I wrote this as sort of a pre-flight checklist that I read before I meditate. For as long as I have been thinking about this stuff, I still find it extremely beneficial to leave myself a trail of breadcrumbs that I can follow when I forget my way back home. This list helps me remember the intentions that I want to set before I step out into the world every day and reminds me that I get to decide how my day is going to go. Maybe you’ll find it useful too.
- Problems don’t exist. There are only events and how you choose to feel about them. Seeing them as problems is a choice. Seeing them as non-problems is a choice. Make the choice that keeps you open and happy.
- Trying to get external reality to line up with your internal ideas about how things should go and how people should act is madness. Reality doesn’t care about you and your feelings about it. When something is bothering you, acknowledge it, feel the feelings, and then let go. Don’t let these irritations become blockages in your energy. When you feel your chest getting tight and your heart begin to close, relax and stay open. The irritation will pass through you and move on.
- Don’t give your attention to things over which you have no control (see #2). When you do this, you miss what is happening in the moment. Life is passing you by while you stew over all the things you can’t change. Stay focused on what life is presenting you with in the now.
- Be nobody. Remember that your personality is just a collection of stories. Everything you love, hate, agree, or disagree with is the ego trying to convince you that you are your thoughts and your beliefs. Let go of clinging to this idea of self. What you are is so much larger and more powerful than what the ego would have you believe. Drop the act and anything is possible.
- Want nothing. Focus on your needs, not on wants. The less you own, the less you want, the less you crave…the freer you will be. Travel light and be grateful you have a choice in the matter. Many don’t.
- Harm no being. Because we are all connected…violence against the “other” is violence against yourself. Physical, verbal, and emotional violence has never solved a single problem and never will. Begin with love and stick with it.
- Be mindful of what you let through the doors of your senses. We are showered with thousands of messages a day that are designed to make us feel a certain way. Limit your exposure to these messages and, when you are exposed, meet them with critical thinking and suspicion.
- Trust life. Things are unfolding just as they should. Don’t make fear based decisions that take you further away from happiness just because your ego thinks you should be stronger, faster, smarter, skinnier, or better than you are right now. The grass is never greener and that voice in your head is fake news.
- Stop complaining (thank you, Cianna) . It just reinforces your negative tape loops and it’s a sneaky form of escapism. Turn to face your pain instead and deal with it.
- There are dozens of opportunities for empathy and kindness that are presented to you every day. Not just when you’re feeling good, but in the midst of turmoil and anger as well. Whatever the circumstance, try to see the other person’s suffering and turn toward love.
- Everything comes back to clinging or aversion. Remember that. Don’t try to push away the things that you find unpleasant and don’t try to hold on to the things that you love. What you resist, persists and what you try to grasp will be lost. This is the nature of impermanence. The middle way is just to let things be as they are. No action is necessary on your part. Let the pendulum of your emotions come to rest and be still. Everything will be taken care of.
As I was driving home yesterday, I saw our new neighbor out for a walk with his infant grandson. I rolled down my window and called out: “Hey Al! It’s Paul. How are you and Isaiah doing this afternoon?”. “Oh, we’re doing fine. Just fine. The sun is out, making me feel alive, although Isaiah doesn’t like it when it gets in his face too much.” said Al. “I heard that, man. Me and Isaiah are on the same page.” I said. We kept on for another minute or so and then I wished him well and urged him to enjoy the beautiful day.
Al and I only met a few days ago while I was out walking dogs and he was out with Isaiah. He’s one of dozens of new people I’ve met in the last eight months or so, since I began challenging myself to go a little deeper with every person I encounter. Being a natural introvert, it’s not always easy to summon the energy for human interaction, but, on the other hand, part of me really wants to engage with more people in my everyday life and get to know their stories. So, in the last few months, I have been practicing going “one level deeper” with everyone I come in contact with. Nothing earth shattering. Just being mindful of my urge to disengage when it comes up, and then staying in the interaction and digging a little deeper. It usually only takes a minute or less and the results have been heartening. Here are some things I’ve done:
- If I give a homeless person some money, I also ask their name and then text it to myself so I’ll remember it when I see them next. Shabazz, Betty, Eugene, and Pete greet me every day on my way to and from work and I really enjoy knowing more about their lives. If I have time, I sit with them for awhile and I learn a lot.
