Being & Becoming

Cultivating Inspiration, Creativity, and a Life on Purpose


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A Tale of Two Solstices

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I’ve always craved warmth and sunlight-especially in times of need. On the summer solstice in 2014, I was studying with my favorite teacher, Shiva Rea, on the island of Santorini in Greece. On that day, we trekked up Skaros, a large rock formation on the west coast of the island, so that we’d have and unobstructed view of the sun for our solstice meditation. We set up facing west, Shiva gave us a mantra, and we began.

At this time, I was dealing with very difficult emotions and issues in my life.  The Grecian sun and Aegean sea had been very soothing to me the previous week as I wrested with these things, but it had reached a point where nothing could fully harbor my attention.

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I tried to stay just with the mantra, but my mind was unable to focus. I was sitting at a crossroad in my life, knowing that a decision I was wrestling with would change the entire trajectory of what I’d do, who I’d become, and my emotional landscape. With each breath, I bathed in increasingly golden light, softly chanting, hoping a concrete answer would come to me. In that moment of greatest light and highest energy, there was only a small seed of knowing the difficulty the coming darkness would bring, especially embarking on that journey alone for the first time in nearly a decade. At that time, being in the warmth and light made it easier to consider a risk, change, emotional pain. I made a choice. From day moment on, the light began to wane, and I embarked on an increasingly dim path.

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It has been a beautiful and terrifying jaunt into the shadows, which I, at times, resisted very strongly. This was often warranted, because I really wasn’t ready emotionally. But, more and more, I experimented with “the only way out is through”. And truly, I went through some things- but that’s another blog post entirely.

As the second summer solstice approached, I realized there was a part of me that wanted some coldness, that wanted some darkness. It was a transformative summer-the best one I’ve ever had. Yet I found myself craving coolness, turning inward, and finally embracing the dark.

A few days ago, a friend mentioned his interest in going into a sensory deprivation tank, as a new place had opened up nearby. I am claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, and don’t like being out of control. Or, rather, I’ve historically defined myself as being these things. In that moment, I was struck with a different understanding of what I am- without fear, speculation, or hesitation, I and called and booked an appointment. I was ready.

For those of you who don’t know, a sensory deprivation tank is literally a tank of super dense salt water (which allows one to float) with a lid to cut out all light. Earplugs are provided. It’s marketed as a very relaxing experience, but I’ve always been far more interested in what the mind might create with no external stimulation- a totally dark canvas, ready to be painted with the electricity of the mind. The thing is, what comes out is what’s there- one’s mindset affects what one sees. Here’s how I felt just before:

Upon arrival, the tank was much bigger than I anticipated, and had a light inside:

I disrobed, took a shower, and  placed my ear plugs in, which initially felt very jarring- I’m hyper attuned to sound, and felt less in control, but the shock quickly waned. I entered the tank and was surprised by how dense the water really was. The light was dim and soothing (Except for the three times I accidentally turned on the strobing function while trying to darken it a little more, and as a result, managed to get stinging salt water in my eyes. I’m terribly curious as to why that feature has not yet been disabled).

During this time, I let myself get accustomed to the sensation of floating, and I let the things in the forefront of my mind run rampant- I bought the ticket, took the ride, and let the damn thing run out of gas. My mind was slowing down, and moving in less predictable directions.  Gradually, much like the way the natural world shifts to shorter days, I closed the lid more and more. Finally, I all but shut it. I turned off the light.

I was surprised by how calm I felt- I really expected I’d have a more dramatic story to tell. The gentle transition made it feel like a womb- a safe place to incubate, to be held while on a journey, to explore. In this release, strange images started flickering in my mind. Questions arose. Some darker things began to come out of my mind and let me know they were still there. I stayed with it. It seems the real journey had just begun when music softly started to play, indicating that the 90 minutes was up.

