Thursday, January 13, 2011


I’m sitting in an internet cafe in Goa with my shoes off. I left them outside as is the custom here. The electricity has been flickering on and off, as is also the custom here. What a pleasure to be in a place of temperate climes, with some semblance of stability and a schedule- staying here for 2 weeks after moving every 2-3 days for the past 6 weeks. i invite you to breathe with me a sigh of great relief. iiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnn, oooooouuuuuuuuuuttttttttt. aaahhhhhhh. I haven’t really updated here in a couple months, so in case you think I haven’t been doing anything (or anything ‘worth writing home about’), I will take great care to disabuse you of that notion below. In the interest of your time/for those of you who are not still on break and/or waiting with baited breath to pour over my every word, I’ll start with a short summary of my goings on and then proceed with the interesting version ;) This issue will feature a) a poem, b) a “Lighter Side,” report of some of the funnies collected along the way, c) a “Heavier Side” reflecting on the sandpaper-like challenges and struggles of moving about in this part of the world and my attempts to reckon with/reframe them in fruitful way, d) tickling, and e) quidditch.

The short: Left you last in Rishikesh, where I went with the vague idea to ‘do some yoga’. Turns out going to Rishikesh to ‘do some yoga’ is a bit like going to Walmart “to buy something.” The supersaturation was a bit overwhelming and I didn’t end up doing much yoga. It was a hard time for me there personally, with the highlight of making a really nice Israeli friend from whom I learned much. From Rishikesh I made my way to Kathmandu and spent some good time visiting the chevre who are volunteering on Tevel b’tzedek in Nepal. Then to the Annapurna trek. Once I was there I understood why I had been told it was the end of the season. Very cold. very beautiful. very arduous. good alone time + some meaningful and some challenging encounters along the way. 10 pounds the lighter I returned to Kathmandu. missed a flight to Bangalore in southern India. for the better. ran into a friend, let’s call him ‘Elan’ (cuz that’s his name), who I’d met in September in Israel at the Chabad (jewish center) in Kathmandu. took him up on his offer to go to Darjeeling/Sikkim. sikkim=beautiful, and we happened upon and joined a conference on Science, Spirituality, and Education with HHtheDalai Lama et al (ie a bunch of Buddhist people and probably a minyan of Jews). 3rd time this year seeing HHDL, but he still hasn’t invited me for can add 30 hours of developing world transit for every sentence. Really enjoyed Elan’s company. few days in bodh gaya. then headed southward to Goa to meet Benj and Chad. Family is priceless. Now in Goa for 2 weeks living in a great hut on the beach, doing an intense Chi Kung/Tai Chi course, and hanging out at the Bayit Yehudi with other Jews and Rebbe Nachman. Leaving next Thursday, via Hampi to visit the people from Lev Yehudi who first welcomed me in India, to Tiruvannamalai to participate in the international quidditch tournament for the next few months (ie do some meditation retreats).

Now- y’all rock on your way if you gotta go.
Here begins my tale in earnest.

So it’s kinda like this. I’m the man. basically, a magnet. Let me explain. All it takes is for me to walk down the road here and people just start talking to me. I’m everybody’s friend. They all greet me with ‘hello, friend!’ and then they just start offering me things. This one offers me a taxi, the next one wants to invite me into his shop- and ‘just to look,’ even offering me ‘good price’ should something really catch my eye, then another one offers me a taxi, not content that I should receive the invitation from only one of his peers. Little kids come running up to me wanting change just because it’s in my pocket, sometimes even their mothers join them. Sometimes, random Indians stop me just to have their picture taken, to shake my hand, and ask “which country?”*...”first time?”...shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers, taxis, guesthouse owners are all equally generous in their insistence in giving me the opportunity to give. the people are so sensitive they don’t even want to hurt my feelings by telling me they didn’t understand my English. (must be that idiosyncratic Southern-South African-Philadelphian-Israeli mix that throws them off). they also seem to have an uncanny perception of my ‘adventurous’ sense of direction, sharing directions certain to further my adventures, like ‘turn straight’ or, in response to which way, how far, or how much time, ‘yes’ will always suffice.
*Sometimes, as a way of dealing with the monotony of the question, I answer more playfully. It goes like this, let’s say between me and ‘Raj’:
Raj: Hello, friend!
Danny: Hi.
Raj: Which country?
Danny: Me? I’m from India. You, which country? America? California?
Raj: (a little bit puzzled. maybe smiling.)
Danny: Yea, I speak Hindi.
Raj: You speak Hindi!?
Danny: Yea, but only on Fridays...
What day is it? Tuesday, aww man.
Raj: Why only on Fridays?
Danny: That’s what it says in my contract.
Raj: Contract with who?
Danny: Sorry it’s classified.
Raj: Ahh, sorry, we’ve just been talking for a little bit, maybe it was too personal a question.

