Dharma Weekend

Attending a conference outside one’s own professional field is always a humbling experience, but never more so than one expounding on the finer points of an ancient religion whose ultimate goal is the cessation of views.  Such was my experience last weekend at the Buddhist Meditative Praxis:  traditional teachings & modern application conference at Hong Kong University’s Centre of Buddhist Studies.  In my opinion, the conference divided into three distinct groups: those who meditate, those who study those who meditate, and those who study what those who meditate study.  The room was filled with monks, scientists and scholars.

Knowing next to nothing about Buddhism, my interest fell squarely in the middle camp, neuroscience, which turned out to be a bit of a pariah at this conference.  Buddhists and scholars expressed the opinion that measuring the meditating brain was entirely missing the point, but it was the reason I wanted to attend.  The presence on the speaker line-up of two of my favorite thinkers in the mindfulness space, Mark Williams and Rick Hanson, was the initial draw of the conference for me.  Oxford Professor Mark Williams was instrumental in developing Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and getting the British government to recognize it as an NHS-approved treatment for depression and suicide prevention.  Rick Hanson of the Wellspring Institute in California moderated an impressive on-line series “Compassion and the Brain” I watched last year and has recently published a new book, so I was eager to hear them both speak again.  Beyond these two I did not recognize any of the speakers on the roster.

My learning curve on the first day was beyond steep.  Kicking off with “On the curriculum in the monastic universities in the 10th century,” a talk given by a European scholar of Buddhism, all I understood was that existent bad luck causes the black cat to cross our path, not the other way around.  That one was comprehensible compared to the next paper on the canonical anapauassatisutta and the sources of the 16 stages in four tetrads, or something of the sort.   I think he concluded that whether the first breath is a long one in, or a short one out, is indeterminable, but don’t quote me on that.  From the next distinguished speaker, I simply wrote “No freakin’ idea what he’s talking about” in my notebook.  Though his English was fluent, he might as well have been speaking his native German for all I understood of this paper on The Case of the Four Applications of Mindfulness in Vajrayana. Likewise, when Professor Yao read his paper on whether or not meditative objects exist and I read along, I could only grasp that the existence of blue is debatable, and I’m not even sure about that.  The ontological status of meditative objects had me reflecting on the ontological status of my presence in the same room with these people.  This was not going well for me.  I jest with all due respect and recognition that my ignorance is the problem here, not the presentations.

Just as I was about to throw in the towel and hit the latest coffee shop in Sai Ying Pun, a scientist hit the stage.  Phew.   Now this was language I could begin to wrap my brain around (never thought I’d say that!).   She described careful studies comparing the differing effects of Focused Attention Meditation versus Loving Kindness Meditation and their associations with changes in the attention regions of the brain and cognitive empathy in the dorsal affective system respectively.  See… plain and simple.

Dr. Mark Williams described depression, the high likelihood of relapse and the successful use of MBCT to treat it.  Depression is a highly recurrent illness that starts early in life and affects an alarming number of people. Roughly 20% of the population is at risk of suffering depression at some point in life, and the most common age of onset is between 13-15 years old. This is an epidemic that needs attention, and MBCT is one of the most promising treatments available.  Dr. Williams’ research has shown that MBCT, which combines ancient Buddhist praxis with psycho-education about depression, is as effective as antidepressants in treating traumatic cases of depression.

Dr. Rick Hanson’s presentation was philosophical and much more rooted in the Buddhist tradition, as he bridges the two realms as a practitioner and a scientist. He teaches us to “Use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.”  Of most interest in his speech to me was a discussion of the negativity bias that has been trained into humans.  Because sticks are more consequential than carrots, we learned evolutionarily to avoid sticks more fervently than to remember carrots.  Therefore, we imprint negative experiences and forget positive ones.  So, taking time to reflect on positive experiences to ensure that they, too, get transferred to long-term memory is important.  This was not the deepest message of his talk, but it was the one that resonated most with me.

Two hands on my bag, I was ready to make a quick exit to get home to my family before dinner, but then Venerable Sik Hin Hung took the stage.  Dressed in a grey robe with wire spectacles and a shaved head, the venerable was engaging, informative and thought-provoking in his presentation that brought it all together for me.  His theory was that many mindfulness programs have shown positive results in cognitive improvement, but that they have secularized teachings of Buddhism in order to make them palatable to wider audiences.  In so doing, he theorized, they have removed the essence of the teachings and lost something.  He and his colleagues set out to carefully design a study to determine if Sense Of Coherence (SOC) — comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness — a measure of well-being developed by Aaron Antonovsky, could be positively impacted by the study of meditation AND the tenants of Buddhism.   Working with teenage students about to take a rigorous standardized test, his study demonstrated that, in fact, those who studied Buddhism along with meditation techniques and then went on to pass the Buddhism exam showed positively better SOT than both those who did just mediation and those who did no meditation or Buddhist teaching.   This presentation was the biggest teaching point of the conference for me.  Welcoming the new, the measurable, the scientific, but cautioning that mindfulness uncoupled from the original tenants of Buddhism might have unintended consequences.

Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick at least we didn’t die; so, let us be thankful.”   Reflecting on the conference, I am thankful for the opportunity to witness the coming together of earnest faith, thought, reflection and hard work in a search for greater understanding by some and a reminder by others that understanding might not be the point.

The Driver’s Seat

Sometimes sitting in traffic on Gloucester Road, inching my way toward the Aberdeen Tunnel, I fantasize about becoming a taxi driver in Hong Kong.  It hasn’t always been this way.  When I first arrived in Hong Kong I swore I would never, ever drive in this city.   This is a city where driving is in large part left to the professionals, relegating the faint of heart to hiring drivers or taking public transportation.

Winding, single lane roads with sprayed concrete on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other are treated like speedways by aggressive trucks and mini buses, double-decker city buses and confident professional drivers careening around hairpin turns only to find a lycra-clad cyclist on a training ride, or unexpected slope maintenance underway.  There’s no margin for error on these slick streets.

Nonetheless, a few months after we arrived, we bought a car from a departing expatriate.  One quiet afternoon, in need of milk, I reluctantly took the keys and white knuckle drove to Stanley, a five-minute trip to an easy outdoor parking lot.  That became a regular route.  Later I drove to Redhill Plaza to see a friend and to Repulse Bay to a big indoor lot.  Within a month I was a relatively confident “South-side driver,” never intending to venture to the other side of the island.

But one day my son had a tennis lesson at Wong Nai Chung Gap up the hill.  I gripped the wheel and made my way up the windy Stubbs Road to the top, turned into the lot and parked.  I was sweating, but I made it.  Later I reasoned that if I could get to the top of the hill, I could probably venture down over the other side.  That sparked the next automotive milestone when I committed the route to Pacific Place to heart and drove to Wan Chai.  For some time I would park there, run errands around town via MTR, trolley and taxi then return to Pacific Place.   I’d spend just enough money at Great supermarket to get three hours of free parking and head home.   This was good enough in my book.  After all, I had heard stories of people making one wrong turn and ending up in China.

One fortuitous social day changed my perspective.  A friend who lived in Pokfulam invited me to go for a hike.  I drove from my house in Tai Tam to meet her at the horse stables in Pokfulam.  We parked there, hiked up to the PEAK and looped Lugard Road on foot, then headed back to our cars.  She suggested we have lunch at the yacht club in Aberdeen, so I followed her in my car, around Kennedy Town, through Central to the club in Causeway Bay and we had a great lunch.  I left there and took the Chai Wan route back to Tai Tam.  I made it there in time to meet the school bus.   I realized that I had gone all the way around Hong Kong Island (with a hike and lunch too) in less than an hour’s driving time.  So, I reasoned, as long as I am driving on HK Island, I’ll eventually come to a place I recognize.   If I mistakenly end up in a tunnel and find myself on the TST side?  No problem.  All signs lead back to HK Island, and then refer to rule number one.

With Hong Kong Island less of a mystery, I made it my business to identify parking lots all over the city.  Learning to park at IFC gave me Central, and Centrium Building, a tricky spiral of a lot with a one-way section, gave me LKF.  I found a lot in Sheung Wan and that mostly covered the places I needed to go on the island.

But what about Kowloon side?   Early in my driving tenure, my friend Debi told me there was an ice skating rink and a Bed Bath and Beyond type store in Megabox; an easy trip through the Eastern tunnel.  I decided to try it one day, but unfortunately missed the exit.  I spent the next forty-five minutes driving through neighborhoods on the Kowloon side I could never identify.   I actually laughed out loud when my haphazard impulsive turns eventually took me right to Megabox.  That time being lost in the city was fundamental to my learning curve.  I could drive to Kowloon side.

I learned to drive to King’s Park and KGV School thanks to a brief foray into the world of soccer mom.  My kid gave up the sport, but left me with two more parking lots under my belt.  Mongolian BBQ with long-time HK resident friends gave me Nathan Road, the need for a new cotillion suit for my growing teenager opened the door to Shenzhen, and my determined hiking quest gave me Sai Kung.  Now we’re getting somewhere!

