Monday, September 28, 2009

Silent Week (or I Was Told There'd Be No Math)

9/23/09 I = C

Do you know that scene in “Pretty Woman” where Julia Robert’s prostitute heart-of-gold character is standing on the sidelines watching the polo match? And Jason Alexander (playing Richard gears blood-sucking lawyer) comes onto her after he finds out she’s really a prostitute? And then she gets really mad at Richard Gere, because she wasn’t expecting to be reminded of her job, with her defenses down, when she was supposed to be allowed to be someone else for a while? Well, I’m going to go for the hyperbole a bit here, and say that that’s how I felt when, after almost an entire day and night in total silence, plus hours of meditation teachings and sitting practice, one of my students came up to me and shoved a late assignment under my nose. I was in a soft focus world of contemplation, gazing out at the misty valley, when suddenly I had crumpled pages of hastily scrawled “religious studies” content thrust in front of me. I looked at it like a walrus might look at a Mercedes Benz- what in the world is this thing, and what am I supposed to do with it? I scrambled for my mental wire-rimmed spectacle, pinch-mouthed schoolmarm persona and accepted the paper.

We had told the students before going into silence the day before that no school work should be done or handed in during the six day retreat period, yet I couldn’t quite chalk this one up to “Oh well, typical with this age group that what’s said and heard are not often the same.” Primarily because this particular meditation lineage has us focusing on what repetitive thoughts disturb our peace during meditation practice, and my repetitive thoughts have been something to the tune of “Sheesh! What’s so confusing about “Don’t do that”?! I was just trying to look out the freaking window for two freaking minutes! Why does no one listen? Why? Whyyyyy?! What if the rest of the students saw that, and I spend the next six days watching them scribble clandestinely in their notebooks when they should be meditating, so they can slip their hasty pages to me while I’m trying to connect with my divine freaking essence?! Am I not a person? When I speak, but only in a room full of young adults, do I make a sound? If I were here alone, I would SO be rocking out on this meditation thing. Obviously."

So, no use pretending the waters are calm, when our instructors are dunking our heads in the sea of our own discontent. They claim that this is in order to root out the cause of the disturbance, determine its validity, and eliminate it for good. As our sweet-faced teacher Ajay says, “One cannot be peaceful and dependent at the same time”, which is distilled into the formula “I + X= does not equal C”. “I” is me. “X” is that thing I think I need in order to be complete, peaceful, happy, etc. (e.g. students that listen when we ask them not to do something), and “C” equals completeness. If there is always an “X” factor you will never feel truly complete. You’ve got to be able to get that job done regardless of external circumstances. As Ajay says, “Over there, my happiness. This is the life of most people in the world.” Or in my case, as I stared holes through the back of the offending student’s head, “Over there my unhappiness”, secretly hoping he would feel the weight of my irritation like a pall on his post-assignment triumph.

The truth is, my difficulty clearing my mind has no more to do with student behavior than the color of my eyes has to do with the weather in Belgrade. I’ve just got a squirelly brain case, and there’s no two ways about it. (Note: This philosophical turn of mind was available to me only after I sent the facilitators a note asking them to remind the students not to do schoolwork during the retreat.) Nonetheless, I do notice some improvements from my first experience of this retreat a year ago.

In our first session, Ajay asked us to do a concentration exercise (in silence, of course). On the inhale, say “Om”, and on the exhale count “100”. Then inhale “Om”, exhale “99” and so on. Every time a distracting pattern of thought enters your mind, you’re meant to start over again from “100”. No one in the history of these retreats has ever gotten to “1”. Last year, I couldn’t even break “97”. This year however, while I never dipped below “86”, I noticed that I wasn’t being distracted by thought patterns, but just…patterns. Seriously. Calico, gingham, paisley, you name it. Because I was finally managing to keep the yammering voice out of my head, my oh-so-resourceful inner monkey went into creative overdrive and starting furnishing glorious swatches for my delectation. Each number had its own texture, colors, and shape, and I don’t have the first idea why there’s some part of me that thinks “95” is midnight blue velvet with white eyeley trim. This whole visual parade actually felt very meditative. That is, until I started trying to use the fabric- a sassy bolero jacket here, a modern window treatment there, what’s the harm? Next thing I knew, I was lost somewhere between Pottery Barn and Anthropologie. With “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman cranking in the background. Darn kids.

9/24/09 Complete Before Cataracts

“Freedom is the test and the gift of love”. It’s not every day that someone lays that one on you before 7am , but I suppose that’s what makes this a silent retreat, rather than a silent New York Times crossword over Pop Tarts and Sanka. Not that most of my students wouldn’t already sell their own mother for anything approaching the sugar content of a Pop Tart, even at this early stage, yet I think for the most part we are all acquitting ourselves admirably. I do worry that I may be setting a bad example by choosing to nap during the time allotted for cleanliness (the “Shower of Joy”), but my senses tell me no one’s fallen down on the personal hygiene yet, and I’m planning a dutifully joyful shower tomorrow.

