Playing house

Whenever anyone asks me what I’m doing here in Chiang Mai, I usually reply simply that “I’m a stay-at-home boyfriend.”

While my partner and our housemates are away at their respective 8-5’s, I spend much of my day at home, cleaning, meditating, doing yoga, reading with tea or coffee on the veranda, and of course, scanning the interwebs for gainful employment. It’s another element of “the pause” that most would deem to be nothing more than a time in between one chapter and another, as thought the phases of life in which we are not working must always be relegated to an “in-between.”

I have written before about how crucial it is to make the most of the pause, whatever that means for any particular individual, and this time around, I have found that perhaps the most rewarding element of this unique breathing period is the chance to do something I always loved as a child: playing house.

After traveling across 10 countries in the span of only 9 months, homing has become critical. To return to self, to center in one’s energies of stability and stillness, and to call any particular place “home” is an increasingly rare opportunity in the path I have chosen, never lingering in one place for too long before following the next opportunity or dream to another part of the world. And so I take my time to play, to soak in my surroundings, and to make the most of being here, at home.

This moves beyond just cleaning and making food; I try to practice mindfulness in all the normally mundane aspects of daily life here. Upon waking, I light incense to purify the space for whatever we all need to do in it that day (and as is part of Thai custom, to honor the ancestors and spirits who have inhabited this space in the past). I usually do some sort of morning yoga flow and spend a while seated in meditation, calming my mind as I transition out of the darkness of night.

I take my time bathing and dressing, play music to set the tone for the morning, often dancing my way through each room to further energize my body. I carefully arrange what few objects there are throughout the house, whether decorations on shelves, dishes and food in the kitchen, or my consultancy-hunting essentials (laptop, coffee/tea, water bottle, notebook, pen, and a book to distract myself with, preferably with an inspiring title, currently Thich Naht Hanh’s “Creating True Peace” contrasted by Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”).

And it’s all an effort to keep the space looking and feeling as calm, as peaceful, and as welcoming as possible, so that whenever any of my housemates come home from working their asses off, they have a genuine “home” to come back to. Helping to maintain that home makes me feel like a sort of caretaker of a small, safe space in the world, within these walls, where all of us can be whoever we need to be without judgement or blame, and each of us knows we are received with love. And I feel proud of holding that space for the time that I can.

And thus within it, each move, each action, each moment is intentional, and is fully lived. I learn each step across these floors better and better each day. Normally if I move from one room to another and realize I left something behind, I would rush back into the room from which I came in annoyance with myself for being absent-minded. Now, I accept that this is an exercise in the sometimes amusing contradictions experienced when practicing mindfulness – that I can be so focused on my breath, the steps I’m taking, or the action I’m engaging in, that I completely forget whatever else it was that I came in that room for in the first place. There is no annoyance, just patience with myself, with the moment, letting it unfold as it will.

No, I am not a hermit; I get out each day, whether for a yoga class, a hike, a motorbike drive through the nearby hills and mountains, errands, or often to shift to a coffee shop where I can often be a bit more productive. And I cannot say that I never feel sensations of restlessness, boredom or even lethargy by spending as much time as I do here. Sometimes I grow so frustrated by my job search that I want to throw my laptop through the wall. But the way I see it, if life is in a constant state of change, I have no real way of knowing how long we will be in this house, in this city, in this country, in this snapshot of life. The moment an application becomes a viable job prospect, my mind will be arrested by preparations and negotiations and engaging in the associated work. So why would I want to waste the opportunity to let each moment linger as long as it wants to?

Playing house feels healthy, it feels grounding, and that makes the process of working to make the next “thing” happen much more intentional. But this is a “thing”, holding this space is a “thing.” And it’s a pretty damn good one. Perhaps part of me is writing this to make myself feel better about the time it takes to land a job that one really wants, but mostly it is a form of commiseration with those who have been in “the pause” before and struggled to make the most of it.

It’s also a reminder to myself and others that no matter what we are doing in life, or no matter what we are not doing, we should remain aware that this moment is all there is, and any and all preparations for the future or reflections on the past should remain secondary. If you are at home, be at home, and do whatever you can to create and sustain safe spaces in your own way, on your own time. The world needs more of them – more spaces to breathe, more spaces to know everything is going to be okay, more spaces to feel loved, welcomed, and at home.


“That’s interesting!”

I have been playing with a very simple mantra that has proven to be more useful than I expected: “that’s interesting!”

