Monday, June 27, 2016

A Thousand Beautiful Things

"Every day I write the list of reasons why I still believe they do exist: a thousand beautiful things. And even though it's hard to see the glass is full and not half empty, a thousand beautiful things.

So light me up like the sun to cool down with your rain.

I never want to close my eyes again." -- Annie Lennox, "A Thousand Beautiful Things"*

This song keeps coming to my mind whenever I walk around Chennai, whether on my way to the shala, lunch or home. Amid the persistent honking, the fumes, the dirt, the rubble and the chaos (all things that should, especially in combination, rightfully drive most people crazy), there are moments of true beauty that jump out at me and often bring me to a complete stop. Many times I have to take a photo. Whether a strange flower or seed, or even a dying butterfly still displaying its brilliant colors, these small moments, which by any account should occur everywhere around the world, seem to happen more frequently and take particular significance here.

This bowl is filled with flowers every morning by the cleaning staff. Every night when I come home, some new arrangement of colors awaits me. You'd think it gets old but the flowers are always different and the artistry that goes into the design truly spectacular in its simplicity.

I have seen some of the most colorful sunsets in my life in Chennai. The color contrast is stunning.

There are so many varieties of flowering trees in town and many of them disperse their flowers while they are still vibrant in coloration, covering the ground with beautiful, saturated hues. Now and again you turn a corner and are greeted by a carpet of color that overwhelms the trash that inevitably accompanies it.

I have heard from many people who visit India that it is a magical place, that it gets you in touch with something, and it is uncertain whether it is within you or in others, that is difficult to connect to in other places. I do feel a bit of that. As difficult as India is, I'm drawn here and when I walk the streets I do so with a sense of curiosity and wonder that I don't necessarily carry with me when I travel other places.

So much is alien here. And there is so much juxtaposition. It's hard to come across something without stumbling upon its opposite soon thereafter. Rich and poor. Healthy and sick. Life and death. The only things that can't be found here are standardization and monotony. This place is all variety all the time.

You can, and I have seen it happen, let the grime, disorder and danger get to you. I've met people who are constantly afraid of what they might come across and who fail to see anything worthwhile, let alone inspiring, in this place. But if you walk alert to your surroundings, open to the bad and good, things reveal themselves... or maybe you just see with different eyes and can detect these beautiful moments without letting the negative ones get to you.

I had never seen a flower like this before. They cover the trees here, in some areas competing with the green leaves for color dominance. Someone mentioned it is called a Flametree, because, when in full bloom, the reds and oranges make it look like the tree is on fire.

Even dead this butterfly hasn't lost its beauty. Seeing it left me thinking the rest of the day about impermanence. That we can't take our beauty with us when we die. That beauty doesn't make us immortal. And that it can exist even in the morbid.

Some of the most intricate designs are found infront of the gate at school.

"I thank you for the air to breathe, the heart to beat, the eyes to see again, a thousand beautiful things. And all the things that's been and done, the battle's won, the good and bad in everyone, this is mine to remember."*

One of the things I love so much about this song, and why I think of it as I wander the streets here and find beauty amid the sometimes repulsive, is that it reminds me that even in the saddest, angriest, most heatbreaking moments we encounter, beauty still exists in the world. We can't escape it. It's there as a reprieve from grief, rage and suffering. It's, for those of us who believe in the Divine, God's way of letting us know that, whatever we may feel at the moment, creation is full of blessings. That creation is, in fact, blessing manifested.

The Flametrees maintain their spectacular reds even on cloudy days as the sun is setting.

I have yet to see a tree full of these flowers but I am very curious as to what it would look like. The hot pink and white is really love on these flowers.

I love this cart. It's been there since the last session in November, rusting away in neglect. Normally these are used for making and selling street food. This one has been abandoned. But it maintains this beautiful blue that brings some color to the otherwise dusty street.

