Resetting the mind

I feel again like writing here about a bit more than just the occasional travel photos and stories, so here’s the first attempt :) I went to an intense Buddhist meditation retreat last week, which was overall very good and useful for me, but now I want to write about just one aspect of it:

It sometimes (or rather, often :) ) happens to me that my mind gets stuck in some particular thought pattern, that some sort of a dark mood comes over me for a while. I don’t want to be too specific here (but I’m happy to talk about it, feel free to ask), but I think that the topics are not so surprising or uncommon, like what I;m doing with my life, relationships with others, and such fun stuff. It can appear gradually, but after a while of living in such a mood, it becomes an undisputed fact that this is how things are, typically gets connected with being constantly a little stressed… and it’s very hard to even notice that I have a strange, depressive mood at all.

For example, during the PhD in the US this was quite common and connected to the uncertainty whether I should be there at all, if I wanted to actually do math, etc. And this was in my mind very often, almost as a background to anything else I was doing. The surprising thing was that when I came home to Czechia for the holidays, after a while this bad feeling mostly disappeared… and then when I returned to the US a few weeks later, I felt much calmer and could see things with more composure… at least for a while, until it returned.

For part of this summer I also felt some disquiet and worries, also still when I was going to the meditation retreat. The first day there didn’t go too well for me, as I was very tired and sleepy. But then after a while, I noticed that I could see more clearly what was going on with these doubts and that they disappeared, or didn’t feel so urgent and absolute any more. As if my mind got freed of this bad pattern, or partly restarted.

Overall, I feel that what happens is that the mind sometimes gets stuck in a pattern of (negative) thoughts, and then it’s hard to even recognize this or to do something effective about it (being unhappy or upset that I’m a little depressed of course doesn’t help)… And yet sometimes, partly by magic or accident, the mind can reset itself back to a better state, from which the previous worries don’t look anywhere as serious as they used to. For me, changing the environment often helps, especially when it is to go to the Himalayas :) (yes, that’s one of the reasons why I like to go there so much). But still, this is not very systematic, nor practicable too often. This meditation retreat facilitated such a change for me now.

Well, this shouldn’t be too surprising, after all, Buddhist meditation is all about calming the mind and observing what’s going on in it. Yet I somehow noticed this aspect only now. Meditating is easy and doesn’t take too long (you can of course do it just at home) and – at least for me now – seems like a systematic way of getting my mind unstuck and restarted to a better mode.

And of course, I guess that one wouldn’t be too wrong by formulating the main Buddhist teachings as: The mind is composed of such wrong thought patterns, some quite shallow (as the examples that I mentioned), others much much deeper. Yet, by practicing meditation (in the right way), one can eventually become free of all of them.

One final, partly related thought: It seems that sometimes taking hallucinogenic drugs, even just once, can permanently alter the mind, e.g., causing persisting hallucinations. I read about it here and it seems to suggest that it’s possible to switch the mind to a different, broken mode, out of which there is no way back. Quite a scary thought (and yet one more reason not to take any drugs)…

India 2017: Zanskar

I stayed in Czechia this whole summer (except for a few meters past the Polish and Slovak borders on some hikes: Polish blueberries are the best!). It was really enjoyable to take it easy, but it’s also time for some more stories from last year’s Himalayas, continuing this post.

The next plan was to go to Zanskar, a remote and not so often visited area, even for Ladakhi standards. I’ve been tempted to go to Zanskar also on my previous trips, but it never happened… For to get there, you either have to hike for a week, or suffer through 20 bumpy hours on bus and jeep. Some people do the drive on motorbikes… they at least pay for their engine fumes by having to swallow tons of dust (and then cough it out at night, sometimes together with some blood as bonus, as one of them told me). There are those who even go on a bicycle which sounds more intriguing to me! And also it’s hard to get decent food in Zanskar, that is, anything else than rice with dal, or fried noodles, or tsampa.

