As souls there are times in our lives where something within us stirs to explore life deeper.
Have you ever had that inner stirring? How about the yearn to travel to a foreign land? Perhaps meet others who are living a life that may seem primitive yet exotic and unique.
My guest today had this inner yearning, set off on a journey and she is here to share with us her explorations through her Adventure in Zanskar.
In 1983, 21 year old Amy Edelstein set out on a 500 kilometer journey in Zanskar, India the highest valley in the world. She walked alone by foot, crossing paths above 16,000 feet, sleeping in caves, meeting high lamas, and exploring a culture that had remained virtually the same for thousands of years- a culture that was about to change irrevocably. Drawn by the seeker's quest for wisdom, what Amy found shaped her life.
Amy is the author of 6 books, including the award-winning The Conscious Classroom. Founder of the non-profit Inner Strength Education and recipient of a Philadelphia Social Innovator's award, Amy's work has empowered 15,000 teens in under-resourced schools with mindfulness and systems thinking.
Insights to add to your spiritual toolbox from this episode:
1. Living in Asia
2. The journey to Zanskar, India
3. 500 kilometer journey by foot
4. Exploring life prior to modern day technology
5. Awakening spiritually
6. Path to the heart
7. Thirst for insights
8. The Conscious Classroom
9. Helping Philadelphia inner-city children
10. Book- Adventure in Zanskar
Purchase Amy's book Adventure in Zanskar
FREEBIE- Writing Your Epic Journey
Check out The Conscious Classroom. Her non-profit Inner Strength Education.
Check out Amy's website.
Thank you for listening to another spiritual mini morsel.
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things within us stirs to explore life deeper. Have you ever felt that inner stirring? How about the yearn to travel to a foreign land? Perhaps many others who are living a life that may seem primitive, yet exotic and unique? My guest today had this inner yearning set off on a journey and she is here to share with us her explorations through her adventure in Zanskar. In 1983 21 year old Amy Edelstein set out on a 500 kilometer journey in Zanskar, India, the highest valley in the world. She walked alone by foot crossing passes above 16,000 feet, sleeping in caves, meeting High Lamas and exploring a culture that had remained virtually the same for 1000s of years. A culture that is out to change irrevocably drawn by the secret quest for wisdom. What Amy found shaped her life. Amy is author of six books including the award winning The Conscious Classroom, founder of the nonprofit Inner Strength education and a recipient of a Philadelphia Social Innovators award. Amy's work has empowered 15,000 teens and under resourced schools with mindful and systems thinking. Welcome, Amy. Thanks so much. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm looking forward to our dialogue today. I am too and I'll tell you as I was reading through your book, I felt like I was on the journey with you Amy. So I want to first have you just share how you your passion how you found this amazing journey went on and exploits you did at 21 years of age. It was a very different time in 1983. We have to try to think back and for so many people now to imagine a world without cell phones, without GPS without the internet, where you had to go to a bookstore to find a resource guide. You couldn't search online and you couldn't really plan in advance and I was a seeker. So I started meditating in 1978 from a couple books, I found a noose bookstores. I went to college and made my way to India, where I spent the better part of four years studying with different teachers and traveling in the high mountains. Across the four northern states of India. Adventure and sanskaar is a memoir that I wrote about a particular two month journey that I took in his Ascari Valley. So it was part of a larger exploration and but it was such a special time for me and was so it touched me so deeply that 40 years later, I really felt compelled to tell the story. Well, as I was reading it, I was like, this is a courageous soul who took this journey. Right? I mean, I was thinking to like could could someone really do that same journey today? Well, probably not because of the different world that we live in today. Yeah. When I went I went on my own. So I took a bus I had a big paper map that was issued by the Indian army with dotted lines for footpaths and little concentric circles to show you elevation and it was kind of more or less accurate, sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. And I followed the pathways between villages and monasteries, which were trade routes and the way local people traveled. I was really in search of both being in remote places in nature where I could just absorb the beauty and the miraculous beauty of the high mountains and also just learn from the way of life of the people who were steeped in the Buddhist teachings. So it's, it's an unusual place because it became it said to have been Buddhist, you know, some hundreds of years after the Buddha lives it said, I don't know how accurate it is. It said that the Buddha traveled, you know, as far north as potentially even Turkey and as far south as Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka, we're