In 2002, when we were in Chaing Mai for the first time, we booked a ride in a mini van to go up to Wat Doi Suthep. This is the temple that is perched half-way up on a forested mountain overlooking all of Chaing Mai. Only a few kilometers from the Royal Summer Palace, it is said to be the official northern temple of the Royal family. If there is only one place that you see in Chaing Mai, we were told more than once, go to Wat Doi Suthep. Beautiful golden temples sit atop more than 300 steps with two giant serpents flanking the stairway all the way up. Numerous breathtaking Buddha statues, hundreds of small brass bells that chime in the wind hanging from the traditional Thai roofs; huge bells and gongs that reverberate when you strike them, and beautiful flowering plants mingle with each other. It is an experience to behold.
We were the only two tourists in the van that day. Our driver told us that as a Buddhist, he loved to show people some of the interesting wats (temple grounds) of Chaing Mai; would we be interested? Of course, we said without hesitation. About a kilometer away from the busy streets of Chaing Mai, just as we started to climb the forested mountain, we drove through the gate of another temple. He parked the van, and told us to feel free to walk around for as long as we wanted.
As soon as we stepped out of the van we were engulfed in a blanket of peacefulness that was beyond description. There was no mistaking a remarkable presence that touched us to the very core of our being. We were surrounded by an essence of quiet reverence. For several moments we stood there, unable to move, unable to make sense of what we were experiencing, but knowing without a doubt that this was what we had been searching for.
We were standing in front the library of the wat. All around was a canopy of ancient trees, flowering bushes, Buddha statues, and an ancient stupa (pagoda). We saw monks in their orange robes, and women that we later learned were nuns, in their white loose pants and blouses, slowing walking and attending to their business. Even the dogs, of which we saw quite a few, seemed to be in a mindful state of bliss.
When I first heard about temples in Thailand, I wrongly assumed that this would be a single building. In fact, almost every wat is a compound surrounded by a stone wall, which creates a womb-like atmosphere within. One always gets the feeling of stepping into a different realm when entering through the outside gate of a wat. Some of the compounds are larger than others, each one having its own personality. Slowly walking around this wat, whose name we didn’t even know yet, we realized that this was a relatively large compound, probably equivalent to the size of a large square city block. There are two main gates opposite to each other, with a road that connects these gates. In the centre of the whole area is a chedi, a circular pyramid shaped stupa or pagoda. This particular one is hundreds of years old made of old red brick. A wide yellow cloth is wrapped around one of the bottom levels. Surrounding the chedi, in a counter-clockwise direction, are various buildings and open spaces, which we later learned were the meditation hall, dining room, the hall where the nuns pray and chant, a cobblestone square with a beautiful golden Buddha statue, the bot (temple) of such age that it clearly had been welcoming worshipers over the ages, a temple only for men and the marble library which looks relatively new. On either end of the road are various offices. On one side of the road beyond the central area are the living quarters for monks, novices and male guests, and on the other is the living area for nuns and female guests. There is a beautiful canopy of trees and assorted bushes planted throughout compound. Tucked away by the nun’s quarters is a bodi tree, the type of tree that Buddha sat under to attain enlightenment some 2,500 years ago. The tree is in the middle of a cobblestone square, with a yellow cloth wrapped around it, and four different statues of Buddha, one facing each direction, depicting the various stages of his life.
As we came back to the library, we saw some foreigners, dressed all in white, sitting in meditation and walking very slowly and mindfully; one purposeful step at a time. They didn't look at us or acknowledge us in any way. They were clearly involved in their own meditative experience. We couldn't help but be curious who these devotees were. I felt envious, wishing that I could share this experience with them.
Returning to the van, we asked the driver where we were. He explained that this was Wat Ram Poeng (pronounced Lam Perng, with an inflection that I am still trying to get right) which is one of the oldest wats in Chaing Mai, having been founded in 1492, (the same year that my Jewish ancestors were exiled from Spain and Lucy's Aboriginal ancestors first came in contact with their future European colonizers in North America). This wat, he explained is famous for teaching Vipassana (insight) meditation, and was one of the few temples anywhere in Thailand that offered this experience in English to foreigners. He said if we were interested, we could speak to someone in the office.
We found a monk in the office who was quite fluent in English. He explained that the English name for this temple was the Northern Insight Meditation Center, and that foreigners like us were more than welcome to come for a 10 day or a 26 day meditation retreat. He gave us an English brochure that explained the program in detail. He explained that they now had email and a web site, and that we could contact them at any time.
We went on to see Wat Doi Suthep, which was as beautiful and wonderful as we had been told, but the truly amazing experience of that day had been our visit to Wat Ram Poeng. Over dinner that night, we discussed the possibility of participating in a retreat there. As we talked, we knew that this was something that we simply had to do sometime, although, for various reasons, we did not feel up to the challenge at that time.
One Saturday afternoon, about 1½ years later, on our next trip to Thailand, we drove out to Wat Ram Poeng. We had previously talked about how one doesn't usually have the same experience twice. Now that we had been in Thailand for so long, and had visited so many different temples, we reasoned, we probably wouldn't be as impressionable as the year before. No so! After parking our motorbike, we walked through the gate, and were instantly engulfed once again into the womb of serenity. We had a wonderful conversation with an English-speaking nun at the foreigners' office, who exuded a sense of spirituality. It’s interesting coming upon such a person; one doesn't have to listen so much to their words as simply feel their presence. She was simply there and welcomed us to join her. This time we accepted the invitation. A few weeks hence, for better or for worse, we too would be donning our white costumes and walking and sitting in silence.
I have been back to Wat Ram Poeng for 3 different retreats now, and know that I will be soon going back to spend more time there. For Lucy and I, it has now become our spiritual home. Although we are very familiar with the grounds now, every time we enter the gate, we have the same experience of entering a womb of mystical stillness. It is a busy living working monastery, with monks and nuns, various people coming and going all the time, with celebrations marking all the Buddhist occasions, visiting monks who study there, school children coming for educational purposes, rotating retreats for Thai people, monks and nuns chanting during certain times of the day, bells ring, announcements going over the loudspeaker, monks lining up to receive their morning alms, and even loud construction projects that never seem to end. More dogs have discovered this sanctuary, and some of them are not all so peaceful anymore. Somewhere outside the gates there is a discothèque that blares music on some weekend nights, and the sound of commercial jets taking off and landing at the nearby international airport can be heard throughout the day. Even helicopters and low-flying military jets seem to have discovered this wat as part of their flight plans.
Real life goes on in and around this wat. And yet, the sense of spiritual stillness, born from centuries of tradition and reverence pervades all, providing an absolutely awe-inspiring environment for meditation and the peaceful exploration of one’s own mind.
Living behind the secure walls of a Buddhist temple, one is immersed in the rigidity of a daily monastic schedule that only has slight variances for special holidays. At 4 a.m. precisely, the first bell of the day is sounded. It is a large brass bell, hung from a branch of a tree in the men’s quarters. It is awaiting its new home, a very glamorous bell tower that is presently being constructed. You feel its tone reverberating in your very bones. There is no sleeping through the first gong. By the time the second gong sounds mere seconds later, you are as fully awake as awake can be. And so are the dogs. A unified mournful canine howl, as melodic as any Gregorian chant, although possibly lacking in certain religious refinements, reverberates off the stone walls from every direction. As each proceeding gong enters your body over the next minute, you feel infused with intense energy, and are ready to begin the day.
Turning on the light, I see the 12 by 7 foot room that has become my home. The wooden frame bed with its half inch thin felt mattress (luckily I brought my own foamy along), with a small bedside table are its own furniture. There are two wooden dowels suspended from the wall at the far end to hand my assortment of white clothing. Walking into the bathroom, I debate whether or not I have the nerve this morning for a cold shower.
Jumping into the cold shower for a few moments in my simple bathroom, I am refreshed and eager to begin my morning meditation. By the time that I walk over to the library in the dark, I can already hear the beautiful chanting of the nuns from their special building on one side of the plaza. Taking a moment, I try to allow their melody to massage my spirit. Minutes later, the monks begin their chanting from the main temple kitty-corner to it. From the meditation hall on the third side of the open plaza, a monk and his Thai students are chanting their morning prayers. Though different sounds and different chants, the male and female voices blend together and harmonize the soul. I could live many lifetimes and never tire of this beatific morning ritual, long before the sun makes its first appearance.
I love entering the library first thing in the morning. Only a few white clad figures come there before breakfast. Many, like Lucy, prefer to have their first meditation of the day in the privacy of their room. Not I. Walking up the marble steps, opening and closing the squeaky metal gate to keep the dogs out, entering the building, my excitement builds. I love the feel of the cool marble underneath my bare feet. Old wooden cabinets filled with books in the Thai language, line the long hallway. The dark wooden posts and beams give the hall a sense of strength, and the various inscriptions on the ceiling are intriguing.
But most of all, I love the alter with the large dark Buddha. There are as many Buddha statues in Thailand as there are ancient pillars in Italy, each one special and unique in its own right. I can rarely pass a Buddha statue without feeling a sense of awe. Some statues touch one more than others. The white teak Buddha at Wat Buparam on Taipai Road right outside the old city in Chaingmai leaves me breathless. The small vibrant green Buddha at Wat Doi Suthep is stunning. But none has touched me as much as this Buddha. His hands and fingers connected in a unique posture with the thumb of each hand pointing towards the index and middle finger, he speaks of the union of heart and mind. Each time I look into his self-reflective face, his presence encourages me to look within myself with compassion and forgiveness. He is my David who I look to for self-guidance each day.
I begin my practice, as we are taught, by making three slow kneeling prostrations in front of the Buddha. Upon rising, I walk to the middle of the long hall, and start my slow meditative walk towards him. I walk back and forth for about 45 minutes, continually bringing my focus back to my slow deliberate footsteps every time it wanders. Then I place a mat in front of the Buddha and sit for an equal length of time, and attempt to focus on my breath This is my favourite meditation of the day. My mind is clear, affording me better concentration, and my body is fresh and comfortable.
