February 22, 2011

Living in the places that scare you.

“The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.”

~ Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You

Being without self-deception is a long, gradual process that requires daily diligence. Most people like to deceive ourselves a little bit. We like to think we are safe, to feel somewhat in control of our lives. Though I am all for free will, for the idea that our conscious and unconscious choices lead us to our life experiences, I know that control is an illusion. Anything can happen at any time, anywhere.

Rather than closing down at the acceptance of this stark reality, Pema suggests we open to vulnerability; from this comes lovingkindness, compassion, joy.

I opened to vulnerability when I moved  from Austin to Guatemala City in August 2009. I didn’t do it to be brave or exert courage. I just felt like trying something new, exploring unknown territory. I was scared at first. I didn’t know what to expect. I quickly learned about the realities of life here, the crime rate, the instability, all the stories. I have written about my Central American experiences before. (See: Land of Eternal Contradiction.)

For the record, I love the Guatemalan culture. I adore traveling around this breathtakingly beautiful country. It is colorful, fascinating, complicated. I love the Spanish language, the lush gardens, the mammoth volcanoes, the diverse, kindhearted people. The crime, poverty, ignorance and repression in Guate are not so lovable. This place is far from peaceful.

The truth is, I live in a place that is not safe. I live in a place that scares me.

Machismo majorly affects the culture here in Guatemala. Por ejemplo: when I got into a fender bender last week, me and my five Gringo witnesses agreed that it was the other driver’s fault; he maintained that I was in the wrong. The dude was large and in charge and driving a Suburban. I am grateful that friends were right there with me, defending me, making phone calls, being supportive. That two of the friends were male probably helped. Still, his attitude was so abrasive and superior and he was lying. We all knew it and there was nothing we could do about it.

Obviously, that incident was relatively minor. The trouble is: it’s the same way with serious crimes all the way up to first-degree murder. Something like 2% of the crimes are solved here.

Hence, nothing is actually illegal. There is no fairness, a fierce cycle of poverty that feeds into the sky high crime rates, faux law enforcement, gross devaluation of human life. (For example, 516 of Guatemala’s 4,000 bus drivers have been murdered since 2006, mostly for failing to pay off the gangs that demand Q200 ($25) per day from each bus driver.) My high school students openly discuss the rampant corruption of the government. They’ve been aware of it since they were little. You don’t trust the police. They, among many others, are the bad guys. You just do not call on them.

I live in a bubble that gives the illusion of some semblance of safety. I have not been robbed or had a gun pulled on me, though I know lots of people who have been victims of theft — foreigners and locals alike. Petty crime is one thing. You give up your cell phone, camera, wallet, whatever. Fine. However, I have too many Guatemalan friends and students whose family members have been killed in cold blood: kidnapped, murdered, shot, tortured. They say it costs 100 Quetzales ($12.00) to hire a hit man.

Violence — and non-violence — begins at the individual level. It begins, as all human enterprises do, inside the mind.

However, one cannot instantly eliminate all negative and violent thoughts at their root simply by wishing to do so. The next best thing is to start eliminating violent actions. At the gross level, this would mean ceasing with physical aggression, angry shouting, gratuitous road rage. At a more subtle level? Cut down on arguments, mean-spirited gossip, use of profanity, and condescending glares.

I’d like to be post-culture, post-religion, post-violence. I am not there yet. We are not there yet. I get upset, angry and agitated at times. It is not my intention to badmouth Guatemala or rant insensitively. I write to understand, to find meaning in things, events, experiences, ideas. I am, after all, an idealist. I strive to be a realist.

I strive to live up to this definition of the yogi by B.K.S. Iyengar:

“The yogi uses all his resources—physical, economic, mental or moral—to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. He shares his strength with the weak until they become strong. He shares his courage with those that are timid until they become brave by his example. He denies the maxim of the ‘survival of the fittest’, but makes the weak strong enough to survive. He becomes a shelter to one and all.”

How can we make the weak strong?

We can write, reflect, practice yoga and meditate. We must let go of anger and transform negative emotions into fodder for the practice. Volunteer. Get our hands dirty. Mix and mingle with people outside our normal circles. Be open. Stay open. Live in openness.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, to close the door and ignore the suffering around me and within me. Instead, I engage. I think. I volunteer. I strive to act with integrity, to be a positive role model to my students. I refuse to buy into guilt or to be silenced. It’s good to vent; it’s not so helpful to lob thoughtless, culturally-insensitive complaints.

I feel so incredibly lucky to be on this journey, to be able to live overseas and travel the world. It brings about constant reflection and analysis. I am constantly thinking deeply about culture, communication, development, sustainability. I love that this lifestyle spurs me to discover so much. The world is full of beauty, but it’s also riddled with violence and crime, miseducation and ignorance, ubiquitous corruption. I felt that living in the United States and I feel it living in Guatemala. Maintaining a daily yoga and mindfulness practice is essential for releasing the stress associated with modern life.

To learn more about helping out in Guatemala and other parts of the world, check out my growing compilation of karma yoga organizations!

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