For the 5th edition of Los Lunes Son Para Libros, I want to talk about The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers. This book was written by professional rock climber Arno Ilger. From the beginning of his climbing career, Arno made himself standout by climbing a lot of sketchy and scary trad-first ascents. His ability to do so came from a mixture of physical strength and mental strength. Wanting to know more about the workings of his brain, and the mental toughness he was able to exemplify, Arno dove deep into research. His goal was to create a guide for rock climbers who wanted to improve their head game– their control of fear, critical thinking, awareness etc. What he came up with is a synthesis of modern science, philosophy, and Eastern Religion. His book, The Rock Warrior’s Way, is not only a textbook on how to be more focused and not afraid of falling when rock climbing. Almost all of his anecdotes, examples, and techniques can be used in the day to day life. However, I may or may not make that connection for the reader. So if you’re not a rock climber, keep reading, and be open to the opportunity of stripping away the rock climbing context in order to have it make sense for your own life.
Ilger begins his book in a very formulaic way. He introduces the rock warrior’s process in seven relatively easy-to-understand phases. I’d like to share these with you, their basic tenets, and then go on to explore more deeply some of my favorite golden nuggets that are hidden within the book.
(1.) The first phase is Becoming Conscious:
The first thing a rock climber (or any person for that matter) needs to do in order to become more successful is to become more self-aware. This process is based entirely in observation and introspection. It is awareness of our inner dialogue, (self-talk), the grounds on which we place our own self-worth, and how to avoid attention and power leaks. More on the idea of leaking attention and power to come.
(2) The next step is titled Life is Subtle:
In this section of his mental toughness workshop, Ilger preaches the importance of taking into account the subtleties in the external world. Applied specifically to rock climbing, he is referring to the colors, textures and features that we take for granted if we are not highly aware. He also urges us to be more aware of our subtleties in our bodies. Our breathing, posture/body language and facial expression.
(3) Third phase is all about Accepting Responsibility:
This is exactly what it sounds like. Taking and accepting the responsibility of any situation places the onus on our shoulders. We accept the potential risks and success that may arise from the scenario. We do not wish it was over. We do not blame other people if something goes wrong. “Wishing and hoping take power out of our hands.
(4) The fourth step is called Giving:
To sum up this section of his mental toughness guide, Ilger writes, “you ask what you can give to the performance rather than what you might receive if you succeed”. Our attention should be placed on options and possibilities rather than obstacles.
(5) The fifth phase focuses on our Choices:
Up until this point (aka the previous 4 stages), we were only preparing. In the fifth phase, we enter into the moment of truth. We take action, whether that be beginning to climb, entering into an interview or speaking in public. In this phase, “you choose to either direct attention away from the risk or into the risk”. For Ilgner, it is better that we focus our attention into the risk. We do not stray away because after all, we are conscious, we are ready to examine the subtleties, we’ve taken responsibility, and are prepared to give all our ourselves to the experience. But if for some reason, we are not ready to take action, and choose to back away or postpone, it is crucial to understand that declining to take the risk is not failure.
(6) Now that we are in the act, we are Listening:
Listening for Ilger is not merely something we do with our ears. It is a fully body, physical, mental and emotional process. Now that we entering into the unknown of an experience, we need to learn something. If we commit to listening, we commit to a learning process. We must trust in this process. Ilger proposes that the ultimate goal of a warrior is to learn something about the self.
(7) Finally, the seventh phase is The Journey:
“Once in the chaos of risk, you focus on the journey, not the destination. When you’re stressed, you are tempted to rush through the stress. Yet, if you prepared well, this stressful situation is exactly why you came here in the first place”
Some of my favorite aspects that arise from this portion of The Rock Warrior’s Way revolve around our self-image and self-worth. This two might sound the same, but for Ilger, are very different and no doubt connected. Our self image is our sense of who we are and what we are able to do. Self-worth on the other hand is how valuable we feel. Ilger explains that much of the value we feel normally manifests itself externally. Meaning we seek value from other people, other experiences. We are motivated from external sources. To the contrary, we should actually be seeking internal motivation. One way we do this is by creating internal value structures and holding to them. Looking inward for value, motivation and rewarding ourselves when it is due.
Another important duality Ilgner writes about are what he calls ‘power sinks’ and ‘power leaks’. I really like these concepts. Power sinks are “energy sapping elements of our personalities.” We often sink attention and energy into ego promoting thoughts and actions. Our self power sinks when we use it to selfishly bolster our self-importance. Ilgner explains that “another way to lose power is to fritter it away in ineffective mental habits, limiting self-talk, reactionary behavior, or hoping and wishing behavior.” These are power leaks. We often do this with ineffective mental habits and poisonous self-talk. These are passive states. “By indulging in passive mental processes that don’t help create the outcome you want, you are actively leaking away power that could otherwise be applied to the challenge at hand”
The general idea is to become conscious of how we construct our self-image and from what sources we draw our self-worth. Additionally, it is to become aware of power sinks and leaks so that we can perform at whatever task to our maximum ability.
Life is Subtle
This section of his book is all about how the little things matter. I know we’ve all herd his a million times, but Ilgner brings some interesting nuances to the cliche that give it some life. My favorite part about this phase is the proposition that the mind and the body are interrelated (body-mind). Ilgner argues, “body language sends messages not just outward to others, but inward, to you”. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I think this is a rad idea and one I hadn’t yet thought about. I’ve always understand body language as an external expression, not necessarily internal.
Anyway, Ilgner talks about a concept he calls ‘poise’. There are 3 parts to our poise: body, breathing and mind. The body part is simple. It’s all about our posture and how we physically present ourselves. Ilgner talks about how ‘soft eyes’ are important when rock climbing (or doing any strenuous activity). Soft eyes help maintain an open awareness– scanning or opportunities and possibilities. Where as an angry and crunched facial expression might close us off to those things.
