Reading about the death of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu I was reminded of the impact he had had on the world through his activism during apartheid and with the Truth and Reconciliation project. To pay homage I thought I’d read one of his books. I settled on the Book Of Joy as I thought it sounded like a most fitting book for January. I’d like to have plenty of joy in this new year.
A bigger reason why the book caught my attention is because I have been thinking a lot about joy. I’ve been struggling with the fact that I’m doing ok, but so many aren’t; How could I live with joy when there is so much suffering in the world? There was a period last year when this question really got me down. Scanning the book before diving in, it seems that this is the most popular question that was put to both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, his co-author. The book is based on a series of conversations between the two spiritual leaders over a five day period to answer questions about cultivating joy sent from people all over the world.
I stepped out of my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio back into the kind of Tuesday morning that makes you wish you were at home in bed with your duvet keeping you warm and safe from the chill and Omicron infused day, but I didn’t mind being out at all. I felt snuggly, filled with joy. This was in complete contrast to the feeling of gloom and dread I felt going into the class. I wondered how could being thrown,pinned down, and arm locked while trying to free myself repeatedly for an hour make me feel so good? While meditating on this, I realized that in 2021 I have found joy in the most unusual places.
One day in the summer in a park, I saw a guy in his martial arts outfit, practicing. I said hello, and I asked him what he was training for. He replied he was doing some Judo drills. He explained to me the principles of Judo and gave me a demo of some of the moves. I told him that I had wanted to learn martial arts for the longest time. He said I should do it. There and then I decided it was time for me to do it and I was going to learn Judo as I really like that it means the “gentle way”. I waited a few months, until I had moved to a new city and figured it would be a great way to meet new people. Unfortunately, the closest Judo place to me was a 35 minute bike ride away and only had classes two late evenings per week. I knew I wasn’t motivated enough to cycle that long on dark winter evenings. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (a derivative of Judo) studio, on the other hand, was more conveniently located and had a schedule that worked for me, so I signed up.
Meditation is a daily part of my life, and to keep it “interesting”, from time to time I change my focal point during the practice. During meditation you turn your attention to either your breath, a mantra or to counting from 1 to 10/100. A couple of months ago I switched to watching my breath. It was unsurprisingly hard to stay focused on my breathing which is why it’s been my least used focal point. Every time I sit and attempt to watch my breath, I marvel at how I don’t notice it the rest of the time, something so critical to me being alive. And then I wonder why can’t I concentrate on it for more than 10 seconds without drifting off. I’ve also been trying out new yoga routines by following the immunity classes on the Yoga Studio app. I’m loving them, but I feel I’m only partially getting the benefits because I can’t seem to inhale and exhale as slowly and deeply during the basic breathing exercises as the instructor, and I skip the advanced one, kapalbhati as it is difficult. Every time I did the class and meditated, I made a mental note to learn more about breathing to improve awareness and ability but I didn’t get round to it until two weeks ago when I came across A Long Now seminar with James Nestor talking about the future of breathing.
James Nestor, a science and sports journalist and author starts by saying how he was motivated to write his book Breath because of the insane stories about the powers of breathing that the free divers he met while researching his previous book Deep told him:
“They told me about a man who had been injected with the bacterial endotoxin E. coli, and breathed in a rhythmic system to simulate his immune system to destroy the toxins within minutes. They told me about a woman who had overcome decades of auto-immune diseases by simply changing the way she breathed. And they told me about an 85 year old who rediscovered an ancient practice to superheat himself and sit out in snow for hours without ever getting hypothermia or frostbite, again using only his breath… After months and months of reading scientific studies and talking to experts I discovered these impossible stories were actually true.”
Even though we are three months away from the end of 2021 I’d like to tell you about the most life-altering book I have read this year. I didn’t use the word “change” because every time I see and read a list of “life changing books everyone should read” like this one (I’ve read most of the books mentioned), it usually ends up not changing my life. Maybe I don’t know what change means but it always seems hyperbolic when used with books one ought to read. However, I can definitely say that the book Treat Your Own Shoulder has altered my life. Since I bought it at the beginning of May this year I have used the instructions given every day. Reluctantly.
