Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bang Boozled

My plan was to spend two days in Bangkok collecting my Vietnamese and Indian visas, tending to some general administrative items and trying to acclimate to speaking again and ‘normal life’ before heading south to meet up with the sailboat and celebrate Thanksgiving with friends. Things started off very well, a woman I met at Vipassana Camp, Sam, joined me at the hotel, I was happy for the company and to have someone to debrief with after Vipassana Camp.

My visas were collected without incident, Thai airways repaired my mangled luggage, I had an eye exam and new eyeglasses made for $40, custom-made knock-off designer jeans for $30 and bought a ticket for a flight to Krabi departing Wednesday around noon.

Tuesday night I had sunset rooftop cocktails and dinner with Meaghan (the woman who found this site during a search for silent meditation and who I am now happy to call a friend) and her husband Chris, who it turns out is friends with an old friend of mine from Jackson, Wyoming - further convincing me that I am one-degree of separation away from everyone in the world. Take that Kevin Bacon!

We enjoyed a wonderful seafood dinner at a restaurant recommended to me by a friend in France, and life felt easy. On our walk home after dinner Meaghan asked if either of us had heard anything about the PAL threatening to disrupt travel, I think I may have commented on how non-threatening a political group going by the acronym pal sounded and thought nothing more of it.

Wednesday I awoke and headed down to grab a quick bite to eat before catching a cab to the airport. What I found amid the fried eggs and muesli was a brewing shit storm, really no other way to put it.

My hotel was abuzz with worried travelers as the news began trickling in. The headlines we got were: “Airport Closed - No Way Out”, “Grenade Attacks”, “Shots Fired”, “Dozens Injured, One Confirmed Dead”, “City Workers Threaten to Strike”, “Possible Train Service Disruption”, “Threats to Shut Off Water and Power to Bangkok”.

Throughout the day the tone escalated from mild concern bordering on annoyance to outright panic, finally commencing in a general sense of helpless acceptance. The up to now vacant hotel bar was packed last night - nothing like a cocktail to stave off political unrest.
I spent most of the day trying to find a way out myself. A fruitlessly stressful day, the likes of which I hope to never repeat. Meaghan called in the afternoon and offered me a way to take my mind off the day’s events - an escape like none I had ever experienced before… The Calypso Cabaret.
For reasons I cannot begin to understand, Bangkok is home to many transvestite performers. The entire cast at Calypso currently is, or at one time was, male.

This caused me all kinds of confusion. You try to figure out where to politely focus your eyes when a scantily-clad, stunningly beautiful, gender non-specific performer starts dancing in front of you?
The Cabaret did the trick and for two blessed hours I didn’t once think about riot police or civil unrest.

This morning (Thanksgiving Day) I awoke to the news of India and once again I am reminded how truly fortunate I am. I'm a citizen of a country that just reformed it's government with the pull of a voting lever, not with violence or civil disruption. I am safe and well cared for. I have more blessings than I could ever list and, I hope, the awareness to lead an appreciative and gracious life.

While I am mildly inconvenienced by Thailand’s political strife, I am comfortably in a very nice hotel, filled with very nice folks and located on the Sky Train line making it easy to navigate back and forth between travel agencies, shopping centers and gender-line-blurring cabarets. Thanks to the visa requirements of Vietnam, I had to stay in Bangkok an extra day which meant I was not at the airport Tuesday afternoon, as I had hoped to be, and thus I was spared being stuck there for days like the thousands of travelers still sleeping on luggage carousels.

And now I am in possession of a ticket on the night bus to Phuket. Barring any complications I should be on a sailboat with friends and left over turkey sandwiches by noon tomorrow.

In this instance my hot tub to cold plunge pattern of balancing hedonism and meditation, quietness and raucousness, has served me well. Coming out of silence to the reality of Bangkok the past few days was shocking for sure, but I remain equanamous.

Goenka would be so proud.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ends of Tunnels

The fourth night of Vipassana Camp, Goenka informed us “tomorrow is Vipassana Day!” He went on to let us know that everything leading up to the next day had been preparation for the real work at hand. Fanfriggintastic. You mean to tell me that the major mental damage I have been doing is merely a precursor to the real deal. What have I signed up for?

