Two Weeks in Karamanlis

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“In Syria, I expected to die at any moment. Now in Greece, I’m actually dying every day.”


Since posting a photo from inside a refugee camp a few days ago, a number of people have contacting me asking me to share more about that experience. On the whole, I feel wholly unqualified to talk about it at all. But, talking with people I’ve met in the past few days and reflecting on my own ignorance of the situation, I’ve realized it’s important to say something. It seems like everyone, myself included, has so many questions about what life in a refugee camp is like and about the exodus of refugees from the Middle East in general. Although I like to think that traveling can bring greater clarity about the way the world works, it usually only makes me more confused, so I guess this is an attempt to sort through some of the confusion.

Full disclosure: I know extremely little about the situation in the Middle East that has driven hundreds of thousands of families away from their homes and even less about international immigration laws. Most of what I read in the news these days are smug op-eds in the New York Times about what a wreck Donald Trump’s campaign has been and how much he has already damaged the country, so I can’t really pretend to be informed about much else beyond that. This isn’t a think piece. Most of this is just ripped straight out of the notes I took at night after a long day at the camp. It consists of my unfiltered thoughts and feelings about what I’ve experienced over the past two weeks. If you find anything I’ve written to be problematic, offensive or misinformed, please share your concerns with me. I just want to make sense of all of this and I sure as hell can’t do it alone. Anyways…

I spent the past two weeks volunteering my time at the Karamanlis refugee camp, just outside of Thessaloniki, Greece. Although many of the camp’s residents are Syrian, many of them are not and they have come from countries all across the Middle East for a variety of different, though related, reasons. The vast majority of them arrived in Greece six months ago with the hopes of crossing the Macedonian border and seeking asylum elsewhere in Europe. Then the border was closed.
Now they’re stranded here.

A number of the people I volunteered with spent time in Lesvos receiving refugees as they came in on boats from Turkey. They all have stories about pulling tens of thousands of people off of boats, often staying up for days on end to receive refugees coming in at all hours of the night.

My work was nothing like that. It was incredibly unsexy. Although I taught a handful of yoga classes in the camp, the vast majority of time was spent in a hot and dusty warehouse sorting through endless boxes of clothing and distributing them to families living in the nearby Frakapor camp. This largely consisted of constantly disappointing people because I never had quite what they were looking for and, if I did, could never give them as much as they wanted. I’ve been told this is a good tagline for aid work in general.

It’s probably not politically correct to admit, but this work sucked. A lot. It involved so many layers of frustration that it’s difficult to actually get to the bottom of why it was so emotionally taxing. At the most basic level, the refugees were frustrated that they couldn’t get the clothing that they wanted. Men’s undershirts, men’s underwear, flip-flops, bras, and men’s shoes size 40-42 are incredibly high demand. People only donate so many of each of those and, in many cases, the quality of the donations is flat out shitty. (Side note: I will never look at donating clothes again the same way. If I don’t think something is good enough for me to wear anymore, why should I think that somebody else would be happy to take it?)

People’s frustration with the inventory was often transferred onto me and it wasn’t uncommon to get berated about the many shortcomings of the boutique. This almost inevitably led to me becoming frustrated with the refugees’ inability to accept that we just straight up didn’t have what they wanted. Oftentimes the shirt we suggested fit well, but it was the wrong color, or the perfect pair of cleats was missing part of the sole and turned out to be not quite so perfect. We had done everything we could and it still wasn’t good enough. Spending all day in a dusty hotbox, it became unfortunately easy to let my patience slip and internally question why the refugee I was working with couldn’t just accept the situation and take the best possible thing we had to offer them. After all, we weren’t running a retail store.

But that was always immediately accompanied by an additional level of frustration directed at myself, frustration at the failure of my own empathy and compassion. Because why should the refugees just have to accept their situation? In many cases it seems as if it would be the best thing to do to achieve some sort of piece of mind. The situation is what it is, and certainly doesn’t show any signs of changing. Picking an argument because I would only let each person take one undershirt doesn’t really seem like the most productive or satisfying use of anybody’s time. But how could I possibly blame anybody that I had to disappoint? Most of these families have never had to live off of the charity of others. Many of them were well off in their home countries and could have gone to the store to buy whatever color of shirt they wanted. Ultimately, the entire situation is more frustrating than any single aspect of it, which is why it’s difficult to make sense of any of this or express how I feel with any degree of coherence.

Because my main feeling toward this consists almost exclusively of a very, very long string of expletives. After my time at the camp, I’m on the move again. I just walked out of there, got on a train, and later today I’ll be crossing the border out of Greece into Macedonia that hundreds of thousands of refugees have wanted to cross in the past six months and have been unable to. Solely because of the country that I was born in. That alone makes me better than them in the eyes of the world.

Again, it’s difficult for me to convey the magnitude of how fucked all of this is. Over my final few days at the camp I spent less time organizing boxes in the warehouse and more time in the camp, drinking coffee with some of the families and chatting to whatever degree we were able to with their children acting as translators. Although I was doing less actual aid work, that time gave me an entirely new appreciation for how horrific the entire situation is. 


Families have been on the move for years, first in Turkey and now in Greece, with absolutely no idea when they’ll be able to leave or where they’ll be able to go. These camps have become a holding station in which the past has been decimated and there is no future. The present stretches on endlessly without any promise of improvement. Even if people donate money, clothing, and their time, the impact that it has is so marginal in terms of what the refugees actually need. Living conditions improve in the camps, which is undoubtedly of some significance, but what sort of life is that?

Based on what I saw of other camps and heard from fellow volunteers, the situation at Karamanlis is drastically better than other camps. It is relatively small, supporting around 500 refugees. Their tents are sheltered inside of warehouses. The porta-potties are cleaned daily. Crime is minimal. And there is an adjacent warehouse that has a kids’ play space, a reading area, falafel and coffee shops, a tailor whose space doubles as a makeshift health center, a barbershop, a clothing boutique, and a small gym that offers classes in karate, yoga, and breakdancing.

Refugees could theoretically leave the camp if they wanted to, but it’s hard to imagine why they would. They aren’t allowed to work in Greece and they can’t cross the border into any of the surrounding countries. In the camp they’re guaranteed shelter and a small but certain amount of food from the government, assuming they don’t have it stolen from them by any of the other residents of the camp. It’s a pittance, but it’s something, and more than is assured away from the camp. So we give them food, shelter, clothing, the bare minimum of healthcare, and some small educational opportunities to learn Greek, German, or English, but they’re still here and still have no idea when they might be able to leave. Their entire lives are put on hold.

It would still be awful if this were the usual state of affairs, but it’s quite the opposite. Most of the families here were relatively well off prior to leaving their homes. They had jobs, houses, cars, and had built real lives for themselves. They were welders, police officers, cab drivers. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was a life of their own and one that they had a certain amount of control over. Now they’re forced to rely on the charity of others and whatever the government is willing to throw their way. What is it like to live in a tent off of military rations after having built an entire life for yourself and your family? Incomprehensible doesn’t even begin to describe my inability to relate.


