Using Music As A Meditation Aid

I’ve always thought meditation should be carried out in as much silence as possible, and that’s how I’ve always meditated.  Today, however, I tried meditating with some ambient music in the background.

This was partially done on a whim, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while.  Google research after the fact turned up a range of opinions, from websites that thought music could be distracting to ones that sold tracks crafted just for meditation.

It’s worth pointing out that during my first stay at a Buddhist monastery a few weeks ago, silent meditation was punctuated by chanting and bowing.  Relatively raucous stuff when compared to breathing in absolute stillness, and this coming from people who meditate professionally.

So I decided to give it a shot.  I chose a spacey ambient piece, as Lamb of God would make a terrible soundtrack to enlightenment.  Here are my observations after one trial run:

1) Time absolutely flew.  An unbroken 20 minute meditation session is usually hard to achieve.  This time, though my back was a little uncomfortable and I had to adjust position once because my leg was asleep, I was shocked when the alarm went off.

2) It really did help still my mind.  Even though I still had a fair amount of chatter going on, something about the music just seemed to make it easier to focus on breathing. I had a pretty powerful sweep of euphoria around the (I’m guessing) sixteen minute mark.  My whole body started tingling for maybe a full two seconds right as I was getting the most focused.  This has happened once before, but so far it’s proving hard to maintain.  I don’t think such an experience is the point of meditation, but it’s interesting and does encourage one to continue.

3) I’d like to use this in the future, but I think several modifications might increase its efficacy.  For one, I’d like the sound to surround me more, rather than feeling beamed from laptop speakers.  Also, I think it would be good to fade into silence very slowly.  Finally, the music should probably be as minimal as possible, maybe even just one deep, slowly changing tone.  I think much more than that would start to prove a distraction.

I’ll be trying this again in the future.  If it proves interesting or useful I’ll write more about it then.

Putting Pillow Talk To Good Use.

I have a game suggestion for all the brainy couples out there.

Once, not so long ago, I was involved with a smart girl. She was probably a solid 3-4 standard deviations above the mean, so pretty goddamn sharp.

Speaking of standard deviations, it was junior year and I was studying statistics as part of my Psychology degree. One of the things I learned about was called a “Z test”.  If memory serves, a Z test doesn’t compare two test scores from two different classes directly, it compares their distance from the mean scores in their respective classes. So you can sort of do an apples vs. oranges comparison, at least in principle.

My memories of junior year are hazy for many reasons, but at some point I decided to turn the concept of comparing two wildly different things into a game. I think it happened one night as we were laying in bed and I was explaining Z tests, but I don’t remember. I do know that I took to calling it “Z game”.

Here’s how it works:

The first person makes a comparison between two dissimilar things, like “apples to oranges”. The second person takes the last word and makes a new comparison, like “oranges to cauliflower”. You take turns like this indefinitely. An example dialogue might look like this:

Her: pulsars to zebras                                                                                                                   Me: zebras to sonnets                                                                                                                     Her: sonnets to snowstorms

It takes a little while to get warmed up, but it is quite a bit of fun. We would lay around and do this shit for hours.

Here’s a few of the reasons that this is fascinating:

1) We each immediately understood why it would be fun, with no explanation necessary. The brain is prone to associative thinking, and I suspect smart people will get a kick out of toying with this cognitive machinery.

2) There is no winner and no end other than when you drift off into sleep, but there is an intuitive sort of point system. We both recognized “good” answers immediately and called each other out on “bad” answers. This despite the fact that we never set up any criterion for judging answers; we probably agreed on our evaluations 90% of the time, even when we were evaluating each other negatively. In other words, I knew when I had made a bad move in Z game.

3) It isn’t just associative distance that counts, though that’s a factor. “Mozart to music” would be kind of a lame move, because “music” probably leaps to everyone’s mind as soon as they hear “Mozart”. You get no points for obviousness in Z Game.