I emerged slowly. Pressing the lid up gently, I let the blueish light pour in and bathe me.  I washed off the salty water; redressed; put on sunglasses. And then, I walked out into the bright sunlight, and smiled a little bit-I’m okay in the light, and I’m okay in the dark. There’s still a lot of darkness for me to explore and release into, but I honor and appreciate this further initiation of moving into, moving through, rather than pulling away.  Knowing that it can’t last forever, that it’s getting a little brighter, makes all of the difference.

In ancient times, I can understand why the celebration of the winter solstice had so much gravitas- sure, you could light some candles, but there were no guarantees,  and the scope of illumination was much more limited on a non-festival day.  I had to work to find true darkness, and was able to ease into it.  I can only imagine the joy and hope that came into understanding that the light would begin to return for people who experienced continued  darkness.

 

 

So, today, and for the winter as a whole, I ask you, dear reader-

What does darkness feel like for you?

How do you embrace it?

How do you celebrate the solstice?


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Taking Flight Amidst Uncertainty; or, Morocco, Part 1

 

Helping one another open our hearts to the journey. Photo by Heidi Roland http://www.heidirolandphotography.com/site/

About a year ago, my friend Meghan, yoga teacher and owner of Aluna Adventures, asked me to co-lead a yoga adventure to Morocco. At that particular moment in time, I had believed my traveling days were over due to some drastic shifts in my life. I was feeling lost and unsure in my path, but immediately felt this was something I was called to do. We spent months envisioning and crafting our trip. My anxious mind kept manufacturing things to fear; anything from no one signing up, to the Ebola outbreak spreading north, to surges in the saharan scorpion population. Thankfully, none of my wild speculations were correct, and on March 27th, I found myself at JFK International, with the intent to fly to North Africa.

Trying to get grounded by going upside down.  Photo by Heidi Roland.

Trying to get grounded by going upside down. Photo by Heidi Roland.

I was excited; I was hopeful. I met up with Meg and our group, and we snacked together by our gate. Everyone was buzzing with energy and anticipation.

Our wonderful group.

Our wonderful group.

I fed off of their energy, but as time went on, my excitement became peppered with a flavor of fear I hadn’t expected to experience.

For half a decade prior, I had been in a loving and supportive relationship, during which my love of travel was born. Though I had returned home from afar by myself before, I never embarked “on my own”, and had zero experience going to place as foreign as Morocco. Traveling with a partner was an emotional security blanket that I no longer had.  I was surrounded by wonderful people I trusted,  yet the fear swelled up in me. Could I be a good leader? Could I be there for others without having someone who loved me unconditionally at my side? In my every day life, I had dealt with this and become stronger and independent. With the new catalysts of international travel and leadership, my insecurity emerged once again. When we were called to board, my stomach dropped. In that moment, I didn’t actually know if I could go.

But, I did. We all did. One step at a time, we boarded the plane. Meg gave me a reassuring, loving look as we went to our respective seats in different aisles.

The cabin itself felt like a foreign country. An Arabic song with a haunting, wailing, minor melody played as we shuffled into our seats.

On the plane, there was an option to add Mecca to one's flight map- a clear indication that we weren't in Kansas anymore.

On the plane, there was an option to add Mecca to one’s flight map- a clear indication that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

In English, the pilot proclaimed the plane would arrive in Casablanca at 7am. The Arabic translation was a bit different. Though I don’t speak the language, I was able to ascertain this much: “Inshallah (God willing), the plane will land in Casablanca at 7am”.

“Jesus Christ,” I thought, “That’s not particularly reassuring”. Everything felt up in the air. Everything was up in the air, as it was supposed to be, and the flight was quite uneventful. I spoke to an American man of Moroccan descent who gave me some insight into the country, and eventually faded into some strange twilight state until our breakfast was served.

The descent into Morocco.  Photo by Heidi Roland.

The descent into Morocco. Photo by Heidi Roland.

When we touched down, Casablanca was enveloped in a thick fog. At the airport, there was no jetway- one walks down the stairs directly to the tarmac.

