Archive | July, 2014

Going Expat: An Exercise in Mindfulness

16 Jul

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It’s been a long time, several months, since I have added a post to my blog.  I’ve been happily preoccupied with finding, and now decorating a new house, giving me lots of time to ponder many matters.

I was first introduced to the idea of “mindfulness” decades ago, probably first from the Alan Watts book, The Art of Living, and then later when I learned of the practice of “self-witnessing,” or self-monitoring one’s feelings, thoughts and sensations.  Initially I had trouble with the concept because it seemed narcissistic to me, a form of over self-involvement.  My understanding of the concept has evolved over the years and become more palatable by simply using the word “mindfulness.”   In one of my favorite books, Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield puts it simply by defining mindfulness as “receptive, non-judging awareness.”  However it is defined, I contend there is no better exercise for the practice of mindfulness than the experience of living in a foreign country.  Out of the United States for three and a half years now, and in Mexico for over two, living the life of an expat brings a consistent, heightened awareness of virtually everything — the smell of the air, the sound of foreign tongues, the constant realization that this is a different life, wrought from a different culture.  Attentiveness to the present, characterized chiefly by curiosity, is not only a choice but in foreign lands almost a necessity — a moment-to-moment awareness of what is in front of one, be it cobblestones to navigate or the sight of Aztecs reenacting ancient dances.  I keep expecting that this sense of alertness will diminish over time as I become increasingly comfortable and familiar with Mexican life.  Certainly it is not as it was initially when every scene that visited my eye was new and alien; yet happily the sense of wonder continues to persist.  There is of course a downside: a certain fatigue borne of the keenness of one’s observations.  When I think of my last visit to San Diego, I remember the deep comfort from being in the familiarity of my “homeland”; of sinking into my favorite chair in my brother’s living room and not wanting to move.  Of knowing that if I ventured out, I would not have “issues,” i.e., I would be able to communicate effectively and, presumably, achieve whatever goals I might have in mind.

When speaking of the joys of life as an expat with one of my friends in Marin County, she opined that for her the sense of community she enjoys would be painful to leave.  It gave me cause to ponder what we mean by “community.”  Perhaps because I lived a somewhat nomadic existence as a child — which trend has continued through most of my adult life, I don’t quite share those concerns.  Indeed, in some sense I feel more a sense of community here in Mexico than ever before.  That may be related to many factors but the most obvious ones that come to mind are the absence of a car and the presence of a dog.  As a California girl fully enamored by the car culture, the thought that I would ever be without a car of my own was incomprehensible.  Since the ’54 Ford that I first drove, cars have always symbolized to me both independence and freedom.  My thinking has changed to such an extent that I have lost all desire to own a car and now sympathize with those who have to deal with car repairs, insurance issues, licensing, etc.  Speaking of licensing, when I first came to San Miguel I was puzzled by the number of South Dakota license plates that I saw;  why, pray tell would so many people from South Dakota find their way to San Miguel de Allende?  I finally discovered the answer when someone told me that you can register a car in South Dakota without having car insurance.  Thus, many expats from many different States register their automobiles in South Dakota and then purchase Mexican car insurance when they arrive here, saving them the cost of insurance required for car registration in most if not all other States.   But I digress.  Okay so yes, there are times when I wish for a car for a trip to Costco or Home Depot in Celaya or Queretaro, 45 minutes away, and I imagine there is another car in my future someday.  But the green and white taxis that whisk me around town for 35 pesos are more than sufficient and I never get stuck in traffic or have to worry about finding a parking space.  And then there is the dog.  There are several construction sites that Oliver and I pass on a daily basis.  When they see us, there is a unison of voices in greeting, “Oh-lee-vair.”  They don’t know my name but they know his.  After walking with one of my Mexican friends for several blocks, she inquired, “Is there anyone in San Miguel that doesn’t know Oliver?”  Probably not.  He is a handsome fellow and English Cockers are a rarity here so he gets much attention.   At the bakery each morning we are welcomed by the owner who automatically bags my daily croissant as we discuss the morning’s weather.  In the park we greet other dogs and their owners, or give restaurant advice to tourists.  On our way home we stop first at the flower stand to see the day’s offerings, then Oliver pulls me into the Cava Deli where, if he is lucky, he receives a piece of cheese. Closer to home we visit with the mechanic whose shop is across the road from our old house (while he and I chat, Oliver chases his cats);  the man in the Tienda de Pollo (chicken store) sees me coming and knows what I will ask for, often having it ready before I order.  Sometimes as we are walking down the street, a car will drive by and someone will roll down their window and yell, “Oh-lee-vair”; often I don’t even recognize the driver.  So “community” is an interesting word.  There’s the dog community, the AA community, the gay community, the neighborhood community, the national and global communities; it’s a topic that has spawned much thought.

