Hello there

Hard to believe that I haven’t written anything since April. Seasons have come and gone. Autumn turned into Spring, which turned into Summer, which is quietly turning into Fall. Without a big fuss or deadlines, just gently changing clothes, preparing itself for the next show. Life really does go on.

I wanted to share these beautiful words by Rumi (who if you do not know him, consider learning more). There's no better way to get inspired to write and reflect more. Rumi breathes life into words, like no one else. Gifted with an eye to gaze deeply into the soul of being a human. Here's what he has to say:

You were born with wings.
Why prefer to crawl through life?

Oh soul,
you worry too much.
You have seen your own strength.
You have seen your own beauty.
You have seen your golden wings.
Of anything less,
why do you worry?
You are in truth
the soul, of the soul, of the soul.

Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find
all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.



"Live With a Full Moon in Each Eye"

The poetry of Hafiz never ceases to inspire me. Here's a beautifully profound poem I came across today:

With That Moon Language 

Admit something. 
Everyone you see, you say to them 
"Love me." 

Of course you do not do this out loud: 
Someone would call the cops. 

Still, though, think about this, 
This great pull in us to connect. 

Why not become the one 
Who lives with a full moon in each eye 
That is always saying, 

With that sweet moon 

What every other eye in this world 
Is dying to 

- Hafiz -


Deepak Chopra - the New Collective Consciousness

Whenever I get a chance to break away from the daily routine and attend a talk by someone – I'm there. I welcome the chance to meet with people from various paths of life and co-reflect on life and its bigger purpose. Although I’m a strong believer that ultimately all the answers lay within each of us, meeting people who’ve spent their lives thinking about these things can provide a nice spark to ignite our own personal growth.

About a week ago I had the privilege of hearing an amazing talk by Deepak Chopra, a M.D. and an author of sixty-one books. He manages to break down the most complex topics of modern science, consciousness, technology and turn them into small changes that we can make in our daily lives.  

Rishi did a great job of capturing some interesting tidbits in this short vignette below. I wanted to pass this on so everyone can get a chance to see it.

Nipun also wrote a blog entry on the ServiceSpace blog, which captures the spirit of the talk and includes a link to the full audio for those that might be interested.  

There were so many inspiring tidbits that I took away from the talk. One that stood out for me were three things that can help individual transformation, which then leads to global transformation. In Sanskrit, they are: Satsang- gathering together to share wisdom and guidance; Simran- reflecting on who we really are; and Seva- being in service with devotion and compassion. :-)


The Art of Forgiveness

I found this simple story to be one of the wisest and most insightful stories that I have heard in a while.

In South Africa, (I believe in the Bahemba tribe) when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unrestricted. All work in the village comes to a complete halt.

Everyone in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused person, one at a time. Each recalls the good things that the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled is recounted in full detail. All his strengths, his good qualities, any good deeds he has performed, and all kindness that he has shown are recited carefully and at length.

This goes on for several days. Only after every man, woman, and child has had a chance to speak with the accused that the ceremony is complete. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically welcomed back into the tribe.

There's certainly a lot to learn from the Bahemba tribe about the art of forgiveness and letting go.


Japan to California

The startling phone-ring breaks the silence of the dark night. I look over at the light of the alarm clock and it reads 5:34AM. Who’s calling at this hour? It’s never good news at this hour. Nipun calmly walks over to the phone in the other room. It’s a family member, he chats like it’s a normal conversation in the middle of the day. Eyes filled with sleep, worried I walk over to his door with a quizzical look. He’s simultaneously on the phone and searching for something on-line. “What – what’s going on?” Finally looking up, “The earthquake in Japan led to a 30-foot tsunami creating a lot of damage, and there’s a tsunami warning for the San Francisco area.”   

What? Half asleep I’m perplexed about how an earthquake all the way in Japan can cause a Tsunami in the Bay Area. And how does someone even find out about this at 5:30AM? This must be bad. As Nostradamus predictions and end-of-world scenarios run wildly through my mind, there’s nothing to even compare this to in my experience. Is it really possible that just when we think we have far more under control, with our state-of-the-art technology, we can wake up one morning and lose our homes and potentially our lives? That too, at such a mass scale? Just like that?  

I turn on the TV and there’s the news of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan that churned into a massive Tsunami, wreaking havoc on thousands of lives and now traveling towards Hawaii and the California Coast. We worry about our beautiful friend Yuka who lives in Tokyo. And yes, it looks like we can wake up one morning with our lives and homes at-risk because that’s exactly what happened to many of the residents in Sendai, Tokyo, and Honshu, along the Pacific Coast of Japan.

