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Life Lessons

The one lesson India can teach us all again and again is about the limiting power of our own expectations. Will my chai be sweet? (yes) Will my chicken be spicy? (yes) Will my cheap hotel have hot water? (no) Will my expensive resort not have hot water? (no) Will the train be on time? (no) Will the person across from me ask me where I am from? (yes) Will the taxi driver rip us off? (not this time) Will I pay too much? (always) Will I be able to keep my temper? (yes) Will my Ashtanga yoga class be hard? (yes) Will my Hatha yoga class be easy? (yes)

The most beautiful thing about being in the country where everything is true, while simultaneously so is the opposite, is that at some point all of your expectations will be wrong. Each of the above questions, I have gotten wrong at some point in this journey, and every time, even after months in India, it was a surprise.

After my 3 months here, I have begun to genuinely enjoy the humor that comes from when something I am so sure of, happens so differently from how I expected. I am learning to let the world and the people around me, surprise me. From that is coming a new kind of joy. A joy that comes from seeing the world or a person for what it/he/she is instead of what I want it/him/she to be.

One of my favorite yoga instructors in NY used to always start class by challenging us to dig back up that joy we used to have while playing as children. I see now that his challenge was 2 fold – not just to play physically, but to also play mentally with power of dropping our expectations and taking the moment for what it was, limitations and all. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is why children can be so innately happy, even in midst of hardship — because they have not yet had the chance to create the expectations that limit us as we get older.

How much more could we accomplish, how much happier could we be if we just went forward, dropped our expectations, and asked the world for nothing? Nothing, but to surprise us.

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“Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful – not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.”

Gerard d’Aboville quoted in The Tao of Travel, Enlightenment from Lives on the Road – Paul Theroux

I remember a conversation that took place before I left for my 365 day adventure, in which I made a remark about how I wanted to leaveNew Yorkand travel for a year because I had lost my focus.  I had argued that travel could give me a clairvoyance that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Six months in, I’ve been rolling this thought around in my head, thinking that there was something else I was trying to encompass in this statement that wasn’t initially coming across.

Finding this quote from Gerard d’Aboville, who rowed across the Pacific solo in 1991, made me realize that what I was trying to grasp in my actions and in my use of the word “clairvoyance” wasn’t just that additional knowledge or experience that comes so easily from walking into a new place. What I meant was that I was craving the awareness of our own humanness that can only arise when we push ourselves to our mental, emotional, and physical limits. Without this, we lose our connection to the humanity around us.

Why was India the first place I chose to come to when I left home? I have been thinking about this a lot lately too. It was not because I had been before and knew the country and the language. It was but because it was and remains the hardest place I have been. Throughout almost 40 countries, no place has broken me down and built me back up likeIndia. No place has shown me the limits of my own person likeIndia. If I am looking for a deeper sense of my own humanity, this is the only place that I could have started.

What I have learned from this, is that if we, as humans, are searching for more clairvoyance, perhaps that can only come by using our biggest challenge, our biggest obstacle, our biggest fear,  as the place from which we start.

Well, here we go. 6 weeks into my India adventure, and that moment I knew would come, but that Goa had been coaxing me into believing might just yet be avoided, has finally happened. I’ve been the target of a walk by feel up.

I knew I was getting too comfortable. The ease of being in a beautiful, liberal, sea-side Indian town was just too good to be true.

If I had been in a crowded bus slammed between commuters, or even in a market in more northern conservative city, the incident might not have caught me so off guard. However, this happened mid-day, in plain sunlight, as I was venturing down an only somewhat busy market street making my way to the ice cream shop. I was in the heart of south Goa, on a touristy beach full of women in bikinis, men in Speedos, yoga studios, tattoo parlors, and discos. What then, you might ask, could I have possibly been doing to provoke this sudden male advance — Was it the way I had dressed? Did I make extended eye contact and imply that I was open to such an encounter? Hardly. Surrounded by strapless tops and thong bikini bottoms, I was clad in a tunic and long pants. And if you can imagine the focus I had on my sugary treat, you would know that there was no time for wandering eyes. Apparently, today my encounter was sheer luck.

Of course this experience did not go over so well. I proceeded to berate this man with questions of how he could act in such a way. What would he have done if another man had done that same thing to his wife, sister, or mother? Finally seeing that my words were falling on drunken and deaf ears, I relented and went my own way. An Indian friend told me later that evening that I would have been in the right to hit him with my dusty, cow-poop covered shoe.

Lesson learned – when in India, always keep your dirtiest shoe easily accessible (either on your foot or in a purse if dressed to head out on the town), just in case of a walk by feel up. You never know when one might happen.

Flip Flops - the perfect protection.

The Sickness of Duality

It is important to become aware of interdependence by realizing that a phenomenon occurs owning to multiple causes and conditions. Reducing it to one single factor would lead to a fragmentation of reality. Awareness of interdependence eventually brings about a lessening of violence. All the more so because when one places oneself in a wider context, one becomes less vulnerable to external circumstances and acquires a healthier judgment. Non-violence is not limited to an absence of violence, for it is a matter of active attitude, motivated by the wish to do others good. It is equivalent to altruism.

Selfless love is often misunderstood. It is not a question of neglecting oneself for others’ benefit. In fact, when you benefit others, you benefit yourself because of the principal of interdependence. I want to stress the importance of enlarging your mind and bringing the suffering of others onto yourself. Altruism changes our temperament, our humor, and our perceptions and allows us to develop a more serene, more even temperament. The opposite of altruism makes us vulnerable to external circumstances.

Egocentrism is against nature, for it ignores interdependence. It is an attitude that closes all the doors, whereas altruism develops profound vision. We should develop the feeling of belonging to a large human family. The causes and conditions of our future are largely in our hands.

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama – My Spiritual Autobiography”
Pg. 107 – Transforming the World

Everyone must assume a share of universal responsibility

I don’t believe in the creation of mass movements or in ideologies. And I do not appreciate the fashion of creating an organization in order to promote one idea or another, which implies that one small group is responsible for carrying out a given project, to the exclusion of everyone else. In the present circumstances, no one should assume that someone else will solve his problems. Everyone must assume his own share of universal responsibility. This way, as the number of concerned, responsible individuals increases –first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands even hundreds of thousands, the general atmosphere will be improved.

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama – My Spiritual Autobiography”
Pg. 117 – Transforming the World

Today, you will have to humor me as I deviate from my typical posts –

With the Thanksgiving holiday last week, I’ve wanted to write something more than a post about mountains and valleys. Unfortunately, I found the inspiration when yesterday I received an email that a former classmate, Janika, passed away on Thanksgiving day in a car accident in Morocco. We weren’t exceptionally close, mostly acquaintances having shared the same space, classes, and classmates for two years of graduate school. Any death leaves us with a sense of loss, but the death of a friend, with similar life experiences and dreams, creates a profound moment for reflection along with a great sense of loss.

Some of my greatest friends have come out of my graduate school experience — 200 slightly eccentric, highly adventurous people thrown together in a common experience, and now strewn all over the world doing amazing things. Any one of us could have been in that accident. If our places had been changed, would I have been content in the fact that I had made the right life decisions? Would she have been better off staying at home in London? Would I have been better off staying at my job and home in NY?

When people ask me if I am scared to travel, my argument has always been that I would prefer to spend my days tempting fate on a mountain side in Nepal or under the Sahara sky, than in a NY pedestrian cross walk. Would my friend agree with that now?

Life, and death, can happen to us anywhere. Knowing that, I think that the best way to honor those that leave this world before us, is to embrace this life that we have and live every day to its fullest. We need to wake up every morning, throwing open the doors to our lives, forgiving grudges, and finding new ways to share love and kindness with the people we encounter.

This Thanksgiving and Christmas season, take a moment to reflect on the simple privilege of being alive. And in honor of Janika. linger an extra 5 minutes over your dinner with friends, give your husband that extra kiss or niece that extra snuggle, make that phone call just to say hi to you sister or best friend. Live your life relentlessly, honestly, and without apology, because the only thing we know, is that we never know.