Category: Living Outside the Lines (Page 1 of 4)

Mindfulness and culture making

I was at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico over the summer for a seminar on spiritual practices, mindfulness, and wellness. The resonance of what I was encouraged to explore still informs my daily interactions.

The spacious, airy room was inviting; the colorful wall hangings and yoga mats complemented the soft, neutral colors of the wall. Sarah Bunting, the Student Services Coordinator, sat in circle with us, greeting our seminar group of approximately 50 people. Her job was to make sure that we were all well situated for the week ahead. As she spoke, explained the Institute’s principle and guidelines, she placed her hand over her heart, looked at each one of us. She conveyed her gratitude to all of us for being there, her joy at being able to share the kinship and respect for Dr. Lad and his work. At the end, she offered us an idea to sit with throughout the week: we were there to make culture together.

Make culture.

That statement really caught my attention because it’s not one that is used every day. At first glance, I observed that our natal cultures (of those attending the seminar) were varied, but what lay beneath that?

The Ayurvedic Institute was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 1980s by Dr. Vasant Lad, an Ayurvedic doctor from India; the Institute was meant to be a hub of practice around the teachings of Ayurveda, a body of knowledge that informs of principles for living in balance and harmony. Dr. Lad—his presence was warm, and his teachings were genuinely conveyed with love. The way he transmitted the principles of balance, imbalance, subtle energetic bodies and metaphysical concepts was accessible and immediately applicable. Every time that I looked around during a lecture, the room full of attendees appeared to be deep in communion with his words and presence.

Dr. Lad

Every day, at the start of lectures and at the end of them, we chanted a Sanskrit mantra that honored the beauty of the community and the teachings. We took 2-hour lunch breaks between sessions. We didn’t use cell phones in the buildings, and only took pictures of diagrams that Dr. Lad drew when he invited us to do so.

It was a curated way in which we interacted with each other.

The point was that if you didn’t go along with this, you could disturb the experience for others and you would be asked to leave. The container would be broken. The rules we were given weren’t meant to be fatalistic and rigid—I hope that I am conveying that duly here—but rather, these are all things we did to ensure we achieved the same collective end: a healing, whole experience. The culture we created during the week facilitated mindful and meaningful connection to each other while being in the presence of an incredible teacher. That was the point of the seminar.

Contemplating culture against a beautiful sunset backdrop

I hear a lot about “co-creating” our experience in the transformative dance scene and self-growth communities that I am a part of. Somehow, when phrased like that, the ask seems transient. Like, once the event or experience is over, the next won’t necessarily require to co-create. The events must come with directions. Maybe that’s just part of the embedded, hardwired narrative I employ as an American—that I don’t usually co-create. But the idea is not different from “making culture”—it’s just that the intimate setting of 50 people from around the globe who converged at the Ayurvedic Instiute made the ask of co-creation seem less transient, more necessary, because that’s what Dr. Lad inspired. I’m finding that “my culture is to co-create”—even I don’t call it as such.

Essentially, this is what we do, even when it’s just between two people. The exchanges that we have on an individual level allow us to make culture every day. The mindfulness we bring to those exchanges reflect a culture that values the space-holding for another person.

And while culture connects you to an identity, the power in that identity lies in your ability to change it; to let it go; to reconstruct the identity in a manner that serves you, and with that your community. Making culture is mindfulness in action.

Proudly displaying my certificate of completion

On the last day of the seminar, there was a joyous if not muted mood among the attendees. We knew we had spent a transformative week together, and I believe many of us were considering how to keep up the spirit of the Ayurvedic Institute—how to implement dietary, lifestyle, and other changes for optimal health and balance. How to incorporate breathing, yoga, and meditation as Ayurveda suggests for each individual. Most of all, how to keep up the mindfulness in our interaction with the external world, knowing the sense of community that can immediately be stoked when we agree to act toward a common experience.

As I was leaving, I ran into Sarah. I knew it would be one of the last transactions I had with her. I wanted to profess my gratitude for her support and guidance during the week. We locked eyes in a comfortable way. It was a feature of interacting with her that I came to expect. It felt good, too, in the manner of validation that I had her full presence.

