Sunday, January 13, 2019

Hiking the Spiritual Path

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

This morning, I left my cozy bed to venture out in the pre-dawn darkness where a group of 15 people gathered. The intent? To hike up one of the Sahyadri mountains where the ecovillage is located. I must be nuts.

It’s been exactly one week since I arrived here at Govardhan Ecovillage in Wada, about 100km from Mumbai. One week since I began the 300-hr advanced teacher training and cultural immersion in the study of bhakti yoga. It’s been one week since I landed in Krishna Land. There’s even a miniature version of Vrindavan here.

And what a week it’s been. So full and intense. Studying sacred texts. Practicing morning sadhana, evening satsang. Asana practice. Learning asana assists. Learning kirtan, to play harmonium, to play the mrdunga drum, to play kartals. So so much.

And of course, there is the learning that is not so obvious, the kind that is happening on the spiritual level.

A little after 6am, our little hiking group set out for the trek. We walked across a field of hay in the dark. At first, I used the light from other people’s flashlights to lead the way. When we got to the trailhead, I was still good following the other lights. Then the terrain changed. As did the incline. It was slight, but it was enough for me to pull out my phone and use my flashlight app.

Just before the meet-up time, my friend, Dominique, offered to lend her hiking boots as she was not feeling well and was going to stay behind. Thankfully, I took her up on it. I had no idea what awaited me.

The path was narrow at times. In some spots, branches of various plants reached over the trail. As we continued –in the dark!—I thought to myself: how’s this for a metaphor for the spiritual path! 

At the summit, a little after sunrise

You wander around in the dark, following a path that others before you have carved out of mountain rock. There are some things that get in your way –leaves, skinny broken tree branches. The incline gets a little steeper as you go along. There are some young trees along the path that you can grab on to for support, especially when you come across loose rocks. You are enjoying this hike. There are some tight bends and slippery gravel, but all in all, you feel good. You are enjoying the challenge. Then, after some time, you come to a big, wide flat part of the mountain where you are already taken aback by the views. You think to yourself: Yesss!! I made it!! You drink some water. Take a few photos. And then the guide says, “Let’s go.” Wait. What? you think. There's more? He points up. You are headed for the summit.

Okay then.

You continue along the trail, one that is not marked except by the flattened down path of many feet on the earth. When you come to more rocks, you look ahead to figure out which way to go next. You look ahead for the guide. He is out of sight. You look ahead for others in your group. They, too, are out of sight. You can still hear them, though, so you scramble to catch up to them. This happens a few times. The pace is quicker than you’d like but you need to keep up. You don’t want to get left behind at the risk of getting lost. Your thighs burn. Your hands are slightly swollen and you don’t know why. You’ve forgotten those scrambles you had to make. You still push on. Once, in your haste, you trip over a rock you didn’t see and nearly fall flat on your face. Suddenly, you imagine yourself injured. How would you get down the mountain? There is no place for a helicopter to land. Someone would have to carry you. You do not want this. You make the choice to be more careful. To be quick but not too quick. To be alert and agile. You focus on your footing, on where to take the next step. But you must make these decisions quickly. There is no time to think.

The inclines increase. At one point, it is so steep that you are climbing rocks. It is no longer hiking. There is no path. Only rocks and the way up. So you climb. You don’t want to lose sight of the person ahead of you. You don’t want to get lost. Or left behind. So you keep going. You find yourself singing a song you can’t get out of your head. You realize it’s the refrain from one of the kirtan chants. You forget what it means, but you sing it in your head anyway. To sing it out loud would require more breath than you already have, so you sing in your head. You know you can do this. You know this chant will lift you up.

You stop for a moment to watch the sunrise. Standing on a narrow path on the edge of a mountain, you stop. What you see is breathtaking. The mist, the orange ball of light, the tips of tree branches. All of it. You take a deep breath and then move on.

You walk by a temple. You must be getting close. You walk by some caves. “Drinking water” the guide says. He has stopped to wait for people to catch up. Drinking water? you think, Hmmm – not gonna risk it. There are steps carved out of the mountain, leading to what you presume to be the summit. “Three hundred years old”, our guide says. Look how long these have lasted, you think to yourself. You realize you are not just talking about the steps.

At the stop of the stairs, you pull yourself up to stand and you are startled by the expanse before you. A vast swath of blue. You can’t tell where the earth and sky meet. They just blend into each other. The morning mist blurs the landscape. You are overwhelmed. You forget to breathe for a moment.

You walk over to one edge, step down onto a ledge and stand there, leaning against the cliff face. You take a deep breath. We are so tiny, you think to yourself. So, so tiny. And this world is so beautiful. Tears start to roll down your cheeks. Yes. This, is all you can say to yourself. This.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

New Year, New Vision

This year, I have decided to give the 52 essay challenge another go. And this year, I start en route to India.

Here we go, 2019. Are you ready for me?

