Friday, December 14, 2012

A path that Really Isn’t

by Mauricio Quintana, 昆游龍, a.k.a. cintain

Today’s guest post is by Mauricio Quintana. Mauricio works as a practitioner of various alternative medicine techniques, but considers himself above all an explorer and student of life and the human condition. He goes by the name Cintain on various online and offline social networks, and likes to travel almost a bit too much. He can be found by following the trail of endless rant on twitter, baited with single-malt scotch or the smile of a pretty woman, and persuaded to sing with nary an enticement. His blog can be found at

I. Amongst the Host of the Pretenders

Photo courtesy of Mauricio Quintana

The hardest part about doing the kind of work I do is keeping it real. There is literally a horde of people out there who claim to see energy, work with subtler aspects, and be in contact with a host of incorporeal entities. It is annoying. Moreover, it is pretentious. The thing that used to really drive me up the wall is the fact that, if you're into this sort of thing, there really isn't anything that you can say to refute them. After all, subtle perceptions are what they are, right? If you can't hear what the spirits are saying to me, surely you can't hear them at all, and then you're the poser, the liar, and the quack.

Effectiveness is another one of those "objective" measurements that become tenuous with these people. There are so many "levels", that maybe your healing has already happened and you're just too dumb to notice, too "out of touch" for it to work on you. I am continuously amazed at the followers of some of the more charismatic healers out there. It isn't so much that they're getting "better" as that they are becoming more capable of aligning themselves with the vision and speech of their leader.

Photo courtesy of Mauricio Quintana

The trappings of this work are so alluring, too. Sometimes it seems that the more feathers, bones, medallions, wristbands, and stridently-coloured dress on a person, the more powerful and effective their mojo. The styles vary with lineage, teacher, and tradition, but "badges" are more important with some of these clowns than with the military.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Full-contact Religion

We mill about the peristyle (our temple) waiting for the ceremony. Some of us catch up on the past week, or the past weeks, since we’ve last seen each other.

At no time in particular, the ceremony begins. Assons are rattled, the sound of bells fill the air. The drummers take up their sticks and pound out a rhythm. The singing begins. I struggle to find the song.

At this point the Lwa (the spirits) have not come. The songs are sung the best we can. The ceremony begins like so many have begun before. We reach out.

In me, I feel their absence. My song is not its best. It feels dry, but I carry on, responding to the call of the verses. People are slowly starting to move, but even my movements feel dry.

We move to the rhythms.

Monday, November 26, 2012

My Muse Has Left the Building

79200-Encounters in Nature by BTNewberg
Meditation in the North Woods
From the ebook Encounters In Nature

© 2011 B.T. Newberg

Last week I sat down to write and was struck by a horrible feeling. I didn’t like where my writing was going. Nothing seemed to work. My wife and best friend Saumya suggested I go back and re-read some of my earlier pieces (for completely different reasons) – I did. I began to feel that was the cause of my funk. I like to blame things on her, but really the blockage was all me. After writing The River is In Me, I longed to write more like it reaching for my departed muse; all my attempts failed.

There are some old pieces that moved me. I revisited: Crisis of Faith, There Is No Hell and My Other Family. Nothing seemed to work. I listened to Encounters In Nature, mainly because my friend Mauricio shared his feelings on it. Did it hold some kind of mojo I could tap into?

Replay complete: I’ve decided it’s time to take stock of how my life has changed over the past year.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The River Is In Me

Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River on the New Orleans shoreline, I stick my hand into the water to greet her. She is the Mississippi, and I know her well. After all, she’s my lover.

The scent of her fills my nostrils. I take her into myself, filling my lungs. It’s not a fresh smell, but one of mildew, decay and memory. Her warm humid breath comforts me. She welcomes me to her, my oldest friend.

There is a picture my mother has of me, at the age of months, less than one year old. I’m reaching for the throttle of our family boat, the Mimi III, named after my aunt. It was third in a tradition of five spanning three generations of our family. Not even old enough to speak, she was a part of my life. I grew up on boats, on her water, on the shores of Dubuque, IA. My weekdays might hold school or summer play, but she consumed my weekends. I spent countless hours riding her, swimming in her, swallowing her and eventually skiing upon her. On countless weekend nights, she would gently rock me to sleep and gently crash upon the sides of my bed.

Second Class Citizen: Thank You

My last post Second Class Citizen was a plea to vote no on the Minnesota constitutional amendments being proposed: a limiting of the definition of marriage and Voter ID. I’d like to say “Thank You” that both measures were defeated in Minnesota.

