Adventure Prep, Uncategorized

Upright Sleeping

When my sister lived in a Buddhist retreat, she slept in a box.

This is not the first thing that comes up when you ask what it’s like to spend three years completely sealed in retreat. And as she prepares to take her ordination as a nun, it may not seem like the most important part of her spiritual practice. But for 1600 nights in a row, if she was closing her eyes to sleep it was in the confines of about a 3′ × 3′ wooden container.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. The point is, essentially, that lamas should sleep sitting upright. This way they can do their nighttime practices in the full lotus posture, sleep right where they are in front of their shrine, and wake up to start their morning practices without moving. Or something like that.

But to most people it has no appeal. It’s hard to explain that the box is not a crate, or that it’s quite comfy when you add some pillows. Before her retreat I suggested she stop mentioning this particular part of what she’d be doing. It makes it sound like some kind of extremist cult.

The past few weeks she’s regaled me with the reality of sleeping upright. Several times I watched her peacefully drift off to sleep in improbable places. Her back is board-straight and she moves with grace. It has its perks.

Then I began to think about the applications of sitting upright to sleep. I have no intention of sleeping in a box, but I have this whole “walk 7,000 miles” thing. It will include a lot of nights sleeping outside—probably about 1600—and I’m open to anything to make that easier. Some of the benefits of upright sleep:

  • You stay warmer. The vertical orientation of your body is far more efficient heat-wise.
  • Warmer means no sleeping bag. One lap blanket is all you need. When backpacking, that means less weight to carry.
  • If you wear glasses you can leave them on while you sleep, handy if you need to get up suddenly at night.
  • You can use a smaller tarp over your head and less mosquito netting (no tents here).
  • You develop strong neck and back muscles.
  • When you wake up you’re completely lucid, never groggy. Zangmo and I can’t figure out why this works, but it does.

These are powerful incentives to see if I can acclimate myself to upright sleeping before I start the Adventure. But that’s just two months away! Challenge accepted.

My kid sister Zangmo in her box.

Zangmo told me that when she first started it took her about three months to get used to, and involved intolerable pain and stiffness. However, we don’t believe that’s necessary to learn to do it right: she resisted upright sleeping for a long time, and had bad posture at first.

So I set a piece of particle board against one wall of my room, culled through the pillows and cushions in the house, and fanaggled about an hour of consultation with my resident lama. I’m going to try it for myself.

How will it go? Expect an update next week. In the meantime, has anyone else ever slept sitting up (by choice or out of necessity)? Do you have any other unusual sleep methods that might be of use to fellow adventurers? Hit the comments and speak up. I’d love to learn.


Lama Juju

A lot of time I write for Rogue Priest in the style of an essay. Today I have a much more personal post.

Having completed my 2.5 months in Mexico City, me and my mediocre Spanish hopped a plane back to the States. My destination: Albany, NY to break my sister out of a monastery.

My sister, Julie, is a Buddhist. In July 2008 she gave up her worldly life—job, boyfriend, apartment, car—and entered a “three year retreat” in a Tibetan monastery in the Catskills. (That’s in air quotes because it lasts closer to four years.)

Other than sending and receiving letters, she had no contact with us. No visits, phone calls, or emails. During one 6-month vow of silence even the letters weren’t allowed.

This morning, my parents and I walked up the steps of the monastery’s shrine room. We took our seat among about a hundred other people whose loved ones had been in the retreat. Silently the monks and nuns filed in: men sat in one long row, women in the other, facing them; and we saw my sister for the first time.

She saw me there, thinner, with short hair, a cleaner face, and my green ceremonial wrap and her eyes flew open in surprise. She grinned and suppressed a happy scream at me. I grinned back.

She, too, has lost weight. Her head is shaved, and she moves carefully and gracefully in her crimson and saffron robes.

For three hours she and the other lamas led rounds of chanting for our benefit and the goodness of all beings. Only when it was over and the final horn had blown could we rush up and hug her.

I held her. For the first time I knew my sister’s pain at the long separation. Three (four) years without family is a long time to last.

We chatted over lunch. Julie was tired. They’d gotten up at 4 a.m. to start their preparation. Not unusual for them, but hard all the same. Often, talking of casual things, her voice seemed choked up.

But she had successfully completed the retreat, as I knew she would. An older monk, Lama Karma, gushed to us how above-and-beyond she was in her practice. I watched her face: would she bashfully look away? No, just a happy smile. Meditation does have its benefits.

Me in my priestly green and my sister Juju in her Buddhist robes.

Sometimes I wondered if the retreat would change her. Of course it did, but not in a way that anyone could object to. Chanting and playing the horn she’s very serious, focused and deliberate. But when she speaks she has the same joyful easy humor as always. It’s the same Juju I’ve always known, just burnished.

I think about the doubts she surely faced in her retreat. A retreat has different risks and benefits than a walk across the world. I won’t face the same things she did, but in a way I feel more united with her than ever.

When I stumble into Rio I wonder, will I shake in her arms?