On the Art of Living

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Tosor, Kyrgyzstan.

The night before my 32nd birthday, I had a dream. It was a dream about a postcard. The card itself I don’t really remember… I think there may have been flowers or some sort of majestic running animal on it. The point was that, in my dream, I had been trying to send it from multiple successive locations on my trip, but it had been returned to me due to insufficient postage. The stamps were piled on at least a centimeter thick — I guess I’d dutifully added money in the past. I brought it to the “post office” (which, oddly, appeared to be in the women’s changing room of Planet Fitness), where I was told that I’d need to add another $10 of stamps.

$10?!? For a postcard?!?” I exclaimed.

Yes. Why so upset? You’ve already paid $40 for all these stamps here” the mail clerk responded, gesticulating at the exploding mound on the upper right corner.

I woke up at 4am in a cold sweat, snarling and chewing my pillow.

I’d like to say that this feckless assault of my bedding was a one-time event, but it would be a brazen lie. These violent displays happened almost every night, and I awoke on more than one occasion to find my fat little pillow peeping out bitterly from the wall crack where I had ruthlessly ground it in with my knee overnight.

I guess I’ve had a lot of suppressed frustration.

Not for no reason, either. Money has been on my mind almost constantly as the end of my trip draws ever nearer, and the eventual return to all my responsibilities in the US looms colossal. The cheerful haze that has marked the last few months of travel is on the verge of dissipating, and yesterday morning, I even received a probing email from FedLoan Servicing that “just wanted to remind” me that my student loan payments start in December. Ah, yes. Those. Yeah- I DON’T NEED REMINDING. I AM AWARE.

Nevertheless, even though I know that I only have a limited time to go home, get set up, and start making cash before my first bill arrives, I’ve been reluctant to set a date to do so. I’ve hemmed and hawed and come up with all manner of reasons to push back the task of airfare shopping. So I’ve watched as the tickets have inched up in price, and used it as a reason to set my return date even further back.

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I have no idea why I’m putting this here. I just really want people to marvel over the size of this corn! Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Being among the travel community again, feeling like myself again, feeling free for the first time in years,… all this has been contributing to the annihilation of the memory of graduate school and frankly, I have been the happier for it. After all, I’d nearly needed to change into a completely different person to even survive the program. I suddenly became serious and terse. I was reluctant to share any part of myself with my colleagues or classmates, and I think I only genuinely laughed once in all those three years (to a joke regarding pubic hair, which has always been my weakness). I had a group of great girlfriends with whom I could unwind, but more often than not, we were too busy to see much of each other. After my first year, I barely even recognized myself. After all, unlike so many other fields of study, Nursing seeks to break you down to your ankles and build you back up in the form of a compassionate, professional healthcare provider. Even such things as how to question a patient to motivate change are carefully crafted and delivered– a strong departure from my normal reflex of just opening my mouth and seeing what drops out (I’m usually just as surprised as anyone else).

More to the point, I’ve been skittish about going home to start my first real job. While nursing school did the best it could to prepare me for my upcoming career, I was far from being the star pupil of my class. I belly-crawled through exams. My textbooks often served as soy sauce-stained placemats that I began just leaving in the kitchen by my second year (they were more useful there). I once shamelessly professed that NSAIDs were hell for the liver, and Tylenol havoc for the kidneys. On our last exam for the program, I assessed a “real” clinical visit on the fly and ended up sending a little old lady with acute heart failure back to her empty 3rd story flat, stating that I’d “call to check in on her” later (I essentially killed my patient).

Being a nurse practitioner will be the absolute most responsibility I have ever had in my adult life, and I am not sure I am ready for it. It feels almost unreal, like another life that I’d fixed up and filed away for use when travel got tiresome. The “me” that I’d cultivated to navigate that part- the one who was capable of handling the immense responsibility- she felt like a farce: someone I could “put on” for a few hours in clinic to play the role while the “real” me pawed away at my insides, desperate to make a butt joke or absentmindedly pick at my earwax. A part of me worried that spending so much time as this “other Sam” would eventually change or break the “original Sam.” The real one. The one that people who actually knew me liked, and the one that I liked, myself. It’s hard to explain.

So, partly to delay the terrifying new reality I’d crafted for myself, and partly to make good on a promise I’d made to a close friend last year, I found myself in Indonesia again. After leaving Central Asia, I zipped off to South East Asia and entered my first Vipassana course. For two weeks, I said goodbye to the world and shut myself away in a lonely compound in the hills surrounding Bogor, in Java.

I didn’t know what to expect. At best, I thought it might be a great way to get out of the city and seek some peace and quiet somewhere. At worst, I fretted that it would end up being some hippy-dippy commune where I’d be required to wear a track suit and drink dubious-looking punch all day long. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d be learning how to meditate (despite it saying so right in the name). Imagine my surprise when I saw that our daily schedule involved 11 hours of the stuff!

