Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Second Time We Discovered Fire

In this darkest season we hang lights to carry on an ancient tradition, to remind ourselves of something our ancestors felt was important. But we have forgotten what their symbols were pointing to.

The light in me recognizes the light in you. That is the meaning of "Namaste." The light that looks out through my eyes and illumines the world in front of me is the same that looks out through your eyes and illumines the world in front of you.

There are not two different kinds of light. There is just light, refracted through different prisms shaped like people and animals and plants and rocks and oceans and planets and stars. It is the light of the divine itself, which takes countless names and forms but cannot be grasped through any of them.

Your human eyes were made to see but a fraction of the spectrum of light, most of which is masked from you, hidden in plain sight. The invisible infrared lies before you at this very moment, seen perhaps by other creatures gifted with different eyes but never by yours. "You may not look directly at my face," Moses was told by the pillar of cloud. "For no man may see me and live."

Light can shine or it can blind. It is a candle flame and it is a laser beam that cuts through rocks and diamonds. Light is a warm glow and it is a cosmic explosion and it is the unholy force unleashed when atoms are broken by human hands. Light is the sun, friendly to you only because you are shielded from its full power; the same sun would burn the flesh from your bones and turn your bones to dust, returning you to the state from whence you came. We are all stardust, after all. The very earth on which we walk is only borrowed temporarily from that nuclear ball of fire and light, and will one day be returned.

As theologian Teilhard de Chardin said, we live "steeped in divinity's burning layers." The holy fire in the burning bush is what we are made of.

And we are darkness too, of course. All that we cannot see or do not want to see. All that is hidden from us because the light does not reach into its depths. All that we do not know about ourselves; all that we do not want to know. The universe is made mostly of dark matter, and scientists do not yet even know what dark matter is; its existence is only hypothesized because it cannot be seen with our eyes or instruments. The darkness holds us in its infinite embrace.

And yet there is light. The whole universe is decked with points of light ornamenting the vast reaches of darkness, like a great tree. Each ornament a cluster of galaxies made of trillions of stars, each star creating worlds around it. And each illuminated world potentially crawling with beings like you and me: beings crafted from light and darkness. Beings lost in their minds and unaware that they are but the light looking out through their own eyes, which is the same light looking out through yours and mine.

The light in me cannot recognize the light in you until I recognize it first in myself. When I know the light and the darkness of which I am made, I will know that it is the same light and darkness of which you and all things are made, and that we live together in a fragile and temporary world of stardust where every invisible atom was bonded together with so much power that it could level an entire city if its nuclear bonds were broken. Look at how intelligent we are! We have mastered atomic energy, and unlocked the awesome destructive power hidden within matter. Look at how stupid and lost we are! We have forgotten how to love one another, and what all of this creation is for.

“Someday,” said de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Come, friend. There is something important for us here. Let us hang lights together and try to think of what our ancestors wanted us to remember.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Meditation in Times of Chaos

When he was fleeing his home country of Vietnam, the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh had a direct revelation of the real power of meditation practice.

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost,” he said. “But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Showing the way for everyone to survive. It’s a rather dire way of painting the picture, but it feels timely. Because the times feel rather dire and chaotic. Do they not?

A lot of people approach meditation as a self-improvement project. Meditation’s going to make me feel better, make me more focused, make me more productive, make me more happy, make me less crazy, make me more chill. Me, me, me.

But look around you. The world is on fire. People are hurting. They are freaking out. Have you noticed? Maybe you see it from a distance: things that are happening in the news, rifts that are opening up in the fabric of society. Maybe you feel it closer to home, in your circle of friends and loved ones: the ways they are being challenged, and the ways they are falling down and getting back up again. Maybe you feel it in yourself: the growing sense of malaise that gnaws from the inside, and occasionally erupts into full-blown panic.

“As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. “The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is close. In this kind of a situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.”

That puts your personal meditation practice in a rather different light, doesn’t it? It’s not really about you. It’s about your whole world, and all the people in it, and the way your presence helps them. Sure, maybe it helps you become more chill, more focused, more productive, more blissful, more calm and centered. But what do you do with all that calmness and centeredness? What is it for?

It’s to be aware, and to try to help. The real benefits of your meditation practice will only become apparent to you when you find yourself in the role of offering them to others.

