The Unescapable Truth death, suffering and the gift of life

LIFESTYLETRAVELWELLNESSYOGA

Photo of the Mekong River by Jessica
Photo of the Mekong River by Jessica

 

February 16, 2014

Jessica Magnin, founder and co-director of O2yoga, is one of GatherYoga’s newest emissaries, and today she shares her thoughts about death, suffering, and the gift of life.

It was past midnight when my father came into my room to announce the tragic news. He had just lost one of his closest friends. I was just barely twelve. It was the first time I had ever seen him really cry, and the first time I had experienced the pain of witnessing the grief of someone I loved dearly. I desperately wanted to relieve his pain, because it was his pain that caused me more suffering than the actual loss of his friend.

Death was rarely ever spoken about in my family, and we were lucky: I had only witnessed first-hand the loss of a goldfish, a few gerbils, and a fern. The unspoken truth didn’t prevent visits of endless questions about life and death in moments of silent play. Those secret thoughts were kept under my pillow for monologues as I lay myself down to sleep.

My family’s closest friend, a devout Catholic, whispered in my ear during one sleepover that my family would burn in hell because Christ was not our saviour. I never shared this with my parents in fear that this “truth” would cause them to worry and therefore suffer. I would often hold my breath in fear of facing the suffering of the ones I cared about, and even the suffering of those I had never met beyond the movie screen. My heightened sense of helplessness was so overwhelming that at times I would play the game of Maya, not fully choosing to understand the true temporal nature of life, but covering my eyes to the world, convinced that it could not see me. This was my way of dealing with that monstrous pain that I felt in my heart when I witnessed the suffering of others.

******

Some decades later, crouched with my knees pressed against my chest, I held on for dear life to the flimsy sides of the wooden speedboat. My nails had gone white and cramps formed in my fingers. I clenched my jaw as the driver picked up speed, navigating “blindly” through the treacherous labyrinth of hidden rocks under the current of the Mekong River. My heart skipped 100 beats as the boat skipped a wave or two. I secured my helmet for the tenth time as I saw visions of us crashing into the rock formations, the wooden boat shattering into a million pieces, and me being thrown into the air, still clutching for dear life. I glanced over at my Lao companions, some nodding off, others enjoying the buzz of adrenalin. Their serenity only amplified my exaggerated fear and my inability just to enjoy the ride. It suddenly seemed ridiculous, I seemed ridiculous! I burst into laughter. I knew that all this excessive control on my part was my only way of offering myself some solid ground of security. No matter how hard I clenched my jaw and dug my nails into the sides of the boat, there would be no guarantee. With a deep breath, I threw my arms into the air and screamed at the top of my lungs! If these were to be my last moments here on earth, then ”let go and enjoy” would be my mantra.

Somewhere on the Lao peninsula of Luang Prabang, a ceremonial celebration of endless eating, drinking, and chanting carried on day in and day out for a succession of four nights and five days. There were three spirit houses ornately decorated with flowers, a black and white photo of the deceased, rice, kip, and other symbolic offerings. Candles burned well into the night and throughout the day. There was a continuous flow of lay-people and monks passing by. As night fell, many would camp out on the cold tiled floor searching for warmth against the unusual winter chill. The music continued. Food was served. People laughed. Some played cards and many drank. The sangha, the local Buddhist community, bonded once more.

This is the Buddhist tradition. Death, as well as life, are prevalent, and all sentient beings, without any exception, will inevitably experience suffering, loss, and yes, death. Abinivesha, the root of all of our fears, causes us to desperately cling to life and deny the existential truth of our brief, transient presence here on earth. Micromanaging our illusory permanent existence and our fear of suffering just causes more internal suffering. Surrendering to Buddha’s truth, that suffering exists,does not mean that we no longer care about life or about others. Instead, suffering could become a homeopathic remedy for feeling the preciousness of life, including its joys as well as its sadnesses, and the inescapable end. We can take this ancient wisdom to heart, letting it split our hearts wide open, feeling the inner connectedness with others and life’s fragility.

Death is always lingering. In fact, we are all moving one step closer with each breath, with each passing moment. As scary as it might seem, there is no escaping. Through total acceptance, we crack open the illusory door of permanence to wide open freedom, experiencing the gift of life not in fear but in celebration! Maybe, this is the practice.