The broadcaster on channel 11 continues to reassure people that it will be no more than a regular high-tide in the S.F. area. They’re just closing down the Great Highway for caution, as a buffer. I go back and forth between the TV and Nipun, “It doesn’t sound that bad here -- they’re just closing off all the beaches.” He passes on the reassurance to the voice at the other end of the phone. Apparently a caring relative who’s on the East Coast (and thus three hours ahead) had seen the morning news about the Tsunami alert in California and called the relatives, who called other relatives. Indians are much like the Italian mafia, when one of us knows something it spreads across the rest of the family faster than the Tsunami moving at five-hundred-miles-per-hour. :-)

We finally go back to sleep after realizing that it was too early for any call to action, in Northern California.  But such sleep can almost be a wake-up call.

The number of natural disasters in the past few years has been astounding. And then there are all the quiet destroyers that hardly get the media attention, like malnutrition, aids, malaria, tuberculosis, and more that devastate lives. Given everything that goes on in the world each day, I continue to ask myself: how then do we live? People express themselves differently and my own response has been different at different times. I recall when I was volunteering at Mother’s Teresa’s Hospice in Calcutta, one thing that I heard she used to tell people was: serve wherever you are. Serve in your own country. You don’t need to come here. People need help everywhere. In the third world countries there’s obvious poverty, but that poverty is also everywhere else, especially spiritual poverty.

As I woke up the sun was streaming through the window; the disaster seemed to be averted locally, at least for the moment. I remembered Mother Teresa’s simple yet profound advice of serving wherever you are with whatever you have. And I thought of one addition -- to wake up! Don’t just get by, live with full awareness of the full potential of life every single day. Live each day fully as it truly could be the last. 


When Love Enters

When love walks, gently up the steps
of your house and knocks on your door,
for gods' sake, don’t just stand there --
Open the door.

When love enters your home,
and spreads its aroma like a sacred incense,
don’t let your heart go on and on
about how it has forgotten how to be loved.

When love enters your home,
don’t start tying it down with ropes
panicking it will not be there tomorrow.
For who can predict the future?

When love enters your home,
receive the bouquet of flowers it has to bring,
place it in a vase of fresh water, and give
its buds ample space to bloom.

When love enters your home,
let it come through your front door,
and let it flow out through all the windows
of your home to nurture those who, 
are still waiting for love to enter their homes.

When love walks, gently up the steps
of your house and knocks on your door,
for gods' sake, don’t just stand there --
Open. the. door.


Right on Compassion Way, Left on Mindfulness Avenue

Imagine a city where when you ask for directions, someone tells you to take a right on Compassion Way, then left on Mindfulness Avenue, and go straight onto Honesty Way. Imagine a place where children attend schools that are named Instilling Goodness Elementary school and  Developing Virtue Secondary School; a place where monks recite prayers in a hall filled with 10,000 Buddha statues. Imagine a small University which focuses on not just transmitting academic knowledge but teaches its students to become wise and virtuous leaders in the world; a place where monks, nuns, and families can find their place within the community, and co-exist; a place where fresh organic food is grown right on the property; a place where animals are bought from hunting preserves and set free in a Liberating of Life ceremony. Imagine a place where peacocks roam freely with humans because they've never had a reason to fear them.

The intersection of Kindness and Joyous Way - CTTB
The only place in the whole wide world that you could’ve arrived at is the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California. Founded in 1974 by Master Hsuan Hua, it has played a large role in bringing Buddhism to the West. Eighty acres of the 488-acre land are developed, which host a huge community of Buddhist practioners.

A carload of us drove two hours north of San Francisco to soak in its peace. Visiting our friend Audrey, who is spending six months there volunteering was a nice incentive, along with the dumplings at the vegan Chinese restaurant. :-) At the bookstore, I picked up a book by Master Hsuan Hua whose first page lists eight guidelines for, “The Buddhist Text Translation Society,” that volunteers translating the scriptures must follow. Upon reading it, I thought to myself: "What wonderful guidelines for volunteering and serving in general." I ended up buying the book and when I read the page again at home, I thought, "What wonderful guidelines for any type of giving.” I’m sure each of them can be discussed at length but here are the exact words. 

A volunteer must:
  • Free him/herself from the motives of personal fame and profit.
  • Cultivate a respectful and sincere attitude free from arrogance and conceit.
  • Refrain from aggrandizing his/her work and denigrating that of others.
  • Must not establish him/herself as the standard of correctness and suppress the work of others with his or her fault-finding.
  • Take the Buddha-mind as his/her own mind.
  • Use the wisdom of the Dharma-Selecting Vision to determine true principles.
  • Request Virtuous Elders in the ten directions to certify his/her translations.
  • Endeavor to propagate the teachings by printing Sutras, Shastra texts, and Vinaya texts when the translations are certified as being correct.
Even the last one applies to the giving/service world because once you know that something has substantial truth and is correct -- you can’t help share it and spread it to others.
One of the peacocks that decided to do a mating dance 
Sometimes in the non-profit world of material service, we think we’re immune to the human follies and the trappings of our own ego. Regardless of how well-meaning we are, its easy to get sucked into our own mind's afflictions, which then keeps us from reaping the true fruits of our service. We become content with the frothy top layer of reciprocity and never dive deep enough to feel the peace that comes from real generosity. It seems as though it’s in our best interest to not just focus on serving but constantly ask ourselves, how am I growing from this at a deep, internal, and spiritual level?

