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India Diaries: Death Contemplation

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India Diaries: Death Contemplation

I guess this is how I go...

Helpless in the backseat on the treacherous drive from Madurai to Fort Kochi through the steep, jagged mountains of Kerala, my death contemplation practice has been taken to a brand-new level. And not by choice. We're driving at top speed on a winding one-lane road with no rules and too many impatient drivers. And every time we overtake a bus on a sharp curve, blind -- which is every few minutes -- I'm convinced it's about to be the end of me. I look out the window and see nothing on the side of the mountain to stop us, with one wrong move, from flying down into the deep valley below. 

I clutch my new skull necklace close to my heart. I bought it just before India to support my death contemplation practice by reminding me that everything and everyone will die, including me, and it could happen at any time (so I remember to treat each moment as the precious gift it is). And just yesterday I initiated a year-long Kali sadhana to deepen this practice by directly pursuing death of the ego and death of attachments, including to life itself. I feel like Kali's in the car with me now, saying, "This is what you wanted, right? The real stuff?" (She's the Dark One, so it's no surprise she has a dark sense of humor.)

Something odd arises in response. At the height of my conviction that this is the end, I'm surprised to find myself overcome not by a highly amplified version of the gratitude I feel and express on a daily basis, but rather by a deep sadness and disappointment. "So this is it, huh?" I think. "What a bunch of pain and suffering this life has been." Not exactly the thoughts I would have expected from myself.

Now I see that through this experience, Kali was simply reflecting just how much my ego is still in control. I was having what I assume from the viewpoint of the separate self is the inevitable experience of immanent death: Either fear born of attachment to the impermanent (invented meaning) or complete meaninglessness. For me it was a combination of the two: "I'm going to lose the things and people that make things matter" and "Nothing at all has ever mattered." These beliefs were fueling my fear fire. (And, man, did they burn!)

You're reading this blog post, so of course I didn't die. Somehow -- after eight hours of nonstop honking, innards clumping, head throbbing, and teeth threatening to slice off the tip of my tongue -- somehow, I made it out alive. I'm still integrating, but I know I was given the gift of seeing where I really am and the work that's left to do. And I know my skull necklace, after passing through this fire, holds greater meaning than before. There's a sense of greater urgency behind the need to live now. In every moment. And always. (More to come on what that'll look like.) And I have to wonder...though that wasn't the end of me, perhaps I'm one step closer to the end of "me."

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The only way out is in

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The only way out is in

Damn it feels good to be home. After an action-packed Advertising Week in New York, I almost cried with joy as I stepped out of the airport and into the clean and crisp San Francisco air. 

Between work and weddings and learning and teaching, I've been on 19 flights over the past three months. I've spent far too much time on the road for my taste and far too much time DOING, not enough BEING. And it's been cramping my style. Because though life's offered a lot of stimulation with all its recent assignments and activities, it hasn't been very spacious.

In fact, I've been feeling anything but spacious. Over the past few weeks, swept up in the throes of life's intensity and movement, I've felt overwhelmed, distracted, agitated, and rather confused. In fact, I even feared I'd gone backwards on the spiritual path.

Faced with all kinds of deadlines and deliverables, I've been stress-eating like hell (all paleo intentions out the window), overdoing it with coffee, grinding my teeth, waking up sweating, skipping practices, and constantly judging myself and others -- mind always racing a million miles a minute. And whenever I did find myself with free time, I usually chose to spend it either numbing out or trying to fill it with more activities, when what I really longed for, what my intuition softly called for, was presence, inquiry, and self-compassion.

Yet I didn't give myself any of that until things hit a breaking point in the Newark airport this morning, when I broke into tears over breakfast. Sadness + eggs do not mix in my world. I realized it was time to hit pause.

So I dropped the drama and sat in stillness for 30 minutes, allowing myself to get intimate with what I'd been avoiding for weeks: my own feelings, raw and unadorned. Then I reread my notes from a recent meditation immersion, relishing each insight, remembering who I am. Finally, I chose my themes for my upcoming yoga retreat -- not because I thought I should, but because I felt genuinely inspired. And as I slowly went through these three activities, as I turned inwards, all crescendoing angst, clenching, and desire to escape my life dissolved.

The fact is, I've been wanting out. But today I was reminded that the only way out is in. There's no chance of escape by numbing out, or powering through, or sensory distraction, like I'd been attempting. That only prolongs suffering and creates more anxiety.