In order to correlate the body-mind, we use our breathe. This goes for sports and walking down the street. If you really pay attention, your breathe is often a physical representation of your mental state. Ilgner writes,”breathing connects the body and mind. It is the only bodily function that can be totally voluntary or totally involuntary—totally conscious or totally unconscious. As a result, breathing works in two directions. Your unconscious breathing expresses the state of your bodymind. Conscious breathing influences that state.” In other words, if we can be consciously aware of our breathe, we can also have more control of our mental state. This is crucial in high stress situations such as rock climbing or sitting in traffic.
The third element of poise is the mind. It is our inner dialogue and internal behavior. Ilgner argues that our self-talk should always embody an attitude of possibility. To explain this relatively cryptic idea, he provides some really helpful examples. One is the difference between saying to yourself “remember your keys” or “don’t forget your keys.” For Ilgner, the latter is how our inner dialogue should be. Why? Because it maintains autonomy and control over the situation. Not forgetting is something we can have direct control over. Remembering on the other hand implies that something external or someone will have to remind you. Another dialogue example is the difference between saying “don’t fall” and “keep moving.” Like the first example, saying “keep moving” preserves us in an active state of climbing, of looking for possibilities and continuing forward. “Don’t fall” closes us off to an attitude of possibility and drains our attention and power into the negative outcome we don’t want. Lastly, Ilgner quotes a good friend of his: “trying is lying”. Saying to yourself, or so someone else (like your belayer) that you are going to try the route automatically implies a the possibility that you won’t make it to the top. Before you’ve even gotten off the ground, you’ve limited yourself and limited your personal power. “You willingly give away power to a mysterious something outside of your control.” Instead, the dialogue should that, “I will empty all that I have–my effort, focus, strength, love etc.– into this next rock climb.”
In this phase of his mental toughness process, Ilgner attaches three important facets to the act of accepting responsibility: the climber, the route, and the fall consequence. In non-rock climbing jargon, this could be understood as: the actor, the act, and the possibility of failure. Accepting the responsibility of the climber is accepting the strengths and weaknesses that we ourselves possess. What element of my personality will help me through this my first day on the job? What’s my weakest rock climbing technique and how will impact me on this next rock climb? Understanding what we bring to the table and where we fall short is crucial for accepting responsibility over ourselves and the experience we are about to be apart of.
The next part is the route, or the act/ experience. In accepting responsibility, we understand what the experience has to offer to us. We understand the parts where we will succeed and parts where we will struggle. One way to do this is to describe things objectively. Ilgner argues that fear, perhaps of falling, is the product of non-objectivity. We get wrapped up in unrealistic associations or metaphors, wishful thinking or victim mindsets. We fail to understand the route objectively and how to approach it as empowered and responsible actors. When we do this, we fall prey to what Ilgner calls ‘phantom fear.’ For him, phantom fear is “a vague, nagging fear of unknown origins.” And that, “there may be no substance to such fear.” It has no substance because we’ve failed to see the challenge ahead of us objectively. Instead we’ve pumped it full of ‘what if’ questions and passive thinking. Instead, we should focus on diminishing phantom fear’s power over us. We can weaken phantom fear by understanding completely the risk, and describing it objectively
The last part is the fall consequence of possibility of failure. One way to take responsibility of failure or falling is accepting that they both are totally okay outcomes (unless of course the result is death. Which in that case, something had gone terribly wrong in the previous steps). For Ilgner, falling and failure create learning opportunities. In fact, it’s normally our bad life decisions that teach us the most. If the goal is learning, then should we really call them ‘bad’ if they taught us something incredibly valuable? Perhaps its the ‘good’ decisions that are ‘bad’ because they’ve taught us nothing. Either way, this argument is futile for Ilgner because he doesn’t believe in using relative terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Nonetheless, accepting responsibility for the fall consequence and being genuinely okay with failure is how we learn the most. “As we accept these responsibilities, we grow to accept a great truth: life is difficult. Once we fully accept difficulty as natural and normal, we cease to be offended or daunted when we encounter a struggle or test. We can embrace these tests as opportunities. Difficult experiences are the way we learn, and they also are the way we can appreciate ease.”
“The warrior process of giving uses discovered facts, and acceptance of them, to actively create a powerful attitude for entering the challenge. The giving process helps us focus on what we have to give to the effort rather than the difficulty of the challenge.” Ilgner makes the argument that as humans we are socialized to practice ‘receiving mindsets’. In other words, as we develop, we become accustomed to thinking and acting in ways that portray entitlement to receiving things. This may or may not be true all the time, but I know for sure that I personally exemplify this receiving mindset. Instead, Ilgner proposes that we should focus on fostering a giving mindset with the challenges and experiences in our life. My favorite part of this phase is wrapped up in this quote: “The giving mindset is rooted in the attitude of being grateful for what we already have. We can’t manifest a giving spirit if we feel slighted.” For Ilgner, the more we give– the more we pour ourselves into our endeavours, challenges, relationships etc– the more we receive from them. Specifically, the more we learn from them. “It’s the combination of giving and learning that brings happiness.”
According to Ilgner, at every decision point throughout a rock climb there are only two outcomes: climbing through the risk or falling. This is true for other risks we take in our lives, such as asking a pretty girl to go on a date. Whatever the outcome, we must make the choice to fully accept whatever outcome. For the most part, this entails making the choice to take risks in the first place. Risks are lurking around every corner in the human life– some more than others, especially if that one is climbing a rock face. This may seem daunting and scary, perhaps even reason to live a sheltered life. But Ilgner argues the opposite. Perhaps paradoxically, he says that “taking risks actually increases our safety and comfort.” Furthermore he argues that “we gain comfort and security by expanding our comfort zones, and we expand our comfort zones by venturing into the risk zone.” I really enjoy what Ilgner has to say here. In a way, it sheds light on why people do “stupid” things in the first place, like base jumping from bridges. In the risk zone we learn. In the risk zone we expand that which we know about ourselves, our capabilities and the possibilities we can attain. As we leave our comfort zones and find success, those zones and parts of us expand. Therefore, we feel more comfortable in more situations because we ventured outward into the mysterious and taken with us skills and tools to help us on our next journey.
