22 May 2010

Poem for Humankind

Buddhadasa Bhikku 1906-1993

Poem for Humankind
by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
(Late Abbot of Wat Suan Mok)

Translated by Susan F. Kepner

We should behave toward our fellow human beings as if they...
Were born, and will grow old, suffer and die, like us
Enduring the wheel of existence, of samsara
Living under the power of attachments, like us
Subject to desire, rage, and delusion, and
Careless in their ways, like us
Having no idea why they were born, as we have no idea
Stupid in some things, as we are sometimes stupid
Indulging their own whims, as we indulge ours
Wanting to be good, perhaps prominent, even famous
Taking advantage of opportunities to take advantage of others, like us.
They have the right to be crazy, to get drunk, to become obsessed
They are ordinary people who cling to this or that, as we do
They are under no obligation to suffer or die in our place
They are our fellow citizens, in secular and spiritual realms
They behave sometimes in haste, carelessly, like us
They have the duty to be responsible for their families, not for ours
The have the right to their own tastes, their own definition of well-being
They have the right to choose (even their religion) to suit themselves
They have the right to a share of public resources equal to our share
The right to be insane, in the world's opinion, as do we
The right to seek our help, and pity, and compassion
The right to our forgiveness, depending upon the merits of the case
The right to be socialists, or liberals,
To think of themselves before they think of others
They have the right to every right we claim, to live in this world.
Could we all but think this way, conflict and discord would not arise.

21 May 2010

Home Alone

Seeking balance amidst chaos

Two days after Thai soldiers drove Red Shirt protesters out of their Ratchaprasong encampment which catalyzed a spree of looting and burning throughout the center of town, Bangkok remains unnaturally quiet. This morning I finally put my suitcase back in the closet and hung up the clothes I'd strewn over half the bed on Wednesday afternoon when I frantically started packing. After that I watered the indoor plants from the bucket I'd hurriedly filled when I feared the power would go off. Of course neither Bangkok nor I have regained our sense of normalcy. 

Last week I still believed I could still collate all that information about Thai politics and email it on to a list of interested people without getting swept up by the content of the articles, blogs, photos, etc. That dispassionate stance began evaporating after Sae Daeng was shot in the head by a sniper on the 13th, the BTS and MRT shut down on the 14th, and the Red Shirts started lighting tires and blockading roads around town.

Losing balance amidst chaos
By the weekend I'd whipped myself up into a frenzy of worry and decided I couldn't stay alone in my riverside apartment. On Saturday (15th), I spent the night at the house of two good friends on Ramkamheng 81. Except for the lack of traffic jams, this suburban neighborhood seemed completely untouched by the events unfolding in the center of town.

On Sunday afternoon we ventured out for scrumptious New York-esque pastrami sandwiches at New York Cheescake deli in the Crystal Design Center and then wandered amidst the shopping hordes at The Mall, Bangkapi. How could everyone look so "normal" in the midst of this surreal situation, I wondered. Despite my friends' offer to stay another night, I decided to return home. No place felt safe any more, but at least at home I could look out over the river and cook for myself.

By Monday morning the situation was spiraling evermore out of control. My Facebook status messages from the 17th record my own downward trajectory into chaos. Attired only in my underwear and a wet cloth around my neck, I spent most of the day at the computer while the nearby fan futilely churned the 34C air around. I alternated between between checking Twitter, looking at news reports, watching terrifying images and talking to friends.

One of my best friends, Ms. Pollyanna, resolutely refused to discuss the crisis. Normally we chat volubly on the phone nearly every day, but now an uncomfortable chasm opened between us. Deep down I knew she was probably struggling to maintain her famous positive attitude, but I judged her for caring so little about her adopted homeland. Then I judged myself for judging her!

Monday, 17 May, 13:05
Jennifer Gampell  OK. It's official. I am NOT doing a good job of clearing stress from all the violence in Bangkok. My center's moved to Bon Kai and it's not feeling tres tres bon at all! 

Monday, 17 May, 15:48 
Jennifer Gampell In all my 12+ years in the river view pad in lower Chinatown, I've never looked back toward town and seen huge columns of smoke rising. I first thought they were gray storm clouds, but alas I think they're Din Deng. 

