The Heart of the Matter: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 5

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on to fruit.
-Dawna Markova

Last month, I went to a yoga workshop taught by a renowned yoga teacher, Saul David Raye.  He practices and teaches a style of yoga called “Bahkti” – the yoga of love and devotion.  I’ve had the good fortune of taking his workshops a few other times over the years in St. Louis.  Sometimes, he moved me to tears, other times, he frustrated and confused me with his message of “Love is all you need.”  Looking back, I see that was only because I was stuck in a rut of seeing myself as a victim of love and heartache.  His message wasn’t the issue, my mind was.

This time around, I felt a strong connection to him as a person.  He spoke of the beauty of nature, of love of another person, of the connection of heart and mind as a way to feel fulfilled and wonderful about life’s mysteries.  I understood that the mind is a wild and beautiful thing of its own, but it can spin out of control if not synched up with a loving, open heart to balance and nurture it.  Under his guidance that day, I allowed my mind to follow my feeling heart and express my love through the live music and the yoga poses.  More importantly, I realized that my inner light burns the brightest when I am feeling fully present in my body, in my observing, wonder-filled mind, and loving heart center as opposed to allowing the wild, chattering side of my mind to wander off into the future to create untold disasters and hopeless scenarios in my tiny spot on Earth.

Fears, real and imagined (mostly imagined), have ruled my life for decades.  Monsters in my dreams. Sounds that go bump in the night.  Harsh, critical words and actions of ex-boyfriends.  The memory of my bipolar, schizophrenic aunt standing in our kitchen in full camo-gear complete with machete in hand.  Images of my grandmother’s scratchy hand-written letter to me in college describing her observations and sadness of her fast-growing, tumor that eventually split her brain in half.

As I came into my late thirties, I began to experience my daily life from a place of fear. I could feel every muscle twitch in my body and imagined I was beginning the sufferings of Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease.  I would sit in my recliner, alone at home, having a series of panic attacks because my shoulder was so tight that I could feel muscles twitching.  I could not breathe and choked on my food once and coughed so hard that spit rolled out of my mouth.  I thought then and there it was a sign that something neurological was going on, so I got on the internet and researched everything I thought could possibly be wrong with me. Every symptom was vague enough and so close to one another that I was sure I had that particular disorder.  This belief would send blood rushing to my head, sweat to my armpits.  My hands would become clammy and I paced around my house, crying and panicking while my dog circled around me, confused.

 I worried that my Wi-Fi and cellphone were causing a horrible brain tumor like my grandmother’s, and I began overanalyzing my food choices and focused so much on what I put into my body so as to heal myself or protect myself from any type of disease, that I didn’t realize I was already suffering the painful, slow, suffering death I so feared by not living a life where I felt part of the world and part of nature.  Love was not in my vocabulary.  I could have love and give love as soon as I fixed all of these terrible, horrible, no good things that were going on in my body and mind.  On the outside, I could laugh with my friends, practice yoga moves in classes or in my home, walk my dog, pay my bills, teach my students, drive my car, live a seemingly normal life, while on the inside I was fanning the flames of Hell.

I realized that I am a functioning neurotic.

What is different now, is that I can admit to that fact.  I now see the neuroses for what they are:  techniques I have developed over the years to keep me “safe” and “small” instead of risking my significance to bring out my talents and gifts of creativity, writing, and teaching.  When I am brave, I become vulnerable and open to love.  I can match my heart force to my soul force and share that with others so they can do the same.

The bravery comes from not turning away from my fears, but walking directly towards them, facing them head on.  Regardless of the outcome.

In my time out in Colorado, I learned this about myself.  A particular solo hike focused on finding a place and sitting with some part of ourselves that act as an Escapist from reality.  Before we all went our separate ways, I had joked with another group member about searching for a place off trail where I could pee freely like a deer.  (I had gulped a lot of water during our circle time.)  We both laughed and I walked away with the mantra “Pee like a deer,” in my mind.  I was all smiles and didn’t worry too much that I hadn’t found a spot nearby to go and meditate.  Fifteen minutes, a far way up the trail, and a good pee later, I saw an overhanging of rocks that sloped down into an area riddled with fallen timbers and dead or dying pine trees.  In a small clearing, rested a boulder.  I shuddered because I knew I had to go and sit on that boulder.  Alone.



