Wall of text!

In my last post I was speaking from a very heart centered place. In the next couple of posts, I’d like to translate some of what I have been learning into more intellectual language. I’d like to start by taking a look at the classical Chinese understanding of the relationship between mind and body.

Shen–>Xin–>Yi–>Qi–>Xue–>Shen
Spirit–>Mind–>Intentional Mind–>Life force–>Blood–>Body

This flow represents the connection between mind and body in progressively more physicalized, denser form. Spirit informs the mind, mind directs the intention, intention guides life force, life force moves the blood, blood acts on the body. It implies that our existence is an informational stream, whether that information is mental, emotional, or physical. For those of you with a background in Yogic Philosophy, I find this idea very similar to the concept of the five koshas, or sheathes of existence. Most what follows is from my own experience, so it is possible I may veer somewhat from exact definitions. Lets break each segment down:

Shen- Spirit:
Shen represents your innate capacity for connecting with universal love, clear perception (not influenced by past experience), and the interconnectedness of life. In my mind spirit is a universal field which unites all life but but which typically becomes obscured in human experience, for various reasons. Shen in particular refers to the spiritual essence within ourselves that can realize it. It is said to reside deep in the heart. Studies have shown that the electro-maggnetic field of the human heart is many times stronger than that of the brain, and it has been posited that this electromagnetic field serves as a harmonizing priciple throughout the body! No wonder that in eastern thinking, the heart is considered the seat of consciousness.

Xin- Mind

Interestingly, in many Eastern cultures there is little distinction between mind and heart, and indeed this is so in the Chinese understanding. In Dr. J’s language, if the Shen is the emperor, the Xin is castle surrounding him.
In my understanding, the Xin represents our thought-forms (thoughts have forms, isn’t that interesting?!) and sensory impressions that form the fabric of our personality. Really, our personality boils down to a binary language- attachment and aversion. When we have an experience that comes in through the senses, that experience produces a feeling. We may cling to this feeling as a source of identity, always seeking it, or we may reject it as unwanted or ‘not me.’ Thus some feelings become looped as repeated sources of comfort while others are sequestered and walled off, fragmenting us and forming a unique personality in the process. Our thoughts are simply layered on top of these feelings, and the self is what we call this conglomerate. The mind is making these decisions (or not, if you’ve trained yourself) each moment. As we shall soon see, this information is then carried on down the chain into more physical form.
This is why mystical traditions speak of desirelessness and non-attachment. If one can be completely open to the myriad experiences of life, universal love can shine through and your sense of self thins. Buddhist practice in particular works with the mind, reprogramming attachment and aversion into spacious acceptance and love. The mind becomes clear and empty, no longer obstructing spirit, like the sun in a cloudless sky. Spirit can then inform all our actions. This is why in most Buddhist practice no attempt is made to change your state of being– it is all grist for the mill, clouds to be parted.

Yi- intentional mind

The Xin guides the Yi, or intent. What is the Yi? Hmm good question, I’m still working on a full definition. Let’s start by saying its your autopilot– the part of your mind that pulls your hand away from a hot stove, or drives your car seemingly without your attention. When you are stressed, it is the lump in your throat, the way you bite your fingernails, or shuffle your feet aimlessly . The Yi controls the subconscious physiological responses–both postural and deeply internal– formed by the impressions of the mind. Your Yi is the part of your mind that has lifted your shoulders when your yoga teacher tells you to drop them 🙂
It is also the part of the psyche that guides the flow of Qi, or life force. Without training, this process is unconscious in most people. It is the part of the mind we can train through yoga, meditation or taiji to feel the body without the need for sensory stimulation. For this reason I like to call it the ‘feeling mind.’

Qi – life force

Perhaps the most difficult to describe, Life-force. Qi can be felt as a substance of varying densities, but has no real independent form. It is the medium through which the multitudinous processes of life receive their coherence and integrity. It can be seen in the body in the communication between organs systems and tissues, transformative metabolic force, and the warmth and nourishment of the body itself.
Information, including qi, flows through us along meridians. Think of a suspension bridge. When vehicles drive over a bridge, their weight is applied through the surface of the roadway and into the bridge’s support structure through struts and wires. In effect this is distributing and translating the force of the car. The same is true when you go running or do a pushup. In both cases, the force of the earth needs to be translated through your system. Your physical integrity is determined by how quickly the translation can occur (flexibility) and under how much pressure (strength). The struts and wires of your body are your meridians. The major meridians run in the fascia between your muscles, interconnecting muscular systems. Not only is this happening at a kinesthetic or gross level, but also at a metabolic or subtle level. Metabolic information (Qi) is flowing through the same system, coordinating the physiological functions of your body. This is why in Yoga or Taiji, proper alignment is very important– it is the foundation for being able to work with life force.
Different from Buddhist practice, systems that work with Qi opt to strengthen the body so that more life force can be accumulated. Having more Qi puts more juice in the system, helping the body to heal. At a certain point, the surplus of Qi begins to strengthen the Shen or spiritual nature. As the shen becomes stronger it is capable of piercing through the attachments of the mind. Instead of waiting for the clouds of the mind to part, this is like amplifying the sun so that it burns through them.