A few weeks ago one of my friends went through brain surgery to remove a large tumor. Before his diagnosis, he was never really into things like meditation, but being diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoing radical surgery has a way of shifting your perspective on a lot of things in life. My friend began to ask for guided meditations and breathing techniques to help calm his fear. I don’t mean garden-variety anxiety, I mean real existential fear: the bone-chilling, “Will I survive?” kind of fear. But he knew that if he panicked, it would only make the situation worse.

And so he began to meditate, and at the hospital he restricted his visitors to friends who could bring that kind of calm and centered energy into the room—people who could help him find his way calmly through the most difficult situation he had ever faced, one challenging moment at a time. We were there when he woke up from the surgery, doing what we could to hold the space around him.

My friend is now back on his feet, and I’m happy to report that he’s still meditating regularly. And we are closer now than before, as people tend to be after they’ve gone through something very difficult together.

And that feels like where we all are right now. I don’t mean my friend, but you, me, all of us. We are all going through something very difficult together. And let’s acknowledge, to be fair, that it’s more difficult for some than for others; some need help more urgently than others. And there are no credible reasons to believe that it’s all magically going to get easier any time soon. It might get even more difficult before it gets easier. Those of us who are in a position to help, whatever that means in our particular case, should do what we can.

What I’m describing is in no way theoretical. I’m talking about matters of life and death, and how the effects of meditation play a very concrete role in helping us navigate through the most challenging situations.

“Humankind has become a very dangerous species,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. “We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.”

It would be easy for someone to come along and say, “All this Buddhist crap about sitting still and smiling and being peaceful! It’s like fiddling while Rome burns. We need everyone to panic, and scream, and freak out! We need action!” But that would be a misreading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words. If you know anything about his history of peace activism, you know that Thich Nhat Hanh has been no stranger to action throughout his life. His practice was never disengaged from the world. Quite the opposite.

Action is necessary. Storms need to be navigated safely. Pirates need to be dealt with. Injustices need to be addressed. Brain tumors need to be removed through surgery. Meditation by itself will never fix any of these problems. But all these things become so much more challenging when we freak out. Action can be taken more skillfully when it comes from a place of clear seeing. And I know from personal experience that it’s much harder for me to see clearly when I’m in panic mode.

As I look towards 2017, I’m recommitting to my own daily meditation practice—not because of what I think I’m going to get from it, or how it’s going to help me feel better, or even how I think it’s going to help me become spiritually liberated (whatever that really means). No, I’m recommitting to it because I know there are more storms brewing, and more pirates gathering, and more difficult situations ahead for all of us, and it will be more necessary than ever for me to keep showing up and helping people see the way to survive.

I hope you will join me in recommitting to your own practice, and know that its benefits will extend far beyond your little yoga mat or meditation cushion. The world is on fire. We need people like you to save us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Chips and Salsa" Meditation

In a recent Facebook post, my friend and fellow writer and meditation teacher Ethan Nichtern pointed out a popular trend these days depicting meditation as being all about relaxing. He even noted an ad that popped up in his feed calling meditation “like a super-charged power nap.” A meditation studio in my area often describes meditation as a form of “chilling.”

I encounter this idea often in my own work as a meditation teacher. Students come to classes very high-strung, their bodies full of chronic tension and their minds racing with thoughts, and they want to learn to relax. I applaud their efforts, and I help them as best I can. This work is important and beneficial for a variety of reasons. Relaxing generally makes people happier, and happier people on principle make for a better world. Relaxation down-regulates the nervous system and helps people better manage stress; it supports better decision-making, and even helps people cope better with painful situations in life, like job stress or being ill or going through a divorce or losing a loved one.

So relaxing, in and of itself, is fantastic. But it’s fantastic in the same way that chips and salsa are fantastic at the beginning of a nice Mexican meal. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking chips and salsa—they are amazing! But chips and salsa are an appetizer, not a main course. If you keep showing up to the restaurant and you always order chips and salsa and then you dash, your experience of Mexican food is rather limited.

Relaxation is awesome and useful, even essential to meditation, but it's not the whole enchilada. In my experience, relaxation is like a key that unlocks the practice of meditation; what you do with that practice once you've unlocked it is the important thing. Eventually, once you’ve practiced using it enough, you might become less curious about the key, and more curious about what’s on the other side of the door it unlocks.

A Tibetan teacher once said: "Little relaxation, little meditation. Middling relaxation, middling meditation. Great relaxation, great meditation." So the more you can relax, the deeper into your meditation practice you can go. And the deeper into your practice you go, the more you can wake up to your true nature and to the reality of the world around you and all the ways the world needs your help. That’s where I think the real value of meditation reveals itself.

