Monday, October 29, 2012

Day 52

On Wednesday, millions of Nepalis celebrated the final and most important day of the country's biggest festival, Dashain, 10 days of rejoice for the Goddess, Durga's victory of good over evil. Families gather by the masses to offer each other blessings and tikka, a mixture of rice with red powder and a little yogurt, smeared across the forehead. In all of their beautifully chubby glory, the women dress in bright red sari's with matching lipstick, while the men rendevouz in a designated room of the house to drink whiskey and gamble thousands of rupees away in card games based purely on the luck of the hand. For the occassion, my homestay mother gave me one of her old sari's to wear along with glitzy bangles and a silly updo that she felt was absolutely necessary. I was practically an Indian princess!! As guests started arriving to our house the festivities began. My homestay grandmother, who always has a gummy grin plastered on her soft face and walks with her body in a perfect 90 degree angle, her upper half parallel to the floor, sat down behind a table of brass bowls, candles, apples, and money. In order of age, beginning with the eldest, we each took our turn sitting on the opposite side of the table, bowing our heads to receive the blessings and tikka. The celebration continued with a vast feast, centered around the consumption of mutton, or goat meat, for a majority of Hindu families sacrifice a goat to Durga for the festival. (I unfortunately could not participate in the meat eating. Last week I ate buffalo momos with my family and threw up all night as a result, so I figured I should lay off the carnivorous diet). It was all a really neat and fun experience nonetheless. Though I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying, I sat and soaked up as much as I could.
At the end of our second week in Kathmandu, I am really beginning to feel infinitely more comfortable in this chaotic city. Even thought I know Kathmandu is safer than my hometown of Los Angeles, and so many other American cities for that matter, Nepal is the first place I've been where I so dramatically stick out. No matter what I do, there's absolutely no way to blend in. I can take public transportation, eat at local shops, but I will always be a young white girl. And because I look different, everyone stares, and by everyone, I means men. It's a popular anthropological topic, "the male gaze," and in Asia, staring is the representation of simple curiosity, rather than a rude gesture as it is in the U.S. Nonetheless, it made me uncomfortable. Everywhere I walked, countless eyes followed my body's movement, and I didn't know what to do but to feel self conscious. My mounting anxiety reached its peak when one night, I was catching a bus home (which are of course crammed with people) and the bus assistant tried to touch me inappropriately. He was disgustingly adament, and after trying to push him away, I finally yelled at him and got off the bus. In the moment I tried to brush it off, I didn't want to make a big deal about it in my mind because I so badly wanted to be comfortable in the dark city.  But my heart was racing. While this brewed in the back of my mind, I was still reading Women Who Run With The Wolves, feeling empowered and awakened by its words. However, that sense of self power had to stay in my room, becasue when I walked out of the door onto the busy streets, I would once again feel objectified by the stares. Now that I've finished the book, I realize I was being a complete fool. Why should I let these people make me feel so small? Why should I victimize myself? Instead, I should take this city by the reigns and be the warrior goddess that I am! I can take this challenge as a test of my own strength! So on the night of this realization and on the nights proceeding, I told my Tibetan medicine mentor that I can walk the dark alleys by myself and wait to find a bus on my own. He reluctantly accepted my decision and I've been immensely successful! No longer do I get nervous at every mysteriously dark silhouette that passes, for I know that I'm stronger than I was giving myself credit for. Wherever I go in the world, there will always be a chance that I cross paths with that one creepy guy, but he is the minority. And it's unreasonable to let fear and anxiety rise with every male I walk by. What that bus attendant tried to do was an unacceptable, and I was stupid to try and let it slide by in my mind, but from all of this I have realized much. The most important thing being that I am capable. I can hear the voice of my instincts, my soul's life force, loud and clear, and will follow her where she leads.

