Empty Roads, Quiet Mind

With little but the wind, the sound of my tires on the asphalt, and an occasional tumbleweed for company, I drove on empty highways across America’s high deserts, mountain ranges, forests, plains and valleys, experiencing a freedom and openness that may be unique to the smaller roads of the American West while the spring snow is still melting.

I took a vaguely S-shaped route across the country, trying as much as possible to use two-lane State Roads and U.S. Highways – roads the travel writer William Least Heat-Moon called Blue Highways because that was their color in old atlases. Roads on which you can still find small towns with a local diner, a clean motel room, and a warm greeting.

I have been fascinated with driving adventures for a long time, perhaps since reading On the Road when I was a teenager, before I could even drive but ached for a license and the freedom to find myself somewhere out there. I’ve been lucky to take some memorable road trips since then: learning to drive manual on a highway crowded with donkey carts near Marrakech, Morocco; driving across the States for the first time when I moved to San Francisco after college; a two-week adventure through the cacti and deserted beach towns of the Baja Peninsula on a break between jobs one January; a harrowing drive from Kabul to Kunduz over the 12,723 foot Salang Pass while shooting The Observer; a week-long jaunt down the empty roads of southern Cambodia; a sweaty three day bus journey through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya; and countless daytrips up and down the California Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and Scotland.

As I logged the miles on this trip (5,343 miles), guzzled the gas (250.3 gallons for an average of 21.3 miles per gallon) and swiped my card to refill ($937.24 at an average cost of $3.74 per gallon), I often wondered how many more years a trip like this would be possible, or at least socially acceptable. Would the time come when the prospect of driving across the country was even more environmentally irresponsible and financially indulgent than it is now – like going on a hunting safari or setting off on a six-month honeymoon with a dozen steamer trunks? Would my children be able to make a trip like this? So, while I regretted the environmental impact of this journey and dreaded the arrival of my credit card bill, I consoled myself that this might be my last chance to take a winding, aimless American drive.

Departing San Francisco on a cloudy March morning I started east over the snow covered Sierra Nevadas, stopping for two legendary days of snowboarding with the Baldwin twins in Lake Tahoe; dropping across the dramatic cloud swept high desert of Nevada and into the shadowy canyons of Southern Utah; my packed car struggling up and over a 10,666-foot pass in the Rockies; descending to the sunny plains around Boulder to visit my lovely sister; drifting down New Mexico’s fir-clad hillsides and brush-covered desert; crossing into Texas near the border; discovering the Rio Grande running shallow, a drug-war in Mexico menacing on the other side, Border Patrol and check-points across West Texas, a hipster commune in Marfa and a star-filled sky in Big Bend; East Texas, driving hard; dipping through the Louisiana bayou, a night of hamburgers and jazz on Frenchmen Street, hot feet on the fine white sand of the Gulf Coast; winding through deep woods and muddy rivers of Alabama, across an infamous bridge in Selma; eating boiled peanuts and crayfish with new friends in north Georgia; camping in the sand dunes on Carolina’s outer-banks; a crab feast on the Chesapeake; more cars on the roads, more people in the towns; and a last blue highway over the Bear Mountain bridge, the sun setting over the Hudson and a wide continent of rivers, forests, mountains and deserts that felt no less vast to me now that I had crossed it.

My old friend and new housemate, Michael and I were reflecting the other night about different types of meditation – from the ascetic to the indulgent – and I realized that driving these empty, scenic roads had become an indulgent form of meditation for me, as I quieted my mind on the empty road: the view ever-changing, memories of the past fading in the rear view mirror, and the mystery of what lies beyond the next bend urging me onward.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In the Canyons

Zion felt to me like a national park administered by Disneyland, with its $25 entrance fee, sprawling visitor center, and buses waiting to shuttle the summer throngs up the canyon. While I was at Zion, I hiked a six-mile trail of winding switchbacks up a narrow slot canyon and over a running stream to take in the view at the rim of the big canyon and I didn’t see a single footprint – because the entire trail had been paved. Not my idea of wilderness.

Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef were quieter and less developed, but there was still a gloss of sanitation and regulation throughout – the RV friendly campgrounds, the pavement-bound tourists, the roadside signs full of rules and directives. All three parks were stunning in their beauty and enormous beyond what I could reach in a day or two, but I had come to southern Utah to get off this paved, signposted path.

I pulled into Escalante, Utah – a windblown little town perched on the edge of a vast wilderness, the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument – too late to catch the rangers at the modest visitor center but was fortunate to find a guiding operation with its door open. When I met the owner, Rick Green, and told him I was looking for a three day hike into the canyons he thought about it for a moment and said, “You should go to Neon. I’ll draw you a map.” Which he did. Perhaps after assessing my newness in town he kindly lent me a guidebook and jotted the 1-800-number for a helicopter rescue, just in case. Not that I would have cell phone reception out there.

