Seeing Heaven from the Valley

Go Blank: Encinitas, California, February 2016


Rock exuding Zen wisdom? Implied profanity? Enlightenment on the beach?  


     An Ashtanga teacher stops teaching in a graceful, wise way. 

     A father passes away in a beautiful, peaceful way. 

     Yogis and yoginis learn when to let go, when to go blank. and when to push: 
     that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases.  (Samadhi and Third Noble Truth):
"I wrote and thought a lot about the wish to be invincible, the wish to always be healthy, the wish not to age, not to die….about how yoga does not make us invincible physically or mentally, that we must age and die. Here is the magical blessing that yoga gives us: equanimity and peace with whatever comes. This is truly magical. This is powerful." 
Karen  Cairns
A yogini close to my age whom I greatly admire, always has her eye on the prize. 
And what is the prize?  I believe it is accepting what is in the present moment, an "equanimity and peace with whatever comes." 

For most of us, isn't the prize the perfect something or other? Perfect achievement: asana, money, solo "show," love, likes, and so on. For me it has been about progress, getting somewhere else, or returning to a previously attained state—anything but where I am right now.

So like yogini Karen, scheduled for her second hip surgery in May, I contemplate (shoulder) surgery while I learn, observe, accept, and find the way to truth in my own body and spirit day by day. Karen's essay (shared with her permission) below astounds and inspires me. It reveals that she and perhaps all of us—can access yoga's Eighth Limb. I am grateful for the reminder and proof that in aging/change, there are inherent gifts. 

Field Notes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death 
My elder ashtanga is a deeply satisfying practice. I don’t think about it; I just do it. Gone is any struggle over doing it or not. There is nothing I am working on. No new poses. Nothing to “deepen” in any way. No adjustments needed. Whatever I do is fine. I actually practice more these days, just taking Moon Days off. Elder ashtanga is everday ashtanga, nothing special ashtanga. This is truly magical. 
.... No need for renunciation- things just peel off when no longer needed, without struggle, without loss. Endless talking about asanas? About teachers? About Guruji and Sharath and Saraswati? About the practice? Less and less…  I think I was noticing a space to talk about everyday ashtanga, about elder ashtanga, which anyone can do.  
The practice that is slow and steady with no bells and whistles. No YouTube videos. No glamour photos of poses on a beach, in front of an ashram or a temple, by a river…. No special clothing needed- just everyday clothing. Nothing to talk about. 
Adjustments are plentiful and come from within. Or not. Insights are plentiful and come from within. Or not.
Really, this ashtanga can be done at any age, with any body, with any mind, anywhere. You do not need to be old for elder ashtanga, but perhaps it helps. As we age, we tend to learn firsthand that “it’s okay until it’s not okay”….and that this can happen at any time. It is not an “if” but a “when.” Some learn this earlier, while young, of course, through illness or injury, perhaps. When recovered, sometimes we forget and once again feel invincible. 
With aging, this is no longer possible. We know we are permanently more vulnerable, fragile- our skin thins and tears easily, eyesight may get dim, hearing less acute. We can fall more easily and we know that recovery is both more problematic and partial. Our practice becomes even more important but changes fundamentally. It becomes everyday…nothing special but completely special.
Before my left hip replacement in 2014 I was very apprehensive. I’m not a fan of surgery- well, who is. Before this surgery I made a Yatra or pilgrimage, my first one to northern India, to the Himalayas…to be blessed. And I was indeed blessed. The surgery went well and practice healed me on every level. I wrote and thought a lot about the wish to be invincible, the wish to always be healthy, the wish not to age, not to die….about how yoga does not make us invincible physically or mentally, that we must age and die.   
Here is the magical blessing that yoga gives us: equanimity and peace with whatever comes. This is truly magical. This is powerful.
            —Karen Cairns


forty-five. taxes. escape.

We are in the universe and the universe is in us—in the most unlikely places

For 10 days I:
1.     sat quietly for at least 15 minutes with focus on #45's higher self;
2.     made note of processes, failures, and epiphanies;­
3.     made simple images relating to this process. 

link to what happened next:
Ten Days of #45 
March 26 

I'm avoiding tax prep today. Such a tedious unpleasant chore from which I seek to escape!
Ah, escape. It's much more than taxes I wish to elude. After the #45 focus (see above), felt both clear and peaceful about life and politics. That is, until some dormant parts of self awoke from their sulk in the dark. 

