Archive for July, 2011

Reflections on My Peace Corps Experience

July 18, 2011

It’s the middle of winter in Swaziland, cold, dry and brown. But the pink blossoms of the peach trees remind me that spring is just around the corner – change is on the way! My 27 months of Peace Corps service are winding down. Only two months before the van comes to pick me up at site, and I’ll be off to a Vipassana meditation center near Cape Town. I am looking forward to a visit from my brother, Don and a friend with whom we’ll explore the Cape Town area and the Garden Route. Then in January, it’s on to India to serve and meditate at retreats at dozens of meditation centers all around that diverse country. I’ll be scouting out a place for Jordan and me to live and work for the next few years, maybe longer.

As it seems I am prone to do during times of transition, I am trying to fit my PC experience into my overall life scheme. When I look back at my life, I find a CV where ten- or twenty-year blocks of training and work experience are reduced to a few short, seemingly unrelated paragraphs. As it should be I suspect, a series of letting go of one identity, struggling with the void for a little while before constructing the next. Practice in selflessness, impermanence and letting go of carefully guarded illusions. But how can I relate one phase to the next? Telephone-man to psychologist? Psychologist to Peace Corps Volunteer. And now, PCV to Dhamma server and meditator? Each phase had its unique obstacles, milestones and rewards, personal challenges resulting in emotional, psychological and spiritual growth. As a telephone-man, it was my fear of heights and of working with physically powerful men doing dangerous work. I was called to shift my way of being in the world from adolescent to adult. At the same time I struggled with the demands of being a much too young parent.

On the road to becoming a psychologist, I was forced to develop mental and emotional discipline. In graduate school I was presented with useful systems for self-examination, models for understanding intra- and interpersonal dynamics and methods for uncovering and healing childhood wounds. My psychotherapy practice revealed many hidden aspects of myself as disowned pieces of my psyche were mirrored back to me on a regular basis. I am grateful to my clients for honoring me with their trust and vulnerability. I hope they got as much from our interactions as I did.

Through my Buddhist practice, I was offered brief glimpses of pure awareness and the potential for ultimate freedom. During these 20 years, I took a few baby steps on the path toward mental, emotional and spiritual purification. Only a few steps, but enough to realize the importance of the spiritual path and to solidify my commitment to it.

As a PCV in rural Swaziland, I was sheltered from most of the distractions and responsibilities I carried in my previous lives. This freedom allowed the purification process and related practices to deepen and to become more firmly established. PC gave me time and space to seek direct experience of the laws of nature and how they express themselves in this mind and body, to cultivate my capacity to surrender to life as it unfolds through me. I sense that I am making progress, addressing the challenges one might expect to face during this phase – loss of role, position and identity, once prized possessions and relationships. My mentors have taught me that these are the pre-requisites of any meaningful course of study in the art of living and dying well.

In preparing my final report for PC, my Description of Service, there has been a lot of flipping through old calendars, notebooks, and documents on my Mac in an attempt to quantify my impact and to justify the time, energy and financial investment PC has made in me. In the DOS I listed grants written, training received and delivered, people educated and leaders empowered. But many of the valuable lessons I learned won’t appear there. For example, being on the other side of the world has given me a perspective on American culture that has been illuminating on many fronts. I saw more clearly how I have been shaped and conditioned by my 56 years living there. The Swazi culture provided the necessary contrast to bring many more subtle aspects of my unconscious assumptions and biases to light. More mirrors for the disowned pieces of my psyche. No room for such things in the formal write-up of my DOS. While I am confident it will be some time before I have sufficient perspective to appreciate all that I have learned during my time in Swaziland, I will share some of the lessons that are already obvious to me.

(1) I don’t need so much stuff! I have learned to appreciate the gifts of electricity and refrigeration, refreshing rainwater and a warm bucket bath. Getting around without a car provided me with a glimpse into the lives of the majority of people living on the earth today. It definitely limits one’s creativity and problem-solving capacity to know that you will have to carry everything you buy for a building project, repair job or just to eat, a couple of miles up a dirt, oftentimes muddy, road. Through adapting to such limitations, I am realizing the truth in the statement, “anyone can live anywhere. It just takes some getting used to.” In looking for obstacles to such effective adaptation, I turned inward and learned that I still have some work to do as…

(2) I have a seemingly endless capacity for misjudging – the effects of culture (my own and others), a person’s character, dynamics of interpersonal situations, the capacity and motivation level of volunteers, and of course, many things “I knew” about myself. It’s tough to adjust and function effectively in a situation without a clear understanding of the primary variables involved. A situation that seems one way at first glance reveals itself as something quite different a short while later only to mutate into something altogether unexpected in the end. Not only is everything “out there” changing. The experience, perspective and evaluation of this reality is also constantly changing within me. Compounding my confusion, I am regularly reminded that I don’t have a perspective grand enough to know even if something is good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate much less how I should go about “fixing” it. Lacking the Creator’s vision of purpose, I can’t know if She’s building something or tearing it down. I stand by, hammer in hand awaiting instruction. But from where does instruction come? I know from my experience that it has to come from within. When my inner voice is silent, I sometimes grow impatient and charge forth with blind enthusiasm to fix all that is broken. During these times I am reminded that…