- Through the same self-texting method, I’ve managed to remember all the names of the kids who work at the cafe that I frequent and I ask them small questions about their lives when they aren’t too busy. They all greet me by name now and our relationships are 100% friendlier than the boring, transactional ones we used to have.
- My friend Lamar is a security guard at a jewelry store that I walk by every day. We met because one day I said: “You know, I walk by every day and I don’t even know your name. I’m Paul.” Turns out, we grew up about ten blocks from each other in East Oakland and we have a lot more in common than you would think. Now we talk several times a week and we encourage each other to follow our dreams. We even texted each other well wishes on Thanksgiving.
- Then, sometimes, I sit and read at my local cafe for an hour or so after work. If there are no other tables available (it gets quite busy), I encourage people to share mine. I’ve met a holocaust survivor, a painting professor, a physicist, a numerology expert, and dozens more interesting people this way. I have found that if people are willing to share a table, they are willing to have a little chat and I am always amazed at how incredible these folks are and how fascinating it is to learn about them.
A few months after I started this little project, my results made me realize how much I had been self-isolating over the years, how little energy I put forth in order to expand my sphere of people and experiences, and how happy it made me to be doing the opposite, now. I liked this new way of doing things. A lot. Because I realized that it was softening me. It was making me more receptive, more empathic, and more loving, really. It reminded me that, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are pretty great…and I needed that reminder…even more than I knew.
In the end, I think most folks I engage with feel just as isolated as I used to. But meeting someone who seems interested in them and wants to hear their story is like medicine for both of us. They get to tell a stranger a story he’s never heard before, and I get to learn whatever it is they have to teach me. It’s not just a conversation. It’s a gift giving ceremony. It’s an even trade where we both come out feeling a little bit better about humanity through temporarily sharing our attention with each other…and that’s worth something.
I don’t like heights. That’s one of my stories. I also don’t like flying. Another story. That’s why it was curious to find myself following a man down the beach after giving him 600 pesos to take me parasailing one afternoon, in Mexico.
I had started the day thinking that I would like to do at least one touristy thing while I was on vacation and, after eliminating things based on cost or time frame, I had, to my complete surprise, settled on parasailing. This is not something I had considered, or ever thought I would consider doing, because, you know…stories. But here I was, following along behind my guide, trudging through the hot sand, making my way to meet my airborne destiny.
Deciding to do things like this is a funny process for me. First, my heart says: “Hey, how about parasailing today?” and the ego is like: “Yeah, that sounds cool. We’re gonna be so cool! We can tell all our friends! Parasailing is rad and we want to be rad so let’s do it!” And so, the price of admission is paid and the gears are set in motion. But then, when the parachute appears as we duck round a corner and emerge from under a flock of beach umbrellas, the ego does an about face…
“Dude. That looks like a faulty parachute if I ever saw one. We are def gonna die if you strap us into that thing. And what about that rope? You do know that they don’t make very good ropes down here, right? Like, I think I heard there’s a 90% failure rate in Mexican ropes. Also, how do we know that guy filled up his boat with gas? Answer: we don’t! When he runs out of gas at the farthest point from shore and we crash land in the middle of a shark colony, you’re going to wish you would have listened to me.” And on and on…
This kind of monologue presents itself constantly in life, of course. And, sadly, we base a lot of decisions on what this little idiot in our head has to say. But I was ready for him this time. I just let him prattle on about careless employees and faulty equipment and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, showing the fearful voice some love and reassurance every step of the way. “We’re doing this.” I said. “You can choose to enjoy it or you can choose to fight it and wish you were somewhere else. I suggest the former.”
And on the conversation went, until I was strapped into what is, more or less, the nylon webbing version of a lawn chair and hooked to the billowing parachute, emblazoned with a Corona Light logo, behind me. The man on my right gave me the instruction to pull hard on the left handle when I heard him blow the whistle and I would float back to the beach where they could catch me at the end of the ride. “Other than that,” he said “just have fun.” Then, without asking me if I was ready. The man to my left blew a whistle and I was thrown into the air as the boat took off and my feet left the ground.