I truly believe both proposed amendments would be a limit on individual freedoms that I hold dear. Last Tuesday made me proud to be a citizen of this great state and our great nation. Minnesota, you made me proud.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Second Class Citizen

Our freedom and liberty are at risk. During this election, the biggest threat to America is not coming from outside the US in the guise of foreign terrorists or an invading army; it comes from within America itself. In Minnesota two amendments are proposed to change my state’s constitution, but this threat is also on the ballot in many other states across the US this year.

Both threats are an attempt to get an electoral majority to limit the rights and freedoms of a smaller group of Americans. In our brief history as a nation, through countless struggles by courageous people our democracy has learned how to protect the rights of certain minorities. Those struggles have led me to believe that an experienced democracy learns how to protect and value minority rights; a less mature democracy threatens and controls the rights of minority groups.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Conversion or Initiation

What do you believe in? Why do you believe it? Were you born into it or did you change your beliefs as you came upon it? Is it mutually exclusive of other viewpoints and beliefs, or is it inclusive and expansive with them? The two words: conversion and initiation used in a religious or spiritual context have subtle differences in meaning. They both usually refer to coming to a new religious system or belief, but they depart from there.

When I was first introduced to Hinduism, I was told it was something people can’t convert to. At the time my 20-something brain said to me, don’t tell me what I can and cannot do; I was put off. Whenever I’m told there is something I can’t do, my first reaction is gut-wrench abhorrence to the idea: why not? Whether the statement itself is true or not, the answer underlying it is rooted more in philosophy and perspective than mere facts. My current understanding is: you can’t convert to Hinduism, but you can initiate into it. The difference seems subtle, but the meaning is very important. (I’ll leave caste aside.)

Most of the dominant Western religions [Judaism, Catholicism, Islam] have a conversation aspect to them. You shed your previous beliefs and proclaim you now have taken on the new dogma. You are converted. You now believe what the others believe. Of course there are variances. Not all people from a religion are generic and believe the same things wholeheartedly, but the conversion takes place and in doing so you proclaim your faith in the new dogma and doctrines. The door closes on your past belief system. These systems are usually exclusive in their beliefs with the religion you converted into.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Missing The Point: White Privilege Part 1

I was deeply saddened and angry by the Sikh Gurdwara (temple) shooting. I wrote the post I Wear a Kara in its wake. In the discussion that followed I understood that I didn’t quite fully achieve what I was hoping to.

How did I go astray? I focused time and energy on how Sikh’s are different than Muslims, instead of focusing on the real problems: racism, hatred and misunderstanding. In my own case, I was stifled by my own blind spot: white privilege.

Sikh Knowledge Quote
Twitter user @sikhknowledge sums it up for me

I spent time in my post on how Sikh’s are different. I never should have gone there. I’d like to say we’re all the same: people, families, trying to survive, trying to pray, celebrate life. I want everyone to be treated as equals to the point that I force myself to believe we are all equals – even though we’re not.

I wish the world where a place where all men were treated the same; all women were treated the same as men; all religions were seen as paths of love and a celebration of life with one another: but the world is not that place. Sometimes I want it so bad I try to believe that all men are equal (and all the rest above): but then I get my white privilege blind spot. The world is not an equal place. Further, I’m in the top dominant, privileged position.


I’ve been away from blogging and I have some posts that are backlogged. My personal life needed attention at the beginning of July. Most of these emergencies are behind me now. Work also demanded too much attention, I needed to really put the computer down and veg with the iPad.

I hope I haven’t lost too many of my readers. I know some people have reached out and asked why I haven’t written in a while.

There are a few posts that should be up in the next week or two. First, I readdress the temple shootings that I wrote about in I Wear a Kara, hoping to restate some things that, upon reflection, left me unhappy with the piece. Second, I hope to finally post on the difference between initiation and conversion. I feel in the west, we tend to think of things in absolutes: you are one thing or another. The rest of the world doesn’t always understand things this way.

Hopefully you’re still with me. I hope to see some exciting discussion raised.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


 iPhone 144
Shiduri when she first came to us.

She came to us starved, neglected and abused. One of the first things we did was change her name: your old life is over; you are loved.

From the moment Saum saw her on the Great Dane rescue site, Saum knew she was ours. She was in the Dakotas (can’t remember which one), then she was gone from the site. Her name was A. J.

