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.

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 the 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 together.   The solution is to master the art of pausing and just 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 realized I can 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 the 463 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 4 seconds and breathe out for 6 seconds. Do this thrice and you would be surprised with how you can easily recover instantaneously to hijack and arrest 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 us by without recognizing us. Consider how we would naturally react.  The thought that would come to us  could range from: our good friend appears to ignore us to I wonder why he ignore us to he did not seem to see us.  This naturally makes us feel bad. This then leads to a feeling of heaviness perhaps on our shoulders and possibly, our neck. This, in turn, affects the next action we would take which could range from either moving on or running after our friend or taking things in stride.  When one does parsing, you get to step back from your life stimulus to examine which among the range of responses available to you  would prove to be most productive and which ones we would be better off ignoring.

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.  The experience has been very rewarding to date.  Now I can truly say it is in fact possible to achieve calmness even in chaos.  In fact, calmness is best achieved in chaos.

 

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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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The Gates of Hell

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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.

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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?

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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.

Never Say Never

tri

There is a Filipino exhortation that goes: “Wag kang magsasalita nang tapos.”  Roughly translated in English, it means, never speak with finality.  Back in the day when I was starting to run, my dreams were a lot simpler. From completing my first 5k, I wanted to eventually do a 10k, a 21k and ultimately,  a 42k.  Whenever someone would bring up the subject of  trying out multi-sport or triathlon, I would often say, I would never get into that. My reasons were quite iron-clad or so I thought at that time.

First, I was happy to simply work towards increasing my mileage progressively. Second, I was intimidated by the attendant costs of investing in triathlon equipment and training. Third, I could not picture how in the world, training for one could possibly fit my already demanding schedule as a husband, a father and a senior manager in a multinational company.

All that changed when I got injured and I stumbled onto several well-researched readings about how triathlon is positioned as  a perfect way to actually improve your running. Even more compelling was the assertion of experts about the therapeutic impact of multi-sport training to injuries sustained in the course of running.

Three pivotal  moments eventually convinced me to seriously consider the possibility of giving tri a try.

The first one was when I first completed my 21k race in 2015 by way of the Manila leg of the Milo Marathon.  I bumped into an actual triathlete who did his 21k with an impressive finishing time.  He enthusiastically encouraged me to give multi-sport a try because  it’s more enjoyable than running. He also credited it for his improved 21k finishing time. I remember him saying,  “now that you’ve completed your 21k, you can easily transition to triathlon because you have a good foundation in running. Forget about marathons,” he said with conviction.  “They’re too long and boring.  Triathlons are more fun and fulfilling.”  When I countered that I did not have the time to get into the sport, he reasoned that you can do the bike rides at home on weekdays and just do the long rides on weekends.  The swim part is what I need to carve out time for.  The feasibility of actually following a triathlon training routine intrigued me. But at that time, it was not enough to distract me from targeting my first 42k.

And then  I got injured several times. From shin splints to runners knee, from ITB Syndrome to plantar fasciitis, I experienced them all.  Somehow through practice and training, I eventually overcame all of these injuries  but it was my bout with Achilles tendonitis that had the most adverse impact on my recent races.  Even worse, I started experiencing cramping during the last 2 kilometers  of my 21k races. After I overcame cramping in the course of my 22-week marathon training, it surfaced anew during the 33k segment of my second marathon.  It was in the course of reading about injury prevention and management while preparing for my second marathon that I started to ask the question: what if I actually gave triathlon a try?  Who knows, these experts might just be right all along?

The final clincher came by way of the Nike commercial that featured the Iron Nun Madonna Buder. If she could do over 40 triathlons within her lifetime and she started late running, perhaps I can do, too. Within a few weeks after chancing upon Sister Madonna’s Nike ad,  I stumbled onto a book that explained triathlon from a philosophical and inspirational  standpoint. I am, of course, referring here to Scott Tinley’s very engaging Finding Triathlon. Each of the chapters that comprised Tinley’s book progressively convinced me that this was indeed one life project worth investing serious resources on.