In extended workshops, where I’m able to offer more explanation and guide students to a deeper meditative experience than is possible in a typical meditation class, I often speak about “three levels” of meditation. What I call Level One is what Tibetan Buddhist students refer to as shamatha meditation, with some specific relaxation-inducing breathing techniques borrowed from my training as a yoga teacher. Level One has two main components: relaxation and attention.

So it all starts with relaxation—it really does. Just like a Mexican meal might start with chips and salsa. But once you learn to relax, that’s when meditation gets really interesting. If chips and salsa are all you’re interested in, no problem. No judgments here. I’m a big fan of chips and salsa, and relaxation is the bomb. (But before you go, I just want to mention that there’s also a whole buffet of enchiladas, tacos, burritos, empanadas, and tostadas available....)

For the student who is committed to waking up, there are other levels of meditation waiting to be explored. But you have to have the appetite for them, and it helps to have someone to guide you through them. The menu in this restaurant is a strange one, with specials that change daily; it requires some interpretation and perhaps recommendations that are tailored for you.

It’s also possible to go to the other extreme, and turn your pursuit of meditation into a tasting menu. A small plate of this technique, a few bites of that one—and before you know it, you’ve got meditative indigestion. In culinary pursuits and in meditative ones, it’s helpful to have a solid grounding in one tradition, to know which practices lend themselves to a type of “fusion cuisine” and which ones don’t—when to mix it up, and when to stick with chips and salsa.

These are lessons that only come with time, and patience, and proper guidance, and getting your hands dirty in the kitchen of your own practice.


Dennis Hunter is a meditation teacher and author of You Are Buddha (2014) and the forthcoming The Four Reminders (2017). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Monday, October 31, 2016

"Moonlight" Is the Year's Most Human Film

I don't write film reviews very often. A film has to be strong enough to haunt my imagination, and compel me to speak about it. The last time I reviewed a film was over two years ago, for Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Ironically, that film has certain themes in common with the film I reviewed today at The Huffington Post. Here's an excerpt from my review:

"Moonlight" is a contemplative masterpiece of filmmaking, and a profound and subtle meditation on the fragile construction of masculinity. It’s a shattering tour through the aching vulnerability of boyhood, and the glowing embers of boyhood that continue to smolder inside the cooler pretensions of manhood. It explores how we piece together a makeshift identity for ourselves from the alternating threads of trauma and tenderness with which adults and other children pierce our hearts as we grow. And it turns a fierce, compassionate light on the ways that we boys and men armor ourselves against the emotional and physical violence of homophobia, and how the armor we grow to protect ourselves becomes a hardened shell in which we live out the rest of our lives, seemingly protected but actually trapped inside our protection.

Click here to read the rest of my review at HuffPo.

Go see "Moonlight." It's in limited release this week, and opens nationwide next week. And while you're at it, come follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. See you around!

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Trance of Negativity

The Buddha taught that our thoughts create our reality. When we get trapped in the trance of negativity, it can destroy personal relationships, careers, companies, even entire societies.

This talk looks at how we get stuck in the trance of negativity and how we can break free, and how shifting our thought patterns can improve emotional intelligence in everyday life, relationships, work, and even political discourse. Recorded on Facebook Live, October 27, 2016.

If you subscribe to One Human Journey by email, you may not see the video preview in your email client. Click here to watch.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Emotional Intelligence and the U.S. Election

Just two hours before the third Presidential debate, I published this article at The Huffington Post. My article looks at the important role played by emotional intelligence (and the lack thereof) in our national political discourse.

After all, as a nation, we are all sort of married to each other in this great social experiment we call the United States. And our marriage is not going well at the moment. Many of the problems we see in our current state of the union can be attributed to a shocking lack of emotional intelligence and maturity.

Click here to read the article at HuffPo. Comments are welcome.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Intuition: Navigating Life and the Spiritual Path by Trusting Your Innate Wisdom

Intuition is one of our most powerful ways of knowing, but it remains mysterious and somewhat devalued in our culture, and many of us are out of touch with this innate form of wisdom. What to do?

This talk was recorded on Facebook Live on October 13, 2016.

If you're on Facebook, you can also watch the video and follow my new page there.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Slouching Towards Human Dystopia

The other day I saw a news segment about pressure-sensitive devices that detect the presence of a small child in a car's child seat and alert you if you might accidentally be locking your baby in the back seat of a hot car.

