The Circle of Responsibility

“Look closer.”  So goes the tag line of the critically-acclaimed  film “Smaller and Smaller Circles.” Its producers could not have chosen a more apt invitation to the Filipino moviegoer.   Based on the award-winning novel written by F.H. Batacan,  SASC, as its growing cult following refer to the movie, is more than a well-crafted Filipino crime thriller about two priests on the trail of a serial killer in Payatas. More importantly, It is a compelling invitation for its viewers to look closer at two levels.

At the first level, SASC urges us to look closer at the continuing battle between hope and despair as it is unfolding in our church and in our government. Hope is what the viewer would glimpse as one watches Fathers Saenz and Lucero rage against the dying of the light perpetrated by Cardinal Meneses and Monsignor Ramirez.  Hope is what would greet the viewer as one observes the clash between what is right  as championed by NBI Director Lastimosa and Deputy Valdez versus what is convenient as epitomized by NBI Director Mapa and Atty. Arcinas.

The passion and resilience of Fathers Saenz and Lucero along with that of  Director Lastimosa and reporter Joanna Bonifacio are reminiscent of the grit and tenacity that must have been displayed by my teacher in philosophy who died a few years ago.  Disturbed no end by the threat posed by a corporation to his community, he waged a protracted albeit non-violent battle against the powers that be. Alas, it proved to be a lonely battle as well. The validation that he thought he could expect  from his colleagues never came. Dismayed by the lack of solidarity and the surfeit of ostracism that he was subjected to,  he  fled the country and eventually  died alone and penniless in the cold streets of New York.

Which brings us to the second level that SASC is exhorting its viewers to take a closer look at.  As we realize, to our horror, that the evil that is at the centre of the battle being waged by Saenz et al. came into being precisely because hope requires solidarity to prevail against despair, the movie challenges its viewers to answer the question: what will you do about it?

Shall you hound Ramirez to the ends of the earth a’la Saenz? Or shall you sweep the dirt under the rug like Cardinal Meneses? Shall you take the long and difficult route to the truth like Director Lastimosa? Or shall you go for the easier  path preferred by Atty. Arcinas? Shall you be as involved as the feisty Joanna Bonifacio?  Or shall you choose to look the other way like the fearful classmate in Emong Ricafrente?

I remember the three classmates I had the privilege of sitting next to in a public seminar somewhere in Makati. All three could have led comfortable lives in Europe where they all hail from.  Yet they chose to throw their lot with the marginalized in our country by providing second chances to reformed juvenile delinquents.  Moved by their dedication for the less privileged, I profusely expressed my appreciation for what they do. After thanking me for my kind words, they then asked me if I was willing to help them in any way. Looking back from the lens of SASC, they might as well have said: now that you know what we do, what will  you do to help us continue what we do?

The fact of the matter is that  not every Father Saenz in our country could rely on a Director Lastimosa or a Joanna Bonifacio. Not every Father Saenz could depend on a Father Lucero. Consider what happened to my late teacher.  Consider for that matter,  what could happen to the mission of my three classmates if the greater majority would choose to imbibe the apathy of an Emong Ricafrente – a kind of apathy that is bred by fear of the attendant consequences of involvement. It is precisely in this regard that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” ultimately and inescapably  brings the Filipino viewer within the circle of responsibility that  Emmanuel Levinas so powerfully describes and echoes from Fyodor Dostoevsky: “I am responsible for all, before all, and I more than all the others.”  

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Blessings Come in Threes

My cup overfloweth.

Just when I started to think that it would probably be a long and winding road to my next publication, once again God chose to smile at me by way of my third publication for the year. This is my eight one in the same newspaper publication since 2013.

Now I can truly relate. Blessings do come in threes.

This article came to me as a result of my continuing struggle to keep my sanity in the face of Metro Manila’s terrible traffic. It is so terrible that newspapers have coined an apt name for it: carmageddon.

I am thankful for kick starting my journey towards mindfulness towards the end of 2017. Mindfulness lends itself very easily to reinforcing the productive and positive attitudes that my Christian faith advocates in the face of adversity.

http://opinion.inquirer.net/111227/surviving-daily-carmageddon

Two for the Road

Here is the second article that appeared in the newspaper I grew up with.

Without a doubt, it was inspired by my catching up with Dr. Rainier A. Ibana. Dr. Ibana was my mentor and thesis adviser during my graduate school stint  at the Ateneo. I wrote this shortly after I consulted with him on exciting possibilities related to research and writing. Not surprisingly, its backbone hinges on two of  the key motifs of my MA thesis which, in a feat of inspiration,  I linked to a painful chapter in my country’s history. My thanks as well to FH Batacan who penned “Smaller and Smaller Circles.”

Muli, maraming salamat po, Doc Enyeng! Mabuhay po kayo!

http://opinion.inquirer.net/110117/marcos-past-86-historians-debate

One 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

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