My first day in San Cristóbal de las Casas, I nearly ended up in the hospital. I was walking down the street – on the sidewalk, struggling to send a text on my newly acquired, very basic (yet somehow repeatedly confounding me) cell phone. All of a sudden, I stumbled – big time. I stumbled because I had reached an intersection and the level of the sidewalk was about a foot higher than the street. Thankfully, that day I must have had a really good sense of balance and strong ankles – because I stumbled without falling flat and without twisting an ankle. Lately, I’m really valuing this gift that San Cristóbal is presenting to me in a variety of ways – a strong reminder to be pay attention, be present, be aware.
The sidewalks are high, uneven and regularly slanting this way and that. When it rains, the opportunities to slide and slip are rather abundant. Many of the roads are uneven cobblestones. As I walk the streets of San Cristóbal, I find myself focusing solely on what I am doing – walking. If my mind wanders too much or I venture to start scribing a text – I’m likely to lose my balance. Likewise, if I try to move to fast, I’m likely to end up on my ass.
Go slow. Be aware.
I get this same message when I speak Spanish. Learning a new language keeps demanding that I pause to reflect on what I want to say and how best to say it. This slows down my speaking pace. This pushes me to be aware of what it is I want to communicate and the fact that sometimes I’m not at all communicating effectively. I also feel quite vulnerable when I’m speaking Spanish – a language in which I am conversant but far from fluent. I am aware of what I do not know. I am – over and over again – reminded of my ignorance.
Learning a new language also is a great way to practice the art of listening. As a mediator, I generally tend to be aware of the importance of listening attentively and try to make this my regular practice. Listening is a whole different kind of experience when you might only understand every other word in a sentence. Or when you think you’ve understood what someone has said only to realize you got it all wrong.
Patience. More humility.
I’m loving all this – I’m loving the slowness in how I move through the streets and in how I speak. Sure, I get very frustrated with my Spanish-language ability. I don’t like not having the words to say what I want to say. I don’t like completely misunderstanding people. But that is all part of the journey – ignorance and mistakes. I love that with each day, I care less and less about the mistakes. I’m happy to laugh at the language mishaps that keep happening. I embrace my ignorance. I’m becoming more confident in saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Could you please repeat that – I’m here trying to improve my Spanish.” I’m getting more and more comfortable with the pace of my progress – relishing the little successes rather than tearing myself apart of the on-going challenges.
Ahh, gratitude for tiny experiences of satisfaction.
What’s my point when it comes to social change?
Well, as the tagline says, I’m passionate about rooting social change in the art of awareness. My point is that here in San Cristóbal de las Casas, I’m getting some pretty wonderful training in awareness from some rather unexpected/unconventional sources – the sidewalks and the streets – and conventional ones – learning another language. And connected to all this awareness is presence – I’m really learning/practicing being present. If I’m not present, I’m likely to fall while I walk down the street. If I’m not present, I’m likely to make a lot of mistakes while speaking Spanish and do a poor job of communicating what I want to communicate and of understanding what others are trying to say to me. If I’m not present, I’m likely to miss opportunities for learning – about language and culture.
In what ways could you be more present – at work, at home, in any given moment? What benefits might greater presence bring to you?