—Jessica

RULES of CONDUCT

IMG_8691RULES OF CONDUCT

Jessica Magnin

“It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew, and in that there is joy.” Krishnamurti

Everything has its place in time and in space and rules are no exception. Rules and codes of conduct keep us from falling into a state of anarchy, of total chaos. But then again, aren’t rules fabricated from the mind and perhaps rooted in fear? As much as we need rules and guidelines to live an orderly life, we might question, within reason, their potential of limiting our connection and heartfelt experience with others.

Here, in sleepy Luang Prabang a list of rules is publically displayed and posted around town. These rules are meant to be taken seriously and by all means, respected. With over 350 novices and monks living between the confines of the old town, one naturally abides by these guidelines but then, I suppose that depends upon the interpreter.

The second gong rings at 5h30 signalling the commencement of saibat, the giving of alms. In the faint darkness of the early morning, a thread of burnt orange robed novices, monks and abbots form what appears to be an endless stream of barefooted bodies with metal urns dangling from a woven strap resting on their bare shoulder.

I arrive at my habitual place, bow before my two elder Lao friends, take seat on a bamboo woven stool no more than 20 centimetres from the earth, place my flip flops neatly behind me, and tuck my sin, traditional Lao skirt, under my knees assuring that my legs are fully covered. A white “pha bien,’’or scarf, drapes over my left shoulder as I secure my hair neatly into a bun.

Behind me, the thick wall of Wat Sene separates me from 20 or so novices and monks making their final adjustments to their robes before stepping outside the confines of their monastery.  A wicker basket of freshly steamed “khao niow”, sticky rice, sits on my lap and I raise it to my forehead, bow in silence and bless these offerings with goodness and love. My dear Lao friends sit next to me. We exchange only a knowing smile of the eyes, nothing more. We allow the stillness of the early morning to bathe the present moment with sacredness.

The procession begins with a monastery’s dog or two guiding the way. Bare feet and bare heads gracefully pass at just arms reach, briefly pausing before me as I place a blessed clump of sticky rice into their urn careful not to make any physical contact, not even with their urn. One’s gaze should be soft, turned downward in humbleness and respect. These are the unspoken rules of conduct while offering.

Day after day, 94 in total, trip after trip, totally 6, rainy season or not, 3 to be exact, I am here with the same presence, the same intention and the same ritual of respect. But over time, things do shift and this is what is promised even by the teachings of Buddha himself. With habit and the passing of days, things do change, even the borders of set guidelines and rules.

The change began with the reception of an occasional yet discrete meet of the eyes, a faint humble smile, a whispered ‘’sabaidee’’ or “hello’’, a ‘’kop jai lai2”, a wrapped cookie, and even a brim-to-brim smile. Here, at this precise moment, beyond the rules of conduct, beyond what we call jit, or the mind, jai, the heart meets that of another and all differences, prejudices, conflicts, insecurities, superiority and even imposed rules drop, exposing one single thing, the art of being human and limitless potential of the heart.

“To be free of all authority, of your own and that of another, is to die to everything of yesterday, so that your mind is always fresh, always young, innocent, full of vigour and passion. It is only in that state that one learns and observes. And for this, a great deal of awareness is required, actual awareness of what is going on inside yourself, without correcting it or telling it what it should or should not be, because the moment you correct it you have established another authority, a censor.” Krishnamurti

Rules are necessary but they can harden us. We know this yet their implementation keeps us in tact. The mind is full of ideas about right and wrong, good and bad and packaged solutions to keep things from oscillating too far. Because the mind gravitates toward set boundaries, we create more. It is our mind’s way of making sense of the unpredictability of life and keeping chaos and fear at bay. Yet, our hearts yearn for more sacred moments of expression and connection and the humbleness of being human. Incapable of truly experiencing this humanness, the mind, limited in its limitlessness can only just begin to conceptualise what this softness might look like, feel like and be like. So within the confinements of suggested guidelines and rules of conduct, remember your heart. It is within the walls of the heart that love can be felt and expressed beyond measure.

Sengphete

Sengphete at school, LaosSengphete left Wat Khili in early August 2011 by exchanging his saffron robe for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. As a layperson, his first concern was to find an inexpensive place to live that was in the vicinity of the university. He found a small room just big enough for a single bed and a small dresser. Although there isn’t a kitchen and the toilet is outside, he is happy with his new home, which he shares in good company with other university students. Panee, his landlady generously offers him the use of her motorcycle that he has learned to ride and which allows Phete greater freedom to discover Luang Prabang.

