Monday, September 1, 2014

The Ultimate Question

This summer I was fortunate to be able to get back home to The United States and attend a retreat with my yoga sangha or family. We really are a family, we know the ins and outs of each other, we hold loving space for the light and dark sides of our beings, we have shared our skeletons as well as our sparkle and shine. We love each other no matter what. More than amazing, and yet so simply human.

Our humanness that holds our infinite soul nature. We explore that together.

One of the experiences we shared during that retreat was a powerful look into the concept of identity. At the core of yoga is the question "Who am I?". Even if you don't do, or care to ever do yoga, this is the ultimate question of a lifetime, for all of us. Isn't it? What more could we be here to do than to experience this amazing life, and day by day, come to know ourselves. To know and express oneself fully is ultimate realization.

Who do you think you are?

No, actually beyond thought. Who are you? Who are you, really?

In the experience we spent a length of time looking into the eyes of partners, who would change at intervals,  and asked each other to "tell me who you are". We each had time to speak and we each had a turn to listen. We did this for three hours.

I found this exercise compelling, difficult, illuminating, frustrating, transformational, cathartic, joyful, above all mind blowing. As I spoke in a stream of consciousness manner I found so many pieces of my identity bubbling up to the surface, all these parts of my persona wanting validation, air time, so to speak. I heard myself talking about being a mother, wife, teacher, thinker, feeler, experiencer of so much. I gave voice to my inner little girl and paid visitation to my joys and my sorrows, my love and my anger, desire and grief. How fascinating, all the things that came through my field of awareness as expressions of my identity. I was quite shocked at moments at the very words spilling out of me, words freeing pieces of me I had disconnected from or denied my attention.

When I listened to my partners I felt such deep compassion and connection. Each person in front of me, so vulnerable, raw, honest and perfectly beautiful. I saw that person, their eyes, their deep soul nature and I saw myself reflected back. In speaking and listening, witnessing the energy moving through each moment of response, it was like watching the slow unfolding of a beautiful lotus flower. Every tender moment of offering, each emotion or sudden recognition like petals peeling back to unveil the core, the very heart of it, the deep unwavering center point. There in that point of origin resides the true self. Infinite, eternal and whole, love without limit, freedom.

Our true nature is love, we must endeavor to go inward and discover it. We must be willing to brave the stormy waters of our deeply wounded parts and fully appreciate and own our phenomenally joyful, intelligent, divine aspects as well. We are called to shine the bright light of compassionate consciousness into every corner and hidden alleyway of ourselves, leaving no part left in exile. Yoga, Kripalu Yoga in particular, gives us a path to directly experience our true nature. It takes dedication, it takes practice. It is the journey of a lifetime and beyond.

I carry this question with me now. The question "Who am I?" is becoming my constant companion. Sometimes it is in my back pocket and sometimes I bring it right back to that close contact eye gaze, deeply looking, intentionally seeking. I hear it whispering to me when I get off balance or wander into murky territory, moments when fear is getting the best of me.

I am continuing this question as a directed practice. There is a meditation on this very same question that anyone can do. Here is some simple instruction.

Arrange your body in a comfortable position, perhaps sitting on a chair or on a cushion with an upright spine. Feel your body and notice your breath. After a few moments of settling in, begin to drop the question "Who am I?" into your field of awareness. Drop it in without any expectation of receiving an answer. The idea is to use the mind to pause the mind, to begin to pierce through the thought identity, in order to connect with the deeper self that is beyond thought and definition.

Many ideas and images might come up, acknowledge them and let them go. Return to the breath, and again drop the question in, "Who am I?" Practicing this self inquiry meditation can take you to the essence of what is here beyond thinking, like that lotus flower opening slowly to reveal the beautiful essence of the self.