Feeling things so deeply, I cried helplessly after reading the story of a cat called Ugly. Later, sensing other energies, I felt sad, bad, irritable, and miserable. 

I am all things (as we all are) And though ALL things are neutral, they lose their innocence through the spin story we put on them.  Welcome to the entire truth—neutral AND illusory—whether grasped, avoided, or observed.

I sit quietly and do yoga practice for the equanimity to observe. And there are things I don't want to look at—far beyond the annoying drag of tax materials**—my own and humanity's cruelties, heartbreaks, helplessness, judgements, mostly heartbreak....

Sigh! True. 
image of the Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya)

** And on that note—why should I pay taxes to support #45's trips to Florida?  
OK, back to taxes... 
or study the Heart Sutra for a while—yes!


Burning Down the House: politics-yoga-spirituality

Talking Heads, "Burning Down the House" 
(full lyrics below)

Hold tight wait till the party's over
Hold tight we're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house

House as metaphor for ego.... and politics. What a mess. Heartbreaking and frightening (for me) just one week after inauguration and the women's march in DC.

So - Adyashanti has a story. It goes something like this. In the early days of his teaching he held retreats at a location where the early morning was graced by the sunrise, bird song, and peacefulness. Later, local residents blasted Led Zeppelin and others at full volume out on the streets. As Adya says:
It is easy to stay conscious to the birds, to the pleasantness, to the beautiful manifestation of the Divine, to your own true self...until the first power chord... And there it is. There's the invitation. 
 Well the political powers are shrieking at me right now. I see how easy it was to stay in a state of peaceful awareness of self, others, etc during Obama's presidency. Now I am put to the test:

  • Can I maintain equanimity and awareness now that the "sweet sounds" have ended?
  • Can I keep an open heart while at the same time feeling outrage and heartbreak? 
  • Can I engage in a way that is positive, pro-active? 
  • Can I refrain from reacting in-kind to energy that feels negative or bad?
  • Have I closed my heart to some as a result of pre-conceived ideas about certain people with whom I disagree? 
  • And if so, am I not doing something essentially similar to what the head of the US government today wants to do to Muslims? 
  • Can I view the US president as "bad" in a neutral, matter of fact way? That is, without the added injection of hate and anger?
  • What can I DO that promotes inclusion and peace on both an individual and governmental level?
I'm watching, looking for answers. I will say for certain that being open to "those" people FEELS much better than shutting down as I learned in DC after the march.  Two women got on the trolley we were riding. One carried an anti-choice sign and the other, roses. We muttered among ourselves about them, and then chatted joyfully with some other pussy-hatted women, all the time eyeing the two. (And I, sending them some evil-eye.) When we got off, I did something I can only attribute to my (unconscious) higher self. I smiled at them from the heart and smelled their roses.

The result of good energy from march, meditation, and yoga practices?

Don't know, but yoga practice in particular seems vital to clarity, equilibrium, and equanimity for me—particularly since resuming regular practice after dealing with shoulder injury/pain.

And here I should interject what I've learned since Andrew Hillam's workshop in India about the integration of bhandas and breath. Amazing! Breathe right and your bandhas will be there; if your bandhas are present, you will be breathing correctly. Aaaah, the breath. Everything said about it is true!

And to also interject—have learned about everything since injuring my shoulder. One down to earth thing: at Duke they will do arthroscopic surgery AND stem cell treatment at the same time. Amazing! So excited by that I signed up and scheduled immediately. (But at this moment with shoulder so much improved wondering if it wouldn't eventually resolve for the better on it own. To be decided after consult this week.)

Questions! Answers! Some say questions are far more important than THE answers.


May prosperity be glorified. 
May administrators rule the world with law and justice. 
May all things that are sacred be protected. 
And may the people of the world be happy and prosperous.

