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.
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?
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.
Homa at 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.
I was at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico over the summer of 2018 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I rode the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, navigated the concrete river flowing with traffic—cars and trucks and motorcycles and cars and SUVs—four abreast, headed north.
I had just left the beach at Sandy Hook, the landscape of dirty tan sand, gray-ish mucky oceanwater, and reeds and dune grass and abandoned gunpowder batteries pointing rusted, long unused canons toward New York City, a faint construction visible across the ocean. I spent the night alone, camped in a tent, fell asleep looking up at the stars through the skeeter screen, felt insignificant in my small body in the big big world. And I was okay with that then. One of those moments where I was OK being all alone.
But that was all behind me.
I looked in the rearview mirror, a small rectangle mirror that cast a visual of the periphery GSP, the singular images of trees and cement walls and exit signs blurring together, individual images that didn’t move, and yet moved, a spinning reel, a view animating itself. The concrete river flowing with traffic—cars and trucks and motorcycles and cars and SUVs—four abreast, headed north.
I was anything but isolated. I was surrounded, but I was alone. And in this physical isolation, I felt like no sound I could make would rise above the hissing and popping and zoom zoom zooming of other cars. I felt insignificant in my small body in the big big world, and I wasn’t OK with that.
So I made LOUD in my truck. The volume of the music turnt way up.
I sang with iLe, a Puerto Rican singer, her album “ILevatable” CRANKED in the cab of my cruising F150.
Ile, she understood me and my pain, my need for connection, deliverance. I felt her pain, her needs, her love, her connection, her deliverance through song. Heavy shit, carried out on her breath and voice. And as I sang, and let these things go, I felt lighter.
I sang with my ghoulish lack of tone. I mimicked the sounds but I was no match. Ile sang, her beautifully orchestrated highs and lows and syrupy sour-sweet tones.
Then a sign came up on the horizon: toll booth ahead.
The flow of traffic ebbed. I slid into this part of the asphalt river. The toll booth island plaza ports filled and emptied with cars and trucks and motorcycles and trucks one behind each other (one ahead of each other) one behind each other.
The EZ Pass lanes had the rhythm that barely broke. But I navigated toward the slowest lane of all, the lane where the rhythm was very stop and go. I didn’t have the EZ Pass tag with me. I would have to pay cash. I had placed a crisp ten-dollar bill on the visor in my truck for this reason. My beach retreats were dreamy little dreams, full of quiet, and solitude, and the entry back to day-to-day was always a little rough. Little tricks like this helped to ease me back in, when I felt the crushing weight of insignificance on speed on the GSP.
So I waited my turn, and as I rolled up, rolled my window down, I held out the tenner for the attendant to take. It was automatic. I staid looking straight ahead. My heart was beating. I wanted to be back in my dreamy-singy-flow. But I eventually realized the dood wasn’t extending his arm with the change, so only then, I turned to look. He was mouthing something. I put the window down further, put the music lower, and said, “What?” I heard some words trailing off. I heard words switch from Spanish to English. I heard them lower in volume, get lost in the sounds of the road-river flow, then get loud:
“Is your family OK?” and I thought, Da phuck he’s talking about?
Then he asked: “Where are you from? La Isla?“
As I started to reply that no, I’m gringa, he cut me off, said: “Because you are listening to her.”
Then it hit me. I looked at his face, really looked, saw how it was puffy and the bags under his eyes were pronounced. I saw tears in the corners of his eyes. I remembered that Hurricane Maria had just hit La Isla, had knocked out power and water and had churned up sewage in the streets, leaving many, many people in Puerto Rico at a standstill: no water, food, utilities, communications. I realized that hearing this singer from his home might have been his message in a bottle in the anonymous sea.