Suffering won't go away until you go right into the center of it and be with it like you'd be at the bedside of someone you love if you were tucking them in after a tough day. With compassion. With presence. With love. With "It's going to be okay," but, more importantly, with "It's already okay, and it always has been."

Because it's okay to forget what really matters. It's okay to float out to the periphery and away from your core. It's okay to be human! It's more than okay, really. It's happening, so it's perfect.

And by the way, there's no going backwards on the spiritual path. There's no falling off it, either. We're never NOT on the path, and the path leads straight in. In other words, you're already home -- all you have to do is recognize it and remember. 

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What does practicing while on vacation look like?

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What does practicing while on vacation look like?

"I'm going to meditate and practice yoga every day while in Japan," I told myself just before heading there for a two-week vacation. I sincerely believed it at the time too -- but yeah, right.

When I actually found myself there I didn't want to sit still and "just breathe." I wanted to immediately dive into my surrounds, into the sights, into Japanese culture. And into Japanese food.

Instead of starting my mornings off with yoga, most days began with desperately trying to find breakfast in a country that doesn't really do breakfast places (but apparently still does breakfast). I'd usually end up at Mos Burger, the only eatery around open before 11am, where I'd chow down on a rice, egg and soy sauce sandwich and alternate between sipping coffee and miso soup. Then I'd waste no time in taking to the streets, rarely coming back to my hostel before sundown -- there was too much to see. And too much people-watching to do. 

The first several days (the entire time I was in Tokyo) the bliss of practicing yoga took a clear backseat to the joy of exploring a fascinating and brand-new-to-me country. But eventually, in Kyoto, I began to crave some breath-led movement and centering. I was getting cranky, sluggish and overwhelmed by mental clutter. I missed my practice. It was time to circle back to the mat.

Instead of practicing at the Airbnb apartment I stayed at, where where there wasn't much space and because I was incredibly curious, I decided to check out what public yoga in Japan was all about. Over the course of three days, I attended three yoga classes, all taught in Japanese, at a studio called Tamisa in the middle of a shopping center not far from Gion. The first class was Level 1 Vinyasa. It was very slow. Lots of low lunges. The second was a busy Level 2 Vinyasa class. It was less slow. Lots of low lunges. The final class I took was a noon class, something called Tri Yoga. It was the slowest, but also the most challenging class of the three. There was a strong focus (I inferred from the teacher's body language) on smooth ujjayi and moving with the breath. Lots of low lunges. An unreal amount of cat-cows.

Chaturanga wasn't instructed once in any of the three classes I attended (though I have to admit I snuck a couple in). And the unhurried pace felt great. It was the perfect vacation yoga.

I wonder if most yoga in Japan is in line with what I experienced: gentle, leisurely and more focused on stretching than strength. I should probably practice that way more often.

In my personal practice, I know have an excess of fire that needs to be balanced, but even though I know water'd be good for me, I only ever crave fire. I'm always thinking "vigor." I avoid restorative and yin and anything too sleepy, but in Japan it came to me. And, you know what? I didn't hate it.

In fact, in Okinawa, my last stop in Japan, I stayed at a summer cottage with plenty of floor room for yoga. I finally rekindled my home practice there, and I did it in the Japanese style. I lingered in each breath and doused each pose in breath. Three-legged down dog, which is usually a one-breath affair, I held for five. And it felt like smooth, hot sake in my body. You might guess I took several low lunges. I did indeed. And I certainly took my sweet time to wind it all down before savasana. 

Looking back on the trip, I explored a lot and practiced a little (but the little I did do taught me a thing or two about the power inherent in practicing with tenderness). I think I did alright in terms of maintaining balance...for a vacation. But next time I'll bring breakfast bars so I can at least fuel a daily morning meditation session. #vacationyoga

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2 Weeks in Japan

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2 Weeks in Japan

I'm back from two sensory, delicious, relaxing, cherry-blossom-filled weeks in Japan! 

Though I'm glad to be home in SF again, where there are Whole Foods and public trashcans on every corner and people don't smoke cigarettes in restaurants, I know this trip is going to be one I return to time and time again in my mind. There will surely be days when I'll crave the ramen, sushi, okonomiyaki, gyoza, Asahi, and Boss coffee cans that come out hot-to-the-touch from vending machines. And I'm going to miss seeing the world's cutest babies (which there were a ton of everywhere, despite all the claims that Japan has a birth rate problem) and some of the coolest fashions I've ever seen. But most of all I think I'll miss the general sensory overload. There was so much crazy to see!