Monday 17 May, 21:48 
Jennifer Gampell Unbelievably, a huge disco boat with lights blazing and amps ramped just sailed past my window on the Chao Phraya!

On Tuesday I talked at great length with K Kini, a dear Thai friend who gave up a cushy job in the business world a few years ago to become a kinesiologist. Since then she's been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration in my ongoing struggles to nurture the Transforming Jennifer. She rarely panics; rather she looks at uncomfortable or stressful situations as opportunities for awareness and inner growth.

Instead of feeling trapped at home because of closed roads and no mass transit, she counseled, why not examine all the activities I normally do in the world every day. Are the really so necessary to my existence? (No.) And does jumping on Twitter every few minutes change anything except the intensity of my own emotions? (No.) That's when I made an anti-Twitter resolution.

Tuesday 18 May, 12:28 
Jennifer Gampell is trying hard not to read ANY news, tweets, etc. until 5 pm. This addiction must be broken. If I can summarily cut out sugar, surely I can stop eating news!

Tuesday 18 May, 14:30 
Jennifer Gampell Staying at home has been easier today than yesterday after a friend pointed out how we're all addicted to activity and going wherever we want whenever we want to. Enforced homebound-ness highlights my need to be engaged "out there" rather than engaging more from "in here."

I awoke on Wednesday determined to continue focusing on engaging from "in here." By noon that resolution had disintegrated in the fiery denouement to the army's invasion of Ratchaprasong. Instead, I rode the waves of negative energy crashing in from "out there" and barely noticed as my tenuous-at-best center came loose from its moorings.

Wednesday 19 May, 11:20 
Jennifer Gampell totally panicked this morning about the latest madness and mayhem. First reaction: get out of Bangkok NOW! I live on the river slightly away from the current epicenter. Looking at the reality, I'm not in danger now. It could even be an opportunity to connect—yet again—to my own epicenter. Without that, not matter where I'm physically located, I'll be a prisoner of fear. 

To cover all my bases—or at least pretend I had some control over events—I called Air Asia about flying to Chiang Mai and reserved a room for the 21st Friday at Charcoa House, my home away from home when I study with Sifu H. I got my suitcase from the cupboard and haphazardly dumped a few clothes and toiletries onto the bed. Truthfully the idea of flying to Chiang Mai brought no more reassurance to my adrenalin-fueled mind than staying put.

Driven by fear and panic, the "what if..." thoughts bombarded my mind like endless rifle volleys. How could Ior anyonehope to calm down sufficiently and observe the reality of the situation while whipping around in an emotional maelstrom of fear and terror? 

Early in the afternoon, both Ms. Pollyanna and K Kini reported power outages in their Sukhumvit 26 neighborhoods. Neither of them panicked; both were waiting to see what transpired. Not me. I summarily decided the "reality" of my situation was impending disaster. By now it was too late to pack and arrive at the airport before the 8 p.m. curfew, but I'd leave for the airport first thing Thursday morning. My jumping bean mind arbitrarily decided that leaving town must be better than staying. At least I was doing something instead of sitting around helplessly.

Wednesday 19 May, 16:30 
Jennifer Gampell OK. I'm gonna work on conquering fear as I leave town tomorrow morning. I just hope Chiang Mai doesn't turn into Bangkok #2 and that the power stays on a bit longer. Friends on Suk 26 are already without power.

Electricity returned to Sukhumvit 26 after less than an hour. K Kini and I talked on Skype about her feelings during the outage (levelheaded, dispassionate) versus mine (desperate, anxious). In the middle of the conversation she suddenly announced, "Ohmigod, something's burning! Ohmigod there's black smoke coming into the apartment!" Her voice sounded deadly serious, but not scared. Looking out her window she saw smoke coming from a Bangkok Bank kiosk at the end of the road opposite Carrefour. "Put a wet cloth over your face and get out of there," I counseled as she rang off.

K Kini called back a few minutes later to say she'd closed the windows, the smoke was dissipating and she saw no reason to go anywhere. Her peaceful and sane attitude throughout a seriously hazardous situation amazed me, especially as I was flying off the handle in my danger-free riverside abode.

Then someone posted a Facebook message about Red Shirts burning tires and blocking bridges in Chiang Mai. Oh shit. Now both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, two supposed oases of safety and comfort for me, were similarly unstable. What does poor little me do now, I whinged selfishly. I never stopped to realize how nowhere "out there" could offer safety as long as every place "in here" screamed in fear and terror.