Drive five miles east of Escalante on panoramic Route 12, then turn south down the dirt Hole-in-the-Rock Road for 16 miles, then east on the Egypt Road another 10 miles, through dry washes, past the occasional tumbleweed, until you reach the end of the road and then you can start walking. I think my father got a kick out of it when I sent him an email with these directions for the rescue party if I didn’t emerge in a few days.

I shouldered my pack (tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, cook pot, bowl, spoon, leatherman, water bottles & filter, granola, oatmeal, dried noodles & curry, change of socks, shorts, jacket, hat & gloves, camera, sunglasses, notebook, USGS “Egypt Quadrangle” contour map, compass, day pack) and began the descent into a wide, sandy plateau where the canyons opened beyond. I was told there would be rock cairns showing the way down to the Escalante River but if there were I soon lost them on one of the long slabs of trackless slick rock.

Although I thought this was exactly what I wanted it took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of walking without a trail. I stopped often to check my map and look ahead, trying to discern the opening of a steep side canyon, and to look back to orient myself against the rocky shelf I had descended, knowing that I needed to hit the canyon near the right place to avoid the 150-foot cliffs at its upper reaches and that I would eventually need to find the way back to my car.

At first I looked eagerly for a cairn or a human footprint to validate my way, but gradually my eyes began to change their focus – like staring at one of those optical illusions where first you see nothing and then you see everything – and the desert ecosystem began to reveal itself to me in dozens, then hundreds of tiny tracks in the sand: lizard, mouse, bird, rabbit, snake, coyote. Even a strand of windblown grass left its perfect, impermanent mark. After a mile or more I came across a solitary human footprint in the sand between two sections of slick rock, but it didn’t matter to me anymore.

I couldn’t help drawing proximate analogies between this pathless walking and my life. How it is hard at first to be without clear guidance but then liberating to choose your own path and rewarding to find that this might be a more interesting way to walk, even if it requires a little extra time and the occasional double-back.

I probably added an extra mile to the walk on my circuitous path toward the canyon, aided by my less-than-perfect contour map reading, but I found the place where the plateau dropped relatively gently toward the canyon floor and discovered a well-worn switchback to ease me down among the cottonwoods and the spring-fed stream cutting through the red stone and green reeds.

I set up camp on a ledge above piles of driftwood and rivulets in the sand – the signs of past flash floods – then I changed into shorts and set out with my daypack.

The Escalante river looks more like a fast flowing creek by Midwestern standards but it has carved a very impressive canyon. Giant cottonwoods and thick stands of brush line the banks and in places the river runs up against the canyon walls, sculpting shady rock overhangs, so that navigating down the canyon I was forced to cross and re-cross the river repeatedly to find old cattle traces through the thick brush.

Fortunately I had the perfect footwear for the day, a pair of Vibram toe-articulating water-walking shoes, pictured here next to what I assumed at the time to be a set of fresh dinosaur footprints but was heartbroken to learn, after a loud cluck and gobble at sunset, more likely belonged to a turkey.

The only reminders of humans down in the canyon were occasional tracks in the sand and the constant flow of airplanes in the washed out blue sky above. They passed so high I could barely see the shiny planes themselves but the contrails criss-crossing the sky were more noticeable – two distinct white furrows, gradually blurring to one thin white cloud and then disappearing.

Rick had labeled a place on my map “Pet,” for petroglyph, a place where Native Americans had carved images in the stone cliffs hundreds of years ago. Winding my way up the main canyon, crashing through thick stands of young trees, crossing and re-crossing the frigid Escalante, I began to doubt I would find the place on the map marked “Pet.”

When I found the wall on the north side of Choprock Canyon where Rick had told me to look, I knew I was in the right place: in the late afternoon sun the wall extended as flat and perfect and uniformly red as a well-prepped canvas. And then I saw the first petroglyph glowing on the wall. They moved me more than I thought they would, these messages authored centuries ago by people living lives incomprehensively foreign to mine, in a world I might yearn for but would barely recognize, much less survive. Yet here they were, speaking to me in a language I think I understood.

I slept deeply that night in the silent, ancient world of the canyons and woke the next morning to continue exploring south down the Escalante and up two nearby side canyons.

Neon Canyon opened like a mystery, its cold wind sending a shiver down my spine. As I turned the corner and followed the dry creek bed for nearly a mile, the canyon walls gradually narrowed so nothing remained but cool, damp shadow. The canyon ended abruptly at the place called the Golden Cathedral, where the sun found a way down to light the sand near a deep pool and there was a double bridge in the rock above where eons of falling water had created first one and then a second portal to the sky above. The mystery solved.

As I was winding my way home from the last, narrowest slot canyon, known as Ringtail, I encountered the first people I’d seen in almost two days. They seemed nearly as surprised to see me as I was to see them and practically all we could do was nod in acknowledgment of this place that is in many ways beyond words.

The next time I am in one of those planes crossing the endless red desert on my way from one city to another I will think of the hidden canyons below, a river carving the red rocks to sand, a cool wind flowing out of the shadows, a petroglyph glowing in the sun on a canyon wall.