This lifestyle, however dangerous, sounds much more interesting and fulfilling than the previously mentioned sheltered life. This lifestyle creates and sustains passion. Have you ever met a person who on a daily basis risks their lives or health in pursuit of something courageous and fulfilling to not be completely passionate and in love with doing it? This question makes me think of extreme-sport athletes or practitioners, but I think the same could be said for people who don’t lead such an outwardly risky lifestyle. As long as risk and mystery is somewhere to be confronted, whether its on top of a ski slope or in the office, passion and love for learning whats on the other side of that risk is present.
“Loving what you do, being in touch with what you truly value, will help you make choices in any area. A path with heart is essential when making choices about risk. A possibly dangerous choice should not be made carelessly. It must be aligned with a person’s innermost predilections, stripped of the dangerous and superficial trappings of the Ego and self-delusion. Love-based motivation creates a situation without regret. When you make a choice, you choose to live life the way you most want to live it.”
Listening is not just something you do with your ears. It is an attitude of receptivity. The action of being receptive to all things, not just sound. In this part of his book, Ilgner begins a discussion about intuition. Specifically, how we can look out for and listen to our intuitions and their processes. For Ilgner, intuition is specific and crucial. It is our connection to hidden information and our unrealized potentials. “Intuition, being outside our logical framework of ideas, is free from the agendas and preconceived definitions that limit us. Intuition is a precarious point of access to the unknown, which is the ultimate source of all new knowledge and power.” Furthermore, “if you block out intuitive flow, you block our very important information.”
To help flesh out his thoughts on intuition, Ilger shares a quote from Gavin de Becker, “curiosity is the way you answer when intuition whispers.” When our intuitions whisper something to us, we when have a gut feeling, when we mysteriously feel that one decision or course of action is better than the other, we must answer with curiosity and with trust. Ilgner explains that trust bridges the gap between the ability to assess the risk beforehand, and your ability to rise to the occasion when the challenge presents itself. We need to place trust in this listening process. Trust in the intuitions that whisper, however softly, in our ears and guide us to make decision, however big or small. This could be intuitively deciding which tiny edge of rock to place your foot in order to reach the next hand hold, or suddenly changing the path of our walk home in order to possibly avoid a dangerous part of town. “Remember, your highest goal is learning, and only in action does true, experiential learning occur. This is what you climb for. In order to transcend risk, you need to learn something, and you’ll only be able to learn by staying open and receptive.”
To open up this section of the rock warrior’s process, Ilgner explains that “the warrior is the ultimate realist. He knows that life is a journey, and rather than rushing blindly forward to the next destination, he appreciates the journey itself and consciously lives within it. He utilizes this metaphorical heuristic in order to broach a discussion on the difference between ‘destination thinking’ and the ‘journey mindset.’ This is another one of the cliches we hear so often. That we should enjoy the journey as opposed to the destination. Once again however, Ilgner is able to breath new life into the cliche that enhances is potency. He explains that “success and failure do not exist in the present, only effort and action exist.” What happens then when we continually think of the success or potential failure at the end of a rock climb (or new job promotion etc.), we throw ourselves into a disjointed process. Destination thinking– becoming obsessed with the end instead of the means– bifurcates our performance. The body cannot help but act in the present moment. It is climbing, walking, talking, writing its way through the present experience. The mind on the other hand can’t stop thinking about how good the beer will taste after a long days work or how liberated you will feel when you clip the anchors and lower down off a hard and scary rock climb. When this happens, the body-mind is not one. This hinders us and obstructs our ability to perform at our maximum potential.
In order to wrap up his book on an influential note, Ilgner turns his audience to meditations on the death. Like his book, our earthly journeys must also end. He explains that the warrior uses death as their ultimate advisor. Each moment is precious. “Death advises us to always use attention on what is important– learning and growth.” He goes on to explain that, “all living things, you included, are created, grow, and then die. Since you already have been created and aren’t dead yet, you are most in harmony when you align yourself with positive process in between—growth. You live in a dynamic world. If you are settling in to a rigid comfort zone, then you are dying—slowly, but still dying. To stay vibrant, you need to engage life and take risks, not for the conquest of some elusive mountaintop or redpoint, but in order to learn and grow.” This I think is beautiful. And if I am being honest with myself, it is also scary. Learning for experiences and loving life is literally all we can do. I would also add that building and cherishing social, familial and romantic relationships is extremely important. It is a personal journey– from bottom of the corporate ladder to the top, from friendship to love, from the ground to the anchors, and especially from cradle to grave. Accept it. Be at peace with it. Walk your path, be observant, learn and grow.
I’ve got so many damn photos, that I feel like I’m robbing my devoted following from seeing more of Peru if I don’t start sharing them. So I’m starting FRIGG YEAH FRIDAY. It’s gunna just be photos, so make sure you look real good like.
It is about that time of the year when farmers are beginning to harvest their crops. Everyday there is less and less corn in the valley. Big trucks park themselves near the farms and unload workers. They start early in the morning when everything is still wet from the rains the night before and work until about midday–just about when it’s getting too hot. They cut the corn stalks, remove the cobs and fill giant, back breaking sacks. When the field has been leveled, they let the bulls and cows go to work. They eat whatever is left in the field leaving only empty rows of dirt.
