Travelling

I have always loved travelling.  Recently, however, my wanderlust has been particularly strong.  Since 2009, my international travels have included the Bahamas, India twice (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Shekhawati, Dharamsala, and Bir), Scotland (Edinburgh, Loch Lomond), the Netherlands, Spain (Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona),  Italy, France, England (London, Rye, Kent, Wadhurst), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg), and the Dominican Republic.  In less than 2 weeks I graduate, and two days afterwards I will be off again- starting in London and then most likely heading to Greece (Mykonos or Kos), Morocco (Fez), and the Czech Republic (Prague).

Whew.  Considering I’ve done all that while being a full-time student and also holding jobs, that’s not too shabby.

Edinburgh

Climbing the mountain by Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh

Most people want to travel, I don’t think I’m any different in that respect.  The difference is that with me it’s a borderline compulsion.  I find a way to do it even if it means not buying groceries or textbooks or selling half my possessions on Ebay.

Why?  Good question.  I have had many conversations with many people about why I have a constant need to travel.  I think a large part of it is that I feel as though I am a citizen of the world, not any one place.  I don’t necessarily identify with any one culture, though there are some that I prefer to immerse myself in over others.  I love to see how humans in different locations have built unique societies and have such diverse ways of life- I find it astonishing that one species can develop such different cultures based on their geographic locations.  I also love seeing the natural world and all it has to offer.

Is there a deeper reason for my waywardness?  Some say I’m running from something, others think I’m chasing it.  I honestly don’t know.  I’ve always wanted to travel and the only thing holding me back was lack of means.  My mum will tell you that as soon as I got a job and had a car, I was never home.  I don’t often feel a pull to any specific place, it’s more that I’m constantly fighting some sort of force that’s trying to pick me up and bring me somewhere, anywhere.

Regardless of whether or not I’m fleeing or chasing, I still find travelling extremely neccessary.  I think it’s important to be aware of other cultures, other people’s perceptions of the world, and just the phenomenal gift that is life.  Think about it, though: self-awareness.  What a concept.  We are all a part of something greater, there is some sort of force that holds us here.  Self-awareness isn’t just awareness of your own being, but also everyone else’s and how we’re all intertwined.  There’s a sense of unity that I find when I’m outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s sitting in an airport for 15 hours watching all the people in transit or whether it’s walking ancient ruins that were build thousands of years ago by humans just like us.  It makes me realise that deep down, we are all struggling with the same human issues and enjoying the same human pleasures- some things transcend culture and geography.

So maybe I am running from something.  Maybe I am chasing something that I’ll never find.  Regardless, I’m enjoying the trip!

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Decisions

I’m at a point in my life where I can sense that a cosmic shift is going to happen soon.  Obviously I’m not clairvoyant- I’m graduating, I’m travelling to Europe for a few weeks, I’m taking a full-time day job- anyone would sense that a lot of major changes are coming very soon.  Hopefully I’m simultaneously continuing my yoga teacher training and picking up cocktail gigs, but either way it’s going to be a massive change for me to be working in an office instead of running around performing and rehearsing and going to classes.  So I’ve been thinking about everything that I’m doing and wondering if any of it is relevant.  I know that all of the above is going to happen regardless of what I do now.  But is this because of the decisions that I’ve made and the things that I’ve done up to this point, or is it because or something else?

This led me to think about predetermination in the bigger picture.  Do any of our actions actually matter, or are our paths already chosen for us?  Was it determined by some power that my life would go the way it’s going before I even started making any decisions?  Are we truly victims of circumstance?

If philosophers have spent centuries pondering this and haven’t figured it out, I don’t suppose I have in my 21 years of experience.  Regardless, how you think your actions affect your life certainly affects the choices you make.  If I truly believed that nothing I did mattered, I wouldn’t do anything I found difficult because if I knew that the outcome would be the same, why would I bother?  Would you?

But are you actually making those choices or has something else determined that you would?  I’ve had to make lots of important decisions lately in all aspects of my life- work, school, relationships- and sometimes I can predict the direct results but sometimes I have no idea what will happen.  How do you make a decision when you don’t have any way of thinking of the results?  Do you even think of the consequences when you decide something, or do you just do what feels right at any given instant?

