Monday, October 29, 2012

the yoga of divine virtues

"In the beginning, love. In the end, love. In the middle, we have to cultivate virtues," says Gurumayi in the last chapter of "My Lord Loves a Pure Heart."

As I finish reading the book, a transcript of a series of lectures given by Swami Chidvilasananda in the Siddha Yoga ashram in South Fallsburg, New York in the summer of 1993, which expounds on the "Yoga of Divine Virtues" that Krishna explains to his student Arjuna in the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, I realize how this is exactly how my own summer has played out.

It started with love. It is ending with love. And the total "mess" in between has been a process of cultivating virtues, of developing the qualities necessary to embody and sustain that all-pervasive love that we seem to, more often than not, loose track of.

It has been a summer of unparalleled learning, full of the principles set forth in the Gita: fearlessness...purity of being...steadfastness in yoga...steadfastness in knowledge...freedom from anger...compassion...humility...respect...selfless service...the pure heart...

As I flip through the book now, I see how I walked through each chapter, learning the lessons in real time, in real life. Some came easily. Some were hard work. Others were like pulling teeth. Also, it hasn't been a straight-forward "read." There have been many twists and turns, highs and lows, which have really helped develop these qualities within me.

It's been an intense season. I have grappled with my darkest fears, I have been heated in the fires of experience, I have questioned my yoga practice and the principles behind it, I have been so sad and angry, I have had to find compassion for myself and those around me, I have been humbled, I have struggled to find self-respect and respect for others, I continue to strive at serving selflessly with pure intention, with a pure heart. It's been a full-on virtue-cultivating summer.

I do not claim to now fully exemplify these virtues, not even close. There have been times that I have felt frustrated that I couldn't connect with my inner light, that I could not keep my fears at bay, that my issues were overriding the qualities that I know myself to sincerely have. But I also know this is the part of the process that is yoga, that the fruit is the act of learning, of discernment, of slowly whittling down all these extraneous layers until there is nothing left but the Self, and there the pure heart waits, patient and knowing.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Nearly a year ago, I made a collage that was supposed to be inspired by my life. It was an assignment for "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, which my friend Clara and I, decided to explore during our months together in India. We rummaged through a whole lot of Indian magazines for the allotted 20 minutes, tearing out pictures and words that resonated. In the end, among my cut outs was a page of James Bond through time. I suddenly knew a lot of Jameses. Some as friends, a couple as more than friends, all of them, I felt, had something of import to share with me.

Yesterday, I went to see the latest James Bond film "Skyfall" with one of my Jameses, who is his own version of the international man of mystery, who--I think-- is actually more elusive than a secret agent.

Occasionally, reality and fiction collide. Before us life's little symbols played out on the big screen at the local cinema (actually, a very moderate-sized screen in terms of premier Hollywood blockbuster standards, but the twee English theater was so completely charming, it was absolutely perfect!).

There's Double-0-7, facing his enemy, a former agent turned mastermind criminal, once favored but then given up for dead, a reflection of Bond's own alter-ego, everything that he could have turned into had he completely fallen to the shadow-side of things. The future threat forces him to confront the dark past. His family home, haunted by ghosts of old, becomes a refuge, a place of retreat. But new dangers push on. James, however, is ready and waiting.

There's more to the story, of course. Actually, much more than the typical action/Bond-girl driven film. Themes of new versus old run rampant in the flick: the new technology versus the old fashioned ways of spying, the old guard versus the new guard, etc...Though they mostly tie, we see how the old ways are honored but with the acceptance of the new, a compromise that must be found in a changing world, a balance that is hard to negotiate.

Then there's the M-ummy issues--We won't even go there...

The whole thing, the movie, the company, me, was all so mirror-in-a-mirror-in-a-mirror. So close-up, however, that it's hard to see that it's all pretty funny in a strange "that's entertainment" sort of way.

Ultimately, I think the title says it all. Though it alludes to the name of Bond's ancestral home, it also connotes the problem and the solution of this action-drama. "Sky fall" is what happens in life, shit happens, things go pear-shaped, celestial bodies drop down to mere mortal height. "Sky fall" is also the action of surrender as you allow yourself to go through different life challenges, the different levels of psyche.

