Travel Dharma

Mark and I have just returned from adventures in northern Spain and southern Germany.  Traveling provides many opportunities to learn Dharma lessons.

I started off in the Basque Country, co-teaching a final GIM seminar for the third generation of Spanish music therapy students.

We started each morning outdoors with Qigong exercises to warm up our bodies and minds for the didactic part of the seminar.  The simple movements helped us stay connected with one another in the present moment.

One afternoon, when the students were overwhelmed with information, I guided a short period of silent meditation.  Each person in the group was amazed by how calming and centering it was to pause and turn inward to focus on the breath.

After the students presented case studies as their final projects, they participated in a joyous graduation ceremony.  I felt like a proud mother sending my musical children out into the world to spread Guided Imagery and Music.  Because I’m passing  the baton to my Spanish teaching assistant, Esperanza, who will continue leading future GIM trainings in the Basque Country, I also felt sad about bringing to a close eight years of rewarding work in that part of the world.  In the midst of our celebrating, I faced the truth of the impermanence of all things.

After the graduation, Mark met me in Spain, and we traveled to the northeast corner of the country to San Sebastián, a seaside resort whose beaches have views of a 12th century castle. We encountered people from many nations communicating in various languages—topless sunbathers, impoverished panhandlers, aquisitive tourists, and serious pilgrims, who were marching along the long route to the church of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.

I observed my mind making quick judgments and comparisons about the people we passed, and I realized that they were probably doing the same about me!

Two former students, Idoia and José Ignacio, who live in that part of the Basque Country, escorted us on a day trip across the border to France.

José Ignacio brought along his two adopted sons, who had been homeless and begging on the streets of Río before he met them in a Brazilian orphanage.  A single gay man, he is raising these boys, aged nine and twelve, with a mixture of affectionate love and firm limits.  Soon after the adoption five years ago, José Ignacio suddenly became deaf in one ear, and his hearing was severely compromised in the other one.  As a music professor and singer, he was devastated to find that no doctor could alleviate his symptoms.  Hearing aids make it possible for him to communicate and to continue in his careeer.  When his mother died recently of dementia and pneumonia, José Ignacio and his sister found a caregiver to tend to his aging father.

While I was listening to José Ignacio, I felt compassion for the numerous losses he has experienced since his graduation from the GIM training.  He bears his measure of sorrows with remarkable equanimity and dignity.

He reminded me of the First Noble Truth about the universality of suffering and the Third Noble Truth about the cessation of suffering as soon as we learn to accept reality as it is.

In Germany, Mark and I stayed with friends, Mariella and Wesley and their 5-year-old daughter Annika, in their newly built home in a quiet village on the Ammersee lake outside of Munich.  Although I found some moments unpleasant–sharing a single bathroom, eating a diet rich in butter and cream, and waking to the sound of Annika wailing before her walk to kindergarten—our hosts were so warmly welcoming and generous that most moments were pleasant.

A high point was touring the venerable university town of Tübingen with Mariella serving as our translator.  We walked along narrow cobbled stone streets past well-preserved15th century buildings until our legs ached.  As we departed, Mark and I felt the sadness of separating from our friends mixed with relief to be heading home to our dog and our life in Houston.

Mark and I flew home from Europe on Friday.  After an uneventful flight from Munich to Frankfurt, we boarded a 777 aircraft that was supposed to fly directly to Houston.  While we were watching the movie, The Last Quartet, the pilot announced that there was smoke in the cockpit and that we would be making an emergency landing in 15 minutes at the Newark airport.

I reached out to hold Mark’s hand, thinking, “If we’re going to die, at least I’m with the person I most love.”  As I listened to Opus #131, the exquisitely emotional string quartet that Beethoven composed shortly before his death, I thought, “If I never hear another piece, this is the perfect music for now.”  The plane landed on a runway, where firetrucks with flashing lights were waiting. The pilot informed us that the maintenance crew was on board and that we could move about the cabin but not leave the plane.

From our Economy Plus seats, I could see the people in Business Class congregating.  The thought crossed my mind, “It doesn’t matter how much money we spend on tickets for this flight, in a crisis we’re all in the same situation.”   After a tense wait, the pilot let us know that the fire had been caused by a faulty printer beneath his seat, and not by mechanical parts on the plane.  After several hours of paperwork, we continued on our way to Houston.  We faced the Dharma lesson about the uncertainty of life.

I can honestly say that it’s a big relief to be here tonight with you with our feet on the ground!