I was awakened on Vipassana Day by the 4am bells, they roused me from a really wonderful dream and I was immediately resentful for the intrusion. I stepped out of bed firmly on the wrong foot and began my day. I trudged down to the meditation hall, resentment in tow, and settled in for the two-hour metal fistfight session.

I threw in the towel after 45 minutes and all but ran back to my plywood bed to try and recapture the dream. I was in Colorado with my friends and we were applying for river permits for the upcoming season, full of hope and dreams about trips that could be. But try as I might I could not go back in time or to sleep. So instead I embraced wholeheartedly my bad mood and let it consume me.

Finally 3pm arrived… Vipassana hour. Perhaps this new teaching, this new way of meditation could get me to a better state. I prayed for new tools to abate the craving, monkey mind. I had hope, I was willing…
Goenks’a voice boomed over the speakers. “For the next two hours do not open your eyes, your hands or your feet. Remain absolutely still.” OH … MY… GAWD! This is the path to enlightenment? Are you kidding me? I really need to start doing a bit more pre-trip research. Now I am going to have to leave and tell everyone I am a Vipassana Camp drop out – oh the humiliation.

But that Goenka is a wily fellow, he’s seen this all before and so he sprung this on us while we were already in the meditation hall, a room without escape, my emancipation would have to wait two grueling hours. I shoved some more pillows wherever I could to hold me upright and begged to the cosmos for the end to come. Two hours later and something damn near miraculous had occurred. I had not moved. I followed the instructions, focused every bit of my attention as I was told and somewhere along the way the pain abated and I began meditating.
Creakily I stood up, stretched my legs, rolled my ankles and lifted my weary body from the ground. As we left the hall and walked the path back to the residences I could not help but to let out a laugh. The stream of people in front of me, all so stiff, were walking like B-movie zombies, I half-expected them to break out in the Thriller dance right then and there. I laughed; no one else got the joke.

Day five and the euphoria of meditation was nowhere to be found. I felt like I had fully regressed to the spoiled 15 year-old who would slam doors and pout when things didn’t go exactly her way. I crave, I desire, I lust. In the meditation hall I cannot sit still, I cannot quiet my mind. Goenka’s voice is nails on a chalkboard to me. I am annoyed with my cushions, with the clips in the hair of the woman in front of me, with everyone behind me who can see me fidget. My inner-dialogue is writing War and Peace, heavy on the War, light on the Peace, and it will not shut up.
I feel ugly in a deep and visceral way. I am surrounded by all of my flaws, they are parading by me one by one. Hello vanity, hello insecurity, shallowness, selfishness, stupidity, inarticulation, nice of you all to join in the party. I am a judging, raging, unstable mess and I am too weak to fix any of it. The pain in the space along my spine, below my right shoulder blade is blinding and I can not be equanamous. Sorry Goenka but the light sensation on my right elbow is losing the battle of awareness when compared to the hot poker in my back. I can’t do this.
That night I hit my breaking point when we went to the video room to watch the evening discourse. Up until now this had been a sort of reprieve because someone besides the voice in my head was talking and perhaps more importantly because we could lean against the wall during the video and mercifully rest our aching backs. On night five each of our cushions contained a note. “Please do no lean on the walls.” I cracked.
If you attend all the sittings it adds up to eleven hours a day of cushion time, broken into one- to two-hour-long sessions. Again, this is where a little research into this practice would have served me well. I vaguely knew about the three, hour–long no moving sessions, of course I didn’t think the no moving part was so literal, but I guess somewhere I pictured a pool and peaceful jungle walks filling the hours between blissful meditation hours. Ahh there’s that active imagination that seems to be the root of all my woes…. Instead if you aren’t in the hall or eating, you are in your room with NOTHING to distract you. No books, no writing materials, nothing to clean or fold or prepare, just you.

