It’s my birthday and I’ll write what I want to. Well, actually it was the big day earlier this week. And I did enjoy it very much, with a revisit to Chamonix with my dear Dad who was visiting from downunder. But I have also decided to indulge in writing about something that is not strictly within the self-designated themes of www.taiwanxifu.com — mindfulness.
Mr Taiwanxifu and I have just finished an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. This course is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Wikipedia
a Institute of Technology, Jon Kabat-Zinn. But this course was run in Taipei by Roy Te-chung Chen, a counselor with experience in meditation and mindfulness — including through Taiwanese organisations such as the Dharma Drum Mountain. It was also monitored by a team of graduate students from National Taiwan University, and it was a privilege to meet them and take part in their study.
We were so blessed to be on this course. Blessed, because for various reasons both our lives have been severely out of kilter with the stresses of living and working overseas and being parents to two gorgeous but demanding boys. Blessed also because Roy is a talented storyteller, and each week I found the time just flew by as he related anecdotes and theories about stressors and stresses, and how to transform our lives so that we can meditate and find joy in even simple actions such as eating a meal or brushing our teeth. Yes, meditaion is not just sitting still although we did a lot of that, including during a silent retreat (what a way to spend a Sunday!) and some gentle Hatha yoga moves.
I haven’t found nirvana yet and my transition to mindfulness living is a work in process. I am still a self-admitted Type A Taipei overachiever, and I have not managed to reform my perfectionist tendencies after a short course. But I am learning that no-one can avoid having stressful things happen to them. ‘That’s life,’ Roy says. And this point was brought home in our small group sharing discussions, where it quickly became apparent that everyone — housewives, elite postgraduate students, public servants, retirees and trailing spouses — all had their own stresses, be it work, finances, health, relationships or family. The issue is not so much what the stressful events are, but how we react to them. And mindfulness helps us to focus on the present moment, rather than letting all the worries and playbacks clutter our thinking.
Case in point, I am writing to you from a holiday in Hualian, along Taiwan’s stunning eastern Coast, where we are staying in a luxury bed and breakfast with views out to the mountains of the Rift Valley. Are you envious? Sounds fabulous, and it is. But then, consider some of the ‘stresses’ (or stressors) about going on holidays.
Mr Taiwanxifu drove the car down to Hualian, while I took our two boys and my Dad down by train. The morning we left there was a great deal of stress about last minute packing. Had we packed enough nappies (diapers)? Or the mobile charger, and in plugs for all the other various communication and camera devices. In the process, I remembered in the nick of time that we had forgotten the portable baby cot, some clothes still hanging out to dry, and snacks for the train. And I made a few last minute phone calls before we headed out the door. Mr Taiwanxifu left first during the remnants of typhoon rain; I started worrying almost immediately about his safety on the road.
My dad, the kids and I took a taxi to the train station, which thankfully wasn’t far, but we needed to be on time. There was a bit of a scuffle as no-one could figure out how to fold up the pram in the absence of Super Dad. What would we do? Thankfully the taxi driver worked it out. Then we had ten minutes at the station to buy some last minute drinks and food for the train, including a well-needed cup of tea for me and cappuchino for my Dad. We all got on the train in time, and then we organised all of our many things and settled into a two hour journey. Somehow, in between balancing one child on my knee, talking to my Dad about the meaning of life and counting trains with my eldest child, I managed to finish my hot cup of tea. Then a friend who has just had a baby rang, and while momentarily distracted by hearing about his daughter, my youngest child (who has just started to walk and won’t sit still) collided into the seat and wound up with a bleeding lip. The guilt about feeling like a bad parent was probably worse than the fleeting pain he felt and forgot,
Train trip continued with elder son wanting to go home to get one of his story books, then demanding to see his Dad, younger son squirming before becoming overtired and refusing to sleep, and both of them making a complete mess by dropping biscuits on the floor and stomping through them. My Dad helped, but mostly the kids just wanted Mummy: both of them, at the same time.
We arrived in Hualian and I went off with one reluctant child in search of hidden bathrooms. He didn’t want to go because he was still looking for Daddy. Walking baby, who has separation issues, went ballistic as I walked away . Granddad was thankfully unfazed by the kids, and let him cry it out. Lunch at McDonalds was not exactly cultural, but kept the kids happy (and Granddad appreciated another coffee). Baby fell asleep (finally) in his pram.
We checked into the Green Villas, a beautiful and relaxed minsu (B&B) in the Shoufeng area of Hualian. Time to relax? No way! Kids were so excited to be in a new place that they ran around the garden like crazy, falling over uneven stones, and then kept jumping all over grandpas’ bed. Which was very cute, but trying to catch two uncoordinated and active kids to avoid them hurtling off a high double bed was a bit of a juggling act: I felt like the goal keeper at a soccer game.