The individual stories are haunting. A Sunni family in Iraq having their house raided by the Shi’a mafia and their car bombed the next day, taking the life of their infant daughter. A Syrian family living in a village taken over by ISIS with decapitated bodies and heads on stakes on display at the entry checkpoint. A man with his children whose wife went ahead into Western Europe with hopes that he was to follow, only for him to arrive in Greece just after the border has closed, trapping him in a refugee camp without any reasonable expectation of leaving or ever being reunited with his wife again. It seems as if everyone has a story like that and the most harrowing aspect of it all might just be how normalized that state of affairs has become. It’s not hard to see the sadness in people’s eyes as they share the story of what brought them to Greece, but it’s told with a casualness that would usually accompany a discussion of the weather. 

The shared suffering is so pervasive that it seems as if there’s no longer even anything extraordinary about it. If even one of these stories happened in the United States, it would be front page news. But, instead, the stories go completely unheard. Every now and then a photo of families being pulled from life boats as they come into shore or of a shock-stricken Syrian boy just recently pulled from a bombed out building goes viral for a few days before completely dropping out of public consciousness. No one cares. At least not really. Maybe that’s harsh, but I know I didn’t really care before I came here. There are so many horrors on the news every day that, at this point, it’s lost any sense of reality.

So now what? I’m more convinced than ever that the situation is irrevocably fucked. Band-aid aid can ameliorate the degradation of living in a refugee camp but it will never solve the problems that cause these camps to exist in the first place. The solution must be political and nothing I’ve heard from anyone from the US, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, or any of the other places I’ve met volunteers from suggests that there’s any chance there’s a political change of heart coming any time soon. The United States is on track to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees into its borders over the course of this year, which is all fine and well, but also minuscule considering the number of families needing homes. The problems feel too distant, the faces look too different from many of our own, and the fears and xenophobia that accompany that disconnect are too real. 


I don’t know where I go from here. I feel extremely conflicted about the fact that I currently have the freedom to go wherever I want, as well as a severe sorrow that’s different from just about every other sadness I’ve ever experienced. All of my moments of greatest sadness, real, true, honest to God sorrow that weren’t just intellectual or theoretical, have been exclusively personal. They have been moments of mourning for myself and, essentially, self-indulgent. Even as I’ve been at the camp I’ve had moments of self-pity for the insignificant struggles that are the only difficulties of my life. But this is so much deeper than that. The only other remotely comparable feeling of this sort of sorrow I can think of happened a few years ago at the end of a silent meditation retreat upon hearing that Assad had just begun using chemical warfare against his own people. It physically hurts because I know that, for everything we have done as volunteers and for any impact that we’ve had, it is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done.

I could have stayed at Karamanlis longer. I have the time. But I had to go. I would continue to make my significant yet small contribution, but I would still need to leave at some point and can’t imagine feeling any more optimistic than I do now. It’s easy to imagine getting lost in the collective suffering of others. Even during our free time, the other volunteers and I would almost exclusively talk about the refugees, their stories, and their situation. It becomes inescapable. It was emotionally exhausting and I could only do it for so long so, selfishly, I left.

I’d like to continue volunteering my time and energy in any other refugee communities across Europe that will have me. Although I think it will help in some small way, part of that desire is just as selfish as my desire to leave Karamanlis. I need to feel a continued connection with that struggle because I’m afraid of getting lost in the distance of indifference again Now that I’m on my own again with the freedom and financial ability to cross borders and visit beautiful places across Europe it’s easy to imagine sliding back into my own bubble of self-indulgence. 

Traveling by myself, I am nearly as free as possible to dictate the terms of my life and my story. This seems to me to be the single greatest privilege that a person can have. I feel a very real sense that my future lays in my hands and just about everyone that I have interacted with in the past 2 weeks has had that torn away from them. Without a sense that we have some power over our own story, what do we have?

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Meditation: Setting an Intention

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This isn’t a meditation in and of itself, but should be a process that you go through every single time you sit down on the meditation cushion. Setting an intention isn’t just one of the most important parts of meditation practice, it’s also one of the most important parts of living a successful and meaningful life. Before you embark on any endeavor, you should examine your motivation and set an intention that you believe truly accords with this motivation. If you aren’t satisfied with your motivation, then make a conscious effort to change it so that you can direct your energies towards your goal as directly as possible.

Setting a proper motivation before practicing meditation is important because otherwise you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. Actual meditation requires a tremendous amount of focus and discipline to keep from wandering into the comfort of dullness, so setting a sufficiently strong motivation that truly accords with your inner motivation is necessary to engage with your practice as fully as possible. Otherwise, it’s easy to allow yourself to be led off into distractions. Your motivation should form the heart and soul of your practice, giving you that energy to persevere through difficult sessions and keeping you constantly striving towards deeper levels of insight.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your motivation. This is not as simple as it sounds. As with all things, there is very rarely a single motivation for engaging in meditation, but rather a complex web of reasons that bring you to the cushion. In psychological terms, this is called the principle of multiple determination. Spend some time analyzing exactly what it is you’re hoping to accomplish through practicing meditation and why this is the case. Who are you meditating for? Before any of my meditation sessions with Tibetan Buddhists, they always encourage the group to set the motivation to strive to achieve wisdom for the sake of helping lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. This is a beautiful intention for serous practitioners, but it is often unrealistic for the average layperson. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is your motivation, but unless you really embody that feeling in your practice, it’s an empty intention. There’s no shame in setting your intention a bit lower. Again, be honest with yourself! If you try and fool yourself into thinking that you’re motivated by something loftier than you truly are, it will hardly add any weight to your practice. In fact, if you set a motivation that is too high and then become aware that you aren’t actually energized by it, you might fall into a state of guilt, which is entirely unproductive for practice.

That being said, not all motivations are good. It is possible to have an unhealthy motivation for meditation. Below, I list 10 forms of unhealthy intention that are often problematic for Western practitioners, though they are hardly limited to those in the West and there are many more forms of unhealthy motivation than I list here.

