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A Day with the Dalai Lama

Grateful for memories!

On the (exact!) three year anniversary of my original posting on being the presence of the Dalai Lama … today I’ll give thanks for that rare experience, the direct result of simple seva.

Hotbox of Compassion ~ The Dalai Lama in Haridwar

Saturday, April 3rd, 2011.  The sun is stronger than normal today.  As the sweat beads form on my brow, I squint into the distance, just barely making out a large white van driving up the dusty paved road.  A beige colored haze forms just above the car, blurring the tops of buildings, the cows in the distance, lazily hunting for food in plastic bags scattering the ground.

We’re waiting for the white vans to pick us up and take us to the Dalai Lama.  Not straight to his lap, unfortunately, but to Haridwar, where the Kumbh Mela still rocks on strong, where the blessing for the first Encyclopedia of Hinduism goes down, amidst scores of saints, politicians, Tibetan devotees of His Holiness, media cats and lucky mo’ fos like me. We’re all going to the spiritual gangsta’s ball, and I have VIP pass!

No but really, though.  How on earth was I given the chance to go to an event where I’d be within arm’s reach of the Dalai Lama?

Seva.  Sweet and simple.

Speaking with one of the directors of the ashram where I was staying (Parmarth Niketan), I offered to do some seva (service) around the ashram, with only the intention of contributing something to this mad little community.  I cleaned room after room until I was pointed in the direction of a marble-floored residence overlooking the Ganga.  Velvet curtains and ornate furniture were not the only signs this was room was special.  It was spacious, sure.  But there was something more to it.  It had a vibe.

Later I found out I served as the Dalai Lama’s cleaning lady.  

When the director explained to me who usually stays in that room, I had a grin so massive, they invited me to the launch of the Hindu Encyclopedia where the Dalai Lama was set to provide a blessing. This was turning out to be a way cool first trip to India.

We drove for nearly two hours through the sprawling Rajaji national park (during which time I nearly hurled a few times), 10 white vans in a line, toting journalists (including an especially cool German lady who’d been writing about India since the hippy days), alongside ashramites like myself, alongside contributors to the first Hindu Encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia comes in 11 volumes and illuminates over 7000 comprehensive entries, written and cross referenced by over 1000 international scholars of Hinduism. This massive collaboration took nearly 23 years to produce, all overseen by the India Research Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by Parmarth Niketan’s in house swami, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji.

Arrival in Haridwar is typically Indian: slow going, dusty and slightly confusing.  Our van drivers give up on navigating the hordes of people and cows so they stop several meters up the road from the event.  Squeezing past stationary cars, some parked, some stubbornly trying to get through the madness, we come to a massive orange gate and into the event.  It’s t-minus 65 minutes and I’m already sweating balls.

As we walk through the tent to the front rows, I notice all the Tibetan families, lined up diligently as they await the arrival of their spiritual leader.

The second row is almost totally empty – score!  I figured we could sit there until someone tells us it’s not allowed.  Either that, or we pass out from some horrific combination of hunger and heatstroke.

We watch an hour of setting up, all to the backdrop of gorgeous live kirtan, and finally the saints start making their way in.  I’m oddly reminded of the WWF stadium shows I’d seen in Hawaii, where Jake the Snake Roberts and the Ultimate Warrior would walk out from the dark back rooms to screaming crowds and flashing lights.The anticipation, the glaring power of the idol, media folks snaking around, vying for the best shot, and most of all, the heat. These are the holiest of holy men in India.

I recognize some of their faces, though I don’t know any of these saints’ names; the crowd, on the other hand, are more than familiar.  The bushy beardy long haired guy who’s all about Hinduism as the ideal path, the heartstrong saint with the shaven head who sings as though divinity were playing his pipes, and the grumpy looking leader of the saints whose staff and face paintings give him the air of a divine pimp.  Every holy man gets his props.  But when the Dalai Lama walks through, the Hulk Hogan of the spiritual realm, the crowd goes wild.  Immediately my heart starts beating quadruple time and tears literally start stream down my face.  This did not happen at the WWF show.


I hadn’t expected that at all.  I mean, I respect the man, his teachings are profound and everything I’ve read of his strikes a chord with me.  His people have endured disgusting oppression and yet he continues to lead the path of compassion and forgiveness.  But when he walked in front of me, all humility and smiles, literally just a few feet away, I felt nothing but pure joy – my heart nearly leapt out of my chest and into his arms.

