Travel Toes

To travel is to live.

Santiago.

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A book I picked up a few years ago at the oh-so-delightful Atlantis bookshop in Oia, Greece.

A few days ago, during a rainy evening as I sat down with a cup of hot tea (one of the simplest constants I have created for myself to deal with the variables in life) and was scrolling through a blog on my phone, I came across a few sentences that seemed simple yet powerful. In that moment, I could not fathom where the power lay within them or how I could approach it. The paradox was that the blog provided affirmations to fight physical allergies and infections but it was my mental faculties that seemed to be grappling with the larger meaning of the words used in that specific order. When I dug a little deeper online, I realized that they seem to be inspired from the book You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay and they were:

I release the pattern in my consciousness that created this condition.

I am willing to change.

I love and approve of myself.

In essence, they spoke of change, of an inner transformation. Of letting go of my past to be able to fully step into my future.

Today, as I meandered through playlists on travel and philosophy, I came across the TED talk by David Whyte titled ‘A lyrical bridge between the past, present and future’. In that he shared two poems inspired by his niece, Marlene McCormack’s hike along El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And those are magic words in my world.

El Camino de Santiago, or the way of St.James, encompasses many trails stretching across Northern Spain, from the south of France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the western coast of Spain. Today, tens of thousands either walk or cycle the Camino de Santiago every year undertaking an epic journey of 500 miles driven by various motivations spanning sport, religion, nature, adventure etc. El Camino de Santiago has been declared World Heritage by UNESCO and the First European Cultural Itinerary.

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Collecting stamps along the way in the ‘Pilgrims Passport’ to represent progress.
Image courtesy: Image: Pól Ó Conghaile found at Natgeotraveller.co.uk

The drawing of the scallop shell also serves as a symbol of the Camino: the grooves in the shell represent the many roads of the Camino coming together at a single point at the base of the shell (Santiago de Compostela). Another great visual reminder of paths.

Ever since I first found the courage and calling to give travel a tangible form and came to understand how it is so much more than the physical act of exploring a new city, I have been fascinated, compelled and consumed in fact, by the existence of this trek to Santiago. The symbol of the scallop has appeared over and over through different channels into my daily life, thousands of miles away from the actual location and someday I hope to make this journey. One such appearance was on the cover of a book I picked up while in Greece titled ‘Making a Pilgrimage’ by Sally Welch that delves into the true meaning of journeys big and small.

In his talk, Whyte threaded the narrative of Marlene’s experience on the trek with a deep sense of openness to change that connected with the affirmation I mentioned earlier. To me, it was a sublime merging of pieces of truth from two sources: travel and philosophy, which to the discerning traveler are but the same essence in different forms. Whyte spoke about working with the conversational nature of reality and how reality is actually this “frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you”. And he ended his talk beautifully by explaining how in that very frontier, when we realise that reality requires of us to be as open to the falling of the leaves as to the appearance of the first blossoms, we understand the bridge between what brought us to this moment, who we are right now and the different version of us in the future that will arise once we have perceived the latent possibilities we hold within.

The analogy of the very route the pilgrims/travelers take to the path of our life is something that is probably more obvious. However, what was different about this narrative was the tying together of one’s past, present and future with the very moment one finds themselves at the so called “completion” of the trek which is nothing but a new beginning. He devotes some minutes to that moment when Marlene is standing at the edge of the cliff and realizes that she is the only one who can make it across the ocean into her future.

Whyte also describes the three rituals that travelers on the path are asked to undertake once they have crossed Santiago and have now arrived at Finisterre, or ‘the ends of the earth’ as the Romans called it, for it is at this point that the land falls off leading into a watery horizon.

  • The first is to partake a Tapas plate of scallops to pay respects to the very symbol that has guided them all through their journey. In the words of Whyte, “this first ritual is saying: How did you get to this place? How did you follow the path to get here? How do you hold the conversation of life when you feel unbesieged, when you’re unbullied, when you’re left to yourself? How do you hold the conversation of life that brings you to this place?”
  • The second is to burn something they have brought along (in the case of Marlene, she burns two postcards and a letter)
  • The third is to leave behind one piece of clothing they have used on their journey to get there (Marlene leaves behind the very boots that she walked all the way in)

And this brings us to the affirmation. The ability to say “I am willing” is actually the courage to take a step into the very frontier where the line between who I think I am and who I think I am not is erased. It is the ability to perceive a version of myself that is different from who I think I am, remembering fully well that much of what I am today was something I never thought I could be. For each of those rituals indeed can be practiced by every traveler on every journey, by every person in every day. One does not need to reach Santiago to behold a better version of oneself: one that is definitely not immune to reality but is better by being more flexible and thereby more in tune with reality, as it really is, not as one would like it to be.