(Ashtanga closing mantra)

Talking Heads – Burning Down The House Lyrics 

Watch out you might get what you're after
Cool baby strange but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

Hold tight wait till the party's over

Hold tight we're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house

Here's your ticket pack your bag: time for jumpin' overboard

Transportation is here
Close enough but not too far,
Maybe you know where you are
Fightin' fire with fire

All wet hey you might need a raincoat

Shakedown dreams walking in broad daylight
Three hun-dred six-ty five de-grees
Burning down the house

It was once upon a place sometimes I listen to myself

Gonna come in first place
People on their way to work baby what did you expect
Gonna burst into flame
Burning down the house

My house's out of the ordinary

That's might don't want to hurt nobody
Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
Burning down the house

No visible means of support and you have not seen nuthin' yet

Everything's stuck together
I don't know what you expect staring into the TV set
Fighting fire with fire

Burning Down The House lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.


Falling into Grace*

Ajanta Caves, monk's cell

Central themes of India trip—releasing/falling—are showing up even in the paradoxical present as I wonder whether the desire to write about it has also vanished!

Will see by starting with the trip itself. A total last-minute Plan B, it could not have worked out better for my ailing shoulder and awareness practice. First of all, studying with two excellent, certified teachers in India, freed me from the "shoulds and musts" that are: study must be only in Mysore and only with Sharath.

Maybe I can relate this major oh-so-important to the mundane oh-so-important, the latter being concern about my hair, looks, eating certain things, and with having things be a certain way. But like the Plan B trip, or tumbling off a ledge, I had no choice but to relax and enjoy. So I simply stopped caring what my hair looked like or if I looked old, tired, or god forbid—uncool.

This was and is liberating. Travel in India (or any place that makes us more aware) can be like taking the fast track to pratyahara or samadhi, release of all attachments. (Not holding out for total freedom—I still really hate bucket baths in cool weather.)

As for the subtle, am seeing the many small, almost imperceptible ways on and off the yoga mat that  internal thought reactions to (judgements is another word) or about what is, leads away from harmony with truth and is restrictive/causes suffering.

Ajanta Caves

Letting myself be a tourist was also a good thing, and it was fun! The Ajanta and Ellora caves have a been a dream of mine since graduate school. They did not disappoint. Both places vibrated with sacred, spiritual, and ancient energy.

Started this post a few weeks ago before it disappeared with my IPad at the Mumbai airport. That event seems to fit with the theme of being forced to let goHowever, I shall not let go of the fine memories of the chill morning wind blowing my shawl as I walked along an open ditch alley to Louise Ellis’ Rishikesh shala. Once there, I was welcomed by the shala’s warm colors, the practice, and Louise’s teaching style. It felt gently yin after Andrew Hillam’s gently yang style in Gokarna, where the warm mornings were a predictor of the day’s heat.

two images in Louise Ellis' shala

Gratitude to both teachers who were of great support and help to my shoulder-hampered Ashtanga practice. Andrew provided a Bhanda epiphany, if there is such a thing—by putting our focus on breathing by expanding the chest only, resulting in an automatic contraction of the bhandas. This is big! It bypasses the (useless for me) obsession with trying to contract them.

Anyway I could go on—the chanting, yoga sutra study, the fun group, and Andrew’s dryly hilarious wit.  Louise’s additional twice weekly yin yoga classes, and the energetic tone she set with her supportive presence. Deep bow to Louise and Andrew!

Here's to letting go.

And grace.



*Falling into Grace— Wanted to use the word "fall" and I had originally used "truth" but grace seemed so much more lovely. Realized after putting the words together - it is also the name of one of Adyashanti's books.


Before, During but mostly AFTER THE FALL

Siva, Yogi, and Destroyer at Murudeshwara Temple, Karnataka, India
(may he destroy my and all illusions!)

Falling – physically, emotionally, spiritually, politically - is what I'm thinking about most lately in this amazing, edgy place called India. With eyes turned inward and outward, tonight I will observe the setting sun and rising so-called super moon from the deck of our homestay in Rishikesh. But right now it’s all about a fall – and that includes the season when leaves with exquisite grace and ease, descend to earth.

In Gokarna, I descended recently, from an open-aired bench that had an elegant downward slope to its side. As I slipped down the curve, amused, I thought of a child’s playground slide and was certain I could correct myself, but could not. I tumbled backwards and downwards a few feet (3 to 4) to earth where I intuitively righted my body with a chakrasana (backward somersault) finial.

