Zen Buddhism by accident

Traveling is great.

I savor all the “slap in the face” moments that bring me closer to reality and more appreciative of the hand I’ve been dealt.

Travel is an education all in itself. Lessons pile up one after the other, faster than I ever expected.

They come from all angles and at all times. You can’t control or guess when you’re going to get served up a life lesson.

At the outset of an experience you may be thinking to yourself… this is gonna be a good one.

But you never know where it’s going to end up…

Today’s Learning: Zen Buddhism by accident, in the immigration office.

I’m sitting in the office of immigrations in Da Nang city.

If there is any order of operations here, I’m blind to it.

It seems like whoever pushes themselves to the front, gets out of here quickest.

Raise a fuss. The officer wants to get rid of you so he pushes your paperwork through.

Ugh. That goes against everything my dad taught me. It feels so wrong.

It worked. I got my paperwork in.

Now I know why everyone else does it.

But that’s as far as I go… back to being patient. Now they are processing. And I have no idea what they are doing.

This country and this office is so foreign. But the fundamental building blocks are so similar to what we have back home.

This office resembles all other government establishments I’ve been to various countries, in so many ways:

  • Plastic bucket seats that look like they were reclaimed from sections of a stadium
  • People filling all the seats and lining the walls
  • A crying baby
  • Floors that were surely cleaned this morning but which have been walked on and stood on for so long that they are permanently dirty
  • A cornucopia of people
    • The grandma – accompanied by daughter or granddaughter who, even though appears to be on the brink of death, waits so patiently, like she has all the time in the world. Imagining what she has been through in her 80 some odd years of life, I can understand how she has gained the patience she is demonstrating.
    • The Fancy – with elaborate nails and a pair of shoes you wouldn’t want to walk a block in, she is ready to find her fiancée anywhere. She has diamond studded nail extensions and one of her nails has a full pearl on it. She isn’t turning too many heads in this crowd.
    • The Tourguide – what are the chances that she gets there 30 seconds before me and unloads a bag of 40 passports for the officer to process? Pretty good I guess… (that’s exactly what happened)
    • The Student – his dream of traveling abroad hangs on the balance of a stamp.
    • The Countryman – based on his attire and the bewildered look it his eyes, my guess is that he either came from the countryside specifically to take care of business here or he has just moved to the city and is getting his paperwork in order.

This cast of characters could be out of the Los Angeles DMV.

And the sentiment in the room wasn’t much different from an American public service office.

Earlier the anxiety of the room was palpable.

You’ve got a room over capacity, surely a fire hazard, and everyone wants something. Not only does everyone want something, but it’s time sensitive and now that they’ve passed their documents onver and paid, it is out of their control.

People’s dreams hang in the balance and await the stamp of approval from their government.

Yes, you can stay – for the Japanese huspand of a Vietnamese wife.

No, we can not process your visa for the

ID processing time is a minimum of 7 working days – I am sorry if you need it sooner for you new job, sir, these are the rules.

You filled the form out wrong, please fill it out again. It will be another 5 days of processing.

People wait with patients, mostly.

They leave with happiness, frustration, or disappointment.

It’s afternoon now and somehow hotter.

The air conditioning is on but every other person who enters leaves the door open. Sometimes someone will get up to close it (my hero), but it’s no use. The cold air escapes and I’ve long surrendered to a slow and steady sweat.

The room has cleared out quite a bit. There are a few empty bucket seats.

Most people remaining have been here for hours. They’re too tired to be anxious anymore.

They’ve either given up, accepting that what they had hoped to accomplish today will not happen… or they believe that they’ve almost made it to the end of the day and so they must get something by 5pm.

I’m in the latter group.

And… I’ve also had an epiphany that changed my entire outlook on today’s unfortunate turn of events.

It all started with a simple question.

What’s it like to work here?

I’ve always wondered what it is like to work in an office like this.

Especially an entity like the DMV.

