Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Nature of Reality -- 山光澄我心



        (Photo was taken in Uji, Kyodo, Japan, May 2019)

2020 is an eventful year, for the world, for America, also for myself. The lockdown life continues, and the light at the end of the tunnel remains dim. Since AFA, I have been staying at home for almost eleven months, taking care of a toddler and elderly parents, moving, handling all kinds of house chores, teaching, and struggling to find time for research and a little personal space. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I, like many others, were nervous, scared, and overreacting. Then we started to embrace the reality, modifying our life styles and taking the abnormality as the new normality. My family luckily moved into a house from a two-bedroom condo in the summer, and the increased physical space significantly helped alleviate the difficulties encountered during the lockdown, in particular it made it possible that I can teach online in an undisturbed room. However, I started to feel anxious and distressed for unknown reasons after a few months in lockdown. 

The anxiety is most likely the ramifications of cumulative pressure, the misbalance of life and work, the lack of face-to-face interactions with friends, and a long time being stranded at home. The extension of external space helps but its role is limited. Fundamentally, the solution can only be sought after internally. 

                   (raking in Japanese rock garden)

Being aware of my anxiety, I started a series of dialogues with my self, asking questions and hoping to find the answers of some if not all: What do I feel at the moment? What am I eager to do? What makes me stressed and what brings me joy? One thing I endeavor to is to make spaces that restore the humanity, particularly in the confined space of lockdown life. To regain stillness in one's kokoro (literally "spirit, heat, and mind"), to calmly return to oneself, only nature can offer the space to feel such grace. I thus embarked on a project to design and build a garden for my new home. 

        (Stone basin, an element in Japanese garden)

The objective is to create space, both physical and mental, for meditation and contemplation within the chaos of daily pandemic life. For me, the garden is a special spiritual place where the mind dwells. -- a place to leave behind the information-laden contemporary world and to spend time with my own thoughts, searching for truth and serenity.  

Every morning, I start my day by sweeping the garden and raking the gravel. Such a physical work is part of mindful practice, named samu in the Zen Buddhism. The meditative act of samu, despite involving physical activity, is not so different from the seated form of meditation known as zazen. For both forms of meditation, the goal is to free the mind of worldly cares and celebrate a life directed toward the concrete thing--activities of everyday life.

    (The expected garden in the summer; currently there are no flowers or flowering trees)

Still, anxiety and distress comes and goes. Soon to enter the midlife, I indeed expect distresses together with challenges and difficulties will happen more often in the near future. My parents are getting old, and my mother suffered a severe sciatica in the past a few weeks. In addition to my many roles, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a teacher, and a researcher, I began to take another role as a doctor to help my mother to recover, with my knowledge and years of studies in a traditional Chinese medicine therapy, moxibustion (艾灸). 

Helping others is my second therapy to deal with anxiety, in addition to getting close to nature. Shifting attention from my own world to others, especially those in need, my life suddenly is full of meaning. There is something in the world that I can do for others, -- even to have this idea in mind makes me so motivated. 

Before the pandemic, I have packed my schedule so intensely that I have little time to think about others --- except my essential duty as a mother, I devote most time in self improvement, advancing the career and learning new knowledge and skills. Due to the pandemic, I have lived with my parents for more than 18 months, the first time to live together for such a long time since I was 18 years old, leaving home for college. Thanks to the COVID-incurred family reunion, I get the chance to enter the everyday life of my parents, taking them to see doctors and to do dental treatment, trying to enrich their lives in lockdown, finding for my father suitable English classes to take, ordering him the painting kit, preparing their tax forms, and so on. On the surface, it seems like I am helping them; but indeed this process helps me restore my humanity and become a better human being. 

On her birthday over the Thanksgiving weekend, I cooked a duck soup and presented the soup in blue-and-white porcelain and the white rice in the Japanese red lacquer bowl. She said, "It is so delicious. I haven't eaten such a good meal for a long time." Her smiles and words made me happy. 

Pandemic life continues...The foreseeable future will have more challenges. But the next time I feel distressed again, I probably will know how to get out of the darkness: getting closer to nature, and making time and effort for others. This is what the pandemic experience has taught me. 

I named my new house Jo-An, 如庵. Though an identical name as the famous Japanese teahouse, its true meaning for me is more in line with the Pali word, yatha-bhuta, literally, seeing reality "as it is".

