Moving to the Monastery

Its early October, yet summer lingers here in Boulder. Fall is sneaking in slowly with its changing leaves and cool nights. Snow is in the forecast soon. I find myself in transition along with the seasons. After a whirlwind of travel from Thailand, Holland, Crestone and Seattle, I finally settled in Boulder in mid-September.

I traveled to Thailand with the pure intention to deepen my spiritual practice, to explore different paths and simply to get away for a while. My experiences this summer were incredible. I traveled differently than I ever had in the past. I simply went to one location and stayed put. I rented a house and integrated myself into the local community. I became active in the Agama Yoga school, taking several workshops, two months of intensive Yoga study and practice as well as two 10-day silent meditation retreats. I experimented with fasting and cleansing. I lived simply and slowly.

I set a clear intention that this would be a summer of inner work, that I would not seek social gratifications or female companionship.  Yet one cannot deny the human existence and the powers at play between certain individuals. The most extraordinary element of my summer, and possibly my life to this point was meeting Ingrid at the conclusion of a ten-day meditation retreat together. I could fill this page with all that we’ve experienced and explored together, but as a general rule, I try to keep relationships out of my writing. I must however say that our meeting has coincided with an opening of my heart, with a deep yearning to to be united with someone as inspiring, beautiful and amazing as she is. A wild set of circumstances have collided that have allowed an American man and a Dutch woman to dance on loves stage together.

I find it difficult to articulate my experience this summer, as much of what occurred for me was very subtle – shifts in my world views, my relationship to myself, others and the world. Aspects of my personal experience I once had taken for granted or simply dismissed are now accessible to me. There is a sense of surrender to the unknown ahead, a diminishing need to control the uncontrollable future. I consider much more often what is nourishing me in this very moment rather than in some projection of the future. In a practical sense I have no idea where my life is headed, yet the clarity of simply trusting my heart and intuition is very powerful.

Throughout the summer I weighed a large decision for early 2012 – would I participate in a 90-day Practice Period at my Zen Monastery in Crestone, or would I travel to Mexico to participate in a 90-day teacher training program in Yoga and Meditation? Over time the decision became very clear for me – I found myself longing for time in Crestone, to be immersed in the stream of ancient teaching passed down over the past 2600 years. A teacher’s training program might very well be in my future, but right now my path is asking me to spend more time practicing, deepening my meditation practice more so than gaining an intellectual understanding of what meditation is. Helping others bring meditation into their lives and bring their lives to meditation would bring me tremendous of joy, yet right now I feel the most nourishing way for me to move towards such a vision is to live and practice in a monastic setting.

imageIngrid will be joining me for the move to Crestone in a couple of weeks, where we will practice together at the monastery this fall.  In January, I will begin Practice Period and she will travel to Mexico to help organize and teach the Teacher’s Training I nearly decided to attend. You can see this was no easy decision for me! In all I will be at the monastery for at least 6 months, finishing the practice period in mid-April. Other then the desire to reunite with Ingrid at that time, the world is a blank slate, full of possibility.

Hridaya Retreat: Revelation of the Spiritual Heart

Tomorrow I begin a 10-day silent retreat called Hridaya, or Revelation of the Spiritual Heart. This retreat is the primary reason I came to Thailand; to practice in this yogic mediation tradition and to spend time with its primary teacher, Sahajananada (Claudiu Trandafir). I had hoped to leave you with some first impressions of Agama and Koh Phangan before retiring this evening, but the hour is late and I must get some sleep. If you’re interested in what I’ll be doing the next week and a half, you can check out the brochure or read a small excerpt I’ve included below. Goodnight All.

 

What is Hridaya, the Spiritual Heart?

The only beauty that lasts is the beauty of the Heart.

– Rumi

Hridaya, the Spiritual Heart, is our essential and ultimate nature, the ineffable dimension of our being. It is another name for the Supreme Self, atman, as it is named in the Yogic tradition. The Spiritual Heart is the Supreme Consciousness, the ultimate Subject of Knowledge, the pure I. It is the witness consciousness, that intimate observer of all of our thoughts, emotions, sensations, the mind, of the whole Universe in both its inner and outer dimensions.