Since my plans for hiking there ended with the Kanji La fiasco, I had to backtrack and take the road. I was fairly lucky hitchhiking and by a combination of old car-bus-car-shared taxi got to Kargil on the same day I left the hike. Kargil is a curious Muslim town just next to the cease-fire line with Pakistan, but overall not the nicest place to visit. Anyway, to rest a little (and to check email!) and to arrange the onward jeep, I stayed there for two nights in a hotel that was decent two years ago… sadly not anymore, at least if you don’t enjoy bedbugs (and the resulting paranoia). Bug bites were overall quite interesting part of the whole trip – they aren’t that common in the mountains, but once I got some, they took over a week to heal and stop itching… and then I wasn’t sure if I was feeling new bites or the old ones, or if it was entirely my imagination. At least I didn’t bring any small friends with me back home in my sleeping bag!

So I was quite happy when the drive to Padum (240 km in 9 hours) was finally behind me and I was back among Buddhists. This is the center of Zanskar in a big triangular valley that is relatively fertile, and so is filled with villages and gompas (monasteries). I wrote more comments from my week there next to the photos below.

I wanted to continue from Zanskar south, so there was the big question of which pass to take. The most classical one, Shingo La, is quite touristy and already equipped with a dirt road for most of the way, so that’s not ideal for hiking. There are quite a lot of other passes, but some of them lead to southern Kashmir with serious danger from separatist insurgents. And others, such as Kang La, are quite hard, including maybe 10 kilometers long glacier – which I certainly wouldn’t risk doing on my own. It would be possible to get a guide for the trek, but it’s not exactly cheap. Also the weather was quite cloudy with some rain (which means snow higher up), so in the end I decided to take it safe and go via Shingo La. A little boring, but probably the right decision, as I later met a guy who couldn’t cross Kang La and had to return because of the snow fall.

So I started walking up the main valley, hoping to hitch a ride as far as possible to avoid the boring road. Again, I was quite successful – after a short ride on a construction truck, I got into a car with a father and his two sons, both under 10 years old. He was taking them to school for the new school year. To Manali, 200 km away as crow flies, but 1000 km by road! To avoid that, they drive south as far as they can, then walk across the Shingo La (in two days they cover what took me six, albeit leisurely, days) and take the bus to Manali where the kids stay on their own for the whole year while the father returns home. This is quite common in Zanskar and people even like to spread their chances for a good school: “One of our children is in school in Srinagar, one in Manali, another are in Jammu and Dehra Dun, …” (have a look on a map how far these cities are!)

I was slightly considering staying in the Anmu village and hiking up from there to the Cha mountain, which is 5960 meters high, but looks quite accessible from the maps, depending mostly on how tough it would be at the top with glacier and snow (I had no equipment for snow, nor a permit for the peak, so I most likely wouldn’t have gone all the way to the top anyway). But it was possible to drive further and I didn’t feel much like the climb, so I set the plan aside. It is always curious for me to compare my ideas from back home “oh, and there I can climb up this nice hill” with the reality in the mountains. Even when well acclimatized to the altitude, everything is still more tiring than at home… Together with the quite bad food one gets there, suddenly all extra walking becomes much less tempting. It is no accident that the only people crazy enough to go backpacking in the mountains without ponies are Czech and Polish!

When the road ended, the family hurried ahead and I walked a little more slowly in a light rain towards Phuktal. After maybe an hour I met a group of monks and then the family from the car, returning back to a bridge where they needed to cross to the other bank of the river… I felt really sorry for the kids in the rain, although they looked brave enough for now.

Phuktal! The famous monastery built around a big cave, even nowadays quite hard to get to. Phuktal was one of the main motivations for me to go to Zanskar. And, as these things often are, a big disappointment when I got there. The gompa itself is pretty, but the monks seem to be more focused on money from tourists than on anything else. Standards vary quite a lot between monasteries in Ladakh, and it is also certainly a matter of luck whom one meets in a given monastery. Strictly speaking, Buddhist monks take oaths not to use money at all, although this is not practised in Tibetan Buddhism (contrary to, say, southern Theravada tradition). Anyway, temples should be open to everyone for free, although it is expected to make a reasonable donation when visiting. Locals do this always, but tourists often don’t, which led some monasteries to institute entrance fees. Certainly not ideal, but still quite understandable to me. Sadly, Phuktal took this to higher level with monks assertively asking for “donations”=tips, etc. So I was quite happy to leave the next morning.

