Monday, December 28, 2009


Wanderlust – the intense desire to travel or move about. Wanderers, nomads - are we true adventurers? Are we running away? Are we living life to the full? Are we shirking responsibility? These are the questions a wander or true nomad encounters. The establishment challenges the nomadic way of life as disruptive, unproductive and carefree, and yet in the end is rather jealous of the freedom such a lifestyle affords. At times the nomad feels lost, detached, and untethered from this world, and their friends and family. It is common to second-guess what we trade for the freedom to move about at will, and see the world. Unencumbered by permanent house, mortgage, flat screen TV payments, a 9-5 job, the nomad is able to exercise and enjoy his wanderlust at will. Feel a burning desire to stand on the observatory tower at Palenque, jump a bus. Feel the need for swimming in 80-degree crystal clear water, head south. Want to see the Dogon villages in Mali, head out the door.

Wanderlust affects us all to different degrees, but it is an emotion that all humans share on some level. It is associated with ultimate freedom. It gives you the ability to decide who you are and where you are going, regardless of the external situation. As we go further, we learn to roll with the punches of the wander, seeing them not as failures, but as detours on our way. Wanderlust is valuable in making us stretch our horizons and comfort zones, providing endless fresh learning opportunities. This overwhelming sense of freedom, akin to our childhood memories of the last day of school, can be addicting.

At times we begin to wander just for the sake of wandering, or running away from our lives and ourselves. On these trips, the nomad soon realizes that he has pushed off without a reason, and yes, there always is a reason in this life. That kind of trip begins to feel empty, and we begin to try to fill it with distractions. The stuff of life like food, drink, adventure, cannot satisfy this void. We begin to wonder what we are doing out here, what is our purpose. We reach a sort of plateau, and our customary trips are no longer sufficient, so we dream up newer and bolder adventures. We find these types of trip offered by all types of high-end agents, with such offerings as a tour of the Wahkan corridor of Afghanistan for 10000 dollars. Or we witness this in the increasing need for people to “conquer” Mt. Everest at a staggering cost in money and spirit. And in the end, when we have come back from these extremes, what have we learned? Our addiction is still intact, we still are not satisfied, and the search continues. We have not left our plateau, because from plateaus, we need to evolve. As our life is an evolution, so is our wandering. Each experience must build of the prior, guiding us on our path.

Plateaus are resting points, places to regroup and gather our forces for the next push into the unknown – so we keep moving ahead – wandering. We start to see that our whole life is a wander – we cannot know anything here with certainty, so we set out each day with a fresh perspective. At the plateau we try to shed some opinion and judgment, and move ahead when our load is lighter, and we feel refreshed. The True Nomad does not wander to wander, aimless, and directionless.
We wander because this is life, living each new experience and creating a path as we go. This is the alternative to creating a “life” with a house, car, job, pension, and stuff, and then searching for direction in that random space, with its restrictions on movement and exploration. After all, you can only run away for so long. Eventually you will find your self, it has been along for the ride from the beginning. Once you know it, you can stop looking and start moving toward YOUR dreams, goals, and destiny. And when you do, you will be glad if you can wander, and follow that inner call of your heart. As humans, we have a beautiful capacity for that feeling, like the last day of school over and over again. When you are free and able to follow it you are on your path, and the feeling never gets old, and you never feel without purpose.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Echoes of the Anasazi

Imagine a house made of stone, nestled high against sheer sandstone walls, beautiful stonework framing T-shaped openings with smooth lintels, and all hand plastered in red/brown adobe. There are fingerprints pressed into the adobe around the opening, small and slender, and wooden vigas protrude from the wall. The ground is strewn with bits of corn, little brushes, copal, charcoal, and pottery, white pieces with black paint, black with red. The air is slightly pungent, not quite musty, and it is quiet. I am standing deep in a canyon that drains the eastern side of Cedar Mesa, miles from anyone or anyplace, and I am literally surrounded for hundreds of miles in either direction by houses like this. The surrounding landscape is riddled with canyons, and each canyon splits into countless side canyons like the branching of a tree or of some giant circulatory system. It makes you wonder how many sites like this are hidden away, in other canyons and tributaries that barely have a name. Who built this? Who lived here?

Much has been written and debated about the people called the “Anasazi”, the “Ancestral Puebloans”, the “Ancient Ones”, the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and how many of the southwestern peoples. We have asked: Who were they? Where did they go? How did they live? People have devoted their lives to studying their pottery, their archeology, their pictographs, their astronomy, and still we ask – what do we know? They haunt us with these enigmatic ruins, perched on cliff walls, corn, fire pits and pots, still resting in their places inside silent walls of adobe, as if they simply walked on one day. Anyone who stands inside an old dwelling knows this feeling, the feeling that you expect these people to come back in the evening from their work day, to cook dinner, and light a fire under the stars.

These trails enmesh the four corners region of the southwestern US. Once you experience the mystery of a canyon or a mesa that was inhabited 800 years ago, yet still only yesterday, you want to return again and again. There are known ruins like Mesa Verde, and Chaco, and there are lesser known places, and still undiscovered places. The more time you spend in this land, you come to see that the ancestors were everywhere, hidden up canyons with hidden springs, places that no one knows exist, miles from nowhere, and yet there is a pot shard, an arrowhead, a masonry wall. And just when you thought you were alone, you can feel their presence.