There is of course no harm in dreaming of how we perceive a better version of our reality and giving it everything we’ve got to get closer to it in some form. After all, imagination is the arrow we shoot towards a target that only we can visualize and it is a powerful force. But what was interesting to me from this talk was that so often I am focusing on that arrow that I am resisting the possibility of a different reality. In the process, I am incapable of fully appreciating the present. So often I have my version of Santiago sketched out in such detail in my mind, that I forget to consider it may look different when I actually arrive. The important thing here is to keep walking and to stay true to one’s self. To keep sight of the path I intend to take while accepting that along the way, life may reveal other aspects I am currently unaware of. How and when it changes me as a person is something I can only perceive when I look back.

Whyte sums it all up in a manner that only a poet, a philosopher and a traveler all in one can manage to do beautifully:

“So this is “Santiago,” the supposed arrival, which is a kind of return to the beginning all at the same time. We have this experience of the journey, which is in all of our great spiritual traditions, of pilgrimage. But just by actually standing in the ground of your life fully, not trying to abstract yourself into a strategic future that’s actually just an escape from present heartbreak; the ability to stand in the ground of your life and to look at the horizon that is pulling you — in that moment, you are the whole journey. You are the whole conversation.”

“Santiago.”

 

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One night at a Shukubo (temple lodging)

A travel memoir, a poem, a memory. It was so much fun to write this piece and dive back into the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations of the temple lodging in Koyasan! If you would like to read this on Instagram using a lovely long horizontal swipe, follow me @misstraveltoes 🙂

If you have ever stayed in a Shukubo, I’d love to know about your experience.

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What is Auroville?

What is Auroville?

What is Auroville? I get asked this question a lot based on the occasional photographs I share. And I thought I’d share a little about my perspective on this today though it would merely be like a footnote in a large book.

‘Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.’

– Courtesy www.auroville.org

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A few kilometres from the sunny and colourful little coastal town of Pondicherry in Southern India is a universal city.

It is not a holiday destination or merely a pretty location with gorgeous guest houses and handmade products. It’s not just an eclectic mix of cultures, architecture, expression and projects. For those who have the yearning, Auroville is an opportunity to connect with something deeper and more lasting. To contribute, to connect, to invest in one’s own consciousness and be able to touch lives around, initially through the guise of “volunteer work” but then through more means that one can uncover. Even though I do not live there, I believe many of us connect to that energy that awakens, guides, humbles and evokes a deeper quest. And we act as channels for others. For as Rumi said,

“What you seek is seeking you.”

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And this is true of every time I am there. From chance encounters with friends from across the world whom we spent an evening with 3 years ago and who taught us that age is only a mental concept to running into role models who’ve shaped entire communities. It’s pure synchronicity.

So, I would recommend not going there just to take a break, enjoy good food and pleasant landscapes but to peel away the mundane and superficial, to try and connect with the community, seek ways to contribute and understand oneself a little better. That is something we need to do wherever we are in the world today. And so, for me Auroville is a reminder of my best self, a reference point if you will and a time in my life when I was the happiest with nothing to call my own but what I could offer to others and learn about myself. It is a reminder of the long road ahead and of how much more there is to do and to be, every day. Somehow, it is home.

For more information, visit the link inlclufe above. A few pictures from my journeys into this world can be found at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gypseagal/sets/72157632832327938.

An arrow a day.

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Image credits: Pinterest

 

What is this about?: It’s a personal narrative of working with symbols to connect with the mysteries of the universe and the unending quest to find balance in the simplest of everyday actions.

Why am I writing about this?: I have been feeling a strong urge to let these words tumble out of the cage of my skull onto a screen and have them placed out there for anyone else who is able to connect to this experience and can share the joy of this process. We have so much to learn from the ancients and this article talks about one such serendipitous find.

I also promised myself that I would express more often without criticizing the style of my own writing or worrying too much about the form. The meaning is more essential.

So here goes.