This journey takes time and practice as I have said. I am at the point where I still get lost in my thoughts and ideas, but every once in awhile I arrive into moments of clarity and deep peace. Those moments inspire me to want to continue. I want to continue to expand my light and step by step make the pilgrimage home to my true self, to the love that is at the center, the deep well of my own heart and soul.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Home and Away

 Since moving to China my sense of, and connection to the word and concept of home has shifted. It is a bit blurry, its boundaries and borders are less clear. In June I packed up and headed off solo, back to our home in Connecticut. The kids were not finished with school, but I needed to get back for a retreat with my yoga family. On the plane, I was more than happy for some time to myself, no one to look after but me, myself and I, a glass of champagne, my own personal screen for movie viewing, kind of blissful. When my journey ended I arrived at the midnight hour, finally, at my own long lost doorstep, ready for the comfort of my homecoming.

I fumbled around in my fatigue with the numbers on the lock box that were the final obstacle to crossing that sacred threshold. One last click and I was in! Despite having had a friend come by to turn on lights and open windows, when I walked in the air was heavy and stale, the space quiet and hollow, vacuous, dead. No life in it, but now I was here. I was home, or was I?  I decided this was just the jet lag, this let down, this dullness. I was thankful for the company of a beer left for me and  an episode of "Friends" on Nick at Night. These friends were as good as it was going to get at the moment, so I leaned back into the couch, right where I always sit, and allowed myself to become heavy, sink down.  I went to bed with my loneliness. My husband and kids were a world away, me in bed alone, and them at work and school. I slept an unsettled sleep, feeling simultaneously at home and away.

The next morning I shook off my dust and opened the blinds and drapes, windows and doors to the day. Two of my best girlfriends finally made their way over and a heart beat returned to that place. My breath returned to me. The world of home started to get back its color and flavor. Home can be a town, in a certain country, on a certain road, at a particular house number but it is the life and laughter of the people who gather there, who laugh and cry there, it is the human spark, the fire of family and friends that give it its life breath. I found my liveliness as well, as I reconnected to the outdoor space of our Connecticut home. It sits in a patch of woods with a brook running through it. In the summer it has an orchestra of birds, frogs and bugs singing, a beautiful soundtrack for life.

After a couple days landing there, I was off to visit friends, go on a fabulous yoga retreat and reconnect with my spiritual family and teachers. Amazing. When I made my way back once again to our house in the woods Stephen and the kids were there waiting, and yes, this time, it was home again. A house turned back into a home, full of hustle and bustle, music and cooking, laughter and arguing, all of it. All if it good, rich, and astoundingly beautiful.

The summer unfolded before us as we pursued a jam packed itinerary of going to different places to see family and friends, ultimately making a circle encompassing almost half of the continental United States. Each place we visited was like another homecoming because of all the beloved faces we beheld, precious time shared, catching up with all that had transpired in the last year, marveling at how kids had grown, hugs and kisses. In the end though it always ended in the same bittersweet way, every single time, more hugs and kisses and "I love you. See you soon.", every time a goodbye. Parting truly is such sweet sorrow.

In the blink of the proverbial eye the time had escaped me and I was busy packing suitcases once again to go home. Funny, when I came to Connecticut I was coming home, and now, preparing for the return to China, going home. This expat experience has the unique quality of always being home and always being away, from one or the other. It is like straddling the globe, living in two worlds at once. Amazing and challenging, always a subtle feeling of displacement flavoring the big adventure.

We returned to Shanghai just over a week ago,and again I find I am stumbling around, I can't quite get the land underneath my feet. I feel a bit turned upside down and hollowed out. This too shall pass. I am beginning to reconnect with friends and getting my ducks in a row. My kids are back to school, activities are starting soon, my teaching will get organized, I will hit my stride. Right now there is a lingering longing for the other home. It will take a bit of time to resettle here. Another year of travel, learning and growing lies ahead, and my most important people are right here with me.

