Tushita Meditation Centre

As a sit comfortably in my friend’s home in Boulder, it sometimes seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was in the middle of an intense, silent, 10 day Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat high in the hills of India. Despite leaving the country and now being thousands of miles away, many of the powerful lessons of the week continue to walk alongside me.

I learned of Tushita from another traveler while in Rishikesh – originally my plan was to do a 10-day Vipassana retreat (right next door to Tushita), but given my interest and practice in Buddhism, Tushita seemed like a better fit. On the Vipassana course you can expect to learn a meditation technique and have the opportunity to practice it over 10 days of strict silence. Apart from a 90 minute video each evening, there is almost no teaching of the philosophy involved, while the emphasis of Tushita’s Introduction to Buddhism course is on explaining Buddhist philosophy, using a few different meditation techniques to help you to absorb and apply this knowledge to your own experiences. Sold!

The course preceded my flight home to America by just a few days, and it met all expectations of being a fantastic way to center, prepare for returning home and of providing an opportunity to evaluate many aspects of my mind.

The initial afternoon provided a chance to briefly get settled in, chat with other people before the silence began, get my Karma Yoga job for the week (scrubbing toilets!) and explore the meditation center. I was immediately signimpressed by the facilities, specifically the main Gompa (meditation hall). The meditation cushions were very new, the building itself was beautifully designed in Tibetan fashion with Buddha statues, Thangkha paintings and was adorned with photographs of the Dalai Lama and other teachers in the lineage.  The meditation center itself was high on a hill above McLeod Ganj and was very near to where the Dalai lama lived for many years when he first fled Tibet into exile in 1959. The area was deeply forested and in habited by a large family of monkeys who provided endless entertainment in the wake of no television, iPods or other forms of modern distraction!

Our teacher, Venerable Robina Courtin, introduced herself to us on the first evening and with very little time to waste, dove right into the teachings. Robina, her teachers, Tushita, and the greater Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition(FPMT) all hail from one of the 4 major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelug, under spiritual direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This school was started by Lama Tsongkhapa around the year 1400, and follows a treatise called Lam-Rim, often translated as The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment.  At first I felt a little turned-off by what felt like cookie cutter Buddhism, but soon realized the beautiful simplicity of these teachings that struck at the core of Buddha’s message.

The teachings were presented as two wings of a bird: Wisdom and Compassion. On the Wisdom path we discussed things such as impermanence and death, karma and the law of cause and effect, Buddha’s four noble truths, dependent arising and emptiness. These teachings are core to any branch of Buddhism – whether Zen, Hinayana, or Tibetan.IMG_4693 I’ve read countless books intellectually explaining the meaning of each of these teachings, but until I’ve have a teacher skillfully deliver these teachings in the midst of a place where you can meditate and practice upon them, they haven’t resonated within my being. This has also been my experience in Zen practice. Robina, following the Lam-Rim method and her own teaching style and experience (living  Dharma – each teacher creates their own Buddhism built on a mixture of their teacher’s teachings and their own human experience), skillfully walked through the Buddha’s teachings in one of the most simplistic and logical manners I have experienced. The Gelug tradition is famous for its use of spirited debate amongst its practitioners and Robina used this method consistently with us as we asked her questions, really challenging individuals assumptions and worldviews. On the second day I noticed that the evening meditation sessions were replaced by teaching sessions and simply asked her why ( I was concerned that a Buddhist meditation retreat would only have a couple hours of meditation in the morning). Before I knew it I was in a challenging debate about the meaning of meditation, my attachment to a specific version of meditation and overall being constructively told to not question my teachers methods!  I really had to check my ego at the door during the debate because I clearly watched as my emotions around self-protection (being put on the spot in front of 50 people) were deluding my ability to have a clear conversation where I learned something from a teacher…

The other aspect of the teaching is the Compassion wing or path of the Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the wish to attain complete enlightenment (that is, Buddhahood) in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in cyclic existence (samsāra) who have not yet reached Buddhahood. One who has bodhicitta as the primary motivation for all of his or her activities is called a bodhisattva. The teachings followed methods such as cultivating equanimity, recognizing all sentient beings as One’s Mother (at one point in a past life throughout eons of time), contemplating the kindness of all beings, recognizing the short-comings of cherishing the self and the benefits of cherishing others and generosity. For me these teachings were extremely powerful and touching. One can follow a logical framework that clearly shows that we will not find happiness through ourselves. The path is through others. We know this at a heart level yet we live our lives so completely in conflict with this. I’m nowhere near living bodhicitta, but I’m looking to plant small seeds where I can, to start turning the ship around in an effort to sail this path.