Around 6:15am, another bell vibrates announcing breakfast. I walk slowly towards the cafeteria. Placing my sandals by the steps, I enter the cafeteria barefoot, as we do in all the buildings. There are a number of small round tables about 12" off the ground. To the right of the door is the area for the men. The women sit towards the back, and further to the right of the men's area is where some of the monks sit when they come to eat in the cafeteria. Most of the monks fill up their alms bowls with food from daily contributions from the community, and as far as I know, eat in their own quarters. I suspect that the few monks who eat here are those who work outside the monastery and have to leave early. Between these areas is an altar with a golden Buddha. I pick up a mat to sit on, and a laminated sheet of the morning prayers. Peeking through the open door to the kitchen, I see some of the nuns sitting cross-legged on a platform cutting vegetables for lunch. Others are sitting on their haunches washing pots and utensils in a large basin of water on the floor. Some are cooking food over the gas burners. There is a sense of peacefulness and joy as they go about their work.
I pick up a partitioned metal plate that reminds me a bit of the plates that I used to eat TV dinners on when I was a child. I fill up a glass with water and grab a metal spoon, the only implement that we eat with. Returning to the little table alone, I prostrate myself three times in the direction of the Buddha, and sit on the mat on the floor and wait for the prayers.
An old nun who must be stricken with arthritis, has already walked slowly to one of the tables, with the aid of her cane, and slowly and painfully has lowered herself onto the floor. It doesn't take long to realize, however, that this old nun is anything but frail. It is she who rings the bell for breakfast and lunch, and watching her yank on the bell chord one day when I arrive early, I could easily mistake her for a spry young woman in her twenties. Listening to the power and spiritual passion that is in her voice as she chants the morning prayer more than makes up for the unappealing food which, shall I say, resides well below the level of gourmet. For several moments as her voice rings out in both Pali and Thai, we are all catapulted onto another level of being. I read the English translation of the prayer one morning. There is verse after verse about giving gratitude to food that has no physical beauty, that does not stimulate our desires, that we can remain unattached to, that only feeds our bodies, not the cravings of our minds and emotions. Well, the food certainly fulfills that prayer. There is no emotional eating here. Strangely enough, I do not mind, for it is her voice that satiates my appetite.
I have learned to eat slowly and with some modicum of mindfulness as I sit in silence. After finishing, I slowly rise and prostrate myself in front of the Buddha three more times. At first this exercise of prostration that one does about 8 times a day felt very odd. It feels so unlike anything I have ever done before. Not being a Buddhist, at first it seems forced to adopt someone else's traditions. After awhile, however, I come to see this as simply an expression of gratitude for all that I am being offered, and look forward to this simple act of appreciation. Going out the back, I silently join the others in washing our few eating implements. Even this mundane act is done slowly and mindfully, and I actually have come to enjoy it.
At first we sit there each morning for a decent spell, simply relaxing and trying to be silent. Thai people are not known for their abilities in silence; they love to talk and do so all the time. We try not to get drawn in by the Thais who are on their group retreat. People often ask me how I can be silent for days at a time. For me, that is the easiest part. After hours and days of self focus, mindless chatter seems like such a distraction. The only person I have trouble not speaking to is Lucy, as we are both so used to sharing everything that goes on in our lives.
As the days go by and we become more and more focused on getting our ever-increasing number of hours of meditation in (up to and exceeding 12 hours a day), our leisure time decreases. So back to the library it is for several hours of walking and sitting before the second and last meal of the day is served at 10:30 a.m. The routine of lunch is identical to breakfast.
According to Buddhist practice for those living within the wats, there is to be no eating of solid foods after twelve noon. Liquids are acceptable. The thought of having almost twenty hours between meals at first sounds daunting. How am I going to overcome the hunger, I wondered before I came here? How will I ever focus on meditating when all I will be able to think about is food? Strangely enough, this doesn't happen that often. Sure, there are a few moments of being hungry, but I usually come to enjoy the feeling of emptiness that is such a rare experience for an over-eater like myself. Walking back from a meal one day, I realize that I actually enjoy the emptiness before a meal more than the fullness afterwards. Interesting. It soon becomes apparent that we are engaged in another realm of consciousness by living within the monastery walls meditating all day long, and hunger just doesn't seem to get that much airtime.
Outside the upper gate, a Thai lady arrives every afternoon at 5 pm time with a lit barbecue underneath a huge pot of soy milk that she serves in small plastic bags for 4 baht (about Cdn$.13) ) each. She has a separate pot of hot sweet syrup that she adds to each plastic bag. Now, hot soymilk is not normally on anyone's gourmet hit parade, but it is amazing how good it suddenly tastes. So every afternoon Lucy and I have a soymilk date at what we affectionately begin to call 'The Bar'. This is the one time of the day where we allow ourselves about half an hour to talk and share what we have been going through. And (here comes the confession) a few times we snuck behind a tree to give each other a quick kiss, feeling like guilty school kids afraid that they are going to get caught.
After our brief date, I head back to the library or my room for several more hours of meditation before heading off to a good night's sleep by 10p.m.
On the first afternoon we all walk over to the head abbot's office for our initiation. Off the main road within the temple, we walk down a short path that is beautifully landscaped into the waiting room of his office. Pra Ajaan (teaching monk) Supan sits on a raised platform. To his left, on a low desk on the floor sits Meechi ('Nun') Pon Pit. He wears the bright orange robe that all monks wear, while she is garbed in loose white pants, shirt and sash. Both of their heads are shaven bald. Between the door and where they are sitting, is an altar with a Buddha as well as other religious relics. Getting down on our knees at the door, we first prostrate 3 times to the Buddha, then 3 times to the monk, and then wei (placing our hands together in the traditional Thai greeting) to the nun. Staying on our knees we waddle over to where we will sit on the floor.
We are beginning a ceremony which signifies the completion for those who have spent the last 10 days in meditation, and the initiation for those of us who have just arrived. Pra Ajaan Supan is sitting cross-legged watching us. He is one of those rare human beings who radiates love and joyfulness from deep within his core. There is a sense of presence about him that is inspirational. It is an honour to be around such a holy man. One can feel the depth of his spirituality by simply being in his presence. Later, as I get to spend more time with him, I realize that he sees and communicates on a level I cannot yet begin to comprehend, but that I can feel to the very depth of my being.
Meechi Pon Pit radiates a beautific smile filled with unconditional love and joy. I have heard it said that a good singer pulls the notes from deep within her belly, not from her throat or mouth. I wouldn't know because I can hardly pull notes from my mouth. Meechi Pon Pit’s joyful love comes from deep within her soul. While it may be instinctive now, I suspect that this joyfulness comes from a lifetime of deep spiritual commitment and practice. There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to be blessed to have spiritual teachers that one usually only hears about in books.
The ceremony is all in Pali, the original language of Buddhism that originally came from India. It is quite an interesting ceremony although I have to admit that I feel distracted. Everything from the special décor of this room, which includes a picture of the Dali Lama and another monk who I later find out to be the predecessor of this abbot, watching the graceful beauty of Phra Ajaan Supan and Meechi Pon Pit, the loud noise of construction that is taking place outside the office this day, and the pain in my body from having to attempt to sit upright on the floor for a length of time, pulls my thoughts in many different directions. Never the less, the ceremony is moving, and I feel proud to be embarking on a very special experience.
Each day afterwards, we report to this office at 2 p.m. for about 10 minutes of individual teachings and instruction about our practice. Arriving a bit early on the second day, I sit in the waiting room to await my turn. At 2 p.m. precisely, Meechi Pon Pit enters through the waiting room and opens the locked office. One of the corner stones of Buddhism is mindfulness, the ability to observe one's thoughts, emotions and actions as they exist in each moment. This ability allows one to live in the here and now (rather than the nether region of the there and the then, where most of us reside), detaching oneself from insecure needs and liberating oneself from the illusions of life. This is the path towards the elimination of life's problematic issues, i.e. suffering, and eventually towards the realm of enlightenment.
The physical movements Of Meechi Pon Pit seem beautifully mindful. Each movement is done slowly and deliberately. With her right hand, she slowly opens the screen door, walks into the waiting room, and slowly closes the door. There is no doubt that her mind is paying attention to each movement she makes. She proceeds to do this as she unlocks the office door, opens it, turns on the light, then the fan and walks inside. Slow, deliberate, mindful actions portraying a woman living within the experience of her mind, emotions and body.
Pra Ajaan Supan is usually our teacher. As his English is not as good as Meechi Pon Pit, she often acts as his translator. Standing out for me more than his actual instructions, some of which are extremely useful and insightful, is his presence that embodies the teachings. His level of comfort within himself is palpable and puts me at each.
Each day, in a very quiet voice, he asks me how I have been doing with my practice and patiently waits while I give whatever answer I am able to come up with. He listens with full attention and doesn't say a word until he is sure that I am finished. The general theme is always the same. Rather than judging myself as to whether what I am doing is good or bad, right or wrong, I am to simply notice what is going on. I am to notice my thoughts, to be aware of my emotions, to recognize the way I drift off and how I come back, to simply sit with physical pain. I am not to try to change anything, push through any issues, or decrease what I don't like. Without ever saying so, he is inviting me to have the same unconditional acceptance of myself that he has for me.
Every day he gives some new instructions about the technique of meditating. These techniques are always very simple. In walking meditation, one simply tries to focus one's mind on the actual movement of one's foot. We walk in slow motion. Lifting the foot off the floor, moving it forward, placing it back down on the floor. There are six stages to this meditation; each one adding one additional slow movement. All we are encouraged to do is pay attention to our body movements. Nothing could be simpler, and, I have learned, nothing could be more difficult. The mind is like a monkey in the jungle, the Buddhists sometimes like saying, jumping wildly from one branch to another. I am amazed at how challenging it is to keep one's mind focused for even one second. In one little step, my mind is capable of creating whole stories.
In sitting meditation, we focus on the rising and falling of our breath. After a few days we add additional observations, such as noticing how we are sitting, and a series of energy points in the body. Again, the techniques are so simple, but so difficult to do. When we become aware of thoughts, we are to silently say: thinking……thinking……thinking…… and then return to focusing on the breath; rising…… falling……
During meditation anything and everything can and will come up. There are so many branches for the mind to jump to, and from morning to night it does just that. During these retreats, I move through so many different experiences. I feel ever so calm, a beautiful sense of being at peace…… I walk through a path noticing details of trees, bushes, the building…… I am so restless, I can't stand another minute of having to sit here…… Exhaustion overwhelms me, I want to escape into deep, deep sleep……I feel an overwhelming surge of love for Lucy and wonder where she is right now…… I want to argue with Pra Ajaan Supan, get him to realize how difficult this is…… I feel such appreciation for the teachings I am receiving…… I feel competitive with the other meditators…… I am worn down by pain, I can only take it for so many hours in a day…… I overcome pain, it seems so easy this moment…… My mind is racing, I am a million miles away…… I release a breath and for a short moment I am fully present…… I never want to do this again, never, never!!!…… I want to devote myself to a lifetime of meditation!!! After awhile it becomes obvious that none of these thoughts are reality, or a definition of who I am, but rather just an expression of the moment. As he likes to remind us, all moments, all experiences are impermanent. There is no reason to hold onto them, just become aware of what is passing through at the moment.
