Archives For Sean

I was sitting on a verandah, sipping on a cup of coffee, overlooking the main road of Kandy. At the table next to me was a group of girls, pouring through their Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, trying to figure out their next stop along their tour. We started chatting and the asked a curious, but common, question, “how can we get to know the real Sri Lanka?” I’ve been asked this question on several occasions; and I think most travelers seek to get away from the toursits traps and get to know the true essence of a country (at least for a few hours…).

The benefits are incredibly apparent: a true culture experience that enables you to understand someone with a different set of life experiences. Well its surprisingly easy to do this: get out of sterile, isolating situations; throw out that guide book, and make yourself get out and actually talk to people.

It might sound simple, but just speaking to people can really alter the course of your trip. I don’t understand tourists who go around with headphones in listening to music. Riding on buses across Sri Lanka has been one of the best most interesting parts of my time here. When you’re sitting next to someone on a six hour bus ride, there is a lot of time to learn about the country from your travel companion, if you have headphones in the entire way you’ve just lost this entire opportunity. Talking to people on buses has led me to better understand Sri Lanka and its history. I’ve been shocked by what people have shared with me on a public bus, stories of war, survival, and new beginnings.

The Fulbright has been one of the best learning experience of my life, thus far. The past six months of living and working in Sri Lanka have pushed me to be a better communicator and a more open person. This experience has changed me, probably in more ways than I’m cognizant of. As a caucasian male born to a middle class family in New Jersey, I don’t exactly have a lot in common with the son of a Sri Lankan fisherman who has spent the last decade of his life running from war. Despite the differences between our worldview and experiences, I try my best to understand his outlooks. When I first came to Sri Lanka this was incredibly difficult to relate with people here. Sitting in someone’s living room and listening to their stories of life and death can evoke a range or emotions, and I often found myself falling silent – unsure of how to respond. After time I learned to understand and empathize with the hardships people have faced; I became comfortable enough to ask questions and engage in conversations.

If you want to be a better communicator, start by listening.

Vipassana

June 3, 2013 — 10 Comments

Ten days of “nobel silence”. One hundred hours of still meditation.

For the past twelve days I was introduced to Vipassana mediation at the Dhamma Kūṭa center outside of Kandy, Sri Lanka. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. After this experience my mind feels lighter, sharper, nimbler than I can ever remember.

This is the longest time in my life I’ve ever gone without speaking or eating meat. For the duration of ‘noble silence’ we were not allowed to make eye contact with other meditators or walk with them, we could only speak to the teacher if we had a question about the practice. I’ve never felt so isolated while being surrounded by so many people.

Every day our meditation schedule followed the same routine:

4:00am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 Meditate in the hall
6:30-8:00 Breakfast & rest
8:00-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
11:00-1:00pm Lunch & rest
1:00-2:30 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
2:30-3:30 Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
5:00-6:00 Tea break (new students get tea and crackers, old students only get tea)
6:00-7:00 Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 Retire to room; lights out

During the first two days of meditation we were instructed to focus only on our respiration, the sensation of breathing in and out of our nose. You are supposed to breath your normal breath, neither too hard nor too soft. Just naturally. The teacher told us that focusing on this small area would train our mind, and it would become sharper. Day two was one of the hardest day. My back ached from sitting cross-legged the previous day, my mind was filled with random thoughts. After lunch was the hardest part of any day, because we had only short breaks from 1pm until 5pm. It was the longest stretch of the day. I sat there in the darkened hall, looking around at my fellow meditators and was struck by the fact that overweight elderly men were having an easier time than I (a fairly in shape 22 year old) was having.

On the morning of day three I woke up refreshed, and actually eager to get into the hall. After breakfast we were instructed to start focusing on the area just below our nose and above our lip. Focus on the sensation of your respiration against this patch of skin. I felt nothing. Nothing at all. I sat there trying to keep my mind silent for hours, and I couldn’t feel even my breath blow against my nose. We broke for lunch and afterwards I took my requisite nap. When we sat down again at 1pm I started to feel my breath against my lip, and it all clicked.

