When Things Fall Apart (part 2)

Life continues to be in a tremendous state of flux on so many levels, and will likely continue to be for some time. More on that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I continue to read Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. Central to this insightful and inspiring book are the ideas of impermanence and groundlessness. Boy does that hit home, especially now!

Maybe it’s time to stop fighting it, and maybe even begin to relax and lighten up a bit, as impossible as that may seem right now. Maybe that’s the lesson.

Here are a few more profound passages from the second half of that book.

“There are three truths–traditionally called three marks–of our existence: impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring and summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again–in the same way everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is the essence of everything. We regard it as pain, but impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality. When you fall in love, recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness. When we recognize impermanence, this is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention. Our suffering is based so much in our fear of impermanence. Whoever got the idea that we could have pleasure without pain? Pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. Ego could be defined as whatever covers up basic goodness. Ego covers up our experience of just being here, fully being who we are, so that we can relate with the immediacy of our experience. Egolessness is a state of mind that has complete confidence in the sacredness of the world. We experience egolessness when we’ve lost our reference point, when we get a shock and our mind is stopped.”

“What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, and manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality. The maras provide descriptions of some very familiar ways in which we try to avoid what is happening. There are four. The first Mara is called devaputra, and has to do with seeking pleasure, how we are addicted to avoiding pain. The second–skandha– has to do with how we always try to re-create ourselves, try to be who we think we are. Instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are when the rug is pulled out from under us, we can touch into that mind of simply not knowing. The third Mara is klesha. It has to do with how we use our emotions to keep ourselves dumb or asleep. A simple feeling will arise, and we panic. We begin to weave our thoughts into a story line, which gives rise to bigger emotions. The fourth, yama, has to do with fear of death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, sits some kind of death. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have experience confirm, congratulate, and make you feel completely together. But the essence of life is that it’s challenging.”

“Whether we’re eating or working or meditating or listening or talking, the reason that we’re here in this world is to study ourselves. The challenge is how to develop compassion right along with clear seeing, how to train in lightening up and cheering up rather than becoming more guilt-ridden and miserable. Honesty without kindness, humour, and goodheartedness can be just mean. When we look into our hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering. We’re discovering the universe. When we begin to just try to accept ourselves, that’s the beginning of growing up.”

“Everything is ambiguous; everything is always shifting and changing, and there are as many different takes on any given situation as there are people involved. The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller. The middle way involves not hanging on to our version so tightly. It involves keeping our hearts and minds open long enough to entertain the idea that when we make things wrong (or right), we do it out of a desire to obtain some kind of ground or security. Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and wrong?”

“When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found, in the tenderness of pain itself. We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole.”

“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion an introduces us to a far bigger view of reality. This is the core of the practice: breathing in others’ pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open–breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever we feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

“Prajna is a way if seeing which continually dissolves any tendency to use things to get ground under our feet, a kind of bullshit detector that protects us from becoming righteous. There are no promises that everything will be OK. Instead we are encouraged to simply look at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.”

“The first paramita is generosity, the journey of learning how to give. When we feel inadequate and unworthy, we hoard things. We are so afraid–afraid of losing, afraid of feeling even more poverty stricken than we do already. We wish for comfort, but instead we reinforce aversion, the sense of sin, and the feeling that we are hopeless. The more we experience fundamental richness, the more we can loosen our grip. At the everyday, ordinary level, we experience it as flexibility and warmth.”

“The paramita of discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment….to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose, between not too laid back and not too rigid.”

The paramita of patience involves relaxing, opening to what’s happening, experiencing a sense of wonder.”

The paramita of exertion is touching in to our appetite for enlightenment. It allows us to act, to give, to work appreciatively with whatever comes our way.”

“The paramita of meditation allows us to continue the journey. It is the basis for an enlightened society that is not based on winning and losing, loss and gain. We connect with something unconditional–a state of mind, a basic environment that does not grasp or reject anything.”

