Monday, March 28, 2016

Catching Fireflies and the Wonders of Mountain Life

Following a trail out of Bhagsu Village in the far northern end of Dharamsala, I deviated from the rather crowded path and ended up fording a river and scrambling up the side of a hill along a thinly veiled rocky trail because I thought I saw some mountain goats and a tower peaking up over a ridge. I did see some mountain goats and a tower. The tower turned out to be part of a small meditation cave on the property of a guesthouse with a breathtaking view overlooking the entire Kangra Valley--complete with little tree stump tables and chairs and hammocks strung across the cliff side. How do people get up here who are staying? I asked the owner when he popped out of the house. I think you found the way, he said and smiled. 

This is my life in Dharamsala.

Nestled high in the Dhauladhar Range of the Himalayan Mountains, Dharamsala is not your typical Indian town (though I'm not sure there is such thing as a typical Indian town). Not only does the Dalai Lama, the entire Tibetan government-in-exile as well as thousands of Tibetan refugees live here, it is also a hub for Himalayan trekkers.

Far more crowded and noisy and colder than any place in India I've been so far, there is a coziness about it that you can't escape--because there is nothing cozier than hiding away in a cafe or coffee house reading and writing for hours when there is an early spring chill in the air and the sky is overcast with hanging clouds threatening rain. And like all the places I've called my home here in India, it is full of wonder and surprises.

I spend my afternoons as a volunteer in English conversation classes with Tibetan monks and refugees. The lead teacher gives us a topic and we talk. The subjects are vast and heavy--topics like: challenges you face and what are your greatest fears. Nothing can really prepare you for situations like this. Nothing can really prepare you for listening to a refugee talk about his flee over the Tibetan border into Nepal and his extreme dislike for China. Or listening to a monk tell me about how much he fears wild animals because of that time when he was 11 when his father got upset with him and locked him out of their house to spend the night in the woods with all the wild animals. Another monk tells me how he is learning English in this lifetime so maybe in his next life he'll be born a native English speaker. 

My job is to listen--listen and correct their pronunciation and sentence structure if needed. It is fascinating and educational and at times uncomfortable, but I can't imagine not showing up and looking these guys in the eyes and listening to their stories. Because I was never not meant to be here.

In the evenings I wander the busy streets of upper Dharamsala in the village of McLeod Ganj and watch people from rooftop restaurants and think about the 3 months I've spent here in India--all the people I've met and experiences I've had and the incredible things I've seen.

I sit here in this quaint little cafe looking out the window at the peak of Hanuman Ka Tibba towering at just under 19,000 feet over this bustling little mountain town etched into its mountainous foothills--knowing that each place I've been, each person I've met, each experience I've had was never not meant to be. And also knowing that everything that came before India is why I'm here.

On the bus traveling from Rishikesh to Dharamsala, I sat next to a girl who told me how each day she thanks all those people who pushed her out of her old life in New York into this one. You know, she told me, if it weren't for all those people who did so many terrible things to me, I wouldn't be sitting here next to you, traveling through the Himalayas. I told her all about Kundalini Yoga, and she told me all about Mooji--the reasons that drew us to Rishikesh. And then we shared the mysterious reasons as to why we are so drawn to this far flung little mountain town we are headed toward.

I savor each of these places and conversations and chance meetings and experiences, and like fireflies, I hold tight to each of them and watch them glow in wonder and then let them go because there are so many more out there waiting on me.

Do you see your life as a string of people and circumstances that were never not meant to be? Or do you think you'd be where you're at regardless of what came before? Tell me your stories, tell me about your fireflies. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Moving through Magic (or How to Be a Science Fiction Character)

My transition into Rishikesh was not the most pleasant of experiences. By the time I arrived I was completely drained physically, emotionally, and mentally. Why had I left my nearly perfect life as an Arambol beach bum, again? Why was I in the much more crowded and dirtier north, again? Why had I signed up for a continuation of my yoga teacher training when I'm not even a yoga teacher, again? All the magic that had unfolded over the past two months seemed to be fading with each passing moment that I was in Rishikesh, and it was literally making me sick.

