On a journey to explore the northern highlands of Thailand this weekend, we ended up at the Chiang Dao temple, Wat Tham Pha Plong. The founding monk, Luang Poo Sim Buddhacaro, landed here after spending the earlier part of his life wandering as a solitary forest monk, meditating and sleeping in caves.
On a silent walk up the 500 steps to the temple at dawn, reminders of how to live in the present moment are posted along the path.
We are all connected, you’ve no doubt heard this before. A friend recently sent me a link to this incredible video that shows why, from a scientific and a spiritual perspective. Rather than looking to the outside world to create peace on earth, we can change our planet by changing how we see things.
Though I rarely celebrate Thanksgiving anymore– I’ve lived in Asia for over 10 years now– I love the spirit behind this day of thanks. There is a powerful message to be learned here.
This message was brought to me loud and clear this past few weeks, which have presented quite a few obstacles. Now, I know, obstacles are part of life. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. But I realized recently how much time I spend dwelling on disturbance, instead of reflecting on how darned lucky I am to have such unique obstacles.
The fact is, ruminating on how things are wrong does not make them right. So, as my wise and cheerful mother often says: just get over it! There are better ways to spend time than reviewing what went wrong.
I”m not suggesting that we go into denial–there is power in recognizing where things go slightly “off.” But once the mistake, or failure, or challenge has been identified, and we re-set our course, then it is a total waste of energy to keep looking back at what might have been. As we frequently hear, we attract the energies we send out. So if we want good things to come our way, there is no better practice than gratitude for what we already have.
I’m mixing things up this year: instead of waiting for New Years Day to make my resolutions, I’m starting early. My Thanksgiving resolution is to start each day with gratitude. I’m resolving to commit to a writing practice: to identify at least 20 things I’m grateful for in my life. The first on my list is yoga and meditation practice, which changed my life. Read how yoga and meditation can change your life too. Also high up on the list is writing, which keeps me sane and happy. And another entry on my gratitude list is readers like you, who allow me to share what I write.
It’s tempting to think that the spiritual path is a linear journey. What a surprise when you see your old neurotic patterns re-surfacing again, just like an old dysfunctional relationship you thought you had outgrown. Sometimes it can be painful to look in the mirror and not see growth.
Chogyam Trungpa puts it nicely:
“There is a problem in thinking that you are supposed to be advancing in your practice all the time. You don’t have to constantly be on the road. If you have a flat tire, that is also part of the journey. Ambition makes you feel that you are not doing anything. There seems to be a hypnotic quality to ambition and speed, so that you feel that you are standing still just because you want to go so fast. You might actually be getting close to your goal. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Once upon a time I taught yoga in Hong Kong, managing the yoga studio at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It was an intense phase, living in the big, bustling, money-worshipping city. I had a hard time relaxing into the pace of that life.
What I learned then was that yoga practice has to involve a transformation of mind, otherwise you don’t really get the full benefit of practice. When yoga practice includes working with the mind–sometimes called mindfulness or meditation — then lasting evolution occurs. Since my time in Hong Kong, I’ve spent alot of time meditating.
This past week I re-visited my old neighborhood friends and realized how experience is colored by our state of mind. Whereas my previous time there was often characterized by struggle, something in my current state of mind allowed me to appreciate the beauty of life in that city. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So if you live in a state of contentment, you can find beauty anywhere. The best way I know to access that peaceful state is through a constant application of mindfulness, learned through meditation practice.
Not exactly the typical Thai temple, but if you are looking for some interesting art, and like skulls and fantastic scenes of death and destruction, the White Temple in Chiang Rai might be your ticket to enlightenment.
It’s the kind of thing Hieronymous Bosch might have created in 3-D– lavish references to the garden of earthly delights, evoking life’s fleeting nature.
For me the connection between art and spirituality is clear. There has to be some acknowledgment of our shadow side in order to free the light within.
Only by allowing the mind to travel to these obscure places can we free ourselves from being slaves to the darkness.
Empowerment (Tibetan: wang) in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is a ritualized way of transmitting the essential wisdom of certain deity practices, so that when one undertakes that practice, there is an authentic connection to the lineage. It makes the practice more powerful when you have a live connection–like having someone pick up on the other end of the phone line, rather than just standing there with a phone to your ear.
So, talk about a powerful way to begin retreat.
After receiving the empowerments, I shut my door and spent the next 10 days practicing, using Thrangu Rinpoche’s commentary of Pointing Out the Dharmakaya as a guide for my meditation sessions. If you aren’t familiar with this text by the 9th Karmapa, go get it now. It is one of the most clear and concise guides for Mahamudra meditation there is, with excellent, easy to read commentaries on Shamatha and Vipassana meditation.
Some days were easier than others, and yet the vast San Luis Valley out my windows helped me keep perspective. After all, we can’t always expect clear blue skies.
But finally, perhaps because of all those blessings, by the end of retreat something wonderful shifted, allowing me to see great beauty in the imperfection of things. Sometimes sunsets are made more compelling by the presence of dark clouds, especially when you realize that it’s all impermanent. Then you can appreciate the fleeting beauty of it all.
This week I’m in Charleston, South Carolina visiting family. Charleston was voted the most popular tourist destination in the world by Conde Nast readers recently, probably because of the incredibly rich history this city has lived. The first shots of the Civil War were shot here, and Charleston remains one of the most important ports in the US.
I’ve been ferried around by an enthusiastic team of guides (my mother, sister and nephew) to many of the sites. Here are a few of the highlights.
Carriage tour of historic downtown (with my sister as tour guide)
streets lined with live oak trees…
and Magnolia Plantation, which boasts the United States’ first garden, cultivated in 1670…
and last but not least, a tour of the harbour on a tall ship…
under what used to be the longest suspension bridge in America.
One of the best things about pilgrimage is returning home to rest and digest the journey. It’s good to be home.