Human beings seem to have a natural proclivity for comparing ourselves to others. This likely has its roots in some evolutionary need to size up our competition and find ways to prove to potential mates that we are the better match. Through the 20th Century, advertising agencies and corporations learned to feed off of this programming, using attractive female and male models and celebrities to convince us that if we want to be as happy, fulfilled or beautiful as them, we should buy the product they are selling.

Growing up, we dance and sing in front of the mirror pretending we’re our favorite pop stars. We see kids at school wearing the latest fashions and convince our parents that we need them too or we’ll get made fun of and bullied. We get tangled in relationships and obsessively compare ourselves to the previous lovers of our partners. As adults, we see our friends and co-workers advancing in their careers and feel a desperate need to get ahead as well.

We now live in an age where social media makes avoiding such comparisons damn near impossible. We spend hours per day scrolling through images and videos of everyone we’ve ever met on expensive vacations, eating gourmet food, getting engaged and having children, and develop immense amounts of stress feeling as though we should be doing all the same things.

Recently, it has become abundantly clear how often I compare myself to those around me. At a recent training for practitioners in my field I compared my skills and experience with those of everyone in the room and developed acute inferiority complexes about my career potential. When I see all the hippy backpackers around me in Southeast Asia with their beautiful dreadlocks and stunning tattoos, I look at myself and feel I just don’t look cool enough to hang out with any of them. If I’m at a dinner with people who are talking about dishes they’ve recently cooked, I lament my lack of culinary talents. When I see all the yogis on Instagram posing and flowing in ways I have never been able to, I chastise myself for not practicing enough yoga.

It’s enough to make one hate themselves, and sadly, many do as they constantly compare their looks, bank accounts, wardrobes, hobbies, skills, jobs, relationships and possessions to that of those around them.

So, recently I’ve been experimenting with a new mantra: “That’s interesting!” Whenever I see someone or something that activates the comparing part of my brain, I try to remain mindful of the feeling, note that I am comparing myself, and ask myself why it is that I’m making the comparison in the first place. If it’s a skill, a talent, a hobby, a job, rather than beating myself up for not doing the exact same thing with my time, I simply note, “that’s interesting!” With that interest, I can then actively decide to be inspired by what I see or hear around me and find ways to learn a new yoga style, pick up a new instrument, learn to cook a new dish, or develop skills to work my way into a new career path. Or, I can simply be interested in what others are doing, wearing or saying, and leave it at that.

There’s an element of compassion in this, both for oneself and for the other. It is compassion for others through being genuinely happy for them for doing or saying such interesting things (my partner would even go so far as to exclaim “that’s amazing!” so the other person can feel proud and positive about their achievements, no matter how small); it is compassion for myself in accepting that I cannot do or be everything at once, and not holding myself to unrealistic expectations.

It is also a lesson in acceptance of the present moment, in accepting who we are right now and feeling good about all the elements that make up our identity. It is accepting that we are all unique and thus have unique gifts to bring to any room and any conversation. Rather than seeking validation through mimicry, we should instead identify what is truly interesting to us and embrace those around us as the teachers and muses that they are.

Comparison is in our programming, and we are not likely to stop anytime soon. Whenever I read self-help pieces that demand that I stop comparing myself to others, I become incredibly frustrated at how insurmountable of a task that may be. If we cannot stop comparing ourselves, then we can at least work to reduce the torment that those comparisons can cause by celebrating the diversity and abundance of life all around us.

There is so much to learn, so much to see, so much to do, so much to experience, and each of us will find the elements that make up our unique path in our own time. The important thing is that we never write ourselves off as less-than, as not enough, as inferior; we must stay curious and interested in all life has to offer, and when the inspiration strikes, to turn that interest into action, and do something truly remarkable with our precious little time on this planet.

Enjoy the Silence: Revelations from a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat

They say silence is golden, but I can’t say I ever really understood why. Silence, while holding the potential to promote peace and calm, can be outright deafening. As an activist, a researcher and a writer, I have often viewed silence as complicity in the face of injustice, as the withholding of truth, or as a blatant refusal to adopt a position. I have long viewed my own recurring silence as a social weakness within otherwise dynamic conversation when everyone else seems to have something worthy to contribute. As a novice meditator, however, I have finally, slowly, come to view silence as a tool, a means of heightening ones ability to hear, see, feel, and perceive beyond the voice we thrust into the world and, most importantly, beyond the voices that storm within.

Silence was the name of the game throughout a recent meditative journey I undertook here in Thailand, one that made me reassess my entire relationship with my thoughts, speech and actions. Earlier this year I applied for and was admitted into a 10-day immersive vipassana meditation course in the tradition of the late, great S.N. Goenka. The course is one of the more common forms of what is colloquially referred to as a “silent meditation retreat,” although apart from the beautiful grounds of the Dhamma Kamala Vipassana Centre in central Thailand in which my course took place, I can say with confidence that there was hardly anything ‘retreat-like’ about it.

