Samadhi is just a Vacation.

I have not fallen off the face of the earth.  I’ve just been transitioning. My last blog described a shamanic journey, where I felt as if all the pieces of my six-month wander through New Zealand, India, Thailand and Cambodia in search of a more peaceful place within, fell into place.

After the shamanic journey, I cleaned all the earth off my body (yes, I had been rolling in the earth) and prepared to re-enter “normal” life.

The gods are kind.  I was able to experience a gradual re-entry back into the “real” world.  I spent a sun and coconut-filled week paddling around a tributary of the Mekong River with two Telluride friends.  I got to celebrate my brother’s wedding in California.  And (thank you Universe), I drove from the California Bay Area to Telluride, where I will spend the summer teaching, with a former Tibetan monk, Chophel, who generously delivered a 20-hour dharma talk along the way.

After Chophel handled the challenge of a locked house upon our arrival into Park City, Utah, for the night, and I watched him drive 40 miles out of his way to help a stranded trucker, I thought I understood a little bit more about spiritual practice.

“Spiritual practice means nothing without ethics,” he says.  “Sitting in meditation and then screaming at someone cutting you off in traffic is not the way.”

About this time, his phone rang.  It was a woman who wanted to help him with directions from Park City to Telluride.  He had the route clearly mapped, but he spent a considerable amount of time listening to her suggestions.  “When someone wants to help you, it’s good to let them,” he said cheerfully, pulling onto the freeway and taking the alternate route to the one she’d told him to take.

It made me think back to all those times I’ve cut people off, saying “I know,” or stewing in frustration that someone is making a situation more complicated and less efficient than it could be.  It makes me reconsider my attitude.

I ask Chophel a lot about samadhi, that state of bliss yogis strive to achieve, the end goal of all the yogic contortions and things like sneezing air forcefully out through the nose, and contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor.  When I tell him about all our tantric techniques, he laughs.

“I am not making fun,” he says.  “It’s just that the focus can be misdirected.”  That’s where all our suffering originates, he explains: from our misperception of reality, or truth.  But he is quick to add, “We are all wrong.  Isn’t that freeing?  None of us are right, so we can just relax and experience this life.”

Having the goal of a perfect pose is settling for far less than we are designed to achieve, I am realizing.  This makes me think of a quote I heard long ago from CS Lewis:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

So what is the use of all the techniques I’ve learned? I ask Chophel, and he has me listen to a talk on the Buddha by meditation teacher Alan Wallace.  Here’s what I took away: The Buddha was this guy who achieved samadhi, the mental disembodied state of clarity and bliss, within days of beginning a practice.  He realized that this was a limited experience.  “Not enlightenment, just a vacation.”

But the yoga and meditation practice is the first step toward being full of wisdom, love and awareness.  As you attain FOCUS through yogic practices, you are ready for the second step: INQUIRY.

So all these teaching I soaked up throughout the Far East are absolutely helpful and beautiful.  They are just limited.  The point is to apply them in a way that makes you more loving, more helpful, more of a force for good.

Here’s the Buddhist wisdom meditation as (I think) Chophel explained it to me:

As you end your day, go back over the events of the day.  Notice those events you handled in a skillful (rather than good) way, and congratulate yourself.  Then become aware of the events you handled unskillfully (rather than badly).  Picture yourself handling that same event in a more skillful fashion.  And as always, give thanks for the day, the moment, that is never coming again.  Continue to build the practice of gratitude for each precious breath, knowing that each moment is special, unique and blessed.   It will never come again.

My friend Chophel giving a dharma talk at the Yoga Center in Telluride

happiness – to be dissolved into something complete and great

“This is happiness – to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

– Willa Cather

If you would have asked me the question, “Would you participate in a Shamanic healing journey (read: LSD trip) in Cambodia?”, I would have replied, “Hell no.”  Especially as this particular journey was not being conducted by an old Shamanic healer from generations of prior Shamanic healers deep in the jungle, but by a skinny white guy my own age from the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I am not big on drugs, or drinking, for that matter.  Living in a hard-partying ski town, this often does not win me any popularity contests.  But yoga teaches that drinking and other substances (I won’t speak about hash chillums that seem to be the life blood of Indian babas) blocks our true awareness.  True consciousness is the whole point of this 6-month pilgrimage, and of yoga and meditation – practices to get close to the Divine One-ness or consciousness that pervades all things.  Which, as far as I can tell, equates to Pure Love; call it Happiness or Peace.  Those kinds of words.

LSD is something I took in high school with Drew Beard and John Cassidy, sitting in their apartment by the Highland railroad tracks in Memphis, Tennessee, watching Pink Floyd The Wall and getting super freaked out by the big rat, mostly to make my dad mad.