I marked my spot, took a picture of the overhang so I knew what to look for when I came back, and I slowly climbed down the rocks.  The sky became overcast the closer I got to the boulder.  I climbed over fallen trees, untangled my pants and backpack from dry grass, thorns, and small, dry sticks.  I scrambled on top of the boulder and sat there thinking, “Now what?”

My mind was full of chatter and was working hard to take me out of this situation I had just put myself in.  I was nervous and kept waiting for some “A-ha” moment so I could grab my pack and leave.  But, I just sat there, feeling the coolness of the boulder seep through my pants to my legs.  It was soothing to be on top of something so solid.  I started breathing and thinking, “This is where my sweet deer live,” and I hoped that I might see one like I did the day before in the meadow.  I started to deepen my breath and relax into my surroundings.  Just then, I heard creaking and cracking noises.  At first I thought it was some animal, but a breeze blew through the trees and I realized it was the sound of the dying trees around me being moved by the wind.

Part of me wanted to flee, the other part of me wanted to see what would happen next.  As if on cue, the sky became gray and a stronger wind picked up.  The trees began to make a low whistling sound almost like a far off freight train.  I looked around and realized there were very few living trees in this area I was sitting.  In fact, I remembered a part of the trail I had traveled the day before was clear and today I had to climb over two fallen trees to get to where I was.  My breath became shorter.  I began seeing which tree would fall on me first, and what direction I could move to get out of the way.  Luckily I had put my whistle around my neck and my hand instinctively went to it.  Immediately my sacrum became electric and my hamstrings tensed up, which caused my back, shoulder, neck and jaw to tighten as well.  My muscles began to twitch.  I wanted to bolt, but some wise voice inside of me said, “Breathe.  Stay with the fear and just breathe.”

11914005_10206779612200958_9091906973701362821_n I took a few more breaths and started thinking about my imaginary deer I had hoped to see.  What would she do right now if she was foraging for food?  She would become alert, look around, evaluate her surroundings, and probably go back to eating.  She lives with the possibility of death and destruction every day.  I could die here as well.  A tree could fall on me and kill me instantly, or I could be knocked unconscious and die a slower death.  Why didn’t I make a run for it then?   I wanted to leave, but something anchored me there.  And without warning, a wave of grief rushed over me and I began to cry so hard that I was shaking.  I wanted my mother.  I wanted peace of mind.  I wanted to be able to live a full life and not become so trapped by my fears and illusions of fear.

The tears began to wash away my fears and in my mind’s eye I saw my doe in the meadow looking at me.  A warmth spread from my heart and went to every part of my body.  I breathed fully, deeply, richly, and safely.  True, I could die right here, right now.  But, I could also die from any number of things at any time.  And the fact of the matter was:  wasn’t I dying every day that I fed my neurotic fears so much that I allowed them to hijack my mind and body and paralyze me, causing me to suffer, and die a painful, agonizing death of spirit?  At least here, if I truly died on this boulder, I would have been alive to my emotions, my body, and have witnessed with all of my senses the beauty and power of nature.  And another thought came to me:  my one physical death would simply be a fade into more beauty and mystery.  Spiritual death, on the other hand, brings rot, disease, control issues, neuroses, pain and suffering among other things.

Once I had this breakthrough, another wind blew through the area, and I realized now was the time to leave.  I didn’t need to be so brave that I became stupid.  I picked up my pack and walked quickly to the overhang and back onto the trail.  I looked out at the boulder, brought my hands to prayer and bowed my head in gratitude and reminded myself that love got me through a dark moment and love will do that for me time and time again.

And so I have been working with this lesson for a few months now.  After the workshop, I went up to Saul and re-introduced myself and asked him if I could use his name and picture in a possible blog post about love and fear.  He smiled with such warmth and told me that not only did he want to contribute to that post in some small way, but that it was important to share this type of writing with others.  “There are two paths that intertwine: one of Wisdom and one of Love,” he had said during practice.  “The path of Love leads to Wisdom.  And the path to Wisdom leads to Love.  Feel with your heart.  Love is all you need.”  He then asked me if I would be in the picture with him.  He gave my camera to someone nearby and he held up his hand in the gesture of fearlessness.  Uncertain at first but in a moment of bravery, I put up my hand as well.