The story

Last year, on a cold and grey morning in Wisconsin, my friend and I got into the car for the long journey back to Minneapolis. It was something we were looking forward to because the quiet of the road coupled with the duration of the journey would give us plenty of space to catch up on life’s goings-on.

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Halfway through that drive, the conversation took a turn toward working with symbols as a means to connect with the essence of how life moves, unfolds and breathes. The form we discussed at length was that of an Arrow: a single arrow as an analogy for everything from seeking direction to working with the power of thought. The potential, the purpose and the meaning of an arrow. Our discussion, unbeknownst to us at the time, gave us a subconscious approach to working with our goals for the coming year and being better prepared to aim for them. As my teachers would put it, it set the foundation for us to work with spirit and matter.

As the Fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.

– The Buddha

A year later, as I scrolled through Facebook one evening sipping on some tea to ward off the wintry chill, I received a notification that I had been tagged by a friend in a post with a link to a video. I opened the link to watch a 44 minute episode on Kyūdō: an extremely simple yet powerful form of Japanese martial arts through the eyes of a Westerner, courtesy Japanese TV NHK (which I love by the way). The friend who had tagged me is someone I consider to be a soul sister, someone who engages on exactly the same vibrations and thought patterns as I do and has journeyed with me on several introspective moments into the mysteries of life, having also been a former batch mate in philosophy school. And so, I considered this to be another one of her perfectly timed gifts from across the world as a reminder of that very symbol I had begun working with.

Before this day, I had never come across the concept of Kyūdō and once I did, I found so much beauty, meaning and power in this that I felt compelled to share it further.

What is Kyūdō?

A little background here. Kyūdō, which literally means The Way of the Bow, is considered by many to be the purest of all the martial ways. In the past, the Japanese bow was used for hunting, war, court ceremonies, games, and contests of skill. The original word for Japanese archery was Kyujutsu (bow technique) which encompassed the skills and techniques of the warrior archer. Some of the ancient schools, known as ryu, survive today, along with the ancient ceremonies and games, but the days where the Japanese bow was used as a weapon are long past. Modern Kyūdō is practiced primarily as a method of physical, moral, and spiritual development.

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Image credits

Values

The essence of modern Kyūdō is said to be synonymous with the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.

  • Truth in Kyūdō is manifested in shooting that is pure and right-minded, where the three elements of attitude, movement, and technique unite in a state of perfect harmony. A true shot in Kyūdō is not just one that hits the center of the target, but one where the arrow can be said to exist in the target before its release.
  • Goodness encompasses such qualities as courtesy, compassion, morality, and non-aggression. In Kyūdō, goodness is shown by displaying proper attitude and behavior in all situations. A good Kyūdō archer is a person who maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of great stress or conflict.
  • Beauty both enhances life and stimulates the spirit. In Kyūdō, truth and goodness, themselves, are considered beautiful. Beauty can also be found in the exquisite grace and artistry of the Japanese bow and the elegance of the traditional archer’s attire. It is also present in the refined etiquette that surrounds the Kyūdō ceremony. Etiquette, which is simply common courtesy and respect for others, is an essential element of Kyūdō practice.

To one who comes across this concept, what was most striking yet very unsurprisingly Zen was the fact that the sole purpose of Kyūdō is not to hit the target but to achieve Mushin: a perfectly calm and balanced state of mind, of being. The video uncovered how masters of this art took several decades to achieve this state of mind, right at that moment before the bow left the arrow. It also showed the Hassetsu, the eight fundamental stages of shooting.

How does all this translate to working with everyday life? My take.

Coming back to my original story of working with symbols, over the past year I have been trying hard to work with the essential nature of a bow and arrow to how I can find balance, composure and calm amidst the shackles of the daily.

Simply put, if each thought is equated with an arrow, it means that the archer holds both the power to point it in a given direction as well as apply the desired amount of force and technique to shoot it, while doing so with grace.

This often brings me to evaluate my arrows from time to time. It leads to me asking myself a series of questions and investigating my own behavior, my own habits and tendencies.

