Grains of sand


“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, it is the grain of sand in your shoe”

It is funny what sticks with you. The above quote I actually heard from a world civilization teacher in 7th or 8th grade. I could swear that he told us it was an old saying from Confucius, but a quick look on the web appears to verify its author as Robert W. Service. Whatever. It is a great quote, and one which has come back to haunt or instruct me on so very many occasions in life. We humans are like that, really. We let the most petty annoyances turn into giant stumbling blocks. And the really big things, the really big questions in life, glide by with such little weight and such little notice.

These thoughts were occupying me this afternoon after my Monday meditation group. It seemed that the entire environment was conspiring to pull me out of “the zone”. Random honking from the street below, the floors being resurfaced in the next room, the giggling group in the hallway, the guy in the room who shifted his place three times, while loudly sorting his pile of keys and change.

There is a mostly unspoken tension that exists among meditators that revolves around environment. What is a suitable space in which to meditate? Almost without fail, the goal is to pick a tranquil environment that involves a simple room that is mostly cutoff from outside sound, with a low light level and comfortable temperature. The idea is to have the fewest distractions possible, thus allowing participants to concentrate and focus more deeply on the meditation at hand. Whenever there is an extra stimulus (which is very often), the individual or group is confronted with a small dilemma. A major goal of Buddhism after all is to accept all things with equanimity and not to cling to cravings (such as for an “ideal” space) or run from aversions (such as a chaotic environment). Therefore, it is ideal to simply “deal with it” and find a way to notice and accept without judgement. Ultimately, we all live in the imperfect world (even Buddhists) and the goal is too see clearly and find peace in the present moment, and the present being. This of course includes the chaos that is life.

The great lesson I keep coming back to is that these little things are not only the grains of sand in my shoe. These grains of sand in some ways ARE the mountain ahead, in that they are as much a part of the totality of existence as the mountain. And neither the mountain nor the grains of sand are much without our acquiescense to their power. All things hinge on our attitude towards them, and our willingness to reach out and accept them, to touch them and let them touch us without craving or aversion. To appreciate and experience them, and then let them go.

Prayer as meditation


I go twice weekly to drop-in meditation at the Centro Budismo here in Mexico City. Today for some reason there was a significantly larger number of people in attendance, many of them new. At one end of the room there is a small altar with a statue, small plants, candles and incense pot. Someone will usually light incense and make a small incantation of some sort before the meditation begins, but this is never really a group thing. I have never really cared much for these alter things, they smack too much of iconography, idol worship, what have you. For me the perfect meditation space is one that is completely empty and quiet. But to each their own.

In any event, just before the meditation was to begin with everyone in their places, one of the new participants (a woman in her late 40s I would imagine) wanted to ask the group leader a question.

Motioning to the alter, she asked if we were going to learn to pray. The leader was a little confused and asked if she meant “meditate” instead. She said no, she wanted to learn to pray in the correct way, in the Buddhist way, here in the center. The leader said that while there were certainly structured ways to show respect at the alter (pray, in her parlance) that this was a session devoted to meditation, and we would be practicing that instead. She nodded, and we proceeded with the meditation.

When I left, I began having flashbacks to all sorts of experiences I had while in India . They say there are many paths to yoga, a word which means nothing other than union. A union of mind, body and spirit, a connection to the divine or an understanding of the nature of existence and being at peace with it. For some, the path involves intense study and philosophy. For others the path to that experience is more physical and more visceral, using the physical forms that we are familiar with in the west, such as asanas and meditation, to achieve this union. For others the path of service and helping others is what brings them in touch with the universe. And for some, it is in devotion and prayer.

I have never been a prayer person, and I doubt that I will ever be. The very idea of focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it takes me far away indeed from any trancending experience. It is too physical, there is too much earthy baggage. I tend to do better connecting to an abstract, formless universe where everything everywhere is of equal weight, at least spiritually. I don’t believe in a diety of any sort. All existence is equally holy, and there is little use for me personally in the idea of god.