Alongside the teachings we would do guided meditations, and in the evenings something called a vajrasattva purification practice, a visualization practice which is sort of like a confession for Buddhists, but purely within ones own mind you are purifying seeds of negative karma. I’m not even going to try to explain it here – as I was very skeptical myself at first but the results were incredible for me. I had a ton of purification happen during the week, a lot of release around old regrets and misdeeds, things that haven’t even been in my conscious memory in a long time.

The ten days went by much too quickly. The schedule wasn’t too rigorous and I found time to read, continue my Yoga practice and reflect quietly with a cup of chai as I watched the monkeys play. I found myself very in tune with the environment, spending little time thinking of home despite its nearness. I connected deeply with several people despite the silence and imagine we’ll remain connected for a long time. Karma ripening, Robina would say.  Its incredible how few words you actually need when people are living the dharma together, walking alongside each other in this beautiful journey of existence.

Ultimately my Tushita experience was an incredible opportunity to remain connected to my own mind, to watch habitual delusional and attachment thinking, to work on cultivating compassion and living a life more attune with wisdom, calm-abiding and love.

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:

image

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.

Calm as a Hindu Cow

I’m two weeks into my month-long Yoga intensive in Rishikesh. I feel as if this incredible unfolding is happening right before my eyes. Actually, the unfolding is occurring behind my eyes. Yoga, combined with a beautifully enriching spiritual community, mixed with the current state of my own path, throw in a small group of friends committed to sharing their own process and exploring the beauty of existence together have all come together at this amazing time in my life.

A cosmic unrolling I will call it, that at moments seems to accelerate change in myself and solidify a connection with the Divine. I’ve shaken off the stagnation that I was feeling at home, processing what I now know was caused by a lack of preparation and lack of energetic defense against the onslaught that is one’s past. I am, to the best of my abilities and intentions, back in the here and now. I plan to write about my time at home eventually, but I am still sitting with various aspects of it. Plus the here and now is here and now. 🙂

IMG_4473

Yoga practice has provided the underlying framework for this unrolling. But I’m not talking about the cartwheel Iron Yogi style of practice we have grown accustomed to in the West. Yoga this time refers to the ancient tradition of spiritual awakening first developed in India that morphed into Buddhism and continues to influence thought and culture in the East.

I was introduced to the Trika Yoga program from my friends Al and Nicole whom I met while traveling in Nepal. They participated in the introductory first month course in January and when I checked in with them to see how it was going, Nicole said “It makes me feel so much like a million bucks that if someone offered me a million bucks to quit I would say no." That, in addition reading this link on Trika’s website (answering yes to the 7 questions as the bottom), and I was SOLD! I still consider myself a Zen Buddhist, but I believe the physical aspects of certain Yogic practices (Zen developed from something called Yogacara (meaning one whose practice is Yoga)) are beautiful complements to my Zen practice.

A bit about the program – it (as many popular programs in India today) was developed by a Westerner who assimilated the teachings of many masters. Trika has a holistic approach that provides insight into several Yogic disciplines, primarily aligned with Hatha Yoga (Ha=Sun, Tha=moon), focusing on balancing cosmic and telluric energies in our energetic bodies through our  emissive and receptive functions (Yin and Yang), respectively. The text from Trika’s website:

An introduction to Hatha Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Laya Yoga, and Tantra Yoga. It also includes theory and practice on techniques from Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Nidra Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga, thus constituting a genuine example of Integral Yoga.

