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.

Bye bye rationality, hello another healer

water_lillies_black_and_white_by_sugartasticvalentineIn Ubud everyone, especially the foreign travelers (i.e. rich white people) are seen first as potential customers, second as people. It’s like you’re some kind of defective muppet in desperate need of more yoga, more dance classes, more detox, more healing. My friend told me of an interesting healing experience he had with an Indonesian friend of his (“He barely touched me and I was thrown onto the floor!”). This man, who I would later learn is a well-known, award-winning documentary producer hailing from the island of Java went through a five day awakening and was apparently given superhuman powers. Before the end of my coffee date with my friend, he had sent me his name and number and told me to call this guy. My friend’s girlfriend, who has also had a session with him claimed, “He’s the person who knows me the most in the world.” That actually sounded quite terrifying to me (you know me that well so now I have to kill you).

But of course my insatiable curiosity won out over my rational brain and within a week I had contacted and made arrangements to meet this man. He came to my guesthouse, in his hipster black jeans, boots, t-shirt and obligatory man bun. He told me a little about his job and his family. Hard to believe that someone so young was married with three kids. I made him wait out on the balcony. “Wait here, I need to quickly clean my room,” I ordered. “Don’t worry, I’m going to see all the mess inside of you anyway,” he chuckled. I nearly choked.

The session got underway as I lay on my bed and him perched on a stool next to me. He told me that he didn’t heal people per se but talked them through their own healing. I’m not ill so I don’t really know what I needed healing for, but I guess he works on an emotional/subtle energy level. First we sat in silence. “I’m accessing your files,” he said. And then what he said next was unexpected. According to the information he received from his cosmic database, I had a twin when I was in my mother’s womb that died and was absorbed into the placenta. This means that I have attachment issues and experience separation anxiety more than most people. The grief from losing my twin means that I have been holding onto this emotion for a long time. He told me that one in eight people have this experience and that he also lost his twin in the womb. Consequently, he met a woman who he had a very strong, primal connection with and his relationship with this woman threatened his marriage. Luckily, he found out about this phenomena and felt that she was his long lost twin before his marriage imploded and now they share a familial rather than romantic bond. Apparently, I’m going to meet my twin next year (he was reborn from a different mother, and it’s a ‘he’ because I’m the feminine energy, so he must be the masculine energy). He wanted to make me aware of this because he said in his experience it was very unsettling and I should be prepared to be emotionally thrown by the encounter. Ooohhhhhhkkaaaaayyyy.

We went through the motions of him talking me through clearing what he perceived to be some blocks in my energy, letting go of particular feelings, letting in others. It went on for well over an hour. I have to admit that I lost track of time and went into a kind of light sleep state, although still conscious. I like to think of myself as open minded and open to new experiences, but things like this I am skeptical about. But then, near the end of the session something weird happened. He said he kept hearing a name in his head of someone that was close to me. He said the name aloud several times and I was slightly freaked out because indeed, this person had been very close to me but was no longer in my life, although my grieving had not ended. He said that he would sever the ties energetically so that I could get closure. I have to admit that I found this freaky and felt weird afterwards. After two hours of lying on my bed I really needed to pee. I opened my eyes to see him moving his fingers over me before I got up off the bed and stumbled to the bathroom. I peed for what felt like five minutes and then when I returned we slowly finished the session. He gave me some good advice about giving love in relationships, about following my heart and setting intentions. Who knows the value of this stuff. I don’t want to be a die-hard skeptic, but I don’t want to be a gullible sucker either. Let’s see if my supposed twin appears in my life. I’ll keep you posted.

My new spirit animal

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

So it turns out falling down the Internet rabbit hole does have some benefits. I found this extraordinary man whose accomplishments are rather amazing, especially given that he is sans one forearm and two lower legs. Dr. BJ Miller is the executive director the the intriguing Zen Hospice Project, a residential facility for dying patients in San Francisco that aims to offer a human-centered model of care. His credentials are pretty stellar: a BA in art history from Princeton, then an MD which led him to become the chief resident at the hospital he worked in, followed by a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Not too shabby.