But there are places even the most seasoned drivers take a deep breath before tackling.  One of these for me was the elevator parking lot.  My friend Eunei drove me in her little Prius for lunch at Din Tai Fung in Causeway Bay one afternoon.  We entered the lot and she drove into an elevator, turned off the car and the door closed behind us.  We were taken up to a floor with available spaces and she backed out and parked.  I was amazed, but planned never to attempt it myself.  Certainly my Volvo station wagon would be too big.  But then, several months later another woman who had lived in Hong Kong for a year less than I had, pulled in her mirrors and drove the exact same car as mine expertly into the car lift.  I went back that same week to do it myself.

My husband drives just enough in Hong Kong to be dangerous (or at least that was the case at first).  After casually rolling out into a busy intersection in front of a minibus, forgetting that a right hand turn is across traffic, and being one lane off for the tricky Wong Chuck Hang to Repulse Bay Road cut off that sent him unnecessarily through the clogged Aberdeen Tunnel on a busy Saturday afternoon, he relinquished the keys and left the driving to me.  My driving in Hong Kong is the “talent” he singles out for the most amount of praise.

As time passed, my grip on the steering wheel loosened.  I began to turn on the radio or plug in my podcasts.  I delighted in a new route, parking garage or street discovered.   And, returning to Hong Kong for our fifth year, I am thrilled getting back in my car and venturing out into the city.  Driving in Hong Kong is more than transportation to me.  It is a daily recognition that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to “teach an old dog new tricks.”  Just don’t try to convince me that the same logic might apply to learning to speak Cantonese.

Michelins and MacLehose

Forget visas, flights, Airport Express and all the other hassles of international travel and instead hop a taxi through the tunnel and you’re set for a fantastic “staycation” right in your own HK backyard.  Here’s my suggested itinerary for 3 days of hiking the first half of the MacLehose trail, dining at Michelin starred restaurants and staying in style.

The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong is a great resource.  I recommend photographing each page of the stage you’re doing on your i-phone for frequent reference rather than lugging the book.  Also, we loaded up on almonds, dried mango and a Snickers bar.  Food is not always available along the trails, so take your own.

Day 1:  Kiss the kiddies goodbye, drop your bags at the W Hong Kong on Kowloon side and head to Mong Kok for the first of your incredibly inexpensive and delicious Michelin starred meals at Tim Ho Wun (2 Kowong Wa St).  You may wait an hour to get a seat in this cramped, no atmosphere, world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant dim sum place, but it’s worth it.  Put your name in, get a number and an order form and go wander the local markets until it’s your turn.  Don’t miss the char siu bao.  For roughly a dozen dishes our bill for two people came to a whopping $111HK.

If you’re up for it, start your hiking adventure that very day with Stage 3 of the MacLehose trail (we did stage 5 and part of the Wilson trail, but I think this plan works better).  Taxi to Pak Tam Au (or 94/96R bus toward Wong Shek Pier) with plenty of water, as there’s no place to buy it along the way.  This stage will take you roughly three hours at a steady hiking pace and alights at Kei Ling Ha where it’s easy to hail a cab back to the W.  That night we chose to eat in the hotel, but you could probably find a better meal if you venture out.

Day 2:  Start with a swim at the W’s gorgeous rooftop pool, then a hearty breakfast at the clever and stylish Kitchen. Tank up for a fabulous day of hiking stages 1 & 2.  If you’re in it for the exercise or bragging rights, take a taxi to the Country Park Visitor Centre at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung and start your hiking adventure just past the gate.  This first stage is largely flat, entirely on road surface and rings the enormous man-made reservoir created by damming a narrow inlet on both sides.  This stage took us about two hours at a walking pace, but I would recommend either running this phase or skipping it altogether by taking a green taxi to the end of Sai Wan Road and meeting up with the trail just before the start of stage 2.

Stage 2 of the MacLehose is indescribably beautiful and should be a must-do for anyone with a Hong Kong ID card.  We completed this stage in about four hours, but would have spent more time enjoying the beautiful series of beaches along the way had we not walked the first stage too.  The first of several amazing beaches is Long Ke.  This beach has white sugar sand and a perfect pine grove for camping. Interestingly, the only development located there is a rehab facility; most definitely the finest located one in the world! If you can drag yourself away from this paradise, the trail continues with a steep ascent over Sai Wan Shan, but one is royally rewarded with the descent into Sai Wan for a gorgeous beach filled with starfish and a funny “Oriental Restaurant” where you can stock up on water and sometimes food.  Up and over again and you get to Tai Long Wan, Big Wave Bay, with a perfect little rest spot beckoning from the far side of the beach across a rickety little wooden bridge.  This is a perfect, grab-a-beer-and-ponder-the-view spot, not to be rushed.