On day four we began practicing Vipassana, the ancient meditation technique developed by Buddha some 2500 years ago. Though deeply rooted in Buddhist teachings, Vipassana centers around the world maintain a non-denominational stance, and they welcome all religious beliefs. Vipassana seeks to gain an awareness of sensations across the body. These sensations can include: temperature, perspiration, itching, or just about anything else. You start going methodically from the top of your scalp, to each place on your face, down the front of your neck to your stomach, then the back of your neck to your shoulder to your fingers. Examining the body slowly and fully. On day five the teacher asked us to start trying to do this in a flowing manner, examining the body in a sweeping motion from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

The goal is to be aware of sensations but not to react to them; take the sensations without a feeling of pain or pleasure. All sensations are impermanent, and being attached to them is what leads to suffering. You are trying to learn to see what things truly are, and to separate the mind from the body.

Day six was, by far, the hardest day. I could only get my mind to be still for one of the sessions. The rest of the day my mind raced around, and I tried to quiet it as best as I could. One of the volunteers who served us food must have recognized what a rough day I was having, because he brought me some extra sweets at lunch.

Day seven was the first time that I managed to go a full hour without moving or opening my eyes. I exited the meditation hall for breakfast feeling incredible. My mind is truly empty. Vipassana is an attempt to control the subconscious mind, to empty it and allow the conscious mind to have full control.

On day ten nobel silence was lifted, and for the first time I was able to speak to the 60 other meditators. There were participants from China, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, America, and Sri Lanka. For the first hour or so everyone whispered to each other, but the voices gradually got louder as we all became accustomed to speaking. People’s faces glowed.

I vividly dreamt every night during meditation. I easily woke up every morning at 4am. I stopped feeling hungry after two days (we were only given two meals a day). It was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. There were days that dragged on for endless amounts of time, and days that flew by in what seemed like a breath. 
On the morning of the 11th day after cleaning our bunks and having breakfast, I spoke with the elderly teacher who had been instructing me for the course. Her final words to me were “those who practice Vipassana always die with a smile.” 

Qualified Teacher

May 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

I’m not TEFL, TOEFL, or CELTA certified. My only qualification as an English teacher are that I have a Bachelor’s degree (in finance) and I speak English.

As a Fulbrighter the State Department gave me two days of English teaching training before sending me off to a foreign land. After some time of teaching they flew me to Nepal for a four day conference on English Teaching, most of my fellow attendees were nearly finished with their teaching grants.

As far as the American Government is concerned, I’m here as a cultural ambassador. The Fulbright program funds people, not project. They look for people who will be good representatives of America abroad, all the better if they can teach.

Having some training in English teaching would have been helpful, but I’m afraid it also might have been stifling. I’m fortunate to teach at the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee, since  they have encouraged me not to use a textbook and to go on my own. Not having been trained in English teaching has forced me to be more creative, and allowed me to focus on what I think will have the most impact.

I don’t teach to a test and I don’t teach out of a book. I am quite lucky.

When I was in China I was so frustrated that my Mandarin classes were based out of a textbook designed for students in America. I was living in Beijing and my teacher was instructing me on how to introduce my family and talk about clothing when I couldn’t order food at a restaurant. Priorities… After eight weeks in the classroom we got around to learning food words – needless to say I spent my tutoring hours working on more useful vocabulary and disregarded my formal studies.

I strive to to have my students value our time in the classroom together. At the end of every class I like to ask “what did we work on today?” This forces my students to reflect on the class and think about how it could be applicable to real life.

Teachers teaching to their students’ needs and desires, its a novel educational concept.

The True Cost

May 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

How much would you pay for a t-shirt? Five dollars? Ten? Forty?

How much should you pay for a t-shirt? What would it cost to produce a shirt that does no harm to the environment or person? Can clothing even be produced in a sustainable way?

Clothing is the second most chemical intensive industry in the world, after agriculture. Rivers in China run blue with the dye from denim.