Perhaps from time to time we need to just pause and spend time with people and places that remind us to take a right on Mindfulness Avenue and keep going straight onto Wisdom Way.


I AM -- the film

If you were to tell me that the guy who directed the blockbuster comedies: Ace Ventura, Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor, and Bruce Almighty will make a documentary about an inquiry into the nature of life and its purpose – I probably wouldn’t have taken you too seriously. Except that he did. And it’s good.

I had the privilege of being at the pre-screening last night and was blown away by the film and its message. Tom Shadyac is in front of the camera for his film, "I AM", interviewing people, like Desmond Tutu, John Francis, Coleman Barks, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, among many others. It weaves his own personal story of Hollywood fame and a bicycling accident that led him into a lot of pain, which eventually got him to inquire further into his own existence.

The film focuses on two questions: what’s wrong with our world? And what can we do to make it better?

This entertaining film manages to seriously question the nature of nature and scientifically question science. It takes us through a journey of our own hearts and minds through the use of latest technologies. We’ve all heard of mirror neurons, which cause us to literally feel another person’s pain. With some researchers, he actually shows us the influence that each of our thoughts have on other living things (like the bacteria in a dish of yogurt, for example); and fascinatingly, how people in a conversation register each other's heart beat in their brain, without any physical contact. To some extent, we all understand that we’re interconnected, and yet that could seem a little abstract to some. This movie helps open our minds. And if we’re already open-minded, expand it further.

One question that’s always baffled me is: at a biological level, are we naturally born to cooperate or to compete? In Darwin’s, “The Descent of Man,” the word “love” is used 95 times while his most famous phrase, “survival of fittest,” appears only twice. Why are we as a society taught what we’re taught? Why not survival of the kindest? These are the big questions that are asked and answered, in an entertaining way. :) It differs from other documentaries of this nature that, it’s fun. I found myself laughing through much of it. It presents serious topics, but it’s not serious. In some sense, that’s where the experience of editing major films comes in handy. Tom Shadyac goes on a personal journey of discovery and takes us along.

A newspaper had asked a number of authors to write on the topic: “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s answer at that time was the shortest of those submitted – he simply wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton”. Shadyac shows us that perhaps the answer to: what is right with the world, can also be – I AM.


The Subject Tonight is Love -- and Dishes

Chris and Nikki guard the sink like compassionate warriors, setting everything up for the flood of dirty dishes to come. Even so they get kicked out soon from their self-assigned roles, as pleads of “go eat” become hard to ignore. Other hands move in to manage the onslaught of clinking bowls, plates, and cups. Leftovers get neatly scraped off the plates, which then get dipped in the warm water, rubbed with a brush, and lined up in the dishwasher.

It gets hard to figure out exactly whose hands are doing what. As I push Nipun out from the right, Pavi scoots in from the left. Moments later we’re both gently shoved out again with smiles from Shalini and Praveen. Rajesh works hard to get in on the scene as towels start to fly around drying the big pots, and glasses get stacked neatly in a drawer as they were found.

The post-meditation, circle of sharing tonight was about giving and receiving. One question was posed to the sixty people sitting silently around the weekly circle: What is something that you want to give away before you die? One person confidently responded, “The biggest thing I can give away is love.” Many others throughout the circle followed with a similar response. After having sat in meditation for an hour, it didn’t sound like such a cliché. I knew they meant it. It came from the depths of their being. This Love wasn't just a four-letter-word, but rather a feeling looking to explode past the confines of all expressions.

It reminded me of a very sacred moment I had while on a pilgrimage. As I was trying to sort things out in my mind, I literally stopped in my tracks one morning. Walking in a field, I realized that what I want above all things in life: is to be filled with love. And to let that flow out into anyone I come across. Perhaps that’s what we all seek -- to give and to receive love.

Watching friends fight over dishes, I knew it wasn't about the dishes.  They were passing on love, which can only be given in small doses, in the most ordinary of moments. They were saying, "Let me do the dishes", so someone else doesn’t need to. Everyone's cups were filled with love and it was spilling over. Naturally such a flow can’t be contained within the four walls of the home. It will go exactly where it needs to go in the world.

Love.  Such a simple yet profound emotion. No wonder that Sanskrit has 96 words to describe it.