There are many questions in life, and answers are hard to come by, and it seems with the great mysteries of life, most of the answers come when you stop asking the questions, and just start being in the presence. These thoughts came back to me again during a recent trip to Cedar Mesa, a magical space that was thoroughly inhabited by those who came before us. Each night in camp, as the stars began to appear in the jet-black sky, I would peer down into the countless canyons, imagining the campfires twinkling, and the sounds of dogs barking, and children playing. Sometimes it’s a heavy feeling, of another presence here, and sometimes its comforting knowing that others shared these remote spaces. As I stir the campfire, and stare into the glowing embers, I am transported to their landscape, their mindscape. And yes, the questions arise, it is our human nature to ask them, so we put them out into the blackness and see what comes back, like an echo off the canyon walls.

So we learn some things about the past – they ate corn, built stone houses, with T-shaped windows, painted and chipped art into rocks, we can see these things, we can see their pottery, their tools, their midden. But science leaves us feeling empty as to who they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking. Their direct descendants in the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of today, know more as they share similar rituals, beliefs and ideas, but these are well kept secrets, passed over generations. So what can we “know” as we sit under the same stars that these ancestors did thousands of years ago? We can know that they were fellow humans, in this vast, sometimes beautiful, sometimes lonely landscape – trying to survive as we do, looking for water, food, and shelter. And also that they saw these amazing stars, and marveled at how the earth was connected to the heavens, that they were a small part of a much larger picture, a picture composed of overlapping worlds and universes. They made beautiful bowls, and left their symbology on the rock walls, and even built their houses and cities to reflect the motions and interactions of the sun, moon, stars and planets.

Today, we share their questioning of the great mystery that surrounds us all, searching for some common ground that could provide some tether for us in this vastness. When we sit out there, and realize that people like us have gone before, and that they lived like us -we can sit in their kitchens and their homes and feel a bond as humans. This helps give us perspective in this place that is infinite and overwhelming, and give us some reassurance, if not answers, that we all share this space with those who came before, and those who will come. It gives us hope that we can evolve to understand a bigger picture of humanity’s place in the universe. Our common experience inspires compassion among fellow humans, who share our journey, that even though we are different, we are the same.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

There and Back Again - Rim to Rim Grand Canyon

I was standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon – grand is a good modifier here, but if you haven’t stood at the edge, it may not carry the requisite effect. This is a canyon of red and yellow rock, over one mile deep, with a blue green river at the bottom, carving s- turns far below. Condors soar on warm thermals as silence envelops you and you begin to experience vertigo, or an out of body experience as the canyon walls fall away beneath you. That is what its like to stand on the edge of this place.

Then you regain your senses and realize that you are on the rim. Most of the trails stretch 6 miles down to the Colorado River. The rim is dry, windy and distant. The river valley below is a different world altogether. There is life there - water, lots of water, the tinkling of the river and the roaring of the rapids make a big impression on desert ears. It’s a lost world down there, ripe with cottonwoods and datura, and averaging 20-30 degrees warmer than at the top.

Standing at the rim you don’t grok all this – its only when you descend to the river that this lost world reveals itself, and it seems like it’s far, far away. 6 miles may not seem very far, but in this desert, with minimal water and over mile of elevation change, it can be an eternity.

People say we only use 10 percent of our human brain, and that we have access to, but choose to ignore or deny the other 90%. Many maintain that this holds true for the physical body as well. Standing on the rim, it would seem that hiking down to the river would be an endeavor, and that hiking back up would be triple that. It was indeed hard for me to imagine hiking down the South Kaibab trail, and then up the North Kaibab trail, over 21 miles of canyon trail, in one day, and idea fostered by story of rim to rim runs and hikes, and even rim to rim to rim ones. After living in the Southwest for years, I had inevitably stumbled across the reports of crazy people running from rim to rim in 3 hours (the current record time for such a feat). And here is where my analogy takes off. If a human male, aged 35ish, can run from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon in 3 hours, then we are surely only using 10% of our physical abilities. Then, its no large jump to agree with the pundits who claim we are using no more than 10% of our brains (evidence: the current world/humanity condition). I mean: this man can run from rim to rim, covering 21+ miles, with a descent of 5000 feet, and a gain of 6000 feet elevation over this course, in three hours, shattering all ideas of what is possible in the human condition. Followed by: we all have a human brain and heart – we can feel, love, trust, and understand. We all share this planet and our human condition, yet we live in a world where greed and competition create poverty, hunger, pain and suffering for a majority of us. We must have more brain or heart to use, and it followed that the same holds true for our bodies.

To test this hypothesis, I decided to run rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. The date was late September, and my wife dropped me off at the South Kaibab trailhead about 7:30 am after a beautiful equinoxical sunrise. I assured her I would meet her in 6-7 hours on the North Kaibab trailhead, a mere 21 miles and 10000 feet elevation change away. I mean, this was the Grand Canyon after all. I mean, I had run a marathon some tears back, and still run out in the woods on occasion, and I had hiked down to Phantom Ranch a long time ago, but I had no real idea of what the rim-to-rim run entailed. I had a 100oz camelbak, filled full of course, a few power bar type bars, and some salted peanuts, and a mini almond joy.

