Author Archives: James

My Morning Routine

Since I returned ‘home’ from my latest cycling adventure (Vietnam to UK, sort of – book coming soon…), I’ve invested a bunch of time in to personal development. I read books, internet articles and speak with like minded friends about the important stuff in our lives.

One of the most impactful improvements (‘life hacks’ is what the kids are calling it), is a structured morning routine. A disciplined morning routine leads in to effective activity with a feeling of accomplishment lasting throughout the day – it’s a very satisfying cycle to create.

  1. Make your bed. Sounds simple but this is the first task of the day and you just nailed…
  2. Meditate. I sit an hour of Vipassana straight after I’ve made my bed.
  3. Enjoy a hot drink. I take a cup of boiled water or herbal tea. The point is to just sit and be in the moment as you visualise a successful day ahead.

For me these three are locked down, everyday habits. No excuses, no skipping, no shortcuts. Also important is taking enough sleep – that means 7 / 8 hours for me. Experiment with your own sleep but make certain that you’re getting enough – it’s essential. I’m lucky enough to have the freedom to plan my daily schedule around my own requirements, if I go out til late, I’ll sleep in. But usually, I’m sound asleep by 11pm latest.

After my hot drink I’ll hit the laptop for a four hour stint of essential work related tasks. This is my main work activity for the day. This does not include email, phone calls or meetings or browsing the internet and social media or consuming content. These activities are for after lunch.

At 11am I break my fast and take a fruit breakfast.

Around 1pm I’ll reply to emails, make phone calls and take any meetings (usually via Skype). Once these tasks are complete I’ll catch up on any ‘work’ related reading. After that, I’ll kick back with a book, go to the forest with the bike (when I’m in the UK), or like now (I’m in Goa for the winter), I’ll go to the beach, do some yoga, sun gazing and socialising.

What’s  your morning look like?

Nonviolent Communication

Over the last few years, as my Vipassana practice has deepened, I’ve become interested in the way that we humans communicate. Language is one of the many things that make humans the most sophisticated beings on the planet. How we use language essentially determines the quality of our lives.

In meditation one begins to realise that our thoughts, words and deeds are all manifestations of our volition. The challenge is that while our intentions may be ‘good’, what we think, say or do may be rooted in our past conditioning, habits and biases. Every single person on Earth has a totally unique set of ‘conditionings’, which leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding.

Language is one of the primary ways in which we can have our needs met. Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a technique pioneered by the late Marshall Rosenberg and asks us to remap the way that we communicate with one another by removing the violence inherent in much of our ‘conditioned’ speech.

The purpose of Nonviolent Communication is to inspire a compassionate, heartfelt connection so that all needs may be valued; to connect to the life in ourselves and others; to be inspired and to inspire others to give from the heart.

“In every moment, each of us is trying to meet our needs in the best way we know how.” ~ Marshall Rosenberg

Like meditation, Nonviolent communication is simple but not easy. In any situation there are two ways to enhance connection and understanding; 1) express our feelings and needs vulnerably, 2) listen to the feelings and needs of others with empathy. These are radically different choices than our conditioning is accustomed to.

If we move away from praise, blame, judgment and conflict towards a heightened state of awareness, we can cultivate an attitude of acceptance, empathy and understanding. From this new perspective we can begin the journey of deep meaningful connection within ourselves and communicate more fully in harmony with others. Improving the way that we relate to and communicate with others will enhance the quality of our lives in beautiful, wonderful and unexpected ways.

Empathy vs Sympathy 

Empathy says ‘I feel you, we’re the same’.
Sympathy says ‘I understand what you’re feeling but that’s separate from me’.
Sympathy invites pity.
Sympathy leads to imbalance; an attitude of superior position that says, ‘I’m OK, you’re not OK. You have a problem, I don’t’.
Empathy invites acceptance.
Empathy means equality; empathy says, ‘I get it. We’re the same. Let’s share that problem and work through it’.
Empathy shows up, hugs and spends time.
Sympathy sends a card.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar; Guru Nanak Gurpurab Festival

We sat mesmerised by the golden lights reflecting in the holy waters of Sri Harmandir Sahib as the hypnotic rhythm of the Sikh mantra joined us with the infinite potential of the universe. Our journey had brought us to the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the most revered site in the Sikh religion; a place of pilgrimage, worship and splendour.

As luck would have it, we arrived on the day the Guru Nanak Gurpurab festival, our day and night at the temple were spent celebrating the founder of Sikhism with thousands of locals and pilgrims from across India. The Golden Temple in Amritsar really has to be seen to be believed; one thousand tonnes of gold cover the copper clad structure to create a most striking impression; the suns light reflected brightly off the golden walls in to the calmly rippling water.