Wow. It takes a few minutes to recover from the overwhelming emotions, and I’m wondering if maybe this means my heart chakra is way too open or something. No one else seems to be crying and I have a sneaky suspicion I look like one of those religious freaks who go into uncontrollable convulsions when enraptured by the spirit of the Lord.

75 minutes, two buckets of sweat, and four hundred pages of incomprehensible Hindi later, it’s finally time to hear the Dalai Lama speak.  First in Tibetan, translated to Hindi.  And then, a different speech, in English, for all us liberal minded academic hippy type folk in the West.  While the Tibetan speech, according to a girl I met at the ashram, mainly addressed the necessity to carry on, not to lose hope, and to always stay true to the teachings of Buddhism, the English talk emphasized Buddhism’s respect for atheists, the necessity for universal understanding, and the acceptance of compassion into every person’s heart.

It’s a brilliant 15 minutes (all recorded on video!), and I feel so grateful for being a part of this event.  From the long drive here, the presence of the saints, the blessing by the Dalai Lama, and the chance to just be present … it’s been the most incredible of days.

(Even if we were nearly murdered by a series of seemingly blind drivers on the windy road back to Rishikesh!  Thank Jah for our driver – a true surgeon of the road – who whizzed by more than one near-death collision that evening!  There’s so much more to write on the day, the lead up to it, how the Dalai Lama taught Ram Dev a lesson by yanking on his beard, and then, the denouement – the swanky party at the ashram.  But I’m on the road, a bit behind on these entries, and I suppose I should save some things for the book … ;o) )

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Teacher Series: Pandit Raj Kumar Vajpayee, Yogacharya

Today I’m full of gratitude for my teacher in Varanasi, Raju-ji!

He’s a friend, an adviser, and a wonderful yoga teacher who’s been pivotal in my evolution as a yogi.  If you want to read about some of my experiences in Varanasi with Raju-ji (I wrote several entries!), or the community seva project we launched last year, please click through.

(And if you’re a yogi headed to Banares, here are a few humble tips!)

Guruji with a pleased group of students – they all did their first headstands ever that day!

Raju-ji guided me through many firsts, in asana, pranayam, understanding the wisdom of many scriptures, and so much more.    Meeting him was no chance happening!

Guru-ji’s bio from his website:

Pandit Raj Kumar Vajpayee Yogacharya shines with the joy  and openness that yoga brings to life.  A family man and householder himself, Rajuji is able to translate the deep teachings of yoga in a way that is both understandable and applicable for a range of students.  His awesome intuition and in-depth knowledge of the human mind and body make Rajuji one of the most effective teachers out there.

Although yoga as a way of life is not competitive in nature, Rajuji also lays claim to a gold medal in asana competition.  He is the only gold medalist from the state of Uttar Pradesh in 36 years!  (To study asana and other yogic techniques with Rajuji in depth, check out his one-on-one program here.)

Whether your goals are spiritual, psychological, or physiological, Rajuji is a trustworthy teacher to help you open those doors.

Rajuji’s yoga experience began as a young boy.  He was ‘discovered’ in a Varanasi gym by a local yogi and trained for many years to became a gold medalist in Indian national yoga competitions.  As a recipient of the cherished Yoga Bushan title from the All India Yoga Society, Rajuji is among some of the best yoga asana practitioners in the country.

When Rajuji made the transition to teaching, he studied yoga therapy, hoping his gifts in yoga could help cure ailments and give peace to people in pain.  This capacity for giving and healing has drawn thousands of students from around the world to Rajuji’s doorstep in Varanasi.

Most recently, he has been leading Yoga Health Camps in Varanasi, bringing hundreds of people the healthful techniques of yoga.

One of his students, a 52 year-old American named Albert, had hurt his knee in a skiing accident some thirty years prior.  Albert had been to every specialist available to him in the States, but nothing stopped the chronic pain.  When he came to practice yoga with Rajuji, and his knee pain flared up, Rajuji told Albert, “Just give me ten minutes.”

Albert was given a ten minute program to follow and was shocked to be relieved so easily of his knee pain.  Since then, he’s been practicing Rajuji’s prescription, and is now living without any of the knee pain he’d been experiencing for thirty years!