Through the practice of meditation, more and more subtle understandings about the real significance of the Spiritual Heart will be revealed. In the beginning the Heart is an object of meditation, then it becomes a means of knowledge, and finally it is revealed in its true nature, as what we really are.

In the spiritual traditions of India, as elsewhere, the ‘heart’ refers not so much to the physical organ as to a psychospiritual structure corresponding to the heart muscle on the material plane. This spiritual heart is celebrated by yogins and mystics as the seat of the transcendental Self. It is called hrid, hridaya, or hrit-padma (‘heart lotus’). It is often referred to as the secret ‘cave’ (guha) in which the yogin must restrain his mind. In some schools, notably Kashmiri Shaivism, the word hridaya applies also to the ultimate Reality.”– Georg Feurstein

Accordingly, the Spiritual Heart or the Heart (with a capital H) may vary in significance depending on the context of use or different correlations. However, even if this notion seems complex, we should not lose ourselves in the snare of concepts alone.

Absolute simplicity is the nature of the Heart. Simply direct your attention toward the chest area. That very fine and discreet vibration which is awakened there, in the absence of any thought, in the quietness of the mind, is the beginning of a sacred tremor, the most direct experience of the Spiritual Heart. Please relax yourself, take your time and close your eyes for a few seconds while you allow this vibration to arise…. Can you feel it?

This subtle calling of infinity, radiating from the chest area, is the most expressive and intimate representation of the Heart. Please open yourself to this sacred tremor of the Heart, because contained within it is the communicative warmth of the Truth. Without this, all that follows would only be more “food for the mind” or lifeless information, simply. The real essence of the Spiritual Heart lies exactly in this tremor, this very intimate vibration. Give yourself the time and peace to feel it profoundly.

In the simplicity of this vibration lies the freshness of revelation – a revelation which comes from “inside” even when the information seems to come from “outside.” The simplicity of this vibration, of this sacred tremor of the Heart, is the “spirit” of this kind of information.

The Spiritual Heart, on the other hand, can be seen through its multitude of symbolic traits and the substance of each. Each of them has its importance and, in actuality, the complete spiritual journey can be described through them.

1) Firstly, the main essence of the Spiritual Heart: It is our essential and ultimate nature, the ineffable dimension of our being. It is another name for the Supreme Self, atman, the witness consciousness, as mentioned above.

2) The Spiritual Heart is the ultimate Reality, which is transcendent and immanent in any aspect of the Macrocosm. It is the ultimate essence of all. It is a condition beyond duality: “The Heart of the man and the Heart of the Cosmos are one.” Through spiritual maturity, the Heart is revealed as something more than an individual dimension of our being, after which it ceases to be expressed in terms of duality. It represents the whole in which Subject and object, the witness and witnessed, are one. Seen as consciousness, the Heart is unlimited. It is the infinite Light. It is also the absolute freedom and spontaneity of this Light of consciousness, which appears to us in different forms in manifestation. The Heart as the Supreme Consciousness is like the ocean, which is reflected both as the vastness of sea and the different shapes of its waves. Similarly, the awareness of the Spiritual Heart is a complete path in itself. It can lead to a direct knowledge integrating all the energies, the whole of manifestation, but at the same time, it reveals the Ultimate Supreme Transcendence.

3) The Spiritual Heart is sui generis a spiritual organ of direct knowledge. Sometimes the Heart is understood as a means of revelation. It is also an organ of the purification, reintegration, and transfiguration of our being. For instance, for a Tantric everything that brings pleasure tunes the Heart, seen as the cosmic instrument of consciousness. Through detachment from any individual accent comes a spontaneous sublimation in the Heart. In this way, each sensation is brought to its purity and then offered to the infinite space of the Heart.

4) The Heart is a point of inflection. The Heart is the bridge between finite and infinite, personal and transpersonal, the present and eternity. It is openness toward the Whole. In this aspect, the Heart represents our main opportunity to transcend the limitations of individuality. This function of the Heart makes it a borderline territory because it simultaneously bears the characteristics of the Ultimate Reality and of the finite realities. The inner Heart is a portal to direct experience of what is called "spirit," consciousness – concepts that easily elude all definition.