We were looking for a larger dog after Asha (aka Asha boo or Asha the boo). Our other rescue dog, Barnabas (aka B-dog) was morning her loss, deeply depressed. He needed her; she needed us.

We met her in a northern St. Paul suburb at a foster family. It was the same dog A. J.: delisted and moved to the Twin Cities to try and find a home here. She had come to us: we found each other.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I Wear a Kara

IMG_1605The Kara is a steel bracelet worn by warriors. I’ve worn mine non-stop for over 11 years.

I am deeply saddened by the tragedy at the Sikh Gurdwara outside of Milwaukee. I am also very angry. I’m trying to reconcile the two. My wife became an honorary Sikh in the 80s, but that is her story to tell when she is ready.

Eleven years ago my marriage was on the rocks. I’m not going to go into the details of how I almost derailed it, but I made an important decision: it was a marriage worth fighting for. In changing my attitude and strengthening myself to not give up, I started a long journey to repair the damage I had done. This was the longer difficult path, the shorter easier path would have been to dissolve the marriage. It has taken years to turn around.

After my struggles with our marriage, my wife gave me a gift: a Kara. It is a steel bracelet worn by warriors and one of the five items all Sikhs of faith must bear. In fighting for my own marriage, in the struggle and fight against myself and my own issues, she felt I deserved it. I have worn it every day since. It has replaced my wedding band as a constant reminder of my dedication, struggles and strength I put forth in my marriage. It is a stronger symbol of love than any gold band could give; it is a stronger piece of metal, harder to break.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Religious Intolerance

Respect is something I strive for in other people’s belief systems: if they’re different than my own or even within my own faith. I try to respect those of different faiths, as well as those who seem to have no faith, whether they be atheist or agnostic (it seems a growing number of people are).

Lately I’ve been bombarded by postings where people seem to degrade those who have faith in a religion or belief system. The underlying tone is people of faith are stupid (paraphrasing the inference). I have trouble with this. To me stupidity comes in degrading someone else’s beliefs, not from a person who believes something you don’t.

I understand there is a tremendous movement going on in backlash to the religious [often Christian] right (at least in the images being thrown at me). Maybe you find these belief systems oppressive to women, the poor, the lower classes. Maybe you think mankind has been fooled into belief systems through man-made power structures or in some way taking advantage of a human need to believe or belong to something. Maybe you believe in nothing but science.

Denigrating others however is not the way to live a life.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Other Family

It wasn’t that long ago that I became a Vodou priest. Not so many years before that I joined a [Vodou] House in New Orleans. I have always been a spiritual person, but I haven’t always been a religious one.

Your own personal relationship to your mystical side is spirituality, whether that includes God, Spirit, the spirits, just plain nature or something else. You don’t need religion to be spiritual. Anyone can do it. For years I had spirituality without religion. Then I initiated into a Himalayan Vedic tradition, some might call it Hindu, others would object to that (great theological and philosophical debates have come out of those traditions trying to define religion). Still I wouldn’t say I was religious. To be religious is to have two things: common belief (you could call this dogma) and community.

When I joined my House I took these on: we had common belief in Vodou and our community was a family. Becoming a priest strengthened that bond; I felt closer to my family. I had taken another initiation, passed another cross-road.

The House is there to make it happen, experience it with you and bear witness. You are all much closer on the other side: transformed. It’s powerful, difficult, lonely and touching. The Lwa is at work providing a spiritually powerful transformation.

This I knew; this I had done. Then suddenly it was different.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Americans, Religion, My Brother, and Me

By Jen Foley. This is a guest post from a good friend of mine. It originally appeared on Facebook and is reprinted here with permission.

I guess I need to put a little background down as full disclosure: my baby brother is gay (I never suspected it growing up because I never thought about who my brother would love or find attractive.  Eww.  Gross. That's my BROTHER.) . My first experience in religion and spirituality was at our Episcopalian church (I've had the opportunity to explore both in many different places since then. I believe.).  And I despise confrontation (except with family - sorry, family).

There is a lot of painful dialogue going on in this country, and on Facebook, right now.  And name calling. I cannot understand how friends can be so hurtful to one another.  Perhaps my words forward will hurt some of my friends, but that is not my intent.  I only hope to explain why I get so emotional about this. Remember, I HATE confrontation, but sitting silently just makes me a coward.  I admire too many people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi to remain so. Anyway.  I'm breaking my rule.  I'm saying something political before this November's election is done.  If you want to discuss this with me - that's fantastic.  But if you become cruel, abusive, and will not civilly listen to another person's point of view, I will have to stop the discussion.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Does Our Intellect Detract From Spiritual Ecstasy?

