"...I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."
—from Amazing Grace
I don’t care a whole lot for seeing pretty sights and scenery, such as nature, or buildings and statues. I happen to think it’s why I get to see so many wonders of this world, or why I get to experience wonder in the many things of this world.
It’s like not caring too much of whether I’m alone, then suddenly, my life is filled with wonderful people. Or not caring so much about my health, and suddenly, health just happens by itself without much doing on my part (or more accurately, unhealthiness becomes a non-issue (*see footnote at end)). Or that’s my story.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that reminds me of why God, or any number of deities are sometimes depicted as jealous beings. Place the things of this world first, and you can expect that part of your life to be filled with constant strife, whether internal or external, and meanwhile, things remain just a touch out of reach. Place them a distant second or nineteenth or so, and they proliferate (as in blossom) in one’s life!
It doesn’t matter whether it’s people, money, travel, health, sex, and so on. It’s the same principle at play.
So outside of becoming a religious nut, how does one fashion this attitude? Or that’s the question.
For me it’s simple: I know in my heart what I care about. And anything that’s not that, life continually reminds me so.
It’s been a little over four weeks since I left my home in Chico.
I spent my first week away in LA, taking time with my ex-wife who I consider my best friend, though she likely wouldn’t say the same of me (I might come in around 19th or so, I’m guessing, but maybe I’m flattering myself?) Then, I flew off to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a few days where I walked through miles and miles of shopping malls, then saw the wonders of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, then traveled through Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An, Vietnam, where i ate amazing food while stressing out over how much I was getting ripped off by every other person I met, and now, here I sit peacefully at a cafe overlooking the famous Mekong River (see photo below) in Luang Prabang, Laos. And soon, I’ll be in Bali, which I currently consider my spiritual home.
One way in which I touch into what I care about is that I like to take stock of my most cherished moments at regular intervals in my life, and two come to mind for the past month of travel.
On the day I left LA for Malaysia, I had breakfast with my ex-, Bang. We went to IHOP, and we each ordered the same scramble with potatoes and pancakes. I enjoyed the scramble and potatoes, but when I put the pancake in my mouth, I instantly felt nauseous. I still ate half of it.
After lingering for a while at the restaurant, we went back to her home, from where I would hail a Lyft ride to the airport (as I would be leaving my car in her driveway).
When we got to her home, she ran straight to the bathroom. As I waited in her house that she lives in with her father and sister, I could hear her wailing. She clearly had diarrhea, and being that she’s lived with precarious health (severe lupus, to where she lost functioning kidneys four years ago, and gets hospitalized on average once or twice a year for a week or two, and meanwhile has to self-administer dialysis upon herself four times a day for about an hour each), this was yet another setback for her.
Six months earlier, she had been hospitalized for diarrhea that wouldn’t stop for weeks, and she was down to skin and bones, maybe 75 lbs, if that, skin parched, sores and bruises all over her body from being bedridden for weeks. That’s another story altogether, but during the week I visited, I would spend my days with her in the hospital room and cry my way home every evening.
So here she was with another case of diarrhea. I could hear her helplessness. I felt powerless.
I think she was disgusted also by the mess, and I heard her taking a shower immediately afterwards, still wailing and groaning. But in the meantime, I suddenly had to go myself, not to the airport, but to the shitter. But she was in the only bathroom in the house. So I held out as long as I could, and when she finally emerged from the bathroom looking defeated, I ran in and had my own case of diarrhea.
My flight was in less than four hours, and I was bit concerned that I’d have an unpleasant 30+ hours of travel to come. But mostly, I was concerned with Bang’s mindset, and how difficult it might be to set out on my journey and leave her like this.
So when I came out, I loudly declared, “I got diarrhea too! Probably the no-good pancakes!” (I feigned some anger and self-righteousness as if to cast blame on IHOP.)
She didn't say anything at first as she passed me by into her bedroom, but a few minutes later, she emerged from her room with sudden energy saying, “I think the pancakes! Both of us!” (as if she was providing new information)! And with that, it wasn’t personal for her anymore. It wasn’t her lupus yet again. It was a case of the no-good IHOP pancakes!
