I’ve been traveling for over two months. I guess I thought it would be different somehow by now. I thought I’d get to Japan and be overcome with insights and inspiration about myself and my life. I thought for sure I’d get to India and a wave of knowledge and light would envelop me. I thought reading, writing, and reflecting would give me the tools necessary to overcome the general malaise I’d been suffering. But so far, that hasn’t happened yet.
Has stepping out of my comfort zone created a new level of comfort?
Is being unsure and uncomfortable somehow my new normal?
Is being pulled to and fro by the winds of fate and the whims of those around me my new routine?
Is it wasting time to sit around doing nothing but thinking and reflecting?
How much time spent saying “yes” to things I otherwise would have avoided is considered true learning?
Is it courageous to step out into the unknown and to embrace whatever life throws your way or is it cowardly and avoidant?
Well, regardless of the answers to these questions (or perhaps despite the answers?) I made another courageous/cowardly decision. A new friend invited me to go to Dharamsala – home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as well as the location of the Tibetan government-in-exile – for two weeks on a spiritual retreat. Letting go of my usual skepticism and cautiousness thus far on my journey had led me to the Ramen museum in Yokohama, to an extravagant wedding in Mumbai where I met the Vice President of India, and to a Conscious Flow festival in Goa where I met myself. What new adventures might I be missing if I said no? One will never know, because I said, “Yes!”
There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth… not going all the way, and not starting. -Buddha
Having been traveling for many weeks, I realized I had not taken a moment to sit and just breathe. I had set off on this journey to be out of my comfort zone. Mission accomplished. I had set out on this journey to experience new cultures, new places, new foods, and new languages. Mission accomplished. But I had also set out on this journey to release myself from the “real” world and to connect with my spiritual center. Dharma, in Hindi, means religion and shala means sanctuary. Thus, my reconnection to my spiritual center was poised to happen in a Tibetan Buddhist religious sanctuary at the base of the Himalayas.
And this is how I arrived in Dharamsala: with my mind and heart open ready to receive and connect.
I signed up to volunteer at the LHA Charitable Trust in McLeod Ganj as a language and conversation instructor. This basically means I sat for an hour per class and facilitated conversations with groups of Tibetan refugees to aid them in learning English. The topic is not set and usually depends on the dynamic and conversation level of the group. Being on a spiritual journey myself, of course I chose to talk about faith, spirituality, justice, and religion.
Several in my conversation group were teenagers newly arrived from Tibet. They spoke of the difficulties in communicating with their family and loved ones back home. Facebook was blocked, calls were monitored, Whatsapp and text messages were read and sometimes didn’t go through. Often a call would be dropped in the middle of the conversation and these young people were left to wonder if it was something they said which caused the Chinese government to end their call. They questioned the justice that would be found for Tibet, their people and their culture. They doubted the strength of religion to overcome the difficulties of the world. But they believed strongly in the conquering power of humanity and they had faith in living by compassion. After some long faces and even longer pauses, they quickly steered me back toward pop-culture, music, and their coursework at school. (I’m a freaking high school teacher. What was I thinking trying to get teenagers to talk about spirituality? Ha!)
A few of the monks in my conversation group were intrigued by my choice of topic and tried mightily to express their own beliefs in simple language. There was often pantomiming and those who had been studying English longer were sometimes enlisted as interpreters. But their message seemed to be, “We don’t know what we truly believe until we are forced to face a condition which opens our eyes.” We believe in the religions of our parents and of our families because this is what we are taught. We either subscribe to it or we reject it, but our course is so often determined by the faith of our fathers. Until we are questioned or until we must use this faith in our own lives – to overcome adversity, to rise from a fall, to make sense of a tragedy, to comfort others – we rest comfortably on whatever faith practices we are taught as children.
Whatever our relationship to the divine, it seems to be true what they say, there are no atheists in war. When faced with such powerful questions as:
Why would God/Allah/Jehovah/The Universe allow this to happen?
What is the meaning of life?
What is my purpose here?
we all long for the security of an answer or a purpose to what befalls us in life. In despair and hopelessness, we all seek for something greater to comfort us. In pain and confusion, we pursue alternative answers to what we know to be true from our earthly experience.
“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” ~C.S. Lewis
Examining and questioning your spiritual and religious beliefs is always risky. But crises of faith and crippling doubt beset even the most notable and influential of spiritual leaders. It is, in fact, by doubt that our faith grows. It is by opening ourselves to doubt that we enlarge our scope to accept the beliefs and experiences of others. Most religious practices – and even atheism – bring us to the same conclusion: Do no harm. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Just be nice.
“NEVER GIVE UP
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
Is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart
Not just to your friends
But to everyone
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world
Work for peace
And I say again
Never give up
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up”
~HH Dalai Lama XIV
I believe that by allowing space for our doubts, we actually open our hearts to the teachings of all the greatest spiritual leaders (the Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses). I believe that by questioning the meaning in how we are living our lives and the impacts of our beliefs on others, we expose our limited existence to an infinite manifestation of life which we all desire: a life of interminable hope and boundless joy. These great spiritual leaders tell us miracles are possible. They tell us there is something more than this life. They tell us we are all connected. These spiritual leaders invite us to answer the call of humanity within us.
My call came as an invitation to visit the Dalai Lama in a sacred place known as Dharamsala.
Are you listening for your call?