  • Do I understand that the bow and arrow are a way of life and in that sense much larger than me?
  • How can I one with the arrow I hold?
  • Am I shooting the right arrows?
  • How can I keep it simple and straight?
  • What is the direction that I need to aim at?
  • Am I working with the right tools to use my bow and arrow better?
  • Am I focusing more on shooting the target than achieving a more balanced state of mind?
  • Does my lack of consciousness in a given moment lead to arrows being shot that do me no good?
  • Are my arrows shot more out of a personal necessity than in being of service to the universe for greater good?
  • On a given day, in any given moment, how much of Mushin can I bring myself to be in?
  • What makes my arrow falter/stumble and how can I be aware of this to work with it better? I feel this one in particular is both powerful and painful because it reveals the amount of work I need to do in making myself a better archer.
  • How does the shooting of the arrow affect other aspects of my life: amount of patience, clarity of thought, kindness in word and deed, setting the right level of expectations from myself and others, enabling me to better than who I was yesterday and most importantly not falling into the same traps of my personality over and over again.
  • How can I translate each step of the physical act of Hassetsu into an equivalent step for work with the inner self on a daily basis?
  • And lastly, how can I keep reminding myself about the the Way of the Bow every single day in both moments of calm and chaos?

 

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In writing this article, I felt like Kyūdō is a great microcosm to represent any action in life: from waking up to a new day with courage and enthusiasm to being mindful of every sentence and deed as the day unfolds. It is as deep as the oceans and yet as simple as that one principle it boils down to. The effort is precisely because of that sheer simplicity which our complex minds cannot fathom easily.

We often fall into the traps of our own desires, fears and habits and the simplest tasks of routine when repeated a thousand fold can seem painful. Personally, I hope to not just understand Kyūdō better but to be it (which may take multiple lifetimes!) even in the most daily things like watering a plant or cleaning the house. For after all, that is the beauty and simplicity of Zen in that it is not something out there, but something within that is simple yet sublime perfected with a single task repeated a thousand fold.

I hope you find an inkling of calm wherever you are, as you read this and in that moment we create a Kyūdō connection across time and space. Sayōnara!

Nepal Diaries

Heaven is a myth, Nepal is real.

-Anonymous

 

Nepal. A land sheltered by mountains as vast as the sky itself. A land of prayer, poetry and simplicity. A land that welcomes thousands of eager trekkers, climbers, artists, photographers, musicians and tourists every single year knowing fully well that one glimpse of the Himalayas can inspire word, form and thought like nothing else can.

We just got back from a short yet beautiful trip to Nepal. This is a sliver of our journey across landscapes: from the grey noise of Kathmandu, the rustic browns of Bhaktapur to the white glory of Sarangkot and the orange depths of a Nagarkot sunset.

I’m curious to know if you would also like information on our itinerary. On what we saw and experienced last month. On options for hostels, meals, transportation and trekking. Meanwhile, enjoy this brief compilation shot on bumpy roads and eager footsteps, chasing gorgeous mountains with shaky fingers in a land that is as old as it is new.

Not all travel is expensive.

Not all travel is expensive.

Very often people tell me that they think they cannot “spend” on travel because it costs too much. They tell me that they think I’m “lucky” to be able to travel. I understand that travel is much more than just cost, which is sadly the part that gets the most attention and questions. But it’s also about communication with loved ones, a disciplined calendar, about “being able to go away” or finding time for oneself. More importantly, it’s about purpose.
What are you travelling for? What do you seek?
The idea that travel is only about spending money is a misconception. Travel, like anything else in life, is a priority to some of us. If you’re passionate about it and you believe in the essence rather than the forms, you will find a way to make it happen. To plan ahead, to cut corners, to save from every pay cheque, to re-align other aspects of daily life and choose who you choose to travel with.
Because travel is about finding yourself, about keeping it simple. It’s about connecting to how others live elsewhere and not doing the same things you do when you’re at home. It’s a conscious effort to peel away what’s unnecessary to find what really matters.
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with splurging on a holiday or living it up on a trip someplace. But it’s good to remember that not everyone thinks of “travel” the same way and that just like everything else, if you really want to, you will find a way to travel on a budget. To start with, here are some ground rules that I follow when it comes to any journey: let’s say this is for an international trip, given the sheer number of people asking me how I manage one every year.
I’ve also been working on putting up my itinerary for Vietnam for those of you who asked. I should have it ready soon (note to self!). If you would like to read more about the different aspects of travel and budget backpacking, here are some of my favorite bloggers/sites:

 

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I think this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the best way to end this note, because his work is just like real travel: you can find as much magic in it as you look for. It stands for something much deeper than the physical aspect of packing.
Safe travels and inner journeys to you all!

He who would travel happily must travel light.

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