Freedom Under the Sea

Before sending us to pre-service training in-country, Peace Corps preps its volunteers with a pre-departure training. During training session, one learns many tools to breed cultural sensitivity including the infamous DIVE model (which is an acronym for something I forgot) which encompasses the idea of looking beyond the surface of an issue. You gotta dive deep to see the vastness of the situation, and I have quite literally dived deep into in the East Pacific Ocean now, exploring a whole new underwater world.

I love the ocean and I have over 10 years of serious experience in water sports, so one  would think that diving would be an easy sport for me to transition into, YET it was one of my biggest fears. The idea of being “trapped” underwater weighed down with heavy equipment and not being able to surface quickly if there was an emergency due to nitrogen poisoning, was not a sport I found appealing. Still, when the opportunity arose sooner than expected, I bottled up my fear, took a deep dive and kept my eyes open.

Anilao, Philippines

  • Dive site: Anilao Beach Buzz and Dive Resort
  • 3 dives:
    • LigPo Island (34)
    • Dive N Trek (32)
    • Anliao Pier (42)

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  • Instructor: Nel (local Philippine)
  • Highlights:
    • Night dive!
      • Able to stay longer under water, because our max depth was only 10 meters (~32 feet)
      • Saw mini coconut octopus and cuttlefish

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(Coconut octopus photo cred to Russian diver friends we made on the trip at Anilao Beach Buzz and Dive Resort).

  • Feeding the fish
    • Tropical fish swarmed us as we released bread from water bottles

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  • Kevin’s underwater camera!
    • Able to capture some pretty cool creatures even without the red filter lens

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Koh Lanta, Krabi, Thailand

  • 6 dives – Koh Bida and Koh Haa
  • Instructor: Whale (local Thai)
    • *rare instance, to have a Thai instructor – most are foreigners. I think because I spoke Thai, Whale felt comfortable to go out with us
  • Highlight: cave swim throughs
    • Swam into a cave and surfaced into an air bubble cavern
    • Swam through the infamous Cathedral and other caves around Koh Haa islands

*pictures/video to be added later

Diving is not a typical sport for Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand to try out during their service – although Thailand is one of the cheapest countries in the world to be certified, it would take over a full month’s stipend to pay for certification, not to mention transportation to and from, and lodging on the islands. If volunteers do choose to get certified, many wait till their COS funds kick in at the end of service or friends/family foot the bill.

Thanks to Kevin visiting twice, we are both 13 dives deep just 6 months into the sport (more like our grown-up expensive hobby). 4 dives to get certified on Koh Tao and 9 dives this past April in the Philippines and southern Thailand (I’ll be treating Kevin to dives in the Americas in due time after I get a “real” job;)

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Actions to match the Heart

In this next year of service, it is time to really go at everything with a full heart. While my mind races in frustration at the waste of plastic I see around me, my own actions still contribute. Though I can do little to change the habits of humanity, I can start with myself and my small actions of the heart can inspire new habits for those who observe. I am already observed as an interesting specimen on the daily – might as well make a show of some environmentally friendly habits.

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This week, I finally bought a reusable cup for iced coffee at the shop I frequent – such a simple step took me this long! I’ve seen none of the locals buy or bring in any reusable containers – instead they leave with iced coffees and teas in plastic bags or plastic cups that I soon see on the side of the road or in the river. Now the Thais can watch the farang flaunt her refillable cup – maybe I’ll offer myself up for selfies for each reusable cup bought or used…

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I’m known around school for having this water bottle slung to my side; I bought the beautiful crochet sling from PCV129 Cat Nightengale – it is oh so durable and convenient!

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I already have a reusable bag, but this one from TescoLotus just elucidates my one small Thai phrase “rak lok” or “love world” so much more because of its adorable image.

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I carry these utensils around in my backpack on the daily to eliminate plastic fork and spoon usage from food being handed to me (which is quite often).

 

I really need to get better about lugging this nifty to-go container around. Most cooked foods at the market, or even cut up fruit, are put into plastic bags and wrapped in a rubber band, and then put into another plastic bag to carry – this carrier eliminates that waste and keeps the food warmer and securer than a plastic bag ever could.

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Of course, I am also lessening my carbon footprint by riding my bike daily. Although this mode of transportation is forced upon me, it has been a blessing in so many ways. The heat in the south is brutal, but on my bike with the wind in my face I feel refreshed.

