During the past ten days, from Flagstaff, Arizona, through the Navajo Reservation, to small town of Monticello, Utah, the pilgrimage has brought me to lay my head at a different place every day except for one pause in the Grand Canyon.
The White Dragon Horse rode between 4,000 to 8,000 feet elevation, up and down through the magnificent canyon lands. (The steepest single day climb was 4,200 feet.) The inner journey has traversed similar heights of joy and valleys of grief. Below are some reflections.
(Not) Taking photos at the Grand Canyon
All too often, any one seeking serenity at the sights of natural wonders (like the Grand Canyon) these days are plagued by swarms of quacking tourists. They seem to have one goal in mind: take photos, with themselves in it. And to rub salt in the wound, today's tourists have armed themselves with the latest development in the arsenal of narcissism: selfie sticks. Thinks the individualist society, "Who would want to ask a stranger for help to take our photos? I can pose with my prettier side much more at ease when I have a selfie stick in hand!"
I, too, have often felt the urge to pull out my phone and snap a few shots (although too old-school for selfies). Actually, I have felt and acted upon that urge so much so that it started to really bother me. It interrupts my connection with nature, and leaves me still unsatisfied after clicking the button. I started to reflect on when and why I take photos. I realized that I compulsively take photos for one of three reasons: to remind myself that I was there, to show others that I was there, and to alleviate my anxiety for not being able to fully behold the present moment. The last reason might be the most predominant. None of the three are wholesome reasons enough to interrupt the preciousness of direct experience in the present moment.
I noticed that I am particularly itching for my camera when I am the least confident of my ability to absorb the beauty in front of me. I am fearful of losing this moment, this scene. I am greedy to hold on to it forever, to possess it once and for all. (Not to mention the tickle of fantasizing the Facebook Likes and the mass envy of this photo!) So, as a coping mechanism, I take a picture, as if to check off a box, to assure myself that the "present moment" is somehow "captured" and canned for eternity. In fact, I rarely look at the photos I took before.
(Saying "See You Later" at times of farewell serves the same purpose. It is an empty promise of future reunion -- never actually guaranteed in this impermanent world -- to alleviate the pain of present separation. By rushing to imagine more time together in the future, we tend to devalue the "now", and take farewells lightly. In fact, every farewell could be the last. In this life, at least. The "see you later" mind trick is so common that the Chinese equivalent, "Zai Jian", and the German word, "Auf Wiedersehen", means exactly the same, "see again". But I digress…)
So, out of fear and greed, I have lost the present moment -- my only chance to connect with the beauty in front of me.
Upon realizing this, I started to reprogram the mind:
If/whenever I reach for the camera,
Then, pause, let go of the urge, and use all my senses to perceive and connect with the present moment. Best done with eyes closed.
Instead of "capturing" an image, let the whole surrounding "capture" me. Grand Canyon doesn't need to be featured one more time on someone's Facebook wall. Instead, it is my soul's wall that needs a fresh imprint of the Grand Canyon.
This micro practice of "not taking photos" has afforded me much richer experiences -- and it saves the phone battery. The imprints are alive in me, instead of dead in a storage disk.
Between Grand Canyon and Utah, I have had the privilege of traveling on what’s officially designated as the Navajo Reservation. (The historical and cultural area for the native peoples is much larger.)
It has been a most rewarding dip into the rich and beautiful Navajo culture, making me thirsty for more, and at the same time overflowing with the gifts that have already been bestowed.
Auspiciously, the day before my entry into the Navajo land, I met with a dear new friend in Flagstaff. The friend, D, inherits and nurtures a strong connection with her Navajo traditions and intuition. After leaving the home village to receive higher education and experiences in the "outside world", she is answering a call to serve her people, and to step fully into the sacred role of a Diné woman.
She rises before the sun to make cornmeal offering, prays in the Diné language, and communes with nature. At 5am, she introduced me to her ancestral land, applied tobacco ash on the feet of mine and the White Dragon Horse's (on the wheels), and gifted me a small pouch of cornmeal, which I have been offering every morning for the past two weeks. It is with such blessings, hopefulness, and warmth that I entered the reservation.
Almost every day, I stay with Navajo families, and meet with many more along the road. Some Navajo people are living in the traditional way. Some have fathers or brothers who are medicine men. Some are Christians and serve in the US military. I even saw a Navajo family at the back roll of an otherwise all white Mormon ward. All of them have shown me great hospitality and kindness, and generously shared with me their heritage, cuisine, longings and hopes.
A stark contrast to the beautiful Diné traditions and its loving people, is the bleak current conditions on "the Res". As I try to sense the energy in the community, overall, I do not get an uplifting or constructive feeling. The Navajo land and people have so much to offer to themselves and to the wider world, but they seem to be caught in cycles of hurting.