Pra Ajaan Supan sometimes has teachings, usually in very simple parables or stories. Sometimes they make sense, at other times something gets lost in translation, but I always leave inspired. When he speaks, it is as if he is in another zone, and the lessons are received below the words. He often speaks in Thai for Meechi Pon Pit to translate in English, but on a body energetic level, the knowing is received before I hear the words in English. In these moments, I know that I am in the presence of a true Master.
Occasionally Pra Ajaan Supan is called away, and Meechi Pon Pit becomes our teacher. I soon discover that she is a gifted teacher in her own right. No matter what statement I bring to her, she looks at me with a smile that comes from a deep sense of being at peace, and encourages me to simply notice what I am going through. Regardless of how I feel before I enter my brief session with her, I always leave knowing that she is nothing more or less than a mirror onto the truth. Her centered stillness invites me to look at myself with unconditional love. As I notice where I am at this moment, I move through this experience and allow myself to arrive with the next experience hand in hand. Like a young child I move through this emotion, and that thought, and always find an open door waiting for me. And in those moments of being stuck, and there are so many of those, I eventually notice that the portal is always there, waiting for me when I am ready to let go of outcome and simply be with who I am.
The closing ceremony is a repeat of the ceremony on the first day, although this time, we are celebrating our conclusion, while a new group of people is being initiated. There is a wonderful sense of completion. For more years than I can count, I have talked about learning to meditate from teachers who are connected to the old ways. I have no doubt that this has been as authentic a teaching as I could ever hope to experience. Lucy and I give gratitude for the deeply spiritual people of this temple, and to ourselves for having the tenacity to stick through this process. In the short time that we spend in each retreat, it always seems as if we have moved through many lifetimes
Do you believe in magic?
I hope so. I certainly do. Sometimes I have forgotten about magic, sometimes for way to long, but it always seems to come back in its own mysterious way. I am not even sure if I know what magic is. I think it is about believing in something so strongly that it feels so very real even if grownups, scientists, politicians and other people, or even yourself sometimes, tell you that it is not possible, because the rules and laws of life say it cannot be done. Magic loves to have a big belly laugh when others talk about what is and is not possible, because magic does happen when we let it happen.
I am not sure. Maybe you have a better way of describing magic. But what I know is that for the past several days I have been with thousands of people on the streets of Chaingmai, a city in Thailand, who have been making magic happen. It has all been part of a holiday called Loi Kratong, which means to float banana boats down the river.
Let me tell you about the boats first. They take a cross section of a banana tree, and then they fold strips of banana leaves in amazing shapes. Mixed in with the green leaves, they place exotic flowers in beautiful designs. On each boat, they put one candle and three incense sticks. I saw people sitting on the floor of their shops making these boats, as well as on the sidewalks, and on the grass along the river. Hundreds of families were making them. I saw old grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, teenagers and young children all making these beautiful boats together. Each family that makes them has a table on the sidewalks or by the river selling them. And each table has different designs. In fact, each boat even on the same table looks different. They are like snowflakes, trees, puppies or people; every one of them is different. And every one of them is beautiful. I would see one that I thought was the most beautiful one yet and want to buy it. Then I would see another one on another table and think that was the most beautiful one, and then a minute later see one that was the most beautiful one of all (except for the next one that I saw).
One of the best parts of trying to buy one was meeting all the families. They were all so happy. Every person that we talked to selling the katongs was smiling and laughing, so we started smiling and laughing and taking those good feelings to the next table. I know that all this smiling and laughing is what made these boats so beautiful. The magic had already begun.
Two nights in a row Lucy and I walked on the streets by the river and bought different boats. They were so beautiful and inexpensive that everyone can afford them. Then, with thousands of other people we went down to the river. There were people everywhere carrying these katongs. We saw people walking by themselves, teenagers with their friends or boyfriend or girlfriend, moms and dads in families, older people, all carrying the katongs. Some were wearing nice clothes, many were wearing what they wear everyday. We saw one older woman wear a traditional Thai skirt and blouse like they probably used to wear but hardly do anymore. She walked like a Queen with a few people in her family following her. Everybody, whether they were rich or poor, it did not matter; they went down to the river with their kratongs. They would light the candles and incense sticks, put a coin in them and stand by the river for a few minutes making a wish for good luck, then would gently place their kratongs into the river and push them off. They believe that if the candle stays lit until you cannot see it anymore, then your wish comes true.
With everyone else, we made wishes for ourselves and everyone that we know (yes, we even wished that you have good luck), and even for people that we do not know, because it sure would be wonderful if everybody had good luck. That would surely be a magical world. When we finished, we sat by the river and watching our kratongs float away. After awhile, I could not tell which one was ours anymore. There were thousands and thousands and thousands of kratongs floating by us where we sat by the river. All over the city so many people had come down to the river to wish for good luck, and all of their boats were floating by us. The river was lit up with candles. On many of the boats the candles had already gone out, but they were still floating along with all the lit ones. They never stopped coming past us. I think it was the biggest navy in the world, and everyone of them was floating away looking for good luck.
On this festival, people, particularly young people, really like to have fun by lighting many different kinds of firecrackers and fireworks. Originally this was not part of the tradition but in recent times came from China where people believe that explosions scare away bad spirits. Many of the more traditional Thai people do not like all the noise. There were loud ones, quiet little ones, and super loud ones. Some were fireworks with bright colours sprouting over the river, others sounded and felt like bombs with huge amounts of smoke coming out of the water. They were going off all the time. There really was not one second, not even half a second in all the hours that we were there where there was not noise and banging going on. It was exciting and annoying at the same time.
My favourite part of Loi Kratong is the hot air balloons, called Kom Loi. They are not really balloons, but that is what they call them. Out of paper and a thin bamboo rim, they make a bag that is about a meter high and wide. To the middle of the rim, they attach a cross section of a toilet paper roll that has been soaked in paraffin. When you buy one (they are also cheap), you can write wishes on the paper. Then with the open end down, you light the roll and hold it, waiting for it to fill up with hot air. After a minute it starts to float in place, and then after a few more minutes you can feel it tugging upwards. When you let it go, it magically floats up into the air, rising and rising and rising. You would not believe how high it goes. You watch your special flame rising into the sky. But of course, there are hundreds of other people who are doing the same thing. Every minute, there are other lights floating high up into the sky.
There was not a cloud in the sky. The moon was full and very bright. Floating towards the moon, and around her were hundreds of lights. We were making our own stars in the heavens. Everywhere we looked into the sky, in every direction, we saw hundreds of new stars floating together in new constellations that were changing every minute. I had long lost sight of my star, but I knew it was playing with all the others, and laughing with the moon. Then I noticed that everyone else kept looking up at the sky in absolute amazement too. We were all children. It did not matter how young or old we were. Our wonderful thoughts were singing with the moon and she seemed so happy last night. I believe that last night all our wishes made a new universe. We were truly making magic.
One morning there was a contest for even larger hot air balloons. They were like the ones we had bought but about three meters on each side. A team had made and decorated each balloon. Attached to the balloons, as they rose in the air was a string of firecrackers and gliding airplanes. As each one got higher in the air, the firecrackers would go off, a tail on the balloon would unwind, and the gliding airplanes would take off in circles, with different coloured smoke coming out of their backs. Every minute another one went up while many people watched.
An hour later, a group of people started unrolling a huge balloon made out of some kind of thin plastic paper, tape and wire. They used a large fan to fill it up with air, and then one person with a very large torch released hot air into it. When it started rising, I realized that it was taller than the three-story building we were next to. When it started floating up into the sky, hundreds of people were applauding. I thought that was the end, but I should have known better. Another team brought out their huge white balloon. With this one, everything went wrong. It started ripping all over and was not filling properly. They lit the firecrackers too early by mistake, and the whole team had to jump out of the way. It looked like it would never go up at all. But in the typical Thai way, no one seemed bothered, and within a minute it too was rising into the sky. It was not even half filled with air. In fact it was really flat, but that did not stop it from flying into the sky. We lost sight of it as the third team brought their balloon into the yard. And then, 15 minutes later, the white balloon floated back to land within a few meters of where it had taken off.
That was my favourite. It taught me something really important about never giving up. If you do not get upset about a few mistakes and believe in something strongly enough, your wishes will float up to the sky. And then when it was finished flying, in order to show us how beautiful it really was, it came right back to us again. To me that was magic.
Do you believe in magic? I hope so, because I surely do. The last few days have shown me that when people believe in sharing joy and good luck together, wonderful magic is made.
I learned a wonderful Thai expression today, jit jai dee. This lesson came in the middle of an acupuncture treatment with Dr. Sweetheart. That is obviously not a Thai name, and not her name at all in fact, but that’s what we call her. Besides her amazing ability as a healer, she has one of the sweetest and dearest hearts of anyone we have ever met. Entering her clinic is to enter a domain of harmony, love and wisdom, and I have no doubt that as each needle is inserted, our bodies receive blessings in ways that are beyond the rational mind’s ability to explain.
Dee is the easiest word to explain. It simply means good. Jai is the emotional heart, so that jai dee refers to a person with a good heart. Jit refers to the wisdom of the mind in a Buddhist frame of reference, so that jit dee refers to a person with wisdom. Combine the three words jit jai dee, if I understood Dr. Sweetheart correctly, and they describe a person who not only connects the emotions of compassion with wisdom, but commits their lives to fulfilling wise acts of compassion towards others.
As Lucy and I lay on two treatment cots side by each, Dr. Sweetheart gave us a lesson in the beauty of Thai culture that slipped into our hearts and minds as effortlessly as the needles she was using entered our bodies. This is not the first time that she has combined astute lessons with her treatments. We have known Dr. Sweetheart for five years now, but today was the first day that we had the words to describe her. She is truly a person of jit jai dee.