Ajay and Suruchi talked about freedom a lot this morning, and what can keep us from the experience of it. According to them, when staying in the place of “I=C” (I am complete within myself) is the top priority, this is freedom, because one is not dependent upon external conditions for happiness, peace, etc. To put it in terms we debt-addicted Americanos can understand, every time you identify a new “X” factor (that thing you think you need to be complete), you open a new account. If you eventually get that thing and close the account, ten more accounts open. In other words, you pay off the Bloomingdales, and celebrate by opening up a Gap, Barnes and Noble, Victoria’s Secret, etc.

And then he said something which is still rocking my world even as I write this. Something so obvious that it’s probably on the back of a cereal box or the lid of a jar of Snapple somewhere, and yet I never really got it until now. “If the object of desire (X) is transient, so will the outcome be.” Simple as that. Hmph. When has getting something I wanted ever made me happy and peaceful and free of all wanting forever? Never. Not even when I got that killer burrito, that truly good haircut, or that job I’d always dreamed of. Nothing will ever be as good as I expect it to be, if what I expect is that it will make me complete. Tough love, but long overdue.

Then, while we were all still reeling from this early dose of gospel, they hit us with more math. If you persist on locating completeness outside yourself, then you will spend 95% of the time chasing the thing, and only 5% enjoying it. I doubt they pulled this one from the world of researched academia, yet it definitely strikes a chord in my own reality. Sometimes I’m lucky to get that five percent before I start worrying about losing the thing I just got, or if I got the best one, or if I’ll be stuck with this thing forever, whether I keep wanting it or not. So everything changes, with one exception. If you are constantly chasing after things or running away from them, your circumstances change, but you do not. You are always seeking happiness, and never really finding it. And then you die.

I can’t remember when it happened that I stopped seeing the elderly as though they’d hatched from eggs as shriveled octogenarian character actors to play the part of “old folks” in the unfolding drama of my life, and started seeing them as my eventual self. Maybe it was when someone asked me about “when I was young”, or when my friends and sisters began having babies, making grandparents of our moms and dads. It certainly wasn’t when those sisters and friends started getting gray hair. That never happened. But if I had to name it, I might identify this perceptual shift as the moment when I realized that life was slowly going to love my physical self into the ground (literally), a sort of Velveteen Rabbit made real by too much undeniable evidence to the contrary, and that it might be a good time to figure out how to be happy even when the cataracts come a’ calling.

Fortunately, this does not mean abandoning all aspirations, but only ensuring that I am not hanging my sense that all is as it should be on their attainment. That’s a lot to take in before breakfast, but the rigors of self-inquiry are relentless, so they walloped us once more before the morning porridge. “You cannot change other people. They must choose to change. People act compulsively, and you can’t take it personally.” So I get that, and yet I looked around the room at my charges, eyes squinched shut in heroic feats of mental digestion, and couldn’t deny some tiny warm squiggle of hope that in my choice to be here with them, I might play some small part in the change they are all reaching for. I’ll just tuck that little “X factor” into my pocket until November, then I’ll ditch it. Promise.

9/25/09- Deep Thoughtings

Same stories, same practices, same day-to-day routine as last year, so why aren’t I bored? Is it possible that I have more to learn about detaching from any thoughts that would disturb my inner peace? Moi? Ajay and Suruchi are very careful to make the distinction between thinking and thoughting. Thinking is to be encouraged. It is necessary, productive, and allows us to fulfill our dharma through mindful action. Thoughting is repetitive mental meandering which harps upon the same events, themes, feelings, etc. again and again with no other result than making us walking zombie prisoners of past and future, ghosts of the present.

Seems like a bit of a fine line to me. I mean, one minute you’re pondering the next phase of your professional development, doing some really quality-type strategizing, and the next thing you know you’re fantasizing about the vacation home in southern France you’ll acquire once you got this sweet-ass job, and what kinds of obscure cheeses you’ll buy in the neighboring village for your afternoon baguette. And let’s face it, some thoughts are just flat out fun- and I think you know which ones I mean. So how to reconcile the idea that through our thoughts we create our reality, and the necessity of reigning in our tendency to walk around in dreams of how life could be, rather than an acceptance of how it is?

Ajay answers this by saying that the key difference here is whether you are thinking about something because you are chasing or running from it, or because you are peaceful, balanced, and consciously creating. The kicker is, you have to be willing to attach and detach at a moment’s notice, without losing your sense of peace. Easy when it’s a song I kinda sorta wanted to hear, not so easy when it’s that person/place/thing that is in all ways wonderful and so instrumental to completing my fantastic vision for perfect existence.