I could see a sense of relief in her; I could feel the energy about her had shifted, as if she had softened and relaxed. Of course, I piled on, "Yeah, those pancakes are no good! I made a bad choice of restaurant! Throw away your leftovers!" "Yes, I throw them away already."
Within minutes, she seemed almost giddy. So much so that without any prompting on my part, she unexpectedly opened up about an embarrassing episode in the past year when she had gone to a Christian convention where she had fainted and lost control of her bowels while unconscious, and her embarrassment at waking up in her state, and of how her friends carried her to her hotel room and bathed her, and even hand-washed her clothes as she rested in the adjoining bedroom, wearing their clothes.
While she seemed rather cheerful, I wanted to cry hearing this, that this was yet another painful part of her life that I was finding out about only now. But also, I felt happy at how open she was being with me. Maybe it was also that I was leaving soon? But additionally, I couldn’t help but think what a profound blessing it was for me to have gotten diarrhea this morning.
Later, as I was flying over the Pacific, I was filled with gratitude at the thought that everything that happens, in my life at least, seems to serve a purpose. I know this to be a cliche. And I know that not everyone buys into it. But I do, not that it has to be true. Instead, I adopt it as an attitude. It’s more a strategic or heuristic attitude for how I like to live because oftentimes, the purpose isn’t about me. Sometimes, I get to suffer a bit so that someone else might suffer a little less, and it’s a beautiful thing to me. It makes just about any kind of suffering worthwhile. At least to me. And I imagine to many of us.
That was the first cherished moment. Diarrhea. Didn’t even have to board a plane or eat spoiled seafood (as I would later do in Vietnam) for it.
Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam can be a ruthless or uncomfortable place, at least as I found it. Maybe many parts of Vietnam, in fact? Deceit and scams abound. There are many good people no doubt, and I met a handful, but also, I felt constantly on guard and even encountered an outright short-temperedness from a few in the service sector which seemed at odds with my experiences in every other culture and country I’ve ever visited. I could only imagine how it would be if I actually looked “American,” as opposed to simply holding American citizenship. (When asked there, I began identifying as Japanese after some initial rudeness and even began sporting a slight Japanese accent when speaking at times just so they wouldn’t think me the enemy.) But also, I don't think it's just about being American. I met a few Vietnamese-born tourists who also spoke of the constant stress of being on high alert while visiting.
Anyhow, I went to a salsa dance one night, and danced one of the loveliest dances of my life with one of the girls there. That’s my second most cherished moment.
We shared two dances. The first gave me a sense of how she moved and followed, and I imagine it gave her a sense of my lead. In the second, it was like we had been dancing for a long time already. When it ended, she said with the biggest smile, “That was so much fun! Thank you so much!” and I responded, “That was amazing! I enjoyed it a lot too! Thank you so much!!” And that was that. I danced with a handful of other follows while also watching a few dances to catch my breath. And when it was time to go, I got her attention and waved her goodbye with a smile, and she smiled and waved back.
I think of surfers with their surfing, or golfers with their golfing. Whether it’s that perfect wave or the perfect swing, there’s also the perfect dance. Or it’s nothing close to perfect in actuality cause I’m nothing special. But it feels close to perfect in my mind.
The music is like God, like the waves for the surfer, as I imagine it. It tells us what we can do. It shapes our decisions and how we move. One of my jobs as lead is to be in sync with the music and to transmit what I feel in the music to my partner. The better I can hear it, the better I can communicate what I hear and feel. So I try to listen to it as well as I can while thinking of my lead. But also, I’m responding to my partner, and how she’s wanting to move. It’s a kind of multi-tasking nightmare of sorts for a single-track thinker like me. So it requires a decent amount of concentration and a forgetting of self to the best of my capacity. But it’s exactly that concentration, that seriousness of intent that brings such pleasure and freedom to a mind like mine. And joy. When it seems to work. When it just happens.
And when the music is lovely, it’s like being lost in a dream, moving together, with another. Not that far from making love but without the sometimes accompanying stickiness or messiness. So just as one doesn’t choose anybody for a lover, each dance partner affords and constrains the nature of the experience of a dance. Or the chemistry between the two does. That’s what I find.
I once had a dance with a somewhat advanced follow who also happens to be stunningly beautiful, but who had struck me as unhappy on the inside (just my sense of things). After a dance with her, I felt especially bad, and happened to approach my dance teacher, John Piper, and was about to utter, “I don’t know what happened, but I’ve suddenly lost confidence in myself.”
