Compassion is Still a Practice

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. If I want to change something in my life, I change it regardless of the time of year. That’s why I’m writing this post.

Over the weekend I sifted through some old writing and reread my post on compassion  from May 2015. While I previously committed to practicing compassion to myself and those around me, I’d forgotten the journey I took to get there. I’d forgotten the finer points of the thought process that helped me understand what it means to be a kinder, more compassionate individual. Rereading that blog post reminded me and I’m glad it did.

Reflecting, I think I’m more judgemental than I want to be. While there are definitely  circumstances when passing judgement on another person is appropriate, there are likely many more when it is not. Anything that qualifies as gossip almost certainly falls into the latter category. There are few things we can unequivocally determine about others, yet we are quick to draw conclusions that may be dangerously inaccurate or at the very least, misguided. Those conclusions affect our actions towards others or our thoughts about them, often to the point of never attempting to know or understand them. The mere thought of engagement with someone we have condemned becomes abhorrent and inconceivable. This then leads to a breakdown in social relationships, an unwillingness to step outside of our tight circles, and a refusal to hear or recognize perspectives that might differ from our own. We are uncomfortable admitting that whatever we heard might be more complicated than we initially thought.

This is what happens when we are quick to appraise others, especially those we don’t know. We smile knowingly at those in our confidence and say things like, “I’m in no position to judge but. . . .” We admit to knowing that we don’t have the knowledge or understanding to say what we’re about to say.

And then we say it.

I’m guilty of this, too, which is why I’m writing this post. The next time I catch myself (or you catch me!) beginning such a sentence, I’d like to stop with, “I’m in no position to judge.” And then I’d like to take a moment to think about what I want to say. Maybe there is nothing to say, which should be the end of the conversation. I expect this to be the case rather frequently.

As I wrote nearly two years ago, I believe we need to accept Matthieu Ricard’s explanation of ignorance as “the mental confusion that deforms reality and gives rise to an array of mental obstructions such as hatred, compulsive desire, jealousy, and pride”. We need to accept that ignorance causes suffering and suffering causes harm. From there, we have to accept that people who do harmful things are suffering in some way due to ignorance, due to mental confusion. When we approach others and their actions already knowing that the actions are a mere glimmer of what might be happening internally, it far easier to approach other people mindfully, thoughtfully, and compassionately. It is far easier to extend a hand in love, kindness, and generosity to help them return to a place where the inner confusion and turmoil do not take such a hold.

This way of seeing others, truly seeing and not just looking at or looking past, paves the way for dialogue and understanding, essential aspects of building a better and more peaceful world. Though I firmly believe this, I’ve been negligent in my practice of compassion because I often find it challenging. I tend to feel emotion very intensely and can be uncomfortably reactive in my thoughts, though that’s now much rarer in my actions and behavior. I’m much better at keeping the thoughts to myself than I used to be but I’d like to grow stronger at tamping down the thoughts as they begin rather than letting them flare until they burn out.

Compassion is a practice. It is ongoing. It can hurt, it can heal, and it will wax and wane as we work at it. But it will ultimately get easier and hopefully become a deliberate habit. I have a renewed understanding of this. Practicing compassion is necessary if we are to create a better, more peaceful world. Simple as that.

If I believed in New Year’s resolutions, I might put this one aside for next year. I might brush it off as something to do someday but not quite today. But I don’t, which is why I’m writing about it tonight. Life is about getting better daily and this is one way I’m trying to do it beginning right now.

Building Peace Means Letting Go

I saw something beautiful yesterday.

I saw two small children, giggling. They were playing on what is supposed to be a pull-up bar in one of the exercise parks that are all over Singapore. The three adults with them held the children’s hands over the bar and pumped their legs back and forth. The children laughed and squirmed, ready to get down. Once on the ground, they ran off on unsteady, fat little legs. I watched tight little curls and wisp of a ponytail bouncing. The adults reached for the children’s hands and the children reached for each other’s. They couldn’t have been much more than two years old. I watched this scene until the group turned down a lane at the end of the road.