A couple of years ago, a generous friend sent me her very own copy of “The Gift,” a compilation of poems by the 14th century Persian poet -- Hafiz. Every day I delighted in reading one or two of his poems, each one a treasure chest of wisdom. I laughed, I cried, I reflected, and read many of them aloud to anyone within an earshot. One day a guest came along and read through the poems with the same look of awe and wonderment, and I knew it was time to pay-it-forward. “The Gift” by Daniel Ladinsky continues to be my favorite book of poetry of all times.

Poetry has a way of touching the heart, making it dance with joy, and weep with happy tears. It can say in two lines what sometimes can’t be conveyed in an entire book. I have so many favorite poems of Hafiz, but here’s one I was thinking of today:
"Tripping Over Joy"

What is the difference
Between your Existence
And that of a Saint?

The Saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the Saint is now continually
Tripping over joy
And Bursting out in Laughter
And saying, "I Surrender!"

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.


What a beautiful way of reminding us that we don’t (and can’t) have control over things all the time. Surrender! Surrender to what? Surrender to what is, to the beauty of this moment without the faulty projections of the past. 


A Letter to Myself (After Walking 900 Kilometers)

Taking the first step with full conviction almost guarantees that the destination will be reached, granted you persevere through the middle part with full sincerity.

After the longest day of the entire walk -- 38 kilometers -- my feet finally touch what the Romans thought was the end of the world. It’s been a long and interesting journey from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Cape Finisterre, the western-most tip of Spain.

One can never imagine the impact of such pilgrimages on our lives. Sitting on a rock by the lighthouse watching the most glorious sunset of my life, it seems like a perfect ending to a journey of 900 kilometers.

Marker showing that there are 0 kilometers left to walk.  :-)
There’s so much that I’ve learned from walking the thirty-seven days. I’ve learned that if you take the first step, and keep going no matter how slowly you go, limping or crawling,  rain or shine, sick or healthy, happy or sad.-- you will get there. The distance might seem long and wide at first, but step-by-step, day-by-day, you slowly bridge the gap between the beginning and end.

I’ve learned that you need to have clarity about where you are going. There should be no doubt in your mind, so when you meet distractions on the path, they won’t last for long because you know exactly where you need to go. You are grounded on your path.

Once you have the clarity of vision: enjoy the journey. The destination can never be as sweet as the journey. The focus always has to be on each day, each moment. There’s no improving tomorrow, it’s all in the now. Life is taking birth right now.

And if you wander off the path, don’t ignore the signs. Don’t try to take the easy way out, don’t look for shortcuts. You will have to face the path at some point. There’s no difference between uphill and downhill. They’re both critical to the journey, two identical wings of the same bird.

Remember that sometimes the path will be full of beauty, nature, and rivers that flow effortlessly. And sometimes you will find yourself walking on the highway going against traffic; trying not to get run-over and just hoping to make it through the day. It’s all the same, neither roads are permanent – the terrain will keep changing. The most important thing is to keep going in the same direction.

Each day has its surprises; remember to embrace the good and the bad. Take moments to enjoy the beauty around you. And always stop and lend a helping hand. It’s more important to arrive in good spirits than to arrive on time.

Be good to your body and mind. You will get from it what you put into it. Don’t over-indulge in food, but make sure you nurture the body enough. Never underestimate the power of a good nights’ sleep. And for the mind – don’t hang around the naysayers and the gossipers long. Don’t let the mind get habituated to that. It’s much better to be silent and alone.

Don’t try to walk at the speed of others; if you walk faster than your legs can go, you’ll quickly burn out. If you walk slower, you will tire of that too. Find your own pace in life. And walk to the rhythm that allows you to hear the beat of your own heart, and keep yourself tuned into the quiet songs coming from your soul.

Have focus, but be flexible. Being rigid can make you brittle. Flexibility in the mind makes life more durable. Let the negative things pass through you quickly and be grateful for all the good in life -- for that is the magic formula to multiply it. Try to remember that when you have blisters on your feet, pain in your knees, and an ache in your back -- your lips still hold the capacity to turn into a smile.

Above all, the answer is always -- love. Always.   

(From the Camino Journals -- last entry)


Sacred Places Unplugged

The first time I traveled outside of the US on my own was soon after college. I spent volunteering a year abroad in Nepal and Calcutta. Aside from the over-stimulation of the senses, one of the big distinctions that I noticed in both places was the presence of temples almost around every corner. People were constantly remembering God, lowering their heads in a bow just a little as they passed by a temple (a habit which I soon acquired). On one end, you had road-side temples made from a few bricks placed together, where people would leave flowers and milk; and on the other end, there were grand architectural buildings of marble that were adorned with gold statues of deities. At the time this sort of obsession with God seemed to be specific to developing countries -- perhaps the threat of poverty keeps people humble I thought.
One of the entrances to the Samos Monastery, near Sarria

In Europe, I didn’t expect anything remotely comparable to Asia but I soon realized that Asia’s got nothing on this continent, which is full of magnificent churches and stunning monasteries. When you get out of the city (of course the cities have their own grand churches), you notice that every town is built around a church. One monastery that just blew me away is the Samos located in a village by the same name near Sarria. 
When I first saw it, as I was walking up to the town, I thought it must be beautiful college campus. I had never imagined that a monastery can be so grand. Founded in the 6th century, it’s one of the oldest monasteries in the whole of western world -- not to mention one of the largest. The few visitors that happen to chance upon it, walk around mesmerized; taking in the the air of grandeur and the feeling of sacredness all at the same time.

