One day, over twenty years ago, I woke up in a hotel room in Mexico City. The room was unadorned and low-budget, a few blocks from Chapultepec Park. Dream memories gradually dissolved into the polyester sheets and morning sunlight entered the room as I had an epiphany that has stayed with me ever since.
I realized each day is a complete lifetime. I especially feel this way when traveling — that each day is new, unique, never seen before.
I began my day in that Mexico City hotel room with meditation, just as I do most days, just as I do whenever I travel. Maybe I’ve learned a few things about how to integrate meditation practice into life with a suitcase. In any case, I’ll explore and share a few thoughts on the basis of meditative discipline, or any discipline.
The Foundation of Buddhist Practice (Shila, Samadhi and Prajna)
The traditional terms for the foundation of Buddhist practice, with includes both meditation and study, are (the Sanskrit terms) shila, samadhi and prajna, or discipline, absorption and intellect.
Shila, as discipline, means something innate. Conventionally we view discipline as something external, an obligation that might feel onerous, even odious. But in this case, shila means drawing on something inside of us – and when we do so we discover joy, another meaning of shila.
This relationship with discipline, or the process of becoming simple and focused, and joy is something anyone involved in the creative arts discovers, that through discipline we come to meet – rather than avoid – the blank page, the blank canvas, the open dance floor. That meeting brings joy.
Samadhi means, in the traditional translation of the term, absorption. Essentially samadhi means meditation. As my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, samadhi means “entering a particular world, which is a full world, a big world, a complete world.”
The natural relationship between discipline and meditation is to make a daily relationship with meditation, to sit for as long as one practically can. During a meditation retreat, shila might mean to sit for ten hours a day, whereas in a life of a fulltime job it might mean to sit twenty minutes in the morning (or evening). The key word, the magic word, when it comes to shila or discipline is priority.
To make something a priority means to actualize what we value the most, to walk the talk. When we do, someone or something will meet us there.
Again, to cite the creative arts, if we make a regular date with our writing – i.e., if we show up every morning to write, if we make writing our priority – eventually creative inspiration will also show up. Traditionally this arrival is that of the muse, the animating spirit of creative life.
Chögyam Trungpa called these muses the dralas. If we make a date in our mind, the muses, the dralas, the lineage can “read our mind.” If we break that date, we disappoint the larger sphere of our being, and so we suffer. If we do show up, and meditate for the time that is reasonable to our day, we always, always, always find it is worthwhile (though any rule is made to sometimes be broken; there are times when it is not indicated to practice).
When the brush meets the blank canvas, the result is a painting. When shila meets samadhi, the result is prajna or intellect. When we think of intellect we usually think of its contents, but intellect here simply mean clearheadedness.
The meditation discipline of sitting practice brings a diminishment and release of discursive thought. Often when we sit we feel we are having more discursive thought, but this is only because we are keeping still and thus noticing them – this noticing is also prajna.
When we finish sitting it is often then that the clearheadedness arrives, is noticed.
Clearheadedness is the basis of all the other virtues of life; if we are not clear, how can we discern virtue?
Travel as an Opportunity
Travel is an opportune time to be clearheaded. Since travel means venturing beyond our familiar home, not only do we need to have our wits about us but the unknown is very wakeful. So if we are already woken up through meditation, the wakefulness of the world penetrates us all the more.
In essence, travel is not so much a destination as a state of mind. Our commute to work is as much travel as a vacation in Rome. As Allen Ginsberg put it in the poem, We Rise on Sunbeans and Fall in the Night:
Dawn’s orb orange-raw shining over palisades
bare crowded branches bush up from marshes –
New Jersey with my father riding automobile
highway to Newark Airport – Empire State’s
spire, horned buildingtops, Manhattan
rising as in W.C. Williams’ eyes between wire trestles –
trucks sixwheeled steady rolling overpass
beside New York – I am here
tiny under sun rising in vast white sky,
staring thru skeleton new buildings,
with pen in hand awake…
For me, in the practice of being an awake traveler, it is good to put a few things in my suitcase that the ordinary traveler might not carry:
2. Small Gong. I also like to carry a small gong. This may be an optional item, but it makes a difference to ring it, to feel the bell’s melody penetrate the room, to feel it invite the lineage and the dralas.
3. Adornments for my Shrine: I always carry a picture of my teacher, a small silk cloth and (usually) a candle. With these three objects I can make a shrine in my hotel or guest house room.
This is the first thing I do as I unpack my suitcase, and it is part of taming the heretofore anonymous space, making it my own, suitable for both sleep and the practice of waking up from sleep, meditation.
4. Alarm Clock: The final accoutrement to carry is an alarm clock (my iPhone). To manifest my priority I like to get up early, with or before the sun. For me, it is better to loose a bit of sleep than to miss the opportune time of the day to meditate, which is early. Dawn is fresh is and so is mediation when done this time of day.
After breakfast, I come back to my room and write. Sometimes I’ll write all morning and not begin the way of the wanderer until the afternoon.
Next I take a long, long and somewhat aimless walk. I’ve been fortunate to be able to take many of these walks in Rome, Istanbul, Phnom Penh.
The meditative traveler is always on a pilgrimage, whether wandering on commute, as Allen Ginsberg did, or through northern Japan, as Basho famously did in his Journey to the Interior.
Each day really is a lifetime.
Bill Scheffel in a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.