Motorcycle Meditation

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Today I had an amazing ride. It was the kind of ride that put a smile on my face and encapsulated everything I love about riding motorcycles. I don’t know if the reasons why I love it are universal to other riders. I know a lot of people only ride on the weekends and view their bike as some sort of grown-up “toy.” To me it’s much more than that. To me it’s something that has become part of my lifestyle.

Riding is like meditation, it’s another way for me to get back to my center. Alone twisting and turning on some quiet back road, I feel a certain calm clarity of thought. I often think about my life and process recent events, feelings and behaviors. Sometimes, I’m able to come to conclusions or make decisions that were unclear to me before. As an introvert, I really enjoy those calm, reflective moments.

 “You spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling you’re losing time.”  – Robert M. Pirsig

When I  ride everything is so much more real and visceral. Even though I usually ride at the same speed as a car (oftentimes faster), on a bike I just take in more of the scenery, and am more observant of the world around me. There’s something very powerful about having your attention engaged at such a level. I feel like it helps shut up the constant chatter of talking to myself in my head all day. Again, that awareness is what mindfulness meditation is all about.

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. 

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” – Robert M. Pirsig

Flying down the road on two wheels is not for the faint of heart. The first time I rode on a freeway was in Laos, and it was scary as hell. In that region, the unspoken rule is that the bigger vehicle has the right of way. I remember cruising down the highway and suddenly there was an 18-wheeler coming right at me trying to pass the car in front of him. On a bike your body is vulnerable. Without a cage, you are exposed to everything. The sun scorches you, dirt lashes at you, and the wind pushes you. Rain at 80+ mph feels like needles. Let’s not forget the rocks shot from under car tires like little missiles of stinging son-of-a-bitchness. Being on two wheels is also much less stable than 4 or more, and you are much more likely to wreck because of this. Cars are a little safer and when riding a bike the stakes are higher no doubt. However, whether in a car or on a bike, safety is an illusion. From the inside of a car you feel tranquil and safe until you wreck and are surrounded by twisted metal. That illusion of safety can shatter in one fell swoop (trust me I’ve experienced this more than once).  If you transpose this idea of vulnerability being a strength to your daily life the concept is the same. You are at your strongest when you keep your heart open and don’t close off due to past hurts.  The awareness that every ride could be my last encourages me to make the most of every moment, and that point-of-view has enriched my life. The dispelling of illusions is an important by-product of meditation. It helps you to see things as they really are.

Along those same lines, riding helps me stay focused on the present, another main tenant of mindfulness meditation. Oftentimes we are so focused on the past or the future. We look on what we have done and forward to the plans and goals we set for ourselves (or…set by society). Many of them are similar; graduating, career related goals, getting married, buying a house, having kids. Plans are both necessary and great. Although, focusing on them too heavily is a sure way to miss out on today.  Being on a bike helps me enjoy the fleeting now, because it will never be now again.

Dharamshala on Royal Enfield

When I ride I get the same feeling that I love about travel: The feeling of freedom. The freedom to go wherever I feel like and to follow my intuition to turn down this road or that. It’s finding myself in the midst of unplanned adventures. That’s what travel is like for me. The journey is the important part, not the destination. And, the times when I mixed them, traveling internationally by motorcycle, have been some of the best moments of my life.

I know that this two-wheeled freedom-machine could someday be the end of me. I don’t jump in the saddle without an awareness of the risks. I choose to be there, and to not let fear dictate the way I live my life. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned about myself through riding, and for what I will learn in the future. To all those out on two-wheels, be alert and stay safe. To my readers, excuse me for pillaging Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that book just has so many good quotes haha. Peace! IMG_20160606_224408

 

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Laxman Jhula/Rishikesh

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Laxman Jhula, next to Rishikesh in Uttarakand. I happened to be there during a nationwide Shiva festival. There were droves of young men from neighboring villages and some from all corners of India crossing the bridge from Rishikesh to Laxman Jhula every minute. They all walked through the main street to a holy site a few kilometers downstream. They were almost all wearing orange shorts and shirts with images of Shiva. Some had big handheld decorations that they made to in honor of Shiva. While looking at the bridge every now and then I’d see one of those contraptions fall 60 feet to the Ganga (Ganges), and I was never sure if it was on purpose or because there were just so many people on the bridge. In Laxman, many men would stop and bath in the waters of the Ganga, some having plastic containers to take a bit of it with them.

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The town was much less touristy than I expected, probably due to the monsoon season. Throughout the main drag were cows walking everywhere, and when walking I had  to watch out for their excrement. The cows in India have these big almond eyes and long eyelashes. They are very pretty creatures.

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I stayed at an Ashram with a great view of the Ganga. I spent much of my time there taking Yoga classes, always with different instructors. For once in my life, the Yoga teachers were not westerners. Their teaching styles were different, more spiritual and less aerobic.

I learned some new meditation techniques. One class enphasized strong, focused breathing. After the session my right hand involuntarily curled up and was locked in that position for several minutes. The teacher said that it was because I had some trauma from childhood blocking the flow of energy through my body. Afterwards I felt very energized, yet calm and happy.

