Monday, August 29, 2011

Trouble in Tocumen

"Papers please," the gentleman said.

"As you wish my good sir," I said as I gave him my dog-eared copy of the Spanish language edition of Weekly World News minus the crossword (I still had one corner to go) and a damp fragment of an old Panama City Today I'd wrapped a couple of empanadas in.

"Esta loco senor?" he said.

"Solo en martes," I responded.

"Pass-a-port," he said, snapping his fingers.

"Port-o-potty?" I asked, looking as confused as I could muster.  You really have to have fun with these petty bureaucrats.  I was feeling a rush like I was in Woody Allen's Bananas.

"Pass-a-port please senor," he persisted, not taking to my little joke.

I gave him my winningest smile, "Of course."  I reached into my trusty trouser pocket for it, but came up empty.  I felt my heart skip a beat.  I patted myself down--gave myself quite a frisking--and struck out at each turn.  "Passport did you say?" I asked.

"Si, pass-a-port."  Impatience was building.  What had been a short line behind me had swelled.  "Stupid american" sentiment was palpable.

"Would you take a library card?" I pleaded.

The official looked me hard in the eye as I handed over my green IFPL card.  After a few seconds he looked down at the card.  "Senor," he said, "this is a fine card."  Hallelujah, I'm goin home, I thought.  Yeah, baby.  "However, senor, it expired 6 months ago."

"What!!" I yelled.  I grabbed it back from him and sure enough it had.  Even more worrisome was that I still had a couple of items checked out.

"Senor.  We must have a passport."

Having heard my shout, another official joined him, the two giving me a double glower.

"Well, I can't seem to find it.  It was here a minute ago."

The other official offered helpfully, "Perhaps, senor, it is in your bag."

I knew it wasn't, but needed time, so nodded agreement and opened the zipper on my swissgear backpack.  Where the hell could it be, I asked myself.  I began feeling around, fondled a pair of socks with a make-believe "aha" look to buy more time.  Some jackass tourist behind me suggested I step aside and let the better prepared go ahead while I got my s**t together.  Fortunately I was deep in the heart of the third world where an official's quality is measured by the degree of his inefficiency.  I continued my search, investigating the insides of my tennis shoes, the hole in the middle of my rolled up miniature yoga mat (you can get them down here), and foraged in the pages of my favorite Iyengar book (on loan from the IFPL), "Yoga is you without the 'U'".  That one was published posthumously, or so it says.  Apparently the publisher thought the old guy wasn't going to make it to publication day.  A lesson there: don't underestimate the power of well tended chakras.

By this time the mood had turned downright ugly.  I felt a London sized riot coming on.  Something had to be done.

"Look my good sirs," I began, "as you can see, I'm obviously an Americano.  So why not let's just send me back to gringoland where I belong.  I'll be out of your hair.  It'll be good for all of us.  Whaddya say?"

They just stared.  I felt I had to keep talking.  "My passport, which I must tell you was here--is here, somewhere--is temporarily lost.  Can't we work this out?"

More staring.  They really weren't being helpful.  "Look," I said brandishing my wallet,  "How much do you guys want to make this--me--go away?"  I could see right away I'd made a big mistake.

A waggle of the first official's finger brought over a couple of stocky security guards who looked to be good friends with their nightsticks.  They hauled me roughly by the shoulders into a security room.  I'll never forget the echoes of that door clanking shut.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Toughing it out

I found as I meditated over toughing it out that that last word was the one on which to focus.  Out.  The class was tough, in the same way a 10 year term at Sing Sing is.  And I wasn't getting "it".  An examination of the instructors and students turned up lifeless forms, bodies without a spark.  Mind death struck me as an all-around bad idea.  It's one thing to do a mental fasting to cleanse the brain's pipes; it's another to turn one's soul over to a semi-cultish organization devoid of any evident care.  What's the point of life being a rock with legs?  What's living without emotion?  Who would call that enlightenment?  Isn't it the opposite: turning out the lights?  On your deathbed will you remember that great meditation you once had?  Or will you remember that night at Starbucks when you lost yourself in the eyes of the woman you love, legs intertwined?  Placidity in the face of adversity has its benefits, but not terminal placidity.  It seemed to me that life was too much of a burden for our instructor.  He just didn't know how to enjoy it and wanted to escape it with a measure of dignity.

Out was the right thing.  But out is frowned upon by vipassana, so it was a tough decision.  Once you're out, you're out, for good, forever, unlike the mafia.  They want you to commit to in before you're in.  Meditation revealed to me that no matter out's stigma, it was the right thing.  So out I went, simply, directly, wordlessly.  It felt good inside and out.

