Monthly Archives: December 2012

Compassionate Change for the New Year


view outside my room

The beginning of another year. Last year I was still very much healing from the events of the year before, and also celebrating the fact that I had found a way to embrace the painful events and let it open my heart instead of close it.

The end of this year finds me fully into my own space, on my own independent path. Physically, this space is present by my four month travels–the States, Nepal, India, and now Bali. I write this from a beautiful room by a rivers bend. I can hear the water gurgle past as it flows through the jungle greens, giving life to this rich landscape. I too am fed. I am so grateful for this beautiful island of Bali. I am grateful to myself for bringing myself here, for taking the time to just enjoy and savor life.

Tonight I am going to an Agni Hotra ceremony. The idea of the ceremony is to release all that does not serve you. A fit ceremony for the New Year. This morning, I took the time to meditate on the topic of releasing old behaviors. Sometimes we are able to release old patterns simply by saying: “No, enough. Things will be different.” I see that type of movement and release guiding me over the past two years. I said a clear no to a destructive relationship borne out of old unconscious patterns, and was able to step into a new phase of my life. A clean break.

Tonight though I want to highlight a different kind of release, a slower more agonizing process of moving more fully into our selves. This is the more common type of growth. Most NYE resolutions are not kept. Most negative patterns haunt our lives over and over, cropping up like an unwanted guest despite our mind’s firm efforts to gain control.

We need to recognize and honor this slower mode of change. If we don’t honor it, we will most likely throw up our hands and quit because we can’t “force” ourselves to be a different person come January first. Even worse, we may get angry at ourselves and blame ourselves for not having the willpower to change. We beat ourselves up.

Know that change often takes time, and give yourself the necessary space. Don’t lose hope if all of your changes don’t come right away. The most important thing is not to slip back into unconsciousness just because that is easier or less painful. Forgive yourself for being human.

So instead of the usual NYE resolution to instantaneously release old habits, I invite you instead to concentrate on bringing in the power of presence and compassion. Name the negative behavior you want to release, but accept that it may require the gentle pressure of slow change. If you see yourself slipping back into the negative behavior, just stay aware. Recognize it is happening again. And with the most loving compassion and tenderness, explore why it is that you keep on doing this thing that you don’t like very much. Don’t worry about stopping anything yet. That will happen later, and naturally. For now, just know that your simple act of conscious intent–alive, filled with light–to release this negative pattern, is enough.


Heaven and Hell in Bali


Photo is one of the stunning views from my room at Samyoga in North Bali

Every night for the past week I have fallen asleep to the sound of Balinese cremation ceremony chanting and music. This sounds like it should be a beautiful experience, being carried away on the hypnotic rhythms of island music. It is not. It sounds like a dying cat. A dying cat with a microphone. Not satisfied with being quietly off-key, for the last ten years the Balinese have pumped their cremation ceremonies through a sound system.

But I am not mad. Cremation ceremonies are one of the holiest rituals on the island. And I am a guest. If the Balinese want to broadcast holy dying-cat noises through the hills at volumes that will keep everyone around for miles awake until midnight, then I will just take that as a feature of the island.

As I sit here writing this at nine at night, ipod headphones firmly planted in my ears (Indian raga music), I think about how our thoughts about a phenomenon can totally change our experience of it. Because I have certain beliefs about the origin and nature of the music, I am not angry. Instead, I simply find a way to deal. If it was club music, then maybe my mind would create the story that those people had no right to be blasting music. And then I might feel mad that they are keeping me awake. Same music. But my mind creates two different experiences based on my beliefs.

I was hiking through some rice fields a few days ago with a Balinese guide and we were discussing religion. He told me: “The Balinese don’t believe that we go to heaven or hell when we die. We believe that we create heaven and hell here, with our minds. If you are angry all the time, that is hell. If you are happy and have a positive outlook, that is heaven.” Another Balinese person I spoke with echoed this thought: “The Balinese, we are always positive. If you lose an arm, we say, wow what good fortune that you still have another arm left!”

As a lawyer, I have been taught a language of privileges, to question whether someone has a “right” to do something. The Balinese speak a different language. They speak a language of peace of mind. The focus is not on the other person or the external event. The focus is on your internal state, and what action or belief ultimately brings you the greatest happiness.

You can stay stuck in resentment and anger, but the one who suffers is you. Forgiveness and compassion bring us the greatest joy. So the Balinese tend to be overwhelming pleasant and easy-going. This positive outlook is the cause of their happiness, not its result.

Bringing this back to my current situation, I see how my acceptance of the cremation music has brought me peace. Viewed objectively, the issue has not gone away. The music still sucks. And I have lost some sleep. But internally, I do not feel frustrated or angry. From that perspective, there is no problem because my mind is not creating one. It is just a fact of life, to be handled in the best way possible. Which in this case, happens to be beautiful Indian music played at a high volume.

