Posts Tagged ‘Stillness’

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Presence

Written by Kate • June 13, 2012 •
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Peace Corps

Peace Corps

When I arrived in Benin in 1995, I was your typical type A personality. I expected things to happen like a well oiled machine, for traffic to flow, for service people to get things done in an efficient manner, for me to accomplish something quickly and move on to the next accomplishment. I could use my will to move mountains and get other people to move faster, do the right thing.  This is my perspective of my life was before I left.

I arrived in Benin and went through a series of shocks. Of course, being in a African country itself was the first big shock. Benin is peaceful so there is no famine or conflict or mass migrations. Benin was full of people going about their lives in the most trying of circumstances, without access to education, without transportation, electricity, or running water. And it was damn hot. Tropical, a few degrees off the equator hot. So people didn’t stay indoors much so it was a puzzle to me why everyone was outside all the time. Didn’t they have homes? Benin finally yielded many of its mysteries to me and after a year or so, I was able to easily navigate ordinary life in Benin. I learned something new pretty much every day until I left and it became a warm, comfortable, hospitable environment very quickly.

Adaptation

I learned to love the people, the food, the quiet, the night sky without street lights obscuring my view, full moons, and taking outdoor showers.  I got used to 100 degree heat such that I distinctly remember being at my friend Colleen’s place and wondering if some crazy Arctic cold front had moved in to make it freezing in my part of Africa. I put on all my warmest clothes, two layers, and a blanket. Still cold.  So I finally consulted her outdoor thermometer to find out what level of freezing weather we had achieved in Benin to find myself shocked when it said it was 72 degrees.  In short, I was fully adapted.

Expectations versus Reality

One of the most painful changes I had to adapt to is the fact that no one had the sense of time we have in the West and people prefer to be polite and acquiescing rather than truthful. It took me too long a time to put these concepts together and until I realized that, I waited for lots of meeting to start that were never going to happen.

One of the things I took upon myself was to get out into the area I lived in, well off the main road, and speak with people about how they’re doing, what they need, and how I could help. But with only my bike as transport, I would ask people to meet me at a certain time at a certain place that was convenient to us both.  I laugh now at what I was expecting but at the time I didn’t know better. Most people don’t own clocks or watches and they don’t have the time to walk 30 minutes to where I wanted to meet.  And then there was market day, when everyone got together and sold their goods and wares. I didn’t realize that it was a vital day in the lives of EVERYONE.  No one could miss market day. But there I was, let’s meet on Wednesday, the 23rd at 2pm at so and so.

I would ride up on my bike and wait. And wait. And wait. They never showed. But in that hour or the two that I first waited, I went through such a range of emotion. First anger and then rage that they would make me wait like this. Indignation that they would make an appointment with me and not keep it. And I would focus on how badly I was being treated and how things “should” play out. Unfortunately, this had to happen three or four times before I realized something was wrong with the way I was approaching this with my neighbors, people I wanted to help that we’re consistently blowing me off.

Patience and Presence

As I waited for my neighbors and through other experiences in Benin where rushing through anything became simply impossible, I learned that patience is like a muscle. The more I tried to be patient, the better at I became. It helped a lot that in many circumstances, I simply had no choice.  So I could go around getting angry at people or I could step into the flow of life around me. It seemed a no brainer to step into the flow rather than be angry all the time.

As I became better at being patient, I noticed that I was able to use the time to enjoy the moment I was experiencing. I had no other place to be and no phone, TV, or other person to distract me. I sank deeper into the moments I waited and found the ability to experience each moment. Life seemed to expand in these moments and I felt such peace and an increasing sense of wonder at how lovely each moment is. Without knowing its name, I learned to become fully present for long stretches of time each day.

Reintegration

Upon my return to the US, I wasn’t prepared for the cacophony and distractions with which I was presented. All of sudden everyone had cell phones and used the internet 24/7. I got caught up, distracted, and lost my endless patience in the pace of modern life. But after several years of this, the whisper of what I had experienced was starting to get through to me.

I then began to slowly re-implement all of the “advances” I had achieved in Peace Corps. I stopped watching TV, stopped listening to radio. I added in moments of stillness and meditation into my daily life. And life seems to both slow down and to be far more enjoyable now that I’m able to be in the moment.

I created an e-book to help others learn what I had learned in Peace Corps, which can be found on my website called 8 Steps to Living a Tranquil Life.  In case you don’t want to download it, the five main ideas of the book are as follows:

  1. Begin to slow your life down. Find additional time in your life by eliminating as many distractions as you’re able.
  2. Begin to add meditation into your life, in any of its forms.
  3. Find time to pray or use visualization to connect to the Divine.
  4. Add in longer moments of stillness, starting at about 15 minutes per day.
  5. Begin to experience what it is like to be fully present in a moment. And expand from there.

The less you do each day, the more you’re able to live each day. Experience each moment through presence. And witness how truly magical life can be.

 

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