I confidently set out in the brisk morning air, clad in my polypro t-shirt, shorts and running shoes, without socks. I felt light and strong, running down the 6+-mile trail, anticipating my arrival at the alluring river below. I passed a few parties getting an early start to the hiking day, and even a mule train further down by the Tonto trail junction. I crossed the bridge over the Colorado River, and took the river trail cut-off to the boat beach where warm sand and sun awaited. As I stripped off my shoes for a dip in the river, I assessed my progress so far. It was about 8:45am, according to river guide who had just pulled in, I had no time keeping device, so needed updates from fellow travelers. I took a brief dip in the breathtakingly cold Colorado, sat down to dry off with a power bar and a handful of peanuts. As I was refilling my camelbak, I overheard the river guide mention to one of her clients that the water we were using came from roaring springs – 9 miles above where we currently stood. Somewhere in the back of my mind these words registered, but, I didn’t pause to understand them, I couldn’t, as this was the first time I was attempting a rim to rim, and thus was in the territory of the unknown.

My break at the river bordered on surreal. I had just descended 5000 or so vertical feet on the scenic South Kaibab trail. Vistas stretched in every direction, with vertical exposure of such degree that you definitely double-checked your footing. Sometimes on the descent I would have to reset my visual, as the peripheral scenery changed so drastically. And then suddenly, I was at the river, the calm, peaceful, abundant river. In a land of extremes, this amount of water seems like an excess, and fills you with heaviness, fullness. As I sat by the water and absorbed this immensity, I scarcely thought of what lay ahead, it was more interesting to look at the lush datura blooms, still unfurled in the morning coolness. But, my brain kicked in a said, hey; you still have 14 miles and 6000 feet elevation to go. So I packed up my bag, and trotted out into the Box, the lower canyon of Bright Angel creek. I don’t know what combination of bonking, vertigo, or other factors on such an endeavor combined, however, for the next few miles I ran in a cloud, just focusing on the trail, as the epic scenery flowed past.

Gradually, my body began to register the toll of this undertaking - little blisters on my big toe, sore quads as I pushed up the North Kaibab Trail, and a mind beginning to chant its mantra: just stop and rest for a while, just slow down, it will feel so good. I knew as I passed Cottonwood Camp, with about 7 miles to go, that to start breaking would lead to the end. I was tired, hungry, and sore, but I had to keep faith that my body could finish. It was my mind now that began to be the adversary. I mean stunning canyon walls of red sandstone, beautiful yellow aspens dotting the hills, surrounded me, and of course that blue sky – there were many worse places I could have found myself that afternoon, and yet my mind doubted. As the distance ticked by, my brain increased its voice – to push on or rest, that was the struggle. This was my first time, I had no expectations, I did not have a real time limit, and I had no certainty I could even finish. Then, lost somewhere in the final 2 miles above the Supai tunnel, as I encountered happy day hikers, mule trains of tourists, and the altitude ticked over 7000 feet, I had to face down doubt and fear. It was here that this exercise took the turn from a nice jaunt in the Grand Canyon, to an epic struggle. I became as a pawn in a struggle between body and mind, river and rim, wet and dry, above and below, yes and no, right and wrong, stop and go. I would make a few switchbacks, then pause for some water, looking up for the North Rim hidden in the pines. Salt dried in white crystals on my face – my vision narrowed. Was I dehydrated? Was I delierious?Could I finish? My focus only held one idea - the rim, as the nice rest by the river became a memory from another universe. And yet, other world's existed here as well, outside of my immediate awareness was superimposed other layers of reality. I was less than a mile below the rim, on a popular day hike route, the hikers were multiplying, a couple sat enjoying the view, two teenage boys walked with their father and grandfather, a group of boy scouts were heading down with full packs. I was locked in an epic struggle, and yet here I was on beautiful fall afternoon here in the world….

Finally, I made the North Rim. 21 miles away lay the South Rim, where I had begun early this morning. The south rim, and the Colorado River below, seemed like they belonged to a dream, hard to imagine that I had been occupying those spaces mere hours before. When I set out, I had no security that my body was up for the task other than that others had done this before. I didn’t know if my mind was up for the task either, the mind being much harder to train, and much more fickle when faced with the doubts and darkness of the unknown. Most of us are more familiar with testing limits in the physical, that is how we like to spend our time. But testing limits in the spiritual, that is a new game, not as comfortable, but vastly rewarding. For some reason on this day, I pushed my body and my spirit to new limits, taking both out of their comfort zone. I came away with a renewed respect for the untapped capacity that we as humans hold inside, waiting to be re-discovered and grown into. As each of us challenges ourselves, we learn more about our capacity for improving our space, and our interactions with those around us. When we challenge our own fear and doubt by testing the unknown, we cultivate a deep compassion for this world, ourselves, and everything around us. I did not complete that crossing of the canyon without infinite aid from water, food, air, beauty, pain, pleasure, and faith. Every detail contributed, and I cannot tell you that each one, each moment was not independent from the next. A water source here, an inspiring vista there, an inner strength, and and outer. In the end it was not a blind hope that I could finish that carried me through, it was a participation and cooperation with all that surrounded me which gave me on some level, a know-ledge, that everything is possible.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Paradox of Experience