When it was announced that a Shamanic journey would commence at the retreat center where I teach yoga and meditation, I decided I was out.  Not just out, but out.  Literally, I was packing my bags and telling my friend Brian when to meet me at the bus station in Phnom Pen.  This was the last straw in a long line of last straws.  Cambodia, and the retreat center, were pushing every last button, showing me new buttons I didn’t know I had, and then pushing those too.

At the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, I’d been assaulted on all sides by Korean tourists yelling and jumping up in the air for action shots in front of crumbling ancient walls.  I wanted to find some peace, the purpose for their painstaking construction.  Finding a quiet, deserted space, I sat down in front of a giant Buddha, and immediately jumped back up, having sat on a bee.  At which point a puppy growled viciously and tried to bite me.

There is noise here, all the time – either from thumping trance music played in bamboo huts at ear-splitting decibels, or from Aharon, one of the gardening boys, who is obsessed with beating the box drum, an instrument I never knew existed but now fantasize about breaking over his head.  Cambodia is full of bugs (I don’t remember when my skin wasn’t crawling with them); there are rats (the real kind, not safe behind a TV screen).

Anyway, Cambodia has not given much relief, and my desire to stay has been tested, truly, every day.

(At this point, I should also mention that Cambodia is colorful beyond Western imagining, that its sky is huge and dramatic; that its babies are possibly the cutest anywhere; and its people in general so happy and content with so little that it could also be one of the best places to be in the world (minus landmines and a very recent genocide) if it is not trying to teach you lessons that in the long run will make you a more peaceful and generally decent human being.)

But an acid trip was dumb, I thought, and no one knew anything about how it would work.  Most of the guests were not participating, and I pictured it being a bunch of retreat center volunteers swaying around to more trance music.

As a dutiful employee (until the next day when I would be on a bus), I sat in a circle out in the yoga pavilion, along with all the guests and volunteers.  Joel spoke to us in detail about the purpose of the journey, and what this pure form of LSD really was – some kind of naturally-ocurring mold on top of rye?  I have since been informed that it goes through a chemical process- don’t tell me if this happens to be true.

Sitting there, so frustrated and annoyed, some of his words got through.  “For generations, native cultures have used certain medicines for physical healing, and others for emotional and spiritual healing,” he was saying.  Huh?  My ears perked up.  I didn’t hear much else.

“Everyone, whether they are taking the medicine or not, is a part of this process,” he said.  He gave us crayons and paper to write our goals or just draw pictures.

I began to write about breaking free of fear and being more present, of letting go of control and judgment in favor of freedom.  He came around with a small glass jam jar.  “You want some?” he asked.  “Maybe just 2/3rds of a dose to start with?”

I nodded, and his eyes widened but he just poured something clear from a Visine bottle, mixed it with filtered water, and waited quietly while I drank.  I put my palms together and bowed my head slightly.  He did the same and went on to the next person.

15 minutes later, I sat next to a pile of cow shit, behind some dusty trees in the field out back, crying quietly, staring at the sky.  I don’t know how long I cried, but it felt like I had always been and would always be, crying.  In the distance were the sounds of the other journey-takers shouting and laughing.

Next, maybe minutes or hours later, I heard popping noises, and immediately decided the neighbors were shooting their pigs.  As soon as there is a popping noise, I assume animals are being slaughtered, ever since the Thai hill village.  It’s probably good to mention that this is rarely the case.

In this case, it was a rolling, running, laughing jumping group of small boys, throwing firecrackers and laughing.  They were sneaking closer and closer, daring each other to approach the Barang (white person) by a few more steps.  I smiled at them them from a red, wet face and they laughed and waved.  Soon after that, Joel appeared and said a few words in Khmer, and they retreated, but not before throwing a brave last round only a few feet away.

It exploded and we laughed.  They might have regrouped and come closer but by then Hugo and Ita, two of the gardening boys, had come into the field.

Then the most beautiful thing – this same little rolling hill of boys surged toward Hugo and Ita across the dry, desolate field of desiccated rice paddies, throwing a tentative round or two of firecrackers in greeting.

Hugo or Ita sent a frisbee spiraling toward the boys.  The boys were the color of the bare patches on the field, and they were a river of constant motion, surging forward, collecting itself, spilling and sloshing to the sides, and then regrouping into a powerful forward force.  The boys gave up on the explosives and adopted the language of the more peaceful frisbee, pointing as Hugo and Ita leapt through the air and improvised dance moves.  The river of boys collected momentum and joyfully mimicked the leaps and dancing.

This is where the Shamanic parts might get a little high-faluting, but I have to stay true to the story.  It was as if the earth, so barren in this spot, was saying with its river, its poem of boys, Look; all my devastation is worth it.  This tangle of mischief and abandon is my greatest beauty.