5) The Spiritual Heart is an inner guide revealing the Ultimate Truth. Following its impulses is a way of redemption.

6) The Heart is the source of the whole of Creation and the final point of all energies. It is thus often seen as a fountain of immortality. The overflowing of the Heart as pure Love and pure Existence is in itself the sign of realization:

In the middle of my Heart,
a star appeared,
and the seven heavens were lost
in its brilliance.
– Rumi

7) The Spiritual Heart is the abode of all deep mysteries. It keeps a secret of its mystical royalty. It is the source of a spontaneous wonderment that generates the intuition of God’s existence. In Yogic tradition, this attribute is named guha, the “cave of the Heart.”

Indeed, the Heart has some imperceptible subtle functions for those who do not intend to live their lives profoundly, spiritually. It remains an unknown domain for the one who ignores the inner kingdom in which the Heart is the core.

) The Heart is the Absolute Void:

Our behavior itself is the awakening:
There is no other Buddha than the Heart.
All phenomena are nothing but the Heart.

– Tao-Sin

René Guénon affirmed that “the Peace of the void,” the “Great Peace” (Es-Sakinah) of Islamic esotericism seen in the divine presence of the Center of being, is symbolically represented in all traditions by the Heart. In Yogic tradition, it is expressed by hrid akasha, the infinite space of the Heart.

9) The Heart is a sacred tremor, the expression of a pure, absolute aspiration. The Sufis, Shaivists, Vedantins, Isihasts etc. all answered to the same calling of the Heart and expressed the same pure impetus, urge, yearning, and aspiration toward God, beyond the specific forms of adoration, beyond the concepts and names of this Reality. All of them perceived it as a sacred tremor vibrating in them and everywhere. From the Heart emanates a sense of Truth, a sense of Pure Existence. By making the Heart the symbol of sacredness, religions have indeed expressed this very idea.

Yoga Challenge

I have discovered a popular Yoga studio three blocks from my house offering a free first week of unlimited Yoga. This is a nice deal for us unemployed types, primarily because we have a lot of time but not a lot of money. Vital Yoga is a local studio offering a variety of practices. Its core appears to be in the Vinyasa, Bikram and Anusara traditions, but the schedule caught my attention with a few more alternative (or traditional, depending on your perspective!), classes such as Nidra Yoga, Jivamukti and Qi Gong. 

yogiInterestingly, since my time in India, almost one year ago, I have not practiced formally in a studio. I have managed to lead my own session once a week or so (not nearly as much as I would like to). Autumn and I plan to spend a month this summer at a Tantric Yoga school in Thailand, so it is time for me to start ramping up my practice. Additionally, because I hold an intention towards a career in the greater Yogic tradition: one based in meditation, asana, Ayurveda, well-being, it is time for some on-the-ground market research.

I have been carefully attempting to carve out a week where I can take the most advantage of a free pass, but in reality, there will never be a perfect, commitment-free week. There are writing classes on Wednesdays, Zen Center duties on Thursdays and Fridays, Valentine’s Day on Monday…. so I am just going to go for it and see how many I can make. Starting Friday, I am hoping to attend 2 classes a day for 6 days straight. I have several motivations:

  • First, simply to sample the variety of teachers and offerings at this studio.
  • Second, to focus intensively for a week on this practice, simultaneously matching a yogic-like diet and lifestyle to the physical practice.
  • Finally, it will be great fodder for blogging.

I must admit I am a little afraid of the Yoga scene: I have never formally practiced at a Yoga studio, generally preferring casual venues like the recreation center, rock climbing gym or my own living room. My hope is the scene at Vital won’t be similar to one of the scenes in the movie Enlighten Up, a documentary following a guy into various ridiculous yoga practices such as a studio on a porn set run by a former WWF wrestler or a semi-naked hand-stand party in Manhattan…Seriously I hope that something so close to my house will align with my motivations with Yoga. I would be very grateful for such an option.

Stay Tuned. Om.

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):

image

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

The Middle Way

Its all downhill from here. Only 3 weeks left in this journey – both my 3 month return to India and my original 1 year around the world trip are coming to an end. Most of my remaining time will be spent in a 10-day silent meditation retreat, the rest in transit and appreciating the freedom and simplicity of life in India.

