Monday, June 20, 2016

Wisdom from a Mayan Nobel Peace Laureate



Imagine being born into a poverty stricken village in the mountains of Guatemala. Imagine having your family torn apart by the civil war. Imagine your life being stripped down to nothing at the tender age of 23.  All these make up just a sliver of the ordeals Rigoberta had been put through, and the extent of grief and emotional torture she has experienced is certainly unimaginable to all of us. Yet, through it all, she refused to be a victim. Instead, she chose to be courageous and aspired to ignite the goodness in others and be the change. 

One of most humbling moments during Rigoberta’s keynote address was when she shared about her family and village which were destroyed in the civil war and how she managed to recover from the traumatic experience. Her siblings and father were tortured and killed; her mother was raped for three months, killed and her body strewn into the wild for animals to feed on. But what could she do? Avenge by killing those who murdered her family? No, she never ever harbored such thoughtsRather than trying to solve hatred and violence with even more hatred and violence, she took on a more peaceful approach. She reminded herself that there were many others in the world experiencing greater suffering and that she should remain strong so as to help themRigoberta hence emerged from the emotionally torturous tragedy as an even stronger individual and aspired to create a more beautiful future for the rest of the world.  

I was extremely touched by the optimism and positivity she displayed in the face of adversities. Indeed, the best way to approach unhappiness and negative feelings in life is to neutralize it with a positive attitude and translate the negative feelings into a powerful force that compels you to change the world into a better place. She acted on her suffering, became a catalyst for positive change and continues to inspire others to do the same. 

Ostensibly, one of Rigoberta’s greatest motivating factors could be the Mayan wisdom that was passed down from her ancestors. She was a person who stuck extremely close to the Mayan teachings and had strong faith in the sanctity of nature and life. In her address, she elaborated greatly on the three essential pillars of human life – the social, material and spiritual dimensions. She believed that one would live a fulfilling life if they achieved a balance in these three attributes.  

Firstly, the social dimension. The Nobel peace laureate shared that in all the projects that she has undertaken, she has always worked in a team, never alone. She emphasized heavily on the social nature of humans and the importance of teamwork. No one is ever able to survive independently. By working in a team, we allow experiences to be shared collectively and it allows us to approach the problem through different lenses and also generate highly diverse and creative solutions. Teamwork allows every individual’s strengths and talents to be maximized and their weaknesses to be compensated.  

Secondly, the material dimensionShe believes that no country is so poor that it does not have the financial capability to provide basic amenities for its citizens. The problem lies in how a country makes use of their available financial resources and whether money actually trickles down to the lower tiers of society. She substantiated her point with an example of intense corruption. A corrupt official could embezzle funds for personal use hence depriving the community of sufficient money to purchase necessities and fulfill their basic needs. Mayans believe in the concept of abundance, that being sons of earth, we inherit an abundance of wealth and resources. However, if such acts continue to be condoned, it would be impossible for everyone to meet their basic needs, let alone enjoy a materially wealthy life. 

Lastly, the spiritual dimension. Spirituality is to lead a morally upright life, to achieve inner peace, to radiate happiness from our vessels into the world. When Rigoberta was young, she used to play basketball with a bunch of friends. They did not have the best of resources or training yet they went out to compete with other stronger teams which have received proper training. Undoubtedly, they were thrashed in terms of scores. For every one goal that Rigoberta’s team had put in, the other teams put in ten. Even so, her team took great pride and triumph in every single goal that they put in. This example mirrors how humans should focus on the good things in life and celebrate all the small little joys we experience. Through developing her spiritual self, she gained a vision and also a more positive outlook in life, thus sowing the seeds of goodness inside her. 

It was inspirational to witness Rigoberta’s motivation to be a catalyst of change instead of wallowing in self-pity and sinking into a downward spiral after all the ordeals she had undergone. The compassion she exudes is incredibly inspirational. There was an instance where she recounted an experience about losing sleep over the thought that a neighboring village could be suffering or even dying from starvation as she sleeps. Tears welled up in her eyes and streamed down her face as she told us the story. In that instance, the overwhelming empathy pouring out from her heart really made my heart ache. It truly affected me even though a language barrier existed between us and I could barely understand the Spanish she was speaking. She was not afraid or embarrassed about being vulnerable when speaking to us about it and her emotions were so raw and genuine. I was extremely moved by her empathy and really in awe of her selflessness. 

All in all, if I were to sum what I have learnt in two words, they would be ‘respect’ and ‘gratitude’. An admirable leader who wishes to change the world for the better should embody these values as these values lays the foundation and paves the path to doing greater good in the future. With respect, one will listen closely to other’s opinions as well as maintain an open mind and receptive attitude when talking to their opposition. With gratitude, one will be able to form healthy relationships with others and be able to connect with the community so as to reach out to them.  

I personally feel that most of Rigoberta’s teachings are very relatable as a Buddhist. Her advice corresponds to a lot of the Buddhist teachings that we have been exposed to, from simple things like gratitude to more complex concepts like practicing compassion and searching for inner peace. Rigoberta suggests that we avoid conflicts in life and exercise our right to not participate in destructive acts. By doing this, we can actually reduce our dukkhaIn addition, we often find ourselves harboring negative intentions and feelings. That is why we should learn to cultivate good habits and values of respect and gratitude to prevent these negative thoughts and actions from arising in the future. When negative feelings arise, we will be mindful enough to stop them from proliferating and we can choose to translate the negative energy into a positive one. As Rigoberta reminds herself every morning when she wakes up: “Today is a good day and I will not fight with anybody”. Ultimately, happiness and peace is a choice, so choose to be happy and peace loving!  

So dear readers, please allow me to set you a challenge. Regardless of how difficult your current circumstance may be and how insurmountable the fears and challenges before you may seem, I implore you to TRY and act on the advice that Rigoberta has shared. I implore you to treat every person you come across with respect and gratitude. I implore you to be THE change and engage in an act of peace today.  

Muchas Gracias! 

Jia Min :)