So what is home? Where is home? There is a reason why clichés get to be clichés and "home is where the heart is" holds so much truth. In a world where sometimes it seems home is all about square footage, zip codes, bells and whistles and keeping up with the Joneses, I have discovered that home, true home, lives in a different type of geography. Home is the landscape of love and devotion, the tender spaces that make life worth living, the world of relating and being, the infinite container that can hold all my best, my worst and every shade in between. Home is bird songs and lullabies, sleeping in and sleepless nights. Home is those you are with and those who you miss. Most of all home is the heart, my heart, connected to all the hearts that I carry with me every moment of every day whether that  particular moment feels like home or away.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Amazing and Hopeful Story of Dahei the Chinese Winter Soup Dog

No situation is ever hopeless. No matter how desperate or impossible life circumstances may become, the truth is that as long as you are breathing, anything can happen.  Personally I don't believe in predestination or a fate that is unavoidable. I do believe that we are put here with certain lessons to learn and our teachers come to us in many forms; people, events, challenges, victories, disasters and miracles. Everything that arrives is a teacher. We have the power to receive the experiences life offers to us, and then we choose how to grow, how to respond, or even how to stay stuck, how to stay trapped. Sometimes things can get so bad we might feel blinded by the darkness, seemingly lost forever. It might feel like the sun in the sky has been blotted out and all there is to do is suffer to the end.

What do you do if you are down in that hole of relentless despair? Don't give up, never count yourself out. Keep breathing and reaching out into the darkness, put one foot in front of the other, keep getting up and meeting each day, because miracles do happen and you do not know what amazing new chapter is just the turn of a page away. At any moment someone might throw some hidden door or window wide open and the sun comes blazing in. It can happen, it does. If my dog Dahei could speak she would tell you exactly that. Anything can happen, anything at all.

Dahei is a Chinese Winter Soup Dog, and that just means she is a mutt and a street dog. She is the kind of dog that some Chinese people love to put in some winter soup. I say that with absolutely no judgment by the way. People throughout the world eat different things and though I would not knowingly eat a dog, I do not hold judgment around this cultural difference. Dahei, very well might though.

Dahei was abandoned at a very young age by the boss at a construction site and his wife. Most likely they realized she is not a pure bred dog and so they rejected her. Dahei lived for quite some time alone on the bare cement in the cold of winter. She scavenged for food in the garbage of a nearby apartment complex, and tried to play with other dogs she would meet there, but she was very afraid of people. No wonder really, as some of the workers and guards in the area were trying to catch her to eat her.

One woman noticed her and left food out, and a box for a bit of shelter, but Dahei's life was harsh and dismal. Then one day, Dahei decided to follow a friendly dog and the woman she was with around on their walk. The dog's name was Xiaohei and the woman's name was Laiya.  Dahei really wanted to play with Xiaohei, but couldn't trust Laiya and so she shied away. Laiya asked around the apartments if Dahei belonged to someone, and the woman who had left the box out told Laiya about Dahei's horrible living conditions. Laiya determined to rescue Dahei. She managed to wrangle her and get her to the veterinarian where she was looked over and de-fleed and de-wormed.

Laiya brought Dahei home and went through significant turmoil and trouble. Dahei only wanted to hide under the table, she used all her energy to try to break the door to the apartment, and she would chew on things and tear the apartment apart. She refused to walk in or out of the building or on stairs and had to be carried. Laiya tried several names and got no response, until she tried Dahei, which means big black in Mandarin, and she wagged her tail. So Dahei was named.

One day a friend had come to try to help repair some of the damage Dahei had done to Laiya's apartment and then they took her out with them to pick up some food. Dahei ended up running away and back to the construction site from where she had come. Laiya went there to reclaim her, but now the construction workers insisted that Dahei belonged to them. Laiya, helpless to save Dahei from them, began to walk away, but a female worker quickly brought her to Laiya and said to take her away and give her a good life.

This time Dahei went to the apartment and settled in. Laiya trained Dahei and set out to find someone to adopt her, but only a temporary foster home could be arranged. Laiya was working full time teaching Mandarin and didn't feel she could keep Dahei herself. That is where my family and I come in.