But there are other factors at play. In the above example, I suspect that most of the people reading this liked “sonnets to snowstorms” more than the other comparisons. “Zebras to pulsars” is certainly an unusual juxtaposition, and it does paint an interesting picture in my mind. But there is a subtle interplay between novelty, complexity, beauty, lyrical quality, and evocativeness. The images created by “sonnets to snowstorms” are haunting and suggestive, and the words are musical and alliterative; indeed I can feel a poem just begging to compose itself in my mind as I write this. That isn’t true for “zebras to sonnets”.

4) Multiple linguists and cognitive psychologists believe that metaphor is fundamental to how we think about the world. Perhaps those comparisons are best which map most fluidly onto our intuitive metaphorical frameworks.

5) We didn’t do this much during the day, but I think that it will work best at night, as your drifting into semi-sleep and your brain is chock full of associations from the days musings.

This sort of silliness was what made our relationship great. We bonded a lot doing this. Z game is kind of like a playful two-person rorschach test. You can more clearly see the eddies and currents of another person’s stream of consciousness by seeing the associations that come naturally to them.

If you have an IQ above 110 this will probably be interesting to you. If you like poetry you will probably want to test it out. If you read Hofstadter and meditate, you probably won’t be able to resist.

Give Z game a try sometime and see what pops up.

What Tricky Things Are Words

On the excellent rationality blog Less Wrong, there is a post today discussing the worst argument in the world.

Yvain’s essay is characteristic of what I like about Less Wrong.  Everybody knows, and is willing to point out, that words are difficult to use and frequently misused.  I’ve personally been in hour long debates that could’ve been resolved in ten minutes if we’d gotten our terms straight in advance.  And once or twice I’ve been guilty of exploiting ambiguous language to save face when I new I was losing an argument.

But not very many people dig into the whys and hows of word misuse, or think seriously about possible solutions.  At Less Wrong, there is an entire sequence of essays devoted to that topic.

This paragraph jumped out at me:

And what’s going on should be no mystery to anyone who has read through the excellent Less Wrong Sequence On Words. Words are hidden inferences, which form a leaky generalization over a set of cases that cluster along certain dimensions but may vary widely in their other characteristics. Because people feel like words are a single monolithic whole, arguments about the world tend to devolve into arguments about definitions of words (like “murder”), as if those definitions determined reality. To escape such arguments, the participants need to taboo that particular word and replace the symbol with the substance, which often means dissolving a term into its component inferences and reasoning about each one individually.

It’s well-hyperlinked to a number of other relevant essays.

Rationality is a big interest of mine, and one to which I’ll return again.  I like what Luke Muehlhauser did at Common Sense atheism, blogging his way through everything Eleizer Yudkowky had written.  Such a project is one I’m considering taking up myself.

Genesis and Science

Every so often I encounter people who remark that the Genesis account of creation, except in a few minor details, basically gets the order of things right.

Um….no.

This position can only be maintained if you either skim Genesis in 5 seconds or you haven’t looked into the details of the science involved. I found this piece by Adam Lee to be a good analysis of some of the deep flaws in the Bible’s creation myth.

Chords and Colors

I’ve been fascinated by synesthesia ever since it occurred to me that not everyone’s  senses are as promiscuous as mine.  It’s always been very visual for me. Sounds, letters, ideas, and tastes often present themselves with colors, textures, shapes, and sizes when I think about them.

I don’t experience synesthesia out-in-the-world, only in my head. In other words, when I read a book the letters on the page don’t have any color, but if I think about a letter, or listen to a song, very often it’ll have a color or a size. This happens most strongly with music, generally speaking.

But I also remember that I almost got in trouble around the age of 3 or so because I was explaining to an older girl what size and shape various swear words were

This also seems to be rooted pretty deeply in my thought process, and has fueled my poetry and music (more on that later). It’s very difficult to watch your own mind think, but I’ve noticed that a small percentage of my thought is a stream of incomplete sentences and a bigger part is images related to those sentences. Another significant chunk, however, is just weird shapes moving and changing and banging into each other. I might be trying to think about something like “justice” or “anarchy” or “rationality”, and what I see is a strange chalky prism morphing into a sphere and then shooting off to the right, leaving a colorful trail of liquid smoke. It doesn’t make any sense, but I just somehow know that what I’m seeing is a thought related to justice.