In a world full of grief, war, disease, hunger and death, it is bold to believe that and even more bold to choose to see the beauty. I think that's what India demands of you. That you see with an open heart. That you can detect ugliness without letting it make you pessimistic, cynical or hopeless. That it certainly does not rob you of your ability to see the spectacular. That it, instead, add impact and importance to beauty and virtue.

During lunch today I told my friend Juliana that I don't appreciate a nice cold glass of water the way I appreciate it here. It's hot and humid and most of what we eat and drink tends to be hot or at least room temperature. And "room temperature" here is in the 80s or 90s in the Summer. When I choose to indulge and have a cold drink, the sensation is something more gratifying than you could ever expect.

This is another tree that I really like. The flowers aren't as striking as the reds of the Flametree but when they fill up a tree, especially when viewed against a perfectly blue sky, the color is really something.

At school. This one was especially striking for me because of the use of lotuses.

I'm not kidding about the color of these sunsets. They look like paintings.

Oddly it doesn't work the other way around... the beauty doesn't emphasize the ugliness here. It softens it, maybe even gives it purpose. Jasmine smells best in India, if for no other reason than we tend to smell it after we've been smelling exhaust, urine and feces as we walk through the street. The jasmine here is the kind of smell that you want to bury your face in and take in so deeply you never forget it. And it owes this quality to everything around it. It might not be such a profound aroma if it were surrounded by something else... or by nothing else.

One of my favorite flower arrangements.

No clue what this is but I love the color. It was sitting on the street and immediately drew my eye.

Love this one!

It doesn't escape me that much of this openness and optimism has to do with the activities I engage in while I'm here. My visits to India have always coincided with the most intense and focused practices and learning experiences in Yoga that I've ever had in my life. I'm constantly exploring and challenging aspects of myself, trying new techniques and watching for their effects and, most of all, always trying to broaden my perspective on Yoga and on life in general.

So it might be that I'm primed already to see these things and enjoy them despite the detractions. That certainly would explain the looks I get from the people who live here and who watch me stop and stoop down to pick up a flower or to photograph a seed. People here aren't necessarily on that same wavelength.

I really like how the center of the flower sinks into this black hole from which this yellow glow emerges.

The yellow flowers are dropped more often than the reds and when they fall on the street, the contrast against the bluish grey is really beautiful.

Another of my favorite arrangements.

In the US I typically notice the opposite.  We mostly have clean streets and when we come across an area that is junky, it becomes a reason to complain.  We have access to more amenities than area available here and have to adapt our lives very little to inconveniences but should one of our commodities be lacking even temporarily, it's reason for irritation.

Maybe it's the nature of things that whatever becomes the status quo loses its wonder.  And so the higher we set the bar for this status quo, the less things we have which might revive in us a sense of lightness, wonder and joy.

It is a meaningful lesson to ponder, then, about how best to use our time in the world. If we can live in a place and constantly feel blessed and surprised by the little things, how much unnecessary grief would we avoid? If we could maintain that sense of wonder wherever we are, how would it change the experience of the place not just for us but for others? And what would it take to do that?

Most importantly, though, would we be willing to do what it takes?

"The world was meant for you and me to figure out our destiny."*

Monday, June 20, 2016

Studying in India

I'm often asked what it was like to study in India and just as often I'm left with a sense of indecisiveness as to how to answer that question.  It's usually the case that I admit it's a difficult thing to explain or, perhaps, one that I can't quite put into words.  But saying that isn't saying much.  It only takes an experience being so novel and unique that there is no reference point from which to begin to describe it.  Words, after all, are just the way we use experiences and things we have been exposed to in the past to describe experiences and things that we wish to understand, explain or categorize.  

In the U.S., rightly or wrongly, a big deal is typically made of people studying in India.  When a particular teacher or student is introduced, you can bet that, if they have, you will hear in that introduction some mention of how they have studied in India and perhaps even how recently or how often.  It is a badge of honor.  You could say even a status symbol.  Some of this is warranted.  It isn't easy or cheap to get to India from the U.S., so only people with sincere interest and means do so.  