For the past 4 weeks I have been in the small hill town of McLeod Ganj (commonly referred to abroad as Dharamsala) in Northern India, the home of the exiled Tibetan community and the 14th Dalai Lama. Despite strong pulls to the contrary, I’ve managed to stick to my original plan, 5 weeks in Rishikesh and 5 weeks in McLeod Ganj. These pulls have generally come in the form of not being comfortable in my own skin, seeking distraction and change from my purpose here: developing inward. I’ve considered coming home early, traveling to various tourist destinations to the north such as Manali and Kashmir, but I’ve always been able to recognize that acting to fulfill these desires was not going to fulfill my only desire: knowing myself.

And how exactly does one find themselves in a small city in India? I can’t give you the answer but I can share my attempt. I’ve committed to myself to meditating, practicing yoga, volunteering and eating well. Beyond this I am reading, spending time on my balcony reflecting and watching the world go by. I’ve meditated daily now for almost 6 weeks, sometimes for only 20 minutes, other days up to 2 hours. One of the most powerful things I left Rishikesh with was a posture for my legs that allows me to sit for extended periods of time. Looking back this was one of the greatest inhibitors to my meditation, preventing me from sitting still and longer than 20 minutes comfortably. My personal yoga practice has been strong, although it is so much more difficult to do completely on my own, without the guidance of a teacher and a schedule. I’ve managed to practice regularly, taking a day off a week or when feeling very complacent, just focusing on a few individual asanas to work on tension in my body or in my heart. I’ve avoided the backpacker hangout scene, an easy distraction on the road. I’ve fallen into small daily routines of meditation, yoga, breakfast, writing, walking, coffee and reading, volunteering, kora, dinner. I have enjoyed getting to know several other long-term visitors and we’ll get together on occasion for tea or for a walk.

My reading has been focused on Buddhism, Tantra and Yoga. I am opening to new ideas and concepts, reforming my worldview on things such as reincarnation, the true meaning of karma and the tantric approach of embracing life. I’ve been delving into concepts of compassion, devotion and the master/disciple relationship. I’m building a base for which I’d like to explore in greater detail during my meditation retreat and hopefully carry over to Boulder. I feel so very fortunate to be given this gift of retreat and solitude for a deep examination of my life. I feel very rich and fulfilled in a non-traditional way. The human life is such a wonderful gift and I want to experience every second of it.

Volunteering is what brought me here and it has provided a wonderful experience. When I first arrived, I ‘shopped’ around at various centers before finding a good fit, eventually settling into afternoon English conversation classes at Learning and Ideas for Tibet (LIT). Each afternoon a group of Tibetans (half monks and nuns, half lay persons) and tourists get together, work through a set of questions proposed by the facilitator and then the students take turns reading out loud to the class. We always have some fun at the end when the new teachers are required to sing a song to the class and one of the Tibetan students usually returns the favor. The overall atmosphere is very jovial and energetic. I’ve gotten to know a few of the students very well, sharing time after class or simply conversing if we finish the questions early. Almost all of them have endured the arduous journey overland through the Himalayas to escape the Chinese oppression in Tibet. They are separated from their families, homeland and culture. I really connect with the people in class here because I have the strong feeling that if I was born in Tibet, I too would have risked my life to escape to freedom. There is this fire that burns inside them that is very, very touching. Today was my final day and the students gave me a ceremonial scarf and “Free Tibet necklace”, sang several beautiful Tibetan songs and gave me what I am most thankful for, their beautiful smiles and thank you’s. The language difficulties really allowed me to connect with this group at a heart level – and it was very beautiful and touching. About two weeks ago a major earthquake occurred in Tibet, killing and injuring thousands of people. Many of the students have loved-ones or friends that were injured and throughout the classes they were talking about their thoughts and feelings on the situation, their families health and concerns about the Chinese response. There have been various candlelight vigils and prayer meetings at the main temple to honor the victims. All of this has made me value public service so much more and I hope to continue giving part of myself to the service of others when I return home.