From here the trail turns inland and goes through several abandoned villages.  It’s slightly creepy with many stray dogs and no people along the 8K tree-canopied path, but it eventually opens up at a place where some catch a ferry, or continue on to the end of the trail at Pak Tam Au.  The 94 bus leads directly back to Sai Kung town.

Reward your considerable efforts by making a beeline for Michelin starred Loaf On (49 Market St.) in downtown Sai Kung.  Famous for abalone, crispy chicken, fried tofu & salt & pepper squid, this place knows how to fry!  While Rod would argue that fried food is not the best hiking fuel, I stand by my recommendation that this is too good to miss and you deserve it after all that work!

Day 3:  After another Kitchen breakfast (we switched to the new Ritz Carlton in ICC after one night, but I much preferred the W.  Learn from my mistakes!), take a taxi to the start of stage 4 at Kei Ling Ha Lo Wai for a solid day of hiking 4 and 5.  Stage 4 is a relatively rigorous climb up Man on Shan (the second highest peak), Pyramid Hill and Delta Pass.  Hopefully you will be rewarded with stunning views on either side of this exposed trail.  Unfortunately the day we did it was shrouded in fog, so it was a bit tedious and slippery for us, but still a great workout.  The second half of Stage 4 goes through woods along the Gin Drinker’s line with several emplacements from WWII still visible.  The end of stage 4, by Gilwell Camp, is a hard place to get a taxi, so definitely plan to continue on through stage 5 that leads up and over Tate’s Cairn, Shatin Pass and Lion Rock.  The views of Kowloon along this trail are stunning.   Since you’ve spent the day hiking back towards your hotel, a quick cab ride from Tai Po road will have you back at the W in no time, ready to celebrate!

We opted for a foot massage at the no frills but authentic Tai Pan on Nathan Road in TST then an al fresco meal at BLT Steak, but if you want to continue with the Michelin theme, there is no shortage of options within a few minutes of the hotel.

Day 4:  Sleep in, read the whole paper over a leisurely breakfast, check out and head back in time to pick up your little one from preschool.  Congratulations! You’ve just completed, in three days, one-half of what some crazy people do in roughly 24 hours at the Oxfam Trailwalker 100K.  But, you’ve actually had a relaxing vacation in the process and enjoyed the sites along the way.

Pretzel Class

Settling into my 43E seat for the 14-hour Cathay Pacific flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong at bleary one a.m., already 17-hours and two domestic flights into the journey, I folded my legs beneath me in lotus and stashed my water bottle in the seat pocket in front of me. Twenty years of practicing yoga has found a practical application in surviving international economy air travel.  As a result, instead of boorish “economy,” I propose renaming the back of the plane “pretzel class.”

Business class is an elusive pleasure for my family.  You would think with seven years of overseas travel we would have accumulated a flight status that would enable us to upgrade, but alas, no.  About the only thing my Marco Polo Club membership has ever gotten me is early boarding, the pleasure of settling into my pretzel class seat for an even longer period of time.  Many families in HK get annual business class tickets for home leave as part of their expat packages.  On several occasions I have walked past families of six snuggled in their supine splendor in business class, sheepishly wishing me a good flight as I trudge past the curtain to a land unbeknownst to them.

I figure that once you fly business class you can never go back, so I take comfort in knowing I’ve protected our family from that traumatic experience of having to fly a post-business-class economy flight in their young adult lives.   So, instead of bemoaning first world problems, I will instead offer some constructive tips and advice for managing pretzel class with children with as much comfort and style as any of us can muster in the back of the plane.

If you have a few children to choose from, always opt to sit next to the six-year-old. Younger children require attention and entertainment throughout the flight, and older children have long enough legs that they need the foot space, but six-year-olds are the sweet spot of travel companions.  That is, provided you have rules in your household that limit electronics use like we do.  Assuming they’re thirsty for as much electronic entertainment as you will allow, this is the perfect time to indulge their wildest dreams of hours of uninterrupted TV, movies and video games.  You take the aisle and give them the dreaded middle seat (this protects their sleeping head from beverage cart bonks anyway).  Once they’re settled, headphones in place and legs cutely dangling, you are free to turn sideways, luxuriously stretching your legs across their allotted leg space and hook your toe on the magazine pocket in front of their seat.  Tuck the standard issue pillow by the aisle armrest behind your back and you are good to go for a half an hour of straight leg bliss.  Your first yogo pose of the flight.

