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Sunday, April 29, 2012

6 days left... :-O

My plans to volunteer in the small city of Bhaktapur fell through, so my last 10 days left after the meditation retreat have been/ will be spent in Kathmandu. Which is probably good, because (though I have previously prided myself in managing not to get ill) I am ill. Nepali food has stuck back. So it is best to have the ability to be glued to my guesthouse room all day. And though my body is not functioning properly, I am still over flowingly happy and making the absolute best of the time I have left on this awesome adventure.

10 days of silence and 100 hours of meditation was.... crazy difficult, bizarre, horrible, boring, frustrating, healing, insightful, amazing, wonderful, hilarious, and overall totally shattered my previous perspective and changed my life. I don't even know where to begin. 

Vipassana meditation is one of the oldest techniques of meditation and was rediscovered and taught by Gautama Buddha. It means ""to see things as they really are." It is a nonsectarian, science based technique that uses self observation to free one from all suffering. It allows the realization of impermanence, that everything is ever changing, arising and passing away, so that one stops all feeling of craving or aversion and experiences each moment as it actually is, not as it is wanted or do not wanted it to be.

The 10 day retreat was created to give a serious trial to this technique. About 120 people, half men, half women are piled in to vans and taken out of Kathmandu to Budhanilkatha, where the Vipassana center is. The men and women are separated and a few hours of talking as allowed, then the noble silence begins. Not only are you forbidden to speak to all other participants, but eye contact and any form of communication are also not allowed for the next 10. You are supposed to feel like you are working in isolation.This was actually the easiest part about the retreat, but definitely the most bizarre. Most of us knew no one going into it, so it sort of feels like you are walking around, meditating, sleeping, and eating with 60 vegetarian zombies. Almost everyone observed the noble silence strictly, and I was glad for the silence because it made meditation a lot easier and allowed for an incredible amount of personal exploration and growth, but man it was weird. The only times I spoke in 10 days were to ask for more watermelon at tea time (there are no words to describe the bliss contained in a bite of juicy watermelon after 10 hours of meditation), and to yell at a monkey a little bit when it threatened me. Yeah, there were monkeys... and we we'rent allowed to talk about it.  

The first 3 days are spent observing your breath, which is called anapana meditation.  The goal is to ignore the thoughts that flow in and out of your mind, and sharpen your awareness by only giving importance to respiration. If you do find your mind wandering, you simply accept calmly that it has wondered without getting frustrated or feeling negativity, and bring it back to your breath. This was difficult for me for many reasons (besides simply getting used to waking up at 4am and sitting for 10 hours a day) One was that the first time I sat down and made a serious effort at meditating was day 1 of the retreat. Another is that I have let my mind run wild (good and bad) for my whole life, so reining it in was proving exhausting. And the other main reason was that when I couldn't sleep at night when I was a kid, my mom always told be to focus on my breath to fall asleep... so you can imagine what kept happening those first few days. After 3 days and 30 hours of meditation, it does get a little bit easier. In those 30 hours, the longest I kept my mind on my breath without it running in some far off direction was maybe 10 seconds, and that felt like quite an accomplishment. 
"Okay focus on the breath." (2-5 breaths).... "Is that a goat or a small child crying?! I really can't tell. Sometimes it sounds like a goat, sometimes it sounds like a baby ((never figured out that mystery))... OH right...breath...okay..." (2-5 breaths) "Why do Disney Princesses all have such nice hair? No wonder girls are always changing hairstyles. Everyone is always talking about the destructive messages Disney movies portray, but no one ever talks about the unrealistic hairstyles!...Oh man...that was bad...okay breath breath breath." (2-5 breaths) "III JJJUUUSSSSTTTT WWWAAANNNTTTT SSSOOMMMEEE PPIIIZZZZZAAAAAA."
That's a good glimpse into what the first days were like.
Focusing on patterns of respiration leads to focusing on the sensation of the flow of the breath, then the area which you observe those sensations is narrowed down and the attention on the breath is removed. Then you are spending hours focusing on the sensations occurring on the  middle of the area under your nostrils and above your upper lip that is about the size of the tip of your pinky. 

