Shusho Itto

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything and thought it would be a good idea to begin by re-introducing myself.

Two years ago, transitioning back to the United States from India, the town I grew up in provided gentlest path home I could have dreamed. Nourishing my being and cultivating my voice in a different way, writing took a back seat to developing as a Yoga teacher. Six months ago, transition complete, the doors of the Yoga studio closed and I moved into residency at a Zen monastery further downstate.

For those who know me, this shift in direction poses very little in terms of shock value. However, the decision has brought with it a mixture of sincere curiosity and skeptical speculation, depending on who’s doing the inquiring. On either side the question is the same.

What are you doing?

In order to understand what one would be doing at a Buddhist monastery, first requires an understanding as to why. To better explain, allow me to introduce Japanese Zen Master, Dōgen. Among his many gifts, 13th century Buddhist monk, Master Dōgen left us with the phrase, shūshō ittō (修証一等). It’s an expression that translates as: all that we are to become, we already are.

Far from implying a pre-ordained destiny, this also differs from the mere possession of a seed or trait that we are attempting to cultivate. This idea instead indicates full possession of our pure, natural essence, in all its brilliance. The challenge of the human experience however, is that we often lose sight of this radiance because of all the important stuff that commands our immediate attention. 

This is both the why and what of spiritual practice and is true regardless of what century we live in. It’s at the core of the dissatisfaction the Buddha himself realized and is just as applicable, if not more so, today. Simply moving within the fullness of the present moment with nothing to be added or removed, is the practice. Over twenty-five hundred years, and it hasn’t changed.

As I’ve stated elsewhere in this body of work, the realization of this path is referred to as many things and although the practices vary within each tradition, at its heart, it’s none other than complete awareness. Although my understanding has changed throughout the years, the term that has resonated deepest for me is, enlightenment. The practice is simple and it doesn’t require monasteries, India, a Buddha or yoga mat and is not a lofty objective reserved solely for the pious.

What it does require is a human body, a human mind and a question. It also calls for faith; faith that there is an answer to this question — the question of life and death. Some are born with this faith. For others, myself included, trust must be developed. Like much of this path, this leads to a paradox: at least a little faith is required to begin practicing, but it is the practice itself that is paramount in developing faith. Fortunately, bridging this gap doesn’t require a blind leap. It’s simply good sense; where else would we find the answers to life’s questions, but within?   

This unfolding of wisdom is what arises as we place one foot in front of the other, simultaneously taking a step and arriving, further deepening our faith and understanding. It’s a road with no end and as one may imagine, it often requires a touch of patience and one hell of a sense of humor.

Joining other year-long residents as well as a group of monastics, there are about twenty-five of us living full-time at the monastery. The numbers fluctuate as monthly residents come to immerse themselves in the experience and with weekend and week-long retreatants that are here for support, guidance or a bit of head space. Swelling close to one hundred is where current capacities max out, usually during the six-day meditation, sesshins. This doesn’t include the hundred or so day guests that come for the Sunday morning service and lunch which is open to the public.

And so we practice. Since my arrival, there is no getting away from the fact that this is no longer a game of me; it is indeed a game of we. We work together —  a lot , we eat together, we meditate together and we offer thanks together. As one body we move, with as much awareness as we are individually and collectively able to offer at any given moment. 

Authenticity however, comes at a price and the only way to plumb greater depths of compassion, equanimity, patience and joy is through penetrating the layers covering it up. These layers are possible to observe as they arise when we are practicing awareness. They show up as anger, jealousy and greed. As we practice compassion with ourselves in working with these emotions, we develop compassion. As we practice equanimity when working with others, we develop equanimity. Patience arises from practicing patience. And joy arises when these hindrances begin fading away.

Supported by clear reminders, we are holding this space not only for each other, but for every individual who comes through the door. The lessons run deep and everyone is a teacher. With every breath and in every moment, surrounded by all that which has been placed along our way. It is because of these circumstances, not despite them, that we are moving together on this path of enlightenment.

It doesn’t require chanting, although we do. It doesn’t necessitate the burning of incense, although there is. Getting to the bottom of who we are does however, require awareness – awareness of body, awareness of breath, awareness of being. When the mind wanders, bringing it back to the present moment. When the mind wanders again, bringing it back. This is the practice.

It can be awkward, clumsy and ridiculously frustrating as the obstructions to clarity are intimately personal and involve lifetimes of habit patterns, repeated. Understanding that another person’s suffering is our own suffering, in the most literal sense imaginable, and amidst this cloud, developing the softness to be with all of it. Inviting others to show up exactly as they are.

We are not impure and the path is not leading anywhere. All we need to do is open our eyes and choose to see. And when we forget, making that choice again. And again.

Each time we do this, practicing that which we already are. Shūshō ittō

This is what I am doing here. For the first time in my practice, I’m doing it surrounded by the support of others doing the same thing. And for this, I am grateful beyond words.

 

~ by Christine Fowle (Mt. Tremper, NY)

Beyond the Mat

To know the truth we have to deepen ourselves, and not merely widen the surface.

~ Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

From the sidelines of a yoga class it may appear that touching the crown of the head with the pinkie toe is the pinnacle of practice. After all, how is yoga different from any other type of fitness regime? The two elements on which this answer depends are the teacher and the student — and their intention. Okay, maybe this makes four elements, but regardless, it’s this mojo that determines the direction of the experience and it’s the individual that brings it.