BEEEEP!!! "Oh, I forgot! I have a baby, and she's sitting right behind me! I'd better bring her with me!"

Hey, saving babies is a good thing. I understand that the intentions of the people who invented these devices, and the people who buy them, are good. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A while back, I started seeing ads in my Facebook feed for a wearable device, sort of a FitBit for emotions, that alerts you when you are experiencing signs of anger or stress, and tells you to pause and take a few deep breaths. Again, good intentions. I’m happy if this device helps someone who actually needs it. But it saddens me that there might be anyone who actually needs it.

I feel a gnawing sense of despair about the increasing dependence of human beings on electronic devices to perform for us the most basic functions of survival and caring for ourselves and our loved ones — functions that used to be performed by common sense. Soon there will be no aspect of our lives that is not mediated by machines and managed by algorithms and big data.

People don’t own, or know how to read, traditional maps anymore, and map-makers have stopped printing them due to lack of demand. Who needs 15th-century navigation technology when you’ve got Google Earth at your fingertips? And people don’t remember phone numbers anymore, either; just tell Siri who you want to call. “Okay. I have eight phone numbers for Doug Sanchez. Which number would you like to call? You can say things like, ‘Mobile, Home, Office, Other’.”

I still remember the phone number of the house I grew up in, 40 years ago. Back then, I could have made a call from that phone even if Russians hacked the power grid and took down all the cell phone networks and Google Maps and Facebook and the whole damned Internet went dark, because it was a copper phone line that didn’t require a separate power source or any data towers. Well, okay, back then we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet or data towers — cable TV was still a new invention — but you get my point. Actually, allow me to date myself still further: I remember when the Powers That Be finally required that all telephones be upgraded from rotary dial (look it up, kids) to touch tone phones, to facilitate wordless, touch-tone communication between human fingers and the machines on the other end of the line. Perhaps THAT was the defining moment, the start of all this. And look at us now.

INCOMING TEXT: "Hi, this is your GE Smart Refrigerator. You’re running low on milk. Based on your location settings, you're at Wal-Mart now. Perhaps you could pick up a carton while you're there. The milk is in aisle 12. Reply ‘1’ for walking directions to aisle 12. Reply ‘2’ for brand recommendations. Reply ‘3’ for easy 5-minute recipes using dairy products"

ALERT: "Hi, this is your Range Rover. It looks like you left a human child weighing 14.3 lbs in the back seat of the vehicle. I've started the engine and turned on the AC as a cautionary measure. Press 'OK' to dismiss or 'PANIC' to activate the vehicle’s alarm system."

REMINDER: "At Facebook we cherish your significant moments. Today’s your 10th wedding anniversary! Why don’t you post something about your spouse to let your friends know how much he/she/they mean(s) to you?"

Another new technology called Magic Leap is being cooked up for you right now, behind a veil of corporate secrecy so thick that it rivals anything the military might be working on. Magic Leap, from what we are told, will project virtual reality images not onto a screen in front of you (like all previous VR technologies) but directly into your eyeball, tricking your brain so you will find it difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s unreal. But why would you want to? Magic Leap is pretty damn cool, to be honest. The new reality that’s being created for you is so much more comfortable, so much more convenient, so much prettier. There’s less to think about, and more to enjoy.

Slowly, one device, one technology at a time, we are becoming the humans depicted in the film Wall-E, who float like blobs through shopping malls on their self-driving hover-chairs, no longer able to walk on their own legs, hooked into VR screens and automatically fed snacks and sodas, video-chatting with the person next to them because it’s too much effort — and frankly it would just look weird — to turn their heads away from the screen and engage in actual conversation with another human.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Busted! Three Myths About Meditation, Debunked



You know this one. Fill in the blank with your favorite excuse:

“I can’t meditate because…”
  • “…it’s hard for me to sit still.”
  • “…I have a lot of thoughts.”
  • “…I get sleepy.”
  • “…I’ve had a difficult life.” 
  • “…I don't have time.”
  • “…Yadda yadda yadda.”

I literally hear some version of this, from at least one student, almost every time I teach meditation. The funny thing is, the people who say this always seem to actually believe that they are different from other people, uniquely challenged in the practice of meditation because __________.

Here’s the thing. You are not different. Your challenges are not unique. Everyone has had a difficult life. Everyone finds it hard to sit still. Everyone is busy. Everyone has a lot of thoughts. Everyone gets sleepy. Everyone in the history of the world who has ever meditated finds it challenging in one way or another. If it wasn’t challenging, it wouldn’t be a practice.