While living in the monastery, he never had to be concerned with food. The monks receive 2 meals a day from local lay people. Therefore, Phete has had to learn to cook simple Lao dishes on a small gas flame in front of his room and take advantage of the local market for inexpensive dishes that they serve up in small plastic bags to ”take away”.

Phete’s days are spent working at a local guesthouse where he works as a receptionist and helps out in the restaurant when breakfast is served. He apprenticed in August and as of September earns 50SFR a month for 12-hour days.

He completed his final exams at the monk school scoring 87 out of 93 and completed his entrance exams for law school, which he currently awaits for a response. Though his life is quite different, he carries the teaching of Buddhism in his heart and is adapting well to this new way of life.

Message from Sengphete

My life as normal person was very different from life as monk especially how to spend time in every day. When I was a monk I usually spent my time with learning Dhamma and meditate and how to become peace and how to teach people have a good heart and make a good thing. But after I stopping a monk, my heart still live at the temple and would like to do at the same thing but I am so sad that I can do it sometime because I have to work hard and learn how to live at outside world and keep my learning at law school.

I always think that if I don’t have you to help and support me, I won’t have this day because life at outside everything I have to pay.

I got support and help from you so I can find somewhere to live or sleep, have some food to eat every day and have school for study and improve my poor life to good life.

I always feel that you treat me like a son because you give me room and food to me for grow, you shown the light of love on me, you give me hope and future and you give me like air so I can breathe. This is all my feeling to you.

Starfish

Tomorrow morning we will arrive in Switzerland. I am not quite sure what it has in store for us but whatever does present itself we will reply with” this is exactly what we wanted”.

It has been an amazing experience for all of us, too short to say that we accomplished even the smallest of feats but a seed has been planted, and maybe this is just the beginning. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being part of our journey, supporting and encouraging us along the way.

Remember every little thing counts in thought, in act, in speech and in intention.

I love this story

Starfish by Loren Eisley

StarfishA young man was picking up objects off the beach and tossing them back into the sea. A second man approached him and saw that the objects were starfish.

” Why in the world are you throwing starfish into the water?”
”If the starfish remain on the beach when the tide goes out and the sun rises high in the sky, they will die.” repeated the young man.
” This is ridiculous. There are thousands of miles of beach and millions of starfish. You can’t really believe that what you are doing could possibly make a difference!”

The young man thoughtfully picked up another starfish, paused, and remarked as he tossed it out into the waves,

”It will make a difference to this one…”

Hokas Pokas

Jessica and Noa at the airportIf you are ever travelling to or from Koh Samui make sure you have ample time at the airport. It is one of the most beautiful on this planet. Actually, I almost missed our plane last December taking a few last photos of the bathroom and the gigantic shell-shaped lamp hanging from the centre of the main lounge. Philippe Stark design, ultra clean and it appears  that they add to the decor quite often. The new addition was river stones lining the walls framing 5 ultra contemporary smooth basins in porcelain white. The best of all is the sliding glass doors leading to the bathrooms unveiling a large rectangular fish tank housing brightly coloured fish swimming gracefully about elaborate coral structures. And not to be taken for granted, is the full bar of delicious exotic fruits, pastries and fruit juices, coffee and teas all free of charge.

A  blue azure pencil skirt showing off long lean legs, the envy of any short legged woman, and perfectly polished black high heels appeared inches before our feet. From the floor where we were squatting, our heads buried in travel books and magazines killing time (what a horrible notion!) before our 20h30 flight out of Koh Samui, our eyes scanned upwards to see a Bangkok Air hostess. Impeccably dressed, with her jet black silky hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, a clip board and walkie talkie in hand she asked us to rise and follow her. Apparently Bangkok air had found 3 extra seats for us on the 19h00 flight.  No watches banded our wrists, we glanced up at the huge globe- like clock suspended from a light pole on the outdoor strip. 18h45. With 15 minutes before take off, we followed the hostess trying to keep up as gracefully as possible. By 18h51 we presented our passports, slid down a long hallway, 18h55 we boarded the shuttle bus and miraculously at 19h02 we were making our ascent into the cloudy grey sky that would soon shower massive drops of rain onto the earth below. 20 minutes into the flight with Philippe sitting at the back tail of the plane and Noa by my side, the tiny seat belt sign lit up in blood red. Within minutes the 40 seater plane was taking turns bouncing here and there, nose dipping what felt like meters, trembling at its core. Some sat gripping onto the armrests, others sweating profusely with their eyes forcefully shut and others anxiously searching for comfort outside the tiny window-   city lights, a hilltop, some land just to feel secure and grounded.

