Two for the Road

Just when I thought it would take another lifetime to get published again, God, in His infinite mercy, smiled at me by way of my two chance encounters with 2 PhDs last December 2017.

This article was inspired by my attendance in the “Calm in Chaos” seminar at the Ateneo Bulatao Centre.  I’ve been raring to know more about mindfulness and the 4-weekend learning sessions led by Dra. Gilda Dans-Lopez did not disappoint.  The seminar made so much impact in me, its follow-thru practically found its way in my bucket list.  More importantly, it moved me to set an appointment with Dra. Dans-Lopez one Friday afternoon to inquire about possibilities to grow further in my understanding and appreciation for mindfulness.

This is what came out of that providential chat.

Many thanks, Dra. Gilda!

http://opinion.inquirer.net/109946/calm-in-chaos

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Finding Hector

“Happiness is where you are and what you want to be. If you look you’re sure to find the rainbow of your dreams.” So goes the song I learned by rote in grade school. I do not recall being taught what the song was about as it was quite straightforward. Happiness is not just something you experience after you achieve something. Happiness is in the here and now and is at the same time, in what you can become.  Along the way, however, we get distracted by the daily grind to a point where we fail to realize that what we have been looking for is already staring us in the face.

Such was the case of  Hector, the young psychiatrist in the best-selling book Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord.  While he has established a successful practice as evidenced by the number of patients who came to see him, Hector “felt dissatisfied because he could see perfectly well that he couldn’t make people happy.” This dissatisfaction continued to snowball until even his patients noticed it themselves prompting one of them to suggest that he find time to travel.  And so it was that Hector, after getting the go ahead from his girlfriend Clara,  set off on a journey around the world to “try to understand what made people happy or unhappy. That way, he told himself, if there was a secret to happiness, he’d be sure to find it.” Hector’s journey takes him to China, France, Africa and the United States.  Along the way, through the people he meets and reconnects with, he discovers not just 1 but 23 realizations about what happiness is.  And these realizations which Hector refers to as lessons did not only translate to his getting better at helping his patients to be happier. More importantly, “since his trip, he loved his job even more, and he loved Clara more, too.”  I invite the reader to dive into the book to discover the context of these 23 lessons.

Having said that, I must say that among the 23 discoveries made by Hector, the lesson that resonated the most with me was lesson no. 20. To wit: “Happiness is a certain way of looking at things.”  Hector chanced upon this discovery as he reflected that “among my patients are people with no money or health problems, who have close-knit families, interesting and useful jobs, but who are quite unhappy: they are fearful about the future, dissatisfied with themselves, they see only the bad side of their situation. There was one determinant of happiness missing from your list just now: people’s way of looking at things. In short, people whose glass is always half full are clearly happier than those whose glass is always half-empty.”  

After attending a mindfulness seminar at the Ateneo Bulatao Center recently, I couldn’t agree more with Hector’s insight. In the seminar, we were taught to be curious about the “storyboard” that emerges every time we experience something. This “storyboard” is comprised by our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, urges and interesting, our thoughts about our thoughts. In the process, we realized that by catching our kneejerk reactions to what happens to us, we can discover alternative optimal responses to our reality. We can choose a certain way of looking at things.  And when we do, 5 other lessons uncovered by  Hector are not that hard to come by. To wit:  lessons  8 (“Happiness is being with the people you love”), 13 (“Happiness is feeling useful to others”),  15 (“Happiness comes when you feel truly alive”), 16 (“Happiness is knowing when to celebrate”) and 17 (“Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love.”)

It is serendipitous that I was reading this book as I was traveling for the first time to the United States. After visiting Chicago, Boston and New York for the first time, I now have a better appreciation and even greater respect for people who deliberately plan to travel.  Indeed, traveling has a way of helping us become better human beings. How you see things now need not be the only definitive way to see things later.   As Mark Twain would put it: “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”   

This is for my wife Elaine, my travel buddy.

Techne!

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I remember the first time I learned about the explanatory power of this quotation as I read Man’s Search for  Meaning, the classic book on logotherapy penned by Viktor Frankl. It was so life-changing  I couldn’t contain my excitement about stumbling onto it. In the New York Times best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey writes about a nurse who finally liberated herself from the negativity associated with her experience of caring for a patient who gave her a hard time, day in and  day out. Ultimately, she realized that the cause of all her misery was not just the way her patient related to her. More importantly, it was how she responded to her patient’s  unkindness and lack of consideration. She could choose to be negatively affected by it or she could choose to use the experience to become a better person.  Hence, the premium that Covey assigns on the most primary habit of a highly effective person: be proactive.  Choose to carry your own weather instead of being under the power of the weather.

That Frankl arrived at this paradigm-shifting insight after going through so much suffering as a Holocaust survivor in Auschwitz made it even more powerful.  More to the point, he arrived at this insight as he was being tortured by his Nazi captors: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Fairly recently, I realized why despite the wisdom that is intrinsic in Frankl’s insight, it has been a struggle for many, including myself, to consistently imbibe and live out the power of choosing one’s response.  Human beings are creatures of habit or automatic responses. Throw in the culture of distraction brought about by the rise of the social media and the complexities of living in the 21st century and you realize how truly difficult it could be to master the art of being proactive instead of being reactive.  A terrorist incident takes place thousands of miles away and we are naturally negatively affected by it despite the distance.  A loved one passes away all of a sudden and we are subsequently devastated.  The predictability of tenure is rocked by the onset of digitization and digitalization and we are endlessly anxious and worried.  An inconsiderate driver cuts into our lane and we find ourselves cursing aloud.  Friends appear to have forgotten your birthday and you are offended and hurt you couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Negative stimulus seems to inevitably give rise to negative response period.

