No place to go and Nothing to do

This has been my mantra as of late. Of course there are many things to do and places to go, but what I’m after is the state of mind that accompanies such a phrase. If you examine your thoughts, you’ll find that your mind generally is wanting to do something (eat, sleep, talk, etc.) or go some place.  When you are unemployed and wondering where your life is headed, this tends to happen even more.

Where have I been and what have I been doing?

First, the usual apology – why haven’t I been writing? Some of you know I spent six weeks this fall at the monastery, undergoing a rigorous spiritual practice. Wasn’t this full of juicy, bloggable insight?? Well yes, and no. A feeling has developed for me around sharing my spiritual progress (Is there such a thing?) that feels somewhat counterintuitive.  Zen is often described as a practice of meeting and speaking, and I have found outlets here at home that I never had while traveling – my sangha, my teachers, and my very close relationships. Its through these relationships, these meeting and speaking’s that I can explore the teachings, practice the radial views that the Buddha provided as a hypothesis to meet the world and free oneself from discontent.  I however still feel a strong need to express myself creatively, specifically through writing. I’ve gone through a goal-setting process for 2011 and have selected writer as one of my major focuses. I’m enrolled in a couple of writing classes and seminars this winter and I hope to become much more regular on the blog scene. I’m aware that all blog posts do not have to be deeply personal and profoundly insightful, but rather interesting and contain something that appeals to people. Longer-term, I am hoping to expand into a wider field of writing that includes yoga, wellness, meditation, simple living,  stress reduction, responsible investing, etc. As I re-read the above excuse about why I haven’t been writing, I find myself feeling this is not completely true, that there is another element at play beyond just being usurped by a community. There is also the shear fact that my life in America, in Colorado, is filled with baggage (good and bad), that seems to fill my day. Or more clearly, misdirects my energy from a place where I can get quiet enough to write. An example of this is my addiction to technology which will require a future blog post to decipher… Yes its clear that the world here runs on a much different wave-length than the holy cities of India or the mountain villages of Laos, but what is still needed, and this is something I’ve spoken of in the past, is the development of my own posture to maintain my own wavelength despite external circumstances. Its not as though I don’t have idle time – I have loads of it! Its more the undercurrent of motion or pressure that persists in my environment, as if it has some form of life or energetic pull of its own. I’ve discovered this is especially true of material objects( I will address these thoughts later on my technology addiction…). These energetic pulls do not allow for as much pure space with ones Self.  I am fully aware that this is my own minds perception of the circumstances, not an actual fact, yet I must slowly work on these habits, impulses and perceptions to be free of them.

What exactly has an unemployed vagabond been doing the past half a year? Often I wonder this myself, wavering between feeling that I’ve done nothing at all and a feeling of having done quite a lot.  First, the big changes. No, not a job! Since I’ve last written, the ever-amazing and beautiful Autumn, has reentered my life in a major way, as we’ve deepened a partnership begun two years ago, this time under new light and circumstances.  Last weekend we moved into a house (its yellow!) together in Denver, providing a significant shift for me (and us). First, leaving the town where I spent the last 8 years (and most of my adult life), and second, living with a woman. “Taking the plunge” as several people have called it recently. 🙂 We’ve moved into a neighborhood called Berkeley, an up and coming (aren’t they all?), neighborhood in NW Denver that is only a 25 minute drive from Boulder: at least at 5 in the morning when I’m often making it (more on this later).  The decision to move to Denver was not a light one. Upon examination of my priorities and values, which include spending more time with Autumn, having a comfortable, affordable space, and simply being open to the current circumstances in life, such as being unemployed and with a partner with a full-time job in Denver, the timing felt right. My heart is still in that yuppie mountain town and if we can ever figure out how to earn enough money to live there comfortably, we will definitely consider it.

And how does one afford living anywhere when they’ve been approaching two full years of unemployment? I am very grateful for the fortune and generosity the world has provided me.  I’ve been funding my mini-retirement or consciousness sabbatical through a generous severance from IBM, unemployment insurance, intelligent investing and a simplistic lifestyle. Due to the market improvements since early 2009, I actually have more net worth than I did the moment I was laid off. While this has been providing me a nice level of security, it has done little for stoking the fire under my ass to get me back into a career. I find myself seeking more engagement with my world, yet still balancing this with the fact that I don’t want a simple exchange of money for my time, which is the traditional method of working. One major step I’ve taken recently towards this end is to create a set of goals.  Based on a book recommendation called My Best Year Yet, originally published in 1994, I worked through a set of worksheets to cross-reference the roles, values, and priorities in my life to create a summary sheet of goals for the year. I highly recommend this book – ultimately it is 5 to 10 hours of work which will provide you clear and simple way to prioritize your year into a one sheet summary. I’m debating sharing my summary as a way to remain accountable, but for now it’s a little too personal. One of the main purposes of the exercise is to really examine which aspects of spending your time actually move you forward towards your goals. Its sort of like a quick gut-check for your day… (Does this activity move me towards or away from what I’ve set out to do in 2011?) that has been useful (albeit frustrating at times) in keeping me on task.