He was in his second year at Princeton when he and some friends were fooling around after a party – he climbed on top of a parked shuttle train. He was severely electrocuted and almost died. He spent several months recovering and miraculously found a new lease on life. He doesn’t regret all that happened as he believes it turned him towards his calling as a palliative care physician and made him grow as a person. As he told one interviewer:“The gift was that it got me out of the habit of thinking about the future and comparing myself to others. It rammed me into the present moment. I’m actually grateful for that. I found a new confidence.”

It’s all about perspective. Miller’s mother suffered from the effects of childhood polio so he grew up surrounded by disability and saw that one could still live a normal life – even thrive. He didn’t let the suicide of his sister throw him into the depths of despair while at medical school. He sued Princeton over his accident and settled for $5 million dollars. Oh and he also owns a farm and part-owns a tea company. Now I’m going to leave my pity party, NOT ruminate on how lazy I am and instead meditate on the unbreakable human spirit.

 

Down the Ubud rabbit hole

10922787_10152835605896853_7435212503923004836_o (1)Having never been to Bali before, and having made a last minute decision to come here, I did not know what to expect. My lack of research landed me with some visa issues and therefore some restricted mobility, and that is how I came to spend almost all of my time so far in Ubud, the artistic and cultural center of this famed Indonesian island.

Surrounded by lush green rice fields and jungle, dotted with temples and quaint old-fashioned Balinese family compounds, there is immense beauty here. Deep ravines frame gushing rivers. Monkeys hide high up in the trees and huge coconut palms provide shade from the sun’s heat. Some four hundred cafes and restaurants cater to the transient population which is made up of local Balinese, Indonesians from other parts of the country, expats from all over the world (but particularly Europe, the US and Oceania) and the travelers and seekers just passin’ through.

Ubud is generally a quiet and peaceful place. There’s some traffic congestion on the main street and the markets get a bit crowded, but the pace of life is enjoyably slow and the people watching is phenomenal. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that the non-Indonesians who visit here fall into one of two categories: twenty year old supermodel couples or beautiful white, rich, married European couples with equally beautiful 2.5 children.

But then you spend some time at The Yoga Barn, a kind of yoga utopia, perhaps attending a yoga class or even the venerated Ecstatic Dance. Visit any of the dozens of raw, vegan, organic restaurants and cafes that dot the busy streets, rice fields and hillsides and you come into contact with a different beast altogether. I got talking to another New Zealander who has been living here for two years. He told me he calls this tribe the Trustafarians. And that’s exactly what they are: young, rich twenty-somethings living bohemian work-free lifestyles off their inherited money. They come to ‘find themselves’ but, my friend tells me, they end up staying and not really finding anything. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite – I’m all for a good old fashioned Eat, Pray, Love style mission – and indeed, I went on a short one in my twenties. I may even be on one now (replace ‘Pray, Love’ with ‘Read, Sleep’). But how much fucking yoga and eating kale are you going to do? It’s like the kids here have taken the fanatical new age, health obsessed culture of California to a whole new level.

So there we are, trapped far down in the interior, subjective rabbit hole. I hope these man-bunned, tramp-stamped, tie-dyed, colonically-irrigated, glittered beautiful people aren’t doomed to a life of navel gazing and spending their days doing Louise Hay-inspired affirmations (after their coffee enema and morning Vinyasa practice) at the expense of achieving something worthwhile with their lives, of having an impact. But hey, this kind of tourism is helping keep an island economically afloat (even if most of the places frequented by said Trustafarians are owned by expats and the local staff get paid shit and don’t reap any profits).