There is also the obvious sense that India is the source of much of the knowledge encompassed in what we understand to be Yoga today.  This knowledge has made it across time and oceans to get to us and, in the process, has been translated, modified, adapted, and re-interpreted to fit the needs and understanding of the individuals receiving it and passing it on.  So it isn't insignificant to be among the few that have traveled to the source of the knowledge to see it for yourself.  The same lessons, the same words even, take on a different meaning when you are sitting in the place that served as womb to the teachings.

Some travel there for their teacher.  Some for the teachings.  Some for the experience itself. All take away something more than they came for. 

My own trip was deeply personal in ways that preceded my experience with Yoga, which began 12 years ago.  I was born in Matanzas, Cuba and, when my family left, fleeing the oppressive regime, lived in San Jose, Costa Rica.  Both these places, different as they were, offered in similar ways a life completely different than what I enjoy now in the U.S.  Some of it was age, of course.  The way you see the world as a child is so different than how you see it as an adult.  The world was also a different place then.  No internet.  No cell phones.  If you wanted to contact someone, you had to consider when was the most likely time you could find them at home and then wait.  Should you want to get from point A to point B, you had to think about how to get there, plan it out, and many a time spend the whole day in the process.  And so, because aspirations came with the requirement of much more time and effort, you had to determine just how important it was to achieve something before you ever took on the task.  This process of evaluating what we decide to commit our time to has all but disappeared in a world where your friends are a text message away and travel requires little more than a GoogleMap search.

When I interviewed teachers who had visited India in preparation for my trip, many said something along the lines "Oh, you've lived in Cuba and Costa Rica, you'll be fine there."  When I arrived Chennai amidst the crowds, pollution and rubbish, I wondered to myself what kind of places my teachers thought Cuba and Costa Rica were that they would compare it to this.  Cuba, with its dilapidated buildings and its 1950s autos still manages to be clean.  Costa Rica, with the jungle always a glance away, maintains its sense of safety.  India does neither.

But they aren't completely off the mark.  In many ways, walking through the streets in Chennai takes me back to life in both these places: the buildings falling apart just enough so that they are clearly not appealing but still completely livable; the cars and bikes that had been retuned and retrofitted over time to maintain functionality; the streets full of trees and animals that reminded you that the wilderness isn't too far away.  Everything in these places is either in the process of construction or decay.  Nothing is static.  The city thrives with the vibrancy of life itself.

And then there are the ways in which India is unique.  The presence of rich and poor, sick and healthy, young and old... all in once place, wading past each other; the stray dogs and wandering cows meandering in much the same way the people seem to, clearly not pets to anyone but more like individuals; the cacophony of car horns alongside the ritual music and kaw of the crows.

With its sensory overload, India demands your attention.  Stepping out into the street you literally take your life in your hands.  There are no usable sidewalks.  They're often littered with bricks soon to be used in the remodel of a house or wall or the street vendors have claimed it for their own purposes.  In any case, there is no room for walking, leaving only the edges of the street for pedestrians to use.  But this comes with the hazard of the weaving traffic, especially the motorcycles, which are harder to discern by sound and can come seemingly out of nowhere.  In most cities in the U.S. you can wander the streets lost in thought, your feet doing one thing as your mind contemplates another.  That isn't an option in Chennai.  Within seconds you'll be ontop of another person or be sideswipped by a rushing rickshaw or bike.