Although Rajuji admits, not all ailments can be cured so simply, many common pains and diseases can be alleviated, and sometimes cured, through yogic technologies.  Asana, pranayama, proper diet, and meditation can make a world of difference in a practitioner’s life.

Om Shanti Yoga Niketan is where Rajuji instructs tourists from around the world, as well as provides yoga therapy for residents and visiting patients.  He has also trained professional models, helping them achieve fitness goals for their careers, and is a teacher of young children as well, at private and public schools throughout the state.

Rajuji and his apprentice Alok welcome students of all ages, levels, sizes and frames of mind, to visit the studio and experience yoga for yourselves.  Namaste, and may all beings be happy.

Music That’s Better Than Goa Trance (especially whilst chillin’ in Goa)

Without music, life would be a mistake.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the ultimate nihilist

I’m currently based on Agonda Beach in Goa for two weeks, taking a much-needed breather from all the urban madness of Bombay and the touristy back-n-forthing from visiting sites one “should” see, like the World Heritage Site, the Ellora Caves.

Buddha carved into a massive cave at Ellora

The Ellora caves are about 10 hours from Bombay and are definitely worth checking out if you have a few days spare on your itinerary.  Be prepared for a lot of inter-travel travel, however.  Once you get to Aurangabad you need to take a rickshaw to Ellora and a car to Ajanta to see the two sites.

2 million tonnes of stone were dug out of the mountains to create these buildings in the Hindu section of the caves.

It took a lot out of me to travel by train from Igatpuri to Bombay (directly after 10 days of silence and meditation), Bombay to Aurangabad (which was *freezing!*), and finally back to Bombay (23 hours in the train, not to mention all the taxis, hotel checkins, and fancy footwork).

In the midst of all this frenetic movement, I find myself in month 8 of being on the road . . .

So a lot of my time is spent thinking about an imaginary home I have in my head . . .

. . . even if I did have the pleasure of meeting a group of very sweet local girls traveling 26 hours to compete in a folk dance competition . . .

Good luck, girls!

The hair that really broke this camel’s back was the freezing cold rickshaw ride where our evil driver refused to stop for a warming chai *or* to purchase a shawl (clearly, he had a different shawl connection 30 minutes up the road where he would get a cut – of absolutely nothing, as it turned out, as I refused to support his devious plan).

Gr.

Thanks to this man, I had a chest cold from hell for a good week . . . but I’m letting it go (;o)) and finally coming back to the world of health . . .

Breakfast picnic of champions: coconut meat, strawberries, figs, dates, cashews, almonds, bananas, orange, apple, grapes. Yes.

You may not think Goa is the kind of place to go for some healing and chilling out.  It is, afterall, the birthplace of some of the most drug-induced head-numbing music of all time, the infamous Goa Trance.  (I’m not actually going to put a sampling of that music on my site, but the link is there . . . if you dare ;o))

Goa is massive, home to over 22 beaches where two million tourists make their way for sunbathing and partying every year.  A former Portugese colony, obvious mostly in the architecture and relaxed attitudes toward drinking and two-piece bikinis, Goa is a sweet break from the rest of a sometimes unforgiving India.  You can choose to hang with any number of European and American lemmings up in the tour package beaches, stuffed to the brim with high-end hotels and ripoff dining – just like home, except . . . in India!  On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got backpacker delights so gentle on the wallet, you might end up staying a few months on top of your journey.

Bombay to Agonda, 634 km.

I’m catching up on work and relaxation on the south side of Goa in Agonda, a sleepy stretch of sand, lined with relaxed restaurants serving freshly caught seafood, and a few odd clothing and general shops along the way.  No clubs or late-night bars.  And definitely no Goa Trance!

My hotel of choice is Cupid’s Heaven, where the cook and manager are friendly 20-something homeboys from the Punjab.  It’s a three-story hotel with solid walls and good plumbing (rare in India!) and the balconies facing the sea have a gorgeous view of the sunsets.  It’s a super comfy, super relaxed vibe, no thrills or fills, but I’m paying a third the price of the more popular make-shift huts on the beach.  Definitely the budget traveler’s pick!

Wee river just along Agonda Beach

Between papaya meals, logo designing and afternoon writing sessions I’m slowly getting back into a healthy body.

Yay!  Bike rides to Palolem!

