Negotiating the Way

Is what I have been doing for the past couple of months. This is a Buddhist term for balancing our everyday world with the non-dual nature of the universe. Sounds deep but its really what we are doing in every moment. The difficulty comes in remaining aware of this continual negotiation. Negotiating the Way is often described as striking balance between the two truths – ultimate reality and worldly or relative reality. They are not different, not the same, inseparable yet distinct.

medium_diverging_pathsI’ve been home for a little over two months, finding myself swirling around in a state very unlike those of my past. While I was traveling in India I had many ideas and images of what life would ‘be’ and ‘look like’ when I came home. As life tends to do, it destroyed my expectations, wishes and ideas and completely threw everything up in the air when I first arrived home. Its things like this that place one right back to the present reality of this moment. Clichéd, but true. People left my life, others entered, many changed, but one thing was for certain, is that despite the many changes of scenery, the pulse of life is always calling one home.

Despite an urge to remain off the grid, I’ve slowly made some moves to reintegrate into society; I recently paid my first rent check in over 12 months, bought a car and a laptop. There are simple realities of living in America that I’ve discovered are easier to adopt rather than go against the grain.

I started this entry during the middle of my last 10 day visit to my Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado. Today I’m a few days away from returning for my forth week this summer. In retrospect, I would have preferred to spend a single, longer period of time there, instead of multiple experiences of back and forth between a very disciplined life and the one of complete non-discipline, but what this back and forth has provided is very clear insight into certain patterns in my life that are not conducive to awakening.

When I talk about Zen practice I mean much more than just sitting meditation (zazen) or chanting and bowing – ultimately I’ve come to learn that is the easy piece.  The harder piece is practicing compassion with fellow residents when you are exhausted and upset, dropping petty desires and attachments; Addressing subtle shifts in consciousness before they disappear behind attachment or aversion or ignorance; Practicing compassion and patience inwardly, not judging oneself for absolutely detesting the 4:30 wake-up call or 3 hours of work in the hot sun followed by cleaning toilets. A strange phenomenon occurs for me in my drifting in and out of the monastery: despite the absolutely rigorous schedule, lack of sleep and fantasies about how much freedom I will have when leaving and returning home, as soon as I do return home there is a slight sense of deflation, of the volume being turned down on life despite the overwhelming amount of stimulus and choice(“Free Will” available. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it completely, but its as if our world of physical freedoms and choices masks our ability to see our Self or true nature. In a place where you are denied these freedoms, even to the level of your own time and sleep, transformation can take place.

Zen practice provides a framework, not a dogma that so many religious institutions are so quick to provide. A quote from that as I recently read so brilliantly in Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen on Meditation and Thinking:  “[Dogen] challenged and urged practitioners to critically reflect on how to practice their own religion for the sake of alleviating suffering for all sentient beings in the world.” Zen is notorious for not allowing practitioners to grasp onto teachers, teachings, holy objects or otherwise. It is designed to return you to yourself, to force you back to developing your own religion(or of you don’t like that word – try your own path, process or world view).  Throughout the summer and my weeks at the Zen Center, outside of an occasional discussion group, there is no formal training, but subtly there is a lot going on. Rituals are designed to bring you back to yourself – 3 hours of meditation a day, sutra service, silent breakfast ritual (Oryoki) and probably most important, the support of the resident sangha for your practice. The teaching can be in the form of words, but more often it is by example – watching senior sangha members do dishes, prepare food, work on the property or simply communicate with each other. Speaking from first hand experience in India (and also some observations from home), it is easy to see how one can become too holy (focused on the ultimate reality), neglecting the world, this body, attaching to those things that are unspeakable and supreme. BUT, as the two truths doctrine states, there is a middle way, a delicate balance between these two aspects of our Self.

On a more practical side, I’m now officially considered one of those long-term unemployed you hear about on the news, surviving on a couple hundred dollars a week. I’ve been trying to stay within my means and enjoy the gift of not having to work to put food on the table. Today I’m spending time with my favorite baby Eva, working really hard to count 5 and repeating various animal sounds. Woof Woof!