Imagine going to a cycling class, and telling the instructor, “I can’t cycle because my heart rate increases.” “I can’t cycle because I get sweaty.” “I can’t cycle because I’m not in shape.”

The real reason you think you can’t meditate is because you’re not used to meditating.



This myth is closely related to the first one, and it’s usually the main reason people think they are so bad at meditation. Chances are, you plopped down for your very first meditation session and you were surprised to discover how wild and untamed your mind really is. You have thoughts! A lot of them! Perhaps you spent the majority of the meditation session thinking, and realizing you were thinking, and beating yourself up for thinking, and thinking about your thinking.

My standard reply to this is: “Welcome to the human race.”

Here’s the thing. You can’t actually stop thoughts. A Tibetan aphorism says, “Trying to meditate without thoughts is like trying to have tea without leaves.” What you can do, over time, with practice, is learn to stop taking your thoughts quite so seriously. You can learn to stop being hooked by every thought that comes along, and simply observe thoughts as they come and go. Meditation creates a larger sense of space in the mind, so there’s more room to accommodate everything. When thoughts are allowed to come and go – that is, when you neither follow them nor try to suppress them – they lose their power to define you or control you.

Thoughts are like stray animals: if you stop feeding them, they don’t come around as much.



You’d be surprised at how many people stay away from meditation because they believe this myth.

At the beginning of a meditation class, I usually check to see who’s brand new to meditation. If I’m feeling mischievous, I say something like, “Okay, we’re going to chant ‘Hare Krishna’ for 30 minutes.” I watch their faces go pale for a few seconds before telling them, “Just kidding!”

Sure, plenty of people meditate in a religious way – following gurus, wearing special clothing, burning incense, chanting in foreign languages. Most meditation practices originated from religious traditions like Buddhism, if you trace them back to their historical roots. And you certainly won’t find any shortage of New Agey teachers and spiritual woo-woo when you look around at the meditation scene.

However, the same could be said of yoga. If you want to make meditation or yoga religious or self-consciously spiritual, you certainly can. But at heart, the practice is really very simple and ordinary. Meditation lets you relate more openly, more honestly, and more compassionately with your mind, your body, and your life. Step One in that process is slowing down enough to actually *see* what’s going on in your mind, your body and your life. And that begins with putting your butt down on the cushion, chair, or floor and engaging in a simple practice that grounds you in presence. Then you can let those qualities of presence, openness, and compassion transform your life, your relationships, and your actions.

If you find that to be a spiritual experience, then you have grokked the true meaning of spirituality, which has nothing to do with gurus, special clothing, incense, crystals, or mystical experiences. But that’s a topic for another time.

Enjoy your practice.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Capote's Law

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck,” says the Dalai Lama.

Of course it doesn’t feel that way when it happens. I can’t count the number of times in life that I’ve cried and wailed with disappointment when something I wanted failed to materialize, or slipped out of my grasp.

But with time and perspective, I see that in many cases it would have been disastrous for me if things had gone “my way.”

I’m thinking of the college lover whose dream was for us to move to Lagos, Nigeria to teach English. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable life plan when I was a sophomore. I even spent time in the university library teaching myself basic phrases from an Igbo language primer, preparing for life in Nigeria. But it wasn’t meant to be. That relationship soon dissolved, and with it went the dream of moving to Lagos.

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” wrote Truman Capote. It isn’t difficult to imagine how Capote’s law could apply here. Just look at the kidnapping and murder rates in Lagos, and Nigeria’s attitudes towards gay men, and you start to get a sense of the myriad ways our plans might have gone wrong.

This perspective only came later. At the time, I mourned the loss of that relationship, put away the Igbo language primer, and scrambled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Not having things work out the way I wanted was a slap in the face, and it stung. But in hindsight, I’m grateful for it. That wasn’t the right relationship for me to be in, and moving to Nigeria to teach English was not in my star chart. Sometimes we need life to give us a compassionate slap in the face to wake us up.

There’s a famous story about an old man who lived on a small farm with his son and a horse. One day the horse ran away and the neighbors came to express their sympathy, telling the farmer, “Oh, that’s so terrible.” The farmer replied, “Maybe.” A couple of days later the horse came back, bringing another wild horse with it. This time the neighbors exclaimed the farmer’s great good luck at getting a new horse. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next day, the farmer’s son fell and broke his leg while trying to tame the new horse. The neighbors came again to express their sympathy, but the farmer brushed it off with another “Maybe.” A couple of weeks later, the army came through the village, looking to conscript any able-bodied young men for a new war. The farmer’s son was passed over because of his broken leg, which prompted the neighbors to exclaim the farmer’s great good fortune. “Maybe.”