And the timing couldn't have been better.  Minutes after I powered up my phone I got a text from Shatra.  She said that we've finally secured new quarters in International Falls and that I've been away too long.  I confess that I miss the borderlands and my own students.  The time away has fueled my spirit to make the new yoga studio and classes better than ever.  If I'm a little hyper, a bit too excitable when you see me next, forgive me.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Silence of Mouth and Mind 5: First Meditation

Following lunch and a rest period we reassembled in the main hall for group meditation.  Being a vipassana rookie, I forgot my meditation cushion and by the time I'd returned all the good spots were taken, leaving me with the dreaded space directly in front of the instructor.  A careless drop of my #16 Greg Biffle pillow earned a glower from said instructor.  Prior to this I hadn't been at all sure the instructor was human.  He'd looked for all the world like a victim of a body snatching.  I couldn't tell from his compressed lips if it was the noise or the pillow itself that offended.  Maybe you can answer that for me: Is it wrong to sit on the face of a 3M-sponsored NASCAR driver?  I consoled myself with the possibility that the instructor had had a traumatic experience with scotch tape.  Calling forth my best face of equanimity, I lowered myself onto the pillow and, looking squarely at the instructor, showed off a bit by adopting full lotus.

The instructor began the session by describing the anapana meditation technique of paying attention to the tips of your nostrils as you breathe.  He said we would practice this for the first three days.  That would be 30 hours (10 hours of meditation per day) of nostril awareness!  Now, I've done this brand of meditation many times, but even so, it's surprisingly hard to maintain concentration.  Thoughts fly in and carry you away for minutes at a time.  I was looking forward to honing my skill, so began with eagerness.

The eagerness lasted 3 breaths.   That's when the tickle started.  I could feel a violent sneeze coming.  I tried, really, but couldn't stop it.  And I didn't get my arm up in time to protect the instructor.  As if that weren't bad enough, I could feel my overlong nose hair coaxing out another one.  If your nose is so important to meditation, why don't they provide care instructions when you enroll?  For explanation, I pointed to my nostrils and made the chomping scissors sign.  I can't understate the amount of disdain in the instructor's look.  Can I have been the first student plagued by untrimmed nose hair?

It was clear I wasn't getting any help from the instructor.  I was gonna have to tough it out.  And I did, in my own way, which will be explained next time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Silence of Mouth and Mind 4: First Dream

I awoke in darkness on a lake island to the smell of lavender.  The phase of the moon and position of the stars alerted me to the fact that it was somewhere after 6pm, possibly much later.  My first sensations were of lapping windless waves and cuddling warmth.  From an unseeable shore came Fous de la Mer's Stars and Fishes.  Sand tickled my temple.  In the near darkness two oblong shapes poking into those wavelets resolved into a pair of kayaks.  I could hear now the variations in the sound patterns caused by their hulls.  Somehow, despite the darkness, I new one to be green, one to be blue.  I relaxed and closed my eyes to concentrate on that warmth.  The warmth my arms held sighed in the way of deep sleep.  Through my arms and chest I could feel her bursting majesty.  As I let my awareness seep into her I sensed the lake bend upwards and over, enfolding us.  The universe became our skin.  I knew without knowing that I was finally experiencing oneness.  With her in my arms all was right because she was all I needed.

I awoke in a sunlit room, somewhat startled.  I had a suspicion I'd just visited my soul.  I was struck by the impact made by just a few hours in this place.  What could possibly lay ahead?

Silence of Mouth and Mind 3: Premeditation

I've gotten a few texts from people confused by Tamara addressing me as Dallas, not Houston.  To clear that one up, I adopted my yoga persona during the tour--when in Rome...

Day one of the 10 day course began with the arrival of the guests.  Vipassana rules require loose fitting, cloaking garb.  Despite this being Panama--a land known for a crazy or two--women hoping to spot a Borat man-sling were out of luck.  What's more, the hosts made the guests deposit all communication and amusement devices in the resort vault for the duration.  No Angry Birds or sexting?  How much harder could this get??

With all assembled, we were bade to take out our mediation pillows and have a seat on the wooden floor.  Thereupon followed some introductory patter.  I wasn't paying attention, being distracted by the wind patterns on their Sponge Bob curtains.  I prematurely meditated, dwelling at length on their decorative motives.  Were we supposed to absorb all the teachings?  Or was Sponge Bob there to soak up all our bad energy?  And where did Patrick fit into things?  What good is a mindless fool?  Then it struck me--he's just what we're aiming to be--an empty vessel.  Patrick is a pink Bodhisattva.  I could feel that I was making great progress already.  5 minutes and I was into the swing of it.  10 days?  No problem!  I could do this in 3.  I figured to have an unspoken word with an instructor about getting placed into the advanced class because of my natural talents.  I made a note to meditate on Squidward when I had more time.