He said: “Mine, mine are OK. I got to contact them. But others I don’t know.“
It got quiet. In the midst of the traffic gurgle, it got quiet. Beach quiet. I took a peek in the rearview and saw the cars adding up behind me. My moments of feeling insignificance wave-crashed-boom-banged against my opportunity to in-body significance (for this one man, who, lonely maybe, solitary definitely, on his island of zoom zoom zooming cars and trucks and cars and SUVs and someone actually stopped to say something). But I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t say anything, except, ”Que Dios le bendiga [God bless you].“
He looked at me, put his hands up, and waved them down twice, saying with a raspy voice: ”Amén amén.“ He finally handed me my change.
The plain adobe casita out on the mesa was an island—the structure strong as a steady four walls and roof. Sometimes the wind blew all day. Sometimes the wind blew and rusted pieces of metal and stiff plastic bottles from yards down the trail blew into the fence around the casita. I became convinced that the wind was the ghost of the land pre-desert, when the land was ancient sea. The wind took on a peculiar sound: whale-like, as it navigated around the rectangle hunk of metal.
It’s from my safe place that I watch the hypnotic day night day night cycle from the unobstructed large sliding-glass doors that opened to the fenced-in yard full of thick Mojave gravelly sand. It made me feel like the last woman on Earth, like I was in a secret place, hidden away, at sea, where I pass time walking around in boots and underwear and leaving my doors unlocked. There were several other casitas within view, but I hadn’t in two months I’d been there seen anyone walking around. Who else was out there? Why didn’t I ever see them?
I learned that in the Mojave, the landscape hid things, but humanscape stuck out like jagged rocks. Pockets of civilization in crude, plain sight. I was still part of it. Every Saturday, I went to town to do laundry, which equalled a half-hour drive to the nearest laundrymat in the next town, Joshua Tree, and two hours at the there. Weekenders from Los Angeles and Japan shopping at the farmers’ market clogged Joshua Tree’s downtown area. The tiny town was in full bustling mode. I avoided everyone. It felt strange to be out of the casita. The current of people—different people, different looking people, strung out people, touristy people, artsy people—was strong. It threatened to take me farther out, past the safe shores of something, somehow, from what, I didn’t know.
I pulled my long F-150 truck through the drive through of the Taco-bell-esque (but actual food and actually good) restaurant named Casteneda’s. I ordered my regular (chilaquiles, unsweetened iced tea, a couple of things of the green spicy salsa). I was happy for the single drive-thru in town; I needed it. I took in my food and inched the truck down the driveway, carefully navigating past two tweakers sitting on the curb at the end.
I turned right and started back to my compound on the mesa, passing the full parking lot of Joshua Tree Saloon (converted school buses and vans and two beat up trucks). A sculpture made of glass and mirror reflected the sun.
I looked at it twice and swore to myself, immediately convinced that was the desert winking at me. How could I believe that?
The mirages, which happen as shimmers and wisps and notes of strange sound, don’t happen on the land. I learned that in places like here, the Mojave, the mirages happen in the mind. Images police themselves. They appear, then disappear, and stay hidden. The desert is a terrifyingly irregular place because there’s nothing there to define things, and while land is empty, the mind is full.
I arrived home and parked. I looked at the casita, took the dog, laundry, and food in each hand, and struggled my way out of the truck. Except–
I saw a pair of boot treads in the gravel.
It struck me as odd that I didn’t know what the bottom of my boots looked like. Is that it? Why have I never seen prints like that? Is that what the desert has led me to? Question my footprint?
And then I decided it the prints were mine, so I struggled into the casita, put everything down, ate, did housekeeping. I said a prayer of gratitude for little routines like that.
Two days later, when I was watching, and then I realized I had twenty minutes before the sun started kissing the tops of the mountain peaks. That meant twenty minutes before the coyotes come out. That meant twenty minutes to walk my dog on the meager gravelly trail that was the road in front of the compound. So I quickly went outside witht the dog. I walked fast. The gritty gravel under my boots made a monotonous crunch. The sound blurred other sounds. I didn’t hear the truck until the dog stopped to smell a piece of dead cholla. I stopped and heard a soft rumble.