You get the point. We never really know. What looks at first like good fortune may be setting us up for a disaster, and what looks like bad fortune may be saving us from something even worse. Life brings us to a fork in the road and then forces us down a path we didn’t choose. We shed tears over the road not taken, but later come to see that the path we wanted to take would have led us off a cliff. We can appreciate this lesson because hindsight is 20/20, and time heals old wounds — but in the moment, when we don’t get what we want, we are blinded by disappointment.

Every now and then, it’s good to look back at our disappointments, our misplaced hopes, the dreams that didn’t pan out, and consider the possibility that life was actually trying to bring us something better than what we wanted. “Maybe we even find redemptive value in our apparent lapses,” says philosopher Rob Brezsny. “We come to see that they saved us from some painful experience or helped us avoid getting a supposed treasure that would have turned out to be a booby prize.”

Here’s to booby prizes, to disappointments, to the dashing of misplaced hopes, to the roads not taken, and to the eventual triumphs that come to us only through failure.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Infographic: 3 Levels of Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is trending these days, and is practiced everywhere from the yoga studio to the board room. But the great meditative traditions tell us that mindfulness is only a starting point. Once the mind has been tamed and trained through mindfulness, only then can true meditation and self-inquiry actually begin.

What does meditation look like beyond mindfulness? I created this infographic to provide a quick overview of what I refer to as the three levels of meditation: Presence, Stillness, and Inquiry. Feel free to share the graphic if you like it.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

¡Viva Cuba!

When Adrian and I agreed to lead a group of almost 30 Americans on a yoga and meditation retreat to Cuba, I don’t think we quite understood what that would mean, or how profoundly we would be transformed by the experience. After months of anticipation, the trip to Cuba finally took place last week. Our heads and hearts are still spinning with the things we saw and felt.

Everything in Cuba moves more slowly, takes more effort, and involves more risk. As a functioning society, it is not a well oiled machine. Certain things about life there seemed to freeze in 1959 and have remained unchanged since then. So many things are broken, or patched together. People find ingenious ways to make things work, even if it’s with the most humble solutions and materials at hand — but they are always proud of whatever they have. The moment is always now. Whatever they lack in terms of comfort, amenities, infrastructure is compensated in their smiles, cheerfulness, humanity, and a sincere desire to live the best life they can. It is mind-blowing.

Chickens designated for sacrifice in an Abakuá religious ritual.
Callejón de Hamel, Havana.

Less than six months ago, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Cuba, and the U.S. flag was raised again alongside other countries’ flags for the first time in over half a century. In the news yesterday, the U.S. and Cuba announced that they will resume a full schedule of commercial flights, and in the news today President Obama announced that he will visit Cuba next month. This will be the first visit to Cuba from a U.S. president in 88 years. The last U.S. president to visit was Calvin Coolidge. The winds of change are blowing.

We asked some locals what they and their friends thought of the lifting of the embargo and the new influx of American tourists and investments. For the most part they welcome it, because it brings much-needed economic relief. But they also fear how the sudden rush of American influence may change the island and its culture.

Havana seen from a high floor of the Habana Libre hotel.

We saw stunningly beautiful things in Cuba—not only in the places we went, but more importantly in the people we met. And we saw heartbreaking things too: crumbling buildings, shocking poverty, and a society of men and women forced to piece together a life out of almost nothing. We saw people’s cheerfulness and dignity, their pride in whatever little they have. But beneath the smiles, beneath the dignity, were things we could not see because our eyes are not Cuban eyes. As one Cuban-American friend said to me:

“There's plenty of beauty on that island. There always was. And of its resources, it is its people by far that make it the special place it is. But they are my people. I know them too well. I know of the pain behind their laughter. I know of the shame behind their dignity. I know what it's like to feel lesser than any visitor from the outside — “de afuera.” Because most Cubans are serving a life sentence on an island they can't wait to get out of, isolated from the rest of the world, their only contact with the outside from hearsay, pictures and movies.”

Woman on street in Old Havana.