There are no real guidelines for determining when one is actually ready for such an undertaking. I had first heard of this meditation technique a few years prior and at the time, I was convinced that I would not get much out of it – my mind was “too all over the place”, I thought. At the turn of the new year, however, my mind had been offered a chance to calm down a bit through a few months of long overdue self-care, freedom from the confines of a desk job, and an extensive amount of travel through a region of the world where enormous golden statues of one particular man meditating are literally everywhere you look.

Throughout this period, my failed attempts at maintaining any sort of useful meditation practice with the use of apps and audio recordings led me to seek out opportunities to internalize my practice a bit more and reduce any reliance on outside assistance. After all, if, as the Buddha said, we are each responsible for our own liberation, then why should I be guided through every step of the path by the voices and chanting of others? My practice screamed out for structure, for discipline. And as anyone who has done vipassana can tell you, this is about as structured and disciplined as meditation gets (and comes with yet another voice and chanting that is sure to be chiseled into your brain for years to come).

I had done a fair amount of research before committing to what many would consider a rather drastic measure, as evidenced by the look of shock on everyone’s face when I told them what I was getting myself into. Vipassana – which means ‘to see things as they really are’ – was the meditation method reportedly used by Siddhartha Gautama himself as he sat down beneath the bodhi tree, determined not to move until he attained enlightenment. It seemed to work for him, and has since been passed down for over 2,500 years, and in the last century has spread to hundreds of meditation centers in every corner of the globe. It cuts across religious, cultural and national divides and invites students to take part in a means of true liberation, and all for free (the courses run off donations from students, who give what they can at the end of the ten days).

Vipassana challenges us to accept the current reality that we are in without any judgment, without any aversion, and without any cravings for the present moment to be any different than what it actually is. Having seemingly failed to improve my ability to accept the present moment through the “Acceptance Pack” on my Headspace app (no offense, Andy), I was hoping that vipassana would offer me a method that I could potentially use to ease the suffering concomitant with a life-long refusal to live in the present.

I had read that the purpose of these courses is to fully immerse in the vipassana method without any other variables in the equation to dilute its potential. This meant ten days of no speaking, no eye contact, no reading, no writing, no music, no yoga, no exercise, no drugs or alcohol, minimal food, and, oh yeah, about 12 hours of meditation per day. All of these guidelines are developed in order that students may approach their practice with morality/virtue (citta) by honoring the Five Precepts – to refrain from harming living beings, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from consuming intoxicants, and perhaps most interestingly for me, from speaking false truths, lying or gossiping. Honoring all of these precepts and guidelines offers students the ability to practice as though they are working in solitude, and fosters an environment in which one can develop right-concentration (samadhi) so that the mind may be purified of unwholesome states.

While I do not aspire to monkhood, nor even lay-Buddhism, I did take this as a challenge to detox and spent a few weeks leading up to the course refraining from consuming any intoxicants. I experimented with intermittent fasting, and I remained mindful of the speech I engaged in (assisted by the monk on whose farm I stayed and worked for a week prior, who regularly reminded us to “try not to talk too much…and don’t talk bullshit”). I played with silence in new ways, tried to make myself listen more, rather than always fumbling with words in an attempt to make unnecessary conversation.

While preparing, I still tried to refrain from forming too many expectations for the experience and went in with as open of a mind as I could muster. Anyone considering taking such a course should try to avoid internalizing any past students’ review of it (including my own) as the experience is highly subjective and will, without a doubt, not match any expectations one may have for it.

I did not permit myself to read reviews, blogs, or articles about people’s experiences beforehand (feel free to stop reading now, and come back to this once your own vipassana is behind you). I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was open to the journey ahead…though nothing could quite prepare me for the journey within.

After a 12-hour overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, followed by a very wet and hectic morning in the city, yet another three hour bus, a miscalculated drop-off, a long hour of hitchhiking and walking the remainder of the way to the centre, I had arrived at Dhamma Kamala. My pilgrimage behind me, I met the volunteer assistant teachers who would address any issues should they arise, I handed over my phone, headphones, books, journals, pens, snacks and any other distractions to be locked away in a safe for the duration of my stay, and after a brief orientation, the assignment of our meditation cushions in the meditation hall, and a brief time for questions, the ‘noble silence’ officially began.

