Today we will live in the moment unless it’s unpleasant, in which case me will eat a cookie. — Cookie Monster
I am on the Balku bridge in Kathmandu. It is June 2018, on the day the air-pollution at that spot was measured to be the worst in the world. That year, Nepal was number 100 on the list of most polluted cities. But on this special day, a combination of rainy season mud and construction has brought traffic to a halt. It is noon, in summer, 80 degrees and humid. Old trucks with Che Guevara bumper stickers spew smoke into the faces of families on motorcycles. Micro-vans are packed with uniformed school children who look at me expressionless. My homestay family and I are packed in a tiny taxi with no air-conditioning. I am lucky to have the window seat, even though the window crank pokes my left-side love handle, squashed as I am next to my plump sister Sabithri and her adult son Sushant. My brother Rama is next to the driver, a family friend, who is distracting us with jokes and songs. I try to joke with them, “In the States, we would say, ‘It was nice knowing you!” The men up front argue about how to translate my joke. You would think we all would laugh awkwardly, but we don’t. Is it that they are used to this living hell? Or maybe I am low on oxygen and misinterpret the conversation completely.
The sky had been relatively clear when we left the house, a light grey. But on the bridge twenty minutes later, the air is sepia, hanging with sand. I feel the grit in my teeth, and ask my family if they feel the same. Of course they do, “What, do you think we are animals?” Rama laughs and translates into Nepali for his wife. It is a miracle that I have not offended them yet, at least not irreversibly, in our thirty year friendship. I look around for signs of distress but I see few, except for drivers blinking their eyes and fanning their faces with their hands. They do not show much discomfort, but my claustrophobia and fear of being hot has kicked into overdrive. We sit for an hour (or is it ten minutes, I don’t know) jockeying forward and changing lanes, as if in slow motion. An air-conditioned pickup truck drives up tall next to us, I crane my neck and see that there are no passengers there. A selfish thought makes me blush. What if I jump out of this car right now and hop into the back seat of the truck? Is the door unlocked? How could the driver say no to a middle-aged foreign woman whose cheeks are now the color of ripe strawberries. If this gets any worse, I’m doing it. If Rama had asked me what I was thinking, I don’t even know if I would have felt shame. In a survival scenario, aren’t we supposed to help ourselves first before we can help others? And my family is eating salty snacks and staring out the window. Actually, I am lying. I feel terrible that I would consider leaving them there breathing from the exhaust pipe of the bus ahead of us, for the chance to save my own tail. Of course, I could invite them into the pickup too if that were possible. I hate myself right now.
The traffic cop is wearing a mask and whistles stop, stop, stop, go, go, although we cannot see him clearly until the bridge’s end. He blows his whistle again. With white gloved hand, he escorts us to freedom, Go, Go, Go! Chito, Chito! “Fast!” yells the policeman. “…Before this bridge eats you up and spits you out,” he thinks but does not say. We drive unobstructed on the Ring Road and uphill to the resort at Chandragiri Hills, where a cable car takes us further up to a mountain top, where a Hindu swami waits in his temple. When I go up to greet him, he offers me a mala of sacred rudraksha beads and lets me take his picture. He tells me that if I wear the beads, it is the same as giving charity to many cows. My family thinks I should not have given the swami so much money in return for his gift, but it was the only kind of bill I had and I didn’t want to ask anyone for change. They talk about it the rest of the afternoon.
San Jose, California. November 2018. I am at an anthropology conference, though not having much fun because we have been warned to stay inside. Typical masks are ineffective for filtering the smoke from the wildfires that have raged for weeks before I arrived. My son Terrin and his girlfriend Allison drive up five hours from Los Angeles to visit me and Allison’s grandparents. Most of our weekend planning relates to how to reduce exposure to air pollution, how to find the better masks, and where we can go that doesn’t involve much walking outside. The day starts with a fancy brunch. Cucumber and mint water on the table. Invited by Allison’s grandparents, we go to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, wander around an Andy Warhol exhibit, and watch Terrin and Allison play together like otters. The sky is an eerie greyscale.
When we go outside to view an exhibit in the yard, we do not linger because we have been warned that breathing for one day in the city is like smoking a pack of cigarettes. We drive back to San Jose and have Italian food, with crunchy bread and red wine. The next day, the sky is still grey when we head towards the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We see jellyfish frolic and little sharks in big tanks. We eat fish tacos, drink lemonade, and head back to the car. Terrin drives and Allison navigates our way down the coast. We end up at a wild beach near Big Sur. With plenty of time before sunset, we walk and sit and enjoy the beach, just us and a few families playing in the sand. A group of Indian students test the temperature of the November water with their toes and then squeal. The hazy wildfire sunset is a pearl of radiance. It shines behind us upon purple lupine flowers. I can’t remember being anywhere so wild and beautiful.