One of my focuses this year is on Zen practice. As many of you know I spent the greater part of October and much of November on retreat in Crestone for something called the study month. This was a powerful time for me to deepen my meditation practice, re-center, and forge a deep connection with the practice and our lineage (the focus of our month). There is a lot to say about this month that I may return to, but the point today is that when I finished and returned to Boulder, there was absolutely no question that this practice, this way of life is paramount to everything else I do. I began sitting 3-4 mornings a week, spending more and more time at the Boulder Zen Center (which operates the Briar Rose B&B – a fabulous place to stay or just stop by for tea next time you’re in Boulder). Someone found out I had an MBA and was good with math and next thing I knew I was elected to the board as treasurer. I often call my mornings at the Zen Center my “old man retired time”.  After meditation and service, those of us that can, usually stick around for tea, shooting the dharma or just catching up on life.  Despite the fact that we aren’t all old, retired or men, I see what the lives of old retired men are all about. I love it!

January came around and two of our pillars at the Zen Center headed to Crestone for Practice Period (90 day intensive practice) and suddenly several mediation periods needed a Doan (person who holds the space, rings the bells and runs service). Despite the upcoming move to Denver, I decided to formally commit to being here on Thursday mornings, Thursday evenings and Friday mornings.  Its sort of like having a mini-retreat every week. As I type this I’m sitting in the Briar Rose living room after tea, enjoying my weekly vagabond day in Boulder.  It has also been a nice way to ‘break-up’ with Boulder, still getting to the gym, my favorite coffee shops and spending time with my friends.

In addition to Zen, there is skiing, working out, reading, and a growing commitment to writing. I’m taking a series of writing courses this winter to get me kick-started on writing more effectively, hopefully at some point this year creating a new blog and website directed towards future income. One of my goals this year is two blog entries a week so watch out!

I hope everyone is off to a great 2011, and I look forward to being much more communicative this year!

Yogi Certified

Its official. I’m a Yogi. I completed my 150 hour course in Rishikesh, culminating in a beautiful ceremony where the initiates were given a garland of flowers, a bindi and a blessed bracelet.  We held a miniature talent show, where I read a IMG_4534poem and other students played guitar, sang or acted. It was also in this final week that I felt an incredible bond with the small group of us that had  completed the program. It is very beautiful thing, growing close to a group people after a very short time when you share a deeply transformational experience together. I underwent a significant amount of emotional and spiritual growth and my friends here acted as mirrors to reflect on some of this change.

I’m now in Dharamsala and have been reflecting on how to describe the Yoga course, my experience and impressions about it. Sometimes when I find myself explaining it to friends in an e-mail or people I meet while traveling I get a little frustrated and feel like saying “You have to have been there”. Let me try again!

If I’ve learned anything as of late, its that we each have our personal Karma and path, mixed with our experiences and actions in this life. We are all on different trajectories, crossing various thresholds and situations at different times. Have you ever read a spiritual book and gotten nothing out of it, only to return to it years later to then appreciate the profound nature of it? Or sometimes a friend tells you that you HAVE to read a certain book or see a certain movie as it moved them incredibly, only to discover that nothing resonates for you?  I think I attended this Yoga course at just the right time in my life (aka the stars were aligned). Five years ago I would have laughed off much of the teaching, disregarding things that did not fit into my contextual framework or understanding of the world. My recent travels, self exploration and interest in various cultures and theologies has allowed my framework to shift. For one to experience growth and recognize value in the Agama program, or Yoga in general (referring here to the ancient Indian practices, not the gymnastics we practice in the West), one has to believe that there are human experiences that cannot be described or put into a box by modern science. For example, one of the primary threads of Yoga practice is working with prana (Japanese – Ki, Chinese – Qi), the vital, life-sustaining force of all living beings. There are many of these – clairvoyance, astral projection, levitation, rebirth, universal consciousness, telekinesis to name a few. Modern science simply rejects things that it cannot explain as unfounded, the primary examples being the existence of God, Divine Consciousness, soul or spirit.  Yet, millions of individuals throughout history, including the greatest philosophers, sages, and creative geniuses of Asia, have held such experiences and have shared them. Are they all deluded? Or does science simply not have all of the answers?