These days of Anapana are meant to sharpen your mind so that on the fourth day, when you are taught Vipassana, you are able to do it properly. The technique of Vipassana requires you to scan your focus along your entire body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes and then back to the top of your head, repeatedly. You are searching for sensations, subtle and intense, and when you find, you simply observe them and move onto the next area. When this is introduced, a new rule is also added to 3 of the 10 hours of each day's Vipassana meditation. From 8am-9am, 2:30pm-3:30pm, and 6pm-7pm you practice Addithana, which means strong determination. The name itself made me want to cry a little bit. I'm thinking, if what we have been required to do so far isn't considered STRONG determination, what could these hours possibly entail. Before, you were able  to move and change position as frequently as you feel the need to. For these three hours of the day, you are a statue. You are to try as hard as possible to keep 100% still, not changing to position, open your eyes, or lick your lips. Nothing. This way you are forced to truly observe all sensations, good and bad. Inevitably, your knee caps feel like they are being ripped off, your feet are totally asleep, and it feels like someone is stabbing you with multiple knives along your back and neck. But you try your best to simply observe the horrible sensations with reacting or attaching any negativity, search for the subtle ones among the pain, and remain calm and equanimous. Strong determination is an understatement. 
The next 6 days were a roller coaster of ups and downs, moments of pure joy, painful boredom, doubts about the technique, sadness, silliness, and many long peptalks to myself in my head thinking "this is what it must be like to be an only child." Oh, and the hours when I would sing entire albums in my head from front to back, or see how many different flavors of ice cream I could name before the bell rang. but shhhhhh. 

If someone had told me a year and a half ago that I would sit with myself (in NEPAL) for 10 days without interacting with anyone else and dive into the deepest parts of my mind, I would have not believed that I could do that. I wouldn't say that this was a spiritual experience for me because I am still figuring out what that means. But it was definitely moving. I used to be an angry person and pretty hateful to myself. During these 10 days, I finally said goodbye to that person and fully embraced the new, explosively happy person that I have developed into in the last year. I have climbed out from years of sadness and found a way to forgive myself and everyone who I have ever been angry at and just live my life with a smile one my face, even when bad things happen. Vipassana didn't do this for me, it's been a process through this year that I have done on my own. Vipassana just allowed me to fully embrace it and truly let go of the past and be excited for my future and proud of the person I have become.    

 On the last day, after 100 hours of meditation, the silence is lifted and the pure joy that is felt after having  accomplished something so difficult and all that comes along with it is tangible in the air from all participants (some people were just so overwhelmingly glad it was over, but that totally counts). You all compare experiences and realize that everyone was, at moments (some more, some less), as frustrated, bored and sad as you were. And the same with positive moments, but you never felt bad during those moments :P During the 10 days you think you're the only one struggling, the only one doubting, the only one who thinks its all absurd, the only one who is so bad at this. Then on the last day, you realize how much time you wasted thinking those things. Every time I opened my eyes and looked at the girl next to me, she looked like she was made out of stone, and it always made me feel like I was terrible at this....and that I shouldn't have opened my eyes... On the last day when the silence was lifted, she came up to me (with an awesome Irish accent!) and told me that every time she opened her eyes and looked at me, I was so still and graceful with my straight back looking like a dancer. I exploded laughing and told her I was doing the same and we shared an epic hug just to reinforce the fact that we shouldn't compare ourselves and feel badly. It was such a good day. 

One of the things that kept a lot of people going was the video discourse given by the current main teacher of Vipassana. He's like the Daili Lama of Vipassana. Anything you struggled with during the day, he inevitably brought up in the night's video which made you feel a little better about it. And he was always funny and happy and smiling and looked like a cartoon character, so that helped too. As well as just doing something other than meditating, eating and sleeping. His discourses were all about the technique and philosophy. Though I always enjoyed listening, this was the root of the doubts that frustrated me (on about the 7th and 8th days). The final goal of this technique is enlightenment, so obviously it is talked about. My personal doubts don't really matter because it is different for everyone, but they were tainting my hours of meditation. Then, of course, on one of the last days the teacher said that if there are things about the practice that you don't like, take them out and practice what you will, but you may not reach enlightenment. In reality, I know full well that I wont ever be an enlightened person, but I am okay with that. That doesn't mean that this retreat didn't make me a stronger, more peacefully minded person and that I wont continue to practice daily meditation. It did, and I will. And I will continue to cultivate this outlook on life. 

There is so much to say about this retreat, but I'll leave some for personal conversations :) The bottom line is that it was one of the best and worst things I've ever done, but I think all the good things in life are.

These days after the retreat have been spent in bed, meeting more great people, hanging out with old friends (old being 3 months old), exploring kathamndu, seeing terrible movies and enjoying them beyond their quality (Battleship and John Carter. GREAT terrible movies), and preparing myself to return.