As she gently closed the door allowing us to quietly lay and pay attention to the rising and falling breath in our bellies, I thought of two other people we had spent time with this morning who also exude jit jai dee.
Roger was a teacher at the same school that we taught at in Chaingmai three years ago. A gentle man with a beautiful laugh, we took an instant liking to him. Luckily for us, the feeling was mutual. Roger, who is from the Philippines, had been in Thailand about three years at that time, with his wife, Eva, and their youngest son, King. Their two older sons were living with an aunt back in the Philippines completing high school. Roger and Eva had come to Thailand for two reasons; to earn a better living as teachers than they could back home, so that they could afford to offer their sons a proper education, and as Christians, to do missionary work here.
I have to admit that I have often had difficulty with the concept of missionary work. I don’t have to go any further than think of the horrific abuse and destruction that was imposed on the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas, including Lucy’s family, in the name of religion to harbour these thoughts. And yet I have been honoured to know and respect some very loving people who consider themselves to be missionaries.
In trying to come to terms with this, I have seen that there is a vast gulf in the missionary field. Some, it seems, are focused on converting others away from their own traditions onto what the missionaries believe is the only righteous beliefs. In my mind, this is dishonouring and disrespectful at best, and has laid the groundwork for inhumane treatment all too often crossing the line into genocide. Others simply offer a lifetime of service based on devotion, love and an understanding and respect of the complex issues of other people’s cultures and situations. At their best, they carry jit jai dee into their daily lives.
Roger and Eva are two such people. Three years ago they invited us for dinner in their studio apartment in Chaingmai, which they shared with King. In Asian fashion, we sat on the floor, and they took out their two special plates for us. Their apartment was very sparsely furnished. What we consider to be necessities are luxuries here for many people. After dinner, they took us next door to a home for people who were suffering from devastating physical injuries or lifelong handicaps. There is little or no medical insurance or government social service support for the less fortunate in this country, and those that can’t be helped by their families are left on their own. For Roger and Eva this certainly was no obstacle, as they have no barriers in their hearts for caring about others. With very little money, of which they do not have, they simply set their intentions to make a better life for these people, and then followed their hearts in that direction. Entering this home was to enter a domain filled with love. People, whose bodies were often misshapen and simply did not work, glowed from their hearts as soon as Roger and Eva entered. Having spent a career in social services, I am always interested in how programs are run. In this situation, however, nothing needed to be explained. I was witnessing the power of heartfelt commitment.
During our absence from Thailand, Roger and Eva moved to a small town north of Chiangmai, called Chiang Dao, and opened an orphanage for hill-tribe children. The mountains and jungles of northern Southeast Asia, from southern China to Burma through northern Thailand and Laos, all the way to Vietnam, is the home of various ethnic hill-tribe peoples. In culture, spirituality and lifestyles, they are similar to the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas, with the exception that they are not the first peoples of this region. Over several centuries they migrated from the north from China and even as far away as Tibet. Also unlike the Aboriginal peoples, they do not have specific territories or historical nations, but live in separate remote villages intermingled with other villages of different origins. Similar to the Americas, they often live very separate lives, and are too often persecuted and oppressed by the dominant culture and political forces. Some are successful farmers, but many live in abject poverty. I have seen some of the dismal huts that they live in, and I gather that I have seen some of the more affluent ones, at that. In some villages I gather that the culture is still very strong, but in other areas, the depth of poverty and isolation has taken its destructive toll. They are known for their colourful clothing, and can be told apart by outsiders by specific patterns that they employ. Hill-tribe women are often seen selling their products at markets in Chaingmai and Bangkok for very low prices. There are many hiking tours that go to these villages. While some villagers undoubtedly profit from the tourist trade, most are kept in an impoverished dependent role because of it. In the Karen tribe, for example, the women used to wear silver neckbands, which elongate their necks and cause severe injuries to their spines. This custom was starting to die out until they came into contact with modern tourism. Now this horrible practice has been revised to attract tourists into their villages.
Roger and Eva set up an orphanage for 12 hill-tribe children, primarily girls. These children came from some of the poorest villages (if they already have opportunities, Roger and Eva will not take them) with a very bleak outlook for the future. As they have very attractive features, many of these girls would eventually have been sold into prostitution. Roger and Eva provide them with three healthy meals a day, a roof over their heads, healthcare and the ability to go to school. Things that we, and even the Thai people take for granted are an unheard of luxury for these children. And as with everything else that Roger and Eva do, the children are given an over-abundance of guidance and love. Many of these children had been severely shut down upon arrival in their home, but you would never know it by seeing them a year later.
In the West, we assume that we need adequate financial resources to provide decent services. While our friends do not turn down any donations, they believe that the primary ingredient to their work is their faith. Everything else flows from there. I suspect that they are right. We were so touched by their emails while we were still back in Canada, and their description of how they could use a computer, that we brought our old laptop for them. It appears that we are not the only ones who have been touched by Roger and Eva and have contributed in many different ways. One person brought a boom box, another a TV, a third person donated money for household effects, and so it goes. In their simple and gentle way, Roger and Eva’s generosity is contagious. I suspect that this is the true gift of Christianity.
Upon arrival to their home in Chiang Dao a month ago, we were struck by two things. The first was how stark the house was furnished. Other than a few plastic chairs for the adults, and two small tables for the TV and boom box, the living room is not furnished. At night the children roll out their straw mats to sleep. As some of them were used to sleeping on a dirt floor, with snakes and rats crawling over them at night, this is a definite improvement. The kitchen is also very very simple. Few in the West would be able to contemplate how to prepare a meal with this equipment. And yet, the space is overflowing with wonderful feelings that are palpable as soon as one enters their home. In this way, the children have become wealthy, and now have the possibility of a bright future on their horizon.
It is hard to describe these children. As they know at best only several words in English, and I know only a few more in Thai, we cannot communicate by language. But smiling is the international symbol, and it certainly goes a long way. There is a gentleness, respectfulness and sweetness about these children that is beautiful to behold. After dinner some of the older girls, on their own initiative prepared fried bananas and shyly presented them to us. Oh, were they delicious. The youngest boy, who came from a background of incest, beamed at us every chance he could get, but collapsed into shyness if I said one or two words to him.
While we were talking with Eva, we asked if the children had ever been to a zoo. Chaingmai has an amazing zoo that covers many acres of land, where most animals are given somewhat adequate space to live in. It is on a hillside next to the university (there must be some significance to this) on the outskirts of town at the bottom of the mountain. The space is so large and hilly, that they have provided trams one can get on and off of to see the various animals. We discovered that none of children had ever been to a zoo. As this would have been too expensive for Roger and Eva to be able to provide, we offered to treat them to a trip to the zoo when they came into Chaingmai for their annual visit.
That happened this morning. Nine of the kids, including King, as well as Roger and Eva piled into the back of a song taw (a Japanese pick-up truck with two long seats in the back, used for transportation.) Some of the kids couldn’t come because they had never been on the road for one and a half hours and were afraid of getting sick. Some of those who came had never been to Chaingmai (or any city) before. They had been so excited about this trip, that they had awoken at 4 am, peering into Roger and Eva’s bedroom to make sure that they would be awakening soon, and then proceeded to shower, prim themselves, iron their hair and do whatever else teenage girls do around this globe for a special event. I is not necessary to go into any details about the several hours we spent together at the zoo. You can get the picture. In their quiet shy way, it was clear how thrilled they were, and it was so much fun for us to be part of this event. Later, we sat in a park and had a picnic together that Eva had prepared. In fits of shy giggles, with prompting from Eva, they each tried to say in English: Thank you Uncle Ralph and Auntie Lucy. Let my tell you, my heart was bursting.
Then off into the song taw they all climbed to their trip to the mall, where they each would get to spend 50 baht (the equivalent of $1.50Can). Most of them probably never had spent that much money before in a single day. Waving away, they drove off into the sunset.
We had been touched by Roger and Eva’s jit jai dee, and as a result all of our lives had become enriched. I believe that is how compassion works.
I received the following e-mail from one of my oldest and dearest friends, Betina, in reply to the newsletter I wrote about staying in such a peaceful environment on a fruit plantation over September 11th:
“Oh my God Rafito I just finished reading your Yang Tone Farm newsletter and I got so much into it that after I finished I had to rub my eyes because I felt like I had been watching the most wonderful and beautiful movie ever in a dark theater. What you said about creating peace in our midst was so powerful. Yes, I also agree that terrorism is very much a part of our news media and in the mouths of our politicians, but it doesn’t have to be a part of our souls.
I try to combat terrorism in my little space here in Manhattan by always approaching others with love, no matter what. As an example, my “awful” landlord, Gary, didn’t want to renew my lease and was ignoring my sober letters to him until I wrote him a “love” letter that must have blown his mind because within two days I got my lease. No it wasn’t a letter of sex and hot kisses...none of that slurpy stuff. I just told him how much I had appreciated all the repairs that he had done on the building through the years and that I didn’t want to have to take such a considerate and law abiding landlord to court. Yes, I know I acted like a wimp and a Pollyanna, but that’s who I am when you come down to it. It’s always worked for me. Love always works. I also meant every word that I wrote to him.”
Betina has been living in the same building near the West Village in Manhattan for almost 4 decades now. I know, because she took over my first apartment there when I left for cheaper digs in Spanish Harlem in 1969. (That’s another story, but I won’t tell it here.) I was so proud of that bachelor suite because at 22, just having graduated from university, it was the first time I had ever lived alone. With a mattress on the floor, a few pieces of low furniture, and my two kittens that I rescued from the SPCA, it felt very homey.
I had met Betina several months previously. We had both started work the same week at the New York City Welfare Department, and were in a training program together. We became instant friends, with our friendship continually having grown deeper over the decades. Betina is one of those rare human beings whose deep sense of spirituality, compassion and gentleness comes from deep inside. And if you meet her, don’t let her mild mannered personality fool you. She may act like a female version of Clark Kent, but I think of her as Super Chutzpah Woman.
Betina is of Mexican origin, having grown up in Arizona. Coming from a very religious family, she entered the convent as a young woman and became an ordained nun. The walls and rules of the convent were too restrictive for her spirit, however and shortly before I met her, she threw away her frock and moved to New York City. Think of the courage that takes.