This isn’t a plea for ignorance. No definitive conclusions have come to me. What I’m hoping for is open dialogue.

I have heard people say their heads get in the way of themselves. This leads me to wonder if we intellectualize ourselves out of the moment; the moment of being in the present and experiencing spiritual ecstasy, a mystical experience that requires a detachment of the intellectual self to be fully realized.

People have all kinds of spiritual experiences. Some may be sitting in meditation, experiencing nature, really good sex, playing music, making art, listening to music, appreciating art, swimming, flying, reading, writing, in a temple, riding a horse. Many experiences can be deemed as causing some transcendence to a much deeper meaning that comes with or without revelation – but you succinctly understand you were moved. You may not be able to explain how or the way you were moved – unless you’re explaining it to someone that has been there.

When these bouts of spiritual ecstasy come upon us, is it a removal of our intellect, our thinking that allows it to flow more freely? Do we need to detach our minds to open doorways to let that which is more than ourselves enter into us and course through us?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great Healthcare Debate: The Personal Mandate v Broccoli

For those of you who haven’t read my original post on health care reform written a little over two years ago, please read it now. It’s the second most popular post on my site and currently generates the most traffic.

The current debate in the Supreme Court centers around the mandate in the Affordable Care Act requiring individuals to buy health insurance. There are compelling arguments for and against that will be argued before the chief justices make their decision sometime this summer – when the campaigns for the next president will be in high gear.

I debated this today on Facebook with a pretty weak premise: the requirement to buy health insurance was similar to states requiring us to buy auto insurance. It was pointed out that not all states require auto insurance – mirroring the attitude to health care reform pretty well. Some states are for it, some are against it. But the debate continued with good opinions. This got me thinking of a better premise that better fits my argument.

Breaking Through The Ice

It’s been over a month since I wrote my last words. What’s happened?

I had a flurry of inspiration while in India. I wrote some of my worst stuff: A Homecoming Long Overdue, Return to India and some of my best stuff: The Buzz of Food, The Feel of the Beach, The Desire to Overcome. There was even some mediocre pieces: Friendship from Strangers. But since I’ve come back, nada.

What Happened

There are contributing factors to my dry spell. After taking six weeks off of work and coming home to a cheering office, work took me by storm. A project consumed me with long hours consuming my thoughts and took priority over everything. When I came home, my computer tried a new experience staying mostly in my bag. I couldn’t look at it, I gave at the office. All the inspiration, spiritual experiences, travel and swimming – all went into a box not to be opened until spring. To sum up: I felt wrung out.

There was also a bit of culture shock.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friendship from Strangers

Swimming in the Indian Ocean, I notice a man on a raft paddling out to a fishing boat I eyed when entering the water. We exchange waves. He starts paddling over to me while I bob up and down; in turn I swim over to him.

“That is my boat", he exclaims. “You come out and see it. I am a fishermen, those are my workers.” I haul myself onto the back of the Styrofoam raft and he resumes paddling out to the boat. Never mind the fact that his mother tongue is Malayalam, mine American English. Between us, we each speak a few words in Hindi. Even with 25% or less of the conversation getting across, we are communicating with each other.

It’s a nice boat, as big as the fishing boat from Jaws, perhaps a bit larger. He shows me the hold where fish are on ice, I assert I’m vegetarian before fish are given to me. They offer me food, drinks, smokes – what you do with a new friend and guest: hospitality. I politely refuse each, having just eaten, not drinking and not wanting anything else. However, I am touched by the claim of friendship and the generosity of these four men. Kerala has shown this to me time and again by complete strangers; I’m a guest in their county.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Desire to Overcome

“That is why you fail.” The words of Yoda are running through my head.

In my pursuit to deal with past hurts: anger, guilt, shame, abuse (to me and by me) I struggled to overcome; beating these things, a finality of dealing with myself and mastering them (they are not me, they’re my past). In doing so I ignore who I’ve been and who I am.

