Sunday, April 10, 2011
After 2 months of living here, it is time to leave Singapore and return to Sydney for 8 months. I am surprised that I am feeling forlorn about this, it has only been 2 months but I’ve actually met some lovely people here. There is a girl at the tea house and restaurant that serves me free dessert samples and stands by the table often to speak about her dreams for her life. In return I tell her about yoga and places I have lived. She moves like a gentle breeze and her smile leaves traces of sadness.
At the Swiss chocolatier is another girl that wears spectacles and loves nothing more than seeing me recoil in pleasure from every bite of chocolate she offers me. When I told her yesterday that I was leaving, she seemed almost ready to shed a tear.
In a similar way, I have felt the emotions weigh on me at the hotel as I bid farewell to the staff at the Gravity Bar where I have spent some evenings recuperating over some tea and snacks after a stressful day at the client.
A few days ago I informed the staff at the yoga studio that I was suspending my membership until the end of the year and the lady that attended to me told me I had a peaceful aura about me that was appreciated by the staff members. I had not ever seen this woman before so it took me by surprise. I contemplated what she said, I knew it was not easy for her to say speak this openly from the way her hand shook as we filled out the membership suspension form.
In the yoga sutras, I have read recently about the first two cornerstones of yoga. In the first cornerstone we seek to suspend all negative thought patterns through deep meditation to travel through the five paths we all pass through during our spiritual journey: we see death, we see people suffer, we dream of saving them; and the journey ends when we change, finally, into a sacred being who actually has the power to save them. The second cornerstone upon which the house of yoga is built is “the Way” – sadhana. The state of nirvana is akin to stopping all negative thought patterns. And then comes “the Way” which means “to reach” angels through steady daily practice. We reach them first by contacting them, and secondly by becoming them.
I read these words the day after what she said to me and then I thought about what Beate had said in Switzerland when I had praised the weather, she spoke of a saying in Germany that alluded to this being a gift to an angel. I hardly ever consider myself as such, I know far too well of my shortcomings and I have no desire to be ‘an angel’ and I am far from convinced that I have any ability to ‘save’ anyone but it is interesting to consider nonetheless.
The author of the yoga sutra commentary that I am reading is Geshe Michael Roach. This is one of those rare cases where the man precedes the book in my awareness. I had not heard of this man until I saw a notice about a talk he would be giving at Pure yoga (the yoga studio I have been attending here), the talk was called “Love and the Yoga Sutras”. I attended the workshop and observed a man in monk robes looking somewhat bedraggled, but one who seemed to command a lot of respect and admiration. The message in his talk was simple but profound: whatever you wish for yourself, create it first for others. Focus on creation, because you are the source of your experience. You get in return what you sow.
I researched the man and learned that he obtained the title of Geshe which is a sort of Masters in Buddhism and it must be not an easy feat (he is the first American to obtain this title). Once he obtained this, he left Tibet under the instruction of his teacher and started a diamond business in New York that prospered greatly under the principles of “The Diamond Cutter” an ancient treatise based on a talk given by Buddha. Then he sold it and returned to the simple monastic life.
Observing the reactions of the people to the news that I am leaving reminds me of when I left California, it was a revealing time for me because it showed me that I have the ability to leave an impression on people. Just as I write these words I glance back at the paragraph preceding this one in which I state how I have no ability to ‘save’ anyone. Maybe it really just means to leave the right impression on someone and not necessarily don a cap and mask as some sort of crusader.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Basel is a special place to be for me. Roger Federer was born here. I confess that what excited me most about crossing the border into Switzerland was visiting Basel - the city that Roger Federer was born and where he developed his tennis game as a child. It becomes my desire to drink a glass of water from this place, perhaps it could imbue me with miraculous tennis playing abilities. I might even bring some back to spike my sports drink on the tennis court just to gain an advantage.
Well, I've not the time to explore Basel on the way back to Germany from Bern, Jonas and Stefanie are waiting and it is her birthday today.
The week began in Konstanz. I had landed in Frankfurt on Monday morning at 6am after boarding a flight from Malaysia. The journey began officially on Friday in Sydney where I am still based but I had stopped in Penang, Malaysia for the weekend to attend my cousin's wedding reception. I had been fighting a mild sore throat for the past week but it had turned into the nastiest throat condition of my life in Penang. I had to see a doctor near the hotel to acquire some overpriced medication to bring it under control. Luckily it worked very well, I was already feeling it abate on the flight to Frankfurt.