Into the Woods: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 1

photo 2The guides take us into a small clearing under pine trees and next to a small, rushing stream.  We plop our backpacks down, our breath heaving a bit as we try to recover from the rocky, uphill walk to the trail head.  Some have portable camping chairs while others of us brush away the pine needles, tiny pine cones, spiders and ants before sitting.

“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I think to myself as the group settles in and the guides begin explaining the first exercise of the 5 day retreat.

For the past few months, I’ve felt the urge to somehow mark my 40th birthday in a big way.  I feel, for whatever reason, that this is a year of transition and manifestation.  A year for me to finally take root and fill out the shape of who I am as a woman.  Since the time I was 5, a tenderness and artistic sensitivity were present in my heart and mind.  When I was 8, 9, and 10, I would walk to the edge of the woods behind my house, breathe in the scent of the earthy ground mixed with the sweet decaying smell of oak leaves, and get excited because inside those woods mystery abounded.  I would take the longer, darker path and wait to hear some whispering of imagination or my spirit speak to me or reveal something important or meaningful to me.   In those woods, I felt large, alive, and magical, like a woodland spirit or sprite, or when I was feeling particularly powerful and imaginative, like Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon.  In my room, I would write poetry, draw my ideas, and dream of the wild things that lived not too far from my backyard.

Flash forward some 30 years later and I found myself quite removed from those childhood fantasies, dreams, and other-worldy connections.  My heart was tucked away for safe keeping, and I became dominated by my mind.  I was a functioning neurotic with an oddball sense of humor, a high sensitivity to other’s words and emotions, and a thirst for knowledge and wisdom.  I was wracked with guilt, fear, shame, loathing, contempt, and anger at myself and my life.  I secretly longed for love, passion, connection, and expression.  I was having an “existential crisis” without labeling it that.  Somewhere along this path, some part of my guard around my heart cracked open and I began to question if 40 would finally mark the time in my life where I stopped fearing not only my impending death but also fearing my existence.  I decided to get brave and took it upon myself to find out.  That’s how I found myself in the forest of the Colorado Rockies with 9 other like-minded individuals and 2 guides willing to lead us not only back into the woods but also back to our true 1

I can not recall what the group talked about a few moments ago.  On the break, I pick up a small black pebble near the creek bed and turn it over and over in my hand.  It feels warm to the touch and I press it up to my face and let the sun’s baked-in warmth soak into my cheek.  My head and ears are still muffled from this afternoon’s earlier altitude sickness.  I hear one of the guides calling us back from break and impulsively I dip the small rock into the stream and press it again to my cheek, this time noticing the drastic difference of the cool water that surges and prickles my nerve endings.

I carry this rounded pebble with me, hold it, and use it almost like a worry stone when I hear the instructions for our first solo hike.  “You probably won’t encounter a bear,” they say.  “Or a mountain lion.  But if you do, get really large and yell.  Hold your pack over your head and show no fear.  Do not run.  If you see deer or elk or moose. . .give them plenty of space. . .Carry your whistles and blow really hard if you find yourself in need.  Don’t stop blowing the whistle until someone finds you.”

We are instructed to find a place, preferably off-trail, that calls to us and to walk into that space and sit with that feeling of being welcomed back into the wild world.  As silly as it sounds, our guides tell us that it may be beneficial to even have a conversation with the place and introduce ourselves.  “Silently, right?” someone asks.  One of the guides laughs and gently says, “You can.  But why not speak your heart out loud?  Let yourself be known.  You’re being watched as it is.”

We all walk out of the clearing and like birds searching the ground for food, we begin cocking our heads, turning in circles, looking at the ground, and then looking up and down the trail to find our place.  We slowly break from the flock and go our separate ways.

I begin walking up the trail, wondering when I will know where to go.  I’m mindful that the creek is to my right.  It’s comforting to hear the rushing waters at all times.    I walk, searching for the place.  My mind begins to wander with each step I take.  My old patterns of worry and fear start playing their one-track song inside my head.  I notice that I am no longer in the present and this noticing actually helps bring me back to the moment.  Just then, I look to my left and see the sun streaming softly through the trees.  This place welcomes me and invites me in.