pretty sure of the northern parts we're not so sure of. But the valley became Buddhist, very early on and then sort of in the mid, I guess, 1300s. In the Tibetan Buddhist teachings came into that valley. The Zanskars are related to Tibetans, they have their own language. It's similar to Tibetan and the now their religion the way they practice Buddhism is is very influenced by both Tibetan Buddhism and by the bond religion, which is a system of meditation prior to Tibetan Buddhism, but the people there have were so isolated and conflict free for so many hundreds of years. That what you have there, at least in the time when I was there, as you have a culture that was very homogeneous and harmonious. It's the floor of the valley is 3000 meters above sea level, and they have very short growing seasons. So you need to work together. You need to get along with your neighbors. And what you found is that the way they practiced, their religion was non separate from how they live their lives. So sense of equanimity. There was a sense of joy. There was a sense of vitality. There was a sense of compassion, there was a sense of generosity, a lot of small habits in the way they interacted, really aligned or were expressions of the Buddhist principles of cultivating merit, which means that you're constantly concerned about the impact of your actions and whether you're impacting others for good or for ill. And the way that the Tibetans look at the law of karma or cause and effect is they see well if I do something that's good, I'm gonna continue to reap the fruits of those positive ripples in the future and if I do something bad similarly, so that understanding keeps people in alignment with their higher values and their aspiration to cultivate full Buddhahood in this lifetime. And so it was a magical place. Now, of course, there are roads, there's electricity, there's tourism, there's a money economy. Things have changed dramatically. I have not been back there. I've been to India since but I'm not back. There. But I did a lot of research as I was writing the book, just to see and connected with people who've been there more recently. Yeah, it's changed really significantly in the last 30 years. 40 years. I'll tell you the pieces that I mean, there was so much I enjoyed your book. But meeting each person as you went along to the villages or the the travelers from around the world that joined you on certain areas. So that to me was so enlightening and so amazing to have those variations of what you are experiencing between you know, the little girls and the men and, you know, sitting around eating and sharing with you and in the ways they could because you obviously didn't speak the language fluently. No, I I am fairly good at languages and I had studied some Hindi and Ooredoo and Farsi. So that was my basis and I had studied a little bit of Tibetan but not that much. So it was sort of broken Hindi and Urdu and Zenskare as I started to pick it up. The best thing about traveling alone is you really actually have to learn the language. And so I would spend a lot of time especially with the women, you know, and I'd asked, you know, well, what's this? What's that? What's this? What's that? And having done some study of philosophy and and practice with different Tibetan teachers, I had also learned certain words and phrases and prayers and what they meant. So by the time I was at the end of my journey there, I could carry on much better conversations than kidding. But they weren't. They were limited. But it's interesting that you can often fill in the pieces when you have to when you're on your own and you start really feeling into what people are trying to communicate and hand gestures and implements and it was it was easier than people think to to carry on a conversation and share. Partly because when you live in a more remote area, your your all of your senses become a tune. So in our Western culture, we really depend on language, written or verbal. And that's our primary form of communication. So we're not necessarily sensing as much about the surroundings. We're not taking cues from our you know, physical response. To things, our emotional response to things what the environment is saying to us. We're not seeing as many details about the environment that would inform us as you are when you're, you're living in an environment where you're dependent on all your senses in a different way. What it seems to me that each of the people that you encountered along this journey or were just open with their heart and they were so invited to and I'd love you to share the story about when the women had the the tea and the they were drinking and what could you share a little about that because that was a beautiful story of just women of womanhood and just being together. So the women and Zanskar are very free. Different than some of the other cultures their men and women are, were are fairly equal. Of course in the monastic setup, the men are preference over the women the monks have preference over the nones, and reincarnated enlightenment tends to pass through the male rather than through the female or at least that's how they recognize it, you know, but in families, the men and women don't have as relegated and separated job roles. So women are in the field men are in the field women are building houses men are building houses often side by side. Men spin and weave women spin and weave men cook and women cook and I would be in houses where men and women were both be at the fire at the same time, which was very different than village homes where I stayed in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and in Hindu areas, there is a much stricter separation between the genders. So what and also the Zen sqare women can marry up to four husbands. And often they married the brother, the brothers and I net I saw that in different families. I never felt any conflict or jealousy. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they trade in the winter so when the rivers freeze over they go by horseback and they cross long distances. And they could be gone from the home for three months at a time. So it becomes much more pragmatic for women to have multiple male partners so there's always somebody else at home, which is kind of interesting. What it meant also is that the women were very straightforward. They were very curious. They were very free. They they would often be a little bit body a little bit raucous. And, you know, very curious about sex in the West did you know and they say these are the kinds of things that when women get together with women, you can communicate the you know, in all kinds of ways and there was one very sweet time with women invited me to go with them in the middle of the afternoon, where they were all drinking barley beer, it's fermented barley beer, which is a little bit like Coors. It's the you know, it's a mild beer. It's light but if you drink all those higher elevations, you definitely feel it and they were drinking and breastfeeding each other's babies and dancing and singing and talking to each other and talking to me and it was just a house filled with trust, fun, do nothing particular going on, but just a lot of just that sense of women letting their hair down, literally and figuratively with other women and inviting me into that. And then when it was time to go back to their own houses, everyone just packed up, tucked their you know, they usually travel with their own cups and they tuck their cups into the fold of their, their their dress, and they all pack up their babies and head home. And it was it was that sense that no one needs to plan to get together. Nobody needs to be invited to get together. The confluence of rhythms brings the right people in the village together. They're all there some people aren't there it doesn't really matter. You have a good time you support each other you have fun, and then you go back and there was an ease about it a lack of self consciousness, a lack of self doubt, a lack of tension that I was very unfamiliar with. In my experiences in the feminist movement in college, I went to school at Cornell and there were a lot of radical feminist separatist feminists around the Ithaca College Area. And when I was in college, I would go to all these gatherings that were very much about women's power and you know, the paid down with the patriarchy and but there was so much stress and tension and I found it really I appreciated the philosophy and the social justice and the need for change. But it didn't have this quality of lightness of being that I experienced with these women and I hadn't realized that I was really longing for that until I was there and I felt what it was like to just be myself and not be in fear or anger around the world about the world around me. And that was a very moving experience. And since then, of course, I've been able to have that with other groups of women in different contexts, but partly because I know that it doesn't have to be filled with contention. Gathering being with one another enjoying life. Yeah. And enjoying life. Not just for superficial happiness, but because this is what we're supposed to do. Part of being human part of being on the spiritual path part of cultivating our higher attributes comes out of joy and love and freedom from fear is spirituality that opens us it comes from that sense of well being. And that's part of the Buddhist tradition and in the Tibetan tradition is that we all have Buddha nature. I'm not a practicing Tibetan buddhists, but because because we're talking about sanskaar. I know a lot about it, and I have deep respect for a lot of the teachers and the teachings. So just to clarify for the audience, you don't have to you can learn from these different traditions in your own path, but what they say is that we all have Buddha Nature, which means that our highest capacity or potential or opportunity as human beings is to understand the highest sense of compassion and wisdom that human beings are capable of expressing. And if we allow ourselves to, you know, either uncover the dust from our eyes or loosen the knots that bind us or whatever metaphor you want to use, what you realize is that inherent human capacity and when you believe that you have a sense of goodness at your heart, where you're not filled with, I'm not there and I have to get there as much as this is the human capacity how deeply Can I realize how much can I get my own ulterior negative, self centered, angry motives out of the way so I can express that and meet others at that level of connection. Beautiful, and one thing is that for this book is really like a snapshot of