Several years after she took over my apartment, she moved downstairs to a one-bedroom apartment, where she has lived ever since. Stability, however, has not prevented her from living an amazing life. Her jobs have included being a bi-lingual teacher in the New York City public schools, where she calmed down some very tough Puerto Rican children by teaching them to meditate, and later being a teacher for children with terminal illnesses in a New York City hospital. She traveled alone through the hills of Mexico looking for the grave of her great grandfather, who had been a soldier in the Mexican Revolution, and went on another trip by herself into some of the out of the way places in the Amazon. In recent years she spent time at an Ayurvedic Clinic in India, and from what I understand, her spirituality touched many of the people there, who were certainly no strangers to spirituality themselves.
So I couldn’t help but deliciously laugh when I read the above story of writing a love letter to her landlord. Can you imagine trying to evict such a beautiful person who has lived in your building for 37 years? But more to the point, I think of Betina being able to see the good in everybody, and the power that has when it is expressed to someone who has taken an adversarial position against you.
Can you imagine if we all wrote love letters to our so-called enemies? ”Dear Osama.
I really respect the way you care so deeply about your people. I just can’t let you keep hurting my friends. I really don’t want to have to hurt your friends in retaliation! Nobody wins that way. Why don’t we get together for lunch sometime soon and figure out our differences. We’re two good and intelligent people. We can work it out.
Now wouldn’t that be a different world!
But we don’t have to wait for our politicians to figure this out. Each one of us can do this on our own. We all have someone we are in conflict with. If each of us could stay strong within ourselves, see the good in that person and communicate it to him or her, can you imagine some of the results that we could accomplish? And as we did this, why would we not be touching and influencing other people to try the same. How could Gary not be different since he received his love letter from Betina?
Betina, in her modest manner might think of herself as a wimp, but I think of her as Pollyanna the Peacemaker. And I can’t imagine a better or more powerful way of being in this world.
Muchas gracias mi amiga linda.
(Thank you so much my beautiful friend)
A lovely day was spent with several friends on Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, less than a two-hour drive southwest from Chaingmai. Standing by a fabulous waterfall in the middle of a glorious jungle, and later in the middle of these virgin woods at the top, these words came to me.
Thick green jungle opening to water falling, falling, falling.
Water thrashing to the cacophony of deafening sounds.
Clammy aromatic whiffs entering nostrils without compunction.
Spray spewing droplets from one of Mother Nature’s infinite fingertips
(She has fingers everywhere, don’t you know? Everywhere!),
soaking us in caresses so demanding, invigorating,
tasting of her unconditional regard for life with only one demand:
Receive me!, without excuses as I receive you, in this moment, now!
What choice is there? Opening,
ecstatic life erupts within and without, now.
Just moments later, standing
within the cradle of a forest, pristine
a blanket of fine fine mist spread by another of our Mother’s fingers
(already, so close. Oh, oh my love)
touching from so deep within
the gift of utter profound gentleness.
In stillness, yesterday’s footsteps are already rooted in the moist rich soil,
and tomorrow’s leaves are hardly a whisper
in this deepening moment of silence.
As I sat peacefully on the deck of the cabin that we had rented for two days, looking over an orchard of rambudon trees (that grow fruit similar to lynchee fruit) to Doi Luang, the third tallest mountain in Thailand, it occurred to me that today was September 11th.
Although I had blissfully not seen any world news in several days, I had no doubt that today, the word ‘terror’ was on too many politicians’ lips around the globe, and that the world media were happily communicating these frightening thoughts to whomever they could gain access to. I knew that Al Qaeda had distributed a video staring their hero, Osama bin Laden, and that George Bush had recently been upping the volume with the message that terrorism was the new ideological evil of this century that had to be fought every step along the way. Sitting in this peaceful setting, I also couldn’t help but wonder how real those messages were. Sure, group and state terrorism has seen a horrific increase in the last number of years. But is this the primary reality for the more than 6 billion inhabitants of our planet? Or are these messages simply broadcast to support the greedy interests of certain politicians and corporate entities? And are there not other messages that we could listen to that could be just as real and provide far better rewards for us ordinary folk who just want to get on with our lives?
Looking around me, I knew the answer to these questions. We were staying at the Yang Tone Farm Stay for Nature Lovers, a fruit plantation several kilometres outside of the small town of Chiang Dao, which is itself about an hour and a half bus ride north of Chiangmai. On this 200 Rai (approximately 170 acres) organic farm are thousands of mango, lychee, rambudon and orange trees interspersed with each other that is owned and managed by Suvit Chootiwat. In the middle of this orchard sits a cluster of about ten cabins next to an outdoor restaurant run by his gracious wife, Sriboot. She has lovingly planted many bushes and flowers that sprout a symphony of colours beyond description. Outside our bedroom windows, for example, is a hedge of birds of paradise that commingle with other bushes whose names we do not know.
Starring past the cabins, flowers and trees, the mountain comes into view. At this time of year, which is the monsoon season, the vista is constantly changing. At times clouds embrace the top, and then moments later it peaks through as the clouds rush by. Later in the day, as the heat of the day evaporate the clouds, it stands out in all of its majesty. Covered by thick jungle, there is a spiritual feeling about this mountain that we can feel if not verbalize. Part of it has a similar shape and feeling to another mountain, Lone Cone, situated on Meares Island on the west coast of British Columbia, under which Lucy and I met for the first time ten years ago at a spiritual retreat that we go back to every year.
The cabins have all been designed by Suvit, who is an architect by trade. They are made with natural materials whenever possible. There is beautiful wood framing, thatched roofs and woven mats from some type of palm tree for the walls and ceilings. The bathroom is outside, surrounded by a brick wall covered in locally grown ivy, ensuring privacy. What a treat to be standing under the open sky while having a shower. There is not a TV or telephone in sight. There is simply homemade wooden furniture constructed of teak wood resting on our brick deck, from which we can sit quietly and view our surroundings.
Suvit and Sriboot are both around 70 years old. The beautiful peaceful surroundings of this environment are certainly a reflection of their state of mind. These are two wonderful people who seem to know how to slowly walk through their day with their feet softly touching the ground as they engage in various chores with open hearts and wonderful smiles. Suvit adds wonderful extra touches to each meal. After a breakfast of kaew tom -a traditional Thai breakfast of rice soup with chicken and herbs (there are other selections one can make as well) – we were given a treat of sculptured fruit. Half of a passion fruit was decorated with slices of carrot and rambudon fruit to look like a turtle with eggs.
Suvit is a fascinating man. He is up every morning by 5:30 a.m., and on the go throughout the day. The energy of his sparkling eyes radiate outward from under his baseball cap, atop his khaki shirt, jeans and gumboots. When the workday is over, he exchanges his boots for a pair of sandals. He never seems too busy for a conversation, of which we had many hours with him. He remembers coming to what is now his property when he was a child and walking through the old growth teak forest. By the time that he returned when he was 30 and bought the land, the teak forest was all gone. By then he had completed university in the Philippines, getting a degree in architecture, and was teaching this subject in one of the universities in Chiangmai. Over the next 15 years he developed an orchard until he was able to retire from the university and run his farm on a full time basis. He uses natural means to grow healthy trees. Various types of trees are interspersed with each other so that harmful insects do not propagate as easily. He allows grass to grow naturally between the trees. Later in each season he will have it cut and then piled around each tree to provide natural fertilizer. His trees are like his children, and he claims to know each tree on his farm.
He is also quite the local historian. One story that sticks out from the time he bought this land were the opium growers. At that time, as in many places in northern Thailand, there were large farms that grew nothing but the opium flower. He remembers hillside people walking down the road past his gate with huge sacks on their pack filled with the picked opium. They would stop to chat and offer him a handful. He never did say what he did with this gift, and in politeness, we didn’t ask. Most of the opium is gone now, although he says there are still some areas off the beaten track that still grow it. He invited us to come back in May or June, when the flowers are blossoming, and he would show us where they are growing. From what we have heard, hillsides are covered in magnificent colours; it must be quite the sight.
Suvit takes great pride in maintaining his land as a natural preserve. He is deeply saddened by much of the destruction of the environment that he sees around Thailand, such as the disappearance of natural teak forests. He told us a heartbreaking story of a beautiful butterfly, which was called the Tiger of Chiang Dao, because it had the markings similar to a tiger and only lived in this region. The Japanese offered the economically poor villagers a high price to capture this butterfly, probably as much as they would normally earn in an entire month, and now this beautiful creature has become extinct.
On the other hand, he is proud of the villagers who fought against the proposal by the prime minister to develop a cable car to the top of the mountain. Apparently the he had come up to this area and had wanted to go to the peak, but wasn’t willing to spend two days hiking up and down. Right now there are government regulations that only give 200 people a year permits to climb the mountain. The villagers have been able to maintain this status quo that will continue to protect the delicate balance of nature on the mountain. Suvit, himself, was offered a huge sum of money to sell a portion of his land to a developer, but he turned it down with the statement “I don’t know what my wife and I would spend that much money on!” Behind the statement was the recognition that there was nothing that money could buy that would give them more than what they already had by living on their beautiful land. After all, how many pairs of gumboots could he possibly store in his closet.
Suvit and Sriboot are an example of people who can combine a love for preserving nature with running a successful business. They have approximately 10,000 mango trees alone, each bearing up to 100 fruit a season. In order to get a higher price for his produce, he exports them to Malaysia and Singapore. Fruits for export need to be of a higher quality. In order to protect the skin of the mangoes from being damaged by fruit flies, he has them individually wrapped with newspaper. Imagine having up to a million pieces of fruit wrapped in newspaper! About 15 years ago he also bought some cleared land not too far from his farm, on which he planted about 40,000 teak trees. While they will be cut down in several years, he will replant trees again for the future.
This morning, Suvit offered to drive us to a natural hot spring about two and a half kilometres away. We climbed into a small old jeep without doors or any other convenience. Lucy sat up front in the open cab, while I balanced on a log on the small flatbed behind. As he drove off he shouted over the shifting gears that this was an American army jeep that was used during the Vietnam War. (The Americans had a number of mega airfields in Thailand from which B-52’s would regularly take off to drop their 750-pound bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.) As we bounced up his long gravel driveway, I couldn’t help but wonder what this jeep had seen in the past. I also couldn’t help but chuckle at how this beautifully peaceful man had transformed this jeep into a companion for on his organic farm.