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This is precisely where mindfulness could prove to be of great value.  Jon Kabat-Zinn is the leading authority on how the practice of mindfulness can truly live out Frankl’s insight. Over the years, Kabat-Zinn has developed tried and tested techniques for  practicing mindfulness.  Mindfulness zeroes in on   focus and clarity.  Focus is achieved by learning the art of meditation. At the heart of meditation is focusing on our breath.  Clarity comes to us when we are able to catch ourselves reacting to a negative stimulus before it takes us down a negative spiral.  The second one presupposes the first. If one is too immersed in one’s experience, the capacity for focus and ultimately,  insight is adversely  affected. One moves from one activity to the next without being able to rise above the series of stimuli that one experiences –  from mindlessly doing your morning ritual to mindlessly working on your inbox  day after day. The rock singer Dave Matthews wrote the song “Ants Marching” to call attention to how modern day man mindlessly lives his life by following the lead of everyone else just like ants marching in cadence.   The solution is to master the art of pausing and going back to basics. And what could be more basic than the art of breathing. Easier said than done of course. This is why those who are new to this practice are taught to try out the experience for five minutes a day.  I have been doing so for two weeks now and I could truly say that the experience has heightened my self-awareness. I am now more present in the moment.  I also realize I can easily  catch myself being caught up in a negative spiral much faster.

Alas, there are certain days when the pressures and the distractions around me could tend to be overwhelming. Thankfully, mindfulness also teaches what I would call  the 573 technique.  That is to say, when a negative stimulus is staring you in the face you can almost taste the negativity, breathe in deeply for 5 seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds. Do this thrice and you would be surprised with how you can easily recover instantaneously to “hijack,” as it were, the negative stimulus before it does extensive damage to you and those around you.

But wait there’s more.

Once you are able to master the art of the pause, mindfulness also teaches a technique for putting to question your natural and automatic response to a negative stimulus. This is called parsing or the experience of breaking down how our thoughts impact our actions.  If a good friend, for example, passes you by without bothering to acknowledge you. Consider how you would naturally react.  The thought that could come to you  could range from: “my good friend appears to ignore me” to “I  wonder why my friend ignored me” to “he ignored me on purpose” to “he probably pretended  not to have seen me.” Any of these four thoughts could  naturally make you  feel bad. This could then lead to a feeling of heaviness perhaps on your shoulders and possibly, your neck. From there, it could affect the next action you would take which could range from either moving on or running after your friend.  When one does parsing, you get to step back from the stimulus to examine which among the range of responses available to you  would prove to be most productive and which ones you would be better off ignoring.

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Socrates used the word techne to refer to the practical application of knowledge.  That is to say, it is one thing to know something, it is entirely another thing altogether to act on that knowledge. Applying it to the concept of being proactive,  it is one thing to know the concept of the space between stimulus and response. It is an entirely different thing to master that space through coming home to the breath, practicing deep breaths and parsing one’s experience.  Through mindfulness, it is, in fact, possible to achieve calmness even in chaos.  More to the point, through mindfulness,  calmness is best achieved in chaos.

 

To Thrive Rather Than To Survive

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Photo courtesy of MediSwim Total Immersion

In his bestselling memoir entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami relates how it took him years to find a coach who enabled him to level up his swimming technique. While all of the coaches he worked with  were competent, he realized, to his dismay,  that not all were effective at helping those who came to them for help. As my teacher in pedagogical approaches would put it:  it is one thing to master something, it is another thing to be able to transfer that mastery to your students.

It was, in fact, Murakami’s insight that drove me to keep trying out various swim  instruction approaches for adult onset swimmers like me.  I am admittedly a special case as  I have never really taken any swim instruction all my life. I only became interested in the sport when I started to train for my first triathlon.  More to the point, it has taken me more than  8 sessions to figure out how to swim. That is the average number of swim lessons  for an average student to  achieve a certain level of breakthrough in swimming according to a local veteran triathlon coach.

Then again, he could be wrong. In the highly instructive Your First Triathlon, Joe Friel notes how it usually takes months if not years to really perfect one’s swim technique.  To punctuate his point, Friel cited the example of a  very efficient swimmer in the pool  who took a while to take his efficiency from the pool to the open water. The late Terry Laughlin who invented Total Immersion essentially reinforces Friel’s insight. More specifically, he wrote that of the three disciplines in triathlon, it is swimming that is most unnatural and therefore, the most challenging. Human beings being land-based mammals are naturally  designed to walk, run and even cycle. They are not naturally meant to swim.  Hence, his insight  that  a triathlete worth his salt should all the more focus on achieving efficiency in the swim leg to be able to save one’s legs (i.e., pun intended) for the cycling and the running legs of the triathlon.