Clearly in order to function as sentient beings we need to at least have the illusion of choice.  Either that, or we need to give up the idea of consequential thinking and make decisions purely on instinct.  But if that’s the case, what makes us better than animals that do the same?

I am a fairly decisive person, so the notion of whether or not our choices are actually choices has plagued me for as long as I can remember.  I know what I want and I make sure that I get it.  Few things irritate me more than hearing “if it’s meant to happen, it will” or “you’re so lucky” because I like to think that I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve got.  But at the same time, is it a direct result of my effort or did something else make the decision long before I did?

Grief

They say there are seven stages of grief.  Do you buy it?

Shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, hope.

I don’t.  I think that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you are expecting to feel a certain way, there’s a pretty good chance that that emotion will manifest itself- but the fact is, everyone copes with loss differently.  There are ways that are healthy and there are ways that are less healthy, but not everyone goes through all of those emotions.

Buddhists believe that grief and suffering are inevitable parts of the physical world, and the only way to escape is by maintaining a certain level of distance from attachments.  By recognising that life and everything it entails is effervescent, it makes it that much easier to let go when an unexpected loss makes it necessary.  This uncertainty also makes it vital to savor every moment, because you truly don’t know which breath will be your last.  Your world as you know it can come to a screeching halt in the blink of an eye.

Two years ago tomorrow, I lost someone very close to me.  I haven’t cried about it.  Does that make me cold and callous, or mean that I didn’t love him?  Or does it mean that I’m at peace with the fact that like everything else in the world, people are impermanent?  Some people sobbed uncontrollably, some pretended nothing had happened, others didn’t speak at all.  All are perfectly valid coping mechanisms- for a little while.  I will admit that I didn’t eat for about two weeks and drank more than my fair share of the wine brought by sympathetic friends (which was probably not the healthiest thing), but I never really stopped moving at something close to my usual fast pace.

However, I still fully processed the major life change and cosmic shift that those around me underwent and I began adjusting to new habits.  I was not in denial, I never felt guilty about his death, and I never “bargained” (whatever that means).  Staying busy by planning a massive celebration and taking on other responsibilities to help fill the void helped me to realise quickly that my life would go on regardless of how I felt, so I might as well participate in it.  Having to go back to school for finals, concerts, and juries made that even more clear.  Life will not stop for you, and that is definitely not a bad thing.

Of course I miss my dad, especially at a time when my life is going in crazy directions that I couldn’t possibly have ever imagined.  But the thing is, grieving won’t solve anything.  The best solution is to live enough for both of us and to keep on going even though he’s not around to see what happens next.  I wish we could sit and watch The Daily Show and listen to Mozart’s Requiem on car rides to school.  I wish he were here so I could tell him about my travels, I wish he had been here to see my senior recital last month.  I wish he would come to my graduation in a few weeks and I wish he knew that despite everything, I am graduating summa cum laude after only three years with more credits than most graduate students.  I want him to know that we are all not only okay, but thriving.

Dad

The last words I spoke to him on the phone were “Thanks for the screwdriver.”  This sounds trivial, but anyone who knew my dad would find this incredibly fitting- he always helped everyone with anything they asked and things that they didn’t.  Fixing cars, plumbing, rides to the airport, pet-sitting, lending one of his hundreds of tools, just being a friend, you name it and he would be there- the 200+ people that showed up to his memorial service are a testament to how many lives he touched.

I have lots of great memories of my dad- watching the Life of Brian, visiting  England, dancing around the house to Sousa marches and ELO alike, his cooking triumphs (and disasters), his reckless driving, his funny faces and astonishing intelligence.

I remember the last time I saw him was outside of my freshman dorm, when he brought me back to school after spending Easter at home.  We were on the way back from the dining hall where we had gorged ourselves on cookies and ice cream and it was that fleeting time of day just before the sun begins to set, when the world is shadowy and getting a bit dozy but still has an aura of warmth.  We stood next to my bike to say goodbye and he grinned.  I indignantly asked why he was so happy to be leaving me, and he said, “It’s nice to see that you’re making a place for yourself in the world.”

Miss you, dad.  I hope your next life is just as thrilling and rich as this one was.

