Monday, May 30, 2011

Traveler Profile - Sylvie

Traveler Profile: Sylvie

I met Sylvie in my cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam. French is her first language but she spoke English quite well. Brian deemed Sylvie and I “soul sisters” because we had many things in common and got along swimmingly from the get go. We hope to visit her soon in Montreal when we return to the states :)

Name, Age and Country of origin

My name is Sylvie and I am 40 something and I’m from MontrĂ©al, Quebec.

Can you tell me how long you’ve been traveling?

For a month now in Vietnam.

Why did you decide to come to Vietnam?

That’s a good question, for sure I wanted to visit a place in Asia, this was the first time. I was thinking of India but a friend of mine recommended me to visit this country later with someone else, not by myself, so I was thinking of another destination. For me, Vietnam went through my head because I had a good impression of the country, maybe even more close to my mind or my way of living as a more calm, not too stress, very calm and spirit way of living.

Did you have any goals for yourself for this trip that you were hoping to achieve, or things you were hoping to focus on or experience with the time you had on this trip?

Yeah, you know it’s funny, before I come I was talking to my boss and she was curious and she asked “Why Vietnam” and I said, (and its funny that I met you) if I would be able to combine either yoga and meditation, I am more and more curious about meditation so I would like to know more and I think it is a country that can bring me some answer. I wouldn’t be surprised to find people who could guide me to have inspiration about that. A good way of living that respects the rhythm of the person because I think our society is very very fast, and I know it is very fast according to what I know about me, my natural rhythm, I know now that if I can slow down. Even yesterday I was in a place for a drink and they were talking about slow food, those kinds of things I like to hear.

And what have you enjoyed so far about Vietnam that you have experienced so far that really resonates with you?

Every time I see children, I love children, and I know they have a very special place here, so I like seeing people take care of their children. When they’re babies, there is something really nice, that I see the smiles on the faces of the parents and the people around the kids, even the kids are very spontaneous and I love that. I like laughing and I know every time I laugh with the kids and try to play with the kids, they were so respectful and happy and proud.

So what has been your favorite moment in Vietnam?

I think it was when I was with the French couple that we visit the waterfalls. But we had to climb, it took an hour to get there by climbing the rocks, there were no tourists at all, but it was so beautiful in the middle of nowhere, because it was not the jungle but the forest. We had to go a long way by taxi, and it was for me the beauty of nature and lots of people like me are very afraid of what is going on with the planet you know.

Yes definitely. So, can you summarize your philosophy of life in one sentence?

I like talking about harmony. For me harmony is a very good word that I’m looking for. Even in a couple if there is harmony you can go through so many things with the respect and balance that brings… I think that a lot of civilization, we’re talking about symbolic you know earth, water, sky so I think that maybe at that time they knew that there was a balance between different things and we need all to be one, the perfect um, excuse me my English is not so good!

Katie and Brian: No it sounds good!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blissed out in Kyoto

What can I say? We love Kyoto. We feel very at home here, at peace and happy. There is something about this place that is soothing, inspiring, magical yet familiar.

There are little places of beauty and wonder all around.

We visited this special temple and shrine in on the top of a mountain in Kurama, about 15 minutes outside of Kyoto by train.

In front of the temple there is a little triangle that is supposed to be the spot where the first human beings were beamed to earth, according to a friend of Brian's :) They also hold a huge fire festival up here every year that is quite lively!

This stone wall is ages and ages old. There are stone walls like this all around Kyoto, giving us a glimpse into an ancient past.

At the temple you can purchase a "fortune". If you do not like your fortune and do not want it to come true, you can tie it to this little tree here!

These are some OLD gorgeous trees!

I had the good fortune of going to the Onsen (hot spring bath) in Kurama as well with no one there. I took some pictures so I could show you what it looks like!

It is in a beautiful setting outdoors in the mountains.

Here is where you bathe and clean yourself before you enter the hot bath. It is rude not to scrub yourself religiously before entering, since all are sharing the same hot water. It is also rude to stand while showering, that's why there are little stools there to put your naked hiney.