One would assume with all of this additional time that I’m getting out to climb, doing all of those things that I was unable to while slaving away to Corporate 50 weeks a year for the past 8 years. But I’m not. I’ve dabbled in climbing, Yoga, backpacking. I’ve been very careful about not jumping into any single activity – moving slowly, slowly. I’ve yet to get a gym membership and have not spent much time in the going out scene. While I still love doing these things, several as a wonderful expression of myself, I find that I am dis-identifying with them.  Some my take this as a disheartening approach to life, but I’m taking more of the  “Nothing Special” approach: while certain activities no longer completely consume me, I’m finding that in general all of my daily activities are heightened with more interest: simple time with friends, extra time in the car because I forgot my keys and had to turn around, doing dishes or simply sitting quietly and watching the world go by. Which will lead me to my next blog post – this strange sense of standing still while everything else around me is moving…  But for tonight I leave you with a heady quote from Eihei Dogen (The Great Zen Master from the 13th century):

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In the Shobogenzo, “Bendowa” (1231), Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen: “The endeavor to negotiate the Way (bendo), as I teach  now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, and putting such a unitive awareness (ichinyo) into practice in the midst of the revaluated world (shutsuro).” This statement clearly sets forth practitioners’ soteriological project as negotiating the Way in terms of (1) discerning the nondual unity of all things that are envisioned from the perspective of enlightenment and (2) enacting that unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality now revalorized by enlightenment. Needless to say, these two aspects refer to practice and enlightenment that are nondually one (shusho itto; shusho ichinyo). ~Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen On Meditation and Thinking

Life in Rishikesh

Hi friends. I know I haven’t written or called or e-mailed in a while. That’s on purpose. This has been a calculated effort to dive deep into the land and practice of the Yogis, experimenting with life and self and soul without the energetic influence of my relationships and habits from home. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to have stepped aside, to be purposely introspective and examining of everything I have called reality until this step of my journey. 

IMG_4506I’m nearing the end of my month long course and I will soon have the element of time returned to me where I can share many of the practices, postures, cleansings and spiritual insights that I have gathered. I have learned more about my body, mind and soul in one month than I have in any other single month in my life.

My life has been monastic in quality – with the exception of a single motor bike excursion I haven’t left the the quaint area of Swarg Ashram in Rishikesh. A brief insight into my daily life here:

7:00 Wake-up to the mixture of a cool morning breeze rattling the windows and children playing outside next door. I do my morning “Kriyas” which include scraping the tongue, cleansing the nasal passages and gums with rock salt and washing out the eyes with cold water.

7:15: My favorite part of the day. The walk from my guesthouse to the Yoga Ashram. Indians generally do not get started this early, so early morning is an extremely peaceful time when the morning light mixes with the first signs of motion on the street. My first hello is to the same cow that occupies the same space each and every morning, waiting for my orange peel. I provide the aforementioned and move on towards the yoga ashram, passing the bums pretending to be saddhus and nodding hello to the chai walla as I enter the ashram for morning meditation. A small group of 4-6 usually sit for the optional meditation and I find it an opportunity to set my intention for the day. The teacher usually reads a poem or small section of a book and off we go, asking who am I? for an hour.

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8:15: Meditation ends and I use my break to get a 10 cent cup of chai, eat a couple of oranges and mingle with the animals and fellow yoginis on their way to class. My favorite cow is usually around and walks up to me to say hello and get his orange peel. I generally sit between the cow and the dog in the photo below. The bums are usually trying to talk me into buying them a cup of chai in broken English and the monkeys are beginning to descend looking for unsuspecting people not carefully guarding their fruit. Turn your attention away for a second and poof!, a monkey will be happily snacking away on your food and grinning at you from a nearby rooftop or tree.

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8:30: Yoga! Practice usually lasts 2.5 hours, the first 30 minutes dedicated to answering questions and learning the technical details of a new asana (posture). We discuss which chakra(s) we are activating, where to focus our attention and various alternatives for the asana if it is too difficult. We learn the transformational and healing effects of the asana that come with extended practice. For example, improved abilities to give and receive love when focused on the heart chakra. We move into our full practice, which generally takes a total of two hours.

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11:30:  Moon Dance Cafe for for conversation and breakfast. A group of Nepalese guys run the place and they provide amazing food and service. Depending on how hungry I am, its either a bowl of muesli/fruit/curd/honey or a couple of eggs on toast, washed down with a lemon ginger honey tea. Usually I will mingle with various people from, class or town, discussing the Yoga practice or something else.

13:00-15:00: My only real down time of the day. Generally used for doing laundry, cleaning, shopping, checking e-mail or anything else to beat the heat.  The temperature in Rishikesh has been steadily increasing since my arrival – now in the mid 90’s during the high part of the day. The first week here I was wearing a jacket in the morning and evening, now that jacket is firmly packed away for the season.

15:15: Stop by the German Bakery to see Lila and his son, another Nepalese family who make killer Yak Cheese/Avocado/Tomato sandwiches and juices. I will usually find my friends Marcelo, Karina and Dave here discussing something New Agey – Gurus, Clairvoyance, Chakras, energy, on and on. I join in the fun and sip on either a pomegranate or mango juice and if alone, jot a few thoughts down in a notebook.