She touched her heart after hearing my offering of gratitude.

I touched mine when she said, “Thank you.”

That has become second nature for me—that when I am connecting with someone deeply, or being given deep sharing—I touch my heart. It’s become part of my practice to honor others. It is my culture.

Growing through fire

I didn’t realize the amount of fire I was building inside me until I was in the desert heat and I felt such peace that there was nothing to do but radiate.

Me with a post-homa glow

September 2018: As I soon as I got out of my truck and stood for the first time in Joshua Tree village, a small town in southern California where the Sonoran and Mojave deserts meet, I couldn’t tell where I stopped and the dry warm air and dusty Earth started.  It felt like the fire inside that had propelled me west all summer had fully engulfed my being.

***

As I look back over my trajectory from New York City to Los Angeles, I see how the sparks became this blaze.

They started before I left my last base camp—Kingston, NY. I had been laying on the makeshift mattress on the floor (everything in Lupe Station, my affectionately named two-bedroom space I had been living in) had been packed. It was early in the morning on my second-to-last day there. I remember relishing the way the sun entered the windows in my bedroom, moved through a teardrop-shaped crystal, cast rainbows aka colorful kisses on everything. The morning gazing ritual was something that I loved to do every day that I lived there.

And that morning, when the space was nearly empty, it  still full: I felt a kinship with the sun, the sweet energy, the strong light.

I had packed my homa fire ceremony kit, and as I laid there considering the dates I had booked to offer public ceremonies, I recognized that I was nervous at the thought of bringing it across the country. Homa is a Vedic fire ceremony for peace. It is cleansing. It is healing across dimensions. Homa involves chanting Sanskrit as ghee (clarified butter) is offered to a small fire that is created in a copper container. I wondered, too, if my teacher Ma Bha (Ma Bhaskarananda), whom I met by going to Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York (about an hour south from where I lived), would ever know just how much my life had changed by doing the ceremony that I had learned from her years ago.

Ma Bha at Ananda Ashram

Ma Bha at Ananda Ashram

Later that day, I got an unexpected message from Ma Bha’s son. (It wasn’t until she died [in 2016] that I realized I knew her son, who happened to be my friend and lived on the street parallel to mine in Kingston. We realized it when he had been posting pics of his mom as I posted pics of my teacher, both honoring the passing of an amazing woman.) He said he had a few things for me. I was a little confused because I didn’t know what he would be bringing, but I agreed to receive them. When he stopped by later that night, he gifted me an entire bag of her belongings, including the bag, the one that she used when she went on her own pilgrimage to India. I was moved beyond words. That’s the moment I realized how deeply I had connected to the fire and to my teacher, who showed up in this amazing synchronicity. I knew this road trip would be blessed.

It was a day later, as I drove with New York City in my rearview, a setting sun on the horizon, that I realized how the relationship that I have with fire (through the sun and actual thing and also through the creative process and metaphorical thing) is one of the most important relationships I have in my life. I often say at some point during a fire ceremony—“the light that you see in the flame is you, it is your inner light, it is your teacher”—because Ma Bha taught those words to me. So following my intuition to go west was like listening to a voice in me that said grow.

I performed a fire ceremony in June in Columbus, Ohio at the office of the Parapsychological Association (PA). This was a portent of the things to come at the PA conference I was planning to attend in August in California, where science was the framework to understand energy exchange and the interconnected nature of the material world. It was a significant experience because I was going into a space and group of people that was previously unknown to me with a ceremony that was previously unknown to them. Would they feel it, too?

Personal growth, inner life experience, sacred space is all so subjective.

When I performed fire ceremonies at Lupe Station, I did them in a room of my living space that was dedicated to energy work. I also knew many people who came to my ceremonies. I didn’t know how the fire would react to the space or the people, or me to the fire in that space. And like any other relationship—when you bring your significant other into new or different of your life, don’t you worry what might happen?

Homa at sunrise in Joshua Tree

Homa at sunrise in Joshua Tree

The fire ceremony in Columbus went well. In fact, it went really well—I saw how the power of the fire touched them, too. I’ve kept in touch with some of the folks who attended and have an offer to go back and do it again.