But can the sky really fall? No, have faith and the true nature of the world will reveal itself.

clocks go back, we still move forward

Autumn day at London Fields, Hackney.

The clocks go back tonight -- at least for the English, who observe daylight savings. There will be an extra hour of sleep for all of us within this time zone. Along with a little more morning light. But the days will shorten overall, as the sun keeps shorter hours in these northerly latitudes.

And while I will enjoy the extra hour in bed, I know that there is no turning back the clock, that time is a relentless pushy thing. There is no dodging it. No side stepping it. No ignoring it. It demands acknowledgement and respect. It keeps pushing onwards and with it comes its bedfellow, change.

This marks the end of my summer. No surprise, really, the signs of the changing seasons have been showering me lately. But I see that this is the end of one particular leg of what I am realizing might be an unending journey.

And quietly, alone in my borrowed bed, I respectfully honor the change. I bow to the sands of time that unceremoniously slip through my fingers. I do my best not to regret the lost hours and with it the misplaced opportunities, which I had neither the vision to see, nor the courage to undertake. For time also urges us forward. Out there, beyond time, our destiny awaits.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

packing up, paring down

"Travel light," my friend Chit told me, when I set off from the island. God knows, I've tried my best.

I probably could have done without the bikini--but having lived on an island, I always travel with one. Did I really need the little yellow cotton miniskirt or my homemade ripped up cotton T? Did the few days it was warm enough to wear them in Spain make it worth it? On the most part, the clothes I brought have properly served their purpose. Recently, I've been wearing a significant amount of them at the same time to keep sufficiently insulated in-doors. But I hardly used my practice poi. I didn't sweat enough to need more than one yoga towel. And I didn't get through all the notebooks and reading material I schlepped from Asia.

Packing once again, meticulously compressing the clothes and items that have made up my sum total belongings these past 3 months, I ask myself, did I really travel light?

All the stuff fits. All within weight limit. As a rule, I try to never bring more than I can carry.

Then there's all the baggage that we can't so easily quantify because, most of the time, we don't even know that it is there. The invisible suitcase or backpack that is filled with some of the oldest, funkiest, most useless sort of junk: catalogs of past ills, stories of self-sabotage, chestfuls of fears, storehouses of childhood trauma.

Without realizing it, I carried an enormous weight though-out Europe, old ghosts that piggybacked from place to place. They saddled me and rode me around like a show pony.

It's not entirely my baggage's fault. Whether or not I had consciously chosen to do so, I had brought it with me. And life on the road wasn't easy. Love may have been on the itinerary but it was more like love on the rocks. And the bumps unlocked the secret carrying case, allowing some of my oldest issues to come tumbling out into the open.

It's hard to move forward while bearing the burdens of the past. These things I've been carrying have made the journey heavy. They stalled my progress. I had a choice: continue to go nowhere or begin to let go.

Now, I realize how bogged down. And while these issues don't just simply go away, they do start to shrink under the light of day. With perspective, they get smaller and smaller and, in turn, I feel lighter.

When this trip started I was intent on moving forwards. What I see now is that the intention of pressing onwards is intrinsically linked with the past. But perhaps that's a part of the process, how our ability to move on, to grow, is contingent on letting go of the old things that impede us.

As I continue to unload the dross, I am wary that there is most likely more in there, this Mary Poppins-like carpet bag, which despite it's so-small-it's-practically-invisible appearance is quite mysteriously expansive. I can only hope there will be time and opportunity to carefully unpack everything.

Before I left North Yorkshire, my lovely host, upon seeing my luggage, commented on how I manage to travel light. Hmmm, not quite. But I am trying...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

language of the heart

The heart is like the tree of knowledge.

I've been considering my heart a great deal recently. I wake up thinking: "ok, dear one, how are we feeling?"

Over the last few months, it has given me all sorts of feedback, from the most sublime exhilaration to staggering uncertainty, from the subtle to gross physical input.

Interestingly, my head has been deferring to it. Though my mind has certain ideas, it knows the heart has an infinitely stronger grasp on things. So it asks. But it's not always easy to get the answer.

The heart has its own vocabulary. It does not communicate with the efficacy of the brain, which sends minute-by-minute memos, detailed reports and--on many occasions--entire dissertations. It does not argue--especially not with itself. It does not rally for a debate.

