Friday, December 11, 2015

Taiwan - The Heart of Asia

So here it is a long, overdue blog.  It's hard to believe I have been here for 5 months. The moment I arrived on this island, I instantly felt at home. I guess initially being placed in an apartment with a balcony overlooking the mountains certainly helped settling into a new place much easier. I live in Xizhi, which is a small district outside of Taipei.  It's a nice place to live, with the hiking just right out my door and the hustling, bustling city of Taipei a quick 17 minute train ride away.

Taiwan has the best of both worlds; the hustling bustling city...
...and the peaceful nature

Since I've arrived, there have been 3 typhoons and 2 earthquakes (that I have felt at least). Of course the typhoons are always a bit dramatized by the news; placing the journalist on top of a cliff next to an ocean. Well, I'm not there. I am safe and sound inside of an apartment building (even if does sway back and forth a bit). There may be no 'snow days' but at least we have 'typhoon days'. One of which was spent at KTV, a karaoke entertainment establishment, which is basically a bunch of friends singing our hearts out together in a private room (mostly 80's love ballads. haha). Our umbrellas blew away, so we had to tackle the weather wearing ponchos.
Some colleagues and I

street in Jiufen

restaurant in Jiufen
 So here, I'm keeping quite busy outside of my 35 hours of teaching kindergarten. Taiwan is a great place to expand my knowledge in learning more about eastern philosophy, religion, medicine, and practices.  I attend qigong, yoga, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) classes weekly.

street food
Coming here after living in China for 18 months is … well quite a breeze. They are both mandarin speaking lands and both share Chinese cultural and social characteristics. However with over 60 years of political separation, Taiwan and China have both culturally and socially evolved very differently.  To begin with, Taiwan is a much easier place for a westerner.

Long Dong

My housemate Gizelle (Ohio) and I at LongDong

Here are some of the main differences I have found between mainland China and Taiwan:
  •  Restaurants- People in China would shout across the restaurant to get the attention of the waiter if they had to.. ‘Fuyuan!!!!!!!’ People here just shake their head in disbelief at the inconsideration of the mainlanders, and wait patiently for the waiter to come to them or kindly go get them.
    View of the Taipei 101 (the second tallest building in the world)
  •  Laid back atmosphere-  Taipei has all the amenities of a large international city but at a much slower pace. In China, I remember fearing for my life every time I got in a taxi or saw them on the street. There I often got pushed out of lines at restaurants or while getting on the bus.  Everyone there seems to be in a rush and consequently can’t afford to stand in line or yield to other drivers.
    My coworker Heather (Kansas) + I on the gondola to Maokong Tea Plantations
  •  There is no Great Firewall of China – You can access anything that is blocked in China, such as Google, Facebook, Youtube, etc. You can read all the news, not just the news the Chinese government allows you to read.
    The last waterfall of the Sandioling Waterfall Hike
  • Religion – Temples that I visited in China were more like sterile artifacts swamped with tourists. Here in Taiwan you actually see devoted worshipers and religion in action. I think it's easier here to gain a better understanding of their culture and religion.

A local farmer at the tea plantation (Maokong)
Cleanliness - Taiwan is cleaner – The streets are much cleaner. You don’t see any spitting or toddlers with their open crotched pants squatting down to poop. People wear surgical masks to prevent from getting diseases. All of my students are required to wear masks and every time they enter the room they have to get antibacterial spray on their hands. Yeah, maybe clean, preventative and cautious but also a little bit OCD if you ask me.

streets in Shifen
·Laws – Laws are actually followed and enforced here. It is not a free for all at the traffic light, like it is in China. Scooters ride in their designated scooter lane, not on the side walk or driving down the wrong way in a one way street. Scooter drivers actually stop at red lights and they wear helmets too.  You’ll still see the occasional rule being broken, like the group of men standing in front of a nonsmoking sign in front of the hospital.  However, in and around the hospital is an exception. There is where you see patients being pushed around on stretchers with their IV hooked up to them and pee bags to the side.


Hike in Jinguashi
More Westernized – The culture of Taiwan is a blend of Confucianism, Han Chinese, European, Japanese, Amiercan, and aboriginals. It’s an interesting mix of both traditional and modern.  There are a good amount of expats here. I’m not a zoo exhibit here – In China, people were constantly trying to sneak my picture.  They’d sometimes ask to get a picture of me. In Taipei, they are used to seeing foreigners. Also, they are more into taking selfies than sneaking a picture of a random foreigner. It is also easier to get around because so many people here speak English. The people are friendly, accommodating and want to help the foreigner be comfortable and happy in their country.
So I guess you can say I love living here much better for many different reasons. I’m not saying I didn’t like living in China. I had a wonderful experience there as well and it helped me get to where I am today. What I can safely say is living there first makes this place feel more like a paradise.
 I try to get out of the city as much as I can, whether it be relaxing on the beach or going on a hike. Or well, since I live in Taiwan… you can do both in one day. There is a lot of hiking along the coast creating great views of the beautiful Pacific ocean underneath. The options are endless for an outdoor enthusiast like myself. 