Xue- Blood

Another one I am still working out. Blood follows the Qi, which is to say that the principle of nourishment (in the form of oxygen and nutrients) follows the principle of communication (Qi). Where the qi goes the blood flows. Thus it follows that if there is a blockage in the flow of Qi to a particular part of the body, communication with that part of the body shuts down, and blood circulation decreases.
Lets return for a moment to the idea of mental impressions. If we experience a particular feeling that the mind is averse to, this feeling can become repressed, cut off from the center of our consciousness in the heart. This is kind of like a file buried deep in your computer’s hard drive. This file, this feeling, takes up informational space! Communication to this part of the body (feelings arise in the body) degrades, thus Qi flow is obstructed, blood flow decreases. We have the beginnings of illness, the origin of which is in the mind! Thus it is also said that ‘blood is the matrix of the mind.’ 

Shen- Body

A different shen! Not the same word. Here we have our physical tissues. The last link in the chain. Whereas western thinking sees the physical body as primary, the mind arising therefrom, eastern thought sees the mind as primary, giving birth to the body. Thus modern medicine works with the body, adding and subtracting chemicals, cutting it open and sewing it together, relatively unaware that it is the final product in a long assembly line.
While it is true that some ailments are purely physical, like breaking your arm, most disease is compounded by if not created by mental and emotional stress. Furthermore, the capacity of the body to heal from ANY situation is dependent on the interconnection of the whole being, as we have been discussing.
Many systems of alternative health are also aimed exclusively at treating the body through food and cleansing of toxins. Many people these days are subtracting foods that don’t seem to work for them like gluten, dairy, meat, grain, etc. I am convinced that at least some of these sensitivities are rooted in the mental-emotional body. While it is certainly a good idea at times lighten the demands on the body and clean it out, we must realize that unless we address the mind and emotions we are not getting to the roots of what causes illness.

Now that we understand the system we are working with, lets take a quick look at what we can do with it.

Apaphatic Practices-

These are practices that empty. They reduce the amount of information in the stream, removing obstacles so that spirit can penetrate all the way into our bones. Most Buddhist practices are apaphatic (with perhaps the exception of Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism) and focus on dissolving our mental attachments as mentioned earlier.
Raw foods, which I recently experimented with, I would also consider apaphatic. You are eating a maximal amount of nutrition while significantly reducing caloric intake. This puts a lot of ‘space’ in the system which allows information to flow more smoothy downstream–the body to releases toxins and dormant mental/emotional conflict surfaces. Oftentimes, however, it takes years for the body to adjust to this program.
Fasting is another obviously apaphatic practice, giving the body space to process information of all sorts. This is why its called a fast! One might fast not just from food, but also from mental distractions or activities that are emotionally draining.

Kapaphatic Practices

Kapaphatic practices fill you, adding information to the stream. Their goal is to add so much force to your being that obstructions are washed away. Practices that build Qi are kapaphatic, using the increased life force to push physical toxins out of the body, strengthen the spirit, and burn away obstructions in the mind.

Many spiritual practices claim supreme authority as ‘the best’ or ‘the only’ way to transformation. Many teachers also claim you must choose one path. The same is true of many diets or healing techniques. However, if we can see disparate techniques as simply addressing different links in the chain, conflict resolves. As long as you are clear with yourself and know what you are working, and how, its all good.

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Dharma Gaia

I arrived a Dharma Gaia one morning at the end of April. Walking along a forest road I was greeted by a fresh dewy air and an invitation to enjoy my breathing. I immediately fell into the stillness of the place.

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Dharma is a mindfulness practice center in the tradition of Tich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen master who has developed his own teaching of Buddhism. The practice here is led by Sister Shalom, a New Zealand born nun who has created and built this particular Sangha, or Buddhist community. Dharma Gaia houses a meditation hall, living areas, gardens, forest paths, and a monastic area for sister. The center is cared for by Anton and Benni and their four year old daughter Amelie.

 

There is formal sitting and walking meditation every morning, but mindfulness is encouraged throughout the whole day. The work here has been strenuous, with not much time off, but the company and the environment has been very nurturing. Shortly after I arrived Anton’s teenage son Rowan came for a visit as well as an inspiring young musician named Ben. I felt a close comradarie with these two, and a great joy at seeing people younger than myself practicing meditation and truth in their lives.