That said, I can totally understand how for other people the idea of prayer and connecting with a diety might be their way to peace. And in some ways prayer can be very much like meditation in practice, though the focus is different. I was fascinated by this woman in the meditation though, who felt she was there for that kind of experience. That for her, with whatever background or upbringing she had, prayer was the path, and the thing she was most interested in.

Interestingly, the more time I have spent in Mexico, the more similarities I have come to see between the Catholic imagery and iconography in the churches and cathedrals here and the iconography and worship of Hindu deities in India. Both religions have large sets of figures to worship. Both have rather vibrant physical representations of these figures. And both have imbued each of these dieties (or saints) with specific powers or areas of influence. Both religions encourage praying to specific figures for specific purposes. The more I look at Catholicism, (especially as practiced in this part of the world) the less I see it having anything to do with monotheism. Everything is an aspect of the divine I suppose, just like so many of the Hindu gods are ultimately traceable to a single spiritual force known as Brahman.

Metta Bhavana en Español


Today I went to my first drop-in meditation at the Buddhist Center here in Mexico City.  Although not understanding all of the words our guide was using, I did get that today’s meditation was a Metta Bhavana, which I was pretty familiar with from my time at Igatpuri. With all the noise from the street and construction going on in the building, it wasn’t the most focused meditation I ever had, but I still left feeling pretty at peace. The center itself is really lovely and just a short walk from my place.

From Random DF



I accepted my friend Sian’s invitation to attend Friday night services with her at her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, on the Upper West Side.  I have to admit to feeling a sense of uneasy intimidation leading up to me going, the kind you feel when you have a homework assignment to finish or some bill to pay. Something you don’t want to do, but have to anyway. I felt I had made a promise to my friend to go and that I should do so, so what was the big deal?

There was a lot of big deal, actually.  I was somehow transported back to my childhood where I was forced by any manner of adult to do these things that held so little meaning for me: go to shul, pray, be a good and observant Jew, fit in to this or that community.  For various reasons for most of my life, these things held very little attraction for me.  It was as if someone was trying to graft onto me an identity that only partially fit.  This could have been the case for many reasons.  It could have been that as a young person struggling with being gay, none of this felt particularly welcoming.  It could have been that, having moved around in several neighborhoods growing up, I never felt particularly tied to these sub communities. It could have been the natural tendency of my family in questioning everything to reject belief in God.

Whatever the reasons, it was with trepidation that I walked up to 88th and Broadway to meet my freind.  In the abstract, going to services with Sian was no different that the many other ceremonies and rituals in which I have participated over the past year, whether these be Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Christian or other. Objectively, this was just another culture to witness.  This was just another ceremony to observe, trying to understand its purpose and mystery, trying to appreciate the meaning it holds for the participants.

But this was different, specifically because I was raised in this tradition.  This was different, because I felt by turns an uneasy and a comforting recognition in the prayers and music.  One thing you have to hand to this congregation, they sing beautifully and with integrity and feeling.  Looking around the room during the service, I saw in the faces of people the warm embrace of community and religious bliss.  It was really something.  And when the time came to sing the Shema, I felt a shiver and connection to these people that was really lovely.

The other nice thing about this congregation is their clear commitment to social justice and bridging gaps of understanding between communities of differing beliefs.  I have always felt that religious groupings serve two purposes for the participants.  They provide a place in which to express belief and they give a sense of belonging and community to their members.  In some people the former is stronger and in others the latter.

This particular congregation and their outlook is not for me, for all the same reasons I have come to in this blog over the past year.  Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be given the opportunity by my friend Sian to witness a loving community that gives her life meaning.  And perhaps I have also been given the opportunity to let go of a few old ghosts from my childhood.

A little death


I had a strange dream last night. I was in some group setting, a day was passing normally and I found out from my doctor that I only had that day to live, that I would die by morning. A lot of the rest of the dream was very mundane, interacting with people but not letting on that I was going to die. At the same time, I kept checking myself for any sign that I was about to die. I kept concentrating on what the sensations were in my body, thinking here and there that I was about to detect an oncoming heart failure or stopping of breath. And the more I searched within myself, the more elusive the feeling of passing or death became. Time kept passing and I felt the doctor had to have been correct in his prognosis, and yet I wasn’t dying. I realized that I was spending a lot of time held in this strange moment of the anticipation of death. I wasn’t anxious or afraid, but neither was I completely calm or centered. As I waited (and waited) for Godot, I eventually woke up.

