I’m currently in Kathmandu, Nepal where I’m making my annual pilgrimage of sorts to Nepal Orphans Home, a charity I serve, where I do my best to be supportive and make my presence worthwhile. It’s always been my happy place here, and in this my sixth year of coming here, it still is. Yet I find myself feeling a little more withdrawn than my even normally somewhat introverted self. My joy is still present, especially when I’m with the kids, yet I also find that I have more of a desire to keep to myself, stay in my room and read, write, play the guitar. I’m not feeling too guilty about it as I’ve learned over time to trust my need for quiet time spent alone and introspection.
The nuance to this though is that it distinctly feels like the world is closing in on me a bit. “Leave me the f— alone” seems to be my mantra lately. The feeling comes and goes, but it can be fairly intense at times. While spending time in Thailand recently with my father whose has been experiencing some significant health challenges, I found that getting regular foot massages there was a relaxing way to get in some self care. With the last massage, the woman I had hired stared at me fairly continuously as she worked. Every time I moved, flinched, took a long sigh, or adjusted my throw blanket she would rise into action as if there was something terribly wrong that was her responsibility to correct. “Stop f—ing staring at me” I wanted to yell out, “and leave me the f— alone!” These outbursts of thought were not a problem with her necessarily, but more accurately another indication of the feeling that the world is closing in on me.
Much of these feelings has to do with how we are treating the planet and all of it’s inhabitants (animals included) and the path toward so much suffering that our societies seem intent upon walking down. It’s pretty damn scary. The pollution during my current travels to Thailand and Nepal has an invasive quality as well. I have found myself checking air quality reports daily to assess how careful I need to be here, and when and where I might want to go next. The air quality seems to ebb and flow in Kathmandu, but landing into KTM and seeing the density of the pollution from the air gave me this OMFG-what-am-I-doing-here kind of feeling. I still wear a mask everywhere I go and have been deliberately non-committal on the amount of time I’ll stay here in Nepal largely because of the air pollution.
In Thailand, their wanton use of plastic is boggling. Unless one is willing to drink the tap water, plastic single-use water bottles are pretty much all that is on offer. I eventually learned to boil my water in a kettle in hotel rooms in order to sterilize the water and thus save myself from further contributing to our coming plastics Armageddon. Go to a local market in Thailand and buy five items and unless you’re on the ball, each item will come in its own separate plastic bag with all five of those placed into another larger plastic bag. Get this figure: Thailand uses approximately 200,000,000,000 plastic bags per year. That’s a whole lot of plastic zeroes! And their air pollution can be bad in winter too due to crop burning and of course vehicles and industrial pollution. It’s enough to make you want to stay in your room, or for this boy to consider heading back to my home on the coast of Northern California where the air is deliciously alive and clear.
Adding to all of this, I had a long talk with my brother back in the states the other morning and while it was a sweet and connective call, the truth is that he is really suffering from severe debilitating pain. It’s the kind of pain you wouldn’t wish on anyone. That call left me permeated with grief, the kind that only compassion for those we love can engender. My other brother is also dealing with a melanoma which has spread and my father continues to have health challenges. Somehow all of this combined with an overarching sense that the world seems to be moving in a bad direction has been hitting me kind of hard.
After the talk with my brother, I hid out in my introvert control zone (my room), through lunch time as I just didn’t feel like interacting much. I spent a good part of the morning playing guitar and singing in the sun on the balcony of my room. Music always helps to move feelings through which otherwise may be blocked. Still feeling a bit down, and getting hungry too, I pushed myself to get outside. Grabbing my camera, I went for a walk a mile down the hill to grab a little lunch. I had a sense it would be better for me to engage more with the world, and when I carry my camera, my visual field seems to open up and get me out of my mind a little.
What I saw kind of surprised me.
I saw suffering.
It wasn’t pervasive as there were many people laughing and smiling, but it was there to see in so many faces. I felt a bit like Prince Siddhartha venturing from the palace grounds for the first time, seeing suffering, and then feeling it in myself as well. Suffering doesn’t have to be obviously apparent, but if you look with enough sensitivity you’ll find it’s there in pretty much every human visage. I stopped in my tracks while walking when I hit upon a realization: We see the world through the lens of our own soul. When we are suffering we see suffering, when we are goodness we see goodness, when we are beauty we see beauty. The inner states that we carry at any particular moment in time color the immediate hue of the world around us, and it was my own inner struggle that allowed me to see the struggle in other’s lives. Walking down the road, I found myself teary in a non-specific kind of way. Much of it I think had to do with my conversation with my brother, but it was more general than that – simply an amalgam of many different sadnesses.
The following morning, as the sun began to rise, I did some yoga sun salutations and found myself reciting a mantra I had learned many years ago from Ram Das:
Aditya Hridayam Poonyam Sarva Shatru Vinashanam
If my recollection is correct, this translates loosely to “When the sun’s light is in the heart, all evil vanishes from life.”
It brought to mind how the pollution here can sometimes filter the sun from getting through. Perhaps there is a challenging place inside myself that is occluding the sun from reaching my own heart.
And that place, I believe, is sadness. You’d think it would have been obvious by the tears on my face on my walk the other day, but somehow I wasn’t drawing a connection between those tears, the sadness I feel for those I love, and the pain I feel for the struggling health of this glorious world that I so love. This world whose politicians, CEOs and we consumerist inhabitants seem to be destroying with an intoxicatedly mindless zeal.
And yet I know there is beauty to be found. Everywhere. I see it every day, in the smallest places, in a cloth that catches the light just so while hanging on a rooftop clothesline, in the grace of movement in the arm of the man frying my samosas, in the gentle conversational chuckle from the women sitting amidst a room-size pile of yarn while knitting socks and hats, and strangely even in the plume of exhaust from a bus as it shuttles far too many crammed-in passengers between their work and their homes. The beauty is here, there and everywhere in the lives of people making their way through a life of joys, triumphs AND struggle. When hearts open with tenderness and compassion, both for ourselves and others, the world of beauty seamlessly appears. And for this I am grateful.
So how do we navigate this challenging world and lifetime without falling prey to it or getting sucked under in the process. I think it just comes down to being real. I may be scared, I may be angry, I may be frustrated, but the deeper truth under all of that for me is that I am also sad. There isn’t a single soul navigating the streets of Nepal or the street where you and your neighbors may live that hasn’t been touched by the struggles inherent in being human. With this recognition and a tender more compassionately open heart, I am now feeling more comfortable navigating the world outside of my introvert’s cave because I know that I’m not alone.
There is nothing that unites us more than our shared humanness.
As an antidote, I’ve come to see that the best way for me to return to joy is through meaningful work and engagement with others. Playing a made up game with a volleyball with a half dozen boys from the orphanage and the neighborhood started to crack my shell open a bit. Following that by giving a sex-ed workshop to the older boys here was fun and meaningful. The challenges I wrote of earlier all reflect a certain helplessness, things largely beyond my control that I could only truly wish to be otherwise. What I see is that the more I bring my true soul to bear upon the world in service and connection with others, the more at home I feel.