After the initial thrill of stepping into a time capsule wears off and you have taken a hundred or more pretty photos of old 1950s American cars driving on picturesque streets filled with decaying colonial-era buildings, you start to get a sense of what lies beneath the exterior: the daily struggle to survive in a third-world country that has been politically and economically isolated from its giant neighbor to the north. Those American cars have been kept running for half a century with makeshift Soviet parts, because after 1959 no more American parts could be obtained to fix them. They spew black fumes that choke the air of Havana’s streets.

Taking old American cars for a night out on the town.

The pride of most Cubans for what they have—even if it seems to us like so little, coming from the lap of luxury that we live in—and their humble, kind demeanor left an indelible impression on us.

One day we had some free time in Havana away from our group, and Adrian and I wandered through back streets where our tour guide would never have taken us. A woman beckoned to me, offering to sell something, and I followed her through a narrow alley into her home. Suddenly there I was, standing in front of her family, as she took her merchandise from a duffle bag and laid it out on the bed. Above the bed was an unsupported concrete staircase to the second floor, crumbling. I negotiated the transaction with her in my broken Spanish, my face flushing with awareness of my appearance as the “extranjero,” the foreigner, radiating money and privilege.

Lost in Havana.

Later that day, we took a bicycle taxi back to our hotel. We didn’t realize the hotel was about 70 blocks away, but the driver was happy to accommodate us anyway. When we told him where we were going and asked him what the fare would be, he said, “Whatever you would like to pay.” As he pedaled us through pothole-filled streets, dodging traffic, he told us about his life. He’s been driving a bicycle cab since he was a kid, to support his family, and now he has a two-month old newborn. When the streets became very steep and it was hard for him to pedal two grown men uphill, we got out and walked with him.

Our bicycle cab ride through Havana's back streets.

Our group also spent a couple of days in the countryside, which gave us a glimpse of another Cuba. We stayed overnight in the Viñales area in the province of Pinar del Rio, one of the most beautiful places on earth. As the main tobacco-growing region for Cuba’s cigars (one of the country’s biggest exports), the Viñales valley is studded with “mogotes”—a type of sharp, vertical mountain that rises straight up out of the land, found nowhere else but in Cuba and in a certain part of China. And we dined at an organic farm-to-table restaurant that provided one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life.

The stunning beauty of Viñales.

During our trip we practiced yoga and meditation in exotic locations: in the beautiful Hotel Raquel in Old Havana, on top of a Spanish-era stone fortress with cannons aimed at the port, at the lookout point over Viñales valley with its breathtaking mountains. We met with a Cuban yoga teacher in Havana, and learned about the challenges and minor triumphs of establishing yoga in Cuba. At the end of the trip we donated our folding travel yoga mats for yogis in Cuba.

But some of our most meaningful experiences in Cuba were not planned activities. We brought with us a suitcase full of small items to donate, because we knew that people in Cuba are in need of everything: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, medicines, toys, pretty much anything you can think of. During our group’s walking tour of Old Havana, we passed a building where Adrian casually stopped to take photos of some floor tiles that caught his attention. An old man beckoned him inside, and they began to talk. The building turned out to be a preschool for disadvantaged children of single mothers, run by nuns, and supported entirely by donation.

The children at the preschool.

On our last day in Cuba, before going to the airport, about 10 members of our tour group returned to the preschool and donated everything we’d brought with us. The nuns gave us a tour of the school and let us play with the children and take photos. The nuns provide everything for about 160 kids in different age groups from 2 to 5 years: education, clothing, food, even assistance to some of their families. Their mothers drop them off in the morning before work and the nuns stay with them until the last mother returns to pick up her child.

Children dancing and singing at the preschool.

We kept it together while we were with the kids, but outside in the street after we left, we all cried. A special bond was forged that day between the school and several members of our tour group; we found a way to give something back to Cuba in appreciation for all that it had given us during our short stay. A group of us will be keeping in touch with the nuns at the school and organizing some efforts to provide further assistance to the children there. Stay tuned for ways you can participate if you feel inspired.

We are back in the U.S. now, and re-adjusting to the familiar American comforts that we took so much for granted before our trip to Cuba: Internet access, mobile phones, credit cards, clean water from the tap, a car with seat belts and a muffler, stores overflowing with tens of thousands of food and clothing options to choose from. But a piece of our hearts is still back in Cuba—celebrating and aching at the same time—and we will have no choice but to go back soon to find it again.