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I’d never really meditated before, and really never thought of myself as being someone who would indulge in such a thing. After all, I have health insurance. I own a TI-83 calculator, and don’t even know the first thing about playing a banjo. People like me don’t meditate.

That said, a good friend of mine had been pushing me to sign up for a course for what seemed like forever. The program was free, and hell, what else was I going to be doing with that time? I signed up and was accepted.

A very basic run-down is that Vipassana is a secular meditation technique meant to help the practitioner develop control over their mind and actions by cultivating equanimity. Throughout the day, as sensations and emotions arise, you are meant to quietly observe them and not react, learning through tangible experience the impermanent nature of everything in life. In this way, you can separate yourself from pleasure (which begets craving) or dislike (which begets aversion), and maintain your inner balance no matter what life throws at you. You seek to master your own mind.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

I should make a note here to all that might want to do a Vipassana course that the center, to support each individual meditator’s practice, enforces some pretty strict rules. These include the “no dinner rule” (I have yet to understand how this would benefit anyone at all), and the practice of “Noble Silence.” I was prepared not to talk for 10 days, but in this case, silence also includes the avoidance of eye contact, written communication, or gestures of any kind. You are also to surrender all your electronics, diary, and all your books. Then you must also keep from killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual behavior, or taking any kind of intoxicant- the five pillars from which all future development is supposed to sprout.

Turns out, when you can’t spend your time swatting at mosquitoes, reading, writing, listening to music, talking to anyone else, or even masturbating (arguably, the most oft-used time killer for a LOT of people), you tune in to things happening in the present. Sometimes, this amounts to nice things, like an overwhelming appreciation for a fuzzy-looking leaf, or a sudden realization that a well done call to prayer is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Other times, it results in not-so-nice things, such as noticing that another person’s bone ivory feet just… piss you off. Why do they have to be there looking so damn EAGER all the fucking time?

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It would be a lie if I said I didn’t spend the majority of my time in the meditation center thinking about the pain in my lower back and legs, while wondering what the fuck I was doing sitting on the floor on this Javanese hilltop when I could have been in Bali, drinking 50 cent beers and dancing in a cage. However, the one part of the day I always enjoyed was the hour-long slot in the evenings where S.N. Goenka, our teacher, would explain aspects of the technique, as well as the purpose behind it. Within one of these “Dhamma Talks,” he said this:

“Everything is ephemeral- arising and passing away every moment… But the rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. One may be able to detect the constant change in a flowing river, but how is one to understand that the man who bathes in that river is also changing every moment?”

It remains to be seen whether learning to become a practitioner of Vipassana will ever lead me to nibbana or even improve my quality of life, but these were words I needed to hear at that moment, anyway. Why was I so keen to hold onto the life and to the “me” that I had had and been in my 20s? After all, sometimes it wasn’t all that. I had decided I wanted to be an NP for a reason– the way that things were simply wasn’t cutting it anymore.

I am not the same person I have always been. When I first got sent away to college, I was a spoiled, shallow, helpless brat. If not for the tough love and pluck of my dormmates, I may have remained that way forever (after all, nowadays, I’m just a helpless brat). Why be so vehement to resist change if in all my past experiences, it had helped shape me for the better?

So I’ve bought my flight home. I’ve started sprucing up my resume and brushing up on my knowledge of EKGs and pharmacokinetics. My job search has turned up more than a couple positions that I’d enjoy, and I’ve been reviewing possible interview questions in my head. It’s hard to let go of what I’d known and been for so long, but maybe it’s not an all-or-nothing kind of deal. Maybe a more “serious” and “terse” Sam is what is needed. Maybe that Sam, with a life full of responsibility and carefully thought out responses has something to offer, too.

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This camel has accepted change. I should, too.


“Nothing is a final product; everything is involved in the process of becoming.”

S.N. Goenka

3 thoughts on “On the Art of Living

  1. Meditation is powerful! I try to do it only 10 min per day and it releases my inner stress and got rid of anxiety attacks and now preventing them waaay more effectively than any pill would do!

    About being a nurse, a hospital in gdl has the following motto: el que no vive para servir, no sirve para vivir. Meditate on that 😉! Enjoy what’s left of your vavation and then enjoy helping people! Scientists say it’s one of the top things that will make you feel happy… Good luck and take care!

    • Mr Kurt!! I fully agree~ even though I’ve been doing it for such a short time, I am finding that my concentration has been so much better, and my attitude towards things so much brighter these last couple of weeks. The real challenge, though, lies in making sure I keep up the practice every day, which is starting to become a struggle. Any suggestions?

      • Make it a routine! It serves me most immediately after work to release stress or when I’m in bed trying to fall asleep it helps to relax. But you could do it first thing in the morning too for example. Just try to do it always at the same time. Avoid doing it after meals though. It’s not as effective with a full stomach.

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