This is approximately a true account.
Let me stress that despite the challenges of being in this part of the world, I have found Indians (and Nepalis) to be very warm and welcoming.

deep breath. we’re trying to reframe the experience of moving about this country. Having moved places every couple days after leaving rishikesh in mid-November-to Kathmandu, then trekking, then onwards, moving about here, with the constant pack-lugging, haggling for everything, constant soliciting, dependable delays, and i think mostly the frustration and complication of the simplest communication, it’s felt a lot like sandpaper, wearing on me, leaving me, by the time I arrived to meet Benj 10 days ago in Goa, quite weary and feeling the need either to leave, change pace, or do something different. Here’s the ironic part:
Everyday in my tefilah (prayer), I cultivate/express a lifeworld-determining intention and hope that goes like this: “barech aleinu et ha’shana ha’zot v’et kol minei tevuata, v’ten tal u’matar al penei ha’adama...” ie “bless us with this year and all its produce, and give dew and rain upon the earth...” which I take both in the direction of appreciation/hope for the bounty of the earth, without which we are not, and also in a spiritual/emotional vein, as in, let this year be one of goodness, of growth and sprouting, deepening of roots, blossoming, and all your other favorite nature metaphors. But, Danny, come on! Did you really expect fertile soil and harvest without aerating the land?? Don’t you need to shake things up to make some space for new growth? So it is. I have my inner tract which I’ve come to cultivate- you can see it as neural networks if you’re more scientifically than poetically inclined- and the path of growth means going towards the discomfort of the unfamiliar, the challenging, what’s not easy and routine. The key, I think, is learning how to do that, to relax into the difficulty, the abrasiveness. to open my heart.
A friend mused about me recently, reflecting on the seeming paradox or irony of someone so peaceful-seeming setting off on a journey to cultivate inner peace. Indeed, I have felt lately that I am quite relaxed and peaceful, on a gross level, perhaps more so than a lot of other people I know. Contrary to what one might expect though, the path goes beyond the horizon line. Having taken some steps along this path, I feel like I am now much more aware of deep, underlying knots which need mindful, gentle holding to unwind, like an upset child who, in the peace and safety of his mother’s arms, can gradually let go of his tears and come back to rest in his natural peaceful state. So I mainly came to India to do this kind of inner work, with the expectation of finding meditation centers and the like. I also realized that I might have done just as well, as far as finding good teachers goes, to stay in the USofA. But I don’t regret coming here, in part because going to meditation in Boulder, Colorado or Barre, Massachussetts would, at least in some ways, be really easy. I don’t actually want to diminish that even one bit, but I do want to say that the spiritual work of trying to learn to reckon compassionately with the daily host of potential frustrations and challenges here has been really valuable, the ways that just getting around and moving about here have stretched me, and if we are to grow and let our souls expand into our lives, being stretched is a must (happily,my coaches and PE teachers over the years emphasized stretching before exertion. Now I understand that if we don’t stretch ourselves and prepare for the game, we are more liable to burst, tear, pop, or pull something. Better pliable than liable). I also learned that just that week was parshat v’ereh, when Bnei Yisrael go down to Mitzrayim, and learned a great Netivot Shalom explaining the whole purpose of that descent as being for the sake of purification. Or to quote Tomahawk (aka Mr. Anderson, my awesome high school history teacher), quoting a dude he once worked with in a warehouse, “You got to git down bEfor’ you can git up.” Well said.

As I’ve learned, very deep in our brain, in the most ancient part, the brain stem, we have an evolutionary survival mechanism that creates a sharp distinction and feeling between self and other. This is important inasmuch as it allows us to respond appropriately to existential threats. Unfortunately, however, this same mechanism persists and is strengthened and can coat our entire lives with a very real-seeming feeling of separation, self-contained individuality, isolation, and alienation. This is strengthened by our regular clinging to our personalities, to things that we call “my” or “I” and the like, and furthermore or therefore, by every antagonistic encounter where my desire or point of view is pitted against yours, and we each feel ourselves to be the very content of our positions, meaning that winning or losing is now operating on the basis of the same mechanism that attends to existential threats- ie if I don’t get my way, I die. All this is a rather complex explanation for why it is so particularly unpleasant to be constantly engaged in antagonistic encounters- I want this price, you want that price. hmmph. i want peace, you want me to get in your taxi, buy your wares, eat your food. hmmph. It’s almost a constant experience of imutz ha’lev, contraction of the heart, one of the things for which we repent and seek atonement on Yom Kippur. That can’t be the only way...