Asceticism and the Human Condition

I was watching The Buddha at the gym the other day, so naturally when I left I was thinking about Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment.   The phase in particular that was on my mind was his time spent as an ascetic, depriving himself of all worldly  pleasures and experiences in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

I think there’s something to be said for this- there definitely appears to be a disconnect between people as spiritual creatures and humans as animals.  This isn’t only the case for humans, though- I think it applies to other creatures too.  All of us are simply souls residing inside our physical bodies- I believe C.S. Lewis said something about that in a far more eloquent way, actually.  Obviously this isn’t a novel idea, but its a dichotomy that any sentient being has to grapple with.  The world can be a dangerous place for a soul seeking enlightenment.

At the same time, it seems naive and a bit irresponsible to just abstain from all things worldly entirely.  Of course, we are defined by our souls more than we are as humans, but is it not relevant that our souls are living in bodies on this place called Earth?  Should we really spend all of our time here trying to escape?  The world is full of suffering, but it’s also full of wonder.  We can learn a lot about our souls from experiencing both.

Of course like all paradoxes that we deal with, a balance must be struck.  I would think it’s helpful to experience one or the other or both walks of life in order to realise that neither is spiritually ideal.  We can’t live like Siddhartha in his early years, lavishly and wastefully.  But we also needn’t constantly deprive ourselves constantly in order to cultivate the higher being residing within all of us.

How do you balance the experience of life with spiritual health?

Bir

More about India!  This is a followup to my first post about Dharamsala.  Less Hangover-esque shenanigans, more monks and motorcycles.

After I woke up for the second time on New Year’s Day, I asked the coordinator exactly what was in store for me.  It was like a terrible rendition of “Who’s On First.”

Me (groggily): “So, where am I volunteering today?”

Him: “Beer.”

Me: “Oh god, no more beer.”

Him: “We are going to beer.”

Me: “No, we drank beer last night…shouldn’t I be in orientation or something?”

Him (insistently): “No, beer!”

Me: “…”

Him: “We are going to beer.”

Me: “Wait…spell that?”

Him: “B-I-R.”

Me:  “Bir….is it a place?”

Him: “Yes, we will leave in one hour!”

The view from the home I stayed in

So, we piled into a taxi with one other girl who had just arrived from the US and four volunteers who had been visiting Dharamsala for the weekend and began our trip through the gorgeous Kangra valley.  It was about 2.5 hours of winding mountains and valleys with fields of rice and tea and small towns every so often.  We took the first day to recover from all of the travelling and get oriented with the small town.  Bir is a Tibetan colony so although it is in India, most of the locals are Tibetan.  Their primary language is Tibetan (much to the dismay of two girls who had been learning Hindi) and their culture is a bit more westernized than most of India.  The Tibetans are mostly businessmen that own shops in the center of town and the Indians tend to do the labor, such as building and making clay.  They seem to coexist very well, but there’s a very clear divide between the cultures that I found somewhat unnerving.

Nyingma

Nyingma

Chok Ling

Chok Ling

On the second day, we began to teach the monks.  We taught at two monasteries, Nyingma and Chok ling.  We had been told that we would be assisting teachers who were already following programs, but in reality we were introduced to about 20 incredibly polite but slightly confused boys between the ages of 6 and 17.  Many of the boys at Nyingma already spoke decent English, so it was very challenging to find new things to teach them.  I taught the more advanced group- by the end of my time there, they were beginning to understand how to arrange sentences into a cohesive story.

Tea Garden

Tea Garden

Bir is a very small town, so you see the same people every day.  I continuously ran into the same guys that I had spent New Years’ with, and nearly every night we went out driving, drinking, and dancing.  It’s funny because in the US, when someone asks you out for a drink you usually go to a bar.  In Bir, you literally go out for a drink- you go buy a bottle of something and sit on a mountain and drink.  I much prefer this, to be perfectly honest.  Sometimes we ordered food from a nearby Indian restaurant and they brought it out to us while we danced under the stars with music pumping from a car.  It was a bit chilly, so sometimes a bonfire was involved as well.  Sometimes the other volunteers and I would go for tea at the tea garden down the road.  It was beautiful- I can only imagine what it would be like in the summer.

