Friday, April 17, 2009

Sitting, not sitting

Hello again. After an Internet hiatus, I'm back on-line, briefly, before heading further into to the mountains. Ten days ago a group of 60 of us completed a 17-day silent meditation retreat. Technically, I was silent between the times I was talking - but I guess that's true of you, too. (I'm also sugar-free between donuts) My German traveling partner, Juliane, (nicknamed Nani,) and I went on some nice hikes and engaged in some rule-breaking social intercourse. The retreat center is in a beautiful area, hilly and surrounded by lakes and pine trees. It could be in California except for the monkeys, and there were reports of leopards, unseen but imagined on some very dark late-night walks back to my room.

The monkeys can be really funny when they're not baring their teeth and threatening you or stealing your food. The little ones are playful like children, and the mothers just put up with them and keep them out of trouble. But when Dad shows up, with an expression like a grumpy old man, the playing stops. Dad needs to lighten up and have some fun. And when a group of the smaller monkeys are scavenging for some food scraps, they all scatter when Dad shows up. There's no doubt about who's the boss. (It's so 1950's!)

One of the walks I took on my own was to the hilltop temple occupied by the local Hindu swami nicknamed "Alu Baba." He got the name by always offering visitors curried potatoes ("alu" in Hindi) as prasad, a spiritual offering in Hinduism. As a young man he'd spent many years meditating in the caves of the Himalayas, and he described to me in some detail having seen Yetis - the Abominable Snowman. I'm inclined to believe him because his description matches all the comic book versions I've seen. I could dismiss it, but then where would I be? My latest philosophy: "Maybe!"

The other day Nani said to herself, but out loud, "What's that guy's name? Hans something..." That's all she said, with no context, and I had no idea who she was talking about. But I said, in my wonderful faux German accent, "Hans Gruber!" because it sounded German. It turns out - it was Hans Gruber she was thinking of. And I've never even heard the name before. Someone explain that one to me. (And I'll say, "Maybe!") Now whenever something coincidental happens, we say, "Now that's a Hans Gruber if I ever heard of one!"

The retreat was pleasant and peaceful for me. That's not the case for lots of people. When you turn off the distractions of talking, TV, radio, books, writing, and music, it's not uncommon for unpleasant memories and patterns to pop to the surface, and you don't have the usual methods to force them back into their dark hole. At home it's easier: Feel unhappy - make a sandwich! Or have a drink, or go shopping. Of course, it's totally ineffective at making us truly happy, but that doesn't normally stop us. It's a lot of work to get to the bottom of our patterns and look deeply into life, and besides being scary, many people question the value of it. I'm no longer one of those people.

You know how when you really, really want something, and you feel like you'll be so happy if you get it? Can  you remember that thing that you got that one time that was so great and fulfilling that it stopped you from wanting anything else? Yeah, me neither. Like the cowboy with shit in his mustache, we're looking for love in all the wrong places. It doesn't take that much investigation to see that there's no lasting satisfaction in the "stuff" of our lives - possessions, status, fame, even accomplishments - but mostly we don't know what else to do, so we keep up the same crazy schemes, hoping for a different outcome, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Not a single person in the history of the world has been made truly happy and satisfied based on that "stuff" - but we all still plug along, hoping we'll be the exception. I heard a teacher once say that if you saw a group of people banging their heads against a wall to become happy, and not one had been successful in the last few thousand years - would you join them in banging YOUR head against the wall?

Nani and I are leaving today for a hike into the mountains, up to Pindari Glacier, where I went three years ago on my last trip here. It's a beautiful area, with kind people and relatively comfortable lodging in government rest houses. We may be gone for two or three weeks, so I'll write again when we're back.

I've uploaded a few pics from the retreat, and more from Almora, where I'm writing this. You can find them here:

Much love,