We don’t really like to fly it is just part of the territory and not much we can do to avoid it if we want to experience faraway places. When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to soar thousands of miles above the world where a certain freedom would come alive. It was a moment to meet others from different paths, feel weightless and transported and I enjoyed it so much that I applied to a few airlines and secured a position with American Airlines. But that all changed the day I met Philippe back in 1987 during travels to Mexico. A move to Switzerland, a few random incidents on cross Atlantic flights, a shaky bout on a ten-seater plane in Africa  and of course 9/11. Yoga helps and so does positive thinking. Unfortunately, Noa has inherited our fear of flying which compounds the situation. As the turbulence increased so did his panic. I had to be strong, I had to be there for him. Before taking off, I had grounded my feet into the thinly carpeted metal floor of the plane, my hands placed openly on my thighs, my eyes closed I concentrated on my breath then visualized a golden ball encompassing the body of the aircraft. This has become a ritual that has helped me maintain equanimity during tumultuous flights. I just kept the image of a golden oblong vessel of light protecting the plane that dances and dips within pockets of air. Whether this might sound like hokas pokas to you or you are a firm believer believe me  it works. At least I remained calm enough to be there for Noa and my relaxed state diffused his fear and he instantly joined me in visualizing the protecting golden bubble. We did land in Bangkok in the midst of a rain storm, the temperature had dramatically descended to a chilly 20° but we were grounded and relieved. A note to remember.  Always, with turbulence or not, graciously thank the forces above.

The purple football

I wake with a gnawing feeling, one that won’t go away with my early morning practice nor a dip in the tepid waters. We leave today. I dread the thought but decide to make every second count.

We do a last head count on Noa and discover some lingering friends and their white sticky eggs yet to be hatched. This could be a disaster with each egg yielding close to a 100 lice during a nights sleep. For precaution, we decide to resort to the magic potion prepared generously by Phan and Hoy, a mixture of some type of potent wild apricot leaf shredded and then mashed into a thick coconut paste. Thank God for the sweetness of fresh coconut which diluted the strong stench that is despised by most Thais. We emptied the smelly paste onto Noa’s head weaving it into each layer. Tears ran down his face, a few not so nice words and lots of thrashing about. He finished with a pea- green mass pasted onto his long bleached blond hair, a shower cap to hold it all into place and got lucky when we agreed to plop him down in front of a DVD (his second since we left CH) with a plate of fresh fruit and pancakes. The DVD and my moral support by physically joining him in the venture (psychological or real, I itched !)  made the two hours fly by and hopefully the lice too! Would hate to infect the entire plane and bring them home to CH! Our lives are full enough!

A foot scrub, a Thai massage for 7USD,  time with the staff, dunks in the pool, a last coconut shake, plunges in the ocean catching a wave or two, lounging on a teak chair finishing up our books and absorbing the large palette of odours that permeated the balmy air, the day passed quickly. Five o’clock came with a smiling visit from Orasa who had kindly prepared a spare room for us to shower and clean up.

Phi, Jess and Noa in ThailandGood thing we intuited the possible lengthiness of the good-byes and began the rounds 45 minutes before our organized taxi arrived. In retrospect, we needed every minute. Ady, Ching, Orasa, Oyi, Gai, Tip, Rang, Aoy, Aom, Mos, Wut and Chai showered us with ”khwap khun” bowing at our feet with their hands pressed tightly at their hearts which proceeded with tight bear hugs that squeezed all the air out of our lungs . (Luckily we are yogis and have the capacity to retain our breath!) Then came the unexpected gifts, a simple bath towel tweaked into the form of an elephant, a hand crafted flower made delicate silk and a purple American football with all of their names inscribed under ” We love you Noa, Philippe and Jessica. You are our family”  and then more hugs ending in a escort onto the street where they waved us farewell until they were tiny specks in the sand.  We felt like shinning stars without the annoying Paparazzi driving into the sunset.

