Internal vs. Projected Reality

As I get deeper into art, music, and writing, and start sending those things off into the world, I find that I need to hone my online persona more and more. This is totally natural and makes sense w/r/t having a business and putting on a face strangers feel comfortable interacting with. Cool. But it’s also weird. And it’s not just people who sell or promote creative work who do this. Everyone is doing it all the time. We’re constantly refining our outward-facing “personalities”, while increasingly using those as a primary form of interaction. We cultivate accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, OKCupid, LinkedIn, and all sorts of other things that I don’t even know about because I’m a major Luddite. (Although I did just replace my 2006 MacBook with a super fancy new one, and now I feel like I’m in the future.)

One of the addictive aspects of all these social media is the ability and necessity to constantly “improve” upon our personas. It used to be that the best way to express how awesome you were was to have a witty answering machine message and to wear a cool T-shirt. The T-shirt thing might still get some traction, but now we can post amazing photos online with all sorts of cool filters that make us look artistic with the click of a button. We can share all the major highlights of our lives while leaving out the monotony of the moments and the moments between moments.

And people consume these things. Right now, you’re reading a piece of writing that I’m creating while enjoying a beautiful sunny day in Seattle, drinking an inspiring cup of hot chocolate, and buzzing from a great weekend spent with old friends. It’s edited. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. I’m not telling you about the poop I had this morning (but oh man, I could…), or how I broke my nose last week (don’t worry, it’s mostly healed), or how I got bored the other night and kind of wanted to go out and hang out with friends but was a little bit too tired. These are the moments that make up most of our lives.

Increasingly, we’re consuming exclusively the highlights of other people’s lives. But our internal reality hasn’t changed. We’re still people, and we have ups and downs and all-arounds. We get sad, we get happy, we get bored and we get inspired. The hard part is that now we’re perpetually comparing the internal reality of being human to the projected, selected, quasi-reality of being awesome all the time. We have enough friends on Facebook to make it seem like everyone is constantly going on epic backpacking trips, taking fantastic photos, traveling to far-away worlds, having beautiful weddings, and popping out adorable babies. Well, these things don’t happen that often. Most of the time we’re not missing out on anything.

Clearly we don’t want a constant news feed of the mundane. But it would probably be healthy for us to acknowledge it more often, and maybe to see a more true-to-life relative frequency between “Just had the time of my life!” and “Spent the last half-hour masturbating, it went pretty well!” We are all full of insecurities and boredom and uncertainty, and those things are great sometimes. They should be celebrated within ourselves, and they need not be compared with other people’s highlights. It is easy to fall into a trap of impossible expectation, jealousy, or just feeling kind of bummed that amazing things are happening to everyone but us. Instead of getting down, let’s use those moments as inspiration to do more and to be more true to our hearts. But most of all, let’s remember that there’s big difference between our own internal realities and the realities people project out into the world.

We’re OK.

A little mossy....

Personal Renaissance

The whirlwind of spring and summer is winding down, allowing deeper reflection on my life and priorities. After India, I spent a couple weeks back home in Vermont, then flew out to Seattle to start my job leading backpacking trips with the YMCA. After 40+ nights in the woods, a few weeks on couches, and a road trip through Oregon, I’m ready to settle down a bit. The combination of experienced students and great co-leaders on my last 2-week trek allowed me time for self-examination, which I’ve never experienced on course before. I’ve decided it’s time for a Personal Renaissance.

Here’s what I’m thinking, and maybe you can relate:

Music. I’m ready to play in a band again, and to get back to my roots in classical music by joining a string quartet or orchestra. I haven’t been keeping up with all the great new music coming out, and I want to make that a priority.

Art. Being a vagabond is not conducive to making art. I’m ready to be in a place where I can set up a small studio, rediscover my painting practice, and explore the creative nooks of my visual cortex.

Connections. I haven’t been in one place for more than a month straight in over a year. In a lot of ways, this has been a wonderful growth experience. I’ve seen (a small part of) the world. But my relationships have suffered. It’s time to reinvest in my local community and forge new connections.

Outdoors. I’ve been outdoors a lot lately, but all for work and no play. I’m eager to rekindle my personal connection with nature and explore beautiful places. For the first time, I feel invigorated to go outdoors after a course rather than burned out.

Mindfulness. Meditation and yoga require stability and a solid routine in order to make a deep impression on our consciousness. For months I’ve structured my life just the opposite. I’m going to reincorporate mindfulness by building my life around the practice.

Motivation. Here it is. This is the crux of the Renaissance. Cultivating a meaningful life requires intention and action. A strong internal sense of motivation is what makes it all happen. For me, especially during bouts of depression, weak motivation has been the crumbling foundation that caused everything else to crash down. We must find ways to make a motivated state the norm. Personally, I maintain it by always learning something new, reading a self-help book on the side, exercising a lot, and meditating regularly.