IMG_4464

Information and explanatory lectures are given on a variety of related topics such as: diet in Yoga, healing through natural methods, purification and cleansing techniques, Ayurveda, yin/yang balancing, relaxation, physiology and psychology in Yoga, mastery and transmutation of the sexual energy, Eastern philosophy, mental concentration, the use of music in Yoga, and meditation, to name but a few.

Yoga in general is not dogmatic and the ashram where I practice is dotted with photographs and quotes of masters from all disciplines – many Yogis and Hindu deities of course, but also Christ, Gandhi, Buddha, contemporary individuals who have gained realization in various forms.

One can become quite proficient in this Trika path – undergoing 5 years or so to become a certified teacher. The primary introduction lasts 3 months, with most instruction and practice coming in the first month, what I’ve committed to. The first month consists of a 28 day program, 6 days a week for 4 weeks. Each day is similar – the only difference being the new asana we learn in the morning and a unique lecture in the evening. The schedule is very intense and tiring. I’m in the ashram from 7:30-11:30 in the morning and then 4-9 in the evening. The morning begins with a 45 minute meditation, followed by short instructions on the new asana (posture) for the day. We then proceed to practice for approximately 2 hours. We repeat this in the afternoon, incorporating a series of sun salutations(Surya Namaskara) with devotional chanting to begin the practice in a symbolic act that is a complete surrender of oneself to God. We then proceed with the asana practice and once finished, we take a short break and move into a lecture on various yogic disciplines. Yogi Training 101 I like to call it.

I’ve found that the lectures are hit and miss – for example last nights was on the merits of vegetarianism of which I need no convincing. Some are also very high level morality issues that I’ve already spend a lot of time on in my Buddhist path. However – others, on various cleansing techniques, in-depth discussions on chakras, sublimation of energy, tantric sexuality and others are great. So I pick and choose which lectures to go to, tonight skipping a discussion on Non-Attachment in order to blog!

I pick gems out of the lectures to avoid intellectual overload (there is some contradiction in the teaching method as we are trying to get OUT of our heads and into our bodies and yet we are bombarded with 200 pages worth of techniques and philosophies…), working with these gems in my physical practice. This is where the gold nugget is. Spending 5-7 hours on a Yoga mat each day. Instead of running through 50 postures in 60 minutes like I do in Boulder, flexing muscles and treating Yoga like another competitive sport, we do a small series of Hatha Yoga postures generally holding them for 5-8 minutes each. We are taught about the flow of energy in each of these postures and which chakras are activated and how. For example, Padahastana, the first asana is the simple forward bend, touching your toes while keeping your legs straight. Peace of cake right? Try doing it for 8 minutes. It turns out to be one of my favorite postures as it activates your muladhara chakra (root) with telluric energy from the earth, providing a sense of grounding, security and stability. If my mind is full of chatter during the warming exercises, Padahastana usually drops me right into a place where I can practice.

I could go on forever about the postures but what I want to talk about is the subtle explorations that are going on in practice. The real goal here is to clear and activate all of your chakras, remove blockages, learn to sublimate energy from lower to higher (i.e. root to heart) chakras and ultimately to raise your level of consciousness to higher planes or vibrations. The truth is we all have access to this at any time and realized people don’t need to do a hundred asanas to get there… but for the rest of us it is a path to the destination. Once at the destination you realize you were always there and can drop all of the dissections of practice and chakras and all the rest.

One of the most incredible moments for me was an afternoon where I untied a sanskara, an impression derived from past experiences that form desires that influence future responses and behavior (karma). These are often stored in the physical body, far away from where the conscious mind can act or even be aware of them. While working on the emissive side (right/Yang) of Trikonasana (triangle) which activates aspects of the Manipura (navel) chakra such as inner balance, self confidence and inner harmony I began to be overwhelmed with emotion. We immediately moved into Bhujangasana (cobra pose) which arouses the anahata (heart chakra). At this point I started sobbing uncontrollably. I just let it go. There was no conscious thinking, emotional stimulus or anything at the level of the mind that could have caused this. I’ve really never experienced anything like this before. From experience I have a lot of blockage between my navel and heart chakras and this was just one step of many in the slow process of opening this channel. My mind wants to analyze it to death but I’ve just let it go, knowing that it is unexplainable. I’ve experienced other things that don’t make scientific sense and I’m afraid a little too personal and to share to the world.