Not to mention the fact that I am more than a little bit in love with my own thoughts. Granted, sometimes I feel like I’m being dragged through a field of thistles behind a herd of blind, rabid wildebeests, but I quite often enjoy the ride, if not the view. This might be the hardest point for me to swallow. I’m not saying all of my thoughtings are gushing with creative inspiration, but I am a little worried about turning off the tap entirely. Z Meditation claims that only a mind which is truly clear is truly creative, because it creates a space for inspiration to enter in. But if inspiration is not snatched from the jowels of that tangent about ceramic tiles and zucchini muffins, where will it come from? Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find out…

9/26/09 Sounds Like Teen Spirit

This morning, when Ajay began with “When you leave day after tomorrow-“, all of my warm fuzzy detachment went flying out the window, and suddenly I’m not only attached to being here, I’m scrabbling for every last moment ‘til my fingers are bloody and the only sound is the deafening “Noooooo!” reverberating in my head. So much for equanimity. How can it almost be time to go? I’m just getting started, and I only today realized the difference between the kind of acceptance where you are at peace with the way someone/thing is while remaining firmly convinced that they are in error by not being like you, and accepting something exactly as it is, no judgment, no unspoken “Poor lamb, I accept you, even though you insist on being so very wrong.” This is big. Subtle, but big, and I suspect indispensable to my sanity in the coming weeks, not to mention years. I need more, MORE I say!

Yesterday marked day four of our “silent retreat” (note the irony implied in the use of quotes), and I thought the students were holding up remarkably well. True, there did seem to be a lot of announcements by the staff about respecting the silence, but I thought these were just general, routine public service-type things. Until Ajay, when suggesting to another staff member that we might break silence just long enough to sing happy birthday to one of our number, said jovially “Why not, they’ve been talking all day anyway!” Say what? The curtains of my yummy meditation trance parted, and I was suddenly all too aware of the resounding lack of silence. The students were not flipping out by day four of silence, because the students were not, for the most part, silent.

In fact, they were gesturing at each other like frantic umpires or Marcel Marceau with gesticulatory Tourettes. They were snorting and giggling and just flat out talking, and passing enough notes and drawings to qualify for what might be the world’s longest ongoing game of Pictionary. This, despite the fact that not only were we requested to be silent, but to avoid passing notes, physical or eye contact, and any noise of any kind. Suddenly, the corridors of the ashram seemed to echo with their explosions of communication, until I had to fight the urge to hurl a plastic chair at their wildly wagging heads. Last night it peaked with an all out screech-fest over some dramatized spider-spotting (c’mon, people, it’s a spider), which ellicits a startliing Raging Bull response from my exasperated inner voice- “You want something to scream about, I’ll give you something to scream about!”
I state all of this in the past tense, not because I have, on this fifth day, ascended finally and firmly into the realm of equanimous non-attachment, but because the “gentle reminders” from the staff have become decidedly more firm, and momentarily tamed/shamed the burgeoning rebellion. Or so I hope.

I’d much rather pass the time soaking in Suruchi’s radiant Mona Lisa smile, marveling at Ajay’s lashes, thick as push brooms where they hover atop his plump cheeks during meditation, and watching lightning play around a tangerine sliver of moon hanging above the valley in the early evening. It’s much easier to stay anchored in my mantra-induced serenity when my mind is occupied with nothing more complex than the phenomenon of the moths that begin to swarm around the lampposts a full thirty minutes before they are switched on at night. Mother Nature, caught in the act of living for the future! Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

9/27/09 My Silence

Silence is a construct, like a nation or a relationship. You can’t touch it or dress it up for Halloween, or put it in a hermetically sealed container wrapped in electrified barbed wire, encircled with fifty-foot watch towers, and patrolled by Dobermans and unstable men named “Bubba”, and “Pain Train”. If silence were a thing, I could call it mine. I could recognize it by sight and smell, and carry it around in my backpack wrapped in a fleece jacket to prevent breakage. It turns out that silence is more like air- air which can be polluted by the noxious exudations of others like second-hand smoke. If someone is a scratcher or a throat-clearer or a helpless giggler or involuntary moaner (now I know they exist), then those become the soundtrack of one’s life, if one wishes to live among others and not, in fact, in a hermetically sealed box.

And yet something in my mind persists in thinking of what I have cherished so deeply about this week, and felt so ferociously protective of, as My Silence. When someone chooses to break Their Silence, they also make a decision about My Silence, and its right to exist. This is dramatic, as has been my response to the second-hand sounds of others. It makes me want to wring my hands, draw a chalk outline on the floor and keen while tearing out my hair- “Look! Just look at what you’ve done to My Silence! My beautiful, broken Siiiiilence!” Operatic emotions of Betrayal, Frustration, and mostly Intense Irritation become my great golden excuses to dodge the work of mind-clearing and digging out my lazy mental patterns. But after a week of “deal with yourself” boot camp, I now let myself have my Scarlett O’Hara moment, take my bows, and hunker back down over my own business.