The acceleration to altitude was breathtaking. Once the wind catches the chute you really go up quite quickly and, all of a sudden, you are a couple hundred feet in the air, taking in a pelican’s eye view of the beautiful coastline. It was such an incredible sensation that it took me a minute to realize how quiet I had become, mentally and physically. Just the sound of the wind and the feeling of the breeze on my bare feet. There was no fear. My heart, if anything, was beating as slow as it ever does, and a feeling of deep peace came over me as I floated around the bay, tethered to that old outboard.
It was then I remembered that this is what pushing past fear feels like. Once the ego realizes it no longer had any control over the situation, it just relaxes. There is nothing left to fight against. We are doing the thing…and the thing is amazing!
It was also pretty short. Before I knew it we were circling back to the beach and I could hear the sound of the familiar whistle as I tugged hard on the left handle to bring me back to land. About a minute later, I floated gently into the waiting arms of two burly assistants, was unhooked from my sky chair, and then returned to the wild.
As I threw on my flip flops and said goodbye to my hosts, I started thinking about how many times the fearful voice had won in my life. How many things had I turned away from, closed my heart to, or just resigned myself to never doing because the voice had reasons? How many missed opportunities? How many scuttled dreams?
But, as a tinge of regret started to sneak into my thinking, I realized that it didn’t matter. There is only now. The conversation I am having in this moment is all that exists. I am different than I was in the past when I had open ears for the voice and was under the impression that the voice was somehow the real me. But that’s not who I am now. I’m wise enough to know that the voice is just the voice and that, while I need to acknowledge its existence, I don’t need to follow its instructions.
I had won today…and I flew! That’s all that mattered. And all the way home, I felt like I was still flying.
In Vallarta, you sit in the street. Everybody does, because A. It’s hot (most people don’t have air conditioning), and B. That’s where everything happens. From pre-dawn until well after midnight, people drag their plastic chairs out onto the tiny strip of sidewalk in front of their apartments and get on with the business of living. Needless to say, I love this tradition and every morning I would drag a chair outside to have my coffee, listen to the river and watch the world wake up.
This is how I came to meet Hamid.
One morning, I was outside just feeling the breeze and meditating, when I heard a voice say: “Excuse me, do you know if there are any cheap apartments for rent in this neighborhood?” When I opened my eyes, there was a man standing in front of me with a copy of Vallarta’s classified ad newspaper (the local’s craigslist). I said that I didn’t, as I was just a tourist but that my friends might and I asked him what he was looking for.
He said his name was Hamid and he was wanting to move down from Vancouver because it was getting too “difficult” to live there. “Cold?” I said. “Yes” he said, “and I am originally from Iran although I have lived in Vancouver for over thirty years. It’s hard to look Iranian there, and getting harder.”
I didn’t press him for any more information on that point and he didn’t offer any. Instead, we talked about how nice Mexico was and how we both loved all the Bougainvillea that grows everywhere and how amazing frigate birds are and how we were both vegans and had simultaneously developed a real affection for Papaya.
We must’ve talked for about ten minutes, and then something totally unexpected happened. I could tell that our conversation was naturally coming to an end and so, without thinking, I got up from my chair and instead of shaking his hand, I gave him a hug. Not like a long, sympathetic thing. Just a quick, “this was nice. I’m glad we’re here at the same time” kind of deal. I have no idea why I did that. I wouldn’t, normally, but it just felt like the right thing to do and he must’ve felt the same way because there was no weirdness or resistance to it.
I’m not sure if there was any lasting significance in our meeting for Hamid, but it made an impression on me. It was further evidence that being a space for what is needed in the moment is one of the best things I can aim for. The automatic nature of the hug didn’t enter into any kind of thought process. There were no pros and cons that were weighed. It came from an intuitive flow state that is present when I’m open to what’s happening in front of me and not putting any conditions on my experience.
I left our meeting with a reignited desire to live like that all the time. Not to hold space for people, but to “be” space. Holding space has always sounded to me like you are taking a break from the important business of being you to do something for someone else, and that’s very good, but “being” a space where everything necessary is provided and nothing unnecessary is added and intuition drives what happens is where I want to be.
Thanks for the reminder, Hamid.