The Indian tailor

From the secluded haven of Devaterra Cove, we said good-bye to our dear friends and headed due north weaving in and out of large irregular potholes and rubble along a winding road that wraps securely around the thick foliage of the island. Passing the port of Nathon, curving around Bang Po, positioned on the most northern tip, then making a rounded dogleg right descending south along the eastern shores to Lamai Beach. A 180° turn clockwise from where we had spend 10 relaxing days . The only visual obstacle that kept us from connecting the dots from east to west or north to south or any combination of any  given cardinal direction was the lush overgrown rolling hilltops that emerged from the waters like a resurrected Phoenix.

The seaThe main strip of Lamai Beach is lined with dozens of Thai restaurants, a handful of continental, hair and massage salons, lady-boys wearing stilettos by nightfall, and small portable stalls selling customized silk suits to knock-off Crocs, Prada handbags and Gucci sunglasses. The diversity is intoxicating and  becomes a playground of ”wanting” for most westerners satisfying one’s every desire. Bargaining for most anything is the ticket and can be applied comfortably for immediate gratification.

At the street corner,  just before the narrow alley leading to the jasmine Resort which dead-ends at the foot of a white sandy beach with clusters of lounge chairs and umbrellas , we unloaded our backpacks onto the curb. Before being able to complete our sentence of gratitude to Matthew who kindly gave us a lift, our attention was distracted by an thick eager yet familiar  Indian accent  coming from a smart looking young man in his early 30’s dressed in a fancy silk suit ‘Hey! Sa wat dee krap!”  You are back , it is so good to see you again! I remember you, Noa, from December! How long are you here? Maybe time enough to let me make you a customized silk suit or dress?” And from there the light hearted dialogue began exactly how it had numerous times back in December. ”What would we do with customized silk suit or dress where we live?  we asked. ”You can wear them to work”. We jokingly added ”But we teach yoga and live in sweats.” With a smile and certainty that he had found a  solution , our friend the Indian tailor continued ”Aaaahhh, very good indeed. I make you silk yoga sweats to teach!”   Ping ponging back and forth, finishing with a few good laughs and a squeeze of a hand we parted until next time which would be just a few short hours later.

It seems that Thai people never forget a face and once they like you you are part of ”the circle” which can be good, but at times, an overwhelming thing. We hadn’t even put foot onto the first step of the Jasmine Resort where we would be the guests of honour for the next 3 days when Osara and her beautiful fullness squeezed us as a foursome and then again individually until we had ridden ourselves of any excess gas from the cabbage that floated in our soup at lunch. Joy and excitement shined from her perfectly round face as she escorted us into the lobby where we were greeted  in an untraditional Thai manner (bear hugs) taking a total of 20 minutes for us to  finally  reach our room. Never, in any place in the world,  with  the exception of returning to Phoenix and being tackled by my parents have we been greeted with such enthusiasm and love. It is enough to boost one’s self esteem and expand one’s heart.

We like to eat, especially in Thailand – grilled fish with ginger or with hot peppers, green mango salad, green papaya salad, seafood salad, green, red and yellow curries -extra spicy, fried morning glory, fried rice with shrimp, fried noodles with vegetables, soups with lemon grass and coconut milkshakes… the list goes on and on. There are two wonderful things to be noted about eating Thai food. One, the meals are light on one’s wallet and second, surprisingly light on one’s belt.  So with little time ahead, we carefully and strategically arranged the days to come. With 3 meals a day, 2 1/2 days to go, we successfully calculated 7 meals in total and from there, with pertinent questions beginning with ”what, when and where” we planned our few days. After the ”what’s, when’s and where’s were confirmed, we  pencilled in the ”other stuff” into the ‘betweenness” leaving lots of empty pockets for the unexpected.

NoaIn the ”betweenness” we basked in the sun, munched on grilled sweet corn served on a stick,  read thought provoking books (two ‘musts’ Three Cups of Tea and The Gate), swam in the shallow depths of the sea and splashed in the pool, played catch on the beach and in the water, was massaged, practised on the tiny terrace overlooking the horizon and wandered aimlessly in and out of the shops and hidden alleys. Time fell into a cadence of endlessness where the days stretched well into the early evenings and the evenings well into the darkness of the night way passed Noa’s bedtime. We flowed with time as she presented herself, watched the sun set into nothingness, gazed into the blackness of a star painted sky and honoured the rise of the sun as it paved the way into a new day. Nothing seemed necessary, everything could wait.

So with endless time on our hands and delicious spicy food in our bellies, we wish you well.