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The day after I arrived was a full moon. Sister took us out for an evening picnic of tea and chocolate under the moonlight. We sang to Ben’s tune- Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, and many others. Ben, Rowan and I continued to play and talk long into the night. I realize that I love singing. ‘Everybody loves singing,’ says Ben. I suppose we don’t all know it, though. It is another way to move the heart, to seek truth in ourselves. Many things are seeming so these days. Music, speech, meditation, feeling, breathing, writing, eating. All are colors on our palate. I want to paint my life with many colors.

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Early on in our meditation sister opened up the group for questions. I asked her about how I could reconcile my deep desire for healing and opening the body with Buddhism’s ‘nowhere to go,  nothing to do, no one to be’ philosophy of pracitce. Though questions often go unanswered in this tradition, she pointed out to me that the idea of healing contains within it the belief that one is unwell. That this belief can have a lot of force behind it. ”I had cancer,” she says, ”but there was nothing wrong with me.” I decided I would practice being OK.

Tich Naht Hahn’s tradition is very gentle, very nurturing. My best moments in Vipassana were when I could find this gentle space in myself in which my feelings could arise and unfold. it was love, really, though Goenka never called it that. The teaching was very strict, all about discipline, concentration, persistence. Sister really nurtured me here, giving me much gratitude for the work I was doing and really seeing that I was there to practice. She set me up in front of a small TV to watch one of Tich Naht Hanh’s dharma talks. It was about mindfulness of breath and body, about really enjoying your breathing, enjoying and smiling to your body. He talked of cradling your painful feelings as a mother cradles a child. Surrounding the feeling with love, not indulging in it or pushing it away with a forceful concentration.
Practicing in this way has been really rewarding, though it is so radically different from what my mind wants to do. In the midst of the pain I feel there can also be love. This is not my first experience of this truth, but here I am really practicing it. I am realizing that the pain we feel exists to turn us towards love, if only we could give it the attention it is asking of us. As James, my vipassana brother wrote to me, ‘the pain we feel is the love we withhold.’ Or from Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, which sister read from this morning, ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’

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I am feeling much joy here, in sitting, breathing, listening to the bell, singing, opening to others. There is a safety in this practice that allows me to feel the depths of my heart, which up until now I have kept guarded from all but a few. Even from myself.
Today is May 5th. It is my last day here. We have just concluded a mindfulness weekend, where i got to meet and practice with some long term members of the Sangha. My time here has been very nurturing. Although part of me goes kicking and screaming towards Buddhist meditation, I think it is a good practice for me. Not that it has to be my sole practice (soon I will be in China!) but I think it keeps me really present in life, meeting myself in each moment.

Ben, where have you been?!

Well it’s been a while since I posted so I intend to catch you up quick! I spent two weeks in Takaka, Golden Bay working for accommodation at Barefoot Backpackers, a cute, cozy hostel in town. I spent most of my time experimenting with raw foods, each day buying the freshest fruits and veggies I could find from the local organic store. I also played quite a bit of guitar as the hostel had a couple I could strum on. Sometimes travellers passing through would give me some pointers and we’d play together. I enjoyed the company of Joneau, Henrietta, and Sarah, who ran the hostel.
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After leaving Takaka I spent a couple of days in Nelson enjoying the Paradiso Hostel’s pool and sauna before heading to the North Island. On the ferry I came across Moritz and Sophia, the young German couple I met at Last Light Lodge. We arrived in Wellington, where I spent another few days exploring the city and guitar shopping! I bit the bullet and walked away with a modestly priced steel string acoustic with which I am quite happy!

From Wellington it was off to Raglan, a small surf town on the North Island’s west coast. I spent a week at Raglan Backpackers (Colleen worked there years back!) also enjoying the hot tub and infrared sauna! I went surfing a few times and although it rained most days I had lots of fun.

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And that brings us to Dharma Gaia, a small mindfulness retreat center on the Coromandel Peninsula. Mostly it is home to Anton and his family who take care of the land, and to Sister Shalom, a nun in the tradition of Tich Naht Hanh. I also had the pleasure of meeting Anton’s teenage son Rowan, and Ben, a brilliant young musician. Together we sat under the full moon singing and feasting on tea and chocolate. Rowan, Ben and I stayed up late into the night playing and singing Led Zeppelin on our guitars and enjoying the pleasure of spiritual friendship. And Cadbury 🙂

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The work here is demanding, but it is a beautiful supportive place where I am encouraged to embrace what is. This is a difficult but richly rewarding practice for me. To give up the idea of being unwell. To know and feel that I am OK.

Hitching North

I had decided my next destination would be Golden Bay in the north west of the south island. I had been inspired by Tamsin and her books to experient with cleansing, and Golden Bay, an enclave of alternative culture, organic food, and sandy beaches seemed an ideal place do do so. To get there I would need to travel up the west coast, but to the best of my ability I couldn’t find a bus going my way. I was going to have to hitch.
I set out from Riverton the day after the Harvest Festival heading south towards Invercargill, where I would find the bigger roadways. My first ride turned out to be none other than the Guytons, on their way to a radio interview. They were able to drop me off where the road turned north, and about thirty minutes later I was picked up by a firendly old truck driver carrying two trailers of gravel.

