Long Walks On Leafy Streets
|| Klingle Valley Trail, NW Washington DC
Writing this on the Amtrak train going home after a three-day weekend trip to New York City. Although short we had a really good vacation. On Saturday we all went to Central Park and on Sunday we took Prashant to the Children's Museum on the Upper Westside. Central Park is a true urban treasure and I feel a bit jealous because even though we have the Rock Creek Park in the middle of Washington, DC it has nowhere the amount of community engagement and amenities as Central Park. It must be said in defense of DC though, that the Rock Creek Park is a completely natural park with a bit of wilderness in it, and it is about twice the size of Central Park and has a hiker/biker trail that is longer than 20 miles. Finally, since it is connected to the Mt. Vernon trail, one could in theory run or bike without dealing with automobiles almost continuously for about 40 miles. Having said that, I did have a great run Saturday morning in Central Park.
I ran on the East and West drives that go all around the park and then three laps around the Jacqueline Kennedy reservoir. Totally I ran close to 11 miles and the run around the reservoir on the soft, crushed gravel surface was especially enjoyable, with great views of the city's skyscrapers all around. I like how they have separate tracks for bikers, runners and cars, and also the availability of water fountains at many places. There were so many runners, even at eight on a Saturday morning!
Prashant really enjoyed climbing over the rocks and running around on the grass in Central Park. We also spent a delightful afternoon playing at Bryant Park. He made me play with him on the grass and then we found this little putting green where they provided clubs and balls for free. Bryant Park was full of people relaxing in the calm afternoon sunshine on a lovely, balmy early summer day. The way it is set up, with the rectangular park surrounded by high-rises and shops, made it really feel like an urban oasis and I wondered if that is what naturally drew people to it. But perhaps New Yorkers have a stronger sense of community. The development of the Park is a story of community engagement and it felt like people really enjoyed being around their fellow citizens. I must add though, that this was in midtown, a rather posh area of town with many upper-income and highly educated people. It was also mostly white. I wonder if a similar atmosphere exists in the more diverse and less affluent neighborhoods of the city.
Since I last wrote on this blog, I have been continuing my mindfulness practice. I have been avoiding spending too much time reading the news or Facebook feeds, just the bare minimum needed to keep in touch with people and the happenings. Indeed, these days I find it painful to even read the news. I do enjoy running and watching cricket or soccer games. I feel like they help me stay fresh and energetic, as opposed to creating a lot of stress and distractions in the mind. I am also spending about half an hour or so in the evening chanting, meditating or reading spiritually uplifting books. This helps me to calm down the mind after a busy day and refocus on being mindful. I continued this practice during the past weekend, as well. Sunday (6/23) evening as I sat meditating, I felt in my body that I was part of something bigger than the little ego-driven self. It is one thing to read about it, think about it or even to meditate on it. It is quite different to actually experience it. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how the philosophy in Buddhism is not something abstract, presented as a theory, but rather a deep insight that comes out of practice. It takes much practice and concentration to attain it in full, although you feel more of it as you practice mindfulness and meditation more and more.
Problem is that even a little bit of distraction creates a lot of turbulence in mind. Prolonged silence is needed to stay calm in mind. At least I am not yet ready to be calm without it. Political news and personal slights create greatest distraction, pricking the ego and arousing emotions. Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) in one of his dharma talks speaks about Facebook and how on the whole it can be destructive to our peace and happiness. Our ego is very strong, especially as we get older. I am lucky that I started practicing meditation and listening to talks about spiritual growth at a young age. Yet it takes much effort to peel away the different layers of ego. I do feel like I am growing and slowly renouncing the ego and desires. As a famous Buddhist teacher said, renouncing is when things fall off. We are born with certain animal tendencies, and we need to balance them with our spiritual growth. No matter how advanced, getting over tendencies only comes with practice. Tendencies are not inherently bad, though. But when combined with too much thinking they can be destructive. As I practice mindfulness more and more, I find that I am catching myself at different times when I am not being mindful and stopping and taking a breath.
It is like when a pond is still you notice even the small disturbances. The eight mindfulness exercises are really helping when dealing with difficult situations during the day. Briefly, they involve paying attention to breathing, concentrating on it completely, being aware of the body and mind (including the pain and suffering within), letting them relax and calm down, and generating a feeling of joy and happiness. I find that these exercises are especially helpful when going to sleep. I am also pleasantly surprised to find out how very similar they are to the experience of attaining a good rhythm while running long distance - one needs to breath in lots of air, relax the mind and body, paying attention to every step, while generating joy and happiness. One is also aware of pain, and being aware of breathing and the body are automatic.
While listening to Thay's talks I came to know of Baruch Spinoza whose ideas and writings seem to be quite close to Eastern spirituality (apart from Thomas Merton and Thoreau), in the sense that he talks about the unity of all beings. As in Advaita and in Thay's (and the Buddha's) notion of the interbeing, Spinoza believes that there is just one being and everything in the universe that appears separate from it is just a manifestation. I also recently heard about French idealist philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Apparently Martin Luther King is fond of him. Here is a great quote from de Chardin: "Someday, 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."