The other day we also did some other good sightseeing. We visited the Kinkakuji Temple (see a video of us) as well as a very famous Ryoan-ji zen rock garden where you can only see 14 out of 15 rocks at any one time. Here is a video of us there as well...

We have so enjoyed riding bikes all around the city, eating amazing food, visiting with old friends of Brian's, and taking long walks and hikes around nearby parks, temples and mountains.

Tomorrow we are helping out with a festival at Brian's niece's international school. We are working the "American" tent and serving up chili dogs and homemade macaroni salad :) Brian and I are playing a few tunes too for part of the entertainment of the day. It should be fun!

I can't believe we will be in LA and back in the states in 4 days. We will have been gone for almost 6 months. What a thing...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Enjoying Japan

So we have been thoroughly enjoying our time here in Japan. One weekend Brian and his brother played in a local softball game.

These boys are in their wheelhouse when playing sports I must say. Tim was catcher, Brian pitcher.. They both just really shine when doing any sort of athletics, it was fun to watch them kick butt..

We've enjoyed many amazing meals at Tim's in-laws with all of the extended family :) I love the amount of time they all spend together, there is not much of this extended family connectedness in the states I feel like..

We also went to a traditional tea ceremony which I loved! At first we had to purify ourselves before entering the tea house.

Then we each had to enter through a little door by opening it half-way with the right hand, the other half with the left hand. Brian struggled a little to get through the opening! Brian has had to do a lot of ducking and wriggling in smaller spaces here in Kyoto as a matter of fact :)

This woman was our lovely guide and teacher. She was so warm and friendly and passionate about sharing all she knew about traditional tea ceremonies with us. She at first made us tea and showed us the process of drinking it. At the end of your cup you are supposed to slurp loudly to let the host know you are done!

Then we each got to try making our own tea and sharing it with each other. Brian did a great job...

I've noticed here in Japan that it seems like everyone you come in contact with is enjoying their job, and doing their job with purpose, presence and joy. At first I found this as possibly a put on, a show, but after talking to many locals here, it seems this is genuine. Yes the taxi driver, the waitress, the grocery store clerk, the toll booth collector, they all are genuinely happy and grateful to serve you, and do so with joy and deference. Is this possible? I feel like back home I know next to no one who loves their job and does it with joy and gratitude each day. It is a really interesting thing to witness. Our friend here said that it may be from a long ingrained cultural norm of accepting "your lot in life" here. Not always craving to be richer, more influential, higher in the ranks of society. This is not a cultural element I expected of Japan, I always envisioned it as highly capitalistic, individualistic, etc. It is interesting to see this phenomena. And I love how it feels. To receive the warmth and hospitality of so many people each day as you move through this culture is just a treat. And you also see it physically around you. The stunning beauty of this city is due to the love and care of those that design and maintain the outdoor spaces including parks, gardens, etc. but also in the absolute cleanliness of every space you encounter. You can feel the pride and care of this city's inhabitants for their home all around.

The Japanese pickle EVERYTHING. And the fruits of their labor are just scrumptious. I have committed to furthering my own pickling skills once we get settled back at home...

Look at those little octopi snacks! Ha!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Awareness and Equanimity

I am back from my meditation retreat and finally feel like I am reintegrating into the real world. I feel wonderful. And new. And I think I have never worked so hard in my life. The challenge of this retreat was something that I had been desiring. An opportunity to work at something diligently, to push myself to go beyond what is normal and comfortable for me in order to grow and develop in new ways.

I loved the lack of stimulation. No talking, no sounds except those of nature, no looking anyone in the eye, no touching. Only healthy light vegetarian food in my body, no caffeine, no unhealthy inputs whatsoever. I loved all of this. I have realized in recent years that I am most comfortable in situations where I am not overstimulated. Where dozens of sensations are not interacting with my body all at once. The lack of sleep and early rising was also not a problem, which I found delightful and interesting. I had trouble falling asleep most nights, my mind and body seemed to be abuzz in a pleasant way, so usually I would get about 5 hours of sleep with the gong waking me up at 4 AM. But I would feel refreshed and aware. I have always been a firm believer that I need 8 hours of sleep to be productive and healthy, so this dissolution of that truth was a curiosity to me.