Patagonia is, arguably, the most responsible manufacturer of clothes in the world. For the last six years they have been named on Ethisphere’s most ethical companies list (though they were left off this year). Patagonia has served as an industry leader in transparency, and publish information on all of their suppliers and manufactures  Recently they elected to become the first Benefit Corporation in California; this form of corporate structure requires that they put their stakeholders infront of corporate profits (Bloomberg explains the benefits and drawbacks of BCorps here). Recently they’ve partnered with the Nature Conservancy to work with sheep farmers in Patagonia to ensure that the wool they buy does not contribute to overgrazing. Overgrazing has turned 20 million acres of land into desert in Patagonia. On the largest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, they ran an ad telling customers, “don’t buy this jacket.” Instead they asked their customers to try and buy used versions of their product.  All of their cotton is organic, a decision they made when they realized how many chemicals go into growing cotton – they had to find famers to buy organic cotton from directly before there was a market for it.

In light of this, I’d say Patagonia is a pretty good example of what a responsible clothing company should look like.

Patagonia sells many clothing items, among them are t-shirts. The minimum retail price for a Patagonia shirt is $39.00. That is a pretty steep cost for a t-shirt; it reflects the cost of making clothes that do little to no harm to the environment and treat the laborers well.

You can buy shirts for considerably less than forty bucks, but should you? Gap, through Old Navy and Bannan Republic, sells t-shirts ranging from $4.99 to $32.50. Its hard to think how a $4.99 shirt could be made in a sustainable way, even at the high end its questionable. Gap’s CSR policy is as good as most clothing manufacturers, but implementing the policy while maintaining a competitive pricing policy is a hard task to juggle.

Gap manufactures a lot clothing in Sri Lanka, and they promise to maintain a watchful eye on the post war situation. Despite blatant abuses by the government, Gap continues to manufacture clothes here. More prominently, Gap may have been able to prevent the death of over 507 people at Rana Plaza in Dhaka last week.

In 2011 Gap walked out of negotiations which would have implemented extensive fire and building safety standards. This plan would have implemented these regulations outside of the control of the government, with funding by multinational manufactures. The companies would have contributed up to $500,000 a year. PvH (Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and German retailer Tchibo signed on to the plan, but the commitment of at least two other firms was needed to implement the plan.

It’s being argued that cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolutions in Bangladesh, but at what point are clothes too cheap? If these reforms had been implemented Gap could have passed the increased cost on to consumers or seen their earnings reduced by 0.0034% (Gap Inc. earned $14.5B in 2012). Instead of moving operations to a higher cost country, with more regulatory burdens, Gap could have taken the charge and led meaningful reforms in Bangladesh.

Keep this in mind next time you’re out shopping.

Learning Colours

May 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

Learning Colours

by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

I hear the maid tell my daughter,
three years old and just able to make out

red from pink and even blue from purple,

as they sit on the verandah
avoiding the glare of our tropical sun,

that she is fair.

If it had been someone else, I would have

stomped up, red in the face, and given my spiel:

“When the one real line is drawn,
even the fairest here is black!”

But this is a woman from a highland village.
She will look at the child’s dark mother and laugh

with her knowledge that coursed two centuries

down hills and dunes into her blood.

She will tell me that nothing gives one

a better advantage in life
than a bit of creamy skin.

 

Poetry can be very powerful way to teach English, but for a students it can be menacing. Last week I shared this poem, written by the Deputy Director of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka, with some of my more advanced students. It led to an engaging and thoughtful discussion about skin color and society.

My lesson plan for teaching poetry to ESL students went something like this:

During class we read two poems, and discussed the meaning of the poem. After that the students had to write a response poem. For homework I asked each student to write a poem, based upon Ramya’s. The results were fantastic.