And so here I am gearing up for my first sprint distance triathlon happening in June.  I’m quite confident I can nail the 5km run segment. The 900 meter swim is where I’m having a lot of struggle visualizing.  Although I’m now able to complete a variety of swim drills, I continue to experience serious problems integrating the breathing part.  Related to this, I also need a lot of improvement  in  kicking more efficiently and twisting my hips enough to allow me to inhale more efficiently.  Without a doubt,  swimming is my weakest link as an aspiring triathlete. This is precisely why at this point, I’ve practically invested a lot in it in terms of training.

As for cycling, given my growing up years biking, I was not surprised when a cycling veteran complimented me on my good sense of balance during our cycling drills. It is the mastery of gear shifting and the confident use of cleats that I know I need to work on. I also have no idea yet with regard to the efficient use of  a bike trainer at home. This should allow me to achieve the target mileages I should go for to prepare for my first sprint distance triathlon.

Alas, the fact that I’m still reeling from the frustration that accompanied my second marathon got in the way of my plunging headlong into my triathlon training.  That, along with my realization that I owe my body some serious rest, made me distance myself from running for practically a month.

And so even as   I find myself at the starting point  of a full-blown sprint distance triathlon training, questions and doubts hound me.  Am I an April fool in the making? Will I make it in June? Can I actually swim free style by then? Will I master gear shifting and pedaling with cleats in time?  Will I have enough left to complete the 5km run after the swim and bike segments of the race?

If I go by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s exhortation, the outcome need not be belabored.  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Let us begin.

Move On

tbr2017k

“Life is  like  a box of chocolates,”  as Forrest Gump once put it,  “You’ll never know what you’re gonna get.”  Take my second stab at the full marathon last February 19, 2017. Up until the start of the second half which is where  my coaches point out  the real marathon starts, I was still hopeful that I would beat my personal best from 2016.  Alas, what played out was not what I thought things would turn out to be.

To be sure, one can easily argue that, notwithstanding my more elaborate marathon preparation this year compared to my preparation for my first marathon, my 2017 race results is clearly a failure. Numbers, as they say, do not lie. But, more than a week after I crossed the finish line, I am all the more convinced that it would be grossly unfair to me and those who helped me cross the finish line a second time to dismiss it as such.

You see I just recovered from a serious case of what is called the ITB Syndrome. Even worse, as I began training for my second marathon, I had to endure what turned out to be an  Achilles tendonitis on my right foot.  This was precisely why I decided to sign up for a series of therapy sessions and a triathlon coaching program. In my effort to figure out how to overcome my injuries, I came across several readings which pointed to triathlon as a tried and tested way of strengthening the runner’s legs even as it ups the ante of endurance training by introducing the runner to two other disciplines: swimming and cycling.  Part of my therapy session was a video analysis of my running form.  The year before I really appreciated the insights occasioned by the Chi Running video analysis that I invested in.  I was hoping to arrive at even more instructive insights.  I was not  disappointed as  I discovered through the analysis that my  left leg apparently  had faster ground contact compared to my right leg. To address this, I was advised to try two things: form the letter T with my thumb and forefinger to ensure my arms were not crossing when I ran and improve my cadence by investing in a metronome.  The theraphy sessions provide by PACE Prehab managed by Coach Francis Diano along with my determination and drive to stick to the 22-week plan designed by Coach Jim Lafferty,  The Bull Runner Dream Marathon (TBR DM) founder Jaymie Pizarro and Coach Lit Onrubia which in turn was modified by Coaches Noy Basa, Al Gonzalez and Pao Leano of Inside Track Athletics gave me hope  that I would not only  triumph over my injury. I would eventually achieve a PR this year.

Here’s how it  actually went down on February 19, 2017.

The Sweet  Half

A running skeptic in the office would often say, what’s the point of running long distances when you can always take the car or get an Uber or a Grab alternatively? He misses the point completely. Running a marathon  is not about getting from point A to point B. It is about the 22-week preparation and the 3 to 6-hour validation of one’s passion, hard work and dedication on race day itself. It’s about the journey rather than the destination, as the cliché goes.

