Middle Way Course Correction

Something magic happens when everything familiar is removed from the outside, and all that’s left is (imaginary) me… same old me, new world (or, as one of my old songs goes, “Same Planet, Different Universe”). Kinda like a ginormous sensory deprivation tank but with lots of other auspiciously random people in it, it reflects me back to me from unexpected angles.

(Remind me to give myself the gift of a solo retreat more often. One would think i oughta know by now: it’s amazing how amazed i still am that the present is such a high-yield investment in the future.)

Transition & Transformation

I managed to keep myself awake until 10 last night, to help my body adjust to Thai time, but still awoke around 3:30am to a dark guest house bedroom and a yakety-yaketing mind. For our protagonist, Mr. Intentional (who long ago somehow got the idea that the objective was to control the mind, to keep it focused on the magic, the meaningful, and the moving), it’s a peculiar humbling to sneak up and catch himself meandering in the mundane. Truth be told, this discovery is, sadly, all too common, but what made today different was that, instead of racing through the motions of a morning practice, saying “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll” and leaping from the bed directly to the desk, i chose to park the runaway truck and spend the next couple of hours sinking in a little deeper…

Reclining BuddhaAlmost immediately when i generated that clear resolve, i felt that familiar deep shift — like unplugging from the matrix and jacking back into the training program, putting the reins of my mind back in the most trusted hands (the practice itself). Simply  letting the awareness rest lightly instead of controlling it tightly is not unlike the difference between skiing fresh powder and scraping down steep sheets of ice.

As that familiar effortless experience returned and grew clearer and steadier, i remembered how it felt when i used to do a proper, extended sit every day… and some days that’s all i would do.

I suppose one could say i needed to learn to walk with one eye open. I had spent enough of my life in more extreme states — either “in the zone” or out of commission — that it was valuable for me to learn simply to function (not well but adequately) when i’m not at my best. But even if there’s value in learning to be OK with “just barely good enough” when circumstances don’t permit any better, recently i’ve become too good at it. I’m glad to have made friends with mindstream mediocrity, but i’m clear that i wouldn’t want to live my entire life there if i had a choice. And, like most meditators, i’m motivated by the conviction that we do have a choice: we can gradually improve our relationships with our own hearts and mind so that, whatever thoughts, feelings and experiences may arise and pass, we are more deeply at ease with them and, with time, more able to respond to the flow of life with greater grace.

It’s integration time again. The exalted and elusive Middle Way of socially-engaged contemplative practice is only truly the “middle” if it is both truly engaged and truly contemplative… and the former (as challenging as it can be) comes much more easily than the latter, so discipline is my friend. I choose this path in part because it feels superlatively inspiring to walk it when i am both disciplined and relaxed enough to walk it in earnest, but even more because i have so much more to share with the world when i take care of my energy, health, and practice in this way. I love my job.

Change in Chiang Mai

This is a wonderful time of year to be in Chiang Mai. The northern monsoon has just spritzed its last bits, so there’s lots of lush green and the air’s pretty clean (unless one is right behind a propane-burning tuk-tuk), and yet it’s early in the season so not many farangs (foreigners) have rolled into town (which makes it easier to find an available computer in one of the bazillion internet cafés that have appeared since i was last here a few years ago).

I made a point of getting completely lost right away so i could reacquaint myself with the laid-back northern capital of Thailand, which has long been a favorite chillville for me (and so i could keep my jetlagged body awake until the sun went down). One of the first things i noticed, walking through labyrinths of back alleys, was that there are now recycling bins all over, and some of the cooking classes have gone organic. Barely any trash on the street anymore. The moat around the old city center (Chiang Mai was historically a fortified town) is still chocolate brown, but it no longer reeks, which i noticed when an overzealous fountain in the middle of the moat sprayed a few drops of urban chocolate on my face and i didn’t melt into a puddle of toxic goo from the stench as i might’ve in years past.

The children look happy and well fed. Where are the beggars? And the infamously raucous employees of the red-light district? Are these high-season-only fixtures of Chiang Mai? I don’t see them this time. We did notice seasonal migrations living in India: every year we would watch the beggars multiply exponentially before the peak tourist season and then move on to greener pastures when the tide of money ebbed. Is that what’s happening here, or have the marginalized been pressed further toward the margins, or are things actually looking up for the downtrodden in Chiang Mai? I’ll ask around.

WatIt’s interesting revisiting the wats (Buddhist temple-monasteries) too. I remember my awe and wonder, in my first visits to Thai wats back in 1992, was focused on the art and the architecture — the incomparably crafted pagodas, statues, paintings, frescoes, carvings, and textiles. Now what really strikes me is the graceful groundedness and unassuming presence of the white-haired, white-robed nun looking after the place. Weightlessly anchored, she is a hOMing beacon for my travel-weary, Americancerous mind. We acknowledge each other with a slight bow and a flash of very gently connecting eye contact, and we spend the next half hour sitting in the temple alone together, feeling our breathing and listening to the birds. I’m in my element (and vice versa).

The Road Ahead

In a week, i’ll be exiting the cozy, familiar, farang-friendly womb of Chiang Mai to explore the new (to me) world of Vietnam. Retreat will give way to advance, the anything-goes-as-long-as-you-don’t-insult-the-King-or-Thai-culture openness of Thailand will give way to the nothing-happens-without-someone-watching-and-reporting-on-it constriction of the so-called “Communist” police state in northern Vietnam, and Pad Thai and green papaya salad will give way to Buddha-only-knows-what-they’ll-feed-me in Duong Coc village (where my recording project will be focused). And, in the middle of all this, the hearts of people will be the same, but how will we find each other?

In the Vietnamese language (the official Hanoi dialect, which i’ve just begun studying), there are 18 different ways to pronounce the letter “a”  and each of them make the difference between one word (the one you meant) and a completely different word. You say toMAYto, i say toMAHto, bit we’re each talking about two entirely different things — and one is a tasty fruit while the other might be an unforgivable insult to my new friend’s ancestors… but no pressure or anything. 😉  I’m glad i enjoy learning.

Speaking of which, the roosters are ringing the school bell — a little study to keep the embers warm, and then a breakfast adventure. There’s an organic produce market here now (several, apparently), and my belly says it’s time to discover a new fruit.

Free the Mangosteens! (That’s a joke for my Mama…)


Thoughts? I'm listening…

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