There is no correct way to write a poem; after years of learning in a rigid test based environment that can be frustrating for my students. After working with them for two months though, my students have gotten used to my challenging questions, and they come up with some really great answers to open ended questions. This exercise was so different from traditional Sri Lankan school exercises, because it focused on student creativity

I want to share with you two of the poems that my students wrote:

Skin Colour
Some peoples are white,
Some peoples are black.
Doesn’t think about these skin colours
When you close your eyes
All things are same.

 

Black and White
A man came to my fruit shop
He took and mango and smell it
Perfectly checked my fruits.
I cut a small piece of a mango
Gave it to him.
His face became bright.
Not by his white skin, but
The fine taste of my mango
Grown in a black sand.
He took 5 mangoes.
He put 150 rupees on the bench,
Not in my hand.
Few ones only knew.
Only in dark milk moon is beautiful.

 

I was thrilled reading these expressive poems. For some time I’ve debated teaching this poem. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond, and if it would be culturally insensitive to teach it. After some time of worrying, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see how it goes. I couldn’t have been happier. My students voiced strong opinions on how skin color affects their lives, and they wrote some really beautiful poetry.

Poetry can make for a great ESL lesson plan and help foster creativity. I think the key is to make it relevant to the students, I was fortunate to find a really touching poem written by a Sri Lankan.

I utilize my public library more now now than I have in the past eight years. This is especially surprising because I live over 8,700 miles away from it. I can’t recall ever checking a book out of the library while a high school or undergraduate student, but since moving to Sri Lanka I’ve checked out over a dozen books from my library’s online program. My downloads have ranged from Bill Clinton’s Back to Work to Haruki Murakami‘s Norwegian Wood, and I’ve read all of them on my kindle.

While at Fordham I was at the library almost daily, but I used it as a place to study and work – not as a place to look up information (isn’t that what the internet is for?). This seemed to be a pretty common practice, as my generation is more inclined to utilize google than the dewey decimal system.

The role of libraries is changing rapidly, just last week this shift was highlighted by the launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

The DPLA was launched by Harvard’s Berkaman Center, with funding coming from a variety of foundations. It is an open source archive that has partnered with the Smithsonian, the National Archives, New York Public Library, the University of Virginia, Harvard, Digital Library of Georgia, Minnesota Digital Library, Mountain West Digital Library and others. These collections are open to the world to be searched by place or time. Even in its infancy, its an intriguing collection. I expect it will become even more relevant and useful as the collection partners with more archives, libraries, and museums. 

One of the more intriguing things is that the DPLA has an API, so that developers can build off of their archives. I’m excited to see what new products come out of this partnership.

The function of libraries has changed rapidly over the past decade, and many local libraries are struggling to justify their cost to the communities. With resources like the DPLA being launched, local libraries will have even less relevance. Libraries need to revamp themselves, and they can learn a lot from coworking spaces.

Its estimated that by 2020 about 40% of America’s workforce will be freelancers. Coworking spaces allow freelancers and young companies to have flexible office space, that can scale cheaply. Libraries can be turned from stagnant spaces that foster an environment of silent study to engaging environments where creative thinkers can thrive. The content libraries can curate is constrained by their physical space, so they should embrace the digital era and help patrons to hack through the endless information available on the web. Access to the web, and data, should be the entire point of libraries. They should be spaces where community members can teach classes, in the style of Skillshare.

Our world is changing, and the old models need to be challenged and improved.

J is for Jambu

April 30, 2013 — 2 Comments

Jambu

Jambu!

Sri Lanka was referred to by the ancient Arab traders as Serendipit is the root word for serendipity. Part of the reasoning was that a man could cross the island with nothing but the clothes on his back, and emerge well fed. As one of the most bio diverse islands in the world, Sri Lanka is home to many interesting species of spices and fruits. One of my favorite things to do is to buy strange fruits and vegetables, and to try my hand at cooking them. Sometimes the results are great… 

Jambu have recently come into season on the island. This small fruit is also known as rose apple; its scientific name is SyzygiumThere are 1100 species of Syzgium, and I believe the ones in Sri Lanka are Syzygium samarangense

The fruit has a light flavor, and they’re slightly sour. Jambus are juicy and fragrant, and they have a nice crunch to them. The exterior of the fruit has a been of a sheen to it, they are primarily green with hints of pink. The bulb shaped fruits are tasty, and a refreshing treat on a hot day.