1) Quest for perfection and invulnerability. This is not what meditation is for. This type of motivation is most often guided by a feeling of narcissism, a desire to be self-sufficient, and to rise above ‘worldly concerns.’
2) Fear of individuation. This form of unhealthy motivation is guided by a fear of taking responsibility for one’s own life in the belief that this can be avoided by a defensive pursuit of ‘egolessness.’
3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability. Freedom from ‘egocentric needs’ can rationalize avoidance of anxiety-producing situations (i.e. taking charge of life), causing one to retreat into meditation.
4) Fear of intimacy and closeness. Retreat into the idea of ‘no-self’ can appear to provide a way of neutralizing hurt by avoiding close relationships.
5) A substitute for grief and mourning. Similar to #4, the idea of ‘no-self’ can provide a refuge from painful emotions if misinterpreted.
6) Avoidance of feelings. This type of unhealthy motivation is guided by the belief that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of non-feeling, rather than becoming better attuned to our feelings.
7) Passivity and dependence. ‘Egolessness’ can masquerade as a way of causing one to suppress their feelings of anger and self-assertion, as well as to disguise codependency as compassionate service to a loved one
8) Self-punitive guilt. This entails using the idea of ‘non-attachment’ to act out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt (“Feelings are bad and therefore I’m bad for having them.”)
9) Devaluing reason and intellect. Belief in the idea that meditation solely promotes experience over rational thinking can reinforce avoidance of thinking as a way of blocking self-understanding.
10) Escape from intrapsychic experience. Similar to #4 and #5, this involves attempting to ‘let go of the ego’ as justification for repressing anything that produces anxiety or insecurity.

Notice that in many of the examples above, I place Buddhist terms in quotation marks. This is to highlight the fact that they refer not to the true Buddhist concept, but a misconception of it twisted to fit the psychological needs of the individual. All of these forms of unhealthy motivation reveal a misunderstanding of what meditation is designed to accomplish and, as such, cause the practitioner to engage in practice for the wrong reasons. It is important to examine our reasons for practicing so that we don’t fall into any of the pitfalls listed above. If your practice has previously been guided by one of these motivations, that’s okay. In order to change your motivation to something more healthy, you first need to recognize that your previous intention was misguided and not giving all the strength to meditate that you’re truly capable of mustering.

As time goes on, it’s inevitable that your meditations will change. Even day to day, your meditation is likely to be guided by different intentions. What is most important is to be aware of these various motivations and, whenever possible, to set an intention that you can truly believe in. It is only through setting a healthy motivation that you can fully get behind that you can dive as deeply as possible into practice and your own mind.

Meditation: Neutralizing Self-Pity and Worries

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I was intending on doing my next post on meditation on setting a proper intention, but I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked and this seem to be the most fitting thing to write about after my last post. I’ve recently been working with a practice to try and help me work through my tendency to grasp onto my sad stories and use them as an excuse for inner stagnancy. It’s a Daoist qi-gong sound exercise that involves neutralizing self-pity and worry rather than bottling them or expressing them outright.

The practice begins with a round of 6-3-6-3 breathing, which is a simple form of Indian pranayama (breath control) used to condition the body to more involved breathing exercises. Sit upright with your hands on your lap and breath normally. Once your breathing has stabilized, breath in for 6 seconds, hold your breath with the lungs full for 3 seconds, breath out for 6 seconds, and hold your breath with the lungs empty for 3 seconds. 6-3-6-3. As you breath in, allow your belly to expand so your diaphragm has space to move downwards. Focus on your solar plexus as you inhale and be careful not to raise your shoulders as you breath in. As you exhale, draw your navel back in so that the diaphragm moves up, bringing your attention to your navel as you breath out. Do this 5 to 10 times, however many it takes for you to noticeably feel more relaxed and aware of the movement of your breath.

Next, sit on the edge of your chair and place your feet firmly on the ground with your legs spread. Curl your fingers and place your hands against your diaphragm. Inhale deeply and lean forward so that you’re facing the ground. During your exhalation make the sound ‘WH-O-O-O-O-O’ at a relatively high pitch, like an owl, for as long as your lung capacity allows. As you do this, visualize all of your self-pity and worries leaving your chest in the form of black smoke, exiting through the space between your eyebrows, and ejecting them deep into the earth. For those willing to adopt the potentially more questionable aspects of the practice, focus specifically on your spleen and pancreas as you release your negative emotions, as these are two of the primary organs that store self-pity and worry.

After you’ve finished exhaling, actively continue thinking that all of your worries have left your body. These can be either specific worries or just a general sense of anxiety that might pervade your life. Inhale and return to sitting upright with your hands placed on your lap, palms up. Visualizing a golden light radiating around your spleen and pancreas, think, “I am smiling on myself and all of my worries.” Continue this visualization for a few minutes, before taking another inhale and going back down to repeat. Repeat the process 3 times.

Through this practice of qi-gong, you should begin to feel a deeper sense of contentment with yourself. I personally find this practice incredibly helpful, since I am often quite hard on myself when not making the kind of personal progress I would like to be making. However, it is only through truly loving oneself and letting go of all forms of self-pity and self-hatred that we can begin to truly advance and help others. I’m hoping to post more qi-gong practices in the future, though admittedly I’ve become a bit distracted from writing on here. Nothing spurs me on to write more than positive feedback that any of this stuff might actually be helping someone!

Letting Go of Our Sad Stories

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For most of us, freedom feels not only unfamiliar, but distinctly unpleasant. That’s because we’re used to our chains. They might chafe, they might make us bleed, but at least they’re familiar.
-Mingyur Rinpoche

Have you ever sat around with friends to show off scars and compare stories about broken bones? (Maybe this is a guy thing. If not, sorry for being gender normative.) I don’t think it’s uncommon for kids to pass the time by boasting about how they received this or that injury. In most cases, the grizzlier the injury, the better the story. Although the experience of acquiring the injury may be quite painful, sharing the story of that experience is often quite the opposite. For many, it’s a point of pride, something to brag about and show off. It’s a way of showing some of the difficulties we’ve been through and conquered.
I only have 2 substantial scars, neither of them coming from injuries that were especially serious (though they’re still badass.) But I love my scars. I love my sad stories. In a weird way, I love my suffering. And, in the words of Rinpoche-la, I also love my chains.
This might sound totally paradoxical. Surely we all want to be happy, to be satisfied, to be free from suffering. So why do we often take so much pride in the experiences that were the exact opposite?

The greatest danger to self-realization is self-doubt. If we’re actively working to undermine ourselves, the battle is already lost regardless of external factors. Self-doubt seizes on all of our sad stories, all of our problems, all of our sufferings, all of our excuses for not changing. Because changing is hard. Holding onto our sob stories and perceived shortcomings is easy. It’s extremely comfortable to take refuge in our sufferings  We have invested so much in our sad stories and self-pity that the idea of letting them go is extraordinarily painful. Even just thinking about letting go automatically raises serious resistance. These things define us. Think about why many people are so proud of their scars. They are physical evidence of hardships that we have had to endure. They are an outward manifestation of an experience that we believe has contributed to our character. In many ways, we are our scars and our sad stories. How could we possibly let them go?

Holding onto them, on the other hand, requires no work whatsoever and, in many cases, it even garners support from others in the form of pity. People will often support this kind of self-doubting, self-pitying behavior if it doesn’t go too far, encouraging each other to just ‘let it out’ or even go so far as to applauding someone for being brave enough to address their personal issues.