Exiting Royal Air Maroc Flight 200.  Photo by Heidi Roland

Exiting Royal Air Maroc Flight 200. Photo by Heidi Roland

In my exhausted state, something shifted. I smiled at the pathetic fallacy as I emerged from the plane, and let the misty, humid air surround me like a cocoon. I wasn’t supposed to see what was ahead, and even more, I didn’t need to. I just had to respond to what was directly in front of me. It wasn’t necessary for someone to hold my hand to do it; I just needed to be present. As I’d soon discover, Morocco all but commands one’s full attention. I steadily descended off of the last step, on my own, and into the mist.

Follow my blog for more tales of Morocco to come!

Have you traveled or faced something difficult despite fear or insecurity?  Feel free to share your experience in a comment, on Instagram @purefire, or on Facebook at Being and Becoming Blog.

 


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The Holiday Season and Reconnecting to Your Inner Light

Holiday lights in the Philippines.

Holiday lights in the Philippines.

I always was excited about holiday lights coming out in the winter.  Candles in windows, golden lights strung in shrubbery; all of them filled me with small bits of child-like wonder.  I liked seeing colorful lights in the summer, but it never had quite the same impact as in December, and I wondered why. I began to notice the attempt to increase and augment existing light in other ways- even in fashion, with sequins and rhinestones becoming ever-present on women’s clothing items as the holidays approached.

I realized, at least for me, that in a time of increasing darkness, seeing the light again became more salient, more necessary. In spite of the darkness, we attempt to bring forth light.

Sometimes, though, seeing bright lights and holiday festivities can have the opposite effect.  The cheer of others can be infectious, but it can also be alienating, especially if one has memories of loss, trauma, or loneliness. The lights, the joy, the celebrations of the season can remind us of what we don’t have, what we’ve never had, what we’re missing.  There can be a more than implicit pressure to be happy and joyous during the holidays. Feeling bad can make one feel alienated and separate to begin with, but this time of year can accentuate and exacerbate existing emotional pain. Add in frigid temperatures, nasty weather, and Vitamin D deficiencies, and we find a whole lot of fuel for feeling bad, and being unable to do anything about it.  Trauma, of any kind, is characterized by some experience of helplessness- an inability to escape, to move, to have agency, to make decisions and act upon them.  Winter makes it inherently difficult to be mobile, to explore, to find new experiences.  One can be left feeling alone and unable to reach out amidst the sea of cheer and happiness.

Do you ever feel like you're holding this sign?

Do you ever feel like you’re holding this sign at holiday gatherings?

Here’s the thing, though- if you’re feeling this way, you aren’t alone. Sometimes, the people with the brightest smiles are living with the most darkness.  Within some facets of the yoga community, there also can be a subtle pressure to attempt to always remain positive. This, of course, is always well-intentioned- the desire to help people to switch to more positive thoughts, and ultimately, to feel better, is rooted in love. We want to help others fix their problems; we want to help them grow. If one take this too far, ignores their feelings and shoves them down without ever processing them, they never can really move beyond them. We can never fully grow. We can never fully experience the world if we repress our experience of it.

After a lot of contemplation about how to safely become present to one’s feelings surrounding winter/holiday emotional distress, I came up with two meditations inspired by two poems from The Radiance Sutras (translated by Lorin Roche).  One focuses on being present with the darkness, and the other on connecting to the light within. If you are experiencing intense emotional distress, depression, or have a had a recent trauma, I would not recommend practicing the darkness meditation unless you feel you have strong self-care and coping skills.  Ultimately, the idea is to help you safely acknowledge your emotions and help provide a safe, sacred space where it’s okay to feel them, and thus begin to process them. Once we have truly experienced the darkness, we can connect more deeply to the light. Feel free to journal about your process afterward.

Note: These meditations most likely won’t fix the underlying problems you may be experiencing and are not a substitution for therapeutic work.  They may, however, help you develop more mindfulness around literal and metaphorical darkness.  Being present to it and breathing through it can help you regain more power, strengthen your ability to manage your feelings, and become your own source of light and energy.