These little fruits are chockfull of vitamins: thiamin, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and sulfur. The jambu is a source of fiber and is low in fat and calories, with 56 calories per 100g.

A kilo of Jambu will cost you SLR 100/ ($0.79 USD). Not a bad price at all for such a tasty fruit.

Yamu

April 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

Yamu means ‘let’s go’ in Sinhala. Yamu.lk is a startup based in Colombo. Right now they’re a city guide, but they’re quickly evolving to cover all things Sri Lanka. If you’re looking for a good restaurant, bar, or activity they’re your source.

Every day about 1000 unique visitors come to the site to find out whats going new in Colombo.

I’ve recently started writing for Yamu, so things have been quiet here on brightful.ly. Check out some of my recent articles:

Its great to have an excuse to get out and visit new restaurants…

New Year

April 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Sri Lankan New Year is upon us. The stores are packed, buses are crowded, and businesses are shutting down for a long weekend.

The Tamil and Sinhalese New Years follow the vernal equinox, this year they will begin on April 14th. This year I am headed to Nuwara Eliya for New Year, apparently this is the place to be. For New Year there will be horse and car races, flower festivals, golf tournaments, and imported keg beer. All the Colomboites head up to Nuwara Eliya for the holiday.

According to LankaInfo.com, the schedule for New Years is:

“2013 NEW YEAR AUSPICIOUS TIMES IN SRI LANKA

  • Dawn of New Year (Nekath Udawa)

    Dawn of New Year is at 14th April 2013 at 01:29 AM

  • Punya Kalaya

    Punyakalaya is the time which starts 7hrs 05 minutes before the dawn of New Year and ends 7 hours 53 minutes after the dawn of New Year. So the puniya kala for Sri Lanka starts on  13th April at 07:05 p.m and ends at  14 th April at 07:53 a.m.  The first portion of the Punyakala  is allocated for religious ceremonies and the second part is for traditions like preparing Meals. Starting work, transactions etc.

  • Lighting of the hearth 
  • Preparing Meals “Aahara Piseema”
    April 14th at 04:06 a.m
    Auspicious direction is South
    Auspicious cloth Blue Colour
    Prepare a “Kiri Bath” from red rice mixed with Ghee and Jaggery (sharkara)  and sesame seeds (Tala) 
  • Starting Work, Transactions and Taking Meals “Aahara Anubhavaya, Weda Alleema and Ganudenu Kireema”
    April 13th at 10:28 p.m
    Auspicious direction South
    Auspicious cloth Light Blue Colour
  • Applying Oil “Hisa thel Gaama”
    April 15th at 06:41 a.m (Morning)
    Auspicious direction East
    Auspicious cloth White Colour
    Dimbul Leaves for the head and Ambul leaves for the feet
  • Going to work
    April 17th at 07:42 a.m (Morning)
    Auspicious direction South
    Auspicious cloth Light green Colour”

Sunburn

April 6, 2013 — 2 Comments

My name is Sean Kevin O’Connor, as you might be able to guess I have some Irish heritage. The Irish are famous for their ability to tan. The deep reds that the sun is able to draw out of the skin if Irishmen evoke comparisons to strawberries and fire engines.

My application of sunblock (SPF 50) seems to make little difference here in Sri Lanka. I can spend four hours at the beach under the shade, and apply sunscreen multiple times, but I will still be bruned by the end of it. I don’t understand it, but I accept it. Sri Lankan friends have a hard time grasping my perpetual battle with the sun, they don’t understand why I apply a cream every time we go to the beach. They see my red skin at the end of the day, and don’t seem to connect it with the sun.

How do you explain sunburn to someone who has never experienced it? I’ve been trying to for several months, without much success.