Chok Ling

Chok Ling

One experience that I particularly enjoyed was going to morning prayer.  We went to our two monasteries as well as another one, also called Chok Ling.  The monks were very accommodating- they rolled out mats for us and brought us tea while we sat and listened to their chants.  It was wonderfully meditative, and they used some really interesting instruments.

 

Sunset in Bir

Sunset

Another thing I learned to love (in about four seconds) was motorcycles.  Drunk me had made particularly good friends with a local named Jigme on my first evening and he had promised me a ride.  Sober me did not remember this, but Jigme did and after my first day of volunteering he was waiting to whisk me off through the jungle.  We went for rides every day, sometimes to temples and sometimes just up in the mountains to watch the stunning sunsets.  In the evenings, we went to Chauntra, the next town over, where some of the other guys I had met my first evening lived.  They taught me to play a popular game called Shok, which is similar to Parcheesi but played with shells and coins and no board.  We unintentionally adopted the most adorable puppy, who accompanied us on our late-night dance parties in the mountains.

It’s strange how a culture so different from ours still has so many similarities- going out for dinner and drinking liquor in fields is also a favorite pastime in the small town that I grew up with.  We also like to hang around and play games at people’s houses, or just pile into cars and drive somewhere.  I think the main difference is how people treat each other.  Everyone in Bir was always friendly to everyone else, especially to travellers.  I don’t think new people would be welcomed nearly as quickly back home.  The Tibetans are also extremely lackadaisical about their business- one day I needed photocopies, and the machine at the shop I usually went to was broken.  Rather than just tell me so, the shopkeeper walked me down the street to his competitor and had him make me the copies.  Something like this would never happen in the US- but it’s like the idea of competition just doesn’t exist.  In any town there are always at least four stores selling the exact same things, but nobody tries to undercut each other or take business.  There’s just a really strong sense of community, which I really loved.

More photos from Bir

Appreciation

One of the most important mindsets to have is appreciation because it’s one of the easiest ways to stay positive.  Being appreciative can take many forms, from a simple “thank you” to someone who held the door open to an entire meditation devoted to a certain thought.

Appreciating other people not only makes them feel good, but you too.  Mother Teresa said that “in the simple act of giving, you receive” and it really couldn’t be more true.  The simple act of recognising when someone does something special for you not only makes the other person feel appreciated, but reinforces in yourself that someone did something nice.  How could this not set off a cycle of kind actions?

I try to take time as often as I can to express appreciation not only for people around me, but also for things.  It seems silly, but to me it is calming to honor everything’s purpose in life.  I like to appreciate a nice bed to sleep in or a hot cup of soup when it’s cold outside.  Perhaps a bed or a cup of soup can’t tell that I am saying “thank you,” but I find that I enjoy these things even more when I think about them with gratitude.

Appreciating serendipity and setbacks is something that I think is very underrated.  I don’t believe in luck as much as I do the power of positive thinking, but sometimes the smallest thing can cause a huge shift in your life.  I also don’t think that “everything happens for a reason,” but you usually can make the best of nearly any situation so that it turns out in your favor.  I had a bit of a negative experience with a particular professor once, and though initially I was angry and disillusioned, it caused me to really re-evaluate my plans at university which resulted in a decision to graduate a year early to take an incredible job opportunity.  It’s not true that “one door shuts, another one opens,” because that’s assuming that some higher power is just going to hand you an opportunity.  It’s more like “one door shuts, so you need to find yourself another way out of the room.”  Obviously initially, setbacks are unfortunate- but with the right mindset even they can turn into something worth appreciating.  Sometimes the universe has ways of nudging us in a direction that we may not have seen before.

Of course, the most important thing to appreciate is life in general.  Being able to wake up in the morning really is something amazing.  No matter what gets thrown at you on any given day, appreciate it and own it!

Namaste, and I appreciate you for reading my blog =)

Yoga in the News

Yoga’s been growing in popularity in the western world for awhile now, but it’s been a particularly hot topic lately with practitioners being accused of involvement in sex scandals and Wiccan cults, the New York Times writing about yoga wrecking the body, and now talks of it being an Olympic sport.

