Craving Control

I’m back in Seattle, getting into the swing of life in the States. The process has been slowed by spending a few dozen nights in the woods leading backpacking trips for the local YMCA. But I’m getting used to it, and I’m starting to pick up on some big things that have changed for me since my travels in India.

One of the main differences is control. After a couple months in India, I became totally at ease with the lack of control I was able to assert over any situation. Things never worked exactly how I wanted them to. There was always an element of uncertainty due to the general insanity of the place. Buses broke down, trains got delayed, holidays and strikes happened often and unexpectedly, cows blocked roads. The list goes on. The magical thing is that everything worked out anyway. Once I learned to set intentions rather than specific plans for how things would unfold, life progressed swimmingly.

Seattle (any typical US city?) is different. We’ve got smartphones with maps and email and to-do lists. We plan our days down to the minute. We over-schedule ourselves and keep our pockets buzzing non-stop. For what? Fear of missing out? Worry of wasting time? Not wanting to be alone? Avoiding unpleasant interactions? Everyone has their own reasons, but it seems to be natural for our brains to crave control of our time (and presumably, our lives), to make sure we’re doing what we consider the best, most productive, or most efficient at all times.

The ability to hyper-control our lives isn’t all dandelions and rainbows, though. First of all, it puts some serious pressure on us to make the right decisions all the time. When we have the attitude of complete control, we also take responsibility for everything that’s not perfect. Whenever something goes wrong, it’s our fault. It’s because we didn’t plan well enough or we didn’t take into account some minute detail. But here’s the catch: nothing is ever perfect. No matter how well we plan and scheme and organize, something will always get us. Our world is too complex. The second law of thermodynamics.

Secondly, and more subtly, imposing complete control pushes the universe out of our lives. The world is full of synchronicity, unexpected connection, and good things happening for no apparent reason. When we schedule every minute, we don’t leave room for the universe to play its quiet role in guiding our lives. Out of fear, we close ourselves off to the unknown, when in fact the unknown is exactly where the greatest things happen. We lop off the magnificence of nature to avoid potential pitfalls. We narrow our experience, limiting it to the bounds of our own imaginations. Sure, a lot of people have pretty great imaginations, but none of them stack up to the collective imagination of the universe.

This sounds hippie-dippie, but I’m convinced there’s something to it. Every time a phone vibrates in our pockets, some train of thought is mercilessly derailed. Every time we hustle down the street, late for an appointment, we miss the chance encounters that could make our day memorable. Every time we book our day solid, we’re probably too tired by the end to be receptive to that energy in the first place.

My intention for the next few months is to take things slower, to cultivate receptivity, and to let creativity continue to blossom in my life. I believe this is possible, even in a busy, stress-inducing environment. It takes mindfulness, deep breaths, and eye contact. It takes some time alone, some time away from the phone, and some time left unscheduled. But mostly it takes the intention to make it happen, and the motivation to do it. Summer is a great time to slow down, and a great time to practice bringing openness and vibrancy into our lives. Enjoy it!

Train Yoga

I recently discovered that the road to the place I love is, in fact, not a road at all. It’s a pair of iron beams, running parallel in perfect unison for miles and miles and hundreds of miles more. And when I say perfect unison, I mean close but with all sorts of bumps and divots, because this ride is not exactly “smooth.” But in India, the train is by far the cheapest and best way to get from Point A to Point B.

This time Point A is a bustling city in the South Indian region of Tamil Nadu: Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Point A is also a place of seeking, of curiosity, of wondering what the world has in store for me, of imagining all the strange creatures that could be living in my water, or worse, already in my stomach. Point A is an American who thinks he loves yoga, but isn’t sure what’s up with all the dots and lines on peoples’ foreheads.

Point B is harder to define. You could call it New Delhi, or probably Rishikesh shortly thereafter, but it would be more accurate to just label it as “Unknown.” I have some ideas of what Point B might look like, but train rides in India have taught me that Point B is never what you expect. It’s better not to speculate, but of course I can’t resist. Point B is a spiritual place, one with a deep understanding of yoga, of the self (if there is such a thing), of meditation, the mind, humanity. At Point B, I am not going to get sick. There will be naan.

The route from Chennai to Delhi is 2,200 km, but because this is a “Super Fast Express” train, takes a mere 34 hours instead of the 50-60 it would take on the regular “Express” train. For those who haven’t visited the subcontinent, here’s a quick primer on seating classes for Indian trains:

Second Class: Bench seats are completely unreserved and they let as many people on as want to go. This can be chaos and is strongly NOT recommended for trips longer than an hour or two.