“The sixth paramita is prajna, that which turns all actions into gold…it cuts through the whole thing. It makes us homeless. We have no place left to dwell on anything. When we work with generosity, we see our nostalgia for wanting to hold on. When we work with discipline, we see our nostalgia for wanting to zone out and not relate at all. As we work with patience, we discover our longing to speed. When we practice exertion, we realize our laziness. With mediation we see our endless discursiveness, our restlessness, and our attitude of couldn’t care less. We keep taking off the armour and stepping further into groundlessness.”

“You may have noticed that there is frequently an irritating, if not depressing, discrepancy between our ideas and good intentions and how we act when we are confronted with the nitty-gritty details of real-life situations. We continually find ourselves in that squeeze, where we look for alternatives to just being there. The place of the squeeze is the very point where we can really learn something. At that moment of hassle or bewilderment or embarrassment, our minds could become bigger. In that awkward, ambiguous moment is our own wisdom mind. Right here in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our wisdom mind. We can move toward difficulties instead of backing away. Invite what scares us to introduce itself and hang around for awhile.”

image http://semmickphoto.com/image/conceptual-image-of-a-man-falling-apart/

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Into Africa–March 14, 2013

035“Goodness in your life does not come to you from someone else. When you see this, you will be free. Have courage, for what you seek is not outside of you. It is not a gift from another person. It is yours to give, not to acquire. Let no one, therefore, hold you hostage. Not your partner, not your boss, not your family…and certainly not your God.”

–Neil Donald Walsch

There is something about Sundays for me in Africa. Windy and stormy on the outside, unsettled and anxious on the inside. I think I felt it even stronger this week because it was also my 4th wedding anniversary. I’m sorry to be missing the day, my love, but I will be home very soon now. Home is close now, and it can’t come fast enough.

Aside from that, it has been a wonderful couple of days outside of the city.

My friends Mike and Liz and their kids Charlotte and Seamus joined me for my last weekend in Africa. We travelled to Bilene, a beach town about 180 km. north of Maputo in Gaza province, not far from the recent devastating floods in Chokwe. Bilene surrounds a natural salt water lagoon, fed by the Indian Ocean just on the far side, over the huge dunes. The beaches are relatively clean, the water shallow and warm. Nice, but it’s not quite the ocean. We all took Friday off and made it a long weekend. We arrived around noon on Friday in scorching hot weather, high 30s and no wind.

We finally found accommodation, a great big three-bedroom beach house with a massive deck, just steps from the water. It felt over the top given where I am. But it was nice and comfortable. There are no real deals to be had here, unfortunately, even in low season. Surprising as most of these places are South African run, and I would have thought they might have more business sense.

008By the time we got settled, we were all a little grumpy, so into the lagoon we went to cool off. We met a really nice guy named Jose walking along the beach. He is a local artist who works with wood and stone. I made plans to try and see him the next day on the beach or at the beach hotel nearby where he works.

Saturday was even hotter. Liz and Mike headed off for a long early morning run while I watched the kids. Although challenging at times, as all kids can be, I really enjoyed my time with them playing whatever games they wanted. They are so pure, unfiltered, and in the moment at that age, something I have lost, as most of us inevitably do. But it’s nice to know that I can go back to that place sometimes.Good for the soul.

Then I went wandering to figure out boat rides and alternate accommodation, as my plan was to stay on an extra night on Sunday, make my way to Macia on Monday, be picked up by my colleagues (Suzanne and Helder), and continue north past the capital of Xai Xai to Chidenguele for a conference.

022Although I had a small bottle of water, a sunscreen and a hat, the heat was crazy and I began to feel disoriented. I knew there was a hotel not far off the beach but I just couldn’t find it, walking almost from one end to the other. I finally found Praia del Sol, this cool and comfortable place, rustic grass huts scattered around the property, for only about $40 a night. “This feels more like it,” I said to myself. Yes I do this, quite often it would seem. I also found my artist friend Jose here, in his workshop at the hotel, and bought a few little things from him.026

After a cold beer and some agua, I headed back to find my friends who were happily splashing around in the water. Then the wind started to pick up, which is very dangerous in this kind of heat because it makes you think it’s cooler than it is. I should have taken this time to take the boat to the ocean, but figured I could do this myself the next day after they had gone.