My elation at being able to go back to swimming and the gym was soon dampened by a nagging shoulder pain. I had been complaining to my osteopath about shoulder pain for about 3 years, and the last time it was really bad, he prescribed no swimming for a month. As I had just been reunited with swimming after over a year without it, I didn’t want to stop. So I sought an alternative solution and I went on YouTube where I came across Bob and Brad, “the most famous physical therapists on the internet” as they love to say. One of the tools they recommended for correcting poor posture during sleep, which can be one of the causes of shoulder pain, is a McKenzie Night Roll. As I often wake up with a more aching shoulder, I went online immediately to purchase.
I have spoken before about how consuming materials about scientific research and discovery gives me hope, while reading about architecture, construction and manufacturing gives me great pleasure and allows me to dream–preparation for “that” big construction project in my head. With that I’d like to share with you the most inspiring things I read this past month.
Re-constructing Bad Habits
It is no secret that we humans have a sugar problem. For example, an average American ingests more than nineteen teaspoons of sugar every day. We know it is bad for us and that we should eat a lot less, hence why things like Coke Zero and the plethora of sugar alternatives such as Saccharin and Splenda were invented. But the problem with sugar alternatives is that they taste from a bit to really yucky. It is true that we could eat a lot less sugar or even stop altogether. But like with any addiction (I think sugar is addictive but some might disagree), it is easier said than done. I gave up drinking black tea in my teens because I couldn’t drink it without 5 teaspoons of sugar. Soft drinks and processed foods were easy to eliminate–too many calories for a body-conscious teenager obsessed with reading Vogue magazine. However, I have come to accept that no amount of health benefits are going to make 100% premium pure dark chocolate palatable, but add 15% sugar and it becomes a superfood to be consumed daily. Then there is the question of how do you make hong shao rou (braised pork belly) or kombucha without sugar?
When I was 17 years old, around the time I was preparing for university applications, I had the realization that I didn’t know how the world worked and how we got to be. It occurred to me that I could find the answers I was looking for if I studied history and sociology, and so I abandoned my long held plan of studying fashion design. Three years of studying for a bachelor’s degree in history and sociology left me with a much expanded appetite. I had the notion that I had only just had an aperitif and that it was going to take me a lifetime to get through all the courses on the world and humanity. Since then I have continued to study at a more leisurely pace through traveling, books, documentaries and more recently podcasts. However, this past week I have consumed some materials that left me feeling like I’ve received a masterclass in humanity and the world.
The first masterclass was a conversation between Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist, and Yuval Noah Harari, an historian. I really appreciate Harari’s ability to catalogue centuries worth of history in an accessible and illuminating manner. And as an historian he doesn’t just focus on the past, he also looks to both the present and the future, hence his bestselling book Homo-Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow, which examines the challenges humankind faces in the 21st century. Kahneman’s work is preoccupied with the present , specifically how we humans think, as can be seen in his mighty book Thinking Fast and Slow. Over the years I have turned to their work multiple times (as I wrote here and here) so it was such a treat to hear them both together discussing the trends shaping humankind.
I woke up on April the 13th, excited about what was going to be the second biggest event of the year thus far–I was going back to the gym. The first event had happened the previous day when I went swimming. I was so excited that 3 hours earlier than I was due to leave I put on the new pair of gym leggings I had bought especially for the occasion. When the time finally came I rushed to the gym. The staff members and I greeted each other like old friends you haven’t seen in years (at a distance of course). A quarter of an hour had passed before I made my way to the weight training section. The barbells and dumbbells were neatly stacked inviting me to put them to use. I stood in front of the squat rack and my brain started firing questions: “how much weight should I start with? How high should the barbell be again for me to lift it up safely? How do I adjust the height of the screw thingies? shouldn’t I warm up first? yeah I should but for how long?” I stood there waiting for my brain to come up with answers but it couldn’t.