The preceding might as well ground my seemingly endless search for the ultimate swim instruction. To date it has taken me 4 coaches to finally get to a point where I could truly say I will not just be able to survive the swim leg of my triathlon race. I just might  eventually enjoy and thrive in the process.  I am not exactly there yet but I could sense I’m about to enter the territory in the next couple of months.

To be fair, I did learn something instructive from my first 3 coaches. But  it was my learning experience facilitated by  my 4th coach that has proven to be the most game changing by far. That Coach JC Macdonald was personally trained and certified  by no less than  the Total Immersion Master Terry Laughlin may help explain this.

To celebrate the small wins I’ve been experiencing for the past two months, I am journalizing  10 realizations that have proved helpful to helping me gain the confidence and competence to achieve a series of baby steps that build on each other.

Breathing is everything.

Unlike most swim lessons, breathing is not something that my TI coach added towards the end of the swim lessons. Quite the opposite: breathing was the first thing he made me unlearn to be able to learn the TI approach to efficient swimming. He was very empathic about this. First, one must learn to breathe from the diaphragm rather than from the chest. Breathing from the core  relaxes the rest of your body. Breathing from the chest promotes tension and panic.

Just as important, I had to learn how to exhale gently and continuously thru my nose and exhale through  my mouth. Interestingly, I  was, at the same time,  instructed to do both while keeping my mouth open to relax my jaws. This was not something purposively taught to me in my previous swim lessons. In fact, my previous coaches suggested that I apply either the 50/50 exhalation or the 70/30  through either my nose or my mouth or a combination of the two that would work for me.

To my surprise, I have considerably lessened the gasping for air that I used to experience after each lap.  Consequently, my rest stops between laps have dramatically gone down  from 1.5 to 2 minutes to 10 to 20 seconds.

Relaxation can be learned.   

One of the recurrent feedback  I got from my first 3 coaches was the need for me to relax. “Relax, Von, relax,” I would often get reminded. “You’re so tense,” they would often point out to me.  That I am.   I was never comfortable in the water. Water and drowning used to be  synonymous to me.  That is why I have never taken any swim lessons until the age of 47. Thanks to TI, I learned that relaxation can be learned. Breathing correctly is foundational in this regard. Hand in hand with correct breathing, one must deliberately hang one’s neck and arms and loosen one’s shoulders. These are apparently the most critical body parts which could promote or hinder  relaxation. Loosen them up and the rest of one’s body follows.  Tense them and you set up yourself for failure. Thus, before starting each practice session, I now make sure I complete a series of superman glides that mimic a rag doll in the water as Terry Laughlin would describe it.

Balance is king. 

Doing the superman glide like a rag doll in a public  lapping pool   actually looks silly. One needs to keep pushing off several times in the course of completing one lap as you will eventually run out of oxygen and sink.  It is hardly the kind of pre-workout drill you would find most swimmers do before their practice set.  Thankfully, I have learned to ignore the curious and amusing stares I get when I do the superman glide this way.  The reward it provides me in terms of how it relaxes both my breathing and my movement far outweighs the curious and amusing stares. Eventually, I realized it’s also a great drill to improve one’s balance in the water. This is on the condition that you remember to keep your ankles and heels together as you do flutter kicks to cover more distance.

Goodbye swim toys. 

I used to start all my drill sessions with the use of the center snorkel, the pull buoy and at times, the flippers and the paddles.  Not anymore. While my TI coach appreciates the value of these toys for strengthening and improving one’s technique, he sees zero value in them for an adult onset swimmer who is still trying to learn the basics of the free style. What they do, he says, is mask a defect in one’s technique instead of addressing the same.  In their place, he’d rather help his student work on each aspect of the free style slowly albeit progressively.   First learn the basics then move to the swim toys was how he made me regard the place of swim toys in one’s swim training.

Slope your spear. 

Yet another new thing I only learned recently was the value of ensuring that as one spears into the water before pulling, one’s wrist should be aligned to one’s elbow and shoulders like a downward slope. Doing so complements the corresponding clicking of one’s heels to produce a taller posture that aligns with the surface of the water.  To be able to picture this under water, the slope being referred to in the TI context is where your nose aligns with your shoulder as it forms a downward slope with your elbow and wrist. It is noteworthy though that the distance from the surface could vary from person to person. Hence, there is value in experimenting until one finds the perfect fit so to speak. Previous to this,  what I was taught to do was to reach forward to extend one’s body and cover more distance.

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Trim your stroke count. 

Less is more.  This is the TI approach to the recommended stroke counts to complete one lap.   From a high of 40 plus strokes for a 25m lap, my coach was able to trim down my strokes to 25. He did this through the tempo timer which I eventually invested in. What it does is it forces you to improve your balance in the water. Not exactly an enjoyable learning experience as I did the free style around four timings:  1.7, 1.65, 1.60 and 1.55 for several sessions. The objective was to only spear when you hear the beep. This meant that as you awaited the go signal to spear, you needed to rotate your body for your inhalation followed by gentle exhalation.  The 1.70 to 1.65 timings were hell pure and simple.  I was literally bobbing up and down the water as I sought to complete my inhalation.  But persist I did. Lo and behold, the stroke count exercise not only helped improve my balance, it also addressed my tendency to pull my lead arm prematurely as I rotated to breathe.