What fascinates me is in those few seconds before landing, there was complete release into the fall and a kind of curiosity as to what the landing would be like. There was absolutely nothing I could do to change what was happening and that was oddly liberating.

In Seattle in the 80’s I witnessed the 5-story fall to death of a Sankai Juku Butoh dancer. This man uttered not a sound as he fell. Etched in my memory, it has always seemed tragic and horrifying. I think now that even though he knew he would surely die – he may have enjoyed the ride down. Perhaps like the story in the Buddhist sutras, instead of tasting a strawberry, he savored the view and sensations.  Here's the story (I never truly understood it in grad school):
A man, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. As he backs away from the animal, he realizes he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff just as the tiger snarls and pursues him.
His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the man dangles from the cliff, two mice begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him; if he stays, there is the certain death of a fall onto the rocks. The vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. 
Just then the precariously suspended man notices a ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks it, pops it into his mouth, and says,  “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”
This story helps me put all things - Including this week's political train wreck-  in some perspective. And to quote another Buddhist sutra: 

gate gate paragate parasamgate, Bodhi svaha

Master Ashtangi, Andrew Hillam, put it this way: All is maya (illusion), you take practice and know truth!

So, after the fall, as it were, with a thud - and getting real, I have been hoping I'm just politically paranoid. However, hearing about the Trumpster’s cabinet choices, his refusal to take a salary as president, his followers with all their 2nd amendment guns in hand, his role as commander in chief, his plan for rallies -  I'm filled with dread. It sounds like a perfect set up for positioning himself as dictator and with the help of the angry masses moving into a neo-Hitler state. Please let this be paranoia!

And sadly, I think the jokes I see on FB around all this are good, brilliant even, but I can't laugh.

Okay, enough of heaven and earth!  I am thrilled to be in India doing Ashtanga (more on this later) and I need to eat a strawberry.




Lake Junaluska: bridge closed, what to do?

So much floating in consciousness. It takes time and patience to find words. 

Guess first, I will stick with basics: that is, how Plan B was liberating and amazing.

Decided on Ashtanga in India at last minute and that my shoulder could handle it. Plan A was to warm up with Andrew Hillam, then go to Mysore to study with Sharath or Saraswatihi. Due to my own errors and various snafus at the Shala, the latter part was not possible this year. 

What to do?  Ke garne? (getting into the N. Indian lingo of things - oops that is Nepali!)

Such exciting prospects!  How about study with certified Ashtangi Louise Ellis in Rishikesh? How about a visit to Ellora and Ajanta, a dream of mine since grad school? How about some spare days that are wide open? All fabulous! 

And so Plan B became the best plan ever.

As for life here, there is no Plan B if Hillary does not win this election. There is a world-wide energy now, that I believe originates in the first chakra (issues of physical survival, safety and security fueled negatively by fear and insecurity.) It has a nasty crocodile-brain edge to it where action and words of violence, illusion, and hate have been awakened to varying degrees in almost all of us. I certainly will cop to it.

So much to say about all this. Briefly, it seems the opposite of the youth, left wing culture of the Sixties when the Red Guard in China and the hippie culture in the West held sway. Be that as it may, right now the situation is causing me great anxiety, dread. What happens if this mad man wins? 

image at Lake Junaluska
 my own (First Chakra) portrait of the other presidential candidate

I've been losing sleep over it, but have discovered a Plan B for insomnia (and perhaps even politics.) Usually after 2 to 5 hours of sleep, I awaken and—this is key—at some point give up trying/waiting to release again into slumber. I begin to observe my mind with curiosity, as if it belonged to someone else. At times, waves of universal love wash over and emanate from me (haha so far, only at night.)  One time, I did something that I always thought was so corny: I counted blessings, or said another way—acknowledged gratitude. 

And you know what? The last of many things I truly saw/felt filling me with joy and gratefulness—was my breath. 

metta metta metta


for the eyes, ears, and heart


photography as spiritual practice

A few times a week these days, I run or walk around Lake Junaluska, and most of the time, everything there seems unremarkable—trees, clouds, flowers, water, signs, paths, bridges, etc. the usual outdoor stuff.  I am focused on a sort of moving meditation, counting breaths, running at a certain pace, avoiding eye contact with others, and often, just getting around the lake quickly.

