Sunday, May 30, 2004

My news

Since the retreat I've moved to Bhagsu. It's quieter, greener and more peaceful than McLeod Ganj and a 15 minute walk when I want to come into town.

On the work front, Longsho are holding their summer camp in a couple days. They're well into their own preparations and my possible input is mimimal. I'll visit for a day or so, just to see the camp in action and understand what all this work is for.

Thursday night I'm set to attend a briefing meeting with the Tibetan football manager and the other members of the selection committee. Yes, it looks like I will be choosing the team. Everything crossed.

The team still needs training videos and books. Send what you've got to:

Kalsang Dhondup,
Tibetan National Sports Association,
C/o TCV Head Office,
Dharamsala Cantt - 176215,
Dist. Kangra (H.P.)

Thoughts, returning from retreat

1. Silence is invaluable. When you make the commitment not to speak, you stop trying to impress. In most conversations there's the desire to project an image of the self. Out in the real world, we fear silence because we're not comfortable with the unadulterated moment. It comes from an ingrained sense of our own inadequacy.

2. Giving up on communicating with peers can force us to really confront and engage with things. We tend too much to rely on other peoples' opinions, and this stops us from developing. Of course we can trust the wisdom, intelligence and experience of others, but only to a certain point - then you have to take over. Those people are not you. They have a different set of issues, circumstances and understandings. Two people can speak the same language and use the same words but still talk at complete cross-purposes. Progress - in anything - has to come from personal work. That's why you can't really change anyone. They have to want to change and the best you can do is give them the tools.

3. There isn't very much to know, it's just really hard to know it. Knowing something intellectually is a world away from grasping it deep down. That's why, for me, studying the truth isn't enough. It needs to be accompanied by meditation and practice.

4. Meditation is meant to reinforce truths but also to wipe clean the lens of our perceptions. Without our false beliefs and the confusing assumption that we need something to be happy and whole (a self-fulfilling prophecy), those truths are already there.

5. There are doctrinal differences between various religions and spiritual philosophies, but mainly the differences are in approach. An example: Yeshayahu Leibowitz contrasts Christianity's crucifiction story with the Old Testament akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham was required to overcome his personal desires, emotions and ethics to kill his son for God. In the crucifiction, God allows his own son to die for the sake of humanity. The difference seems massive. But both are stories of human completeness in God. The Christian myth requires its adherents to trust and know that God's love is real. It exists. We don't need anything. The Abraham-Isaac model is a call to let go of the things we think we need, of the need to need, and to discover that God's love is real.

6. Leibowitz says that nothing in this world is inherently holy. The bread isn't sacred until you say the blessing. He's right. Our experience of the divine, which I understand as virtually identical to unsullied awareness, can't occur in any external object. It can only take place at the site of our consciousness. That's why the bread is only holy when we deliberately act to bear witness. The link between observation and observance is more than linguistic.

7. Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. What do I mean by the world to come? The state of knowing peaceful completeness. Not attaining but knowing. Shabbat is rest, rest is this realisation. There's a danger for someone who hates their job and feels they need shabbat in order to escape and become themselves. Their shabbat rest can't be perfect because they believe that without it they're incomplete. Instead, we should try to take that realisation of our own completeness and bring it into our awareness throughout the rest of the week. Shabbat is not a thing acting as an addition to ourselves. It is rather the space to see ourselves.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Back by popular demand

Not me. The guestbook.

Don't diss the comments though.

OK so I'm back too. Meditation retreat. Didn't speak for 6 days. A lot of things made sense. Then I came back to the world. Application is a lot more difficult. But I'm getting there.

Friday, May 21, 2004


Went to Kashmir for a couple days. Beautiful, green, cool, quiet. Moderately militarised.

Now back in McLeod Ganj and off on a 6 day meditation retreat. See you all the other side.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Tourist

It's easy to be cynical.