Swing from your lap. 

Next to my breathing, what I do with my arm after I pull has always been a challenge.  My other coach used to point out to me that I tend to bring it all the way back.  Subsequently, I tend to swing  my pulling arm  from the back as I maneuvered to spear. Not very efficient.  To address this,  my TI coach taught me to bring my pulling arm to my lap and then swing my arm sideward before spearing downward.  Problem solved albeit since it meant  unlearning something I have gotten used to, it was by no means easy. It continues to be a struggle but that is why I continue to work on it. Recently, I discovered that bringing my pulling arm to my lap is a perfect springboard to rotate and inhale.  What a welcome bonus.

Learn from the past.  

One other thing that amazes me about the TI approach is its extensive use of video analysis. Every single swim lesson is preambled and capped by a video analysis of how I performed a particular drill or technique.  To be sure, feedback that is based on recorded data is up there in terms of pedagogical power. You can’t argue with the facts as they say. By reviewing these recordings, you get to realize that perception is not necessarily reality. Just as I thought I was doing a particular exercise right, the video analysis would  make me realize what I got right and what I need to work on prior to the next lesson. Very instructive and very humbling at the same time.  To the credit of  my coach there is always something to affirm and something to correct with each completed video analysis.

Take it a step at a time.   

I love the James Taylor song entitled “Line ‘Em Up.” In the song, Taylor talks about how  to solve so many difficult albeit mundane problems like Nixon’s wish to say goodbye to every single member of his White House staff or a pastor’s dilemma on how to  bless hundreds of couples in a mass wedding. The solution: line them up.  This is the signature characteristic of the TI approach. On any given learning day, both the lesson and the homework consisted of only 1 focal point. This flows from the pedagogical philosophy of Total Immersion that the human mind, for all its remarkable capabilities, can only truly focus on one thing at a time. So if it’s the superman glide with breathing for today, that will be the focal point for the next 5 days until the next learning session.

It’s all about mindfulness.

Finally, the TI approach is not just  about memorizing techniques mechanically. Much of what would make it work for you has to do with really being there and learning in the moment.   Time and again, my TI coach would remind me to be mindful of how I execute every learning focal point.   Meaning, each TI swim session is not just a matter of executing x number of laps within the shortest possible time.  Learning how to swim the TI  way is about being truly in the moment and giving 100% of your focus to what you are doing.  Doing so effectively converts one’s swim laps into a meditative activity where you learn more and more about how you learn with each lap that you complete.   When this happens one’s swimming progressively and inevitably becomes as rhythmic and melodic as one’s pedaling and one’s running.

For all that, I am humble enough to acknowledge that I am not there yet in terms of  swimming tall and solving my breathing challenge completely. Nonetheless,  I’ve been amazed by so many things I never thought I would eventually  be able to pull off – from improving my  balance to lessening my kicking, from making my breathing less tense to  partially solving my rotation problem. I really have a feeling I will be able to do open water swimming soon just as I know I will finally be able to enjoy the swim leg of my next triathlon instead of being stuck with the aspiration to simply survive it.  Until then, the ultimate goal which is finally within striking distance is  nothing less than the late Terry Laughlin’s hitherto fitting epitaph: “may your laps be as happy as mine.”   

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Photo courtesy of MediSwim Total Immersion

 

This Way to Happiness

The comedian Jim Carrey once asserted that “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Chief Business Officer of Google X Mo Gawdat knows whereof  Carrey speaks. For years, Gawdat struggled with his own personal happiness despite his over the top material success. To give you a picture of how materially successful he is, Gawdat could easily pull off  the following as far back as 2001, “One evening I went online and with two clicks bought two vintage Rolls Royces. Why? Because I  could. And because I was desperately trying to fill the hole in my soul. You won’t be surprised that when those beautiful classics of English automotive styling arrived at the curb, they didn’t lift my mood one bit.” (p. 3) Alas, this realization apparently extended to the rest of his life as he reflected that “In my constant quest for more I’d become pushy and unpleasant even at home, and I knew it. I spent too little time appreciating the remarkable woman I’d married, too little time with my wonderful son and daughter, and never paused to enjoy each day as it unfolded.” (p. 3) When it came to a point where he could no longer bear this state of mind, Gawdat resolved to apply his engineering expertise to resolve his personal crisis. Thankfully, after a decade he was able to develop an equation for happiness and how to sustain it in one’s life. But it took the death of his beloved son Ali in 2014 for him to share his equation with the rest of the world by way of  his book Solve for Happy.

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True to his engineering background, Gawdat formulated the following equation for happiness:

“Happiness = your perception of the events in your life – your expectations of how life should behave.”

In other words, it is not the events that happen in our life that make us happy but rather how we think of these events.  To prove his point, Gawdat challenges his reader to think of an unhappy event in his/her life.  As you think of the unhappy event, purposely replace it with another thought.  Once you do, the painful insult loses its power. The rude remark no longer hurts. As he would put it “once the thought goes, the suffering disappears.” (p. 27)

Gawdat further argues that happiness is our default state. He cites the case of children anywhere in the globe. “They may live in a hovel, but as long as they have food and a modicum of safety, you’ll see them run around hooting with joy” (p 18.) It applies to us as well. We are happiest when nothing annoys us, when nothing worries us, when nothing upsets us. How then does one get to that point? His answer: one can only be happy if he/she chooses and decides to be happy.