The process of Yoga has the potential to move the body in a different way but this is only the beginning. Asanas (postures) are designed to influence the expansion of space, not just in the body but also within our thoughts. In this way, how we experience life also begins shifting in a new direction.

When we first begin a mat practice it’s all we can do to find our feet when instructed. However, as confidence and comfort (yes, this does develop over time) begin to expand as does our ability to concentrate on the nuances within each pose. Deepening into a particular stretch does not refer merely to increasing mobility or strengthening muscles but our ability to focus as we develop the freedom to explore the subtle fluctuations within the body and mind.

Our practice becomes juicy when our experience on the mat begins taking on the rhythm of a guided meditation. Flowing with a bit more assurance, our initial feelings of uncertainty evaporate into something different. Postures that once generated inklings of mild loathing become an opportunity to observe our bodies and minds from a place of relative ease.

The mat becomes our safe place. Creating the unwavering foundation beneath us to continue expanding beyond our boundaries, each session uncoils a fresh opportunity to open to our true selves without judgment or fear. Supported in this journey, gradually, we begin penetrating deep pockets of clarity from within.

These gentle openings establish healthy, grounded connections with our bodies and beliefs. It can only happen gradually, with patience and loving acceptance that no matter what we find, it’s going to be okay. Over time this process is what equips us with the authentic stability we need to move with life’s challenges, not merely cope with them.

We discover our true selves.

Together on a planet with billions of other people, we are engaged in a singular game. Our shared experiences are truly known from only one perspective and Yoga is one method of discovering the depth of these perceptions. With the guidance of those who have walked this path before us, there is a clear direction.

It begins with taking the first step. If we believe we are walking into an exercise class, this is the benefit we reap. If we believe we are stepping into something more, this is also what we experience. No right or wrong; merely a difference of perception — a perception that morphs and changes with every breath. 

~ by Christine Fowle (Lewiston, NY)

~ Photo: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 2014

Angry on the Mat

Hi. My name is Christine and Utkatasana makes me angry.

You may be wondering what an Utkatasana is. In English, it’s chair pose, a Yoga asana (posture) that has us bending the knees, shins perpendicular to the ground, butt dropped down and the arms straight up in the air. Sound like fun?

Why on earth would someone put us into this pose? Ever?

Let’s approach this with another question: If our experiences on the mat and the [meditation] pillow are considered preparatory for the tests of the outside world, what types of emotions should we feel?

At first glance, it may not seem fathomable that a sequence of stretching, reaching, breath-work and bending could actually prepare us to better handle the situations in our lives. That’s because this isn’t Yoga, at least not in its entirety. Better described, Yoga is discovered within the degree of awareness and intention applied, not just to the performance of asana, but in all that we do.

These elements of intention and awareness not only bridge the chasm separating asana from exercise, but also tap into an inner wellspring of wisdom and insight, heightening the engagement we experience within our own lives. Beyond the movements, touching this power is where we begin the exploration of this depth of perception. For those of us that still believe the poses are the ultimate goal, all it takes is a subtle adjustment — and voila, we find Yoga.

Shifting the focus from body to mind may not always manifest as a delightful scent of jasmine in full bloom. But this is the challenge we accept every time we place a foot upon the mat. This is the practice — developing fortitude, strength, acceptance and forgiveness. It all happens here.

Ultimately, the anger experienced in Utkatasana does not come from the pose. It doesn’t come from the teacher and it isn’t emanating from the space surrounding my body. It comes from inside of me. And solely, it is my decision what to do with it.

This art of living deliberately unfolds as we merge the lessons from the mat and the pillow into our daily lives. Stepping into a space that awakens us to our highest nature we discover — it’s the outside world that provides the most difficult tests. The mat and pillow are merely where we study.

~ Namaste

Peace, Love & Om

 If the mind is pure in nature, does it not follow that, as is the mind, as are we? After all, what are we, if not the mind?

Indeed. Yogis, philosophers, scientists and scholars have, for centuries, been investigating the implications of this epic question — Who am I?

There are countless ideas surrounding this enigma. In almost all Eastern philosophical circles however, the answers point back to the mind, and therefore back at us. Ah, but this wasn’t established — what are we, if not the mind? This is the question.

The keys unlocking these answers reside inside us and we alone are capable of unhinging these unmarked doors. However, the societal relevance placed on such endeavors often takes a back seat to more lucrative pursuits, with our sense of self-worth often a direct correlation. But once this gateway is opened, even just a crack, something magical happens...

Invitations to discover inner harmony are not messages designed for an elite few. The increasingly fast pace at which the world is moving is impacting all of us, converting our mental and physical balance into little more than pleasant buzzwords for many. Learning to direct our attention, whether in pursuit of philosophical insight, business rationale or personal wellness, is likely the only thing that will save us — from ourselves.

Committing to be mindful prompts us to look at both the physical and non-physical aspects of our behaviors (i.e. thoughts and feelings). Using these observations to develop an alert sense of reality, with this silent eye, we become both observer and the observed, grounding our focus and centering our balance.

Patanjali, in his brilliantly expounded Yoga Sutra’s, explains enlightenment as the ceasing of the mental modifications. This includes understanding the colored lens, or veil, which is obscuring our perception of what is real. Immersed in this giant cosmic soup, our societal, educational, cultural and familial past provides each of us with a uniquely singular view of the world. It’s this view that often spurns the judgment that results in emotional fluctuations. As peace, acceptance and freedom are developed, these reelings of a wily mind are gradually released.