But because this is the year of magic, magic is bound to happen...right?

It could have been the woman who sat with me at breakfast my first morning and told me to watch out for all the synchronicity, but it was the Indian man down by the river beach who looked more like a tourist from California than a wise Rishi who started it.

I must have looked a mess by the time I found the will to leave my room and go for a walk. Hey, he said as he walked by me. Hey, I said back. He stopped and turned around. Don't forget to just sit in silence at the end of everyday, he told me. In fact, he was so insistent on telling me this he took my hands into his and repeated himself. Don't burn yourself out on all the yoga and pranayam and stimuli--the secret is in the silence. I wasn't sure why he was telling me this--he had no idea who I was or why I was there, but I was grateful that some sort of message was coming through--and of course, from a most unlikely messenger.

I had no expectations when I got to India, and the most magical things happened. But the minute I started expecting magic around every corner, it just dissipated. Because you can't chase magic--I should know this. The magic that existed in Kerala and in Arambol simply wasn't going to exist here, and I had to accept that. I can't chase it; I can't let it go. Stalemate. Where do you draw the line between letting go and letting magic happen, and being proactive in creating magic in your life?

And then I met Howie and his wife from San Jose who not only know one of my best friends and her husband, but also one of my yoga teachers from Divinitree in Santa Cruz. And they have a really good friend teaching English in Chiang Mai they're going to connect me with. And sitting behind me in class there's a group of Russian girls and their translator who is translating the entire class as it's happening. Because that's normal, right? And then I met Hang, a Vietnamese girl who was born and raised in New York, but ended up moving to Vietnam several years ago through some very serendipitous events that a psychic monk once predicted. And the all the folks I keep meeting who've just come from or are headed to Dharamsala and are giving me great advice for my travel there. These are just a few of the small circumstances or encounters that keep adding up. But to what?

When you have a question about life just sit in the middle of the question, and one day soon you'll be living the answer, Gurmukh told us. Be okay not knowing and not having answers, and that is the only way you'll get the answers. Or you'll just be caught in the washing machine. Be silent. Whatever you do, don't get attached to the outcome. Let it go, let it go, let it go. Her calming voice and presence a complete contradiction to the intensity of my week with her and simply trying to exist here in this funny little town on the Ganges.

You know, it's just all the processing you're doing, a lady from my class told me, you'll come out the other side eventually. I kind of knew this already, but it was another nice reminder.

Each day I talk to someone new who reveals something to me that let's me know the magic isn't gone. One of the themes of this year is impermanence after all. The magic shifts and changes. I just need to learn to recognize it in each new environment.

You all are 500 years ahead of the times because of this work you are doing, Gurmukh told us on our last day. We're science fiction characters, someone from the class shouted. We're Jedi's in training, someone else shouted.

As soon as the training was over, as soon as I was able to start getting into my own natural rhythm again, my sickness subsided and my head felt clearer. Yesterday I went white water rafting on the Ganges with a group from my class which seemed to wipe out any residual ickiness I felt, and this morning Elizabeth Gilbert made a facebook post about Murakami--how they both share the same slow and steady system of writing. I did a double take. Gilbert writing about Murakami?! It can't get much more magical than that when I've been grasping for magic since I've gotten here.

Apparently, I'm just a science fiction character (and/or Jedi) moving through a magical world where sometimes I have to reboot for the magic to get through.

Do you have a tendency to chase magic or let it unfold? How do you find the balance between letting magic happen and cultivating it in your life?

By the way, a few alternative titles for this post were: How to Survive a Spiritual Ass-kicking...Or How to Lose a Great Tan in Under 7 Days...Or Things That Happen When I Stop Reading Paulo Coelo and Murakami. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Leaning Into Trust

I was having terrible anxiety the night I left Amritapuri. I was leaving the ashram during the night to catch a 2am train to my next home here in Arambol, and aside from a lady in my seva group who told me every nightmarish experience she'd had riding trains in India, I had no point of reference to how it worked.