Outside the door of the preschool.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie and the Resurrection of Lazarus

A couple of months ago—November 19th, to be exact—when I saw the video for David Bowie’s eponymous single from his new album “Black Star,” I remember being shocked and thrilled and puzzled. The video and its music were inexplicably creepy and dark in a sort of American Horror Story way. I emailed a couple of friends and fellow Bowie fans to remark on how amazing it was that the artist—nearly 70 years old now—was still capable of surprising us and making such interesting, challenging, unconventional works.

“Bowie hasn't lost his edge, he keeps reinventing his image and his characters,” I remarked. “This one has a dark passenger. I think there might be a Major Tom riff in there too, with the space suit containing the bejeweled but long-dead skull.”

Yesterday, with the sad and shocking news of David Bowie’s death—and the release of his new video, “Lazarus,” on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death—the dark and unsettling aspects of "Black Star" that puzzled me when I first saw it suddenly made a whole lot of sense. For a year and a half, David Bowie had been struggling with cancer—something he kept private from the world—and knew he was dying. His last album was a carefully planned meditation on death—and life—in all its mystery, glory, pain, pleasure, and wretchedness.

In the new video for “Lazarus,” Bowie’s ailing character—blindfolded, with buttons where his sightless eyes should be—lies in a hospital bed, singing:
Look up here, I’m in Heaven
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me

For half a century, David Bowie constantly reinvented himself, his music and his career by creating and inhabiting characters and stage personas, and using these characters to comment on the absurdities and challenges of human life and society. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Pierrot the sad clown. Jareth the Goblin King from the film Labyrinth. The nameless, suit-wearing hipster who toured the world filling stadiums and brought us a series of funk-inspired pop hits throughout the last two decades of the 20th century.

Bowie’s characters were rarely, if ever, easy pills to swallow. They were fiercely crafted commentaries on addiction, fame, greed, fashion, vanity, sexuality and gender, the absurdity of human behavior, and the suffocating nature of society’s norms. Bowie’s characters were much more than the passing fashion statements of a pop star (though he also remained a fashion icon for half a century, as well). They were carefully constructed, always defiantly weird and unconventional and creative, and he embodied them so deeply that David Bowie the man sometimes became indistinguishable from his character.

One of the most common themes I heard yesterday from friends around the world—aside from the profound grief they felt at his loss—was how David Bowie had always made them feel it was "okay to be weird," okay to be yourself, okay not to fit into society’s cookie-cutter molds. Another common theme expressed by many friends yesterday was the feeling of shock at being suddenly reminded that David Bowie was, in fact, a mortal human being just like us—not some kind of god or space oddity.

And now, as his parting gift, he leaves us with Lazarus. Lazarus is Bowie’s final character, and a fitting one to articulate the supreme questions of life and death that we now know he was wrestling with in his last year. Lazarus is an unsettling vision, a man at the mercy of ultimate forces beyond his control, helpless and blindfolded, surrounded by symbols of death and reminders of the ephemerality of all his creations. But Lazarus is also a character who—to borrow a famous line from Dylan Thomas—refuses to go quietly into that good night, but rages against the dying of the light. Lazarus twitches and levitates above his hospital bed; in his lyrics and his vocal performance, he alternates between anger, fear, gratitude, peace, and transcendence. Lazarus sees his life and his creations slipping from his hands, and refuses to stop creating. In the video, as Lazarus lies in his hospital bed, another version of Bowie—Bowie the performer, Bowie the ambitious artist—emerges like a wraith from a dark wardrobe closet, frantically scribbles his inspirations onto paper, delighting in his own creations, and then retreats with a puzzled expression back into the darkened wardrobe at the end of the video.

This too, Lazarus tells us, is part of the experience, part of the performance. It may not be pretty, it may even be frightening and creepy at times, but it’s an essential part of the dance of life and death. We mustn’t look away from it. In fact, if we look at it carefully, it may even reveal treasures that we didn’t know were there. “Look up here,” he foretold, “I’m in Heaven.”

Those who know the story of Lazarus from the Bible know that Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus four days after his burial. We now know that David Bowie’s entire last album was carefully planned and its release apparently timed to coincide with his 69th birthday and his death two days later. In playing out the theme of Lazarus and his resurrection, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if David Bowie has more messages in store for us in the coming months.

Thank you, David Bowie. It was a fantastic gift to have you on this planet. You will be greatly missed and never forgotten.

One of the last known photographs of David Bowie, released on January 8th—his 69th birthday and the day he released his 25th studio album, Black Star—and taken by his longtime photographer Jimmy King. Bowie passed on January 10th after an 18-month battle with cancer.