This is important. These modifications are often mistaken as the barriers to mindfulness and therefore considered objects of elimination. If instead, thoughts, feelings and emotions are engaged as the objects of mindfulness, this deepening awareness of self provides the method of expanding our personal introspection.

Cultivating this objective awareness is the art and science of Yoga.

Not only do we have the ability to connect with ourselves beyond what we currently comprehend, we also have the ability to live the life of our dreams. But in order to do this we’ve got to agree to do the heavy lifting.

Signing over a check for the goodies is not an option and Patanjali, Jesus and the Buddha cannot accomplish the work for us. Symbols and guides for what is possible, these individuals are pointing at the moon and although I may get in trouble in the afore mentioned circles for this, these men are also dead. If you want to taste the moon you have to reach out and take a bite.

These spiritual icons have said their peace and are not going to bestow a single, additional thread of brilliance. We can read their wisdom in sutras, scriptures, psalms and quotations; their words will never change. Our perception is the only thing that we are capable of changing. This means learning to understand your veil.

Getting to know our veil is something like adjusting the eyes to see an image within a 3D picture. We’re not attempting to remove our colorful background, but relax our vision to more readily observe what’s right in front of us — thus gradually perceiving through a lens of increasing clarity.

Self-mastery begins with intention and life provides a beeeeaauuutiful opportunity to experience the fullest expression of our emotions. Carefully watching feelings, actions and thoughts, our role is simply to notice without judging.

No one can claim responsibility for understanding who you are and no one individual’s word for reality is sacred. Saints, prophets, seekers and finders — each of us must walk the path for ourselves. The questions and illusions of who we are and who we are not were never designed to be answered for us.

Highly realized Yogis of the past, carried with them, a message. Richly hued strings of clues, instructions and wisdom, spread before us, woven into the vibrant tapestry upon which we now sit. The answers are discovered, not by looking down, but within — for it is you who possesses the whole of the moon.

May this blessed life be filled with peace, love & Om.

~ Christine ~ Varanasi, December 2014

The Un-Acquisitional Quest

How many of us feel fulfilled?

Of your own accord, with no external attachments to muddle the equation: Do you feel complete? If your job were gone tomorrow, would you feel the same? What about your house and car? Now remove your family and friends. If the answer was yes to the first question and any of the subsequent queries triggered inklings of uncertainty or angst, the first question may warrant revisiting.

As we move from childhood through adulthood many of the habits we pick up over the years travel with us. This includes relying on external sources as the foundation for our happiness. Throughout the earliest developmental stages, our parents shower our world with love and affection, both creating and nurturing a desire for attention. As we mature, the nature of this game doesn’t change; the objects shaping our self-worth merely shift. The attention we crave in our youth transposes from “Mommy look at me…” to accolades, promotions, material acquisitions and Likes.

True fulfillment is possible. However, there isn’t anyone or any thing on this planet that can provide what it is we need to sustain it. Innately this is a collectively understood concept, but even so, our cravings for immediate satiation continue to overwhelm us, with contemporary commodities often serving as our go-to fix. Instant gratification and cycles of goal setting and achievement recreate momentary highs, only to discover we still want more.

We’re not alone.

As the mainstream profit machine for obvious reasons, doesn’t promote authentic methods of self-fulfillment, we’ve ample encouragement to take the acquisitional plunge over and over again. Washing over us in waves of temporary rapture, the enticing colors, tastes and textures we’re so frequently seduced by, only perpetuate these alluring cyclical diversions. Instead of reducing the complications in our lives, these tempting whispers mouthed from irresistible new bling, assure that happiness’ just-out-of-reach status will be secured indefinitely.

We all have a future and what that future brings is uncertain except we will all age and we all will die. Money, fame, power and prestige do not change this. Each of us wants happiness. We all wish to feel whole. But it isn’t until we tire of looking in all the wrong places, that we’re ready to begin an earnest search in the one place we haven’t tried.

Within each of us resides the keys to connect with our higher wisdom; satisfaction and contentment are merely byproducts of this quest. If we desire physical fitness we take up a workout regimen. Uncovering a deeper connection within ourselves requires a routine of a different sort.

The purpose of a routine is not to develop knowledge. This only amalgamates information within our existing belief systems. Establishing a practice is the spinning of the wheel removing these layers of conditioning that separate us from our natural insight. In other words, moving closer to the core of our being is not about learning who we are, it instead involves slowly stripping away who we are not.

We’ve spent our lifetimes accumulating layers of labels, judgment and habits, spreading a colored film over everything we view, separating us from our environment, each other and humanity as a whole. Personal perspective, based on a past that is no longer, leaves impressions in our minds, which we presume are valid due to the seemingly vivid nature of their appearance.

It isn’t real.

The ultimately intangible nature of our beliefs is also true of the perceptions we maintain of ourselves. Throughout the course of our lives we’ve adopted certain ideas of who we are, the things we like and what we stand for. But in any given circumstance these can, and do, change. What we’ve crafted as an image of ourselves is in reality, just that, a picture — no more real than a dream.

In order to reach a place where we may begin realizing this, it must be realized, in the truest sense of the word. This does not come from reading about it; it is derived from experience. Just as a new haircut doesn’t mean we’ve altered our way of thinking, neither does reading (or sharing) the acute understanding of others mean we’ve integrated these words into the center of our consciousness.