"The wild nature teaches that we meet challenges as they occur. When wolves are badgered, they don't say, "Oh no! Not again!" They bound, pounce, run, dive, scramble, play dead, go for the throat, whatever needs to be done. So we cannot be shocked that there is entropy, deterioration, hard times. Let us understand that the issues that entrap women's (and men's) joy will always shift and shape change, but in our own essential natures we find the absolute stamina, the necessary libido for all necessary acts of heart.... If you want to re-summon Wild Woman, refuse to be captured. With instincts sharpened for balance, I can promise you will become one vital woman."
- Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Bhaktapur photos

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Day 45

With weak thighs and mosquito bitten feet, yesterday we hiked to Shivapuri Peak, the tallest mountain in the Kathmandu Valley, and gazed upon the rapidly changing city. Though it was a difficult 3,000 ft. gain, my body felt enlivened and my soul fed by the massive trees and the rolling trails. Step after step, my spirit breathed in the deliciously fresh oxygen as the wind was blowing through my leg hair (I haven't shaved since we got here, haha!!). It was so beautiful!!! And it's truly miraculous what a small dose of mother nature's creations can do for the heart, or my heart anyway. After the trek we stopped in the neighborhood at the base of the trail to have a snack of fresh samosas and banana lassis. Then we meandered our way to Budanilkantha Temple, which is famous for its statue of Vishnu laying atop a pool of water. The statue was covered in bright malas and offerings, it was so awesome!!
On another note, today I got back a letter that I wrote to a very nervous self from the Hong Kong Airport on September 9, 2012:

To a beautifully strong warrior goddess, the only person I'd ever want to be,
You have done an incredible thing. You took your life into your own hands and made a change. It was a scary change, farther out of your comfort zone than ever before. How admirable! It takes so much strength and courage to do what you've done. Don't ever forget that incredible strength that resides in you. Your beautiful community supports you endlessly, and they know you are capable of anything, so know that for yourself! Don't let anyone make you forget that! Don't let anyone make you feel small! You are divine and complete just the way you are!!! You are beautiful and awesome and you have so much enchanting adventure ahead of you! Follow your path, fine peace and joy in every moment. Take every opportunity that comes your way. Stay positive and stay strong. Be you, make yourself proud! Even though I already am so infinitely proud. LECH LECHA!!!

This made me feel so good! I feel so radiant and beautiful!!! I am discovering the Wild Woman of my soul and she is becoming stronger and more full of love and happiness by the day!
As Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in her book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, "The great miracle of individuation and reclamation of the Wild Woman is that we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know all the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking. But like the wolf mother teaching her pups to hunt and take care, this is the way Wild Woman wells up through us. We begin to speak in her voice, taking on her vision and her values. She teaches us to send out the message of our return to those who are like us... It is into this world that women come in order to claim their own voices, their own values, their imaginations, their clairvoyance, their clear seeing, their stories, and their ancient memories of women."
(TO ALL WOMEN I KNOW- I'm on the verge of finishing he most beautiful, empowering book I have ever read. Women Who Run With The Wolves reminds us of the instinctually passionate, creative, generous, fierce nature of women and I can't emphasize enough that you ought to read this book. Hey, boys can read it too and begin to understand the psyche of the life-givers on this planet!)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Day 43

We've been in Kathmandu for one week now. Though the city is thrilling and exciting (i.e. packed bus rides and Durbar Square), I'm still slowly adjusting to the chaos and pollution. My soul is yearning for the mountains! I want to feel at home in this city, with its people, with my homestay family, but it's hard to find the healing, nourishing power of nature through the car exhaust and garbage-lined streets. But of course adjustments take time. And while I can feel my spirit is in need of its "home," whether that be in a forest or by the ocean or with a paper and pen and paint, I'm leaning to manifest my own little mountainous sanctuary in my mind, giving my soul peace in the crowded city.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Day 38