Luck seems to be a constant companion these days. Take for instance the glorious weather I've experienced here in Switzerland that began on Saturday morning. Typically the weather this time of year is overcast at best. The entire week in Konstanz, I had not see the sun. But it arrived in grand fashion at the right time and for the entire duration of this weekend. And now the sun has just retired behind the mountains, proud of its accomplishments for the past two days, leaving behind a jagged rust colored glow on the horizon.
"In Germany we have a saying, 'When an angel visits, the heavens smile with good weather'", Beate said to me this morning as we sat at her kitchen table. I spent last night at Rainer and Beate's home in Vitznau by lake Luzerne. I watched the sun rise over the snowy mountains fringing the lake through the window over a table of the finest cheese, home made jam, bread and muesli I had ever experienced. Smoke could be seen rising languidly from the chimneys of the homes nearby. The homes afforded grand views of the breathtaking scenery with big glass doors/windows that were installed without regard to security. It is safe in this part of the world.
Coming to Switzerland and Konstanz has allowed me to indulge in the world's best of the foods that I enjoy regularly. The cheese, chocolate, bread, muesli AND wine here are outstanding. Jonas stops the car at a bakery in the town that he grew up at as a boy, he invites me to try the pretzel from here and I do. I am not fond of pretzels but I find myself devouring it and wanting more. Stefanie tells me that THIS is the proper way to make pretzels. It must be slightly hard on the outside like a brittle shell and soft and moist on the inside. The legend goes that a baker's apprentice serendipitously invented the pretzel when he mistakenly used a cleaning solution on a batch of bread awaiting the oven.
There is something about eating a food at the point of origin that cannot be replicated. Wine drinkers often complain that the wine doesnt taste the same if you transport it despite your most ardent efforts to do it, and I believe it. There is a reaction with certain properties of the air that rounds out the food or beverage. Speaking of which, the air here is the finest I have breathed for the past 20 years at least. The Swiss take great care to preserve their environment, for instance, 95% of the trains that run through here are zero-emission. The lakes that dot the region serve as heat capacitors and serve to moderate the climate except for the higher regions of the Alps. This is why many Europeans seek to retire here, it is the most coveted land to do so for the clean air and agreeable climate. Yet, the exorbitant cost of living here is prohibitive even to the people that earn Euros. Yesterday driving from Vitznau to Luzerne, I had passed through a village on the shores that apparently had the most billionaires per capita in Europe. Yet, it looked so unassuming. Many of the world's wealthiest come to Switzerland to build their homes because you can actually negotiate your own tax rates here. Michael Schumacher for instance did so. The Swiss have a knack for drawing wealth. Switzerland was the only neutral country that was respected by the Nazis in WWII, it is believed to be because Hitler had vast investments of wealth there that exist to this day. Driving past Zurich airport you can marvel at the number of private jets that are parked in front. And walking around Luzerne, I had passed 3 Ferraris in a matter of minutes.
But the highlight of Switzerland - and by highlight I mean the definitive moment of being awed into stillness - was standing in front of the flat on Kramgasse St. that was rented by Einstein from 1903 to 1905. It was on the second floor of this restored building (now a museum of sorts) that he wrote his most important papers in a matter of weeks that revolutionized physics. This street itself has so much character, it is a long promenade of cobbled streets and fountains, trams run regularly through it. This section of Bern has been entered in the list of UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Sites. I have felt this affinity for Einsten since reading his biography a few months ago - Einstein: His Life and Universe. I was drawn to it both out of curiosity for the man as well as his approach to unraveling the mysteries of the universe. How much of his view of life and our place in it overlapped my own? I suppose quite a bit, because by the end of the book I felt a great fondness and admiration for him. And so standing being there and gazing at the photo cutout of himself as a 20 something year old looking out of the window above felt somewhat like a religious experience. Unfortunately on this day the exhibit is closed. I gaze through the windowed door at the narrow steps leading upstairs and I feel that if I could only walk through this doorway I transcend time and meet the man
Einstein's home, back then
And now... (see his face in the window)
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Departing Pushkar for Jaipur we stop for lunch at a restaurant with a walled garden courtyard, on the way to the temple and lake earlier we had observed acrowd gathered a little ways down the road outside. The presence of a police vehicle compels our driver to walk over and investigate the commotion. Upon his return we discover that the locals had found a body loosely wrapped in cloth and abandoned overnight by the road. It was obviously a murder victim since it had been burnt and assaulted, it was already quite decomposed. It is a sobering find, here only on my second day in India, to remind us of an current of savagery that seems to still run through segments of Indian society. From what I observe, violence is doesn't seem to be a far option to settle disputes or insults. But it also this unbridledness that connects with a part of me, that strikes me as authentic and bespeaks of a level of passion existing within me but subdued by my own concept of who I ought to be, a concept that has been delivered to me largely in part by my upbringing. It has been my task the past few years to familiarize myself with this passion, albeit not in the form of violence.