Recognition of the thought patterns comprising the view-world we’ve cultivated does not take place on the surface. Taking on the role of both observer and the observed, it is through increased momentary awareness that our habituated tendencies slowly become apparent. Personal practice is the bridge escorting us into this realm of lucidity.

Development of a practice is a very personal endeavor. It entails a desire for true fulfillment and the strength to open our eyes. It involves the courage to look upon aspects of ourselves we may not love with compassion and acceptance. It requires understanding that self-transformation is a life-long quest without a tangible beginning or end. It means giving up the safety and security of the habits that bind us, for the balance and peace that will set us free.

~ by Christine Fowle

Box of Secrets

This unpredictable journey began with a seed that was planted almost three years ago. It was an e-mail received, a newsletter designed to develop motivations for the upcoming New Year. The simple yet powerful questions prompted responses that within moments, pointed to the truth — my life choices were not congruent with who it was I wanted to be. The decision became clear and so I took a deep breath and a running leap, in hopes that the Universe would throw out a net to catch me.

The difficulty in discerning whether or not this gilded net has been tossed, is due to the innate holes in the question. As I continue following breadcrumb trails through India and Nepal, instead of transpiring as a graceful skip down a golden path, the experience has often unrolled with clumsy trips through potholes of garish sludge. On the flip side, shining through the clouds, beam brilliant rays of clarity, placing self-doubt where it belongs, leaving nowhere on the planet I should rather be. However, it is the stillness that balances where these two dichotomies meet, that the true lessons are discovered.

Traveling no further than the human experience, evidence of these psychological extremes is found within every new frame [of mind] we enter. Through observation of our moods, we can witness this morphing between the roles we play, the people we interact with and locations we occupy, each with a defining structure and corresponding behavior. From devoted spouse, to loyal employee, sympathetic friend and engaged parent, the thousands of characters we portray in the theater of our lives become the medium through which we experience the world.

Enter suffering.

Referred to throughout Buddhist texts, the term suffering is often misunderstood. From the rich languages of Pali and Sanskrit, we’ve inherited a translation that in English suggests hardship, misery or physical anguish. Because of this misinterpretation, suffering is often dismissed as a condition applicable to someone not me.

Within the Western culture, the foundations for suffering begin forming before we even have the ability to speak. Our early training includes learning to evaluate situations and ascertaining whether we like or dislike what is happening. Our first words include good and bad and soon after, to the degree to which they may be applied. As we get older this pattern is reinforced and the physical responses associated with our preferences strengthens. Our emotions become intertwined within this process. By the time we’ve reached adulthood the majority of events entering our periphery are tied to this YoYo string of likes and dislikes, which in turn pulls in tandem, their corresponding sensation.

This is however not what suffering refers to.

The essence of suffering lies within the conditioned desire to experience only the pleasant sensations. Clarity on the Temple Steps, examines the difficult aspects of sitting with these painful emotions. Pushing away uncomfortable feelings is a culturally accepted norm and avoiding or masking our discomfort is endorsed, encouraged and supported by the billion dollar industries selling the cure.

Simply being with ourselves when we feel less than perky, is not what we are conditioned to do, and have even been led to believe that not only is our primary goal to feel good but we are entitled to it. This unrealistic expectation places us into a chair of self-diagnosis in attempts to either reason ourselves into feeling better or write personal prescriptions for external remedies (food, alcohol, retail therapy etc.).

We are not our thoughts.

There is, in reality a separation between mind and senses. The senses merely transmit data, which the brain receives and the mind evaluates.  Because our waking moments involve a consistent stream of sensory input and our tendencies link our thoughts to these bodily sensations, we identify with them. Our emotions in turn trigger our responses.

Like slowing down the frames in a movie, identifying the precise moments of perception, or thought, allows us to distinguish it from the subsequent sensations. It takes a little practice and over time the break between the two becomes clear. Not only this, but the emotional reaction to the sensation becomes evident. We begin to understand the relationship between thoughts and emotions — the link being our physical reaction. If we can identify the reaction we can better manage the response.

The chain looks something like this:

Stimuli —> Perception —> Physical Reaction —> Emotive Response

Enter meditation.

Have you ever sat down with the objective of listening to your mind? Neither did I. Until I did. Prior to this, there was never any reason to consider what suffering wasor whether or not I was afflicted. However, that first experience of eavesdropping on my thoughts changed the course of my life. It was seven years ago and for the fist time, I simply sat quietly and listened.

Our mind is with us throughout the extent of our entire lives. Yet, the majority of us will live an entire lifetime without developing an understanding of it. And unless you are both subject and author, the true nature of yourmind cannot be discovered in between the lines of a book. It involves learning to practice.

The most fascinating aspects of self-discovery involve developing a relationship with ourselves at the deepest levels of our being. The moment we begin to quiet the space around us and examine what cannot be seen with our own eyes it becomes clear; we have the power to change. Peace is attainable.

The benefits of meditation are as far reaching as the energy we put forth — and the potential, infinite. The time commitment can be as minimal as ten minutes a day; the most important piece being the commitment. It’s like learning a new language, the language of self-exploration, and in order for progress to be made, regular practice is vital.

At the onset of this trip the methods for achieving my own objectives were not yet clear — because my objectives weren’t clear. I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to live my values. I wanted to make a difference.

I wanted to be a better me.

