A life less ordinary

“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are



“Each person leaves a legacy — a single, small piece of herself, which makes richer each individual life and the collective life of humanity as a whole.”
― John Nichols

While visiting Italy on a recent trip, I stayed in a small hamlet that has been home to a winery run by the same family for 700 years.

Can you imagine, 700 years? The roots of the Tuscan earth run deep and are experienced as rich bouquets of people, landscapes, architecture and food. Despite the deep roots, the hamlet itself was home to no more than twenty five people, with the main house still inhabited by the original family. The locals clearly benefitted from generations past, and continued the traditions of cultivating and living off of the fruits of the earth; olive groves, grape vines, tomatoes defined the hues and strokes of the landscape.

The guest house we stayed in was owned by the original family and contained a depot for books of past generations. In our vast library I picked up a book called If Mountains Die, by the American author John Nichols. A memoir and picture book about his life in Taos, New Mexico written in the 1970’s, he wrote about roots; his own familial roots and those of a civilization displaced and ultimately destroyed; the roots of the indigenous population that have faced centuries of subjugation and persecution. He wrote about transience, uncertainty and loss; quite a juxtaposition from the immediate surroundings and safety in the ancient hamlet where I nestled.

It made me consider my own roots; those of my ancestors, of my generation and the roots of my own small family. Ours is a generation of unprecedented and accelerated change. Never before have people and ideas been so mobile, global and fleeting. We expect information as it happens at our fingertips, and also expect that the information will change, sometimes at a rate that is even more rapid than reality. What is more, the natural temporality of the world is exacerbated and manipulated by governments and media outlets to instil fear rather than to help us to come to terms with what is: our inevitable demise.

As I sat under the fig trees in the garden of our hamlet, I contemplated my own roots, severed and re-rooted in so many ways. Many of the people I know are in similar life circumstances. After all, broken families and global relocation is considered normal in today’s world. But then, my thoughts turned to the earth surrounding me. I looked around in the garden and saw dandelions and daisies, rosemary and wild rose bushes scaling the ancient stone wall. Are we really so different from the seeds of a dandelion riding the wind to discover new soil? At the end of the day, we all have roots that span hundreds of centuries and cover vast terrain. Every one of us has rich and meaningful ancestry that are as based today on location as they were centuries ago. Our relationship with place is surely different, but the more we can be aware of the significance of environment, the more we build meaning for ourselves and for generations to come.

Even as everything is in a constant state of flux, we can take steps to be conscious of how things are around us here and now and appreciate the wonder, for the thing we can be sure of is the next time we look, it will appear different. Roots help to keep us grounded in relationship, even when that relationship is change. The dandelion knows not where it came from or where it may land; only that the future generations of dandelions are relying on it to spread its wings and soar….and then there is the landing.

On love and suffering


“Sadness gives depth. Happiness gives height. Sadness gives roots. Happiness gives branches. Happiness is like a tree going into the sky, and sadness is like the roots going down into the womb of the earth. Both are needed, and the higher a tree goes, the deeper it goes, simultaneously. The bigger the tree, the bigger will be its roots. In fact, it is always in proportion. That’s its balance.”
(thanks to Tamar Samir for posting this quote last week on FB)

Being embodied on this earth is not always easy. A part of our existence is experienced as suffering, and we do everything we can to avoid staying in that place. Indeed, we do our utmost to escape it; we even add to our suffering by resorting to destructive behaviours to circumvent the original source of sorrow.

Many of us turn to the guidance of a spiritual path as a result of becoming aware of our suffering, and wanting to do something about it. Whether it is physical, mental or emotional pain, we come to the path looking to cultivate a more beautiful, grace-filled existence. This, however, in itself does not mean the end of suffering. Sometimes the spiritual path can involve grieving, especially when it leads to discovery of self that can ultimately be transformative, but initially quite painful.

The spiritual practice brings awareness to our lives, and ultimately can lead to freedom from suffering; after all, the goal is enlightenment. Sometimes, however, an increased awareness comes before anything else, before we have even cultivated compassion and kindness towards ourselves and other. Rather that feeling better, it is in this stage that things can initially get worse and result in severe loneliness and deflation.

About ten years ago I went through a period of deep depression. I had been practicing yoga for a number of years in earnest, but had recently been diagnosed with a life threatening illness. Overnight, I lost my self-confidence, and wound up questioning everything in my life, and was steeped in self-loathing and blame. While I did my best to carry on with daily life putting on a brave face, I ultimately broke down, crying through savasana on most days at my local yoga shala, and even had to take a few months off from work. At the time I felt embarrassed and weak, and it felt like this period would never end. I didn’t feel I had much to live for in that moment. Over time, however, things did change. They always do. I found my way out of the darkness to a lighter space and a more peaceful way of living, thanks to the practices of yoga, dear friends and family. It is an unfortunate truth that many are not so lucky. For some, the roots grow deep long before the branches see the sun and bear fruit.