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16:00: Time for afternoon Yoga. Similar to the morning except we simply practice. We begin with Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), making 12 devotional salutations to the Sun. In the final six, we chant the various Sanskrit words for the Sun. Surya Namaskara allows me to scan my body and mind, let go of the various attachments and thoughts I’ve built up throughout the day and drop into practice. We then continue with our typical practice, usually doing different asanas in the afternoon, sometimes focused more specifically on a single chakra such as the heart or third-eye. Afternoon Savasana (final relaxation) is always very powerful for me and when I walk out of the ashram I generally need a few minutes to fully return to my body.

18:30: My favorite (I know I already said this!) part of the day: Taking the back roads from back to Moon Dance Cafe for dinner along a windy stone walled path lined with massive trees. The sun has just set, the birds are singing their evening love songs, the dogs and monkeys and cows are making their final preparations for night. I like to call this the Jewel of the Day, those waning moments between sunset and darkness that are charged with energy. As I reenter my body I try to walk meditatively, sometimes holding my hands at my navel as we do in the Zen tradition as a reminder for mindfulness. Once at Moon Dance I will say hello to my friends and usually take my food to go so I can return on time for evening lecture.

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19:00 – 21:00: Yoga Lecture time – various topics from the morals and ethics of Yoga, things like nonviolence (ahimsa), nonattachment, vegetarianism, karma yoga etc. We learn things like conscious dreaming (Nidra Yoga), music meditation and of course discourses on the many branches of Yoga. We discuss topics such as healing through Yoga, Brahmacharya (sexual continence) and tantra. Most of the lectures have been fantastic – I will discuss this more later when I review the entire first month. There is so much information that comes at you that you have to mine it – I found myself primarily focusing on the physical practice, pulling various items from the lectures that I could apply or incubate into my daily life. After lecture, I would sometimes have a juice with friends or simply return to my room for some reading or a movie to unwind, crawling into bed simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, looking forward to repeating it again tomorrow.

There you have it – nowhere near the action-packed adventure of 2009, but equally powerful on the subtler planes of existence. This time its much more about penetrating deep rather than seeing it all. Turning the lens inwards.

Namaste.

Return to the Pilgrimage

Did I ever actually stop? Of course not, but traveling to a holy city such as Rishikesh, India, really brings it up close and personal. I realize I did not keep my dear followers apprised of my plans, disappearing into the comforts of home and finding writing a challenge. Two months ago when I left Bodhgaya and returned to Colorado, my intention was always to return to India. I held a non-exchangeable ticket for Feb 23rd and determined that unless the universe had significantly different plans for me and presented them to me during my time home, I would be on that flight. This time however, my trip will be different. I plan to spend the majority of my time in only two cities – Rishikesh and Dharamsala. In Rishikesh I’m already 5 days into a month-long intensive Yoga program. In Dharamsala my intention is to volunteer for the Tibetan exiles that live in this mountain community where the Dalai Lama now calls home.

I already have a tremendous amount to say – about home, about here, about me. Let me look back before I look ahead. As I noted earlier, I could not seem to find the energy to write, despite my free time and comfortable surroundings. There was this sense of a fog that always enveloped me in subtle ways. Stepping away for only a few days gives me a much clearer impression of why this was. The demands on my energy at home are so much higher – and yes I’m talking about a lot more than just physical energy. When you live somewhere for a long time, you build up a vast network of karmic ties, energetic connections to other people, places, activities and objects. Yesterday I visualized a tug-of-war that I was playing at home. I was on one end of the rope and on the other side was society, my friends, my family all wanting me to come back. To be that productive capitalist, the same guy he was two years ago and all the rest of it. There are also all of the aspects of living in a society dominated by second chakra energy, pulling on our desires, our sexuality and our anxieties. The most frightening aspect of this game of tug-of-war was that I eventually realized that I was on the other side of the rope too!  There is part of me that wants that ease – the ease of a life already lived, a path well trodden and relationships that are static and easy. After spending two months playing this game, a Zen master appeared in the form of the friend sitting next to me as I related this visualization at breakfast and said “just drop the rope”.   Woah. wait. Not yet. Too scary. Then what?