Each and every day I am faced with a choice and it is only because each and every day I (mostly) choose wisely that I have discovered the truth. The perseverance however, of developing a regular mediation practice has not shown me who this better version of me is. It has stripped away the illusion of who she is not.

The process of liberating the purest expression of myself began the very first day I sat down on a meditation pillow. But this journey is no longer about me. You are the hero of this story. Behind a door of silence awaits a box of secrets only you can open. I may be pointing at the lock. But it is you who holds the key.

~ by Christine Fowle
~ Photo Credit:  Rebecca Ioannou

Stillness... A Ticket to the Circus

“Stillness (begins piece),” I scrawl at the top of my scant meditation journal.  Taking the most miniscule of mental detours, I mark the beginning of what I feel pulled to reflect on once this seemingly endless continuum of morning to night mental engagement is complete.  It is day six out of a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat: Lumbini, Nepal; Thanksgiving day.

— I am suddenly struck with an eerie realization. It was four years ago, also Thanksgiving day, at a retreat center in Elbert, Colorado that I too was seated amongst kindred strangers, consciously and quietly eating my savory vegetarian lunch. Freshly divorced and seeking solace, I dove into my first and last retreat of this intensity, understanding very little of what I was getting into.  Inspired by the intriguing description…an invaluable atmosphere of silence, meditation and self-transformation with peace as the ultimate prize, it was just what I craved.

Flash forward.

Bong….Bong....Bonnggg… The first gong sounds its vibratory song at 4am, signaling it is now time to rise and prepare for the first navel gazing session. The remainder of the day unfolds slowly, with moment-to-moment mindfulness, alternating between hourly sitting and walking meditations until the final session coolly fades into the night at 10pm (psst, I fade sooner — no tellie!). Sleep. Darkness blankets the sky upon retiring and a misty fog envelops the center upon awakening. In the pre-dawn stillness, this thick haze settles over the long, narrow pathway, as it softly disappears into the distance. The echoing backdrop of mystical chanting from distant monasteries permeates the air, furthering the enchantment amidst this continually elapsing landscape.

Inside the tranquil darkness of the meditation hall, mosquito nets, dropped from hooks in the sky, form pod-like cocoons, protecting yogis from all outside trivialities. While there are few mosquitoes in the hall to speak of (they all seem to be hiding under my dining table), this thinnest of veils comes to evoke in me a warm sense of comfort. In the cozy seclusion provided by this personal nest, I can almost invisibly climb in and let go amongst this roomful of consciousness pilgrims.

The first few days feel like a shedding; layers of built up residual thoughts and tension from the external world clear and fall away. Then the real work begins — maintaining the balance and self-discipline to hold a vigilant yet soft focus on the rising and falling of the breath.  Contrary to what I once believed, the primary aim of Vipassana is not to sustain a pinprick concentration but to impartially witness the thought formations as they arrive and depart without actively participating in their illusory nature.

The carefully crafted conditions give retreatants a safe environment, free from distraction of the modern world which to explore the link between thought, emotion and sensation. Moreover the center provides a non-judgmental space to perform the turtle-like slow motion movements we are all meticulously executing. The meals are unsweetened vegetarian faire, rooms are stark and the water cold; no electronic devices allowed. One could question the sanity in volunteering for such an endeavor. Yet I have come to appreciate the rare existence of such a setting, created solely for the purpose of developing purity of body and clarity of mind.

Here’s where it gets interesting. One might speculate that with the removal of sensory pleasures and freely roaming thoughts we would instantly implode. Instead, like a snow globe settling after a good shake, the water gets calm, the flakes come to rest and finally, we just are’ — no inner or outer disturbances.  Ahhh, sweet peace.  Until... Step right up! You have just won a front row seat to the Cerebral Circus — an unobstructed view of the sensory instability and erratic thought parade, swinging mental monkeys, and emotional tightrope walking.  Doot doot doo doo doo doot doot doo doo …

“What are you still doing here?” I silently cry at old, haunting, and random players as they spontaneously spring and sprout in my mind. Aches, pains, and mysterious tingles arise and then pass as I non-reactively observe their individual qualities and nature.  The good news is that it does get better and there are secrets and strategies to successfully dealing with such distractions. AND THEN THEY STOP WORKING. Nonetheless, observing these transparent swings from divine bliss to the pits of fiery discord is precisely the magnification of the human condition rooted at the core of self-awareness leading to personal growth.

Upon emerging from the experience, it’s as if a vacuum has removed the unnecessary debris from my being, leaving a clear mind, calm presence, and joyfulness of spirit I can’t explain.  Vipassana, translated as, seeing things as they are, is an explicit technique perfected to guide aspirants toward boundless clarity and wisdom. When experienced, if only for moments at a time, this sacred luminescence stirs an unquestionable desire to further explore the intricacies of this doorway to nirvana.

Four years ago and emotionally raw with only 22 minutes of meditation experience, I set out to find serenity. What I’ve discovered is that there are no shortcuts on the road to self-discovery; developing a steady practice takes time.  It is only through patience and purposeful resolve that we may meet with lasting truth, clarity, and ultimate bliss. While just beginning to traverse this deeply transformative practice, it is evident — the efforts may be many but the rewards are immeasurable.

And yes, stillness begins peace.

~ by Amy King

Searching For OM

Why on earth this endeavor? The odds of winning the lottery are greater than the percentage of those who've attained Supreme Consciousness. It's not mainstream and a vastly foreign concept to the Christian based beliefs we're naturally exposed to in the West.