I realized this within my first few days here and am reminded of it within a day or two of each subsequent trip.  I had to cross one major road to get to the KYM from the Raj Palace Sundar Hotel where I was staying during my first trip to Chennai.  Depending on the time of day it could take a few seconds or 15 minutes for me to find an opening in traffic.  If I was out the door before the sun was up, the street was mine.  If I was heading out after, I had, to be patient.  And patience here is equivalent to safety.  One day I forgot this rule in the rush to get to school on time after I'd overslept.  The truck that cut me off came within inches of me.  The entire street stopped to make sure I hadn't been hit.  I even heard a collective gasp from both sides of the street.  Usually people go about their business here without paying much attention to what doesn't concern them so I knew it had been a very close call to have warranted this attention.  I slowed my pace for the remainder of the walk.  I'd been reminded of my priorities.  The street is a place that requires a certain level of alertness and my concern about being tardy was a feeling best left to when I actually arrived at my destination.

I had a less dramatic version of this moment today as I tried crossing a side street too close to the intersection.  I’ve written before that in Chennai I always cross the street as far from intersections as possible.  It seems counterintuitive because in the U.S. we only every cross at the intersections.  Anything else is jaywalking.  But in Chennai, with the constant flow of traffic and the myriad of sounds and distractions, it is best to minimize the directions from which a car can come.  In the middle of the block you only have to look left and right.  At an intersection there are four directions from which a car can come.  Today I thought I had an opening and braved crossing near the intersection.  A motorcycle with two men on it came out of nowhere and tried to make a turn.  I saw the look of horror on the driver’s face as he realized that, were I to continue walking at the current pace, we would collide.  He honked, yelped a bit and came to a near stop.  I’d seen him in time, though, and slowed down so he could pass infront of me but I realized at that moment that I hadn’t looked in the other direction to make sure no one was coming.  Luckily no one was.  But I made a mental note not to try that again and to stick to what I know works.

Whether by design or because of their novelty, activities in India require a certain commitment from you.  You have to be constantly mindful of where you choose to eat, what kind of food you are taking in (being especially mindful to avoid anything uncooked), the water you drink (the people of Chennai are used to the water; your stomach, on the other hand, is not), the time that you shower (some times of day there is no hot water available) and exactly how to get to your destination (you don't want to leave directions up to the rickshaw driver), among other things.

It becomes obvious soon enough that you are no less effective in India because you are committing your full attention to what you are doing at this very moment.  You are more so, in fact, than if you multi-task.  What you see, hear, taste and learn stays with you precisely because you give it full attention.  There is nothing unique about this approach.  It can happen anywhere you choose.  

It's just not an approach that is valued in many parts of the U.S., where we have agendas and to-do lists, goals and itineraries that take precedence over everything that leads up to them or which occurs in between.  If we were to consider how much time we actually lose in our lives by not paying attention to the moments that comprise the in-between, it might give us pause.  

In India, however, it is not an option.

To study Yoga in a place like this is to amplify its teachings.  Here is a practice and philosophy that states unequivocally that there is no virtue or meaningful growth in thoughtlessness.  It puts you, more or less, in control of your own development and makes you accountable for your level of effort, dedication and attitude.  

Home for the Next Three Weeks

I'm staying at a new location a little over a mile from school.  The place I stayed at last time was sold by the owner and she offered me this place, which is supposed to be higher end, for the same rate.  I was pleased with the last place, mind you, and didn't think of it as particularly low end.  The building exterior is definitely more attractive.  Soft yellows and warm whites and pinks adorn the four story structure, which is a welcome, though unnecessary, change from the last location's dull grays and blues.

As you walk into the building you're greeted by a beautiful mandala that is always decorated with a water jar full of flowers and the chalk patterns that are so common in entry ways here.

Each level, with the exception of the first, has two flats, each of which have two to three bedrooms.  I'm staying on the 2nd level flat, which is on the 3rd story from the street level.  I get quite a bit of light through the two windows in my room, if not an attractive view.  One window looks out to an array of thin, tall windows in the next building.  The most charming aspect of this view is that my window has a ledge frequented by pigeons that pace back and forth while staring into my room.  They're curious and surprisingly tolerant of my erratic movements.  Only now and again do I open my shade or move towards the window too quickly for their taste and then they're off my ledge and park themselves momentarily on the ledge of the next building.  Within a minute they're back on my ledge again.  The other window is larger and has a cute reading nook decorated with orange cushions and a mat, which almost makes up for the dilapidated house that serves as my view.  Even by Chennai standards, this house looks particularly neglected, but I have noticed people walking across the yard.