Before I spoke a word, he simply pointed to his chest. I thought maybe he was telling me that my shirt was too open or that I should have better posture by sticking my chest out. I asked, “John, what are you doing?” “I’m pointing to the heart.” “Why?” “Because dancing is about the heart.”
He knew what had happened.
And that’s what I’ve found. It’s about heart. I don’t care at all if my partner is a beginner or an advanced dancer. If my heart and her heart are harmonious with one another, or there’s some sympathetic quality between the two, or our hearts are simply both open, the dance can be beautiful, even mesmerizing at times. If not, it can be become a kind of mechanical exercise, or worse. Not that different from how sex works.
That’s why I dance. Because it’s about heart. And for me as a lead, it’s also about courage (derived from the Latin cor (meaning “heart”), also the root word for the Spanish corazon (“heart”)) cause it scares me just about every time I step on the dance floor still. And yet, the potential for what’s possible continues to keep me engaged. I still have a long way to go as a dancer, and I imagine that I always will, but when it happens, that synergy or flow, there’s nothing like it. And when it happened in Ho Chi Minh City, that marked the second moment that became deeply etched into my psyche and heart.
It’s not lost on me that my two most cherished moments so far are geographically independent occurrences. The external scenery has changed in the past four weeks, but the internal experience remains predominantly the same. No matter where you go, there you are, as the saying goes.
I pray and I meditate each morning, establish gratitude and contentment, then get on with coffee and writing (or I drink coffee, and coffee gets on with writing), then eat lunch, then get tired and nap or play around on social media until I’m feeling less connected to myself, then maybe mope around or write some more, read and study, meditate, socialize in some random and happenstance way, or watch some dance videos and practice dancing, then nap or find some other way to waste my time, then eat dinner or look for a dance or some fellowship or sangha, come home tired, go to sleep, and do it all over again. Oh, and lately, I’ve been snapping more photos if the lighting seems nice!
My internal experience is dependent upon a few things: how much time I spend settling in meditation and how intently I attend to my practices (one of which I consider to be prayer and supplication, and another, the generation of gratitude, and another, the cultivation of contentment, and another, the contemplation of impermanence and death, and maybe the most important, a regular vanishing into being), and later, how intently I attend to writing that day (part of my service work (or karma yoga, for the yoga people out there)), and these two things establish for me peace and happiness, respectively. Once at peace, all subsequent interactions are shaped by it, that is, any kindness coming through me arises out of that peace and happiness.
It’s nice that the scenery is so varied lately. But life is no different. It’s essentially the same life no matter where I am. Sometimes it’s filled with wonder and a sense of openness and expectancy, and other times, not. And when it’s not, it’s simply a reminder that I’ve forgotten what I hold to be important.
What I hold as important is remembering to remember what’s important to the heart, for it's in the seeking, the moving toward the heart’s truths, or the heart’s murmurings where fulfillment lies.
Salvation rests in the seeking. We don’t find. We never do. As the song says, we’re found instead.
* Footnote on health: This doesn’t mean that I don’t still sometimes incur a cold, a migraine, or a case of food poisoning here and there, and possibly cancer or more likely a heart-attack later. It’s just that when they come, it’s not a big deal (but you’ll have to check in with me on the cancer or heart attack bit at a future time to see if that turns out to be true). I just suffer through it like any human would while my mind is mostly the same, unchanged, same as staring at Angkor Wat or the Mekong River. Mild wonder. Content. Grateful. Hopeful, knowing that the whole thing is impermanent and empty, mostly laughing about it while I sit on the shitter for hours at a time or with my head pounding away as the world turns dark around me.
(Tie-in to theme of this blog (and for those who might be interested)-- I consider this attitude or stability of mind the product of hearing, contemplating, and meditating upon the Middle Path. The core or heart of those teachings are encapsulated in a sutra called The Heart Sutra. The essential message of the Heart Sutra, in the words of one of my teachers, Khandro Rinpoche, is "Relax. It's not a big deal. The whole thing."... And every evening during that one week, as I would drive myself back to my airbnb room with tears streaming down my face, I would remind myself, "Even this...")