You arrive, get into a routine. Drinks and meals on the hillside rooftops, shopping in the clothes stores, where everything's a bargain by our standards. Whatever you need is here. A bit of yoga, to balance the body and mind. Some cooking lessons, to bring home those exotic tastes, a souvenir of your trip to create and recreate when you've reabsorbed yourself into western life.

The poverty and misfortune around you is disturbing, but what can you do? Maybe give a few rupees to a beggar. He won't recognise you tomorrow. He'll probably ask you again in an hour. A lot of them have leprosy. It makes you stop and think - again - how fortunate you are. But then you meet someone who volunteered at a lepers' hospital. She tells you most of them can be cured but they're able to earn a better living on the streets.

So you harden your heart a little, even though you don't want to. When it softens again it grows calloused in other places. Now it's the other tourists. We're all consumers of the exotic here, dissatisfied with our lives and romanticising the east. Here is where you're going to find a bit of enlightenment, and it's on the cheap. Get a course, get a teacher. You walk through the market and view the fruit and veg. On the wall above the stalls, are the notices of the other market. Reiki, crystals, vipassana, dream interpretation, drumming lessons, tabla. You come to sneer at the buyer. "What about your own culture? You'd probably find as much inner peace doing ballet lessons in Islington. All you have here are a couple weeks and the projections of your wishful thinking."

And then you open. You have to. You talk. This Israeli guy has been studying the tabla. He already plays three or four instruments. He'd like to travel more but his teacher is here. In the autumn he'll follow him to Varanassi, the centre of Indian classical music.

This other guy has been doing Reiki. He explains it. You're disarmed, because he is authentic. I mean, you actually like him. He has a sense of humour. He knows what irony is.

When you decide to try something yourself - even though you're still a tourist, even though it's with no commitment as yet - you remember: here is a real discipline if you want it. Find the right thing and you're reminded: this doesn't exist because we need a choice between lifestyles. For someone, this is what truth looks like.

Above all, you discover the following. How superficial or serious you find anywhere of even minimal complexity, depends on the superficiality or seriousness of your own attitude. When you're cynical, how are you going to see? So too your relationships. Your friendliness and respect will reveal to you people who want to be your friend and already respect you. If you find someone closed and cold or, more commonly, just apathetic and uninterested... it could be they're a wanker. But probably you're seeing your own fear and negativity reflected in the behaviour of those reacting around you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Living in the Mind

I've been here for two weeks. I'll no doubt be here for at least 6 more before I get to explore more of this or any other country. I've seen lots of people arrive and leave Dharamshala and I keep having to remind myself I'm here for a different reason. I'm here to do a job, to help this Tibetan youth movement. It's a good job. It's my priority.

But with Hannah and Rob gone and my sessions for the Tibetan youth workers beginning in earnest, I thought it's time to look at some of the many classes on offer here. Yoga. Reiki. Meditation. Tibetan or Indian cooking. The tourists flock here for these things.

I met an Israeli and an Iranian, both of whom had been on a Tai Chi course. It was just beginning again. Three hours every morning for three weeks. 8000 rupees (about 110 pounds) - hugely expensive for this part of the world, but these two people told me it was special.

I turned up at 8.30 the next morning. The spot was idyllic, in a clearing in the forest about 500 metres above the main town. I'd never done Tai Chi before. We started with some simple exercises, shifting weight from one foot to another and swinging our arms. The teacher, a Canadian-born Chinese guy now living in Amsterdam and teaching his way across India, had a good voice for it. He put us at ease and let us get on with it.

Something happened a few exercises in. We were standing rooted, lifting and lowering our arms very deliberately, trying to feel every millimetre of air. Eyes closed. After one or two minutes, my head felt very warm. My chest felt constrained and I had a general tingling sensation all over. I kept going but within seconds needed to sit down. Once I'd rested I got up to try again, but almost immediately the same thing happened. Next time we broke to sit in a circle again I told the teacher. He said it was quite normal. We were channeling energy and my body wasn't used to it. I was amazed and started looking forward to stretching my stamina and capacity.