(Note on the Photos: My apologies to the photographic purists out there for all of the gratuitous self-portraits in this post. Short of inserting my foot in the bottom of every frame, I think it’s the best way to give a sense of scale in these humbling environments. Perhaps you can tell from my unvarying pose (hands on the backpack straps is obviously my “magnum” look) that I’m doing it out of a sense of duty.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Moving Lightly

When I left San Francisco for East Africa and Oxford nearly three years ago I rented a storage unit to keep some of my stuff. I had returned to the unit several times while passing through the Bay Area to pick up various essentials (surf board, snowboard, camping gear, bicycle) but had not penetrated beyond the first layer of the 5’ x 5’ locker since I crammed it full of boxes, files, a mattress and I know-not-what in May, 2008.

The time had come to deal with my storage locker.

The most remarkable thing about all the stuff in there is how little I missed it. There were moments during the last three years when I cursed myself for having to re-buy something lost in storage purgatory (yet another bike tool) and I was, admittedly, excited to be reunited with my favorite books. But for the most part, I have not only not missed all my stuff, I have felt actively liberated from it.

As the months and then the years passed and I moved from one place to another, I came to appreciate a lighter bag and a lightness of ownership. Less stuff meant less weight, less clutter, less responsibility, and, I have found, less desire for more.

Less mine. But, perhaps, more me.

I stumbled across this liberation by accident and, as you will see, I still have a long way to go. Others have gone much further. A website “The 100 Thing Challenge” chronicles a man’s effort to live with only 100 personal items for a year and challenges others to do the same.

An article in the New York Times last year included this and other stories about consumers consuming less and finding satisfaction in other ways: “New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.”

As an aside, I have been amused but not at all surprised to find advertisers picking up on this growing awareness and desire for meaning and experience instead of consumption and accumulation. A recent commercial for Buick is a great example. Buick asks, “How will the value of your days be measured? What will matter is not what you have…” Now buy a Buick!

The day before I confronted my storage locker I stayed with my great friends and godparents, the Hoaglands. On the bedside table in their guest room they have a book, Journeys of Simplicity by Philip Harnden, that itemizes the limited worldly possessions and packing lists of great travelers from history and literature. As I prepared to take on my storage locker, I took inspiration from John Muir’s packing list for a thousand mile walk to the Gulf Coast:

In a rubberized bag
comb
brush
towel
soap
change of underclothing
copy of Burns’s poems
Milton’s Paradise Lost
Wood’s Botany
small New Testament
journal
map

a plant press

The 17th century Japanese poet Bashō packed very poetically for a long walk:

For cold nights
a kimono of white paper
treated with persimmon juice
crumpled soft

a thin cotton kimono
a waterproof
writing materials
and so on

Farewell gifts from friends
could hardly leave them behind

In recognition that I was packing not only for a journey but also for a slightly more settled life in New York this summer, I referred to the list of household items kept by Japhy Ryder, a fictional character based on the poet Gary Snyder in Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums. In Japhy Ryder’s cabin near Corte Madera, California, Kerouac noted:

Old clay jars
exploding with picked flowers

straw mats on the floor
no shoes
no chairs

burlap on the walls
prints of old Chinese silk paintings
maps
poems stuck on a nail

in the closet
rucksack
secondhand clothes

thin mattress
Paisley shawl
sleeping bag, rolled

books in orange crates
Buddhist sutras
Suzuki, haiku, poetry

woodstove

food stored on a shelf
two onions
an orange
bag of wheat germ
cans of curry powder
rice
dried Chinese seaweed
bottle of soy sauce
homemade brown bread

When I arrived at my storage unit, under an industrial stretch of I-880 in the East Bay, I was shocked once again by the scale of the place and congratulated myself that my unit was relatively small compared to the multi-car garages on the first level. I notice these storage units everywhere now, perhaps because they are everywhere. There are over 50,000 self storage locations in the United States, offering 2.194 billion square feet of space. According to the Strategic Storage Trust, “There are 6.89 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation, thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.”

As the occupier of two such units (yes, I am ashamed to admit, I have a second unit near my parent’s home in Connecticut), I am in no position to criticize, but I think this glut of storage space says much about America’s culture of consumption, waste and debt. It could, and probably has, served as the basis for searing cultural and economic critiques about our national woes.

It didn’t take long for my storage unit to explode on the hallway floor as I unpacked boxes, discovering long forgotten items, inspiring both joy (my copies of Where the Wild Things Are and East of Eden) and disgust (a box containing nine pairs of $100+ blue jeans).

Performing triage on this mess was exhausting. As the pile for donation grew, the pile of things I couldn’t bring myself to part with grew just as frustratingly tall. After hours of consideration and sorting I found a loophole and surrendered. I discovered that there was another storage unit in a lesser complex five miles down the road available for half the price. I justified to myself: wouldn’t it make financial sense not to have to replace some of this stuff (a nice mattress) and wasn’t it necessary to take care of gifts and family art I couldn’t take with me?