With that said, let me describe the course a bit for those who may be considering it or are simply curious. First of all, when they title it the “First Level Intensive”, they should really bold-face the word intensive. You will practice and study Yoga 6 days a week for 4 weeks, approximately 8-10 hours a day.  Each day a new asana (posture) is discussed, demonstrated and practiced, which allows for a slow ramping up of the physical practice. In the evenings a lecture is given, varying from topics on physical purification, explanations of the chakras and koshas, spiritual aspiration and music meditation. The full curriculum is below:

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The class was taught by a group of four teachers, all of whom I gained a lot of respect for as the month progressed. It was clear that these individuals were practicing what they were preaching, embodying an aspiration for union with the Divine (Yoga), and genuinely interested in our progress. Certain aspects of this month I can compare to the Zen meditation retreat last year. Giving myself over to the schedule, wavering between moments of bliss and moments of extreme suffering and having many powerful breakthroughs to name a few. Relying on the sangha (group) was also critical in order for me to discuss and dive into the parts of the program that were difficult to understand or to compare aspects of mind and body that were being challenged. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most powerful part of the course was the asana practice – the lecture curriculum was almost too much at times, and in order to maintain my sanity I was discriminating on which lectures I would focus on. Ultimately my practice is about moving more into my body and out of my mind! I would love to dive into many of the more specific details of the course, but feel they are a bit out of context here and due to their very personal nature and sacredness, best discussed one-one or privately. I must say that I am highly considering continuing my studies under this school in the future, potentially at the headquarters on Ko Pha Ngan island in Thailand.

That’s all for now.

7 Days in Tibet

Somehow, some why, I didn’t blog about my experience in Tibet immediately after being there. Between my notebook scribbling and photos I’m going to try to piece together my experience. First I have to say that I love the Tibetan people. They are beautiful, spiritual, friendly and extremely hospitable. The perseverance and commitment to their faith in the face of what amounts to imagecultural genocide by the Chinese is incredible. This story really begins three months ago when I was traveling through Western Sichuan and was first introduced to Tibetan people and culture. It was then that I decided that I would return to Tibet, despite the difficulties and expenses levied by the  Chinese government. As I explored Mongolia by jeep, I managed to put together a tour to Tibet via a sketchy company in Kathmandu, managing this from the one or two Internet cafes in the Gobi desert. The stars aligned, and eventually I found myself on a train to Lhasa with permit in hand.

My first moments in Tibet were heart-breaking and disappointing. My driver met me outside of the station and as we pulled away and drove towards downtown Lhasa my initial thoughts were – “is this really Tibet?” , “Why is everyone  Chinese here?”  Why does it look like the infrastructure is being built to support many, many more people than already live here?” My heart sunk as I questioned my decision to travel through Tibet, driving through what amounted to a ghost town as my driver explained that everything was being built to support the immigrating Chinese who were arriving by the tens of thousands after receiving lucrative offers from the Chinese government to relocate their families and businesses to Tibet. Fortunately, my driver informed me, I would be staying in Old Lhasa in the Muslim quarter, the only part of the city with any Tibetan character left. I checked into a nice hotel and met my travel partners for the next 10 days, Maaike from Belgium and Matthijs from Denmark. Currently, foreigners are unable to travel in Tibet without a driver and guide. For me to see Tibet, I had to pay the Chinese government more money than I would have preferred to secure my permits, land cruiser, driver and guide. Fortunately I got a decent deal after hearing that my travel partners had paid 50% more than I did for the same trip!