In between exercises the teacher would give readings, things he said he'd learnt from various teachers and gurus. "You are not the mind & you are not the body. The 'I' underneath is pure consciousness, pure love, pure beauty." Or more mundanely: "The quality of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. If you have shitty thoughts, you'll have a shitty life. If you have beautiful thoughts, you'll lead a beautiful life. Think about it."

It's not that I disagreed. But something about the way he spoke made me wince.

No more energy fireworks in the Tai Chi itself. But at the end, when we were holding hands in a circle, concentrating on sending round a pulse and a chant, it happened again. I had to open my eyes and deliberately detatch.

The teacher told us we might start feeling very tired after practicing. We might start sleeping 10 or 12 hours every night. I went up to him at the end. I said I was concerned it might infringe on my responsibilities to this organisation I was volunteering for. He looked at me and smiled.

"Nothing has happened yet. You're living in your mind, in your fears. Yhis course is about self-mastery. You have to do it and see what happens. You have to be OK inside yourself. You're not going to gain any benefit from any job until you're OK inside yourself. It's up to you. You can go on living in your mind and your fears or you can work with us on developing yourself. If you don't want to be free, that's OK."

Not humble. Not compassionate.

I felt he should have added: "Oh and by the way, it'll cost you 100 pounds. No installments, please."

I decided against the course. I'm going to some yoga and cookery classes. And I'm getting on with running the seminar. Feeling good.

Brand new. Good for you.

Page had a makeover. I think it looks a bit neater. Working on links and stuff. Comments instead of guestbook for now.

Monday, May 10, 2004

While we're on a football kind of theme, thought I'd get down the story of Rob's and my attempts to watch the second leg of Chelsea's Champions League semi-final last Wednesday. The time difference is 4 and a half hours, so the 7.45 GMT kick off was quarter past midnight over here. Now this place isn't Thailand - there aren't bars with TVs or restaurants where football fans can be sure of catching any game that's on. Yes, there are foreigners' haunts, but most tourists here dress in loose flowing robes and start the day with two hours of yoga rather than a hangover. No, McLeod Ganj is dead by 10.

Last Wednesday I legislated for all this. My guesthouse (run by Buddhist monks) has a TV in the small front lobby. I went there in the day and asked the guy at the desk if I could watch at night. My friend and I would promise to keep the sound down. I was told that a monk sleeps at the front to keep guard, but I could wake him. Relieved of his guard duties, he could go off to his own bed. Great - it sounded almost like a favour. This was what I heard anyway.

Rob had been in the habit of going to bed quite early. To make sure we both stayed up, we went to the internet cafe next door to mine and set up shop for a couple hours. Rob was bleary-eyed by the time we left at midnight, but he'd made it.

We crept down the alley leading to my guesthouse and pushed open the door. There was a harsh grating sound. The monk on duty, it turned out, was in the habit of propping a small chest of drawers against the door. We slid in but the monk was startled. "Who there?" he called out in the pitch black. I whispered: "Umm the guy at the desk said we could watch football here now. He said you could go to bed." Silence. Then: "One second." The monk turned the light on and we saw the extent of his 'guard duty'. I swear he'd set up a king size sleeper in there, padded down with quilts and cushions and pillows and all. He stood in his pyjamas blinking at us. "Some mistake," he said. "There lots of monks asleep round here." We didn't have it in us to persevere. We'd have been bastards if we had.

Back on the empty streets at ten past 12, we were not to be beaten. We walked up to the bus and taxi stop, usually so busy, now so dead. But there in the darkened 1st floor window of the nearest restaurant was a security guard and a blue flicker. A TV! We ran up the stairs to the door, where the little Indian man came to meet us.

"Sorry, closed."

"But we want to watch football. We saw you have a TV."