Buffalo grazing beyond cross. Taken between Agonda and Palolem beaches, Goa.

Morning runs with some very sweet sounds . . .

. . . along the Agonda shores . . .

Makes running a helluva lot more enjoyable ;o)

Meditation sunsets!

OK, so this was not taken in Goa, but this is Goenka-ji (and his wife, Mata-ji), who is responsible for spreading the Vipassana meditation technique I've been using here. This was taken after a private interview I had with him - luckyyyyyy. :o)

To celebrate my return to health (which feels an awful lot like freedom) I wanted to share a few songs from artists that keep popping up on my journey so far.  They’re much more appropriate for the vibe than the manic music that was born in this sunshiney international party destination (well, Goa is known to be a bit mad, but the beach I’m staying on is pure chill) – there’s no accounting for taste ;o)

One of my favorite artists of all time, Alice Coltrane . . .

Vipassanaaaah: 10 Discoveries in 10 Days

Everything in life is change.  It’s a universal law I’ve been aware of since I was a small child.  Neither family nor home, friendship nor success.  Nothing is permanent; nothing is fixed.  In a way, it’s a liberating fact, one that’s always helped me feel strong when those inevitable fluctuations in life smack me upside the head!

And as I would see during ten days of silent meditation training, endurance in times of monotony, methodical analysis, disciplined adherence to time, these skills could use some work . . .

Some friends from my yoga teacher training suggested I do a “before” and “after” video of my experience  . . . so here is the before:

Keeping in mind this was my first Vipassana course (and definitely not my last), most of my ‘discoveries’ below may seem quite shallow.  Well, they do to me, in any case.

I didn’t discover the Truth – where do we come from, why are we here, and where do we go (luck, love, everywhere, respectively, is my current guess!).  Not that I expected to, in a little ten day course, but you know what I mean.

The lessons learned in this ten-day-microcosm of existence are so obviously valuable (in a consciously integrated life), I’ve made a commitment to keep the practice up.  Here’s what I came up with . . .

1. Vipassana is the meditation technique Buddha used to reach enlightenment.  Wow!  I didn’t realize that until this week.  Apparently, he imparted this technique to his colleagues who joined him for the first sermon in Sarnarth.  In the midst of cultural and political changes here in India, the technique was preserved in Burma and is now handed down by lay-people-cum-teachers, rather than by a particular caste or family of monks.  Mediation for the people by the people – yeah!

Buddha under the bodhi tree.

Another unique quality of this mediation method: requiring practitioners to observe closely all the physical phenomena going on in the body – a fine-tuned internal observation, as opposed to an external focus (on mantra, a god, etc.) of concentration.

Sarnarth: where Buddha gave his first teachings to the monks that would disseminate his discoveries. April 2009.

According to the Manual of Vipassana Meditation, “The Pali word Vipassana is made up of two parts: vi meaning variously, in various ways, and passana, which means to watch, observe or investigate.  So Vipassana means to see clearly, to observe thoroughly, to investigate penetratingly in various ways the true nature of things, precisely, as they really are . . .”

In this process, we fine tune our awareness and ensure observation is done in pure equanimity.  These skills are priceless in our daily lives.  If you have the ability to take a step back and observe  a situation with neutrality, rather than react in an emotional – and often detrimental – way, we’re sure to be better problem solvers, better friends, better human beings.

If for no other reason, these two life skills are enough motivation to keep up with Vipassana.

2. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Ha!  Ten days of hearing myself babble on internally about anything that would help me procrastinate was oddly good for my ego.  Sometimes I’d surprise myself with (albeit brief) instances of genius.  Between rounds of intense technique work, I broke through my ego layer.  Of course, all this mind chatter meant . . .

3. Discipline is not my forte.  When given the freedom to avoid work – 6 of the 9 (yes, N-I-N-E) meditation hours were ‘independent study’ – I’d naturally work about half the time.  It took a lot of coaxing to get myself to sit on my butt and meditate, instead of getting on my mat to do asanas.  Strange to tell yourself to get on your butt instead of off it … !

View from my room. Especially fascinating in ‘procrastination mode.’