But Sunday turned out to be too windy with no boats making the trip, so I was out of luck. My friends dropped me off at Praia on the way out and here I was, alone again, anxious, unsure, and unsettled. I walked the lagoon beach for a few hours…the beach always settles me down. Then back to Praia where I found Jose and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with him, learning about his life, learning Changaan, and thinking of ways to help him earn a living. He has been saving for years to buy blocks, steel, and cement to strengthen his house. He calculates he will have enough in 3-5 more years. He carves and teaches other kids to do the same. He teaches them the value of work and to be proud of a craft, a positive alternative to begging and stealing. A really good and kind man.

028I was also greeted by David and Dino who manage the hotel. Two really nice guys as well. Dino earns 3,500 mets per month, the equivalent of about $120. On that he cares for his mother, two sisters, and two brothers. Can you imagine all of these people surviving on $4 a day? His father died about 10 years ago. I could see the stress in his face as he talked about it. But he is grateful to have a job. He is not bitter, and smiles a lot. A good guy with a good heart.

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View from entrance to the bathroom to sink and outdoor, screened in shower. It gives a whole new meaning to room with a view!

020As night fell, I have to say I was a little nervous. The hut was comfortable, but certainly not “hermetically” sealed, with only a flimsy screen separating the back half from the outside. And all kinds of little creatures in my neighbourhood. And then the lights went out. Stay calm. Don’t focus on things you don’t want to have happen. And then it passed. I began to appreciate the sounds of the night, and the the wind whistling through the treetops to the screened windows of my stilted hut. And I finally drifted off to sleep.

I was up very early Monday morning to figure out a way to get to Macia, about 30 km. away, where I was to be picked up. My options were to hire a car which would not be cheap, or ride he local “chapa” which is Mozambique version of mass transit. Jam packed, open trucks where people pile into the back. Cheap, but not the safest or fastest way to travel. But as it so often has happened here, the universe responds. I met Christo, a South African staying at the hotel who just happened to be going in that direction and he agreed to give me a lift. Perfect! It turned out to be a wet and rainy start to the day, so I was happy not to be riding in an open-air chapa.

032I had heard negative things about South Africans in general, and felt that pre-judgement starting to sway me. So I stopped it. Christo is a mechanic who works for a group called JAM (Joint Aid Management) who provide a number of relief and sustainable development programs to seven African countries, including Mozambique. What I love best about their model is that they help people help themselves, so it’s much more than a handout….it’s a hand up. One of the food programs for example (which Christo is involved with), feeds 700,000 children, but only if they go to school. Right now their team and the entire area of Chokwe has been decimated by the floods I wrote about a few weeks back. So the remaining $200 I have left from funds I raised before I left Canada will go to to the feeding program there.

Anyway, a very nice man doing some wonderful work. We had a really good chat on our way to Macia. He dropped me off, and minutes later my colleagues Helder and Suzanne picked me up. Divine timing. We continued north about 90 minutes to the school management conference at a lake resort in Chidenguele.

The speakers were hard to follow (make that painful!) because everything was in Portuguese, but still interesting to see how they do things here, and to watch the non-verbal stuff going on. For a little while. We were introduced as the two Canadians visiting. One person, a professor, introduced himself to me. Non inclusiveness was to become the theme of the day.

At coffee break, I was amazed that the snacks were completely cleaned out within seconds, with people walking away with piles of food, and many others, like me, getting nothing. It pissed me off at first–how rude, how inconsiderate–but then I realized that although the people attending this conference have relatively well paying jobs, perhaps they weren’t always comfortable. Maybe they have been hungry before. And maybe the feeling of going hungry never leaves you, that feeling that there will never be enough. And it’s not the first time I have experienced this hoarding effect in Mozambique. But I take for granted that I will eat, and somehow know the food will be there. Probably not so for them.

