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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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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Montreux and the Swiss Alps

Glion, Switzerland.

Glion, Switzerland.

I vividly remember the first time I laid my eyes upon the Alps. It was my first time out of the US- I was in Nice, France, in January, and it was the first and only fully radiant sunny day of the trip.  The Mediterranean sea had set something in my heart aflame, and I wanted to travel along it the entire day.  My guy and I decided to rent bikes, and head east toward Monaco on a coastal road.  The entire time, I was overcome by the glistening turquoise water.  I didn’t think it could get more beautiful, until we rounded a corner and saw snow-capped mountains in the distance.  I braked, stopped, and stared in awe- I had never been so close to a mountain before.  I was so absorbed that it didn’t occur to me to take photo.  It was one of the best days of my life.

I hadn’t thought of the Alps in a long time, but last month as my guy and I went back and forth for weeks about where to take our first European vacation (we are terribly indecisive), something clicked inside, and I abruptly declared that we should take a train through the Alps to the closest country we’d never visited- Switzerland. We promptly booked tickets to Geneva.

I soon realized that the Alps didn’t start as far west as I thought, but on our ride from Paris to Geneva, we were still blown away by the Jura mountains as we sped by.  After some research in a cafe, we decided that we would take a day trip to Montreux, a town on the other side of lake Geneva, at the foot of the actual Alps.

Zooming past the Jura and a mountain highway.

Zooming past the Jura and a mountain highway en route to Geneva.

Montreux, it turns out, is a very musical place.  It’s known for its yearly jazz festival, but also as the place where Freddie Mercury and Queen recorded their last album, “Made in Heaven”.  There’s even a statue of him by the lake, and the first week of September of every year, the city of Montreux has a celebration honoring him.  Mercury allegedly once said, “If you want peace of soul, come to Montreux”.

Montreux is also where Deep Purple began recording their album “Machine Head” at the Montreux Casino. Their experience watching it burn down inspired the famous song “Smoke on the Water”.

Our train took a little less than an hour to arrive from Geneva-it was sunny and in the mid-fifties!  After staring at the lake for a few minutes, we began our ascent through the town, eventually discovering the hillside stairs, making our way onto roads in the town of Glion, which presides above Montreux.  We walked through windy roads until we reached a muddy trail toward the town of Caux, rushing to get a clear view of some mountains by sunset.  We made it just in time.

Mon Dieu.

Mon Dieu.

No picture can capture the sight we saw as the fog cleared, and we realized just how gargantuan the mountains really were.  I was humbled and awed. I found something very freeing about realizing how small I am.  It took away my thoughts, my hopes, my fears. We stood, we breathed, we stared.  Seeing something like this is a very quick way to experience what the practice of meditation and mindfulness is getting at- total immersion in the moment, and nothing else.  We then made our way down in the dark, using our iPhone flashlights, and eventually had an extremely well-deserved fondue meal before catching the train back.    Below, you’ll find more pictures of this beautiful place.

 

 


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Remembering to Breathe

One of the most difficult parts of my transition to Parisian life has been not being able to physically practice yoga asanas (poses). This is no fault of Paris; there are many yoga studios all throughout the city. The issue is with me; a few weeks before leaving, I underwent surgery to remove a dislocated bone in my thumb that was beginning to hamper my practice. I was under the impression that it would be a very minor procedure, and that I’d be back on my mat in two weeks. This was not the case. For the first few weeks, my thumb was completely immobilized and my left hand was mostly useless. This made getting dressed a challenge, let alone facilitating a complicated international move. Just before leaving, my surgeon removed my cast, and his team helped mold me a more functional plastic splint.

Cast on the left, splint on the right.

Cast on the left, splint on the right.

Once in France, I had to guard my newly-armored hand on the metro, and still struggled to go about daily tasks (imagine trying to wrestle a pair of skinny jeans over long underwear and tall socks single-handedly-it is an arduous process). Every gentle bump to my hand was painful. In short, it really sucked.

In this time of transition, I longed for the comforts of a yoga studio: the glow of candles, flowing through sun-salutations with others, hearing sanskrit words, and the feeling of oneness when everyone in the room chants “om” together. Yoga is everywhere; one metro stop in nearly any direction leads one to a class. The expression “Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink” accurately describes what I felt. I was distracted from this much of the time by the new places and people we encountered everyday, but whenever I slowed down, I felt the sense of longing again. 


The weekend before I left, my good friend Maura invited me to come to a meditation class she was holding. It left me feeling calmer, and helped me sort through the noise my mind was creating. I also recalled how meditating by focusing on candles the night before my surgery prevented me from panicking   About a week and a half into my stay, I remembered this feeling, and decided I wanted to feel it again.

My meditation set-up the night before my surgery.

My meditation set-up the night before my surgery.

I found a comfortable seat and closed my eyes. I felt my stomach rise and fall with each breath. I watched my uncertain, angry, guilty, and fearful thoughts flow in rapid succession, but did not try to stop them, nor focus on them. I let go. I let the thoughts exist, and simply observed, as if they were people strolling by while I sat in a café gazing out into the street. They came, and they went, and I was still here. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes, and felt less fidgety and anxious. My mind felt clearer. My heart felt a little more free. I recognized that the yoga studios would still be here in a few weeks, and I’d still remember how to do a down dog. Most importantly, I reconnected with what I’ve always shared with students; that as long as one can breathe, one can practice and receive the benefits of yoga.  I just needed a little reminder, too. 

Readers- I would love to hear how you meditate.  I would love to hear what experiences and activities bring you to a more meditative state.  What is your favorite way to work toward inner peace?