I find this incredibly disheartening.  First of all, these news items do not take into account the other five branches of yoga.  Yoga is not simply physical exercise; it’s not just contorting yourself into strange shapes.  While exercise and physical health is a large part of yoga for many people (myself included), it’s really more of a guide for living a meaningful life.  The branch of yoga that most think of when hearing the term is Hatha yoga- asanas, or postures, that are intended to clarify the body in order to calm the mind.  This is definitely important, but there are also Bhatki (yoga of devotion, love and acceptance), Raja (yoga of self control), Jnana (yoga of the mind, intended to unify wisdom and intellect), Karma (yoga of selflessness), and Tantra (using rituals to experience the sacred).  The idea is that a person can use a combination of any of these paths to travel towards enlightenment.  Each branch is important in its own way, and the most optimal way to approach nirvana is to integrate all of them into your life.

I love that more people are integrating yoga into their lives.  I truly believe that everyone can benefit from following any one of its branches, even just a little bit.  Yoga is an ancient set of methods designed to try to help citizens of the world heal physically and mentally to reach a state of peace.  Yoga as an art should not be judged because a few people abuse its ideals for personal gain, and it should not be judged because those who are inexperienced and lack a proper teacher injure themselves.

Yes, Hatha yoga started as a branch of Tantra- but even Tantra isn’t exclusively about sex.  It’s about experiencing the sacred, and while union between man and woman is part of it, it also includes many other aspects such as dedication, purity, and truthfulness.

You can injure yourself in any physical activity if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Would you try pole vaulting without someone carefully explaining it to you and taking you through small steps to get there?  Of course not.  Just like you shouldn’t immediately try balancing on your head without a careful teacher guiding you through the steps preceding it.  Yoga is entirely safe if you know your body’s limits and take it slowly.

This brings me to my last point: Yoga in the Olympics.  As I mentioned before, yoga is not just postures.  It’s a lifestyle.  If you can do the most advanced and complicated postures, that’s great- but that doesn’t necessarily make you a better yogi than someone who can barely manage a down dog.  Yoga is in the mind just as much as it is the body, and bring a competitive aspect to it is borderline sacrilegious.  I absolutely appreciate watching graceful yogis move through asanas, but I would never consider judging them.  There is no way to tell what a person is thinking, assess the flow of his prana, see how focused he is while he is practicing- and that is what yoga is about.  Bringing yoga to the olympics cheapens the yogic experience to merely contortion and physical strength.  I love the idea of accomplished yogis getting the attention and reverence that they deserve, but it shouldn’t be competitive and it shouldn’t be based solely upon asanas.  All yogis and yoginis should be honored for their yogic accomplishments in life so far and their progress on their spiritual journeys.

Shanti, friends. Namaste!

Tashi Delek

When I was in Bir, I learned a common greeting: “Tashi Delek.”  It does not translate to “hello” or “good day-”  it means “good luck.”  I think that wishing “good luck” to someone is a wonderful way of saying hello, but it did make me think about the concept of “luck.”

Someone once told me that I have great luck.  I thought about it, and it seemed true enough.  However, I also have had absolutely terrible luck.  This sort of begs the question- what is luck?  It’s perception.  There are people who have had more incredible things happen to them than I have, but there are also people who have had more terrible things happen to them than I have.  If I were to tally it up, I’d say I come out nearly exactly in the middle- and yet I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet.

A major factor of how “lucky” you are is your perception.  If you are optimistic, you will automatically be more lucky simply because you focus on the positive.  If you are pessimistic, you will remember the negative and naturally feel much less lucky.  Luck is sort of a logical impossibility really, because there is no real reason why one person should attract any more positive events than another.  A far better alternative to “luck” is the idea of karma.  If you don’t believe in the power of positive thinking or buy the idea that good actions done bring good results, that’s fine- the science there is pretty shady too.  But if you ask me, anything that gets people to do good or think positively is a good thing.

It’s too easy to blame things on “bad luck.”  It’s a way of escaping responsibility.  Sure, sometimes things really just don’t go your way- that’s life.  But you can always control your perception of it.  Though it’s extremely unlikely that thinking positively will cause you to randomly find a fifty-dollar bill on the street, at the very least it will cause you to feel better about little things that happen to you.  Thinking good thoughts can cause small occurrences like running into an old friend seem exponentially better, and can also make bad things seem much less tragic.

