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awareness

India Diaries: Death Contemplation

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India Diaries: Death Contemplation

I guess this is how I go...

Helpless in the backseat on the treacherous drive from Madurai to Fort Kochi through the steep, jagged mountains of Kerala, my death contemplation practice has been taken to a brand-new level. And not by choice. We're driving at top speed on a winding one-lane road with no rules and too many impatient drivers. And every time we overtake a bus on a sharp curve, blind -- which is every few minutes -- I'm convinced it's about to be the end of me. I look out the window and see nothing on the side of the mountain to stop us, with one wrong move, from flying down into the deep valley below. 

I clutch my new skull necklace close to my heart. I bought it just before India to support my death contemplation practice by reminding me that everything and everyone will die, including me, and it could happen at any time (so I remember to treat each moment as the precious gift it is). And just yesterday I initiated a year-long Kali sadhana to deepen this practice by directly pursuing death of the ego and death of attachments, including to life itself. I feel like Kali's in the car with me now, saying, "This is what you wanted, right? The real stuff?" (She's the Dark One, so it's no surprise she has a dark sense of humor.)

Something odd arises in response. At the height of my conviction that this is the end, I'm surprised to find myself overcome not by a highly amplified version of the gratitude I feel and express on a daily basis, but rather by a deep sadness and disappointment. "So this is it, huh?" I think. "What a bunch of pain and suffering this life has been." Not exactly the thoughts I would have expected from myself.

Now I see that through this experience, Kali was simply reflecting just how much my ego is still in control. I was having what I assume from the viewpoint of the separate self is the inevitable experience of immanent death: Either fear born of attachment to the impermanent (invented meaning) or complete meaninglessness. For me it was a combination of the two: "I'm going to lose the things and people that make things matter" and "Nothing at all has ever mattered." These beliefs were fueling my fear fire. (And, man, did they burn!)

You're reading this blog post, so of course I didn't die. Somehow -- after eight hours of nonstop honking, innards clumping, head throbbing, and teeth threatening to slice off the tip of my tongue -- somehow, I made it out alive. I'm still integrating, but I know I was given the gift of seeing where I really am and the work that's left to do. And I know my skull necklace, after passing through this fire, holds greater meaning than before. There's a sense of greater urgency behind the need to live now. In every moment. And always. (More to come on what that'll look like.) And I have to wonder...though that wasn't the end of me, perhaps I'm one step closer to the end of "me."

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Awake In a Dream

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Awake In a Dream

“Awake in a dream! Awake in a dream! I’m awake in a dream!”

This is my favorite dream yoga practice mantra. What’s it for? Making it a habit to repeat (and believe) these words during waking hours makes one more likely to repeat them in a dream, and repeating these words in a dream is almost sure to make the dreamer realize she’s dreaming. 

Lucid dreaming is both fun and incredibly powerful, but in order to deliberately navigate a dream, we first have to wake up within the dream state. Until then, we just stumble along, much like we do in this life, from one scene and situation to another, blind to the truth of our circumstance.

When we’re in our default state of dream consciousness -- that is, unaware we’re dreaming -- we tend not to question what we sense and perceive. (Why would we? Carried along by sights, sounds, smells, plots, and emotions, it's all we can do to slap on a role and keep up with what unfolds around us.) For example, in a recent dream I encountered a strange combination of a hippo and a mouse, the size of my palm. Someone in the dream told me the odd creature was a “baby seal,” and I took it in stride. “Sure,” I thought. “I guess that’s what a baby seal looks like.” But if I had simply paused to really consider what I was seeing, I could have snapped into lucidity, opening myself to the wonderland of conscious dream exploration.

It’s kind of funny, how blindly accepting we are in our dreams. But the fact that most of us live our “waking” lives in a similar way is not funny.

From the moment we rise in the morning, most of us are far from conscious. We wake up already steeping in the melodramas of our stories, our minds swirling with things we needs to buy, emails we needs to write, judgements about ourselves and others, conversations we had and conversations we imagine, fragments of songs, and fantasies for the weekend. We continue to bathe in the swirl of our ego's thoughts through getting dressed, eating breakfast, commuting, working, exercising, and interacting with loved ones, our inner commentary never on break. Finally, we go to bed at night with our minds still a circus until eventually we fall asleep.

As if our very existence were a dream, most of us spend our days without ever consciously pausing to witness, to establish real presence, to wake up to what is

To awaken in our dreams we have to realize we’re dreaming. To Awaken in our lives we also have to realize we’ve been dreaming. For a spiritually fulfilling life, we must wake up in the dream of this conditioned existence. We must awaken to the truth of who we really are and what really matters.