I went west to increase my own understanding about that, learning about my role as a facilitator of energetic exchange. I carefully selected some events and places to stay that would give me opportunities to learn and practice being in this role. My westward course led me to New Mexico, where a planned week-long stay in Albuquerque to complete a seminar at the Ayurvedic Institute turned into a month-long stop.

Ma Bha had spent years there teaching alongside Dr. Vasant Lad, whose direction, teaching, and kindness has helped make the Ayurvedic Institute an authoritative place of Ayurvedic knowledge exchange in the West. Ayurveda offers a holistic frame for the material world, where everything interacts in a series of balance, imbalance, and exchanges. Each time I mentioned that I too had studied with Ma Bha in New York, I was met with exclaims of respect and joy. I sat for several fire ceremonies while I was in Albuquerque, and I also did my first online broadcast of one—spurred by the feedback that some of previous attendees were feeling my lack of ceremonies. I remember my hand shaking as I lit the ceremonial fire in the kitchen of the apartment I had rented. I was nervous. I wondered if it would “work” over the Internet.

But again, as it did in Columbus, my friend showed up. The people who were at the online ceremony (physically across the country) felt the benefits, as if we were sitting together.

There was fire in me indeed. This simple, enriching ceremony gave (and gives) me the ability to feel the fire inside and use it to create connection to others. To invoke the teachers we all have inside. To let us be able to hear the intuition and follow that compass to things that set us a-light.

Incidentally, this is the ninth blog post this year that has been posted under “Outside the Lines,” the category that I created to share my spiritual growth process and pieces of my transformation story. Nine months is the gestation time for a human. Nine months I have been growing me. I had asked “Who am I?” after a powerful trip to Guatemala earlier this year. “Who am I in relation to others?” is something that trip asked me back. So I carefully considered what I needed to do to get those answers, and planned the summer road trip to get them.

But I hesitate to use the word “pilgrimage” although it is indeed what the road trip became. I kept referring to the time as “a blessed summer.”  I just knew I had to do it. I just knew that I didn’t want to leave the question of “Who am I?” unanswered. But saying that the trip had spiritual significance isn’t exactly what I want to remember it as; saying that I spent the summer growing the relationship I have to myself through the fire I have inside is. And now it’s time to birth the new version of who I am.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree

Sunrise in Joshua Tree

I’ve decided to stay in the desert for some time and allow for more exploring inside. I know, too, that many people spend time in the area around Joshua Tree and have profound experiences within themselves. It’s as if the sacred land is a catalyst for the power that can be unleashed inside all of us, the fire that we all have inside. And each morning, the sun wakes me up. I can feel it before it breaches the horizon. The presence calls me out of sleep to wake. By burning brightly from within, I can engage in the world in a joyful way, the way I want to be in the world.

This is the same but different version of me, lying on the floor at Lupe Station in Kingston.

Here’s a poem I wrote one morning as I laid on a bed in a furnished house I rented in Joshua Tree:

The sun woke me up today; the rays were like a friend’s skilled hand, a presence with familiarity, playing some celestial rhythm; and in the music: light waves moving through the space, dancing on my eyelids, encouraging me to open them, inviting me to another day of life n’ play… // and then I went outside. // Let’s see what happens.

Direct experience at PAIONs

I value my role as a communications professional because I have the ability to be a gatekeeper around the words, information, ideas, and stories that enter the world. I think it’s awesome to experience a narrative space as it opens up! Right now, I am helping to facilitate the narrative space around psi (psychic) experiences.  That’s one of the reasons I write for the Parapsychological Association (PA). I was especially excited for the PA’s conference at The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONs; and together, PAIONs) in Petaluma, California, which happened this summer in August.

The PA exists as a professional organization to further the study of psi experiences. IONs exists as a place where science and the direct experience of the interconnectedness occurs. It was a smart match—PAIONs was itself an opportunity, an experiment to look at science and spirituality together. This conference was my journey into a place aka language-scape where science and spiritual ideas meet. I imagined my idol Freya Stark, a woman travel writer who in the early 1900s went to Middle East and brought back stories of being the first Westerner in some of the places; the conference was my place to enter the intellectual valley.