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      I got a few more rides on my way north to Queenstown and the west coast. There was a local butcher, a couple of travelers with a rental car, a friendly fire-sprinkler man by the name of Lindsay who took me over the mountains to Wanaka (stunning!), Steve, a Reiki healer who was not in the least surprised to meet another energy man, Alex, a shirtless sunburned kiwi, and Pete, an adventure tour guide who was building his own home in Makarora. That was as far as I made it in one night, settling in to a little holiday park in Makarora, halfway between Wanaka and the west coast.
The next morning it took me nearly an hour and a half to find a ride, but when I did, I found he was going all the way north to Nelson. Craig, a salesman from the UK working and travelling in NZ, picked me up. I rode with Craig for about four hours up the west coast past rugged beaches, dense bush, and glacial peaks. Dissapointingly, Craig didn’t seem too interested in stopping to see the sights, but I was happy to have the ride. Then suddenly, in Greymouth, Craig announced that he’d like to let me off, despite the fact that we had a shared road for a ways ahead. He said he was going to go get some KFC, but not five minutes later as I was walking to the highway I saw him drive past. I waved but his eyes never left the road. That angered me, but in retrospect I’m happy he let me off. I’m highly suspicous of anyone who fancies KFC anyways.
Outside of Greymouth I met Fabian, a drunk German traveller. I was a bit worried he would ruin my chances at a ride, but a local woman who owned a fabric shop picked us both up. The problem was, she could only take us about thirty minutes down the road, which turned out to be the middle of nowhere. Fabian and I were about to settle down for the night under the pole barn in a timber yard when we were picked up by a trucker (and former bee keeper) that took us to Reefton, the next township.
Spending the night in the lockal backpackers, I headed out early and caught a ride with a local dairy farmer. We had a nice chat and he let me off where the road turned towards Nelson. From there, after a brief but shocking encounter with an electric cattle fence, I got picked up by a German mother and daughter for about twenty minutes. Let off on the side of the road in a mountainous gorge, I waited for my next ride.

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      Grumbling down the road comes this old RV painted green and yellow and it slides up next to me. Out pops a barefoot man with a ponytail and a shirt that reads “Prana.” Without saying anything I knew he was headed to Golden Bay too. After helping him fill up on diesel (he was driving a 1963 tow truck that he had converted into a house) I hopped up into the front seat. Throughout the cab were scattered apples, bananas, a pumpkin, dried herbs, and, growing underneath my feet, rosemary and stinging nettles. They got me a few times.

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      Mark was his name, and after sharing my story with him he revealed that he was a raw foodist and had healed himself from liver and bowel cancer. One time on the brink of death, Mark had been mentored by a couple in Gerson therapy, an alternative treatment for cancer that uses vegetable jucing, raw foods, and colon cleansing as its main tools. I met him eight years later, after he had been shunned by his family and had left mainstream society behind to live in his housetruck travelling New Zealand. He called himself “a vote of no confidence in the system.”

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     Along the way we stopped at a river to go swimming and then parked the truck in Marahau, right over the hill from golden bay. Mark made me a meal of raw vegtables, sprouted peanuts, kimchi, and a boiled potato topped with coconut oil, avocado, and an asian dressing. It was super tasty. Later on he started teaching me to play the guitar, an instrument I have always wanted to learn but never got around to. I camped in his truck under the full moon. I was thirlled to have had such a momentous encounter. The next morning we continued on to Golden Bay with one more stop at a sared Maori spring to fill up on water. By noon we had made it to Takaka, the bay’s central town. Mark let me off with plans to meet up later in the week and I went off to find a hostel.

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Tamsin’s

Tamsin and her partner Rob live in a rural valley about twenty minutes from Tuatapere. Their house is heated by a woodburning stove and they collect rainwater from the roof. Rob is a deer hunter and Tamsin has been creating a permaculture garden complete with chickens over the last three years–together they produce a substantial portion of their own food and create only one garbage bage of waste every month.
The day I arrived Tamsin took me up behind their house to go blackberry picking. There were tons of them and they were the best I’ve ever tasted! Later we supped on rice and veggies from the garden.

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The food I ate there was amazing. After a long day’s work in the field, nothing tasted better than fresh, home cooked food. Fresh veggies, homemade kimchi and saurkraut, eggs from the chickens, meat from local farms…I’m still craving the roast venison we had with carmelized onions, mushrooms, and mashed potatoes! In all honesty though, having fresh locally sourced meals, eaten with appreciation, makes a huge difference in how the food feels and tastes.
Aside from the daily chores in the garden, Tamsin let me guide the kind of projects we would be doing while I was there. I decided to help her build a chook dome, which she had been wanting to do for some time. A chook dome is a portable chicken coop made out of netting and pvc piping that you can rotate around the garden. The idea is to contain your chickens in the parts of the garden you have already harvested so that they can scratch up the ground and fertilize the soil without ruining your crops.

