Sunday, August 23, 2015

When the Storm Hits

"You are the sky. Everything else - it's just the weather. ~ Pema Chodron

My family moved to Taiwan three weeks ago. We arrived on the island just in time to find out that a typhoon would be upon us within a few days. Not just a typhoon either, but Super Typhoon Soudelor. A friend commented to me that the name sounded a bit too much like soul eater. I considered this observation with interest and an undercurrent of anxiety. I had prickly thoughts of landslides, flash floods, powerful currents, vicious winds and rains that could sweep everything away.

Storms can be like that. They can rush in and change the landscape of everything in one fell swoop of mother nature's hand or gust of her breath. Transformation can be destructive and violent, storms teach us that. They teach us that nothing is ever set in stone, nothing is indestructible, nothing exists outside of the realm of change.

As we waited for this storm to roll in from the ocean, I knew I was waiting for another storm as well, another storm foretold, predicted and not yet confirmed, not solidified, a shade away from real, but ahead of the storm I could sense a shift in pressure, an electricity in the atmosphere, the pretense of what approached, the calm before.

Super Typhoon Soudelor came during the night, with howling wind and bucketing rain. The power popped and struggled and then submitted. Noises swirled and inflamed my anxious imagination, every bump, thud and wail, made my heart pound. I spent that night sleepless and desperate for the morning light.

The morning did arrive, and the storm raged on, trees bent and breaking, the rhythm of fierce gale winds that threatened to tip the whole world sideways and then would drop it back down. Curtains of rain hiding the city below. Our family huddled in our new home, hoping it would pass this test. Wondering how we would pass this test.

We spent the next days without electricity. We played poker through the storm and continued after it parted. We ate meals by candle and flashlight. We went for a walk the day after and marveled at the power of nature. We held each other and helped each other through. We also got grumpy and irritable as the house got hotter and hotter, as we were stripped of our escape mechanisms of technology; no television, no computer, no video games. There were moments of bad behavior by children and adults alike. Tempers ran short, and yet we hung together, we laughed a lot too.

I had enough battery charge on my phone to turn it on sparingly and check in. The day after the typhoon passed, the other storm hit.

My son had gone in for neuropsychological testing a few weeks previous. He already had a diagnosis of ADD from a couple years ago, but we anticipated some new findings, ones that would stand to change his life, our lives, forever. I had received an email with the findings of the testing.

I scanned through the lengthy report and got towards the bottom where it listed the diagnostic outcome. ADD, Bipolar 1, general anxiety disorder and written language learning disability was what I read. The words filled my eyes and flooded my brain. We suspected some of this before, now it was real, there in words, in concrete form, it made landfall. In an instant, in a breath, the world turned sideways and dropped back down, the landscape altered, forever changed.

But what stands out on both accounts, is that no matter what size or shape a storm may take, what never changes is our commitment to each other. The love always remains. The love stands the test of time and circumstance, and though things don't remain the same, and we ourselves don't remain the same, we stay with each other. My heart broke a little reading that diagnosis, but my love for my son shone out through the brokenness, the light piercing through the clouds. I have always loved him as he is, and in that respect nothing had changed, not the least bit.

Sometimes the bravest thing to do is to accept what is. It is hard to acknowledge that there is actually so little in this life that we can control, so much is outside of our will, outside of our wanting. When I accept what is and enter the flow of life, then I can engage with reality in a productive way. When I balance my fighting warrior nature with an equal measure of faithful surrender, then I can navigate the storm, come through the challenging terrain with more ease, with greater skill.

The true test of who we are is not in how we show up in the good times, on days of blue skies and gentle breezes on calm waters, but who we are when the super typhoon hits and our world is tilted sideways and dropped down hard upon us, or when the ground seems to disappear from under our feet. It is in weathering the storm that we will meet our edges, face our fears, and grow stronger, wiser and more resilient. We can learn how to stay and experience life, how to feel, instead of burying our heads in the sand or running away. The storm might seem to be entirely destructive in nature, but it is also the force of creation. What was lost or transformed is the invitation for something new, whether or not we venture out into that new world, and how we choose to meet it, is entirely up to us.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