To give you an idea of just how rigorous our meditation schedule was, here’s the full rundown of daily events:

4:00 a.m. ———————— Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m. —————- Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 a.m. —————- Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m. —————- Group meditation in Dharma Hall
9:00-11:00 a.m. ————— Meditate in Dharma Hall or room according to teacher’s instruction
11:00 -12 noon —————- Lunch break
12 noon – 1:00 p.m. ——— Rest, private Q&A session with teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m. —————– Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 p.m. —————– Group meditation in Dharma Hall
3:30-5:00 p.m. —————– Meditate in Dharma Hall or room according to teacher’s instruction
5:00-6:00 p.m. —————– Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m. —————– Group meditation in Dharma Hall
7:00-8:15 p.m. ——————Teacher’s Discourse in Dharma Hall
8:15-9:00 p.m. ——————Group meditation in Dharma Hall
9:00-9:30 p.m. —————– Open Q&A session in Dharma Hall
10:00 p.m. ————————Lights out

(he kinda reminds me of my grandfather sometimes …)

4. Hehe.  Discovery number 4.  Waaaaaait for it . . . the lights are dim.  Four stoic teachers sit on raised tables draped in white at the front of the arc-shaped room.  After preparing my seat, propping my knees, adjusting my scarf and checking in with the sometimes stubborn joints, I’m ready for an hour of stillness.  I gently close my eyes and take a deep breath.  Then, in the far corner of the room . . . an old lady farts like she’s been eating nothing but cabbage and beer for a week.  Another sari-wrapped vision of beauty lets out the kind of belch that’d make Barney blush.

Pretty soon they’re all lettin’ it rip.  Apparently, Vipassana courses are also training grounds for India’s esteemed Gaseous Olympic Team.  And they’re goin’ for the gold.

5. You don’t need talk to feel close to someone. As soon as we broke our noble silence, a group of five of us English-speakers had quite a LOT to say to one another.  And it wasn’t limited to meditation talk.  We rattled on about India journeys, life issues, men, yoga, and situations back home.  The kind of stuff you talk about with close friends.  It might sound strange, but I really felt as though I’d known these girls for ages.

The post-silence photo frenzy!

Was it the shared interest in Vipassana?  The ten days of being in the same vicinity as one another?

Who knows, maybe it was some kinda cosmic alignment of time and space and we were destined to break noble silence in laughter and uncanny familiarity.  Whatever the reason, it was a surprise that really warmed my heart.

6. Silence is highly underrated.  I had a feeling I’d experience relief during a week of silence!  No need for socially-prescribed small talk or the pointless surface chatter at the beginning of a course.  These things serve their purpose, as social lubricant, as a means to relate during some kinds of initial encounters, but my favorite dialogue dish is the heavy stuff, the curries and steaks of dreams and insight.  Escaping the fluff sounded like heaven to me.

So we were all alone with our thoughts, not even a smile or friendly gesture to see us through the countless walks between the meditation room and the dining hall.  (I had to keep my eyes down most of the time to avoid my automatic-Hawaii-smile when I make eye contact with someone!)

Claudia contemplating life under the mushroom cap.

It was surprisingly easy – and I’d be interested in exploring silent retreats, even without the mediation.  Simple silence probably has a host of its own benefits to the psyche and heart.

The silence gave my mind room to breathe – room that was untainted by anyone’s ego or motives but my own.  It was a spacious room, full of shelves and cupboards, a desk and several full-length windows, looking out into the deep expanse of past experiences.  Between meditations, I could open up those cupboards, pull out the thoughts, most written on scattered bits of torn notebook paper, post-it notes with gummy backs, or folded up airline ticket stubs stuffed away in the hurried process of finding my seat.  It was an opportunity to somewhat organize them, throwing out old unnecessary bits, keeping the best ones for later.  Just me, in my mind’s room, for ten full days.  And as any feminist knows, a woman keen on developing as a writer requires a room of one’s own.

This got me to thinking what a useful practice mediation is for writers.  To hone your skills as an observer, to become “the witness” – it’s an incredible practice for developing narrative perspective.   Again, gratitude.

7. “Me” is totally subjective.  Toward the end of the ten day training, I’ll have successfully gotten myself in a state of physical dissolution – where one simply exists, with no awareness of body at all.  It’s one thing to read about the idea, “I am not my body,” but to experience this concept as a tangible (or rather, intangible) reality, is something quite extraordinary, even if only for a short period of time.

When I’d catch myself in this state, I wondered if my awareness of it would somehow spoil the experience – like when you realize you’re dreaming and suddenly you’re jolted awake.  Thankfully that wasn’t the case.