Moon River and Me.


Dallas and Dmitri (at whose house I am staying in LA) had a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I hadn’t seen it in a while and had to watch. I find the message very Hollywood in a lot of ways, and sweet in others. At one level, the idea that unless you are willing to jump into loving others you are in a cage no matter how glamorous your life may otherwise seem or be is sweet. The same could be said of so many experiences that life holds for us. On the other hand, there is some pretty scary dialog from the film along the lines of “You belong to me, I love you!” This is the message of so much of our culture, that we can posses people as well as things. I strongly believe that despite all the noise and urging, we can not, nor should we strive to. We should enjoy the sharing we have with each other for as long as it is, but when it changes or is gone, strive to appreciate that as well. Every part of life can and should be celebrated for what it teaches us. To need things to be a particular way is to miss what beauty is actually there in front of us and a part of us. Buddhism teaches not that we don’t strive for things, but that we accept with equanimity what is, regardless of whether reality reflects exactly our original goals. I can’t count the number of times in my life I have had some difficulty or struggling that turned into joy and bliss, either from the lessons learned or from the cause and effect of an unexpected outcome.

To paraphrase the song, we are crossing the river at every moment (and in style) not someday, but today. If we let ourselves.

The Productivity Problem


Being back in the US makes me feel somewhat anxious about not working (or maybe just anxious). Why? I’m not totally sure. Here are some of the possibilities:

– The Culture of Productivity. Let’s face it, everywhere one goes here there is an underlying need to be productive (or just look productive).

– The people I know all work. Somehow in my head, I imagined coming back and hanging out with all manner of friend, family and acquaintance. But every time I (finally) manage to get a hold of said people they are very scheduled and busy with very many things and not really available at the drop of a hat, or tomorrow, or even next Tuesday.

– The familiar surroundings. It may also be that just by the mere fact of being back here in a familiar place that I am induced to repeat old patterns and fall back into the mode I was in before leaving. This is one of the trepidations I had in coming back.

– Money. This one is pretty obvious. Things cost way more here and my money will run out in a few months and I will have to do something. That said, I really don’t have to worry this very moment and was planning on not having to worry for a few months. But just the shock of spending in a single night what I would in a week on food is disconcerting.

– Owning things. I bought a computer last week. The whole reason for it was to enable my writing and give me some flexibility in creative endeavor. But owning this thing has also caused me to invest a lot of time in caring for it, configuring it, tinkering with it. I’m letting it become a mini obsession, and I think part of the reason is to feel more productive, doing something. Ironically, this makes me a little anxious and leaves me feeling a little less productive.

– Being sick. It is also a real possibility that the mere fact of having a bad cold the past few days has affected my state of mind, clouding my ability to be present.

Before coming back here, I had resolved to give myself a couple of months to relax, get reacquainted, and figure out what to do near the end of the year, with no preconceptions. That could mean travel or work in any number of places (San Francisco, London, Madrid, HK, Sydney..take your pick). That could mean many types of work (writing, technology, design, etc) in many situations (self, non-profit, start-up, etc).

I need to relax and get back to my Buddhist lessons. Perhaps I’ll go to a drop-in meditation at the Zen Center tomorrow.

Setting the wheel in motion


We took a small side trip yesterday (from Varanasi about 11km) to go see the site of Sarnath. This is where the Buddha gave his first Dharma talk after becoming enlightened. Although mostly in ruins now, it was still fascinating to walk where the Buddha walked over two millennia ago and contemplate his teachings. Outside of numerous child touts, it is a generally peaceful and inspiring place.

Olaf and I take the overnight train to Orchha tonight (well Jhansi really, then car to Orchha).

From sarnath