In my meager and faltering attempts to learn something more than ni hao, "hello", and ting bu dong, "I don't understand", I hired Laiya to tutor me in Mandarin. One evening Harper, my then eight year old daughter, was sitting with us, and somehow the topic of having left our beloved dog, Evan, behind in the States when we moved to China came up. I confessed that we all really missed having a dog. Laiya's face lit up and she told us with great enthusiasm that she had the perfect dog for our family. I tried my best to show restraint, but I really am a sucker for a dog, and rescuing, well, anything. Laiya emailed me a flyer and some pictures. The flyer listed her breed as Chinese Winter Soup Dog. I asked Laiya what that means and she said, "Well, Dahei is the kind of dog that some people think would go in a winter soup. I was a bit horrified to think of that and her photo was adorable, so we all agreed to meet Dahei.

Dahei came to meet us on a Thursday evening a few months ago, and she has been here with us ever since. She was so quiet and shy at first, but she has warmed up to all of us and she is truly the most remarkable dog. I think she is a kind of yogi dog. She is so calm, gentle and friendly. She sits near me when I meditate or do yoga, and she has a great ease about her. She can also be suddenly leaping and bounding, full of playful energy. She is incredible, such a kind soul given the cruelty and harshness of her early life.

Dahei started out her life living on a concrete slab in the cold of winter in China, where she was seen as nothing more than a reject and maybe a good winter meal. She was abandoned, freezing, starving and afraid. Through several twists of fate, and her will to stay the course, surviving, waiting and then recognizing a kind person, her life has been transformed in an amazing and miraculous way.

She is part of our family now and she brings us all great joy. She came like an angel for me at a time when I was feeling a little lost and lonely myself. She has helped my heart to heal and open from a year that has had some hurdles and hurts. We saved her and she has saved us too.

Dahei's story is proof that anything can happen. She went from being a cast out, alone, and in the most dire of situations, to living in one of the best, if not the best area in all of Shanghai. She has an adoring family, no more garbage to eat for her, now it is Science Diet and monthly visits to the groomer. She doesn't sleep on cold concrete, she has a nice cushioned doggy bed, but she has moved herself on up to the couch, or sometimes my meditation cushion. Most importantly, because she didn't give up, she found her way miraculously to the place in this world where she was needed, in our home and in our hearts.

So if you are feeling like your life is hard and hopeless, if you feel like the darkness has overtaken the light, remember the story of Dahei, and keep traveling, look around, keep on keeping on. You never know when, in the turn of a corner or a chance meeting, your life may be changed forever.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Life with Mental Illness

I am taking a deep breath now and going to the fire of courage and the light of faith to write what I am about to write.

This month, yes it is still May, is Mental Health Month. I have been thinking of, tossing around, and considering writing about this since the first of the month and yet the month is nearing its end and I am pushing myself, and hard, to write. With so much tragedy and violence stemming from mental illness in recent years and currently in the murders at UCSB it is clear that mental health issues must be brought out of the shadows. It is important that we start to look at the stigma around mental illness which, I believe, is fueled in part by the fact that people are perhaps only seeing a one dimensional view of it, through cases that land in the media spotlight involving mental illness which has spun out of control and ends in such devastation. Even in such extreme cases we must look at the progression of the illness in the person and consider how we as a society are going to work to create pathways to healing and then deliver them in a timely manner. The call for advancements in awareness and treatment for mental health are clearly needed. There are many different forms of mental illness and they present very differently from each other and each individual is unique. I am not a psychologist so I will just write about my own personal experience and insights.

As I think about where to go with this I realize it is not a one post topic. It is a volume. It is an integral part of my life story, and yet, if you met me today and we sat and had even a lengthy conversation you would probably never guess that I have had a life long struggle with anxiety disorder, decades of depression, and post traumatic stress. I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember being alive, and depression was not far behind. I believe that like many diseases my anxiety and depression have roots in my genes and my physiology, and also became triggered by various environmental events and traumas.