I stopped crying, or I kept crying but also laughed.  The tears were never bad.  They were just necessary, like air.  Judgment didn’t play into it any more.  Without judging myself, I could cry and sit in a dry field for hours or minutes, and it was nothing but necessary.

Without judgment or expectation, it was as if everything I was doing, sitting in the dirt, watching the boys and the sky, feeling whatever I was feeling, had nothing attached to it.  It was then that I realized how you can be rich without money, without even beauty.  Because if you are still within yourself, there is nothing to be added to that stillness.

At some point Pia, the resident healer, put her arm around me and we made our way to the top of a huge displaced mound of dirt that had made way for a meditation pool under construction.  We did sit here for hours; I know because eventually the full moon came out above the jackfruit tree.  I sat in meditative asana, facing away from the moon because it was so bright, running my hands over the earth.  Eventually, I was rolling in the earth, sliding my limbs across it and there was nothing I wanted so much as to feel part of it, that solid and also pliable.

“Look at the moon!” Pia said.  I told her it was too bright.  “That’s your power; are you afraid of your power?” she asked in her Norwegian accent, so ethereal and fairytale-like.  I didn’t know.  Probably.  But I turned and looked up.  The moon was full, and white and its seas were so clear, deep and luminous.  I felt a zzz-ing between my eyebrows and I couldn’t stop looking.  Its pull, the same attraction drawing the tides, had me and wouldn’t release its grip.

Even when Pia wandered off in search of a coconut, and the gardening boys, one by one, climbed the mountain of earth attempting jokes and flirting, I couldn’t stop staring at the moon.  It was the deepest and most profound conversation.

The boys and Pia took seats around the mountain of earth and they started a fire.  For a while we had conversations that overlapped and then didn’t, and long periods of silence.

Then I put on my friend Brian’s Sanskrit chants playlist and climbed the steps up to the treehouse platform, where I swayed in the wind along with the tree and stared at the moon as occasional lightning lit the whole sky.

Between me and the moon, there was an understanding, at this point.  We were fierce.  We were elemental.  We held secrets and we transmitted.  That was our job – the moon and me – to reflect the light of a larger and more infinitely substantive light.  Therin lay our power.

I climbed down from the treehouse, disconnected the music in the early morning.  I unplugged all the power sources to save electricity.  I tidied the jumbles of cushions and papers scattered around the yoga hut.  I showered, and even shaved my legs.  I put on pajamas and lay down under a blanket, and fell asleep.

I woke up wondering if I was now a drug addict, because the night had been what I imagined the yogis sit in caves to experience – the goal of all the asana and sitting and everything.

When I asked Joel, he said, as he usually does.  There isn’t a goal.  You are closer to what you want right now than anytime in the future.

I don’t always let him get away with this sort of observation.  While true, it can be frustrating.  What I want is more. Present moment awareness on a tiny microscopic level while being aware of grandness and scale at the same time.  Just like during the Shamanic journey, when I was so minutely aware of a mosquito I killed with my palm, and also of immense divine power at work in the world.

“You have to strengthen your endocrine system to have that kind of awareness in daily life,” Joel said.  “With asana, pranayama breathing, kriya techniques…”

So, while there isn’t a goal, there still kind of is one.  And also not.

That’s as clear as I can be.  In the beginning, it was so much easier to tie lessons up into neat packages!  But that’s not usually how truth works.  And it is.

Always Broken

I saw a palm reader in India. It seems almost like an unnecessary statement. When in India, not seeing a palm reader is like somehow avoiding rice, or temples, or Shiva priests that try to grab your ass.  (Oh…what?)  Back to the point: palm readers are nearly as profuse (but not nearly as cute) as holy cows in India.

It was like – blah, blah, blah – as Guru Shruti Prakash (Seventy Rupees for Five Minutes) explains the lines on my hand: more opportunities for travel; I investigate thoroughly whatever catches my attention; the first part of my life has been harder than the rest of it will be.  Fine; whatever.  Lots of stuff about Mars, Jupiter and Neptune.  I should wear moonstone and pearls.  (Ummm, no…the Ayurvedic doctor told me white colors would make me fat…)

I tell him I would like to discontinue the palm reading when he begins listing auspicious numbers.  I’m not really a numbers person, and I never know the date or time anyway.

He asks if I would like some chakra balancing.

Confession: I am a sucker for chakra balancing.

For some very awkward, long minutes, I gaze into the frizzle-haired face of the old Goan palm reader.  More specifically, I gaze into his eyes.  Have you ever tried to gaze into someone’s eyes for a long time?  I have, in yoga classes, and it is uncomfortable.  Try this with an old Indian man who is muttering Om and whose pupils dart wildly back and forth, while somewhere in the back of your mind, there is the question of whether he is planning something nefarious and inappropriate.

Anyway, somehow I sit through it, pressing my palms hard into the carpeted ground while I sit crosslegged on the floor.