So, what if the music blasting through the hills did come from a club? It would be the exact same physical experience. The only difference would be my mind, and my ability to accept the world as it is. If I could learn to train my mind to accept the club music just as I accept the cremation music, then I would be able to hear the club music and remain peaceful. Again, it would be just a situation to be handled in the best way possible. Perhaps in that case, given that the music was not sacred, I might actually try and ask the partiers to turn it down. But whatever the outcome, I would still be at peace.

Sounds good … but how do you actually train your mind to hold different, more peaceful beliefs? In the case of the club music, I could tell myself stories about the club goers that help me feel compassion and forgiveness (it is someone’s birthday, the people partying just had a big loss in their lives). Or I could remember the pain I feel when I wallow in resentment, and choose to let it go rather than suffer myself. It’s not about being a saint. It takes conscious practice to retrain our minds.

Fully adopting this way of thinking is ultimately about taking 100% responsibility for our experience of the world. It means admitting that no other person or event can be blamed for our own feelings. The choice to be angry, or to feel any other emotion, is ours. For me, this insight brings me a sense of inescapable responsibility, but also a sense of freedom and power. I can choose heaven, or I can choose hell.


A Simple Meditation Practice

It is such a pleasure to be in a place where I can feel the elements strongly. The tropical Balinese climate brings the earth to life. When I wake up, I am surrounded by a thatched bamboo roof. My feet meet the smooth wood floor, until the bathroom, when they walk on rounded stones. Outside, the air is thick and heavy with moisture, and the trees are plump with past rain. The stone steps and railways are covered with moss, blending into the forest. And this morning when I walked out to the organic garden to meditate, I could see and breath and touch the dirt and the growing vegetables.

I find that my body is very sensitive to my environment as well. In the cold climate of the Himalayas, trekking every day, I gravitated toward heavy carbs. Here, I naturally and easily prefer green vegetables, fruits, and light meals. This morning I had an avocado and aloe vera shake that made me feel, with each sip, that I was swimming to the bottom of a deliciously cold and life-giving lake. I can’t remember the last time when I felt so energized by something I ate. (I also appreciated the fact that I got this shake at a Balinese-owned spot–Dayu’s Warung on Sugriwa Street. The shake was around $2, making it economically easy to be healthy as well.)

This morning when I got up to meditate, I was thinking about what kind of meditation I wanted to do. There are so many different varieties: guided imagery, contemplative, devotional, focused awareness. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. But even though part of me is intrigued by meditation practices like guided imagery, my personal meditation is usually pretty simple. I am okay sticking to my simple practice because it is what feels nourishing to me. Just like your body wants a certain kind of diet, our spirits also cry out for a certain kind of meditative practice. The answer will not be the same for everyone, and it may change for you over time. Trust your instinct and don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Give your spirit the nourishment it is craving.

My simple meditation practice is about giving myself space to just be, to stop trying to do or achieve anything, and go completely into receptive mode. It feels like surrendering myself to the flow and rhythm of life. The touchstone for this surrender is my breath. If my mind wanders and I stop paying attention to my breath, or if I try and control my breath in any way, I know my ego is trying to take over again. And so I refocus on my breath and that feeling of letting life go first, while I follow.

Inevitably, I feel a sense of relief, knowing that I don’t have to fight so hard. Even when I let go of control, I am still here, breathing, existing. Life is taking care of me. It is supporting me. I don’t have to prove myself. As I feel this space and support, I naturally fall into a state of gratitude and softness. I move out of my head and into my heart. This is the resting point my soul wants to come back to, to identify as its home. And so I practice returning there again and again.

After I meditated, over breakfast, I began reading The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. To my delight, Rinpcohe’s description of meditation clearly spoke to what I was feeling this morning. Here is what he wrote:

“By meditation here we mean something very basic and simple that is not tied to any one culture. We are talking about a very basic act: sitting on the ground, assuming a good posture, and developing a sense of our spot, our place on earth. This is the means of rediscovering ourselves and our basic goodness, the means to tune ourselves in to genuine reality, without any expectations or preconceptions . . . The ideal state of tranquility comes from experiencing body and mind being synchronized . . . This method of synchronizing your mind and body is training you to be very simple and to feel that you are not special, but ordinary, extra-ordinary. You sit simply, as a warrior, and out of that, a sense of individual dignity arises. You are sitting on the earth and you realize that this earth deserves you and you deserve this earth. you are there–fully, personally, genuinely. So meditation practice in the Shambhala tradition is designed to educate people to be honest and genuine, true to themselves.”

I love this simple and honest spirituality. Many people think that to have a spiritual practice, they have to be special. So they shy away because they don’t think they are not “spiritual” enough. Or they become “super spiritual,” and adopt a false posture of pseudo-enlightenment. But spirituality doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be as simple and life affirming as feeling the wood and earth beneath your feet, as truly tasting the vibrancy of a healthy drink. It can be as graceful and dignified as sitting down and feeling–for even just a few minutes–the power of life that runs through you.

If this article touches you, I would love to hear your own description of the “home” that meditation and spiritual practice creates for you. In addition to meditation, what simple practices help bring you back home?