It’s like the machine language of my mind is a polychromatic rainbow, and there is a synesthetic compiler in my unconscious which has to paint speech and thoughts before my brain can do anything with them.

This is kind of crazy when I think about it. My sentences come out orderly, but between my ears it looks like Jimi Hendrix, Walt Disney, and Wassily Kandisky are locked in a room with painting supplies and the collected works of Euclid, trying to make a video game together.

The Parable Of An Atheist At A Temple

As I sit writing this I have just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastary nested in the moutains outside of Gyeongju, South Korea.  While there I woke up at 4 a.m., chanted, spent several hours a day in meditation, engaged in light martial arts training, and ate no meat.

The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, which unfortunately was not emphasized in this trip.  I’ve been a practicing meditator for several years now and I was looking forward to pushing my exploration of the mind.  Luckily I was able to accomplish this in a small way by simply not attending the obvious tourist fluff and meditating on my own.  I stopped going to the martial arts demonstrations and training, skipped tea time, didn’t go to the extra chanting services.  Instead, I meditated in my room or in a newly-constructed building designed for that purpose.  I snuck up to the temple once and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.

On the last full day I was there, I climbed a mountain in a light drizzle as night was falling.  When I got to the top I looked out at the valley and the hills, the same ones I had watched the sun rise over in the dawn hours, and saw the rain falling in sheets and clouds shrouding the peaks in mist.

I didn’t know what to do but be still beneath the towering Buddha carved into the rock and smile at the enormity of it all.  Sometimes there just aren’t words.

Though it wasn’t what I expected, I don’t regret spending the money.  At $50 a night it was less than some hotels charge, and the food was unexpectedly good, to say nothing of the amazing setting.  I also learned a few things.  Primarily, I don’t need to do a templestay to meditate well.  To this day the most powerful experience I’ve ever had meditating came in my living room, after an hour of alternating sitting and walking meditation.  My attention stabilized in a way it never had before, and I was able to watch the erratic flow of my own consciousness as it went past me.  I felt more inside my own body than I ever had before, like it wasn’t something that I owned but something I was.  I got just enough of a hint of what is possible to convince me that it’s worth pursuing.  Sometime in the near future I may do a silent retreat of my own, and I’m currently mulling over ways I can effectively do that in my apartment.

I do think setting is important.  The most popular essay I’ve ever written, over at Rogue Priest, presented the view that rituals like chanting in the candlelight can foster mystical states.  I base this on my own past experience as a born-again christian and on the testimonies of various secular pagans whom I know personally and whose work I’ve read.  If I meditate intensely for the next few months, the point may come where doing a genuine monastic silent retreat is exactly what I need.

At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m.  It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found.  So, I regret to report, these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful.  By the final day I had enough stored tension in my back and joints that even 30 seconds of sitting was difficult, to say nothing of 30 minutes.  I was ready to go home.

Now as you read these opening statements you may be wondering what use an atheist could have for meditation.

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  It’s true that I think the sinister intersection of fundamentalist religious thinking and 21st century technology might be the greatest threat the modern world faces.  And I also believe that there are elements of religious practice — like genital mutiliation and and belief in transubstantion — which are patently absurd and wrong and cannot be rejected forcefully or quickly enough by thinking people.  If we are ever to pull ourselves by the bootstraps from the swamps of ignorance and into a better existence, vast swaths of what now goes by the name ‘religion’ will have to be dispensed with.

But religion is ancient and complex.  To reject God is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions.  There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like what consitutes the good life, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy.  Though I understand the haste to move people away from religious dogma, I worry that we risk losing something in the process.

Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in a religion and are worth salvaging.  I’m drawn to it in part by two things:

1) it is pursuable in a completely secular context and requires no faith whatsoever.

2) even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.