However, recently I grabbed my phone and car key; threw them in a little bag around my neck; took a deep breath; and walked—without naming and unconsciously dismissing what I saw. 

Observing surroundings without the presumptive lens of knowing, (with mu-mind) unlocks worlds, universes. In Encinitas last winter, it just happened, spontaneously and continuously. First, at the beach I noticed that every day, every minute was different. I began to take pictures of every magical (to me) object or phenomena—no matter how small, monumental, terrible or cosmic it was—from planets, clouds, water, a dead seal, seaweed, plastic, and rocks—to grains of sand. 

After I returned to North Carolina, the nonjudgemental, unflinching seer continued for a while; then faded as shoulder pain dominated just about everything. So, when last week I brought my phone-camera to the lake—I did not expect to see much of anything. 

I was wrong! That little three mile walk turned out to be full of wonder and realization: what is present at Encinitas and the lake is everywhere. All things change as much as the seashore, and are never ever the same. What is more, we don't have to go anywhere to be inspired by "beauty." It is here, even in the distasteful or "ugly"! It is present in the most ordinary most overlooked surroundings. Even inside the home or office—the spectacular is happening.

Methodist sign, Lake Junaluska

I am NOT at all a photographer, though smiling as I write—but I do know what good art does—it expands consciousness, first artist's and then, viewer's. Hmmmm, so which comes first, greater awareness or the camera? Maybe Elin Slavick* knows. The many photos she shares on FB and elsewhere  are great examples of "seeing."

Joshua Tree, CA

sound as spiritual practice

Last Friday I attended a performance by a group called Battle Trance at the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center. These four saxophone players, true to the traditions of Black Mountain College and John Cage, provided another transport to consciousness for those of us in attendance, (those who did not walk out.) 

This sound art is not for everyone, and is not conventional music in any way. It pushed me right to the edge! At several points in the performance, and I cannot say why—I wanted to cry, to sob. The only experience I can liken it to is the intensity of the MRI that I had a while ago ( mu-moon-MRI ), because basically, in a far more wonderful way, it emptied my brain! 

And the breath. These guys are pranayama masters! They blew Blade of Love all 3 parts of it for about 45 minutes without a break, and at some points - they merely breathed into their instruments or whistled. 

Of course, live performance is very different from a recording, but here's a link, if one cares/dares to listen: blade-of-love, part 1


art as spiritual practice

Here is something I wrote in response to a radio conversation between my teacher and an artist: 
Creativity and spirituality are the same. 
Creativity comes from emptiness. It is accessible and present in everyone. Being present in the moment is part of it. 
I believe Truth can only be expressed and grasped through what we might call “art." However, art as it is a culturally defined, is a limited outlet because not only is art present in the traditionally accepted suspects —painting, sculpture, music, theater, dance, poetry etc., but whenever we are aware and present - we are making art/living creatively in truth. 
On a non-verbal  level this conversation fueled my trust in creativity/spirituality and in the ability to accept  all things. I yield gratefully to this energy.

Asheville, my house

yoga as spiritual practice

Now let's get real—my shoulder! This injury has been a VERY *difficult* and enlightening adventure. I have connected with some wonderful people who have provided support and information— an Ashtangi MD, Orthopedist, Physical Therapist Eileen Reihman, Ashtangis Karen Cairns, Larry Hobbs, and Lewis Rothlein, to name a few. Oh, and an MD in Asheville named Groh with some answers and a plan (other than shoulder surgery and giving up yoga—NOPE and NOPE!!) 

Am also connecting with doctors at Emory if all else fails, to see if ligament replacement (transplant) or stem cell (my own) therapy might be an option.

So issues relating to ego, pain (what is it? just very strong sensation?), aging, attachment, adapting, acceptance, perseverance and just about everything else have come up. Glory be! What's true on the mat is true off the mat.

 And if, after trying everything, I have to give up (Ashtanga) asanas, I will become a runner yogi, a breathing yogi, a meditating yogi, a healing yogi, a laughing yogi, a bad yogi, a silly yogi, a nothing-yogi and/or a WHAT —EVAH YOGI.


everything as spiritual practice


my brother died august 4