When you get in a cab in Mexico, the driver often speaks little English. This was the case with my ride to the airport on Saturday. Usually, when this happens, I just sit in silence and try to enjoy the ride, rather than annoying the driver by subjecting him to my Spanish.
As we were heading through the hotel zone, sitting in heavy traffic, my driver was punching through the radio buttons, trying to find a station that wasn’t blaring Christmas commercials, when he landed on a familiar beat.
We both started a little head bob, then he looked over and enthusiastically asked: “You like Fugees?!”. “Si”, I said. “y Celia Cruz.” That made him smile and he turned up the radio just in time for us to both throw our heads back and sing…
¡Guantanamera! guajira, guantanamera
And then we just laughed for what seemed like five minutes. It was a beautiful, serendipitous, out of tune, thing. Sometimes I forget about this other language we all share and how much better it can be than talking. This was a nice reminder. I smiled all the way to my gate.
The truth is, I’ve needed some major dental work done for a long time. My teeth have slowly been deteriorating for years due to a lack of reasonable dental insurance and some poor habits when I was younger. Consequently, I have felt a good deal of shame surrounding my teeth and the way they look. My self-confidence has certainly been lower due to this situation, and I really feel like I have held myself back in social situations due to my embarrassment about my smile. It’s no fun to be constantly self-conscious about something as noticeable as the condition of your teeth and your self-image can really take a hit when you don’t feel like you look your best. Maybe you can relate.
So, a few months ago, after years of considering it, I started researching what it would take to get all of the work I needed done in a foreign country where the dentistry was modern and the prices were reasonable…unlike the states where getting the amount of work I needed done is equivalent to getting a mortgage on a Florida condo.
After extensive research (I’m a planner), I picked Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for four main reasons.
One: It’s not a border town, so crime is pretty low there and as long as you’re not walking around drunk after midnight in a sketchy area, there is very little chance that you’ll run into any trouble. In general, the people in Vallarta are very nice to tourists and are proud of how welcoming their town is. Several full-time expats I’ve talked to have backed this theory and gone on to remark about how easy and safe it is to live in Vallarta, even if you aren’t a native. If I was going to be even remotely incapacitated, physically, I wanted to make sure I was in an environment that I felt very comfortable in and Vallarta seemed like the best bet.
Two: I had vacationed there before, so I knew the general layout of the town and was familiar with where I could shop and which part of the city I wanted to stay in. This added greatly to my confidence in having this much work done abroad. It really helps to know how things operate in Mexico and what you can expect from a town before you do something major like having surgery in a country where you don’t speak the language.
Three: I knew some locals there, so I felt confident in going alone. I contacted them beforehand and they agreed to be my local emergency contacts in case something went sideways, medically speaking. They are all natives and all have impeccable english/spanish skills so I knew I could count on them to translate for me in an emergency situation. The language barrier isn’t a big deal when you’re haggling over a pair of sunglasses on the Malecon, but I did not want to be playing charades with a doctor if I felt like I was in real trouble. Having them as my back up team really put my mind at ease.
Four: The dentist I ended up choosing had incredible reviews. Not only were her skills praised in every review, but her honesty, integrity, and kindness were as well. This was important to me because, well, it’s no fun having dental work done and even less so if you feel that you aren’t being treated compassionately by the person doing the procedure. Dr. Melisa lived up to every word I had read.
All-in-all, Puerto Vallarta looked to be a good choice for me. All of my preparation and my familiarity with the town made for a smooth and easy “pre-op” experience once I touched down, and the signs were good that I had made the right decision to get my work done there.
The morning after I arrived in Vallarta, the dental office sent an Uber to my apartment (on their dime) to pick me up and take me to the clinic for my first appointment. When I got there, things were running a little behind schedule, but because there were several dentists on staff, I was still able to be x-rayed and have impressions made of my teeth and any delay was almost unnoticeable.
The office itself was really nice. As nice as any American practice I had been to. The furniture was modern, comfortable, and in good repair, the bathroom was spotless, and there were little Buddhas placed everywhere I looked, which I thought was odd for such a Catholic country, but it made me feel peaceful and relaxed, nonetheless…which is definitely what you want in a dental office, right?