Once, as I was devouring a bowl of blue mush of corn meal, the young man at the street food stand remarked to me, "The Res is like a third world country, right in the middle of the US."
A couple told me that young Navajo people on the reservation could only find jobs catering to the tourists. If they want other careers, they have to leave their homeland and go into cities.
All the larger towns on the Res are marred with McDonald's and the like. Obesity is prevalent, and junk food and sugary drinks grace many family tables. As far as I could see, the main economic engine is tourism. Many natives are reduced to pedaling traditional arts and crafts to wooden-faced tourists. Coal and uranium mining has been the backbone industry. One son of a 106-year-old medicine man told me that most of the elderly people on the other side of the street have died young of cancer, due to the contamination from the mines.
The well-curated Navajo museum in Tuba City sits in humble shadow across the street from the Golden Arches of McDonald's. The Drive-Thru lane of the fast food store was long and busy, while I was mostly alone with a few European tourists in the museum. I inquired at the admission desk, and estimated that the museum's monthly income is less than $4,000. They are closing down the museum this winter.
I joined a Navajo family to attend their Lamb of God church Bible study on a Wednesday night. The preacher and the single-digit attendance were all Navajos. Most of the people are seriously obese. The service was in both English and Navajo. I sat on the bench, trying to wrap my head around the contrast between these people's sincere devotion to Jesus, and the atrocities that have been inflicted upon them in the name of God. At the end of the study, a young woman led songs in both Navajo and English in praise of God. As the beautiful and devotional melodies poured forth from her way overweight body, I almost had tears in my eyes, with very mixed feelings.
Speaking with the families, and picking up some local history, have given some clues to the prevailing sense of brokenness and despair. The centuries-long colonization and oppression of the native people by the white settlers is so atrocious that even I have started to harbor "white guilt". (As a foreigner who enjoys the dividend of the American Empire, I, too, incur my fair share of the collective karma of American colonialism.) The blatant colonialism of the past has morphed into more sophisticated -- and no less degrading -- corporate rule of the present.
Just like in many inner-city Black communities and in other former colonies around the world, the victims of history continue to be dominated by their old masters (now wearing new suits, of course), and self-inflict more wounds in the fashion of their old enslavement.
As I go deeper into the Reservation, my restlessness to "do something for them" has turned into the realization that the only people who can bring hope and change to this community are their own young ones. No condescending or well-intentioned outsiders could "fix" or "save" this land. The best thing that we "outsiders" can do for them, is to repent for our sins, to dismantle the machines of misery in our headquarters, to offer wholehearted prayers, and to encourage and support those local people who are stepping into their callings.
So, every day as I biked through the land, I prayed, "May this land heal. May this land awaken her children to help themselves."
The Four Corners area is sparsely populated. I would often bike for a whole day without seeing any humans outside of their moving cars. Instead, I have run into wild horses and elks. The striking natural beauty and the treasured solitude present a perfect occasion to listen to Thoreau's Walden.
It is a thought-provoking and spiritually nourishing book. Thoreau might be one of the first contemplatives of the American culture. He embodies Eastern wisdom, and frequently quotes ancient Chinese and Indian classics.
When I was learning English in China, I once memorized a few pages from his chapter on Solitude in Walden, and could still remember some cherished lines. "I have never found a companion so companionable as solitude."
Now, I have found a good companion in Thoreau, as I travel in solitude in the US. Walden, at many points, almost seems like a behavioral art, a defiant demonstration. It is less about the content of his writing, but the fact that he could afford to write leisurely and passionately about many seemingly "pointless" details about nature. (That's exactly the point!) Thoreau would describe at length his interaction with a loon, or his observation of ants fighting. In his unhurried pace, I slowly begin to partake in the true abundance he has discovered.
"For I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher's desk."
During the long and solitary rides, I would not have much face-to-face interactions with people. But, I would cross path with dozens of cars every day, and make subtle and fleeting exchanges with the people looking out the car windows. Some would wave to me in excitement and encouragement. Some would stare at me in bewilderment, often sitting up from their reclined seats, taking their feet off the dashboard, to get a better look at this crazy guy riding (or pushing…) a bike up a 10% grade slope in the middle of nowhere.
I am slowly realizing the invisible impact of these momentary "interactions", and how my state of mind affects other people, even in a split second.
If I am friendly and wave to a car, even if the car people ignore me, they might be more inclined to smile at the next cyclist they see, or give the cyclist more room on the road shoulder while passing. If I neglect the smiling faces from a car, they might be less inclined to show kindness to the next cyclist they pass by.
If I look happy and at peace, then the car people might think, "Wow, what a way to live life and experience the world", and be inspired to step out of their comfort zone in some ways. If I look miserable and exhausted, then they might congratulate themselves, "Thank goodness I am not out there. I would never do such things to myself", and slump back to into their cushy seats.
It is not about how I artificially present myself for any intended effect, but that my mere presence is sending a message, and creating ripples.