Yup, that’s me. But what was that feeling all about ?!

In several other sessions, I had the opposite feeling, as though I was more in my body than ever before.  I felt my entire physical self grow warmer and warmer, vibrating with an electric pulse across every centimeter of skin.  I hesitate to call it ‘orgasmic’ because there was no sexuality to the feeling whatsoever.  Blissful, yes.  Attraction for an external object, no.  For what felt like about five minutes, my body buzzed – intensely.

Pondering the sensations didn’t seem to affect its frequency or intensity at all.  The feeling came back in later sessions.  Careful not to “crave” the experience, as our teacher had instructed, I was still curious if I’d ever feel it again.  And when it did return, would I be able to observe the experience with equanimity, realizing the universal law of impermanence, anicca.

So, that was ‘me’ both totally without and totally with my body.  And that’s been ‘me’ both totally lost in thought, and mostly without it.  Where did these experiences come from?  I hadn’t read about them, or had them suggested as possible side-effects.  They simply happened.

As no coincidence, I’m sure, the discourse that very evening addressed the vibratory phenomenon in some detail.  Jesus, they have the results of this technique down to a science!  I suppose 2500 years of practice will do that … ;o)

8. The two biggest distractions in meditation (for me): food and the future.  Crazy right?

Whilst actually practicing the technique, my focus was pretty good.  I have no clue what my discipline was compared to other meditators, but I’d guess mine was at least average.  Only every once in a while did I sloppily stop in the middle of a body scan to think of something else.  And once in a groove, I could handle the hour of constant mediation fairly well.

But in between scans, that was a whole ‘nother story!  Oh, did my mind make up some incredible visions of the future!  Improv comedienne takes over Saturday Night Live with genius skits mocking the yoga and traveling worlds!  James Kelly wins the lottery, buys a vineyard and sets up a music festival in Thailand!

Something about the future, its infinite possibilities, makes it the most attractive subject to ponder, whenever my mind gets a chance.

Path to the dining hall (left).

Food is a close second.  I didn’t expect this one – at all!  But talking to a fellow meditator after the course, a lovely South Korean farmer who’d been through six courses already, I found out these thoughts of food are really common, especially amongst the women.  Another meditator I spoke to afterward, also a six-course super star, mentioned she consistently put together ideal menus in between her deep sessions.

My mind envisioned a green tea vanilla cupcake I’m definitely going to experiment with when I finally land after this year of travel.  Fig and almond oat cookies with agave nectar are second on the list!

But the number one Food of Fine Distraction?  Chocolate.  By a long shot.

Dark chocolate Godiva bonbons, Ghirardelli dark chocolate squares with caramel in the middle, white chocolate with macadamia nuts, chocolate covered almonds my Grandma always seems to have at the house, Ritter Sport hazelnut bars, Cadbury’s fruit and nut, plain Galaxy, Pistachio Lindt bars, mint chip Butlers, I could go on and on!

Man, I need to get me a boyfriend …

9. Even if you can do it anywhere, the Igatpuri Vipassana Center is a brilliant place to meditate. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I am so grateful for having done a Vipassana course – and to have done my first course at the first center (and biggest, incidentally), is even more awesome.

Not a bad place for contemplative practice . . .
Hibiscus!

The aesthetic of the grounds is like a big juicy Bing cherry atop an already scrumptious sundae.  Every bit of flora and fauna were familiar to me because they also grow in Hawaii – only the Indian versions are three times the size as the trees back home.  This made me feel like a miniature character in a fairytale!  Hibiscus, palm and fig trees line the walkways.  Buddhist architecture shone a golden hue in the afternoon sun.  And just beyond the grounds, magnificent mountains where the sun peeks up in the morning. Wow.

My teacher was approachable, gentle and knowledgeable.  The room was comfortable and clean.  The bookstore was full of interesting options for expanding my Vipassana horizons.  I really couldn’t have imagined a better experience.