(The name of the house, extracted from Chinese calligraphy)

Like what the Diamond Sutra has said, "All things contrived are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble and a shadow, and as dew and lightning. Thus they should be regarded as such." Success or failure, glory or obscurity, happiness or sadness, all is impermanent. Impermanent are all compounded things. When one perceives this with true insight, then one becomes detached from suffering; this is the path of purification. 

 一切有為法.如夢幻泡影.如露亦如電.應作如是觀. ── 金剛經

                                (My angel, Grace)                                                                                                                                                               
Photographed by Jennie Bai.
                       Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.


Sunday, December 29, 2019

The First Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"

I am going to Israel for the TAU conference! When thinking of Israel, what comes to your mind? Religious history, rich culture, historical locations? As a person loving history, I have watched many YouTube videos about Jerusalem and several documentaries about Israel before the journey, such as Dancing in Jaffa, the Gatekeepers, etc. I am earnestly looking forward to the trip.

Scenes from the viewpoint near Hebrew University of Jerusalem

At the airport, I started to feel the ambiance of Israel. It was probably the most rigorous security check I have experienced all these years---indeed, this is one of those on the journey that I will encounter as the first time in many years. The boarding gate was separated from other gates and everyone, even those in premium member status, had to wait in one line and went through manual examination, one more time after the normal security check. Except that, the plane to Tel Aviv seems to have more men carrying a hat box, which Google says it is called "Tefillin". The plane also had many children and of course, many families in a large size.

We happily landed at Tel Aviv, the jewel of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tel Aviv, view from the Jaffa port

Whichever city I visit for the first time, I'd like to follow some conventions to get to know the place best. 

Rule 1: take public transportation alone to the lodging; no taxi, no Uber/Lyft. 

The test was easily passed. I collected a city map from the information desk at the airport, purchased a local transportation card called Rav-Cav, took the train from the airport to the nearest station in the city, then transferred a local bus and arrived at my lodging in one hour. Except difficulties in reading Hebrew, the trip was smooth. Israel is an English-friendly country, which makes the communication much easier, though most time a map is sufficient for me. 

In the afternoon of my first day, I already can move freely with any bus in Tel Aviv. I took different buses to and from Jaffa harbor and enjoyed a beautiful afternoon in the Ilana Goor Museum

View from the Sculpture Garden in the Ilana Goor Museum

Rule 2: rent an airbnb apartment and talk to local people.
 I enjoy talking to local residents. They often share with me their favorite restaurants which only locals frequent. In this trip, I tasted the best hummus in my life. Even writing this sentence, I can recall the luscious taste when having in mouth the warm hummus covered by juicy eggplant. In the culture of Israel, food is love.

Hummus at Etsel Mikha

Rule 3: shop in local grocery stores and cook breakfast with local yogurt, fruit, and veggie
My favorite drink in Mediterranean area is pomegranate juice, freshly squeezed. In Tel Aviv, there are many fruit stalls, some even running 24 hours. Getting a cup of pomegranate juice is always the highlight of my day. Just a sip can feel like an instant immune booster injected straight into your veins, which isn’t that far from the truth.

Rule 4: visit a local yoga studio
I squeezed in one yoga class on Tuesday morning before the start of the conference. Chandra yoga studio is located in a quiet residential area and I didn't expect that I would learn something new: Vijnana yoga, which extends Iyengar Yoga while emphasizes practicing, feeling, and understanding from inside. Quite a satisfactory experience, such unexpected moments are the beauty of travelling.

The first surprise

Some unexpected moments are beautiful, some are not.

Twenty-four hours after landing, I lost my wallet, the first surprise in this journey. For no reason the wallet slipped from my hand after paying lunch, without a notice. Hm...when was the last time I lost my wallet? Almost 15 years ago! Such odds -- probably I should buy lottery. Instead of buying lottery, I made a journal submission that night. Let's see what will happen. :)

Coming up with the surprise is my first lesson learned on this trip:
On the road, always having a backup credit card and cash in a place other than the wallet, for example, the luggage. 

Fortunately, I still had my passport. Even more, I had about 170 Israel Shekel exchanged earlier at the airport. Though it was less than 50 dollars, it turned out sufficient for the remaining three days. Thanks to the generosity of the conference organizer for providing free lunches and dinners. Thank you, Francesco, for paying me the dinner. Thank you, Yaron, Zack, Yuliy, for offering to lending me money. With a zero cost of capital they offer me, maybe I should borrow some? Remember Finance 101, there is no free lunch! :)

Still, thank you, my friends! It is such a great pleasure to get to know all of you in Israel!

Photographed by Jennie Bai.
Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.

More stories:
--The Second Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"
--The Third Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"