 

Darkness Meditation

You’ll need:

A very comfortable place to sit.  Maybe some blankets to wrap yourself in.  If you are fearful that the darkness may trigger something within you, light a single candle and place it behind you- know that the light is there, and that you can turn and gaze upon it if necessary.

1). Read Sutra 64 (see below).

2). Set up an extremely comfortable and warm meditation space.  Make sure that the spine is still upright and aligned.

Darken the room you’re in completely (unless you are lighting your back-up candle).  Close your eyes, find comfort, and begin to experience the darkness and how it settles in your body.  Continue to breathe deeply and you bring your focus to this concept.  Notice any difficult emotions that arise, and try to witness them without engaging with them.  Don’t ignore them; let them surface and flow.  Know that it’s okay to feel what you feel. Know that each feeling is transient.  Notice how your body responds. If you begin to feel rising distress, begin to lengthen your exhalations to calm your sympathetic nervous system. Notice how your relationship with this concept changes when you are present to it.

Begin to visualize the darkness as a place of incubation. A seed must stay deep in the earth before it begins to sprout.  Dark feelings can transform into inspiration and fuel for creation.  Contemplate how darkness could be an agent of change in your life.

When you feel ready, softly blink the eyes open and prepare for the next meditation.

 

Winter Candle Meditation for Your Inner Fire

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You’ll need:

A candle. A totally normal one will do.  Maybe a candle holder that refracts the light in dynamic ways.

1). Read Sutra 14 (see below)

2). Find a comfortable seat.

Begin to gaze at a single flame.  Follow the flickering and contemplate the movement of the fire.

Imagine yourself becoming like the flame- powerful, dynamic, bright, energetic, warm, glowing.  Feel your light awakening and radiating outward, encompassing your body, the room, your home, your town, your state, your country, and the entire world.  If you like, you can find some subtle, spontaneous swaying or other movement that feels natural.

Know that soon, the solstice will come, and light will begin to return. See the lights now as a reminder of the potentiality for fire within you that is always there, even in times when you don’t think it’s possible.

 

Sutra 64 (Darkness)

 

Secrets are hidden in darkness

And difficult nights.

You awaken into a pang of aloneness,

A howl of separation.

This is the call of the Dark One,

The roar of life seeking its source.

The union you long for is within reach.

Throw off all hesitation.

Become one with the fear.

Plunge into the uncanny blackness,

Eyes wide open,

As if there were no other choice.

Vibrating with fierce tenderness,

Breathe Intimately

With the Lord of infinite space.

 

Sutra 14 (Light/Fire)

 

When you close your eyes,

Attention turns toward the inner glow.

Your heart sees by its own light,

Pulsing with subtle flame.

In your forehead is a single eye.

Here streams of living electricity

Flow together.

The body of substance

And the body of light fuse into one.

Above your head a star is shining –

The soul, luminous in its own realm.

Life arises from itself

In a swirling motion of flame.

Being becomes body.

In meditation, adore the subtle fire –

In heart, forehead, above the head,

Dissolve into radiance.

 


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Street Art in Paris

It’s common knowledge that Paris is a city of art.  Some of the world’s most regarded and beloved pieces of art (the Mona Lisa, etc.) in the world reside in Paris’ 150+ museums.  But, the creative pulse of the city can’t seem to be contained solely within buildings; it flows onto them and around them.  Over the past few months, I’ve photographed a bunch of street art that has caught my eye.  Below, you’ll find just a few of the strange and beautiful pieces that the canvas of Paris hosts.


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Being Afraid, but Doing it Anyway- Anxiety, Love, Music, and Mindfulness

Me, playing guitar with my new friend, Eiffel Tower in the distance.