On My Feet Again

sitting here now
with nothing else to do
i consider my feet
irritated by the chipped polish
on just one toe
the assymetry it creates
a gash in otherwise perfect pink
i see lines and creases
skin peeling like old paint
disrepair, tired and worn
reptilian scales
i recall their former smooth creamy
untouched, unblemished

now calloused white sand deserts
fill gaps
blue veins rising, cataclysmic
the new topography shocks me
i recoil from such ravage
this failing flesh
decay of youth

i see it on the side of
my big toe
down to the heel
the roughness of these years
journeys taken
hard concrete roads
blistering barefoot
walks on glass

but also dancing
skipping through fields
climbing mountains
toes in warm sand

the hardships endured
the delights enjoyed

perhaps there is wisdom here
even beauty

when i look closely
it is all there
every story
every step taken

with all directions wide open
in front of me
i get on my feet

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sun, Moon, Water, Sky

soaring high on broad wings
seemed to soften space and time
into a tender embrace
 a love newly discovered

 the very sun himself
turned the purest hue of rose
a blossom from the heavens
fire of passion born
dazzled sky and adoring waters
the ocean mirrored muse

at the peak of brilliance
he humbly gave himself
all he had
descending into her tidal arms

 day makes way for night

full moon rising
dressed in stars
the dark that holds the light
her beauty needs both

down on the water below
the fishing boats
sit in clusters
lamps lit
creating their own constellations

the eye can't tell now
where sky ends and water begins
or if they do at all

Monday, June 8, 2015

Expectation is a Bitch

"The root of suffering is attachment." ~ Buddha

 "...we expect love if we're offering it to others. Since we expect it, when the time comes to offer love, we're hesitant. Because of this hesitation we fail the test to some degree. That's because we don't know the principle of love. Love can only be offered, not asked for in return." ~ Swami Kripalu

It is said in Buddhism that expectation, or attachment, is the root of all suffering, and in yogic philosophy we find many messages about the importance of nonattachment to the fruits of any and all actions we take. It may seem fallacious to think that all suffering at its core is derived from expectation, but hold experiences of pain and suffering up to close inspection and the truth is revealed. Distill disappointment, heartache, disturbances of all kinds down to their essence, and expectation will be there in some form.

I find myself chronically afflicted by expectation. Even though I have been practicing yoga for over a decade I can't seem to get a grip on this one. No matter what I throw at it, no matter how sincere my efforts are to assuage it, I find it creeping into my thoughts, fueling my actions and impacting my emotions. Releasing expectation is the most challenging of practices, the most elusive of intentions. Expectation is the opposite of yoga because it takes us out of the pure present moment and propels us into future stories and possible outcomes, which are illusions, and may or may not ever come to pass. Expectation is the sharp edge of ego, insatiable and greedy, as soon as it has what it wants, it is on to wanting more. If it doesn't get what it wants it howls and lashes out, or sulks and sinks into lethargy and hopelessness.

Expectation is a bitch.

I am a writer and artist. I dig deep into my very heart and soul to birth each creation large or small. I pour my truth and feelings into words. I used to write and keep my words to myself, for my eyes alone, but a blog is an enterprise of sharing, it requires the bravery to be vulnerable, it begs for generosity. It is a giant leap to go from withholding to generosity, and true generosity does not marry itself to expectation, they are incompatible. I aspire to be generous, but I am only human. I live in a society and culture where expectation is the norm and we learn about it in our earliest formative experiences. As small children we are rewarded and punished alternately for how we are showing up, how we are "behaving". We learn what is expected of us, and we learn that failure to meet expectations causes suffering and pain. We are born into the cult of expectation and fear, desire and aversion, and so we must be fiercely compassionate with ourselves as we begin to bring awareness to these powerful and compelling forces, and invite a new way of being into our lives.

When I write a piece and share it, I work quite intentionally to be conscious of my attachment to a result, my expectations. There are actually layers of expectation I can identify. There is what I expect of myself, what I expect from others, the different currencies I expect to receive, the level of success and validation I hope to acquire.

I put energy and emotion, love and care, into creating art that is genuine and heartfelt, and I offer it to you. The roots of suffering begin there, the moment I put my heart on the line, when I give, I almost immediately start to crave getting something back. This is a set up and it can result in elation and satisfaction, but it can also lead to disappointment and devastation, suffering. The onus of that suffering is mine and mine alone. The principle of love applies to my creativity, it can only be offered, an expected outcome or return is not guaranteed.