After a while, he stops muttering Om, and says, “think of something happy.”  I keep awkwardly gazing deep into his eyes and bring up the feeling of running on the hill trails behind my parent’s house along a stream in the springtime while my dog darts through rows of wild daffodils.

The palm reader stops me.  “Why didn’t you tell me you were depressed?”

“Am I?” I ask him stupidly.

“This is not your true nature,” he says.  “Your true nature is light and joyful.”

“Umm, ok,” I say.  I seem to have lost powers of articulation.

“I can heal you, but we need more time.  Come back to see me.”

“No,” I say, adding some excuses about having only a few days left in India.  I don’t trust this guy and I (did I mention) HATE staring into people’s eyes.

So he blesses a ring woven from three metals and some wooden beads, pouring sacred water over them, cupping the items in his palm and chanting before handing them over.  “These will help you,” he says.  “No charge.”

I stumble out from his dark room into the sunlight as my friend Anna goes in to take her turn with him.  Our other friend, Rui, asks “How was it?”

“I don’t know,” I say, dazzling her by my insightfulness.

“Am I depressed?” I think, as I sit with Rui, watching a boy shimmy up a coconut palm and slice big bunches of coconuts off with a machete.  “I get wound up and anxious.  When I see a child kicking a cow, or a street dog with a bloody back, and all manner of unfair things in the world, I get deeply, seemingly irretrievably sad.”

So I say – “Dear Universe, or Shiva, or God, If I am depressed, I trust you to pull me out of the deep well of sadness.  I don’t need a frizzle-haired old palm reader, or magic beads.”  (Although it is never not fun to be given jewelry.)

So then I travel on to Thailand, where I am struck ill with the most massive flu possibly ever experienced, coughing from deep in my lungs where the yogis say grief resides.

I move on to Cambodia, a country of even more color and contradiction than India, and am blown away by deeply spiritual experiences of Shiva and Kali’s fiery inner incinerator as I chant mantra at sunset in the yoga hut of the retreat center.

Things are moving through, and I hope, out.  Which is our natural state – moving, breaking, repairing.  The gods of Creation, Preservation and Destruction are always in action, moving within us as we move within them.

The goddess Akhilanda, The Always Broken Goddess of Hindu mythology, teaches that we are never stronger than when we are broken.  When we believe we are whole, we are separate and limited.  When we are broken, we are infinite.

There are infinite paths to union (yoga) with the Divine.  There is one way to unite with strength – to break and re-form and be created again.

So, in the 30 days before I end this 6 month journey, I’ve asked for the expansiveness to contain all this breaking and re-forming without trying to escape.  I’ve asked for the power to receive, and sit still, and…repel this word with every fiber of my being, but yes, to submit to being broken, and sustained, and re-formed by forces outside myself, forces I can’t control or even name.

This is the essence of being truly alive – to sit still and be acted upon, rather than succumbing to the enticing idea that I am the actor, isolated, separate from the whole seething, moving, messy universe of broken pieces shifting into a beautiful whole.

Train stations are like the mind (and other meaningful insights)

It can feel like pressure to write blog posts full of insights about life.  Because sometimes you are just trying to figure out how to get away from the guy in the Bangkok train station who has exposed himself to you when the Thai National Anthem has begun to play and you are expected to stand in one place and look reverent.

Kind of like I expect these monks to have some ideas about how to live...And sometimes people expect you, as a yoga and meditation teacher, to have figured something out about life that they don’t know.  When really all you’ve learned is how many more questions you have.

Joel Altman, the fascinating and kind man behind Hariharalaya Retreat Center, where I now teach yoga and meditation, says things like, “At a certain point, there are no questions.”  He will then expand upon quantum-physics-like descriptions of matter and energy.  These descriptions are probably correct, except that I have not crossed over to the place in which questions dissolve into the limitless space of right now.

I probably should sit more, and stare into the face of my obsessions and fear.  Every time I do that, the worries and spiraling thought patterns retreat a bit faster, and there seems to be a space that holds…less.  Which might be akin to peace.

Me, mext to people who have been on Vipassana Retreat...Many of the participants in my Thai Yoga Massage course in the Lahu Village have been on Vipassana retreat.  In Vipassana retreat, you sit for ten days and watch your thoughts.  You eat twice a day, but you can’t do yoga, or read or write a blog.  You are stuck with yourself and your recycling thoughts and all your fear and neurosis.  That, or you could sing country songs to entertain yourself and eventually go mad that way.

Everyone had a period over the course of ten days where they thought they were losing their minds.  They cried or lost it some other way like packing their bags every day or having weird hallucinations.