In my case, we harvest green beans. My family does not grow any corn. I am secretly grateful or that because the thought of wrestling stalks of corn and hoisting bags of cobs that weigh more than me sounds exhausting. Cute little green beans are more my jam. Or any food/veggie that comfortably fits in my hands like the peaches, I enjoyed harvesting the peaches.
By this time of the year, the green beans are in full form. The plants come up to about my knees. It felt like they came out of nowhere. In fact, they came in so quickly, that I had a hard time finding the chacra because the previously empty crop lines were now full of green beans. I was definitely disorientated considering this was my first harvest. I finally made it down to the farm and managed to find a path that crushed minimal amounts of beans. This is a common theme for me in Peru—walking and trying not to hit or bump into things. Many things in my community—such as doors, cars, roofs and chairs—were definitely not built with a 6’2 gringo in mind. That’s including the crop lines.
I arrived and my family was already there. This is another common theme. Despite the fact that I think I wake up early, my family is already up and going. The kids are playing, dad is off to work, mom is washing clothes and grandma is cooking something. In this case, I arrived late because I didn’t want to rush through my morning routine. As of lately it goes like this: I wake up and meander down to breakfast. After that, I return back to my room to make tea or coffee, sometimes both. While I do that, I watch the news—and by news I mean old Vice documentaries. After that, I practice yoga. At that point I am ready to go.
So anyway, I’m late to the family farm. As I arrive the sun immediately comes out. Therefore, I am immediately overdressed. Thoughts of my mom (my actual mom) scolding me about not wearing sunscreen pop into my ahead. Coincidently, my host-mom makes a gringo joke about how I am going to burn. She also makes sure to tell me it’s my fault that the sun came out. As this is happening, everyone takes out their hats, soaks them in water and continues to work. They hand me a bucket and point to a line of green beans that I am supposed to work. I’m off to the races.
As I got to working I quickly figured out a few things:
- I am way too big to harvest green beans. Originally I thought the small size and light weight would be a good thing. I was wrong. My height just means I am farther from the ground and have to bend over more. Sure I can hold a lot of beans in my hands, but damn my back hurt. I eventually remedied this situation by sitting on the bucket I was supposed to be filling. This helped relieve some pressure in my back and legs. It also compensated for the fact that I can’t squat down very well. My heels always pop up, placing all the weight in my toes. So I would sit on the bucket, fill both hands with beans and then empty them through the hole between my legs.
- I am way to slow when I harvest green beans. My host-family would put in laps while I was still working on my row. They pick with both hands, command control of the plants and have no mercy—everything goes in the bucket. Me on the other hand, well, I am slow. I don’t position myself correctly, and I examine every bean. The big ones are exciting. And I like to pop open the ones I think have pests in them. I didn’t develop the double hand technique until about an hour into the harvest. When I did though, I did begin to keep up. I also was way too delicate with the plants. The best way is to grab hold, pull it to the side to expose the beans and start yanking. Not calmly part the leaves and look for the beans as if I am braiding someone’s hair. Eventually I got this strategy down also. A few times though, I went too rough and completely tore the plant from the ground.
- Kids are always kids, even when harvesting green beans. As I made my way through my rows, my host brother made sure to let me know it was a competition. He wanted to see who could pick faster and who could fill their buckets quicker. When I got too close to his row, he would make sure to correct me. Meanwhile, my baby host-sister was highly distracting. She was constantly calling my name and the names of her siblings. She would pick beans and throw them at her brother. She also loved crawling into the old sacks of fertilizers we were using to transport the beans and try and walk. She fell over multiple times, always laughing. Having the kids around was a nice break from the monotony of picking beans. When I got bored, I could make jokes with them, steal my brother’s beans, and pretend to use the really curly beans as cell phones.
- Harvesting green beans is a family affair. The more hands, the better. In our case, the only person missing was my host-dad. To take his place though, were some members of the extended family. They work year round on the farm, helping to plant and harvest. When my host-mom or grandma go to sell the crops, they get cut into the profit. In total there was about 10 of us. The experience seemed to be gendered also. There were only 2 men, myself and another. The rest were women. Strong, hard working and efficient Andean women. This seems to be the trend for other harvests as well. Except for corn. Corn seems to be a man thing. Probably because of the stereotypes about masculinity and harder, heavier and rougher physical labor. This stereotype manifested in the green bean harvest also. When the buckets were full and ready to be transferred to the sacks, it was always a man who did the lifting. Otherwise, the woman presence was powerful and intimidating.
- Lastly, being a dog during the green bean harvest is the life you want to live. The family dogs would just follow us through the rows and find shade beneath the plants. They slept and tried to eat the flies that would fly around their faces. If they got in the way of the harvest though, damn would grandma get pissed.
The end of the Peruvian school year is about this time. Teachers are wrapping up there coursework, preparing documents, and organizing for the next year. Students are coming to school later and later, not wearing their uniforms and getting excited for their vacation. Teachers and students get about 2 months of free time. During that time, some will work but most will play.
The end of the school year is also accompanied by promotions. These are Peruvian graduations. There is one for graduating from primary school, which is like middle school, and another for secondary school, which is like graduating from high school. Lucky for me I was invited to both this year. My host-sister is part of the high school graduation and some extended family are part of the primary school graduation. So I washed my hair and put on ‘nicer’ clothes in order to attend these events with my host family. The two promotions were very much different. However, there were some common themes running through the two that helped me learn a lot about how important these events are.
(1.) Perhaps one of the most obvious cultural components of any sort of promotion is the importance of family ties. If you are related, in any way, to one of the students who are graduating, chances are you are getting invited. Once you are at the promotion, you greet other families, but make sure to sit amongst your own. In each graduation there was a time for family related dancing and photographs. Each family took their time to pose in photos with the honored student or share a dance with them. Members of the family are repeatedly thanked for their support in getting their student this far. In some cases, the support was more loving and obvious, but there was support nonetheless.