Sleeper Class: Each six-foot section of the train is broken into eight bunks. Three tiers on each side of the main compartment, two tiers on the opposite side of the walkway, slightly shorter in length.

3A/C: Same as sleeper class, with air conditioning, sheets, and curtains provided for slightly more privacy.

2A/C: Same as 3A/C, with two bunks per side rather than three.

1A/C, EC, CC, Beyond: Various nicer methods of travel which I haven’t explored, some in seats rather than benches, and possibly some in which you practically have a whole cabin to yourself.

Based on a few other medium-length (5-16 hours) train rides I’ve had here, I decided that for the long one I would splurge for the additional comfort of 3A/C. April in India is hot, and although I haven’t seen an actual thermometer in months, I’d say the average temperature has been getting well into the 90’s.

Fate (and my propensity for last-minute planning), however, plays a large role in these decisions, and by the time I booked only Sleeper class was available. No problem, at least it’s cheaper. And by cheaper, I mean dirt cheap. We’re talking $11 for a 34-hour, 2200 km ride. Hence my lack of guilt at the idea of “splurging” for the 3A/C ticket, which would have been about $20.

I should add that I’m traveling with a small statue of the Indian god Ganesha in my bag. It is important to have some divine intervention here. He’s the one with the elephant head, famous for his ability to remove obstacles. So he basically hooks me up on this one: my overnight bus to Chennai drops me directly at the train station two hours before my scheduled departure, leaving me plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast of puri (puffy fried dough) with the typical sides of potato and coconut curries.

The train is not especially late – the rail system is the largest employer in India, and one of the most organized and reliable institutions in the country. Sleeper class is as expected, but the car is older than most I’ve been on: the power is spotty, the paint job flaked, the dirt slightly more caked than on the newer cars. There are bars on the windows, which from photos my mom thinks makes the car look like a prison. But it means the windows open all the way, letting in plenty of fresh, fast-moving air to combat the heat. (Except that fresh air in India is usually hazy with smoke from fires in the fields, and more commonly, piles of burning trash and plastic. This is a whole other story, but basically it’s a huge bummer.)

I get comfortable and immediately take a nap in my upper berth to recover from the poor night sleep I got on the overnight bus. I came prepared for this journey: fully-charged iPod, a journal with plenty of ideas to hash out, War and Peace. Somehow I always end up reading epic Russian novels in tropical places. The train car is hot and the seats are the kind of fake-leather-polyester that gets sticky and releases layers of stored dirt when you sweat on it. Despite my smiles and brief exchanges in halted English/sign language, my compartment-mates seem firmly bent on strewing their belongings far and wide across the benches. This feels like a subtle claiming of territory, a gentle push-back against the white privilege they know I experience throughout the country. I have no way to test this theory. It doesn’t matter – yoga has opened my hips and legs in the last few months. I can squeeze into small spaces for long periods of time.

The trip continues: six, ten, fourteen hours. A decent night sleep, twenty-four, thirty hours. The situation doesn’t exactly get more comfortable. But I start to realize something. Despite whatever difficulties or confusions arise, I still feel calm, relaxed. I’ve adjusted to the discomforts to the point that they don’t feel like discomforts. I am being here with myself, smiling. Occasionally I’ll engage in brief conversation with a curious Indian. At one point a young guy sees I have a ukulele and pulls down his tabla from the upper berth. We jam out for a half-hour and draw a crowd from the surrounding compartments. Even with the layer of grime that has slowly coated my travel clothes and exposed body parts, this trip is really cool. Life is good.

And then it hits me. I’ve been telling myself that yoga, Rishikesh, some vague Point B, is my destination. But I’m doing yoga right here. I am where I am, right now. This is what yoga is all about. I’m exploring the present moment, sitting with discomfort without letting my mind go down the drain. That’s straight from the Yoga Sutras. I’m doing Train Yoga. I would market this back in the States, if only we had a functional rail system.

This trip will give me an opportunity to practice all sorts of more “traditional” forms of yoga, ones with asanas and pranayama and downward-facing dog and (I hope) happy-baby pose, but for now I am glad to be able to sit on a train and just be. To feel the wind on my face, to watch the corn and wheat and cotton fields pass by, to sit comfortably, to breathe. They say India will change you. I’d have to say they’re right.

