Sunday, May 07, 2006
Thailand: Lessons in Mindfullness 8/2004
Living for a couple of months in a country where mindfulness originated with the forest Buddhist monks and therefore is a way of life, one would think that a little of it would have rubbed off on me. But alas no. On three occasions I realized just how unmindful I was. It was not until the third time that the lesson was driven home to me however.
Unmindfullness number 1: One day while teaching at the Hinngompittayakom High School in Nongkhai, Mr. Elvis (everyone goes by their first names in Thailand) talked with me about the going away party the Director of the school was planning for me. I'd brought some 2004 uncirculated US dollar coins so knew I had my symbolic present ready to give the Director at the party. That evening, I checked my money belt I kept in my locked suitcase for the silver coins. No silver coins! My mind raced trying to figure out when I'd last had them out of that safe site the same site where I kept not only those coins, but also my credit cards, ATM cards, addresses and a few hundred dollars in cash. After a good deal of mind searching it came to me. (or least wise I think so) while in Bangkok some two weeks earlier, I'd taken the coins out so as to give one to Soavanee the Director of the Friends For All Children (adoption agency) as a thank you for her helping me find a school to teach at this summer. Thinking back I figured I'd taken the small brown bag containing the coins out of the money belt, probably laid it on the bed, after selecting one for Soavanee, and then not putting it back into the money belt immediately. The brown bag maybe matched the color of the bed spread, and me not thinking, (unmindful) did not do a thorough check of the hotel room before leaving Bangkok. That night, I was really upset with myself when I realized the coins were gone. The silver coins I'd bought as gifts, not only for the school Director in Nongkhai, but also the school director in Khecknoi were missing. The words dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb just kept repeating themselves over and over and over in my mind. Told myself to just let it go. I could find the Directors some other symbolic gift. Just let it go. Easier said that done!
Unmindfullness number 2: Usually whenever I travel, I leave all of my jewelry at home. This trip to Thailand however, I decided to wear the sapphire and diamond ring I'd bought in Egypt a few years back. One night after coming back to my very simple, basic cottage at Hinngompittayakom School in Nongkhai, I realized that I wasn't wearing my ring. Searched high and low through that house. Since there was almost no furniture in the place, didn't take too long to look everywhere. No ring. I was not a happy camper as I realized that now on a second occasion, I'd lost something. For days, I tried to think of where the ring might be. I even searched the bottom of the cistern holding the water in the bathroom. No ring. That's when it struck me, or again, I think this might have been what happened. While taking my bucket bath, I'd taken the ring off and just laid it down on the tile floor in the bathroom. Not thinking, I used the plastic bowl to scoop out water from a pail and pour it over myself. Well guess what I thought to myself, all that water being scooped up and splashed everywhere would have sent the ring on a trip down the drain and into the septic tank. Second time I didn't use my brain too well, but boy did it bug me each day that the ring was gone. Even after I'd come to the conclusion the ring was probably in the bottom of the dirty sewer, I still frequently would find myself making but yet another futile search to locate my treasure from Egypt. However, with all my vane attempts to find it, the ring never turned up. It was only a ring, I kept telling myself. In the back of my mind however, another word however kept popping up.. expensive. Yes only a ring..... expensive ring. Eventually I rationalized the rings strange disappearance to the work of the sinister looking monster spider that lived in my bathroom. And speaking of the spider, while packing my suitcase the night before leaving Nongkhai, guess who I found hiding there? Yup. The spider! Unceremoniously, the spider quickly found itself thrown out of my suitcase.
Unmindrullness number 3: After having chastised myself again and again for the other two unmindful mishaps, I really got jerked out of shape when I realized I'd screwed up for the third time. This one bummed me out big time.
Just a couple days before leaving Nongkhai, I looked into the famous money belt (same one where I'd kept the silver dollar coins) and realized the envelop with a few hundred dollars was missing. I nearly tore that money belt apart trying to find what I knew was not there. When had I last seen it? When had I last had that envelop out of the money belt? Then it came to me. The previous weekend, I'd stayed at a Guest House in Nongkhai had taken the envelop out, probably laid it on the bed (white sheet so it blended in well), forgot to put it back into the money belt, and then while packing, was not that thorough in making sure I had everything before I left my room. I think that is what happened. When I realized the money was gone. I was bummed! Actually, I think it was about five hundred bucks I had in that envelope. Why I was carrying the dollars when an ATM works just perfectly here, I'm not sure. Guess I'm just use to having some backup money available, just in case technology should fail.
Okay .... so I stewed and fussed about the missing envelop with the dollars big time. Even though I told myself to let it go, I couldn't. I knew that I was responsible for losing it. No one had stolen it from me, only I was to blame. That did not make the situation any better. I was upset with everything and everyone. The school I'd been teaching at in Nongkhai, the teachers, the students, the Mekong River, the house where I'd been staying, that darn spider, the roosters crowing so early each morning, and on and on and on.. basically my world turned very bleak and black. My mind painted a picture of a very grim, nasty world. A picture that took over all of my emotions and made me just out and out angry. Angry at everything.
As Mr. Elvis, one of the English teachers at Hinngompittayakom High School, drove me to the airport to catch my flight to Bangkok, I can only hope that I was civil to him. Elvis had taken such good care of me the whole time I'd been in Nongkhai, taking me on site seeing trips, making sure I had bottled water at my house, food to eat, etc. But on that early morning drive, my mind would not let go of that darn lost envelope, how unfair the whole world was, how I never, ever wanted to come back to Thailand again in my whole life, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I was on a roll. I was deep into planning a gigantic pity party for myself and only myself. Sad party for one. Let me tell you, I was actively decorating for the party with all the self indulging streamers and poor me confetti I could find. This was the biggest pity party I'd planned in a very, very long time and I was doing a bang up job of it. The theme song for this party. Oh poor, poor me was blaring over the loud speakers of my mind.