We drove along a small road past other orchards and farms, with the thick natural jungle never far away. Everything was green and thick with dampness, as only a tropical environment on the edge of a jungle can be. So much of this land was still unspoiled, or developed in very simple ways. For the moment, progress has been kept at bay in this beautiful paradise.
We approached our destination and climbed out. We were at the foot of the mountain. Up ahead was a closed gate to a bird and wildlife research sanctuary. Suvit told us that people come from all over the world to see unusual birds that migrate in the winter from China and Mongolia to only this area. Coming out of the earth was a natural hot spring that had been diverted with plastic pipes into several large cement rings for sitting in. The excess hot water emptied into a river, several meters downhill. About 10 meters down the river a cold stream emptied into the river, complete with a small waterfall that one could sit under. What a treat! After deliciously soaking in the hot tub, we sat under a waterfall to cool down, all the while looking up at the jungle on the opposite bank.
We couldn’t image a better retreat. We will have to return again when the noise, pollution and traffic of Chaingmai get to us. Its good to know that there are places like Yang Tone Farm Stay on this on earth where gentle people like Suvit and Sriboot tend to the earth and the fruit she bears. Blossoming under these branches, we found a state of peace in our hearts and minds. (If you are interested, you can check out their website at: www.yangtonefarmstay.com).
Over breakfast our last morning here, the tune ‘life is but a dream’ kept bouncing around in my head. We often try to distinguish between reality and dreaming, but is this not really just a false dichotomy? I imagine that the inventor of the paper clip must have initially dreamt of finding a better way of holding paper together, and then used his or her ingenuity to turn it into a real product that most of the world now uses. Do not all physical objects, works of art, explorations, profound relationships, new discoveries, etc. all come from daring to allow the dreams of our hearts, souls and minds to see the light of day?
So, is terrorism real? It is for those who dream up ways of creating violence and fear, and then unfortunately, it becomes a real nightmare for those who fall victim to it. What frightens me so much is that we allow the Osama bin Ladens and George Bushes of this world to define their dreams as reality and then impose them on us.
For the past two days, we were honoured to enter the very real environment of two beautiful elders, Suvit and Sriboot Chootiwat, who seemed to derive so much pleasure in sharing their shining dreams with others. What could be a more fitting way of honouring the horrors of September 11th? Rather than dreaming of fighting terror and violence with more of the same, we could come away with the dream of peace, harmony and beauty, and know that this dream not only has the potential to be transformed into reality, but also know that it has the power to spread, one person and one dream at a time.
The week began for Lucy and I without a Friday.
Waiting at the security check of the San Francisco Airport, as the clock passed the midnight line, hardly felt like the dawning of a new day, but rather the extension of one very long Thursday, in which we had spent many hours repacking, doing our last minute errands and saying our good-byes. I couldn’t help but mutter that the new security arrangements, although necessary, seemed awfully similar to the practice of safe sex, with the obliteration of any contact with fluids on one’s person. Probably a bad joke, I would agree, and I don’t mean to sexualize things, but it got me thinking about what our population has to do in the name of security in this new world order. Water and fluids often symbolize the essence of life in many spiritual practices. As our world becomes more complex and threatening, this seems like a paradoxical metaphor in which we need to remove ourselves from the flow of life in order to stay safe and secure.
For the past two years we had been trying to find a sense of security in our lives in Vancouver. It probably would have worked if we weren’t both struggling with the god-awful Lyme’s disease that sucked the energy and sense of well being right out of our bodies and souls. For years, we had both been invaded by nasty bacteria that wormed their way into the core of our immune cells causing havoc and destruction wherever they went. Our immune systems seemed helpless to combat this camouflage warfare, other than screaming out in futile protest in the form of growing symtomotology.
The good news was that with finally getting a correct diagnosis and with a highly effective treatment plan, known as the Marshall Protocol that was being administered by our wonderful holistic doctor Greg Blaney, a cure was in sight. For me, I have not suffered from my headaches in over one and a half years, and if anything could be considered a blessing, that certainly was. The bad news was that this treatment, while successful, could take over two years. It is a long series of detoxifications that result in physical and mental exhaustion beyond belief, muscle and joint aches, nerve disorders, mental confusion, sleep disturbances and all sorts of other thrilling experiences. Knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel is a consolation worth holding onto, but it does make functioning in the real world challenging, and some days we couldn’t help but wonder if that light was another train approaching us on our single track within the darkness.
During this time we tried starting a small business providing innovative holistic workshops in health and wellness for both the Aboriginal and general population in British Columbia. Lucy and I have a wonderful way of working together, and the work that we did was well received. We found the work exciting and looked forward to doing more. Like any new business, however, a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy is required for marketing and development, and consistent energy was not something that our treatments afforded us.
In trying to work at a slower more sensible pace, I found myself sitting around too much going through internal conflict. It became quite clear that the demands of healing and the demands of starting a business were forming their own battle lines. Healing conforms to neither schedule nor pressure, while work certainly does. After much discussion and debate, we decided to get our business development past its initial stage with the completion of a website and certain commitments that we already had, and then take an eight month sabbatical to focus on our healing. (If you are interested in checking out our website, please go to www.steppingstonesworkshops.com. We welcome any feedback you might have.)
Once we made this decision, it didn’t take us long to decide to follow our hearts and return to Thailand. For reasons of both the economics of not having an income, and the affinity we have for the Buddhist culture, this was an obvious choice for us. We decided to initially set up base in Chaingmai, where we lived and worked several years ago. This time around we were going to take time for ourselves, and simply see what unfolded. We knew that we wanted to spend time meditating in a couple of wats (Buddhist temples), that I wanted to write and Lucy wanted to explore art. Other than that we were going to simply invite life to unfold in front of us without any specific plans. We didn’t even know if we were going to travel much; maybe yes, maybe no.
Sitting on board Singapore Airlines several hours later, I attempted to not try to make too much sense of what was occurring. Hurling through space above the Pacific Ocean at speeds and altitudes that defy basic human modes of functioning, through a night that would seem endless, while punching through time zones that ridiculed the notion that one could rely on one’s wristwatch, and having tomorrow obliterate today (which never really began) as we crossed some imaginary International Date Line, logic was no longer the ruler of this flying roost. Several movies on demand and meals later, when it was apparently Saturday morning, we stretched our legs at the Hong Kong airport and treated ourselves to some noodle soup, not trying to figure out if this was breakfast, lunch or dinner. We figured that by West Coast time (although that was yesterday here) it was just two days since we had left Lake Tahoe where we had taken my parents for a holiday, and spent our last day in America in San Mateo, a suburb of San Francisco. We were now in the outskirts of Hong Kong, and that within the next 5 days we would spend time in Singapore and Bangkok before taking a night train to Chaingmai.
Flying south over the east coast of China, I tried not to think of the sadness of leaving so many people behind. It had been great to spend the last two years with our children and grandchildren, becoming more intimately part of their lives again, and knowing that we were closer to our parents and siblings. We never realized how many wonderful friends we had until we had to say good-bye, once again, to all of them. I also tried to push away the thoughts of once again being homeless, and the exhaustion that we had faced over the past couple of months closing up shop. The life of a wanderer can certainly be a two-edged sword. So I thought back to the first time I flew this route four years before, not quite believing that I was over China. Later as we had flown over Vietnam on that previous voyage, I couldn’t help but reflect back on how a previous brutal American war with this country had shaped the life that I was to embrace. I never did make it to Vietnam in my travels, but I vividly remember one night in Laos, watching a full moon reflect on the Mae Kong River, a body of water that is birthed in Tibet and after travelling through 7 countries, empties into the Pacific in a delta in Vietnam where too much of the violence of that war took place.
After yet another meal, movie and a bit of shut-eye, the pilot announced that we were approaching the end of our journey in Singapore. We had spent time in Singapore on several other occasions, and were looking forward to three days here this time as well.
Singapore is probably one of the most modern cities in the world, with architectural designs sprouting out of the earth in Jetsonesk-like fashion. Much controversy is generated in this city between the concepts of freedom and good governance, something that I hope to write about more soon. While fascinated by this modern city, our passion lies in the older quarter of Little India. Here the buildings are only several stories high, old and thrown together in a hodgepodge of fascinating shapes, colours and patterns, along streets that are bustling with people at any time of the day or night. There is litter strewn on the streets here, and certainly nobody gives you a fine for chewing gum or blocking the street with you car, truck, bike or cart. The stuff of life oozes out of every pore of this neighbourhood, which is what is so appealing to us.
Everywhere you turn there are out-door fast food restaurants. Before I hear gasps of shock across the e-waves, let me assure you that the notion of fast food in Indian culture is not even a distant cousin of that back home. Delicious and healthy curries of every description, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, are in hot trays, ready to be served with a variety of Indian breads and rice. Drink it down with water, soda, Ceylon tea or a lassi that is served in some restaurants and you are in culinary heaven at prices that fit any traveller’s budget.
We had chosen the Royal India Hotel, which we had seen on previous visits, as our resting place. I suspect that this hotel has seen better days when it may have been the place to stay in the centre of Little India. Although I wouldn’t call it a dive now, it was certainly run down. A saving grace was that our room not only had running hot water, although it took us a day to figure out how to use it, and air-conditioning, not to mention a window facing the street. The first room we were shown was a cell without a window, but thankfully, we were able to switch. While the hotel staff were not overly friendly, they were efficient and helpful.
Our plan was to sleep off jet lag in our hotel and wander out in the sticky heat to fill our bellies whenever we felt the urge. The fact that both of us arrived with a combination of the flu and a head cold, not to mention exhaustion, only strengthened our desire to happily hole up in our tiny room. We had brought several novels with us that kept us content.
Sunday evening was an exception. Looking out our window in the late afternoon, we noticed an unusually large number of people, mostly men, hanging out and walking along the streets. Within a couple of hours this had turned into what can only be described as a flood of men surging through the streets. Some were walking alone, but most were in pairs, often either arm in arm or rubbing shoulders, or there were small groups standing to the side in animated conversation, some standing, some sitting, some squatting. We were later to learn that for most men, Sunday is their only day off, and that there is a tradition of gathering with friends in the evening. We noticed busses that had obviously transported men here by the thousands from other parts of the city. What the tradition for women was, if any, was only speculation. They were certainly nowhere to be seen. Whether they congregated together in their homes, or whether taking time out to socialize was not one of their allotted luxuries was and remains outside of our knowledge.