After a short wait, I had my first consultation with Doctor Melisa and her assistant Erika. The doctor informed me that the procedure I had originally come for was overkill and she felt strongly that she could help me keep some of my teeth and still give me a bright white, straight, and stunning smile without being so extreme, procedure-wise. This was my first clue that I had absolutely made the right choice in dentist. She could have easily gone ahead and performed the procedure we talked about and I would have been none the wiser. Instead, she gave me honest information about how to achieve the same results in a healthier way AND…she saved me about eight-thousand dollars in the process.
Eight. Thousand. Dollars.
Once the consultation was over, I returned to the waiting room and then, about ten minutes later, I was told that everything was ready to go and I was shown into the surgery where I met the dental assistants as well as my anesthesiologist (who came from the hospital) and his nurse. The nurse took my blood pressure and measured my blood sugar while she grilled me about any allergies and whether I was taking any recreational drugs. I told her I was allergic to mangos and not to feed me any while I was unconscious, but other than that, I was allergy free. This joke did no go over as well as I had hoped but, hey, a goofy sense of humor probably shouldn’t be my first requirement for someone who is going to keep me from dying for the next five hours, right? Right.
After my vitals checked out, the doctor asked if I was ready while the nurse found a vein and started the IV. I started to feel groggy and had just enough time to ask “Que es esto?” (What is this?) before I went sleepy bye bye.
Five and a half hours later, I woke up with a comfy blanket on me (apparently I had started to shiver from the A/C while I was under) and felt pretty good considering all the work that had been done and the amount of high grade drugs that had been coursing through my system. All-in-all, they had extracted five teeth, including two wisdom teeth, installed eight bases for implants, performed two bone grafts and a sinus lift, filled four cavities, and done one root canal. They considered grinding my teeth down and fitting temporaries in the same visit, but made the decision that I had been under long enough and wanted to wait a day to let me recover.
When I could stand, I was led to the waiting room couch and given a small cup of water and some post-op care instructions to read until I felt well enough to walk. After a short while, Erika (who is possibly the nicest person in the world) told me that she was going to drive me home and that she would help me get my prescriptions and anything else I needed on the way. This was a great comfort because I was still a little out of it and my Spanish is, putting it very generously…sub par.
We stopped at the farmacia and Erika handled the whole transaction in minutes flat. I just had to hand her pesos and be a spacey gringo which was, honestly, about all I was qualified to do at that moment. Afterward, we went to the supermarket and bought some protein drinks and soft foods (oatmeal, beans, soft tortillas, etc) for me to take home in case I didn’t feel up to leaving the apartment the next day. Ten minutes later, I was back at my apartment. I took my drugs (ibuprofen, antibiotics, a sublingual pain reliever, and a post-surgery gel), climbed in bed with double ice packs for my face, turned on Netflix and literally “chilled” until I fell asleep.
I woke up early the next morning. The combination of the time change and the doctor’s instruction to sleep sitting up weren’t so conducive to a restful night, but I felt okay and because I had iced the hell out of my face before going to sleep, the swelling and soreness were totally manageable.
At this point, I was really glad I had opted for an apartment with a full kitchen for my accommodation because it was obvious that I was going to need to keep icing my face (thank goodness for plentiful ice trays) and that I’d need to stay in and rest if I was going to be ready for my next procedure the following day.
I spent most of the day in bed, binge watching a Netflix series and downing protein drinks to avoid chewing. Everything felt pretty good, but around four o’clock in the afternoon, my face began to feel pretty flushed and my cheeks went rosy. This, in combination with the fact that I was still bleeding gave me a little concern so I emailed Erika and told her the situation. She consulted with doctor Melisa and told me that if I was worried, I should come in. I went back and forth with myself for a few hours before erring on the side of caution and catching a cab to the clinic to get examined.
When I got there, Doctor Melisa was waiting. As it turns out, she had already gone home for the day and had returned just to see me (another sign that I was in the right place). She examined me for about five minutes and assured me that both the heat in my face and the amount of blood I was seeing were totally in line with the amount of work she had done. She also told me the lack of swelling was encouraging and that I had done a good job with icing myself. After that pat on the head, Erika called me an Uber (again, on their dime) and sent me packing until the next morning at nine a.m. when I was scheduled for my next procedure.