So, I have made it a practice to smile at cars passing by me. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."
"Man sieht sich immer zweimal im Leben"
This is one of my favorite German sayings, roughly meaning "People always meet twice in life." This prophecy has abundantly materialized over the past two weeks. Here are a few reunions.
#1: In Arcosanti, I met a good brother Adam, who invited me to visit his bike shop in Flagstaff. A few days later, we met again at his shop, while he is busy with his campaign for city council. He showed me the dwelling and greenhouse he built by his own hands. He pointed to the plants in the pots, and said, "These few plants will give me hundreds of seeds this season. This is what gives me hope. Even if our civilization goes down, the resilience of life will continue on Earth."
#2: At Adam's shop, I met a Russian woman bicycling through the US. A few days later, I ran into her again at the Grand Canyon. She is cycling in the most casual, non-specialized gears, and laughed at the commercial obsession of "getting the best gears".
#3: At Arcosanti, I met a lovely family of four touring around North America in a compact camper van. Their 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son (both home-schooled) were teaming up to make and sell hand-made jewelry at the music festival.
In their mother's words, "Several years ago Brian and I committed to figuring out some sort of path we could take that would veer us away from the typical consumer driven, career-based American dream. We wanted to create our own American Dream. Basically we wanted out of the typical spiral of working our whole lives in order to afford to live in the typical American way."
Their camper van passed me again in Grand Canyon, and we both felt that we might run into each other again at some point.
#4: About 25 miles outside of Grand Canyon, the wind was so fierce that it was too dangerous to bike on the road. (It was so windy that I could not eat my trail mix -- the wind would blow the granola away before I could shove it in my mouth… On the upside, I did not need to expense much energy to inhale, as the air is forced into my nostril by the wind.) So I hang out at the gas station in search for a ride into the national park. Two young women agreed to give me a ride in their pickup truck, only to realize that they forgot their gas tank key, and had to go back for the night. So they went back to Flagstaff to get their key, and I was too tired, and stayed nearby with a Mexican family for the night. The next morning, the wind still persisting, I was at the same gas station again trying to make new friends. There came the same two women in their pickup! We both laughed, as I hopped in, and assured them that I have not been waiting for them all night at the gas station.
#5: As I biked through the Navajo Reservation, the fierce wind continue to blew me off the road. So, one day, I caught a ride with a Navajo couple between Tuba City and Shonto. The lady told me about her jewelry shop in Monument Valley. A few days later, I found her there, and she was overjoyed to see me again, gave me a hug, and invited me to stay with her family that night.
#6: Soon after entering Utah, I was stopped by a friendly state patrol officer. He said, "There was a report of a dead guy lying on the side of the road. I wonder if it was you." I checked in with myself, just to make sure that I indeed felt quite alive, and responded, "No, it was not me." I've never been asked if I was dead. Quite a Zen question! (To be fair, the officer thought it might be possible I was lying down for rest, and someone had mistaken it for a dead person.)
The next day, I ran into the same officer at a store. Upon hearing my itinerary on the bicycle, he shook his head, and said, "You are crazy." I am only glad that apparently "craziness" is not a crime heavy enough to warrant an arrest in Utah.
In another word, all along the pilgrimage, now over three months in, I keep meeting one same person. That person is my mother. It is the Guan Yin Bodhisattva. It is the Christ consciousness. It is the nourishing hand that feeds and cares. It is "myself". Perhaps, we will keep meeting that same person in different manifestations, until we recognize it for what it is.
Would like to end by sharing two recent dreams, one with Gandhi, one with S.N. Goenka, the Vipassana meditation teacher.
The Gandhi dream: I am in a car with my parents. They ask me what I have learned from working with Gandhi. I think about it, and say, "Take the example of a hungry person. If I feel hungry, I can either go get fast food (cheap but unhealthy), or I can get an organic kale salad (expensive but healthy). Gandhi taught me the third way: before acting on the buying impulse, I can reflect upon whether my 'hunger' is a real physical need, or merely a mental craving. More often than not, I can do away with the desire to eat."
I share with my parents that being with Gandhi has shown me that nothing short of a spiritual revolution could save humanity from its self-destruction. Upon realizing the magnitude and beauty of this challenge, I choke up, dreamy tears streaming down my face.
The Goenka dream: I am sitting next to Goenka. This great meditation teacher smile with all compassion, and ask if I have any more questions. I said, I won’t ask more questions, because I have already received enough answers to act upon.
Bowing to the teachers of all times and realms :)
P.S. Itinerary ahead:
- June 1-12: vision quest in Utah
- Be back in San Francisco by end of June
- July 1-16: Buddha Root Farm Retreat in Orogen
- July 20-27: Spiritual Ecology Youth Fellowship training near Seattle
- July 27: fly back to Shanghai, and bike to Northern India by early October :)
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.