It is great to know that there are such thinkers in the western world as well, with similar views.
While I have been having a fruitful and joyful period of practice there is also an undercurrent of sadness during this time. Many of the people that I love and admire have either passed away or been afflicted by debilitating illnesses. I wrote in the previous post about a dear friend who was in a coma. I was very happy to hear that she has since awakened and is making progress, although it seems that a long period of rehabilitation awaits with an uncertain prognosis for complete recovery. All this has created a renewed sense of urgency to live mindfully and with purpose. Indeed, living as mindfully as possible is, I think, the most effective and useful and purposeful thing I can do.
Yet it is difficult not to worry sometimes about what is happening in the world. I am especially worried about the anti-democratic, xenophobic, anti-minority tendencies taking hold in the US, India and other places. As always, I also remain deeply concerned about the worsening of climate change and its effects. I take solace in what Krishna says in the Gita: "Whenever there is a rise of Adharma in the world, I will manifest in it and protect the virtuous and establish Dharma."
Yet one needs to remember always that we are all one, all children of the same God, all manifestations of the same universal being. We need to feel love for even those engaging in undemocratic acts.
All are part of one being. Fighting against them is just like fighting against ourselves. Think of how we handle negative emotions in ourselves. We can't punish our own mind or body because we feel like some desire or action was sinful. I have had difficulty in understanding when Thay says, as he often does, that everyone has suffering. Now I realize that even the people who do harmful things go through suffering, except we don't see it as suffering. But they do suffer and are simply victims of their ego and desires and are trying to satisfy them somehow. What is happening in the US today makes me think that America has some kind of sickness, and it is spreading all over the world. Not to mention the sickness already prevalent in many parts of world like Russia, Middle East, etc.,
You know how sometimes you give in to your base instincts and it feels good for the moment and then you rationalize it and continue with it? That is what some Americans are going through today. But sooner or later you end up hurting yourself and / or others and then look back and ask yourself "what have I done?" All this doesn't mean that we stop opposing injustice. We should continue to do so as hard as we can, but without anger and hatred, the way we deal with a misbehaving child.
Speaking of dealing with a child, recently I got to spend time with Prashant by myself because Nicole had to go to San Francisco for work. One day he was being playfully defiant and even after repeated entreaties he continued doing that. Finally I lost my patience and raised my voice, and he started crying. I really regretted that and was determined to not yell at him in the future. For the rest of the time I used patience and calm voice only and it worked much better. One night after giving a bath to him I sat in the bathtub myself. I normally just take a quick shower and so all of a sudden I found myself relaxing and it felt so new and different! I realized that just relaxing and doing nothing had become a thing of the past. Indeed it seemed like I had begun to consider it a sinful luxury. Even while meditating or running or watching sports the mind and the body were not completely resting. So it was nice to just sit there and enjoy the water and let the body relax.
On Sunday (6/23) night after the liberating experience during meditation I went for a walk around 9 pm. I had been taking care of Prashant all afternoon because Nicole had an important assignment to finish. I was therefore due for a break and it was great to go for a walk in the city. They say New York is the city that never sleeps. You can feel that especially when you go out at night. The city was buzzing with activity. I walked a few blocks north on sixth avenue to Central Park and sat down on one of the chairs along Center Drive. People were running, going for walks, horse carriage rides, bike rides and whatnot. Many young couples, some of them of mixed race and ethnicity, seemed to be enjoying romantic outings. In the New York Times last week David Brooks had an opinion piece about the nature of American Society today. There is no mainstream culture but rather many distinct cultures and socio-ethnic groups. America instead of being a melting pot built around a white Protestant culture is becoming a nation of minorities, a multicultural society. He concludes this by saying that America has always been really a crossroads nation, a universal nation, a place where many distinct groups and subgroups flourished independently and grew together.
Indeed, this is how I always thought of America. In my own life, more than half of which has now been in the US, I have been a part of this mixing bowl process. Born in a traditional and conservative Brahmin family in South India, what excited me about the US and quite possibly kept me in it is the possibility of meeting people from all over the world. When I was a young man looking for a partner, I have met with women from literally all parts of the world. After all that searching I somehow ended up with a woman who loves me and makes me feel like she was always a part of me, yet someone who came from a place vastly different from my own -- growing up in a gritty North Philly neighborhood brought up by a single mother, her own ancestors coming from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the Native American tribes.
Being in that park with all the activity at that time of night also reminded me of the days of my youth when I used to go out a lot by myself and life was full of wonder every moment and being out was an adventure each time and you looked forward to what was coming in the future and were full of plans and dreams. And then out of nowhere I started crying silently. I don't know why. Perhaps it was just self-pity. Perhaps it was joy in rediscovering my love for America. Or perhaps it was due to the feeling of liberation from ego, however brief.
I sat there until around 10 pm and started slowly walking back to the hotel. It was great to enjoy the night air and take in all the noise and the activity of the city, wading through the tourists, the walkers, the always impatient drivers and bikers, and all the young people out for the night. Youngsters seeking out for the person or the people from some exciting corner of the world to build a new family or community with, in this young and dynamic country.