Wednesday 19 May, 17:35 
Jennifer Gampell is changing plans. I'm gonna work on conquering fear as I stay here contemplating where to go now that Chiang Mai is being torched too.

Wednesday sunset
Finally I stopped the manic activities. I breathed. I listened to a dhamma talk by Ajarn Sumedho, I called K Kini for another chat. By early evening I'd traveled full circle back to the resolution I'd made upon waking at dawn, which now seemed like days ago.

Wednesday 19 May, 18:20 
Jennifer Gampell  Today marks the end of the Bangkok we've all known and loved. Whatever emerges from this conflagration will be completely unlike our fondest memories of it. However I suppose it's a necessary process.

It took the complete disintegration of life as I knew it in Bangkok to remind me that the only reality I can ever hope to know or understand is the one within. Please hold that thought Jennifer!

06 May 2010

I Want It, I Want It, I Want It

I just paid a deposit on a new computer, the first Mac I've owned since 1993. I should be psyched about changing from a four year-old PC to a sophisticated 13" Macbook Pro, but I feel strangely underwhelmed. I keep wondering whether I've made a mistake. As a shopaholic—my primary addiction is low-budget secondhand clothing and accessories—I expected to feel the normal rush of post-purchase euphoria, not all this free-floating anxiety.

Earlier this year I decided I needed a new computer even though my small and slow four year-old Fujitsu laptop still handles all my writing, emailing, internet needs. I pictured myself slipping a lightweight new Fujitsu netbook into my bag and traveling to...somewhere. Surely a tiny netbook would inspire me to greater heights of word production. What an insane fantasy for someone who six months ago could barely string two coherent sentences together! Even now I sometimes find writing a huge slog.

I've used Fujitsu computers for 14 years because of the company's personalized service and extremely helpful staff. Recently the last of the original employees left and the new team neither knows nor cares about me or my need for a new computer. I easily let go of my attachment to Fujitsu. Its new range of glossy multicolored PCs look terminally tacky compared to the sophisticated older models. So does every PC out on the market today. And that's when visions of Macbooks started dancing in my head. "I want it, I want it, I want it," came a little voice from somewhere inside me. And unlike in the Who's famous Magic Bus, no voice piped up to say, "You can't have it."

Was the desire for a new computer a sincere need or just a want masquerading as a necessity? According to the second of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhist philosophy, all suffering stems from craving, whether for a computer, a pair of 500-baht secondhand clogs, two bars of chocolate or a relationship. Even if/when we receive the object of our craving, it never brings lasting happiness. Soon we yearn for the next must-have item or experience. This constant state of wanting more deprives us of happiness and contentment in the present moment.

High minded twaddle I thought a decade ago when I first heard about the Four Noble Truths. One day during last February's session I outed my shopping addiction to Sifu H and he reiterated the same concepts. After one intensely frustrating morning working with him, I headed straight for a market in Chiang Mai and bought a 250-baht pair of secondhand Levis I really didn't want and definitely didn't need. As I forked over the cash, I thought angrily to myself, "Ha! That'll show him." I noticed my pursed lips and furrowed brow and suddenly felt the anger at the root of this sudden shopping attack rise up from my gut. Clearly even 100 pairs of secondhand Levis wouldn't assuage this violent emotion.

Since then, I've started examining the root cause of my weekly Saturday forays to Chatuchak Weekend Market. A single pair of pants, a top, dress, or pair vintage plastic earrings is enough to satisfy my craving. But craving for what? I love the praise I receive for my eclectic one-of-a-kind dress style, but that's not enough to keep me coming back week after week. I still don't understand the true nature of the desire behind my shopping addiction. Nor do I know whether the Mac is yet another casualty of the Second Noble Truth or a realistic need.

01 May 2010

Shirtless in Bangkok

Aphrodite of Melos and Jennifer practice non-attachment to the shirt-color wars

Living in the midst of an escalating political crisis creates plenty of opportunities to practice letting go and non-attachment. I thought these were Buddhist concepts I'd never assimilate because I didn't meditate, but Sifu H incorporates them into his teachings too. As the links make clear, non-attachment isn't a synonym for detachment. An example: When I returned to Bangkok after the second round of Qigong in Chiang Mai last year, the entire metropolis looked straight out of the 1982 movie Koyannisqatsi. (The title is a Hopi Indian word for life out of balance.) Hoping to block out the intense sights and sounds, I carefully lowered my eyes when walking around downtown.