We leave tomorrow, back to India with all of the demands on our energy and integrity She will make, and I feel like I’ve found a new orientation to this job and these incredibly noisy young people. Of course they are jabbering and hugging and grimacing grotesquely at each other, despite all requests to the contrary. At that point in life, the dominant questions seem to be “Who am I?”, “How do others see me?” and “If no one sees me, do I even exist?” It’s all about socializing, learning yourself through relationship to others and the world. How to know anything unless it’s been trotted out in public and reflected in the gaze of one’s peers? It is a particularly tricky joke we play on them to bring them here during their second week in India, and ask them to divest themselves of all of their conditionings and beliefs. Most of them are just now hatching into a stage in life where they can identify their own beliefs, apart from those of their parents/ hometown/ religious background/ etc. So if their resistance looks to me like derision and sarcasm, it likely feels to them more like being allowed to choose your own name, then having someone tell you you have to go by “Mr. X” instead. Not o.k.

I am bolstering myself with these types of compassion exercises in preparation for our first group circle after breaking silence tomorrow. I’m feeling a bit tender about the edges after all of this psychic excavation, and am just hoping that I can keep grounded in the comforting law of impermanence. No matter what mini-quakes this week sends rippling through the group, I know it will pass.

I remember when I lived in L.A. after my stint in the Peace Corps. It was an incredibly sad and difficult time (Note: Don’t move to L.A. after your stint in the Peace Corps). I used to walk in the hills of Will Rogers State Park looking down at the city, and feel completely convinced that things would always be sad and difficult, because everything I could see from there was infinitely sprawling L.A., and I couldn’t imagine that there was anywhere else to go, or anything else to feel. In the end, it turns out that all I had to do for the landscape to change, was keep walking . In the moments where the shrapnel of a student’s overwhelm and confusion is hurtling at my softer parts, I hope I can remember that even those razor-edged shards (and the collateral damage where they land), will pass.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meeting the Monk

The Dalai Lama left yesterday. The night before, one of my students learned that His Holiness would join in a parade down the Temple Road at 8am, so I launched myself (screaming hamstrings and all, courtesy of Vijay the Merciless Yogi) out of bed just before seven in order to grab breakfast and score a good spot to watch the procession before yoga at nine. When I slipped into a café to bolt down some muesli and curd, the guy at the counter informed me that the Dalai Lama was, in fact, leaving, but not until after nine, and would only be exiting the gates in an SUV and heading straight down to Dharamsala.

At a bit of a loss, and wishing myself back in bed for another hour of logistics-free oblivion, I decided to head down to the temple gates anyway. In stark contrast to the surging throngs of the past three days while the teachings were going on, the entrance to the temple was populated by only a few street vendors and idly strolling tourists. I could hear the monks chanting in the inner sanctum of the monastery a few floors up. The low monotonous rumble seemed to vibrate right into my eye sockets, and I followed it like a cat with the scent of sushi in its nose.

One might remark that my next couple of strategic moves to gain access to the inner sanctum may seem ironical, mercenary even, given both my devotional surroundings and the fact that it was all to the purpose of joining in morning prayers. One might also cut a sleep-deprived girl with a serious case of Dalai Lama love a little slack, but let your conscience be your guide. When I hit the first security gate, a burly Tibetan asked me if I had any cell phones or cameras in my bag. I did, in fact, have my Nokia cell (that necessary albatross of my “leader” incarnation) in my possession. Does the fact that I shook my head “No” rather than actually uttering the word make it less likely that I will go to hell for lying in a monastery? I’ll be honest, this question only occurred to me after the fact. Way after.

My flare of triumph at evading detection was quickly doused when I hit the pat-down point, and a soft-spoken female guard found my cell phone amongst the pens and probiotics at the bottom of my bag. No amount of wide-eyed innocence could compel her to let me leave it there and retrieve it when I left. So I faked a retreat back through the first check point, dove into a bathroom, and hid the phone behind a plastic waste bin, under a pile of urine-scented straw hand brooms. The eventual repugnant retrieval was well worth it.

I sailed back through security, and found myself in the inner sanctum with a large contingent of monks, nuns, Tibetan lay people, a smattering of Westerners, and the Dalai Lama himself. I was able to walk up to within twenty yards of where he sat in prayer, and sank down to the floor transfixed by his earnest, peaceful profile. By the stern look of the older man who asked me to move a bit further off, that was rather like a Martian toddler strolling into the Vatican, plopping down at the Pope’s feet, and demanding a bedtime story. I offered him an apologetic look that I hoped conveyed mental incapacity and endearing cultural ignorance, and retreated to a raised dias towards the back of the room where women of all ages cuddled and swatted their fidgety children.