Approaching the Golden Temple in Amritsar from the Langar Hall

Approaching the Golden Temple in Amritsar from the Langar Hall

The temple complex is a large stone building painted white with a clock towers on three sides and a maze of other buildings at the west side arranged in deference to the grand gateway that leads to the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple. The queue to visit this place is long; the waiting time is north of three hours; holidays and weekends naturally being the most popular times to visit.

During our walk around the complex we made a friend, Ranjit Singh, a handsome young Sikh lad of 18 years, gave us firm handshakes and sound advice. We asked about the possibility staying the night at the temple and happily he showed us through to the Sri Nagar REF on the east wing where the accommodation is found. The tall, turbaned, one armed guard gave us the OK and we made a plan to return later with our bags.

View of the Golden Temple in Amritsar from the steps of the Langar Hall

View of the Golden Temple in Amritsar from the steps of the Langar Hall

It is customary for pilgrims to take a dip in the holy water. A quick splash of the face or a full submersion. I stripped to my shorts and stepped in, dunking three times in the style of the locals young and old. The water was at once refreshing and cleansing, a ritual that can be enjoyed by anyone in the heat of a three o’clock Indian sun.

Dry and dressed, we then stepped in to the Langar Hall for a spot of lunch. In gurdawara temples tasty vegetarian food is given freely to those attending whether of faith or not. This act of charity on the scale here at the Golden Temple is a thing of great selflessness.

Close up of the Golden Temple in Amritsar

Close up of the Golden Temple in Amritsar

Hundreds of men, women and teenage children work tirelessly to peel vegetables, boil rice, prepare curries, hand out steel platters, bowls and cutlery, serve cooked food from steel buckets, hand out chapatti, pour water, mop floors, collect and clean platters, bowls and cutlery.

This is done on a 20 minute rotation, 12 hours a day. Experienced here at the Golden Temple it was an efficient, practical and satisfying process to behold. Thousands of people are fed daily – as many as 120,000 according to local volunteers. The net effect of this benevolence is felt throughout the community; peace and harmony proliferate in every soul. It is a kindness of full and lasting benefit.

A traveller poses for a photograph at the Golden Temple in Amritsar

A traveller poses for a photograph at the Golden Temple in Amritsar

That night, with the full moon high above, I sat to mediate in the ‘foreigners only’ dormitory, and I felt connected to the divine source in a very powerful way. The sensations were intense, resonating deeply with the strong vibrations of this very holy place.

 

Guradspur to Amritsar

Our day started with an ominous greeting. Finishing the final crumbs of a soft cheese toastie and salted lassi, our makeshift breakfast had been a surprisingly basic but welcome combination, we were requested to ‘selfie’ with a traveling salesman.

“The problem, or I should say, challenge, with India, is the roads. There is no road awareness. If someone wants turn, they just turn. No indication, nothing. That’s the challenge with India”.

Hands shaken, selfies taken, he hopped into a taxi and was gone. Leaving with him a statement of fact that had not been missed. After a week traveling India by motorcycle, we’d figured out first hand exactly what he meant.

I like that he’d checked himself to say challenge rather than problem. There’s an optimism in challenge, a possibility of a solution, of progress. Today, would be a good day. We could rise to meet challenges. We could adapt, persevere and prevail with a challenge.

Starting out at a leisurely 10:30 we knew we had a simple and short day of travel to come. Hari started first time, having had a new battery and 1,000km service in Dharamshala with the excellent mechanic, Tesi.

A short ride from the RK Regency Hotel, a wonderfully flamboyant, rather gaudy, wedding venue, hotel and restaurant, and we were on the Pathankot – Amritsar Toll Road.

The Punjab is one of the most prosperous states in India and accordingly, the road was easily the most well surfaced, reliably so, to the point where every few dozen kilometres there was a man sweeping it clear of dust and debris.

Needless to say, this road was quite dull in terms of scenery, particularly when compared with the previous day of mountainous forest.

However, the vast expanses of farming land, distant settlements bundled together at a safe distance from the road and wide open space of the view ahead were compensated in the quality of the dual carriageway. A mornings easy riding was well worth the trade off.

We arrived to Amritsar at noon and after a skirmish in the back alleys and side streets of the local bazaar, we parked Hari under the shade of a tree for a well earned rest, freshened up in readiness to explore the Golden Temple.