Over the next 3 days I explored the grand historical sites in and around Lhasa,  the Potala Palace, The Jokhang, Sera Monastery and the Dalai Lama’s summer palace (former), the Norbulingka.  Our guide (who I won’t name because the Chinese secret police are always watching), displayed some interesting Lhasa 100 behavior the first day – we thought he was being lazy by preferring not to explore the Potala Palace with us, but later learned that it simply broke his heart to visit the place that was once the spiritual Mecca for Tibetan Buddhists, now relegated to more of a historical museum. It was still an incredible place, one of the few historical Tibetan sites not pillaged by the Chinese during the cultural revolution. Thousands of pilgrims were paying homage to the Potala- chanting, lighting butter lamps and making offerings to the various shrines inside. The Potala houses a rich collection of tombs and cultural relics that date back to the 5th Dalai Lama’s reign in the 13th century. We continued to visit other sites, noticing the subtle differences between those still used for religious events and those left stagnant by Chinese intrusion and restrictions. Slowly our guide began to trust us and explained some of the events he has witnessed in recent history including seeing people being shot during uprisings right before his eyes. He was always cautious, understanding that his career and reputation were on the line if the Chinese government overheard some of his words. We respected this, not digging too deeply and generally supporting what appeared to be his desire to let out some frustration to people who would listen.

My favorite part of Lhasa was not the official sites, rather, it was simply wandering around the Jokhang area, observing the pilgrims, eating dinner on the street while wandering the alleyways and exchanging smiles with the ever curious Tibetans, most of them enroot on a kora. A kora is a holy circuit that pilgrims undertake to mount up good karma. There are many koras in Tibet, such as around the Potala, around Mt Kailash near the Nepali border (Tibet’s holiest mountain), and even around Lhasa itself. But arguably the most important and meaningful is Barkor as it surrounds the Jokhang Palace, the holiest temple in all of Tibet. At the Barkor you will stumble upon hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims in their traditional garbs circulating the 1kmLhasa 097 route around the Jokhang. They come from all regions of Tibet and beyond, walking in a clockwise manner so that the religious monument is always on their right (going anti-clockwise is bad karma!). Many do these koras simply a few times a day, some for hours… some for even DAYS!  And all this time you also see these Tibetans constantly waving around hand-held prayer-wheels. A prayer is inscribed on each wheel, and the more times you swing it round the more good karma you accumulate. But as if walking around koras for days was tiring enough, countless Tibetans are seen prostrating around koras like the Jokhang and even just simply in front of it. Prostrations are sort of like a religious squat thrust, and our guide explained that some devout Tibetans will prostrate for hundreds of kilometers all the way to Lhasa, sometimes taking months to accomplish such a journey. Therefore Old Town Lhasa was were I enjoyed myself most – watching and observing, once stumbling upon a small monastery where the monks were hand making paper and Buddhist sutras with small printing tablets – they were surprised to see me but still managed to show me around as we shared smiles and laughs without otherwise being able to communicate. I enjoyed watching daily life first thing in the morning and then again immediately after sunset when the most action is happening.

IMG_3502One thing that I (or anyone) could not avoid seeing was the heavy Chinese military presence. Every entrance to the old town was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, the rooftops around the Jokhang were riddled with snipers and regular patrols of fatigued soldiers interrupted the colorful stream of pilgrims on the Barkor circuit, Tibet’s most famous Kora. I made the dreadful mistake of showing my guide a photo of the Dali Lama that I had on my iPod, a serious crime worthy of expulsion, directly under a camera with a microphone in the Norbulingka Palace. (Luckily no one noticed!). I breathed a sigh of relief that my trip to Tibet wasn’t going to be abruptly cut short, but was reminded of the seriousness of the conflict between China and Tibet.

Interestingly, I had a very difficult time sleeping in Lhasa, always feeling like my heart rate was high and simultaneously experiencing a sense of anxiety. At first I thought it may have been the altitude, but immediately upon leaving Lhasa these sensations went away. After careful examination, I think I was channeling the energy of the place. I have an undefined sacral center in my body and I’ve discovered over the years that I am very sensitive to the stress and anxiety of others. If I am not careful, I will often accept this anxiety as my own, when in Zhangmu 003 fact it comes from without. Generally, being aware of this energy has always been a very subtle process for me, but in Lhasa it felt hyper-active. There is a tremendous amount of tension and anxiety amongst the citizens of Lhasa, both Tibetan and Chinese. Just last year, major unrest unfolded in Tibet, centered in Lhasa. Unfortunately, the root issues that caused this unrest have not changed, and I personally believe this will not be the last time we see violence here. As much as enjoyed visiting Lhasa, I doubt I will ever go back. Within the near future there will be very little left of anything Tibetan beyond historical monuments. And as I learned more and more about the plight of the Tibetans during the remainder of my trip through Tibet, Nepal and India, I just don’t feel comfortable supporting the Chinese occupation and "’modernization” of Lhasa.