We began each day at 4 a.m., generally the first thing that any vipassana reviewer will lament (as did many in my course). There was something quite eerie about the sound of a bell ringing through the trees, the chilled darkness of night still hanging the air, and row after row of bedroom doors quietly opening, with a precession of white-clad men and women filing in perfect, orderly fashion towards the meditation hall and taking their seat at their assigned cushions. Cult imagery aside, the week was not one of blind faith and automated practice, but one of fierce determination, a determination that was essential to make it through 12 hours of seated meditation, infrequent light meals consumed in absolute silence, and nothing but our own minds to keep us company.

The first three days are simple, in theory. One begins with anapana breathing by focusing only on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, and soon narrows that focus to the small triangle just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. One simply observes the breath – whether it is deep or shallow, fast or slow, whether it enters the body through one nostril or both simultaneously, whether it leaves the body through one nostril or both simultaneously, whether it tickles the upper lip or flows gently over it. One merely observes, not making any judgement or labeling these sensations, and when thoughts arise, never allowing the mind to remain distracted for long before coming back to a focus on the breath. Through this process, one is meant to develop a finely tuned focus, or samadhi, a composite of three components of Gautama Buddha’s Eightfold Path: right concentration, right mindfulness, and right effort.

The simplicity of this introduction to the technique was the crux of the challenge. On a physical level, I consider myself to be a flexible person, and I assumed that sitting in lotus position would be the least of my worries throughout the week. I could not have been more wrong. My back ached, my thighs trembled to hold up my body, my shoulders tied knots in themselves as big as golf balls in a matter of hours. Years of apparently poor posture were fast catching up with me, and even my myriad combinations of two, four, and up to six small cushions propping up my butt and legs did little to ease my pain. I had expected the course to be a rigorous mental exercise, but was not prepared to feel so much physical pain. It felt like a kind of torture, but I knew, on some level at least, that this was exactly what the ego-mind wanted me to believe.

The actual vipassana approach itself began in earnest on Day 4, when students begin to observe sensations throughout the entire body, “from the top of the head to the tip of the toes, from the tip of the toes to the top of the head.” Again, this is merely a process of observation: observing any and all sensations that may crop up along the way as one scans from the head to the neck, arms, hands, chest, stomach, back, legs, feet, toes, and back up to the head once more. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, whether gross (easily noticeable) or subtle, all sensations are to be observed. Simple, right? Not quite.

Each sensation must not only be observed, but practitioners are challenged to completely accept each sensation for what it is, recognizing that no matter what the sensation, all are united by a common law of nature: they are all temporary. There is no sensation that is permanent, and each scan of the body reveals this. Each is slightly different, with pains in the back rising and subsiding, itches on the nose fading away when not tended to, pleasant tingling sensations suddenly disappearing with any subtle shift in concentration. Each must be viewed with absolute equanimity, or upekkhā. This process goes beyond mere intellectual understanding and allows us to engage with impermanence at an experiential level, in order to ultimately cultivate citta, or wisdom.

I must admit, I struggled through those first few days of posture, back pain, limbs falling asleep and mind running off to a million places per second. I never seriously considered leaving early, but I doubted my abilities to continue throughout a number of sittings. My primary motivation for starting down the path of meditation in the first place was an effort to quiet and calm my “monkey mind”, to keep it from running amok, and to prevent it from taking over my emotional well-being with obsessive focus on the past, the future, and the myriad perceptions of lack and limitation in the present. Once the vipassana technique began, along with three 1-hour sittings of “strong determination” per day wherein students are not allowed to move a muscle, the mind began to show its true colors, and proved a far more formidable foe than mere physical aches and pains.

It’s fascinating what the mind will do when all of our daily distractions are removed. I recounted entire film plots in my head, from start to finish. I had stretches of time where I imagined my entire body had solidified into an immovable mass of rock, where I could not convince myself with my eyes closed that my head was any less than 100 meters off the ground, where my mental conceptualization of my physical self morphed into a luminescent mess of jagged spikes and rolling hills of muscle that took up the entire meditation hall. I seem to recall reminiscing on every memory I have ever had in my life often reimagining memories to assess how life would be different if even the smallest moments had been different.

Even for someone who considers himself deeply in touch with both body and mind, my “mind-body” was behaving in ways completely unfamiliar to me. It felt like a psychedelic journey gone horribly wrong. Soon, my gross physical sensations began to give way to more subtle ones. First in the arms, then in the face, the feet, toes and parts of the legs. These were, admittedly, quite pleasant, which of course led me to crave their presence in my body rather than sensations of itching or aching, which of course is the very act of craving that the approach challenges us to avoid. I found the attempt to view with equanimity all the sensations the body had to offer to be virtually impossible at times, but with practice, it began to make sense. Through all the pain, through all the rules and guidelines, I soon felt that I was getting somewhere.

