July 11, 2009

Lessons from Fight Club

A man I greatly admire said, "It may surprise you, perhaps, but I am not strictly opposed to the spectacle of violence and crime. It all depends on the lessons you draw from it." I agree, especially in regards to one of my favorite movies, Fight Club. Here are some lessons I have drawn from this movie that I think are well worth sharing:

Working Jobs We Hate
Tyler: Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering... An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

We have to decide why we do anything we do. Following American advertising isn't good enough. Keeping up with everyone else isn't good enough. We need to believe in what we do and love it. Work hard at work worth doing.

The Things You Own End Up Owning You
Narrator: Like so many others I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct...I'd flip through catalogues and wonder, "What kind of dining set defines me as a person."

Narrator: I don't know. It's just when you buy furniture you tell yourself, "That's it. That's the last sofa I'm gonna need. Whatever else happens, I've got that sofa problem handled." I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.
Tyler: Shit man, now it's all gone.
Narrator: All gone.
Tyler: All gone...Do you know what a duvet is?
Narrator: A comforter...
Tyler: It's a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?
Narrator: ...Consumers?
Tyler: Right. We are consumers. We're the byproducts of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
Narrator: Martha Stewart.
Tyler: F' Martha Stewart. Martha's polishing the brass on the Titanic. It's all going down, man. So f' off with your sofa units and Strinne green stripe patterns. I say never be complete. I say stop being perfect. I say let's evolve, let the chips fall where they may. But that's me, and I could be wrong, maybe it's a terrible tragedy.
Narrator: Nah, it's just stuff...My insurance is probably gonna cover it, so...What?
Tyler: The things you own end up owning you.

If we aren't good enough without "stuff", we'll never be good enough with it. It is fine to use things that are useful, but don't become attached to them. Don't expect happiness to come from anything outside yourself. It never will.

Know That Someday You're Gonna Die
Tyler: Stay with the pain, don't shut this out...Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing...Stop it, this is your pain, it's right here...What you're feeling is pre-mature enlightenment...This is the greatest moment of your life man and you're off somewhere missing it...First you have to give up, first you have to know, not fear, know that someday you're gonna die. It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.

Learn how to die and you learn how to live. Decide what is most important to you and dedicate your life to it. Stay with reality, don't avoid it or explain it away. This is it, make the most of the situation you are given. Don't become attached to it. Appreciate it, experience it, do your best and let go.

This Is Your Life and It's Ending One Minute At A Time
Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don't you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can't think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? Do you read everything you're supposed to read? Do you think every thing you're supposed to think? Buy what you're told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you're alive. If you don't claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned - Tyler.

If something deep inside you is telling you to do something, do it. Listen to that and move forward. Claim your humanity. Claim your life. Take responsibility for it. Live it.

July 10, 2009

A Developing World

Many aspects of American life are taken as is with little question. Speed. Productivity. Work. Time. Money. Success. There is a latent feeling that we have to be doing something, all the time. We can choose to live this way, certainly, but it’s important to realize that it is exactly that: one choice. There are others.

Oh The Places You’ll Go
Imagine wanting a ride somewhere several miles away. You find a taxi driver and ask him if he can take you. “Sure,” he says, “Give me your phone number and I’ll call you when I’m ready to go.” When you ask when he will leave he says, “Margash.” In Mongolian this means “later,” but it also means any time in the future, including tomorrow. The entire country operates on this system, so you will need to be patient. Things happen, but not in any sort of rush. Why rush anyway? What’s the point?

The point is I have places to be, people to see, and important stuff to do…right? Maybe. It’s good to have plans, to feel driven to be a good person and achieve great things, but what if you could do that now? What if your happiness didn’t rely on future events? It was a huge adjustment for me, but Mongolia culture opened my mind to the possibility that my happiness doesn’t have to be placed at sometime in the future. Whether or not I get a taxi ride, or get to any future destination, I can be happy right now.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
Mindfulness Meditation is based on the awareness of reality as it exists right now. It is not interested in the past or the future. What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us, as Emerson said. When we take a moment to catch our breath, to feel our hearts beating, to be with the people around us rather than just do something with them, we find a sort of peace that can’t be found by doing. Mindfulness is about being.