It seems that the more you experience, the more you begin to have the experience while you are doing the experiencing, "hey - I am feeling pleasure, I am enjoying this food, I am enjoying this swim, I am enjoying this show, or wow I am suffering under this hot sun, I am freezing in this snow, I am hurting after that accident"...and so on. But the more it happens, the more the "I", the experiencer, becomes separate from the experience, the symptoms, the feelings. The "I" doesn't change. I feel hot, I feel cold, I feel pain, I feel pleasure, but "I" am the same person after the experience as the one who started it. There is some part of me - that much bigger part of me, that stays constant. I survive the ordeal in the desert, I survive the war, I survive the 5 star hotel - I survive the Dom perignon. But at the end of the day, I am still here, unchanged for all that drama, unchanged for all that experience. And I don't quite get it each time, but after a hundred or a thousand times, I start to realize that whatever is happening happens outside of me, and for better or worse, I come through unscathed. So what happens? Eventually, the experience and the experiencer begin to separate, and a witnessing begins to happen. You can sort of detach from the pleasure or pain, recognize that it is happening, but that its not happening to YOU, its sort of happening around you.

This leaves us with a sense of I am I and you are you, we are we - whatever you want to believe that means. But this perspective gives us a wonderful sense of freedom from the cycles of pleasure and pain that we were raised on and trained in. It gives us the freedom to be who we are, and takes the pressure away to pretend to be something we are not. If you realize that the external stimuli are external, that they are happening, but not to you, then you can unattach from them, and they slowly lose their significance like air leaking from a balloon. If you then are not busy trying to experience everything, then you are free to be who you are, and really make a difference in this world. It also allows you to accept where you are in life, no matter what country you are from, how much money you have, what your job is - those become simple variables that modify your experiences, and why do we care how we modify something that is as fickle as the summer breeze, and that blows through us, leaving us unchanged?

How does this relate to travel? Well, travel is pretty much all about the experience. The desire for new sights, new foods, new pleasures, new thrills, new discoveries. We get bored with the day to day and want to take a vacation. Just let loose for a while, drink a cold beverage on the beach. Or maybe you want to see a new culture, learn a language and volunteer in a new community and help your fellow human. When we travel we gain new experience, and we think that experience forms us, makes us who we are and gives us our character. Yet, we already are formed, and that part of us, that part that is really us, lies above the experience - when we can bring that US to the world and the experience, we then start to make a real difference. The paradox is that in order to become aware of this other "me" I have to go through all these hundreds of experiences in order to re-cognize that we exist outside of all this, even though we are exquisitely entwined with all this - and that is sort of tricky. I want to taste the ripest mango on Java, want to find the butteriest dal-fry in Himachal Pradesh, want to volunteer in a medical clinic in the Nubra Valley, want to meditate in Hemis Gompa, want to soak in remote onsens surrounded by snow monkeys, want to trek through virgin Borneo forest, do kora around the navel of Tibet, watch the monsoon arrive in a sleepy village in the Keralan hills....And as I do these things, and all the other things in my life, I slowly realize that there is no end this way, there are always other Himalayan peaks, snow leopards, new foods, new remotest villages, and even if I can travel to the ends of the Earth and experience it all, I will still be me, right here. At that moment, we are truly free to decide what we really want to do, no strings attached, because, as we find out, there are no strings in the first place.

Experience and having it all are not the goal, but we have to have the experience to get free. Travel compresses this process, providing maximum new and challenging experience in small amounts of time-space. Thus it becomes a useful tool for becoming "you". When you can take a trip and be the real you, and stay in character, that is the rub. Then you are not running away, but being YOU.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Around The World In 80 Years

80 years - that's what we have - a flash in the pan? An eternity? Let's investigate...
Einstein once explained relativity like this:"When you are courting a beautiful woman, one hour seems like one second, when you are being tortured with hot coals, one second seems like one hour." 80 years is just a random number, and what it means is all relative - some of us may not even have that many, all we know is that its a number between one and eighty. I mean, we have 80 years, that is 2.5 billion seconds. The "experts" think the Earth is around 4 billion years old. If you could travel at the speed of light, it would take 26,000 years to get to the center of the Milky Way, our galaxy. 26,000 years, and you would be travelling at 186,000 miles per second!

Our lifespan is defined by this highly relative term of 80 years. I am already almost halfway through, and it seems like a twinkle in time. Sure I have a lot of great memories, lots of great travels, lots of great experiences, lots of bad experiences, but from the halfway point, they all condense into a few moments in time. Even if your memories seem longer than this, they most probably don't feel like 40 years worth. And when we are 80, I bet they won't feel like 80 years, maybe a few months at best. Months!!!! So, if we are living, and we know we have this "relative" lifespan that may as well be a week or a month, why wouldn't we spend every day doing everything we need to do? When we are sitting at work, or watching a movie, or walking outside, we can catch ourselves wondering, what is happening? Moments are going by, am I engaged? Am I on Earth do do these tasks? Am I doing these tasks the way I was meant to be doing them? Or when I am angry with someone, or dreaming about something, or wanting something that I don't I on Earth to be doing this? Are we on earth to build a house? Buy a car? Earn social security? Make a million? Are we here to judge? To hate? To fight? To get up on Monday morning? To get 2 WEEKS of vacation per year(that would be 160 weeks per life, or one half year off per life, not counting weekends and retirement!) What would I be, if I had one year? Or one week? Or one DAY?