I can tell you who you really are: love. I can also tell you what really matters: also, love. But for you to hear this is one thing -- you won’t really know it until you feel it in your beautiful bones. And only you can wake yourself up. So go ahead and whisper it in your own ear: "Wake up, sleepyhead! It's lucid time!"

 

Blog photograph by Sarah Gustafson

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City Stew: The Next Chapter

Over the past eight years I've been struggling with a sense of spiritual dearth. Eight years ago, I left behind a blissful state of self-actualization (along with my soulmate, the one person who could fuel my spiritual flame to its fullest), and moved across the country against my will. I traded in my beloved Idaho mountains for the base beaches of Florida, and out of loneliness lost myself to new passions - the most powerful of which being competition (a force I now recognize as a symptom of forgetting the most fundamental concept of existence: that we're all one and the same). 

After I moved I had nobody to distract me with propositions of spontaneous adventure and nobody to remind me of the beauty within my soul. So I put all my energy into getting ahead. Even in the context of relationships, I developed the need to always "win" and come out on top. By the time I started college, I was consumed by this motivation. 

Yet the more "successful" I became, the more I felt something was missing in my life: specifically, spirituality. I felt incomplete for eight years. Then everything changed six months ago, when the yoga journey commenced.

Yoga teacher training helped me remember who I really am and what makes life worth living. (Hint: it isn't winning an argument or getting into Duke or landing a job at Google.) But the training is over as of a few weeks. It happened - I'm a graduate! Now the question is how to self-sustain the kind of growth that was originally sustained by a rigid study schedule, regular group therapy sessions and, most importantly, my community of like-minded teachers and classmates. Just as the goal at the conclusion of a yoga class is to bring forth - into the "real" world - the stillness attained in class, my goal is to keep focusing on pursuing a purposeful existence without somebody else constantly reminding me to. It won't be easy, but I simply can't fall into the same trap I did when I left behind the zen of Idaho and the joy of being with my soulmate. The trap of thinking I need something or someone outside myself for fulfillment.

I just spent a week in New York City, the city that utterly embodies the everyone-out-for-herself attitude that I held close as my personal mantra for so many years. Even as I recognized the city getting to me last week, I couldn't resist its effect. Compounded my the discomfort of the heat and the rain, and, if we're being honest, probably also by the booze, I felt myself reverting to the unstable mindset I inhabited when I lived in New York the summer after freshman year when I was in the peak of my competitive grip. Last week as I conversed with strangers as well as friends, old fear-induced thoughts kept creeping to the surface. I couldn't understand where they were coming from. And I couldn't stop them. The stewing set in on my first night in the city as I dined with a friend, even as I shared with her the yogi view that approaching life through a lens of "me versus them" will not ultimately lead to happiness. And when she left to catch a train home, I took my stewing to the streets. The night hot, the air thick, the rain steady: conditions were perfect for a good stew, one that would lead me to walk alone for two hours from Chelsea to Washington Square Park and back to my hotel. In the dark and the rain, I walked and stewed, soaking my work shoes and rubbing deep into a few choice blisters. 

My goal wasn't to stew. As I embarked to my old stomping ground, my goal was to calm myself down. To recharge. But all the sat-nams in the world couldn't do the trick. I was in too much of a negative New York rut. Instead of counting my blessings as the night wore on, instead I kept thinking about more and more things that piss me off. 

But all the while, as I was brooding over my resentments and my intolerances, I was really trying to get to what they say about me. Because, thanks to yoga, even as I stewed I knew my frustration was revealing more about myself than the objects of my frustration. 

And that's exactly what saved me from stewing myself into a New York sewer: the awareness that's a by-product of yoga. It's easy to maintain chi in the middle of nowhere, Idaho or when on the mat, surrounded by people "om"-ing with breath slowed down 5x, but true zen is being able to maintain that chi anywhere (including the city that never sleeps) at anytime. And Step #1 is awareness. Awareness that we create our own chi. Awareness that all thoughts stem from either fear or love. Awareness of self. With awareness comes the opportunity for conscious change.

So that's where I'll start my "life after teacher training" chapter: with focusing on becoming more aware. (Heaven knows one can never be aware enough.) And, as much as I love avoiding it, that means meditating regularly. Starting yesterday. The saga continues!

Oh, and that soulmate I mentioned? The universe is reuniting us this weekend. Stories to come.

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