(2.) A second important portion of a Peruvian promotion is music. In fact, most of the event is centered around a dance that takes place towards the end. In the case of the secondary school promotion (my host-sister’s), there was a DJ and MC. They played music throughout the promotion and organized the sequence of events. In primary school graduation, there was a live orquestra band. Both graduations also had coordinated dances. Each class had choreographed a dance to be performed for the audience. The younger kids were very formal and almost romantic with there’s. The high school aged kids were definitely more modern and borderline sexual.
Once all he photographs, speeches, gift giving and eating is over, each promotion fired up their dance. In the case of the secondary school dance, the disc ball turned on and the fog machine started blasting. The auditorium quickly became a discoteca. The kids awkwardly made their way onto the dance floor, dragging others to share in the embarrassment. I was perfectly happy watching the hormone-ridden high school dance party unfold, but the flash from my camera blew my cover. I was then dragged onto the dance floor and paired with a student’s mom to dance. I did the best I could for about 10 songs. At that point, I made the excuse that I needed to go to the bathroom and the mom told me her feet hurt.
The primary school dance was much more communitarian. The live band came onto stage and began playing music. Within a matter of minutes the dance floor would be full of people dancing. At this point, I was sitting with the professors. We shared dances and switched partners. At this point, I was feeling much more confident in my dancing abilities. We would dance for 2 or 3 songs at a time before the band took a break. Everyone would then return to their drinking circles until the next round of songs came on. Which leads me to my third important cultural component of Peruvian graduations: beer.
(3.) It was no secret that beer would play a large component of any graduation. In fact, students and families were almost gossiping about the eventual beer consumption. Some were excited while others were a bit more apprehensive. After the formal ceremonies for each graduation was over, the beer vendor began selling beer. Yes, there was a beer vendor at middle school and high school graduations. The line grew quickly. Men and women would approach the window and purchase a box of beer. Each comes with 12 big bottles (24 oz. if my college days don’t mistake me). The boxes of beer then become the center pieces of the family drinking circles. Towers of beer began taking form. I think one family had upwards of 30 boxes. I remember at one point in the night, looking over and only see the eyes and hat of a grandfatherly figure sticking out above his castle of beer. The professors and I had a modest 3 boxes for a group of about 15 people. We sat, shared beer and talked. When the band would play we would stand up to dance. The beer still made its rounds between the dancing pairs. Customarily, men would ask women to dance. But according to a professor a lot has changed and now women also ask men to dance. I experienced both ends of this gender binary. Female professors were asking me to share a dance. I also made sure to ask my host-sister and host-mom to dance with me as well.
The beer drinking did not stop. The drinking circles continued sipping. The orquestra would take breaks to drink also. Bottles could be heard being dropped and broken. Beer even was being thrown about in the crowd. I wish I could say there was no under aged drinking (legal age is 18). Most of the kids were running around and playing while others were dancing. There was hide and go seek and fire crackers. For the most part, they weren’t drinking. But after a few hours, everyone seemed to care less. Some of the students from my school were drinking and dancing. Some were even struggling to maintain control. I ended taking three out of the dance hall to go to the bathroom and get some air. I tried to get them to go home, but they were back dancing before I knew it. I guess that’s not really my place anyway.
In general both of the promotions felt like an opportunity for the community to gather. The kids were completing major stepping stones in their education. For many, they are the first in their family to finish their primary or secondary education. Besides this, it was an opportunity for the families to get out of the house, away from work and into a social setting. They put on their nicer and cleaner clothes, jewellery, their dancing shoes and came with high spirits. Both of the promotions came at the end of the calendar year. Because of this the primary school graduation also felt like a a New Year’s bash. There were so many community members that they were spilling out of the dance hall and into the street.
Both of these experiences were interesting looks into the Peruvian promotion culture. I was happy to be invited and even happier to push through the reluctance of going. These types of events are important for me. They serve not only as learning opportunities but also opportunities for integration. The more time in public and the more time being with my community members (yes, that means drinking some beer also), the better. It’s how I attempt to build confianza (trust). This not only helps me in my work endeavours but also in creating a more authentic and culturally immersive experience.
And now, a lesson in dancing:
Two days ago was my aunt’s 50th birthday party. I was invited by my host-dad to attend. He was excited to introduce me to his side of the family and eat panchamanca. About a week ago I was all for it. However, when the day came an interesting thing happened.
The best way I can describe how I felt about going to the party was unexcited and demotivated. I felt this way for no apparent reason; I wasn’t sick and I didn’t have other (more exciting) plans. But for some reason I was apprehensive about going. The closest I have felt to this was when I was living in Costa Rica. My roommate and I wanted to attend a friendly soccer match between Costa Rica and Paraguay. The same thing happened. A week before the event I was stoked to go. But when the time came to go buy tickets and leave for the game, I was almost scared of going. And I LOVE soccer so that’s saying something.
What these two moment have in common are how I felt leading up to an event and how I felt right before. It took me sometime to figure out why I felt the way I did, but after some reflection I was able to get a better understanding of what was happening to me. The simplest thing I can call it is culture shocked. And this is interesting because technically, I wasn’t even in the cultural experience yet. Normally, those feelings of culture shock strike right in the moment of something particularly jarring—something that flies in the face of how you were raised and understand the world. But when it came to the Costa Rican soccer game and my aunt’s 50th birthday party, I was shocked—almost debilitated to the point of making excuses (lying) in order not to go— before it even happened.