I’m learning so much about my body, my impulses , my karma , my relationship to self, to others, to God.

Let the unrolling continue.

Return to the Zendo

This year I decided to do something a little different on New Year’s eve. I sat on my cushion. Literally.

IMG_0802I actually spent much of my week on my cushion. On Monday I traveled to the Zen Monastery in Crestone Colorado to participate in a 3-day New Year’s seminar where Abbot Roshi-Baker led a seminar on the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi was Roshi-Baker’s teacher and the first teacher of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West.

Generally, most Buddhists are well asleep by midnight, but the 31’st was special – not only was it the final day of the decade, there was also a full moon. I participated in an ancient Buddhist ceremony which consisted of ringing the densho bell 108 times leading up to midnight, as the sangha members practiced zazen (sitting meditation) intermixed with chanting and bowing. We finished with a toast of sake in the kitchen (yes Buddhists can drink!) and as I slowly walked to my room the bright full moon overhead gave me a few minutes to reflect on the transformative days I just experienced.

As many of you know, I spent a week at the Zen Monastery in April prior to leaving for Asia. That week I undertook my first intensive meditation retreat and was introduced to the formal practices of Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Richard Baker Roshi. Despite leaving the country for almost 7 months, returning to this sacred place high in the mountains above the San Luis valley I felt as though I had never left. This week’s seminar was much less formal than a sesshin, which is silent and grueling physically. However, we did sit for 3-4 hours a day, in the morning, evening and prior to Roshi Baker’s discussion periods. There were about 22 of us attending, some full-time residents of the monastery, others of us very new to the practice. What I enjoyed most about this week was time spent talking to others about the Dharma teachings of Baker Roshi. During breaks and transitions I would often find myself walking in the woods or sitting quietly in the main hall with another, talking opening of our experience in relation to the Dharma teachings and themes that were being developed and explored throughout the week. To connect soul to soul with another person, without boundaries, ego and fear, even if only for a few moments, is for me, one of the most precious and beautiful aspects of existence. As I rebuild my life in Boulder, my few days in Crestone helped create a new intention in my life; that is directing my life in such a way that it supports my practice. Practice being the craft of Buddhism, learning to relate to an interdependent, momentary existence.Teachers-Winter_ZENDO

It is often difficult to explain the teachings and my experiences of the week due to the nature of them often being very individual and momentary, but I would like to comment on a few tangible things that I am taking away with me.

First, this week we developed and explored a topic called body fullness, or perceptual immediacy. This is essentially an ancient yogic practice of giving order to the mind through the body. The job of our consciousness is to make the world predictable, and to give us a sense of continuity (ego, existence, memory, etc). But consciousness alone can take you into a place of idealism, fantasy and untruth. Consciousness demands order in a world that is not moving towards entropy. Our practice in this Yogacara/Buddhist manner is to embody teachings, to embody truth, to understand the bodily aspects of every state of mind. This is using a concept or intention to help the body, through the mind, to bring order to the body. Eventually a monumental shift can occur, where you are no longer living in self-referential or continuity-based thinking but finding identity in your immediate existence.

Chew on that for a while 🙂 For me, this is in alignment with the direction my practice was taking towards the end of my travels – getting back into the body, or “establishing a mutual body” with the world, exploring my chakras and intricate workings of my physicality through breath, silence and stillness.

Adjacent to this teaching is the effort to identify ourselves in the world as  activities, not entities. We (especially in the West) tend to view ourselves as distinct entities, separate from everything and everyone else, acting upon or being IMG_0759acted against. A very simple example of this is the use of chopsticks or drinking tea from cups with no handles in Buddhist cultures – the chopsticks serve as an extension of the hands and therefore aid in the activity of eating. As for tea cups, most Asians use both hands, holding the tea cup at the chest first and then raising the glass to their mouths to drink. There is no entity drinking tea, there is simply the action (imagine your experience the moment you raise a mug of tea to your mouth). I don’t think I’m doing a great job describing this – but to return to the chopsticks – we see food, we see a table, we see a fork and spoon and we see ourselves. We then tend to act as an entity to move and manipulate these entities in order to get the food into our stomachs. What I’m trying to do is view the entire process as an interdependent, simultaneously inseparable and yet unique experience of eating.