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The task took us about five days, binding together pvc piping into circular struts and archways using baling twine as bracing. The dome started out looking a little wobbly but soon came together, and despite being a bit warped was quite strong. We topped it off with a bambo roost which hung from the ceiling and an egg laying box.

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      The other project I helped tamsin with was “Lasagna Gerdening,” a soil layering technique which maximizes fertility and minimizes labor. The bed begins with a layer of wet newspaper to smother any existing weeds, followed by layers of straw, manure, compost, grass clipping, more straw, and some bone dust. We went to the neigbors to collect a load of horse manure and the local dump, which conveniently had mounds of composting green waste for the taking. The straw Tamsin got from a local farmer in exchange for a treatment in Bowen therapy.
Bowen therapy is a kind of bodywork native to Australia which Tamsin has trained in. One day we exchanged treatments, and I got to recieve Bowen, which somewhat resembles a massage. I was really surprised though at how gentle the motions were. They consisted of the slightest bit of pressure applied to the body in strategic ways, followed by one or two minutes of rest in between moves. The movements were really palpable and I could feel my channels opening. It was if the slight pressure was just giving my body the “information” it needed to let go. She followed that up by ringing tuning forks above my body and then used a machine to emit polarized light. Both of these technques were surprisingly strong. I had chosen to WOOF at Tamsin’s because I had a feeling we could learn from each other, and I was right!
A few tims during my stay we had some of Tamsin’s magic chocolate and talked about all our ideas of the universe, the body, and healing. Tamsin had had her own battle for health, for years suffering from chronic fatigue and extreme food sensitivity. She has healed mostly through cleansing and nutrition, and views the landscape of nature as analagous to the landscape of the body. Disease results from mistreatment of the land through poor nutrition and trying to dominate it with chemicals, rather than working with the intelligence of nature. This can be seen both in modern conceptions of medicine as well as in environmental issues (there is a big one in New Zealand centered on the use of chemical sprays to kill pests in the forests).
At other times we would experiment with different ways to move the body, and spent a while practicing how to engage the limbs in all different positions. One time, trying to strengthen my wrists and hands, I found myself spontaneously making strange hand postures, which I soon realized were different martial arts fists! (You’d be proud, Pashtoun!) Once we looked up my birthday in the Mayan Calendar and found that the name of my sign in Mayan is “BEN.” We tried to write down everything.

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The last two days with Tamsin we spent in Riverton, on the southern coast. Tamsin works there at the Environment Store, which was having their anual harvest festival. I helped set up and run the festival, which was created by a local couple Robert and Robyn Guyton. Over the last twenty five years the Guytons have created an organic community in Riverton, despite strange looks from the locals. The center of this community is the Environment Store and the Guyton’s own food forest– a two acre plot of land created with permaculture principles which creates a plethora of food and sustains itself virtually without human help. Here the Guytons have been stockpiling heirloom seeds to revive the diversity of food that our ancestors had. They call themeselves “custodians,” protecting the land from monocropping giants like Monsanto.
It was an incredibly inspiring two weeks with Tamsin and Rob. After the festival, Tamsin sent me on my way with a packed lunch, a big jar of saurkraut, and some magic chocolate of my own. I was on the road again.

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Last Light Lodge

The next stop I planned on my trip was Tamsin’s Scott’s house in Tuatapere, but she wouldn’t be ready for me for another five days. Tamsin had suggested I WWOOF at the local backpackers called Last Light Lodge in the meantime. (For those that don’t know, WWOOF is a global organization that facilitates work exchange programs on organic farms). So I set off for Tuatapere, a real small town in New Zealand’s Southland province, by thumb. My first time hitchhiking, I stood at the edge of Te Anau near the road and threw up my hand. Twenty or thirty minutes later, after many cars had past me by, a kiwi by the name of Nat picked me up. Nat was a tourguide working at Milford Sound, on her way to do a bit of Trekking on her own. It took me a few minutes to start to relax, not yet used to the whole hitchiking thing. But it actually turned out to be quite fun and easy to talk to someone you have never met and will likely never meet again! But actually, as chance had it, Nat wound up at the Last Light Lodge that night. Despite her plans to go trekking for 10 days she had neglected to bring a stove!
Once I arrived I met Craig, the owner of Last Light Lodge, which was a cafe mixed with a hostel, campground, and organic farm, but still quite a work in progress. I had lunch and then got to work pretty quickly painting on the rooftops of the dormitory. Craig’s neice, Chyrstie, stared up at me asking to go on her trampoline (I couldn’t resist!) I soon met the other WWOOFers, Calvin from Hong Kong, and Moritz and Sophia from Germany, who filled me in on how things worked. Food consisted of basically toast for breakfast and rice or pasta for lunch and dinner, aside from small amounts of meat and veg that Craig put in the community fridge for us. It was my first WWOOF experience and not so glamorous, but the Germans, who had been travelling and WOOFing for quite some time, assured me Last Light was quite sparse compared to other hosts.
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The next couple of days I worked on building a stone wall out in front of the cafe and got a new roomate, Solenne, a young french girl. Her english was about as good as my french, which is to say quite bad! We had fun trying to talk to each other. Moritz and I ate a lot of toast.
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Kelvin and Moritz