I'm 20!!!!! That number sounds so old to me, but I'm trying to not let it bother me, age is silly and meaningless anyway! Thank you to all of my community for your birthday wishes, you make me feel so endlessly loved and embraced! I had the absolute greatest day, and I hope you know that when you were thinking of me, I was thinking of you too. We're back in Kathmandu from our 10 day meditation retreat at Kopan Monastery, and while there were many moments of inner struggle, my mind feels brighter and most blissful than ever. I don't foresee myself ever shaving my head and becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun, but I feel that I now have the tools and the courage to look within, contemplate, resolve my inner battles, and find peace in challenge. Of course I wasn't enlightened by these ideas on the first day. It took quite a few meditations and teachings on the dharma to break through the elaborate facade, which often overwhelms Tibetan Buddhism, and discover the jewels of wisdom that I can use in my daily life.
This branch of Buddhism, known as the Mahayana path, follows the teachings, or dharma, of the Sakyamuni Buddha, who lived 500 years before Christ. "Mahayana" literally means "the greater path to universal enlightenment," so the key aim of this belief system is not just the enlightenment of one's self, but the enlightenment of all sentient beings from samsara, cyclic rebirth. Thus, Mayahana becomes known also as the Boddhisattva path, for a Boddhisattva is one who forgoes personal nirvana in order to help others achieve enlightenment. What a beautiful idea! If only the whole world lookied out for each other's well being the way that the Buddha said we should!
When we arrived at Kopan, on top of a hill overlooking all of Kathmandu, we were overwhelmed by a very odd sense of culture shock. There were white people everywhere! (The course was mainly held for Westerners interested in Buddhism). After living in a remote village with no English, it was quite disorienting to be surrounded by European, Australian, and American travelers. Anyway, the retreat began. Our daily schedule looked like this:
5:00 AM - I wake up to do yoga with the sunrise
5:45 AM - Everyone else wakes up
6:00 AM - Tea
6:30 AM - Meditation
7:45 AM - Breakfast
9:15 AM - Teachings
11:30 AM - Lunch/break
2:00 PM - Discussion groups
3:30 PM - Teachings
5:00 PM - Tea
6:00 PM - Meditation
6:45 PM - Dinner
7:45 PM - Meditation
Everyday, all participants in the retreat were silent from morning through lunch. However, anyone could choose to be silent for the whole day, or whole retreat even. They would simply wear a yellow ribbon to signify their silence and let others know to not speak with them. I had initially planned to be silent, potentially for the whole 10 days. I had my yellow ribbon on the first day thinking, "Hey how hard can it be!" Let me tell you, it is really damn hard. I went into the experience thinking I had already known a lot about Buddhism - I've read tons of books, watched documentaries, I liked to think that I already lived with the mindful simplicity of the Buddha's ideas. Yet, that first day threw me for a loop. We walked into the gompa, where all of our programs were held, and were confronted by a huge golden statue of "Lord" Buddha, surrounded by statues of other deities which supposedly represent aspects of the Buddha (I could only connect with Green Tara, goddess of liberation and fearlessness). The idols were elegantly painted and illuminated by bright lights. I was struck by the religiosity of the large room, for some reason it felt like the last thing the Buddha ever would have wanted. We all sat down cross-legged on cushions (which began as a vey painful experience but has now given me very open hips) and an old Swedish woman in nun's robes walked in. The entire room stood up in honor of the teachings, and she proceeded to explain Tibetan Buddhism, her life's devotion, to our open ears.
Ani (sister) Karin told us that life is characterized by dukkha, dissatisfaction, and that we are full of desires and attachments that can oly provide temporary happiness. She taughts us that this world is empty, therefore all we see and belief to be real is an illusion. We learned about the 6 realms of existence, including the human realm (the highest), animal realm, hungry ghost realm, and other unfavorable realms for rebirth. And she explained the concept of karma as it is carried across reincarnations - essentially suggesting that some individuals are fated to endure atrocities like war or genocide based on the negative karma of a past life. We were taught about beginingless time and beginingless consciousness. We meditated while visualizing the Buddha streaming wisdom into our chakras, we performed prostrations, said prayers, and chanted mantras. With such an abundance of information pouring out of Ani Karin's mouth, I was overwhelmed by disillusion. How could anyone believe that the victims of the Holocaust or Hurricane Katrina "deserved" such hardship based on the karma of past lives? Should I act kindly purely out of fear of being reborn into a lower realm? How can anything be truly beginningless? Don't these visualizations of the Buddha in all his perfection feel a little bit like God worship? Are chanting these mantras 30,000 times (as many monks do) really going to make me enlightened? I had so many questions, but there was nothing I could do about it because I was silent. I was confused and frustrated by the teachings, and felt isolated in the sea of people.