Day six I embraced my habit of ignoring the morning wakeup bells and the first mediation of the day. This early morning sitting can be done in the meditation hall or ‘at our own place’. My own place was prone and behind closed eyelids. I woke up that day hopeful, bordering on happy. My first of the three strict meditations –the ones where we cannot flinch- went really well, it was peaceful and only mildly excruciating. We were released at 9am to practice in our residences so I resumed my prone, eyes closed meditation.

As the day wore on, I continued to feel relatively good, we aren’t talking bliss here but rather the absence of the mental trauma that had been plaguing me up till now. Goenka reminded us that three main things cause misery: craving, aversion and ignorance. I have been actively working on the education and fear parts these last few months, but craving… well that is proving to be a doosy. I craved for Colorado, friends, the new/old realty I had manifested in my mind so clearly these last several days.

Goenka says to be stronger than your thoughts. But it feels SO good to live in my cravings, to remember every minute detail of what once seemed so mundane - which cupboard the coffee mugs were in, how flannel sheets feel on a cold winter nights, how it is to not have to bring your own toilet paper to the bathroom with you.

But I get it, I see how dwelling and craving create misery, I understand the goal here. Nonetheless, I am weak and try as I might I’d say 10:45 of those eleven hours are spent with both hands reaching for the stars.

Our mind is our own worst enemy. It’s rational enough to know what is best, but rooted so deeply in old habit patterns that harm while seeming to comfort, that too often it leads us towards things that are inherently bad for us.

It went on like this for the remainder of the course, small ups, deep crushing downs. Day nine was in fact the lowest point for me. Day ten was a good day, but then again that was prisoner release day so who knows how much stock to put into that.

It will take me a few weeks to process the affects of this course fully. Ask me in a month if I would do it again and likely I will say yes, but today as I ride the bus back to Bangkok, back to a real bed, back to western toilets and plentiful TP, back to real food after noon and cold beer, I feel grateful for the opportunity, grateful to the Dhamma servers who volunteer their time so that craving weaklings like me can experience this, and grateful that through yoga I had already learned many of the lessons of Vipassana, so even if I deviate from this specific path to liberation, I have the tools to lead the kind of life I want to already.

Vipassana Camp

I’m not going to sugarcoat it folks… the ten-day Vipassana Meditation program was brutal.

Somewhere around day three Goenka, our Indian teacher via a pre-recorded session, told us a story about a man finding Vipassana because one day he happened past a center when a course was ending and saw all of the happy people out front. He enquired about what made them so happy and was told of Vipassana. He took the next course.

At this point in my own meditation I was closer to agony than bliss and this story made me think that Goenka’s logic here was a bit akin to walking past a prison on a mass-release day and thinking that the smiles on the prisoners’ faces were attributable to our stellar system of incarceration. That recidivism is likely traceable to how great prison life is… I gotta get me some jail time!

But this thought came from a jaded place, one that I had yet to flush out completely. Nonetheless, I still think Goenka should come up with a new story for day three.
The retreat actually covers twelve days. The afternoon you arrive you take your vow of silence, eat your last dinner and get your first taste of the meditation you are in for. Everything that night foretold the hardships of the coming days. No Egyptian cotton sheets here folks, in fact no plural to sheets. My residence consists of a platform bed with a one-inch thick foam mattress, a mediation cushion for a pillow, one sheet and a clothesline. Obvious omissions from my standard comfort level… about 12” of mattress, towels, plural bed linens, heating and WiFi.
At Vipassana Camp – my name for this place – we were given two square meals a day – at least I think they are square meals, truth be told I had absolutely no idea what I was eating most of the time. After lunch we have a tea and fruit break at 5pm and that’s it.
I was pretty down with the program on the first full day – a bit stiff from sleeping on thinly veiled plywood, but feeling strong. Granted I went from sitting in lotus on just one cushion to crossed legs on two, then three and started using more pillows to prop up my knees and my thighs, actually by the end of day one I looked like a caricature of the Princess and the Pea, but still I felt hopeful.
Day two started off well enough. I trudged to the 4:30am mediation and lasted about 45 minutes before the non-mandatory nature of that morning meditation period started resonating with me and drawing me back to bed.