Bangkok, Thailand. Nineteen year-old Terrin and I are visiting his father, who has come down from rural Isan. We are waiting for a ferry at a transportation center on the Chao Phraya River. The water is wide and brown, and from where we sit, we can see skyscrapers, temples, and rusted houses where family life is laid out for the river goers to see in full detail. The diesel from the idling boats next to us makes me dizzy. As the long boat finally arrives in a flurry of horns and shouts, I try to imagine this being part of my everyday life, but I can’t. The jumping and jostling, the rushing and waiting, the bath of diesel fumes. Grabbing the hand of a boat boy while in mid-air, we hurl ourselves one at a time onto the deck and find a row of crooked seats under the low metal roof. When the engine is on, a spray of water mixed with engine oil sputters out the back and then blossoms into a fan of grey water. Off we go, into the heart of the City of Angels, in a boat made for small-town canals. Our next stop is Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. From the bottom to the steep top prang(tower), the temple is plastered with shards of porcelain salvaged from a shipwreck and transformed into a sacred mosaic of colorful flowers. The temple is a tribute to the center of the universe and the wind god, Phra Phai, who must wonder what we have done to his sacred waterway.
And look at me, the drama queen. Those three times stick in my memory. Three polluted horrible days that turned delightful — all beauty and joy and laughter. Temporarily inconvenienced by choking air (and noise and water) pollution, so much so that I remember them in crisp detail.
Blocked channels, though, have long haunted me. When my first baby died at birth (26 years ago), it was because of an obstructed windpipe. I remember the nurse telling me that they did not have a tube small enough to place through his blocked trachea. When my ex-husband died, he had lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. I see flashes in my head of his daughter’s Facebook videos of him in the hospital. She held his hand as he alternated between gasping and sighing. His life ended off camera, I imagine him staring glassy-eyed into space. Our son Terrin had asthma as a child. Even though he’s a healthy 23 year-old man, I still spend a minute or two of every day worrying about his breathing. One part the realities of channels and winds, nine parts my own anxieties. My father smoked for most of his adult life but quit one day when his doctor told him he had to. These days, my father has ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease) and it causes his throat and lungs to fill with mucus. He doesn’t swallow well and chokes frequently, which may be the end of him one day. I think of the COVID-19 patients on respirators right now, all around the world. The earth itself is damaged, forest lungs ravaged and wildfires rampant. Mother Nature is showing her wrathful side with floods and droughts and earthquakes.
On the positive side of every topic under the unchanging sun, there can be found another side — the good things. I will start with the giggles of my niece’s new baby Flint. He has wild, red hair that swirls like Albert Einstein’s would have in a southern New Jersey storm. Satellite photos of China and the eastern U.S. show pollution decreasing during the last few months. Dolphins swim unobstructed in Venice canals. Fiona, the rhinoceros, dives like a dolphin in her pool at the Cincinnati zoo. The smog is clear in some Indian cities where the Himalayas can be seen from 140 miles away for the first time since WWII. My network of friends has delivered winds of love to me on this quarantine morning, in the form of some butter, an I Love Lucy keychain, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. I wanted to accept a breakfast sandwich that was offered selflessly but I rejected it as possibly contaminated with virus droplets.
As usual, once I have done a thorough job of judging something as bad or good, I remember that there is another option. The non-dual option, pioneered by Bön Buddhists, in which reality is clear and there is no judgment. There are not two sides. We are all suffering and joyful and neither and both. All of us (sentient beings) are in the same boat, driven by fisherfolk and skippers, no captain reigning supreme. This way and that we glide and dock, buoyed by gales and gusts — the pull of the moon — through storms largely of our own making. We travel upon well-worn channels, as antelope and canoes and B52s have done throughout history. The ferry at Port Kent, the wooden fishing boats on Pokhara’s lakeside, and the junk boats on Halong Bay are one in the same. So are the rafts full of refugee mothers and children, floating without food or water off the coast of Malta, Greece, and Malaysia. Some people on the vessel may have more food or less, know how to swim or not. The rafts are pirated by overlords or held aloft by country parsons. Ultimately we are only one, undivided.
The Dalai Lama’s secret temple in Lhasa, Tibet, is behind the Potala Palace, across a serene lake surrounded by willow trees. Upstairs and behind a trap door, there is a meditation chamber painted with murals, strange and wonderful (Saner, 2015). Hairy men doing yoga postures cover the walls. Sky dancers ride enlightened in a soul drum. Animals and charnel grounds feature prominently. Meditators sit and rituals performed. In one spot, a cosmic vagina arises — the fertile channel that gave birth to the world. The universe is crowning from a sacred vulva that sits on a top of a hill, across from whimsical clouds and tree tops where the wild things are. Even the Dalai Lama did not get a chance to see these murals that were hidden away behind a silk curtain for centuries. But that is a story for another day.