So all of this was very very nice. But the meditation was HARD. I can't believe I meditated for 10 hours a day for 10 days. I had heard from others that have done these retreats in other parts of the world (the U.S., India, Thailand) that a majority of people leave by the third or 4th day and that the rules are not always adhered to. Not so in Japan! Everyone stayed (except for one person) and did the whole thing, and NO ONE broke any rules. The Japanese are some diligent folks and their commitment and discipline inspired me and encouraged me. I feel so empowered and happy that I pushed myself to complete the whole thing, and I feel like I received enormous benefit from it. Let me try to explain why.

The Vipassana meditation technique is very teachable, pragmatic, scientific and non-sectarian. It is a technique that was discovered by Buddha himself over 2,500 years ago to help others be "liberated" from their miseries in order to start walking on the path towards enlightenment. It revolves around 2 things. Being very aware of the sensations you experience physically on and in your body, and being equanimous when you feel them in order to avoid experiencing aversion or craving for any sensation. This means that while you are meditating, and are not supposed to move your body at all, you may experience pain for example (severe pain!) but that the goal is to not attach aversion to that pain. To observe it objectively as it arises and understand that it is temporary, just as everything in this life is temporary. That attaching emotional frustration or anxiety to that pain exacerbates the pain (I found this to be very true) but that neutral observation allows for acceptance of what is, instead of craving for another reality that is not. The same goes for a pleasant sensation. Observing it objectively as it arises instead of craving for it to last. And in this way, there is a practical approach to staying "in the now", something that I have been working on for the last 2 years, but have not been successful in maintaining or sustaining for even a short period of time.

I loved this direct translation of the physical meditation to mental processes that we experience all of the time in our every day lives. If you can stay aware and equanimous, you experience much less misery in your life, it is true! Let me give you an example.

On the 10th day of the retreat, the noble silence was lifted after the morning meditation. This meant that all of the meditators can chat and finally find out who each other is, talk about their experiences with the retreat, etc. Almost all of the women at the retreat (men and women were separated) were Japanese and did not speak English. There was one Bulgarian woman there who did, and I was looking forward to seeking her out to have a conversation. All around me were these Japanese woman laughing and talking animatedly and I started to feel left out. I found the Bulgarian lady, and she was speaking Japanese with a few other women. I hovered for a moment hoping to get her attention, but she didn't notice me or was not interested in talking to me. So I then walked away around the garden in back in circles trying to process the pain sensation in my belly and the negative emotions that had arisen. So quickly had my equanimity been shaken after the silence was lifted! But it was incredible to find that as I observed what was happening in my body, and then chose to be objective and not emotional about what I was experiencing, the sensation and emotion passed easily after that and I was back to a state of peace and harmony with what was. Soon after I had a lovely talk with the lady as well as other Japanese women that tried very hard to communicate with me :)

Another experience I had during this time was a release of a lot of painful experiences and memories from my past. The meditation technique is supposed to work such that after a time, you stop generating new Sankaras (cravings or aversions) so that old, very established Sankaras arise within you and can be observed and then released. I didn't know if I believed in this possibility, but one day during a long and deep meditation I had this moment where all of these painful memories seemed to arise from my toes and out my head, one after the other. Memories I didn't even think I cared about anymore, painful things I thought I had really let go. But they were all there, heavy and sharp and ready to be released. And I was able to observe them and then let them go. And as I walked in the garden outside after that session, I had never felt so light, so peaceful, so joyful.

What I want to impart to all of you after having this experience, is that I really believe we have the power within ourselves to change our negative mind patterns and habits. We do! It takes work, but it is possible to increase the amount of peace, love and harmony we experience in our lives. I think we have to be willing to observe ourselves in a way that we are not used to, but the benefits are so wonderful, so powerful.