All too often it feels like life flies by in a swirl of appointments, long days at work, and rushed time at home. Sometimes this is how things need to be. But not always. We need to dig deep to find gems of motivation and inspiration in our lives. We all crave greater purpose, but it takes concerted effort to find it.  We must set meaningful intentions and work hard to follow through. We must allow ourselves to be continually reborn.

A wise man whispered in my ear: Drink life’s every moment like your last sip of water.

What does your Personal Renaissance look like?

Culture Shock v2.0

I’m quickly approaching a month back in the States. Culture shock continues, but in a much subtler and more drawn out way than the initial jolt. Mundane activities like grocery shopping, walking to a park, and meeting a friend for coffee have stopped blowing my mind. I’m slowly making less eye contact. But a seed of disorientation persists.

A big part of my confusion is the enormous disconnect between life the States/Vermont/Seattle and life in India. There’s basically nothing in my life here that reminds me of my life over there. The trip is starting to feel like a weird dream that happened a long time ago that I can’t quite describe to anyone. The comfort I acquired in bouncing between extremes has been replaced by wondering why things are so easy and straight-forward here. People make plans? Get places on time? Expect this from others? Days float by.

I continue to be struck by the wealth and assumption of comfort here. We all have relatively so much, but it’s not enough. We allow ourselves to get worked up over little things and problems we’ve created just for the sake of having problems. Traffic, slow service, soup that is too hot. At the same time, we hoard our wealth instead of using it to fix the inequality, injustice, and exploitation all around us. This is the downside of the adaptability of humans: when things are good or great, we get complacent and form expectations.

This is all starting to sound like a major downer. It isn’t meant to be. Life is amazing here. We have green spaces and potable water from the tap and clean bathrooms and time and space to exercise and pretty much do anything we want. The country is fantastic and beautiful. It’s just a lot to process.

I’m sure all this will calm down as I settle back into Seattle, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. During my travels I developed a healthy sense of urgency to make something of my life and my privilege. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’re well-off, well-educated, and empowered. We need to remember and appreciate this, and acknowledge that these are gifts that we can use to help others achieve the same freedoms that we enjoy. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes to mind again:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Survived India!

Wow. I just went from a city of 22,000,000 to a town of 1,600 on the other side of the world in 36 hours. Wow. I made it. I’m in one piece, healthy and happy. I barely got sick. And I managed to trick jet lag by staying up until 5 am my last few nights in Delhi. After a taxi to a plane to a bus to a plane to a shuttle to a plane to a train to a train to a train to a car, I arrived home to Vermont last night around 8 pm. I had a salad (!!!) with my mom, went to bed at 9:30 pm, and woke up at 7 am feeling surprisingly well-rested and alert.

So there’s a thing called reverse culture shock. It seems to be bigger and faster than regular culture shock because all the differences hit you at once, instead of slowly revealing themselves as you get to know a place. You’re back in a place that’s familiar, except nothing works as you’ve grown accustomed. A lot of my experiences in the past (long hikes, meditations, etc) have given me the sensation of a crust being cleaned off my brain, allowing me to see things with new eyes. Right now is the strongest I’ve ever had this sensation. My brain is entirely crust-free.

Here’s what is different:

Clean air. I just went for a three mile run and my lungs feel wrecked from four months of the pollution. We’re so lucky here.

Clean water. From the tap. Amazing. It tastes like unicorns and rainbows. Clean ones.

Trash. Where is all the trash? Not burning in a pile next to the street?

Empty space. There is so much space here, and so few people to fill it. But they do manage to fill it, because

Personal space. You don’t get any in India. People here expand to fill the space they’ve got. Touching suddenly feels weird. I probably touched (inadvertently, shaking hands, etc) more strangers in the last four months than the rest of my life in the states.

Bare legs. Whoa. You’re wearing a miniskirt on a train?

Phones. Most people in India have phones, but they don’t stare at them as much. They’re usually in a group of real-life people instead. It felt like all the New Yorkers on the train had their heads down.

Quiet. It’s so quiet my ears hurt. I didn’t know this was a real thing.

Lawns. Houses. Cars. All so big.

No people. Even Penn Station felt like a tidy little community gathering. Nothing like a ‘crowd’ anywhere. But still people seemed to be in a big rush. I didn’t see a lot of rushing in India, or at least not a lot of stressful rushing. You’ll get there when you get there, and that’s mostly out of your control. Which relates to

Stress in general. People here have it, a lot. In India, there is non-stop honking in the streets, everyone is constantly cutting everyone else off, dipping in and out of lanes. But nobody takes it personally. It’s just how things work, and there’s a sense of “we’re all in it together”. Here it feels a lot more like a competition. And big trucks.