As I write this, I am somewhere between London and Dubai, 33,000 feet high is the sky. My final destination: Mumbai. I am en route to begin a month-long 300hr advanced teacher training and spiritual study of Bhakti yoga. Because of the end-of semester-crunch and the flurry of holiday activities (shopping, decoration, entertaining, and most importantly: baking!), the reality of this hasn’t had a chance set in. Now, that I’m here, sitting on a plane for another seven hours, I’ve had time to be still. No one asking me where their sweater is. No one asking me what to do with their food on left their dinner plate. No one tattling about her older sister being on her phone. The cabin is dark. There are tiny pinpricks of light on the ceiling above the aisles to give the feeling of a night sky. The babies have stopped crying and the engines drone on, loudly. (I have noise canceling headphones for this reason, but had to take them off, because after a period of time, the pressure on my jaw, right below the ears, was starting to give me a headache. So, I will sacrifice my hearing for a little bit in order to avoid a headache. Some decision, huh.) And in the stillness, this shouts in my head:

I’m going to freaking India!!

How did I get here?

On this first day of a brand-new year, I can’t help but reflect on the journey I’ve had to get to this point. When I first said yes to this –to this chance to continue my spiritual growth in India—I had no idea what I was saying yes to. And to be honest, I still don’t think I fully know yet what I am saying yes to. But what I have seen is my life change and grow and open in amazing, unexpected ways. When I needed something, the universe provided. It was only a matter of me recognizing that, of being aware.

Small example: I was giving a poetry reading in the city on a Sunday night, during the holiday season. I drove into the city during that time of year they call Gridlock Alert season. Who wants to drive in that? And to find street parking? Hah! As if! Well, I got in my car, set an intention for smooth travel and a parking spot near the bar where I was reading, and listened to some Christmas music, Pentatonix style. And wouldn’t you know? I drove in without incident –no crazy and/or angry drivers. Once I got to Houston, I thought: okay, keep your eyes peeled for parking. About two blocks away from the bar, I stopped at a red light. Right next to me was what looked like an open parking spot. I saw it in my periphery vision and in the back of my mind thought: nah, too good to be true. The light changed to green and the car in front of me got through before it turned red again (there was a lot fo congestion). I thought, while sitting at the red light: really? Is this my spot? I mean, I’m sitting at the same traffic light for another round of red. I should at least park in it and then check out the signs.So, calmly, I maneuvered into the spot. Got out of my car to check the parking signs. And sure enough, I was good! It was a miracle! But really not. It was me setting my intention, knowing that the spot was waiting for me, giving gratitude for that spot before I got there, and –this is an important part—recognizing my spot! I almost missed it. And it’s not like I could’ve circled back again. It would’ve been gone by the time I went through the traffic light.

Moments like these –big and small—have been happening in my life since I said yes to India. And I am amazed. Grateful and amazed. The biggest takeaway this year, for me, has been to say yes and then to let go of control., to sit back to let the universe do the work.

I am also amazed and humbled by the amount of support I’ve gotten from friends, family, colleagues –everyone in my community— these past several months. I’m really blown away. Me? Really? You believe in me?says the teeny tiny insecure voice. Yes, you. Beautiful, bold you.The universe never ceases to amaze me. Thank you, my loved ones. I am endlessly grateful.

I am astonished by how much my heart has grown, how much it has opened to love and to compassion. How much I have opened up to vulnerability, despite how terrifying it sometimes (usually) feels. I look at my student from this fall semester –we’ll call him Griffin—and how I was able to hold space for him as he endured one traumatic event after another, how I was able to do this while also keeping my energetic boundaries (and not getting sucked into the tornado of an emotional drain). How I was able to be of service and support to him without sacrificing my own well-being. I had never been able to do something like that before. Incredible.

I’d like to think this all started with the intention I set a year ago today with my touchstone word, “authentic”. I look at my intention bracelet, at the word “authentic” stamped into a nickel token wrapped around my wrist and think: wow – I’ve really done a lot of work to peel away the layers of false selves. I’m really working a being my most authentic self. And I feel fantastic!I look over the past year at moments in which my truest Self showed Herself. The most notable moment for me was when I received my Kundalini yoga spiritual name: Surya Gian Kaur, which means: one whose wisdom shines as brilliantly as the sun. Damn, I thought. The spiritual name is merely naming the thing you already are – you had just forgotten. And I will say that when I received this name, it resonated within me. Yes, I thought to myself, yes, this is me. Truly me.

So, what will this year’s word be? I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my mind the past couple of weeks. What’s emerging are two words, actually. Open heart. “Open” as both verb and adjective. In thinking about authenticity, being open comes with the territory. The willingness to vulnerable. And in that vulnerability, we are not only our truest selves, but our strongest selves (as much as that sounds counterintuitive).

Yes. That seems right. 
And YES to everything that awaits.

Here we go, 2019! Here were go!