At dinner that night I decided to take off my yellow ribbon of silence. Though I had set a goal for myself, I realized it was unrealistic. I had never done anything like this before, and I knew I would get more out of the experience if I could discuss the teachings with everyone around me. So I began posing my questions and I was relieved to hear that everyone agreed. As we bounced ideas off each other I didn't feel so crazy anymore, worried in my head that I was the only one who didn't believe everything Ani Karin said. The next day, the morning silence no longer felt forced and lonely, and I continued to contemplate the beliefs of the dharma with as many people as I could. There was even a Romanian woman in my discussion group who was avidly concerned that everyone she knows learns compassion before the world ends in December, 2012 and it's too late. What a trip!
Finally I realized that these wild teachings about Buddhism were being taught to us through the lens of a nun, a woman who 40 years ago renounced life as she knew it to devote herself to the Buddha. Of course it feels like God worship, this is a religion to her! If she believes in spirits in other realms and chanting mantras to build karmic merit, then all I can do is be happy for her that she finds such joy in the teachings, and then sift through all of her words to find the valuable pieces of wisdom that I can apply to my own life. Because let's face it, if I'm feeling really upset one day, I'm not going to contemplate which realm I'll be born into next or the true emptiness of a pillow. So with my new mindset, I found, what is to me, the jewel in the lotus. The lesson of compassion has always rung true in my soul, but now I can hardly put into words how beautiful and magnificent this practice can be. We always feel compassion for our loved ones, we of course want them to be happy. But it is excruciatingly difficult to find that compassion for those who have hurt us. We spent a day meditating on anger, visualizing the person who made us angry, and envisioning the exact moments where we felt hurt. This was really painful, concentrating on these moments I could only feel more upset. But then, Ani Karin said this: "Be grateful to your enemey, thank them for giving you the opportunity to practice compassion and patience." How revolutionary! How true! "Yes!" I thought, "because this happened I am so much stronger in myself and my being and I'm so thankful for that!" Further, it is only I who can control my emotions, no one else. So I renounce suffering in the name of compassion. Rather than feel hurt, I can take in that person's own suffering and send them strength, independence, joy, anything they need to feel happy. And moving forward, I can let go of any grudges or lingering bitterness, knowing that as I release that anger, I'm healing the person who hurt me, and healing myself too. Not that I'm eager to forgive any wrongdoing, but compassion serves as a reminder that we're all human and we all make mistakes. Rather than feel selfish attachment to people, expecting them to make us happy, we can feel pure, endless love for both our friends/family and our enemies, wanting only the best for them. Hopefully I can carry this lesson home with me!
The last two days were spent in complete silence, with 6 meditation sessions a day. In one meditation, we attempted to regress through our past lives (I envisioned myself as a lioness and then as a Native American healer - probably just wishful thinking), and in another we went through the death process, feeling our skin and joints dry out, our tongue swell, and our feet turn freezing, all the way to the bright light, which was emotional and very nauseating. In others we practiced compassion, sending ourselves gifts (I sent myself joy, courage, and the willpower to go wherever my heart leads) and sending our loved ones gifts (I sent my Mom harmony, strength, and happiness). We sent streams of bright light to all sentient beings to wipe away their suffering and we broke down our own self-cherishing ego to make room for the well being of others. It was exhausting and powerful  and I'm so happy that I got to take time out of this unnecessarily busy life to just sit and watch as thoughts float by. It's okay if the statues are too lavish and big. As I sat and watched monks perform their morning puja, or offering, I could feel their chanting reverberate through my body, getting the chills everytime they would sound the cymbals, horn, and gong. This belief system brings them bliss and empowers them to lead what they see as a life of fulfillment. And more power to them!! All I can do is be happy for others, as I slowly make my way closer to finding my own personal truth.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Day 25

