Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Pura Vida! On the Better Way to Live Alone

bliss, a daily sumptuous immersion in happiness beyond my previous experience.

Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
In the very here and now,
The practitioner dwells
In stability and freedom.

I had always considered myself a failed Buddhist, just too hyperactive to be able to learn and practice mindfulness and meditation. Since the early 1980s, when I was absorbed in working with Physicians for Social Responsibility, trying to prevent nuclear holocaust, I also tried to learn and follow the practices of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who seemed to preserve his happiness and equanimity even when confronted with the threat of nuclear war. I went to various retreats, one with Thich Nhat Hanh himself, several silent. I attended a sangha, and practiced sitting and walking meditation. I washed the dishes, trying to really focus on washing the dishes, and I began my meals by saying "Many labors have brought me this food. I give thanks to all of them." None of this relieved my restlessness, anxiety, consumerism, and dread. Dreams of nuclear firestorms continued, as did my feverish activity. There was no real rest.

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My husband David Barash and I worked together in the peace movement, and we wrote two books together, while he went on to write many more, including a textbook of peace studies and numerous others about human nature, violence, and politics. Even when we were cloistered together at the think tank in Italy called Bellagio (the real Bellagio, Pliny the Elder's summer home on Lake Como, not the fake in Nevada), my restlessness and agitation did not cease. I could see the lizards basking on the wall in the sun, but couldn't allow myself to follow suit.

After the Berlin Wall came down, I took a break from nuclear issues, and focused on my family, career, and pleasant pastimes, like dressage. Late in the 1990s, David and I began to write together again, focusing on the biology of sex, sex differences, and adultery. April marks the paperback publication of our fifth book together, How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just So Stories, published by Columbia University Press. Just So Stories were written by Rudyard Kipling, and evolutionary psychology has been criticized for telling stories about biology that "nothing but just so stories". In Curves we try to show the reader how telling stories leads to good scientific research, by asking questions l like why do human females have orgasms? Or large protruding mammary glands, even when not nursing? In future posts, I'll tell some Just So Stories about women, and I'll try to teach you why playing with scientific ideas is important.

But right now, today, I am working on a very different kind of book, provisionally called "Why are the Ticos So Darned Happy?" And so my thoughts are more about happiness, a topic I knew literally nothing about, scientifically at least, until a few months ago. I specialized in misery, for goodness sake! Nuclear war, deterrence theory, adultery and deception. Even my newest book, Payback! Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression, and Take Our Revenge (Oxford University Press, May, 2011) is about the phenomenon of passing pain along, from one injured individual to another, even to new, innocent victims. We end that book with a chapter of strategies to try to help people deal with pain, disappointment, subordination and loss without passing the pain on to others, and talk at some length about learning to hold sorrow inside, without externalizing it as anger. This is probably the most important book my husband and I have written, and I hope that it travels to your library and thoughts.

However, my true confession is that until recently, I couldn't meditate, and I was often in that besieged state between busyness and anxiety, trying to accomplish too much, and dreading the losses causes by my failures or others. Something changed. In 2008, we came to Costa Rica on a eco-vacation, intending to ride horses and tour the country. I did not expect to fall in love, but did. I came back for 5 weeks early in 2009, then closed my psychiatric practice and came to Costa Rica for 6 months in November, 2009. By March, 2010, we had bought a house near a quiet beach. Now I am retired from the active practice of psychiatry, but practicing something new, cohabitus interruptus. I am currently alone in Costa Rica, with my dog and 2 cats, while David is alone in Washington with 7 cats and 3 dogs. Our plan is to spend 5 months together in Washington, 4 months together in Costa Rica, and 3 months apart, every year. After 34 years of marriage, it is our first real separation, and we are doing it because Costa Rica brings me bliss.

Bliss? That is a rather strong word. But bliss it is, a daily sumptuous immersion in a sensation of happiness that is beyond my previous experience. Bliss is brought on by the breezes, by the winds from the sea or the ceiling fan. Bliss is brought on by the symphony of the sea, endlessly changing rhythm, tone and cadence, but never ceasing. Is this meditation? I can lie still, for hours, listening to the sea, feeling the breeze. No cravings, few thoughts, memories of the past and hopes for the future coming and going without attachment. Life is simple here, mostly. I have 2 bikinis, 1 skort, 2 sunshirts, 2 skirts, 3 tank tops, and a nightshirt. There is no laundry to do. When my clothes get dirty, I wear them in the shower or the pool and let them dry. I eat oatmeal, eggs, rice, beans, tortillas, and fruit. Mangos, papayas, pineapples, avocados, tomatoes, and some salad greens from my little garden. There is no real shopping to do. I have no address, so cannot order anything online. There are few stores, and I don't need anything. I have not used a credit card since November, except for downloading books for my Kindle. OK, I admit it, this would not be possible without the Kindle and Skype. The sun comes up at 6 and sets at 6. I get up about 7 and go to bed about 7. My dog and I walk the beach every morning, picking up trash. My active meditation is to remove as much trash and plastic as I can from the environment, to make it safer for the turtles, egrets, vultures, iguanas, and other animals who live here. That is my day. Walk the dog, read, write, study Spanish, play the guitar, eat a little, sleep. And I allow myself the hours of the hot afternoons when it is 98 in the shade to lie abed, flattened by the heat, listening to the ocean, doing nothing, as quiet as a basking lizard. I miss David deeply and daily, but I am grateful for this chance to learn the better way to live alone.

Judith Eve Lipton, M.D. is a psychiatrist and book author. She and her husband David Barash have written about sex, war, and human nature.

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