McLeod Ganj to Guradspur

We opted for a leisurely start and a shorter day today. Setting a target of around 150 km our plan was to split the journey to Amritsar, making the going more enjoyable for rider and pillion. Coming down from McLeod Ganj the heat cloaked us like a woollen shawl, forcing a stop just a few kilometres in to the day to remove layers.

Correctly arranged, we made easy miles towards the Punjab, covering two thirds of our mileage in just a couple of hours. For the first half of the day we passed through hilly forested area, tall, wide, gnarled trees lining both sides of the road, showing the ancientness of path we followed.

Later, the scene shifted to a flatter more gentle route with settlements at intervals following a familiar pattern. Each village we passed through mirrored the last; simple rural life lived as it has always been; a cow, a goat, a handful of chickens, fields of sugarcane or hay.

Beyond the outskirts but not yet in the centre of town there was old fashioned mechanised life; steel fabricators building gates and mending carts and rickshaws, workshops with a sawmills preparing wood for use in house building.

Then came the commercial centre of modern life; street traders, market stalls, shops, restaurants and hotels; all the essentials, distractions and more besides. The press of vehicles, people and animals was immense.

Slowly, as we exits the town, the scene repeated in reverse; commerce, light industry, farming. It’s about as ordered and predictable as India ever gets, like the symmetry of an open newspaper – the stories on each page are different but the cut of the paper the same.

The Punjabi people are intensely friendly – the first one we met at the roadside enthusiastically handshaking and encouraging us to tea at his stall – happy-go-lucky sort of characters with a distinct style and charm. Akash, which means sky, checked us into our hotel with swift easy strokes as confident and assured as his heroic moustache.

We’re just 10km from the international border with Pakistan and sandwiched between the rivers Beas and Ravvi. Guradspur is a lively place with a great deal of busy coming and going taking place along the colourful streets.

Meet Hari

Today, we named the bike. Hari was chosen because; it’s our pops middle name, we love Harry Enfield and we’re in India…

Hari Krishna, Hari Rama, Hari Om.

So, meet Hari.

In the distance is the stunning Triund range, about a days trek from McLeod Ganj.

You can follow Hari’s adventures on Instagram @HariOmEnfield.

A mandala painted on the ceiling of the gompa at Tushita Meditation Centre

Relax, Release, Return

Earlier this week we attended a short workshop at Tushita Meditation Centre. Cultivating Mindfulness and Emotional Balance with Glen Svenson was a three day event designed to  help students develop their meditation practice and understand how to apply it to daily life.

When you focus on something does your body tense? Do you find that concentrated attention leads to a rigid, tight posture? Do you frown, hold your breath or stick your tongue out when you’re really alert to a task?

If the answer is yes (for 9/10 cats this is the case), then this learning is for you.

That sustained tension over time is a disaster. It will wear you out, run you down and leave you feeling tired, stressed and unhappy.

Here’s a simple way out of it:

First, relax. Relax your attention, come away from the object and let out a deep exhale. And again. Breathe right out. Feels better already, right?

Second, release. Release the tension in your body. The exhale helped relax and release but make a conscious check of your entire body, see that you are free from agitation, stiffness or tension. Stay loose.

Third, return. Return to the task with an alert but comfortable posture and breathe deeply. Spine straight, sit bones balanced and grounded, equal weight in each (i’f you’re reading this at a desk – this means sitting properly in that chair, leaning slightly forward with a straight back). Head balanced perfectly in top of your shoulders with a strong, supple neck. Breathe a few deep belly breaths and let them right out.

You’re ready to commence with your task in alert, relaxed, attention. Be sure to check in every hour (ideally take a break and walk a little to stretch your legs), come back to the task with alert relaxed attention.

Relax, release, return.

JT rides into a herd of sheep on the road to McLeod Ganj

The 303

We were all feeling pretty chuffed with the previous day’s journey from Rishikesh. The road had been kind. We’d made new friends and arrived at a respectable hotel to share a delicious meal together. A very satisfying combination.

Our night’s sleep however, was less successful. For most of the night bus load after bus load of hungry, tired travellers arrived, ate and went to bed noisily. At one point it sounded a lot like someone was using an industrial grade floor cleaner to scrub the tiles in the room above us. Michal and Mirtilla were of a similar disposition, adding that they now smelt very much like curry and chapati, having secured a room close to the busy kitchen.

Easy rider; Royal Enfield Thunderbird does Himachal Pradesh

Easy rider; Royal Enfield Thunderbird does Himachal Pradesh

The smugness of the previous day had already begun to wear off. Unperturbed, we loaded the bikes and made for a quick start, opting to skip breakfast in favour of a later stop a few kilometres outside of Shimla. Elevenses always taste better anyway. At breakfast we were treated to a spectacular view across Himachal Pradesh. The terrain averaging around 1,500m and filled with rolling hills for many miles, the morning sun burning through the dewy mist of the early hours.