Mid-day two through mid-day four I boarded the express train to Crazy Town. Goenka told us to not let our mind wander to the past or to allow it to fantasize about the future. We were meant to just experience the sensation of the present moment. But I was a crying, angry, fantasizing mess. Each day we were asked to narrow more and more our area of attention. The smaller the area got the broader the reaches my mind traveled to.
Hours would go by in the mediation hall where the only corner of the Earth my mind didn’t pause on was the space below my nostrils where all my attention was supposed to be. In my mind I was in Ohio again, I was 17 skipping school, I was 22 drowning in debt, I was 28 getting married to the love of my life, I was 34 about to be divorced. And then my mind stopped. I hit marriage/divorce and settled in for the long haul.

In my mind I created a whole world where Colorado could be my reality again and once I mentally opened that door, I could no more close it than focus on my upper lip as Goenka was urging me to do. When I would try to drag my mind back to the task at hand I found myself getting angry and so I would try and focus on what that felt like, but still my mind wandered.

Out of desperation I met with my teachers and told them of my fantasy world, their advice to me was “return to respiration”. Respiration has a woefully weak draw when compared with homely comforts.

As I ardently tried to focus on respiration I think I began to understand how laboring women feel when their doctor says “breathe” and they reach the point where the only possible response to such an inane suggestion is “give me drugs!” Only here drugs are not an option, my trusty stash of Valium and Ambien was confiscated at check in along with all reading materials, my laptop, and my cell phone. No way out, only ways in.
So I was left with two options… stay there and suffer, or leave and suffer. Staying offered a new way of breaking the old misery-causing habit patterns… so I trudged through.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bang!

Wow. Bangkok is the real deal. No more gentle Bali, or sterile Singapore, I have arrived in Thailand’s capital and they meant it when they named it BANGkok.

After a lovely day in the Thai Airways Orchid Lounge/Singapore airport, I sort of expected to hit Bangkok running. Sadly my forward progress was impeded by the loss of my luggage. In yet another example of the silver lining that is my existence, my seat neighbor on the plane, Marc, offered to help me deal with my lack of belongings. Marc is an American who has lived in Thailand for 12 years.

Without his Thai language skills and amazing generosity of time, I may very well still be in the Bangkok airport trying to figure out if my luggage ventured on to China or Colorado. Marc invited me to his home for dinner and to meet his wife and the rest of their household, which included their beautiful daughter and two pet squirrels.

Marc went so far as to make sure I learned how to navigate the sky train and escorted me to my hotel making certain I was settled in a safe and reasonable spot. Once again I am floored by the kindness, generosity and selflessness of people.

The next morning I decided to venture to Chatuchak, the weekend market. Some friends in Bali suggested I pay it a visit and I am a huge fan of local markets so I jumped the train and found my way north. The weekend market is huge. In fact huge is grossly inadequate as far as descriptions go. There are hundreds, thousands of stalls, arranged in a labyrinth that no cartographer would dare to try and decipher. The stalls range from cabinet-size holes to grocery store sized spaces, hawking everything from used tennis shoes to pigmy heads.

I was operating on about three hours sleep and so I was off my game. Had I been in possession of all my faculties I would have shopped like you wouldn’t believe. Alas, in my weakened state I limped away with only one skirt and a perfunctory knowledge of what I need to obtain the next time I find myself in Bangkok over a weekend.

Sunday night I decided to hit the night market. Not that I hadn’t had my fill of markets for the day, but I wasn’t really sure where else to venture to and it was only one train stop away. I should tell you now about how I chose a hotel to stay in. For many weeks I kept searching for Bangkok hotel. On each occasion I would spend an hour or so researching only to not feel quite sure about a place and decide to postpone my search for a later time. The main reason behind this is that I had NO idea which part of town to stay in.

