9 Nights at an Ashram

Taken October 20, 2013 at Fireflies Ashram.

Taken October 20, 2013 at Fireflies Ashram.

Indian cities don’t whisper. They are often lovely, always lively, but offer little relief from bombardment of the senses. Horns are relentless. Bus and truck air-horns can make a person jump from one’s skin. The smells may be pleasing or putrid, but they’re never faint. There is sign pollution, wherein it’s often impossible to find what one is looking for in the sea of signage–even when it lies right in front of one’s face. Colors pop and glow, not smooth pastels, but oranges and purples that you can practically taste.

It shouldn’t have surprised me when I got to the southern edge of the city to find one of the major land uses was Ashrams. Ashrams in all shapes and sizes, from the small but authentic Narayana Gurukula (mentioned a few DAILY PHOTO installments back) to the massive Art of Living International Center–headed by Bangalore’s most famous guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Out Kanakapura Road, where monkeys sling through trees and fields of corn remind me of my own Hoosier upbringing, lies a diverse collection of houses of spirituality and reflection. They offer a much-needed island of tranquility amid a sea of chaos.

I stayed for nine nights at one of the most singular of these ashrams, Fireflies. One way in which it’s unique is that it’s a “guruless” ashram. That may seem oxymoronic. The terms “guru” and “ashram” seem to go hand in hand. Guru means teacher. My dictionary defines ashram as, “the home of a small community of Hindus.” [I think this definition could be challenged both on the necessity of “smallness” and “Hindu-ness.” As indicated, there are some pretty massive ashrams and there are ones that are associated with non-aligned spiritual groups.] It’s true that the typical ashram has a spiritual leader or yogi as its head. At Fireflies the gurus come and go with the groups that visit. While I was there, besides our group of Thai Yoga Bodywork practitioners, there was a group of psychotherapists and an organization of past life regressionists. Rather than housing a single unified set of beliefs, at this ashram a diverse and sometimes conflicting set of beliefs are harmoniously housed.

As I have little experience with ashrams, I can’t speak authoritatively about other differences. However, it’s my understanding that one other difference between Fireflies and many–more typical–ashrams is that the latter often have limited or non-existent staff. This means that the visitors may do much, if not the bulk, of the work. Fireflies has a staff that does the cooking and takes care of many needs of the visitors. This isn’t to suggest that it’s like a hotel stay. There’s somewhat of an expectation that visitors will take care of the things that they can do for themselves, and the accommodations are basic.

I found the experience of my stay to be beneficial, if not always stress-free. The main source of my stress had little to do with the Ashram. I received my phone sim card right before I left. After a couple of days I got my phone working for a day or two only to have the phone company turn it off because no one was home when they randomly dropped by to verify my address. [Showing up unannounced in the middle of the day and then treating you as non-existent if no one is home is one of the annoying little hallmarks of Indian institutions (corporate and government) that I’ve experienced on more than one occasion.] I will admit that it is a mark of both society’s and my own wussification that we can’t go a few days without being in contact with home and news of the world. Twenty years ago no one would have expected to have such constant verification that all was well in the world. People could go days back then without worrying that the sky was falling. While it wasn’t pleasant to be cut off, it was an eye-opening experience. [I will note that the Ashram property is on a slope and at the low end I got no reception at all, but on the high end I’d get a bar or two–enough to do the job if the phone company wasn’t screwing me over.]

It was also useful to go without brain candy for a while–that is without television and related entertainment. Part of what I hoped to learn from my stay was whether I was prepared to take the 10-day Vipassana meditation course in the spring. The Vipassana course is considerably more spartan level of existence than that of Fireflies.

On some levels, I proved ready, and on others I have yet to do so. I did just fine eating two vegetarian meals and a snack for dinner each day. (I could have had three full meals per day, but I wanted to make sure I was ready to cut my intake adequately. Therefore, I stuck with a snack in the evening and ate reasonable portions for breakfast and lunch.) I found the meals at Fireflies to be quite good, and I had no complaints in that regard. It should be noted that the ashram is not an easy walk to any restaurants or substantial stores (there are a couple small shops up on the corner, but they’re geared toward locals and don’t necessarily have what a traveler needs) so it’s not easy to go out for something–though I did see one auto-rickshaw around the premises at times.

The true test of preparation for the Vipassana course is that there are no books or notebooks allowed. This will be my greatest challenge. I finished two novels and two nonfiction books on Kindle during my stay, plus probably another 100 pages of other books, and I filled 2/3rds of a journal–mostly with notes from the TYB workshop.

Also, at the Vipassana meditation course one is not allowed to speak to anyone but the instructor at a specific time when they take questions about the course. I wasn’t nearly so cut off from humanity at Fireflies. The workshop participants and teachers were around all day and I had occasional conversations in the evening with others at the ashram. Furthermore, I’m a fairly solitary creature.

It was interesting that during the weekends there were so many people around, but during the middle of the week there were few. For a while I thought I was the only non-staff member person at the ashram—though I later found that to be incorrect.

So my time at the ashram was Spartan, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

I should point out that there are some impressive stone carvings located throughout the property. The artists are international in scope. Each of these carvings or sculptures offers its own story. I’ll attach a few pics for your edification.

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Picture Your Unhappiness in its Underwear

I was writing some six-words on Smith Magazine the other day. I do this now and again as an exercise to get the creative juices flowing. There are a series of themes, and I try to write in as many of them as I can in less than 20 minutes, writing in a free form, stream of consciousness style.

When I got to the category HAPPINESS the first six-word to jump to mind was: “Picture your unhappiness in its underwear.” This one drew a nice response, which began me thinking about whether this advice might have actual merit–as opposed to being a non-nonsensical statement that might at best function as a Zen koan.

As I thought about it, three legs of the stool came to mind.

1.) Have a sense of humor. Anger and sadness have a hard time taking hold if one can manage a good laugh. I’ve found that being able to dance personal tragedy into comedy has been a great coping mechanism. One does have to be conscientious about not becoming a snarky person. One risks beginning to see the world through a crap-colored lens just as a means to comic fodder (or from a martyrdom complex.)

Perhaps even if one can’t formulate humor, one can still use laughter. There’s a system called laughter yoga that is based on the belief that you can create the same range of physiological responses from “forced” laughter as one does from spontaneous laughter. It’s a sort of chuckle pranayama (breathing exercises.)  While I don’t know much about the system, I can believe that it has merit based on what I’ve read about human emotions.

2.) Lay the source of your unhappiness bare. This sounds simple enough. One must know what is making one unhappy in order to turn that frown up-side-down.

That being said, human beings have an astounding ability to attribute all negative happenings in their lives to external factors. Like politicians, we like to take responsibility for what is going right (regardless of whether we are responsible or not), and we love to place the blame for failure firmly elsewhere (even it it’s mostly our fault.) This may be an evolutionarily-hardwired coping mechanism, but it can keep one in the doldrums.  If one continually says, “He makes me so mad” or even, “His actions make me so mad,” then you’re forfeiting control over your emotional state. Jerks and bitches might be an intermediary cause of unhappiness, but ultimately one’s own perceptions and responses lead to the negative emotional state.

This is where the hard work of mind training comes into play. Instead of being swamped by negative thoughts, one has to recognize them early, find the root cause, and recognize that our desire to for things to be a certain way is ultimately what makes us unhappy. We may want people to think we are smart or beautiful, and intimations to the contrary (whether intended or not) make us fume.

Don't be an angry monkey!

Don’t be an angry monkey!

One of the few things I remember explicitly learning in high school was about what our psychology teacher called a “gestalt of expectations.” Like most ideas one remembers though only taught once, I remember it because it had a memorable story attached to it. The story goes like this: “A man is driving through the desert in the American southwest. Now, out in the southwest, gas stations can be few and far between. So the man runs out of gas, and realizes that the station he passed 20 miles back is his safest bet because–contrary to what he had thought– the next one going forward might be another 50 miles.  So he starts walking. It’s hot. He’s hungry. He’s thirsty, and only has some lukewarm water that’s getting hotter by the minute. The backs of his hands and his face are getting sunburned. He starts thinking about how the little two-pump gas station is going to gouge him. He realizes he’s desperate, and so he figures the attendant is probably going to sell him gas at $6 a gallon, a bottle of cold water for $8, and don’t forget the jerrycan at $20.  These thoughts and the heat keep making him madder and madder. Finally, he gets to the station, and the attendant comes out and say, ‘Oh my, Mister, you must have had a horrible time.’ And so the man on the verge of heat-stroke punches out the attendant, a kid who only wanted to help him out.” Once one starts attributing one’s unhappiness to external sources, one can easily mis-attribute unhappiness because one thinks one knows what is in the minds of others, when really one doesn’t.

3.) Unhappiness, like standing around in one’s underwear, is–at most–a temporary state. As Taoists have been known to suggest, one’s darkest hour is a time to rejoice, for surely it will  get better from there. The only way one can remain in a perpetually unhappy state is to carry it with one long past its time. Just like the only way that can always be rained on is if one carries around a complicated mechanism with a showerhead and tank and keeps refilling that tank so that the shower never runs out. Otherwise, the dry season will come eventually.

Happy 237th, America

IMG_9111America is the product of a set of exceptional human beings. Some may wish to humanize the founding fathers and to deflate the mythology that has grown up around them, but deflate the myth and one still has impressive facts. Who turns down a salary for the most sleepless and thankless job in the universe? George Washington, that’s who. Who writes a political document so artfully that its turns of phrase still chime poetically  in the ear 237 years after the fact? Thomas Jefferson, that’s who? Who can invent the lightening rod and bifocals, convince the French to move toward the sound of the guns (just kidding, France), and get the chicks despite the most hideous comb-over ever? Benjamin Franklin, that’s who.

Now this may be Golden Age fallacy talking, but today’s ruling elite seem a bit… well let’s just say “pathetic” by comparison. Sure modern-day rulers still have charisma out the wazoo, but Franklin had charisma plus a world-class intellect. Jefferson had charisma, and he didn’t need a speech-writing team and focus groups to craft his words for him. Washington had charisma, and–quite frankly–he could scare the shit out of a grizzly bear. It’s the rare modern-day leader who is  qualified for any alternative career besides ambulance chasing.

Still, I will remain optimistic about the fate of the nation as long as great ideas prevail. Checks and balances is a great idea. The compromise to appease both populous and small states is a great idea. The Bill of Rights is a set of great ideas. I’m a little amused whenever I hear people say that America needs to revise its Constitution if it wants to keep up in the modern world. I heard this most recently from a scholar who said that because it was relatively difficult to make laws and spend money, America was going to fall ever behind the likes of Scandinavian countries? What? Really? Seriously?

BOOK REVIEW: How to be God by George Mikes

How to Be GodHow to Be God by George Mikes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Humorist George Mikes’ main premise in this book is that humans created God in their image. The book is a series of essays designed to instruct God, if he or she exists, in being a more reasonable facsimile of the ideal human–dear old mom.

Actually, the micro-essays that make up the chapters of this book cover a wide range of subjects. Some of them stay on topic more closely than others. A few of the chapters seem to be stories that the author found interesting (and they are), but which didn’t have a lot to do with supporting his argument. For example, he discusses the two good deeds he has done in life, and he has a chapter on episodes of coincidence. The former may be a tongue-in-cheek support for the argument that even the worst of us are good sometimes. The latter may have been an attempt to bolster a more general argument for atheism by stating that coincidences are not miracles. However, if that is his point, while true, he doesn’t explicitly close that loop in any but the most gratuitous way. At barely over 100 pages, it felt like some of the material, while entertaining, was in the book not to address the topic but to hit the lower bound on a page range.

Mikes weaves together amusing anecdotes with shock-essayist statements that are not so much humorous as gratuitously provocative. With respect to the latter, I’m thinking of his discussion of Hitler and Stalin as basically good guys–if at least in their own minds.

The book is a mixed bag. It’s sometimes though-provoking and humorous, but other times it drifts into shock and awe gratuitous assertions. I suspect he could have hit his page mark by supporting his arguments better and still maintained the humor (realizing that exposition can be death in humor writing.)

A prime example of the book at its best is a story about a woman meeting with her doctor [paraphrased herein.] This is in a section about mini-gods, i.e. those people that we quasi-deify–such as judges and medical doctors. The doctor is trying to convince the woman to have surgery, but the woman refuses.

The doctor asked, “how did you get here today?”

The lady replied, “I took the bus.”

“And you trusted the driver, a complete stranger, with your life. But you won’t trust me–an expert in my field?”

“Yes, of course, the difference is vast.”

“How so?”

“The driver was on the same bus.”

If you find a copy, this book is worth a read. It’s not much of a time investment. It’s an illustrated 105 page book.  If your attitude is, “Sacred cow? it’s what’s for dinner,” you’ll probably like it overall. If you are pious, you’ll probably hate it. If you are neither, you’ll probably find that it has its moments.

View all my reviews

The Bullets that Bore no Name: or, the Burden we all Bear

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-334 / CC-BY-SA

Mauthausen                     Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-334 / CC-BY-SA

Thanks for joining me on the veranda. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this post flows from a book review I did on Elie Wiesel’s Night, which can be seen here. But don’t wander off just yet.

I married into a family of holocaust survivors.

Being sufficiently narcissistic, I haven’t been able to avoid thinking of the profound impact this had on my life.  I am married to the most extraordinary woman in the universe [my apologies to all other women, I’m sure you’re someone else’s most extraordinary woman] by virtue of the strength of a man who wrestled his way to the top of a pile of corpses, bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds, clawing his way out of a pit, and cleaning the gashes with his urine. That man was married to a woman, tiny of body but colossal of mind, who was in the group force marched from Budapest to Mauthausen. After the war, they had a child–my mother-in-law. Yada-yada-yada. I have marital bliss.

Not being completely narcissistic, I’m reminded that every one of our lives have been shaped by strong people who lived through close calls. Each of us comes hither as a gift from men and women who passed through a hail of bullets that bore no name. Some, like my wife’s grandfather, were riddled by bullets bearing their name, and still refused to heed their deadly whisper.  Every holocaust survivor survived by a thin margin. Every battlefield veteran’s life is an execution order rescinded. Every prisoner of war was one germ away from an unmarked grave.

No pressure or anything, but that sounds like a heavy debt we  all bear.

Telling this story in greater detail is one of my bucket list tasks. It’s a project I’ve had on the back burner for far too long. There are several reasons for this. The most feeble of which is a hope to find the right timing. Sadly, there are so many such stories that I fear it will be lost amid a sea of sorrow.  Then there is my need to develop grace with language sufficient to do the story justice. In a way the two novels I have drafted, and whose mess I am now painstakingly trying to dance into shape, are practice exercises.  Wish me luck.

On the plus side, my wife’s uncle had the foresight to have her grandfather speak his story onto about 20 tapes before he died. With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for anyone’s life-altering story to go untold.  So I guess if there is a moral to my rambling post it’s this: don’t let anyone in your life with a spectacular story pass from this world without it being heard.

5 Minefields of Armageddon for 2013

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

1.) Ever heard of the Senkakus? What about Diaoyus? If not, you should look them up. When you’ve been wearing a gas mask for the 33rd day straight, you may want to know about the chunks of rock in the East China Sea that we tripped into nuclear winter over. Simmering tensions between Japan and China have been flaring up over these islands of late. So you’re probably wondering who lives there who’s so important that it’s worth wandering through a minefield that could trigger World War III. If you answered, “absolutely no one,” give yourself a prize.  They’re uninhabited. It’s not the islands themselves that anyone gives a rat’s as about, it’s the ramification they have for underwater drilling rights.

The reader may accuse me of hyperbole. (Shh! Dont tell anyone, but– of course– that’s what I do.) After all, China has a boldly stated “No First Use” policy. That is, they claim they will not use nukes in a first strike. Given that Japan isn’t a nuclear weapons state (NWS), there doesn’t seem to be much risk. Except that a.) Japan lives under the U.S. nuclear umbrella;  b.) Japan is the non-NWS that could develop nuclear weapons in the shortest time imaginable — they have the material, infrastructure, and technical know-how (okay, Germany is in the same bag); and c.) see #2

KimJongUn3

2.) North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. This presents a risk because: a.) it provides an incentive for Japan to build its own nukes (particularly if faith in the US umbrella wanes.) b.) [and more importantly] Kim Jong Un has too many yes-men, and no one to slap him in his chubby face and say, “are you smoking powdered unicorn horn?” In other words, he doesn’t have a good idea of what he can get away with before the world unleashes a crate of whoop-ass on his sad country. So he wanders in the minefield.

3.) Europe is getting depressed. Fat and happy Europeans are productive and polite. Downtrodden Europeans have been known to swallow some pretty despicable narratives, and– in doing so– drag the world into war. At the moment this seems really far-fetched. These political movements are at best in the political fringe of countries on Europe’s fringe, right? Maybe so. Time will tell.

4.) If America’s economy is crash-landed, everyone is going to be hit by the debris. This will be depressing, see #3 and then multiply globally. Times like these  echo Churchill’s comment, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Any person, company, or government that sees the train coming in the distance but can’t find its way off the tracks can’t be expected to thrive for long.

5.) India and Pakistan, enough said…

TODAY’S RANT: Hyper-relativistic Mathematical Zones: or, When Will my Car be Done?

Albert Einstein theorized that distance and time are relative depending upon one’s speed. In everyday life we rarely notice this because of a little-known tenet of General Relativity that says, “Whenever one attempts to approach the speed  of light, there will be an octogenarian in the left-hand lane.”

Since the early 20th century, physicists have thought they were this close (author holds up hand with thumb and index fingers about 3/4 of a centimeter apart) to being able to explain the whole shebang. Figure out why very small things behave differently from very big things, and, Bob’s your uncle, we’ve got your Eureka moment.

I, however, think physicists will find that they have yet another hurdle to solve (mixed metaphor intended, smartypants.) This has to do with certain zones in which conventional measurements of space and time break down even when one is only moving at the speed the planet is revolving (24 hours/day, I think, no that sounds wrong somehow.)

I don’t think physics is quite prepared to explain why an hour in a mechanic’s shop is equal to about 4.33 hours on the outside. We’ve all experienced the inverted time-dilation effect of the Department of Motor Vehicles. According to Einsteinian relativity, time slows as one approaches the speed of light. However, time slows even more when one is in the slowest state of movement possible, the DMV line.

I won’t go into the distance contraction effects localized to the crotch region of men who wear wife-beaters and gold hood ornaments around their necks.

Are these just zones in which bistromathics trump mathematics (Sorry only readers of Douglas Adams’s Life, the Universe, and Everything will get that reference.)

Any Unified Field Theory must explain these phenomenon before I can accept it.

TODAY’S RANT: Pronunciation Police

Pronunciation is tricky.

Pronunciation is tricky.

If you’ve ever had someone tell you that any water can be put in a pot (for pronouncing drinking water pot-table rather that po-table), then you may be with me here. If you frequently exercise your perogative, rather than your prerogative, you may agree. Have you had sherbert, or only sherbet? Do both your eggs and oxen have yokes?

If you’re not with me, you –my friend– might be the person on the right in my little stick cartoon.

I’m as anal about language as the next writer, but let’s try to dial down the pretentiousness. The big question I have for pronunciation police is this: What in your experience with the English language has led you to believe it is a phonetic language?

For those who think English is phonetic because they learned it via “Phonics,” let me expose you to a poem that says it more eloquently than I ever could. (I would attribute the poem, but it is to my knowledge owed to that most prolific “Anonymous” chap.)

Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead-it’s said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up–and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come I’ve hardly made a start.

A dreadful language? Man alive,
I’d mastered it when I was five!

If you still don’t believe that the language can handle multiple pronunciations, check out what the experts say.

TODAY’S RANT: Invisible Conversants

Proposed addition

Proposed addition

A few years back, I was leaving an office building when I saw a man ranting full-bore. He was gesticulating wildly, delivering karate chops to the air with vicious intent, pulling at his hair. What was even more disconcerting was the potty mouth on this guy; he weaved together a chain of expletives that would make a mafia don blush. Yet, I could recognize his words as one half of a conversation, though there was no one else to be seen. He would pause and respond, and I could vaguely imagine what the invisible conversant would have said to invoke such a response.

I, of course, concluded that this poor soul should be committed to an asylum.  I was wondering if I should call the guys with the straight jackets to bring their rubber-lined van when the man swung around to pace the pavement in the other direction and I saw the BlueTooth headset clinging to the side of his head.

I then realized that this man was not certifiable.  He was just a rude douche-bag with a bad temper.

In the good old days, when someone was talking to an invisible conversant, you knew that they had an imaginary friend speaking in their ear. While this didn’t necessarily make them a danger, it did put one on notice that voice in their head might just be saying, “Get stabby.”

Today, I think we are being desensitized by miniature wireless headset technology. Now instead of assuming the someone chatting up an invisible conversant has gone around the bend, we assume that they are communicating with a real, live, flesh-and-blood person. This may be to our own peril.

What I’m suggesting is that Bluetooth headsets be made more conspicuous. They should be in bright neon colors, and should have a flag viewable by people from all directions. The flag would indicate that they aren’t hearing the voice of Beelzebub in their ear telling them to have a nice killing spree.

Just a suggestion.

It’s only going to get worse, when the first people start getting surgically grafted cell phones.

TODAY’S RANT: TMI in Advertising

I was reading the label of a bottled tea this morning. It said something like:

To offer you the fullest flavor, our leaves are not washed prior to steeping. The first time they experience water is when boiling spring-water is poured over them for brewing. This is why it’s so important that we use organic farming methods. This ensures the product you get is only tea… and water… and trace amounts of poop.

Sometimes I think big advertising is out of control. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than on Sesame Street. Big money letters like “M” get all the play and “Q” ends up being the stumbling block letter in the road-trip “ABC” game. No one wants to make more words starting with “X” or “Z” any more. Sure there’s a grassroots counter-culture movement, such as Ernest Vincent Wright’s short novel called Gadsby. Wright’s book was written entirely without the letter “e.” To be sure, “e” is a big money letter; it’s made more money off of Wheel of Fortune than any other vowel. Vanna turns the “e”s and the whole puzzle becomes clear. I heard e’s manager wanted to make its purchase value higher than the other vowels, but Pat Sajak showed his ugly side and “e” backed down.

You probably thought this post was going to be about the Super Bowl ads. I didn’t get past the first Go Daddy ad, which creeped me out. I still don’t know who Go Daddy is and what he does. (His name sounds a little like a pimp.) Which, by the way, is just like the medicine commercials. They have these ads for medicine that leave me like, “I don’t know whether your product will give me a boner or loosen my bowels, why are you advertising to me– especially if you’re going to end by telling me that, ‘Side effects may include a bleeding rectum?'”

Here’s said Go Daddy ad. Bon appetit.