It didn't begin this way. Meditation became an option only because of exhausting every conceivable method of securing and sustaining true happiness. Because of closing my eyes on that fateful day, and because I continued to do so, the content of my thoughts was unavoidable. Although I chose to listen, truly, I didn't wish to hear.

The truth wasn't so much harsh as it was upsetting. The person I'd become, this woman who thought she was caring and giving, insightful and non-judgmental, in reality, wasn't. The thoughts running throughout my head were in direct contrast, primarily self-serving and opinionated. There was very little compassion to be found.

It's not that I was a horrible person. I took care of those in my immediate circle, rarely lied and took responsibility for my actions. But at the core of my humanity I truly cared for only one, me. I'm not looking for sympathy and our cultural conditioning certainly supports such behavior. This doesn't make it right.

When through continued meditation I came to the realization that this process, in it of itself, was a form of de-conditioning, the results encouraged moving forward.

The notion of Nirvana was just that, a notion. I no more thought of it as truly possible than spreading my wings and flying around the moon. Nor did I understand it. The idea of a permanent condition called bliss sounded groovy. I didn't look at it as finding God, transcending mind & matter, developing Pristine Awareness, Liberation — whatever you wish to call it.

A turning point in my understanding occurred when I came to realize what Buddhism refers to as suffering; the basis of our unsettled, unsatisfied, minds. Before I knew what to call it, I experienced it, profoundly. The depiction of suffering as the ceaseless internal commentary regarding how things should be and could be in an illusory world outside of here and now, consuming our thoughts and present moments, is apt.

Something else I understood was that meditation was changing this and bringing me into the present. But I fell into it backward, practicing the cure before diagnosing the affliction. This, however, was pivotal. Had I not already experienced myself, through practice, what The Buddha prescribed to liberate oneself, it is likely that it never would have happened. Suffering would have appeared as a melodramatic term and meditation would have looked like not a lot of fun.

It takes effort, and at times — it's not a lot of fun. I've fallen off the truth-wagon more times than I care to admit and even profound shifts in perspective have not always been strong enough to combat the powerful pull of denial. The life-choice I've made is not a popular one and faith has been very slow to build. But once the Truth is glimpsed it is very hard to ignore. It calls you back with reminders that all that glitters is not gold and reality & illusion are two sides of the same coin.

Searching for OM was not about finding myself; it was about creating myself. The merging of the spiritual being I felt myself becoming with a livelihood that supported it. It was also not about Enlightenment — until it was.

A line was crossed. And it suddenly became profoundly clear. Liberation is possible.

In the last post, What if?eluded to the tremendous power that lies latent within each one of us. This isn't referring to the intellectualized notion in the mundane sense. I am talking about earth-shaking, mountain-moving, power.

But this is the problem. It's only talk. Glimpses of the other shore, no matter how profound, do not qualify one as having reached the other side and the ocean has not yet been completely traversed.

And it is on this note that I thank you for reading. It is necessary for me to drop off the planet for a little while to continue working on what I came here to accomplish.

Love & OM-

Christine

Sarnath

I need a distraction.

Upon attaining enlightenment, the Buddha’s gave his first discourse in the city of Sarnath, ten kilometers outside of Varanasi. Underneath a cloud soaked lead sky the rickshaw drops me in front of a Jain temple. Staring at the twenty-foot Buddha statue it begins to drizzle. There are benches so I sit under the protective cover of an awning and watch a dog carry a monkey on its back. After eating a few peanuts the rain subsides.

I cross the street.

Through a wide, paint-chipped metal gate, a Buddhist center anchors the far end of a circular stone drive. Upon ascending the steps, three golden Buddhas come into view. Perched at the back of the temple they keep watch over the marble floor and large pillars. Two monks sit in meditation and three others converse quietly in a small saffron circle.

After greeting the golden icons of liberation I move outside. The rains begin again. Avoiding the heavy downpour, I seek refuge under the protection of the large entranceway. From behind I hear a noise. It’s the guard, holding an umbrella. Upon accepting that there is more for me to achieve here, I again ascend the staircase. Bowing toward my escort I then gingerly step onto the cool marble, approach one of the thick pillars and lower myself to the floor.

Closing my eyes, I sit in silence listening to the rainfall. The tight knots inside my head begin loosening and within the air molecules of each out breath, tension slowly begins to dissipate. I’ve been resisting India. Since my arrival I’ve been tossing up walls to protect myself from the fray, a futile illusion depriving me of feeling her deep immeasurable beauty.

It’s still lightly sprinkling when I get antsy and make a break for it. As luck would have it, I step onto the street and directly in front of me a rickshaw is emptying of its passengers. I take a seat in the back. We negotiate a price and the driver’s arm waves wildly through the air as if conducting an orchestra, all the while laughing wildly at the punch line of a joke only he himself knows.

Cha Cha (Uncle), motions with his hand for me to sit in the front seat next to him.

“Nahi.” There is no reason for me to sit in front, or so I think.

He waves his arm and pats the seat. My attention is diverted; two women and a man approach; it is now that I understand. He’s sold me out. For the price, this is a private rickshaw, no doubt. But nothing but time on my hands and Cha Cha ji bouncing on the seat, whooping it up, I move up and squeeze in. And we’re off.