Culture shock does that to a person. It transforms seemingly benign moments, even moments that you technically enjoy such as birthday parties and soccer, into scary and culturally intensive experiences. So much so, that it feels better to try and escape the situation as opposed to face it head on. In my case, my excuse would have been that I felt sick. When in reality, I just wanted to stay in my community, play soccer after school and retire to my bedroom. I felt this way because the idea of traveling somewhere I hadn’t visited, meeting people I didn’t know, being the only gringo at the party, and balancing a group social event in my second (and third) language was entirely stressful. These reasons, among others, are why some cultural experiences in other countries feel daunting and not worth the headache. Moments of culture shock tell us that the experience will not be worth it and that we should create excuses not to experience it— ‘it’s too expensive, it’s unsafe, I don’t feel well, I’ll get home after dark, I have other plans’ etc. What I’ve learned however, is to question this process.
When culture shock hits, the best thing I can do is question myself. I turn inward to decipher why I feel the way I do. Unfortunately, however, this process sometimes happens after the fact and I miss out on a wonderful opportunity. However, when it happens in the moment, and I push through feeling debilitated and demotivated, I am often rewarded with a really fun and culturally enriching experience.
Knowing what I know now, I like to think that for every excuse I create in order not to experience something the more reasons there are to actually go. I balance each excuse with a reason to attend—a reason to defy my culturally shocked sentiments. Now, of course, take this with a grain of salt. If red flags are flying everywhere, and the thing you are trying to avoid might actually turn out to be dangerous or a bad decision, go with your gut and stay home. But hopefully, this introspective process will help guide that decision.
Like a lot of things, this process is easier said than done. But when it works, all the feelings of being timid, apprehensive and scared of something transform into being empowered and proud of oneself. You wrestled with culture shock and maintained enough autonomy to not let it rob you of an experience that enhances your life. You felt the pit of culture shock, crawled out (however slowly), and reached the peak of an entirely rewarding and beautiful experience. That is what happened to me in Costa Rica and with my aunt’s 50th birthday party. And It will surely happen again (culture shock comes in waves of peaks and valleys). However, with this process and more success stories because of it, I hope to never miss out on a culturally enriching experience ever again (but let’s be honest, I’ll probably miss one or two).
And now, a quick description of why I enjoyed my aunt’s birthday party so much!
At about 1:30 a car arrived at my school to take me, my younger brother and baby sister to the party. On the way, we stopped by the farm to pick up grandma. With more family I began to feel better about where we were going. At least I could play with the kids or talk to grandma if I really didn’t want to meet anyone new. With the windows down we bumped along the dirt road to the highway—a cool breeze and warm Andean sun guiding us along. Within about 15 minutes we arrived to the small community where the party would be held. I thought, “maybe we aren’t so far from home after all”. We found my host-dad waiting along the highway to meet us. He loaded into the car and we went down another dirt road towards the house. My nervousness about finding where we were going by myself slowly melted away.
We descended down this road about 15 minutes. I am constantly impressed with how Peruvians handle these types of roads in 2-wheel cars—some with rattling so aggressive that I swear the car is about to fall apart. On the banks of the Rio Santo we got out and finished the journey on foot. A small path following a tributary guided us to the home. We were greeted by cousins laughing and playing in a watering hole. “Hola” they said casually, without staring feverishly through my soul. “Hmm…” I thought, “maybe it won’t be so weird that I’m the only gringo here.”
The party was to be held in a recently constructed salon de baila (dance hall). The wood still smelt fresh from being cut and the roof was still shiny. Slowly I made the rounds with my host-dad. In Peru, it’s customary to greet everyone upon your arrival, one by one and even if the room is full of people. My dad introduced me as hijo (son) and referred to the people he was introducing me to as my aunts, uncles and cousins. I was so thankful to be welcomed warmly and with curiosity. My “hijo gringo” jokes worked perfectly—the laughter of my family continuing to assuage my nervousness of being there.
We sat and waited patiently for everyone to arrive before lunch was served. While we waited, the family set up speakers and a musician slowly prepared his harp. Soon a traditional Peruvian lunch was served. First comes soup, second comes panchamanca. The soup was good but the main course was better. Panchamanca is a dish that’s been cooked in the ground using really hot rocks and wood. The translation from Quechua roughly signifies ‘earth pot’. A proper panchamanca dish comes with comote (sweet potato), papa (potato), humita (sweet bread tamale), haba (lima beans), choclo (corn), queso (cheese), ahí ( hot sauce), and some sort of animal protein. In this case we had “dos sabores”— pollo (chicken) and chancho (pig). You eat it with your hands and don’t stop until you are done. The bones and leftovers get tossed to the dogs and pigs.
After lunch, the real party started. Wine was served and some of my aunt’s children and siblings gave palabras (speeches). After each we cheered to the birthday girl and took a sip. After the heartwarming speeches, the guests presented their gifts. With hugs and kisses the gifts are given and received, only to be opened sometime after the party. Then it was time for photos. Each person or groups of persons all take turns taking a photo with the birthday girl. I went to take a photo with my aunt, and as always, jokes and laughter about how tall I am erupted. Once the presents and photos are out of the way, the dances begin. Beers were immediately opened and passed around. The musician armed his harped and played a traditional Peruvian tune. One by one, the party guests took turns dancing with my aunt. And yes, I got out there and danced. Once again, culture shock was telling me, “play it safe, don’t embarrass yourself, you don’t know how to dance.” However, I remember specially thinking in my head, “fuck it.” As my turn finished and I returned back to my seat, the applauses and smiles from my family helped me realize I definitely made the right decision.
From that point the party guests, including myself, continued to drink and dance. We switched off from live music and music from cellphones so the musician could take breaks. After all, he wanted to drink also. We sat, talked, danced and passed bottles of beer around and around in circles. I sat next to one of my cousins and my grandma. Each time she warned me only to serve myself a little or else I would get drunk. I remember thinking, “thanks grandma, but I got this.” I was invited to dance a couple times. Each time my footwork got smoother and smoother. In reality, the Peruvian style of dance is rather simple. But finding the beat was hard for me sometimes. One time, after the song had finished I thanked my aunt for the dance and tried to sit down. However, she didn’t let me. She said, “uno mas! tienes dos ojos no?” (one more, you have two eyes don’t you?).