I shared a two-bedroom apartment at the conference with Helder. I though it was perfectly natural to expect that each of us would have a key to the apartment, so that we could come and go independently. But not at all for Helder. It did not cross his mind to ask for another key, and he saw no issue with sharing one. When I asked the front desk, it was like the thought had never occurred to them, or they had never been asked the question. I have noticed lots of little things like this–an unwillingness or inability to think differently about things. To me it seems like a lapse in logic, or common sense. Like they have been taught one way, and that is the only way. Don’t colour outside the lines.

I spent the afternoon working on my own. Then a quick late early evening jaunt to the beach. I could hear it, and feel it, and smell it, but it was too dark. I would have to come back. I headed back for dinner. The language barrier was very noticeable tonight. And so were the cliques. And the politics. And I &%#* hate these. Over dinner, Suzanne and I were sitting with a few of the top people, most of whom I have worked with over the last few weeks. We were completely shut out of the conversation and the celebrations, barely acknowledged. Maybe my veneer was wearing thin, or I was feeling fragile or sorry for myself…but maybe not…regardless, it really felt isolating, and it really bothered me. I felt…resentment. And I haven’t felt that in quite awhile. It turned me off everything. My friend Jules warned me there would be low moments, and this was definitely one of them. But why do I feel the need for their approval? But as upsetting as it was, I knew that I couldn’t allow this incident to taint my entire experience here, so I wrote about it and went to bed. It will be better tomorrow.

I woke up Tuesday and decided not to put myself through that again. My wife gave me some good advice (which I cannot repeat here!). I skipped breakfast and the morning conference, and headed to the beach with Helder. I have been longing for the beach since I arrived and this was my last chance. It was only about 5 km. from the resort, but through narrow, bumpy roads.

There were many people of all ages walking along the road, on their way to school or work. Many were making a hand gesture to us…kind of like praying, but their hands were cupped. “It means thank you, deep gratitude, with all my heart,” Helder explained. Their way of asking and expressing gratitude for a lift.049 It’s a beautiful thought and gesture. We stopped and picked up a bunch of young girls on their way to school–nine km., each way, every day (see top photo)! Then we picked up some older folks on their way to work. “Welcome to Helder’s chapa,” I joked. The smiles from them all, and looks of curiosity they gave me were priceless. What a way to start the day!040

Minutes later we pulled up to an oceanside hotel, up high on a dune, overlooking the magnificent Indian Ocean. Breathtaking. I could hear the waves breaking in the background. It was a spectacular moment. 047We hurried down to the beach, and quickly I was in the water, minding the rocks, rip tides, and marine life. I even managed to body surf a couple of really good waves. And not a soul in sight, except for Helder. Magic.053

Most of the yuck of the previous day had passed. And I was so grateful for that morning at the beach. Feeling better, I decided to go to the conference lunch. And guess who I just happened to sit with? The universe works in mysterious and interesting ways. I approached them with fresh eyes and no resentment, and it was OK.

Tuesday afternoon, we headed back to Maputo, about four hours or 250 km. On the way Helder talked about the problems most Mozambicans have in business. Although many are involved in selling goods of all kinds, when it comes to quantity discounts, standards, caring for the client, thinking differently, and solving problems from a business standpoint, they can’t or don’t do it. This is a big problem. This simplistic or naive approach to business may begin to explain (and I’m extrapolating here) why so many Africans have been ripped off and taken advantage of. And with the eyes of the world on Africa’s plentiful natural resources, the consequences of not being business savvy, and allowing others to pillage will be dire.

We made a few stops along the way, connecting with some of the road side folk. Again I noted how much my behaviour and attitude affects outcome. When I approached these people with uncertainty, that’s exactly what I got back. As soon as I caught myself doing that, and turned on the “MoJo,” the whole interpersonal dynamic changed….smiles, jokes, handshakes…connection.

Wednesday and Thursday…back at the office, finalizing reports, and saying my goodbyes. And the weather has been mercifully cool and comfortable. First time in my two months here.