A big part of why I love it here so much… My students! I get to hang out with 4 year old kids all day. I have 19 students with the help of 2 Taiwanese co-teachers, aka my life savers, that assist when a kid pees their pants or throws up their lunch (which happened too frequently the first few weeks) The CT’s are both wonderful and have been great in helping me control the class.  These kids came to school 5 months without knowing any English, so it's really nice to be able to measure their progress. I’m their full time kindergarten teacher; so I’m not only teaching them English I’m teaching them life skills, morals, etc.  One of my favorite things about the job is preparing them for role plays every 8 weeks. Right now, the kids are acting out the Ugly Duckling. For the end of the year, we will do Lion King (picked based on how stinkin' cute these kids will be in animal outfits. hehe)

Some of the Panda class making marshmallow ants for a cooking activity
With kids you just never know what you’re going to get. I’ve had kids tell me that my hair is crazy or that my nose is long. They have a nice way of picking out your flaws; kids holding my belly and asking about a baby or trying to pick away at that zit on my face. 
The Panda Class - at our outdoor outing to the track
 It’s a nice balance though and they always seem to make up for it especially when you hear ‘I love you and I’ll miss you' and get hugs from them when they lay down for their nap. I remind them, I'll see you in one hour..... 

Oh, beautiful Taiwan...

Although I say, 'this is so bizarre' almost weekly (referring to something I see here), this place is a very special place... If only it were a little bit closer to home....

Anyway, I hope everyone is well. I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas! It feels a little strange saying it now as I sit in 78 degrees and sunny weather today..

Friday, February 27, 2015

My 10 Day Silent Meditation Retreat

As many of you know, I have just finished my 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. “Vipassana is an ancient technique of meditation that gives us the tools to liberate ourselves from the misery that is created in our own minds and find blissful freedom. It is the technique the Buddha used to enlighten himself 2500 years ago in India and is non-sectarian, and totally universal.” The retreat was run based on the Buddhist practice of dana, where teachings are given freely, and students make donations out of gratitude.

This meditation practice is not to be taken lightly. So this means 10 days of no talking, no eye contact, no gestures, no reading, no writing, no cell phones, and worst yet, no yoga. It’s about what is left without that company, cell phone, glass of concord grape wine, or your Labrador Retriever. Vipassana is learning to love what remains when all that you love is gone. 

We meditated for 11 hours a day with great yummy vegetarian meals for breakfast and lunch, and fruit and tea for dinner. We were allowed to speak to the teacher for a few minutes each day if we had any questions regarding the technique. We were also allowed to walk outside during our meal breaks. [I often wondered what the people in the houses next to us thought as they watch this girl lose herself to the beauty of the cloud formations in the vast sky overhead. What must they think of this girl who is only let out at certain times of the day, who spends this time staring up at trees, juggling snow balls, making snow angels, and drawing pictures in the snow with a stick?]

On our first day we made a vow that we would abstain from alcohol and all drugs (including aspirin). We also promised not to harm a single living thing in keeping with the Buddhist (and yogic) principle of nonviolence, or ahimsa. So that bug I watched at night peacefully crawl its way up the wall by my bed has found a very fortunate home inside that retreat center. 

This retreat was one of the most mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging things I ever went through. It was also the most beneficial and insightful experience of my life.

Now that I am finally able to write or talk about it, I find that I can’t. Experiential understanding always trumps over intellectual understanding. Our intellectual minds are too small to understand what is there waiting for us once we get beyond our minds and our senses. There is no language for it either. All I can say is that one has to experience it for themselves to fully understand as my words certainly will not suffice. 
Before the retreat, I thought, ‘how hard could sitting in silence for 10 days be?’ Well let me tell you meditation is hard work. It is more than just clearing your mind and imagining you are walking on a white sandy beach in the Caribbean.
The foremost lay teacher of Vipassana Meditation S.N. Goenka.
Our class was run on recordings by him with the help of an assistant teacher
For the first 3 days the only thing we were to do was to concentrate on the area in and around the nostrils; being aware of any sensations as the breath passes its way in and out of the body. Simple, right? Well, instead of this I spent the first few days reliving much of my childhood, singing songs, and replaying scenarios. For 3 days I relived my failures, regrets, and past events that I didn’t really want to deal with again, but I knew that I needed to. I forgave myself and others along the way.