looking at the place you went to as well as the timeframe in 1983. Which like you said, I got like, how many decades back like holy cow it's quite a lot. You know, it's a wise it's a ways back and alot of listeners may not even have been alive at that time. So it really is a beautiful snapshot of that time, but also I found throughout reading the book, it was a journey of awakening. And I wanted to say one of the beautiful quotes you have in your book is, is honoring where you are in removing the push rush to obtain awakening. And it seems to me Amy, that these days, everything, especially in the spiritual realm is about uh, you know, getting their awakening. I want to be this I want to be that and it's really for myself, it's more about the journey and I honestly I had so many awakenings reading your book, because it's such a beautiful awakening story of, you know, gathering spiritual awareness from another place in the world that I've never been to for myself, and I'm sure most people never have either. So would you I'd like to share a little bit about the awakening aspect of for yourself when you went through this journey, and what people can gather from it because it feels like it's a real timely book right now where we're at with all the things changing and, and again, this push to awaken this rush to awaken which you just can't do it. I mean, there's steps and everything. So would you like to share a little about that? Sure. It's a great question. A lot of what I discovered while I was there, and also what I really try to emphasize, when I'm working with teens or adults is the fact that a little glimpse of infinity is still infinite. And when you really get that, when you really get that if you've had that moment when you were a child and you walked into a field full of flowers, and you just felt completely free and happy or you fell in love and it was that sense not just of a person but you were love you felt so full or those those small moments often people say the first time they looked in their child's eyes when their child was born. Those moments that point to there being nothing wrong without denying all of the suffering and change that needs to happen in the world which is which is real but there's also another dimension or quality of our experience. They can their experiences that which is non separate, which is never hurt or broken or damaged. That quality of awareness that is beyond birth beyond death. And you can't really explain it there. Every tradition speaks about it in different ways. But even people who are deeply scientific materialists who don't only believe in what you can now measure and see also had those experiences of the numinous and they can't quite explain them. That's what William James did. He did all these experiments just to show that those experiences of the numinous are part and parcel of the human experience. They're real. And part of the process of maturing in our own spiritual path is to recognize that we don't need more to start living from our deepest experience that we've already had. As we do that, then life continues to challenge you know, even great llamas have big monasteries to run. And, you know, look at Ahmed chi, the great Indian saint of contemporary times. I mean, she's got hospitals and colleges and disciples and pan and the pandemic and yeah, you know, it's it the, the awakened life includes all the issues that everybody has to deal with, but it's where one's orientation is. So when one matures and gets in starts realizing that wanting more spiritual experience or wanting to climb another taller Mountain is part of grasping and that grasping is no different than wanting a bigger car and wanting a better house and wanting a better education and wanting a different partner and wanting to be thinner and wanting to be whatever it is recognized. It's all part of that same movement of moving away from our own deepest knowing so when we start turning our sites in and accessing our deepest knowing and meditating on that becoming fascinated and curious about that. Then we stop needing and then our actions do constantly lead to deeper wisdom. But it's from a very different starting place, and then you feel like oh my life. I'm not waiting for my purpose to start. My life already started and so now I'm living it at the edge of what I know is possible and then everything becomes very rich and full, and the struggles are just all part of it. Very, very well said Amy. And so I want to go a little bit into how you came out of this experience because I love that part of it, where you recognized how you really looked and how your shoes were torn and you're, you were really dirty and moving back into the world where you really took notice of that so I'd love you to share a little bit about that observation and yourself and and moving back into, you know, the real world, as we might call it, right. When I came out of the valley, it just felt time I you know, I felt like there was a part of me that wanted to stay but I really had to confront that part and say, Well, if I really want to stay there's nothing stopping me. I could stay. I could stay and go live in a monastery in a nunnery and really just meditate there and immerse myself in this culture. And it didn't feel like the right thing to do. I was an American I was I you know, I could feel my