Conversation during our meal of aloo paratha, chutney and chai veered very deeply in to the current mess of the political situation in both Britain and Italy – Brexit, the far-right and unemployment. It was an unlikely topic for such a beautiful place. The words didn’t sound quite right against the backdrop of the Indian Himalayan foothills.

View from the bike; Himachal Pradesh

View from the bike; Himachal Pradesh

As we hugged for the sixth time that day, saying fond farewells as if we’d not see each other in a few hours time for chai and chit-chat, I pointed out that we would definitely cross paths someways along the road and certainly jinxed meeting up again that day. Michal had memories of a very good road to Dharamshala, insisting that it was possible to reach the town before dark. Again, jinx had an eye on our plans and stepped in to throw the game.

To say that the road was bad would be understatement of a tall order. An hour after our optimistic goodbyes we were sucking diesel and cursing the poor condition of the road. NH202 it seemed was a thoroughfare for the lions share of the heavy goods traffic of Himachal Pradesh. Landslides had destroyed great swathes of the asphalt surface leaving behind just dust, rocks and potholes. The sheer volume of traffic kicked up a great deal of choking, thick white dust, reducing visibility and air to unpleasantly smoggy levels.

The happiest truck in Himachal Pradesh; can you see the smile?

The happiest truck in Himachal Pradesh; can you see the smile?

Indian road haulage trucks are huge – stacked higher than high, decked out with cargos of unknown weight on tyres of questionable tread – a real heady mix of danger, frustration and risk. It’s hard to describe the filth that these beasts chug out in biblical quantities. Within a few minutes of being sandwiched between these monsters we ere covered in thick black soot and desperately wrapping our scarves tightly around our faces to mitigate the suffocating stink of fumes.

In three hours we travelled just 65km. The intricate hand painted bodywork of the vehicles making little compensation for the unpleasantness of that stretch of road. One piece of wisdom did come out of it, however, the rear tailgate of one of the trucks had a message for fellow travellers ‘Life is limited one time offer – use it!’.

Switchback; hairpin bends in Himachal Pradesh make for exciting riding

Switchback; hairpin bends in Himachal Pradesh make for exciting riding

At lunch we were greeted with a hundred smiles and requests for ‘one selfie’. Since Diwali, Gujuratis have been on state holiday and have been travelling north in large numbers to visit places such as Manali, Dhramshala and Rishikesh. Grubby with black dirt and exhaust smoke, eyes like a motorcycling Jack Sparrow, we posed patiently for ‘one click’ and shook hands with dozens of moustached men and eager young children.

We looked like a bad drag act after a late night SoHo shindig, all smudged panda eyes, wild hair and blackened fingers, but that didn’t matter, the whites of our eyes shone like crystals in a Swarovski show room against the bleak appearance of our ragged attire. ‘One snap’ with a Britisher was still something exotic for our Gujarati friends, bedraggled or otherwise.

JT rides into a herd of sheep on the road to McLeod Ganj

JT rides into a herd of sheep on the road to McLeod Ganj

Happily, the afternoon’s route was more comfortable; a wide, well paved, less steep, straight course was a welcome relief after a gruelling stint in the deep, winding, broken up valleys.

Reflecting on our progress over a delicious plate of very spicy bean curry, subgee and plain boiled rice I was grateful for our meagre achievement. Considering the gradient, surface and traffic we’d still come a long way in comparison to a bicycle. In fact, we’d already done as much in a long morning than I would have hoped to climb on a push iron. The motorcycle was giving us the possibility of two to three times the daily range of a pedal bike.

That said, the greater totals travelled came at a cost. The speed, frenetic chaos of constantly overtaking slow trucks, buffalo carts and insanely anxious drivers – literally a new driver will simply buy a car, turn on the hazards lights and drive at just a few miles an hour in the middle of the road – push mental resilience to maximum limits. By the end of this day I felt burnt out like a fire damaged truck that had rolled off a cliff and burst into flames in the valley below.

Just chillin; cows are free to roam in all India

Just chillin; cows are free to roam in all India

All the intensity of the days two wheeled activity; concentration to navigate the dicey roads, outmanoeuvring dodgy drivers and the inevitable overtaking of trucks had sunk into my nervous system a very fragile energy. I was dead beat by the time we arrived at Jawalamukhi at 5pm. Pulling up at the first hotel we saw, things started to fall into place for us; Hotel Maya (Maya the name of my sisters godchild), room 17 (my birthday, on the NH303 (the same road that passes Stone henge and title of a Kula Shaker track), and 600 rupee (an amount we were happy to pay) all made this decision feel totally correct, like the universe approved entirely of our choices and wanted to confirm us through these little signs and portents.