The immediate contrast of going from home directly to Rishikesh and into an intense practice is powerful. My trip was fantastic, facing several nail-biting detours and changes, but always in the end a travel angel would come along and make sure everything was fine, eventually dropping me in Rishikesh with a couple hours to spare before my first session on that mat. I found my friends Al & Nicole and have been befriended by the small community of people that they’ve developed after being here almost two months. I will get into the details of my course in my next post but for now wanted to highlight the aspects of life in Rishikesh. First, its one of India’s oldest and most sacred cities, located on the mother Ganga (Ganges) river. Life is very simple. I’m spending most of my time in Swarg Ashram a small community of ashrams in a pedestrian-only area separated from Rishikesh City by Ram Jula bridge.  My guesthouse is a five minute walk from the Yoga ashram, there are two restaurants that I frequent and a handful of shops that have everything I might need. Alcohol and meat are strictly prohibited and the food served up is incredible vegetarian fare.  I spend 4 hours in the morning at the Ashram and another 5 in the evening with a few hours to rest and eat during the day. Today class was Del364748 canceled for the festival of Holi. Holi, one of the largest festivals in India and despite its roots in ancient Vedic history, today consists primarily of Indians getting drunk, spraying each other with paint and lighting things on fire. As soon as I post this I’m going to head out and check out the festivities.

Back to the contrast – the shock to the system, along with some crazy jet lag, provided a great opportunity for some lucid moments and a reset, self-likened to the old ‘reboot’ option on a computer. I found myself half-awake in challenging environs, half-asleep in others, moving immediately into my yoga course and dropping into conversation about self and soul. I’ve escaped the rope for now. I’m still holding it, but the forces on the other end have decreased and I can relax into my daily existence.

I’m looking forward to letting go, to exploring this contrast further and eventually gaining the courage to drop the rope.

Pilgrimage within the Pilgrimage

I spent the final week of my trip in a small Indian town called Bodhgaya (described in above post), sitting under a Bodhi tree trying to find enlightenment. Well, not exactly, but I am soaking in the vibe from this place, where 2600 years ago a 35 year old Siddhartha Gautam, soon to be known as the Buddha, found enlightenment after sitting for 49 days straight under a Bodhi tree. Today, a large Buddhist community has been built around a descendent of the original Bodhi tree and this small town has become the major pilgrimage site in the world for Buddhists.

I set off from Nepal with hopes of reaching all four of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, starting with Lumbini in Nepal (Birth), Sarnath (First teaching), Bodhgaya(Enlightenment), and Kushinagar (Death). I began the pilgrimage with a lot of suffering (perfect practice for one aspiring Buddhist), enduring a 24 hour bus journey from Kathmandu to Lumbini after an epic, all-day saga to get my Indian Visa. Eventually with a transit-visa in hand, I meandered to the bus station and hopped on a night bus headed towards Lumbini. Despite not being able to fit in my seat, I managed to finally fall asleep, expecting to wake up in Lumbini. I woke up groggily to hear that we were less than half way, due to a broken bridge. In great Nepali form, it took hours to figure out what to do and eventually a path was created through the small creek for buses and trucks to pass. I confirmed that I have in fact developed a sense of patience, as a trip of about the distance from Boulder to Vail took 24 hours and I felt quite content. I made some new friends, and despite being in the absolute middle of nowhere, there were people selling things from roadside carts and bicycles like water, fruit, peanuts and other snacks to pass the time. I met a great guy who was getting a masters in English literature and hoped to travel to America some day. Seizing the opportunity to speak with one of the first educated Nepalese I’d met, we talked politics and policy and he helped me discern some of the nonsense occurring in Nepal by the Maoist separatists.  I lost a day (or did I gain one?), diving into a new book and catching up on Simpson episodes and podcasts on my iPod. Ironically, my friends Al and Nicole left Kathmandu about 15 hours after I did and we both arrived at the same hotel within a half hour of each other in Lumbini.

IMG_4205 After a great night’s sleep, we toured Lumbini the next day. I was expecting mayhem and an over-touristic feel to the place, but ultimately found it to be extremely peaceful and relaxing. Despite plans from the Chinese to build the largest Buddha statue in the world and a mega-resort in Lumbini, today a small building surrounds the exact location where Buddha was born. This building surrounds the ruins of an ancient monument and itself is surrounded by a peaceful garden colored by thousands of prayer flags. We had a nice meditation and then jumped on our 60 year old rented bicycles to explore IMG_4208the Lumbini Development Zone, a large area where each sect of Buddhism has built a temple for their pilgrims. Most were quite unimpressive compared to the real thing in their home countries, but I did enjoy the Japanese World Peace Pagoda, where we sat with two monks for 20 minutes and chanted for world peace, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” as we played  drums and the sun set quietly behind us. I finished the evening with some yummy street vendor samosas and retired early before the town shut down completely at 8pm.

