thoughts: time by gong
It was day 8 when I sat across from the monk with a juice box. He looked western, but in silence I couldn't rely on his accent to place where he was actually from. His head was shaved, and he wore layered maroon robes with his right arm uncovered. He looked up and smiled, as though to say hello.
I noticed his juice box because no one else in the dining hall had one. I still don't know where it came from. We were seated near the buffet that held comically large pots of rice, lentils, and vegetables, as well as bowls of oranges and a large tray of lasagna. Food for 120 people. Another table nearby held large dispensers of fresh ginger lemon tea, chai tea, hot water, and cold water. In the 40-degree weather most of us opted for hot beverages. The stainless steel cup doubled as a hand warmer.
The dining hall sat on a steep edge of the mountain. Treetops from below climbed above the rooftop with glimpses of more of the Himalayas taking shape between their branches. Some people were mesmerized by the view, some stared intently at their food, and others appeared to be daydreaming. The silence was only broken by the sound of silverware meeting the metal bowls and plates.
After 7 days of Buddhist teachings interspersed with meditations, day 8 was a full day of meditating. From 6:45am to 8:15pm with short breaks in between and longer breaks for meals. We all looked forward to the meals.
I was fixated on the juice box. Not only because it was out of place, but also because it was covered in words. My mind wanted something, anything external to latch onto. I quickly found myself captivated by the names of artificial colors, the precise sugar measurements, and Appy brand's manufacturing address.
I was so absorbed in the small, black box that I began thoughtlessly scooping food into my mouth. From day 1 our meditation teacher had asked us to consider eating in a more mindful way. He suggested that we practice taking a bite, setting the utensil down, chewing, and finishing the food in our mouths before picking up the utensil again.
"The mind of attachment is looking at the next spoonful of food rather than enjoying the food in your mouth," he reminded us daily.
He was right about the mind of attachment. Except this time my mind was attaching to yellow #7 and grape juice concentrate instead of tasting any of the food I was carelessly putting in my mouth.
I went into these 10 days of learning about Buddhism, meditation, and silence not really knowing what to expect other than a respite from the hectic nature of Indian cities. The mountains, however, have their own balance of peace and chaos. Our orientation covered everything from limiting water usage to the regular power outages to not smiling at the many monkeys who make their home on the property. Showing your teeth translates to aggression in their language. One of the first rules of Buddhism is not to kill, and this extends to all beings, even the insects in our rooms. Thankfully we skipped over the part about scorpions because it wasn't their season yet.
The teachings had an eloquent way of forcing you to think about and dissect seemingly simple things, like that everything changes and ignorance causes suffering. Many Buddhist traditions use debate as a means of learning because nothing is to be taken at face value. For the first 7 days there was an hour in which we broke silence to meet in groups and discuss questions posed by our teacher. Without the normal conventions of small talk, we jumped right into topics like emptiness, generosity, and death. The connections between ancient yoga texts and the Buddha Dharma surprised me, as did several hailstorms and the lack of heat in any of the buildings. In this sense, though, everything became part of the teachings.
The weather could turn on a dime. That very same day during one of our breaks we took a hike to a nearby Buddhist monument and meditation area. In silence, the crunch of so many shoes into the winding dirt roads was deafening. The sights visible through breaks in the trees held more awe with no words available to exclaim their beauty. The air was cool, but the sun was so bright that most of us tied jackets around our waists, happy to lose some layers.
Our meditation teacher had led us there and told us we could return at our own pace. He had also warned, "it might rain." But I chose to ignore him.
As you might have guessed, he was right again. Most of us had walked past the monument toward a large clearing with a panoramic view of Dharamshala below. That was when the sky started to change.
I had barely made it back to the dirt road when large raindrops started to fall. As I moved my jacket over my head, the rain turned into hail. The pea-sized ice quickly morphed into cherry-sized. Head down and eyes on my feet, I lamented the fact that with no heat my shoes would be wet for the next 24 hours. In that moment of dramatic, selfish despair a piece of hail managed to hit me right in the face. And I started laughing. Even the weather had managed to give us a practice.
At this point I'd had a week to experience the physical discomfort of sitting still and the mental discomfort of repetitive thoughts, and here was yet another discomfort to work with. Buddhist teachings say that someone who has hurt you (or hail that pelts you in the face) ends up being one of your greatest teachers because that person gives you the opportunity to find peace of mind. And how differently would we meet an aggravating driver or a difficult family member or an ex-partner if we saw them this way?
Every day at 6am the gong rang. Several times. The gong ringer walked near each block of rooms, and gave three rings. By day 3 I was dreaming of gongs, waking up unsure of whether it was the real thing. I borrowed an alarm clock at registration after surrendering my electronics, and it lasted for about an hour before the solitary sound of ticking made me crazy. As such, waking up before the gong was quite mysterious. It could be 1am or 5:59am, and there was little temptation to leave a warm sleeping bag and face the cold air. Luckily the real gong was accompanied by other residents slamming doors or stomping down the path outside our rooms.
Being the gong ringer was one of the many karma yoga jobs assigned to each of us. Tushita is semi-monastic in that nuns and monks, as well as lay people live on the grounds. With only a small staff, these jobs helped maintain the property and included everything from cleaning toilets to brushing the three monastery dogs that spend their days chasing monkeys and being adored by very quiet people.
