Friday, May 14, 2010

Certainty is the death of inquiry.

Greetings happy people!

You may know that I recently completed a 40-day silent meditation retreat, and I haven't lost my mind yet. That may be a relief to some, but I don't entirely share the enthusiasm. In the Western world we're taught to primarily rely on our minds to navigate life, and this son of an engineer got a super-sized dose of the supreme power of logic and common sense. I've spent much of my life denying the existence of phenomena that I knew nothing about - just because I didn't have experience of it. If you spend enough time in India, you'll end up with less certainty about your certainty, or you'll burst a blood vessel trying to maintain your fixed ideas about how things work. I've managed some cracks in my suit of armor, but I'd just as soon the whole thing bust into pieces and clattered to the ground. I'm not finding it very helpful. 

I hesitate to share this story, but here goes. After the brief meditation that precedes the daily talk, one of the teachers, Jaya, commented that the energy in the room was so nice she hesitated speaking. When someone asked what exactly she meant, she spoke at length, describing the quality of that energy, while I had no idea what she was carrying on about. (Not an unusual experience for me.) At some point on the retreat I noticed that, for the first time, I felt kind of a tingling/buzzing sensation in my forehead, just between my eyebrows. It felt just like the tingling that I felt on another retreat (back in 1996) on the very crown of my head, that I still feel to this day when I'm quiet and pay attention - typically on retreat. Back in 1996 they described this sensation as your "crown chakra," something I would have liked to deny, except that I couldn't deny the sensation. There are supposedly seven chakras and I don't get it and it's too woo-woo for me so I just ignore it. But the tingling between my eyebrows felt just the same as the crown of my head, and they only happened at the same time - even the tingling was synchronized. I went to Jaya and said, "Can I ask my first-ever question about chakras?" I described the sensation and said that it started two days before. She said, yeah, that's another chakra [ya dope - it's the third eye chakra, where have you been] and asked when it started, exactly, if I could remember. I did happen to remember, since I was sitting in a spot that I didn't sit often, just before dinner, which mean it was just after she'd given her talk - the one when she talked about the energy. Jaya, why do you ask when it happened? "Because it's consistent with the energy that I was describing that day at the talk. That's pretty cool that it happened without you even knowing what it was." 

Now, because I'm such a lummox, I find the whole thing interesting. I can assure you that there are a bunch of people reading this who are rolling their eyes at the simplicity of it all - of course it's a chakra, how could you be surprised since it's so obviously true, etc., etc. Most of the others reading it are dismissing it as fantasy and delusion and explaining it away by whatever means they can - just as I would have done earlier. So why tell the dang story in the first place?? I guess I'm hoping there'll be at least one reader who hasn't formed a rigid opinion who says,"Wow. I wonder what that's all about." Dare to wonder, I'd suggest, because certainty is the death of inquiry.

Another story best left untold: even though I've always enjoyed these meditation retreats, I've never been as big a fan of meditation as most people that sit retreats. For years I've been trying to explain, mostly unsuccessfully, why I only meditate on retreat and not in-between. (It's hard to explain since I don't really have a good reason.) So it wasn't such a surprise, really, when the Indian teacher Ajay told me in an interview, "Your path isn't one of meditation. Yours is the path of love. See love wherever you go." Uh, how do I do that? "I think it's what you do normally - just practice seeing love, even when you're just caring for yourself, like shaving, for example." Do you think I should meditate, I asked? He kind of scrunched up his face and gave the Indian head wobble and said, "If you want." That's not the kind of advice you'll hear often on a meditation retreat! But the unflappable and slightly mysterious Ajay isn't your typical teacher, either. If I was the guru-seeking type, he'd be my guy. But he's not the guru-type, and I'm not the seeker-type, so that's that.