Many vipassana students find the strict discipline and enforced silence to be grueling. I agree the rigid structure was a challenge, but a welcomed one for me. Surprisingly, the highlight of my experience was the silence itself. Ten days free of conversation, small-talk and mindless chatter strengthened by self-maintained solitude afforded me the opportunity to quiet my mind more than I had ever been able to before. It also allowed me to cast my chronic social anxieties aside for a while and have the freedom to not interact with anyone but myself. The strict wake-up call and regular daily schedule forced me to sit and to focus, to cultivate concentration, and with time, to begin to acquire a sense of wisdom once I was able to tap into what I felt to be a wholly different realm of consciousness, one where consciousness itself was turned on itself and at times, ostensibly silenced altogether.

Through this silence, I recalled seemingly insignificant moments in my life where I realized I had generated aversions towards innumerable situations, people, places and ideas. I was transported into physical sensations that I had not felt since I was plagued with night terrors as a small boy. I was forced to confront my impatience, my anger, my depression, and my self-deprecation head-on. Most of all, I was forced to forgive. By the final meditation of the week, one that incorporated metta, or loving-kindness meditation, I was engaged in a fully immersive process of forgiving all those who had done me harm over the years.

I forgave former friends who had betrayed me, former lovers who had scarred me, former strangers who had intentionally or unintentionally chipped away at my self-worth. Even more transformational was my ability to finally perhaps the last of my lingering anger and resentment towards my father to a sort of rest, viewing him and his missteps with whole new level of compassion and understanding. To me, this alone was worth all the physical discomfort of the week.

Invigorated, I then worked to use this space of mindful forgiveness to the rest of the world, or at least the half of it that has, in my often less-than-nuanced view, been the cause of so much suffering that I see in my work every day. I pushed myself further to extend that very compassion and understanding to all men everywhere who have been socialized or otherwise pushed into lives of violence, of anger, of hate, of ignorance. I saw how much of my long-held lack of faith in the ability of men to adopt more gender-equitable attitudes stemmed from an inability to fully forgive the man that had put that worldview into my mind in the first place. I walked away from the course with a renewed sense of optimism for the world and a restored faith in my ability to use this compassion to better work with men and women, boys and girls in the fight against violence around the world.

On Day 10, following this transformational and very soothing metta meditation, I emerged from the meditation hall, seeing the world with new (albeit teary) eyes. That afternoon, the ‘noble silence’ was brought to an end and course participants were finally permitted to interact. All the background characters to my journey who I had only seen in passing through the week (and made up stories about in my easily-distracted mind) were now fully engaged in feverish conversation about their experience, elated to be able to speak to another human being again. I joined in to the extent that I could as we all exchanged our struggles, our moments of clarity, and which reptiles and bugs with which we distracted ourselves in desperation over the ten days when given the chance to walk around the compound.

What I found once the silence had come to an end was that I felt far more disappointed than relieved to re-enter the world of conversation. I had traveled deeply into my inner-self and unearthed dimensions of my being that I had never tapped into before. And here I was chatting with a group of men about bugs. Trying to articulate what I had just been through felt false, and yet the social pressures immediately returned to accurately convey in words the indescribable experience I had just gone through. Social anxieties crept back in, and I missed the silence as soon as it was gone.

So then, perhaps there is something to be said for silence. I have always been a rather quiet individual, usually lost in thought rather than contributing much to conversation whenever I find myself in groups. The word pensive has been used to describe me far more than I would like. Vipassana is intended to help us better understand how we relate to ourselves and others, and the silence therein truly allowed for reflection on this. However, I’ve found that since the vipassana, since basking in that 10 day silence, communication did not become easier, per se, but when I tune back into that inner-silence before speaking, I find a clarity that I was unable to tap into before. The challenge, of course, is tuning in to the silence, the stillness, and knowing how to incorporate that into one’s daily interactions. This is in addition to the ongoing challenge of finding my way to the cushion each morning to allow myself to sit with the silence that I may need more of in order to fully discover my own truth.

As fascinated as I am by Gautama Buddha’s teachings, I am not a Buddhist, nor do I aspire to be. Apart from simply not wanting to play a part in patriarchal religious institutions, I do not believe that a life spent meditating in hopes of attaining nirvana is a worthwhile use of my time on this Earth when there is so much injustice that I know I can actively fight while I am still a part of it. Lifting the world out of suffering, for me, means working together and taking action against it, not working on oneself in isolation.