“It’s like being in Sherwood forest or in King Arthur’s Camelot,” I muse to myself.  I creep to the edge of the trail and peer through the underbrush and the overgrowth and see, at the top of the hill, a log, perfect for sitting and contemplating my life. Without any hesitation, I venture into the woods.  Twigs snap under my hiking boots, tiny limbs catch on my sweatshirt, pants, and backpack.  I walk on and gingerly cross over small, rotted pine trees and push aside brambles and weeds.  The birds become quiet and the scramblings of squirrels and other ground animals stop as well.  I have arrived at the log and I look up and see a clearing of sky between an aspen to my left and two beautiful pines to my right.  There, in the blue sky and the muted sunshine is the quarter moon on its slow journey to becoming its full, luminous self.

It’s breathtaking to be able to experience sunshine, the moon, the whispers of pine and the rustle of wild grass in the breeze.

photo 3

I sit down on the log and look up at the moon.  The trees in front of me slightly sway, left to right, back and forth.  Nature’s way of saying, “Hello.”  I smile and without even thinking I wave back to the trees.  I take a few deep breaths of the fresh mountain air and settle into myself.  Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that I’m alone, in the forest, with mountain lions, elk, moose, deer and whatever slithered away behind me.  I’m supposed to be here, in this moment, with all the other living, breathing creatures of this planet.  I’m supposed to sway slightly like the trees as the wind from the mountaintop breezes through this space.

I continue to gaze at the moon and just breathe.  The slight chirping of birds turn into their full songs.  A little squirrel begins cracking a nut at the other end of the log.  We look at each other and he decides I’m not to be trusted with his bounty, so he scampers away.  I laugh and I hear some creature behind me make a noise that sounds eerily like a grunt.  I speak out loud to him, saying, “I hear you.  I promise you I’m not here to hurt you.  You’re safe. It’s Ok.”  I hear him retreat and let out a sigh of relief and giggle in amusement at my bold 10 year old self talking to the woodland creatures like a loving Artemis or Snow White.

“Why have I come here?” I ask out loud to the trees that are framing the moon.  “What desire lured me out West to sit on a log away from a well-worn path?”  I get no response except for their gentle swaying and the glorious views around me.  Suddenly, I have my answer:  I am here to simply be myself.  All of me.  All of those parts of me that I have hidden away for whatever reason, for whatever necessity, for whatever excuse or fear or desire or need or longing that I have denied.  I am to be like both the sun and the moon.  The light and the shadow.  The wind and the trees.  The scurrying squirrel.  The hidden beast.  The chirping birds.  The clinging vines.  The broken twigs.  The resting log.  And I don’t have to choose; for it all has been chosen for me simply because I am a living, breathing creature of this earth.  And all of me has been waiting for this part of me all along.  I have been welcomed back to my wild, beautiful, natural self.

Penny For Your Thoughts?

Penny for your thoughts?

Today in yoga class, our instructor gave us 8 pennies each.  She had us hold them in our hand and think of all our blessings in our life.  We did a brief meditation, and then we lined the pennies up in front of us, 4 on each side.  It’s a fun little way for us to keep track of how many sun salutations we do on each side so as not to over-stretch one side more than the other.

At the end of class, she had us pile our pennies in front of us and asked us to return to the beginning meditation and think again of our blessings.  Then, she had us put a penny in our right hand and think of a dream or blessing we would like to manifest in our life.  After that, we were to put the penny in our left hand, and repeat the process until all 8 pennies were in our left hand.  In yoga tradition, the right side symbolizes masculine energy or the energy we use for giving, while the left side represents feminine energy or the energy we use for receiving.  Before class was over, she reminded us that in order to receive blessings, we must also be willing to give them as well.  She encouraged us to use our 8 pennies today in unique ways or leave them somewhere unexpected and to release our wants and desires and trust in the universal law of giving and receiving.

A beautiful lesson, right?  Why then did I leave class pissed off and in tears?