As a teenager my struggles became intense. I felt increasingly alone, depressed, angry, agitated, misunderstood, and I was in emotional distress and pain all of the time. I found myself acting out and engaging in behaviors that were risky and sometimes outright dangerous. I was self medicating and would struggle with substance abuse for several years. I was out of control and I didn't care who knew it. I didn't really care about anything and I hated myself. I don't blame anyone that I didn't get the help I needed at the time, because unfortunately, no one knew what to do with me. I think this failure to identify and treat mental illness effectively continues today. When kids are acting out as a cry for help, it is often dismissed as an adolescent phase or just a "bad" kid, and as adults we learn to hide in shame and keep it quiet. The result is that there are many people, right now, kids and adults alike, who are not being seen and not being helped, and the help available is not always effective. The pain of living in denial and shame added to the illness itself can be excruciating. The results of this are often nothing short of devastating.

When I was twenty I got into some serious trouble which resulted in my entry into a treatment program and the beginning of my journey to healing. Twenty two years later I am still on that journey. I have been in and out of counseling, on medication multiple times, and have received many different therapeutic techniques. All of these were necessary and helpful in different ways. Therapy and medication got me through initial stages of processing and integration so I could find some balance and stability. I still have a coach and teacher who helps me immensely. Then I found Kripalu Yoga and it has become my greatest healer, my way of living, my way of being. I have become a Kripalu Yoga teacher and from there rediscovered dance in an amazing practice called Let Your Yoga Dance. I teach Let Your Yoga Dance as well. I run, bike, swim and stay very physically active. I eat healthy and care for myself on all levels. I am creative and love art and writing. I have been married for almost twenty years now and have four beautiful children.  My journey to healing has brought me so much abundance. I have been med free for quite a few years. Now my medicine is doing all these things I have discovered along the way, the things that bring me joy and personal fulfillment. I still have my good days and bad days, I still ride the waves and remain mindful of my emotional state and my energy levels. For the most part though, I have the ability to sense when I am veering off course and I go to all these tools and supports I have, and it works. I can't help but think this must have some relevance in how to treat disorders such as mine.

The main point is that it is possible to heal and live a wonderful life, even with mental health issues. I have grown and learned so much from every experience I have had, both the very painful ones and the joyful ones. Without the huge challenges I have faced I couldn't have arrived into the life I am living today, but it did take a lot of help, from a lot of people. I got lucky and landed in a place where I couldn't hide or evade and was forced to confront my illness. I have had my family and friends by my side. I couldn't have made it this far without helping hands, hugs and people who didn't let me brush it under the rug or bury my head in the sand,  people who helped me get real and get better. I can't say I am cured but I can say I am empowered and passionate about my life.

My hope is that by writing and sharing this I will create a wave or even a ripple of understanding. If even one person is helped or supported by reading this it would be enough. If you are suffering in silence today, reach out and if at first you don't find the right people to help you, keep reaching out. If you know someone who may be in need of support, talk to them, tell them they are not alone. We must find ways in our individual relationships, in our families, and in our communities to meet each other and attend to each other in a grounded and compassionate way. We need to treat people with mental health issues in the same manner we should treat people with any health issue, that is with tenderness, care and basic human respect. We all deserve that much.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sitting with the Angel of Struggle

A week ago today I embarked on a day of retreat to be in silent contemplation of "the place of struggle and grace on the path of love".  This retreat was homework for a group I am a part of that is committed to the practice, the study, and the living of  Kripalu Yoga.

Yoga is not a physical exercise regimen. Yoga is a complex set of practices and inquiries that guide the aspirant toward a life of consciousness, a life of awakening and spiritual evolution. Struggle is a part of life for everyone. Yoga provides us tools to be with struggle, to see the gift and opportunity that struggle offers. Struggle will come and then we get to choose how to relate with it. In the face of struggle we will take some form of action, the question is will our action be ruled by fear or by faith, by judgment or by compassion?

