Being Nobody, Going Nowhere

Buddha-Meditation-TreeI can’t pinpoint the exact moment I learnt about Vipassana meditation. It could’ve been from reading this hilarious travel memoir of India, or from watching the excellent and poignant documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, about the technique being taught to inmates on death row in the American south. There were also fellow travelers I met ‘on the road’ who had done it (it’s like number three on the travel To Do List after a diving course and learning Thai massage).

So as I find my interest in meditation deepening, I wanted to tick it off my list too. So I applied to the center in New Zealand, just outside of Auckland. Being the chicken that I am, I didn’t read too much about it for fear of psyching myself out at the last minute. All I knew what that you couldn’t talk, read or write for ten days, had to get up at 4am, and could only eat twice a day. Oh, and you couldn’t use the Internet. The not talking part I could get on board with – being an introvert, it’s basically like normal life for me. But the other rules, they would probably kill me. Spoiler: they did not.

Having low or no expectations sometimes pays off. In this case, there were some nice surprises: we got our own little cabin that had a heater (being a cold-blooded reptile, this mattered in winter). Although bathrooms were shared, they were clean and the showers hot (for the first five minutes at least). The other people seemed normal (and didn’t turn up in straight jackets as I had initially imagined). The setting was gorgeous, full of native flora and fauna. Men and women were completely separate, except for the meditation hall, so I didn’t need to worry about being victimized by the intrusive male gaze. Nobody checked my bags and found the contraband candy and pen and paper that I had smuggled it. Win.

I gave it my best shot the first few days. I followed the rules, got up and 4am, worked hard huffing in and out through my nose for ten hours a day and rewarded myself with hot shower before bed at 9pm. By the fourth day, when the meditation technique changes and becomes more complex, requiring more dedication and concentration, I was losing interest. I started to ignore the 4am incessant donging of the bell. I would give up midway through a session and open my eyes surreptitiously and scan the room. Why is everyone so still and quiet and in the zone? Why can’t I stay still for more than a few minutes at a time? Where does the teacher stay? Why does she just pop in and out like the bird in a cuckoo clock and never leave the little house attached to the meditation hall?

Then, when we went back to our cabin for hours of self-practice, alone, I would crawl into my sleeping bag and take a nap. I was bored. I was ruing the day that I handed in my iPad. I would’ve killed for a book, a distraction from myself and my spastic monkey mind. The only things to look forward to were eating, walking around the forested pathways and hopefully seeing the big fluffy wild rabbits that sometimes hung out, and showering. (Although once, I did indulge in a rapturous two minutes when I found a cotton tip in my bag and was ecstatic to clean out my ears for the first time in a few weeks.

So I was getting increasingly tired and grumpy listening to Mr. Goenka’s droning on and on. I was also becoming more sensitive to noise, smell etc. My body ached and I spent more time focusing on not farting in front of 60 silent meditators than actually meditating. I was conscious of disturbing my neighbors with all my squirming – of course, the Russian IT exec in front of me, the American classical musician on my left and the German princess/supermodel on my right were perfectly still all the time and obviously accessing some deep state and inner peace that was available to everyone except for me. However, my true nemesis was the woman who was sitting north east of me. She was one of those tall, eccentric, commanding ladies who take up too much space. I named her ‘Geisha’ after the ridiculous Japanese kimono thing she wore which rustled like someone was making balls of aluminium foil every time she moved. I spent good amounts of meditation time thinking about how I was going to murder her. So, without ever having spoken to her, I made her my enemy number 1. Every time I saw her in the food hall or walking to the bathroom with her oversized Japanese silk duffel bag, I gave her the stare of death.

I soldiered on, somewhat half-assedly. And lo and behold, my mind did become still and clear. I did experience ‘equanimity’. I did become ‘equanimous’ (that has to be read with Goenka’s thick, drawling Indian accent). I was able to step back from the ups and downs of my thoughts. To look up at the sky and watch the clouds come and go and realize that my mind was the sky and my thoughts were the clouds. I had moments of ‘choice-less awareness’ and experienced interesting meditation states. Not blissful per se, but otherworldly. I was not, however, one of those people running around, hugging trees with a maniacal look in my eyes. But alone in my little cabin, I felt present and a sense of what it is to be nobody and go nowhere.