The IONs campus exists as a solitary space high up on the hills. A gated, windy road upheld a boundary to the rest of the world. I used this to my advantage; a perceived isolation allowed me to go deep into the experience and focus on language-ing the experience of psi phenomena. Listen to what people were saying. How they were saying things. What was happening as I listened. Words creating reactions in me.

And there’s a lot of messy-ness there because of the relativity through which the world can be perceived, the language that conveys the perception, the ways that things can be languaged and not be languaged. Psi experiences don’t follow the dominant idea of timelines being linear, so I am super aware of grounding abstract experiences in words and time. I believe that finding ways to do this—even if the narrative doesn’t always follow an arc, even if sometimes the poetics of the experience precede it, even if no one reads what I write—is crucial. If I can figure it out in me, then I can help other people figure it out. It’s all part of the word experiment and opening up this narrative space.

The main presentation hall plus the accommodations were grouped at the bottom of a steep hill at the IONs campus. There were a few small chalets and barrack-style dorms, whereby most of the conference attendees stayed in the dorms. I found an equanimity through this arrangement, knowing that researchers, academics, scientists, healers, and the curious who had arrived to discuss psi phenomena were all sharing close quarters. It felt like an organic language incubator. It felt like a nouveau summer camp for post-modern geeks and thinkers who tinkered with spiritual-mechanical stuff and the ones who did psychology and philosophy. It was direct experience with the folks shaping the sources of narrative and information exchange.

One afternoon, as I was leaving my room, I bumped into Everton de Oliveira Maraldi, a Brazilian psychologist as well as the conference chair and a person whose work explores cultural interpretations of extraordinary phenomena. He bridges  social sciences, anthropology, psychology, and parapsychology. We shared a brief conversation on cultural relativity, and something that he mentioned echoes for me: psychology has an assumption that phenomena are experienced in a universal way. This might not be true.

The conversation was the point at which the forging of a new thing out of two separate things, science (those words in their container) and spirituality (those words their container) happened in me. A “Eureka!” moment.

Here is how the exchange opened up in me: I thought—felt like I went back to two days before (that moment), when I had arrived to the conference, and my first impression of the grounds was that, “California was on fire”—and then I saw smoke from the hills of IONs’ campus. The grass on campus was yellow and dry, and the strong winds provided a constant buffing of wind against my ears. The dryness mirrored a perceived fire and dryness in me, an exciting beginning time: something being birthed in the heat and being ushered into existence.

I felt lightness.

And so standing there hanging on the conversation, I picked up on the land again during the moment of our conversation, the diligent, objective observer—The wind hovering at the edge of my ear: a fleeting moment of being when the boundaries between me and the Earth dissolved; between my mind (shaped by culture) and the collective mind (that was being shaped by the new narrative space opening up); between my role as a gatekeeper and the larger community who would benefit from more conversations like this.

And then there was a pause in the conversation.

And the transcendent moment left.

We finished the short walk to the dining hall, and I was left to consider what I wanted to write about his words and my experience and the way that this fleeting moment moved me—I felt the internal response happening to the external setting. Experiential conversation? That the words stimulated a moment of my conscious attention? That the setting supported this dialogue? Holistic thinking systems emphasize the awareness of context and qualities. This was a direct experience of the saying “As above, so below” except “As outside, so inside.” But there was so much to explore, too, as I wondered what these experiences are like for other people.

Do many people experience that? And then I remembered my job as a communications consultant and why it’s important to open up this narrative space and facilitate the sharing of the multidimensional human experience.

I imagine, too, Freya riding a camel through the desert. I wonder if she might have felt something similar, a sense of excitement, responsibility, curiosity, as I consider how to shape and convey this direct experience, or, the lack of boundary between the land, the ideas, and me.

I only have more questions: How will this narrative space continue to open up and how will this (my) relative experience inform a universal, extraordinary human opportunity—the ability to transcend with/through/in words?

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