I had thought that just like swimming came to me as soon as I stepped into the pool, I would know what to do as soon as I laid eyes on the barbells. I knew better than to just jump in and start lifting, this is how injuries happen. I remembered I have the Kindle app on my phone and could just quickly check my weight training book. I scrolled through the books I had downloaded onto my phone but the book wasn’t there.
A couple of weeks ago I woke up to find in my email inbox the good news that I have been waiting all year for! No, it isn’t the news that I can now get the Covid-19 vaccination. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased that I will have the opportunity to be vaccinated soon. The vaccination is a big injection of light into the tunnel. But you see, I’ve found that the only way to get out of any tunnel I’ve ended up in, however dark, is to swim my way out. So it was with jubilation that I read the news that my local swimming pools will be re-opening on April 19th.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my level of cynicism has multiplied, as has my disappointment in us humans. How could we be playing politics with vaccination in a pandemic? Why is it that only the rich countries’ populations are getting vaccinated? Like Covid-19 knows borders or economic status? Why is it so hard for people to wear masks in public places? It’s not like we haven’t known forever that wearing masks prevents spreading disease, hence why healthcare workers wear them. You could say it is normal that I feel this way, we are in a pandemic after all. But here is the thing: the old me (ok, the younger me) would have focused on the positives, like how fortunate I am to have a job I can do from home, that my family and friends are well, that I have plenty of parks around me to visit daily and that I live in a country with universal healthcare. So why the gloom?
In last year’s March edition of my newsletter I mentioned I would explain at a later date why I read subtitles in Spanish but not in Mandarin when watching TV shows in languages that I don’t speak. As Chinese New Year is upon us I thought it would be a good time to share. It is also the anniversary of when I first started learning Chinese, and this new year I will be celebrating 14 years. I will also be lamenting a little as I’m often reminded of how after all these years of speaking Chinese my reading still hasn’t progressed beyond kindergarten level. That is, if a kindergarten kid can read and send text messages. Anyway, at this rate I feel I’m going to be learning Chinese forever!
I moved to Beijing, China in 2007 with the main purpose of learning Mandarin, and I enrolled on a language program at Beijing Language and Cultural University (BLCU). It was an intensive program of four hours of class daily, five days per week. On top of that, our main teacher (we had three) gave us three hours of homework every day because she said that was how much she had when she was studying English. I had no knowledge of Mandarin when I arrived but I was confident that I could easily learn it. After all, I was brought up bilingual and I had successfully learnt Spanish a decade earlier when I lived in Madrid.
I wrote in my last newsletter that I learnt what listening is from Tara Brach’s podcast on the sacred art of listening. It was a good lesson on listening to others but I think learning to be a good listener to oneself must come first. Why do I believe this? I believe we are far more similar to each other than we are different. The scientist Riccardo Sabatini, in a 2016 TED presentation showed that a human genome printed will consist of 3 billion DNA letters and will fill up 262,000 pages; Only 500 out of these pages makes each individual different from another, other than that we are identical. Thus, if I can listen to myself, I can listen to others. But how does one sort through all of the noise in one’s mind in order to really listen? We know that the mind is not easily amenable hence why so many of us go through life somewhat strangers to ourselves.
My early 30s was a very tough period of my life. I moved to China and was trying to navigate through what was then a very foreign society. At the same time I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life since I had abandoned my old life (gave up my job, partner, and home) in search of a new one. The uncertainties were overwhelming and I needed help. I sought the counsel and support of friends, I went to therapy, and I took up meditation. All these helped to some extent but didn’t give me the answers and solutions I craved. My therapist recommended I write down my thoughts in between our sessions to record how I was feeling. I thought it was a terrible idea, it was painful enough that I had to voice my feelings and thoughts out loud to her. Now she was suggesting I record them on paper or screen. I would have to see the mess going on in my mind immortalized in words that I could easily refer back to.