Meeting the Dalai Lama

I’ve been staying in Mcleod Ganj for two weeks now, the home of the TIbetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. It’s just up the hill from Dharamsala in the Himachal Pradesh region of northern India. Like most places I’ve been in India, this place is completely different from every other place I’ve been in India. Only the difference is more extreme. The Tibetan community and culture changes the vibe completely. There are also a lot of westerners here, but they tend to be socially-conscious volunteering types rather than travelers looking for the cheapest bed. It’s just about the calmest, cleanest, most
coffee-filled city I’ve visited in India.

I’ve been into Buddhism since I was a teenager, so part of my idea coming here was the hope that I’d get to see the His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Based on his official website (he also has Twitter), it seemed like he might be in town for a few days between trips to Japan and Norway, but that he wouldn’t be holding any public audiences. Then last week while returning from a hike, a man recognized our new friend and Pacific Northwest yoga teacher, Paul, and stopped us. This guy had done an acroyoga workshop with Paul four years ago in Mysore. Who knows how he recognized him, but he told us that the Dalai Lama would be holding a receiving line for foreigners on Saturday, and that you had to register at the Tibetan security office. We booked it down the hill to the office, got there 45 minutes after they were supposed to close but just as they were getting ready to actually close. It turns out we would have been able to register the next day as well, but registering that afternoon saved us a multiple-hour wait in the line.

Saturday came and it turned out about four times as many people as they expected had registered for the event (1600 foreigners and 400 Indians – I could have told them this would be popular), so the Dalai Lama would be standing with small groups for photos and giving a talk instead of receiving everyone individually. This rarely happens for westerners, so we basically got super lucky to have this opportunity while already in town. We arrived around 6:30 AM, slowly got shuffled into the courtyard in his residence, and stood around for a few hours. Eventually we were instructed to organize by country and break up into groups of 40-50.

Sometime after 10 AM, His Holiness appeared from his residence, grinning and wearing those awesome tinted glasses he wears in all his photos. I’ve heard people talk about how the energy in the room changes when certain great people are around. I had some feeling of this when visiting Amma’s ashram, but it was not as tangible as this. When the Dalai Lama appeared, everyone immediately buoyed up out of the haze of hours of waiting around. I could feel a sensation of opening in my heart, and a huge smile immediately formed on my face. Part of this is due to expectation being satisfied. A bigger part, I think, is the collective energy of the group. And a third part, which I can’t explain but may be the real reason, is the energy and aura of the person. I don’t know what to think about auras, but you can tell when someone has good energy, and this guy has great energy. Supposedly you could feel the Buddha’s aura from three kilometers away.

As the Dalai Lama walked from group to group, every movement seemed to be filled with joy and kindness. He joked around naturally with everyone, received their greetings with grace, and transmitted an amazing sense of compassion. It was all a little bit rushed because of the size of the group, but he took the time to connect with people who felt compelled to ask or tell him something. The photo itself wasn’t such a big deal. It was a lot more fun to watch this 78 year old man navigate a crowd of 2,000 adoring fans.

Dalai Lama

Posing with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence in Mcleod Ganj

After all the photos were taken, the Dalai Lama made his way to the stage to give his talk. It was great to hear his voice, and his laugh is unbeatable. I took two main points away from the talk, though the whole thing was powerful. First, that all the struggles created between groups of people are based on secondary (or tertiary, or lower) characteristics. Skin color, religion, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, politics. All are secondary to the fact of our common humanity. It can be so difficult to see beyond these apparent differences, but the fact is that each of us is one of seven billion people on this planet. We’re all striving for pretty much the same thing: a happy, secure life. He also gave a shout out to India for being the largest democracy in the world, and for having such a strong cultural attitude of nonviolence and tolerance. There are always exceptions, but it is remarkable how many different kinds of people live so densely here, yet in such peace.

My second major take-away was on the secular education of compassion. Formal education systems around the world focus on facts and analytic thinking in the maths and sciences, and leave ideas of kindness and compassion to religious and community organizations. It turns out compassion is not religion, and there’s no need for it to be confined to a segment of life with so much other baggage, and which is absent from so many people’s lives. Cultivating compassion is crucial for living a joyful and happy life, even for atheists. The more I read about neuroscience, the more I understand that this is a quality of the human brain, and has nothing to do with God or saints or what-have-you. It’s science. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” – HHTDL. I have a lot more thinking to do about this, but I’m pretty sure I want to make it a big part of my life.