So while my old television, jeans and innumerable wasteful items made their way to Goodwill, an equally large car load found its way to the cheaper storage unit down the road.

There was one line I was determined not to cross. I would take with me to New York only as much as could fit in the back of my car. This sorting had been taking place simultaneously and the pile was looming ominously large. Even with all my recent packing practice, loading my car would be an interesting challenge.

* * *

In Escalante, Utah – 974 miles into my cross-country journey – I stopped for the night and packed for a hike the next day. While I was searching for my compass in the back of my car, I sifted through bags and boxes and surveyed my belongings.

In the back of my 4Runner:

tent
sleeping bag
camp stove
plate, bowl, utensils
water bottles and filter
a blender

bicycle
snowboard
golf clubs
3 yoga mats

2 bags of clothing

1 box of books
short stories, novels, travel books
my old journals

paintings by my grandmother and great-grandmother
old maps of Scotland, America and South Africa
a photograph of Table Mountain
a U-boat compass
a Persian carpet

two digital cameras and a camcorder
MacBook Pro
computer printer
road atlas
GPS unit

a milk crate full of food
granola
almonds and dried cranberries
dark chocolate
green tea
dried noodles
apples, bananas, tangerines

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Dhamma

On the first day of my Vipassana Meditation course, while we were still allowed to speak to our fellow meditators, I met two students who had already completed the course and were returning to refresh and deepen their practice. They were not the types you might expect to find on a meditation course – a computer scientist working on artificial intelligence and a combustion expert from Lawrence Livermore. I asked them if they had any advice for me as a first time student. One of them replied, “Don’t freak out.”

The other guy grinned, “Yeah, freak in.”

Though some of you might have been amused to see me freak out or move to Lhasa to herd goats, you must have known I would choose the boring, pious-sounding middle option and begin, if slowly, to recognize what Buddhists call Dhamma – the law of nature and the way to liberation. The ten days of silence and meditation never got any easier after the difficult third day but my experience grew richer as I began to understand some of the teaching and to meditate.

The fourth day, Vipassana day, was indeed a significant day. We were finally taught the Vipassana technique of meditation. I hesitate to describe it to you here because it may sound deceptively simple. Vipassana teaches that there are three types of wisdom: wisdom gained by listening to others; intellectual, analytical understanding; and wisdom based on direct personal experience. This third type of wisdom, that which can only be gained by direct personal experience, is the essence of Vipassana meditation. Any understanding you could gain from my description or by reading about the technique would fall far short of the reality of direct experience.

I’m not supposed to teach the Vipassana technique but I am allowed to describe it. Although my description won’t do it justice I think it’s worth trying so you can get a sense of what the practice involves.

I don’t think I would have been able to begin to practice Vipassana without the preceding three days of focusing on my nose, in complete silence and stillness with no interruption or distractions from the outside world. In retrospect, I recognize that the technique we practiced for the first three days – Anapana meditation, focusing on the breath and sensations around the nose – and all the rules and restrictions about leading a moral life and eliminating distractions, were imposed as a means to an end, to condition our minds and bodies for the work ahead. This is where I cue the inspirational music and roll the Rocky-style meditation training montage. Or perhaps not. There is a reason you’ve never seen an action movie about meditation.

In it’s simplest form Vipassana meditation, as taught by Goenka-ji, asks that you:

“Move your attention systematically from head to feet and from feet to head, observing in order each and every part of the body by feeling all of the sensations that you come across. Observe objectively; that is, remain equanimous with all the sensations that you experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, by appreciating their impermanent nature. Keep your attention moving…”

We started out slowly that first day, trying to feel sensations, actual physical sensations, at the top of our heads. After a minute or so, I felt a prickling sensation, like the individual hairs on my head moving or ants crawling across my scalp. We were then directed to move our attention through our faces, which for me at least was easy. Things got much harder when we were asked to focus in turn on each part of our arms, chest, stomach, back and legs. Some areas I could feel, but vast swathes of my body seemed unreachable, blank. I would focus for minutes at a time on an area before some small nerve would twitch and I could move on. They call this type of meditation “work” and it is.

Over the course of those first hours and in the days ahead I gradually built up my sensitivity to the point where I could survey from my head to my feet and from my feet to my head, feeling sensations in most every part of my body in about 10-15 minutes per scan. It was gratifying to at last feel like I was making progress, although, of course, I wasn’t supposed to feel gratification. I wasn’t supposed to feel anything at all about it, as I was constantly reminded by Goenka-ji to remain objective and equanimous, that each sensation was impermanent.

The idea of focusing on actual sensations in your body is to hone in on something that is real and then, critically, not react to it. The underlying philosophy or belief, taken from Buddhist thought, is that our reactions to our cravings and our aversions are the source of all our misery. By mastering our own minds we build the strength and agility to observe but not to react to the cravings and aversions that fill our lives.