Anytime we expect people to be or act a certain way, when we put our happiness in the hands of external phenomenon, when we assume a debt is owed to us, or we feel we have earned certain things, we put ourselves directly in the path of potential suffering. I know this is true for me, I do it all the time. I do it in my relationships, in my parenting, it runs rampant in my quest to be seen, my efforts to be good, my perceptions of progress and achievement. Around every corner expectation is waiting. Some expectations are small and cause minimal vacillations in my energy and emotions, while others are massive, and when I fail to materialize them, can wreak havoc on me, leaving me despondent and feeling diminished.

That is not to say that reasonable expectations don't exist or that we should not stand up for ourselves in our lives. Boundaries must be held and respect must be required of ourselves and others. Expecting to make our way in our lives, have our basic needs met, to have safety and security under our roofs and in our communities is fundamental. We should reasonably expect to have opportunities to seek fulfillment, to be treated as equal beings on the planet and to walk our unique roads in the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in delivering these basic expectations to all.

In each of our lives, we must do the best we can with what we have in any given moment, seek ourselves and give of our love, be of service. That means to generously share our talents and brightness with the world and to be vulnerable and courageous in this showing and sharing of who we are. The question is how to maintain our own inner balance and harmony even when we are walking on rocky terrain or sailing stormy seas. How do we match effort with ease, will with surrender, desire with contentment?

How can we navigate this maze of inner and outer worlds? How to soothe our anger, how to soften our pride, how to be compassionate warriors in our lives, our relationships and in our communities? Releasing attachment and expectation is the path to true love and contentment. It is the way to peace.

I am not Buddha or a master yogi, so far from it! I can expect to dedicate the rest of my life to this practice of nonattachment and release of expectation. However, awareness is a powerful first step. Although I do not anticipate conquering expectation in this lifetime, I can consider it, I can examine it, I can soften into my breath and attempt to return to compassionate self observation when disappointment and suffering are being experienced. I can lean into the sharp point, feel it, embrace it and give love to it.

The key is love for myself. It has to start there. If I truly love myself, even my flaws, even my greed, even my dark side, all can be integrated. Wholeness is our true nature, love is the way back into our own hearts, but not selfish love, true love. Love that is given without demands or caveats. Love that is given seeking nothing in return. Perhaps this is the work of a lifetime or more, but I sense that this is the way to liberation. I think we can all agree that liberation is what we seek; to be truly free, happy and basking in the light of love, released from the bonds of fear and longing.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Goodbye is something we say a lot and often in this family.

We don't stay in one place for very long. In our kid's lifetime thus far, and in the span of twenty years of marriage, we have lived in four states, moving from the Midwest and reaching the East Coast, two countries and two separate continents. We are preparing to move to our third country of residence in the last three years. We have, in that short span of time, gone from The United States to China, and now on to Taiwan.

My husband and kids are all dual citizens of the USA and Australia and our family is divided among those two distant lands. No matter where in the world we are, we are always away from someone. Distance is an experience we are constantly aware of and living in. We are always missing someone.We love saying hello, and we know it will be followed, at some point, by the sting of goodbye.

My present state of affairs has me deep in reflection on this relentless shifting and changing of circumstance. I am confronted with the truth that nothing can stay constant. Eventually, no matter how deep our roots seem, no matter how solidly we construct our lives, things will shift beneath our feet and we will be forced to acknowledge that loss in life is unavoidable. We will all have to contend with such sweet sorrow and sometimes the sweetness will be difficult to taste.

A week ago I lost one of the most important people in my life. I knew the day was coming, and yet I seem to have allowed myself to be lost in denial. My teacher, my guru, a woman who came as an embodied angel to help me heal deep wounds of pain, fear and anger, and in turn showed me the ways of love, devotion and faith, passed on from this world.

I was not, I am not, ready to say goodbye to her. And yet, I have been shoved right off the cliff. I feel myself falling down and down. The ground I had come to rely on is crumbling out from under me, and I can do nothing to change it. She is gone, and I didn't even get to say goodbye, at least not in person. I know she can hear my heart, sense these words, I feel her presence, and yet the emptiness I am experiencing is large. She was always the light of reason and wisdom in a life that often occurs confusing and unnavigable to me. I wonder who will hold up a lantern for me now.