A mural depicting the life of monks: work and prayer
The river Rio Oribio runs through its side, adorned with lush lawns on both sides. The art located throughout the building can challenge any museum. The walls are endlessly filled with mural paintings by good-humored Spanish painters. :)  One of the painted nuns has the face of the Italian actress Sophia Loren. I think I saw an Elton John one too with the iconic colored glasses. There’s also a keystone with an amusing hieroglyphic, which when deciphered reads, “Que miras, bobo?” “What are you looking at, fool?”  One can’t complain that religious folks are too serious. :-)  The monastery also houses a beautiful baroque-style church and the relics of revered saints of the past. Monks (and layman) stay there for long-term retreats and prayers, so it still serves that primary purpose as well.

I continue to be humbled by learning the stories of people, throughout the centuries, who spent their whole lives in pursuit of a deeper search. It isn’t just the yogis of Himalayas, or the Buddhist monks of Nepal, but also the Benedictine monks of Spain that lived in the pursuit of something higher than themselves. The more I travel, the more I realize that people everywhere are driven by the same fundamental search for life's deeper meaning.

(From the Camino Journals)


An Encounter with a Red Truck (Day 29)

They say that when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. I disagree. If you have a just a few seconds, I think you can only have two feelings: accept the inevitable or struggle against it.

On a foggy morning, I’m feeling especially peaceful walking through the curvy highway, feeling grateful to be on a pilgrimage. When I hear a vehicle coming around the bend, it’s too late for me to get off the hairpin road with a large boulder on my left. There’s nowhere to go for this forty-feet portion. A big red truck advances towards me at a rapid pace. With all the fog, the truck driver seems completely oblivious to a person walking along the side. I wave my arms to draw attention. Feeling like an ant on the road, I realize that it would take the truck about a second to reach me. I’m not sure where it comes from, but a thought crosses my mind, “If I have to go, this is as good a day as any.”

Luckily for me the driver finally sees me and presses the brakes, screeches the tires, and swerves.  Outside of a giant ball of dust around me and tire marks on the road, there's no other residue. Completely unharmed, I catch my breath, relieved that this was not it. Glad that I’ll see the people I love once again.

As I continue walking on the path (now off the highway), my own surrender only moments ago is surprising. How would I feel if I wasn’t on a pilgrimage, encountering this in my daily life? Feeling like I almost dodged a bullet, I wonder “it really CAN come just like that?” I'm not naive enough to believe that age is the main factor in death, but still having an experience like this brings a deeper understanding of the impermanence of life. I’m grateful to be doing what I love while I have the opportunity.

How would you live differently knowing that the play can end any minute? What keeps you from living your life fully?

From the Camino Journals, May 28th


Are We Being Led By The Village Idiot? (Day 28)

As I peacefully walk along on a narrow, windy path through the mountains, I hear an all too familiar sound. It’s the “tck, tck, tck” of someone’s walking pole hitting the rocky path except that it’s a lot more abrupt, impatient, in-a-hurry than usual. I glance behind and see a man in a fully-fitted black outfit, who looks prepared for anything (from running a marathon to robbing a bank). :-) I move over to the side to let him through and greet him with a big, “Hola” as accustomed to by now. He looks at me with a patronizing smile as he quickly passes by. Hunh! Wonder what that’s about.
A beautiful Spanish village on a hill 

A few hours later he passes me up again and looks over his shoulder exactly as he’s passing and yells, “another time” and lets out a big laugh. He’s gone before I could say anything. Throughout the day, he does it again twice, and smugly yells, “another time” as he passes me. At first I'm not sure what he's referring to, and after the second time when I realize he’s trying to say that he’s faster than me, I feel irritated. He’s being just plain rude and silly. Then I find myself laughing at the oddity of the situation. Part of me even thinks that perhaps he’s not all there. And part of me wants to stop him the next time I see him and tell him, “you’re not in a race, you’re on a pilgrimage and anyways if you keep passing the same person moving at a leisurely pace, you’re not really going all that fast, are you?”