How would I know which train is mine? How would I know which train car to get onto? How would I know when to get off if they don't announce the stops? What if the driver from the guesthouse can't find me? I accidentally dozed off thinking about these things while at the same time trusting that it would somehow work out, that I would be taken care of.

Exactly 30 minutes before I was to meet my taxi one the girls I shared the room with came in from a late night Amma darshan, inadvertantly waking me up.

I walked downstairs to my taxi and discovered I wasn't traveling alone. Another girl was leaving for the train station as well--taking the same train, in the train car next to mine, also headed to Arambol. Together, we were able to figure out where we needed to be. You are my angel, she told me as we were sitting on the platform waiting, I don't think I could have done this alone. You're my angel too, I told her. Together, each other's angel, we made our way to Arambol. I'm sure we'll run into each other, she said when we parted ways at her guesthouse. 

Though we were both staying for a month, I never saw her again.

Back before I left Santa Cruz, a friend who had traveled throughout India for 9 months the year before told me that if I was going to enjoy traveling, I needed to be able to lean into trust, that I couldn't constantly be fearful of everything--like getting lost or getting sick or being ripped off. In other words, I needed to believe that the Universe is always conspiring in my favor, that the world is out to help me no matter my circumstance. Of course, along with trust, having a keen sense of intuition goes a long ways too.

Leaning into trust is intuitively knowing where to go, where to eat, where to stay, and who to engage with. Trust that the water I drink and food I eat isn't contaminated. Trust that the rooms I stay in are clean and bug free. Trust the taxi driver with my life as he weaves in and out of all the oncoming traffic. Trust that I won't get hit by a motorbike while walking down the all the shoulder-less streets. Learn to haggle and trust in my ability to get a fair price. Trust the people around me and talk to everyone, but keep boundaries. By keeping myself open, I have had some of the most interesting conversations and found some of the most unexpected friends.

Leaning into trust is not shutting down when getting harassed my a bunch of 12--year-old girls on the beach wanting you to buy scarves and anklets and trinkets. It can get kind of annoying after awhile--if you let it. I opened myself up to it, and I made it a game. Tell me a story and I'll think about it, I'd say.

Over the course of my weeks here in Arambol, I probably bought about $10 worth of things (that's a lot of scarves and anklets) from these girls if they kept me captivated long enough. My favorite has been Mira--mostly because the first time I bought something from her she kissed the rupee bill and held it to her heart and told me I was her best luck. Ever since that day, whenever she found me on the beach (and she always did), she called me her best luck. If another girl saw us and started to edge her way in and beg, I would just start quoting Bruce Willis from Moonrise Kingsom: "I can't argue against anything you're saying kid, but then again, I don't have to, cause you're 12 years-old." At that point, the new girl would either go away or really want to talk with me.

Leaning into trust is having the same faith in people that they have in you--like the bookshop guy who let me pay the next day when I didn't have enough for the two Murakami books or like the handful of cafes who couldn't make change and told me to just pay them next time I came in. The first couple times it happened I just stared at them dumbfounded. I trust you, they would always say.

Leaning into trust is sitting down to chai with the Indian guy who stopped you on the street or beach because you said hi back to him when he waved instead of ignoring him. Within the first five minutes of chatting, I always knew if it was a conversation I should stick with or back out of.

Leaning into trust is walking down the beach alone late at night, and instead of becoming fearful when a group of guys starts yelling, understand they probably aren't harassing at all, they are simply trying to communicate: Hey crazy girl, stop before you run into that volleyball net two feet in front of your face.

How trusting are you of the world around you? Do you tend to lean into trust or always sway more on the cautious side of things?

Signing off from the magical and enchanting Arambol, Goa. And just like when I left Amritapuri, I'm leaving Arambol during the night with complete trust that I will be taken care of on this journey to the north.