So one of the teachings that the Buddhists emphasize is metta, or loving-kindness. It’s also emphasized in Judaism, as gemilut hasadim. One of the nice nuances explained to me about the Buddhist approach is that it’s based on kind-ness. As in, we’re all of the same kind. As in, every person, or actually every sentient being, is motivated by happiness. So they teach that everything than anyone ever does is done out of the pursuit of happiness. Now, that’s not to say that some of those actions aren’t severely misguided, nor is to say that all actions are acceptable. The point is then, that when I can understand and internalize that this person is approaching me thus because he needs to feed his family, or because he’s thinks this will lead him in a beneficial direction, it softens the blow and even opens some space for empathy, whereas I think for most of us our usual, habitual response is to impute to him, at least on an implicit or subconscious level, some kind of malevolent intention where he is actually just out to annoy me. Once I have made contact with his basic humanity, ie that he’s just trying to move in the direction he perceives as the light, I can actually relate to him as such, see in his eyes the rawness, the vulnerability, the striving, rather than being blinded by my own anger, frustration, impatience, and feeling of victimization. These patterns, however, are so deeply habituated in our brains that we’re not even aware that we have a choice to relate otherwise to life, and to choose a different experience. One great piece of advice I read recently is to ask ourselves if our reactions are habit or fact? That is, am I responding out of programming, and if so, have I actually evaluated the underlying premises of my programming to see if they make sense, if they promote a beneficial orientation in life?

I was just reminded that the Jewish equivalent of the above is ‘dan l’caf zchut,’ meaning judge a person with the scale in their favor, give them the benefit of the doubt, and as Rebbe Nachman develops it, do whatever you can to find the positive point in yourself and others, and relate to that, even if its tiny, like finding the last ember of dying fire and nurturing back to roaring life.

Why aren’t more people aware of the ability to ‘choose life’? I think part of it is a lack of role models. Abraham Maslow talked about the psychopathology of the average. as in, our picture of the normal person and standard expectations for experiencing life is severely distorted. pathological is his word. as in, far off from health, or wholeness. (I actually find this encouraging. it means there’s a better possibility. but to drive home the point) How many people do you actually know who to their depths exhibit compassion and open-heartedness? who aren’t holding deep wounds or mental habit patterns that cause us to flinch, withdraw, contract, close down in all kinds of situations? For those people, and myself, is this poem.
‘Hazori’im bdimah’’*
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked” (Khalil Gibran)

Encrusted soul, who knows not peace,
embittered and covered in scabs,
you flinch now at every touch.
Your wounds are deep, the depths
scare you, and their darkness.

Trying, trying, crying,
I see your callouses.
Let yourself break. I am already here,
Don’t you see, only for your sorrows,
have you known your self.
Seeds of sensitivity deeply sown,
Arise now by My light,
Reap in joy.

*ha’zori’im bdimah, /b’rina yiktzoru/’ (those who sow in tears, will reap in joy)-Psalms 162:5

So, the sandpaper of traveling has revealed to me my own deeper knots and taught me a lot about the spirituality of everyday life. God/Life/theUniverse gives us what we need to learn, we just gotta do it. And you can’t run away. Well, you can, but you won’t find solace. What if we could see all the people whom we encounter- the pleasant and the trying ones- as angels, sent specifically to help us along our way? That’d be cool.

There’s a kind of unease that’s healthy and productive. Like having found a certain degree of stability and understanding, it starts to break down in light of greater exposure, deeper experience, more acute perception and sensitivity, like dropping down another level in the movie Inception, except it’s another level of awareness rather than a dream. My tai chi teacher used the example of a bullseye. You shoot a bow and arrow (or your little sister does at camp, or someone you know. anyway). and you get a bullseye! a bullseye is the center circle. that means that you may have a bullseye, which from 100m away looks to be right in the center of the target. however, when you increase magnification a couple X, ie get closer to 10m or 1m, then you might discover that your arrow is indeed in the center circle, but still not ‘dead’ center. So you might feel centered, or be making progress in your spiritual life in the sense of becoming more aligned, but once there you realize that you are not in fact all the way there. My body might feel totally relaxed, but now I can detect a more subtle unease- no doubt it has been there all along, affecting me from beneath my normal waking consciousness, but now I am aware of it- and therefore can attend to it.
In other more recent news (as of today):
I came in this morning to Hampi to spend Shabbat with the family at 'Lev Yehudi' ( who initially welcomed me so warmly when they were stationed in the North. I was just gonna enjoy them and pass through, but we were talking, and seein' as they're leaving in two weeks, Yael (the matriarch) suggested maybe I could come take their place here when they leave. So it looks like I might be spending most of February here in Hampi (after the meditation retreat I'm starting on Monday), welcoming, hanging out with, listening to traveling Israelis and sharing some Torah and shabbas spirit/food. Cool. so if you wanna come crash with me in Hampi and help out, lemme know, that'd be great, and I'll probably have a room and food for ya. Love how these things pop up.

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