The beauty of walking alone is that you notice all the infantile thoughts that cross your mind. Every time I think about the situation I find myself getting disconcerted by it. More than the randomness of this guy, why the heck would I care? Why would I even think twice about it? Yes, he’s rude and strange but it also feels like he’s pushing some deep-rooted buttons. Do I care what he thinks? No, not really. I don’t even have any respect for this guy and don’t even think he’s sane. But there’s a small reactive part of me that wants to walk faster just to get that smug look off his face. Fortunately, I don’t give into that and enjoy my walk at a nice pace.

And luckily I didn’t see him again and savor every step of my walk. The last I see of him was right after he passed me, he was being chased off by a dog in the village. I think the dog might’ve felt threatened by the sound of his walking poles. If he had slowed down, I could’ve helped him walk through the village since I’m pretty good with most dogs.

The whole incident makes me wonder about the influences in our lives. How much of them are based on giving uneven weight to the cynics that we come across. And not to mention the biggest naysayers we carry within each of us. More often than we’d like to admit to ourselves, are we being led by the village idiot?  

(From the Camino Journals May 27th)


Don't Fight the Moment (Day 26)

Once again, I am reminded of the fragility and constant change in each day. I was feeling great yesterday and today there’s a little bit of fever and strep throat that is threatening to develop into more. While walking (as in life) you can never feel like, now it should be all downhill from here. This is the moment where everything is going to be easier after this. I guess this is something that should be somewhat obvious by the mid-thirties. If it hasn’t happened by now, chances are it won’t so time to embrace the reality.

An old home in a village on the path
As a pilgrim, there are constant challenges that keep testing my spiritual and physical limits. So there is a steady effort to maintain the equilibrium. I’m trying to eat healthy and nurse myself back but as I told another woman who was sick and feeling really down about it, “You have to accept the moment. Don’t fight it!” This is the nature of life, always has been as far back as I can remember. This is how life just carries along. It’s only when we create internal conflict about the situation that it becomes a fight, a big obstruction in the mind and heart that brings it down further. In the simple words of a chirpy little fish from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swiminnnnn’ Just keep swiminnnn’.”

The Refugio at Cacabelas is nice and quite private. There are only two beds to each A-frame, chalet style room with common showers for everyone in the middle. The other woman assigned to my room only speaks German so it’s nice and quiet. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on this walk for almost a month. It feels so natural to wake up early, pack my bag, and get on the road. Being a vagabond with a set destination is easy. There’s clarity of purpose each day. The route maybe different and the towns that I pass through are all unique but the focus remains on continuing on the path. And yet, it’s not about the end goal either. It’s all about the journey and living each day fully, being with the aches and pains and with all the beauty of nature around me all at the same time.

There is no hoping or wishing for anything to be different. One day it’s a beautiful path and an inspiring conversation the next day, aching fever. Life beckons with all its splendor and its frailty. The hero’s challenge then is to answer that call and respond with an open heart -- no matter who is at the door. 

(From the Camino Journals May 25th)


Meeting Friends On the Path to Nowhere (Day 18)

The Flat Mesetas of Spain are exactly that -- flat. Flat as a ruler. You keep on walking and walking and the scenery never changes. Twenty minutes later, two hours later, four hours later – same view. One straight-pebble-filled road with fields on each side, followed by -- nothing that your eyes can yet see. Your rational mind knows that there is something beyond the horizon, but you start to wonder. There are no markers on the road so you could’ve walked 10 kilometers or 15. And with a pain in your leg and a blister on your foot, there’s a big difference between 10 and 15. I try to calculate based on the time and how far I roughly walk in an hour, but the estimate is totally off since I’ve been limping all day. I remind myself to be in the moment. “You’ll arrive when you arrive.”

When I first heard about the Meseta, I was excited about walking on a flat road after crossing all the mountains. It would give the body much needed rest, and I really wasn’t worried about the mind. I know some pilgrims were worried about boredom, I actually looked forward to it so I can see what comes up to the surface from within. The inner voice gets a chance to speak up and a free license to roam the alleyways of the mind.

Walking along the path, I keep having this feeling that it is possible that I may be the only person that exists in the world. The irony of the situation since I'm walking alone to Finisterra, “the end of the world”. My mind knows that it's not true, yet after walking on the same inexhaustible path for hours, parts me of feel that it could be a possibility. Perhaps nothing exists, all the memories are just a dream that I am just waking up from.

Then it strikes me: on this open road there’s nothing to do, no one to be, no birth, no death, no separation from anything else in the world. I’m just a tiny little speck in the world trying to make sense of things much larger than me; Things that I already know deep inside (everyone does) and that don’t require words. I suddenly go from uncertainty and a sense of separation from the world to total oneness. The road and I are the same. The wind, the sun, eternity – they are all right here along on the path. The pain in my leg somehow vanishes, and I continue walking along to the beat of my own heart that is no longer my own. The sense of I disappears if only for a short while.