The main piece I’ve left out of this story of meeting the Dalai Lama is plight of the Tibetan people, and the fact that all of this joy and kindness comes from one of the most persecuted and repressed populations in the world today. I’ve been finding out much more about the issue since I’ve been in town, and I hope I can relate some sense of what’s happening in my next post. To be continued…

North! Haridwar, Rishikesh, Dharamsala

I’ve made it north. Chennai to Delhi, Delhi to Haridwar, Haridwar to Rishikesh, Rishikesh to Dharamsala. I’m acquiring stories to tell faster than I can tell them. Similarly, I’m getting inspired faster than I can act. Plans for businesses to start when I’m back home, places all around the world to travel, classes to take, ideas to share. But very little time to make any of it happen. I’m realizing this is the nature of traveling. It fills your cup with novelty and experience, but doesn’t leave a lot of room to put energy back into the system. So, I’ll have a busy summer and fall.


Train rides!

From Delhi, I caught an overnight sleeper bus to Haridwar, on which I got to share a twin-sized birth with a very nice man. Fate smiled on me and he was pretty thin, and had the idea to sleep head-to-toe. Turned out to be quite comfortable. In town, I met up with my friend Kelly from Seattle, who I’ve been traveling with since. For more in-depth impressions on Haridwar and Rishikesh, check out her latest blog post here.

Very briefly, Haridwar is a holy city for Hindus, and is packed with tourists and pilgrims from around the country. It’s nearly absent, however, of westerners. We stayed for two nights, checked out some cool temples and watched a fire ceremony that happens every night on the Ganges, the holiest river in the county. We ate some really good dal (lentils) and poori (fried dough – this is breakfast here). It was nice to be in a place without many white faces, just the opposite of what we found in Rishikesh.

Rishikesh is a holy city for Hindus as well, but it’s also popular for westerners because of the yoga scene and the fact that the Beatles spent some time there. More or less, the Ganges separates the hectic, crowded, Indian side of town from the chilled-out western side. A lot of people come to Rishikesh to stay in yoga ashrams and basically seclude themselves to do internal work. I’ve been to a couple ashrams, and at this point in my trip I’m not feeling any need to isolate myself. So we stayed in town on the chill side of the river.


Laxman Jula, the chill side of Rishikesh

There are definitely some cool things happening in Rishikesh, but largely it’s the same scene as all the other popular traveler towns. Lots of cafes with peace signs painted on the walls serving western food and muesli very slowly while you sit on the floor with other westerners, play guitars and drink coffee. Normally, these are some of my favorite things to do, but it feels inauthentic here. It’s our idea of what India is supposed to be like, so we’ve manifested it here. Also, a bit too much pot-smoking and dreadlocks for my taste (fashion note: apparently the new way to have dreadlocks is to shave half your head and keep the rest).

But we had a good time. We did some yoga, checked out some far-out meditation workshops, and went rafting down the Ganges with a group of 19 year-old boys from Agra. It was great to catch up with Kelly and throw around some ideas about Seattle and the future. After a few days we caught another overnight bus, this time to Dharamsala, the home-base for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

This was almost a week ago, and I’m loving it here. Most people don’t stay in Dharamsala itself, which is a relatively large and bustling city. We’re up the hills in Mcleod Ganj, which is where the Dalai Lama’s temple is (he’s not in town right now unfortunately). Farther up there are a couple smaller towns which are great for walking around, but which have the same muesli-vibe we caught in Rishikesh. The Tibetan community is really strong in Mcleod Ganj, which gives the place a wonderful feel. There are all sorts of organizations around to support the refugees, and I’ve just started helping a bit with English conversation classes. The air is clean here; the mountains are beautiful. We’re just in the foothills of the Himalayas (6,000 ft), which I’m planning to explore more deeply in the next few weeks.


Mcleod Ganj

I’ve also met back up with Samyak Yoga, the group I did my yoga teacher training with. It’s great to see them again, drop into a few classes, and feel immediately like I’m part of a community here. Today I started a 5-day intensive Iyengar Yoga course, which will be a whole different way of looking at the practice, focusing entirely on alignment of the body. There is strong coffee here (without the pot-smoking and peace signs to go with it), and the desserts are the best I’ve had in the country. Indians love sweets, which tends to make their treats one-dimensional along the sugar axis. The Tibetans have it better figured out, with a good balance of sweet, salt, and chocolate.