Later in the day we come to the crossroads of Ajmer, Pushkar and Jaipur. The driver stops and asks us for our confirmation to proceed to Ajmer. If we goto Ajmer we will need to walk quite a distance to visit the mosque, it is an important mosque for muslims. He cannot bring the car up the narrow streets through the crowded markets. It is quite far. I ask if the walk is pleasant and his response is not encouraging. At this point the consensus seems to be to head back to Jaipur and as the vehicle starts back in that direction I override the driver to take us to Ajmer instead. We've come all this way to India, it seemed wrong to find refuge in our hotel and pass up on Ajmer when the opportunity was upon us.
The visit to Ajmer turns out to be the best part of the day, we embark on a thrilling tuk tuk ride through the chaotic tight streets of the town. It is our first such ride. My father Tom and I share the small noisy cabin and the driver masterfully maneuvers the sputtering and screaming contraption, squeezing us past flashes of people steppingaside. After 10 minutes, the tuk tuk stops and we are escorted by the driver through more uneven corridors and steps to an crowded bazaar that extends in a whirl of sights, smells and sounds. The man gives us directions to themosque and how to return to where we had began the tuk tuk ride, my mother and our guide/driver were awaiting us there. We walk through the bazaar trying to appear as nonchalant as possible while drawing the curious attention of the locals, they obviously do not get many foreign visitors. The usual touts calling out for our business are missing, and the beggars we find here ignore us entirely, they only beg from the locals. The entire 45 minutes is a kaleidoscopic feast for the senses. This is a pure unadulterated India and I feel privileged.
Today I experienced a puja by the holy lake in Pushkar. The faithful devotees bathe by the water's edge, flowers drift on the still surface. Flocks of birds lift into the sky periodically then settle again. I exchange the flower given to me by the holy priest in the Brahman temple on the hill for a plate of offerings. In it was spices, candy and flowers. I am led to one of the 52 ghats that descend to the water, seated here on these steps a man leads me through the ritual in exchange for a donation to the Brahmin priests. The prayer is mostly in Sanskrit and I struggle to repeat the words correctly,a couple of symbolic objects are placed into my palm and removed. One of them is a coconut. When the prayer is over I place the offerings in the water.
Then begins the extortion.
The 'holy' man asks us how much we intend to donate to the brahmins. The standard fee is about USD$60. We balk at this. Tension arises and the mood is ruptured. We part with $20 instead. Walking away I do not allow the blessings and state of grace created by the ritual to evaporate. We are free to choose our experience and I decide it serves me better to believe in the grace of this holy man and the sanctity of what I had done.
Pushkar's Holy Lake
The man with the turban sitting on the ground opens his basket as I walk by and I recoil instinctively when I see the cobra inside. He invites me to take a picture with the snake for a fee. The guide assures me that it is safe and though I believe them both, there is still an primitive overriding survival instinct that intervenes. The limbic portion of my brain immobilizes me though the intellect says it's probably ok.
I cannot pass this up, it is a unique opportunity to experience a dangerous elusive creature that bears the dubious reputation in general as a symbol of death. I step forward and hear a gasp, then words of dissuasion from my mother. But this is important to me, to conquer this fear. I know that there is worth in it for me, it is a sort of deposit into the warrior account to touch this cobra against my instincts. I settle cautiously in a crouch beside the man, fully aware that my life is tenuously attached by a string of trust to this strangers words. Touching it's leathery skin, I feel the power and elegance in this snake, a deadly gracefulness that is compellingly beautiful. I feel a rush.