He let us in, as if 'football' was a sort of password. And then we saw the TV. Black and white, attached stick-up aerial, portable - 4 by 5 inches. The game was on ESPN, a satellite channel. But no problem, he told us: "We get signal from next door." This turned out to be a somewhat creative description of the truth. We fiddled with the dial and got a grainy version of the Cartoon Network. And a loud hissing noise. Rob and I had to laugh.

I was about to suggest I take a quick run up the road, to see if a fully equipped late night sports bar had decided to materialise in McLeod Ganj in the last two hours, when the security guard told us to stay. He went behind the bar. I thought he was making us drinks. Instead he emerged with a full length cable of wire and a knife. He cut away at the ends until the inner conductors were exposed. Then he wrapped one end around the TV aerial and opened the window. He leaned outside and up and wrapped the other end to one of the cables strung between the street telegraph poles. Within seconds we had picture, sound, commentary, football. Small football. Greys and whites against dark greys. No Ron Atkinson. But you can't have everything.

We asked our new friend if he had ever done that before. "No," he said, matter-of-factly. I don't know, maybe it wasn't dangerous at all.

For what it's worth, Chelsea played brilliantly in the first half, got the tie back, then threw it all away. Ten minutes from the end, with Chelsea needing 3 more goals to go through and playing like turkeys, Rob went home with a dodgy tummy. The security guard still got excited every time Chelsea went forwards. I explained the two-leg structure for the second time, though I'm still not sure he understood. I wasn't even going to attempt the away goals rule.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Hannah and Rob left last Thursday. Since they left I've been much more solitary, even in the midst of the Dharamshala bustle.

Spent the whole of Friday night and Saturday day at Beit Chabad, which operates as the local Jewish community centre in the wilderness. I think they do an amazing job, providing community and Torah miles from home. Got to learn with the three main organisers on Saturday morning, before services. Whole of Shabbat was a real pleasure.

Today it's been head down to work on the seminar I'll be running, first with the current two Longsho movement workers, then with the new workers and regional representatives from Deckyiling and Darjeeling. Think it's going to be quite hard work.

Feel like I'm entering a new phase. Would like to do something - explore the country, go trecking, take some classes - but I'm not going to have the time for a while. Need patience and maybe a few new friends.

Friday afternoon I walked for half an hour to the Tibetan Children's Village to meet with the head of the Tibetan National Football Team. Had seen a sign up in town, asking for foreigners who could help out. Thinking I might be able to spare some time, dreaming of international football management, I decided just to turn up. I found his office pretty easily, alongside the school administration offices.

School administration? Yup, the guy is an ex-PE teacher who, through the efforts of a Danish football enthusiast who passed through Dharamshala in 1999, is now in charge of the 'national' football team. He shook my hand, sat me down at his desk and took me through some background. So far they've played one international, in Denmark, against Greenland. They lost 4-1 - went 1-0 up but conceded 3 goals in the last 7 minutes. The fitness is really lacking, I was told. They completed that tour with a 2-1 loss to Monaco and a 5-1 victory over Zurich. They're entering a new phase now, planning to play teams in India and also to gather talented kids from Tibetan kids around the country, grooming them for a better, stronger Tibetan squad. All this has the blessing of the Dalai Lama, but it's hardly national priority number one.

Unfortunately, my managerial career is probably going to have to wait. He's really looking for qualified referees or coaches. Or money. I said I'd help him publicise by putting a few 'wanted' notices up in town. I think he only had one up and it wasn't exactly eye-catching. I've put the ad together now and emailed it to him. You never know - he might change his mind and incorporate me into a two-tiered continental style management team.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Moish Geller read my blog (see entry for 15 April). In retrospect, hardly surprising - a google search for his name brings up my page first! He wrote that "it's a rare treat to see how others see you when they think you're not looking" and he's right. That's one of the reasons I like blogging: I'm never fully aware of who's reading, so when I let my guard down or throw caution to the wind, readers see a side to me I might not usually show them. In some ways, it leads to more honesty.