"That's not non-attachment," said Sifu H when I rang him to describe my reaction. "The point is not to avoid seeing the reality," he counseled. [That's detachment.] "The point is to see the reality but not let your mind reach out and cling to it." [Non-attachment.]

As the current situation in Bangkok and across the country slowly deteriorates into what looks like anarchy, I focus on not letting myself get sucked in by all the anger, fear and hatred spewed out by leaders of the Red, Yellow or Multicolor shirt gangs. That doesn't mean I ignore what goes on.I've always been interested in what happens around me and enjoy listening to thoughtful discussions, like that recent FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand) panel on the crisis.

And most days I continue a practice I started after the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin. I sift through blogs, websites and emails to extract articles offering different perspectives from the standard media buzz and forward the links to a growing list of people interested in Thai politics. During the 2006 coup, the 2008 occupation of Suvhanabumi by the Yellow Shirts and last year's Red Shirt violence over Songkran I was a panicked worrywart. Like an addict, I craved ever more information about situations over which I had absolutely no control This year, despite exposing myself to large doses of an even bigger political drama, I can stand back and observe it. Doing the daily Qigong routine releases tension and calms many irrational fears.

I had a chance to note my changing reactions to mega doses of political palaver last Sunday when I went to a birthday lunch for YC, a long-established and respected photographer. He's close to many Bangkok-based shooters and journalists, including some world renowned luminaries.

During my freelance writing heyday (1994-2007) professional media types always intimidated me. I'd compare my quirky, description-filled tales in international magazines and newspapers to their globally relevant efforts and belittle my work as the stuff of kindergarten sandboxes.

Back then I didn't appreciate my distinctive style and unusual story angles. I pooh poohed anyone who praised my writing and figured they were just being polite. Instead of being grateful for my gift, I continually trashed myself for writing trivia and not being a "real" journalist. Sometimes photographers approached me regarding potential collaborations, but they always ended up doing features with other more versatile writers. I purposely misconstrued our professional incompatibilities as a rejection and used it as another excuse to beat up on myself.

Cultivating non-attachment requires conscious effort, especially when the dramas are playing out in my adopted hometown. I arrived late to YC's lunch and squeezed in among the dozen or so of his friends—including several of the aforementioned luminaries. We sat around a table laden with homemade salads, grilled meats and fish, pasta cheeses and assorted taste treats. After piling a plate with grilled squid, ribs and various salads, I decided to join one of the conversations swirling around me.

People's body language telegraphed the gravity of the topics. Instead of lazing about in the afternoon heat enjoying scrumptious food, French wine and what should have been a relaxed atmosphere, everyone was leaning forward and talking or listening intently.

Worrywart Jennifer of yore would have joined one of the confabs and worked herself up into a frenzy of fear and anxiety over the increasingly bizarre confrontations spreading out around Bangkok. Transforming Jennifer sincerely wished the guests would drop the political analyses for a couple of hours and focus on the raison d'ĂȘtre of the gathering, i.e. YC's birthday. Even after YC popped the corks on two bottles of Moet Brut and poured glasses for everyone, the political repartee didn't miss a beat until I gently suggested perhaps a toast was in order. The fog of seriousness finally began to lift after the two best known participants left; one to file a story and the other to chase after photo of another brewing confrontation.

During my 15 years as a freelancer I observed many talented creatives whose deep passion for a story or photo continually impelled them into the world's danger zones. Some grew addicted to their lives of tension and even when not on assignment sought out similar adrenaline-producing activities. I don't criticize anyone for being passionate about their work; at one point I yearned desperately to be that dedicated about mine. However I now believe it's all a question of balance.

Through practicing Qigong I'm realizing the importance of being physically and mentally centered, even though I'm far from achieving those goals. In physical terms it means relaxing my body yet feeling the strength emanating from my dan tian. Mentally it means hearing/seeing but not attaching to the drama of people, situations, conversations, events, etc.