Mr Taiwanxifu, having arrived safely from his epic drive to Hualian, now had to make some urgent phone calls to Australia and do some banking in relation to some issues to do with an investment house we are purchasing. The tenant is moving in on a fixed date, and everything has to be just right by that fast-approaching date: it is a bit touch and go. So my Dad and I took the kids to 7-Eleven to give him space, where my eldest spilt pudding and the two kids fought over a probiotic drink. We returned to find that Mr Taiwanxifu had gone out looking for us, and we couldn’t get into our room. The kids jumped all over granddad’s bed again, and I fine honed my catching skills.
It was now nearly 5.00pm and we headed out to the nearby Clam Musuem. I worried that it might be closed, but we went anyway. The kids played in the water and got all their clothes wet and Mr Taiwanxifu worried about them catching colds. I worried about being a bad mother because they both fell over into the water. We went to dinner at the Five Loaves and Two Fishes restaurant, and baby threw possibly the loudest tantrum ever, shaking his fat head resolutely and refusing to eat (we finally figured out he loved the chilli and basil clams but nothing else). The kids also fought over the iPad. After baby finally ate, I took him out for a walk. He discovered the motion-sensored glass door to the restaurant, so we went back and forth again and again and again and again (Mr Taiwanxifu said he had also earlier done this at least a hundred times with him), while I have pangs of guilt about annoying the restaurant staff.
Back to out B & B and the nighttime ritual began. Baby screamed as only he can, and it took Mr Tawanxifu nearly an hour to rock him to sleep. He was nearly asleep, when our preschooler was too loud and woke him up. Finally, quiet time for parents. Mr Taiwanxifu does some more investment errands, I respond to several important emails, and then we both realize we have forgotten to pay the deposit for our anniversary lunch (the reason for our trip. Luckily Mr Taiwanxifu fixed it the next day).
A nightmare holiday? As our teacher Roy would say, ‘that’s life’. My father, who coincidentally is also named Roy, kept telling us that our kids are actually remarkably well behaved, and they are in general a delight to be around. He reminded me of a holiday when I was only small, where managing two girls was so much that he and my mother packed up and came home early. Kids are only small and difficult to transport like this once, and when they are at their goldilocks best, they just melt my heart. I am sure we will look back on this time with fond memories: when they are a bit older, it will no longer be so cool to hang out with mum and dad. And if we were sitting at home and not going anywhere, we would probably all develop cabin fever and everyone would be very niggly.
So even a holiday can be stressful. But the trick is not to make it so. Yesterday, before I left home I made sure that I spent ten minutes meditating. Then I followed that calm feeling through with my morning shower, enjoying the sensation of the warm water and good quality soap. Sometimes when having my morning shower I am reminded of an experience narrated in Schindler’s List, where some women in Auschwitz were crammed into a shower — they expected the worse and were so delighted to be rained on by cold water rather than gas, despite the freezing weather. How often do we take our everyday luxuries like a warm morning shower for granted? How often do we wake up feeling joy for the abundance in our life, and stop to actually taste our breakfast?
I have learnt that a short rest at lunchtime totally reforms and uplifts me in ways that I had not thought possibly. Even my workmates now realize that I am a much, much nicer person to be around if I have a short rest at lunchtime. Usually I have a nap, although more recently I haven taken to listening to MBSR bodyscan tapes, which I find oddly effective.
On my first day of our holidays, I was not able to rest at lunchtime but by mid-afternoon I announced that I needed a short break. So I sat down and meditated for 15 minutes outside our room. I could hear my kids giving their Dad a hard time and for a while wondered if I should stop and intervene. But if I had not taken time out for myself, I probably would have completely lost it during the tantrum throwing over dinner. Or earlier. Being centered meant that I was able to observe that my son was doing what most young children do — crying because he didn’t get his way — but it allowed me to remain in control and not over-react to his theatrics.
Which brings me to an important point: I have found that taking time out to nourish your own emotional well being is the best gift you can give to your family and those around you. It might seem ‘selfish’ to somehow ‘find’ the extra time in your day just for you, but you and your loved ones will read the many benefits it brings. It might take time to reconfigure our day to allow space for us to slow down — and let’s face it, modern life with its multiple deadlines doesn’t really promote slowing down and focusing on one thing or even better nothing at all — but a calmer, nicer you will be able to prioritise, concentrate better and solve problems. And everyone will notice the difference.
Roy Chen will run the next Chinese language MBSR course in Taipei in November.