Those children will grow up fast. I wonder what the world will look like as they do. I hope it’s a more peaceful world than the one we have now, and I’m beginning to think that creating that world means letting go of much of what separates us from each other, what makes us see “us” and “them” and not just “people”.

War
Like every Ashkenazi Jewish family, my family has a Holocaust history. But since all of my grandparents and one or two great-grandparents were born in Canada, it’s such that those who didn’t come to Canada before the war (with one exception, I think) didn’t survive. We’ve been Canadian for a long time and it’s my grandparents’ stories about Canada in the 40s and 50s that I grew up hearing.

My sister and I were recently talking about our shared desire to visit Eastern Europe and the conversation revealed different understandings of the role that Poland, Russia, and Lithuania play in our lives. She spoke about feeling ancestral ties to those countries but also regret for not being able to see what our ancestors saw because none of that is there anymore. On the other hand, I’m interested in the people’s history rather than the government and military history that I learned in school. I’m interested in economic recovery and development. It didn’t occur to me to have ancestral ties to anywhere.

We also talked about the concentration camps, which my sister said she had never really been interested in seeing. We talked about the fatigue that is a side-effect of so much study of so much tragedy. There is a point at which you simply can’t take in any more and you stop. I was glued to Holocaust books as a kid and even into college. I haven’t read one since.

But I am and have always been interested in seeing the concentration camps. I’ve always thought of it as an act of defiance. An act of standing my ground and proclaiming my existence. You didn’t want me here. But here I am.

Reconciliation
A conversation with a friend about a month later, however, prompted me to rethink the whole thing. Going over both conversations in my head while out for a run brought a new realization to light and prompted me to write this post. It seems that the way I’ve been thinking about everything above is misaligned with my firm belief in the necessity of peace. I went through a transition with my thinking on peace last year, specifically when I revisited all of my ideas about Israel. It seems that I’ve taken a step back (or perhaps sideways, if I’m being generous to myself) and I would like to correct it.

This is began to understand on my run:

For as long as I can remember, I thought I’d visit the concentration camps with an attitude of victory. We won, you lost. And I’d never really thought past that. But in this scenario, there’s still an “us”, still a “them”. There’s still the misunderstanding and fear that lead to hatred, the result of which is all too apparent far too often.

But now I think that attitude actually misses the entire point. The camps have been preserved to bear witness, to provide evidence, to serve as a constant reminder of what happens when we separate ourselves, invent distinctions between groups, and cut one another off. The camps are a monument and a memorial. They are where the ghosts of the past urge us to do better, to be better. They are not about winning or losing.

So, it is quite another thing for me to visit the concentration camps the way I have visited the beaches at Normandy or killing fields of Cambodia. Visiting the camps in this light means mourning, paying respects to those whose lives were lost too soon. It means being a witness to what happens when we look at life through a lens that compartmentalizes individuals into categories. It means finding the courage, like countless others throughout history, to stand up for what is right in the face of the strongest adversity.

Peace
When I do make that trip to Eastern Europe, I need to make a dedicated effort to deepen my understanding of humanity and the importance of holding all humans together under one umbrella. As a teacher of peace, I cannot approach a conflict without first looking at the humans affected by that conflict. It’s when regular people become the focus of our teaching, our looking back at history, that we can hope to let go of everything that pulled us apart.

That is what peace means.

Peace means looking at the world that we live in and choosing to come together because it’s the only world we have. It means respecting each other’s losses, being happy for each other’s gains, and working for the good of all humanity. It means letting go of what separates us from each other and fighting to maintain what brings us together. It means doing whatever we can so that children the world over can laugh like the children I watched yesterday.