We don't always get to choose what happens in life, but we have a lot more choice than we give ourselves. Bad things may happen, we may get angry, but life is too short to worry about any of it. Don't let something like the magic number 80 make all your rules, that is just living by the clock and calender, stuff we made up in the first place.

Everyone has their very own reason for being here. We can spend our time any way we like. We may have strict requirements, responsibilities, and rules that we created out of thin air about how we spend that time, but those are just blinders and excuses we give ourselves for not owning up to our reason for being here. Why wait? Why delay? We know it in our hearts, so why are we embarrassed, or scared, or worried. In the blink of an eye, the snap of your fingers, it will be gone, so lets get on with it. If we can learn to live and spend our "time" on that, then we may be onto something. Otherwise, we are just living the dream, and in 80 years, or tomorrow, we are going to wake up and rub the sleep out of our eyes, look around, and say to ourselves:"hmmm...that was interesting."

Travel is a great metaphor for this idea. We plan and plan and plan a trip, maybe two weeks, maybe two years, and once we get on the plane or train or bike, everything becomes dynamic, our plans are out the window, we get curve balls, we get lost. We deal with new faces, new sensations, new surroundings, new everything. We can be ourselves, or anything we want to be. We can bring our baggage along, or leave it at home, we can worry about money, about food, about doing it right, about being lucky, or we can just sit down and enjoy it. We can drop all of our preconceptions and preferences, and get our hands dirty, wake up and become alive, or we can sleep away the day in the air-con, in crisp sheets, watching CNN, eating scrambled eggs and biscuits. It is all up to us, and is always up to us, maybe with a little fate and faith thrown in depending on how you see the world. We may be on a two week vacation, or an 80 year life, but it is every moment that counts. Travel on!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Think Therefore I am Not

Ladakh is one of those special places - look it up on a map and it is impossibly far from anywhere, nestled high in the Himalayas, along the banks of the Indus, near the old silk road. It is influenced heavily by Tibet and Buddhism, yet exists in a cloud at the top of the Indian sub-continent. It has been the scene of a centuries old power struggle between influences of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism and was not open for foreign visitation until 1974. Ladakh retains much of the Shangri-la qualities that are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As you survey the gompas and sprawling capital city of Leh while the effects of hypoxia cloud your brain, you are struck by the stunning beauty of the place. The main valley is dotted with gompas, terraced fields of buckwheat line the river banks, and the whole scene is dominated by snow capped giants and azure skies.

We arrived there in mid October - a bit late for the Ladakh "season", but on purpose to avoid the tourists of summer. We planned to do some trekking, probably through the Markha Valley, expecting good fall colors, cool days, and an empty trail. As we provisioned and began inquiries as to the status of the trail, we learned that the snows had come early this year. In particular, the region, normally bone dry had received a rather severe blizzard in September, the Manali-Leh road was closed for 3 days, with several buses and cars stranded, and several people died from exposure in snow several feet deep. As is typical for India, especially remote off the grid India, we were getting various different reports as to the conditions of the Gongmaru-la, the highest point and critical pass of the trek at 5306 metres. We were going light, and were not carrying snow gear, crampons, etc. and we were trying to avoid walking in hip deep snow through sub-freezing temperatures. The preferred direction of the trek is to cross the pass from the Markha side, as you have a steep descent on the last day, rather than a steep ascent to the pass on the first day, but due to the conflicting information and potentially dangerous conditions, we decided to travel to Hemis Gompa and on to the tiny village of Shang to begin the trek. The day we left, we heard rumors that the last group to attempt to cross had turned back at the pass due to blizzard, and the mountains were freshly powder coated in white.

Hemis Gompa is the celebrated seat of the Drupka Tibeatn Buddhists in Ladakh. It is also called Chang Chub Sam Ling or "the lone place of the compassionate person." It is very old, and is constructed as a 3 dimensional mandala, making it all the more auspicious. It is even rumored that Jesus spent some of his 30 "lost years" studying here. If you pilgramige here, and wander up the creekside trail, and sit under the prayer flags in meditative silence, you will have no doubt about the power of this valley, and you will get a taste of the real Ladakh, that feeling of Shangri-la, a lost place of peace that feels like a true oasis in this crazy world of ours.

But I digress. We walked down from the Hemis valley, feeling very clear and alive. We walked the 15km to Shang along a most incredible river gorge. The silence was such that it made your ears ring as my brain searched for a sound to hold onto. It was late in the day when we arrived. The workers were coming in from the field as the sun set over the mountains. There was a camp set up by the river, the porters were setting up the mess tent, and two trekking tents were set up with some exhausted looking trekkers laying flat, feet protruding from the door. We asked the guides how the pass was - knowing that the answer was not going to be good. They said it was hip deep snow, and super icy on both sides of the approach, and this was from a secondary pass, not on the main trail. Add to this it started snowing again, and the temperature was close to freezing down here some 1600 meters below the pass.

I began to realize that for all my planning, all my thinking, a whole trip arranged around doing a trek in Ladakh, we were going to be turned back within 10 miles of the goal. Fly to Delhi, fly to Leh, acclimatise, provision, bus to Hemis, trek to Shang, where we now sat. It was so close I could taste it, my wife was less enthusiastic after hearing reports of hip deep snow. And even though the trip was now for all purposes impossible, I still clung to its idea, and tried to "figure out" how we still could do it - in other words, I could not let go - could not detach, I was losing the battle with my ego, running in mental circles.