By day seven, although I felt I was continuing to make progress, the boredom of the empty hours was settling on me like the moss on the trees I passed dozens of times each day on my circuits through the woods. I was simultaneously so bored and so exhausted by the hours of meditation that I stopped meditating during the optional hours, only attending the compulsory sessions for one hour, three times each day. The other hours I filled with more walking and lying in my bed. There was nothing else to do.

On the seventh day Goenka-ji asked us to go deeper and I balked. With a new sternness and discipline in his voice he asked us to commit more fully, both physically and philosophically. First, physically, he asked that we take our surveying a step further. By now we were “sweeping” our bodies for sensations, our minds honed to the point where we could sweep our attention over the surface of our bodies, feeling sensations throughout. Goenka-ji asked that we begin penetrating our bodies during our surveying, choosing a point on the front side of our body and exploring inside to exit out the back.

This was too much for me. I had reached my limit of faith, belief or whatever it was that had sustained me thus far. Even if it was possible to feel sensations inside my body, which I doubted, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. During that session I gave up for the first time. I didn’t try to meditate but sat there, feeling frustrated with myself and angry at Goenka-ji for asking too much.

I thought about it a lot that night. I still had plenty of time to think, after all. I decided that I wasn’t reacting so much against the request to begin surveying inside my body as I was beginning to object to the underlying philosophy.

At the same time that Goenka-ji asked us to begin surveying inside, he warned us, more sternly than ever before, that this was a powerful practice we were learning and that it was not intended for us to “play games with sensations.” While the body-surveying was important, the real goal was not reacting to the sensation we felt – whether pleasant or unpleasant. This was something I was still struggling with – not only at the level of pure sensation, but at the deeper philosophical level of how it applies to my life. Did I want a life without the things I craved? Without the things that cause aversion? I was beginning to wonder if this was possible. How can one live the life of a “householder” in the modern world – be engaged in work, art and politics, have a wife and children – without desire and sacrifice? How or where can one draw the line between these essential desires and sacrifices and the forbidden cravings and aversions Goenka-ji insisted we not react to. This life might be possible, but only for a monk or a nun. Not for me.

There is an hour set aside each day to ask the teachers questions. I had gone once before to ask how Vipassana could fit with my yoga practice (no problem), and I went again to ask how it was possible to achieve the kind of non-attachment Vipassana requires while still remaining engaged in life.

I wasn’t expecting a perfect answer but the answer I got was both more and less than I had hoped for. “Work on your sitting practice, twice a day for an hour each time and the rest will work itself out,” the assistant teacher told me.

Thank you very little, I thought to myself, though with a smile of appreciation.

As I sat down for my first session on the eighth day I was very conscious that there were three days to go and at least nine hours of meditation for me to slog through.

So, as Goenka-ji gently urged at the beginning of many sessions, I started again. I started slowly by focusing on my breath and my nose. Then I felt the usual tingling at the top of my head, sensations down my arms, my chest, my back, my legs and returning up through each part of my body. My mind grew sharper. My forehead tingling in a lovely way, my twisted legs throbbing in pain: no reaction. As I was surveying across the surface of my chest, I turned my attention inside. At first I felt the outlines of a lump as it throbbed with a dull, heavy pain. It was only after a minute, as my mind wrapped its subtle eyes and hands around the dull throbbing lump, that I realized it was my heart I could feel, beating inside my chest.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Silence and Meditation

Snow and fallen fir boughs from a winter storm the week before still covered the forest floor when I turned into the Northern California Vipassana Center, on a quiet bend in a mountain road in Lake County.

I parked and checked email on my iPhone a final time before turning the phone off and locking it with my wallet and other valuables in the glove compartment. I grabbed a bag with everything I would need for the next ten days – warm clothes and bedding, an alarm clock – and nothing that wasn’t allowed – phone, computer, reading and writing materials – and locked the car behind me.

In the warm, well-lit dining hall I filled in a long registration form. I was “nervous and excited for the course,” I reported to the teachers. “I am very new to meditation.”

I have tried to meditate countless times as part of my yoga practice but I never felt that I came close to actually doing it. I didn’t know what meditation was supposed to feel like or produce in me. For the ancient yogis, the entire point of the physical yoga asana practice and pranayama breath control was to condition their minds and bodies for meditation. I had been practicing yoga for over a year with increasing dedication, so I was eager to get a glimpse of what this next step might look and feel like. I was also more than a little nervous. During my previous, brief meditation sessions, after the teacher had asked us to “clear our minds” or some other impossible task, I had usually given up and been left with a sense of defeat and mind-numbing boredom for the next twenty minutes while everyone in class around me seemed to be achieving nirvana. The time when I thought I had come closest to meditating, during my yoga training in Costa Rica, I now realize I was actually just falling asleep.