My last full day at the Lodge, I got a chance to practice some really purgative Qi Gong out in the field. I went deeper than I was normally able, opening up a deep well of energy in my gut. Later on, the WWOOFers and I were pulling some meagre looking lamb chops out of the fridge to have for dinner when a sheep shearer started accusing us of stealing food! We had assumed the chops, which were not labeled, had been put in the fridge for us by Craig. All the WOOFer’s food was unlabled while the customers’ had their names on it, as per the instructions posted on the fridge door. Apparently though, the lamb was not for us.
Taking point for my friends, who had fallen silent, I tried to reason with the aforementioned sheep shearer, offering the lamb back but pointing out their mistake in not labeling the food. The shearer would not have it– she would not take the chops back and would not admit to any mistake and continued to accuse us of theft. I got angry. And I felt it coming from that pit in my stomach! Despite my arguing, which I was kind of getting into 🙂 I got nowhere with this shearer and so we popped the lamb in the oven and proceeded to chow down in awkward silence.
For me it was a good expereince as I tend to have difficulty with conflict, but I find it really amazing that the opening I had with Qi Gong preceded the event. I had experienced similar things before — it was almost as if revealing this part of myself allowed the situation to arise.
We finished off the evening with some group yoga out in the yard under the stars. The next day I learned that Tamsin was coming early to pick me up. I gave a Yoga lesson to Lyfe, another German working at the cafe, and then packed up my things. I had had quite enough of belligerent sheep shearers and toast.

The Hollyford Track

After two days of bussing myself from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South, I arrived in Te Anau, a small lakeside town where many travellers stay on their way to Fjordland National park. I stayed two nights in a YHA hostel, filing up on food before my upcoming excursion into the park.

A small tour bus picked me up to take me to Milford Sound, the quintessentail New Zealand Fjord. After a couple of hours and some stops to admire the scenerey–some incredible jaw dropping expanses of plains, jagged mountains, and forrest–we arrived at the sound. It was a relatively clear day, if a bit foggy, and I had a pretty good veiw of the sound, which is quite beautiful. While everyone else on the bus made their way to the docks for a tour boat, I trekked a half mile over to the heliport.

I was to take a heli over the mountains to the start of my track, but I was left waiting a while for it it take off. In the meantime I got acquainted with the local sandfly– which the Maori people claim was left in the sound so that man would not linger and forget his mortality. Sums it right up. Here you are, staring at some of the most amazing land you’ve ever laid eyes on, and the moment you come to a full stop to admire it the sandflies are on you. Maybe just a couple at first, but withn a minute there are droves of them looking to latch on to your sweet flesh and suck your blood! These things are like mosquitoes that never rest and travel in centuries. I started battling them in the airport like Drunken Master while the pilots scratched their heads and laughed me off.

Finally I was able to get in the helicopter and shortly thereafter we took off for Martin’s Bay. If you have never been in a helicopoter I highly reccommend it should you get the chance! We soared over Milford and through the mountain tops. My mouth was wide with amazement but thankfully the sandfly population in the helicopter was noticably smaller.
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I landed not at Martin’s bay as I thought I would, but at a privately owned hut on the track specializing in the wealthy tourist that won’t leave behind their creature comforts. In fact, my helicpoter had been carting in beer and wine to stock the place! I set off towards the bay, which I discovered was much further than I thought. I was hiking in the wrong direction–away from where I was to be picked up–but I wanted to see the bay. So I was faced with the choice to trek on and spend an unplanned night in Martin’s Bay hut, or continue on my track as usual. I decided to press on and see the bay.
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The bay was nice…I walked along the beach to get to Martin’s Bay hut to spend the night. I shared the hut with a German couple who were doing the whole loop and a New Zealand man and his two sons who had just finished the Hollyford. Confronted with sandfly infested toiletts I nearly broke down and was quite homesick.