Taking refuge in suffering also feels strangely productive. It only requires a small amount of courage to look at what makes us suffer. Maybe we don’t penetrate down to the deepest causes of suffering, but it usually isn’t so difficult to get a glimpse at what causes us pain. It can often be extremely satisfying to look at what makes us suffer and be able to identify the causes.

Trouble is that this doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Just identifying the things that make us suffer very rarely causes them to just disappear. But because this task of identification can feel so immediately rewarding it also lures us into a false sense of complacency: because I know what’s wrong, I can figure out how to fix it. But knowing how to fix something doesn’t amount to actually taking the effort to fix it.

This is symptomatic of a deeper issue that I personally struggle with, and, based on conversations I’ve had with other practitioners, I believe it’s fairly common, not only to people practicing meditation, but as a general human issue. In Freudian terms, the issue is repetition compulsion: we want to change but simultaneously exert tremendous amounts of energy to keep everything exactly the same. Identifying our own psychological problems without actually doing anything about them fits perfectly into this framework. By recognizing our issues, it can appear that we are taking a big step towards changing ourselves, but, in reality, it isn’t actually moving in any direction at all. It feels like we’re changing but without exerting hardly any effort, which is why it’s so seductive and such an easy place to get caught up.

During the early stages of practicing meditation it’s common for practitioners to notice that they have a far deeper and clearer awareness of their thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, this can be somewhat terrifying. Early on, spiritual experience may actually exacerbate psychological and functional difficulties by bringing things to light that we aren’t immediately prepared to deal with.
On the other hand, this deeper insight into ourselves is incredibly exciting. By seeing our mental states so much more clearly it feels as if we’re making some sort of serious progress in remedying our issues. This is such a convincing view that it becomes very easy to get caught up at this stage of meditation without even realizing that we’ve gotten stuck.

The issue lies in becoming concerned with the content of our minds when we should be examining the processes. It’s an issue that I find myself facing very regularly when I sit down on my cushion. As Westerners, we’ve been habituated to the idea that there is something inherently beautiful about the sense of individuality that we each possess, and our thoughts and feelings are intimately related to this sense of individuality. It is easy to be lured in by the prospect of becoming more intimate with ourselves through meditation, though this is really just a diversion from the traditionally established stages of practice.

Additionally, over the past couple hundred years, especially since Freud, there has been a strong trend in Western society of using therapy centered around addressing and working through our psychological concerns. For many Western practitioners, this need to address and analyze the various components of our psyche as used by psychology has merely been given new clothing in the form of meditation. Rather than using meditation as a tool for analyzing the processes of the mind, it has become a method of analyzing the specific content. However, this is a complete misuse of the attentiveness developed through practice. As we become more familiar with our internal states, it can be very easy to grasp onto them and feel like we’re doing some sort of important inner work when, in reality, all we’re doing is hunkering down deeper into our sense of independence, individuality, and selfhood.

Psychological therapy is designed to help us live more comfortably with the various facets of ourselves by increasing the flexibility and realism of our self-representations; meditation seeks to annihilate the idea that our selves have any true existence, ultimately doing away with the true reality of self-representations entirely. This is because self-representations can be dangerous, no matter how helpful they may seem to be. There is a certain functional utility to them, but they prevent us from seeing reality as it really is by filtering all experience of ourselves through subtle, fixed lenses. Psychology aims to help us change our self-representations. Buddhism helps us to stop identifying with them at all. In this sense, getting rid of the idea of a true self entails giving up automatic, reactive, inflexible identification with and attachment to our self-representations.

There is a strong argument to be made that the idea of a true self cannot be rid of until the conventional self is well adjusted and functional. Reducing emotional problems in the short term can lead to clearer, more productive meditative practice in the long run. However, there are 2 serious problems with this approach. One, while psychological issues may arise during time spent on the meditation cushion, it is unlikely that that is the best place to deal with them if one is serious about actually meditating. Two, actively shifting the focus of meditation to dealing with emotional difficulties increases the likelihood that the greater, transcendent goal of self-realization will be completely abandoned. However, this is a far larger topic than I’m attempting to address here. I’m merely trying to point out that meditation is very frequently being assimilated into classical Western schemas to the disadvantage of both the practice and the practitioner. Rather than using meditation as it was practiced in India, Tibet, China, etc. for thousands of years, it has become warped into a tool to meet our perceived psychological needs.

Returning to the idea of loving our sad stories, it is very commonly the case that we use these tragic narratives to define who we are as a person. We may profess to hate them, to wish we could be rid of them forever, but, at the end of the day, many of us still cling to them because they help us understand who we are and there are few things more enticing than self-knowledge. After all, that’s why many people pick up meditation in the first place.

The issue with this is that our sad stories aren’t who we truly are. Again, this notion is a product of getting caught up in the content of what arises during meditation, rather than the processes that bring these things to the surface. If we’re able to look pass the content, we can see that the content is actually always changing. Over the course of a 15-minute meditation session it’s possible to experience dozens of emotions, yet it’s all happening entirely within our own heads. None of it is stable. None of it is inherently existent. It’s all a matter of perspective, but if that perspective hinges itself on our sob stories then it’s almost impossible to move forward.

Turning to my own personal experience, I’ve found that I often run into the following issue while meditating. A negative thought will arise. I’ll let it drift by. I’ll find myself sinking into a deeper state of clarity about what’s going on in my mind, which makes me feel good. Then, as a sort of test to myself, I’ll actively recall the negative thought to see how I receive it now that I’ve reached a more settled state and to see if I can work with it. I like to tell myself this is productive but, if I really look at what I’m doing, I’m simply fixating on my sad story by actively pulling it back into my mental field when I’ve already let it go. Even once these negative states of mind have come and gone, I feel the need to grasp out for them again and bring them back. This comes back to the problem of misusing meditation as a tool of conducting auto-therapy rather than letting the practice simply be what it is. Recalling and delving into negative emotions once they’ve already passed isn’t really a way of testing myself; it’s an attempt to transform them into something else rather than letting them exist comfortably as what they are.

In my next post I’ll provide a meditative practice for specifically dealing with these kinds of issues. Stay tuned!

Adventure Time!!!

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I feel somewhat dishonest using ‘Adventure Time’ as the title for this post since I don’t really know if what I’m posting about qualifies as an adventure. However, considering that I spend 95% of my time circling between the same 3 small towns scattered across the mountains, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that going anyplace else is a pretty substantial adventure these days. It’s also another one of those posts where I don’t actually really have anything to say, but took a handful of pretty cool pictures so I thought a bit of text would be nice to balance it out.