We’ve all likely had the experience of having a very full head, where our thoughts prevent us from going to sleep at night or make it difficult to focus on whatever task we’re performing.  But the extent to which I am perpetually lost in my own internal monologue is truly astounding.  If you don’t think this applies to you, spend the next thirty seconds trying to control and direct this mental flurry.  Hell, spend the next thirty seconds just trying to observe it without getting caught up in it.

Difficult?  Yes, yes it is.

In this situation your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like a roiling avalanche perpetually bearing down on him.  The previous sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate.  First came the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche.  Then I returned to focusing on my breath.  I smiled internally, because the metaphor seemed clever.  Back to breathing.  Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrases.  Back to breathing.

Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years.  Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.

What I’ve studied of buddhist philosophy suggests that Buddhism (and to some extent Hinduism as well) begins from a radically different point of departure than Western science and the enlightenment.  Buddhism starts with an empirical exploration of the mind.  In the millenia since this project began, numerous traditions and mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much in the way of religious baggage.

In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized as much as possible and there are thinkers who believe that the notion of introspection is flawed and incoherent.  I can sympathize with this.  Psychology has revealed that introspection is susceptible to profound error, and we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward.  But none of this suggests to me that practices like meditation are useless.  On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion.  Meditation, stripped of pretension and bullshit, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.

What’s more, It may turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness.  If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.

Regardless, it seems that meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience.  It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment.  Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating to the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness that can be found within the landscape of the human mind.

Such as this I’ve learned while sitting.

———————————————————————–

Further reading

I didn’t do any “research” for this essay in the conventional sense.  But there are several essays which I’ve read and re-read and re-read that have shaped my thinking on this subject profoundly.  I feel they should be mentioned here at the end of the essay.

1) “Dancing with the Gods”, Eric Raymond

http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/dancing.html

2) “Drugs and the meaning of life”, Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/drugs-and-the-meaning-of-life/

3) “What’s the point of transcendance” Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/whats-the-point-of-transcendence/

4) “On spiritual truths”, Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/on-spiritual-truths/

5) “Killing the Buddha”, Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/killing-the-buddha/

6) The writings of B. Allan Wallace should be mentioned as well.  His books include “Mind in the balance”, “contemplative science”, and “embracing mind”.  I don’t endorse his metaphysics, but I’ve found him useful nonetheless.

http://alanwallace.org/

7) These thoughts have appeared elsewhere before:

-“What atheists believe too”

http://roguepriest.net/2011/08/08/what-atheists-believe-too/

Carol Blue On Her Late Husband, Christopher Hitchens

I just read a piece by the wife of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens on her husband’s last months alive.  I don’t know much about Ms. Blue, but judging by the power and beauty of her writing, I’d be inclined to say that she shares a bit of Christopher’s gift for words.  Hitch was not my favorite atheist, but he certainly was the most tenacious.  Though he was surely sad and afraid as his conditioned worsened, his wife reveals through touching anecdotes that he faced the prospect of death with an astonishing degree of optimism and bravery.

He had his flaws like everyone else, but Christopher’s exuberance and boundless love for life are examples well worth following.

Dispatches From Korea

[Disclaimer: what follows is largely opinions and first-person evaluations.  I’ve made an effort to get my facts straight wherever possible, but you shouldn’t consider this authoritative.  It’s written for entertainment purposes and to give me a chance to reflect.  It’s not a dissertation.]

Introduction

I am wrapping up a 16 hour plane flight, with more fatigue in my joints than I can relay in words.  I’ve slept very little, a combination of being on my first international flight and being in seats designed for smaller bodies than mine.  The back of the head-rest in front of me has a small screen with a representation of East Asia on it, and a little flashing airplane indicating that we are about to fly over the Northern part of South Korea.  It’s night time, and I look out the window at the constellations of lights that are my first glimpse of my new home.  