So  finally at the end of the ten days, we were allowed to talk and to get out phones back. Two interesting points about this. First, I didn’t really want to start talking again and kind of liked the protective shield Noble Silence gave me. Second, I really, really didn’t want my phone back. At times during the ten days, I had worried about missing important work-related emails, and had catastrophized about something bad happening to a family member or friend, but I didn’t have any FOMO. So when I got my phone back and had an Internet connection, I was reluctant to plug back in. Of course, it was inevitable that I had to, but was relieved to find that there was nothing of importance awaiting me.

Also, another nice surprise: the other ladies were really, really nice. We all admitted we had made up stories about each other, including names (because we had talked so minimally before the course started, if at all). The people were normal! There was doctor, a nurse, a scientist, a film person, a Harley Davidson dealer, an art gallery director, a Dutch social worker, a Tahitian dance teacher and a gaggle of requisite characters straight from central casting (yoga teacher, German travelers, massage therapist). We all felt bonded by our shared experience.

As we were cleaning up in the final hours before heading back to civilization, one of my meditation hall neighbors apologized for moving so much and distracting me. “You were so still and quiet, I felt bad every time I moved,” she quipped. I found this rather ironic and told her that I should be the one apologizing to her. We laughed. As for Geisha, well she came and plopped herself down beside me on the last day at breakfast. We started talking and of course it turns out she is in fact not a bitch but super simpatico and funny. I felt like such a jerk, just for a minute though. I didn’t want to get too attached and disturb my equanimity.

Little do we know…

stonesAs summer segues into fall, I’m reminded of the impermanence of life. This year, the end of a relationship and a job drove home the fact that nothing is forever. More recently, the death of a good friend’s father after a long battle with cancer served as a jolt, as did the ten year anniversary of a friend’s tragic death this week.

I only met this friend once when I lived in Japan. He was a friend of a Canadian colleague and a bunch of us went to visit Kyoto for a long weekend and were able to stay with him. Little did I know that he would be dead in a year. He was a visiting professor in his early 30s from Canada with a penchant for motorcycles. His widow wrote about their last conversation in commemoration of the anniversary. She was living in Vancouver at the time of his death (and still resides there). They spoke on a Saturday evening as he sat outside a mechanic’s waiting for his motorcycle to be repaired. He was reading a book by his favorite screen writer he told her. It was his real passion, much more than his teaching job. His wife told him that life was too short, he should do what he loved, that he should return to Canada and she would support him through a graduate degree in screen writing. Little did she know that in a few days, she’d be on a plane to Japan to identify her husband’s body after he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

I was travelling at this time and received the news while sailing down the Nile. Little did I know that in just a few months, one of the close friends I was travelling with would be killed in a botched robbery. But this is the unpredictable and impermanent nature of life.

To stop myself jumping on the merry-go-round of rumination, I find it helpful to think about impermanence in a more spiritual context.

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield proposes that impermanence is both an act of courage and compassion and allows us to face the difficulties from which we have always run.

As he writes: “According to Buddhist scriptures, compassion is the ‘quivering of the pure heart’ when we have allowed ourselves to be touched by the pain of life. The knowledge that we can do this and survive helps us to awaken the greatness of our heart. With greatness of heart, we can sustain a presence in the midst of life’s suffering, in the midst of life’s fleeting impermanence. We can open to the world – its ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.”

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron also chimes in and writes about the bittersweet nature of impermanence: “Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again – in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love. Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and years later finding it as part of a patchwork quilt.”

Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg believes impermanence snatches away our illusions: “We have an illusion that a certain time, a certain place, a certain person is the only way. Without it or them, we are lost. It is not true. Impermanence teaches us this. There is no one thing to hold on to.”

And now, let’s leave the Buddhists behind and take heed of what was written in Ecclesiastes (3:1-10).