The last ten days have been the biggest mind trip I have ever experienced. In a village called Chaukati, I lived with the Thami people, low caste subsistence farmers just before the Tibetan border. My homestay family was headed by a stunning 24 year old woman named Solstani Thami. In her mud house lived her devious 7 year old son, Deberats, her 1 year old baby girl, Debika, and her younger sister, Basanti, who spent most of her nights in their goat shed up the mountain. Solstani's husband, Birbahadur, is working in Qatar, along with a few other Thami men (due to the vast unemployment in Nepal, agencies gather village men and ship them off to countries all over the gulf and south east Asia to repair elevators and work in grocery stores, where they are paid less than the natives and live in slave conditions).
Village life was initially extremely challenging. The first two days I was overwhelmed by the bats that flew through the house at night, the infinite flea bits, the dirt caked on every inch of my body, the unfamiliar and monotonous diet, the open wounds covering everyone's arms and legs, the countless flies as a result of livestock, and of course, the complete lack of communication. I had been essentially stripped of my identity - with my new Nepali name and the inability to talk about my life experience and what made me, me. It was disorienting. I even struggled to journal because I knew I would have to confront my discomfort and record the continuously new, exhausting, confusing stimuli that followed me everywhere. My family and the neighbors literally followed me to the outhouse bathroom, waited for me to finish, and then followed me to my bed, crowded around, and watched me fall asleep with the lights on for the first two nights. But soon, I reminded myself that this experience would be whatever I made it. So I decided to let go of any desire to be "comfortable" (in the Western sense of the word) and be open to the drastically different lifestyle. Who cares if bats and rats rattle through the piles of corn every night? Why should I let swollen bug bits and dirt bother me?And most of all, it shouldn't matter that we can't communicate through words, there is so much more to the human experience than language! So I found peace and insane joy in every remaining moment I had there. And as The Alchemist explains, we are constantly tested as we pursue our dreams, thus the most important quality when achieving our Personal Legend is COURAGE. The last several days were spent hiking to local temples, learning village crafts like weaving and knife making, herding goats, visiting the local school, and playing in a waterfall. Chaukati life was beautiful. As the days passed I felt more and more grateful to be experiencing a way of life so different from what I knew. Dirt, flies, etc. are all irrelevant to the Thami people because that's what they've grown up with, that's their comfort zone. And what a learning experience it was to make that a part of my comfort zone too!
It was an unbelievable blessing to live with Solstani and peer into her life. Day after day we sat around the fire pit in the 1st floor room as she prepared rice, lentils, vegetables, and nettle soup, all while disciplining Deberats and breastfeeding Debika. Solstani would attempt to teach me words in Nepali (I remember that fire is aago and garlic is losoon) and Debika would roll her bare butt around the mud floor (no diapers!) and play with the knife when it wasn't in use. Also I ate a frog!! One night Solstani brought one home for her son to play with, and after an hour of truly torturing that poor amphibian, he threw it in the fire. He soon pulled it out, peeled it apart, and we ate it! The meat was chewy, bloody, and reasonably good (I opted out of eating the burnt scaly skin). Solstani thought the whole ordeal was very funny, as she usually thought of the things I did. She's a true fire cracker lady, full of motherly love and outspoken humor.
And now we're in Kathmandu and Chaukati feels like a distant, mountainous memory. Leaving was hard, as I had somewhat expected. On the final day, Solstani dusted my forehead and cheeks with red tikka powder, placed a mala she sewed of orange and red flowers around my neck, pinned big yellow flowers in my hair, and the tears began to streak down my face. Deberats started to sob and all Solstani and I could say to each other was "maya, maya" - love, love. We squeezed each others' hands and gathered my bags. Trying to hide our tears, we said goodbye, and I watched that beautifully strong woman walk away, knowing that she, her family, and her home had changed my life and my being. Not only have I learned to let go of any yearning to feel "comfortable," but I've learned that people are just people! And the identities we spend so long constructing in the U.S. don't even really matter because we're all just humans trying to live on Earth! We just have to be willing to let go of what we know and embrace new and crazy thangs! Chaukati was a mind trip because life is all one big mind trip. Billions of people trying to thrive in their own unique ways on this tiny little planet. How wild! So we'll keep going on, doing the best we can to be happy and make this world and its people happy. Though I was sad to leave the village I had grown to love, Solstani taught me to always "bistari jaanus," walk slowly and appreciate my breath and my environment. As I take every butterfly for an omen, I knew it was time to spread my wings and fly to my next adventure.
Tomorrow we depart for a 10 day meditation retreat at Kopan Monastary, which will present it's own set of challenges. But I'm looking forward to all there is to learn!
Before I leave I want to share birthday wishes with my unbelievable friends, Jason Boxer and Eli Coplan, I'm so thankful to share birthdays with you!

Also on the trek down from the village I found a water buffalo jaw which I've since cleaned and it is so awesome!!!!

"Now I see the secret of making the best person. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the Earth."
- Walt Whitman