Trucks. And people driving them. If you had enough money to have a truck in India, you’d probably be using it to ship goods and you almost definitely would not be the one driving it.

Highways. They pretty much don’t exist in India.

White people. Black people. India is mostly all the shades in between.

Communication. I can understand everyone. I kind of wish I couldn’t. But mostly people don’t seem to be communicating, they’re in their own bubble.

Dogs. Someone had a dog with them at the grocery store. I was not afraid of it biting me and sending me to a hospital for a rabies shot. Also no scary monkeys.

Trains. Here they’re late and clean.

Bathrooms. They’re everywhere! No more pee anxiety!

Recreation. People are doing things for fun all over the place, and a lot of it involves exercise. I didn’t see much exercise for health or recreation in India, and what little there is mainly consisted of getting huge at the gym.

Bare feet. Without fear of hookworm.

Did I mention the clean air? I also have a strange desire to take pictures of people sleeping in awkward positions on the train. This might not have to do with culture shock.

I can already feel my brain adjusting to the vibrations of life here. We’re such adaptable creatures. I feel really lucky to live in such a healthy place full of so much opportunity. Now I want to do something with it.

Amma, Opening the Heart

From Verkala we decided to take a few-day excursion up to Amma’s ashram, the home of the famous hugging saint. I hadn’t heard of Amma before arriving in India, but some people were talking about her during the yoga teacher training. She is said to be fully enlightened, and communicates her love and wisdom by hugging. She’s given over 30 million hugs so far around the world. The organization which has grown up around her in the last couple decades also does great humanitarian work throughout India and around the world. We were planning to stay two days, ended up staying five, and could have stayed much longer if other experiences weren’t calling out so loudly.

Even after five days there, I still don’t know what to think of the Amma experience, or even where to start relating it. Partly it felt like a cult, partly a relaxed and friendly ashram, and partly like the real thing: tutelage under an enlightened guru. There is powerful energy there, and it seems to be stronger the more you’re willing to surrender to the experience and to Amma herself. Her hugs are very good. It feels a little like Jesus Camp for people who have been turned off by Christianity. The place sets off all sorts of warning bells for me, but something about it felt completely true and authentic.

Part of my intrigue with the place relates to thinking I’ve done and conversations I’ve had recently about the heart. Specifically about opening the heart and living vulnerably, rather than living from the head. I’ve found that I approach life very rationally, and look at almost all difficulties from a logical perspective. Often I view creative problems from a rational, head-derived perspective, even though those aren’t head-problems. Even my yoga often comes from a place of speculation and over-thinking, rather than one of feeling and emotion. All that said, I’ve created quite a good story of heart-work going on in my life, and I’ve learned to project that that is what’s going on, even when it’s not. Sometimes I really do feel that my heart is leading the way, but not often enough. Too often I use my intellect to know how I should respond, and do that rather than acting from the heart.

I’m not sure this makes much sense from an outside perspective. The basic idea though, is that everything I do will be that much more meaningful if it truly comes from my heart, not through a veil or facade I’ve built up over years of analytic thinking. My yoga, my art, my music, my relationships. So it’s a big thing to work on, and I feel like being at Amma’s gave me a good environment to get focused on it, to practice opening up. Even just being on stage with her while she’s giving hugs (which she does about 10 hours a day), I could feel an energy creating pressure in my chest, perhaps peeling away some kind of sheath around the heart. The more I was willing to accept this experience, the stronger it would become. By the end of the stay, I felt much more open than when I arrived. There’s no way for me to know if this kind of energy is real or imagined, but at a certain point it doesn’t matter. It heals and helps, and that’s what counts.

One piece I thought about a lot during the stay was the balance of feminine and masculine energy in the heart. A lot of advice about the heart is based around learning to love oneself. I think this is crucially important, but I have never quite related to it because it comes somewhat naturally to me. Maybe this is the masculine approach to the heart; it’s the baseline I’m starting from. The piece that I think is much harder for me to internalize is the other side, the place where women naturally come from – giving the heart away. I don’t want to draw too many broad generalizations here, but this has been more or less my experience. Naturally, women tend to nurture and give their energy away, men tend to protect and keep their energy close. To balance the heart, I think I need to practice more giving my heart away, surrendering, devoting my energy to someone else’s good work.

I have some ideas for doing this, mostly involving volunteer service. I’m hoping to serve a Vipassana meditation course when I’m up north next month, maybe volunteer with an organization in Dharamsala, and definitely get more connected with community groups once I land back in the states. Meanwhile, I’m trying to approach my stay in India with open eyes and an open heart. It can be hard, but it is totally worth it. I can already feel a change in my perspective, and in the way people interact with me. I think this is the biggest work for me to do on this trip.