But I realised yesterday, thinking about this whole process of interaction since Boombamela, there's lots more going on here. That honesty I just mentioned is severely limited.

I meet Moish by the festival entrance. I'm already projecting a certain image of myself by the way I'm dressed. It's maybe not quite 'me' but it fits better than other looks. In that first conversation there are assumptions made on both sides, evaluations of the way the other speaks as well as appears. Then we have a smoke together. Maybe I'm more open then, but I'm probably also more cerebral and confused. Moish leaves me and my friends and I sober up. I'm already evaluating the experience I just had. Even on the basic level of memory, my sober self is reconstructing the unfolding of events experienced in a different state of mind. I have my feelings about the conversation, but also about my reactions to the situation, both current and previous. Plus, while I talk the events over with my friends, my reconstruction is shaped by the image I inevitably want to them.

It might be worth saying here, I think of myself as quite an honest person. I don't set out to present a particular 'front' to different groups of people. But I think a lot of that goes on subconsciously and inevitably. Maybe not quite inevitably - one can more easily let go of the need to protect the 'self' by working at losing one's fear and going beyond the ego.

But all this self-projection is going on in this situation. And then we have the blog. I try to relate what I think happened - which, as we know, is already problematic. But now I'm aware of a wider readership. What I said earlier, about never knowing who's reading, cuts both ways. As much as I think I'm writing from the heart (and, come on, this is only a blog), I can't help but be influenced by a sense of how I want to appear. But there's also self-esteem: putting others aside, my writing impacts on how I see myself.

Moish reads my blog. He interprets what I've written about him and compares it to his memory of the events, most likely reconstructed as well. When he writes to me he's presenting both a version of those events and a persona through his very writing style and content. So how I see him and how he sees himself are probably factors for him too. (Moish, you've lived longer than me, and may well be very comfortable and secure in your identity. In which case there may be less to do with self-esteem in your case. I'm just trying to show all the potential 'slippages' in the train of communication.)

When I read his email I react, according to the core of self that feels threatened by his criticism. This process will continue as long as we send emails each others' way without ever really knowing each other. But the self-protecting strategies of the ego - these do become evident. We tend to be able to see them in the communications of others but not in ourselves.

Is there a way out? Yes. To recognise and make explicit that this process is going on is to not let it rule you. I think whenever we become aware of something inside ourselves, an emotion or thought or desire, we objectify it. We realise it's not essentially us, but that it's just passing through. Thus we're more able to let it go. It requires equanimity and fearlessness and honesty foremost with yourself.

I chatted with Hannah about this yesterday. It was too tempting a thought sequence to keep from my blog. But the obvious point is this: by sticking all this up here surely I'm projecting again, even while I'm acknowledging what's going on.

Which is why blogging is always wrapped up in ego.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Along the narrow streets of McLeod Ganj are three ‘cinemas’. Equipped with DVD players and massive projection or flat-screen TVs, they show 4 or 5 different films daily. For 30-45 rupees (40-60p) you can just about always catch a showing of topical classics like Kundun, Himalaya or Gandhi or recent big releases, like Monster, 21 Grams or Big Fish.

Yesterday I saw Baraka, a film friends have been telling me to see for ages. I was blown away. It is an extraordinary movie, a ‘state of the planet’ work of art, that opens your eyes and leaves you humbled and powerless. Woven into 70 minutes of original music are images of the full gamut of human and natural life: from the incomprehensible beauty of the earth's landscape and natural processes to the seemingly instinctual reverence and rituals of different cultures and religions; from people in the throw of unwieldy, global, dehumanising systems to the intricate rhythmical patterns people form as they simply move and live; from humanity’s massive capacity for cruel destruction to the hugest, most beautiful (and yet totally temporary) structures that we are capable of building. It made me aware of how our desires rule and ravage the world. And it made me realise how little we see of the bigger picture through our day to day experiences. When I emerged onto the bustling walkway, the colours seemed more vivid and life that little bit keener.