Swami Kripalu said, " When we consider the nature of our struggles, we may think them to be cruel or depict them like horrible demons. Yet the true nature of struggle is not evil. It's really an angel in disguise, bringing good to everyone. struggle keeps us from becoming lazy. It keeps us active and aware, and bestows the kind of knowledge that can't be obtained from any other teacher. struggle is thus the prana or animating force of our lives. Leading us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, and from death to immortality, struggle is a skillful sculptor who carves a beautiful statue out of an ugly rock." (excerpt from the book Pilgrim of Love)

As I set out to do the prescribed practices, meditations and journaling for this day as directed by our teacher, I was actually quite excited to have a day of quiet and solitude dedicated to my own practice. That does not happen too often being a mother with three kids at home.

I was riding the flow, feeling content and connected, until about seven hours into the day. At that point I was doing a walking meditation outside. It was quite a hot day and the Shanghai air was a bit heavy, as it can be. As I walked I started to feel agitated by the quiet, unsettled. The aloneness started to feel sharp and uncomfortable. My very meditation was becoming struggle itself. At that point I also happened to be walking past an abandoned gated compound of houses that is crumbling away and looks so forlorn and desolate. As I felt myself crumbling a bit myself I tried to be in the experience I was feeling, lonely and desolate. I happened to look to my right and there was a sign, a graffiti sign in fact. There in black spray paint on brick was one word, "solitude" . I got goosebumps upon seeing it, and I truly felt like it was put there somehow, for me, in that moment. That simple sign shifted my outlook and brought me back to the oasis of solitude and out of the shadow of loneliness.

An angel in the struggle. Grace at work.

I continued my day and received great insight, formed intentions and sealed them all in prayer and devotion. My final journal entry that came through source, intuition, divine guidance, or whatever you might call it, was quite powerful to me and so I will share it with you.  

"Keep opening your heart, that is where all the light and knowing you need resides. Keep stepping through doorways of faith, you are protected and provided for. You do not have to fix anything or rise to any occasion. Be always in the company of your breath, your light and your love. Do not worry about any outcome, just give. Give of yourself with a brave heart and an open hand. Remember who you are. Return to the shelter of your spirit, to love. Dedicate to that in practice. Freedom is already within you. You are love and love will never abandon you. Take rest."

A day of solitude and reflection is a powerful thing. We spend much of our lives looking outside ourselves when the greatest treasures are within. Consider taking the time to be quiet and come home to your heart.    

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Being Alone in Shanghai

  "Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It's restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down." ~ Pema Chodron

I have not written on this blog in over a month. There are a few reasons for this. I have been busy with three kids here and the accompanying nurturing, organizing, adapting, and going here, there and everywhere that that entails. I am also giving emotional and energetic support to my daughter living in the states. I have been teaching more, including starting a new job at a new yoga studio. Most of all, I feel I have gone away from writing because I have been in a period of deep introspection and spiritual practice. I have been using a lot of energy in the process of feeling and digesting experience. I have been taking in so intensely, that I have had to pause for a time from giving out. I have had to make a very conscious choice to settle in for awhile, to take shelter and seek quiet in order to do some essential work on myself. I am still very much in the depths of the process, but I finally felt the tug to express something outwardly.

I have been going through a lot here. I am dealing with multiple issues with family and kids. ADD, scoliosis, academic turmoil, teenage hormones, social pressures, bullying, and the list goes on. I have also been dealing with my own core wound around fitting in (amongst others), seeking social acceptance and  connection, and yet honoring my introverted side. I have had some loss in the realm of friendship, including some rejection, which is so hard for me to take, and I will also be faced with friends I have made here repatriating soon. I have a certain sense of connection and support from my friends and family back home, but the fact is I am a world away. Facebook and Skype just can't take the place of a face to face. Virtual hugs just aren't the same as arms wrapped around and warm hearts embracing.

A big part of my experience right now in Shanghai is centered around loneliness. Now the bombshell moment. I thank God for this loneliness! I find it ironic that I have come to the most populated city in the entire world to finally do the hard work I need to do on loneliness.

I am exploring and finding ways to relax into being alone. I realize that when I am experiencing discomfort or anxiety around being alone it is coming from thoughts and beliefs I have been carrying around for most, if not all of my life. These thoughts and beliefs have come from many sources and events, but ultimately are all tied into my perceived lack of value and goodness. These thoughts and beliefs are only that, and as I have leaned into them and relaxed and breathed around them, their solidity and grip on me has begun to dissolve.