Vipassana meditation is said to be the form of meditation taught by Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, 2,500 years ago. Over the years the technique was lost or forgotten in most places but was preserved through a long line of teachers in Burma. S.N. Goenka (Goenka-ji), the head teacher and founder of the Vipassana Organization, came across the technique during long efforts to cure his migraine headaches. He discovered a gift as a teacher of the technique and over the years has taught many thousands of students at Vipassana Centers in India and throughout the world. Although the technique has its roots in Buddhist practice, it is insistently non-religious and non-sectarian. People of all religions or no religion are welcome to learn and practice Vipassana without any need to convert or call themselves Buddhists, which was another important selling point for me.

The worldwide Vipassana organization is almost as interesting to me as the technique itself. Each Vipassana Center is run as a financially free-standing, non-profit organization. Not only are all of the courses free – including room and board – but you are not allowed to make a donation to the organization until you have completed a ten day course. They say that the organization is financed entirely through these donations, which is to me a powerful testament to the utility of the technique.

My assigned bed was in a modern looking cabin near the road. The grounds had the look and feel of a fancy summer camp in the off-season, albeit a summer camp where all of the sports, Indian crafts, and campfire sing-alongs have been replaced by sitting inside in complete silence and stillness all day and then going to bed without dinner.

When I arrived at my cabin one of my two roommates, Eidan from Isreal, was already there. We were still allowed to talk at this point, so we did. Eidan is about my age and had been traveling the world for years it seemed. We played the old “I was in Bali in November and Rishikesh in December” game and realized we had many overlapping adventures. But with stops in Jamaica, Cuba, and Iceland coming up, I think Eidan has me beat.

While I was making my bed our other roommate arrived. We had less time to talk before the dinner bell rang but he introduced himself as Jason from San Jose and said he was there to learn more about meditation in the hope of leading his meditation group back home, “We’re called Dharma Punx.” Jason and I would have the next ten days of living together in silence to try to discern some other details of each other’s lives, but as the dinner bell rang all I had to go on was this brief introduction, Jason’s firm handshake, gym-built body, tattoo covered arm, and the Mercedes key on his bedside table.

After a tasty vegetarian curry meal (all of the food would be vegetarian and, to my surprise, delicious and plentiful, with the exception of “dinner,” which was limited to fruit and tea) we gathered in the meditation hall for the first time. There were about forty people on the course, half men and half women, mostly first time students. From this point on, there would be complete separation of the sexes, including in the meditation hall, where the men sat to the left of a wide aisle and the women to the right. This separation was intended to remove one more big distraction from our lives for the next ten days. Unfortunately, they are going to need to try harder on this one. It didn’t take me long to spot a beautiful women with long blond dreadlocks across the aisle and get distracted enough.

Entering the hall, we were assigned a seat, a square cushion on the ground, and offered other cushions and wooden props to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. We would be sitting there for a long, long time in the coming days. The assistant teachers played an audio recording by the meditation teacher, S.N. Goenka. These audio recordings and nightly video “discourses” would be the primary mode of instruction throughout the course. I don’t remember exactly what Goenka-ji said in that first recording, though I am sure it was characteristically gentle, humorous and encouraging. We were asked to observe five precepts, known as Sila during the next 10 days. These Sila roughly correspond to the Yogic Yama and the rules of morality that seem to be universal to most religions: to abstain from killing any being, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying, and from all intoxicants.

Before leaving the hall that first night we were told that our “noble silence” was to begin immediately. For the next ten days we should have no communication whatsoever, no talking, no gestures, no notes, and no eye contact with our fellow mediators. We were not to leave the grounds of the meditation center.

The first three days were hard. There were only four things to do: lie or sleep in bed, eat at the specified times, walk on the specified path, or meditate. Time was set aside for meditation from 4:30-6:30am; 8:00-11:00am; and 1:00-5:00pm. Any guess what we did from 6:00-7:00pm and 8:30-9:00pm? Yeah, we meditated.

To be more specific, for the first three days, we were asked to focus on our breath and on any sensations we could feel on the “limited area” of our nose – inside our nasal passages, the rims of our nostrils and upper lips. For 11 hours each day we sat, focusing on our noses.

I can’t even begin to describe what went through my mind during those first three days. When we weren’t in the meditation hall or meditating in our rooms, I mostly walked. There was a short but lovely walking trail, a figure-8 loop on a hillside of Douglas Fir and one many-branched, moss covered deciduous that I came to think of as our mossy Bodhi tree. I circled that path like the slow-moving hands of an old clock. As the snow melted all around, my mind circled with me. Tick, tick.

It was surprisingly easy to share a living space with two strangers without any communication – easier in some ways than if we had to make space not only for each others bodies but for our personalities and egos. We maintained the noble silence well, with the exception of a couple of night-farting duals which definitely broke our vows of silence and might have violated our promise to abstain from harming other beings. Even with the farting and a little snoring during the first nights Eidan and Jason couldn’t have been better roommates and although we were supposed to be in this alone I found myself taking valuable support from them, especially Jason. One of the hardest things for me was not being able to exercise. We weren’t supposed to run or do yoga. I could sense that this was hard for Jason, too, and I did catch him once shoulder-pressing a log near the walking paths in the woods (shortly before, or maybe after, he walked in on me doing crunches in our room.) It might seem like a small thing, but sensing someone else struggling alongside you can be a great support.