I imagine they see the same things day in and day out. They fill in the same paperwork. They answer the same questions. They stamp and staple with authority. Day in and day out.

It’s probably not much different than most other jobs.

You get trained on 5 very important parts of your job and you execute those. Sometimes a few other things arise and add excitement to you day. But 80% of your job is the same 5 replicable, redundant tasks, over and over.

If you do them well you move up. You’re given a pay raise and a set of 5 new tasks to do.

It’s exciting at first as you are learning, then you conquer them. The learning slows and then stops. You find some other ways to amuse yourself or make the job fun. But after a while you just resort to daydreaming, mostly about the next raise or doing something drastic like quitting and moving to Hawaii.

But at the end of the day, your dreams, your future, your very existence is up to someone else to decide.

I’m thankful that I don’t have this job.

I’m also thankful that I’m outside of the cubical, away from the boss, and traveling.

But today is not a feet-in-the-sand type day.

No.

Today is a day for paying dues.

There are two things about paying your dues as a traveler.

Part One: Logistics

If your’e going to live a live of travel, hopping around the globe and seeing things that less than .01% of the world’s population gets to see, you’ve got to pay your dues.

You have to spend time researching, filling out forms, and paying for visas.

You have to accept that you’re going to get sick. Your stomach’s microbiome just isn’t adjusted to the microorganisms on the other side of the world.

You have to accept that you’re going to pay too much for something and find out about it after the fact. Whether it’s street food or a cab ride. It’s going to happen.

You have to deal with the loneliness of being in a place where you know no one and you can’t just jump in the car to go see you best friend or your family.

You have to deal with jet lag and long flights, public restrooms, wearing the same clothes, and… so much more.

It comes with the territory.

When I’m sick in bed, alone in a hotel room…

When I realize I’m on the wrong bus 2hrs into the ride…

When I get stopped at immigration for an inexplicable reason and then have to wait at the local immigration office all day…

I have to remind myself, “you gotta pay your dues bud”.

I guess today I was overdue.

And this is how I interpret it…

Part Two: Context

You’ve got to appreciate what you have.

If you can’t appreciate what you have today, you won’t be happy by what you achieve tomorrow.

I remind myself, “You’ve got to put your situation into context and come to terms with it.”

I’m spending one day in this room with an uncertain future. I thought I had done everything right, yet I’m still here.

My initial feeling is – I don’t deserve this.

Something was taken from me.

Loss Inventory:

  • My time, my precious time
  • A $75 flight to Thailand
  • Most likely (pending the outcome) the $75 flight back and my hotel accomodations

Total monetary loss is about: $200 and counting (If I have to rebook flights and hotels)

I can not get that money back. In a place like Vietnam, that goes a long way. That’s the equivalent of…

  • Half a month’s rent
  • 100 decent Vietnamese meals
  • 8 very nice Western style meals
  • 200 cold beers at the bar
  • 200 Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwhich)

Total time loss about: 8hrs and counting

It’s strange how this feeling of loss works.

If I had made a mistake and forgot my passport at the hotel, then missed my flight as a result I’d be quite upset.

I’d beat myself up about it.

“I can’t believe you forgot your passport, the ONE item you absolutely need to travel”

“You must be losing it! You’re an idiot.” (self image shattered)

“What a charade. You weren’t fooling anyone. You’re an ass. Not only does everyone else know it, but now you realize it too. AND the fact that you were blind to it this whole time makes you even more of a jackass.”

Ouch. That’s the immediate self-talk.

Usually I recover pretty quickly from it. Follow up self talk:

“No, I had a lot on my mind. I was flipping through my passport the night before and put it by the bed stand. I usually put it in my pack the night before.”

“I will learn from this lesson and always double, triple check before I leave.”