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Yesterday I went to Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, which is about 2 hours outside of Dharamsala. It was beautifully sunny on the drive out, which consisted almost entirely of cruising through the countryside. After having spent so much time up in the mountains constantly shrouded in the clouds, getting out into Kangra Valley was wonderful. So much green, and everything smelled like earth, growth, and sunshine. Hands down 3 of the greatest smells ever.

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When we got to the nunnery it was a complete ghost town. There were a handful of Indian laborers around doing some construction work since the whole facility is relatively new, but I didn’t see a single nun. All of the buildings, including the gompa (meditation hall) were locked, which was a bummer considering that we’d come so far to take a peek inside. I’d heard that Tenzin Palmo was supposed to be in residence at the moment, but apparently she’s currently in Taiwan. Before coming to Dharamsala this summer I had never heard of Tenzin Palmo, but she has a pretty remarkable story, which is told in the biography of her life Cave in the Snow (which I’m planning on picking up soon.) She was one of the first Western women to become ordained as a member of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic order and made a strong commitment to achieving enlightenment in the female form regardless of how long/how many lifetimes that might take. She spent 12 years living in a cave pursuing freedom from cyclical existence, practicing incredibly arduous forms of self-discipline, growing her own food and sitting in a meditative pose while she slept (for only 3 hours a night!) After she came off retreat she took up the cause of securing equal rights for nuns and, in 2000, took substantial steps towards achieving this goal by founding the Dongu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. I’d heard some pretty incredible things about it so making the trip felt necessary, especially considering how comfortable I’ve become with my routine here. The idea of breaking up my ordinary schedule was pretty enticing.

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It was a bit concerning that nobody was around, but we ventured into the ‘no entry’ area where all the nuns live so we could beg someone to open the gompa for us. I was incredibly thankful to have made the trip with a woman since it was pretty clear that none of the nuns were interested in talking to me. We were lucky enough to make it inside the gompa and….wow. It was relatively small and only one room, but it was certainly one of the most remarkable temples I’ve ever seen.

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The gompa had only been finished in 2012 so all of the paintings were in as perfect condition as possible. Although the art was very clearly in the style of every other Tibetan Buddhist temple, there was somewhat of a different flair to it, especially in the way the backgrounds were done. There are fairly strict guidelines for how bodhisattvas and arhats (the equivalent of saints) should be depicted iconographically, so artists don’t have much leeway in that regard. However, the backgrounds are where the artists can really let their creativity shine and it was definitely clear that the painters of this gompa were remarkably talented.

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However, the most remarkable thing about the gompa was that nearly every figure painted on the walls was a female. There were images of Shakyamuni (“the Buddha”), Padmasambhava (the great teacher/mystic that brought Buddhism to Tibet), Milarepa (a legendary figure that achieved enlightenment in a single lifetime), and Marpa (Milarepa’s guru and a great master in his own right), but aside from those 4 figures, every single other image was female. Dozens of female arhats, bodhisattvas, yoginis, and protector deities lined the walls. There were also two astoundingly beautiful stained glass windows, which I’d never seen in a Buddhist temple or monastery before.

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I was explicitly told not to take photos, and I usually abide by that protocol since I think it’s disrespectful to take photos inside of a space that’s considered to be sacred. Additionally, there’s definitely something to be said for needing to capture an experience as fully as possible in a single moment without photos as a future aid to recollection. However, desire got the better of me and I had to get a few quick snaps. I undoubtedly picked up some bad karma by directly going against a nun’s wishes (even if she didn’t see me) and taking photos inside the gompa, but maybe someone will see one of these photos and be sparked to enlightenment, which theoretically balances the whole thing out.

Sunshine Doe!!!!

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The past couple days have been terribly exciting, whatever that means relative to how I usually spend my time these days. It was completely clear for almost 24 straight hours, meaning I got wonderfully blue and sunny skies during the day, as well as the waning moon, endless stars, and the Milky Way at night. After so much rain the good weather definitely invigorated me to get out and do something.

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Yesterday I went to Norbulinka, the Tibetan center for the arts in lower Dharamsala. It was started in order to preserve Tibetan arts in exile. I don’t have all that much to say about it but really just wanted an opportunity to put up some of the pictures I took there. It was awesome to get to see the thanka painters at all different phases in their work. After spending so much time reading about how intense thanka painting was in feudal Tibet it was amusing to see a bunch of Tibetans in their early 20’s listening to their ipods and wearing backwards hats while painting these incredible pieces of religious art. I also found a way to get on the roof of the gompa just as it got clear so I had a perfect view of the snow on the mountains. Then I hopped around to a bunch of places between Bhagsu and Dharamkot for the rest of the night and ended up on my roof looking at the stars while a jam session was going on next door with solos from all sorts of Indian instruments.

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Today I went to get registered to go see the Dalai Lama speak on Monday and Tuesday. It was kinda a pain because I couldn’t find the place for the longest time and it turned out I needed some things I didn’t have. It was so nice out today that I was happy to walk up and down the hill a bunch of times. In the end it only cost 20 cents to go see the Dalai Lama so my trouble was probably worth it.

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This afternoon I finally succeeded in finding the best Malai Kofta in the area. I had to have tried it at a least a dozen other places but today I finally had one that was by far the best food I’ve had since I’ve been here. I posted up there for awhile reading Heart of Darkness and the Wizard of Oz.

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I started going to a yoga class too, which I plan on doing on a daily basis until I leave here. It’s in the late afternoon so it’s a nice way to segway from reading for most of the day into my evenings (since I’ve really been raging a lot here,) and it’s only $2 for 2 hours so it’s hard for me to justify not going.

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Having so much time to read has been killer. Over the past 4 days I’ve read 1984, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, Heart of Darkness, and 2 of the Oz books. Going over past visions of a dystopian future has been really interesting. One of the most standout commonalities across all 3 visions is the necessity of eliminating anything that encapsulates the ethos of the past. In 1984 this is taken the furthest by falsifying data on a daily basis in order to keep the past perfectly in line with what the government dictates is happening in the present. But even in Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 the government takes the destruction of books as seriously of possible. Knowledge found in books makes people feel inferior in relation to their more well-read peers, confuses them with their foreign concepts and ideologies, and, worst of all, prevents the gradual shrinking of language in order to limit the capacity for critical thinking. As Orwell puts it, “he who controls the past controls the present. He who controls the present controls the future.”

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I find Huxley’s view the most convincing, though I generally hold a high opinion of Huxley so I’m biased. The society he envisions is guided by two fundamental concepts drawn from Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud: mass-production and the equalizing of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Through mastering mass production of people by cloning and accelerating their growth process and conditioning them through hyponopedia (teaching people while they sleep) the government creates a remarkably efficient and stable caste system. Carnal desires are no longer stigmatized and monogamy breaks down, eliminating any possible discontent from repressed sexuality. And if a basic sensory need isn’t being meet, one can simply take some soma to go on a reality-disassociating psychedelic trip. If all basic sensory pleasures are no longer restricted in any way by society, and if people are naturally conditioned towards certain psychological dispositions, it’s very hard for anyone to ever become unhappy.