I went on a bunch of great hikes during the retreat, including to a hilltop ashram that I regularly visit when I'm in the area. The semi-toothless guru of the ashram welcomed me back, and through an interpreter, asked why I keep coming back to India. He said, "The truth isn't limited by geography. Why India?" I said that I get that question a lot from people back home, even though they have all their teeth. (OK, I left the teeth part out.) I said that when I do a retreat at home, it's like jumping into a pool, and when the retreat's over, you get out of the pool. But when you come to retreat in India, you're swimming the whole time. Something happens here, and I can't explain it. But it keeps me coming back.

Too much love!

The photos below are from Rishikesh and Haridwar (before the retreat), and Sattal, where the retreat was held. They can also be found here:

Incredible - what some people will believe: (Or is that just the old me talking? And how can I be sure?)
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This is the Laxman Jhula bridge over the Ganges River in Rishikesh, home to great yoga teachers and wicked apple pie. In this photo the bridge is unusually crowded with Indian tourists who've come up from the Kumbh Mela, downstream about a half-hour's drive in Haridwar.
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The crowds arriving at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. In the evening this whole area was covered with people sleeping on the concrete.
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Bathers at the Kumbh Mela.
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The water is wickedly cold and fast-moving. This official is preparing a net that hangs under the bridge to give a bather one last chance if they fall into the current.
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I love this kid's expression. I already know what he'll look like as an old man. Pretty much the same!
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You can see chains that are hanging in the river for people to hang onto if they get swept away.
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I think this guy may have been mentally ill.
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Pilgrims walking from the nearby train station with their belongings on their heads. Mostly they'll sleep on the wide concrete walkways.
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An Indian man told me in his broken English to come take photos of Ganesha, the Indian god with the head of an elephant. He was referring to this holy man, who has a rare deformity.
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I can't tell where his left eye should be. He seemed quite healthy otherwise. He was also fine with having his photo taken.
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This baba is the same one I took a photo of in the last newsletter. Those are some serious dreadlocks that reach down below his feet. He was quite the showman, and happy to show off his goods. If you know what I'm sayin'!
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Beautiful child!
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Ahhhh - a waterfall in Sattal, not far from where the retreat was held.
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The monkeys could be really cute, but I liked them better in this pose than when a big male bares his teeth and trys to steal my chapatis! They could be a real nuisance, but could also be really fun to watch when they played together.
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This is a guy who meditated too much on last year's retreat. Or maybe a langur - a monkey that gets to be about four feet tall. They're not nuisances at all - they're quite gentle and shy. They're also amazing to watch leaping from tree to tree.
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Sattal means seven lakes. These boats were for Indian tourists, just down from the retreat center.
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Taken from a local resort/hotel, high above the ashram where the retreat was held. You can just see a white dot in the very center of the photo where the ashram is located. It looks like an island from this angle, and it's nearly surrounded by lakes.
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Separating the wheat from the chaff, as they've done for millennia. But now they can watch BBC on the telly during breaks. See the satellite dish?
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A very sweet kid (the older one) who I first met in 2006.
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These look like bizarre flowers - but they're bizarre insects. They accumulate in droves on certain trees. 
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Here you see many thousands of them on one tree. Someone said they turn into butterflies or moths or something, but no one knew for sure.
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Two of the teachers, Gemma and Jaya, and their baby Gyan. They live (mostly) in Spain, but spent six months in India this year.
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A paddleboat on the lake.
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An old monkey with a cataract. I feel for you buddy - I've got one, too. I'm getting mine removed in Singapore this summer.
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The usually smiley armed guard from the ashram, just after he described how big the local leopards are. They're big!
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He traded his gun for my camera and took this photo. The angle was his artistic choice! 
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I have leopard stories, even though I didn't see any. We ALL heard them - and it's impressive! It can make for an exciting night-time walk back to your room along a dark path.
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The barn-turned-meditation-hall at the ashram. We had been in a big beautiful building, but it's a Christian ashram, and one of the mucky-mucks couldn't deal with us lying down in the hall - so they moved us here. Basic, but cozy. When we were meditating, mostly laying down, we were packed in like sardines!
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The teachers, from left: Gemma (Spain), Jaya (US), Ajay (India) and Jess (Australia.)
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The photos can also be seen here:

(The End!)