Easier said than done, of course. One could easily argue that Gawdat has obviously not heard of how terrible our situation is in Manila which was recently ranked as the 10th most stressful city in the world –  where a 4km commute takes 2 hours to complete, where drug suspects are executed before their families, where  corruption co-exists with government. Gawdat’s incisive differentiation between pain and suffering is instructive here.

Pain is something short-lived and serves a crucial, practical purpose. Since the traffic is long, one inevitably adapts by getting up early.  Injustice compels people to take to the streets so that it  will one day come to an end.  Corruption inevitably provokes media expose’ thus leading to its eventual end.  “As much as we hate it, pain and the discomforts of life are useful.” (p. 30.) Suffering though, points out, Gawdat is something else. “When we let it, emotional pain, even the most trivial kind, has the capacity to linger or resurface again and again, while our imaginations endlessly replay the reason for the pain.” (p. 31.) The way out is the way in: we can choose to let the suffering persist or we can choose to stop it. Thus, he writes: “Happiness starts with a conscious choice” (p. 33) He offers his personal tragedy to prove his point. He could choose to condemn his life to despair  or he could choose to grieve but honor his son’s memory by how he lives the rest of his life. Neither option would bring his son to life but only one will bring him back to our default state. He chose b.

In 347 pages, Gawdat introduces us to the path that would help us make such a choice as our way of life: 6-7-5.  6 is for the 6 grand illusions that confuse us and distract us from happiness. 7 stands for the 7  blind spots which if fixed, will lead us to happiness. Most importantly, 5 refers to the 5 ultimate truths which guarantee a lifetime of happiness. If we follow his thought process through these 3 numbers, we would be able to make sense of his son’s enduring message: “The gravity of the battle means nothing to those at peace.”  Like the character of Neo in The Matrix, like the father in Life is Beautiful, like the character of Walter Mitty, we can indeed come to a point where nothing can trouble nor disturb us.

This book has so much explanatory power that it invites a second and even a third reading.  Among its many incisive insights what resonates the most to me is his chapter on control.  Control, reflects Gawdat is an illusion. Ultimately, there are only two things that are within our control, how we look at things and what we do with what is before us. I particularly liked how he contrasted the attitude of Tim and Tom who both woke up late for a scheduled appointment but ended their day differently, Tim in prison and Tom in date.  “We’re each handed a set of cards – some good, some not so good. Keep focused on the bad ones, and you’ll be stuck blaming the game. Use the good ones, and things become better; your hand changes and you move forward.” (p. 156)

Gawdat’s inspiring reflections offer a logical grounding to what has hitherto been my faith-based response to despair and hopelessness.  There is St. Therese’s wise counsel: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things; Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.” Fairly recently, there is St. Pio’s more contemporary advice: “Pray, hope and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”  Both of these, of course, flow from the assurance shared by the carpenter’s son from Nazareth 2,000 years ago: “…do not worry about your life, what you will ear or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap or gather into barns and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his lifespan?” 

After reading Gawdat, I now appreciate better why Jesus warned that unless we become like little children, we will never enter the Kingdom of God. For only those who choose and decide to be happy can truly forgive others and entrust themselves to God.   His son Ali would have approved.

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Tri Again

“Love is lovelier the second time around. Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.”

-Frank Sinatra

Last Aug 13, 2017, the Chairman of the Board might just as well have sang, “Tri is lovelier the second time around. Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.” That was the date I participated in my sophomore sprint triathlon. Admittedly, I am still very much a beginner in this endurance sport.  Nonetheless, the event facilitated by Trisports Solutions at The Riviera, Silang, Cavite made me appreciate the sport further.   Here are some wins worth celebrating in the context of the preceding.

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Mindset

Triathlon is both a mental and a physical endeavor.  Unlike my first triathlon race, I was more conscious about what my mind was focusing on as I waited for my assigned wave to dive into the pool.   In place of my past tendency of comparing my swim skill set with those who were clearly more comfortable at swimming, I concentrated on centering myself by repeating power phrases culled from the Bible.  To wit:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13.) Instead of being threatened by the skill level of the more skillful swimmers, I spent more time thinking of  how I would execute my strategy to complete my 750m swim within the target timing I targeted during training.

Pool time

Despite the butterflies in my stomach as our wave started, I realized that Malcolm Gladwell’s  The Rule of 10,000 continues to hold true. More pool time does translate to better endurance and improved technique.  Despite the fact that the swim leg here was more challenging compared to my first sprint triathlon largely due to the cramped lanes, I realized as I pushed off that I was much more comfortable swimming.  My head turning during the inhalation segment of the crawl has somehow improved although I’m still far from the one goggle in, one goggle out ideal.  Ditto with my spear switch and my hip rotation.