It was days of this, and it was days of listening to, ‘you are worthless, you can’t do anything, just give up and walk out that door.’ There it was again; the voice of my other self; that ego that always tries to tell me I’m too anxious or too powerless. It is that false illusion of self that is always accompanying me like a shadow. If I’m going to think this way I will behave this way. I didn’t come here to listen to and fulfill this ‘anxious, weak, worthless’ character that the ego is telling me that I am right now. I didn’t come here to continue being the victim of my thoughts and to live by my ego. I came here to learn how to live by my true nature; turning my ego from my enemy into my roommate. Our minds are there for us to USE, not to be USED by them. 

I failed again and again and again. I continued to pick myself back up over and over and over. It was a lot of inner battle, but I had faith in the technique. Through much determination and perseverance "I" eventually slipped out of the grasp of my controlling ego. That inner bliss and light were waiting for me there far below the shadows of my false identity. 

On the fourth day we expanded our area of focus from that of the nose to the whole body. The main teaching of Vipassana is to remain “equanimous” (treating everything equally due to the impermanent nature of all things).  By going within we observe the sensations (gross and subtle) from head to toe, observing our bodies in a constant state of change, just like the outside universe. Through the meditation, we are assigned to simply be the observer of these sensations. Just accept them as they are, without reacting. (no judgment, no attachment, no expectations no adversity, no desire, no craving, etc.)

The other beautiful women in my course
We see firsthand the pervasive pulls of craving and aversion and to find out what happens when we literally sit these things out. Not reacting to the immense pain I felt in my legs from sitting cross-legged 11 hours a day eventually helped me realize that much of this pain was not actually physical pain, but the pain I created in my head.

As time went on, I began to think less, and feel more of everything inside and out; pulsing, tingling, energy, vibration, etc. The only sound being that of my breath and my heartbeat. There were moments of complete and utter bliss, where I couldn’t even feel my body, mixed in with the struggle. At times I had to open my eyes just to make sure I was still grounded on the floor because I felt like I was flying.  How nice it felt naturally to get this high (without anyone, anything, or a mind altering chemical). However, it wasn’t all about the sensations, the epiphanies, or the trippy visualizations. It was about feeling so purposeful, alive, and empowered. I am not in this universe. I am the universe. There is an infinite light that connects us all.  There is a strong divine energy that flows through the hearts of every being; where eternal love, peace and happiness reside. This is not sectarian. This is life. This is universal. There is meaning, purpose, energy, force, and something too large for our intellectually minds to wrap our heads around. It can only be felt.

It was 10 days of reversing patterns of thinking. As the days went on, I learned more and more how to differentiate between living by my true self and living by my ego.  I am not these emotions or thoughts; I am the awareness behind them that transcends the ego. 

This retreat was about letting go, burning my ignorance, freeing the chains of delusion, removing identities, and overcoming obstacles. It was about breaking down the walls of my mind so that I could soar through to the depths of my infinite being. It was about finding support from something bigger than my own desires and aversions. It was about detaching from this false sense of self, and opening myself to a magnificent grace that lies within.

I know what I need to do to apply Vipassana to my everyday life; it means stop trying to control things that are beyond my control.  Stop worrying so much about something that hasn’t happened yet, or stressing out about something that has already happened. The truth resides in the present moment. It is about living the reality of the moment AS IT IS and not how we want it to be. Our journeys are one of constant transformation. In order to grow one must give up the struggle to remain the same, and learn to embrace change at all times. So when you have a nice enjoyable experience you don’t cling or become attached to. Likewise, with bad experiences, you do not avert them. It is accepting all outcomes be it good or bad. The strong flow of energy builds up inside our beings when our intellectual minds come in to play too much; by our reactions, cravings, aversions, desires, attachments, etc. 

The important thing is to ride this wave, because when you try to fight the current, things could get bumpy. When you go with the flow and force of the universe, the magic reveals itself, and everything falls into place around us. Just let things be how they are meant to be.  

Everything is in a constant state of change. The only constant in this ever so constantly changing world is the truth. I find the more I can embrace these truths, the easier my life becomes. It is not the object or the person that is creating my envy, jealousy, or happiness. It is me. Life is not perfect, nor is it meant to be; but when you stop trying to control or change these imperfections, then you can't help but see a world of perfection.