But I am still here.

Buddha, when he was near death, advised his students, who feared this untethering as I do now, "Be a light unto yourself."

My teacher's name was Vidya Carolyn Dell'uomo. Vidya was her spiritual name given to her by her teacher. Vidya is a Sanskrit word which means knowledge. Vidya gave me a name as well. My name is Jyotika which means light.

I will endeavor to live up to the name my teacher gave me. I will step forward into this void, into this unknown, and trust my teacher's knowledge, which I have been blessed to recieve. There will be light. She has taught me what I need to know. I carry her teaching and her love forward with me. I will serve in whatever way I can, no matter where this transient life takes me.

My teacher has moved on to a new place, and my family and I prepare now to do the same once again.

Just a few weeks from now we will have to say our goodbyes to the friends we have made here in Shanghai. I will say farewell to yoga students, my husband will say goodbye to colleagues and our kids will say goodbye to peers and teachers. We probably will see very few of these people again, and we love them. We will carry them in our hearts and good memories, we are bigger and better, we are wiser and stronger for having known all of them.

Now our course is set. We are moving on. The winds of change and impermanence are blowing.These winds blow on all of our sails, and move through all of our lives. As all things begin, all things eventually must end. If it were not so, we would miss all the beauty of life. We see beauty because it must be savored. When we are touched by impermanence and loss we are reminded to appreciate the sweetness of all we have today, and though things will come and go, it is that truth that sparks our senses and wakes us to full aliveness. And yes, it brings suffering and heartache sometimes as well.

People, at times, have wondered at this transient life we are living with our family. Occasionally people have questioned me about the negative impact it might have on our children. They point out how challenging it must be for them to have to say goodbye to friends, move on, and start again.

I can only speak for my family and our experience of this. It has its difficulties for each of us to be sure, but it teaches us to cherish what is in front of us while it is there. It teaches us to be grateful and not take anyone or anything for granted. Yes, it hurts sometimes. Yes, my children have had tears and upset, but they have also learned the value of relationship and kindness. No one can be foreign or strange to them because they have seen how the world is inextricably interconnected, and people all across the globe are in this together. Every life is transient and impermanent, but love, the stuff of our souls, is eternal, and keeps us always together.

Life is short. We journey together for now, but even these children will soon set sail in different directions. I hope to have shown them the way of their own lights and loving hearts. We are always and forever connected by love, that is what matters, that is the direction towards which I hope to always set my course until I too move on at the end and the beginning of things.

"Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation."  ~ Rumi

Monday, May 25, 2015

For My Teacher a Poem of Love

This poem is dedicated to the memory of my spiritual teacher and mentor, Vidya Carolyn Dell'uomo, the path of love she put me on, the teachings of Swami Kripalu and my beloved Acharya family. May we all awaken to our true nature which is pure and infinite love.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Essential Life Principles as Taught By My Dog


I am definitely a dog person, always have been. When I was little I used to wish on every star in the sky, every furry dandelion, every birthday cake, for a dog all my own. My wish eventually came true and my first dog brought me abundant joy and happiness.

I have had a few dogs since my childhood pooch, named Sparky. I live in China now, on expat assignment with my husband and three of our children.We had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave our beloved dog Evan behind when we came here, and I thought we would be dogless during this adventure abroad. Then, as luck would have it, our Mandarin teacher told us she had rescued a wonderful dog named Dahei, and she felt Dahei would be the perfect pet for us. Stephen and I resisted at first, but eventually agreed to meet her. Dahei arrived at our home on a Thursday evening last spring and she has been here ever since. She quickly became a full fledged member of our family, but I feel she has been an angel, a healer, and a teacher in a special way for me. When she arrived I was going through a spell of deep loneliness and depression. I believe in my heart, she was sent to be my companion and to be my daily reminder of these most important life principles. I am blessed to have her by my side each and every day.