After a gazillion kilometers later my eyes finally spot the top of a roof in the distance. Could it be I wonder? As I get closer I realized there is a building. Civilization! I finally arrive at the only Café in a tiny village along the 27-kilometer stretch and find T and K chatting over a cup of coffee. They do exist – I thought for a second. I would’ve never thought that someone I know is walking only minutes ahead of me. K pulled up a chair, “take the load off” she smiled. And I did. It was nice to see friends on the path to nowhere. 

(From the Camino Journals May 17th)


Angels in Disguise (Day 17)

Monsterio Santa Clara Courtyard
I’m staying at the Monasterio Santa Clara tonight, a quiet monastery made of massive rocks with a large courtyard. The best part about it is that with just a couple dozen beds, it really is very quiet. As I bring my sore feet and aching body through the door, I’m greeted by a friendly smiling face with the purest blue eyes I have ever seen, “do you want a biscuit, you like some hot tea?” I first saw Reny when I was lying sick on a bench waiting for the Refugio to open along with others. A medium-built man walked in pulling a wagon. Everyone carries a backpack and I remember thinking to myself, “gosh he needs a lot of stuff,” as people cheered his arrival. Everybody seemed to know him. Twenty minutes later a large woman came in without a backpack who I later learned was his wife Bette, pronounced Bet-T unlike the American Betty White – Betty.

Meeting Reny and Bette
The first time I chatted with them was a few days later while I was sitting at a café across from a Refugio, trying to stay warm. A few others walked in like T who joined me. Seeing that there were no other tables available, Reny and Bette came over to our table. (It’s all a big family of pilgrims when you’re walking.) They claimed that their English wasn’t very good so I was lucky to be sitting with T who translated back and forth. T spoke German and that was a language Bette and Reny spoke well. Their story was one of the most touching of all the people I met on the Camino.

Reny on the road
Reny and Betty have two daughters, one of who got into a major car crash and is now bound to a wheelchair. Both of the daughters have been trying to have children for some time and neither has been successful. They’re walking for the health of one of their daughters and praying that they both get pregnant soon. They know a couple whose daughter couldn't have children and after they walked the Camino, she got pregnant and eventually had four kids. Reny joked that they probably needed to do the Camino again to make them stop having kids. Unlike most of the pilgrims, they started from their home in Holland two and a half months ago and have already walked more than two thousand kilometers. Reny explains that they have had no problems so far, except for the first wagon breaking down and needing a replacement. Both of them had so much love in their eyes when talking about their daughters, who don’t even know that they’re doing this for them.

Reny with another pilgrim
After the Café I’d often see them walking, Reny upfront with the wagon and Bette a little while behind. Every day that it rained, I would wonder how Reny was doing with his wagon. And one day as I was struggling through miles and miles of sticky mud I saw him pulling up behind me wheeling his wagon in the mud. “Doing OK, how is the blisters” he called with a big smile and thumbs up sign. I asked him how he was doing, “SUPPPPER,” he yelled flashing his pearly whites again. “Want to put your pack on the wagon”. I declined realizing that that man’s heart and strength had no limits. I could never figure out how he was carrying all that weight with a big smile for such a small guy. He was always going around helping everyone. I later learned that he even has a metal knee because of past knee issues.

Bette was no less of a sweetheart than he. One day, at the end of a long walk I was sitting on the rooftop of a Refugio trying to drain a blister the size of Montana. Betty who happens to be a nurse gently explained the easiest way of doing it. She gave me a triangular metal piece that nurses sometimes use to draw blood. It’s painless and takes a minute (as opposed to using a needle as most people do which always required a lot of time and patience). She said the best thing after draining it is to leave it alone, keep it clean, don’t put anything on it (except hand sanitizer) – and that advice helped me throughout the trip.

Bette on the rooftop
Those two made an amazing couple, you could always find them laughing and talking. The only time I saw them a little worried is when Bette got sick. I happened to be at the same Refugio. The owner of the small (and only) Refugio in town didn’t allow her to spend a second day. She was so sick that there was no way she could walk. Their friends suggested taking a cab to the Refugio 25km away. Bette was so disheartened because she wanted to walk every step, all the way for her daughters. Everyone convinced her to take a cab and rest at the next place while Reny walked and continue from there tomorrow. He still took both of their backpacks on his little wagon.

I was deeply touched by both of them, to be doing this at this age and their over-the-top generosity to everyone around them and their love for their children. As I walked that day I silently prayed to Bette’s God that today I was walking on her behalf, her walk should not be any less because she couldn’t walk today – because of all that she has done and all that she is. This was the only way to try to keep her circle of giving alive. They’ll never know how much they bring to the people around them.

Even as I think back to them today, I think when I grow up I want to be like Reny and Betty. They’re the toughest most compassionate fifty-something-years-old-couple I have ever met. They totally kick butt and I get the feeling that they’re just getting started.