We camped in the town gompa's courtyard, snow falling gently. At 4am, in the crisp cold darkness, we made our way to the back door of the gompa for morning puja with the one monk who was in residence. Three of us sat in a 5x7 foot room, adorned with traditional tibetan buddhist thangpas, horns, cymbals. The butter lamps flickered off the painted, carved ceilings, and our misty breath co-mingled in the cold air. The monk began the puja, chanting and reading the ancient texts, drumming...

After tea, we walked up to the old gompa. The snow blanketed the hills, the old gompa sat perched 1000ft up a side valley, the walls arising out of the rock. Standing atop, the views were stunning. Blue sheep toed the brown crags, and the prayer flags rippled in the wind.

How did we get here? Where were we actually? Somewhere along the way, I thankfully lost my mind. I had stopped wondering why we couldn't trek, when we were so close, and had come so far, stopped being attached to that idea, that random idea, that that was better, that was right, that was meant to be. I did not know any of that to be true, after all, as my wife pointed out, we could have been walking 15km with wet feet through freezing snow, all while we gained 2000m in elevation. But the point is, while I was thinking, worrying, obsessing, being attached, I was never here and now. While I was living in my head, I was missing where I actually was, and what was actually happening. I had to learn to relinquish control of a situation over which I had no control, and never had any control of in the first place.

The famous phrase that launched the modern era of scientific deconstruction, and human misplacement in the world: "I think therefore I am", shot us out into an orbit from which we are still trying to recover. When we are thinking, where are we? What are we? Deep in thought? Lost in thought? Day dreaming? We certainly are not PRESENT. We are not HERE. I am, when I am in the moment, smelling the air, enjoying the view, enjoying where I am, what is happening. When I give up control, which I never really have anyway, everything is comes easy, it flows, it is enjoyable, not painful. So, if you find yourself stressed out or find yourself lost in the hamster wheel of your mind while you are trying to figure it all out, just take a deep breath, go outside and check in, smell the flowers, sit in the sunshine. Let go of thought and control, and feel alive - otherwise, what are we all really doing here?

Places like Ladakh always have lessons to share, this was mine this trip; I think therefore I am not. So as we sat drinking butter tea on the roof of a gompa, breathing rarified air, 100 kilometers from nowhere, I gave up control and that was what my wife had been telling me all along.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Multi-Dimensional Universe

Last weekend I found myself amidst the crowds of the annual Flame Tree Arts festival on the island of Saipan. This is a local gathering of artists from the islands, replete with local music and entertainment, food from the islands of the Northern Mariana, and crowds of tourists and locals “window shopping” and being seen. One can peruse beautiful local paintings, basket weavings, shell art, as well as eat to the hearts content on Chinese 5 choice, fresh fish, apigigi, arroz caldo, and desert on tropical fruits and concoctions. Mango and flame tree season have just come into their own, and the islands are awash with orange.

Fresh back from a trip to the mainland, I found myself enjoying the pace of the islands, no stress, FRESH food, real food, and beautiful sunsets, water and tropical breezes. The westward lagoon view in Saipan contains the most vivid variety of colors of anywhere I have ever been. So, wandering around the festival, it dawned on me that we are living in multiple dimensions all the time, and travel is a key to that world vision. Just as physicists and astronomers theorize that there are multiple dimensions of space-time out there, we can see those dimensions around us right here on Earth as we travel around we move between them. The fact that we are able to move between them, suggests that there are dimensions between which to move, but we usually don’t pay any attention to those shifts.

Jet lag is a good experiential example. When I fly from my quiet papaya garden in Saipan, to the chaos of Los Angeles, I cross the dateline, get there the same day and hour that I left, and transport myself between worlds – and yes, it does feel like different worlds. The pace, the people, and the concerns – the US runs on a different speed than the islands, a different vibration, and when you stop and actually feel the shift, you realize even a different universe or dimension. People in one place have absolutely no clue what it is like in the other unless they have been there very recently, and as soon as the air-lock of the plane door closes, or you sail off the shore, that dimension you are leaving begins to inevitably fade into the matrix. You can look up the news or weather, but it exists only in two dimensions, you cannot smell the air, feel the sane, or experience the sunset.

So as I was mentally traveling between my recent US experiences, and how different is than my Flame Tree Arts festival experience, I walked into the Voyagers camp. The Voyagers at the festival this year sailed 30foot sailing canoes from the outer islands of Yap, all the way to Saipan. These voyagers are renowned for their ability to navigate by the stars and currents, the clouds, and the sky. They can read weather and they know the sea. Some of the best are even blind, steering the boat by the way the current and waves sound against the wooden hulls. Now as I stood in their camp on the fringes of the carnival atmosphere of cotton candy and Budweiser, I was transported again to the outer islands, another downshift in pace and scope of life. It was quiet; people were sleeping on grass mats, cooking on open fires, speaking traditional languages, probably about food or sailing. The lagoon waters lapped against the wooden hulls of the boats, and I imagined them out there t night, listening for the currents to make a sound, feeling the sea air on their faces and I traveled to their outer islands, where there are no computers or iphones, no ATM’s or airplanes, some may not even know they exist, and for all intents they don’t when you are there. Their universe, their dimension was different than mine, it was different than the festival, yet I was right there on the edge of it. If I slowed down enough to travel with them, I would have joined that world for a little while. So now I had three dimensions in my experience, and that was profound, because then I knew very vividly that there were layers to this world that exist simultaneously, on top of one another, just like the physicists say the space-time dimensions exist all wrapped around and between each other. It just takes a subtle shift of perspective to go between them, if you are aware of them. How many more are out there, how many more had I been to in my travels, in my dreams. Reluctantly I stepped off the sand and back into the fray of the carnival, back to the dimension I was currently living and experiencing, but feeling both awed and unsettled at the same time that we are living among countless layers and dimensions all the time, and that we can CHOOSE, and we can BE, wherever we want to, with just a flick of perspective. Bon Voyage!