South Korea sits on the bottom half of the Korean peninsula, divided from its cousin to the North at the 38th parallel. It occupies an area roughly the size of Kentucky or Portugal, and is surrounded on the West, South, and East by the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and East Sea, respectively.  This gives Korea 1500 miles of jagged coastline and a number of world-famous beaches.  The five largest cities in order are Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daegu, and Daejon.  As of this writing I’ve been to three of them.  Busan is a beautiful  coastal city in the Southeast with ample beaches and a steady breeze blowing in from the ocean.  Seoul is a megacity if I’ve ever seen one.  I hesitate to say I’ve even been to Seoul because I managed to see such a tiny fraction of it.  I live about 30 minutes away from Daejon, which is big and frantic in its own right but maintains some of the charm of a smaller city.

Korea is nothing if not mountainous, which suits me just fine.  I fell in love with mountains when I ascended my first real one, shortly after arriving in Colorado.  It was evening, and the sun was more hinted at than visible.  The snowcaps were bright and golden, reflecting light but somehow appearing to glow from within. Looking out at the peaks rippling into infinity like the spine of some vast slumbering Earth-God dreaming on a scale I can’t comprehend, I realized that mountains were my favorite form of natural beauty.  I like oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, etc., but there isn’t anything quite like all that sky to put your existence into perspective.

Linguistically and ethnically Korea is pretty homogenous, though there is a sizeable population of foreigners living here.  There are probably fewer Buddhists than you are imagining; according to the CIA World Factbook 1/4 of people are Christian and 1/4 are Buddhists, with a surprising 1/2 reporting no religious affiliation.  I’d says that’s a point for the atheists but my understanding is that there is a strong and forceful creationist presence here.  I’ve taken very little interest in the churches, but the Buddhist temples which dot the landscape are incredibly beautiful.  It is not without irony that I note some of the most beautiful, lavish, and rioutous displays of color are to be found in these temples, where the whole point is to quiet the mind.

I grapple daily with the Korean language, and it’s a fight I’m slowly winning.  Its design  is interesting and logical, making it more amenable to learning than other tongues.  This isn’t an accident.  Unveiled by King Sejong the Great in 1443, Korean script is phonetic, and was meant (among other things) to boost literacy amongst Korean peasants by ditching Chinese characters and replacing them with something more essentially Korean and much easier to learn.

It is a genuinely thrilling and philosophically fascinating process, language learning.  Very little else has so thoroughly impressed upon me the intricacies of human beings.  Next time you feel like you can’t do anything extraordinary, stand in front of a classroom full of children speaking enthusiastically in an endless soup of total gibberish.  If you’re anything like me you’ll be absolutely floored that they can make sense out of any of it.  Then turn around and try to patiently explain what a phrase like “most of” means, something which makes perfect sense to you and which you use effortlessly.  It won’t take long to realize that there’s a lot of “you” between your ears, most of which you not only don’t control but can’t even see, and it’s capable of some pretty awesome stuff.  Just because everyone can do something like speak or recognize faces doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing.

So far I’ve had good things to say about Korea, but I’m not going to sugar coat things: “beautiful” is not exactly an adjective I’d use to describe the geography or language of Korea.  Especially when I first arrived during the winter, there was an unbelievable amount of trash in the streets, set against a backdrop of constant freezing cold and grey skies.  In some of the bigger places I’ve been to, people just throw their used bottles, cans, cigarettes and so on anywhere, and the streets are consequently disgusting.  I originally didn’t like the orthography of Korean, preferring it instead to the more intricate scrawlings of Chinese.   Something I’ve only recently fully appreciated is that the buildings are mostly covered in lights which send out so many stray photons that I haven’t seen a decent starry night since I left.  I’ve not been able to feel small in the vastness of the universe in a while, and that can’t be good for my mental health.

But “ugly” doesn’t work either.  Rather, Korea is characterized by a sparse, jagged elegance which is charming and subtle and requires time to appreciate.  Its food is spicy, its language choppy, and its landscape rocky and sharp.  I’ve grown to like Korean writing, having worked with it for a number of months now, and I admire and appreciate its clean and simple lines.  Spoken Korean is also starting to make more sense, proving useful in the classroom and leading to gradually more successful interactions with native Koreans.  During the summer months a lot more effort is made to keep streets clean and trash picked up, at least in my kneck of the woods.  The greenery and flowers and open ocean are a welcome antidote to winter conditions, though Korean summers are bitterly hot and humid.