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This stands in opposition to Orwell’s vision of a society built by restricting any and every form of pleasure. 1984 is a society built almost exclusively on control by punishment and the fear of punishment. Furthermore, society is permanently at war, functioning both as a way of dumping all of society’s labor into an endeavor that doesn’t improve standard of living, as well as a method of justifying authoritarian behavior since permanent crisis can be said to justify permanent control of everybody and everything by the government. I can understand how Orwell might have conjured up this vision for the future based on the behavior of Hitler and Stalin’s governments, though Huxley’s portrayal strikes me as more in line with our present day situation. I actually was reminded a lot of my experience in China while reading Brave New World. At the end of the day, even if the government is infringing on what I (as an American) would consider ‘basic liberties’, if standard of living is high enough and sensory demands are being sufficiently met, it’s very hard to imagine people rebelling. Obviously this is a vast oversimplification of the situation and far more could be written on the topic, but, frankly, I’m enjoying a Kingfisher right now and don’t feel like writing any more right now.

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Return to Triund

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Haven’t been in much of a blog writing mood lately. I’m afraid I might have burned myself out writing 2-4 entries a day for about a week. It’s been raining pretty constantly for 10 days now so the options for how I spend my days are pretty slim, meaning I don’t really have a whole lot to write about. I don’t actually really have anything espescially interesting to say right now but this was the best excuse I could come up for posting the first batch of half-decent photos I’ve taken since I’ve been here so…enjoy that.

On Sunday I decided to take a hike and go camping so I could get myself to the best possible vantage point to see the supermoon. When I woke up it was raining pretty heavily but I figured it would pass so I set off anyways. Besides, I’d planned on making the hike for almost a week so I would have felt pretty badly if I decided to pack it in just because I was afraid of getting my dreads a bit wet.  The hike itself only took about 2 hours and was relatively rain-free. I was inside of clouds almost the entire time so I didn’t have much of a view to admire, but at least I wasn’t getting drenched.

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I got to my destination around noon, with 7 or so hours to spare until sunset. The place I was planning on sleeping, Triund, is a pretty ideal spot to camp when the weather’s nice. It’s a spacious plateau covered in lush grass that’s kept fairly short due to all of the cows, horses and goats that graze up there. Since I had so much time on my hands I decided to scramble around the boulders for a bit. I thought it would be nice if I could find a cave to spend the night in, really do the whole Buddhist thing right. However, I only managed to come across 2 suitable caves, one of which was already occupied and the other was filled with trash. So I decided to bite the bullet and shelled out the 600 Rs ($10) for a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.

I met some other guys that were spending the night up at Triund so we put our tents together and got to work on making a fire.  It had been raining pretty regularly so we could only salvage wet wood but at least we got something burning. They’d each only been in India for a week so far so it was kinda amusing to play the role of some sort of tour guide to area.

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The guys I was with decided to turn in pretty early before the sky had cleared up much but I decided I would stay up as late as it took to get a good look at the moon. After all, that was the whole reason I’d made the trip up to Triund and all I had planned for the next day was strolling back down to Dharamkot.

There were pretty heavy clouds and a rainless lightning storm for an hour or so but some heavy wind came in and finally pushed it all away. For about 20 mintues I had a perfect view of the moon, which was huge and golden, surrounded by bolts of lightning and pouring rain that was still far enough off in the distance that I managed to stay dry. However, the wind kept coming in and it started pouring on me so I decided to turn in for the night.

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So…yep, that’s whats up these days. I also met a group of Tibetans that are around my age so I’ve been kicking it with them at night, which has been fun, though they keep trying to give me tattoos since they’re all just starting to learn. Might have to hold off on that, at least for the next month that I’m here so they can get in a bit more practice. I was intending on going to a birthday party for the Karmappa tonight but had no idea how to find where it was being held. I wandered around between Dharamkot and McLeod for about an hour before it started to rain and I gave up. Oh welllll. That’s monsoon season for ya.

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The Sad Tale of Slug

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I just spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get the Internet working so I could post this. Every day at this place they change the wi-fi so you can’t come mooch if you aren’t buying anything (though I’ve been here enough times already I can get away with it.) I was told today’s password was ‘sugar’ but it just wasn’t working. Finally, I tried ‘suger’ and it worked. Wonderful.

The worst thing that’s happened to me today was that I accidently stepped on a slug this morning. I was walking downhill to get some masala chai before breakfast and was looking at my phone so I didn’t see the slug, but I could feel it squelch the instant I put my foot down. I felt awful. I’d actually gotten into the habit of actively moving slugs off the path if it was somewhere that somebody might step on it.
So, considering that was the worst part of my day, it’s been a pretty okay.

I thought it would be nice to include photos in my posts but I’m afraid there isn’t much to be taking pictures of. I think tis beautiful here but it doesn’t really come across in photos as anything more than standard mountains and sky. The moon has been astonishingly bright, even as early as 6, but my iPhone camera doesn’t do it justice. I’ll bring my real camera up to Triund for the supermoon but that’s not much better than my iPhone. Oh well. All I can do is encourage everyone else to get to as high a point as possible to see it.

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Woke up around 7, did some meditation and set motivations for the day, and then rushed out to try and find someplace to watch a stream of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. That was obviously a ridiculously unrealistic expectation, so I contented myself with constantly refreshing the ESPN homepage until the Internet crashed. I headed off to meditation, getting updates on the game via text the whole way, but had to start meditation with 30 seconds still left in the game. There was a split second when I debated bailing on meditation so I could find out the result, but I realized how absurd that was so I went in.

I’m glad I did since it was a really good session. Over 45 minutes we worked on dissolving each of the elements in the body in turn (earth, water, fire, wind, space) until nothing remains but consciousness, basking in the clear light of its own awareness. Despite a mentally scattered morning I found focus and clarity quite easily today. Even if clear light isn’t actually experienced by anyone but the advanced meditators and individuals at the moment of death and orgasm, sufficient concentration and imagination definitely produced an incredibly clear, alert, and blissful feeling. I actually totally forgot about the basketball game until I was out of meditation and turned my phone on again. I’ve also realized that I can now sit for 45 minutes straight with nearly no pain in my lower back or knees, which was unthinkable even 2 weeks ago. I’m sure it’s the type of thing that will disappear if I don’t keep up it so it’s a strong incentive to maintain a daily practice.