The next morning I set out early. I needed to cover twice the distance I thought I would–making my way to Hokuri Hut (which I had planned for the 1st day) and then on to the Demon Trail Hut. The beach I had walked on the day before however was non-existant as rain and high tide had covered the trail. I had to walk out of the bay through about three feet of water, making the regrettable decision to leave my waterproof boots on (Mind you, waterproof boots are equally capable of holding water in and creating swimming pool for your foot!) The rest of the first leg was easy enough despite wet socks– mostly level, well paved track and some lakeside paths, a creek crossing. I covered the 13km in about 3 hours compared to the estimated 5. Reaching Hokuri by 11:30am, I decided to press on to the Demon Trail.
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This section of the track is aptly named. It runs along the edge of Lake Mackerrow, but up in the thick brush, following a rocky, winding trail that continuously rises and falls along its 9.6km. It took me about 5 hours through wet, slippery conditions to reach the demon trail hut. I slipped once or twice and nearly twisted my ankle about a dozen times. After a so much distance covered in the morning and my feet constantly slipping on wet rocks, it was slow going. When I finally reached the Demon Trail Hut at 5pm, I felt like the New Zealand Rainforrest had chewed me up and spit me out a hobbled mess. I spent the night with a couple of Americans studying abroad in Dunedin, and slept late.

The next day I was still quite sore from the Demon Trail but the skies had cleared and I was rewarded with beautiful views of the mountains. I took my time to get to Lake Alabaster hut over track that was at times just as brutal and strewn with fallen trees and crumbling paths. One section had me climbing into a small brook and stepping over the precipice of a waterfall to reach the next section of trail! I reached lake Alabaster hut late in the afternoon, achey and wobbly, at about the same time as Amit, a young Burmese man who had twisted his ankle on the Pyke-Big Bay route and had to turn back.
As I knew vipassana had come out of Burma, I asked him about it. It turns out he had done some and actually travelled with Goenka!
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The next day I did another double length hike, intending to make it to the road. My knees were beginning to give me trouble but the trail was much easier here and well maitained. I made my way along the Hollyford River, past a couple of big waterfalls, and lunched on Peanut Butter and Nutella at Hidden falls hut. Shortly after, at Hidden Falls themselves, I met an Israeli Couple who walked most of the way out with me. Crossing over the final footbridge which marked the end of my trek, I stripped off my boots and stretched out on the pavement. The Israeli’s had left their lights on and their battery had died! No jumper cables could be found but some American tourists with a rental car stripped a bit of cable off the footbridge and used that to jump the battery! After dining on warm tortillas and chocolate spread with the Israelis, my ride arrived. Looking forward to a hot shower and a bed, I returned to Te Anau.
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Photos!

So since my last post I’ve been on a few adventures! I have tramped in the Hollyford river valley (that New Zealand for trekked) I’ve built walls and painted roofs at the Last Light Lodge, and now am building a portable chicken coop (chook dome) at the house of Tamsin and Rob. I have posts planned for all of these adventures when my interent access is a bit more stable, but unitl then here’s some photos to ennjoy!

https://picasaweb.google.com/113520281418415045030/NewZealand02?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCO3K-auStbTADw&feat=directlink

Ten days with Goenka

I just returned from a 10 day meditation retreat in the rural farmland north of Auckland, NZ. The technique was in a style called vipassana, where a superconcentrated attention is passed through the body as a means to decondition the habitual patterns of the bodymind. The following consists of the ideas and lessons that I am learning through this technique and is both a way to process my experience and to share it.

Day 1-3 Awareness of Breath. Three days of nothing but observing the sensations of the breath passing in and out of the nostrils, making no attempt to control the breath whatsoever. Though many methods place a heavy emphasis on breath control and regulation, there is much to say about allowing the breath to occur naturally. Very quickly I noticed a lot of discomfort when asked not to control the breath. This is the latent psychophisical holding patterns coming to the surface. When we are trying to breathe in a certain way, we are asking the body to assume a new rhythm. However when we let go of the breath, the body’s deep subconscious patterning comes to the surface to express themselves. Both it seems are two sides of the same coin. As I practiced this I began to notice that as different parts of my body came to the forefront of attention a new rhythm of breathing–fast, slow, deep, or shallow–would expreess itself. Together it seemed as if different parts of the body were literally harmonizing through changes of breath.

Day 4 – Vipassan starts. Having spent well over 30 hours of meditaiton developing acute sensitivty to the sensasions in the nostrils, we were now asked to slowly sweep this attention through the body piece by piece. The mind is to remain equanimous, unchanging whether we expereinced pleasure or pain. At the same time we were asked not to move or change positions for three sessions (each 60min long) throughout the day–sittings of strong determination. Not moving the body in meditation gives one a unique understanding of pain. Take for example pain from sitting. I was in a kneeling position which put a lot of pressure on my knees. After the hour sits my knees would ache and walking would be difficult for a few minutes after I got up. You might dismiss me as crazy to sit that long! But soon things changed. As I scanned the discomfort I found that if I was more aware of the areas around the knee, the force of gravity could spread out and dissolve the pain.The pressure now was able to spread out down the shinbone to the toes and up from the knee towards the hip. My perspective shifted to an understanding that the pain was healing, what I was expereincing was the energy of the earth opeining energetic channels. As I continued to sit longer the force of the earth could travel further into my body and reveal new areas of blockage. The channels along my back became lines of fire, as did eventually the entire ribcage, shoulders and arms to the tips of the fingers. In comparison the legs felt like ice, dense and heavy. As new areas began to open, memories of old injuries and events began to surface, revealing a body-wide pattern a lifetime in the making. At times there would be temporary relief from these blocks with waves of pleasure streaming like champagne bubbles through the body. Eventually I could sit with relative ease for over two hours.

