Cool Stuff To Check Out From J and B

Friday, November 26, 2010

Whoa - Merapi erupts!

You may recall that we climbed the active volcano Merapi ("much fire"), a couple months ago when we were on the island of Java in Indonesia. You also may have heard that it just erupted again (last eruption was, I believe, in 2006). We have talked to several friends in the area and it sounds pretty bad. Here are some pics of where we were. And here is a link to an amazing set of photos that will definitely touch your heart. Please keep the folks in this area in your thoughts.

Merapi from the village of Chanderejo where we stayed with Budi and Morni

On the steaming and very active feeling summit

WHOA! Glad we were there when we were.

Damn! We were right there!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vipassana Meditation Retreat-- Jenny

"Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion." - Dalai Lama
The rule book said “No talking or body language, no reading, no writing, no music, no cameras, no yoga, only two meals a day, up at 4 am, and ten hours a day of sitting meditation”. And there we were, on day “0”, handing over all of our valuables and mobile entertainment, not to be seen again for ten days. We had read the Buddhism primer. We had experienced some Hindu yoga. But we really wanted to dig in deep. We were to be in separate camps, Brett in the men's and me in the women's. But there would be group meditations. We agreed that we would not even so much as make eye contact with each other, if we were to give this a fair chance. Vipassana is a meditation technique discovered by Buddha, but accessible to anyone of any religion. It is universal. Buddha taught that craving and aversion were the causes of human suffering. The aging S.N. Goenka from Myanmar has revived the technique in it's purest form and has written a book to to coincide with his oral teachings called “The Art of Living”. For a short description see .

Day one.
I am not sure if the monkeys in my head or the real monkeys living along side us at the camp were terrorizing me more. Day one we focused on our breath. And watched as our thoughts strayed. And we focused again on our breath. And our thoughts strayed. It starts getting a bit rediculous, and you have to laugh at yourself. I told stories to myself of a gunman coming into the meditation hall, and me jumping up to save everyone. I had thoughts of creating a You Tube video of a master meditator being challenged to see how long he could sit without being distracted by feathers tickling his nose, by jokes, by noise and music. I had thoughts of the monkeys outside biting me, going to the hospital, and going into anaphylactic shock from the rabies shot. Insane! This is what they tell us. Our minds are insane. And we must not let our minds control us. I wholeheartedly agree.

Day three.
I am really sick of focusing on my upper lip. Can we do something else? I sit and watch the monkeys at lunch today. Two of them are picking fleas off each other quietly and lovingly. An alpha male is pacing back and forth, breathing fast, ready to attack something. The babies are climbing a tree, swinging, and flying arms stretched outward, landing with a bang on the steel rooftop of my dorm, then sliding down uncontrollably to the gutter, back to the tree and repeat. This flurry of activity perfectly parallels my thought pattern. I find it so striking that my eyes well up and I chuckle to myself, grinning from ear to ear uncontrollably.

Day six. “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” -Khalil Gibran
I feel something changing. I am starting to understand how this technique works. But it is difficult. The body starts hurting when you sit in one place for one to two hours without moving. The mind gets agitated and bored, you get sleepy, all tricks of your mind to keep you from meditating. I notice that Brett has resigned himself to a chair, later to find out his old MCL injury was flaring up again. He was getting bored, he was freezing, he was in pain, and wasn't sure if he wanted to continue. He started doing more meditation in his room, and then sneaking and reading his Gandhi book. But he stayed. My day six was horrible. I was also restless, I was getting upset with myself that I couldn't sit still. I was aching as well. But we were both gaining insights into ourselves.

Day seven. “Being is the stillness beneath the mental noise”.-Eckart Tolle
I had a breakthrough. I was able to experience unpleasant feelings and sensations in my body and remain “equanimous”. I didn't react to them. I was able to just observe. This is the technique of Vipassana. It is to sever the connection between the mind and the body, so that the mind and its insanity (or past conditioning) can no longer control your reactions, which manifest as greed, passion, anger, fear, jealousy, etc. It seems so simple. Remain aware, remain equanimous. No aversions, no cravings. Don't react. Everything is impermanent. My senses are so raw and acute today, that I notice minutia all around me. I watch the sunset as I have every evening. This evening I notice at first that the air is filled with a stillness. But as I examine the plants at my feet, they are ever-so-slightly rocking back and forth. They are growing too, even more slowly. They, like us, are growing and decaying. There is a constant energy flowing through everything. Nothing is as it seems.