To say I have been under a lot of stress is an understatement.  In under a month’s time, I sold my home, packed up my belongings, lost the sale, lost money on an apartment I had secured, had minor surgery on my leg, and prepared lessons and my classroom for the upcoming school year.  All of my close friends and family were chipping in with helping me recover, packing, or allowing me to vent to them on the phone or via text.  All of my close friends and family were also giving me unsolicited advice on what I should do about everything that was happening to me.  I was taking it all in stride, or so I thought when today I was talking to my friend and yoga instructor after class and filling her in on what’s been going on in my life.  She offered me unsolicited advice on everything from staging my home to the job of the home inspector, realtor, and the buyer, and asked me to think about why this was in my life and what I have learned from it.  I was annoyed to say the least.  I told her flat out that I was tired of talking about it and that I’m over everything (which I’m not), and so I was not willing to listen to her tell me that I should have at least one potted flower on my front porch to welcome prospective buyers.  I didn’t want to rethink my idea of re-listing my house at a slightly higher price that I would be more comfortable at because that will turn buyers off.  It seemed like too much energy to tell her that I consulted with a family friend who has been a realtor for 30+ years and gave me step by step instructions on how to strategize my selling of my house on my terms, not the realtor’s or the buyer who left me high and dry.  So, instead I got teary-eyed because she was pushing buttons that I wanted left alone (at least for today).   I can’t speak for her, but I’m sure she would tell me she was talking out of love and concern for me, and she was thinking like a teacher who was trying to guide her student towards a higher realization.  Whatever her reasons, she wasn’t willing to accept my heated, defensive response to her.  Her words, no matter how well intentioned, just sounded like a judgmental lecture to a naive child.  She wanted to pass on a penny blessing, and I wanted a 25 cent compliment and at least $1 change in the form of support.

What I’m still trying to work out is why I wanted to be mad at that moment (and for the rest of the day as well).  Today, it felt like these road blocks were set up to prevent me from getting the life I have been dreaming about for a long time.  A life where I have a spacious arts & crafts home where I can create a sense of comfort, security, love and warmth for all of my friends and family.  A place where I can leave behind my past and where I can grow into a future with a good man and later a family of our own that we create.  A space where I can have an office where I write and create.  A bigger life that isn’t as predictable as this 1,200 sq ft townhome life where I tread a small path from room to room with my dog and my cat always at my heels causing me to knock into my nice furniture and small clutter in certain spots.  This morning, my friend’s words felt critical, and I was wanting either 1 of 2 things:  a.) to not speak about the chaos that is in my life; or b.) to receive supportive words telling me I will get through to the end and get what I’ve been wanting for so long.  Instead, I got c.) to figure out what I can gain from what has been lost.

When I called my mom later to chat with her, she could hear that I’d been crying.  She got concerned.  She and my dad are very involved in my life.  Last week, I became annoyed to learn after the whole home sale drama that they were upset on my listing price and what I was willing to sell it for (no matter that I was going to make money in the end).  It’s true, I consulted with them and listened to what they had to say, but in the end I felt like I was also appeasing them a bit because they had been in my house for awhile helping me recoup from my surgery and I didn’t want to have any disagreements.  In this morning’s conversation, however, it somehow turned towards my dating life, and my mom offered advice on how to go about finding a man.  Let’s just say her wording of “maybe you have to lower your expectations,” triggered a negative response in me because I have been through some very bad relationships in the past that have scarred me; and now that I’m on the path to opening myself back up again, any advice in that area leaves me defensive and vulnerable.  It also sounds critical.  I don’t want to lower my standards or expectations on what I want in a man, because I refuse to go back to the emotional abuse I allowed to happen in the past.  It’s why moving into the house I am in now was so huge for me:  I regained control of my life and learned how to live a life of freedom and choice on my own terms.  I wish I could have told my mom that earlier instead of discounting her penny advice and relegating it to the trash bin because her concerned words felt like a judgmental lecture to a fairy tale princess sleeping on a pile of mattresses with an annoying pea underneath them all.