my destiny was going to unfold in another way. And that wasn't really what was calling me so I had to give up that part that felt so sad to be leaving, you know, like I was leaving my my closest friend the mountains and just the landscape and the sky and the snow and the glaciers and the people on the monasteries. And but as I came out, it was like a deep sea diver coming up you how you decompress and you view start feet you know when I when I got on the bus and at the just like this little roadside, sort of half empty restaurant that took me to lay which is the large city. We're not really a city at that time, near there. I felt like I was kind of from another planet that I that I could both relate to all those things, but I couldn't relate to all those things because I had been living in a different different rhythm. And there was a lot that I didn't like and there were some things that I did like about coming back and meeting other travelers and being able to speak my own language and process in more depth and and, you know, hear other people's stories and learn. So it was an interesting time but what I felt as I was re acclimating to a busier life was that something in me had profoundly let go. And that didn't change regardless of whether I was confused and ambivalent and liked it and didn't like it and saw the westernization and the harshness and the you know beginning encroachment of a commodity based world versus a self sufficient world, and what that was doing to the environment and refugee camps from those who were still fleeing Tibet and coming over and having experienced, you know, tremendous suffering and now having gone from, you know, beautiful villages and centuries old monasteries to very sparse and unhygenic refugee counts, there was there was like a confluence of the westernization and materialization and tourism and that whole side of the emptiness and value listeners, then you have the other side of the geopolitical power grabs and the people who were suffering in the midst of it, so there was a lot of different dimensions and contemporary human experience to take into account but I felt like that was where I belonged. Because that was the world I was born into. So like it or not, that was my karmic continuum, and I had to deal with it and I maybe would have preferred to stay in a Zenskar monastery. Or nunnery, but just wasn't my that wasn't really the choice. Maybe not this lifetime, right? I mean, did you get any sense that you had been there before? I did just when I was there, but I did later. I mean, I yeah, I didn't have any particular experiences. But I did have some pretty far out experiences a few years later as I was. I was doing a lot of yoga practice and training. Sad, sometimes catalytic for those things, without a doubt for sure. So how did this journey influence your future life and what you're currently doing now, which decades later? Well, I spent, I was a, I was a founding member of a residential retreat center where I live for in 27 years, so I did a lot of practice and study and publishing and exploration. So that was really my life. And then in 2013, my husband and I moved to Philadelphia and I founded the nonprofit Inner Strength education. And what I decided to do was take the fruits of what I had had the great opportunity to do and translate them and make them available in as broadly as possible to a population that wouldn't have access to it. So when I was in high school, fortunately, there was a used bookstore, I found a couple of books on meditation. And I had a friend who had two older brothers who went to the Peace Corps instead of Vietnam, and they were in Thailand and they did some Vipassana meditation. So they came back and they told us about it, and that got us going. So it was sort of luck that I came upon it. And now of course, there's YouTube and you know, so many teachers online and free teachings and books everywhere but in I live in Philadelphia, which is the poorest of the 10 largest cities in America in the last two years, it has also become the second most violent city per capita, so it has the most gun deaths per capita of all the large cities in America second only to Chicago. Wow. So I know that sounds like statistics, but I my nonprofit brings mindfulness and systems thinking into the public school system. We have a lot of really smart kids. You know, they're in IB programs and AP programs, but the schools are under resourced. And a lot of this students come from families of poverty. So probably 70% of the students that we work with, are come from families of poverty, which is defined in Philadelphia. Is $24,000 a year for a family of four. Oh my gosh, that's nothing. Yeah, wow. I've seen neighborhoods in Philadelphia that looked like you know, some of the poorest places I've been in India and I hadn't lived in a big city in America for many years. I've lived in Western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. There's hardly anybody there. And when I came to Philly, I went Wow. We have not invested in education in our country for decades. So my goal was to reach as many students as possible every year and teach them systems thinking how to see their experience in context, how to understand 300 million years of brain development and the science of the adolescent brain what's happening for them now? How to