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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Birds on a wire

View from my apartment balcony - Pattaya, Thailand
No matter where you are or who you are, anxiety is simply a part of the enterprise of being human.

Jesus knew this, which is why he talked about it in one of his sermons. "Consider the lilies of the field," He said, "how they grow."

Worrying won't change a thing and yet, we all do it, don't we? No matter who we are or where we are or how much we have, we all worry that it won't - there won't, we won't - be enough.

Folks here are still all in a twiter (and, I'm not talking about technological internet chatter) about the fact that the fee for the 'songthaew' - which is a pick up truck type of taxi  affectionately known as the "baht bus" - from Pattaya to Jom Tien Beach very recently went up from 10 baht to 20 baht.

100 baht is about $3.35 US. As the Brits say, "Cheap as chips."

Lord, have mercy! You would think part of the sky fell down.

Everyone is still all agog. How will anyone be able to afford it? Well, we could protest by walking to the beach, but, who could walk in this beastly heat and humidity? We'd all have to walk about with towels round our necks and umbrellas over our heads and wouldn't that be unseemly.

Mind you, these are citizens of the US and UK or France, Germany or Holland who get in salary or even pension what most of the Thai people will not earn in a year. Some of them, in their entire lifetime.

And, this conversation is taking place 'round the hotel pool where some pay 30 baht to "rent" a towel and a lounge chair for the day.

And yet, the anxiety is thick enough to cut with a knife.

I've been trying to keep my mouth shut and just listen, but I must say, it's getting pretty old. why, in part, I blog. I can say things here I wouldn't dare say to someone else's face. Well, not the people here, anyway, and they don't know about my blog.

Mind you, the Thai people have nothing much to say about this, themselves. Those who would be most deeply affected by a 10 baht increase in fee wouldn't be able to afford the original 10 baht in the first place, so, what's the point, really.

Near as I can figure, the biggest anxiety for the people in my neighborhood with whom I engage in conversation - such as it is in my poor Thai and their English - is about being able to afford whatever it takes to look more Western.

Skin lightener. Hair design. Clothing. Shoes.

We all seem to want to be something we're not.

My new best friends, the monks at the local Wat (Temple), seem to be a bit ahead of the curve on this. They practice "detachment" in order to practice "abstinence" from longing or craving.

Here's the basics, as I understand them.
 Suffering (dukka) comes up in everyone's life.

This suffering is caused by craving (tanha).

We can stop suffering by stopping craving.

To stop craving, follow Buddha's Eightfold Path - which consists mostly of living a moral life, avoiding harm to others and following a spiritual practice based on meditation.
These are called The Four Noble Truths.

This may simply be my Western mind's way of imposing my beliefs on Buddhist thought, but I have come to think that craving is a form - or expression of, or perhaps, the result of - anxiety. It's probably more complex and challenging than that, but that's where I've landed. At least, today.

It has to do, I'm told, with 'anicca' (I think that's how it's spelled. That's how it sounds).

Anicca is, as I understand it, 'impermanence' which means that everything that exists (including - gasp! - God, but more about that in a future post) is in constant movement, constant flux.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, remains just what it is.

So, for the Western mind, being is all the thing. And, for the Western mind, "I think, therefore I am," is a penultimate truth, which doesn't necessarily lead to the belief that "I am what I think," but sometimes does. It may even lead to the illusion that "I am what I think I am."

For the Buddhist mind, not being but becoming is all the thing. To 'be' is to 'become' and one can only 'be' if one is in motion.

Which is to say that, to the Buddhist, everything changes because everything is interrelated.

Everything comes into being and continues in being through and with something else - which begins to sound more South African, doesn't it? It's also Bueber's "I and thou".

So, for Buddha, we are not selves but more non-selves. We are not human 'beings' but human 'becomings', or even more to the point,  'becomings-with'.

Here's the thing, as I understand it: no one can control this process.

"You can't push the river," I'm told. Trying to do that is not only futile, it will cause anxiety which will cause cravings which will lead to suffering of self and others.

This does not eliminate - much less forbid - the enjoyment of other persons or things. The Buddhist monks just warn against trying to hold onto them or to think we own them or that we can change anything for anyone else.

Up to you, see?