There have been times when I feel like I am getting too hard on myself, expecting results or harshly self-judging certain behaviors. Its then that I realize I need to lighten up and take a step back from my practice, breathing the beautiful mountain air or doing the small things I enjoy like a cold beer with friends or movie on my laptop with a bag of potato chips. And while for the most part I’ve avoided fulfilling my supposed role as a ‘busy tourist’,  I of course have had plenty of distractions including my first ever cricket match, many long walks through the countryside and even a day of climbing to the small outpost of Triund, a day’s journey straight up the mountain. I took an Indian cooking course and am very excited about making Malai Kofta and Palak Paneer for all of my friends in Boulder! Whenever I feel frustrated or as if I want to be somewhere else, I simply remind myself of how fortunate this opportunity is, of how when life sinks its teeth into me in the future I will crave and long for this precious time in India.

Much of the time I contemplate how I want to exist when I return to Boulder. I’ve mentioned earlier that my last trip home was overwhelming in many ways – I came home exhausted and immediately fell into old habits and mentalities. This time I am much more energetically prepared, having developed a sort of neutrality that hopefully will prevent me from being tossed around in the waves of the high-paced, materialistic, self-focused nature of life in the West.  I plan to start slowly, carrying my daily practices with me, considering carefully any activities that will demand my time and energy and don’t include spending time with those that I love and those activities that nourish my soul.  I’m afraid my blog entries going forward aren’t likely to have the amazing photos and crazy stories that often accompany them. I find myself desiring simplicity, routine, home. My views on time and accomplishment have shifted drastically, I am no longer focused on getting somewhere or being anyone. I’m not sure what that will look like, but if I’m ever to find liberation I need to drop the many pursuits of the ego that have driven me in the past.

This post feels disjointed, as I feel like I am just touching the surface on many things before I retreat and say goodbye to technology and the world for 10 days. I hope it sheds a little light on what I’ve been up to and experiencing these past 4 weeks. I’m looking forward to the spring rain and flowers in Boulder.

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.

Flow and Reflection @ 4 months

During the past week, I really began to feel the ‘flow’ of traveling, with an exceptional amount of time to stare out the window, examine my trip and my thoughts in order to see where I am at on the ole pilgrimage.

I have found myself once again looking ahead a lot – plotting ideas on getting to Mongolia, back from Mongolia, eventually traversing China into Kathmandu to get there before the snows start. I’m racing the onset of winter rather than embracing it. I am not finding time to meditate, often busy traveling or surrounded by other travelers in small spaces. My trip was getting away from me, becoming a logistical effort in planning and movement. As I write this, this is still happening but hopefully this acknowledgement will enable me to take the power back.

Today was fantastic practice in this. I will write about Beijing later, but essentially due to the 60th anniversary celebrations and beginning of a weeklong holiday, I wasn’t able to freely move about the city and today I literally circumnavigated Beijing, going to three bus stations before finally ending up with the magical ticket to the Mongolian border. I was as close to losing it as I have been in a long time. Instead of my original plan of my guesthouse booking my bus ticket and spending the morning seeing sights in Beijing, I discovered that today pre-bookings were not being done due to the holiday and I would have to go to the station myself. I can only compare the feeling of being in a busy Chinese bus station to that of being on psychedelics. Everything is so vastly different: language, body language, emotions are simply not transferrable. As I raced for a ticket on one of the busiest travel days in China I felt completely helpless. Angels did appear and helped me to my goal. But during the process I was being very irrational – what was the worse thing that could have happened? Another night in Beijing? A slight delay to my plans? I don’t need to be ANYWHERE at ANYTIME. It was a sign that I do need to re-evaluate aspects of my approach and mindset in travel. Wanting something for tomorrow is no excuse to ignore today.

I have been looking recently at what it means to travel, why one (me really) would choose to leave everything behind to sail into uncharted waters. A nagging insecurity that has been with me the entire time is the fear that I am walking a path of escapism rather than growth. My life drastically changed in the few months before leaving home. New paths were opening for me, I was walking towards something that would have required enormous discipline and commitment- and yes I am talking about a spiritual path. I sometimes wonder if I chose to extend my freedom once again, seeking new places, people and experiences rather than moving within the world that I worked so hard to manifest over many years.