A Bhutanese yogin falls from the crest of a jump into a sitting meditation pose, landing on a thick cushion made of the “hollow hairs of a musk deer” (Baker, 138), soft and forgiving. The landing forces energy to stream into the central channel to induce an “expanded state[s] of consciousness.” A yogini falls onto her side, taking the stalled energy — like snakes’ venom waiting in hollow fangs —and shooting the toxins up and out of the body. A practitioner sits naked in a cave and his body is heated only by his own inner fire (tummo). Is it magic or just mystery?
On this snowy April day, 30 days into our COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the threat of breathing in tiny droplets of virus from other people keeps us mostly inside. The virus is morning naps and “no available delivery times” on Instacart, and it is clean closets, quiche, and funny memes. Our coughs and sneezes can poison a radius of 6-10 feet. A cardboard box touched by a worker in an Amazon warehouse in New Castle, Delaware can host the virus for up to fourteen days. Chongtul Rinpoche says that the lung of the earth has a hole in it, which is why we have the COVID-19 virus. Does he mean the Tibetan word lung, which means wind? Or does he mean the English word “lung,” which could also mean wind, breath, life. Or both, or neither?
I try doing the Nine Breaths practice recommended by Latri Rinpoche in a video he sent to me through Dropbox, one information channel that I would not have expected. My efforts are half-assed, but I do as he says: I sit in a meditation position, and bring my thumb to the base of my right ring finger. I close my right nostril with my finger and inhale, all the while imagining the breath going down the red energy channel parallel to my spine, holding the air in deep at my navel, and then blowing it up the white channel so the poisons can flow out of my other nostril. I do this three purifying times. Taking three more breaths like this with my left nostril closed, that makes six. Next, I inhale through both nostrils and fill my red and white channels at the same time until the air meets in the middle at my secret place. After holding for a time in my pelvis, I send the breath up the blue channel. Three times I do this, while visualizing the air moving up and out through the crown of my head. I am not a clear crystal body, but I can feel oxygen fill my cells and dormant CO2 escaping upwards and out my nostrils, if not my tigle (top of my head). I try to imagine 72,000 nadi energy pathways) of escape for the vital winds and the associated poisons that accumulate just by my being alive.
I am supposed to send prayers to all sentient beings. I don’t think I know how to do that, and I don’t believe in prayer anyway should I want to. But I remember my ex-husband and am grateful that his daughter was there for his last breaths, as his struggle with blocked bronchioles came to a peaceful end. I cradle in my dreams the perfect son that we lost together, and I grieve with Suthin our lost connection to each other. I honor the nurses and doctors and all of the helpers, and wish that with a puff of purifying air, I could banish the poisons that sit in the hollow channel of snakes’ fangs. I thank the soil and the clouds, the tsunamis and the godawful lake effect snows of Syracuse. I wish for my baby grand nephew Flinty that he breathes free on soccer fields and drama club stages, grows up healthy without obstructions — personal, societal, economic— nor global pandemics. I clear the channels and send purifying winds throughout our body — the one we inhabit together — and I see us planting millions of trees to help the earth heal herself. Just as soon as we can leave the house.
As I reflect on channels and winds, I remember that my ex-husband lived with his mistress in a little pink house by a canal off the Lam Pao river, and hid that from me for twenty years after our divorce. I knew that canal so well at one time. We used to go there to visit his friends. But after he died, I saw a picture of the pink house and could locate it in my mind or on Google Earth, like the boy in the movie Lion looking for his mother by remembering landmarks — train tracks, a water tower, a river that splits into hundreds of canals. Suthin’s and Bui’s house abutted the thinnest of canals — swift yet nameless — flowing through the thinnest of bronchioles. The silvery water that ran past their cottage headed in a straight path to the Lam Pao dam and the Dok Kate beach, named after a flower (Milky tree) that bloomed bright in yellow clumps like a Baltimore honeysuckle. I thought that those two people caused me so much pain through their lying and cheating. I was wrong all along. Thinking of them sitting in front of the house and watching the water run is what I did to cause my own pain. My suffering was human but its longevity unnecessary. And the line between suffering and nirvana(perfect happiness) appears to be very thin indeed.
Baker, Ian (2000). The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Baker, Ian (2020). Tibetan Yoga: Principles and Practices. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Latri Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche (2020). The Nine Breaths (white paper). Yeru Bon Center. Minneapolis.
Saner, E. (2015). “Take me to the Cosmic Vagina: Inside Tibet’s secret tantric temple.” The Guardian, Nov 10.