Which is not to say that Buddhist don't experience anxiety or cravings. Not everyone is "Enlightened" or has achieved "Awakening" - even the monks. Everyone is just trying to get to 'Nirvana' which is not a place "up there, out there, somewhere" you get after you die, but can happen right here and now.

Self-actualization, it's called in some psychiatric circles.

Perhaps the greatest anxiety I've experience here is much like other places in the world: It's around money. Like many non-Western countries, these folk enjoy a good 'haggle' over the cost of some things. I think it is a bit of a game - a way to reduce anxiety and detach from what you think is yours.

But, once the price is negotiated, you stick to it. Or, if it has been negotiated up front - like a menu at a restaurant. To try and haggle after the negotiation has been settled causes great distress and anxiety.

What I've discovered is that humor and laughter are not only a universal languages, they are a wonderful way to reduce anxiety, which is not lost on the Thai mind.

This morning, I made a bit of a mistake in the bill for my breakfast - two poached eggs, two pieces of toast, a slice of ham, two slices of bacon, a glass of juice, a cup of tea, and a small biscuit = 110 baht. Cheap as chips.

I also had an iced coffee after breakfast - it was already hotter than the hinges on the gates of Hades at 0900 hours at Jom Tein Beach - which brought the total up to 160 baht. I should have just gotten out two one hundred baht notes and gotten the change. Instead I fiddled with the paper money and thought I had a 10 baht coin but it turns out that it was, in actuality, a 5 baht coin.

The waiter looked a bit anxious. What was foreign to my eyes was instantly recognizable to him and he knew I had made a mistake. Or, perhaps, I was trying to get something for 150 baht when it was really 160 baht.

I'm sure he felt his English was not good enough to explain the whole thing to me and he began to be anxious. There is no haggling over menu prices in Thailand. Clothes? Shoes? Maybe. Not menu.

I read his face and quickly put together that I had made the wrong selection in coins so I reached into my purse, fumbled round a bit while he kept saying, "Madam not right," feeling my own anxiety begin to rise. Finally, finally, finally, I produced the right coin.

Mind you, this was about 5 baht. Peanuts to me. Lots of money to him because it has to come out of his pocket to make up the difference in the mistake. There are mouths to feed. Rent to pay. Whitening cream and jeans to buy.

I can't even begin to express his relief when I  handed him the 10 baht coin.

His face instantly registered the flight of anxiety. I demurely put my hand to my mouth the way I see Thai women do, and said, "So sorry. Not your fault. Farang lady ding dong" - which meant, essentially, "I'm a foreign woman who is an idiot."

He deeply appreciated my self-effacing humor and laughed along with me. He then put his hands together, bowed reverently and said, "Farang lady nice lady, Sir".

We're all just birds on a wire, aren't we? 

We're all just holding on for dear life while the winds of change blow us about.

We resist mightily, I suspect, because we do not know that we can fly.

We do not know that we can fly because we have not detached from the wire, thinking it provides us a modicum of safety.

It's just a place to perch, is all.

We are not meant to perch our whole lives. We are meant to detach from the wire and fly. We can come back, if we want, but we will be much less anxious if we spread our wings and step out in faith and into the understanding that we are not so much human beings as human becomings.

What we have to decide for ourselves is whether the anxiety of holding onto the wire is better than the anxiety of what we think will happen if we let go.

No one can decide that for you except yourself.

Or, not.

Up to you.


Muthah+ said...

Yes, farang lady is nice lady. But farang lady is ding dong too! Wonderful post. And thanks for sharing these wonderful insights into people I only see in restaurants.

OyaSophia said...

My beloved stepmother, a UCC (United Church of Christ) minister, equates worry with prayer. She believes that when she is worrying, she is engaging in a form of prayer. All of the family knows and agrees, so we often extol her to "worry for me" and she always responds, "I will!".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Muthah+, but in one sense, we're all 'farang', aren't we? And, from time to time, we're all 'ding dong'. The trick is to know it and be able to laugh at ourselves - or at least, not take ourselves so bloody seriously.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

OyaSophia - I am a big advocate of worry as prayer. Once I 'got' that, worry seemed less a burden and more a prayer and I was less anxious.

Funny how that works.