As the airplane lifted off from Nongkhai, my mind was telling me good riddance. Last time I'll ever be back here anyway. Arrive in Bangkok, caught a cab to my hotel, the pity party was now in full swing. I don't think the party would have gotten so big and quite frankly, so out of control in my mind, had it been just the envelope with the green backs that had gotten lost, but those combined with the silver dollars and the gold ring from Egypt. Just tooooooooo much!
Got checked into my hotel and headed off to find a hardware store to buy a lock for one of my suitcases. I planned to leave one suitcase in Bangkok while I traveled to Kheknoi, where I'd teach school for another three weeks before returning to Bangkok and a flight home. While walking along the street, I must have had my typical lost look on my face, for this Thai guy (Wan) asked me what I was looking for. Told him I wanted a lock.. he didn't understand, but he sent me off to an InterNet Cafe where a friend (Kee) of his who spoke good English was playing on a computer. Kee and Wan helped me find what I needed, then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to come back to their place. By now I knew both of them were gay, so agreed to visit them, but later on that afternoon. I had a few things I needed to get done for my trip the following day to Kheknoi.
Kee had a very nice, clean, small apartment near my hotel. Located on the 10th floor, he had great views of the Bangkok skyline. Basically a one bedroom, with a separate bathroom and small balcony. No kitchen facilities in these little $150 a month apartments, but no problem since street food is so good and so cheap in Bangkok. Kee did however have a refrigerator and a small dining room table and chairs. When I arrived, Kee and Wan were watching T.V. nice flat screen TV. For the next couple of hours I talked with these two guys, both of whom had good English. I was curious about their lives, the gay scene in Bangkok.
Kee had one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen in my life. Shaved head? and could have been the lead in The King and I. Very handsome guy. He could be an actor, for he seemed to be able to play different roles at different times throughout our conversation. He also was Mr. Personality! This guy had such an outgoing, vivacious personality, it was hard not to like him. He was just plane funny, insightful, the life of the party kind of individual. Kee was 31, had been the manager of an optical store in Bangkok before the company had been bought out and he lost his job. I soon learned that Kee had boy friends in many countries and so I dubbed him Mr. Butterfly. One in Australia, another in Spain and yet another in France. Like everyone else in Thailand, Kee had a mobile phone, and he showed me recent text messages he'd received from each one of these guys. The guy from Australia was coming to Bangkok in early August, so Kee was all in a dither about this upcoming visit!
Wan was also a very good looking guy with a light hispanic type complexion and short straight black hair. He had a more subdued personality, as compared to that of Kee. But then Phyllis Diller would seem pretty calm compared to Mr. Personality Kee! Wan was 36 and an orphan since infancy. No family what-so-ever. He'd been a cook at a small restaurant, but something had happened to make him jobless. Wan came across as an extremely sincere, hard working guy. The kind of guy you could trust to help you out with anything. The kind of person who would do anything for you. Nothing pushy about him, just a salt-of-the-earth kind of individual. He showed me the dog eared English book he carried with him everywhere. He told me he studied English every day. He really wanted to learn the language. Wan as compared to my Butterfly friend Kee, had never had a boy friend.
I decided I'd rather eat dinner with these two guys, so gave Kee $2.00 and he set off to buy some food from the street vendors. About a half an hour later, Kee returned with a big bag of boiled rice and three different Thai sauces. Delicious! More than enough food for the three or us in fact, two other guys showed up while we were eating and they ate too.
While Kee was out buying the dinner, I spent some time just chatting with Wan. It was at this point he told me his age, the fact that he was an orphan, and about how he got by with no job living in Bangkok. Obviously Kee helped Wan out whenever possible, such as with a place to stay at night from time to time and food as well.
It was here in our conversation that reality began to hit me and my self absorbing pity party took on a new and very different dimension. Wan told me that when things got really difficult for him, he'd go to the temple where the monks would share the meager food they received once a day. He looked at me and with a smile on his face said, I have food for today and I have food for tomorrow. The next day, I don't know. I don't know. But what he said next broke my heart looking off into the distance he quietly said I'm just afraid of getting sick, at which point he became emotional, tearing up, and excused himself so he could go into the bathroom.
Little bit later Wan emerged from the bathroom, could see he'd been crying.
I listened as Wan talked. This was a young man who had nothing, truly nothing, no job, no family from which to fall back on, often no roof over his head, little food. Really not much if any kind of a social, emotional, or physical safety net. His biggest fear, given this lack of support, was getting sick and what that would mean. I could sense the very real feeling of desperation that came from Wan's very soul as he spoke.
In that instant of listening to Wan talk, I immediately let go of the envelope with the greenbacks, the silver dollars and the ring. None of them were important. None of them suddenly meant anything. My pity party came to an abrupt end.
How self absorbed I'd allowed myself to become, over things. things, just things, and how I'd allowed these things to cloud my view of the world. Here was someone standing before me who did not know where his meal the day after tomorrow might come from, his biggest fear was getting ill and probably being alone too, and yet, I did not sense that he allowed any of these things to control his life, make him angry or upset. In spite of his expressing to me what must have been one of his deepest fears, that of getting ill, Wan still had a calmness and inner peace that seemed to radiate out of him.
Did I learn anything from the three unmindful events? Was the chance meeting with Wan a positive life changing encounter for me? I can only hope the answer is yes.