Soon our bellies were beginning to growl and out into the crowds we went. We were one of the very few Westerners out and about, and dear Lucy was even in a smaller minority, but that didn’t deter us. Everywhere we went, we had to dodge and push our way through the sea of men. There was a hum of energy that was palpable, but never once did we feel anything other than safe or even noticed, for that matter. It was as if we were invisibly bobbing through another dimension that only we could see and feel. What an experience!
The next night was Lucy’s birthday. We celebrated it by doing what we enjoy most; eating. Walking down an alley of upscale shops the day before, we had found an interesting restaurant called The Banana Leaf. Very modern and air conditioned, there was a large menu to choose from. After much difficulty, we finally settled on a spinach paneer and a curried chicken, along with garlic naan, all served on a banana leaf; the traditional way of eating. The flavours were exquisite, transporting our birthday girl, as well as her host, into heaven.
The next day we were back to the airport for the relatively short flight to Bangkok. (After crossing the Pacific, almost any flight is short.) Bangkok was relatively unremarkable, as we didn’t feel the need to see things that we had seen before. To compensate for a simple hotel in Singapore, we completed Lucy’s birthday celebration by staying at quite a decent hotel; the Royal River Hotel. Although we usually stay in very simple and inexpensive accommodations in Thailand (between $5 - $10Can a night), we splurged and rented a suite, certainly something we have never done before. For about half the cost of a normal hotel room back home, we spent two days and nights in luxury, drifting through our spacious suite with a beautiful view of the river. It came complete with a double door entrance, with sculptures of lions on either side, not to mention two separate balconies.
One night we went to what looked like a basic restaurant next door, the River Bar, that we could see from our suite. With an outside on the river, we figured we would have a enjoyable evening. While the food was good and reasonably priced, the treat in store for us was the music. The inside sported a night club with a modern décor in all black and white with a performance by a local four piece Thai band, Blue on Blue. There was a combination of jazz, blues and old time rock and roll, with the lead member playing some of the finest guitar we have heard anywhere, with a voice to match. We were mesmerized by this music and didn’t want it to end.
The next night we took a night train to Chaingmai where we have been for the past week and a half. This account is getting long enough so I will write more at a future date. Suffice it to say that we are happy to be back here, and taking life very slow. Just what ‘the doctor’ ordered.
After much encouragement by many of you, I hope to write more accounts of our experience here. As we don’t plan on doing an extensive amount of travelling, they will probably be in the form of vignettes of impressions of a different way of life. I’m in the process of setting up several connected blog sites, and will let you know about them once they are up and running. If you don’t want to be on this email list please let me know, and I will take you off.
While far away, Lucy and I love to keep our relationships alive and would love to hear from you. We look forward to old-fashioned personal letters (on email), as well as this group format. So we look forward to hearing from you if you wish, and we will certainly write back.
Keep well for now.
Regards from Ralph, and his sidekick, Lucy
I am seeing myself in first grade. I am sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by my classmates with a joyous expression on my face. Looking out the window, I see the brilliant colours of the leaves; yellow, orange and red. A window is slightly ajar and I am smelling the crispness of the November air of New York tickling my nostrils. Prior to this moment I have been wishing to go outside, run through the leaves, scoop them up using everything available to my body, hands, arms, chest, throat and stomach, to throw them in the air, and then and only then wait for that delicious long pause of a split second before they flutter down covering my hair, eyes, ears, and nose, sticking to my fall jacket and khakis pants, finally settling in a light drift over my brown leather shoes. With few exceptions, the call from outside would pre-empt any activity within the classroom. This is one of those joyous exceptions that is keeping my attention focused inside.
In this scene we are singing the Thanksgiving song "The Happy Wanderer". Looking back now, I can hear the exuberance of my singing, having no concern for whether or not I am remotely in tune, which no doubt, I am not. I can hear many of the words going over and over in my head, although some of them have faded away with memory. Something about I wish I was a wanderer with a knapsack on my back, wandering until the day I die. I am always seeing the mythological wanderer the same way; as an old man in corduroy pants and a flannel plaid shirt, sporting a white scraggly beard and a canvas knapsack with a wooden frame on his back. I am noticing now that he never seems loaded down, he always seems so free.
I am always seeing the wanderer in the third person, although the song is sung in the first person. Many of this boy's thoughts are lost to me now, but it is hard to conceive that there could have even been an inkling that maybe someday I could be that wanderer. This certainly did not fit into my world within an upper middle-class, predominately Jewish suburb on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Everything was very nice in my community, the nice streets with overhanging trees, the nice houses with nice people inside. 'Nice' was my mother's favourite word; the opposite of nice is 'screcklish', a Yiddish expression meant to send shutters up one's spine. Everything in our house was nice - all the time.
Nothing was ever out of place within my mother's domain, including my bedroom. There certainly was no place for a canvas knapsack with a wooden frame, not even in the far recesses of my closet. The thought of a scraggly beard donning my face sometime in the decades to come when my biology would have caught up with such a fantasy would certainly have set off the screcklish shutters. This being the early 50's, a time to forget the horrors of the previous decade and recline into niceness, there was not even a glimpse of what was to come in the late 60’s when many a young man's face, including mine, would erupt with unkempt hair.
For my father, a successful and moral business man, the extent of his wandering was the daily commute via the Long Island Railroad into his office in Manhattan, with his companions, a brief case and the New York Herald Tribune. A major change came when the Tribune closed the New York edition and my father switched to the more conservative New York Times, which at 92, he still reads daily from his retirement home in a suburb of San Francisco.
Yes, we were Jewish and through the decades my paternal ancestors had wandered up from Spain into Germany and the Netherlands, and my maternal grandparents from the Ukraine and Lithuania had wandered into Germany and later to Palestine, but in each case, they were refugees fleeing religious persecution, mass eviction, pogroms, and the early years of Hitler's Regime. A happy wanderer embracing freedom: no, that was not part of the scheme of this little boy’s life, I am seeing joyfully singing out of tune.
And yet, seeing this delicious scene again, I am now detecting the first echoes of a call that would return as I moved through the decades. From whence the call came, discovering its meaning, deciphering the complexity of its messages, all that means nothing now. All that is of interest is that the call kept coming, over and over again, in different guises and shapes, in different degrees of intensities, sometimes speaking seriously, sometimes cunningly luring me into fantastical escapes, sometimes hauntingly pulling upon my soul like a loon's song reaching across the water.
Fast forward about 40 years now. It doesn’t escape my notice that this is the period that my ancestors wandered through the desert. I am at the 24th annual folk music festival in the idyllic setting of Jericho Park on the west side of Vancouver, British Columbia in July, 2001. On the south side of the park is a meandering pond with wild ducks, swans and other fowl, beaver and even the occasional turtle. Beyond the pond is a thick stand of trees buffering the park from the traffic on 4th Avenue. To the north is the beach on the Vancouver inlet. At this time of year one not only gets the visual scene of the dozen or so freighters in the middle of the inlet waiting for a berth at the dock in the East End, but numerous pleasure vessels out for a summer’s day romp. Beyond the masts of the sailing boats are the beautiful mountains of North and West Vancouver and further to the east one embraces the skyline of downtown Vancouver melting into the beautiful Stanley Park. Although more than a dozen years had elapsed since I had last lived in Vancouver, I still considered myself a Vancouverite, proud of a scene that no city in North America can match.
In its 24 years of folk music extravaganza, I had only been absent a handful of times. As with so many of my generation, I came of age listening to the likes Pete Seager, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie and Phil Oaks. So it was a forgone conclusion that when the infant festival opened in 1978, I would be in attendance, and remain one of its loyal fans over the years. Scheduled in mid July, it was often the first weekend of the summer in which the sun was in attendance. The hallmark of this festival is that it is global in context and invites creative and unique artists and groups who generally have not made it big on the mainstream music scene.
The main attraction for me this year was Utah Philips. He was definitely not wearing corduroy pants. Other than that, however, he looked, acted, sang and told stories, as I imagined my metaphorical wanderer of those bygone elementary schooldays would have done. He even sported the necessary plaid shirt and flowing snow-white beard. It had been many years since I had last been entertained by Utah at this festival and I was looking forward to it. Irreverent as one can possibly be, he is brilliant at getting one to think about the injustices of this world through his songs and stories.
In the middle of Utah’s performance, he asked if we knew the difference between a bum, a hobo and a tramp. Well, he says: a bum is a wanderer who drinks; a hobo is a wanderer who works occasionally; a tramp is a wanderer who dreams.
After the laughter subsided, I looked at my dear wife Lucy seated at my side and said: “Well darling, I can’t drink because it gives me headaches and working is killing me. I think it is time for us to be tramps!!”
Lucy’s first response was to laugh. Her second response, which surprised herself as much as me, was to agree.
Our life was no longer working. We had known that for some time now. My daily migraine headaches, which had been plaguing me for several years, had drained all my strength and resources, and yet I continued working in my private psychotherapy practice. Healing others and teaching them to take care of themselves came easy to me. Following my own advice was another story. Lucy was exhausted beyond imagination from trying to hold the two of us together. And yet we continued on and on, thinking that we were doing the responsible thing.
Responsibility. How often had I broken down the meaning of that word for my clients into ‘response’ – ‘ability’; the ability to respond? How often had I heard myself say that responsibility did not necessarily mean working hard, making money or following the mainstream assumptions of what one should sacrifice in life to be considered a good citizen? No, I would explain, it is one’s ability to respond to life and that self-care is often a huge component of that quality. I knew that, but didn’t follow it. I seemed to be following the old adage: do as I say, not as I do.
I return to that moment now. I am sitting beside my wife wishing to follow my dreams. I am thinking of becoming a tramp. How will I explain this to my parents, I am thinking. Hi mom, hi dad, guess what? I’m going to be a tramp. I’m going to be wandering. I’m going to be dreaming. Isn’t that grand? I’ll be down to visit them in their exclusive retirement home and they will be introducing me to their friends as their middle-aged son, the tramp.
I am laughing as we begin walking across the field after the concert. I am laughing with equal measures of excitement and nervousness. We are already becoming aware that that comment, absurd as it may have been, was hitting a chord that was not remotely absurd. As I sit here now, writing about this event that seems part of another lifetime already, I am listening to a CD in which Utah Phillips is singing a song: “I am all used up”. Watching back through time I see these two folk walking hand in hand, becoming more and more aware of how used up they really are. Wandering and dreaming isn’t seeming quite so absurd to them at this moment.