My scars, pains and hurts change me. They make me who I am today, color my reactions, change the way I think. My behaviors, conscience and subconscious have new channels set into my being, my self-definition; it makes me a different person. I attempt to eradicate them by a mental surgery of the self: covering up or eliminating my scars instead of dealing with them as part of my self identity. A recognition needs to take place. I need to acknowledge I am changed, finding a way to live with my new self identity and accepting my scars as who I’ve become. Failure and hurt will continue until I can see them as part of me.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Feel of the Beach

The waves crash upon the shore in a constant rhythm, sounding like the thunder of a storm close to home. In it I feel the thrust and recourse of the waves as they push me toward and away from the shore.

Afterward, that pulse continues living within my body. I feel the rolling of the waves pushing and pulling in the air around me. With the waves coming in, there is a stillness of the mind. The undertow brings forth a stream of ideas, quickly flowing out to sea, you try to grab onto them before they flow away under the waters lost forever making way for a new wave of stillness arriving in it’s wake. In this, many thoughts and images come from my own depths, only to be lost a moment later in the flow of energy.

The night here has a different quality. Back home, in the dark, I see black splotched with bits of red and blue. Here the nighttime has a mist of white everywhere like a shroud fogging the air. That same whiteness permeates the daylight making you feel like the veils are different colored dupattas, the red, blue and black at home and here one of white. The air teasing you with floating and tugging sensations.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Buzz of Food

My mouth has awakened from a long slumber. I am eating cinnamon for the first time. You might be inclined to say I’ve eaten it before, a powder sprinkled on toast, in chai or on top of pumpkin pie; but I would say that was only a taste of it. This cinnamon is a chunk of bark, boiled until soft and carefully blended into the spices of the dish I’m eating. I’ve never eaten cinnamon before – only tasted it’s essence. This is a piece of actual bark. My mouth is awake and alive.

Kerala Banana Leaf Meal
Traditional Kerala banana leaf meal. You eat this with your right hand, but not your index or your pinky fingers. Never ever your left hand.

Have you ever gotten a buzz from food before? You may have drank too much alcohol or even tried drugs. This food is giving me a buzz – and there is nothing illicit about it. The spices are combining in such a way as to create an euphoric state from eating.

I’m convinced my hosts are trying to kill us. The food so good we just keep eating, day after day after day.

I can remember the first time this happened, also in India. We were visiting the Mansingh Palace Restaurant on top of the hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan. In 1996 we ate a meal that was so good, we got a buzz. Served with a drink concoction topped with silver. The food was so good, we had to eat there twice, and we were desperately trying not to repeat anything to keep exploring. The food was that good.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The War on Travel

Nothing is supposed to be this difficult.

We’ve been coming to India together on four prior trips. If you count Saum’s experience, five years living here and many other long-extended stays before we met with travel nation-wide – she’s a pro. In January 2000, she organized a trip through Rajasthan complete with three-day camel safari through the Thar Desert just outside of Jaisalmer. We’ve been through mountains, over plains; in cars, trains and planes. We’ve stayed in old palaces and forts, palace hotels, hunting lodges, ashrams, even in tents. In terms of planning a vacation in India, we’ve never had this much trouble before.

Until now.

We’re here in India for six weeks together. After arriving in our base of operations, the launching point of our previous travels, we set out to make way for Kerala. In the past, we’ve used a travel agent, at other times friends, occasionally just hopping in the car. We know what we want to do, our research done, plans – well trying to set. And here’s the problem.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Return to India

We’ve been in India for two weeks. The airports:, clean and modern. New Delhi, sanitized. Everything seemed much more tame than our last visit.

Last week, we arrived in Rishikesh from Dehradun via taxi, one of our most common forms of transportation here, especially when we have the whole family with us; taxies are less expensive than trains beyond a certain sized group. Our travels through Rishikesh and Laxman Jhula started to feel like, something. But I still hadn’t caught that feeling of being in India. Something about me was missing. Was I overly nostalgic in my romanticism of the India that I remembered from my last visit? Had I changed too much?

As we travel to Haridwar, the landscape and drive bring everything back into sharp focus. Suddenly India seems more: colors, sounds, people, vehicles. The villages smell like villages: diesel, sewage, animals and people to foods and wares. The traffic becomes a chaotic wave of cars, busses, scooters and other things (tractors, bikes, animals and people). Traffic in India is like a school of fish in the ocean: they dart in and out as one and can scatter just as quickly around an obstacle. They move like a hive mind. Tapping into that feeling, that motion is tapping into India itself: feeling the chaos of the place and making it a part of you.

Suddenly I am feeling like one with my surroundings again.