Saturday, September 21, 2013

How I Survive as a Highly Sensitive Person in Chaotic Manila

I am a very introverted Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Note the caps. I'm not talking about merely being touchy or over-emotional, I'm talking about certain people who are actually biologically rigged to feel and react more strongly to sensory stimuli than the average population. A leisurely Googling brought me to discover about this fairly new physiological study, and it was very comforting to know that there's finally something to describe this "condition". I hope knowledge about HSP's would spread farther and wider so that family, friends, and bosses would understand that people like us aren't simply overacting.

Among the quirks of being an HSP is that crowds make us very uncomfortable. All that depression, anxiety, anger and various shit that many everyday people are carrying - easily gets into our skin. That's why it seemed like a joke of the universe that I had to be born in the world's most densely populated city and live among the world's most emotional people.

It is not all pain and suffering though. Being an HSP for me is more a boon than a curse. Creativity, curiosity, spirituality, and a rich inner life are just few of the perks of being an HSP. Art and music and all things beautiful excite me, therefore I search for and surround myself with them. Regardless of what the cynics say, there's still much beauty in this world, and yes, even in suffocatingly crowded Manila, if one knows where to look.

A quiet afternoon in General Luna street.

1. Portable Music Players. I've had them since the early 90's - from my no-name cassette player in high school to the 160gig iPod with noise-cancelling earphones shoved into my ears right now. I never leave the house without it and it's become virtually a part of my physical body. It's a miracle I haven't got any hearing problems yet since I often listen at maximum volumes. Whether I'm in a rush-hour commute or drowned in the noise of the corporate office, the music in my ears instantly transports me to another, more pleasant world.

Bakasana. Getting there.

2. Exercise. I consider exercise more as a way of life rather than merely a solution to fix something on the body. The benefits extend way beyond looking better physically, it also helps a lot to feeling better mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This year I have learned to leave the confines of the gym and took my exercise to the swimming pool, the running track, the yoga studio and the boxing ring and it has actually become more than a lifestyle, but a passion. Strength training improves my endurance, which serves as a layer of protection against strong, unpleasant physical stimuli. Yoga, though I'm hesitant to categorize it as "exercise", is specially quite valuable in helping me learn how to temporarily tune down my hypersenses, or at least my reaction to stimuli.

My meditation-friendly bedroom when I was living in Alabang.

3. Reprogramming the mind. Being hypersensitive means being easily annoyed, rattled, ashamed or depressed, and when I am in any of these states I would often come up with irrational thoughts that do more harm to myself and to other people. While I was reading a book on the train, there was a guy who kept popping his bubble gum throughout the half-hour commute, the sound was so annoying and I could still hear it even with my iPod on at maximum volume. I was getting so riled up that I began having evil thoughts like "accidentally" stepping on his foot on the way out. I'm training my mind to raise an alarm bell whenever thoughts like these come up, and try to counteract it with the voice of reason: "This guy isn't deliberately trying to annoy me", "If you had bubble gum right now you'd be popping it too". Changing how your mind reacts can be quite difficult - like potty-training a kitty. I find that it's a lot easier when I heave a deep breath and try put to on a smile however fake it is. Eventually the devils in my mind would be banished anyway and I end up genuinely smiling at myself.

barbara's cafe intramuros manila
Having coffee like an ilustrado at Barbara's Café.

4. Cafés. I avoid Starbucks as much as I could. Although there are a few exceptions, they tend to be so crowded and tend to have a loud-mouthed group of friends who would spoil your introspective Nescafé moments. Those quaint, lesser-known street-side cafés are more to my liking. I would rather go for a teh tarik and a kaya toast in Kopi Roti, or a banana-split in that old ice cream parlor in Escolta which exudes a pleasant, American-era vibe. An Illy cafe inside a bookstore branch is my favorite art spot. When reviewing for the French exams, I tend to hangout in the coffee shops near schools and find myself surrounded with young people solemnly reading their textbooks. On weekends, even popular cafés and tea joints in the business districts become cozy sanctuaries due to the absence of the working folk.

Serene and a bit creepy. San Agustin museum.

5. Museums. A silent place filled with art and history, it's an obvious choice for an HSP to run to when escaping from the city's madness. Ayala Museum updates their exhibits from time to time, and a walk inside the San Agustin museum is not to be missed. Unfortunately, museums in Manila are quite few and far between - just like nature parks, which HSPs sorely need. 