Day ten. “Calm is his mind, calm is his speech, calm is his action, who, rightly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly peaceful, and equipoised.” - Buddha
The noble silence we had kept for nine days is broken. Strangely, Brett and I both reported feeling very close and loving towards the people we spent 10 days with, despite the fact that we had hardly seen their faces or spoken a word. We found each other at the “common area”, and couldn't stop chatting about our experiences. We had 36 hours of plane rides ahead of us to talk, and we were looking forward to it. We still had one more lecture and a few more sittings before we were finished. The last morning we all pitched in to clean the Dhamma Hall, our rooms, the kitchen and the bathrooms. The retreat center runs on donations only, and relies on the students to help out. I sat out in the woods on the women's walking trail for the last time, watching a few of the baby monkeys in the distance. Suddenly, the big male monkey spotted me, ran up the tree above me, and started swaying back and forth on the branch, threatening me. I took the hint and slowly down-turned my eyes, creeping away. But I laughed to myself thinking that, after spending 10 days with them, I now understand the monkeys and their behavior much better, and they scare me a lot less. The same goes for my monkey mind.

In the words of S.N. Goenka: “May all beings be happy. May they enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness.”

Incredible India: Jenny

Surrender. This is what is necessary to experience India. India is a world where extreme filth and poverty exist alongside temples dripping with gold. It has been described as a place you will at once love and hate. The corruption is palpable, but the people have a lighthearted and loving quality that is irresistible. In the West, we commonly experience the existential angst of too many choices, of manipulating our environment to fit our needs and expectations. In India, there is a lesson for us. The people of India, without the choices or ability to control their lives in many ways, have learned to be content, if even happy, with what IS, and have learned to control what is INSIDE. Holding on to Western ideals in India will drive you crazy. Surrender.

Lane Driving is Sane Driving
We spent the first half of our trip in cars and buses. The concept of staying in the lines is as absent here as it has been in most of Asia. But the concept of stopping in the middle of a highway for a crossing cow, well, totally acceptable. Or a goat, a camel, a pig, an elephant. No problem, hit the tuk tuk next to you. But DON'T hit the holy cow! Starting our journey in Delhi, we met Jenny's friend, Ang. She is headed to Goa for a month-long course on providing aid to developing countries. Our hotel Ajanta was great, besides the part where we all had to run out of the hotel lobby due to an electric fire caused by an overloaded circuit and someone turning off and on the switch until it blew. No problem, you can all come back in now. Our first day on the town was the last day of the Commonwealth Games, which are a competition in sports between all of the former British colonies. (Well, if you can call ping-pong, lawn billiards, and leap-frog sports.) Unfortunately for us, everything was closed. But it gave us a nice rest day. We eventually got out to explore Delhi, the Red Fort, the National Museum which Brett loved (he especially wanted to spend hours looking at the tapestries and textiles), and the Gandhi museum. At the Gandhi museum there is a wall of text that you could spend hours reading like a history book. We wished we had more time to stay and read. Gandhi was not only timeless and progressive, but also a product of his time and culture as well. A fascinating man and force of nature, nevertheless. And revered in India.

No Money No Honey
We left Delhi for the other two points of the "golden triangle", Agra and Jaipur. We had Ram as our driver, who luckily used his horn at every bottleneck, every stop sign, and every cow. Ram was confusing at first, as every sentence started with "You". "You going to Agra. You are museum is open. You are we go shopping". Later we learned that this is a common way of speaking for some regions of India. But this is supposed to be a story about love. It is about the one place worth going in Agra, the Taj Mahal. The Taj, the symbol for eternal love, is a mausoleum for Queen Mumtaz Mahal, the Muslim wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The story is that, as his favorite wife and one that bore him 14 children (dying in childbirth on the 14th), he built her an architectural feat of beauty and perfection, of white marble with inlaid semi-precious stones. Years later, Shah Jahan's reign was forcefully seized from him by his own son, who proceeded to imprison Shah Jahan in the fort across the river for the rest of his life, but always with a view of his beloved and the Taj Mahal. You start to feel sorry for the guy, until you hear the rumor that he ordered the hands of every man involved in building the Taj to be amputated, so that another Taj could not be built to rival his beloved's. An impressive display of love, or of power and wealth? Hmm. Hard to say. We also visited the Agra Fort, luckily one day AFTER the man with a gun boarded a tour bus and opened fire (apparently missing everyone).
Jaipur was our next stop. We still had honkin' Ram as our driver, and gained a tour guide as well, Vijay. We spent a day just shopping in Jaipur, and another day sightseeing. We visited the Amber Fort and the water palace, remnants of the Muslim Mughal empire, the period of time when Muslims reigned over Hindis. Brett and I bought lots of fun things that now fill Luke and Todd Landin's living rooms in large boxes.