The Grass Is Always Greener

When I step off the plane in a country like Indonesia, I look around, and feel a sort of bucolic/tropical/peaceful daydream come over me. The heavy equatorial air is almost succulent, and as it washes over your brain you start to slow down and dream of ripe mangoes, so orange that you don’t need a PhD to know that there is vitamin A there. I think of my busy life in the US, and watch the locals amble down the rice paddies, heading to the temple, or a soccer game, or who knows where. I see a man sleeping on his rice field palapala, in his straw hat, and think: wow, this guy has it figured out - a peaceful life, working in the beautiful green rice fields, taking naps, eating healthy local food, no television, no electricity, just the man and the land. Even if he is not making much money, and it is hard, back breaking work (thoughts which I may or may not have let into my daydream), I still think, wow - I have to figure out how to move here - find a nice simple house, buy local food, and slow down the pace of my life.

Yet over time, I begin to wonder - or project 3 months into the future...picture myself sitting in my new house….I cant speak the local dialect, I have no work, I don’t know anyone, and I am not in my culture, I wasn’t raised here, I don’t know the traditions, I have to leave the country every 30 days just to get my visa renewed...and so on.

Then consider the other side.... This farmer looks at me and says wow - this guy has it
dialed right. He's here on vacation, his dollar is worth 10,000 times more than mine, and he is eating at restaurants where his average bill is my months salary, buying luxury foods not even from this country, and then still is enjoying Bintang's and clove cigarettes whenever he likes. I want to go to America and make that kind of money. I don’t care if I have to sit in a cubicle all day in air-con (hey free-aircon) and stare my life away into a computer, I will even get paid to sit down! I can live in a nice condo, with a refrigerator, microwave and electric coffee maker and stove, and drive on the freeway to work everyday.

As we daydream more, we can even go a step further and convince ourselves that the simple, hermetic life is more "enlightened" - and that is very green grass. Escape the day to day, and sit in a field and meditate while we pick rice. Yet when we get there, and it is hot, and there are flies, and snakes, and we earn 2000 rupiah/day, we may forget our mission of enlightenment, and focus on how hard the work is, and how hot the sun is, and how we wish we were back in the air-con, going to the pub with office mates for happy hour. Should I move back? Did I make a mistake? And the farmer finds himself locked into a job of misery doing data entry, having to work overtime to make the rent payments, eating 99cent hot dog deals because its all the food he can afford, and dreading the 75mph traffic on the freeway - dreaming of his rice paddy, fresh food, and wondering why he left to pursue the American dream and the almighty dollar, and how rich he is now that he has that lifestyle.

And on and on it goes, the hamster wheel of life, running and running and running away, looking for the holy grail, the mystery – but stop, slow down, recognize that it is all around us, all the time, no matter where we go, what we do, what we drive, what we eat. As we drop the concern for these details of life, and start realizing why we are living, we may enjoy every moment that we have. Share this with our fellow humans, help each other, become aware of what we are doing and being. Let the grass be greener, because after running around the wheel a few too many times, we will start to see that the grass over there is really the same grass over here, just seen from a different perspective, but, REALLY THE SAME.

Why do we always want what we do not have? The grass is always greener, even when we haven’t even the faintest idea about what the other side even feels like or looks like. We live in America, but want to live on a tropical island. We live in Philippines, and want to eat Pizza Hut, and commute to work on a “freeway”. It is one of the great human challenges- to be happy where we are, focus on our living - instead of our living arrangements. It is far to easy to spend away an entire life looking for that perfect spot, or job, or car, or house, or trying to figure out how to transplant your life into a foreign culture, a far away land, or an escape. These details just are not what we are to worry about. After all, what is perfect anyway, and does it really matter if you have wood floors or concrete, or a thatch roof versus steel? Focusing on these details removes us from the real work of life, and takes us out of the moment. We are forever lost in
a world of illusion, wondering how we can make it better, get what that person has. The grass is always greener speaks to the fact that we are trying to escape the difficult work of life. Not the manual labor, but the actually owning up to what we are here for, and how we can help ourselves and others live better and feel loved. If we wake up, and feel good about what we were born with, or even where we have ended up, then we can forget the detail, and focus on the work at hand - living. Smell the flowers, enjoy the view, smile at people, and be compassionate. Then we may see that the grass is always green here and now, and always good - and that feels very free, very light, and very alive.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Wheel of Life

The world is a crazy place these seems out of control, and beyond our control. The media tells of global economies failing, volcanoes erupting, climate changes, wars, civilian casualties, unimaginable hardships in Africa, overpopulation, starvation, inequity of resources and wealth, even inequities between our fellow humans - how can we change it? How can we help? What can we do? It overwhelms the mind. Some even talk about the end of the world...