Joy

Joy is the perfect word to describe my mood as I completed my 750m swim. Yes! I survived my swim leg. Things can only look better from hereon.   Of the 3 events that comprise triathlon, it is the swim leg that continues to challenge me to deck more pool time even as I leverage the feedback provided by my two swim coaches.  What made this doubly daunting last August 13  was the fact that while I have yet to approach the ideal streamline position advocated by TI founder Terry Laughlin, swimming with other triathletes in cramped lanes was quite a trying experience. Some athletes  inadvertently got in my way. Still others unintentionally distracted  my  inhalation with either their arms or their legs while others hogged  the lanes ahead of me forcing me to stop.  There goes my target time.

Fly

The bike leg, like my first sprint tri,  continues to be the most fun-filled. Thanks to the fact that the TurboSprint largely uses a flat course with lots of quasi-downhills. The fact that I have gotten comfortable gear shifting made the experience even more rewarding.  The only miss that plagued my bike leg was my forgetting and foregoing hydration throughout the 20km race course.  I think I could have flown faster had I taken care of this during the planning stage.

Galloway

God bless, Jaymie Pizarro and her Bull Runner Dream Marathon co-founders for teaching me the Galloway technique. Also known as the run-walk technique, the Galloway method came in handy to me as I struggled to speed up coming from a bike leg where I committed the error of foregoing a single sip of hydration. What was I thinking? Thankfully, the Galloway method made it possible for me  to speed up for 2 minutes and catch my breath for a minute.

Complementing the preceding wins are opportunities to further improve myself as I gear up for my third sprint triathlon in the coming months.

Practice makes perfect

This sophomore attempt, while successful to the extent that I met the cut-off requirements, further bolstered my earlier insight. Practice does make perfect.  Hence, the need for me to keep up my regular swim classes as well as my own supplemental training on weekends.   The ultimate goal is to be able to master the free style to a point where I no longer rest to bubbles  5x and catch my breath every 25m.   The key is to master the head turn along with the hip rotation while maintaining the streamline position.

Master your transition

Swim workouts between 750m to 1,600m? Check. Bike rides that range from 30km to 60km on weekends? Check. Runs covering 5km to 10km? Check. T1 and T2 dry runs? Mayday, mayday!

Now I know better. It’s one thing to have a checklist. It’s an entirely different thing to actually execute the transition from swim to bike and from bike to run within the shortest possible window.  What worsened it was the fact that I bought a bib belt the day before the race without bothering to practice using it prior to the race.  Lesson learned!

Prepare your basket

Just as I thought I’ve covered everything by placing my T1 and T2 stuff in one basket, I realized to my dismay during T1 that I actually forgot my hydration bottle.  Thankfully, I had the foresight of bringing a bottle of Gatorade which I placed on my bike’s hydration bottle rack.  I completely forgot what the organizer warned us about prior to the race.  There were lots of humps along the bike course.   As I approached one of these humps, my Gatorade bottle flew into the air. For fear of ruining my pace and causing an accident, I continued racing and risked dehydration.

Gear shifting is not everything

The humps along the race course taught me that while gear shifting in anticipation of the terrain you are riding on is critical, it is not everything.  Being a newbie, I hang on to every word that came from the race organizer. To wit:  since there are lots of humps along the race course, it is best to slow down when approaching them. But then, there were a number of clearly more experienced riders who actually did not let the humps slow them down. On the contrary, the humps even became spring boards as it were  for them to speed off.  Not wanting to get left behind, I tried to imitate them.  I am not certain though if I may have unnecessarily damaged my bike or worse, my back.

Tri again

“Did you have fun?” My coach asked me after I filed my post-race report. Compared to the first one, I believe I did.   There were more fun and happy  moments in this sophomore attempt.  While the swim leg continued to be an ordeal of sorts, the bike ride was exhilarating. Despite the Galloway technique, I’m just glad the run leg did not lead to me bonking out given my hydration routine errors. More importantly, I felt like I could still go on as I crossed the finish line.

All these combinations of hits and misses remind me of the start-up credo: “fail fast, fail often.”  It is in committing these misses which are mostly  errors that one learns best. And it is from what we learn best that we are able to improve on how we approach and execute the actionable.

And so  I am so looking forward to my third sprint triathlon in the coming months to integrate the hard-earned lessons occasioned by my sophomore attempt. In the words of Edward William Hickson: “Tis a lesson you should heed. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and tri again.”  

aug 2017 b blog

 

 

The Gates of Hell

july blog chicago

Chicago June 2017

One of the things I did not foresee as a result of traveling to urban-planned cities like New York, Boston and Chicago was how it tends to reinforce what a former supervisor once put to me decades ago: “things need not be the way you have gotten used to.” At that time, his context was that he did not have to live life the only way he has gotten used to which was to stay in Manila and raise his kids here. He has since  successfully migrated with his family to Canada where he enjoys a better quality of life.

It’s a thought that has become more and more tempting to entertain these days  as I realized to my dismay that my visiting nephews were spot on when they  blurted out: “I’ve never seen anything worse, Uncle!” This was after a usual 30-minute drive that took us 4 hours (i.e., 10pm to 2am) to complete on a Friday night. Definitely a significant regression from their parting comment when they last visited the country six years ago: “They don’t practice road courtesy here in the Philippines, Uncle!”

Back in 2013, best-selling author Dan Brown drew a lot of flak for depicting Manila as a city of “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, horrifying sex trade.” Thus, compelling one of the key characters in his book Inferno to remark: “I’ve run through the gates of hell.” 