We hired a private car for the ride to the border the next morning in order to circumvent the major Maoists strikes going on in Nepal that kept most taxis and buses off the road for a few days. Before I knew it, I was in India.  She was in full glory first thing in the morning – the smells, the guys trying to rip us off and the delay in getting our jeep driver to leave (he refused to budge before the full quota of 15 people in a jeep was reached!). I had some ridiculous idea of side-tracking to Kushinagar and catching a night train to Varanasi, not fully comprehending the speed of travel, the sometimes overbooked Indian trains and short days of December! Ultimately after a series of trials, we decided to skip Kushinagar (probably the least interesting of the 4 sights) and move onto Varanasi via bus.

Varanasi, where to begin? Lonely Planet describes it with: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all".

IMG_4226 Varanasi is a very raw and visceral place – a sacred place for Hindus on their most sacred river – the Ganges. This is were many people go to die, to be cremated on the riverbanks (ghats) and ultimately have their ashes deposited into the river. Throughout my four day stay in Varanasi, the sky was constantly filled with ash and smoke, as hundreds of bodies are cremated a day. As you walked the alleyways of town, you would often need to quickly slide to the side of an alley as families carrying their deceased loved-ones wrapped in an orange sari down to the ghats to be cremated. At times I was quite overwhelmed watching this scene – so much death and sadness all concentrated in one place. The buildings right behind the ghats are eerie places where the sick and old wait to die – preferably you die near the Ganges to save your family the trouble and cost of transporting your body many miles after death. The entire funeral happens in the public eye – depending on how much money you have you might be able to afford nicer wood for the cremation, and your caste determines where exactly the burning occurs. I learned a lot about the actual process in Kathmandu, but needless to say seeing it up close and personal was a very heavy experience. After viewing the burning ghats once or twice, I found myself wanting to avoid the areas, not only to respect the privacy of the dead and their families, but to avoid my own feelings that death brings into awareness.

Life and death are intermingled however. As body after body is burned (~ 3 hour process) and its ashes floated into the Ganges, the mighty river is also acting as a transportation hub, bath tub, IMG_4238washing machine and sewage plant. Despite carcinogenic levels being hundreds of times the deemed safe level, every morning countless thousands of Varanasi residents – men, women, sadhus, cows and water buffalos descend to the river to bath and wash. In the same holy water that their ancestors were cremated into and that the raw sewage of their village empties into. Its almost incomprehensible to us in the West, with our safety standards, clean drinking water and microbe killing soaps. Sometimes when traveling you have to put these standards firmly behind you, as the people of this land have been undergoing such rituals for hundreds or thousands of years and seem to get along just fine. You will too for a few days.

Wandering and driving the streets and Ghats in Varanasi was one of the most intense sensory experiences of my entire journey. First, December is wedding season in India, and in carnival, parade-like fashion, I witnessed many couples  and families celebrating their union, complete with fireworks, drums, light shows and generally week-long festivities. This was an incredible contrast to the scene occurring just a few blocks away on the river, as many individuals were passing IMG_4259away and leaving their bodies to be united with nature. One will never forget the smells of Varanasi either. Ashes, burning bodies, chai tea, sewage, spices, restaurants and on and on were intermingled as you wander around. One afternoon after a leisurely morning in the Aum Cafe,  I traveled to Sarnath with Al and Nicole on a pimped out auto rickshaw (picture a 3 wheeled go-cart with a hand break and pimped out stereo system). Getting out of Varanasi was yet another Varanasi sensory delight – the road was PACKED with pedestrians, bicycles, auto rickshaws, cars, buses, cows, delivery trucks, motorcycles, on and on.  There are no traffic lights, no rules and IMG_4220no police. Somehow everything just works and we interweave within inches of so many other vehicles and people. Our drivers friend appears and disappears three times in the midst of the traffic (all Indian rickshaw drivers seem to have buddies who like to tag along, especially when there is a foreign woman in the back to stare at through the rearview…). Eventually we break out onto open road and I relax in amazement at how anyone gets anywhere in India.

Sarnath turned out to be very cool and I wish we had gone earlier to enjoy the day at the park where Buddha gave his first sermon. There are ruins of an Asoka temple, the garden where Buddha gave his first enlightened teaching and a small temple where monks chant Buddha’s first sermon each evening at sundown. The garden is one of those rare places in India where you can relax, sit, read, meditate or otherwise without pesky Indian touts bothering you. The energy of the place was great and again we watched the sunset as various pilgrimage groups paid their respects to this holy place.

I feel like there is so much more to say about Varanasi, but it it is really a place one just has to experience on their own. The cell block hotel, the mighty river, the hashish salesmen, stampeding holy cows, dark and winding avenues and the amazing world of life on the Ghats. Words just can not do justice to sensory experience you will have there. We will leave it at that.

Next stop: Bodhgaya, the final stop on the Pilgrimage.