Me, playing guitar with my new friend, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an exciting and terrifying rendez-vous with one of my goals.  My boyfriend and I had seen a concert in Pigalle (the neighborhood that houses Moulin Rouge), and then walked up to the highest point in the city (Monmartre), where the famous Sacre Coeur church presides over the city.  Many other people had the same idea, and were gazing off into the city lights, drinking beer, or making out by the telescopes.  There was a group of people surrounding two guys playing flamenco guitar on the church steps.  I listened for a few minutes, and really dug it.  A little later, as I was looking out into the city, I heard the guitarists (now finished) speaking in English.  I approached them, thanked them for playing, and we began chatting about flamenco.  At one point, one of the guys asked me if I played; I paused, and boyfriend immediately shared that I did.  The guitarist smiled, pulled out his guitar, and told me to play with them.  I stared blankly at it, smiled, said “no, no, I couldn’t…”, but he insisted, and enthusiastically shoved it into my hands.

For a moment, I stood frozen as a wave of anxiety washed over me. I had been practicing a lot, but I was not ready to play with seasoned, professional flamencos.  But, I knew in that moment that it it was extremely important for me to play, no matter how I felt.  Predictably, the complex rumba strumming patterns I’d spent hours practicing fled from my memory, and my cold hands couldn’t move fast enough. I could have panicked, but I didn’t. I decided not to be formulaic or fancy- i just soloed along with what they were playing.  I let go of ideas of how I should sound.  I just stayed in the moment, listened to the sounds, and focused on my guitar.   I connected, I stayed in key, and kept with the mood of the song.

I knew I did not do my best, but I f*****g did it.  I played flamenco with professional musicians in front of a beautiful landmark overlooking the entire city of Paris.  A few years ago, I would not have gone through with it.  Just the act of playing- even though I felt nervous and not ready- was a huge step.  I embraced the role I didn’t believe belonged to me, in a city I never thought I’d ever see.  What else could I do if I really felt confident and owned the idea?

I told my guitar teacher about the experience, asked him what I could do to prevent myself from “freezing”, and we spent the entire lesson talking about  living a meaningful life.  “Be a flower, not a weed,” he told me.  “The secret to playing music is love.  All you need is love.  You must give love away.  It can’t be about you. Weeds take and take.  Flowers open up for the word, give pollen to bees, they share.”

Anxiety and fear are always, by nature, about trying to protect the self (even if this anxiety is directed toward other people.  More on this in another post).  If I’m worried about the act of “screwing up”, I’m, by default, not putting my all into what I’m doing.  I’m not helping anyone by being closed-off- I’m taking shelter, holding the beautiful things I’ve learned in in an act of self-preservation.  I’m not giving my love; I’m locking it away.  Anxiety is a complex and tangled weed to get rid of, and even when you think you’ve totally trimmed it, little bits of it find a way to grow back and continue draining attention from something else.  Sometimes it makes me feel like a weed, too.

The Bhagavad Gita talks a bit about attachment to goals and anxiety.  Arjuna, the subject of the story, is pretty freaked out about an impending war and paralyzed by indecision and his anxiety. Krishna, his charioteer (and also; secret god) engages him in a discussion about dharma (right action, or that which one is meant to do). He says,

“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.”

Easier said than done, Krishna.  But, that’s why yoga is a practice and not a performance.  On and off the mat, we have opportunities to practice non-attachment to our goals.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals, dreams, and aspirations.  It means we should honor exactly where we are, and be totally present to the process.  Being present to the task and not worrying about the outcome of action seems to be the key to truly connecting, understanding, fully-engaging with, and mastering our work.  Paradoxically, it also seems to be the most direct path to reaching the goal we are no longer fixated on.

Next time someone asks me to play guitar atop a city, I’ll slow down and connect to my yoga practice.  I’ll take a few deep breaths and remind myself why I play- because the sound and the act of playing makes me feel more alive than anything, and I want others to feel it too.  Then, I might just be able to be like a flower.

What about you, readers?  Do you ever feel held back by fear or attachment? Have you let love overcome fear?  How did you do it?