(From the Camino Journals May 16th)


Arguing with Reality (Day 15)

In Castrojeriz, I have an early pilgrim’s dinner at a restaurant with T, who is a really sweet nurse from Germany. We met on our first night on the walk in St. Jean Pied De Port and then coincidently ended up on the beds next to each other on the second night (much to our relief). It was a room filled with 120 beds squished a-little-too-close-together for comfort. And somehow we didn’t run into each other again until today, almost two weeks later.

It seems like she’s been having some issues. Over dinner, she tells me about an early morning when she was walking alone in an isolated area. It was still dark, and she ran into a strange man. He was staring at her from his car, and as she came close (there was only one path) he started doing donuts around her. Naturally, she got pretty freaked out. He drove away when he saw other pilgrims coming up from behind her and she walked with them until she felt safe. She got pretty shaken up at the time but seems to be admirably strong and committed to completing her journey right now. It’s unfortunate that a couple of folks can ruin it for everyone. We talk about being alert and using practical sense but not letting the fear get the best of us.

For the night, both of us stay at a place run by a colorful character named Resti, the coldest Refugio that I’ve stayed at thus far. There’s no heater, no hot water, no insulation. The damp walls feel cooler inside than the chilly air outside. At the fear of getting sick, for the first time on the walk I decide to forego showering and make do with washing my face with the freezing water. At night, I slip into bed with my sweatshirt and scarf on, along with the extra blanket from the Refugio, in addition to my own sleeping bag.

As I lay awake all bundled up listening to snores from across the room, it occurs to me that I haven’t had any “negative” thoughts for a while. Not that I'm complaining, but I try to recall the last time I felt stressed by something and it was about five days ago. I’m usually pretty cognizant of my thoughts and I don’t remember having a long continuous period where nothing bothered me, even (or especially) during silent retreats. When T was telling me about that guy, there was a part of me that almost wanted to be more upset but I just couldn't. (I still think it was a horrible thing and as a result we all have to be more careful now but I’m feeling unwaveringly calm about it.)

Thinking back to the times that I’ve had thoughts filled with impatience, frustration, anxiety – it all seems a little ridiculous now. Almost like a play. There's a feeling of "why would I have done that," as if I was an entirely different person. Whenever my body reacts with the slightest signs of stress, I know that I was really trying to argue with the reality of "what is." There was so much trying to control and have things happen in a certain way, that there was very little room left for emergence. (Not to be confused with passive, which is very different from acceptance and being genuinely open to the moment.) This week I feel like I’ve seen a glimpse of what’s possible when you're not constantly waging war on reality or trying to defend yourself from it. There IS another way of being. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson I came to learn. 

(From the Camino Journals, May 14th)


Hermits in Spain (Day 11)

(I finally got around to transcribing some of my pilgrimage journals. Will be posting them over the next few weeks in case anyone out there is still reading them. Hopefully, it'll give me that closure and I can go on to writing other things. :)

There’s a small, quite 22-bed Refugio in Belorado. It’s run by a Swiss couple that once walked the Camino, and now they spend their days providing a sanctuary for others. The Refugio is completely trust-driven. People pay what they wish at the end of their stay and that has sustained the place for years. They have a large kitchen that anyone can use as long you leave it as you find it. And the large dining area downstairs where everyone hangs out is really their living room. Such generous souls.

Along with this off-the-beaten track gem, I heard that there are ancient caves in this town. This was the last thing I was expecting to find on a walk in Europe. When I think caves, I generally think the Himalayas but there are many around all over this region. I’m elated to learn that the ones in this town are actually right behind the Refugio, practically in its backyard.

I decide to hike up the hill behind the place with two others, one Japanese girl who looked like she might like some company, and a 20-year-old Canadian boy walking with his dad. As we make our way up the steep hill, the sun is starting to set and the birds are making their way home. The Canadian boy doesn’t really understand why someone would choose to live in a cave. He’s just coming along to see the storks since there’s a huge nest up on a church bell tower that you can see from the top. I try telling him about the hermits that once lived in these caves. “You mean outcasts from society,” he inquires. “No, no, they voluntarily sought for secluded places; they’re seekers of the ultimate Truth.” I can see that it could be a lot for an average teenager to grasp.

The limestone from the cave glitters in the sunset and practically comes off in your hand when you touch it. Completely deserted today, it’s hard to believe that a lineage of hermits practiced here hundreds of years ago. It’s reassuring to see that there are mystics in every society in the world, people who would go to great lengths to find the ultimate answers to life.

View from the top is amazing. The sunset covers the town in a rose-colored tint, which matches the peaceful energy of this entire town. I can see how the Swiss couple ended up here. One can easily spend a lifetime in a place like this. The energy is more tranquil than anywhere else I’ve been – even the Himalayas.  

(From the Camino Journals May 10)