To take the above to a relationship level – if you relate to someone only through a mental process (as an entity), they will feel contained. We all know what this feels like. Can you relate to someone bodily? I’m not talking about only physical touch, but with your entire being (senses, emotions, posture, etc. Can you relate without boundaries and in the particular moment of existence? This is the beginning of love.

I think that is enough for today. I will end with a quote Baker-Roshi gave us that I thought was quite beautiful ( I can’t recall the author):

"I enter the broken world through the paths of love”

Happy New Year everyone.

Rationality versus Intuition

A major reason I began this pilgrimage was to perform a reset in my life, to sell my possessions, abandon my apartment and live as simply as possible. The physical and material aspects of house-cleaning, while not easy, are much easier than the psychological and intellectual ones. You can throw out an old couch but can you throw out a way of thinking? An opinion? A habit? I believe you can, and as I find myself away from home for over 5 months, I have found myself successful in some of this cleaning. This process stems from my Zen Buddhist practice and the concept of returning to a beginner’s mind.  A beginner’s mind being one always coming out of the moment, in the present, not relying on the storehouse of memory, society or intellect to act. To see directly into relationships as if a pure mirror, without the haze and dirt that inhibits and hurts these relationships. I of course mean relationships to people, but I am also talking about relationships to nature, to objects, to thoughts and of course ourselves.

For me, and for many of us, we over-rely on our intellect to guide us in this uncertain world. We often distrust our intuition, our heart or small signs that come to us through the universe. A friend of mine recently said to me, “Men tend to make daily decisions rationally and the most difficult decisions intuitively while women tend to make daily decisions intuitively while making the most difficult decisions rationally.” While this is highly generalized, I can say it is for me, true. Or more accurately, I used to make ALL of my decisions rationally and/or practically, often completely ignoring my intuition. That sort of decision making has kept me in relationships longer than I should have been, sent me on a life path that was not aligned with true self, kept me in a job I was disinterested in because it was the most practical thing to do.

Before this trip, and definitely on it, I find myself beginning to fall on the other side of the coin. For me this is often scary and uncertain. Intellect allows us to put nice little boxes around decisions, to weigh the pros and cons, to move forward with a sense of certainty. Intuition is a curious thing – showing up in dreams, small signs throughout the day and in partial concepts and emotions, never painting a complete picture. When one moves forward with an intuitive decision, they are placing great faith in the unknown, in themselves and their ability to listen to their heart, gut, or the universe depending on where you think intuition lies. I can tell you for sure its not in your head!

Recently I have not felt the creative urge to write, to blog or even to read. I’m playing in the space of intuition, scribbling little notes in my notebook, questioning EVERYTHING I have ever thought or believed. I’m struggling to take off the chains of the past that I’ve allowed to define me. Yes, my name is Keith, I grew up here, went to school here, had this training and this job, lived here, traveled here, etc, etc. BUT, that is not who I am, right now. That is the path my body and mind have taken to reach this particular place in space and time. I’m not suggesting ignoring the past, but when someone asks you, “Who are you?”, don’t take that question lightly. Great masters have sat in caves for a decade holding only this question. Or more modernly, a quote from the book, Fight Club: “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world”.