My experiences off the cushion were a bit more pleasant. The intensity of the expereince would lessen and I could devle deeper into the ordinary expereinces of life. Food became immensely pleasureable. Feeling a bit cold before my meal, after a few bites I could almost immediately feel warmth spreading throughout my body. Eventually I could follow the nourishment of the food through the whole meridian system. The sun was also extremely fascinating. I would sun my eyes, looking directly into the sun with eyes closed. I could feel the energy of the sun opening the channels of my face, sometimes extending furhter into the body. I saw my eyesight improve dramatically. Stories of yogis living off sunlight and breath seemed much more plausible. I have often heard my Qi Gong teachr Dr. Jackowicz lecture on Daoist numerology/cosmology accounting the division of primordial unity into two and three and four and five and six and on out into infinity. I was able to understand it intellectually but never had an intuitive understanding of it. But during meditation, as I learned to progressively relax the whole body simultenously, I began to grasp pieces of it. While relaxing my right hand, for example, I found that my left hand would also relax. Sometimes as my wrist relaxed so would my ankle. As I sunk deeper into my knees I felt my elbows open. As my shoulders dropped I felt the hip creases deepen. The connections between the joints are whats known as the “Liu He” or six harmonies. The Liu He Gong was one of the Qi Gong practices that I never really felt drawn to, but now has a new meaning to me. All the pieces of the body were assembling themselves back towards unity. Left and Right, Front and Back, Up and Down, Inside and Outside. I saw the way many of the bones of the body shared a similar connection. The body is a series of holographic reflections of a single pattern. At times I felt tantalizingly close to this singularity but there is still a ways to go.

One of the things I find that has always limited me is me desire to “have it now.” Whatever it might be… an ice ceram cone, a toy, or spiritual healing! On some level I am never really happy with how things are at the present. One way in which I got to experience this physically was in the area around the heart. I have had deep openeings of the heart before, and on this retreat as well. But I think what I am understanding more is that opening the heart is not a one time thing. It is not something you achieve and then move on. I would have a big opening and then go back to my meditation and feel more pain. I didn’t understand this at first. It seems to me though, that everything must pass through the heart, all expereince. It is never over. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that in many eastern languages, “heart” and “mind” are the same word. So for years I have been desiring to open the heart, wanting it now, not realizing that my very wanting was the barrier. I saw that my denial of feeling, the desire to have it now, and the physical contraction I felt around my ribs were one and the same. Equanimity is the name of the game it seems with vipassana (and maye Buddhism as a whole). A spaciousness of mind that can embrace everything and yet cling to nothing. Seems alot like love to me.

 

 

To learn more about Vipassana you can got to http://www.dhamma.org

On the Way

Before leaving Friendz I met James, a burly bald British security worker from London. James saw me close my eyes for a few minutes in the hostel and struck up a conversation about meditation. Turns out we were both headed to Dharma Medinni for the same meditation course.

Later on at the bus station I met Pete, an Aruban born, Dutch raised quadra-lingual rapper, jazz singer, and stand up comic. Apparently Pete has had a booming career touring over 30 countries under the artist name of Pete Philly. Pete talked my ear off on the way to the retreat about everything from art, culture and music to meditation and his adrenals. He is extremely brilliant and knowledge just pops out of his mouth. And keeps popping. I wondered how he would do during 10 days of silence. He seemed to know that all his verbosity was coming from a wounded place and was excited to immerse himself in quiet.

 

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?feature=plpp&v=LGzdPRLIVtw

Pete, James, and I formed a nice connection over dinner before the retreat started. It was quite ironic that in only a few minutes time we would no longer be talking or even making eye contact for ten days.

Once the retreat started I kept checking in on how they were doing. Pete had never meditated before and at first had quite a hard time getting comfortable, but James quickly took to sitting like a mountain.

Coming out of the retreat they were the first people I spoke to. It was clear all three of us had been moved and reached into deep parts of ourselves. We struggled with coming back out again in a way that felt real. After all, our vows of silence were not to prohibit talking, but to prohibit lying. After 10 days of silence it was clear that most of our talk failed to emenate from a place of real truth.

Making these connections has been very special. Knowing someone so fleetingly yet so deeply seems to transcend life’s normal restrictions. It is sad to leave them but I know that in whatever brief way we have touched each others’ lives there has been real meaning, and we take that with us.