I was lucky. My job was to sweep the path from my block of rooms to the showers. In such a densely wooded area it regularly became covered in pine needles, leaves, and small branches. Simple enough, but initially it felt a little silly. The results of my work were so temporary. Sometimes an hour later you couldn't even tell that I'd swept. But, of course, in this theme of "everything is your teacher," that was the point.
Nothing is permanent, even in your mind. One great meditation practice doesn't clear your mind for life or even for an hour. Hopefully it gets out some cobwebs, so there's less to clean out the next time, but it's still a daily practice.
Each time I've sat down to write about what these 10 days were like, I've gotten stuck. Two weeks later it still feels cliché to say that it was life changing, but there's no other way to put it. In the moment, though, it didn't feel that way. There were meditations that felt balanced and insightful and others where I wanted to crawl out of my skin. There were minutes and hours that passed with absolutely nothing to do. This can be a gift, but it can also be a little maddening. As our teachers reiterated, our day-to-day lives revolve around the outside world. If you haven't spent a lot of time looking within, what you start to see might not be so pretty. And without communication or electronics or other means of distraction there's nowhere else to look.
The Buddhist nun who led our teachings asked us early on to consider our minds an inner home. Most of us regularly tidy up and even scrub down the structural homes we live in, but how often do you do the same to your mind? To the paths it always wanders down? To the unproductive stories or memories?
There's no one way to do it. But it certainly feels more available sitting on a mountain isolated from society for 10 days. It's such a bubble, though, that I avoided considering what would happen when I left. Instead I immersed myself in the process. I found a more comfortable way to sit for meditation, I learned modern applications of ancient philosophies, and I became an even slower eater than I already was.
However, any progress seemed like it might be circumstantial. As though it was dependent on the isolation or the mountains or the silence. It's the way a yoga mat feels sometimes. Like it's so much easier be clear-headed on that little rectangle, but at some point you have to leave.
At check-out on our final day, I turned in my key, paid my laundry bill, and received my electronics back. After taking a few photos, I shared a taxi to town with some other students. At my hotel I sat in a chair next to the window waiting for something to happen. As though the work of those 10 days was all going to fall apart or materialize before my eyes.
I stayed in McLeod Ganj, the town nearby, for almost a week and returned to Tushita for daily drop-in meditation classes. McLeod is situated in an idyllic part of the mountains. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has his residence and temple there, and the complex is surrounded by a beautiful trail lined with flags and prayer wheels. It's considered auspicious to walk the path, and at one point there's a break in the trees and a sudden drop at the mountain's edge that puts all of India right at your feet. That saying: so beautiful I could cry? I took it quite literally.
At the risk of sounding like a basket case I cried every single day in McLeod over some new sight. They were tears of gratitude and awareness that such spectacular sights are rare, and they aren't something you see every day or even every lifetime. In an environment that simultaneously reminds you how small you are, but also how limitless, it's natural to shift your perspective.
I didn't want to leave the mountains. I got attached, which is exactly what I was supposed to be learning not to do. I kept booking one more day and then another at my hotel. When I couldn't sleep one night I did the dorkiest post-Buddhist-meditation-retreat thing possible and looked up Dharma lectures on YouTube. I found one by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, who has become well known for the 12 years she spent meditating in a cave and the nunnery that she subsequently started.
She happened to touch on the importance of taking time to retreat, but also the necessity of returning to all the noise. She said exactly what my stuck-on-the-mountain self needed to hear:
"Your life is not an obstacle to the practice. Your life is the practice."
Almost anyone can find peace in the silence of nature, but can you find it on the highway? Can you find practice in neither grasping the joyful moments nor avoiding the tough ones? Can you value the people that present themselves daily just as much as you value your traditional teachers? The practice isn't just on the mat or the mountain, it's everywhere. If your eyes are willing to see it.
3/22/2016 10:16:02 pm
My yoga in life especially comes in strong where any of so-called "yoga" ish ess ( its philosophy, pranayama, asanas, awareness of energy,spirituality etc ) cannot break the barruers between myself and other people. My off-the-mat yoga began with the fact that yoga is for everyone but not everyone is ready for yoga. It's all about finding peace in any challenges external and internal. Finding my own trust ( one is to to trust the other person and the other is to trust my own trust trusting that person ) and patience (again! My patience towards the person and my patience towards my being patient to the person )
4/1/2016 06:02:00 pm
Love this, Hiromi. And so much yes to the idea that not everyone is ready for yoga, and not everyone needs the same kind of yoga. Miss you!!
3/22/2016 10:52:56 pm
insightful writings, Amanda.
4/1/2016 05:59:24 pm
Watching you grow is much like viewing a time lapse of a great redwood forest over a thousand years, such a joy. Was shoveling poke into my face while reading this… now it’s chopsticks down, chew and enjoy! Thank you!
4/1/2016 06:03:08 pm
Lucas, thank you so much!! Missing everyone at the studio and very much looking forward to teaching again.
4/5/2016 05:31:39 pm
Amanda! As I read your words I find myself there, considering. Thanks.
5/4/2016 12:05:29 pm
Thanks Jim (and family:) ! This means so much to me. Looking forward to being back in Sherman Oaks in a couple months!
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