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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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?


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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?