10. From meditation floweth (silly) scientific creativity like no other.  Take, for example, my 5pm snack ritual.

Bananas, savory puffed rice & peanuts, chai & milk with or without sugar

Here I realized there are at least 35 permutations on the way to eat this mini-meal/snack we were served every day after the toughest section of the schedule:

  • Banana Bonbons – slices of banana covered in cereal (rice krispies with peanuts and unidentifiable Indian herbs)
    • Banana Bonbons with peanuts only
    • Banana or Peanut Bonbons with/without turmeric
  • Banana Pudding
    • With cereal
    • With peanuts only
    • With cereal/peanuts and chai flavoring
    • With cereal/peanuts and turmeric
    • The works
  • Warm porridge (allow the cereal to soak for several minutes)
    • W/o peanuts
    • With/without peanuts and turmeric
  • Traditional western-style cereal (allow milk to cool, add cereal and voila!)
    • Traditional western-style cereal with bananas
    • Traditional western-style cereal with/without bananas and turmeric
    • Traditional western-style cereal with/without bananas with/without turmeric in chai (ooooh, decadent!)!
    • Any of the above, minus the peanuts
  • Banana Dippers – peel the banana halfway and dip into cereal and liquid options
  • Any of the above made with a plethora of milk/chai variants
  • Old Skool – spoon the dry mix into your mouth, straight up

😛

A ten day meditation course provides incredible insight –  a microcosm of everyday life.  If you find the discipline of following the rules a challenge here, it’s likely something to work on outside the course.  At least, I know it is for me!

But as a longtime Vipassana student here at the Yoga Institute said to me today, the practice is a lot like learning to play the piano.  First, you learn the scales – it’s repetitive, technical, and perhaps a touch frustrating for more conceptual thinkers like myself.  As your dedication and determination allows, you eventually master the basics and can play songs.  The next step is composition, experimentation, then eventually a free-flowing creativity that is totally unique to you.

A Monk of a different kind …

. . . and here is the “after”

On the 22nd of this month, the guru of the practice, S.N. Goenka, will be giving a metta (love) meditation and a one day course at the new Golden Pagoda here in Mumbai.  I’ve totally rescheduled my travel plans so I can be here for the day.  I’m number 7839 out of 8000 registrants.

Pictures and impressions to follow . . .

May all beings be happy

Happiness and Poha

I’m in the process of writing a lengthy (go figure!) article on the ten day silent Vipassana meditation course in Igatpuri.  As I sort through this momentous pile of inspiration and try to find words that give the experience justice … here are a few fabulous videos for your viewing pleasure!

(They’re relevant to the meditation experience via two key words: insightful and food!)

Click here for Srikumar Rao’s insightful TED video on happiness.

Learn how to cook one of my favorite simple Indian dishes, native to Maharastra (the state where my Vipassana course took place)

courtesy About.com
From western India, Poha, made from flattened rice, is an easy-to-cook, nutritious snack. It is often eaten for breakfast or brunch. Add extra zing to Poha by serving it with Mint-Coriander Chutney!

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups poha (flattened rice)
  • 2 tbsps vegetable/ canola/ sunflower cooking oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 5-6 curry leaves
  • 2 green chillies slit lengthwise (optional)
  • 1 medium onion chopped fine
  • 1 large/2medium potatoes quartered and sliced very thin
  • Handful of unsalted peanuts (skins removed)
  • Pinch of turmeric powder
  • Juice of 1/2 a lime
  • Salt to taste
  • Chopped coriander to garnish

Preparation:

  • Put the poha in a sieve and wash under running water for 2 minutes. Keep aside to drain.
  • Heat the oil in a pan on a medium flame and add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and green chillies. Fry till the spluttering stops and then add the onion. Fry till soft and translucent.
  • Add the peanuts and potatoes and stirring frequently, cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Drain the poha completely to remove all water and add it to the above mix. Add the turmeric powder and stir well to blend all ingredients.
  • Cook for another minute. Turn off the fire. Pour lime juice over the poha and mix well.
  • Garnish with chopped coriander and serve while hot. Poha tastes great with Mint-Coriander Chutney!

All you need in life, right?  And good food, of course … ;o)

From a Cafe in Mumbai

Just a personal quickie before heading off to the next course …

The Present

Sitting in the Basilico café in Mumbai’s tourist haven (and rather pleasantly tree-line colonial enclave), Colaba.  This moment epitomizes the pros of urban life.  I’m writing an email to a friend and catching up on my blog in a comfortable booth, eating a gorgeous salad, listening to some dubbed out Arabian tunes, and just out of the corner of my eye, as people stroll down the sidewalk outside, I can see taxi cab lights whizzing by to all kind of potentially-amazing destinations.  It’s pure comfort, health, sophistication –though some yogis may call it sensory-infused hell-on-earth ;o)

The "Make Your Own Salad" option allowed for 10 choices of ingredients. And the ashram feels a million miles away ...