 Our thoughts influence our feelings. Our feelings influence our actions. And our actions influence our results; how we treat others and see the world around us. The more I go within myself, the more I want to live outside of myself. Your interests are linked with my interests. Your happiness is my happiness. The god that is in you is the same within me. We are all one.

Vipassana meditation is a very important tool that I can take wherever I go. All I need is my body and breath. All it takes is attention, intention, and some self-discipline of getting my ass out of bed every morning at 5:30 to practice.  Meditation and yoga help me better create the world around me; helping me to live more mindfully in the present moment so those moments of ‘losing myself to the magic of the world around me’ come more often. I’m on a path to achieve a more disciplined mind and compassionate heart.  I’m being led by that infinite wisdom within that clearly knows a lot more than “I” do.

I've searched awhile for something that promotes optimal living only to find that everything that I've been searching for is also the same thing I've been running from; Me.

Would I do this retreat again? Yes, absolutely in a heartbeat. 

I hope you have the chance to have a wonderful opportunity like this. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself. The greatest teacher you’ll ever know is in there waiting for you when you are ready….

Change your thoughts. Change your world. 
May the truth set you free.

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Yoga Mat is My Church

Traveling has started out as a way for me to know the unknown; to be blown away by the beauty of the world’s jungles, deserts, canyons, and mountains. My journey across three continents has turned more and more into a journey into the self. My motive for traveling went from wanting to know the unknown to wanting to know the knower. Who are we?  What is the meaning to this strange, bizarre yet fascinating existence? 

Rishikesh - along the banks of the Ganges
All of my paths have led me to India; a place that took my idea of self, consciousness, and ‘our true human potential’ to another level. It was there where I was sent to a place to the depths of my being; far beyond my mind, my senses, and my current understanding of the world.

India; a land full of extremes; inspiring and frustrating, clear and confusing, holy and unreliable, calm and disorderly, chaotic and peaceful, mysterious and familiar. All you can do is 'go with the flow' and embrace India's unpredictability. And when you least expect it you are placed in moments full of power to alter the way you view the world and your place in it.

A man selling flowers for the Ganga Aarti - the nightly act of placing prayer candles  in the river as part of the worship
In the resurrection of my memory I often find myself along the banks of the Ganges River sipping a cup of chai. It is there I sit, admiring the people that have all gathered to this holy river.
People all around;
     Washing away their sins.
     Filling their empty jugs with drops of salvation
     Rinsing impurities out of their colorful saris.
     Splashing innocence on to each other
I sit back and watch dead bodies cremate over an open fire; the smell of burnt flesh lingering in the air.
Streets are shared by both the people and the cows. Barefooted children with their arms outstretched begging for change. Monkeys jump from rooftop to rooftop taking my bag of bananas with them. Hari Krishna, Hari Hari … the sound of the flute filling people’s hearts with love, peace, and joy.  Swamis are joined together chanting in the ashrams  Ohm namah shivaya… Monks sit cross-legged in a temple; prayer beads in one hand…

All of these sights and sounds are slowing fading…
   But of course, a part of India will always remain embedded in my heart.

India, and all of my prior paths in life have all led me back home; to that of my true nature.
India may have helped show me this place, but I don’t need to go 7,000 miles away to get back there.

   The truth is not found along the banks of the Ganges River.
   Eternal love isn’t just a concept in the holy books.
   The wisdom isn’t only in the words spoken from the Dalai Lama
   The answers aren’t inside the Golden Temple.
  The divine isn’t buried under the heaps of snow in the depths of those towering snowcapped Himalayans.

Yeah, it’s there. But it’s here too.
It’s everywhere you go and in everything you see.
It’s the only constant in this ever so constantly changing world.
It's the divine energy that flows through the hearts of every being on this planet. 

The place that was once so brightly lit in India is slowly beginning to dim as I enter back into a busy society. A society that is always about quick satisfaction, instant relief, and distractions. A place that has people constantly looking outward for something that can only be found inward. All it takes is attention and intention. All it takes is body and breath.

Since returning home, I have begun going to church every day…
On my yoga mat; a place where I’m not just told to be a good person, but a place that turns me into one.  Through the practice of yoga, the mind, body and self are stilled.  Each movement sheds a layer of your egocentric existence allowing you to soar in to the depths of your being.  It opens the doors for you to return to you true nature; Yoga is, by definition, a ‘communion with God.’

