December 30, 2010

Happy New Year 2011

In Mongolia the New Year really starts on February 3rd this year (and they celebrate Tsagaan Sar, 'White Month') because they follow Buddhist traditions that use the lunar calendar. They strongly believe it is the start of a new beginning. Everything is cleaned and new clothes bought - "as the new year begins, so to will the coming year" they say.

In the west, our tradition seems a bit different. Instead of looking forward to a year of hope, we see it as a need to change, to become different, but I guess that also means 'hoping' better. Both traditions are good ideas. In fact, wouldn't it be great if we had a second holiday in February that reminded us of our aspirations we had on January 1st so we'd get a boost of motivation.

But in order to change, to come up with a future plan, we need to look at least a little bit into the past because that is what has brought us up to this point and will determine how we proceed in the future.

I have been here in Mongolian now almost two and a half years. I have become comfortable in my role as teacher which in itself is remarkable as I thought I was the world's worst public speaker (at least in college I was deathly frightened to be in front of a group of people, even classmates). I have tried to change the curriculum to both take into consideration the students needs and my strengths and weaknesses. After nearly constant requests, I am teaching a free class to prepare for the TOEFL exam, something almost every students must pass with flying colors if they ever hope to study in an English-speaking country. It's a difficult test, one I'm not sure I'd pass, and I think my English is pretty good. Along with everything else I've tried to do, all in all, things are pretty well in 'the classroom'.

Outside the classroom is another story. Our organization is plagued with leadership and financial issues. And as of last Friday, we have a new Director, Ani Gylamo, the 4th Director I've had since coming to Mongolia. Ani Gyalmo and I have both lived here at the center since she came exactly two years ago this week. She is a warm and caring person and that can only help her in the difficult role as a foreign director of Mongolian organization. Lama Zopa has asked her to hold the post for a year. The center has been off-track for many years and the work ahead for Ani Gyalmo is dauntingly huge. And while my classroom seems to be calm, I feel it is surrounded by the storm which is in itself very stressful.

All this is very hard to convey in my occasional blog posts. Mostly I revel in the good things that happen and just hope that whatever difficulties we have almost daily, that they are short-lived and lead to better times in the future. Only time will tell how things will be for the Center. At this time, I know everyone, both my students and the staff, hope I will continue to teach English here at the center for many years to come. But I have no idea if that is my future or not. We'll see, I guess.

On a more personal level, I think I can speak for most volunteers around the world when I say we tend to overextend ourselves. When placed in an environment of great need, it is very difficult to say 'no'. Traditionally, most people work very hard to separate their work life from their home life. But as a volunteer in a developing country, all our waking moments are our work life. Maybe for the Peace Corps volunteers I meet, they have the boundless energy of youth to carry them through. But for someone my age, exhaustion and sleep deprivation seem to be the norm. Not the best thing to aspire to, but difficult to change.

After two and a half years I know I can't sustain this anymore. It is affecting everything about me, both mentally and physically. And the fact is that even if I worked nonstop twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the "need" would not go away. There will always be people who need help, forever and ever. So, for my new year's resolutions, I can help those I am helping best by taking better care of myself.

I have found that you can't separate our mental, physical, spiritual selves. Every activity (or non-activity) affects each, which actually makes it easier to deal with it instead of having a checklist. Everything helps everything. So, without going into details which would bore you to death, I'll try to workout more. I have things I can do everyday and if the weather permits, I'd like to be able to run again. I mean really run. At least until I can get back home and ride my bike. All this is totally dependent on ending my workday sooner so I can get a good night sleep before a morning of exercise.

And I need to work less. I know that sounds so 'wrong', when so many are in need. But if I don't do something soon, exhaustion and/or physical illness will make the decision for me. I have always wanted to draw. I don't really have any natural talent, just a desire. Many, many years ago in college I took a drawing class and loved it. And I've drawn a few things that I think people still have hanging on a wall somewhere. So, I've started an online drawing class and Ani Nima has agreed to teach me about Buddhist drawing. With my morning exercise and some art, my mornings should be full enough to give me the time I need away from my work.

And last, and probably the most difficult, I need to really practice saying 'no'. Not aggressively or in a negative manner, but one with caring. And this means everyone, my students, my co-workers, other people I meet, and even myself. I am only one person and I can't be what everyone wants me to be. I'm not trying to be blasphemous, so I ask my Christian friends to forgive me, but as Jesus said, "I am". Just that. I am. Everything else is just labels; son, brother, man, American, Buddhist, teacher, 50-something, short, bald, liberal, socialist, etc, etc, etc. They all mean something but at the same time they mean nothing. If I can help, of course I'll say 'yes'. But I need to be honest with myself - am I saying 'yes' because I can, or because I want someone's approval or don't want someone's disapproval.

Buddhism teaches that we should aspire to a life of compassion and wisdom. Compassion to do everything we can to help our fellow sentient beings, but also the wisdom to know how to do that. So I guess in the end, that is my new years resolution, to learn more about what a life of compassion with wisdom should be like and move toward practicing that better, whether it is mental, physical or spiritual. Because in the end its all the same thing.