Peace has to come from me. It has to come from you. From all of us. I will do that by letting go of the anger that morphed into defiance that miscolored my perception of how to move forward. Peace is not a contest. It’s not a race. There is no winning and there is no losing. Rather, peace is about opening my arms and letting in the world with all of its bruises, scars, rights, and wrongs. It’s about recognizing myself in you and you in me. Peace is about gratitude for having found you there.

This is where peace comes from. This is the way I want to live and the world I’m committed to building.

Travel Guide: Chiang Mai x2

After time in Hanoi and Sapa, my sister and I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I was excited to be back as soon as we landed.

We dropped our bags and headed straight for Sunday Walking Street, one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets. It sells food, clothing, art, home decor, and just about anything else that one might need or desire. For those who love to shop, there’s a regular night market and a Saturday Walking Street, too.

It was busier than usual because of New Year’s Eve so we ducked out for dinner once the crowds became unpleasant. Once it was dark, we joined groups of locals and tourists setting off paper lanterns along the river, just inside the walls that cordon off central Chiang Mai from the rest of the city. (I’d love to go to the Lantern Festival one day.) Encouraged by a friendly Thai man, we scribbled messages on our lantern before finding someone with a candle who helped us light it. With his help, we held the lantern to the ground until he decided, seemingly arbitrarily, that it was ready to hold itself up in the sky. We let go and watched the lantern float up and over the river, following hundreds of others. Such a cool way to send off positive wishes for a new year.

A few hours later, we rang in 2018 from Zoe in Yellow, a Chiang Mai club that absorbed the parties from every bar on its street. Security and bartenders were kind enough to look the other way as all patrons wandered from bar to bar, dancing wherever the best song was playing.

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On New Year’s Day, we visited one of several massage centers in Chiang Mai where female ex-convicts are trained in the art of massage. Thai massage is very different from any massage that I’ve had (and I don’t always like being touched, so massages are infrequent) and I really enjoyed it. You’re fully dressed and the masseuse is right up on the bed with you, using her entire body to pull, twist, and stretch yours. She was contorted into as many positions as I was throughout the process. It was a new physical experience for me and a lovely way to spend an hour.

We spent the afternoon wandering around, the streets blissfully empty this time, and found some really lovely street art that basically exemplifies why I love Chiang Mai so much. It’s a small town with so much personality and so much good will. Really delicious cafés and coffee shops, too! We visited at least one every afternoon. Chiang Mai is laid-back, calm, and friendly, all of which were greatly appreciated after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

We also saw some of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They’re ornate, colorful, incredibly detailed, and very impressive. They can also get a little tiring and all start to look the same after a while. Since Chiang Mai has so many, though, one way of getting to know the city is by going from temple to temple and creating a mental map. That’s what I did the first time I was there and I was surprised at how much I remembered.

Visiting temples at night, however, was a new experience and a very different one. What is beautiful in the light can take on a very eerie, creepy quality in the dark. That was only enhanced by the man riding his bike in circles whispering, “Beautiful . . .” over and over.

We actually spent most of our time in Chiang Mai out of town and in the wider province. On our second full day we went on an excursion to Phuping Palace, the royal family’s holiday home, and Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. We were far more interested in the latter but I’m glad we saw the palace, too. We weren’t allowed inside but the gardens were lovely!

If you’re planning to go, one word of caution. Just like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, there’s a dress code that is more strict than the regular temple dress code. For men, it’s long pants (no shorts, even if they cover the knee) and a shirt that covers the shoulders. For women, it’s a skirt or long pants (no leggings, though fine in a temple) and a shirt that covers the shoulders (no scarves for this part, though that’s fine in a temple). Luckily, there are clothes to buy or rent if you’re in a bind.

After some time at Phuping Palace and a short drive, we reached Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and walked up 306 steps to reach it. Like every temple that we visited in and around Chiang Mai, this one was full of monks and worshippers giving offerings and saying prayers in the hope of a prosperous new year. Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain on which the temple is located and there were really beautiful views of the city from the summit. It was a cloudy day so I’ll keep those pictures to myself because they really don’t do it justice.