No Hurry, No Worry, No Camel, No Curry
In the west of India, in the state of Rajastan, the desert stretches for hundreds of miles. Camels are the working animal of this area. It was here, about 30 km from the Pakistan border, that we set out on a camel safari. Contrary to popular belief, only African camels spit. In fact, they are pretty cool animals. I rode baby Kingfisher. Brett sat atop Johnny Walker. Ang was on Michael Jackson, who according to Ang, was flea-bitten. We rode for three days through the desert, stopping at night on soft sand dunes to dwell under the full moon. Despite the heat of the day, it was a magical experience. We had three Rajastani men and a young boy cooking us meals of potatoes, dahl and flame-cooked chapati bread, all with a sprinkling of sand. (Helps digestion, apparently, and adds a crunch.) We had a little doggy guardian angel who followed us for two days, and slept curled up next to Ang, flea-bitten. In the evening after dinner, we sang songs while our guides played the empty water-container drum. Some great Indian songs were sung, as well as "Old MacDonald had a Farm". But obviously, this farm had elephants and tigers and such. The moon lit up the sky, and crept slowly over us as we slept. We awoke to the strange cries of wild peacocks. And I learned that camels have a sweet spot like dogs...if you scratch their necks, they will lie down and even turn over on their side. Really cool animals.

South to Goa
We decided to fly with Ang down to the old Portuguese colony of Goa, then have a little guy time/girl time apart. Brett went a little further north up the beach and found a little yoga joint to practice, and tried his hand at paragliding. All of the Indians I talked to said, "Ooo, that's dangerous! He is crazy!" Meanwhile, Ang and I did spa day. We had golden facials (?), pedicures, and had our toenails decorated with shiny things. We drank some Indian wine, took walks on the beach, and relaxed at Bernard's Place. We took a cooking class in an old Portuguese-style home, complete with a lighted shrine of Jesus and Mary. We learned of the "Seven Sisters", the spices that all good Indian housewives have in their kitchen: pepper, cumin, tumeric, cloves, cinnamon, cardamon and mustard seeds. We visited the spice plantation, where we were amazed and astounded to see that cinnamon is actually the bark of a tree, cocoa grows in big pods on trees, vanilla grows on a vine, and all of the other spices come from plants too, not from the grocery store! Saying goodbye to my buddy Ang, Brett and I met in Delhi for what we would soon discover would be the creepiest bus ride ever. We took an overnight bus from Delhi to Dharamsala...well, we ended up on the "local" bus. The five white people were designated the hard bench seat in the back of the bus. They tried to shove more people back there with us, but we protested. Most of the seats were broken. In fact, one man's seat literally was in the lap of the man behind him...see pics. There were no shocks on the bus. The bus driver, like every other driver in India, drove with his brakes and used his horn every five minutes. We are not talking a single beep. Oh no. It was a short tune at a very loud volume. No air conditioning. Dust flying in the windows. In the middle of the night we happened upon a truck broken down in the middle of the road. Our bus driver attempts to drive around it, scraping the sides of the bus and shattering several windows, showering glass down on those sitting on that side. We finally get going again after an hour of shenanigans, now with the bus swaying back and forth, and glass sliding from side to side, front to back of the floor boards. At dawn we arrive in the mountains. Our aggressive lead-footed bus driver chooses the narrow and winding mountain road. To make up for the slow uphills, he races the downhills, barely missing people walking by; and I swear we were on two wheels on a few of the tight turns that he misjudged and went flying into. I was imagining the headlines for the paper "...A bus with 40 locals and 5 white tourists die when their bus overturns and rolls down the side of a mountain nearing Dharamsala..." Brett gave us a good 10-20% chance of crashing. Thank goodness he was wrong. But what we didn't realize, not only was the bus transporting people, but we had half-a-dozen delivery stops of large packages. When all was said and done, we were crammed like sardines in the back of the death trap for 16 or 17 hours. We arrived in McLeod Ganj and slept for the rest of the day. McLeod Ganj was an adorable little town in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. It is a town full of monks and meditation, the home of the Daili Lama, and of exiled yet thriving Tibetans. We wished our India visa was not expiring after the meditation retreat.