Coming into this experience, I think many people are afraid of the time they will have by themselves, in their own heads. Those of you who know me well probably won’t be surprised that this wasn’t that hard for me. I enjoy my alone time and I’ve had a lot of it in the past year – time to reflect and get to know myself. Although this period of silence allowed an especially intense and prolonged journey inward, I was pleasantly surprised to find my mental attic in relatively good order. I had plenty to think about but, for better or worse, nothing new surfaced during these many hours alone in my mind.

Strangely, I did begin to fixate on my iPhone. I think I somehow came to think of my phone as the one viable portal to the outside world and fantasized about liberating it from my glove compartment, checking my email, reading the news, and of course, listening to my music. My friend Jessica had recently given me a wonderful album by Beach House, which I had listened to just enough to get it stuck in my head but not so clearly that I could satisfy the urge by humming along. Jessica had also recently blessed and cursed me with an introduction to the Honey Badger, whom I tried to channel during the hardest moments. “Honey Badger don’t give a shit,” I repeated like a mantra. Unfortunately, Vipassana doesn’t allow mantras or Honey Badgers.

Even with the Honey Badger to keep me company, by the end of the third day I was beginning to get very bored. You can only circle a short path in the woods (193 paces) for so long (107 seconds per circuit). I tried to follow the instructions for meditation, focusing on my breath and the sensations around my nose, but my mind wandered often and sometimes far from my nose.

At the end of the third day, Goenka-ji announced in his nightly video discourse that the next day would be a special day – Vipassana Day. I wondered, was Vipassana Day the day we all piled in the back of pick-up trucks and rolled down the mountain to the nearest log-sided roadhouse with a glowing Budweiser sign in the window to play drinking games and talk to girls? (The “silent pick-up,” an old favorite from my Brown rugby days, would seem most appropriate for this crew.) That was the kind of special day I was ready for.

Short of that, I didn’t know what I would do. The boredom was really kicking in and I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere with the meditation. So, I’m afraid I’m going to leave you with another cliffhanger. Or we could make it a choose-your-own-adventure. Would I:

a) Leap from my meditation perch, punch my farting room-mate in the face, ask the hot blond for her phone number, steal the fastest car in the parking lot and head for the nearest road house to have a stiff drink while I fondle every app on my iPhone.

b) Achieve full enlightenment, move to Lhasa to herd a flock of well-dressed goats and eventually negotiate Tibet’s freedom from China.

c) Amputate my nose with a dull multi-tool and run screaming through the woods in search of medical evacuation. (The “127 Hours” version.)

d) Struggle with the wild animal that is my mind and slowly begin to recognize the outlines of Dhamma, the law of nature and the way to liberation.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Three Years over the Open Ocean

When I am running on the trail near our house in Kauai I have to be careful not to get distracted by the Humpback Whales breaching off-shore so I don’t trip over one of the endangered species lounging on the beach – Green Sea Turtles, Monk Seals, and my personal favorites, Laysan Albatross.

Laysan Albatross have interesting lives. After hatching and fledging on remote islands in the Pacific they take flight and spend the next three years over the open ocean, never coming to land and sometimes soaring as far as 2,000 miles in a single day. They eventually return to land to begin an elaborate courtship ritual in search of a life-long partner, a process that can last for several years, until they are seven or eight years old and ready to mate for the first time. They lay a single egg, which the male and female take turns incubating.

The Laysan Albatross is a relatively small species of Albatross, but that is very relative. With their 7-foot wingspan, aerodynamic heads, and deep, dark eyes they make a striking impression as they swoop silently overhead.

Though the Laysan Albatross is vulnerable to extinction they don’t seem rare on this stretch of beach. My friend Jessica and I paid them a visit the other day and watched with fascination as two of them began a beak-clacking, neck-bobbing, awkward-prancing face-off that we could only hope was the elaborate mating ritual.

After spying on Albatross foreplay, my second favorite activity here in Hawaii is putting stuff in our blender and then drinking it. I’ve long been a fan of breakfast smoothies but I’ve recently added green smoothies to my blended repertoire and I highly recommend them.

Here’s what you need to do:

Go out to your coconut grove and pick a likely looking nut. I find the big, heavy, dark green ones have the most and tastiest juice. Hack away with your machete or bang in the coconut tap and drain that baby directly into your blender. (Though you’ll miss out on all the excellent coconut electrolytes, an unsweetened, natural juice or plain old water works well as a substitute if your palm grove is running short of nuts.)

Now, add some sweetness. Pineapple is perfect; apple works; whole oranges or seedless clementines are great. Or, like me, you could add all of the above. If you’ve got the energy, scrape out some of that coconut meat and toss it in.