In 6 days this chapter comes to an end. Then what... I have no idea. But that's okay, that's good. I have been day dreaming about the smiling faces and open arms of my friends and family. That part about coming home fills my heart and spreads a smile across my own face. The part that is going to be hard is settling. For the past eight months home has not been a place or even the people who live there, it has been a feeling that I carry around with me. My family and friends have cultivated that feeling to make sure it's with me everywhere I go, so that when I am gone, the love and safety they have given me lets me be at home in myself, on the soles of my own feet. I'm not sure what this means for my future, but I have time to figure it out. Endless love and thank yous to the people who helped make this year possible for me. and endless love to the amazing people I met along the journey. It has changed my life in ways I never imagined. The happiness and love for myself and others that I have cultivated is everlasting. I know life has its ups and downs, but I feel prepared for anything. And I cannot wait to share the happiness with everyone. Life is good. May all beings be happy <3


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Another long, full update.

In 4 days, I will be leaving Pokhara and Himalayan Children's Care Home. The 2 months I have spent volunteering and adventuring in Pokhara have been incredibly fun, silly, educational, and also difficult. But I'll start with the fun and silly. 

My 21st birthday was a few weeks ago, and though I am far from all of my friends and family, the people I have met here made it a great day from start to finish. The daytime, after taking the kids to school, was spent sipping beers on a large paddle boat (big enough to fit 6 of us with room to spare!) and eating various birthday meals at our favorite restaurants. The afternoon was as usual, picking the kids up from school, tea time, homework time, dinner time, and bedtime but with many more hugs, candy, and even 51 voices singing me happy birthday in unison. After the kids were in bed, the volunteers met up at our favorite bar (bullet basecamp) and had a silly night of drinks and good food. We've become good friends with the bartenders and owners, and they made sure we had a good night. Especially because it was one of their birthdays as well! Celebrating my birthday without Miles for the first time was strange, especially because all of the attention was on me! But it was a very good day regardless. 

A week after my birthday I set off on a Trekking adventure with 6 other volunteers, guided by Chhewang who works at the orphanage where I am volunteering. We decided on the Poon Hill trek which is on the Gandruk circuit and offers beautiful trails and views of the Himalayas. Similar to rafting, this adventure proved to be as difficult as it was fun. Maybe even more difficult than fun, but incredibly rewarding. It is 5 days of going up and down the mountains climbing and descending over 3,000 stairs. 5 of the 7 of us got sick ( I managed not to) which slowed us down, but everyone kept trucking and was feeling good by the time we reached the hot springs on the last night. The hour soaking in the hot springs along with the comfortable beds in the guest houses and the surprisingly hot showers (the best and hottest I've had in Nepal!) were definitely highlights of the trek, though I enjoyed myself even through the straining stretches of climbing. It feels good to know that I'm capable of completing a difficult trek! And I daydream of coming back to Nepal someday to tackle some of the more challenging ones! 

Since I returned from my trek I have been relaxing, hanging out with the kids who are on holiday, and enjoying quiet time to myself. About a week ago, the volunteers were asked to teach English classes while the kids are off from school. They all already have a solid base of the language, so we mostly  teach simple conversation and improve pronunciation, but it is more difficult than I thought it would be! 

It's going to be strange to leave Pokhara and HCCH. Not difficult, just strange. So many volunteers come and go that I know me leaving is not a big deal to the kids and staff. But even if I am just another volunteer who came through, I know that a part of them will always be with me, and a part of me with them, whether or not they are aware of it. My time here has been good and I have learned so much, but it has been very difficult at times. A few weeks ago, the baby son of the founder and his wife passed away. They live at the orphanage and are very much part of everyday life here, so it has been unimaginably sad and difficult for everyone. Though life has carried on, especially with 51 other children to take care of, it has been an intense thing to experience. Writing about it in detail on a blog doesn't feel right to me, but it is part of my experience here, so I also feel strange not mentioning it at all. Tenzin's adorable smiling face was infectious and though he is no longer here, I will always remember that smile as one of the happy, wonderful parts of my time in Nepal. And my thoughts and comfort are with the people who feel the heaviness of their loss. Especially because, through the good and bad of these last 2 months, they have made HCCH a home for me. I am forever grateful for that.

On the 9th of April, I will leave Pokhara and take a bumpy bus ride back to Kathmandu where I'm meeting up with a Volunteer and relaxing for a few days. From the 14th-25th I will be on a Vipassana meditation retreat. 10 days of silence during which I will either lose my mind, or find it! I really don't know what to expect, but ill definitely write about it afterwards! After that, I will volunteer in a small village outside of Kathmandu called Bhaktapur for one week, then I fly back to the states on the 4th of May! This is earlier than I originally planned on leaving, but certain circumstances at home have made 4 months feel like too long to be away. I am soaking up every day of my last month here, and while I will be sad to leave this beautiful place, I will be very excited to come home! 
Love and light to all <3