Eventually you will likely get your taxi ride and arrive at your destination, but the neat thing about Mongolian life is that everything in between is just as enjoyable as getting wherever you are going. People laugh, play, kid, enjoy each other’s company and stop for drinks and snacks all along the way. This goes for a walk across town or a trip across country. They are naturally very good at being exactly where they are and appreciating their life as it moves along. Maybe this comes from thousands of years of nomadic living and the flexibility that comes with living in such an ever-changing climate, but it also serves them well in the ever-changing world culture we all find ourselves in today.

The “developing world” may be expanding their horizons technologically, but spiritually and psychologically they have quite a few things to teach the “developed world.” We don’t need the newest, greatest things to make us happy. We don’t really need any thing. I may have come from a developed country to this developing country, but I can tell you one thing: I am the one that’s developing.

"A Developing World" was recently featured in Mindful Muscle

July 9, 2009

Humbling Gifts

One very fascinating thing about the Mongolian people is their gift-giving. When someone gets an award, or wins a trophy, or gets married, or has a funeral in their family, they give presents. They, the people who received an award, or won, or got married, or are arranging the funeral, give presents.

In one way it’s as if they are saying, “I am glad you are here, sharing this with me,” while also saying, “I have been very fortunate in this life and would like to give back something to say ‘thank you’ to you, my friends and family.” I think it is a beautiful gesture and I have been surprised by it again and again. When I left for America in May I was treated like everyone else when they go on a long trip - everyone chipped in together, dozens of people in my department, and gave me presents and money to wish me a safe journey.

It is very much like the old woman in the bible story who gives even though she doesn’t have much. It’s been a very humbling experience for me, coming from a place where people have a great deal and still feel like they would like to have more. Here people have little, but still give it away.

July 6, 2009

Two Years and Change

Two years and two months, that’s how long Thoreau was at Walden Pond. I’m not the first nor will I be the last Peace Corps Volunteer to see a correlation between what Henry David did and what many of us are doing in our service:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he writes to start his book, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We spend two years and three months of our lives facing life in a much more raw way than many Americans ever choose to. We do it deliberately because we believe in it and we hope to come out the other end wiser and better as people. In Peace Corps there is an incredible amount of time for introspection into who we are, what is important in life and what the world has to teach us if we are awake to it.

“I have never met a man who was quite awake,” Thoreau writes in his closing lines, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” The question is then, of course, how do we become awake?

July 4, 2009

Voluntary Simplicity

Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of Voluntary Simplicity in Wherever You Go There You Are:

“Voluntary Simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more…It involves intentionally doing only one thing at a time and making sure I am here for it…I practice saying no to keep my life simple, and I find I never do it enough…You don’t get to control it all. But choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.”

What in this moment is truly worth my time? Being where I am, with who I am with, loving people important to me, being honest, kind and helpful and enjoying my life is far better than worrying, watching advertising or talking just to talk. Truly enjoying my life doesn’t involve wishing for some other moment to replace this one or trying to fit as many things into this moment as possible. It involves being present, appreciating where I am and making the most of it.

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen…In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and the thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, Simplify.”


July 2, 2009

Kind o'r Smart

Today we, Alex, LP and I, were talking about values with our friends who are local Mongolian English teachers and one my favorite teachers Enebish said, “I would like to teach my students that they don’t have to be the smartest student, but they can all be kind. I think this is the most important value.” Other teachers went on to say that they wanted students to be more confident, to speak up more in class, to be more talented in the English language and so on. One teacher said one of her students who barely spoke English before has gotten much more confident in the language and is now winning bigger awards year by year. We are happy for this girl, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the rest of the students.

I think it is better to be kind than smart. For certain one is much more in our control than the other. I recognize that we give awards to Valedictorians and not to the nicest kid in class, but I wish we did. Take Forrest Gump as an example: my favorite thing about him is how much he did with what he had. He was not the smartest person in the movie (“Are you stupid or something?” he’s often asked), but he was by far the wisest character (“Stupid is as stupid does,” he always responded). He was simple, gentle, loyal, generous, brave, honest and maybe more than anything else he was kind.

I think Forrest represents the best in us so well not in spite of his aptitude but because aptitude is not what makes us valuable. There is goodness in all of us. We can choose to live wisely. We can choose to be kind. That makes us immensely valuable and special. Like Enebish said, I think that’s what we need to encourage in our children and in our schools.