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I had been planning on going to the Tushita library to do some research on mandalas after meditation but the hours were changed today so I ended up getting breakfast with a handful of people from my retreat that are still in the area and have been coming to morning meditation. It was the first time in 4 days that I’ve had a face-to-face conversation with someone for more than 30 seconds so it was incredibly enjoyable. That being said, I’m finding it remarkable how absent any feelings of loneliness have been. Before coming to Dharamsala I was anticipating enduring a couple weeks of existential crises as I adjusted to living by myself without any regular contact with the people around me. I think the retreat helped me become a lot more comfortable in my own body and accepting of the idea of living contentedly with myself, so it accelerated the whole process and crunched it into a week and a half long period. The more time I spend around people at cafes and restaurants the more I become with not really engaging with them. It’s usually a group of people sitting around smoking chillum, talking about nothing in particular. I certainly met a lot of fascinating people the first few nights I was here but I think a lot of that was through my group from retreat, so it was a rather particular crowd. A lot of the people hanging around here just wanted to kill some time someplace relaxed and cheap for the summer, so Dharamsala is pretty ideal. Having a particular purpose here has been nice, though, and all of my projects have essentially been collapsing into one.

After breakfast I went to my usual lunch spot and posted up there for a few hours with a book on the dialogue between psychotherapy and Buddhism. It rained for about 4 hours so I didn’t have anything to do besides hang out and read, which was pretty great. The book hones in on two of the areas I’m most interested in, so reading detailed analyses of crossover between the them was fascinating, though I ended up taking so many notes that I barely finished 40 pages over the course of the whole afternoon. Still, it’s not like I had anything else to do or anywhere to go so it’s hard to complain. This is really the first time in my life when I don’t feel any need to rush through reading. It’s nice to be able to take as long as I want to digest something. As I found out with Siddhartha, reading like that drastically increases the amount of enjoyment to be found in any reading endeavor. Even in the past when I’ve been reading for fun I’ve felt the need to rush through to get onto another book, for no real reason besides to say that I’d read it and catalogue it in my mind. It’s a pretty useless way to read and it’s shocking how little I end up digesting unless I’m responsibility for the material for school so it’s been a nice change in practice. Reading mindfully I guess.

When I got back to my room I found some 25 lb dumbbells lying in the courtyard of the guesthouse and was told I could hold onto them while I’m here if I want. I don’t plan on developing a particularly extensive workout plan while I’m here but I’m finding with all the time I spend sitting around reading and writing it would be nice to get some exercise in addition to my self-guided yoga sessions. No matter how much clarity and peacefulness come about through meditation, there’s something immensely pleasurable about the satisfaction and soreness that can only come from a good workout. Plus, it would be nice to be completely flabby by the time I get back to school in the fall. My ego isn’t so transparent at this point that I’m entirely indifferent to my physical appearance, though my beard is coming in nicely. I brought a bunch of razors but I like the idea of growing a beard for 2 months or so. It’s not quite worth the work of maintaining any sort of special facial hair when I interact with others so infrequently and the bathroom mirror is so tiny I can’t barely see myself in it.

A enourmous wasp just fell into my drink and is struggling and I don’t know what to do. I’m cringing washing it but am certain if I pluck it out it’ll sting my hand, and I can’t just pour out my drink onto the floor. It’s a shade of orange and I’ve never seen a wasp so big, so I’m wary of getting stung. I wonder if this is bad karma. I guess I’m intentionally allowing another being to die because I’m overly concerned with my well-being. On 2nd thought, it’s definitely bad karma.

Probably to make matters worse, I didn’t take any precepts today so I’m seriously looking forward to getting a big dinner and a Kingfisher later. After the rain lets up the night is usually pretty clear so I’m hoping I can get a good view of the moon as I eat. Last night it was so bright that I was able to read outside by nothing more than the moonlight. Counting the days until supermoon!

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On an unrelated note, I’ve been enjoying reading 1984 again and have nothing in particular to say about it at the moment but wanted to keep hold onto this quote and this seemed as good a place as any to put it:
“By 2050-earlier, probably-all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bryon-they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like, ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking-not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

Meditation: Proper Posture

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For my first post regarding formal sitting meditation practice I thought the best place to start would be with proper sitting posture. Most people choose to sit cross-legged on the ground, though if this is uncomfortable then there’s nothing wrong with using a chair or even lying down (though beware of sleepiness.) Much of the instructions will be the same regardless of how you choose to position yourself.

(I would have liked to include pictures but my Internet wasn’t quite up to the task. Hopefully this is relatively self-explanatory, though I’ll attempt to put pictures up at a later date.)

Proper posture for seated meditation is absolutely imperative. Having a relaxed body facilitates having a relaxed mind, which makes it easier to get into subtle feelings, both physical and mental. It’s also closely related to how the energy (prana or rlung depending on which tradition coming from) moves throughout your body. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that rlung (wind) is what carries the mind, so leaving your energy channels as open as possible to facilitate the movement of rlung is extremely important.

Lets start with the lower body. It often helps to sit on a cushion so that your hips are elevated above your knees. Feel free to use however many cushions you need when you’re getting started. It’s better to build down than to struggle with too few for a long time. Cushions aren’t always necessary but adopting this position helps relieve some pressure from your lower back, which is often one of the first places that tension crops up. There’s no reason to sit half or full lotus if it isn’t comfortable for you, especially early on in practice. Only when you can sit like that for at least 30 minutes is it okay to adopt complicated postures with your legs. If you do choose to sit in half or full lotus be sure that you aren’t blocking the flow of blood to your legs as they will fall asleep and become a distraction to your practice. The primary goal for your lower body is to establish a solid base to support the rest of your body. Be comfortable and be relaxed.

Pay close attention to your hips. As you rotate your hips back and forward, notice how this effects the position of your back. Avoid putting yourself in a position in which you’re arching or caving your spine too much.

Turning next to the abdomen and torso, lets focus on the back. The back should be as straight as possible, but without holding any tension. Allow your back to be soft straight. If this puts a slight curve in it, so be it. It often helps to imagine a string attached to the top of your head, which is gradually drawn up, pulling your back erect. It can also be helpful to lift yourself up on the in-breath and relax the muscles in your shoulders and back on the out-breath. It should feel as if your muscles are draped over your skeleton, holding as little tension as possible. This allows you to sink into the present moment, easing off all resistance to being in this moment right now.

In regards to the arms, it isn’t particularly important where you place your hands. Many people choose to put their hands on their knees, either cupping their knees, or resting with the palms facing upward. It is also common to place one’s hands in the lap, with the right resting gently in the left, connecting the thumbs at the top. This creates two circles in the body: one in the hands and the other formed by the arms. As a teacher once said to me, with the hands in this position it is like the Self resting in the Universe. Alternatively, the left hand of wisdom lies in the lap, while the right hand of compassion sits on top, thumbs coming together in union. Be sure to keep some space between the upper body and the arms so that heat can escape. If you are too warm while sitting it is likely that you will start to become sleepy and drift away from your object of concentration.