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Here’s a shot of Oliver in the alleyway we walk several times a day, recently renamed Camino de Paz.

Here’s some other stuff I’ve been thinking about:

I was doing a crossword puzzle but had the TV on and out of the corner of my ear I heard someone say something about the speed at which our “collective knowledge base” doubles.  I wasn’t listening closely but they reported that at some point in the past (maybe the 17th or 18th century) our collective knowledge base doubled every 150 years.  Allegedly it now doubles every two years; by 2020, it is predicted to double every 72 hours.  When I discussed this with my friend Tom he mentioned a science fiction book he had read where everyone had “information sickness.”  Could it be that the exponential growth rate of scientific knowledge will outpace the rate at which we can assimilate it?  Indeed, do we have the cognitive capacity to keep up?  And if it’s changing so rapidly, is all “knowledge” provisional?  This reminded me of a speech my brother gave at his daughter’s wedding in which he reflected that as he aged, he knew less and less.  And if we define science as knowledge about the physical world, will there be a time when science will have learned all it can learn?

Then a few nights later I was watching a program about NASA in which it was suggested that the most significant accomplishment of NASA in all of its years of existence is not the moon landing but the shuttle program for its ability to fix and improve the Hubble telescope.  The claim was that through the Hubble telescope, we have learned more about the universe than all the combined knowledge that had preceded it.

And later that same evening I watched a program from Canada (our television is transmitted via Canadian satellite) about the philosophical question of Free Will vs. Determinism.   Although I studied such questions in college, it was interesting to be reminded of the age-old argument.  The laws of determinism have formed the basis of science, from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics and beyond.  Yet to endorse determinism is to deny our daily conscious experience of free will — every day in multiple ways we “choose” to act, to take a walk, to buy a newspaper, to send an e-mail to a friend; is free will only a trick of the brain?  I like the definition of free will as, “I am able . . .”  which made me think of all of the things of which I am “not able.”  There are physical impediments (i.e., I am no longer capable of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro) as well as mental impediments (i.e., if bitten by a dog as a child, I may have an abiding fear of dogs).  Having some acquaintance with addiction, I wonder now if, for example, a heroin addict is “able” to quit.  I like the jargon of philosophy, i.e., “causal sufficiency” — and was particularly struck with the idea that what is determined is not necessarily inevitable.  If someone throws a brick at my head, was the idea that the brick would hit me “determined” but, if I duck, not necessarily “inevitable”?  As I ponder these matters I am reminded that my first husband accused me and my kin of being full of “hot air”; as opposed to actually accomplishing anything.  (He was an accomplished engineer, complete with pen protector, and had little regard for this kind of thinking.)  All these years later, I still remember and consider his remark.  After all this, some of you might have to agree with him.

For those of you who follow this blog because of your interest in San Miguel, I apologize for my current introspection.  At the moment I have little to add about San Miguel beyond what I have already written over the past two years.  It is truly a magical place, and continues to enchant us.  Oh, and because I do keep up with the news of the world I am aware that immigration is currently a hot issue.  One of my friends here was recently deported from Mexican for not having the proper visa.  It is surmised that someone reported him because a group of policemen came and arrested him and took him to the border the same day.  Sadly his dog was left behind but they have now been reunited when friends put the dog on a plane bound for Arizona.  Obtaining the proper visas can be challenging and require proof of income, etc.

From our observations it appears that San Miguel has become the Carmel of Mexico.  The weekends bring large numbers of Mexican tourists and the Texans (who are traditionally here in August) are beginning to arrive.  The Jazz and Blues Festival is about to start as well as the International Film Festival.  There’s always something happening.   All is well.

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