Seeing the Tibetan community in exile first-hand has also opened my eyes to the insanity of the struggle going on across the border. It’s a desperate situation. All those “Free Tibet” stickers and t-shirts have been changing over to “Save Tibet,” which is much more accurate at this point. This is a story for another time.

Basically, you are probably getting the idea that there is a huge amount going on over here. My days are full and the energy around is powerful. There is so much good stuff to do, and now I’m down to my last month in India. The trip is simultaneously flying by and endless: one of the mysteries of time. I’m excited to get back to the States to pursue some of these ideas, but still savoring the experiences of the trip.

Six Months Without Alcohol

Last night I had my first drink in over six months. To address the obvious question first: no, I haven’t been getting over a drinking problem. It’s been more of an experiment in sobriety. This is the longest I’ve gone without alcohol since I started drinking at about age 18. So yesterday, after a 50-hour, 2,700 km combination scooter-bus-train-rickshaw adventure (an aside – total cost: $30, or about $0.016/mile), I decided that I had learned what I set out to learn from the experiment. I had a Kingfisher Light, the beer of India, with some friends in Delhi and went out to a rap show to see Heems from Das Racist, who was crashing at the same apartment as me. Nothing crazy happened to me all night, my head did not explode with toxins, and I woke up the same person today as I was yesterday. I definitively did not turn into a pumpkin.

Here’s why I did it: Last September I signed up for a Vipassana Meditation course in Washington. They don’t specifically require it, but it is suggested that one abstain from all intoxicants for a month before the course starts. I did this for everything except coffee, which I tried and failed to cut out of my diet.

But alcohol was easy for me. I had just finished hanging out in the woods all summer with teenagers, so I had hardly drank at all for a few months previous. I actually quite enjoyed the excuse to not have a beer or two in the evenings hanging out with friends. I find that casually drinking beers with dinner or afterwards just makes me sluggish the next morning without adding anything (but empty carbs) to the evening experience. Going out dancing proved to be more of a test of will, but it turns out dance parties can also be really fun sober. Once you start to move your body, it just feels natural. The one weird part is seeing how sloppy and out of control some of the really drunk people are.

So Vipassana came and went, and I felt great. I decided to keep it going for a while to see what happened. Eventually I started going on some dates, which I thought had a high probability of being really awkward without the social lubricant. It turns out the opposite was true. Actively not drinking is pretty unusual in the dating world, and it happens to be a great topic of conversation. Most of us are so accustomed to drinking when we’re out on dates that not drinking really refocusing our awareness, and becomes a thing in itself to be examined. I had some really good conversations with women about why we drink, what we’re afraid of, and what we’re actually doing on all these dates. It was refreshing, and usually only awkward for the first five minutes.

Here’s what I realized about myself: I mostly drink to make hard situations easier, and this is a terrible reason to drink. Almost always this is in regards to women. Starting conversations, continuing conversations, moving beyond conversations. Alcohol makes it all easier. But it doesn’t make it any better. I want to be able to handle these interactions without “something to take the edge off.” Keep the edge, and if I get cut, so be it. I have faith in my ability to navigate a conversation, and I don’t want to teach myself that I need alcohol to make it go well.

So, a few months into the experiment and I had my Yoga Teacher Training on the horizon. I knew I wouldn’t be drinking during that, so I decided I might as well just continue with it until the training was over, then reassess. Also, it’s really easy not to drink in India. Not a lot of places sell alcohol, and one beer costs about the same as a great meal. So I stayed away.

And here’s what I learned next: In moderation, it’s really not such a big deal. I don’t feel any more “pure” or “wholesome” or “good” because I haven’t drank for six months. I’ve saved some money (honestly, this is the best reason not to drink), but I don’t feel any more enlightened. I’ve never had a drinking problem, but I’ve seen what alcoholism can do. The difference between having a few drinks socially each week and total sobriety for me is miniscule. For some people, that might be the tipping point. And going to the point of having a couple drinks everyday, the real trouble starts. It seems to me that alcohol is much more commonly a crutch than a carefully enjoyed pastime. We use it to dull the senses, to make hard things seem easy, when really we’re just letting the difficulties build up to the point of being unmanageable later. And things fall apart.

I’m glad to have had my little experiment in sobriety. Give it a try sometime – only your wallet will be fatter.