Keep your head upright in line with the spine. If the head comes down, it is easy to grow drowsy. If the head is tilted too far up, too much energy is likely to come up and flood your mind with thoughts. Think of your head like that of a swan, with the chin tucked slightly back. This opens the flow in the neck, allowing energy to move freely up and down the 2 central channels of the body.

The eyes are very essential. Many people believe that it is best to meditate with your eyes closed but this leaves you prone to sleepiness and daydreaming. Too wide open, however, and it is easier to become pulled in by distractions. It is best to leave the eyes just slightly open so that everything is darkened but shapes and colors are still visible. Initially, this will feel quite uncomfortable and the eyes will often flutter, opening and closing to resist relaxation. But if you keep at it and allow your eyes to relax, soon it will become very natural. This is very helpful in the long run to keep the mind sharp and focused. When you meditate you don’t use earplugs or stick things in your nose to prevent senses from entering those organs, so why attempt to block out all sensations to the eyes?

Place the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper teeth and pressed up against the roof of your mouth. This serves the double function of diminishing the amount of saliva that collects in your mouth so that you don’t need to swallow so much, as well as activating an acupressure point in the palette that increases blood flow to the pineal gland, which is located where mystics often cite the 3rd eye to be.

So that’s the body. Again, the main goal here is to be comfortable, remaining relaxed while simultaneously erect. Early on, it’s common for pain to develop in the knees and lower back, but this will lessen over time with regular practice.

In my next post on meditation I’ll get into the basics of shamatha, including the importance of setting a motivation each time before you sit, what you should be doing with your breath, and how to deal with painful sensations in the body. However, don’t forget, if the pain becomes too much and prevents you from focusing on your practice, feel free to move and readjust your body so that you’re comfortable. Don’t get carried away by moving with every minor ache, though, or you will never be able to settle in calmly.

Enjoy your practice.

Low-Key Livin’

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Another fantastic day today. I always feel like I’m not actually doing anything here but when I look at how I spend my time it turns out I’m doing a pretty decent amount of activities. I guess I don’t have any of the stress that often motivates my efficiency back home so it’s easier to feel like I’m doing nothing when I’m really doing something. Funny thing about stress. Not as necessary of a motivator as I often give it the credit for.

I woke up at 7 and sat for 20 minutes, followed by taking the 8 Mahayana Precepts. Ideally, I should be waking up before dawn if I intend on taking the precepts that day but I don’t quite have it in me at this point. In any case, I don’t currently have the full directions for taking the precepts so I’ve been going about it by setting an intention for the day and then committing myself to maintain the precepts until sunrise of the following day. It isn’t official but, given where I’m at in my practice, I feel good about what I’m doing. Taking the precepts consists of abstaining from:
Killing
Stealing
Wrong speech (lying, gossip, idle chatter)
Sexual activity (including thoughts and with yourself)
Intoxicants
Wearing perfume, ornaments or jewelry
Singing, dancing, or playing music
Eating after noon

All in all, it’s a pretty easy set of guidelines to abide by when I’m spending most of my time by myself. I’m generally disinclined towards killing and stealing, and it’s hard to engage in wrong speech or sexual activity when my interactions with other people are so minimal. Still, I definitely need to keep an eye on myself to make sure that my mind doesn’t wander off into the gutter when I’m out on a walk. The two biggest difficulties for me have been avoiding playing music and eating after noon. Having lunch as my last meal of the day is actually pretty freeing, though, since it means I don’t need to plan my evening around dinner (but I’ve hardly been doing that anyways.) I’ve also been doing a lot of hiking so hopefully cutting back on meals will help balance out the fact that all I eat are carbs. Plus, it saves me money, though my meals usually only add up to $6-$8 a day anyways so I’m not especially concerned about that. In general I find taking the precepts to be a good practice to constantly keep me aware of what I’m thinking about and cutting non-virtuous thoughts off at the source before they carry me away.

The view from my usual reading spot

The view from my usual reading spot

After taking the precepts I had a couple croissants and a cup of masala chai for breakfast and then headed off to morning meditation at Tushita. Today’s meditation was on the 6 senses, which I really liked, though admittedly I had some other things on my mind that kept coming up. It’s a very simple, yet powerful meditation, so I intend on posting it as one of the first entries in my ongoing series on meditation.

After meditation I went down to McLeod Ganj with my backpack filled with all the stuff I don’t need here in India. Getting it shipped was quite an ordeal. I had to get it wrapped up in cloth (which was a seriously impressive process to watch), then hand over a few photocopies of my passport, and fill out some custom forms. It ended up coming out to $80, which could have been my rent for the next 2 months. Still, it feels great to have been able to unload half of my things. I’m not moving around a whole lot but I know I will be in the future so it’s nice to know that I can keep all of my possessions in a bag on my back and that the bag isn’t even full. I have very little faith that the stuff I shipped actually makes it back to the States but, hey, it will be a nice surprise if it does.

Getting a bag sewn to ship my backpack in

Getting a bag sewn to ship my backpack in

After shipping my bag off I got some lunch and caught up with some people back home. I took advantage of having such good Internet and did some research on applying for a Fulbright. I’ve decided I’d like to be an English teaching assistant in Mongolia. The more I learn about the country the more parallels I see to the situation that Tibet is in so I think it would be interesting to explore how two different peoples have worked to maintain their cultural and spiritual identity under the oppression of alien forces (China.) I also exchanged my copy of Siddhartha for 1984, which is another book I read in high school but likely had only a fraction of the appreciation for that it deserves. Then I went back to my room and washed my hair, which would have been quite nice if the hot water hadn’t run out after 20 seconds. I also think I fried my blow dryer even though I could have sworn I was using the right converter, so it looks like I’m air drying from here on out. Oh well. Just being able to submerge my head in a bucket of cold water was seriously refreshing.

Stitching my bag up

Stitching my bag up

I also decided that I’m going to hike up to Triund on Sunday night to get the best possible view of the supermoon. There’s someone at the top that rents out tents so I’ll hike up there with just a small backpack and pray for clear skies. I’ve found that I’ve been spending a lot of time in a very small circle going between Bhagsu, Tushita, Dharamkot, and McLeod Ganj, so I think a long hike and a night camping higher up in the mountains will be a nice change of pace for me. Plus, gotta work on getting my legs in hiking form for Machu Picchu (Machu Pikachu?)

And sealing it up with wax

And sealing it up with wax

All in all, life is very low-key and very wonderful. I’m tremendously enjoying having to do so much walking to get everywhere I go and having so much time to read and write. Today I was trying to think about all the things I miss from back home and I only needed the fingers on one hand to get through the whole list:
Friends
Family (which includes my dog)
Potable tap water
Adventure Time
NBA Playoffs
The fact that 40% of what I miss is related to TV might be a sign that some material desires still need to be curbed but I’d like to think that every time I watch Adventure Time I’m becoming just a little bit wiser.

See you in Boston! (maybe)

See you in Boston! (maybe)