Perhaps I’m a little bitter. It’s hard not to feel a bit hard done by when you’re surrounded by such self-indulgent, self-absorbed people who don’t know what it’s like to flip burgers at McDonald’s. At the same time, I swing to the other extreme and feel an immense sense of gratitude. Most of the locals have never left the island. Many of them never had the opportunity to get an education. Many are illiterate. I’ve heard the same hard luck story from my various taxi drivers many times – born into a poor family, unable to attend school, limited prospects for employment and earning an income. And yet they managed to teach themselves another language and make a life for themselves. Just to be able to write that sentence (“my various taxi drivers”), just to be here and witnessing this kind of apartheid, the beauty, the poverty, the comedy and the tragedy is an incredible privilege and stroke of luck.

 

Props: Raul Cabrera and Nomad-A

My amigo Raul, shredding some waves in France

My amigo Raul, shredding some waves in France

The purpose of writing about my friend Raul’s venture is two-fold. First, I want to publicize the amazing journey he is on, and second, I want to actually figure out what that crazy surfing-all-around-the-world journey is about exactly.

I met Raul in Japan several years ago as we were both traveling on Peace Boat. He was an English teacher. I was a reporter. Originally from Ecuador, he had been studying in New Zealand for the last few years before moving to Japan. We became friends because we found out that we had lived in the same city (Dunedin), studied at the same university (Otago) and that one of my lecturers was his best friend. Small world indeed.

Among our Peace Boat family, Raul became known for his cheeky and mischievous charm. He also had a knack for picking up languages really easily and already spoke at least five. He was also the alpha-male daredevil who would run out of the ship at each port, surfboard under his ripped arms, ready to jump straight into colossal waves that were five times taller than him. As we learned more about him, we dubbed him the International Man of Mystery because of all the adventures he’d had around the world – remarkable for someone so young (mid-20s), and even more remarkable for someone from a developing country who didn’t come from money.

Over time, we lost touch, except that I see a lot of his posts on Facebook about his new life as a husband to a beautiful Danish woman and father of an incredibly cute baby who is the face of Denmark’s largest baby food company. I’m most curious, however, about his life as a member of Nomad-A, a small tribe of surfers who are traveling the world surfing, meeting like-minded people along the way, and making a documentary from it.

According to his statement on his Facebook page: “I am originally from Ecuador a small South American country. When you are a kid from a third world country (I know not PC) and you are exposed to western TV, movies and all the crazy media. You are made to believe that the world is your oyster and that all your dreams will eventually come true…. just like in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210!!! But that is far fetched from the truth. The reality is that, as you grow up in any developing nation you realize that life is no longer a soap opera and your dreams are nothing more than a VIRTUAL REALITY! This is one of the main reasons why I started working as a teacher. ….I want to inspire the youth. Every human being should know that no matter what the dream is, you can make it happen. All you have to do is….see it , visualize it, feel it and do it…..and foremost don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. I know this probably doesn’t make any sense to you cos if you are reading this, you are among the luckier 8% of the world’s population who can access the net. Also just by reading my statement, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read anything at all. SO BE GRATEFUL and keep inspiring people. You never know who the next Einstein might be.”

According to the group’s Website: “In Latin America as well as many other parts of the world, financial opportunities are scarce. Sometimes we are made to believe in conformity, and that our dreams are limited but this is a fallacy! If you really believe in what you do, you can achieve it. No matter how tough or difficult it might seem, with perseverance, willpower, dedication and determination you can make it happen.”

OK, so far we’ve gathered that what these self-described ‘Nomad-A’s’ are doing is traveling around the world surfing and meeting people who are making a living out of doing crazy, nomadic dare-devilish things – world class skaters, BMXers, skateboarders etc, most of whom had to overcome insurmountable hurdles to get where they are. Their core message is to follow your bliss and never give up. And I suppose that while not everybody can just up and take off, I do admire his courage and have to admit that after watching the video below, I was ready to quit my job, and get rid of my few worldly possession, except for a surfboard and a plane ticket. Buena suerte Raul!

See their awesome trailer below!

http://nomad-a.com/