The mountains, of course, were never a problem to begin with.

Culture

Like the culture of any place, Korean culture is a mixed bag.  The people are remarkably kind and favoring of foreigners; many are the times I’ve wandered up to a perfect stranger who helped me find what I was looking for, at times going as far as to communicate with the cab driver until everything was sorted out.  They value politeness and being well-educated.  Appearance is important in Korea, and people generally dress up in nice clothes even when going shopping or just carrying out the business of day-to-day living.  Korean barbecue has earned it’s international reputation for deliciousness, and KPOP is about as infectious and catchy as it’s possible to be.  They have proven themselves resilient, having rebuilt and restarted following invasions, annexations, and outright assault on their way of life (in the decade and a half preceding WWI, the Japanese officially occupied Korea, declaring it a part of the Japanese empire and outlawing use of the Korean language)

So there’s a lot to love about the “land of the morning calm”.

But these virtues are not without vices. I’ll speak about the one with which I have the most experience: hyperconcern with education.

Korean society is gripped by an obsession with schooling that, from my point of view, borders on the pathological.  I have kids in my classes who do nothing but study from dawn til dusk.  I ask them what they’re doing this weekend and they tell me that they’ll be studying.  Since I teach at a private school, I work from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., which means that my latest students — middle schoolers — stop going to school just a few hours shy of midnight.  Twice a week.  And that’s assuming they’re not going to private schools aimed at math, art, music, etc. I know at least one of my students goes to multiple private academies like mine.  Every day I try to teach kids whose mental exhaustion is written all over their faces.  Sometimes they can barely stay awake, and after fourteen hours of studying, who can blame them?

Now anyone who knows me knows that education and improvement of the mind are two things I could hardly care more about.  I’d sooner shop for books than shoes; my interests span linguistics, computers, music, philosophy, evolution, neuroscience, and religion, and that’s just what I’ve been reading about lately; I may yet go to graduate school in computational neuroscience, or maybe do a fellowship with the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

A nerd I am and I nerd I’ll always be.  But still, there’s a balance, and I think it falls somewhere shy of going to school six days a week.

There’s another aspect of Korean culture that has been fascinating to learn about.  Before I came to Korea I had an impression that the culture was very conservative sexually, and I still largely maintain that.  When I went to Busan I observed a number of people on the beach in full pants, shirts, and shoes, but not very many two-piece bathing suits.  I’ve never seen couples doing anything more than holding hands, and that’s pretty rare.  Though I’m not really a regular on the club scence, the bigger cities usually have places worth checking out.  Korean girls are beautiful and elegant and sexy, but there’s something forced about the way they dance which I don’t think just comes down to skill.  I get the sense that open and unapologetic sexuality is something that’s fairly recent in this part of the world, and many of them aren’t comfortable wearing it around in public yet.  Even in dark rooms with loud music and copious amounts of alcohol, there aren’t many girls dancing with guys.  They usually dance with other girls, at a distance of a foot or more, completely ignoring the advances of every male around them.  Korean women not only leave room for Jesus when they dance, they leave room for his disciples to have a spirited soccer match.  That’s not to say they never get down, they definitely do, but on the whole there was more intensity at college parties than the majority of clubs I’ve been to.

But my evalution  is complicated by something I haven’t talked about yet.  Namely, there is a level of straight-male-to-straight-male affection that I wasn’t really prepared for.  I’m not homophobic, and I went to an extraordinarily open and liberal college, but it still took me off guard a little bit to see straight men holding hands, putting their arms around each other, and playing with each other’s hair.  It’s not uncommon for Korean men to tell me that I’m “very handsome” or that I “have a good body”.  They’re not shy about touching my chest or arms, either (sadly, girls may age seem much more shy about this than men my age…)  These are not really things we do in America.