After a couple of hours, my host-dad had called us another taxi and it was about time to go home. I made my rounds again, saying goodbye and thank you to all the people I had met. They each were so kind. My aunt made sure to invite me back for the next party. Our walk back to the car was much more adventurous than our journey to the party. At this point, it was getting dark and there was more water from the river on the road. We hopped, skipped and balanced our way through the puddles to where the car was parked—blocked by a pile of dirt that definitely was not there earlier in the afternoon. At one point, grandma just decided to bite the bullet and take her shoes off. Walking through the deeper puddles was easier than trying to shimmy off to the side. We loaded the car and bumped our way back to the highway. My buzz was definitely settling in at this point and I sat back to enjoy the short ride back to my community. Once we arrived home, I sat on the porch in front of the house and shared stories with my host-mom would didn’t attend the party. She was pleased that I went to meet the family and spend time. I was also. Looking back, trying to avoid the party was really quite silly. I was proud that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. And like most experiences in that uncomfortable realm, I learned a lot and was more empowered because of it. FELIZ CUMPLEANOS TIA.
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
I picked up this book (or I guess I should say ‘downloaded’) because it was recommended to me by fellow Peace Corps Trainee sometimes during site exploration. Robin and I were at the hostel conversing while we prepared homemade lentil soup. Our conversation quickly approached spiritual realms and I went to bed that night with new items on my reading list. Robin is quite some years older than me (and much wiser) and so it’s safe to say I took her recommendations rather seriously. Lucky for me her first recommendation worked out great! SPOILER ALERT: I am not enlightened after reading this book.
Why Buddhism is True, written by Robert Wright, is an interdisciplinary crash course of evolutionary psychology and Buddhism. Essentially what Wright tries to do in this book is expose the reasons, or truths, of Buddhism based on his personal meditation practice as well as psychological science. This combination, of secular science and religion, was extremely paradoxical and fascinating from the get go.
Wright starts his book talking about how natural selection has created humans to be inherently delusional. What he means by this is that natural selection, and its only job of spreading our genes into the next generation, prepares humans to behave in ways and react to behaviors that don’t necessarily make the most sense or make a person feel the best that they can feel. Natural selection has designed us to avoid things that might hurt or dissuade us and move closer to things that make us feel “better”. Because of this Wright argues that humans rarely see the world clearly, which leads them to suffer themselves, and to cause suffering to others. It’s with this illusionary process—of clinging attraction to things and aversion to other things—that Wright creates a bridge to Buddhism.
Without being able to ever completely do this book justice (or completely understand it for that matter), I’ll pick out some “truths” of Buddhism that Wright outlines and their connections to evolutionary psychology. Then maybe I’ll talk more depending on if I feel smart.
(1.) “Humans tend to anticipate more in the way of enduring satisfaction from the attainment of goals than will in fact transpire”. This illusion of perpetual aspiration is described in many Buddhist texts. Wright also argues that it is a product of natural selection because if we weren’t anticipating and we weren’t searching for satisfaction, we would never reproduce and create the next generation.
This concept also does well to explain why humans have so much conflict. Since we’re all inherently delusional and on selfish missions to make ourselves feel good and say “fuck it” to all the rest, it makes sense why we get in arguments and fist fights. Multiply that by millions of people, and well, you’ve got our current global situation (and every conflict in the past and those coming our way in the future).
(2.) The concept of ‘suffering’ that Wright talks about in his book comes from the word dukkha. Which could also be translated as “unsatisfactoriness”. We as humans are programmed by natural selection to search our environments for things that make things better. In other words, we are constantly “scanning the horizon for things to be unhappy about, uncomfortable with, unsatisfied with.”
The source of our dukkha is tanha which is translated as “thirst”, “craving” or “desire”. From a natural selection point of view, along with evolutionary psychology, tanha is what is instilled in animals so that they are never satisfied for too long. The lion, after all, only enjoys the hunt. The Buddhist concept of tanha then, is not only our desire to cling to pleasant things but also to escape from unpleasant things (such as the lion nipping at our heels).
(3.) Wright then goes on to explain how our constant struggle with dukkha and tanha need not enslave us. In fact, Wright argues, using both psychology and anecdotes from his personal life, that meditation can help lessen their grip upon our lives. And in the ultimate form, even help us reach nirvana. So how does a meditation practice help us do this? Well in general what it does is make us more aware of our feelings. During medication, the task is often to observe. To observe how we feel, where we feel it in our bodies and perhaps why we feel it in the first place. This introspective process however is not our normal game plan. Genetically we do very little observing and a lot of acting, sometimes following feelings down dangerous rabbit holes that ruin our days or even ruin our relationships with other people. Buddhism ascertains, along with Wright, that mediation can help us be more selective with which feelings we experience to fully engage with. Meditation does this precisely through allowing us to observe them first, and later, choosing to identity with some and not with others. In his book Wright shares many anecdotes where the accentuation of certain feelings—including wonder, compassion and a sense of beauty—present themselves in his life more often when a mediation practice is present. And if you don’t want to take his word for it, then take mine because I too have experienced this. And if you don’t want to take my opinion, well then, here’s some science…
Humans have what psychologists call “the default mode network.” This is essentially, according to brain scan studies, when our minds are active even when we are not doing anything specific—such as talking to people, reading or writing. “It’s the network along which our mind wanders when it’s wandering.” When this is happening our minds go many places; to past memories or some looming crisis in the near future. Where our minds don’t go is the present moment; the sounds of birds on our walk, the smell of pine trees and rain before a storm, or the spider camouflaging on a nearby flower. Meditation has been found to quiet and even slow down the speed and intensity of the default mode network. This obviously happens in the act of meditation but here’s the kicker, even after meditation or during the normal day of a person who frequently practices mediation, the default mode network is less noisy, less stirring. This then allows the brain to be more mindful, to be more observant of the beauty in the present moment and to be more in control of the feelings that serve well and let pass by the wayside the negative feelings that consume us.