However, vipassana did offer me my first glimpse at personal liberation, liberation in this lifetime. Liberation from anger, from resentment, from hatred, from fear. Off the mat, I have been better able to view the feelings and experiences in my life with equanimity, even with heightened clarity. For a while after the course, I actually found life refreshingly easier to deal with. I now had a tool that I can use at my own disposal to recognize suffering as it arises, in whatever form, understand that it will pass like everything else, and not attach to the more unpleasant side of life or crave that the pleasant bits stick around forever. This is a lifelong path, and like any good critically-minded student, I will continue to explore other methods before I make an informed decision about what really works for me, but I truly recognize the utility of dedicated practice in a way that I did not quite appreciate before.

As I write this, three full months since that 120+ hours of meditation at Dhamma Kamala, and roughly an hour a day of meditation since, I am filled with a similar range of challenges that I faced going into the course: unpredictable levels of self-confidence, stifling social anxieties, and a mind that still has the power to take control of my emotions and elevate my insecurities. Returning to Bangkok on “Day 11,” I recall observing with new eyes the ubiquity and detriment of power: power in the hands of the institutions that manipulate our fears, our self-doubts and our aversions to satisfy their own insatiable craving for accumulation. I observed millions of people all around me, swarming in a frenzy of consumption, convinced they need the material goods they see in order to be happy, each using the money for which they toiled to buy an image and lifestyle for themselves that conforms with the norms that have been handed down to them by broader social forces. I remember observing all of this, but for the first time, rather than judging, or craving to run away, I allowed myself to feel nothing but love and compassion for all that I saw – for all of us who have been socialized into a world to think that we are supposed to be, look like or talk like people we may have never wanted to be, look like or talk like in the first place.

The compassion I cultivated for those around me that day, and that which I extended to the perpetrators of violence, misogyny and sexism around the world, is more and more critical in our modern world, where those controlling the world’s lands, resources and information continue to try to separate us and make us fear each other with every new headline, every electoral campaign, and every stupid, hateful tweet. While they try to convince us we are all different, we must remember that we are all united by the same law of nature: we are all temporary beings in a temporary world. It is more important than ever before to view all those we perceive as different with compassion, with an open mind and a kind heart, and recognize how much we all really do have in common.

As a possible starting point in this realization, we must all find our own means of cultivating the silence necessary to turn inwards, to quiet our inner-critic, our socialized collective conscience that tells us we must conform to what the world wants us to be or we will never be happy, and recognize that true cessation from suffering comes from within. The work starts inside each of us, and while meditation is not the only path, it is one with profound potential to teach us to appreciate the unmitigated freedom of silence, the blissful peace that comes when we stop telling ourselves to be somebody else, and fully love and accept who we are, right now in this beautiful, messy, bewildering moment.

Panca Khanda…a reminder

I have an intelligent and creative mind, capable of extraordinary feats of intellect, insight and wisdom…but I am not my mind.

I have a huge heart, overflowing with an immense capacity for love and compassion, beating for those I hold dear and aching for those I cannot help…but I am not my heart.

I have a powerful body, strong enough to carry me up rock-faces, trees and mountains, flexible enough to bend and stretch into the most fantastic asanas, resilient enough to heal from cuts, bruises, fractures and breaks…but I am not my body.

I have a fascinating past, full of adventures and mistakes, love and loss, triumph and tragedy…but I am not my past.

I have a promising future, with innumerable twists and turns and lessons to be learned and re-learned again…but I am not my future.

I have depression in my genes, bringing my mood crashing down from the highest highs without warning, making me feel like I will never feel joy again…but I am not my depression.

I have a vast array of thoughts, some that excite and others that terrify, many that multiply and repeat ostensibly out of my control…but I am not my thoughts.

I have a consciousness, that imaginative spark from an unknown source that both frees and enslaves me…but I am not my consciousness.

I have a sex, a race, a sexual orientation, a class, a set of beliefs and ideals and values…but I am none of those things.

Once we accept all that which we are not, we can begin to understand who we really are.

See it, or it didn’t happen.

The plains and temples of Bagan have provided the subject for some of the most breathtaking photos to be found of Asian landscapes. Whether from the rooftop of one of the ancient Myanmar capital’s 2,229 pagodas or from the bird’s eye view of a hot air balloon, Bagan is a photographer’s dream, and has been a dream come true for both my partner, a professional photographer and myself, a long-time Indiana Jones fanatic for whom the archeological wonders of this valley are basically a wildest fantasy come to life.