Instead, it sits quiet, but knowing. To tap into it, to understand what it understands, I have to feel it.

I am, however, an imperfect reader--I suspect that I am not alone in this. I associate feelings to memories, concepts, prejudices. So sometimes the messages of the heart get lost in the minefield of the mind.

Other times, I am contrary, sometimes even belligerent. I do not like what it has to say. So I ignore it. Or fight it. And in those times, I am in conflict with my true self, making myself feel crazy because I've wedged a brick wall between me and my deep internal wisdom.

So, I am trying to chip at this well-constructed wall. Taking it down, one brick at the time, slowly clearing the way for a healthier dialogue with my heart.

We are in talks, my heart and I, though I still have difficulty listening. I am trying to understand its language, which, though straightforward, gets muddled in the processing. I am struck at how far removed I am from my own feelings, which I feel but do not always fully comprehend. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

the play of recurring lessons

In the path of life, we really don't know what's around the bend...
I've been wondering lately whether life is on some strange loop. That even though an entire lifetime has passed since a year ago, something is eerily the same.

Ok, admittedly, things are definitely different. The setting is distinct from last year's locales. These are different streets, different pieces of scenery. The Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles, New York is a huge contrast from Europe and the Northern English town and country. The temperature is likewise--and unfortunately--different in higher latitudes.

There are new supporting characters, all of them unique and lovely, with very special things to contribute to this production. Last year's cast was also incredible. But the two principals remain the same: the heroine and the hero, their own dramas running alongside each other, weaving in and out, at times helping and other times grinding. Their dialogue is hard work.

Of course, this is a different crossroad, much further along the highway. There are many variations in the external factors--travel, family, close quarters, hectic schedules, etc...But the underlying plot feels very familiar. A journey. Two full of love, but also full of fears--very old fears. Other things play into it: lack of communication, lack of self-confidence, lack of trust, lack of honesty. Lots of lack, heroic flaws that do not become the protagonists. Ultimately, it is a love story of two that is also a tale of self-love.

But now, as I look on to two diverging roads, I think: "Here we go again!" At least my path seems to be made of stuff from last year's lessons. Virtues that I'd thought I'd learned but apparently not well enough, as they have returned with a vengeance to bite me/toughen me up. I think this is the play of recurring lessons, which inevitably and absurdly repeat until we finally deign to learn them.   

seasons change

A glorious autumn day in Durham. Though change is
in the air, it doesn't stop the sun from shining
--at least today. 

Trees shedding leaves in
Pickering, North Yorkshire.
One of the things striking about being in England now is seeing the season change. How trees and other foliage so vibrantly green three months ago are changing color. The landscape is speckled with yellows, browns and a splattering of deep oranges and dark auburn that characterizes the autumn season.

In the Philippines, where the two seasons are characterized by dry and wet while it stays generally hot and humid throughout, there’s less of a chance to mentally calibrate to the shifting sands of nature’s clock.

Here, I can’t help but feel how time and space are turning—and I along with it. The light changes. There’s a crisp chill in the air. Signs that transformation is afoot, that it is inevitable. 

Nature marks the end of what I had envisioned as my summer of love. It is time, she says, to shed the old leaves, once so lush and verdant, but which are now browning and must eventually die and fall. She reminds me, this is the way of the world. I cannot hold on.

Along with this sad—sad, because we mere humans grieve the passing of things—news, there’s the promise that after the cold frost of winter, when everything appears to die, but only deeply slumbers, comes the inevitable reviving spring.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

perfectly imperfect

A rose looks many different ways to many different people. 

Before the summer started, I imagined a season of love. I would be traveling with a dear friend who I loved deeply. We were going to get a chance to be together. And I thought that it was going to be perfect.

If you've ever traveled with a friend or partner, you'll know how naive I was being. Traveling with anyone for three and a half months is challenging at the best of times, more so when you are testing out the chemistry of two, each with their own needs, quirks, anxieties, back stories.

In many ways, this time has far exceeded my expectations. It has been incredibly special--in ways that I couldn't have even imagined. It has been a time full of seeing new things, healing, personal discovery, meeting really special people, teaching and learning in so many different levels and experiences. And I will be forever grateful to this friend of mine.