Each breath in spirals me inward
Closer to my true source
With each breath out, I shed a layer;
A layer of what life has piled on top of me through the years
Layers of distractions, expectations, judgments, and attachments
Bit by bit.
Layer by layer
I’m pulled in closer…

Religion has never told me to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine; Therefore, I have moved my church from that of inside an institution to that on my yoga mat; Why must I listen to someone else’s experiences, when I can have my own?

At the end of each practice,
I pray. Or rather, I listen. I meditate. I go within and I wait for the answers.
Because how can you talk to something that is already inside of you?
My ego always tries to interfere,
     Thoughts always try to interrupt
That relentless chattering of thoughts
I’m not them. I’m the awareness behind them
Those thoughts are not judged, changed, or suppressed
They are observed and I allow for them to continue on their journey in this universe.
Anxiety slips out of my body
Fear is replaced by love.
I free myself from imaginary needs and desires
I’m cut loose from those identifications I have made of myself
And those that others have made for me.
I’m not an American. I’m not a teacher. I’m not 30.
I’m not Jamie.
I’m not that.
I’m not my thoughts, or my identities.
I’m an illumined soul;
A being of light.
I am that.

The chains that have kept me tied to this physical world are now set free allowing me to soar to the depths of this magical, enchanted place of constant bliss and eternal love that lies deep within.
A place more magnificent and gigantic than our small minds can comprehend.

I am that. You are too.
     Eternal magnificent light beings
     Omnipresent souls floating about in this interconnected web in an infinite universe
Yoga helps define myself internally with a higher entity. We are all just manifestations. We don't know it with our rational mind but we can feel it intuitively. It’s about disciplining the mind, so you feel more in tune.   Yoga helps me remove layers of my egocentric existence so there is more space for the world around me; other people, animals, plants, and of course God.

This is what yoga and meditation mean to me.

 It is not turning the temperature up to 100 degrees while listening to some new age spirituality music. It is not about pushing your body so it can stretch further than the girl next to you.  It is not about holding on. You have to let go to receive it all.

I drink kale smoothies
I’m a vegetarian… 90% of the time.
I recite mantras to my favorite Hindu deity.
I can’t shut the hell up about India.
I wear mantra beads
And I have a lotus flower tattoo.

On the outside I’m that stereotypical ‘spiritual’ kind of person
On the inside I am you. You are me.

What spirituality means to me is that…. it’s not about me. 
It’s about you.  I do what I do for you. I am what I am for you.
Because the deeper my spirituality, the brighter that light, the stronger the energy is that connects my souls to yours. Your interests are linked with my interests. Your happiness and suffering I take on as my own.

Life is a series of trials and errors.  I never imagined I’d be this ‘yogini’ kind of gal, but it’s the best lifestyle I have found that has worked for me to bring the most amount of inner peace so that I have more tolerance, patience, and compassion for the world around me.

I’m not saying everyone should meditate and do yoga (although it would solve a lot of issues we have with ourselves and others) It’s about finding what works for you; to help you be the best person that you can be. It’s about finding a path of passion and authenticity to help connect you and remember where you came from.  Take a walk in the woods; with the only sound being that of your own breath and the twigs crunching below your feet. Play in your garden. Walk barefoot in the grass. Watch a sunset. Dance. Take time for yourself to help you feel more centered and grounded so that you can live more outside of yourself. Do whatever it is to help you live more fully in the present moment. This is where the truth resides.

Be good to one another. It’s not just about being kind, but being genuinely interested in one another’s life. Be open to listen with an open mind and an open heart to what the other has to say about their philosophies, ideas, dreams, and interests.

If you do want to give yoga and meditation a try- begin by treating these ancient practices with an open mind and open heart. Most importantly; don’t focus on the end result. Be here now. Don’t expect your mind to be disciplined overnight. You certainly aren’t going to get anywhere if you think life is meant to be perfect. If you think happiness is the goal then you are in for a disaster as well. It’s about going with the flow of the universe. Ride the wave where it takes you (Thank you Pearl Jam)
The minute you stop looking for something and slowdown is when you will receive it. Slow down and simplify. Overcome your fear of self & go inward :)

Life’s been a journey. I will still continue to fight those demons, dance with the devil, and fail many more times than I’d like.  I will continue to take loads of risk and set myself up for some serious challenges.  Because I know all of that is what makes you grow.  What I have learned most about life, I have learned through my challenges, my struggles, my pain, my failures, and my own intuition.

On that note, Next week, I will be participating in a 10 day silent meditation retreat.
Ah, wish me luck!!

“What you are, the world is. Without your transformation, there is no transformation of the world.”
-        Jiddu Krishnamurti