The Tibetan horns sounded by the high lamas sounded like trestle tables being dragged across a cafeteria floor, and this, punctuated by clanging bells, created what I can only describe as a uniquely symphonic cacophony that felt somber and celebratory at the same time. I meditated for a bit, then joined a slowly moving river of devotees in a couple of perambulations around the central altar for a few more glimpses of His Holiness before trekking back to the dank bathroom, where I excavated my now bacteria-infested contraband. As I strolled back up the Temple Road towards another interminable yoga marathon, I reflected on the fact that, though I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the Dalai Lama’s teachings a few days prior, this experience of participating with him in his daily devotions felt much more powerful somehow. I have heard His Holiness say in many interviews that he is only a simple monk at heart, but I could never quite reconcile his profound presence with this image until I heard his voice joined in the same words of prayer as the modest sea of Buddhists around him, all facing the same altar, asking for the same peace, compassion, and patience.

Third Date

The handrails along the steps leading up to the inner sanctum of Norbulingka Monastery, where the Dalai Lama offers his teachings when in residence at Dharamsala, were completely swaddled in bright yellow cloth. I didn’t notice this until I watched an elderly woman reach for one of them while descending, only to be pursued by a gangly Tibetan wearing what appeared to be a canvas tool belt, hands flapping in dismay. The walnut-faced matron with her cloth bound braids raised her hand and muttered at him, shaking her head, in what I imagined to be a variation of “Alright, young whippersnapper, keep your shorts on!” I hypothesized that the cloth-consecrated handrails were only for the express use of His Holiness, not to be tainted by the dermal secretions of the less enlightened, but the Dalai Lama scurried up those steps without so much as a hand at his elbow. I filed this enigma under the already “at capacity” category of “Things I See But Don’t Understand.”

My third date with the Dalai Lama this year bore a great deal of resemblance to my initial encounter last fall, even down to the seat I chose amongst a crowd of Tibetan elders in front of the television screen where we could watch His Holiness deliver his teachings from the hall above. This spot also afforded me a prime view of the Dalai Lama as he made his entrance, not by darkly tinted SUV this time, but striding in on foot with a detachment of monks and security, swift and sure as a man half his age. I was once again without access to the inner sanctum, as we had arrived in Mcleod Ganj too late to register for passes.

The English translator appeared to be the same as last year, judging by his heavy accent, and tendency to breathe loudly through his mouth into the microphone. I started to develop a bit of a grudge towards him as the teachings progressed (mouth breathing aside, unpardonable though it may be), as the other translators tended to go on for a few extra minutes after he had ended, and I wondered if the Anglophones weren’t getting the short end of the stick. Not to mention the fact that when he is speaking, His Holiness cracks himself up on a regular basis with jokes and puns, and these little zingers were not deemed worthy of translation. Oh, the power wielded by the polyglot!

The teachings themselves were somewhat obscure, as they were specifically addressing the Mahayana school of Buddhism and various sutras associated with it, which I wouldn’t know from the Book of Job. However, with his customary ease, the Dalai Lama did manage to present some pearls for the layperson. The gist of it seemed to be that the Buddha teaches us that our perceptions affect appearance- that all external objects are extensions of our internal reality, and we respond to each reality to the same degree on all levels.

Now, I was following all of this to the best of my ability, despite the ridiculously precious exchange between a broken-toothed monk and the cackling toddler trying to consume his face one gummy bite at a time just in front of me. I mention this as a caveat, in case what I think I heard the translator say may not be what he actually said. But what I think he said (in the words of his Holiness), was that a prime example of how we respond to internal and external realities in the same way is the fact that when one has a sexual, um, experience when dreaming, one often awakens to find that one has had that same experience in external reality. The word “emissions” was used with enough frequency that I stopped checking my earpiece, and settled in to the possibility that the Dalai Lama was just keeping it real for the sake of accessibility.

Later, I asked some of my students whether they had heard this particular analogy, and I got enough “Oh my God, I thought it was just me!”-flavored responses to resolve most of my lingering uncertainty. So either it happened, or we were all projecting some sex-obsessed reality onto one of the most spiritually evolved beings on the planet. Either way, message received.

My belly was a bit ominous on this day, so I decided to slip out when the gigantic vats of butter tea and what I call “Tibetan frisbee bread” (for its unique taste and texture) began to make the rounds. The grandma beside me had already shoved a piece of politely declined cardboard under my bottom with enough velocity to send me toppling (you will NOT sit on hard concrete, granddaughter!), so I was under no illusions about my ability to evade her insistent offerings of food. I did return the next afternoon for the last round of teachings, and was amazed at how deserted the place was. I had an incredible spot on a mostly empty dias, and when the Dalai Lama strolled in, it seemed as though he would walk right up to me and pat me on the head. I sat in dumb wonder and fought the urge to wave maniacally like Gilligan at a rescue plane. As it turns out, this last afternoon was to be a question and answer session exclusively for the Korean monks who had requested the teachings, and there was no English translation to be had. I gave my transistor radio to an elderly Tibetan lady sitting beside me (the sound system upstairs was not up to the task of filtering down below with any accuracy), and made my way out through the serpentine monastery corridors.