Whether you believe in luck, karma, the flying spaghetti monster, whatever- you can make luck just by altering your perception of the smallest things.   People I regularly converse with always think I have the most amazing life- and that’s true, but only because I perceive it that way.  You can too!

Tashi Delek, friends =)

How to Be Alone

One of my close friends shared this video on Facebook recently, and I thought it was a beautiful and poignant expression of the human condition.  Allowing yourself to be alone is sort of like allowing yourself to be quiet and keep excess noise from your life.

Being alone is definitely something that scares a lot of people, because it really does force you to be yourself- you have no one left to impress, you have no need for conscience, and it is really the only time when you are free to be yourself in your purest form.  I would venture to say that a lot of people don’t really know themselves because they do not spend time alone.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course- human beings are adaptable by nature.  It’s no secret that people act differently depending on their surroundings- I can be irritatingly cheerful if it’s sunny outside and I’m enjoying a nice walk, but catch me off guard in a practice room and I will most likely be nearly unapproachable.  This applies to the people you’re with as well- when I’m around my brother, we’re probably planning mischief or perhaps already in the midst of blowing something up, but when I’m at work I am (believe it or not) entirely capable of being serious.

But who am I when I am alone?  I’ve never had to explain it, really.  And why would I?  As long as who you are when you are alone is somebody that you are comfortable with, that’s what matters.  It’s really helpful in the process of finding out who you are to spend time alone, free from distractions and ego, because when you know who you are everything else really becomes a lot easier.  Decisions, enjoying life, knowing what you like and don’t like- even being far more confident.  When you’re alone enough to stop worrying about others judging you, then eventually you’ll stop worrying about it even when you’re not alone.

I’m not saying to be a hermit by any means.  But I feel that humans in general get so caught up in specific relationships and people and connections that we lose sight of the individual.  We all need to learn to be at peace with ourselves before we can be at peace with others.

Anyway, I hope you all find some time in your hectic lives to get to know yourselves a bit more.  You deserve it!

Attachments

I saw this NPR article the other day about how attached people get to their sofas.  I thought it was an incredibly bizarre thing to write about because I’ve never felt a profound attachment to my sofa.  I was thinking about it, though, and I am a bit attached to some of my other possessions.  I really like my yoga mat and my teapot.  I’m probably most attached to my handbag though, because I’ve had it for years and it has been with to so many corners of the world.  Many people have suggested that I get a new bag- my aunt even begs me to let her buy one for me.  Instead, I sit and sew patches over patches every time a new hole appears because it feels like an old friend, not just an object.

I try very hard not to get attached to things, because all things are temporary (people are temporary too, but they tend to get their feelings hurt when you explain that you’re not attached to them).  Monks and priests of all sorts of different denominations understand the idea of remaining unattached to worldly things, and I think it’s a noble goal.  On the one hand, it’s not good to be wasteful as a result of being unattached, but on the other hand, it’s important to be able to let go and move on- both in terms of things that are too broken to fix and people you’ve outgrown.

At the same time, the world isn’t as much fun if you don’t get attached to things once in awhile.  It would be a boring place if you only had utilitarian objects that didn’t make you smile once in awhile- I like getting up in the morning to use my bright green tea kettle and I like to see my frog-shaped humidifier in the corner of my room.  I like having friends and getting to know people.  I understand that these are not essential on the path to ultimate enlightenment, but as long as they don’t get in the way I don’t think it’s a problem to enjoy things like this.  I don’t advocate frivolous consumerism by any means, but we’re going to be around in this world for awhile before we move on to the next one, so why not keep around a few things and people to make it more exciting?

You can get as attached to them as you want, as long as you recognise that nothing is permanent and you are prepared to one day let go.  As you continue your quest for happiness, your mindsets will change and you might find some of your friends drifting away and others moving closer- perhaps it’s time to let them go their way while you go yours.  Maybe that old hobo bag you really love just isn’t efficient anymore because of all the time it takes to mend the holes.

Enjoy attachment to possessions and people while they’re around, but do not depend on them for your happiness.  Be prepared to one day let everything go when you move on to an exciting new phase!