So how does the smoothie turn green? I’ve been using a lot of bok choy and chard. Spinach is good for you, too. Dandelion greens, lettuce. You get the idea: pretty much anything leafy and green. Rinse it well.

You’ve started to blend the coconut juice and sweet fruit, so now you can begin to feed the blender his greens. Give it to him gently – one or two stalks at a time – while he’s blending. When the greens are all in, let the blender masticate for 2-3 minutes to release all that good green-ness. I like to add a banana at this point which seems to help things cohere and sometimes some plant-based protein powder or a little plain yogurt.

I think you will be amazed by how good this green smoothie tastes and even more pleased by the burst of pure, healthy energy you feel after you drink it.

I learned how to make green smoothies from my friends at Satori Worldwide, who organize retreats in Bali to promote health and balanced living for international aid workers.

In case you are reading too deeply into my promotion of the albatross way of life in relation to my own itinerant ways, I will point out some major differences: I, regrettably, do not have feathers and albatross prefer raw fish eggs and whole squid in their breakfast smoothies.

I will say farewell to the albatross today and reluctantly depart Hawaii this evening. My next stop is California and a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat from March 2-13.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Hari Om, I’m Home

You were probably beginning to worry that you’d heard the last from the Ganga Benjamin-ji Express. Please forgive my silence. I’ve been distracted since returning to America, catching up on all the steak-eating, TV-watching and boozing I missed while in India.

Hari Om, it’s good to be home!

I’m in the loving arms of my parents in Kauai, Hawaii now. When I arrived here last week, my Mom and Dad helpfully tried to speed my re-entry to society by taking me straight from the airport to a Costco warehouse store. Nothing says welcome home from India like endless aisles of industrial sized plasma televisions, vodka and frozen steaks.

Fortunately my forced adjustment has slowed since we arrived at the rented house where we’re staying in a quiet grove of coconut palms, where I sit now listening to the birds and the wind in the fronds, with a green smoothie in hand, looking forward to some yoga or a run on the beach and later perhaps a long board lager with some rare ahi. As much as I miss India, I cannot complain about where I’ve landed.

I’ve been reflecting on my time in India and wondering how the things I learned during my travels will transfer to my life at home. It’s a question I remember discussing with many of my fellow yogis during our teacher training last year: how do you take a transformative experience with you into your “real” life, work and relationships? How do you make new-found equilibrium and consciousness endure? It’s easy enough to live abstemiously during the complete freedom of independent travel, especially when most people around you are trying to do the same, but as you wander the overstocked aisles of American life again, how do you negotiate the choices, the temptations?

I am hopeful that a few things I have taken with me from India will help. One of the practices, which I wrote about previously, is my on-going effort to suspend judgment, to be open to the unknown and the mysterious around me and in myself.

An extension of this, which I began to see more clearly during my yoga practice with Surinder Singh, will be trying not to make so many distinctions between different parts of my life. I think that the urge to categorize things – people, ideas, experiences – may be a very Western preoccupation. In India, while trying to learn about Hinduism, Buddhism and the origins of yoga, I would ask question like – does this belief belong to Hinduism or Buddhism? Is yoga more closely associated with this or that? The answer, often it seemed, was that such distinctions don’t really matter. I am going to try to apply this idea by not compartmentalizing so much between the diverse aspects of my own life, to create a more seamless whole.

I have loved sharing my experiences with you in this space. Writing regularly has helped me distill my ideas and inspired me to seek new experiences. It may also be helping with my de-compartmentalizing. So this is another thing I will continue to do. Though I probably won’t update with the same frequency as I did in India, and though I won’t have nearly so many pretty pictures, exotic experiences or quasi-profound thoughts to share, I am looking forward to continuing this blog.

And, with those disclaimers in mind, there is much for me (and vicariously, for you) to look forward to. I have a couple more weeks here in Kauai. Please don’t expect much in the way of profundity from me here, though I will be happy to share my green smoothie recipe with you. At the beginning of March I return to the mainland where I will do a ten-day silent meditation retreat at a Vipassana Center in Northern California. Yikes, not sure if my monkey brain is ready for this, but I will probably have more to report if I haven’t lost the capacity for speech or become so sick of my own company that I can’t stand to impose it on you. Then begins an epic cross country road trip, taking the southern route from San Francisco to New York, stopping along the way to smell the cacti, bluebonnets, and magnolias and aiming to be in New York by the end of April.

I’ll be in New York for most of the spring and summer, staying with my old friend, the fashion-photographing, home-building, stock-broking yogi Michael Lanzano at the Ledge, Michael’s alternative lifestyle compound in Westchester County, while I try to persuade Mike to host a flock of goats and attempt to solve the old dispute (first posed by Big Poppa and Tupac Shakur?): is the East Coast superior to the West Coast or should I just move back to Indiana? You will likely be able to find me at the Ledge until it gets too cold or I decide what I’m going to be when I grow up – whichever comes first.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments