The first day back to work was as I expected. Everyone was asking why I cut my hair. They all either forgot what we talked about or it’s just the Lao thing of them asking obvious questions. I think it might be just a Lao thing because people will come in when I’m eating breakfast and ask me what I’m eating, even though they are staring at the plate of food and know perfectly well what it is. At first I thought it was because they wanted me to practice Lao, but I’ve heard them do it to each other as well. Can’t explain it, just what happens. Anyway, I’m happy to explain to them that I went to stay at a monastery. I wasn’t sure how to explain it in Lao, so I just said I stayed at the monastery, similar to a packow. It was difficult because everyone assumed I became a novice and that was certainly the easy way to answer in Lao, but I avoided that because it wasn’t what I did. I find it’s pretty easy to speak with them in Lao and explain my travels. I guess I didn’t lose anything because I was able to practice with the Thai people at the monastery. As the day goes on, some of my colleagues even come up and just stare at me and then make quick comments to each other in Lao. Alright alright, I get over this weird spectacle thing and for good reason, I have a lot of work to catch up on after being gone for two weeks. We also have Friday off and that doesn’t affect deadlines that are due at the end of a week.
As the day goes on some of the people, mostly the guys who have stayed at a temple, understand exactly what I did and treat me like not even a day went by since we last saw each other. Some of the women were much less warm with their reception. I think because I looked so different, people were extrapolating that and saying that I’m acting different. Even though every time I told them I’m the same, I just have a lot of work to catch up on. In one ear and out the other. At first it hurt that my friends would act that way and treat me like an alien. Then again, I actually look a bit like an alien, so maybe that’s appropriate. It’s one thing to tease me about it, which I would expect from a good friend and is exactly what Pavath and I fell into quickly. We have a very similar sense of humor where we make fun of each other all the time. Instead the Lao women in the office are very standoffish and mostly avoid me or when we do talk, they give me strange looks or keep commenting on the same thing of how I’ve changed. I get over it quickly, remembering the repeated lesson that there are things in life that will change and reveal to you who your real friends are. I’ve learned that lesson now with my co-workers and still strive to treat them all the same as before I left.
As the week goes by I can feel myself slide back into my old habits and routines. One thing that people commented on, that I do agree with, is how skinny I got. I don’t feel weak or unhealthy, but I don’t think I could have gone much longer only eating only once a day. I think that’s fine for a retreat, but a silly and unhealthy way to live life. Our bodies can’t absorb all the nutrients we need when they’re crammed into our faces all at once. Nutrition is something that the US has been able to study much more than the other practices here. It’s pretty well accepted, at least from what I’ve read, that’s it’s better to eat more often in smaller quantities, rather than less with bigger quantities.
I’m continuing to watch my actual hunger and not the mirage my brain tries to create. I’ve managed to narrow a routine down to eating lots of fruit and sometimes yogurt in the morning, soon after I wake up. Then that’s followed by a big breakfast of sticky rice and some kind of protein and vegetable, and finally at lunch I will a meal, heavier with vegetables and protein and a bit of steamed rice to go with it. That’s it, I haven’t needed dinner since being back. I’ve eaten it a few times at parties, but haven’t needed it. I’ve been back into my work out routine, I feel strong and healthy, and I’m putting weight back on. Those are all the signs I need to take out the dinner ritual my body thought I needed for so long.
I make a big decision about my weekly schedule that I wouldn’t have imagined making a few weeks ago. I tell my Lao teacher it’s my last Lao lesson. My lessons were Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday every week. On lesson nights with the Lao and exercising, I didn’t have time for meditation. That meant that my week of practice would be really fragmented and not conducive to building on the lessons from the monastery. My priorities have really changed and I suppose in many ways I am somewhat different. For instance, I have turned down a lot of the offers to go and party after work because I’d rather go home and rest and make sure I get a good night sleep. Before this trip, I probably only turned down a few time of those times the whole time I’ve been here in Laos. I’m also less concerned with writing down every Lao word I hear in the office. Instead, I plan to focus on relaxing and putting my brain in the best state possible just to absorb the Lao, less concerned with each word’s meaning. I’m more determined now to pick the parts of practice conducive to the work life and assimilating them into my everyday routines. I’m also determined to continue meditating and furthering my practice in anyway I can. I’ve started to stretch everyday, once when I wake up and once in the evening. It makes my body more limber and it’s a great pep to my energy right after I wake up. I’ve also been specifically focusing on stretching the part of my body that makes it so it doesn’t sound like rusty gears grinding while I try to get into a sitting position on the ground. I’m hoping that my body will be better aligned to help me relax more and breath better. I’ve moved to meditating on a mat and removed a lot of cushions, except for a hard towel that sometimes I put under my butt to help my hips get into the right angle. I also haven’t had internet at the guest house since I got back, which is good and bad. It makes it really difficult to keep up with personal stuff, but then again it makes it easier to not be distracted from meditation.
Eventually, as the week is almost done, I decide I have to take the initiative to go over and talk with the people in the office who are still acting strange around me. Even after a week back, they still are making me feel strange. I make sure to go over and talk with them specifically to show them it’s exactly the same as before I left. It works as I stop getting strange looks and comments about me changing. I want to have a cohesive work environment with everyone, but if it weren’t for our mutual work relationship, I probably would have just kept doing my normal thing and left them to think or do what they want. Either way, things are good now and my hair has grown back in to the point where it just looks short, so no alien and no strange reactions anymore.
I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about what’s next. I started with my first two leads of researching the place in Vientiane and in Burma. The place in Vientiane doesn’t really have a working website, so typical of most things in Laos. The place in Burma has a much more extensive website, so I downloaded a few long documents on their theories behind their practice. It didn’t take me long after starting to read to feel like I’m falling down the same rabbit hole of the monastery I just visited. The main guy of the Burma place writes really well and does a scary good job of putting where he’s getting references for what he’s doing from the original Buddhist texts. He will copy down the original scriptures and then put in his comments and how his practice is related to that section. That’s exactly the criticism that I had from the last place. I believe that it’s necessary to read scripture and teach from it, but I think they should be used in a general way. For instance with learning to love everyone with equanimity. This comes up in Zen Buddhism as well, where they talk about at some point everyone in a past life was your mother or father, so to love everything with that strong unconditional love. The Dalai Lama and a few other Zen teachers have said this is one of the foundations of that practice. That would be fine to use to explain a certain way of practicing because it’s more of a mind state and a way to approach life rather than a specific prescription for practice. Instead this Burma guy is talking about very specific things, like how to progress from one level of meditation to the other. They talk about things like where a monk’s robe should be at a certain part of the day or what kind of diet should be eaten and when. I also don’t hear him referencing anything from his own practice.
Okay, let me try this analogy with how I think the teachings should go: A lighthouse, like scripture, guides in a very general way and can be followed by any boat. However, the lighthouse won’t tell you how to command your boat. That’s something that is left up to the captain of their ship.
I’m not sure if what I’m saying is correct for anyone else, but I know it’s how I feel, in my heart and it’s how I want to pursue my practice. I will keep looking up and using the light as the foundation of my guidance, but the real journey I’m looking for is the one to learn how to control my boat.
So, now that I’ve given a sailing lesson, back to thinking about what’s next. I’ve dropped the idea of Burma and Vientiane completely. For now, I’ve dropped the idea of practicing at another Buddhist place altogether.
In college, Qigong was brought up to me a few times, all by people I really respected. Two of my friends talked about the theory and how they’ve used it in their lives. I also got to take a practice session in a place where I was practicing martial arts. There was a slightly older than middle-aged woman who would teach classes. I got to be good friends with her and we understood each other quickly. She was probably one of the all around toughest women I’ve ever met. She was always very focused on the hard tangible, most effective moves in class. After she would hammer in the foundations, she would quickly get to the part of practice about how to stick your finger into someone’s eye. Then, she taught a Qigong class, where she was totally unconcerned with the physical aspect. It really surprised me to see such a spiritual side of her. As we were talking before class about the Qigong, she closed her eyes and said that she could feel the effects of her practice after just thinking about it. She said she could feel her hands getting warmer. I’m not sure what that means past saving money on gloves in the winter, but it certainly caught my attention, coming from someone so outwardly focused in the other martial arts class. After all these instances, I spent quite a bit of money on a big encyclopedia type book about one of the big branches of Qigong. It focused on medical Qigong and the traditional medicines studied in China.
Then, it all got pushed aside when I went to Ghana and picked up the books about Ajahn Chah. With strange timing, right as I decided I didn’t want to pursue that monastery, like I had planned to do, I was brought back into Qigong by the monk who I connected the best with and who was disrobing soon after I left. Some people would say that is the universe telling me something. I view it a little differently. I think that there are so many stimuli being thrown at me everyday and I just let most of them pass without really paying attention. Then, when something deep inside of me wants to start to learn or hear about something I start to recognize what’s already been there, all around me. Depending on how you define the universe and our part in that, it’s probably all the same. Either way, I like my way of thinking about it because it inspires me to be more open to things in my life and not wait for something or someone else to put in the work for me.
I take the hints and start to research much more intensely into Qigong and China in general. China has always been something I’ve overlooked as a spiritual place. Maybe because it’s surrounded by India and some many other spiritual places in SE Asia. Probably also because the aggressive part of the Chinese culture is unattractive to mostly everyone who doesn’t live there. I think that’s also something that’s been knocking on the door of my consciousness. I’ve always been really annoyed with that culture, but funny enough the same guy who taught me about Qigong for the first time also changed my perspective on that culture. We were in a class in college together and in the beginning of that class he annoyed me to no end with the ways he would be rude and stubbornly hold onto his cultural tendencies. Then, I got to know him and we ended up becoming great friends. I started to really understand where he was coming from and instead of anger, my feelings toward him turned to compassion. He taught me a lot about myself and about the Chinese culture. Also, when there are things in life that I’m adverse to and don’t want anything to do with, I like to analyze why and look deeper into that reaction. I’ve noticed that a lot of times it’s just because it’s revealing a truth to me that I don’t want to see in myself. With all of that turning in the back of my head, I’m getting more fuel for this research about China.
I’ve started to look into things with a bit of a broader scope. I started to research the culture in general and especially focused on all of their spiritual and medicinal traditions. I found out that the majority of Chinese people don’t affiliate with any religion and instead take what they feel speaks to them and incorporates it into their own life. That sounds awfully like what I realized I want to do after my stay at the monastery. Also what keeps coming up in the research is that there are different types of Qigong. Some are slow moving, some faster, some focus on the medical aspect, and some on being very still and meditating. A few of the traditions focused on starting with the moving part before going into the part of being still. They would say that as you get better at the moving part, the motions become less exaggerated. Eventually, they become much more fine-tuned and then at some point just stop. That sounds like exactly my prescription to meditation. I need to be moving! Just sitting on the ground and focusing isn’t fun to me. It’s not a game where I want to strive to figure out. However, put me in a racquetball or tennis court, on the baseball field, next to a basket ball hoop, or even in an intensive yoga class and it’s a whole different story.
In my daily routines I’ve also been incorporating meditation right after exercise. I’ve felt a few times where I get home and I don’t feel right, I just want to skip working out and meditation and do research or something that requires less energy. Through my whole life of exercising, I’ve always taken that as a sign that I need to just do it! When I would just exercise anyway, after a little push the resistance would disappear. Sure enough that still happens when I work out now. The difference now, is that I’m much more aware of that change and more interested in understanding it more. I’m also focusing more on being immersed in my workout. Not through my head controlling the rest of my body, but more as my whole body being part of my perception. That’s one thing I read about the movement part of Qigong that I like and have been trying to understand on my own. The amazing part and the part I hadn’t seen yet was how it affected my meditation after the workout. I take that amazing feeling of just having worked my body and I sit down and meditate right after. My body just slips right into being relaxed, as it’s natural state. I’m still not good at the whole concentration part, but this is a great start to my new approach.
Okay, sorry, back to China. I told you I have trouble with the concentration part. I see a shiny part of my thoughts and I’m off following it on all kinds of new tangents and rants. I also found online that there is a new agreement, as of January 2014, between China and the US which allows people to get a 10 year multiple entry tourist visa. That means Chinese people can get that for the US and US citizens can with China. Let’s think about the proportion of populations here and who that will really benefit more. I’m okay with it though because I’m not in the US and instead actually trying to get into China. Sorry everyone in the US, it looks like we’ll all be learning more about the Chinese culture. That was the last thing I needed to set my mind on what’s next. I’m going to China and I’m going to travel around to learn more about their spiritual and healing practices. I don’t want to go to a big school or training area either. I want to just pick up and go into the rural area of China. I want to go where the modern culture hasn’t skewed their ancient arts. I’ve read a lot also about how China wants to change Qigong and their traditional medicine to better fit into the Western requirements for a reputable practice. Yeah well, to me that sounds like they want to suck the soul out of the practice until it’s acceptable enough to put on a certificate. I’m not interested in that at all. In fact after my time there I’ll be perfectly happy if I leave with no certificate or justification for what I’ve learned. I want to study with those old people in the mountains who have been passing their traditions down for thousands of years and don’t know anything about certificates or how to show me on paper what they know. I trust my intuition enough to be able to practice with them and know for myself, beyond words, whether what they’re doing makes my heart sing.
The hardest part of this next journey will be that I don’t know where to go in China, which is roughly the size of the US. Not to mention I don’t speak a word of Chinese past neehow, which basically means how are you, but with the way I’d mess it up, I’d be saying something about their mother looking like a horse. This is all frightening and yet so exciting at the same time. I feel reenergized and redirected like I haven’t felt for a long time, probably since first discovering the books by Ajahn Chah.
I’ll end this one with words from a man, whom many thought was a jerk. Mr. Steve Jobs. He certainly came up with some interesting ideas, but his life story is what really pulled me in to hearing what he had to say. You should watch his Stanford commencement speech if you want to know what I mean. In that speech, he said “we can’t connect the dots looking forward, only when we look back. We have to trust our hearts and follow them where they tell us to go.” I definitely paraphrased there and probably messed up a few words, but I really love what he said… or maybe it’s more of what I said at this point. What I got is that It might drive us crazy to try and guess where we should go and plan every little step toward getting there, especially when our hearts leads us off the well-beaten path. I’m going to take his advice and just trust my heart and follow it to where I think I should go next, even if it sounds a bit crazy and unconventional. I know that in the end it will only add an amazing part to my story and hopefully inspire someone else to follow their own heart. Then, he signed off with two phrases that I have tried to live with since. I leave these ones up for your own interpretation: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”