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”

 

So Long, King Sihanouk

DSC_3601Today was a special day. I witnessed history as a participant in the procession preceding the royal king’s cremation (that’s King Norodom Sihanouk, Hero King, King Father of Independence, Territorial Integrity and Khmer Solidarity to you).

Along with tens of thousands of others from all over the country, I sat along one of the main roads in 30 degree heat, wearing the mourning colors of white and black, watching an endless procession of gilded floats, monks, military, government officials and other important people as the king’s body was made available to the public one last time before, following Buddhist tradition, it is cremated on Monday (Feb. 4).

Since October 2012 when he died of a heart attack, his body had been kept at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh so that mourners could pay their respects. Today, as the body was paraded around, accompanied by his widow and son, Cambodians, both old and young, sat on the sidewalks quietly weeping, their hands held up in prayer as they said their final goodbyes. Many clutched framed photographs of him as a show of affection and reverence.

According to people I have spoken to and things I have read, he was so revered and loved because he was instrumental in gaining Cambodia’s independence from France, investing in and developing the health and education sectors as well as being for the people. Despite some regrettable involvement with the Khmer Rouge, the people still hold him in the highest esteem.

DSC_3615Such an elaborate farewell is new to the country and represents a turning point in the nation’s future. In a nation so rife with corruption in the upper echelons, the King Sihanouk leaves big shoes to fill. Let’s hope the people get the kind of honest political figures they deserve.

The Faux Guru

Hipster and Prankster Vikram Gandhi

Jaded, cynical and anti-religion film maker Vikram Gandhi is out to expose the commodification of spirituality in America and comes up with a brilliant yet ethically dubious social experiment: what if he were to start his own Indian religion, find some followers and capture it on film to show how gullible and foolish people can be?

With the help of an orange robe, a blingy Gandalf-worthy staff, and some feral facial hair, the transformation of New York hipster to Indian guru (known as ‘Kumaré,’ a variation of his middle name, Kumar), is complete.

Kumaré travels to Arizona with two pretty actresses who act as his assistants. He is a striking and charismatic figure who exudes charisma and serenity. He soon attracts a dozen or so followers who engage in chanting his name, devour every word he speaks (“I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion”), practice his made-up yoga and welcome him into their homes.

Fake Guru in Action

The plot thickens when halfway through the documentary Vikram/Kumaré starts to feel uncomfortable with what he is doing and questions his motives. He becomes fond of his devotees, feels connected to them and genuinely enjoys their company. He decides to unveil and come clean with the truth. However, he can’t go through with it. “As I sat in that circle,” he tells us later, “I realized I’d connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”

I won’t spoil the ending, as it really is a film worth watching. But, there are several striking aspects of the film worth briefly considering:

  1. Seriously, who (apart from Sash Baron Cohen), would have the gall to undertake such an unethical project and deceive people like that?! Especially vulnerable people who are seeking some kind of spiritual comfort (or is that what ‘real’ gurus do anyway?)
  2. Wow, is it really that easy to start your own religion and are people really that trusting and gullible?
  3. Vikram’s own transformation as he comes to relate to his devotees and question his own (lack of) faith. It is interesting how his new persona takes over and he comes to identify more with his made-up self than his original self.
  4. What happens to his devotees during the course of their relationship with him is very interesting. As his followers, they start to make positive changes in their lives, aided by his support and encouragement. One woman loses 30 kgs, another follows her dream of becoming a yoga teacher. An attorney starts to meditate everyday and vows to get out of debt. A couple in a rocky relationship re-commit to each other.

Kumaré puts this down to a concept in Buddhism – the idea of killing the Buddha. That is, you should not become fixated on a leader or guru. You must realize that he is empty, an illusion and you are seeing what you want to see.

As ‘Kumaré’ states on his Website: “The person you see before you in the mirror each morning can be very convincing, but do not let your reflection define you. You must visualize your desired self, emanate it, and become it. Take control of your destiny, and you can accomplish anything!”

That’s right. He has his own Website complete with teachings and workshop information. I don’t know whether this is a part of the prank or if Vikram is being serious and has really become Kumaré. I guess the joke is on me.