From an American westerner’s perspective, this is an odd cluster of behaviors.  You have a relatively sexually conservative culture in which people wear suits to beaches and where men are as likely to hold hands in public as women.  This probably has something to do with a culture in flux between the more conservative older generations and the more Westernized younger generation.  Though I haven’t gathered scientific data on the matter, if I think back I mostly remember seeing older people being innapropriately over-dressed. And if I’m being objective, I’m sure they would see the American tendency to be hypersexed in certain regards but to have a real paucity of male-to-male affection equally strange.

Random tales from the road

Ordering Korean food (like a boss):

It was, I don’t know, 11:30 in the morning or so and my friend Jeremy and I were getting very hungry.  Our options were limited; we had to go to work in about an hour, but we were tired of eating hamburgers from Lotteria, the Korean version of Wendy’s.  Neither of us had been there for more than two weeks, and while our Korean was progressing quickly enough for us to get phone numbers from girls, we still couldn’t order food very well.  Priorities are important 🙂

Standing outside and the side walk we discussed our choices.  There was a restaurant not far from our apartment that we both wanted to try, but how to order food?  What if no one speaks English?

We hatched a plan, which went like this: we’ll go into the restaurant and sit down.  When they ask us what we want, we’ll reply with one of the only food words we know, “beef”.  We’ll answer “yes” to their inevitable follow up questions, and eat whatever they bring us as a result.

A kindly middle-aged woman took our orders.  “Two beef soups”, we said, holding up two fingers.  Then a question in Korean.  “Yes”.  More questions.  “Yes”.  This went for ten seconds or so, but eventually she seemed satisfied.  Looking somewhat dubious, she went to the kitchen to make the food.  We munched on Kimchi and side dishes for about ten minutes until she came out with our orders: two big, steaming bowls of blood sausage, squid parts, onions and, floating in tiny little strips on the bottom, beef.

I have to say, it wasn’t bad at all.  Similar procedures have gotten us lots of other stuff.  It’s about flexibility.

The jimjilbang experience:

The jimjilbang is really just something that has to be experienced.  There is no cultural analogue in anything I’ve encountered in America.  I was rather startled during my first encounter with one, but I’ve since grown to really like them.

Jeremy and I were under the impression that Jimjilbangs were places where you could sleep cheaply at any time of the night.  Well….no, not quite.  We decided to give a jimjilbang a try this particular night because 6 a.m. had snuck up on us.  It tends to do that when you’ve had a few to drink and you’re hanging out with some locals.  There were no trains, and taxis from Daejon are pretty expensive.  So, we had the girls point us in the direction of a jimjilbang.

There is an entire procedure to a jimjilbang, one does not simply walk in and go to sleep.  First you put your shoes in a little locker and put on some sandals before proceeding to the place where you drop off the rest of your stuff.  It took a lot of pointing and bewildered Koreans before we figured this part out.

Sometimes you go to a second floor after you drop off your shoes, sometimes you don’t, but either way you go to a big locker room, filled with naked men of every conceivable age.  We were not expecting that.  You see, in addition to being a place to sleep, a jimjilbang is also a kind of sauna, with separate shower, hot tub, and sauna rooms.  Men and women have separate accomodations, of course.  We put our stuff in our lockers, got naked like everyone else, and put on the shorts and shirt we were provided with.  That first night we didn’t partake of the saunas or hot tubs, we were far too tired and frankly confused by that point.  We wandered out to where everyone was sleeping…

…And got our second shock.  No beds, no cots, no mattresses, no blankets.  Ever person, from 80 to 8, was laying on a hardwood floor in the open air with a tiny pillow and a mat.  Both genders reunite here, sleeping in a big open space together, inches from complete strangers.  We hunted up some mats, brows furrowed, and quietly drifted off to sleep.

Since that first encounter we’ve gotten quite a bit better at the whole thing.  We both love jimjilbangs, as they’re a great place to get a cheap shower, a soak in a hot tub, and shave before a night’s mischief.  You can also stumble in as late as you want and as, ahem, inebraited as you want, fighting off a hangover the next day with food purchased in the jimjilbang itself (they tend to have drinks and things like cup ramen and sandwhiches).  The headaches and aching joints recede much faster when you can soak in 100 degree water for an hour or so.