From behemoth red-brick temples to gleaming golden pagodas, Bagan is a true feast for the eyes and remains the biggest tourist pull in Myanmar, not to mention a steady stream of pilgrims from around the country. And yet, in our daily explorations of this magical place, we have noticed something quite peculiar about all the tourists and pilgrims: no one is actually looking at any of it…

Between every eye and every great view, there is a phone, a tablet, a screen. Every sunrise, every sunset, every sacred Buddha statue and carving, every jaw-dropping view, each person touring these plains sees only the portrayal of the sight through the camera on their hand-held device. Distracted from the views ourselves, we watch in disbelief as poor quality panoramas are valued over watching the colours of the sky change, selfies take precedence over scenery, and Facebook and Instagram posts become the only reason to show up in the first place.

The modern obsession with our phones is well-documented and discussed across the internet (writing that we all read on our phones, of course), and Bagan is by no means the first time we have seen it in person. In every place we have traveled over the past year, throughout Southeast Asia, East Africa, Europe and the United States, we see younger and older generations alike taking pictures of every meal, every drink, every view, every trip to the mall or the cinema, every attraction, everything, everywhere. Something about being here in a photographer’s paradise, however, has sparked an intense aversion in us against seeing this incessant use of phones to capture every single moment of human existence. “Picture or it didn’t happen” as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m nowhere near completely innocent: I maintain an Instagram account and post pictures of my travels, but in my defence (as goes the defence of many who I have this conversation with lately) those pictures are snapped quickly after a view or sight has been sufficiently soaked in, and do not take the place of being present in the moment.

The extremity is seen in museums, where the sights to behold are well-displayed and fill every room. Today at the Bagan Archeological Museum I watched as visitors walked from artefact to artefact, statue to statue, painting to painting, not looking at a single piece, but walking with phones outstretched in front of them, snapping or filming along the way. Most of those I observed never looked away from their screen at all…some visitors never saw any of it with their own eyes. On more than one occasion, people almost crashed into me or to the sculptures themselves.

This could be my aged mind grumbling about “kids these days”, but I’m genuinely worried about the watering down of the human experience through this obsessive behaviour. I contemplate what lies at the core of this obsession. Is it simply a matter of vanity and narcissism, or an obsession with one’s online avatar looking a certain way to others? Is it merely that everyone else is engaging in this behaviour so we each feel like if we fail to do so then we are being left out of the modern world? Is it just that we are addicted to our personal devices and find the world more interesting when we view it through their filters and enhancements? Is it because we don’t have the attention span to simply sit, be, look, observe, feel, and experience the moment in front of us?

Is it a resistance to our own impermanence? A subconscious fear of being forgotten when we’re gone, compensating by documenting every moment in an effort to show that we were here, that we did something remarkable, that we led exciting lives?

I’m sure there’s an extensive amount of literature digging deeper into the psychology behind these compulsions, and perhaps it’s worth looking through. For our part, Phoebe is working on a photo project of visitors to remarkable places viewing them only through their phones, and I’m sure I’ll continue ranting from time to time about it. It’s hard not to get worked up about, as much as we may try to not get attached to the annoyance that crops up when we see people missing out on the world around them, strengthening their dependence on (or enslavement by) a tiny little box. Live and let live I suppose.

One way that we like to look at it: while everyone around us is crowded together and climbing over each other to get the best shot through their iPhone, we tend to be the only ones actually looking at the sight before us with our own eyes. In a sense, it’s like we have something special all to ourselves, like we have the power to see the world in front of us in a way that nearly everyone around us seems to have forgotten.

The obsession is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Who knows, tech companies may well soon advance to the point of requiring us to implant our phones and cameras into our retinas and brains, creating a permanent filter through which we have no choice but to view the world if we wish to remain “connected” to it. For now, we still have the choice to be present in each and every moment, to drink in every last drop of everything we see, to truly see things for what they really are.

Most now call it #nofilter…we just call it life.

Burning Man & the Buddha

Today the world lost a pioneer of the human experience whose evolving vision has transformed the lives of millions of people over the past three decades. Larry Harvey first decided to “burn a man” on a beach in San Francisco in 1986, a simple gathering around an effigy that quickly evolved into one of the most radical expressions of human creativity of our time: Burning Man.

Mere hours ago, Larry’s passing coincided with the final night of Afrikaburn 2018, the continent’s regional Burning Man event, held in the Tankwa Karoo Desert in South Africa at the end of each April. On the penultimate day of every burn, the “Man” (or at Afrikaburn, the more collectively-focused San Clan) is burned, and the final night sees the burning of The Temple, a sacred and solemn event where those who have fallen from this realm are remembered and celebrated. Larry’s life were surely echoed in those flames.