I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Okinawa and each had something unique to offer. If you're planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, feel free to reach out for recommendations! I stayed on top of documenting what we did almost daily, and I'm happy to help.

Tokyo highlights:

  • Shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku
  • Hanging out with the bartender from Hiroshima and eating the dry squid he fed us in a tiny Shinjuku Golden Gai bar, where we were the only patrons around noon one day
  • Splurging on Sushi Yuu in Roppongi Hills where we were referred by a well-connected friend
  • Checking out the arcades in Akihabara, and getting our hands dirty with a drumming game

 

Kyoto highlights:

  • Mingling with monkeys on the monkey mountain - the hike up was so worth it. No fences so there's no real separation between you and the monkeys. But don't touch them or look them directly in the eye!
  • Walking around Higashino Park near Gion. There are temples, street food stands and beautiful creeks and trees. Something for everyone.
  • Attending three different yoga classes at Tamisa Yoga. (More to come on yoga in Japan in another blog post.)

 

    Osaka highlights:

    • Food
    • Food
    • Food

     

    Okinawa highlights:

    • The Churaumi Aquarium, one of the largest in the world, the visitation of which is a half-day affair
    • Staying in a music-themed Airbnb cottage and practicing yoga there
    • The beach!

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    Two weeks in Vietnam

    Notes and highlights from my trip

    I just returned from two weeks in Vietnam, where the soap smells like scented crayons and, even in cities teeming with motorbikes, the vibe is languid. (For every person laboring, there seemed to be another two watching. Even the incessant honking was done leisurely.) I explored the vibrant streets of Ho Chi Minh City, biked around quaint Hoi An (where Anthony Bourdain was planning to buy a house), and kayaked around the bays surrounding Cat Ba Island (near Hanoi). It was hands-down the best vacation I've ever had. The peaceful, happy people and the amazing food and the splendid sights played a role, no doubt, but more impactful, I think, was the spirit of spontaneity with which we approached each day.

    Notes and photos below! For those of you planning a trip to Vietnam or contemplating planning one in the future, feel free to reach out with any specific questions.

    Ho Chi Minh City
    Lodging: Long Hostel
    Highlights:

    • Barbecuing our own frog's legs and goat meat
    • Frolicking freely in the amazing HCMC zoo
    • Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels and seeing all kinds of Princess-Bride-like booby traps
    • Drinking way too much Vietnamese coffee (concentrated drip coffee filtered one cup at a time, made creamy and toothsome with sweetened condensed milk)
    • Riding around on the back of a vespa through the bustling streets

    Hoi An
    Lodging: Hai Au Hotel
    Highlights:

    • Getting an emerald green velvet blazer tailor-made in one day
    • Riding bikes to the sea, turning down unmarked dirt roads at random along the way
    • Getting a mud wrap followed by a facial and a massage for way too cheap

    Ha Long Bay (Blue Swimmers EcoTour, which I highly recommend)
    Lodging: Bungalow on private island first night, two-story junk bed (for 8) second night
    Highlights:

    • Stargazing from our junk boat, out in the middle of nowhere
    • Kayaking through caves and coves
    • Hiking with puppies!

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    Trailer Dreams

    It's Sunday. I'm lounging in a hammock on a farm in Sonoma County. I slept inside a cozy Airstream last night and woke up at the crack of dawn to meditate underneath a passionfruit vine and the California sky beyond it. Bees buzzed around the vine as cows om'ed with us from somewhere far off in the distance. Meditation was followed by an outdoor yoga class (focused on aura expansion) and then a "farm-to-table" brunch. I'm dangerously blissed out right now.

    This space (the site of an old Indian burial ground) is enchanted. There are trees and hills in all directions with the ocean in sight beyond them to the west. We eat outside at a long wooden table that could comfortably seat eighty people. Strings of golden bulbs are draped on beams above. Our weekend homes, the accommodations in which we sleep, are each unique. In addition to the trailer, there are both round and cone-shaped tents. Some are equipped with their own bathrooms and claw-foot tubs. The shower is a communal, outdoor, spring water shower, built directly around a tree. And let me tell you - using it was a treat after sweating through two yoga classes and a day by the pond in 100 degree weather.