But it also hasn't been what I thought it would be. Needless to say: it hasn't been perfect.

In the Upanishads, however, it says that everything is  perfect.

Sometimes, I totally get this. I don't just get it, I share it with the enthusiasm of Little Miss Sunshine.

Yet, other times, when I take a good look around, especially at my own imperfect life, I can't help but ask, how can this be? Is everything really perfect?

Obviously, no. No, because reality isn't always pretty. Life is not easy.  It can be hard to live, earn a living, do what you like, embrace the person you love, or be who you are supposed to be.

Also, yes (says the unsinkable optimist in me)! Yes, because encoded in life's imperfections are the clues to being happy. They are lessons, albeit hard ones at times, that help us grow, be who we need to be. But being able to see this largely depends on your willingness to see.

This has me thinking about my own concept of perfection.

Amidst the tension of travel, my friend pointed out how it annoyed him that I wanted things to always be nice and that my ideas of perfection was unrealistic, that my sunny optimism even in the face of great difficulty was inauthentic.

Hrm... This has given me some food for thought.

It's true, I can dip towards near-cheerleading enthusiasm sans pompoms and cartwheels and my experience of "happy"have their origins in Hollywood musicals rather than my own woebegone childhood. When I was a kid, I thought truly happy people were supposed to break out in song spontaneously and the fact that this did not happen in my own life was only further proof of how sad and pathetic my life actually was.

I admit, this insane lingering desire for a life in cheerful technicolor needs to be addressed properly. And fast!
But I'm also no fool. Like everyone, I know suffering. I know life is tough and it is wrought with challenges. I obviously need to learn how some things genuinely need encouragement and some things don't. I don't mean to trivialize other people's pain or issues by being overly positive. And perhaps I lack a touch of realism, at times.

It's not that I'm out of touch, but that's kind of part of who I am. I believe in miracles. I believe thoughts are magic, that they are contagious, that they can change the world. Maybe my enthusiasm may seem unreal to some but it's totally wholehearted. It has helped me shift my own life and has helped me shift some of my relationships.

It is through that same loving lens that I can see how the world is perfectly imperfect, that I can accept with grace and gratitude that I too am that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

karma yoga, walking meditation

Life is not a walk in the park. It’s much more like a trek in the mountains.

A month plus has gone by since my first walk in Parque National de Monte Perdido y Ordesa. It feels like a lifetime has passed since then. Time is this way right now, jumping from place to place, as I insanely follow my yoga-teaching nomad friend around Europe. So much happens from place to place, the scenery changes so fast and life along with it.

But that particular day with the area’s unraveling view of the mountain peaks and canyons of the Spanish Pyranees, I understood meditation more and how it works on the mind in a way I hadn’t so tangibly connected to before.

Our intention for the 3-hour trek that turned into a 9-hour odyssey thanks to the catchy enthusiasm of our guide, Casa Cuadrau’s Dani Benito Po, and the sheer majesty of the mountain surroundings that kept drawing us closer and closer was to make a meditation of our walk (a yoga of action or karma), each step with mindfulness, each moment with awareness.

With this design, we parked the car, chanted “Aum,” and set off across the fields where cows grazed, their neck bells like bellowing wind chimes. We had driven to great heights already, but before us were the foothills of even greater mountain ranges. Aside from the cows, we walked in silence, each of us going at our own pace.

Well, technically, we were silent, though this was not the case in my head.

We were slowly going uphill. I was trying to focus on each step, but I straggled behind with a riot of thoughts pulling at my heels. I could not keep them at bay. They trudged alongside me, a cacophonous school choir, the children of my disgruntled brain singing mutinous songs: “this walk is too much for you,” “you’re going to be left behind,” even the older, more nasty kids chimed in, “you’re not good enough.” 

I hate these mean children. And quickly rival thoughts interjected, which escalated in what was the equivalent of many lunchroom skirmishes, fake processed food hurling along with obscenities across the cafeteria of my mind, the playground for stupid juvenile delinquents.

And this was within the first 25 minutes.