Traditionally, rural Thailand is an environmentally conscious country – I love the use of banana leafs to wrap these delicious treats – no plastic packaging needed!

Small actions of the heart can flow into a river of change ❤

Buddhism and Modern Psychology

About a year ago, I took this course Buddhism and Modern Psychology free on Coursera. It was a great way to fill my free time, it taught me concrete mental health techniques, and it served as a cultural exploration of my new home.

I highly recommend the course to any curious minds – next session starts April 16th.

I’m posting my final essay below:

Buddhism and Modern Science are In Sync

   The fascinating element of Buddhism as a spirituality, is that Buddhism correlates so closely with modern psychology’s studies about human nature and the human mind. From quantum physics to neuroscience, the scientific community is discovering many of the naturalistic Buddhist teachings and practices (concentrating mostly on how the mind works, meditation, and leaving out ideas like reincarnation and rituals) are supported by modern science’s findings.

   Buddhism’s main ideas about the human mind are about the impermanence of everything, how attachment to something that is impermanent creates suffering, and that there is no self, at least not in the way lay-people understand the self as a permanent, reliable entity. When the Buddha talks about impermanence of physical objects, he also talks about the impermanence of thoughts; what we are thinking one moment, can quickly change in the next moment as our “transient mindstate arises and passes away.” This quote is by a Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk interviewed on the youtube channel The Wright Show as he discusses the idea that “thoughts that arise are conditioned phenomena” meaning form, sensations, impulses, perceptions and thoughts arise from causes and conditions, are all subject to change and have no essential self-nature. Due to this phenomena, a Buddhist believes in the doctrine that life is suffering; to be more nuanced, Bodhi explains that “dukha” which is roughly translated as suffering, actually refers to the unsatisfactoriness of experiencing sensations of pain, the dissatisfaction in pleasant experiences that are vulnerable to change, and the inadequacy of impermanence.

   Buddhism does offer a prescription to relieve these persistent sufferings, to practice non-attachment by following the eightfold path. One can use meditation as a tool for this journey along the path, because meditation allows the mind to non-attach itself from thoughts, observe them as unattached to the five aggregates (physical form, mental formations, feelings, perceptions and consciousness) that make up the “self” and slowly let go of the ownership or clinging. One point that Bodhi emphasizes, through his experiences is that Buddhism does not essentially rid one of all sensational pleasures, it instead allows one to observe the innocent pleasures more objectively and therefore more vividly of their true essences without the muddling of our self-identifying lenses.

   Modern science, especially through the lens of an evolutionary psychologist, supports the Buddha’s ancient teachings on all levels. Impermanence can be seen in everyday life with the life and death of  of everything; impermanence of the mind and especially our thoughts have been studied by scientists like Paul Bloom who wrote “How Pleasure Works.” He explains how seeking pleasure evolved in the brain as an adaptively beneficial mechanism that causes organisms to seek pleasures, and yet purposely lasts so little time so that our species is motivated to seek more, to survive and ultimately pass on its genes to the next generation. In one lecture, Dr. Wright talked about the neurotransmitter dopamine which is biologically triggered to give us a burst of pleasure and then dissipate. This impermanence creates the suffering, or dissatisfaction, that drives us forward in an evolutionary sense.

   The modular view of the brain creates a premise to view the brain and understand how thoughts are generated, how thoughts want to attach and strengthen and are therefore unreliable narrators and how this view of the brain supports the non-self that the Buddha speaks of. Michael Gazzaniga describes this modular brain framework as a system where “all these modules are not reporting to a department head – it is a free for all, self-organizing system.” This system is not controlled then by our self, an overarching CEO or President people tend to think of as the “self.” Each brain module is most highly activated by information in the environment and this determines which module becomes dominant. Meditation works to relax this uncontrollable system by practicing how to observe stimuli coming in from our environments objectively and disempower thoughts by not giving them attention. Essentially, these thoughts, powered by the emotions unconsciously triggered in our brains, will grow weaker as they are not given attention, allowing thoughts to arise and pass like clouds in the sky. This premise gives strong evidence for proving the impermanence of everything, the suffering that can come out of an attachment to a thought or object and clear non-self.

   A modular view of the brain gives evidence for the compartmentalized state of our brains, that is highly subjective to outside stimuli and to the evolutionary circuits activated to get our genes into the next generation. Modern science continues its research that more than ever is in sync with the ancient teachings of the Buddha.