A beat up green Dodge slowed to a stop next to me. A man with really bad skin and teeth leaned out. A woman sat in his passenger seat, and I couldn’t see her face well but I noticed straw-dry locks of hair twisting irregularly on her shoulder.
“I’m your neighbor. I live over the hill that way,” and then he pointed. He asked: “You had any problems lately?”
I couldn’t answer immediately. I don’t know if I was frozen from fear or just struck dumb. Neighbor?
“No, I haven’t,” I answered with trepidation.
“Well,” he continued, “I’m tracking the asshole.”
“The old man next to you—his house got robbed. I followed the tracks right past your camper and down the mesa to some crackhead’s house.” He paused, then added: “Out here, it’s vigilante justice. You sure you ain’t missing anything?”
The rumble of his truck filled the silence before my answer. I was grateful for that because I suddenly felt the breath leave my belly—to have thought the boot treads were mine! How could I have tricked myself like that? It was an honest but awful mistake. I thought to my essentials—laptop, passport—that I had left by the unlocked glass doors. They were there.
“Wow, that’s terrible. When do you think this happened?”
“Saturday sometime. I seen you were out that day, too.”
“Oh, right,” I said, blushing. “Laundry and errands in town. Takes forever.”
The man started to talk about something else as my knees went weak. I excused myself to finish walking the dog, walk through the sudden shitstorm of thoughts—Had there been someone in my space? How did I not realize? And, why didn’t anything of mine get stolen? Where was my mind? I turned my head to see the truck turning and pulling next to a casita a way out, but it didn’t pass the other side. I reasoned there must be a driveway on the opposite side of the house, one that was obscured in my plain view.
This place didn’t make sense.
I heard a gust of wind. I decided it was safer in my casita, watching the empty horizon from behind the glass doors, watching for things to come out of my mind.
Yoga classes have always been a major part of the health and wellness offerings during the O+ festival. But any movement—including a little shake and shimmy at any of the music venues—can add to your
sense of wellness.
“Yoga is holistic and meant to support us in all aspects of our lives. A quote from one of my teachers [Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati] sums it up perfectly: ‘Each of life’s activities is a Yoga when performed in a natural, harmonious way, attentively, to balance and unite the body, mind and spirit,’” says Shawn Harrison, yoga teacher and owner of Mudita Yoga, a studio on Fair Street in Kingston.
Yoga is part of a holistic health system that teaches the interconnectedness of everything: The way we feel affects the way we breathe. The way we move with our bodies is similar to the way we are flexible with our mind and thoughts. The way we interact with each other reflects the way we feel about ourselves.
One use of the word “yoga” is to express the idea of “coming into the present.” The moment we bring attention to any part of our actions is the moment we engage in “conscious being.” That means not wondering what’s for dinner or who has emailed—just simply being. Sometimes in a yoga class, you’ll hear the invitation to “ground” or “be present in the moment.” This experience and practice of conscious living can have a huge impact on reducing stress and increasing your sense of wellness.
Yoga has been popularized as a physical practice through asanas or postures that encourage body strength and flexibility. A yoga class, like the intro to yoga class, will include some mix of asanas. A vinyasa yoga class involves breath—movement coordination; a vinyasa practice is more vigorous than a gentle or basic yoga class. Kundalini yoga classes mix rapid body movements with chanting and visualization exercises. Gong baths, which are complementary to kundalini yoga, are soothing and still. You simply lie on the ground and receive healing through sound. Bikram yoga classes are “hot yoga”—a series of active postures done in a heated space.
But you don’t have to stop there. Hooping and pilates, two other classes offered at ExplO+re, can be “yoga” if done as a meditation in motion. All the musical performances during the festival are opportunities to just “shake it out.” Have you seen the awesome list of bands? Just take your pick.
When you create conscious movement through the body, you are also creating space in the mind to come fully into the present. Doesn’t it feel good to not think so much?
Published October 2013