That world primarily contains a home, people, and activities that I have slowly discovered over many years bring me contentment. I’m not sure abandoning them for an indefinite period of time is necessarily best for me. Travel will always be ONE of those activities, but with the risk of sounding too definitive, one thing I have learned is that I will never be a long-term vagabond, sorry to disappoint those of you who were hoping to live vicariously forever! I am even considering coming home for a couple of months over the holidays, to have myself a little mid-year review, examine the next steps in life in earnest. My intent would be to return to India and continue the journey, but the truth is it will depend on many circumstances. What’s different for me than for many travelers I meet is that my life is this. Right now. I am not returning to school or to a job or to something else and this trip is not a break or vacation from a different lifestyle. Every moment I am working with huge questions around who I am and how I want to be in this world. Listening to myself, I believe a reflection and rest from home (or my friends and families couches) is needed soon. I overestimated my ability to critically look at options for the future, to network with those at home and try things out (even mentally), while traveling. It could be done if chose I single place to live and exist, but I am constantly moving, seeing, doing. This lifestyle does not provide a great environment for really intellectual inspection of various options. To my point about long-term travel, I do envision a future for myself where my career enables me to take pointed, 3 maybe 4 month trips, but return to a place and an existence that I have built and am building. I too easily discarded aspects of my life that are simply not replaceable in a matter of months in the far reaches of the world. I also see the potential of a future trip to a single city or region, where I can develop roots, volunteer in the community and live a more normal existence.

One thing I miss tremendously is meaningful conversations with my friends, ones that allow me to see that hyperbolic mirror, to help me look into these big questions and decisions. I do meet some incredible people on the road – but how well can you get to know someone in a few days – are you going to share your deepest insecurities and desires with these people? Likely not. That creates a vacuum in my own head – and if there is ONE thing I have learned in the past few years, it is that I am not successful in processing my emotions and problems within my own head. I used to THINK I was successful, but really just sublimated and stored them away. Its those close to you that allow you grow as an individual. Life is relationship, I trust in this as I trust that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

Another thought I have been sitting with has to do with fate versus freedom. I have been discussing it with a few close friends over e-mail and generally pondering it as I travel. I hinted at this above, when I discussed extending my freedom. I realize now that as I wake each day with no commitments and endless choices before me, that this is some sort of pinnacle of the concept of total freedom– total freedom being a western, material view on what freedom entails. Freedom of choice and location and speech. Total freedom is not this however, as I have learned from Krisnamurti’s teachings – Total freedom is freedom from the known, choiceless awareness through cessation of the fears that bind our daily lives. It is psychological and spiritual freedom, not necessarily the aspired-to physical freedom of the west. Anyway, I feel that I had to reach this point in life, this apex, to see if this was truly the freedom I was looking for and the one would bring me joy. You have to be something before you can not be it. I use the word apex, or sometimes think of a ‘top of the bell-curve’ metaphor to describe how I feel, because I see my life moving in another direction in the future. Not one where I make all decisions based on the level of freedom they allow my life, but making decisions that are correct in that moment, sometimes accepting signs from the universe and the commitment that comes with this acceptance. Now, there is a fine line here between accepting ones fate, and living in accordance with the moment. I don’t like the word fate, because it does imply pre-determination. I don’t believe in this at all. BUT, I do believe as one becomes wiser and more self-aware in their existence, they can more clearly wade through he waters of what the universe presents to them on a daily basis, choicelessly choosing the correct path based on the principle of listening to themselves.

Much of this thought process follows from my own reflection, but I have clearly been influenced by close friends – many of whom are now getting married, having children, solidifying careers, generally moving into new phases of life that limits there physical freedom. Almost without fail however, each of these friends accepts the new challenges of this path and doesn’t fight the ‘loss of freedom’. In many cases I believe they are gaining something through these commitments. While I don’t want to imply I’m looking to buy a house, get married and have a few children, I am considering what it means to move into a life of acceptance of my path rather than a constant disregard to things that require commitment and limit physical freedom.

OK, I think that is enough for today. I’m killing time in a Chinese Border town – if I thought my hassles in Beijing were rough, I just found out that the Chinese border is closed due to a holiday and that I’m faced with waiting in this nondescript town with nothing to do for 36 hours instead of 12 and then taking the overnight train for 16 hours to UB (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). See you on the other side.