I am still connecting and saying yes to social engagements and reaching out to people, the difference is there is far less fear attached to it. I am not depending on my social calendar to give me my sense of security, in fact I am appreciating the time I am making to be alone more and more. I find myself craving more simplicity so I can focus in on more of this internal process. I am pulled to practice. The practice of being and breathing, moving slowly, doing one thing at a time or doing nothing at all (revolutionary).

I feel more rooted and steady. I feel I am enough and I enjoy my own company. Self compassion is becoming more accessible. I need that self compassion because as I dig into my relationship with loneliness other wounds and storylines are showing up as well. This is life and healing happens, not by fixing or controlling outer circumstances or people, but by doing this deep inner excavation. This internal work is not about fixing either. It is about peeling back these layers of false beliefs and judgments about myself and seeing myself clearly.

In my lineage of Kripalu Yoga we believe that the essence of all people, our true nature, is love. Swami Kripalu said "The highest form of spiritual practice is self observation without judgment." Self observation with love is what I am continuously trying to lean into, to embrace and accept.

"It is not your job to like me, it's mine." ~Byron Katie

I am to the point in this where I can say most of the time I feel solitude instead of loneliness. I also have had an angel in doggy form come into my life. She is a great companion with the sweetest nature and the kind of unconditional love that dog angels have. So, we walk on. All of us. In fact we are never really alone. Here we are together even now. Wherever you are, I am with you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On a Brief Encounter with India

My family and I are currently living as expats in China (if you didn't know that already). This fact has afforded us the opportunity to travel quite a bit within Asia. We recently spent a week in India visiting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I am a yoga teacher and have been fascinated with India (where yoga comes from) for many years now, so I always thought my travel to India would be with a yoga group or to stay at an ashram in order to dive deeply into my practice. As it turns out though, my husband Stephen and I decided that for the Chinese New Year holiday we would do a more cultural trip with our kids and India guaranteed to be a unique adventure for our family.

In consideration of our kids, and in an attempt to avoid any gastrointestinal disasters, we booked into the nicest hotels that cater to Westerners. Stephen created an ambitious itinerary, packing in the places to go and sites to visit. We landed in Delhi and the learning began almost immediately.

The hotel car picked us up at the airport and the first thing we saw as we pulled out from the airport parking lot was several women dressed in brightly colored orange and red saris laying in a dirt field along with several emaciated dogs. We knew that poverty would be rampant in India and we discussed this quite a bit with the kids leading up to the trip, but seeing it up close is another thing entirely.

On our first full day in Delhi we headed out early, in a day of dense smog, to visit several famous sites. We saw the Bahai Lotus Temple, Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and Gandhi Smriti. Each of these places had so much  beauty and history. How amazing to stand in the spot where Gandhi took his last steps, or to see the impressive and beautiful fort built by Shah Jahan, all of it was stunning and awe inspiring. A stand out memory of that day though, is a moment when we were caught in a huge snarl of traffic, our hired driver who spoke next to no English was seemingly lost in his own city. We were at a stand still in the middle of a vortex of chaos. There were people everywhere, cars trying to eek through any way they could, hundreds of these green and yellow tuk tuk taxis, a symphony of horns honking, and of course the occasional cow, horse or goat just ambling on by. At one point a cow strolled by within touching distance of my daughter Avery's window. She was sitting in the seat next to me and I could see a look of curiosity meets disbelief on her face. She turned to me and said, "Well Mom, I didn't think there could be a place crazier than China, but you found it!" This made me laugh, and she smirked a bit herself. I had to admit she was correct. This place, from the first moment, presented itself as truly foreign and otherworldly for us. It would continuously challenge our concepts of the world and fill our senses with every possible nuance of color, texture, smell, flavor, and leave us all altered in some way.