Yet somehow, our situation is not unique, and the world has been crazy before. Circumstances always exist outside of ourselves, sometimes we say they are "good", and sometimes "bad", but really they are just circumstances. An alignment of the stars may be responsible, but what can we do about that? Life is full of drama, and worries, and purpose, and hope. We struggle against an unknown enemy just to survive here, as we have done since our human brain became big enough to recognize itself. Yet, what is really so different between now and then? Yesterday and today? We are endlessly caught in the web of duality, of comparison, of preference. Rich and poor, black and white, night and day, us and them, war and peace, happy and sad, right and wrong - its overwhelming to have that kind of choice every moment of every day.

What is constant here? Where is the solid ground? How can we focus? Whether you are running a country or a household, whether you live in a cave or on the streets, whether you have family or are alone, whether the volcano erupts or not, the sun still sets EVERY night. Everyone can step outside of the box and see or feel that time of twilight, when the light goes soft, and the colors awaken. It is the same in Garapan, and Los Angeles, and Varanasi, and Lhasa, and Cuzco, and Narita. The traffic, the television, the harvest, the election, the monsoon, the war, are all external, and these externalities have been running for eons, and it would seem we do not control them.

We are here now, wondering what to do, when all we really can do is to live - eat a warm meal, smell some flowers, gaze at the clouds, watch the sunset, help a neighbor, feed someone. No matter what we believe in - these are constants. When we stop worrying about the external, we focus on living. Escape the virtual reality - for it is not real. See through the great ponzi scheme that floats around us. Embrace this life, and re-discover what we came here to discover. We can turn off the tv, and the world wide web, and walk out of any doorway, and become the same. Money does not matter in that place, nor does race, nor does hunger. That place is united, not dual, and it feels like home. In that place there is peace, there is warmth, there is food, there is comfort from the storm. The beauty is that we can go there anytime we want, because there is always right here, just behind the sunset, just out the door, always in our hearts.

Tibetans paint the wheel of life on every gompa. That symbol expresses these ideas in a one complete, complex picture. It represents this ever turning world, and how beings evolve and move through it towards liberation. This wheel of life is constantly spinning, its centripetal force keeps us in it. We all find ourselves in different places, different situations, different distractions. When we know that the grass is not greener, and that there is nowhere to GET to, we gain the strength to let go, be ourselves, and get down to our business. Let the wheel keep on spinning - it always has, always will and always does. Things always happen, and life goes on spinning. Step back, take a deep breath, and enjoy it wherever you are.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mount Kailash Kora

The old man wore a sun hardened, wind worn face, a beaten leather jacket, a necklace of dzi beads, shells and ancient turquoise. He walked forward, his hands never stopping, working his mala. He stopped, looking at the mountain, placed his hands together in prayer, and bent down on hands and knees, forehead scraping the earth as he lay in full prostration, all the while chanting softly the mantra: “Om Mani Padme Hum.”

The Kora around Mount Kailash in Western Tibet is considered by many one of the holy grails of this planet. Whether you are there as a prostrating Buddhist, or Hindu on pilgrimage to Shiva’s throne, or just a traveler looking for some inspiration, the sacred mountain calls you. Kailash’s pyramid of snow juts into high altitude sky, and its rainbows of prayer flags send their offerings on the breeze. The kora is 50+km clockwise trek around the mountain with the start and finish in Darchen, a frontier town in Western Tibet.

You cannot fly here; the only way in is by jeep, bus, bike or hike. Most pilgrims opt for the jeep or bus, since Darchen lies more than 1000 kilometers west of Lhasa, and over 700 kilometers northwest of Katmandu, Nepal, the nearest feasible airports.
If you ever make it all the way to Darchen, you probably are here for kora.

The kora takes you 50+ kilometers clockwise around the peak. Thousands of pilgrims flock here to advance their sadhana. You will see grandpas and grandmas, infants, and everyone in between, walking, or prostrating to the high point at the Domla-la, over 5600m.

Along the way you can camp, or stay at the gompas or parachute tent camps. From the Drirapuk Gompa, you can walk to the Kangkyam glacier, hanging off the north face of Kailash. Standing on the blue ice, at the headwaters of the four rivers; Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Karnali and Indus, one cannot help but feel that this truly is the center of the universe. Four major religions consider this mountain sacred: Jain, Buddhist, Bon-Po, and Hindu. The kora around this abode of the gods is considered extremely auspicious. In fact, it is said that one proper kora can rinse you of a lifetime of sin – complete 108 koras and you may find yourself strolling the fields of Nirvana, enlightened beyond your wildest imagination.

As I sit at home writing, Kailash and west Tibet become one of those places that defy imagination. So remote, so high, so spiritual, that details quickly retreat behind layers of cloud. Kailash is such a place that leaves you wondering if you ever actually touched the ground there. Huge skies, electrically blue, ear ringing silence, and thousands of Om Mani Padme Hum’s fluttering in the wind leave you breathless. Standing at the top of Dromla-la, 5636m above sea level, I hung a set of prayer flags in offering to the Mountain for safe passage, to a friend that he would vanquish his cancer, and to the Gods that I was even given the chance to breath the air in such an amphitheater.