This Japanese maple was a comfort to me when I was struggling...

My belief in our ability as human beings to create a more peaceful, loving and joyful world has strengthened with this experience. We have the tools and faculties to change the way we interact with each other, with the earth and with ourselves. And I am not saying that Vipassana mediation is the answer for everyone to begin developing these faculties. But that it seems to be helping me, encourages the belief that we are all not f**ed here. I now truly believe there is a real possibility that a life can be lived full of joy, love, peace and harmony, and that that possibility rests on the shoulders of each of us - not on forces outside of us that frustrate us, frighten us, etc. And I think it all rests on understanding how the body and mind interrelate and operate, and how best to use that understanding to change behavior.

I am grateful I had 10 days to experience this. I am going to do my best to keep up the 2 hours of meditation recommended by the center (1 hour in the morning and one hour at night) to continue to develop the skills I learned. Please let me know if you would like to know anything more about this, it is hard to summarize the experience well here in one blog post!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Here I go!

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out


Um, I love Kyoto.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Kyoto is my kind of place.

Beautiful, peaceful, entirely bikable, quiet, clean, organized, uncluttered, magical, spiritual and very old...

It has been so wonderful to be close with family again.

And to be in a first world country again that is not hot as blazes. The spring here is in full swing. We unfortunately missed the Hanami season, but there are still many colorful fragrant blossoms to enjoy. The cooler (non-polluted) air is also a treat :)

I like the Japanese. I like their language, fast and sing-songy with lots of emphasis on seemingly endless streams of hard consonants. I like the friendliness and giddiness that seem to emanate from the Japanese, particularly the women. I like that the staccato "Hi" means yes and you hear it all of the time. I love that our taxi driver wears white gloves and the doors automatically open. I like that everyone bicycles everywhere.

And I love the sento. Twice now I have gotten naked with about 40 other Japanese women in a public bath that was just plain awesome. I love the relaxed attitude to nudity in this setting. We are all women, we all have the same parts, we can all sit and enjoy this hot water together in a friendly, peaceful atmosphere and do some good things for our health at the same time. Sometimes I feel like in the states we are so neurotic about nudity, even though we have such an over-sexualized culture. For example, people are often offended by breastfeeding in public in the U.S. I've noticed it is so much more common around the world to see women breastfeeding in public than back home.

I love the variety of quiet natural spaces you can bike or walk to to take a reprieve from the bustling city. I like that there is hardly any trash or waste anywhere, I feel like there is a lot of care and respect for this special place.

Bizarro Japanese Biscuit below (my cat's name is Biscuit. We started naming everyone we saw that looked like friends and family back home on this trip "Bizarro ___". This is bizarro Biscuit).

The temples and shrines here are so old and mysterious to me. The history of this culture goes so far back in time, and there are physical remnants of what it was like in 500 AD, 800 AD, etc. This is exciting to me. Our American history is so infantile in many ways, it's cool to see artwork from 1500 years ago!

These guys were great. They were working their dance moves along the Kamo Gawa River with such passion. Check them out here.

I love Japanese food! The sushi, udon, soba, curry, teas, etc etc etc!

The incredible detail that is given to plastic fake food outside of restaurants to show you what they have to offer is fascinating to me.

Such accuracy and lifelikeness!

It has been great to finally meet some of Brian's closest friends from the time he lived here 10 years ago. We had a great day with Kris yesterday hiking up the Daimonji mountain right in town. There is a special fire festival every year that takes place on this mountain where the man spreading his arms symbol is alight to commemorate spirits of deceased family members.

As far as the earthquake, things seem to be quite normal here in Kyoto. It is about 500 km from the site of the earthquake, and there has not been much disruption. We haven't decided yet if we will visit Tokyo. I think I would like to but will wait until after my meditation retreat to decide. If you do not hear from me on this blog for a little while, it is because I am away meditating to the best of my ability for 10 days. To sum up though, I love love love Kyoto :)