Enjoy the journey I did particularly during the first 21 kilometers  of the race.  The festive atmosphere, the smiles of friends and fellow runners at the starting line  and  the encouraging words of the TBR Dream Chasers were more than enough to pump us up with enthusiasm and excitement as we started at 2am.  The cool temperature, the happy exchange of comments and stories among fellow runners, the endless cheering by past TBR alumni along the course track, the expansive  sky full of stars and, for the first time in  a long time,   my playlist in the background made the experience even more awesome.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the TBR DM experience is really such a powerful experience of pure, unadulterated energy, positivity and affirmation compared to  all the other races I’ve ran for the past 4 years. Nothing comes close.

The Bitter Half

As I  entered km 22, I started to detect muscle tightness on my right calf. It surfaced in trickles to a point where I thought it would go away.  Having gotten a preview of the experience in my past races and my recent LSDs,   I knew what to do.  I did what worked during my training particularly  the 30km practice run.  I ran backward and sideward every so often. I also walked uphill and ran downhill. By km 30, I saw a number of runners doing the same thing. Were they imitating me or did their coaches and teams also teach them the same thing?  I smiled at the thought.

Shortly after  going up the round-about for the second time, I modified my approach to  a 1- minute run, 2-minute  walk to lessen the muscle tightness which gradually became progressive. There was a routine though that I discarded upon my therapist’s  advice (i.e., forward leg swinging and sideward leg swinging), as he said it would just worsen the cramping. By the time, I got to the Miriam College uphill leg of the race course  for the second time, the 1:2 gave way to the lamp post technique I learned from both Coach Lit and Coach Francis. I stuck to this until I got to the u-turn of the Republic Wakeboard leg of the course. To my dismay, that was where the cramping practically  forced  me to stop dead in my tracks.  Remembering my coaches’ advice, I decided to walk.  The tightness appeared to lessen. To my horror, my left toes also started cramping along with my right calf.  Thankfully, I had the good sense to head for the nearest first aid station where I borrowed a foam roller stick. That helped a great deal. God bless the Dream Chaser who handed me a salt stick.

“How in the world could this happen to me despite all my preventive measures on top of following my training?,” I asked myself.  Consider the following: I’ve pumped my body with 500ml of buco juice every single day one week before the race. I was eating bananas daily 2 weeks before race day. I followed my race nutrition plan taking in energy gels  every 45 minutes. I did all the stops to sip water and interspersed the same with Gatorade even if I did not feel thirsty. I lost count of the number of bananas I ate on the race course when the muscle tightness started surfaced.  I followed the metronome setting of  180 strides per minute until it became problematic to do so.

As I made my way back from the junction, I decided to just walk off the rest of the race. I knew my target of  finishing within 5 hours was gone. I just smiled and muttered my thanks to the kind and generous Dream Chasers who cheered me on. I really wanted to run as I passed by them if only  to reward them for their kindness and generosity but I was terrified of repeating  my Run United 3 experience  where I limped to the finish line after I cramped at km 18. A number of the Dream Chasers, it turned out,  were my batchmates from TBR 2016 who gleefully cheered me on: “Takbo, Von, takbo!” “Von, may camera, run!” I just smiled at them after waving  and sharing  that I have cramped.

My heart sank further as I passed by Head TBR Coach Jim Lafferty who was waiting at km 38. I wanted to explain my situation and tell him that except for the week in December when I got sick, I followed the TBR plan like my life depended on it and more but I kept this to myself. I  wanted to thank him for the program  but I was not so sure how it would have come across. Walked on I did until km 39 where I came across Coach Al who was all smiles and who encouraged me by saying: “Konti na lang. Good job!” He also recommended that I try running and walking backwards but I said I’ve done that already.

By km 40, an unexpected grace came my way by way of 2 lady runner friends of Team Bulalo who coaxed me to run by pacing me. One of them, Anne, reminded me that: “lalong bibigat yan.” So run I did out of “hiya.” Surprisingly, the salt tablet may have kicked in along with whatever was left of my adrenaline.  I actually got to run the last 2km without any issues. That I guess was what made me smile as I  capped a bittersweet finish.  I actually ran my way to the finish line despite my cramping earlier.

I teach a module on Adversity Quotient (AQ) which espouses the growth mindset. Stating the thing broadly, it is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you that will make you grow and develop. Failure is to be regarded as a stepping stone to improvement. It is not the last chapter of your life.   The centerpiece of the module is what AQ researcher Dr. Paul Stoltz calls the LEAD approach.