Monkeys, in a Chiang Mai temple, doing the opposite of Vipassana (except the not speaking part is correct)I feel like this trip, in a way, has been one long Vipassana session of examining the way I view life, others and myself, while having crazy freak-outs, packing my bags constantly AND experiencing a few minor visions as well.  (I could just be making this analogy because I DON’T want to sit for 10 days and I think I should.)

But losing our minds is sort of the point, as far as I can tell.  Our thoughts and expectations are what cause us to suffer, according to Buddhist philosophy.  Coming to a place beyond thoughts and expectation, to stillness, is the yogic goal.

There’s that saying, the only way out is through, that I’ve found true over and over again.  So you have to wrestle through all the pratyaya, content of mind, to that quiet place on the other side.  (Kind of like wrestling through all the reverent still Thai people to come to a place where a man is not exposing himself to you in the train station – see how I did that?)

I guess this post has been about convincing myself to meditate more.  Maybe it will convince you too…

 

 

Eat, Love

Food.

I’ve alluded to food and my love/hate relationship with it a lot.

The private Ayurveda course I took in Kerala changed some of my beliefs and ideas about food.

I guess, since I was a child, I have harbored some latent belief that eating is somehow shameful and wrong.  There are varied clear reasons for this, but I’m not feeling a big desire to delve into those.

There’s a healthy way to view food.  Our Ayurvedic Doctor/Professor Madan put it best.

Delicious Ayurvedic dishes representing all 5 tastes, or elements

“One of our biggest tasks in life is eating,” he said gravely as we sat around him, crosslegged.  “We treat it with respect.”

I’ve tried lots of diets.  Over the past few years, I’ve diligently tried no type of diet (just mostly pure and organic).  Neither way, hard-core restriction or permissive free-for-all, seems to work for me.

Turns out, Ayurveda, just like yoga, prescribes a scientific and slightly magical, prescription for the task of eating.  Based on your specific dosha (constitution), there are specific times of day to eat, specific things to eat at those times of day, and also specific combinations of food to promote healthy agni (digestive fire, metabolism).

Tip: Serving food on a banana leaf provides astringency, which helps with digestion and food metabolism. Also, baking in earthen vessels takes some of the caloric content away from the food!

For example, my Kapha element needs spicy food, ginger tea and lots of astringent vegetables, sitting on hard surfaces and doing vigorous exercise.  My friend Liza’s Vata element needs milk, sweet food, cushions and naps.  Surprisingly enough, I crave the cushions, naps and sweets while Liza can’t get enough of spices and activity.

Sometimes, in Ayurveda, you also have to give your body the opposite of what it thinks it wants.  That is why it can often be a confusing science.

But once I began to eat in the proper way, my body has actually begun to respond by telling me when it’s hungry and when it needs rest, when it wants to move and what, specifically, might be good for it.  Crazy!

Sometimes, my brain might be hungry, but I can feel that my physical body is still working hard to absorb the nutrients from the last meal into all seven tissues (this generally takes at least 3 hours), so I try to drink warm tea (for my Kapha imbalance, no sweet fruit juice) and wait it out.  When my body is actually hungry, it now usually craves vegetables or a chapati (no yeast in bread for me).

“All the things you are served in restaurants are utter foolishness,” Madan said once.

We aren’t easily given the guidelines for healthy Ayurvedic eating in any culture.  For example, fruit is too complex to be digested with a milk product.  Dinner should be very light – a small soup and chapati while lunch can be sort of a feast.  And the two tastes in Western food (usually sweet and salty) are only two of the six tastes needed to compose a complete meal (the other tastes are sour, pungent, bitter and astringent).

I stuck to my new-found rules well for a while in India, and now I’m giving myself some grace (grace like vodka and mango juice).

I feel the best policy is always to learn rules in order to break them.

So, being in Thailand for two days as a tourist, I am making the most of it by eating everything I damn well please!

I have followed this self-imposed rule wonderfully since I am leaving tomorrow for a hill tribe village to learn Thai Yoga Massage, and then will head south to Cambodia directly to begin a job as Resident Yoga Teacher at Hariharalaya Retreat Center in Siem Reap, right near the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Chaing Mai Buddhist Temple

I have filled my two days with Buddhist temples, $6 massages, shopping for silk and skirts, deciding about where to get a haircut after 3 months of scary India hair (should it be Best Haircut and Laundry?  or the place with snapshots of the same old lady all over the mirrors?), AND eating AND Thai cooking school!

My first Thai food experience was on the 14-hour train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  A group of friends, all 70+ year-old ladies, sat next to me and took great delight in feeding me morsels, watching my face to gauge a reaction.  They fed me delicious “Thai mushroom” balls, “finger” bananas (tiny), and much to my dismay, what I think was marinated water buffalo and some kind of pig-in-a-blanket (I hid the “pig” part in my coffee cup).