Rain is dripping onto my face and legs, cold against my warm skin, centuries old buildings speaking of their history as we pass. Deep rust bricks bear the remains of worn Hindi lettering; structures and cryptic looping script repeating, one after another. Men, women, bare-bottomed children, and cows share the unpaved road with rickshaws, trucks, motorbikes and vegetable carts. Graceful disorder in full motion. A thin woman draped in a sky blue sari, soaked to the bone, stands alone in the center of the swirling mayhem. She bends to the ground and picks up a bright orange brick the color of the soil and heaves it through the air, landing behind the moving rickshaw.

Cha Cha ji whoops on.

The three passengers exit and I am shooed into the back. Within moments we stop for another, a young woman. The road turns bumpy. An enormous crimson brick structure stands alone breathing under a roofless open sky. Massive chunks absent from the upper rim form a structurally jagged painting against a backdrop of translucent humidity. Great wooden doors matching in bulk are slowly pushed open from the inside by two men, one against the weight of each, swinging open time’s window and exposing hundreds of thick black cattle. Howling guttural shoves echo through the mass of hulken bodies.

Cha Cha ji whoops on.

I look down at the young woman seated next to me. Her brown skin glows in contrast to the sheer lavender fabric pressed against it. Her dark wavy hair pulled back, frames the features of a delicately sculpted effigy of a Princess past. She bounces lightly to the beat of the bumpy road and looks up at me.

Cha Cha ji whoops on.

~  by Christine Fowle

Blow by Blow

Day 1

The first day of sitting for ten hours in silence is like the first day of school. Listening to the chatter in my head is like getting re-acquainting with old friends and sparks the aura of a fresh start. This is, until the ticking clock reveals my analogy may be a bit off. I am then forced to admit that it’s more like the inmates are running the asylum and they may indeed require extradition to someplace with tighter observation.

Day 2

By the end of day two most of the baggage wheels have been tightened and sliding the mental outlook into a smoother ride. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a full suitcase rolling around, but by day’s it's consolidated into a moderately sized carry-on. The onset of pain however, associated with sitting immobile for twenty hours, is beginning to surface.

Day 3

My dreams have taken on a colorful vivacity only overshadowed by their prophetic nature. Prohibited from discussion, I am unable to discern if this is my unique experience or if this is a collective sleep-scape and fringe benefit of tapping into the silence of the universe.

I begin waking at 3:30 to perform Yoga stretches. It’s the only way of protecting myself from the deepening pain I feel in every one of my joints.

This evening in the dark of night, leaving the dining hall for the 6pm session, I hear the only two words uttered all week by the girl who occupies the cushion to my right: ”It’s snowing!” The lightly falling snowflakes accompanied by her childlike expression of wonder create a pristinely delicate experience.

Day 4

Nightly, we sit back to enjoy the recorded screenings of S.N. Goenka’s discourses. These entertaining talks encourage a deeper understanding of the process and help to connect some of the ethereal dots. He’s remarkably funny and is also the Indian version of Tom Bosley. Yes, I’ve just compared the man responsible for one hundred plus worldwide meditation centers to Mr. C from Happy Days.

These discourses become my sole incentive to make it through the last hours of the day. Knowing Mr. G will slash another date from the calendar and that I’ll get to hear a story that will make me want to clap my hands and bounce up and down in giddy amusement are my new conceptual carrot. I think the silence may be getting to me.

Day 5

The only sounds in the meal hall are those of silverware clanking against dishes, dishes dropping on the table and the muffled squeals of wooden benches dragging across floorboards. Based on the tortured looking faces of my allies it is evident there are exorcisms taking place behind the closed doors of their cells. And as is if I need additional proof, the meditation police-woman, one by one, begins removing cushions of my fallen comrades from the floor of the large room.

There is a woman assigned to the spot behind me, who we’ll call Princess. She sighs uncontrollably and readjusts her positioning every thirty seconds.

Day 6

As the mid-point is crossed the phenomenon catches on and meditators begin dropping like autumn leaves in the forest. Regardless of the agreement we all signed there are widening gaps on the floor between those of us remaining. The pain of sitting is becoming increasingly unbearable.

I am convinced Princess has been sent here to test me and her verbal discomfiture is made known to everyone within earshot. I am willing her with my mind, to open her eyes and react to the empty spaces around us with a monkey-see, monkey-do style epiphany.

Day 7

I am becoming one with the pain. It is circulating through my body in waves, bringing me deeper into my meditations.

I may or may not be imagining a mighty lightening bolt penetrating the wood-framed structure, leaving only a charred hole and wafting smoke stream from the cushion behind me, after a swift yet vaporizing strike. I may or may not be smiling at the thought.

Day 8

Anyone that has stuck it out this long is likely in it for the long haul and I’ve begun drawing from the strength of those around me. The regiment is paying off. The inside of my head is calm and I do, at times, feel connected to something vast.

Princess shows up now only for the mandatory sittings during which she ruthlessly takes out her anti-peace & love frustrations. With each forceful release of air from her lungs I expect her to kick me in the back, claiming retribution.

It feels as though a hot metal pin is running the length of my shoulder blades and down my spine. Did I really quit my job for this?

Day 9

The mid-morning session begins with one of the last pillows being removed from the hall, this time, from the spot behind me! I settle into an entirely new level of comfort.

Day 10

Upon conclusion of the morning session we are free to speak. Joining the others in the dining room the chatter is on par with that of the girls’ room at a high school dance. I immediately spin on my heels and return to the meditation hall; it’s simply too much. After another hour of silence, I breathe out one last sigh of peace and make my way back. I quickly say hello and good-bye, pack up my things and begin looking forward to what lies ahead.