Listen to your adversity response

The way I see it, there  are two options available to me.

The low AQ response says: I should be sorry for myself and this failure is massive. The high AQ response says: I should be grateful I still managed to finish the race despite my injury. This failure is but a detour to better things to come.

Explore the origins and ownership

The low AQ response is not grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that the race results revealed that I need to strengthen my body further and I need to heal completely  to run faster.   The cross-training did help. The techniques taught by Tai Chi and Yoga would no doubt also prove helpful as my coaches in swim and cycling also point to my stiffness and tension as a development opportunity.

Analyze the evidence

The evidence clearly says this setback is not permanent. There are tons of lessons to learn from this which would help me become a better runner and, at the same time, help me gear up for my first sprint triathlon.

Mindset is clearly part and parcel of race preparation. Rest should not be underestimated. Food intake should be scrutinized and reviewed consistently. Being at the starting line an hour before gun start is much better. Strength training is not an option. Flexibility training is just as critical.  Forgiveness of oneself is a grace to pray for. Gratitude and appreciation for those who helped you cross the finish line is a must.

Decide to take action

I suppose this is why the following day,  I readily signed up for my first Triman even as I capped my second marathon day with a 2-hour swim drill which validated my readings once again. Swimming does hasten muscle recovery and is a perfect sport for the runner.

While signing up for another race makes your succeeding efforts more focused and intentional, I strongly felt that part of moving on is to allow my body to get a much needed rest so my injury could heal more completely.  Then and only then could I truly say, it is time to move on. The best is yet to come.

Why Indeed

Possibly the most famous admonition associated with Saint Pio is: “Pray, hope and don’t worry. Worry is useless.” In this day and age of dizzying changes and transformations happening every nanosecond, it is one admonition we who live in the 21st century would do well to take seriously. 9-11, globalization, climate change, digitization, drug wars, Brexit, rationalization, financial meltdown,  Syria, ISIS, Greece…The list is endless. As the classic rocker Don Henley would put it: “In a New York minute, everything can change…” To be sure, given all these,  it is very easy to intellectualize Saint Pio’s counsel.  I propose though that unless and until you are forced into what some existential philosophers call limit situations, you would never fully appreciate what he was trying to drive at when he offered the above advice.

I must say I’ve been blessed to find myself in such a situation a couple of times. It is possible that all this is borne of the challenges associated with entering midlife. Then again, it is equally possible that this is a matter of selective perception – seeing what we want to see in what are objectively random events in one’s life.  Having said that, I’ve been thankfully  blessed to come across some friends who unwittingly offered what to me appears to be the biblical premises of Saint Pio’s reminder.

The first one is from Jeremiah 29:11 and I quote: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” While the original context of this passage was the message of hope and assurance that God wanted to bless the Jewish people with as they had to stay as exiles in Babylon for 70 years, I believe it is not stretching the meaning of the passage that much if we are to relate it to our individual and collective state in the face of various adversities.  More to the point, it easily grounds  the first component of Adversity Quotient which the researcher Dr. Paul Stoltz refers to as control or how one perceives an adversity as either actionable or beyond hope.  One can either look at the problem as a permanent state from which there is no escape  or as a temporary detour from which one could  springboard to better things. Jeremiah 29:11 underpins the latter.

The second one I have been blessed to be gently reminded of is from Matthew 6:26-34  and it goes: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which if you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore, do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear? For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father know that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Again, while these words were addressed to the crowd that gathered around Jesus during his famous Sermon on the Mount 2,000 years ago, its explanatory power resonates loud and clear  in the 21st century regardless of one’s social, economic and political situation. For indeed, just like that, as they say, you could lose it all. Just like that, one’s life could unceremoniously end. Just like that, a relationship could end. Just like that, the unexpected could happen.

I suggest that it is precisely in the context of these three passages that we could fully appreciate the other half of Saint Pio’s admonition which we don’t often hear:  “God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”  With these three passages written hundreds of years apart, one can more confidently sing along to Annie’s “Tomorrow” and play the air guitar to Bamboo’s “Umagang Kay Ganda.” Why worry indeed!