The Boryeong mud festival:

The name of this pretty much says it all.  We decided mostly on a whim to go to the mud festival, and the next day piled into a van and set off for Boryeong.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Boryeong is a beach city on the West coast of Korea.  For the festival there were many stations set up where mud was constantly being replenished.  Close by there were mud-themed slides and rides behind a fence, but we never made it into this part; we were maybe 8 people away from the ticket window when they announced that they’ve run out of tickets.

No matter, we made our own fun.  After fueling up on food and beer, we had a series of mud fights with each and with total strangers.  This lasted for about fifteen minutes and resulted in us being covered in thick grey sludge from head to toe. At this point the mud was in my mouth and eyes and everywhere else, so I decided that I would follow the others to the beach.  That was were we spent the rest of the day.  It rained gently on and off, and there was much horseplay in the ocean.  I managed to not get ducked the whole day, though a Danish fellow did get me off my feet once.

Exhausted and sun burnt, we drove home in the darkness, singing along to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A rain-soaked pilgrimage to the mountaintops:

I love to hike and I’m not afraid to be outside in the rain.  It may not surprise you to learn, then, that I go hiking in the rain whenever I get the chance.

Near the beginning of the rainy season a couple of my friends and I gathered to go for a nice rain hike which would end up taking the better part of four hours.  It wasn’t raining particularly hard that day, just a light drizzle which was filtered through the thick canopy of leaves.  The climibing was pretty good, if difficult, not too slippery or muddy yet.  As the hike wore on and we got closer and closer to the top of the mountain, it gradually stopped raining.  We encountered only a few other people, all on their way down, and the usually cacophany of animal noises was absent.

When we got to the top of the mountain we found a number of small frog sculptures and some miniature pagoda sculptures.  We were in the thickest mist I’ve ever seen, visibly reduced to twenty feet or so.  There was a temple nearby, but I could only see a little bit of it at a time, and there were pools of little frogs that were filling their air with their sounds.  This was normally a place where there would be a lot of people, but because of the rain we had it all to ourselves.

It’s a semi-mystical experience, feeling like you’re in a room made of clouds, breathing the sky, shrouded even out in the open, the air and trees and ground wet from the rain andalive, expectant.

I must’ve been feeling in a literary mood, because I decided to try my hand at myth-making on the spot.  Once, long ago, I told my companions, there were no clouds.  Each day the sun would rise blistering in the sky and beat down on the Earth, with no way to escape the heat.  The ancient Koreans, being a clever and industrious group of people, decided that they would invent a way to temporarily shelter themselves from the sun.  So they built cloud pagodas on the top of the mountain, and that’s where all the world’s clouds came from. The little stone statues make clouds like the ones we were standing in which drift far and wide and give humans a break from all that sunshine.

Conclusion

There you have it, my honest evaluation of home after the first half-year or so living here, together with some random excerpts from life.  It would not be at the top of my list of recommendations for people who want to do touristy sorts of things, but it is good to its expats.  If you give thought to teaching or living abroad and you don’t care about location, Korea is a better spot than most; if you find yourself about to move here for business or school, I wouldn’t be too afraid of what follows.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found the whole process of living abroad to be challenging and illuminating.  It’s an experience everybody should go through at least once.  I suspect that there are things you simply can’t learn until you’ve lived out in the world for a while.

Introductions

My name is Trent Fowler and this is my blog.  I struggled for a long time over whether or not I should try to stick to a theme or just write about whatever interests me.  I’ve decided to just write about everything that interests me.  I make no promises as to the future directions of the blog.  I could very well decide on a theme and stick to it faithfully, but we’ll see.

I have many interests and I like to write, so I suspect there will be a fair number of long essays.  But you can also expect to see links to cool/funny/informative stuff I find on the internet, and briefer pieces of commentary on music, TEDtalks, etc.