Eventually and inevitably, with darkness comes light, but we must be patient with ourselves and others; time knows no boundaries in happiness and sorrow. The best we can do is doing the best we can; it can easily be overlooked that in each moment the aim of the spiritual path is in cultivating kindness and love. So that we do not waste our energy or effort in the wrong direction, so that we are not driven necessarily off course, when we recognize our attention being diverted to anything other than the cultivation of love (including anger, jealousy, greed, fear and anxiety), we might ask ourselves three basic questions: 1. Is it kind? 2. Is it true? 3. Is it necessary? (Thanks to Jules Febre for sharing these).

As humans, the more loving we are of ourselves and others, the less we have to live in fear; fear of what others think, fear of worldly events, and most of all, fear of ourselves. When we cultivate kindness and love, we are creating the right environment for those around us to do the same. When we embrace and allow ourselves to be embraced, our suffering, and the suffering of those around us diminishes. We must walk together as we grow our roots and branches, we must support one another. When we water our trees with love, we can leave the timing of the roots to grow deep and the branches to grow high up to the powers that be.

Love Invincible

PYS III.24 Maitri Adishu Balani
Through friendliness, kindness and compassion, strength and success will come.

heart-meditationWhen we let go completely of the ego, our insecurities, our need to please others and ‘act’ according to societal norms, then we can live through the heart. When we live through the heart with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, compassion and kindness shine through as our true nature, and we become more capable of saying what we mean, and meaning what we say. This leads to great strength, for we are free of the fear of our potential to be greater and more powerful than we ever thought possible.

Since I’ve been in the hospital recovering from a liver transplant, my relationships have undergone a transformation along with my mind and body. So many Beautiful Beings have offered up all of themselves with tremendous power of intention to my health and healing, and this has manifested in a number of different ways. In general, I value my friends more than I thought possible – I love them like family; they are a part of me. I sometimes have difficulty compartmentalizing the animate world as everything and all of us are so interconnected; and therefore the word acquaintance doesn’t register with me; rather, colleagues, nurses, doctors, yoga ‘students’, ‘teachers’ and strangers alike all fit nicely under the friendship umbrella.

Those beings who have helped me through managing my transforming body have gotten to know me in different forms: Lizzie with more and less body; Lizzie with more and less mental capacity; Lizzie in Love with life; Lizzie in great pain. Throughout this five week process I have been 25 kilos heavier than I am now with water weight, my face and body inflated nearly twice my current size; in fact, I was so over inflated with water that it was literally leaking out from my pores. I have had friends bathing me, changing my oozing wound, helping me to the toilet, washing my hair. These friends have surrendered themselves for my well being, and I believe that I can fairly say we’ve both benefited and grown stronger from this process. We’ve become One pillar of strength and love. I am wholly devoted to this growing circle of friends, and feel truly that there is no separation of heart or spirit. The Love is a result of surrender, of devotion, of offering everything up to the supreme source, that is You, me, all of us. Together, the power of Love is invincible.

Despite the Love, despite the deep connection with so very many, I am an introvert by nature. When in the hospital, my innate tendency is not to engage with patients, keeping my curtains drawn and earphones on. While I’m able to speak casually with the doctors, nurses and support staff, I observe myself doing all I can to not get caught up in other patients’ dramas. I used to feel awkward, even guilty about this, but have since come to terms with my method of coping, which I have rationalized as related to saving energy and keeping myself as calm as possible while not yet in a stable physical condition. Perhaps this is selfish, when I could be doing so much more to help those around me in their beds. I honestly feel I do the best I can, but it can become overwhelming, especially when the three others in my bay suffer from a confused mind and are continually doing strange things that I can’t help them to avoid. Example from this morning: pouring coffee into a jug of ice and letting it overflow all over their bedstand. This is par for the course of day to day in the room I’m in, times three.

There has been one exception to my generally introverted self since I’ve been here. After being on 10N for a week in a very loud room, one of the patients was sent home, thus there was a bed free. At about 9pm on a Friday, a new patient was wheeled in as if she’d just landed in a helicopter with an entourage of very happy, excited Spanish nurses and family. A bright energetic aura blew into the room with her, and over the next days I came to know this spark of energy as Eva, from Spain, who had just had a double kidney and liver transplant.

Eva and I commiserated about many things, we shared information about our lives, and quickly we got into deeper subject matter, like how to quiet the mind and learn to let go; even discussing our experiences regarding the space between life and death. Eva’s daughter and my mother came in every day, and within a few hours, the four of us were like life long friends. Every morning we got up and ate breakfast and talked a little more. Then, two weeks ago Thursday, we were both given the green light to have a trial weekend at home. Thursday turned into Friday, but over the course of the night we both took a turn for the worse. I woke up being taken for a liver biopsy; Eva was gone.

It turns out that Eva was taken back to the ICU for two immediate surgeries to try to stop an internal bleed that was accompanied by a large blood clot. She has remained in the ICU for the past weeks in unstable condition. Then, two days ago, her new liver died as a result of the blood clot. She was put on the urgent transplant list, which meant she had 72 hours to find a new liver for her to live. Today I’m unsure of what has happened. Her daughter must be exhausted and dependent on how the call out for a donor has gone, she may even be in surgery as I type. I have been praying blindfolded.