The first level is a covered garage, which always seems to be full of more cars and motorcycles than seem reasonable for a building this size.

The last building was called Madras B&B, which was an obvious enough name.  This one is called Footprint, which I can't quite figure out.  They've gone out of their way to maintain the theme and the doors all have a framed drawing of what looks like a child's footprint, which is cute, but still doesn't explain why they went with this theme.

But then, this is the same city where I came across follow-the-law campaign ads with Mr. Potato Head with his policeman attachments as its spokesperson.  Here, things don't always make sense and they don't really need to given how seamlessly India manages its paradoxes and quirks.

My flat is quite large, with two sitting areas that are kept tidy, boast colorful decor and have fresh flowers every day.  There's air conditioning in each of the rooms and in the common area.  But generally the common area A/C doesn't run since the windows are always open.

Every morning, breakfast is served in the larger 4th story flat between 7:30 and 10, giving residents ample time to get up and enjoy their fresh food and coffee leisurely.

It's a nice time to mingle with other people.  So far I have met only the folks staying in my flat.  the room next to me has either one or two girls who speak French and Hindi and who always act like I've interrupted a discussion on some illegal scheme.  Whenever they see me, they stop all conversation and stand very still, staring at me with expressions that lie somewhere between guilty and startled.  They only soften to smiles after I grin and say "Hello," to which they always respond with a collective "Hello" but nothing more.

The other folks are alot less odd.  They're a couple from Portland who are here doing IT work, which I find ironic since in the U.S. the trend seems to be that we import Indian folks to work in IT.  They've traveled here before so have already been through their culture shock.  We enjoyed trading stories of odd encounters here from previous trips.

I typically don't see people, since the heat and humidity keep us in our air conditioned rooms most of the time and none of us seem to have coincident schedules, except for breakfast on weekends, and even then there's always a chance I will end up eating on my own.  During the week, classes start at 7:30a.m. so I can't make breakfast and instead the folks in the kitchen gather some food for me and store it in the fridge in my flat's common area, allowing me to enjoy it for lunch or a very early breakfast the next day.

The food at breakfast is nothing short of stupendous.  Just like in Madras B&B, whatever we are eating is always served with papaya with lim drizzle, something that I've developed a taste for.  You have no control of what is served each day, but this being Southern India, you can bet it will be rice based.  I haven't had a dish I didn't enjoy in any of my trips, though, so that should not be taken as a complaint.  The real beauty of the food is that it is made fresh every day.  There's something about home cooked meals that are eaten just after they're done being cooked.  There's no leftovers or reheats.  Each person who shows up at breakfast waits a few minutes as their meal is prepared.  Even the coffee is made for each person.

This is a huge contrast to the way that we tend to eat in the U.S. and one of the things I enjoy the most about my trips to India.  One of my fellow students was talking about this with me and mentioned that for a few years, South Indians were starting to move towards the more Western approach of pre-made foods and eating out but that recently the trend had been reversed and home cooked meals were more common.  For people who do not have the time to cook, there's actually a number of services in town which will bring home cooked meals to your home or workplace at whatever time you stipulate so you can enjoy a home cooked meal even when you're too busy to make it.  The cost is around 50 Rupees, which with today's exchange rate comes out to 75 cents.  A few of us at school are planning on using one of these services so we can have breakfast delivered at 8:30a.m., during the 30 minute break we have between our asana class and the next session.