“Plus, what’s the damage? I stay here an extra day and fly out tomorrow. I can get my flight switched for a small fee. It’s part of paying your dues”

My Strategy:

  1. place the blame on outside factors
  2. make sure it’s a one-time event not a result of my character
  3. remember all the times I’ve done things right

“See, I’m not an ass. I just had a short blip. I’m pretty consistent otherwise and we all get a mulligan. Plus, I’ve learned from it and moved on”

The whole ordeal could be over in an hour or less. My blood boils, I lose faith in myself, and I recover, all in the time it would take have a meal at Burger King.

This case is much different, however.

This case is cause for even deeper introspection, dissection, and examination.

The entire meaning of life is up for debate as a result of this unexpected situation…

There are some things I could have done to predict and prevent this situation. Most likely.

But that’s TBD. As I’m writing this, I still don’t know what the problem is. Therefore I don’t know how I could have prevented it.

The Main Disturbance: Someone else took my time.

Or at least that’s how I felt walking in here.

I have no explanation for what’s going on or what to expect.

(+ 2 stress points for uncertainty)

I’m sitting in a room, waiting for someone to give me an update. I don’t know if I’ll be permitted to leave the country tomorrow or in a week. I don’t know if I’ll have to file additional paperwork, pay fines, or bribes…

And this is very stressful because of the way I’ve been operating.

I’ve been in overdrive for 2 years.

Gotta make every second count. No down time!

Absolute efficiency!

Mon-Fri + Saturday! (Sundays too!)

There is so much to do and only I can get it done.

The Result: I have a skewed sense of time and how to value it. I’m only getting value out of time used to check things off the to do list.

On the grading scale of efficiency, today was an F.

Likely because of some bureaucratic hang up… or a miscommunication, today my time has been taken away from me. One entire day… with the possibility of multiple days on top dealing with the outfall.

That’s a bad day for someone who at one point, was tracking every hour of his day and reviewing it weekly to see where he could optimize it.

The initial outlook was dire, but what really happened?

Today I’ve been forced to live in the moment.

Forced to sit back, take in the atmosphere, and let my mind go free.

No more small mundane tasks piled up on top of each other that serve as distractions.

Distractions from deep thought.

Distractions from absorbing the present.

Distractions from introspection about meaning and what’s really important.

The result is an exercise where I address the way I’m feeling, how I got there, and whether or not I have a right to dwell on those feelings.

Can I put things in context?

Can I be thankful for what I have?

After answering these questions truthfully I don’t feel upset.

Actually, I feel quite happy.

Not only did I NOT have my time taken away from me. I was given a gift. And I needed it.

I was given the free time to do some deep thought and to put things where they need to be.

I was able to remind myself that I’m extremely lucky to be in the position I’m in.

  • Born in America, my passport is welcomed in almost any country in the world without a problem.
  • I can learn anything anytime because I have internet access, speak english, and have money to pay for high tier online classes (even though most is free).
  • I can work from anywhere in the world.
  • I’m healthy and comfortable in my own skin. I don’t need to to dress fancy to or brandish expensive goods to demonstrate my worth.

The list goes on…

But I have to remind myself regularly, which takes time, and self awareness – something that was handed to me today.

But what about Zen Buddhism?

I don’t believe in divine intervention. I don’t think that this happened to me for a reason.

I have an even stronger revelation.

I would have been just as happy had I been on my flight to Thailand. Maybe I would have even had similar revelations based on what happened there.

I’m happy either way and I’m in control of that.

I have the know-how to take a situation that is out of my control and come to terms with it.

I have the ability to interpret my feelings (stress, anxiety, disappointment), break them down, get to the root of their cause, and come to terms with them.

This invariably dissolves them.

Bonus: Every time I do it, I’m practicing. I get better at it. I get faster. I become more confident.

Is this what the Zen Buddhists experience? Is this the calm confidence they embody? It is all based off of knowledge and practice.

It can be learned.

I’ve never studied Zen Buddhism or any other similar practices.

I don’t meditate either.

But I imagine this type of conquering of ones emotions is what they all have in common.

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