The week was a whirlwind of hotels, highways, temples and palaces. We were constantly taking in  astounding and marvelous places; the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort, City Palace in Jaipur, and Akshradam Temple to name a few. The architecture and artistry of every place we visited was beautiful and stirring. Holiness hung in the air in each temple. The palaces were opulent and rich in both artistry and history. These places hold the stories and legends of India, vessels of what has come and gone, and what remains. What remains is a people, a culture, now with multitudes embroiled in deep suffering, but holding fast to hope, but even more than that devotion.

India, much like China, is a country that, despite a growing middle class, still has a significant part of its population living in poverty. The disparity between classes is considerable and the haves have extreme wealth and the have nots often times have little or nothing. In India the have nots are everywhere. The poverty we saw was a shocking and brutal assault on our reality and sensibilities. You can't look away from the poverty and suffering in India because it is everywhere. You can turn your head , but there it is. There were children with beautiful pleading eyes and faces tapping on the windows of our car, raising their fingers to their mouths in a plea for food, and when we gestured that we had none to offer they still would smile generously as we moved on. We saw people on nearly every street, in every city, sleeping on the sidewalks, picking through the garbage. We saw people with serious physical deformities languishing on the pavement. We saw whole families living in filth and famine. At the end of each day we retreated to our hotel oasis and I was immersed in deep gratitude for how blessed a life I have, and so thankful that my children have everything they need and so much more, but my heart ached for the people who would sleep on the pavement that night, especially the children.

India holds up to the light of day the reality of human suffering by revealing its most extreme forms.
What was stunning and touching to me was seeing the depth of devotion that lives along side the suffering. Spirituality is woven into even the roughest cloth, faith rising even where there is the deepest despair. I saw over and over people greeting each other with hands enfolded in prayer position, looking at each other and offering a namaste or namaskar. Almost every block boasted at least a small temple and the quality of bhakti or devotion was clear in every city we visited.

It was so evident to me there that we are all connected in this reality of human suffering and we all live in a family of the human spirit. What I saw, in a powerful heart centered way, was God in the face of every person I encountered, and I was humbled. I saw, how even in what seems to be impenetrable darkness, that light can shine forth when faith is nourished and when spirit is sustained. I saw this clearly in the shining smiles of children, mothers holding their babies, in street side communities where people could be seen sharing both hardship and laughter.

India was at once heartbreaking and breathtaking. It was a hand outstretched offering a view of all human experience; rich and poor, joy and sorrow, devotion and despair and it ultimately pointed toward an awareness of the most powerful forces we all encounter, life and death. The poor of India walk on the razor's edge of life and death every day. I sense in that relationship with death the deep roots of this feeling of sacred presence and spiritual focus. In the West we try to deny aging and death. We view death as taboo, a dark enemy force that maybe we can somehow avoid. We get sucked into a life of delay and denial, and we focus on superficial and unimportant things. We take our time here for granted. Maybe that is why spiritual life is at the forefront of daily living in India. So many people there have nothing, so they take nothing for granted. They live from faith, they live on faith.

India has a certain peace in the midst of the most profound chaos. It is beauty and grace dancing with despair. India is light meeting darkness. In my yogic studies I have wrangled with the idea that divinity is all encompassing, that there is nothing that is not an expression of God. This is so opposite to the Western notions of good versus evil, this is God and that is the devil, black and white views on human experience. Going to India helped me better understand this idea of everything arising from a cosmic intelligence which we might call God or divinity, in my lineage of Kripalu Yoga we might just call it love. Love leads us away from fear, love is the essence of faith, love is the birthright of all beings no matter the circumstances of the life they were born into.

I am still in the beginning stages of my studies and these are observations that are mere seeds that I am planting and I will see what grows from them. A week in India proved to be a great teacher and I feel I am changed. I know the direction I have been taking in my life is the direction my soul wants to travel. I seek to live a life dedicated to yoga, a creative, spirit centered life. I hope to go back to India. I would love to take that yoga trip, go on a pilgrimage, do some service work. My heart has found yet another home.

A few pictures.