All in all, this is a pretty nice set up for the next three weeks and one that I'm feeling I might miss when I go back.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Leaving Is Harder Than It Looks

Preparing for India went alot more smoothly this time around.  There is no real being prepared, of course.  The last time I was there is proof of that.  I went prepared for rain and got typhoons and a deluge.  As I was getting my clothes together a week before my flight I realized that I've come to see my trips to India as an exercise in surrendering as much as anything else.  The fewer the expectations I have and the more flexible I'm willing to be, the better.

This time I was told it was hot and muggy and to come prepared to fight off mosquitoes.  So out came the cotton shirts, multipurpose kurtas, and pants bought during my first two trips, my cute water shoes (which I can't recommend enough: that are way more comfortable for long walks than they have any right to be, and mosquito repellent.  Aside from that, some choice toiletries, my books and notes from the training, and the just-in-case meds, everything else I could get in Chennai.  And if I can't get it, I don't need it.

If not truly prepared, I at least felt emotionally ready to face whatever new surprises would come my way.

I was struck then, when, a few days before my trip, I was asked by a friend if I was excited and the truth was I wasn't.  Not that I didn't want to go.  That was far from the case.  But I was sensing a deep sadness about leaving Kevin.  Our first conversation about me joining this program focused on how difficult it would be for him to have me gone for so long.  Of the two of us, he is the most sentimental and also the one most nurtured by the daily cadence of a relationship.  The kisses goodbye, the hugs when we greet each other after getting home from work, cooking together, talking about our day over dinner, and even sitting in the same room together quietly as we each do our own thing, don't simply have significance for Kevin: they sustain him.

I realized that, though I wanted to see Chennai, and spend time with my teacher, and learn with and from the other students, and though I knew it was not only what I wanted but what I in fact needed, that there is this part of me that hated the thought of leaving Kevin.  The days leading up to my departure, I found myself watching him more, almost studying him, and doing my best to enjoy every moment I had with him before leaving.

We had planned to finish all packing two days before I was to leave so that would give us my last full day in San Diego to spend time together and relax but as luck would have it some last minute tasks took a lot longer than expected and so we finished the trip related chores around 9:30 p.m., our typical bedtime.  The next day I would leave at noon so at least we had the morning together to focus just on each other.  We woke up without a rush, had brunch at Eclipse Chocolate, one of our favorite places to eat, and then went home to pick up the bags and head to the airport.

Breakfast at Eclipse Chocolate.

There check-in went thankfully quickly and we sat on a bench, my arm around him, and talked.

It was one of those moments that could've lasted hours and it still might not have felt like enough time.  I resisted looking at my watch and when I finally did it was close enough to departure time that I really had to get through security immediately.  The thought crossed my mind that I'd resisted looking at my watch precisely because I had not wanted that to be the case.

At the airport, just before going through security.

The new security line setup at San Diego International Airport has glass walls separating the ticketed passengers headed to the gates from the people dropping them off and I found myself constantly looking back to see Kevin watching me move through the line.  Depending on where I was in line, sometimes I'd see him and sometimes he'd be blocked by a column or a particularly tall passenger in the winding line behind me, in which case I would do the awkward leaning in one direction and then another to see if it would give me a better vantage point.  Sometimes it did.  Sometimes it didn't.  I annoyed a few people behind me while doing it but didn't really care.

When I got through security the first thing I did was look back only to see an empty space where he'd been standing.  It struck me that "empty" was precisely the best way to describe a place without him at that moment.  I called him as I scanned through the glass and caught his silhouette as he answered.

"I had to move to be able to see you" he said.

I felt silly with all this, of course.  I realized that it was both out of character and a bit melodramatic.  But I wasn't ready to have a month without him just yet and wanted every fix I could get.

"I don't know why it's so hard to leave you this time," I'd told him the night before lying in bed in the dark room in the few moments before I fell asleep.

I still don't have an answer for it.  But I don't particularly need one.  There's a certain comfort that this process of surrender can begin before I ever arrive in India.