Followed a series of homestays, friendly in Purne and Kargyak, and not so good in Tangtse. And a “tea tent” at Lakang for the last night before the pass.. filled with smoke, horsemen and fathers who were returning after dropping their children to school. And then the easy Shingo La pass at 5000 meters from which a road goes down south to Lahaul and Keylong. I was quite lucky again that I caught a ride down in the last of the two or three cars that went there that day!

After writing this, I feel a little strange that maybe I’m focusing too much on the bad stories. But the nice and good stuff is so common that it feels not so interesting to write about… All the friendly people, both locals and tourists, atmospheric monasteries, impressive beautiful mountains: just look at the pictures, what more can I add?

India 2017: Ladakh & Nubra

This summer I went to the Himalayas once more: for 7 weeks in and around Ladakh. Here is the first bunch of photos!

I flew to Leh via Helsinki and Delhi, and after a couple of days to acclimatize to the elevation of 3500 meters, took the bus north to the Nubra valley. This area is close to the ceasefire line with Pakistan, and so one needs a permit to go there. It is mostly a formality, quickly and cheaply obtained with the help of a local travel agency, but still soldiers often check it, and so I was a little nervous when I found out that my permit listed me as Danish. Luckily no one seemed to bother beyond comparing the listed passport number, and only one guard asked me in a friendly way “So you’re from Denmark, eh?” which I proudly confirmed so as not to raise any suspicion.

Anyway, with the permit I took a shared taxi over the 5400 m high Khardung La to Nubra, and there first to Turtuk, the last village before the hot border with Pakistan. Unlike the rest of (Buddhist) Ladakh, the village is Muslim and in fact used to be part of Pakistan until 1971, when India captured it. Muslims are often unhappy to be part of India (for example in nearby Kashmir), so I was very surprised when people in Turtuk were telling me that they were in fact happier there thanks to better roads and shops. And it was a friendly place, with lots of children (who were only sometimes shy), but also unfortunately not so few tourists.

Afterwards to Sumur where I chanced on a strange and fascinating ceremony. A group of monks prepared a mandala, placed on it some wood, and then – while chanting sacred texts in Tibetan – started a fire on it, in which they gradually burned huge amounts of all kinds of grains, lentils and seeds. And I really mean huge – it must have been at least several hundred kilos! I saw the first two or three hours, but it went on for all day, with villagers helping to buy and prepare the grains, making food for everyone (even I was invited for lunch), a couple of musicians blowing their trumpets… and (from what I heard) a drinking party in the evening. Apparently they do this every year at the end of the summer to bring good luck for the next one.

Then I returned to Ladakh and went to Kanji, a village of maybe 100 houses hidden in the mountains at 3800 m – although they have a school, a medical center and recently even a rough road. I stayed there for three days which were maybe the best part of my trip this year! First of all, the village and the mountains around are really beautiful, but I also had a great time with the locals. I stayed with a family, where the parents go away to town for 3-4 months each summer to earn money from tourists, and leave the kids to themselves. So the house was run by two boys, 16 and 17 years old, who were also taking care of a 4 year old baby boy, the son of their eldest brother (they were from 7 siblings, which seems like a common number there). And everything was running smoothly, although (or because!) the house had no running water or heating, and electricity only once in a while.

So I chatted sometimes with them, sometimes with the other schoolkids who were hanging around in the afternoons and playing cricket. And the young school headmaster was not only friendly, but even spoke good English, just like a small group of volunteers who were there around the same time as me running some programs for the kids in school.

From Kanji I wanted to go over a few passes and other villages to Zanskar. So one day I set off, safely managed all the rived fording and meetings with yaks, spent the night at 4400 m outdoors under wonderful stars (I didn’t bring a tent to save on weight)… and then the next day I was trying to find the way to the 5300 m high Kanji La pass for three hours, walking not far below it around a pretty glacier, but finally had to give up and return back when it was getting late and beginning to snow a little. The most frustrating part came now home, when I was looking at the pictures and saw the correct trail to the pass on one of them, quite clear and not far from where I was searching!