Every moment since receiving the call on the evening of September 25th I have been basking in the glow of gratitude and compassion. I have felt compassion for my donor, for all the very ill, blessed beings I have encountered in the hospital, my incredible circle of friends, and those incredible beings of light energy, like Eva, that contribute so much to the life force. In or out of the body, I’m continually reminded of the tremendous power of compassion, friendship and the sending out of positive thoughts, words and actions into the universe. Eva is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and that strength comes through the kindness in her eyes. I surrender all up to the great Lord knowing she is filled with God’s Grace.

When we’re down, we need a helping hand.
And when we lose our heads, it’s cause they’re always buried in the sand.
But when we get stuck on our selves, feelin’ sorry for our selves.
Will you help us grab a hold and please don’t patrionize our souls.
When we start to lose control, when we get irrational, when we start to get too high,
You see us come floating by, I say,

Touch us with the morning sun, when we feel impossible.
Touch us with the morning sun, show us what is possible.
Touch us in the morning sun when we feel impossible, show us what is possible.
Teach us love invincible.
~Michael Franti

Progressing Toward Kindness: Jivamukti Focus of the Month: November 2013

samniyama-indriya-gramam / sarvatra sama-buddhayah
te prapnuvanti mam eva / sarva-bhuta-hite ratah
Those who are able to control their senses, have equanimity of mind and rejoice in contributing to the welfare of all creatures are dear to me.
Bhagavad Gita XII.4

Sometimes we all fall into negativity and despair, particularly when the news is filled with tragedies like school shootings and senseless wars, harsh political rhetoric and greedy behavior by banks, and the atrocities we humans are committing against ourselves, other animals, the oceans, forests and the body of the planet herself bringing us all closer and closer to an environmental, physiological and psychological collapse. From one perspective, things seem to be getting worse and worse. But is that the only perspective, and do we have the power to change it, if it is?

We can look to entertainment culture to get a picture as to what is in our psyches—what fears and longings lie beneath the surface of our consciousness. For example if you read 18th and 19th century literature, you will find a lot of class struggle and emotional unfulfillment. The characters are mostly dissatisfied and feel victimized by society. But there is little, if any, mention about the real slaves of the system—the horses who are harnessed to the carriages pulling human beings to this party or that, or the cows who are tied up in the back alleys of tenement buildings anemically producing blue-tinged milk. The other animals only appear as extras, insignificant to the important stories that are being enacted between the human beings.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, war and science fiction/monster/alien films were very popular. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the hero of the story has been shrunk down to a half-inch tall and has to battle a “giant” spider with a sewing needle. Many, if not most, of the films of that era reveal a deep mistrust of Nature and a feeling of human fragility and vulnerability in the face of Nature and other animals. The protagonists annihilate and conquer, rather than communicate, collaborate and get along. It was “us against them.”

More recently, films like The Matrix, which asks questions about the nature of reality, and novels like Cloud Atlas, which explores the concepts of karma and reincarnation, introduce characters who are empowered to work within reality as they find it to solve problems or improve their situations. It is inconceivable that works like these would have been understood and accepted in the 1950s; it would have been over people’s heads. In this regard I would say we are making good progress. The message is less “us against them” and more a reflection of shunyata (emptiness)—putting the cause of problems on the individual as opposed to the faceless other and exposing corporations and/or governments for what they are—amplified personifications of greed and boredom that arise out of ourselves. So from this perspective, there does seem to be cultural progress, and yet so many of us still feel disaffected and dissatisfied. How can we align our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world with our emotional and spiritual bodies? The answer is through kindness.

Often when I talk about animal rights, people ask me, “Why care so much about animal abuse when there is so much human abuse in our world?” I care about animal abuse because we are all animals, and I choose not to be locked into the prejudicial system that proclaims this animal to be more worthy than that animal. Human beings are animals too—that is a biological fact—and the systematic and unquestioned abuse of non-human animals creates a cultural environment in which abuse is accepted, which in turn results in the abuse of humans. If we want to solve a problem, it is best to look for the root of the problem and change that; otherwise our efforts will be limited to the surface and the problem will inevitably recur. As my holy teacher Swami Nirmalanda said, “This picking and choosing who to love promotes schisms and prejudices and causes us to feel separate from all of life. We should be more cosmopolitan and feel ourselves as a citizen of the cosmos—a friend to all.” Kindness can lead us in that direction.

We all want to be successful. Yoga teaches that success comes to one who is friendly and kind towards others. For Yoga to happen—for us to experience freedom from the need to consume material products and exploit the Earth and other animals, for us to experience the joy of needing nothing and feeling whole, as Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati described the state of Yoga—we must explore kindness. We cannot remain tight and miserly, only doling out kindness to those whom we like or who are like us, or to those who will give us something in return. When we begin to shed the limits of our kindness, we begin to understand our potential for being the limitless beings that we really are. This is truly the great adventure: to break the self-centered chains that bind our hearts and begin to see the other as our own self. This equanimity of mind will lead to God-realization.

—Sharon Gannon

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