"To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." - Bertrand Russell
I am in India. It has been only two days here but already I feel I have left my previous self far behind. The rules here are absolutely different. If I stayed here long enough I would forget the person that I was. This land is wilder than imagined, the people seem unrestrained and unpredictable. There is a bond here that exists through everything. It runs through man and beast, the dead and the living. Nothing is rejected, nothing seems intolerable. The human condition here stretches far across the spectrum, today I saw how much suffering we can endure on a day to day basis. There was a man lying in the middle of the road in a marketplace, his body was contorted in an extreme way, I could not fathom how he even managed to be there on his own. So much destitution but also brotherhood. The suffering burns away the ego and unites. A homeless man sits with his wife by the road, she is not to eat today but rather to fast for her husbands well-being. A sadhu walks by them and the man offers him one of his two rotis. I have little but it is enough for us. Let us not judge each other. Take from my plate.
In this place I feel bloated by what appears as overconsumption in comparison to the stringent lives of the Indian people where nothing seems to be wasted. In every photo I look grotesquely alien and out of place, I want to connect with this current that runs through this ancient land and its people. This bond seems inaccessible. On the surface it may seem that I have more than enough but truly I am the hungry one. Let me feel this unity. I want to have a real emotional connection, I have been starved of a real expression. Authenticity, Let me feel, I want to climb out of my shell. Let me touch you. Let me sit beside you as you pray for deliverance. I too must learn this prayer. Let us pray together, my need is desperate. My hunger is older and deeper. Fill my cup. Brother.
I am brought within the jostling van by a tap on my leg. "Look at this truck" my mother tells me. Looking out the window I see that it is packed with people, many are children. They sit on the back, there are men and a woman that holds her shawl to conceal her face. The children begin to smile and wave, I do the same then there are many flashes of smiles and even the woman reveals her face, it too is aglow. I feel my outstretched hand has been handed a treasure. In this particular span of time and space now opens a window of which the light of Truth shines through.
Saturday, October 30, 2010
"This one CEO!! Definitely", the bald bespectacled man in the safari suit with the intense gaze cries as he shakes his finger at me. He pulls out his business card and tosses it on the glass table housing his semi-precious stones for effect. When I had first walked into his small office with my parents it was his first prediction, and now as our 20 minute astrology session was ending he chose to reemphasize it. We had requested to visit his man whom is renowned to discern a person's future. We are still within the compounds of the City Palace among a section reserved for selling local handicrafts. We were further encouraged to meet this man upon learning that he never accepted a payment for his readings. Now having had our readings we understand why he is so accommodating, it is because he typically recommends a purchase of certain stones from his desk as remedies to ward off ill fortune. My mother had one such recommendation which she turned down. To the man's credit he didn't waver in his hospitality nor did he accept our offer for a charitable donation.
I listen intently to his readings and for the most part he is able to quite accurately describe the personalities and life circumstances of my siblings and parents. My father is eager to learn if he will ever return to the workforce and what the nature of the work will be. The answer is yes and coincidentally the date given marks precisely one year from the date of my father's retirement which is when he intended to reassess his retirement decision anyways. For me, my only real question is if I will be married someday. The answer is yes, next year in fact. She will be a good woman and the relationship will endure. Hmm... the CEO part was difficult enough to buy but married next year? That's even more far fetched! However, this man is not the first person to look at me and to my astonishment tell me that they see a CEO in me. I simply have no ambition for such.
Gem Dealer and Astrologer extraordinaire
That night we visit the Amber Fort and take in a spectacular Sound and Light show narrated by Bollywood's king - Amitabh Bachchan. In the early days this impressive site was the capital of the Rajasthan kingdom until it was changed to Jaipur by a water shortage.
The show uses the panoramic view of the craggy walls of the fortress as the backdrop, it is a compelling view with a lake in the foreground and hills around us. As we sit on the benches, we are seduced by the vocals of the music and mesmerized by the colorful lighting effects that highlight features of the architecture and terrain. The show transports us to the early days of the Kachchwaha Rajput rulers of Rajasthan, reliving the legends and folklore.
Amber Fort in full lighting