If there is one thing I’ve gleaned during my forays into religion as it is practiced in India and other parts of Asia, it is an unshakeable belief in the power of simply being in the presence of an enlightened being. There are many parts of my ego-dominated psyche that resist the idea that I might in any way be improved by mere proximity to another, but the experiences I have had with my nieces and nephews, my mentors, my loved ones, wild places, and the Dalai Lama himself have given me considerable evidence to the contrary.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

(All) Night Moves

We arrived in Mcleod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh (seat of the Tibetan government in exile and residence of the Dalai Lama) via the most comfortable bus I've ridden on any continent. Let me qualify that. The seats reclined further than any I’ve experienced on commercial transportation, the overhead lights shone with the perfect degree of luminosity for desultory reading, and the upholstery was blessedly free of malodorous mystery stains. In all other ways, it was about as uncomfortable as any overnight bus ride in India is destined to be, due to the liberally cratered road surfaces, periodic REM cycles of our driver, and a form of on-board entertainment that mesmerized and alarmed all passengers save one- the performer himself. For eleven hours and forty minutes.

At the front of the bus, just a few rows ahead of where I sat and directly across from two of my female students, was a wiry Tibetan man in his twenties with a hennaed mullet/goatee combo, hand-held MP3 player, and some very tenacious ear buds. How do I know this? Because for the better part of our twelve hour journey, he proceeded to spasm and contort with the chutzpah of an epileptic Liz Minelli, utilizing every available surface as prop and partner, including his seat, the plexiglass shield separating him from the driver, the overhead compartments, the side windows, and his beleaguered seat mate’s armrest.

Every lurch of the bus seemed to inspire a new movement sequence, as he transitioned seamlessly from the “Axel Rose Stationary Waddle” to “Mime in a Glass Box” to the lesser known but no less compelling “Man with Bear Claws Walking on Eggshells”. His range was baffling but boundless. With his beat-up Vans and oblivious trance, he could’ve been just another tweaked-out Venice Beach side show, but our Dharamsala-bound bus, his angular Asian features and turquoise “Free Tibet” t-shirt hinted at a different story. The students held it together reasonably well, even though his airborne perspiration flecked their new punjabis as he began humping his seat sideways, then nearly launched himself out of the side window entirely. Of course, when he stepped off the bus to relieve himself, the entire bus broke into incredulous guffaws, and from behind me I heard one of my less diplomatic students bellow “What the f***? Who the f*** do you think you f***ing are, Michael f****ing Jackson?!” (We are working on “right speech” in this program, but we’ve still got a ways to go- can I buy another asterix, Pat?).

His brush with self- induced defenestration inspired our intrepid entertainer to confine his gyrations and gesticulations to his seat for a spell. This gave rise to an unprecedented series of head and neck improvisations that would’ve made all but the most stalwart chiropractor implode with dismay. Inevitably, the rhythm drove our tireless friend to his feet once more, and he was still perfecting his windmilling jazz hands and pelvic thrusts as we rolled into Mcleod Ganj the next morning. The students bore no grudge, and some even snapped a few photos with him before disembarking. They tucked themselves under his wiry wings, and his hollow, sweat-slicked cheeks pressed to theirs like they were boozy pledge sisters at a spring formal.

My co-leader was red-eyed from his night of vigilance in the seat in front of mine, unwilling to allow this whirling wild card an unmonitored moment in such precarious proximity to our students. As for me, between the unpredictable jolts of the vehicle, flapping and flailing at the front of the bus, and my inventive but unsustainable sleeping posture contortions, I stumbled away with only a few stolen hours’ repose. This would have been completely impossible if not for a double dose of Melatonin, to be referred to hereafter as “Melastonin’”. Seriously, my jaw went numb, and I think I saw my third eye when I caught my bleary reflection in the window. If Mister Magic Moves hadn’t still been getting his groove on when I re-surfaced at around 4am, I probably would have consigned him to the realm of “natural sleep aid”-induced hallucinations as well. I guess we both needed a little something extra to get through the night.

In retrospect, I may have gotten exactly what I asked for when I boarded the bus in Delhi. I believe my exact words were “Wow, check this bus out! This is going to be the best bus ride ever!” Of course, the gods must know that I am a closet devotee of all things “dance”. Fame, Star Search, you name it. I even turn off the ringer on my phone for a new episode of “Dance Your Ass Off”, and not turn it back on until I’ve wept my way through the final elimination round. Next time, I will just have to be a little more specific. Saturday Night Fever is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Taking An Inch

I think I’ve found the Starbucks of Majnu ka Tilla. A rat that looked half-digested scurried across my path moments before I stumbled upon this oasis of fresh carrot juice and climate control, and the beggar waving his smooth shiny stump at me from the street outside reminds me that India is just one inch of glass away.

