Growing Through Fire/in Ideas
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 in the summer of 2018, 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.
Mindfulness and Culture Making/in Ideas
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.