understand how culture has changed in the postmodern era, we have more choice, more agency, less social support. There's nothing wrong with them because they feel overwhelmed. It has to do with the way cultures change, and to learn basic meditation skills to cultivate calm curiosity and care. It's a three month program. We meet with students during academic time once a week for three months. So it's 12 weeks and we've worked with I've seven instructors as well as myself. We've worked with 17,000 students since 2014. So we're really I'm really trying to because if you can reach enough kids at the at a time, then every peers start to reinforce peers, you know, they'll say look, just take a breath, you know, just do this. Just do that you know, or they'll be able to, you know, give better advice. You know, when the friends really upset about that, then they'll be able to question and when they do something rash and risky, just unsafe. They'll be able to help counsel each other about the brain and I've seen that happen, you know, again, you know, I was had no girls say, my boyfriend broke up with me over the weekend, and I was gonna text him some really mean things and I just went up to my bed. I sat down on my bed, and I just did some of the exercises. We did you know what I don't have to say anything to him. I'm fine. And you feel like okay, you know, instead of starting to feud and things that are just gonna get her more mashed and feel bad and that girl was beautiful. I taught her when she was a freshman. By the time she was a senior, she was like, she was a real role model for the school. She was leading things she was first generation to get this go on to get an associate's degree and her the first first person in her family to do that. And she became a beautiful young woman because she really learned how to not through force and will but how to really guide herself through difficult emotions. The typical challenges of teenage years and grow from confidence to confidence to confidence in an authentic way and kids really looked up to her. So, you know, I've seen I've really seen some phenomenal and heartwarming experiences. You know, students, I had one student who was doing his very challenging oral exams. For IB English, and he was from a Latin X family. His parents were did not speak fluent English. So he was really not just first generation college goer, but he had to carry a lot of the responsibility for his family. And he's very insecure. And so he never He never felt like he was good enough. So when he was waiting to do his exams, and he was outside the door, he almost didn't go in. He told me he said, You know, I just felt like what am I doing here? I shouldn't be here. I don't belong. I'm not as smart as the other guys and so then he just started doing some of the love and kindness practices and the self affirmation practices that he had learned and as well as some of the physical grounding practices, and he said, I went in and I don't know what happened, but I was just myself and I had so much to say. I walked in after talking to him because I met him in the hall and the teacher told me she had tears in her eyes. She said, I've been teaching for 25 years, and I have never had a student speak with so much authenticity, originality and complexity. Beautiful worth every moment, right. Yeah. You know, so you feel like you know, you're you're allowing this this beautiful creativity that, you know, people need to be happy but our culture needs you know, we need really good people, solid, creative, caring, loving, you know, accomplished, passionate, you know, and not just by pumping them up by but by allowing them to let go and access their own sense of their humanity. So they're even surprised by what comes out of their mouth in a good way. And so I just see, you know, I see that over and over again, and it gives me a lot of hope and a lot of sense of possibility. At the same time, I really do wish that those in charge take on some of the profit motive interests that are making our streets so unsafe because it is really hard to recover from them to pull it back, right. Yeah. Oh, Amy. Well, thank you so much for all your work you're doing. I wish it would spread to every city. And I know you do, too, right. Like every city needs this. And that's in the conscious classroom and I'll have all those links also in your show notes. So the listeners if they want to get in touch with you and find out about your nonprofit and how to work maybe the help along or whatever needs to be done that they might want to check out. It's beautiful, beautiful work, Amy when I saw that, you know, because when when they first came to us about the book, and I saw what you do, and I'm like, Oh my gosh, and helping teens and the future generations. That is huge. That's huge. So thank you for your work. You're very welcome. I just feel like I I had so much good fortune getting to travel to these places that if I can share a little bit of that. You know, I'm I'm more than happy to because I've just been so fortunate. Amy it has been such a pleasure having you on today. And I I just I'm so grateful for your journey for you coming on sharing it and for all the beautiful work you're doing in the world. So thank you so much for coming on. You're welcome. Thank you so much. And I wish all your listeners well.