These are the essential life principles my dogs have taught me:

~ It is of absolute importance to go outside at least once every single day. ~

Okay, barring illness or other events that truly make this impossible, this is a must do for our health, our sanity, and I believe, our spiritual growth. Even if you are not the outdoorsy type, we all benefit from breathing in fresh air, feeling our feet on mama earth, experiencing the beauty of the world around us. It kindles our aliveness to watch the changing seasons, observing how things come and go, the beauty of flowers, the smell of rain, warm sun on your face, catching snowflakes on your tongue. When I go outside I remember who I am, part of this glorious world, so captivating, so beautiful.

Dahei does not let me go a day without stepping outdoors for a walk or three or four.

~Stay curious.~

Dogs head out the door each day eager to check out their surroundings and see what the day has to offer; what new sights, smells, sounds and tastes are waiting to be discovered today! Dahei has her favorite walking routes, but each time she travels them she does so with great attention and interest. She uses all her senses and I can see her visibly perk up when she detects something new or intriguing. Even though her kingdom is relatively small in area it is infinite in possibility and she engages it as such.

What a difference it would make in our lives if we could harness such enthusiasm and interest in our daily routines and approach even what seems boring or mundane with curiosity. Dahei points things out to me that I would gloss over on my own, new flowers that have bloomed, a bird in a tree, the smell of the air and earth. Such miraculous and incredible things are all around us to witness and explore. Be curious!

~ Do one thing at a time and do it fully. ~

We have become a multitasking world. I often notice that I am doing something, but my mind is elsewhere, or I am trying to kill seven birds with one stone and end up feeling scattered and anxious.
I end up doing many things in a half ass sort of way and I miss the total experience of each action. I am there, but not really there. The antidote for this is presence and mindfulness.
These are skills that can be practiced and cultivated, and lord do we need them!

 "It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.” " Jon Kabat-Zinn

Dogs are fabulous mindfulness teachers. Dahei does one thing at a time and she does just that one thing. When she is playing she is full on, tearing around at full speed, leaping, throwing her toy around wildly while she growls like a fierce forest hunter. When she eats she fully engages her food, everything else seems to disappear for her. She might not chew as much as she should, but she delights in the feast when the feast is on. When she sleeps, she sinks in fast and deep, she sprawls out or curls in, but it is clear, looking at her, her rest is profound and complete.

~ Unconditional love is real.~
Love in this life is often complicated, messy. It is easy to fall into a pathology of pleasing or put stone walls of protection up around our tender hearts. I look around sometimes and become terrified by all the anger and judgment I see. It becomes a risky proposition to show up and be open and honest with others about who we are, what we think, how we feel. People might not be able to stomach our idiosyncrasies, bad habits, our shadow parts, or perhaps we shine too bright, have a little too much sparkle in our step. We can end up either too big, too small, too this or not enough of that. And yet, we all thirst for the very same love and acceptance that can seem elusive at times. That kind of love and acceptance is possible. Not only that, it lives in the very heart and soul of each of us, it gets lost in our upbringing, our indoctrination into propriety and a culture riddled with scarcity mentality.

Dahei loves me every second of every day no matter what. She adores me in the morning, bedhead, coffee breath, grunting and groaning, as I creak back to life. She loves me when I am happy and playful, equally when I am bitchy, spiteful, sad, anxious or depressed. She wags her tail unfailingly, and with great enthusiasm every time I walk in the door, whether I have been out for five hours or five minutes. Her love shines on me and our family without fail, constant and true. Unconditional love, she gives it and in turn we learn how to receive and give it as well.

~Never give up on life.~

My last two dogs have been rescue dogs. Dahei had a particularly harrowing start to life. She was abandoned on a construction site in the cold of winter in Shanghai. She had no shelter from the elements, she only had garbage for food, and in her situation in China, she was in grave danger of becoming someone's food herself. Dahei survived all of this harsh and hopeless circumstance and her will to survive led her to us. Believe me, her life is as different now as it could possibly be because she hung in there. Miracles can happen. Life can change.

If you are thinking of getting a dog, wishing on stars, dandelions or birthday cakes like me, please consider adopting a rescue dog. These dogs are also wishing on the stars for you to let them into your life and bring you the gifts of love and companionship, loyal and true.

You may think you will put all the effort in training and teaching your dog, but the truth is your dog will have much more to teach you.