Then I turned a corner and the path revealed the vast expanse of nature before me. I was called back into the present, from the desert of my mind to the scene of indescribable splendor, mountain ranges as far as the eye could see, scaling the sky so blue, while dramatic cliff edges dove into earth’s deep canyon crevices.

There was the now. Beautiful. Infinite. I was shaken from the misidentifications of my mind. I felt this place. I felt it in my bones and in my marrow. I felt it in my mind and in my heart. I felt that this was who and what I really was.

It was like nature’s confirmation that I wasn’t my thoughts, I wasn’t my story (erm, stories, plural), I wasn’t my body. That in essence I was one with the divine, as wondrous and full as the landscape. And this recognition had brought me back into the present path.

This is when the walking meditation started for me. I had arrived at the party, or the process. And now I could take part in the journey. My thoughts disappeared then as I focused on the actual act of walking, of being, of participating in the now.  And that made all the difference.

Having arrived, however, didn’t make the mountain path easy. The path was rarely straight. It went up and down. We edged dangerous cliff-sides. Being afraid of heights, this was a real issue for me.

It took time. It seemed unnecessarily long as we zig-zaged up and down the mountains, yet this was the easiest way. The path was ever changing because that is its nature. I could not change this. But I could be aware of it. As the path changed, so did I, the walker.

Each path is potentially full of obstacles: uphill, downhill, hard rocks, soft unstable ground. That’s how life is. But the obstacles are also opportunities for the great walker: tough gradients cultivate stamina, unstable ground teaches balance, boulders to scale inspire courage.

My focus wasn’t perfect the entire afternoon, either. The view awed, distracted as well as instructed. When I looked only at the path, I missed the rest of the world in front of me. When I looked only at the scenery, I lost the actual path and nearly tripped on rocks before me. There was a need for balanced attention, even perspective to the path and the world beyond.

At the end of this epic walk, I felt—other than great relief at my legs having survived a total of 7 hours of walking—greatly inspired to have taken part in such a yoga practice. This is the yoga of action, of learning from everyday things, of learning to sanctify the most pedestrian of actions.

I had learned a lot on that day. And continue to do so as I constantly steer my wandering mind back to the here and now, applying the lessons of attentiveness in my day-to-day actions. 

I'll be honest, it's not been easy these weeks, continuing to walk the path of the everyday, which I think can be more treacherous than the mountains. But I continue to hold on to that feeling of sublime wholeness that I experienced in the Spanish Pyranees, especially during these times which seem designed to challenge my sense of self. Knowing that one day, I won’t need to recall the scene to feel total and utter fullness. But for now I continue to practice the act of being, which is in itself yoga of action and an act of love.

the rock

Monte Perdido, or "Lost Mountain" in the Spanish Pyranees, part-inspiration for this poem.

The rock

My heart,
this lost mountain
are the same, though
they may not look it.

Porous limestone deposits
leak water. No matter
how much it rains,
no matter how
much snowfall
melts from the peaks,
it cannot hold the
heavenly deluge.

All flow downward
towards the canyon
where all sorts of life
drink their fill, though
the heights are always
thirsty, calcareous throats
dry and chalky.

Topography varies
smooth and curvaceous.
Life is delicate up here,
minute flora, small
but singular, so unlike
their sizable counterparts,
carpet the landscape.
It is also rough and jagged,
terrain so temperamental,
loose bits make for unsafe
footing, though its core
is wholly solid.

Yet, it is not as hard
as it appears. It is also
soft, organic, malleable. 
Time has made its marks,
etched itself into mineral
tablets, life and its
perpetual alphabet:
the history of the world,
according to the mountain.

Deeply rooted, it endures.
It changes. Adapts.
It ages slowly.
Little by little scraped at
with elemental fingertips.
Molded by earth’s deep fires
and rumbling stomachs,
sculpted by changing winds,
from deep freezes to watery
graves that chip, chip, chip
away at it. Nature is an
unkind lover; sweet caresses
scar the mountain’s face,
but not its essence.

It is called “lost”
Because, on occasion,
it goes missing,
because it appears and
disappears from
different vantage points,
from this angle and
that distance.
Still, it does not move,
it is true, it does not
go anywhere.

Rock on which my love is built,
living a long, long time,
but not lasting forever.

--K. Castillo