Later, after a consoling phone call gone bad, my dad called me back.  He weighed in with his advice and commentary too.  The old phrases of, “You’re too hard on yourself.  Quit thinking you have to set goals and accomplish them in order to say you have a good life,” rolled off his tongue and I could hear he was trying to calm me down as I sat in a parking lot listening to what I didn’t want to hear today.  At first, I shrugged everything off trying to tell him that I can handle the disappointment.  Then, I was at a loss for words when I tried to tell him I’m not setting goals but going after a dream, a new life, instead.   I wanted to hear his encouragement because these momentary mishaps have set me back a little and shaken my confidence.   There’s a subtle difference between what he was trying to tell me and what I was trying to ask of him; and I’m still not sure I am articulating it well enough now to you, my fellow readers.

I have a master plan in my head of what I want to manifest in my life.  I have come to believe that we have a say in how our lives play out, and that divine intervention comes along at all the right times to help us create (or destroy and the create anew) different dreams and desires in our lives.  Our job is to tap into that higher voice that guides us from within.  With everyone’s opinions coming at me on almost a daily basis this past month or so, I lost track on what was my real inner voice as opposed to others’ guided (and sometimes misguided) and well-intentioned advice.  It didn’t help either that my dad was trying to cushion the blow of the small problem of losing the sale of my house, by saying that I may not get exactly what I want, and I have to let it go.  I was focused on what sounded like his disbelief on mastering your own destiny and reaching for your dreams, when he was giving me a practical dad solution to a practical problem.  Both my parents were offering a penny of small advice on these small little happenings in my life, seeing them as goals and things to check off my list.  And I was trying to tell them about a big dream that I have built up in my head.  It was a classic case of misunderstanding that left me in a mood of melancholy all day.

Origami cranes on the lawn of St. Louis Art Museum

I drove out of town and went to the St. Louis Art Museum for the day.  Every step up towards the building I felt a twinge of melancholy in my heart and tiny tears well up in my eyes.  I looked out across the park grounds and saw hundreds of origami paper cranes on the hill below the St. Louis statue and I noticed how crumpled and furled they were due to this morning’s surprising torrential rain.  From where I was standing, the neatly lined white cranes looked like broken tombstones of fallen soldiers; or of dreams deferred and left behind, scattered across a green lawn of hope.  “Great,” I thought.  “Even the magic of origami cranes looks bleak.  This is not a good sign.”

Even the origami cranes looked hopeless and beyond saving.

I shoved my hands in my jean capri pockets, and that’s when I noticed I had some more pennies in my pocket from the morning’s yoga class (I don’t know how they got from my yoga gear to my capris).   Little whispers of “what if” thoughts starting filling up my mind.  “What if I am here today to find my inner voice again?  What if I am supposed to release my dreams and scatter them around like lucky pennies for others to find and feel lucky as well?  What if my dreams have not been deferred, but just rearranged to make for a brighter future than I was expecting?”  I thought of my blessings:  loving friends, a loving family, a secure home, loving pets, a good job, all the money I need to go places and do things that I like.  I thought about what blessings I had wished for earlier that day:  for a happy, loving relationship with someone I care for, for a beautiful home that shows my personality and creativity, for a chance to share my writing to help others learn, grow and heal, and for a chance to travel more and see new places and meet new people.

Bronze statue of Daoist deity in the Asian gallery of the St. Louis Art Museum
Bodhisattva statue in Asian gallery of St. Louis Art Museum

If I was going to go forward with my master plan of helping shape my own destiny, then I needed to start believing in myself and the laws of giving and receiving.  So what that my friends and family have opinions on my life?  Don’t I occasionally have opinions on theirs?  Do I always understand what a person is trying to communicate to me?  Haven’t I had the best intentions but my words have cut others?  I went into the art museum and headed for the Asian arts, the “Zen room” as I call it.  I saw a bench, and sat down and looked at the beautiful, serene statues and earthenware.  Before I stood up, I slid a penny out of my pocket and placed it face up on the bench.  I began a surreptitous campaign of leaving my pennies on tables, benches and counters in the museum.  I even placed one on a chair at my dining table in a little Mediterranean restaurant off Grand Ave.  I came home and realized that I really did get a lot more than 8 pennies and a pissed off disposition from yoga class.  I tapped back into my truest of intentions and briefly shed my practical-thinking, neurotic self and honed my romantic notions and magical skills of creating my life and my dreams simply by harnessing the universal law of giving and receiving.

Giving a blessing of luck for someone else to find.