When your toe falls asleep, gather your inside leg beneath you, tuck your other leg in your own magazine pocket and raise the arm between you and your child, but not all the way.  There’s a sweet spot where you can rest your pillow on the end of that arm and lay your cheek upon it, your forehead bolstered by their seat (still in the upright position, while yours is reclined; for their viewing pleasure of course.).  Perfection of sleep yogo pose number two.

Eventually your leg will fall asleep, so you’ll have to shift to the third pose, classic upright.  Shift your carry on bag to the space in front of your six-year-old, thus leaving your foot space free and clear.  With the standard issue pillow supporting your back, grab a neck pillow, recline your seat as far as it will go and stretch out.  Savasana! …well, almost.  The neck pillow gives just enough lift to allow your head to fall gently side to side as you take a few deep breaths, elbows resting on both armrests without competition.  Yogo pose number three.

Repeat these three poses in half-hour segments, throw in a few lotus interims, crossed leg traditional seated positions and double magazine pocket toe tucks and you’ll find the time passing without requisite stiffness and claustrophobawigglyitis – that condition where you just can’t sit still.

If you don’t have the luxury of traveling with a six-year-old, here’s some advice for traveling with older and younger children.

Older children are no worries on a flight provided you have some control over their viewing choices.  On Cathay Pacific, individualized viewing content is extensive and indiscriminate.  I made the mistake of choosing the seat in front of my young teenager once, rather than behind, so I couldn’t easily monitor his choices and he made some poor ones.  I learned to always choose the seat behind, and regularly pop in for random content checks.  My 10-year-old prefers to hibernate on airplanes, refusing all nourishment and libation.  We had to make a deal that she will drink water, but I do not force her to eat airplane food and she chooses not to bring other snacks.  A stop at the smoothie place right outside arrivals usually does the trick for her.  She manages a strange circadian cycle of cat naps and TV episodes, but is entirely self sufficient and it works for her.

Infant travel in pretzel class is just “plane hard.”  I had one flight to London with a sixteen-month-old who threw up on me the entire six-hour flight, and then we circled for an hour and sat on the ground at Heathrow for another six hours because of a freak snowstorm.  Thirteen hours of aviation captivity of the worst sort.  The flight attendants refused to even get me paper towels, much less sympathy or support, but we survived.  As I tell my friends who are afraid to fly with children, “Time passes at the same rate whether it is the best moment of your life or the worst.  This too will pass.”   Take more diapers than you could ever possibly need.

Toddler travel in pretzel class is a little tricky, but do-able with some forward preparation.  If you’re feeling Martha Stewarty, wrap up a bunch of tiny items, one for each hour of the flight, and dole them out accordingly.  It doesn’t matter too much what is inside the packages.  The unwrapping process and the surprise of the new is what you’re going for.  Stickers, crayons, a matchbox car, all of these things will keep them busy for a long time.  When you run out of gifts, the barf bag makes a great puppet, band-aids stick lightly to everything, and walks up and down the aisles are a necessity.  Go to the back of the plane and play “head, shoulders, knees and toes” a few hundred times and they’ll be all right.  Lollypops, goldfish… all the otherwise limited snacks work wonders to amuse and delight little ones too.  The biggest advice I can offer is to be gracious to fellow passengers from the get go.  If you demonstrate that you’re engaged with your child on the flight they will feel sympathy, not annoyance, at the inevitable meltdown moments.  This is NOT the flight for you to chill out with People magazine and watch a movie.

So, what to bring on your flight?  While Gwyneth Paltrow recommends atomized silver and Lypo-Spheric Vitamin C to survive air travel, I don’t think she’s ever even seen pretzel class.  I can honestly say I get the most mileage out of good headphones, a neck pillow, thick socks, raw almonds, good dark chocolate and a big bottle of water.   The smartest thing I did several years ago was to fill out the on-line Cathay meal preference form.  I now regularly receive a special Indian vegetarian meal.  I always feel slightly guilty when the flight attendants approach my seat to confirm my special meal and realize pretty quickly that the blond isn’t actually Indian, but that was not stipulated as a requirement on the preferences list, so I can live with it.   The special meal is hand delivered an hour earlier than everyone else’s meal, is spicy and tasty and avoids any questionable “meat” in the regular food choices.

Some may be tempted to confuse the origin of the new name with the paltry alternative served on some flights now due to a strange explosion of peanut allergies, but after reading this you know the truth.  Pretzel class finds its origins in the long standing traditions of the East; yoga and Indian vegetarian food.