Alas on most days, “gates of hell” is an apt description of Metro Manila especially for those of us who do not call Ayala Alabang or Dasmarinas Village our home.  Its two major thoroughfares  EDSA and C5 offer compelling testimony to the metaphor.  Volumes of vehicles beyond the capacity of the road.  Undisciplined drivers who would create 6-lane queues in 2-lane roads. Motorcycle riders who weave around vehicles like they were on drugs. Pedestrians who cross anywhere they wish even if a pedestrian overpass is 10 steps away.  Drivers and passengers who throw their litter outside their vehicles.  Petty thieves who have a field day grabbing tablets and cellphones from unsuspecting passengers who seek to drown their anger and  boredom by immersing themselves in social media.

july blog phil star metro manila

EDSA Traffic – Photo Owned by Philippine Star

Cursing the Darkness

How did we get here?

A recent  engaging conversation with my Uber driver led me to one realization. We created this monster for ourselves.

We Filipinos put a lot of premium on “diskarte” or finding a way where there is none.  While this is a praiseworthy attribute of gritness in trying times, it has become our weakness as well as a city if not, as a country.  Case in point:  motorists doing counterflows on their own and drivers forcing their vehicles into lanes that are already clogged.

This, rather than lack of infrastructure, coupled with our lack of discipline as a people are ultimately to blame for the hellish nature of Metro Manila traffic.  I often get warned about tourists from mainland China who visit Hong Kong being rude and all as they don’t fall in line.  We are actually that way most of the time in our roads.  The unwritten rule for many is – me first before you. Motorists not giving way is more of a rule than an exception.  You signal that you are turning 200 meters before the turn and vehicles from behind will make sure you don’t make that turn because they want to get ahead of you.  Your hood is already positioned for your left or right turn complete with the recommended turn signal and oncoming traffic will still try to squeeze their vehicles to block you. Pedestrians are about to cross where they are supposed to and oncoming vehicles would speed up to cut into their path.

And then there’s our  motorcycle riders who would put Evil Knievel to shame. It never ceases to amaze me how most of these riders would  weave in and out of their lane like they have protective body armor around them which they don’t.  There was a time when the middle of the  road was a safe haven. Not anymore.  Even if you are supposedly entitled to your right of way, you would need to move to the right to give way to oncoming hordes of motorcycle riders who rule over the middle of the road.

Not to forget, there’s also our undisciplined drivers of buses and jeepneys who behave like they own the road.  They drive outside their designated lanes and stop and pick up passengers wherever they please.  Over the years, my family and I have memorized parts of EDSA where there really is no traffic but where their unchecked practice of hogging the lanes creates one: Balintawak exit,  EDSA Munoz, SM North EDSA, EDSA-Cubao underpass, Guadalupe and Magallanes interchange.

Our buses are daily reminders of the favorite go to food of many Filipinos: canned meat and sardines.  Thanks to the fact that during rush hour, commuters outnumber buses. As a result, conductors and drivers could easily exceed their daily quota. The practice of  reminding passengers who are already standing to please move back to accommodate more people is a given. Never mind if you could literally exchange faces already with other passengers.

As for our government, while I tip my hat to patient and determined traffic enforcers assigned all over the metropolis to ensure that we somehow survive our daily bouts of hell on earth, I have yet to see something that justifies the steep taxes that  it takes from our hard-earned salary every 15 days.  Our MRT and LRT break down every day. But because they are left with no other alternative, majority would patiently queue at MRT and LRT stations for  a kilometer or more.  When the current administration asked for emergency powers to solve the traffic in the metro I excitedly listened to the senate hearings to know more about their master plans. Unfortunately, all I heard was what the previous administration did incorrectly and pie-in-the-sky solutions like putting in place cable cars all over the metro and imposing coding schemes  2 days out of 5 days.

The endless cycle of unrepaired roads and roads under  repair with no prior warning and no advice as to completion target along with the still unsolved queue of license plates and driver’s license cards are a  continuing  testament to how much catching up our government has to do with respect to the withholding taxes that they systematically deduct from our salaries. Meanwhile, our senators, congressmen and other government VIPs continue to insulate themselves from our traffic problem with their assigned traffic escorts and security detail.

I often wonder why foreign investors continue to be optimistic about the Philippine economy and why real estate developers continue putting up condominium units and shopping malls. Don’t they realize that one day, the volume of vehicles on the road will get to a tipping point where you are literally better off walking to and from Makati or BGC than taking a vehicle even if you live in Quezon City or Taytay?

july blog new york

New York June 2017

Despite the fact that we have quite a number of alumni in this country from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and other Ivy League schools abroad, despite the fact that we have been blessed with our own fair share of the best and brightest intelligentsia, for reasons that still escape me, no government administration has successfully solved our worsening traffic situation.  Isn’t this the city that houses our top universities like UP, Ateneo and La Salle? Isn’t the Asian Institute of Management found here?

Sometimes it’s a lot easier to dream of an alternative life in urban-planned cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.  No wonder I now hear of parents who openly encourage their children to seek citizenship abroad.  Take the example of my officemates’ parents. They live in a millionaire’s enclave in Metro Manila. Yet they constantly remind their son to aspire for citizenship in Canada due to quality of life issues. They just can’t imagine how their grandchildren would survive Metro Manila in the coming years.