The breakup of the introduction roused me from this reverie.  Having paid zero attention, I had no idea what I was supposed to do.  So I closed my eyes and looked inside myself for the answer.  I did this because I had a hazy recollection of someone saying "all the answers lie inside" during my premeditation.  Well, it's not easy finding things inside me--my insides are messier than my apartment.  So it was taking a while.  A pall of self-consciousness began to descend as my frustration grew.  When I opened my eyes for a second to collect a mental breath I saw one of the instructors waving furiously at me.  Silence is good for some things.  Communication isn't one of them.  From his litany of hand gestures I came to understand that all the students were to dine inside, now.  And this was to be the big meal of the day.  Having pounded a travel pack of oreos in a last fling of debauchery I foresaw extreme hunger later.

After what my 80-pound grandma Lou would call a light lunch, we retired to our rooms for rest.  But, with a raging sugar rush, rest wasn't in the cards.  I wondered with a sigh what the afternoon meditation would bring.  And that got me wondering how loud a sigh was allowed.  Is an energetic sigh "speaking"?  When you get right down to it, how do they define speaking?  Did they cover that in the introduction?  Damn the communications blackout.  No google to cover my ass.  All the answers lie inside Google.  And I was cut off.  I suddenly felt tired.  I did need rest.

I fell into a most wonderful dream...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Silence of Mouth and Mind 2

So, where were we?  Ah, Tamara, yes, I remember now.  The male in me appreciated certain of her features such that I idly considered her presence could improve the quality of my classes.

"There is something you should know," she said.

Here it comes, I thought.  Married.  Or batting for the other team.  I mustered the most nonchalant front I could and answered, "What would that be?"

"The sex."

Well, that gave me a flush I couldn't hide.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of her sentence.

"The sexes are sexarated," she said.  It took me an awkward amount of time to process the rest of these words.  Was this some weird vipassana ritual?  Did I even want to know?

"Sexarated?" I managed, falling back on the old trick of repeating what's said when the faculties overload.   I really hoped I didn't look as stupid as I felt.

"Separated, Dallas.  Get it together.  Men and women are placed in separate wings," she clarified.  "Do you want to rethink your commitment?"

"What's a little commitment between friends?"  I blurted.  I didn't know what that meant.  I hoped she didn't either.

"It's no small commitment to remain silent for 10 days," she replied, getting us back on track.

"Well, you know what they say, 'Go big or don't go at all.'" A grainy vision cloud of Al Bundy at a filling station flitted across the insides of my eyes.

She gave me a funny look.  Were we sharing the same vision?  Or was I unexpectedly cliche?  How cliche can a yogi legitimately be?  A topic for another time.  Never brilliant to rely on t-shirt wisdom.

"You don't strike me as a typical yoga teacher, Dallas," she revealed.  Unexpectedly cliche, obviously.  I searched for a rescuing witticism...

"I've been known to bowl students over."  Well, it sounded good before I said it.  Her pale look suggested she was calculating the damage to her insurance premium from injured enrollees.  Things were going downhill faster than Cindy Nelson skiing Lutsen.  It's surprisingly hard to shut up when the earth crumbles beneath you.  Silence as a lifestyle was growing ever more attractive.

How big a commitment is 10 days of silence?  The answer...soon.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Silence of Mouth and Mind

A vow of silence.  That's why.

Despite my enduring practice of yoga I've been wracked with craving, aversion, and ignorance.  Yoga does well to temper these three--ok, maybe not the third--but not extinguish them.  As followers of my blog know, I've been through some tough times lately, so tough in fact that I had to disappear. For a while I changed my name to Houston Veecher.  As Houston I led a traveling life, including a spell working on a sport fishing boat off the coast of Panama.  Don't let anybody kid you, Panama is where it's at when it comes to billfishing...and these little fried delicacies called crujientes de mono that are stuffed with roast capuchin monkey tail. 

The point is Panama is where I discovered vipassana.  While on an unintended detour I stumbled across Sanacion Integral, a detox retreat for body and mind.  After Buddha guided my errant footsteps there, Tamara (more about her later) guided my steps on a tour.  On retreat you cleanse your body through fasting, yoga and, what I came to enjoy most, a daily urine pH test.  Meanwhile you cleanse your mind thru silence.  During the standard 10-day retreat you don't talk, except perhaps a few words with an instructor.  I was intrigued.

I was also in luck.  Tamara informed me they were looking for a replacement yoga instructor after Kenny suffered a double groin pull demonstrating reverse firefly to Carolina Martinelli Linares.  So Tamara and I worked a deal whereby I would teach the yoga and stretching classes after experiencing the 10-day retreat course.  I asked Tamara if she would be one of my instructors.  As a first lesson I got silence in reply.  There was, however, a hint of a smile lodged in that silence.  So I searched her for craving and aversion.  I'll tell you what I found....later.