As delicious as this (mushroom, endive, mescalun, sprout, broccoli, sundried tomato, asparagus, carrot, zucchini, hazelnut dressing) salad is, the best thing about this moment is feeling like I’m sitting in the eye of the storm.  In transition, moving from beach to meditation center.  No one is trying to charge me five times the price of a taxi ride down the street.  There’s no seemingly endless searching for the tourist office in the Victoria Station terminal.  I’m not checking bags, taking out a laptop, finding a gate, or filling out my passport number in a rather archaic-looking hotel recordbook.

Aaaah, I’m here, in a chilled-out, uber-modern Mumbai café.  Gushing with gratitude.

Synagogue and a designer Indian fashion boutique not far from my hotel ... making my way back from "buying train ticket hell" (with a smile on my face, of course!)

The Past

Which isn’t to say I’m not grateful for where I just came from!  I mean, sweet baby jesus, just take a look at some of these photos!

Tres romantique!

I’m from Hawaii and the big mama ocean at Varakala (where I just spend a week of New Year welcoming) was surprisingly impressive – then again, it wasn’t just the ocean giving off all that bliss.  2012 entered my vision in a tropical paradise (oh home sweet home, I miss you!), with amazing new yogi friends as well.

Burying Uncle Marvin!

Varkala’s stunning cliffside views are set to the backdrop of funky restaurants serving fresh seafood and home baked cakes at reasonable prices (compared to other holiday destinations, but not pretty pricey compared to Indian cities).   It’s just enough beachy vacation vibe, having just spent a month in an ashram … any more than a smidgin’ would have been too much stimulation.  Aaaah, contentment.

A good handful of us made it out to the beach together, where we all got our own rooms and danced in and out of lunches, beach bombing, yoga sessions.  We were like a mini-Sivananda village in the middle of the Varkala strip.  Meditation and pranayam in the mornings, rooftop asana – it wasn’t as hardcore as it would have been if we’d emerged from the ashram back to our lives in Europe and the States, but it was perfect integration for the holiday!

The Future

Well, it’s 2012, ya’ll … end of the world?  Beginning of something new?  These calendar markings are really no different from any other, but it’s a great opportunity to take stock and focus perspective for the next few chapters.  I’ve got my to-do list here in my journal, and you know it’s packed full of spiritual, academic, professional and personal intentions.  One of them also made it to top ten on my India intentions list as I took off from Dublin: fine tune discernment and increase focus.

Image I found online of the center ... here I coooome ...

Tomorrow I’m off to Igatpuri, home to the largest Vipassana center in the world.  I’ll be experimenting with a ten day silent meditation course I’ve heard amazing things about – “it totally healed me from a trauma I experienced five years ago,” “it really helped set up my meditation practice in a more disciplined way,” “I love it.”  I’ll be doing a before and after video so I can see the difference on screen as well – maybe I’ll put it on the site!

Here’s to a magic 2012, full of dreams realized, vibrant health and lotsa love . . . .

Alrighty, it’s getting late and I’m still a bit fuzzy from all the travel today (and I just realized, the last seven months of being on the road!).  I’ll be out of touch for at least 10 days now, silent, contemplative, and who knows what else.  Watch this space for a review!

In light . . .

Christmas on the Road!

Just a quick update to all my friends and family … HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

I’m on the road from Madurai where I just finished my second yoga teacher training and will be spending the next chapter on the south coast of India.  We have a group of about eleven yogis and we’ll be celebrating our graduation, bringing in the new year, and appreciating the beaches for the next week or so.  Woo hoo!

Now that I have some Vedantic philosophy and the Baghavad Gita sorted out (a bit of a joke, that book could be studied for lifetimes!), I feel ready for a break.  During the course, I also finished a fabulous book on the history and cultural context surrounding modern postural practice.

A mini-review and personal blabberings on it all can be found on Yoga Lovin’.

Pictures soon to follow … but first … a Christmas train adventure with the yogi crew in India.  Wow, writing that out sounds absolutely surreal.  I love my life!

Big Hawaiian Hugs to all my loved ones out there …