Not only do you create an idea of who you are, but your friends, your partners and your families often heavily reinforce this. An astrological reading I once received informed me that this is especially difficult for me – that people in my life often see me as an image of the past, that I can struggle to redefine myself around those I spend a lot of time with. Who knows if its different for me than anyone else – but I am aware of this difficulty. I find myself wanting to surround myself with people who DO allow their own images of me to change, to shatter old boxes and those that give me space to grow. I think about this a lot. Only the enlightened can truly see other individuals as momentary manifestations of a divine force, not images from their own memory and opinion. The rest of us, as it is human nature, tend to create images of those close to us, its easier and safer (If a masked man comes at you with a baseball bat, you may want to rely on a few stereotypes). BUT, when a loved one says or does something that is not part of your image, we struggle, we say “I don’t know you!” That is really like saying, “You are not acting in a way consistent with my image of you!”. Often this image is our own projection from the past of what is right, what is wrong, a belief that our path in life and view of truth is the same as everyone else’s. I’ve written about how one of the things I struggle most with while traveling is not finding people to connect to. As I write this blog, however, I realize that this is because it is easier and more comfortable to sit in other people’s boxes at home than to express yourself anew all the time. So we all end up creating these images and boxes and never truly communicating soul to soul with those most close to us. More recently I’ve been on a few guided trips where I was able to spend time with the same people for a couple weeks. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to talk, to share, to experiment in this space of a present relationship, one without a past. Yesterday, I said to someone, “I can’t believe how much I shared with you, I would often not share that much with someone from home”. Why not??? Because it would force me out of that comfortable box! Well, sorry everyone, but I won’t sit in your box anymore.

So let me pose the question – who exactly are YOU?

Food Again

After publishing my review on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I realized that I wanted to add some more personal insight. As I travel, procuring food is without a doubt my most time consuming activity. Every region of every country has different cuisines, customs around eating and food delivery. It can be taxing at times when you just want that quick meal (today I walked around for an hour trying to find breakfast), but overall I am gaining an appreciation for where my food comes from and who cooks it. I watched a woman cook my dumplings, bought apples directly from the farmer and had tea likely grown within a few miles of here. I really enjoy walking around the markets in each little town I visit. It really allows you to put your finger on the pulse of a place – especially with regard to the food and the people who bring it to you. Today was a little disgusting as I watched the butchers hack off the heads of a couple of Yaks, but for the most part its vendors selling fruit and vegetables, locals getting what they need for the day and random tourists like me asking if I can take photographs of dead Yaks and ducks.

I have been traveling for 4 months in Asia and over countless hours staring out the window of a bus, I have been able to watch the entire life-cycle of rice. In Japan in June, the rice was just being planted. I progressively I watched it grow in Thailand and Laos, ultimately seeing signs of the harvest in Indonesia and then China as the rains came to an end. The one thing in common despite the phase of growth was the hard work of the farmers. Driving or walking past rice-fields, you see people bent over, working the fields with their sickles or bare hands, carrying ungodly amounts on their backs, from dawn to dusk. Rice has been the most visible, but I have no doubt that all the other crops that end up on my plate take just as much work. So they are farmers and this is their job, big deal, right?

Actually it is a big deal. When I see the work that goes into delivering a cup of rice to my table, that rice does not look or taste the same. Not to mention when its complimented with a variety of vegetables, tofu, sauces, etc. Its a reminder of the interconnectedness of the world, and an appreciation for the work others do to allow me to pursue other things in life, not spending the majority of my time cultivating food.

I began thinking about this at my Zen Buddhist meditation retreat back in April. Each meal during the retreat is cooked, served and eaten very ritualistically, and part of the meal chant directly before eating contains this:

Innumerable labors brought us this food,
know how it comes to us.

Receiving this offering, consider
whether our virtue and practice deserve it.

Desiring the natural order of mind, be
free from greed, hate and delusion.

We eat to support life and to practice the way of
Buddha.

This very simple, but powerful paragraph acknowledges what I said earlier. Over the past several months, I’ve committed to a small mantra before each meal, putting my hands together and saying at least the first sentence of the above to myself, recognizing the pains and labors that ultimately ended in the plate of food before me. I often forget, usually when very hungry or distracted in thought, but slowly over time it is becoming more and more a part of every meal. This allows me to feel more connected with what I am eating, the people who bring it to me whether the farmer, shopkeeper or chef. Its really about awareness – and why not be aware of what you are putting in your body?