We’ve spent the last three days in the Tibetan Quarter of New Delhi, with the Yamuna River at flood heights unseen since the 1920’s roiling by just yards from the rear balcony of our guest house. We leave today for the Tibetan community of Mcleod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, and I’m practically panting with excitement at the thought of the long hikes, amazing encounters (including my third Dalai Llama date since last fall), and steaming bowls of thenthuk that await. We’ve booked ourselves onto what sounds like the swankiest form of wheeled transport I’ve ever taken in India, or so the ticket prices imply. If she’s sound, stays on the road, and free of random livestock poop salvos from overhead bins, I’ll count it a triumph.

The reluctantly departing monsoon has kept skies overcast and the daily high temps in the low nineties, which has been a blessed reprieve from the salwar-soaking oppression I recall from last September. We’ve let our charges loose on Delhi with little more than food per diem and tattered maps to bring them back to us safely at the end of the day, and despite the offers of hashish, “special” services from oily touts, and sacrum-shattering rickshaw rides, our group of fledgling adventurers remains thus far intact.

The tentative hope that we will not only make it through, but that I may actually be doing a service to India by bringing these people here is taking root, though every superstitious bone in my body has me wanting to spit twice while hopping over a broom backwards to ward off the evil eye such auspicious beginnings surely attract. I watch the students engage with the poverty, injustice, and food security that impact the vast majority of India’s population on a profound and daily basis, and they are not turning away or trying to change the channel. They’re registering the shock, the sadness, the guilt, even the disgust, and still staying curious about the problems and the solutions. The inexorably swelling Yamuna, as it slowly consumes the villages on its banks, has forced all of us to witness a drama of destruction and helplessness in the face of overwhelming force from our privileged perch, and I’m fairly clear that it is this potent presence that’s giving the students their first real lesson in India.

I know that India, like the Yamuna, will be swallowing and digesting our wandering village of fifteen in the next ten weeks in her own inevitable way. It feels like we are suspended in that moment just after something tremendous swallows you up, and just before it starts to work you between its molars like a cow with its cud. In the interim, I submit to the whir of frothing lattes, the embrace of what might be the most comfortable chair in India, and the cool comfort of one inch of glass.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notes from Concourse F

We've landed in Hong Kong Airport, many miles and a moon from our sweetly nurturing launch pad in Calistoga.  Our mission:   to entertain ourselves here for the next seven hours (as opposed to elsewhere on this lovely little island or in the city) due to swine flu concerns. From my station on a lozenge-shaped lounge chair on the upper level, I can see surgi-masked travellers with their competent luggage clipping briskly towards the departure gates below. The students have been let loose with their $10 per diem to soak in these last hours of immaculately scrubbed floors, duty-free shopping, and untroubled digestion before the last leg to Delhi.

The mantle of leadership still rests fairly innocuously on my shoulders, as the comforting capsule of international flights keeps us all within well and frequently fed distance of each other. Yes, there have already been tears and tensions, but I cannot suppress the urge to say that I really like these people, and am having something that feels suspiciously like fun, even while suffering the extortion of airport currency exchange agents, and the neuron-deadening exhaustion of 30 plus hours of travel. Of course, my life is still largely my own, and India has yet to sweep us up in her quixotic embrace.

Successes for the day:
figuring out what day and time it is
resetting my watch to account for said information
acquiring food (mystery squiggly marine life in hot rice broth)
finding a quiet airport nook to pull 3 chairs together for an illicit nap

-and it's not even 10am yet! So, despite the fact that we missed Thursday altogether (one of my favorite days as a college undergrad, as it heralded the first night of the weekend's debauchery)due to time zone changes I will probably never fully grasp, I am feeling quite content to revel in these small triumphs. From here, I can look out across the tiers of shops and restaurants, and watch as my students wend their bleary way through flourescent-lit noodle bars and glittering jewelry kiosks.

It's happening. I am starting to love them in that now-familiar inexplicable way- for their expectations (soon to be ungently dismantled), for their anxieties (soon to pale in comparison to challenges they could never imagine), and for their energy and curiousity, which  has already bolstered my own flagging reserves. So though my eyeballs feel like a pair of fried egges from too many sleepless, contorted hours in canned air, and the seafood squigglies from my morning rice porridge are beginning a tentative rhumba just behind my navel, life on Concourse F seems sweet indeed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Coming Back

I've never surfed a flash flood with a bee hive humming in my skull, but I would imagine it feels something like this. I rolled onto campus on Sunday as tentative as a school girl with her braces just off, and was immediately struck by how, well, full this campus now feels. There are thirty-two students, thirteen of whom now shuffle restively under my scrawny but determined wing. I don't know who they were when they showed up here, but after ten days of integrity boot camp, they are riding high on low-grade anxiety and their own latent potential. They seem set on no less than utter transformation (though transcendence would not be taken amiss), and I have no doubt that India is up to the task, but are they? Am I?