I had one final (let’s hope) brush with corruption walking back to the office from lunch on Wednesday. A policeman pulled me aside and asked to see my documents. I always carry a copy of my passport with me. He looked at my paper and said: “no, no…this is a big problem.” We went back and forth for a few minutes, arguing, clarifying, BS. He was clearly looking to be greased. I looked him straight in the eye (I had to look down) and said: “diplomatica de Canada…do you want me to call them right now?” “You can go,” he said, looking defeated. Jonathan 1. Corruption 0.

I closed out the week with two very heartwarming conversations. Wednesday night, in the hotel lobby, I was chatting with Domingues, the receptionist. “Your first time in Mozambique?” he asked? Yes…first time. “You have really learned about us, and our country, Mr. Jonatan.” And then with Ida, at work Thursday morning. “We have really enjoyed you,” she said. ”You are different. You have tried to become one of us. You care about us, you have brought empathy.”

One for the road
Here’s a really nice piece from Tiela Garnett’s blog. Something that is starting to click with me, especially after two months on the road:

“Our suffering as human beings comes from investing our focus in the external illusion rather than the internal reality. When careers, activities, and possessions become more important than humanity, compassion, and kindness, we know we’re in trouble. Our daily activity needs to be an expression of our true nature, rather than a way of defining it. We need to be who we are first and then allow our activities to flow naturally from that source.”

I have met many people and observed many different things over the last eight weeks. People who I have really liked, some not so much. People whose character I admire, others not so much. Customs, traditions, practices, and behaviours that are wonderful, others that have driven me right round the bend. They say that what you see in other people is simply a reflection of those same characteristics in you. This has given me lots to ponder. But overall, it has all been consistently positive energy, at least that’s how I have chosen to experience it, which tells me something.

Life on the road, immersed in the unfamiliar and unstable, seems to bring out the best in me. And yet I know the dark side is still there, as it lurks to varying degrees in all of us. Mine has a tendency to come out more often closer to home. I need to change that. I need to think about why it is that I become complacent with the familiar. Maybe I need to find ways in everyday life to keep myself off balance.

Whatever happens, I know that I have definitely tested and pushed the boundaries on this trip, in unfamiliar territory, in so many different ways, on so many levels, and that I have used all my skills to do it. Even some I had no idea I had. This has been a very expansive way to live my life: aware, conscious, and open to what is happening now, and recognizing how this will affect who I am moving forward. And there is no question that I have felt more alive than I ever have before. As Chico said to me a few weeks back, “don’t think, just do it.” And I have.

I’ve never really given much thought to the chakra energy centres of the body, but maybe this is what it feels like when they are open and energy is flowing. Four in particular I am aware of because of my journey to Africa:
–heart chakra…I nourish the universe and the universe nourishes me.
–throat chakra…detachment…expression of authentic self…my actions are blissfully free from the outcome.
–intuition chakra…connection to purpose…my life is in harmony with cosmic law.
–crown chakra…pure potentiality….I am a field of all possibilities.

I have observed people doing their thing. Living their lives. Animals doing their thing, going about their business and simply being who they are: crabs being crabs, birds being birds, elephants being elephants. The lesson for me is that I need to do the same…simply be who I am, and not allow anything or anyone–including and especially me–to muddy that.

I begin my voyage home in two days, and will be reunited with my wife, son, friends, and family. I know she is proud of me, but I am also proud of and grateful to her for giving me the room and encouragement to take this journey, thousands of miles away from home, into the heart of Africa. But perhaps more importantly, I have also made the journey within, into the heart of who I am.

Two months is a long time. In some ways it has gone quickly, but in other ways it has felt like a year. In a good way. I have tried as best I can to become part of something here, and succeeded for the most part. But I am ready to go home now.

Although this will be my last post from “inside” Africa, I still have lots of information to process. I will be back a few times over the next several weeks with some closing images and thoughts as I re-adjust to the life I knew, incorporating some of what I have learned.

Thank you for sharing the journey with me.

MoJo

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