I became a regular at the Moonlight café. The food was great and the three young men running the place were very friendly. There I met Marc, Sabrine and Lamson. Marc and I would often play chess, Lamson and I would take turns playing his guitar and talking about our respective countries and past travels, and Sabrina and I had many a philosophical and spiritual conversation. I also met two nice Russian ladies with whom I practiced my Russian with. It was nice being a regular somewhere. After over 6 months of backpacking, I feel less of a need to see the sights and a stronger desire to stay put and get to know a place in-depth. After a week in Laxman Jhula, I went to my final destination in India, Agra to see the Taj Mahal…

Wat Pha Tam Wua, The Forest Monastery

 

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I heard about the Forest Monastery from my Slovenian friends I met in Chiang Mai. Having done Vipassana Meditation before, I definitely wanted to do a retreat here in Southeast Asia. And so, whilst in Pai, I caught a bus going to Mae Hong Son and told the driver to drop me off at Wat Pha Tam Wua. About two hours later, the driver came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. The only indicator that I had arrived: a sign by a narrow road leading off into the wooded cliffs. I grabbed my backpacks, marched on a quiet path for 20 minutes, and arrived.

I’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful location to meditate in Asia. The place is nestled in the lush, mountainous forest and hidden away by high cliffs. I got the feeling of sheltered from the world. All over the grounds were ponds, streams, enormous colorful flowers and butterflies.

I jumped right into the mix of things the morning I arrived. They had us do a mix of walking, sitting, lying, and chanting meditation. Silence is optional, and I met some great people chatting during our free time.

Unfortunately, the head monk was away during my stay. Others said that his English was quite good, and that he would have been able to give detailed explanations of the practice and instructions for meditation. That was too bad, I would’ve liked to hear the head monk’s talks. I did like the monk that I met very much though. He was always smiling and jovial. My favorite part was when one night, the fires from the government-sanctioned controlled burning were getting closer to the monastery, he said “fire coming to monastery…you huts bamboo…maybe you be barbecue…hehehe”.

As much as I liked my experience, there were a couple things that I didn’t jive with:

Meals – We only got two vegetarian meals per day, the last one being at 11:00 am. I pretty much went to bed with a rumbly stomach every night.

Chanting – The evening chanting felt quite long. Some of the phrases referred to the Buddha as “the exalted one” and “my only refuge”. I couldn’t connect with this part of the retreat. I did like that the Goenka Vipassana retreats I had done it the US were more secular.

After 3 days, I felt ready to leave. The monk gave me a Buddha necklace pendant that he said would protect me wherever I go. I walked 20 minutes back to the main road and hitch-hiked a ride to Mae Hong Son.

Wat Tam Wua, Forest Monastery

 

 

Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony

I’ve always been interested in different spiritual practices, ceremonies, customs and ideas. For a long time I have been exploring Buddhism. In the last three years I have done two 10-day silent retreats and gotten involved with different meditation groups. I moved to Houston almost 3 months ago, and a couple weeks ago I found an insight meditation group to continue my practice. The first night I went, it was a surprisingly large group. It was great to get involved in a steady practice upheld by the energy of others with similar goals. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that took place after the meditation. There I met a Native American man from Santa Fe named Fidel. Since then, I’ve gotten the chance to talk to Fidel a few more times and I’ve been exploring Native American beliefs and ceremonies.

Last Friday I helped him build a Sweat Lodge in the back of a community center not far from where I live. Until a few weeks before, I had never heard about Sweat Lodge ceremonies and knew very little of what to expect. Helping build it was a great experience, and even though it was cold and rainy, I felt I got to give to the whole purpose of the ceremony rather than just participate.

Sweat Lodge

We started off the ceremony by offering tobacco to the fire and saying our names, silently voicing our intent for the ceremony. Then we each smudged (spiritually cleansed) ourselves with sage before entering the lodge.

During the ceremony, I got to act as door-man and also helped the fire-man to gather red-hot stones (grandfathers) for each round. In the small structure about 15 of us fit and my friend Fidel led the ceremony. Inside the structure, in pitch black darkness, I sat cross-legged and really opened myself up to the energy that everyone brought into the space. I took deep, singing breaths to inhale the cedar and lavender that were burned up by the grandfathers. The deepest part of the ceremony was the different songs that everyone sang. Fidel sang different Native American songs that were extremely powerful and piercing. A lot of feeling came from his chants. Another woman sang a Christian hymn that was the prettiest church song I had ever heard. I said a ‘my father, who art in heaven’ in French because I think it sounds more pleasant in French. Hopefully before the next Sweat I will know some more chants, songs, or prayers that I can make my own and use for such ceremonies.

Sweat Lodge CeremonyAfterwards we had a pot-luck and ate some food that different participants were kind enough to bring. I met many nice, open-minded, kind individuals there and exchanged contact info with a few of them. I hope to see those people again.