Making the decision to leave home and begin the journey to find the answers they are looking for is still six weeks in the distance, but from that moment on, they feel its inevitability and proximity. It will always remain a poignant and defining moment.
There are certain defining moments in the history of a long-term illness that stand out from the steady stream of trials that becomes one’s new life. The first such event is the recognition that all is not well.
For me this occurred on a spring evening in Victoria, British Columbia. Lucy and I were taking a course offered by our friend, Samantha in Jin Shin Do, a comprehensive form of acupressure body treatment. We were staying in her apartment and having dinner together. A bottle of red wine was opened and we each filled up a glass. The food was good, the companionship was better, I was having fun and feeling relaxed, but within a short order of time, I developed a raging headache that lasted more than 24 hours.
Over the past two years I had progressively been getting more headaches to the point where I was suffering from them several times a week. At the same time, I was becoming more sensitive to a host of foods and alcohol. Until that evening, however, if I limited myself to a couple of glasses of wine, I had not had a problem.
Until then, I had explained away my headaches and food sensitivities as the outcome of too much stress, resulting from a recent separation of a long-term marriage, becoming involved in a new relationship with Lucy (wonderful though it was), financial pressures and operating a full-time counselling practice. That evening, however, I came to the conclusion that this was more than just stress. Something was physically wrong, and I didn’t know what it was.
Over the next several months I made various decisions about how to lower my stress level. Regardless of what I did, however, my headaches kept increasing. It wasn’t long before I was having headaches every day.
For someone who had always been physically active, healthy and thrived on an active life, it was not easy defining myself as being ill. The diminishing definition of who I was in this world changed from being a healer, a father, a son, a partner, a friend, a hiker, etc., to being an ill person. Looking back on this period, I realized what a shock this was for me. I believe now that this changing concept of who I was in this world had as much of an impact on me as the physical symptoms themselves.
Another defining moment, a couple of years later coincided with an event so powerful that most of the world sat up and took notice. By the time the horrors of September 11th occurred, I had been through the full gamut of medical intervention to no avail. My symptoms continued to increase, compounded by the addition of various pharmaceutical substances that were destroying my body and mind. Being a believer in natural healing, I tried every approach I could think of, but nothing made a difference. Continuing my career, supporting ourselves and paying off the mortgage on a house and property on the beautiful west coast Quadra Island were important to me, but I was becoming more and more desperate. I was worn down, and didn’t know how to continue.
Beyond the similar reactions that everybody else had that awful day abut the people who were senselessly killed, I went through a very personal set of questioning. While I had huge political qualms with the hegemonious American military-industrial complex, that the Pentagon and the World Trade Center symbolized, I recognized that I must have bought into it on another level. If nothing else, they at least had represented what was secure and impenetrable. If they weren’t secure, who and what was, I wondered.
In the days that followed, Lucy and I finally came to the decision that had been brewing for several months. With my illness, we could no longer count on building a secure life in the normal fashion. It was time to focus on healing. For both of us, this must take the form of giving up home and careers, parting with family, friends and pets for a while, and travelling to Asia to look for other approaches to healing.
Two months before, I had been listening to one of my favourite folk singers, Utah Phillips, at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival talk and sing about wandering. In one of those rare moments of life, it triggered a powerful yet unexplainable calling that had been with me ever since I was a child. (For a more detailed account of this, click onto the story ‘I Wish I Was a Wanderer’.) For many years I had known and embraced the calling to be a healer. To pursue the mythology of being a wanderer, however, was far more threatening to the values of a middle class lifestyle, and had been suppressed. In ways that I couldn’t explain then, I knew on a visceral level that healing and wandering were deeply connected for me, and that I simply had to follow upon a journey that I didn’t have a clue as to its
outcome or destination.
Many amazing and profound experiences presented themselves to me in our time in India and Thailand that I now embrace as gifts of ‘divine love’, although for the life of me I can’t even begin to define what I mean by that term. (I am presently in the process of writing a book on this whole journey.) One moment stands out for me, which occurred not more than a couple of kilometres from where I am writing today in Chaingmai, Thailand.
We were still new enough to Asia that simply being on the street was an adventure in itself. You have to understand that in Asia urban areas life is centred on the street. People are buying or selling their wares on the street, on the sidewalks, bulging out of small shops or carts, they are moving in what appears to be chaotic directions, they are rushing, they are loitering, they are gabbing, they are napping, they are watching, their vehicles are making noise and spewing pollution as they weave in and out of a stream of maddening traffic, some are smiling from so deep in their bellies that it lights up the entire street, day or night, while others are scowling, pulling in the darkness, some are begging, others simply want to meet you, while others want to take advantage of you for their own profit. There are colours and smells and sounds and visceral connections waking up all the senses, whether you want them to or not.
We were passengers in a tuk-tuk, a mythological beast that has the head of a bike and the back of an open carriage, usually big enough to hold two people, although here any number of passengers is possible. In the old days the driver was peddling a bicycle, and there are some old timers around still doing this. The vast majority of tuk-tuks have motorcycle engines that sputter and roar and spew out exhaust onto the street. Being two cylinder engines, they burn oil with gasoline, and sometimes even propane (so much for going green), resulting in noxious fumes. It doesn’t really matter, however, because when you are a passenger in this open-air vehicle, you are riding at the level of all the other exhaust pipes, which are also spewing out their guts which are fast tracked right into your lungs. The drivers are usually quite the characters and if you get one who speaks a few words of English you can have quite the intriguing conversation, once you get the point across that you really don’t want to hire him for the full day at inflated prices to take you to all the boring and expensive tourist sites.
Anyway, here we were in the back of one of these beasts going down Thaphae Road outside the old city. Everything was exciting, and even through the fog of a migraine headache, I felt fully alive. Although I didn’t know where our lives were headed at that point in time, I had been coming to the realization that my illness and the life I had been living were more deeply connected that I had previously thought. I heard myself saying to Lucy “I no longer want a life in which I go against my grain!” It sounds corny, I’ll grant you that, but for an instant, silence and stillness descended upon the cacophony of the street. ‘My grain’ – ‘migraine’. Sure, these words are spelled differently, but the metaphor was clear enough.
I had, in a sense, come full circle. I was no stranger to the essential truth that my illness was not just of the body that was separated from my life. I had known for some time already that it was a pretty bizarre notion that we could blindly drag our bodies along a conflictual path in life, and somehow expect it to take care of itself. And when it started screaming out in pain and discomfort, we could assume it had nothing to do with us. Likewise, it had been obvious to me that we couldn’t just bring our bodies to a healer, natural or allopathic, and once it was fixed and returned to us, carry along in the same old way.
I had begun, several years before, by challenging the stress level that I had put myself under. Fair enough, but the term ‘stress’ has become such a euphemism for dealing with things on a surface level. The truth that was whispered in this moment of silence was that my journey had to be about challenging the core issues of how I had been going about living my life, and that this discovery had to become part of my healing process.
Yes, there was something physically wrong at this point in time, that was deeply imbedded in my body. Emotional healing, on its own, would not be enough. I also knew that I couldn’t do it alone. I needed a gifted healer to diagnose and offer solutions. But I had to be part of this healing with some pretty fundamental challenges to myself. I didn’t have the answers yet. In fact, I still wasn’t even sure what questions to ask. But from that defining moment on, I knew that it had to be a collaborative venture in which I was fully involved in a different way.
It wasn’t until more than two years later that I was finally diagnosed properly. In this period I had been through an endless cascade of hope and despair. With some healers I found temporary relief from my symptoms, but they always returned. In my personal journey I discovered new ways of being in this world that forced me to appreciate my headaches as a difficult but profound teacher. At other times I reached such despair, that I seriously began to contemplate suicide on one occassion.
Through a string of serendipitous events I wound up in the office of Dr. Greg Blaney in Vancouver. Within several moments of talking with him, I intuitively knew that this was the person who would help me through my difficult struggle, although it took another few months until he recognized that I had Lyme’s Disease. In a nutshell, this illness is caused by small bacteria that live in the saliva of a biting insect, such as a tick. Sneaking into the body like a terrorist attack, it moves into the white blood cells, causing havoc within the immune system itself. It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body in a futile effort to defeat this intelligent invader. Sounds a bit like some reactionary politicians we all know. My case was so severe, according to Greg, that I was lucky to be alive. (If you want more information on Lyme’s Disease – not reactionary politicians, go to: www.marshallprotocol.com).
There is a very difficult and prolonged treatment protocol, which can take two years or more to succeed. It is a constant and escalating process of detoxification in which many symptoms are elevated. I was fortunate, however, that my headaches stopped immediately, even though I have had to deal with many other unpleasant conditions. I am now within 6 months of finishing this treatment, and questioning how I will once again re-enter the world.
What I now know is that I had unconsciously laid the groundwork for these nasty bacteria to thrive in my body. By living a life of conflict and confusion, by making many decisions on many different levels over years and decades that went against my true grain, I created a body/mind in conflict, thus weakening and confusing my immune system enough that the bacteria found this a haven for settlement. There is an interesting theory that the immune system is our only true identity. The immune system is the only biological system that distinguishes the difference between ‘me’ and all else in the universe, and then decides what is safe and useful to allow into the biological community that is me, and what is threatening that needs to be excluded or defeated. It is really not a big jump to the recognition that a confused or conflicted mind eventually filters down to an equally confused and conflicted immune system.
But what I have also been learning on a deep visceral level is how to work together with the medical treatment by creating a different climate within my body/mind that is creating fertile ground for becoming healthy once again. This is not something that can be done once and then finished with. It is an ongoing process of becoming more self-aware or awake, involving every day of my life. Every step along the way I come upon fascinating tests, such as learning how to lovingly challenge myself to be the person that I am meant to be. Through many moments of confusion, doubt and conflict, I eventually find clarity, and in these special moments I feel strong and balanced.
I still don’t know what the answers are yet. Maybe I never will. But the questions that I need to challenge myself with are becoming clearer. And one of these questions is how to fully give gratitude to these little ‘nasties’, who have given me the opportunity to open up to learning some of the most profound lessons that life has to offer. In essence, they have forced me, on a daily basis, to bear witness to who I am and what I am doing. Maybe these are the messages of divine love which I so strongly need to listen to.
Life works in mysterious ways. Stranger things have happened.