As this was last year’s adventure I’ve still got the next ten days to look forward to. I’ll see you on the other side.

Setting the Stage

I’m not a big fan of rules and tend to do what I think is right, which is not always what I’m told. This being said, the ten days of meditation include a code of discipline that prohibits contact with the outside world. As this is a pre-requisite for signing up for the course and an important factor in remaining focused, I will willingly oblige. Because of this you will not hear from me for a while as I slip into the zone.

I’m sorry to drop off the radar so soon into my trip but it is beyond necessary. I am including a daily blow by blow based on my experience last year so you may follow along with my meditative journey.  Once day ten is complete I’ll show signs of life and we will be free to resume our little adventure.

Setting the Stage:

It’s the cusp of winter in the Blue Mountains and the Blackheath compound is made up of units reminiscent of cell blocks. My bedroom contains a low twin, wood framed bed and as the meditation hall is the warmest space on the grounds, it provides ample motivation to spend as much time there as possible. The alternative is to huddle inside my sleeping bag like a caterpillar poked with a stick.

Men and women are segregated and there are about 50 and 75 in attendance respectively (yes, that many people do sign up for this thing). The sleeping quarters and dining areas are separate and we sit on opposite sides of the meditation hall. The point of this experiment is certainly not to troll for dates, so all attempts to catch the eye of a handsome tree-hugger from across the steamy meditation space are out.

The meditation hall is enormous. There is a long strip of gray carpet running down the center, separating the room in half. Square, blue cushions are placed in symmetrical rows on either side with the men on the left and women on the right. Seats are assigned and my spot for the next ten days is on the inside, adjacent to the blue runway, three rows up from the double doors at the back of the room.

Meals are served in a dining hall with arguably, the most breathtaking panoramic view for kilometers. The serenity of a sunrise awakening the plush misty valley below imparts unadulterated inspiration to power through the morning meditation just to bear witness. Note: It’s likely if news of this spectacular view gets out, someone will want to rip down the center and erect a resort, so shhhhhh, let’s please keep this our secret.

Believe it or not, there are meditation police. The police-woman is thin, wears a burgundy beret, cocked slightly to the left, dark framed glasses and carries a clipboard. Very much like Santa, she keeps tabs on who’s been naughty, constantly scanning the room and scribbling notes. I eagerly anticipate the massive piles of gifts my good behavior is bound to earn me.

Off to See the Wizard

G’day from the land of oZ!

Projected by the tailwinds of time, after fourteen hours in the air the mysteries of aviation drop the airplane into Sydney two calendar days after the flight commences. Undoubtedly, one of my favorite sounds in the world is the hum of landing gear deploying and this morning was no exception. It means stepping out of the capsule and touching my feet onto the soil of a destination I couldn’t reach by sprinting. It’s someplace I wasn’t when I started and holds the air of mischief not yet accomplished.

Immediately after landing I quickly glide away from the city-scapes surrounding the Sydney airport and into the deep fog-engulfed valleys of the Blue Mountains. Stopping off in Katoomba, a quaint little mountain town that reminds me of Park City. Adjusting my eyes to thew new digs  I set about getting reacquainted with the main street, intersperced with locally owned restaurants, galleries and shops it's set against a pristine wooded world of rocks and valleys.   It feels like home with an accent.

The air is heavy and gray with a drizzly humidity to match. My hair is already beginning to take on weight and by morning I suspect I’ll be sporting a full afro. In the two days prior to joining one hundred fellow meditators, I’m staying at a youth hostel at the end of the street. While well beyond the phase that would still consider me a youth, it’s convenient, impeccably clean and boasts an enormous communal kitchen.

This new home base will make an excellent transitional portal, both before and after my cerebral cleansing. The Blackheath Vipassana center is two train stops over and to give you an idea of what the next ten days are about here is the schedule:

4:00 a.m.                         Morning wake-up bell
4:30 - 6:30 a.m.             Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 - 8:00 a.m.             Breakfast break
8:00 - 9:00 a.m.            Group meditation in the hall
9:00 - 11:00 a.m.           Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00 - 12 noon               Lunch break
1:00 - 2:30 p.m.              Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 - 3:30 p.m.              Group meditation in the hall
3:30 - 5:00 p.m.              Meditate in the hall or in your room
5:00 - 6:00 p.m.             Tea break
6:00 - 7:00 p.m.             Group meditation in the hall
7:00 - 8:15 p.m.              Teacher's discourse in the hall
8:15 - 9:00 p.m.              Group meditation in the hall
9:00 - 9:30 p.m.             Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.                          Lights out

You may be wondering why this sounds like a good idea? For someone with extreme rule-averse tendencies as myself, why is indeed a reasonable question.

"Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification."

Just to be clear, meditation is not about religious affiliation and if you speak to my mother please explain to her that I’m not joining a cult. But haven’t you ever wondered what the point of all this is? We wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat, sleep and do it all over again. Along the way we make some friends, have children, develop neurosis, and pass them along, just like good little Doozers.

I’m tired of distracting myself with the minutia. There is something out there beyond what I can see with my own eyes; of this I am certain. Admittedly, I am not going to solve the great cosmic riddle after ten days of sitting with my eyes closed. But the deeper I penetrate the nature of my own thoughts, the closer I come to untangling the misconceptions and prejudice that cloud my perception.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.