The reality of my return to India descended into the gut realm yesterday as we went through the itinerary with the group and traced our journey on a map with pushpins and yellow yarn. Oh, yes, the heat. The vertiginous taxi rides. The daunting chasms of miscommunication and the feeling on some days that the entirety of India's inexorable weight is balanced on top of my of my chest like a circus elephant on a golf ball. It's all coming back to me.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Blind Date

My palms are preemptively moist, and I can feel inane stream-of-consciouness chatter welling up in my throat. The first date jitters have me firmly in their sweaty grasp. What will I wear? (probably one of the two t- shirt/ drawstring pant options I've had in rotation for the last ten days). What will I say? (probably something meandering and vaguely alarming despite my attempts to convey competence and ease). I meet my new crop of students tomorrow, and I'm as nervous as Richard Simmons in a doughnut shop.

Based on prior experience, and for my own sanity, I am letting go of any expectation that they will find me:
appealing to spend time with
fair and balanced
a snappy dresser

Spending time with the under-four crowd has me re-evaluating what I can reasonably expect from my more seasoned charges-to-be, including that they will probably not:

pee on me (though they may projectile vomit on my flip flops)
expect me to cut their food into bite-sized morsels
require me to wipe their "boogies"
behaviorally implode if they skip nap time
demand endless encores of my critically acclaimed finger puppet
show (Mr. Corncob Sings the Blues)

This is lulling me into an undoubtedly false sense that the upcoming semester will feel like an interlude at Canyon Ranch in comparison to the demanding vigilance of tiny tot stewardship. Apparently, my memory has been adversely affected by all of the goo goo talk and slobbery kisses (I will miss these, but may jump into the Ganga if they become a feature of the next 10 weeks). It's hard to describe the awkward gravity of meeting the collection of people who will become your life's next "Big Lesson". I almost want to say "Hi. Thanks in advance for helping me be a better person- in case I forget to mention it when I feel like duct-taping your mouth shut and lashing you to the top of a bus. You're a gem." Here goes...

Friday, September 4, 2009


The Berkeley sun shines brightly on my waning days in America-land, but there is no rest for the weary. My body has warmly adopted a mystery virus which leaves me with the energy of a doped slug in Georgia mud, and my head feeling like it's being raided by anxiety gremlins with ADD. There seems to be a direct correlation between my capacity for clarity and focus, and the degree to which I am able to move my body each day. I suspect I'm not alone in this. (Do slugs really suffer this kind of syrup-headedness, or are they simply the misunderstood Zen masters of the mollusk world? See?! No focus.)

And so instead of riding the evanescent, supple waves of "nothing to do, nowhere to go" bliss, my head parts are a relentless tsunami of "What ifs". Like what if I have swine flu? What if I lose half my students in the airport in Hong Kong, and have to leave the other half behind in a dank Rajasthani prison? What if this crazy work leaves me unfit for any other form of gainful employment and I end up having to sell my body for beef jerky and Pez on the mean streets of Berryville, Virginia? This last question is definitely the primary factor in my mental climate (except for the Berryville part. The "meanest" thing about Berryville is the strictly enforced speed limit). Though the next unpredictable and inevitably altering semester still looms, the sense that my days as an "international educator" are numbered kicks my "What next, Where next, How next" ponderings into gut-churning hyperdrive.

Practically yapping with delirium from too many late night fruitless internet job search forays, I am disconcerted by the velocity of my internal frenzy when contemplating the future.

Every transition presents an invitation to figure out who I am, and what I want. Only, as it turns out (and I have considerable volumes of self-help discourse to back me up on this), when one is trying to figure out who one is and what one wants, it is necessary to distinguish between one's essential nature, and all of the "personae" one has adopted throughout one's life in order to acclimate, accomodate, and assimilate in a variety of situations. A persona is a survival tool that we pick up when we forget who we are, which we eventually end up bludgeoning ourselves (and others) with until we no longer recognize our own lives (note: "self help" does not always equal "happy thoughts"). Before we know it, "The Good Girl" who used to help with the chores when it became apparent that mommy was two wine coolers from a meltdown is the same persona that lands you in a soul-sucking job or a dead-end marriage. As I am intensely interested in avoiding either (and I suspect I may have bludgeoned a student or two with some of my "tools" in the last year), this whole persona thing seems worth a ponder. So I decided to make a list.

Then, I stopped. That's a long freaking list. On the lighter side, we've got "The Tough Cookie", "The Health Nut", "The Black Sheep", "The Lone Ranger", "The Accomodator", "The Wanderer", and "The Artful Dodger". But there's more, people, and it's not pretty. If I peeled ALL of them away, I'd probaly look like a burn victim or Joan Rivers after dermabrasion. The point is, navigating transitions may be a lot simpler if I can get my army of "tools" out of the way more often and act/choose/speak/think as me, rather than letting "The Entertainer" or "The Git 'Er Done Diva" call the shots. This is, after all, what I am charged with nurturing in my students, many of whom have more of a "fashion show" mentality in regards to their array of personae- "Look, I'm a bored urbanite slam poet! Now I'm a bookish band geek!" Two leaders, thirteen students, and a platoon of personae. We may need a few extra passports.