Enough about Lhasa – on day 4 I struck out on the road with Maaike and Matthijs, heading West towards the Himalaya and Nepal on the Friendship Highway. Incredibly, what used to be a multi-week journey is now a paved highway on which one can drive from the Nepali border to Lhasa in a single day!

IMG_3605For the next 6 days we passed some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.  First up was Lake Yandrok, one of the highest lakes in the world, checking in somewhere near 15000 feet. The next several days sort of blurred together as I remember passing through the heart of Tibet – Gyantse, Shigatse and Tingri, headed towards the great Himalaya range and Mount Everest (Qomolangma) herself. We passed glaciers, mountains, small villages, farms and pastures. We saw yak, deer, goat, and sheep wandering the high plains in search of grass. Each city that we slept in was similar to Lhasa in that there were newer Chinese areas and existing Tibetan “old towns”. A highlight for me was walking visiting the beautiful Tashilimpo monastery in Shigatse, walking the Kora high above the city with Maaike and stumbling our way back home through the cobblestone streets. We had some good laughs at a tailor shop where a nice Tibetan guy fixed a hole in my down jacket for only 50 cents.

IMG_3697 We quickly discovered that two stars in Tibet does not imply a warm shower or comfortable room, and therefore spent some cold evenings as we were traveling at the tail end of the tourist season, with most places not equipped for heating or electricity. This was fine with me, preparing me for the conditions in the Annapurna range, as well as giving me an idea of exactly how arduous it would be to spend a winter in Tibet. Three weeks later I read 7 Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer and it brought me back to many of the places I had visited. If you have not read it, and you are into adventure-style books, I highly recommend you pick it up. In the 1940’s Heinrich broke out of a POW prison in India and managed to go overland through the Himalaya and Tibet to Lhasa. His travels and cultural experiences of one of the first westerners to know Tibet is incredible. He ultimately became a friend of the young 14th Dalai Lama and has acted as an emissary to Tibet for the West throughout his life.

Eventually we made it to Everest Base Camp, awaking at 4 am and leaving Tingri in order to watch the sunrise. Although it was nice and clear day, the winds were ripping through the valley and one could barely snap a photo Everest Base Camp 037 before needing to retreat to the car. Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side is 5200 meters (16640 feet), and as you can imagine, especially in early November, quite cold! My travel partners decided to head down hill with another tour group, but as spending time in this magical region was a priority for me, I asked my guide and driver to spend the night up there so I could explore during the day. They begrudgingly agreed and I struck out on foot for the afternoon – feeling slightly dizzy from the altitude, first heading to the small Yamalung hermitage where Guru Rinpoche meditated and received empowerment from the Buddha Amitayus. There are several small temples, a sacred spring and numerous carvings; and a temple enclosing Guru Rinpoche’s meditation cave contains a hand and footprints of the saint.  I was alone in the cave and sat zazen for 20 minutes, soaking in the unbelievable energy of the place. I explored the hermitage, ducking between endless prayer flags and offerings that have accumulated over the centuries. The rest of the day I wandered aimlessly in the valley, seeing only one Yak herder and a number of deer. Finally when my fingers couldn’t bare it any longer, I returned to the guesthouse (more like a cement block with a bed in it), to huddle around the stove with the handful of other guests and guides who braved the evening at over 5000 meters in November. Despite the temperature in my room that night dropping to 20, I slept soundly with about 11 blankets wrapped around me.

The rest of the trip consisted of a long drive to the border, with a few stop offs at schools and small villages so we could interact with the locals outside of the big cities. The road down to Zhangmu (border town with Nepal), was the final part of the Friendship Highway being paved, an incredible feat of engineering as the road drops thousands of feet through a perilous canyon. We were delayed several times by rock slides and planned demolitions. Zhangmu 033 We paused briefly at a high pass to get a glimpse of the Annapurna range I would soon be hiking in. After spending the night next over a discotheque in Zhangmu, we woke up early, crossed the border and found a driver for our transfer to Kathmandu. That day I found myself in one of those deeply meditative mindsets, a balance between consciousness and pure awareness. As we drive through amazing scenery and continued to descend all the way to Kathmandu at 800m I was jotting notes down on my iPod as the drab colors of Tibet gave way to tropical forests and beautiful saris. I’m not sure what triggered the flow of awareness for me, but it is one I will not soon forget.

Suddenly we were in the chaos of Kathmandu, the most populated and congested place I had been in over 2 months. I found myself checking into my small guesthouse, transitioning to the next phase of my journey.

Tashi Delek!