Lighting a Candle

What to do?

Depending on how determined you are to put an end to your daily bouts of gates of hell experience, here are 10 alternatives to cursing the darkness and surrendering to despair.

Migrate to your city of dreams

As they say, “if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, get out.”  This is the most radical as it involves a literal uprooting of oneself. But if your heart and mind are into it, nothing can stand in your way. This would entail lots of research as to which city this is as well as the requirements to make such a migration happen. Lest you forget, you need to ensure that you will be economically productive.  I actually have a friend who pulled this off quite successfully. She spent months getting interviewed for jobs in New York before finally landing one.  Today, she is gainfully employed in the city that never sleeps and living the American Dream despite Donald Trump’s presidency.

Migrate to provincial cities

Yet another one which is less radical but just as significant would be to transfer residence from Metro Manila to provincial cities like Tagaytay, Nuvali and Lipa down south or San Fernando, Clark and Baguio up north.  The thing is these cities have also started to show signs of following in the footsteps of the traffic hell of Metro Manila. Compared to EDSA and C5 on most days though, these cities offer a welcome respite.  Hopefully, their city governments would learn what not to do from the urban mess that is Metro Manila.

Renew your ties

You can also use your time in traffic to renew your ties with your friends and relations.  If you’re driving, make sure you leverage your car’s  Bluetooth so you won’t get fined for using your cellphone while driving or worse figuring in a traffic accident.  If you’re commuting, there is always texting, Viber and Messenger to catch up with your relatives and friends and schedule that much delayed reunion and get-together.

Meditate

One of the blessings of the internet is that  now more than ever, there are more apps that you can download which promote mindfulness. Easily, there’s Buddhify, Headspace and Calm. These are very affordable apps which provide guided meditation suitable for driving and commuting.  They do not only offer productive retreats from the traffic, more importantly, they help you center yourself to take charge of your life.

Learn

You can also use the traffic to listen to audio books if you’re driving. If you’re commuting you can watch podcasts and instructional  YouTube videos to learn a language or a new skill. Quite  a number of Ivy League schools have also invested heavily on making their courses available online. Easily, there’s Berklee, Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton among others. There are also one-off webinars which provide certification credentials that you can add to your resume.

Leave early to exercise

If you really hate wading through traffic and seeing the worst side of Filipinos as drivers, commuters and pedestrians, wake up really early. By really early, I mean 3:45am.    This way, you can head off to the gym and vent all the negativity of living in the metro to your exercise of choice.  By the time you finish your workout, you would have skipped traffic hell and even have a lot of time to prepare for the day by enjoying a morning cup of coffee while you strategize how your day would go.

Catch up on your playlist

Again, thanks to the information superhighway, your time in traffic is also the best time to catch up on your favorite musical artists. For the record collectors, there’s Discogs – the world’s largest online store for used and rare recordings of al formats. For contemporary singles and albums, there’s Amazon. In the Studio with Redbeard is the ultimate go to for the classical rock enthusiast while Rolling Stone and Spin for those who wish to experience the best of both contemporary rock and classic rock are excellent websites.

Take Uber or Grab and sleep it off

Forget about what our government is not doing, and focus on what is available despite the LTFRB. Leave your car at home and take Uber or Grab. Check out how trustworthy the driver is through his/her past ratings and always send a text message to your family  detailing the make and plate number of the car you took,  then sleep it off.  Not recommended though for those who sleep like “mantika” (i.e., used cooking oil)  as you could fall prey to  petty or even  heinous crimes.

Use Waze

Drive smart by leveraging the power of GPS-based navigation through the streets and alleyways of Metro Manila. By inputting your destination in  Waze before leaving your parking or your garage, you spare yourself from the hassle of trying to figure out when and how in the world the traffic would end.

Work from home

Finally, as a result of the worldwide movement towards work-life integration, more and more companies are encouraging their employees to engage in alternative work strategies. In our office, for example, our senior leaders encourage us to deck at least 1 to 2 days a week to work from home. Thanks to the power of technology, anyone in the office can easily reach you to a point where it’s as if you’re actually in the building. You not only get to have a break from Metro Manila traffic, you also help the environment by lessening  your carbon footprint.

july blog boston

Boston June 2017

When all else fails,  remember that  there is no such thing as a perfect city. There are only trade-offs.

I remember my conversation with a  cab driver from Singapore. When he learned  I was from the Philippines, he launched into a spontaneous it’s-more-fun-in-the-Philippines conversation. When I offered that in Singapore everything works and there is so much order, he offered that it’s better in the Philippines since you can say anything against the government and still live the following day.  When I pointed out that there is no traffic in Singapore, he countered that the Philippines is much better because it has so many spectacular resorts compared to Singapore. When I shared that I’d rather live in Singapore given the choice because of its access to cutting edge technology, he pointed out that Singapore is so small that they’ve ran out of places to build homes to a point where they now build underground and even under water. In contrast, the Philippines is much bigger it’s just that people tend to concentrate in the urban centers.

In the end, maybe Dale Carnegie is still right in this day and age: “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.”

Perhaps one day, our gates of hell would eventually be our gates to heaven on earth.