The train itself provided all meals for the journey, with no stops to get out and choose anything from the station vendors.  So, even though I am now a vegetarian after befriending so many chickens in New Zealand and cows in India, I decided “when in Thailand…”  Conclusion?  Even train food is tasty in Thailand.

Teacher selects fresh produce from the "Cooking School Market"

Cooking school at May Kaidee’s was pure foodie bliss, from the selection of fresh vegetables and herbs at the market to the cooking of all the vegetarian classics in an open lanai surrounded by mango and jackfruit trees, the occasional calf meandering past the fence.

When you cook Thai with fresh ingredients like lemongrass, kafir lime leaves, homemade chili paste and grated coconut, it is like you have never actually tasted Thai food before.

Here is the recipe for absolutely killer Thai peanut sauce.  This should not be limited to Pad Thai, but can also be a dip, a salad dressing and a spread for crackers and bread.

Luscious Chiang Mai Thai Peanut Sauce

1.  Fry half a coarsely chopped tomato in a wok with a tablespoon of boiling vegetable oil.  Mash the tomato into a paste while stirring.

2.  Reduce the heat a little, then add red chili paste or Thai chili jam (GET THIS – it rocks).  Fry until the fragrance wafts over you and you feel like swooning (my embellishment).

3.  Add 6 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk, 3 tablespoons at a time, along with 1 tablespoon crushed dry-roasted peanuts (dry roast them yourself if possible).

4.  Add 2 teaspoons raw sugar, 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice and 1 teaspoon soy sauce (we used 1/2 teaspoon each of light and dark soy sauce).  Cook just a minute or so until consistency is thick.

EAT and LOVE!

Added note:  In Ayurvedic tradition, you can eat a lot on a FULL MOON DAY (today) without it being “increasing”.  So if you want to try to be scientific about it, make this closer to the full moon than the new moon (at which time you should consume very little, which is nearly impossible if you’ve made a batch of luscious peanut sauce).

Goodbye India!

Culture shock is a funny term.  In my case, I’m not sure it’s accurate.

OK; maybe that’s a lie.

December 9 and 10, my first two days in India, I spent basically hiding inside a bewilderingly abandoned hotel complex, waiting for Fenwick to arrive, too nervous to enter the chaos of the city of Aurangabad without her.

Fenwick, after she arrived, speaks to one of our many personal staff members at the weird abandoned hotel

When I say the hotel was abandoned, I mean it was abandoned in terms of guests.  After emerging from an interrupted night’s sleep in which the front desk called me three times to confirm the spelling of Fenwick’s name for her airport pickup the next day, I crossed the lawn to the dining area for breakfast to be attended by about 15 waiters.

I could barely get a bite of food into my mouth before they were clearing dishes away and asking if I needed anything else.

I asked if there were other guests.

“Oh yes; many,” they said.

But there were no other guests.  I know because I was there continuously for a day and a half and no one but staff members appeared anywhere.  If they had, I probably would have sprinted over, scaring the daylights out of them.

I asked about the swimming pool and the concierge pointed the way.  I approached it eagerly.  It was lovely and big.  But there was no water in it.  I returned to the front desk to ask about WiFi. “Go to your room,” they told me.

So I went to my room and stayed there for a day and a half, experiencing culture shock.

The culture shock of everyone wanting to have photos taken with us on our first outing - the Ellora Caves near Aurangabad

From there, Fenwick and I learned together that no matter how much money you spend to protect yourself from India, you cannot spend enough.  Even though we rode in private taxis, took flights when we could, booked rooms in impossibly fancy hotels, we still breathed the black air, still stepped in puddles of excrement and garbage, still were harassed by men and street children, trying to take advantage of us in different ways.

Money didn’t solve the problem of culture shock in India.

For me, time did.  After a while, the shock wore off.  I became (sort of) used to breathing toxic fumes throughout my yoga practice.  This trip has been about challenging some of my most fundamental expectations of life.

1.  Air – In New Zealand, I breathed in mold and cat dander.  I felt poisoned and couldn’t wait to fill my lungs with air in India.  Ha – have I mentioned?  The air in India is poisonous.  I am angry about it because now there are friends all over the country, breathing that air, becoming sick.  Breathing, so vital and key, is a gift we ignore.

Best meal by far in India - Banana Leaf Ayurvedic Thali!

2.  Food – In India, you can’t eat raw food.  In the north, sometimes your only options are sugary or fried, or both.  Feeling nourished by nutritious food went out the window for a while.  Now, in Thailand, I think I scared some fellow travelers because after one bite of intoxicating, crunchy, sweet, spicy green salad, I couldn’t fill my mouth with more of it fast enough.