(3) I really don’t need to fix all of “the world’s problems.” Maybe it’s enough to whole-heartedly engage the Mystery with good intentions and let the outcomes fall where they may. While I certainly fell short of meeting my naive expectations, I gave it my best shot. As a result of my PC service, 250 children will have at least one meal a day and regular access to caring adults. They are also now on the radar screen of NGOs and Swazi agencies who focus on the needs of children. One man will move from a hovel into a solid, dry home. A few people found a job or other ways to generate income for themselves and their families. A dozen more now have the sewing equipment and materials they need to progress a few steps further toward earning a reasonable living. A handful of community leaders now have “increased capacity,” more skills and knowledge so that their work will more likely be helpful to their community. From my time living here, some Swazis have a better understanding of Americans and some of our “unusual” habits. Because of some of the many conversations I had, some Swazis may be more open toward the westerners they encounter who are working for the NGOs, running businesses, wildlife parks or casinos. Hopefully, my work here will make these interactions more respectful, harmonious and productive. Perhaps some of my Swazi neighbors will join with westerners to start businesses of their own. Six adorable puppies got a healthy start in life in an environment where precious few puppies survive past the first weeks, their mother’s milk gone dry from the combination of starvation and the stress of too many mouths to feed. Our community members were exposed to a very different way of treating dogs. There were a lot of comments about our interactions with and care for our puppies. I can only pray some of this respect for animals has taken hold and will survive my passing. Bringing me to my next lesson…

(4) Prayer works! Throughout this time, the good spirits received my prayers for the welfare of all that surrounds me: men, women, children, animals, plants, rocks, sky and soil. I wish I were confident that my prayers will save even one of my neighbors from their karma. But I am growing more confident that if we are to find salvation, we must all deal with our karma and secure it through our own transformation of consciousness. What I do know is that praying rescued me from deep despair at times when I would lose sight of the ultimate reality and get caught by the pain and suffering of those around me. Prayer provided safe passage back to the calm sanity of my deeper knowing. But I need more than prayer…

(5) I need wise mentors who have walked this path before me. I have been well blessed in finding helpful ones along the way. I have come to rely on the words of wise elders from a variety of backgrounds and spiritual traditions for guidance and support. These mentors have made progress in their personal climb up Spiritual mountain and freely share the wisdom they gained. I listen to Joseph Campbell’s interviews with Bill Moyers, to the poetry of David Whyte and the Dharma talks of various Buddhist masters. Their experiences and knowledge of the path inspire me to keep working. Recently, these words of Carl Jung stirred something within my battered Christian roots, providing encouragement to live an authentic life.

“Are we to understand the ‘imitation of Christ’ in the sense that we should copy his life and, if I may use the expression, ape his stigmata; or in the deeper sense that we are to live our own proper lives as truly as he lived his in all its implications? It is no easy matter to live a life that is modeled on Christ’s, but it is unspeakably harder to live one’s own life as truly as he lived his.” Carl Jung from “Modern Man in Search of a Soul.”

So, I am reminded that…

(6) It’s all good! It doesn’t matter that the suffering I witnessed will continue and in some cases, likely deepen despite my efforts to bring some relief. Nor is it important that the level of ignorance that underlies this suffering will continue long after I am gone. I have a renewed faith that the world is a perfect dynamic creation in progress. This faith deepens despite my failing to understand the purpose of this creation or why humans were made a part of it. On the other hand, I’ve learned that…

(7) Some things do matter! I am convinced that it does matter that I bear witness to some of the world’s suffering. It matters that I make a conscious effort to expand the capacity of my heart to sit peacefully with suffering, my own as well as that of others. It matters that I don’t avoid the discomfort that accompanies this witnessing and defensively shift to self-righteous anger or intellectual analysis. Ultimately, I must see through the illusion of separation between myself and other, to see suffering simply as suffering. It matters that over time, I become less judgmental and reactive, and that I harbor less anger and less fear. It matters that I become more curious, more accepting and loving towards all that I encounter. I’m not “there” yet, and it’s ok because I now know that…

(8) I can set limits so as to not be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned “living among the world’s poor” is that I can walk away from suffering. Whether it’s a group of small hungry children with no shoes, dressed in rags on a cold day, little puppies with eyes sealed shut from infection or an aging woman struggling to keep upright under the weight of her burdens. I can walk away. Still it hurts. It’s difficult to leave anyone or anything to suffer while I sit in a comfortable home, eat warm food, drink cool water, bathe in hot rainwater and relax into the arms of a loving wife. I’ve learned that I can do all the things that bring me joy. But, I’ve also learned that I must let myself feel some of the pain of the world. I must be open if I am to be fully alive and connected to the world around me. It is truly sad, the struggle for existence so many face each day. I’ve learned that I can’t change suffering by ignoring it or by distracting myself, busying myself with chores or signing up for someone else’s life mission. Rather, I have to surrender to the pull of grief and descend into this painful, healing realm – I need a good cry from time to time. And, as Joseph Campbell reminded me just the other day, the world isn’t in need of saving. I am. And through saving myself, I am saving the world, “a vitalized person vitalizes.” Even though these past two years have been challenging on so many levels…

(9) I would do PC again in a heartbeat! Serving in Peace Corps has been an honor and a privilege. It provided a container for personal transformation like nothing I had known before. It tested my flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity and physical discomfort. I learned that I can not change the world but through my willingness to engage it more fully, I can change myself – my perspectives, my values and my ways of being and living in the world. I feel a deep appreciation for this gift and for all those who contributed their time and energy to make my experience safe and rewarding. I would recommend Peace Corps to anyone who wants to test their mettle through an intense cultural emersion experience. You can believe the slogan on the PC website: “it is the toughest job you’ll ever love!”

 

Take good care and stay well!
John

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