    My only complaint about this retreat would be how hard it has been to sleep (what with the animals and sacred spirits floating about). The first night I lay awake for at least in the hour in the middle of the night convinced someone was outside the trailer contemplating coming in. (I later discovered it was probably a fox.) But I am thankful even for the erratic sleep this weekend, because it brought me a long and eventful lucid dream in which I succeeded with "asking the dream" for and receiving something unexpected...

    Below is the dream as I recorded it on my phone when I woke up. I made only grammar edits and included takeaways at the end. Enjoy!

     


    I'm walking down the street singing a classic rock song. I think "Hey - I didn't know I knew the words to this!" and realize I'm dreaming. My first instinct is to take flight and immediately I find myself flying over a gloomy ocean. It's suddenly very dark. I try shouting "Brighten up!" at the sky but this doesn't work so I accept the darkness and try to adjust to it. It's bright enough to see my hands, which is what really matters. As I fly, I look at my palms frequently to stabilize and prolong the dream. 

    I recall my intention of meeting a personal guide and call out to the dream, "I want to see and talk to one of my spirit guides!" Nothing obvious happens, but I keep flying, searching the boats below for such a being. 

    I stop to land on several boats. Unfortunately nobody I meet seems to fit the bill and when I ask directly ("Are you my spirit guide?"), everyone says, "No." (Daniel Radcliffe tries to seduce me in one of the boats. Why he popped up in my dream I have no idea but I find it rather amusing.)

    "What do you represent?" I ask a handful of dream characters I encounter. A few say, "Nothing." One asks, "What do you mean?" which I don't bother answering. I think only one gives me an abstract concept. It comes from a punk rock office guy and though I don't remember what he said he represented, I'm pretty sure it was sarcastic in tone. (Dream characters aren't always the friendliest.)

    After failing to meet my spirit guide, I experience a false awakening in the trailer at the farm. Alissa is in my bed with me. I find this strange and concentrate on falling asleep and going lucid again. Next thing I know I'm back in the dream world - lucid again, this time with Alissa at my side.

    On flying skateboards we explore a funky, punky town chalk full of dream characters and 50s diners. I keep trying to shout up to the sky, "Show us something amazingly beautiful!" (another pre-intended experiment) but nothing happens. 
    We fly into a window, into a room empty but for a tall mauve curtain. Despite having a bad feeling about the space I announce, "When we open this curtain we'll see something amazingly beautiful behind it." I tell Alissa (or whatever combination of people she has turned into by this point) to pull back the curtain. She rips it open to reveal a bed with a person lying under a sheet. We pull the sheet back and out crawls a bald demonic ghoul. As he starts to reach his bony hands out to us, spit flying from his foul toothless mouth, I tell Alissa instead of fighting him we should project love and kindness onto him. We do, but only halfheartedly. Our fear outweighs our love. We say, "We love you," but then we hurry back out the window and into the air, shouting, "Just kidding bitch!" (I regret this as I was probably talking to an aspect of my own self.)

    Somehow we end up standing in a lake in a beautiful valley. Then the finale comes. Again, with conviction I yell up at the sky, "Show us something amazingly beautiful!" I keep chanting this, and as I do rainbows appear across the sky -upwards of ten of them. Every time I repeat the request, thunder cracks and then the sky scene becomes more clear. More rainbows emerge and move in full circles around the sky. I throw pieces of dried mango (a snack I enjoyed during the retreat) to everyone around us in celebration. ("The dream responded!") Then I take a quick sip of someone's iced coffee and wake myself up to end on a good note. The dream has already been going on for such a long time and I don't want to forget any of it.

    Things that stood out to me about my experience:

    • My palms looked incredibly accurate in my dream - both engraved with hundreds of lines
    • Throughout everything that happened after Alissa joined me I was convinced that it was a second lucid dream. I didn't realize I had had a false awakening until I woke up.
    • I've never seen so many dream characters at once! An entire busy city of them! Could my mind really be so cluttered?


    Things I'd have done differently if given another change:

    • I should have asked the dream characters what I should do next in the dream. 
    • I also should have been more discerning (based on appearance and demeanor) to decide which dream characters to talk to. (I think I wasted my time "talking to" a lot of thought forms.)
    • I should have also tried to find out where we were. (A specific part of my subconscious maybe?)
    • Finally, I should have been more persistent in projecting love onto the "scary" dream character, and I definitely shouldn't have tricked him!


    But wow. After months of no lucidity, this was my longest lucid dream yet! Still, much more progress to be made. Time to sign up for a few more yoga retreats...

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