3.  Movement – I couldn’t hike or run and the yoga I knew then was pretty gentle.  My body wasn’t getting its daily sweaty exertion-dose of endorphins.  Poor Fenwick had to deal with the fall out.  Throughout the three months, I learned to listen to my body in new ways.  Instead of forcing it up a mountain first thing in the morning, I gave it time to tell me what it needed.  Which, it turns out, is powerful Ashtanga asana first thing in the morning.  The difference?  Ashtanga Primary Series is a specially formulated process to develop strength and flexibility in the body AND mind, while focusing the thoughts on the Divine more than on the firmness of one’s ass or the time you are beating in summiting the peak.

4.  Men – None.  Enough said.

I lied again.  There was a pudgy gentleman on the flight down from Delhi to Aurangabad back in December who was escorting his sister down for a visit with him, his wife and their two children.  He asked me about my life and I told him I was unmarried and a yoga teacher and wanted to learn to cook the saag paneer we were served on the flight. I was feeling quite contemptuous of everyone’s advice to lie and always say I was married.  I didn’t want to lie.

To make a long story short, my gentleman friend visited me at the strange abandoned hotel complex the next day to “learn meditation” which I learned means something culturally different to at least one Indian man.

That dose of culture shock was healthy.  I misplaced my shock and sadness about a real live Indian person (the first I had met in India!) not knowing the secrets of yoga and meditation, his own cultural treasures!  In this case, my desire to share yogic knowledge led to questions about whether my boyfriend needs Viagra (because present company finds it unnecessary) and persistent suggestions to move the session from the patio to my hotel room.

Ayur Dara Panchakarma in Kerala

My desire to help got me into trouble many times in India.  Culturally, I needed to learn boundaries and respect.  When the Ayurvedic Doctor’s neighbors had an unhappy and unruly yellow lab puppy that was locked in a cage all day and night, I offered to train it to give it more freedom.  Instead of the joyful wagging I expected, I got a nasty cut and trail of bruises across my arm from its vicious attack.  Culture shock, big time.

These lessons out of the way, halfway through the trip I began to embrace India.  And India truly embraced me back.  I paid tiny bits of money for thin mattresses, freezing showers, all night bus journeys.  I gave up my agenda of fitness and salads even though it was scary to think of what my body would become.

Walking ashram dogs along the Ganga

By now (this was early January), I began to prefer India.  At Santosh Puri ashram, I chanted and prayed and blessed my food before consuming everything (even buttermilk) with my hands.  I roamed by the Ganga with cows.

Mataji, chanting at the 5 AM Aarti fire, Santosh Puri Ashram

Listening to Mataji daily speak about devotion to God, how everything is God – even suffering because it purifies and burns away what keeps us from God, I was beginning to change.  I was feeling peaceful and content.  I was afraid, though.  I was afraid to go back into the world and lose what I had gained.  What I had gained was a glimpse of what truly matters in life – getting close to God.  What I was afraid of – being pulled back into the pursuit of all the things that don’t matter in life – how I look, what people think about me, whether I can do handstand.

Lighthouse Beach, scene of my dismay

The next day I met the cool yogis for a course in Ayurveda.  We lay on Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam, after a beautiful early morning swim, listening to the bass beats of some American song from 15 years ago, baking in our bikinis as Indian men in business suits walked past and pretended (or didn’t) not to stare.  Suddenly, I was crying.  A lot, and loudly, on that bright beach.

Pushti, source of much contentment at Santosh Puri

I couldn’t stop.  I missed the ashram – Pushti, its tiny puppy, its quiet order and respect for what matters.  How could I give that to myself?  I didn’t know how.  I had said goodbye to Mataji; now I just wanted to be near my mother.  But also, I didn’t.  I wasn’t ready to go home.

I spent the afternoon crying and wandering around the hotel room, glugging bottled water.  I felt at a crossroads.  I didn’t want to spend my life in an ashram but I didn’t know where else to go.  Re-entering “normal” life was too much of a shock.

Kali, at her temple in Hampi. See how she slays those men while looking lovely?

Happily, I adjusted and began the last segment of the journey, which we shall call “Boot Camp.”  My new friends Liza and Merrin decided to school me in the ways of Kali, since I had been adopted by that destroying, fiery Deity that same week in Kovalam.  Both Liza and Merrin tend to live-by-Kali already.  We decided they needed the grounding, sleepy, sweet-eating Ganesh for their journey.

Anyway, my Kali-boot-camp entailed overhauling my eating habits – taking away sweets and adding fiery spice to pretty much all food; drinking coffee black; drinking vodka for dinner on occasion; I speak as if in jest.  But truly, the “diet plan” gave me freedom from this idea I’d picked up somewhere along the way that a hungry, empty feeling is one that should elicit panic.  That anxiety can be soothed, always, by sweets.  Really, what I was doing by eating in excess of three times a day, by satiating myself with sugar regularly, was keeping me from what I truly wanted – strength.