Sure I had a Lonely Planet guide and I had asked a few friends, but my real fear was picking a hotel that was smack dab in the middle of Bangkok’s go-go dancing, gender-bending, sex district. Miraculously, I chose a hotel that is very nice, affordable and in a respectable neighborhood (photo is from the rooftop pool where I did a sunset practice), alas my outing to the night market lead me straight into the seedier part of town.

In the interest of keeping my PG rating I will not detail to list of available services here, but I will let you know that there is a whole world out there I knew nothing about and it includes sporting goods, projectiles and in some case Siamese twins.
I walked home alone from the market and was overcome with sadness and loneliness. I felt so far away from home and realized that no one in the world knew where I was - an indescribably scary feeling. That night I didn't sleep. It was the first time in months that I had nightmares and woke up panicked. Perhaps it is just my mind prepping me for the meditation of the weeks to come.
Monday was yet another embassy day, although this time a much more successful one. I took a yoga class in the morning and ended my day with a visit to the Red Cross headquarters for the afternoon snake show. They raise and milk venomous snakes here to make anti-venom. Now I don’t really mind snakes, but I must admit I was not super comfortable with my proximity to various hooded, striped and striking reptiles. Something about black on yellow…kill a fellow kept running through my mind.
For my last day in Bangkok I met up with Meaghan who contacted me after finding this website from a Google search for Vipassana retreats. Meaghan kindly offered to show me around Bangkok. She guided me down to the river where we took a water taxi to the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, then to Wat Phrar Kaew and the Grand Palace, where we saw the Emerald Budha.


Tonight I am busy trying to get something on the website to hold your attention for the next two weeks as tomorrow I check into the silent retreat. No phone, no Internet, no camera, not even pen and paper. For the next 12 days I will be completely offline.
Who knows what battles my mind and I will endure these next several days. Who knows just how intense this Rumble in the Jungle will be. All I know for sure is that I feel compelled once again to do something and since compulsion has been the propelling factor behind much of my trip… I figure that is a good sign.

As I am trying my damndest to sit still for hours at a time I invite you over these next two weeks to find moments of stillness in your days. Find time to reflect and explore. Go within. And if you get a chance, send some positive vibes to towards the jungle of Thailand.

Sing Sing

I scheduled five days in Singapore to attend to various housekeeping chores. Yes even those without homes must pay bills, call telephone companies and deal with life’s little annoyances. Elizabeth kindly opened her home to me once again and helped point me in the right direction for the myriad of public offices I needed to visit during my time there.

I spent two entire days, many dollars in taxi fare and pounds of frustration (followed by copious OMs to relieves my frustration) trying to sort out various tourist visas for my upcoming travels. Not to sound all American and entitled, but come on Vietnam and India… don’t you know who my president-elect is? Cut me some slack! In the end all I had to show for my efforts were some more pages in my passport and the addresses of various embassies in Thailand, which I will be gracing with my presence next.

Singapore is a funny place to me. It is so modern, so cosmopolitan and so sterile that it seems to lack any real definable culture. Unless sterile is a defining culture trait. During my free hours I found myself strolling through Chinatown, dining in Little India, and lounging in shopping malls trying to find something assembling community.

My time in little India helped to solidify my decision to reroute my trip, which in turn lead me to the United Airlines office, where after a little coaxing and $125 I managed to trade Korea for India. Sometimes I feel like my life is one big game of Risk. “Fine you can take South Korea, but I am moving my forces to India. Nepal is next if you aren’t careful!”

My first two in days in Singapore overlapped with Jason being in town and it was really nice to have someone to be a tourist with. Mary, Jason, Ed and I are on intercepting paths for the next few months and they are like touchstones to me along the way. I feel much less alone when I know I’ll be bumping into them in Thailand and India.
Jason and I have created a fun game whereby we dare each other to eat various unidentifiable foods around the world. This game started out as good clean fun in the candy isles and bulk food sections of a Balinese grocery stores, but took on nearly deadly proportions in Singapore’s Chinatown district and I shudder to think what horrors await me in Phuket, or India.

My various chores tended to and my load significantly lightened thanks to a trip to the post office... it is time to hit a new country. Thailand here I come.