Reflections @ 2 months

I honestly cannot believe its already been two months since I left Boulder and began this pilgrimage. There is still an excitement and an energy that pulls me towards new places and activities that often renews me, allows me to continue learning and exploring in different ways and looking ahead. I’ll admit that there is a terrible home-sickness that comes over me on occasion. The rhythm I worked so hard to establish in Boulder – work, friends, fitness, climbing, diet and meditation has all been set aside while I seek fulfillment from a road-less-traveled. I miss my friends, my lifestyle and the comforts of home,climbing on Saturdays in Eldorado Canyon with Sal or weekday afternoons in Boulder Canyon with Diane. Time with my sister Carrie in Denver or sitting quietly in my favorite spot next to Boulder Creek. I really miss baby Eva, and her parents too of course 🙂 .

Fulfillment isn’t quite the right word – its really about the questions. The big ones. Answers are too easy. Once you have them you don’t have to look at the questions anymore. Cultivating the ‘don’t know mind’ (saying of a Korean Zen master Sueng Sahn), is more accurate. I’m working on things such as cultivating calmness in the midst of unknown and uncomfortable circumstances (think every day when on the road in third world countries), compassion and understanding towards cultures and people that I am so completely different from. I’m looking for my passion, figuring out how to tie my abilities to my strengths to ultimately find a fulfilling vocation in this world. Certain areas I find myself failing – regular exercise or yoga, waking early and meditating, sometimes zoning out, far away from this moment. Not learning or developing my intellect is hard for me – my entire life I’ve been in school or in a career where there is an element of learning and development. There are ways to do this while abroad and traveling, I just have not taken the time to make them happen. I’ve yet to REALLY connect with a place or culture. There is a constant dance going on between interested observer, spectator and participant. I’ve yet to dance much as the participant. I’m not directed or pulled enough to volunteer or remain still in a single place. I often feel selfish and unaccountable as my existence appears so easy – eating, drinking and wandering.

I better stop there – I needed that little rant. I’m clearly judging myself a bit, seeking answers (contradicting what I said above!), and not letting go of old hang-ups around achievement, ambition and success. For the first time in my 30 years on this planet I do not have responsibility, clearly defined goals and calculated plans for the days ahead. Uncharted territory really. Its scary and its beautiful. Some would say I’m experiencing my Saturn Return as one should – putting myself out there, listening to myself through the mysterious presentation of the universe. Is there any other way?

Zen Again

My teacher (did I really say that? more on this later), Zentatsu Baker-Roshi, is in Boulder this weekend giving a seminar on the Evolution of Zen at the Chautauqua Community House. Spring rain and Winter’s final touch are mixing together and providing an excellent weekend to be indoors contemplating the human existence and meaning of self!

This seminar is much more casual than the Sesshin I attended several weeks ago – no robes, no chanting or prostrations, plenty of breaks and conversation. Roshi generally sets the context for our discussion then responds to questions, all the while trying to frame the theme, the Evolution of Zen.

We have been working extensively with the differences between “Evolution” and “Development”. Development is more static – moving within the field of the known, using that known to separate something else out, or ‘develop it’.  Evolution can be likened to an unrolling, a boundless process that is new in every moment. Something I am exploring personally is how do I create the conditions necessary to make my practice more likely to evolve?  Our Sangha (group practicing together including the teacher) has been looking deeply into trust, and how it, along with acceptance, are an integral part of evolving ones own practice. Another way to look at this is ‘being secure in vulnerability’, something I try to remain aware of, rather than close off and go within my own walls. We also explored the differences between Faith and Trust, two closely linked words, that are in Roshi’s words “part of the same experiential groove”. The subtle difference is that Faith walks a fine line with belief, which can be limited. Belief to me is static, based in the known and discounts the unknowable. As soon as you believe something, you are no longer open to the unknown, because you “believe this is the way it is”. Its security and safety and easier that way. I think I like Trust better as a word to describe opening myself to that unknown, as Trust is rooted more in experience, of which every moment is new and potentially boundless. At some level you even trust that you don’t trust.  There’s some Zen for you. 🙂  I’m out of time but will write more on my thoughts about what it means to have a teacher and practice with a group.