(4.) “Our intuitive conception of the ‘self’ is misleading at best. We tend to uncritically embrace all kinds of thoughts and feelings as ‘ours’, as part of us, when in fact identification is optional. Recognising that identification is optional and learning, through meditation, how to make the identification less reflexive can reduce suffering.”
In other words, we have more autonomy over identifying with certain thoughts, emotions and facets of our ‘self’ than we originally thought; and mediation helps strengthen that autonomy. And yes…this is entirely paradoxical. How do we exercise autonomy and identification of ‘self’ if ‘self’ doesn’t actually exist? Well according to Buddhism, the concept of ‘not-self’ helps us reach this realm. To exercise discretion is to follow one of Buddha’s famous sermons on ‘not-self’. It’s at this point in Buddhist philosophy gets really heady. In fact, according to Buddha, the stuff our body is made up, its form, is not actually under our control. Buddha writes, “Form is not self”. We are not our bodies.
All headiness aside, Wright approaches this idea from a more digestible viewpoint. Taking all of Buddha’s ideas of ‘self’ and ‘not-self’ into consideration, Wright encourages his audience to “be open to the radical possibility that your self, at the deepest level, is not at all what you’ve always thought of it as being.” This much I can grasp. Step #1: To detach from ourselves and become not-ourselves (through meditation). Step #2: To observe ourselves from an external viewpoint (during mediation). Step #3: To pick, choose and identify with feelings, emotions and facets of ourselves that make us feel whole. Step #4: To let the negativity and ugly parts pass by. Step #5: To feel empowered in your new autonomous control of self by becoming not-self (after meditation). Easy right? I don’t think so. But be careful with all this and don’t think too hard. According to Ajahn Chah, a twentieth-century Thai monk, “to understand not-self, you have to meditate” and if you simply try to understand via “intellectualizing” alone, “your head will explode.”
(5.) To expand further upon the Buddhist concepts of ‘self’ and ‘not-self’, and ground them in modern day science, Wright throws in some really interesting psychological research. Wright explains that our brain does not function as one entity. The idea that there is a “doer of deeds” or “thinker of thoughts” is actually another illusion. Instead, it’s more accurate to think of the human brain as ‘modular.’ In other words, there are different modules of the brain (more complicated than just the two hemispheres) that do the thinking and make the decisions for us. “Thoughts think themselves”.
Natural selection has shaped the brain to operate in this way. There are modules focused on short term decisions and goals while others are more long-term focused. A rough taxonomy of the modules has been developed by evolutionary psychologists. Examples of modules are: self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation, kin care, social status and disease avoidance. These modules essentially compete with one another for our conscious recognition. In other words, when faced with a certain decision, the different modules of our brain compete for power, each trying to push their own agenda. It’s the interaction of these modules that shape our behaviors and how we react to certain situations.
(6.) In Buddhism there is doctrine about ‘essence’ and ‘emptiness’. On the road to enlightenment there is the goal of experiencing emptiness. In other words, essence of things is an illusion and must be mitigated– often times through mindfulness and mediation. Ideally what happens is that you stop attaching essence to things, therefore they are empty and therefore you see more clearly. A clearer vision of the world helps us avoid creating our own suffering and inflicting suffering on to other people. In this sense, Wright explains, “seeing the world more clearly can make you not just happier but more moral”.
The human capacity to attach social, cultural and perceptual essence to things makes sense from a natural selection point of view. It is by creating essence for objects and people that we decide what we are going to eat, who we are going to interact with, what situations we become involved with etc. On the flip side, it is also how we decide what things, people and situations to avoid. This process of essence attachment, according to an evolutionary psychological perspective, occurs so that we can continue to protect ourselves, thrive throughout our lives and create a new generation.
The Buddhist idea, accomplished through mediation, is to become aware that essence is a perceptual construct; that it has no real meaning outside of the socio-cultural context in which it is created, given and perceived. Becoming aware of the illusion of essence (beyond just an intellectual understanding of it) permits selective engagement with it. Much like becoming aware that thoughts think themselves, we can selectively engage with thoughts/emotions that serve us, and disengage with thoughts/emotions that negatively impact our lives.
This portion of Wright’s book made a lot of sense to me. It is, in other words, the sociological concept of social constructivism. In a way, it packs social constructivism with a deeper and evolutionary background—expanding the concept from just a cultural idea to a concept with history and purposeful, naturally selected importance. However, the idea of stripping essence from the things in my life seems a bit much. In certain contexts, I see why it would make sense. For instance, essentialist ideologies that attached bigoted essence to race, ethnicity, gender, nationalism etc. should completely be eliminated. This no doubt would help alleviate some suffering in the world. But the essence I prescribe to my loved ones, to my favorite places, activities, foods, drinks, etc.…well I’m not so sure I’m ready to stop acknowledging that. But since I’m not enlightened, I guess I don’t have to worry about it.
To wrap up, I’ll just leave you all with his awesome quote found at the end of Wright’s book:
“Mindfulness mediation involves increased attentiveness to the things that cause our behavior—attentiveness to how perceptions influence our internal states and how certain internal states lead to other internal states and to behaviors. This attentiveness includes an awareness of the critical role feelings seem to play in the chain of influence—a role shaped by natural selection, which seems to have calibrated feelings as part of its programming of our brains. Importantly, the meditative practices that bring awareness of these chains of influence also empower us to intervene and change the patterns of influence. To a large extent, that’s what Buddhist liberation is: a fairly literal escape from chains of influence that has previously bound us and, often, to which we had previously been blind.”