Money Does Not Go With You When You Die

After two months of traveling in Nepal and India, I finally reach my last destination: Bali. I can already feel the magic of the island setting in. Every part of this island is alive. The trees and vines are fat and green. The insects and birds call from the trees and air. The air is hot and melts into me. And the sidewalks and buildings–even the supermarket–are full of small thoughtful offerings left by invisble hands. The offered incense and flowers remind me to stop, to feel how sacred life also flows through me. And so I am inspired to write and reflect.

The island began its magic before I even got into the plane. In the airport on the way here, I picked up a book on past life regression written by Dr. Brian Weiss, who used to be head of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Dr. Weiss left his mainstream career when a hypnosis session with a patient ended up with her recalling a past life in detail, and passing on private messages to him from his dead son. While he remains professional and wedded to the scientific method, Dr. Weiss now devotes himself to helping people heal by recalling past lives that are preventing them from living their current life fully. Dr. Weiss’ books turns reincarnation from an abstract concept into a something real.

Reading the book, and arriving in Bali has let me tune back into a more reflective and appreciative part of myself. The overarching message often repeated in the book–what we struggle to learn in each life–is that we are all here to learn how to be loving, kind, and caring. This lesson may take many different forms, or even require hardships and suffering, but the teaching remains the same. It is so important for me to hear this message again. It also opens me up to messages I have received during my travels that I have been too busy to fully absorb.

One lesson I know I am learning right now is how to be loving and caring when I am paying money for services. This is a lesson a lot of tourists could use. Far too often when we pay money for something, the normal human relations take a back seat to the money exchange. A sense of entilement creeps its way in. You expect certain services. If you do not get them, you feel justified in being angry and maybe even rude. This anger often comes out of a fear of being taken advantage of, which is even more aggravated when you think you have paid a lot. The person providing the good or service is also scared of being accused of being unfair, so they often react with defensiveness to any complaint. I saw this cycle of fear play out time and time again in money exchanges regarding food, travel services, hotels. And sometimes I was the one caught up in the negative exchange.

In India, I met someone who totally defused this whole cycle. My friend and I had decided to get out of the city of Udaipur and go to the country for a few days. We spent the afternoon checking out an amazing Jain temple, and then headed to our hotel in the late afternoon. We had been staying at a super-luxe hotel in the city, so I was excited for what I thought would be a charming rustic retreat. After all, I had paid a good price and done some research.

When we finally pulled off the road and wound down a bumpy dirt road, a deserted single building greeted us. The place was dead quiet and without any frills. We were clearly the only guests there. The whole scene had the feel of a haunted house, which was not helped by the fact that the place was called “Silent Valley Hotel.” And, we discovered after seeing our room, the inside of the place was bare and smelled like moth balls.

A feeling of entitlement rose up inside of me. How could they charge so much money for this place? I found the manager and complained. I fully expected to have a heated debate. Instead, the guy gave us a big discount, and went on to make our stay over the next two days a total joy. When we told him how grateful we were that he was so generous and cool about our fears, he said: it is not about the money, it is about you making sure you are happy. Money does not go with you when you die.

His generosity made me realize that I would be happier in life if I tried applying this philosophy to future money exchanges. Even if something turns out to not be worth the cash, whats done is done and life is short. How much better would I ultimately feel if I forgave the other person for the poor service or product instead of feeling entitled? How much more kind and warm would the world be if everyone made it a priority to treat other people with compassion, even if money was involved? This truth seems obvious when I watch other overheated tourists get out of sorts over some perceived wrong, but it is all too easy to forget when I am facing my own frustrations and fears.

Yesterday I had a chance to make a different choice. I ripped open my toes with some huge blisters playing capoeira. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I got back to my hotel and saw the open wounds. So I hobbled to reception to ask for some band aids. The women checked the first aid box, which looked empty and barren, and then smiled and me and said: “No band aids!” I could immediately feel the frustration overwhelm me . . . this was a pretty nice place in a luxe town in Bali . . . I can’t believe they don’t keep a good first aid kit around . . . what if someone got seriously hurt . . . she doesn’t even seem to care . . . and now I was going to have to limp to town with some serious pain. I could feel all of these hot thoughts run through my head. I didn’t say anything to her, but I am sure I didn’t convey any nice feelings to her either. I am sure, even if it was subconscious, she could feel my disapproval.

When I finally got to the supermarket and bought myself some band aids, a little voice said: “Are you going to just buy those for yourself?” The angry part of me said yes: it would justify my own anger if others had the same issue . . . and it is not my job to stock their hotel. But another voice said: “Drop the anger and try a different path. See how it feels.” I bought the extra band aids and brought them to the hotel desk, where they were welcomed with a nice smile. It wasn’t the biggest deal, but I think this different response sent out a small ripple of love and forgiveness, instead of an eddy of fear and resentment. And I definitely felt more at peace. This time, although I told her that the hotel should try and keep bandaids around, I was able to say so from a place of genuine concern and helpfulness that didn’t make her feel bad.

So thank you to Dr. Weiss for reframing my perception and reminding me of the bigger picture. Spending money should not change the fundamentally human nature of the interaction. It is always worth it to be kind.