back upstairs, I ran back and forth between the still-leaking sink area and the rest of the living room to gather soaked cushion covers, CDs etc. and spread them out on the outdoor planter boxes. This took until around 5:30 a.m. For the next two hours I stayed on my hands and knees next to the cupboard wringing out those pseudo chamois every couple of minutes. Finally at 7:30 the very sleepy handyman turned up. He removed the patchwork of pipe joints and replaced them with a single new connection.

I give so much background information because my responses to this predawn drama were 180° from how I would have reacted pre-Qigong. I'd have spewed out as much anger on all concerned as that split joint gushed water. I'd have screamed at the guard for being a useless git and at the handyman for being incompetent. (O.K., I did get pretty annoyed at him but nowhere near as dramatically as before.) I'd have stayed angry and tense for days and bent everyone's ears with "poor me" stories.

Instead, I wrote a list of gratitudes:

•  I'm very grateful the pipe joint burst while I was home. Given the amount of water released in barely five minutes, apartment and the one below would have been completely flooded had I not been there to turn off the valve..

•  I'm very grateful I woke up so fast and stopped the jet of water spurting across the room before any real damage occurred to books or electronic gear.

•  I'm very grateful the handyman lives in the building and dragged himself up to my place long before his usual 10 a.m. starting time. (I was fully prepared to keep wringing out the cloths until whenever he appear.)

•  I'm very grateful I live in a hot climate so everything dried off quickly.

•  I'm very grateful that the breezes that sometimes blow on the river blew today so I could stay home in relative comfort despite the 32° temperature and ensure everything dried out.

•  I'm very grateful I'm grateful instead of angry. Gratitude makes situations flow much more easily!

•  I'm very grateful Sifu H and the Qigong practice is teaching me to let go of my attachment to perfection. The floor wasn't perfect before the brief flood and it's even less so now. Achieving perfection in all things is no longer the guiding principle of my life.

•  I'm very grateful I had nothing planned for today because I'm utterly exhausted from the pre-dawn waterworks.

21 March 2010

If Dogs Feel My Energy, Why Can't I?

On Saturday morning I went over to my friend Tom's house to watch the Academy Awards. We have a 10-year tradition of watching the awards together and since I was in Chiang Mai for this year's, he very kindly copied a DVD for us to watch.

I've known Tom for ages but can't say we were especially close. He presents a pretty crusty/cynical exterior. Of course underneath he's extremely kind and caring, but insecure me often felt threatened and put off by his outer shell and sarcastic comments. Mainly I visited his house for his huge annual Thanksgiving parties and our own Oscars mornings.

A typical Bangkok soi dog
If I were an abandoned soi dog, I'd definitely experience Tom's warm and cuddly side. He's rescued nine over the past years and given them complete control over his heart and home. (Seven are still alive.) Over the years of their lifetimes and my Oscar visits, not one dog has ever done anything other than bark its head off or growl at me from the moment I ring the doorbell at the outside gate until I leave.

Oscar watching takes place in Tom's bedroom, the most effectively air conditioned room in his rented 1970s house. In the past I always fought with the mutts to carve out a space on the large bed covered in dog hair. (I never wear black and always bring a clothes brush.) Whenever I'd get up to pee or readjust my shawl (I'm not used to air conditioning) they'd ramp up the barking at instantly take over my spot on the bed.

You could wonder why I put up with all this discomfort and canine abuse. Well, I'm a sucker for tradition, especially in ever-changing Bangkok. And Tom has a steel trap mind for entertainment trivia and makes fabulously insightful—or appropriately snide—comments about people's clothes, what they wore last year, who they're dating etc. Plus he can name 99.9% of the faces on screen whereas I'm lucky if I recognize 30% of them! Deep down, I loved watching Oscar with Tom.

I haven't been to Tom's house since before starting Qigong. I rolled up yesterday at 9 a.m. with my bag of J.W. Marriott pastries (for him) and rang the doorbell. The predictable cacophony of barking ensured as the dogs stampeded out of the house to the gate. And then the barking stopped. A row of dog snouts protruded ouf from under the gate. Tom opened it and instead of barking their heads off, the dogs all surrounded me, jumping up, nuzzling and licking my hands!

It was the same throughout the 5-hour visit. I still had to carve out my space on the bed, but this time the dogs didn't mind and actually made room for me. (Fortunately not all seven are on the bed simultaneously!) Several put their heads in my lap or stuck theirs heads in my face demanding some ear scratching.

HELLO......is this a concrete example of an energy shift or what!!!!! Honestly their reactions didn't come as a total surprise because last fall my friend Bob's three former soi dogs also stopped their aggressive barking at me. Funny.....that was just around the time Tom and I got much closer too.

20 March 2010

Why QFN?

This blog charts the progress of a recovering neurotic —me —and describes how Qigong is transforming my life.

At first I thought I needed to chronicle how and why I've been plagued by anxiety, fear, anger, depression, self-loathing, inertia etc. for most of my life. But who'd want to read a self-indulgent whinge disguised as a blog? Surely, reading about someone's healing journey toward self acceptance and empowerment would be more interesting. And if I write honestly, all those inner struggles will emerge within the posts anyhow.

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and "neuroses" sounded like an appropriate moniker for my various problems. When my Qigong teacher and I came up with the title in June 2009, we were discussing how my writing a book about the ways Qigong has changed my life could help other people too. Qigong for Nerotics had a catchy ring like the XXXXXX for Dummies series. Back then, merely contemplating writing a book filled me with so much fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, etc. that I spent the next 10 months assiduously avoiding the issue.

Since starting in March 2009, so far I've done four one-month stints of private training with a Qigong master in Chiang Mai. We work together 3-4 hours/day, 6 days/week. (I may be neurotic but I'm also extremely diligent.) Thanks to this amazing teacher and our intense schedule, I've been releasing many of the neurosis I knew about and others I didn't know existed. Nowadays I feel like a butterfly emerging from a 62 year-old chrysalis and while writing a book remains too daunting, a blog project seems definitely doable.

As part of my healing process, I'm not writing this to please anyone except myself and thus shouldn't care if anyone reads it or not. Nonetheless, as a published writer from 1993 to 2008, I depended on the judgment and approval of editors. I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't be happy if someone stumbled upon this blog and was in some measure helped by reading it.

To protect everyone's anonymity on the blog I'll refer to friends by their first names or sometimes by their initials. As for my teacher, let's call him Sifu H. In Chinese, Sifu means teacher or master, especially in the martial arts field. In moments of epic struggle when we're working together and I'm sobbing as yet another layer of a mental, physical or emotional problem starts peeling away, I privately refer to him as Snafu. Of course I'd never say that to his face because Sifu H has given me the greatest gift any teacher can possibly give: the tools to understand, love and heal myself.