The primary reason I had wanted my sister to visit Chiang Mai was because of Elephant Nature Park. That’s what first brought me to Chiang Mai a couple years ago and I could not wait to share it with my sister. ENP is a rescue center for elephants previously in captivity from logging operations, circus performances, or as tourist attractions on city streets. ENP also has an expansive dog rescue program with its own set of volunteers. There are other animals living there, too, like cats and water buffalo. At ENP, no one rides the elephants. You feed them, learn about their individual personalities and life stories, bathe them when it’s warm enough (it is in September but some were wearing jackets in January!), and touch them if they’ll let you. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful animals and I was so glad to be back.

We spent our last day in Chiang Mai up in the mountains. We headed to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is part of the Himalayas and home to the highest mountain in Thailand that gives the park its name. The climate of Doi Inthanon is always chilly, hovering around 10ºC or 50ºF during the day, and I was glad for my jacket.

After about two hours of driving, we stopped at Wachirathan Waterfall. I grew up in upstate New York and spent summers camping in Letchworth State Park and this waterfall reminded me a little bit of home. I loved climbing down on the rocks to get as close to the spray as possible. We used to stand in the gorges trying to catch whatever fish darted around in there. We called them crayfish, but I’m not sure that’s what they were.

After some time at the waterfall, we took a quick drive to Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, the real reason we’d come to Doi Inthanon. We hiked for two hours through the cloud forest, which was really neat because we’d visited Singapore’s Cloud Forest in Gardens by the Bay two weeks earlier and here we were in a real one! Normally, the guide told us, there’s a stunning view of the mountain range and nearby temples from the summit. The day we were there, however, was an anomaly. We could see . . . nothing.

Knowing what I was missing because of a photo from the guidebook, I was initially disappointed. And then I started paying attention to everything I could see and my emotional response, attitude, and interpretation of the experience completely changed. I started looking around and found myself feeling calm and peaceful. I felt wrapped up in mist from the clouds, hugged by everything around me. Only being able to see a few meters in any direction forced me to focus more deeply than I often do when I’m outside and there’s so much to see. With less distraction, it was easier to experience beauty and serenity in everything that there was.

While I could have happily spent many more hours hiking in the mountains, we followed the guide to the burial site of the ancient Lanna kings. As everywhere in Thailand, there were people praying and leaving offerings, which I always like to see. Religious devotion is always interesting to me because I grew up understanding it so completely. My thoughts have changed a lot since then.

Another major attraction of Doi Inthanon National Park are the pagodas dedicated to the king and queen. Normally, you can see them from the top of the mountain but we had the additional surprise of not being able to see them at all because of the fog. The guide shrugged and told us to wander around the gardens, which we did. It’s still amusing to watch monks taking selfies, especially when there’s nothing to see. As we wandered, though, the sun broke through the clouds and the fog cleared for just long enough to allow us to see what we’d come to see.

The King Pagoda was surrounded by really beautiful scenes of the life of the Buddha and was absolutely empty inside, which is unusual. I really liked the brown and gray with hints of purple, which is also unusual. Temples are so pretty when they’re simple.

The Queen Pagoda was decorated with purple mosaics. This I had never seen and this I loved. This queen loved purple, the guide told us. So do I.

After some time at the pagodas, we went to a nearby market just for a quick look. Though my sister and I told each other we weren’t hungry, we used that quick look to buy a cup of strawberries and another cup of gooseberries!

According to the guide, the last stop with this particular tour is usually the Sirithan Waterfall. Though smaller and initially less impressive than the first, I enjoyed listening to the water.

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However, since so many people in our group had asked about local livelihoods, he took us to a village that grows rice in the summer and coffee throughout the year!

Our visit to Doi Inthanon was such a great day and it was a little difficult to know that our trip was at an end. But it was such a wonderful way to say goodbye to a place I really love. Here’s to hoping I’ll be back soon!

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Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place