After I’d put my finger into a live electric socket in the bathroom attempting to switch on the boiler for hot water, we made our way with haste to the hotel restaurant for an Indian feast; butter paneer masala, aloo gobi masala, a dozen chapati, onion bhaji, finger chips, followed by fruit kulfi with the last chapati – like an ice cream sandwich – a surprisingly tasty combination.

Bathing in the Baner Khad river; Himachal Pradesh

Bathing in the Baner Khad river; Himachal Pradesh

Back at the room we put on the televisions for a little local entertainment. We found a fantastic channel showing short clips of old Bollywood movies, usually one of the main dance off showdowns; alternate waving hands, shaking feet and wobbling heads, like Mr Bean on acid in a National Trust property.

Our plan for the next day was to leave early for McLeod Ganj, the hill station home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. With just under 60km t ride we felt that this would be a breeze after the hard won experience of the previous day. How wrong we were. We eft on empty stomachs, believing that we’d be in McLeod for breakfast, so with this idea we took off along one of the prettiest scenic routs so far; glorious expansive vistas stretching many miles distant, alpine flora and fauna giving a delightfully familiar fragrance to the air and small homesteads lining the village roads; a cow, a few chickens, a bullock or water buffalo, a brace of mules, spiked straw drying on the roofs, a classic bucolic Indian setting.

Police cops; traffic police in Himachal Pradesh are fly like mounties

Police cops; traffic police in Himachal Pradesh are fly like mounties

Three hours later we were still pootling around Dharamshala slightly lost, semi fatigued and increasingly irritated – skipping breakfast had spectacularly backfired – the hunger-confusion-rage that set in at this point was debilitating. Three times I followed a road sign that took me in a complete circle. Three times I returned to the point of action ‘Is this the way, Luce? I’m sure we’ve been here before’. Three times I realised too late that indeed we had. Eventually, we arrived in McLeod Ganj, the summit of the main square a spaghetti of awkward lanes, tight one way streets and out of control traffic police.

Frazzled, I pulled up the bike on to it’s centre stand and instructed Lucy to find any room that met our requirements; cheap, clean and close to town; I sat on some steps observing the morning rush at the makeshift roundabout. Horns blared loudly to indicate driver intent, a cow meandered casually across the whole intersection and a taxi crashed slowly, but certainly into the bike, knocking it from the stand, momentarily to two wheels, balanced and rolling gently toward a glass fronted cake shop, then wobbling heavily onto a pedestrian.

The impact knocked the stout Tibetan lady to the ground but luckily did not crush her – the weight of the bike and bags was getting on for 300kgs – quickly a crowd gathered to lift the lady and the bike back to standing and the clumsy taxi driver came over to apologise first to the bike, then to the lady. The traffic cop then decided that there was no parking in the area and ordered me to move the bike. I dawdled til Lucy returned and made a swift exit to the safety of the hotel.

That’s why it’s called a practice

India is pretty full on. Come here a little out of whack and you’ll be found out. Like a house of mirrors and every one is truth. These last few days there have been some really strong lessons. It’s been as if every thought has manifested itself in real time. A supercharged karmic bubble. India is like that. Full power.

Walking through the streets of McLeod Ganj today (a very spiritual place, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama), I noticed a shopfront; ‘What we think, we become’. If you get caught up in a negative cycle, you’re going down, down to chinatown. Conversely, focus on compassion, light and love, and guess what, you’ll have a pretty swell day.

You have a choice.

We were all born with everything we’ll ever need. Our primary task in life is to realise that and allow the rest to happen for us. Training your mind to shut up and chill is a hard job. But, the only sure way to liberation is to quiet the mind.

Meditation is simple but tough. You sit on your cushion, close your eyes and the thoughts speed up to frantic, like Jeremy Clarkson is directing your very own private episode of Top Gear and the whole budget has been spent on pointless showing off, explosions and soundtracks.

You just can’t stop thinking about stuff; the conversation you had yesterday with a colleague, the funny look the neighbour gave you this evening, the awesome new song you heard on the radio – the lyrics to every song you’ve ever known.

That’s why it’s called a practice.

Keep trying.

For those with an interest, I added photos to yesterday’s post – click here to see them (a maverick blogging technique if ever there was one 😉