For the past three years, I have celebrated my birthday in Tankwa Town with 13,000 other Afrikaburners, with Phoebe joining me for the past two (our birthdays fall 3 years and 3 days apart, and both have landed within the Burn week, making it a serendipitous and transformative location for our personal New Year celebrations). This year, we have left Africa and continue to move across Southeast and South Asia, and are currently nestled into magical Myanmar to celebrate our birthdays on none other than the Full Moon Day of Kasong, which is essentially the Buddha’s birthday (also believed to be the day of his enlightenment and his death/nibbana).

While events in life may coincide, my partner and I are not believers in coincidence. Synchronicities and Moon phases guide us through this life, and we pay close attention to the whispers of the Universe at every turn. The founder of our 3-year birthday playground, passing during the final flames of our dear Afrikaburn while we find ourselves shifted to northeast Myanmar on the birthday of the Buddha, a holiday celebrated by the pouring of water on the Holy Bodhi Tree (shift: fire–>water), is nothing short of a cosmic synchronistic frenzy waiting to be experienced, felt, unpacked and learned from.

At our first Afrikaburn together, under the light of my 29th birthday sunrise, we roamed through the quiet dawn of the desert, drifting on art cars (a.k.a. mutant vehicles) and marvelling at the art installations that make the desert come to life every year. We eventually made our way to the sprawling wooden sculpture, the Desert Lotus, an unfurling flower symbolising divine birth that blossoms when a mind/heart become enlightened. On each of its four petals facing in the cardinal directions was inscribed a word: Awakening, Forgiveness, Release, and Love.


Upon seeing this message I was moved to tears, knowing that I had found my New Year intentions. I continued to reflect, write and embody these ideas as the year blossomed, and upon my next birthday in the desert I inevitably carried them over into my third decade. Having since shifted to Asia where we continue to study Buddhist teachings and meditation, this Lotus has taken on more significance than ever, and now, here, in the nation where Theravada Buddhism thrives in its purist form, another birthday celebrated alongside that of the great Siddhartha Gautama himself is imbued with the spirit of this four-fold mantra.

I have much to write in the days and weeks to come about the journey that has transpired since I last wrote in this space. I have intentionally maintained silence during this time in an effort to expand the ‘Noble Silence’ to which I adhered throughout my 10-day Vipassana Meditation Course at the Dhamma Kamala Meditation Centre (dhamma kamala translates, of course, to “lotus of dhamma“), and give myself space to properly process all that I have learned before sharing it with the world, as I believe it is my responsibility to do.

I continue to reflect on the awakening for which the Burning Man community provided me the space, the forgiveness of others and self required to unfold into a feeling of loving-kindness for all beings, the release of past narratives that have prevented me from healing and moving forward, and the pure, unconditional love that is blossoming within me for each and every living being on this planet and beyond.

For now, however, I note the significance of discovering this Desert Lotus and the messages therein as I turned 29 two years ago, the age that Siddhartha Gautama cast aside royalty and riches and embarked on six years of uncovering the means for human beings to rid themselves of suffering, and who has shown billions of people a way out of the cycles and patterns that make them suffer for two and half millennia. I appreciate the significance of being here to celebrate his birth, enlightenment and ultimate liberation surrounded by so many shining, beautiful Burmese who are a walking testament to his legacy, having fought their way through centuries of turmoil and are now emerging into a world of relative peace, their enduring smiles a tribute to the very core and spirit of Buddhism.


And I simply wish to offer an abundance of gratitude to another great teacher and leader who gave his life to make the world a better place. Larry Harvey, you created a whole new world where people of all identities, ages, races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, religions, beliefs, opinions, persuasions, styles, dispositions, trades, talents and approaches to life could come together as one to create a world they want to live in, if only for a week at a time.

The Burning Man ethos is the perfect example of the impermanence and non-attachment espoused by the Dhamma (the teaches of the Buddha)…we all gather and build and express ourselves in myriad ways and celebrate life like there’s no tomorrow, and at the end of the week, we burn the whole thing down, pack up, leave no trace, and vanish as if we never set foot in the desert to begin with. No money or riches, depending only on ourselves for our liberation, giving from our hearts, teaching others our wisdom, working together for the betterment of all, and committing to doing the work necessary to create the world we all deserve.

Larry’s legacy is our ongoing liberation, our ongoing path to enlightenment in this lifetime, and I send all my love out to his family, one that stretches to every corner of the globe. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the greatest gift of all.