Other Kali bootcamp lessons – wear shorts, and purple eyeliner.  Lie in the sun. Don’t take things so personally – be a bit tougher.  Stop doubting yourself- be confident.

These are not the lessons I came to India to learn, per se.  My Liza and Merrin gurus, cute yoga teachers from San Diego, were the opposite of ash-smeared holy men inhabiting caves in the Himalayas.  The biggest lesson I gained, upon reflection after graduating Kali bootcamp, was not to be so shallow.

I was judging my San Diego gurus and their gin-drinking, sun-tanning ways.  I wanted a real guru, chanting mantra 20 hours a day.  I wanted to escape my desires, transcend the need to inhabit my body and the challenges I face with it.

Instead, I inhabited my body by doing stronger asana.  I learned how to dress more flatteringly (you need a waist – Merrin).  I even learned to stand up straighter and walk more gracefully – Kali bootcamp style.

My desire to have a strong body and accomplish challenging poses is not wrong, I learned.  In fact, as Liza said, my desire to be above that desire is shallower than anything else.

We are all given a body.  We’re not just floating ethereal shapes wasping around the firmament.

And in embracing this desire to be strong and accomplish poses with my body, I actually feel more free.  To think about what counts – which is loving God, and serving others.

Hmmm, so dear Kali, put me through culture shock any day, and send me gurus in any form that might be humorous to you.  I know I don’t need to be in India to learn these lessons, but I’m sure grateful I got to learn so much in your shocking homeland.

Hampi!

I apologize if this post is not as amusing as the last one.  I personally am happy Hampi contained no major disasters or confusing issues.  It is a bright, shiny spot on the map of my India travels and I will always remember it adoringly – my Indian town one-night stand.

Hampi is everything you look for in a one-night stand – beautiful, easy to navigate, thoroughly equipped to meet all your needs and desires.  (Don’t know where that came from – no more creepy analogies from here on out – I promise.)

Shiva Temple with monkeys

Hampi’s ruins are splendid, standing out against slate-tinged boulders, glowing green rice paddies and bright sky.  These temples and palaces and marketplaces were all inhabited between 1300-1600 AD.

We saw enough Queen’s palaces and Elephant Stables and intricate carvings and meditation and dancing halls to satisfy my appetite for ancient Eastern history.  There was even an entire building dedicated to the Queen’s bath, which would be freshly filled each time she used it, and perfumed with oils.  There were window ledges in the royal bath  specifically designed as ancient hair dryers.

Even better, many of the Hindu temples are still in use.  Have I mentioned?  I LOVE ancient ceremonies!

Birthplace of Monkey-god Hanuman, Son of the Wind God

We climbed hundreds of stone steps up a mountain to reach the birthplace of Hanuman the Monkey God.  This is actually one of about five spots in India where Hanuman is supposed to have been born.  But, I loved it.  Monkeys galore.  Priests chanting.  Chai and prasad and all kinds of musical instruments.  Indian boys scampering around, laughing.  Women in bright saris.  All eventually paying their respects to the deity of protection, friendship, love and loyalty.

Hanuman Priest

We spent hours at this hilltop temple, some of my happiest hours in India.  The sun was warm, but there was a protective blanket of clouds shielding us from its harsher rays.  We sat on the stones outside the temple, letting the sacred chants roll over and throughout us.  We watched children and monkeys play as a woman tied a piece of cloth to the tree outside the temple.

“She ties it there and asks for a boon,” my friend from Mumbai said.  “When it is granted, she comes back and takes it away.”

We descend the stairs slowly, in awe of this lush and quiet landscape, so seemingly separate from the rest of modern India.

We buy water at a tea stall at the bottom and wait for our rickshaw.  I ask my friend from Mumbai to help me with the many verses of the Sri Hanumanacalisa, from a booklet given to me out of a locked cupboard by the doti-clad priest.

We begin the first of 40 verses, she loudly and confidently, me stumblingly and doggedly.  Before long, the people around us began to chant as well.  By the time we were through, we all shouted “Jai, Jai!” smiling around the courtyard like old friends.

See what I mean about Hampi?  It’s a place that will stay with you.

Feeding Lakshmi

My other meaningful moment came complete with an elephant.  I already knew about her – Lakshmi, the Shiva temple elephant.  I came prepared with a bunch of bananas especially for her.

We had a special moment, me and Lakshmi.  One that was interrupted by a priest who invited me to follow him all the way up inside the temple dome (top photo).  It was dark, and I was shoeless, and there were rats.  Also the priest seemed to have some sort of nefarious intent.  But all came out well in the end, as it does, unless it doesn’t.  I said my goodbyes to sweet and imperious Lakshmi, and the next evening, to Hampi, catching another night bus to Goa for one more week of Ashtanga practice at Rolf’s shala.