Crêpe Flambée au Grand Marnier, by Monsieur Gigi at the Salcedo Market.

6. Weekend Markets. Yes, there are crowds but they are not (usually) the unpleasant types. While I try to hold myself from buying every shiny trinket that I see, I wallow in the festive air and savor my excitement to explore these interesting curiosities around me. Fortunately we have a growing number of them, from the posh Salcedo market to the artsy and bohemian Escolta market.

Riding a calesa in Intramuros.

7. Explore, explore, explore. Manila has the biggest malls in the world because Manileños are such mall rats. But spending my weekends aimlessly strolling at malls just make my weekend feel so un-special. Besides I have already been spending the rest of the week in a crowded, soulless, concrete box. I would rather be walking (or running) on the streets, learning in a classroom, attending a workshop, watching a play, doing sports, trying out a new resto, having coffee in a quaint little corner, or just simply trying to discover new places and new things to do. Don't listen to what the SM commercials say - "We've got it all for you!" my ass. There is a huge world outside the malls waiting to be explored.

Learning about Manila from Carlos Celdran at La Monja Loca.

8. More people can be fun too. Not all crowds are bad. Living in a city with a population of more than a million offers lots of opportunities to meet interesting characters. Widening my tiny social circle is one thing I would no doubt find challenging but the prospect makes me excited as well. Though I'm not quite ready yet hitting up a conversation with a stranger, I'm opening myself up more and have promised myself not to try scrambling away whenever a stranger in the café, yoga studio or gym initiates a casual chit-chat. Besides, I'm in my 30's. I'm already too freaking old to by shy.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Om Sweet Om

February 2013. It was a very hectic Friday at work just like the days and weeks before. I was taking an afternoon walk during my break to shake off the stress when I remembered a friend's suggestion to try yoga. I've always been interested in it but I was always coming up with a thousand excuses to put off actually going to a yoga class: I'm not flexible, it's expensive, there's no yoga studio nearby, I'd rather play Starcraft, etc. But then I was getting fed up of the monotony of my daily routine that I was quite ready to jump into something new. After some quick Googling on my phone, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there's a new studio that's just opened near my office (Bliss Yoga). Incidentally the place was just a few steps from where I was taking a walk at that time so I immediately decided to drop by. I was even more delighted to find that they were offering free classes that week as a promo to attract new people in the area. It's as if the stars conspire that day to finally get my ass to a yoga class.

I remember how difficult it was walking into the class for the first time - especially since I was alone, no friends to secretly giggle at each other with. It was Sunday morning. Seeing these fresh, lithe, beautiful creatures in really nice yoga outfits got me all the more intimidated, out of place, and feeling awkward. I was already tense and my mind was racing before the class even started.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?

The teacher came in and after a short introduction we were asked to stand up and do the yoga poses. This is it. Not knowing the names of the poses I just tried to manage what I could to mimic what the people around me were doing . The teacher kept telling us to focus on what I mistakenly heard as the "vagina breath" or something, which really didn't matter as I could only manage to huff and puff all along. Why is this making me feel so stressed? Isn't it supposed to do the opposite? It was almost an hour and a half of painful exertion, awkwardness, and feelings of stupidity. I kept glancing at the clock on my cellphone anticipating the end of the class, but time, like a mocking devil, was running painfully, teasingly slow.

And then, after what seemed like eternity, the class was finally coming to a close and we were asked to lie down. Just lie down, and close our eyes. Like a corpse. Shavasana - that's what the pose is called. It was the first Sanskrit asana name that I learned. I was simply anticipating to rest my limbs, until the teacher said the words: "let go" - and that was when the magic happened.

Let go. And I realized how tired I was of being so conscious of myself. How tired I was from trying to look good to others and trying to fit in. How tired I was from over-thinking and how I hate my brain for coming up with those irrational thoughts of anxiety, fear, and envy. It was not merely the poses I'm really grappling with, it was me. It was a trick. The poses were just tools. The problem was my mind more than my tight hamstrings. I was finally getting the idea of what it was all about. Coming into this realization brought a little smile in my face as I lay there splayed like a drunken Buddha. I finally let go. And the breath that followed was no longer a strained attempt to catch my breath, but a breath of relief, accomplishment, and gentle, calming bliss.

It was love at first sigh.


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