Earth

Surprised by all that love is

I remain alert in stillness.

František Halas

 

Having grown up on a farm, I maintain a childlike amazement of the natural world. Within the period of an hour, an overcast sky clears, baring a blue expanse. A fawn, still with spots on its back, wanders across the hillside near the kitchen window. The mother trails behind. A heart-shaped stone appears on a pathway that I have traversed dozens of times.

Awe feels like a natural state of being. I close my eyes and it is there. I open my eyes and the world appears as a composite of whirling miracles sustaining the whole.   If my amazement drops away, a hearty clover sprouting through a sidewalk crack pulls it back. Or, it might get pulled back the sight of dirt and wriggling worms in a place that just a few weeks prior was a pile of dried leaves. That soil will nourish plants that will in turn nourish me.

I recognize the turmoil, cynicism, and imbalances of our times, yet my rural upbringing instilled in me that reverence is fundamental to life.   Microbes mattered, as did insects and seeds, and the community gatherings for worship and helping one another when needed. There was an understanding that no matter how advanced humans become with our inventions, we are part of a living web. Like all mammals, our bodies still need air, food, water, and face-to-face connections between our selves and environments.

The tuffs of grass, billowing rain clouds, and the splendor of sunsets are persistent in trying to get our attention. Like loving friends, they invite us to slow down, put the phone aside, and notice them. If we are quiet enough, perhaps we’ll rest in awareness that they are always with us, supporting us.   Perhaps when we stop and commune with Mother Nature long enough, we’ll be surprised to find a neglected gem in ourselves – such as, kindness, tolerance, humility and love.

Wise poets, saints, and sages like Halas remind us that enlightenment is found within the everyday. When we can see that the wind does not cling, the sun freely offers light without expectation, and the dishes sing when we handle them with care, we know all that love is. This wisdom becomes more challenging to follow, as our mindscapes become the new commercial frontier.  Yet, I choose to claim my own mind territory and fill it with raw wonder until there is only alert, stillness. This is a stillness that is impervious to outer distractions but deeply caring for our collective well-being. I hope you will join me.

 

Practice

This is a meditative offering.   Choose a time and place – indoors or outdoors – with minimal distractions.  

  • Prepare –  Sit comfortably on an even, firm surface. Rest the back of your hands on your thighs. Release tension around your temples and the corners of your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Practice –
    • Imagine yourself as a flowering plant.
      • Relax your hips toward the earth. Lengthen your spine upward as though it were a stem. Like leaves, allow your shoulders to gracefully release away from the neck like leaves.
    • Breathe with ease for 7 to 10 breaths.
      • On inhale: Imagine your body absorbing the light of the sun.
      • On exhale: Imagine that the sunlight penetrates more and more deeply into your core.   Let it spark a feeling of ever-present love.
    • Breathe gently and freely another 7 to 10 breaths.
      • On inhale: Invite the glow from your heart to slowly extend to the inner surface of your body.
      • On exhale: Relax and allow the rays to recede back into your heart center. Release any remaining tension around your chest, abdomen, throat, and back of the skull as though clearing space for your inner light to shine more brightly.
    • Sit quietly for several minutes. In this stillness, you are a flowering plant.
  • Transition back into your day –
    • Place the palms together in front of your heart and gently bow your head.
    • Breathe smoothly and evenly for a few breaths. Release the backs of your hands back onto your thighs and slowly lift your head.
    • Gently open your eyes to return to the garden of life.

 

This is a poem excerpt from Mala of Love: 108 Luminous Poems, page 28, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt, and published by New World Library. The practice was a “flowering light” meditation, which I contributed to the Yoga Journal in 2010.

 

 

 

 

Insects

God
blooms
from the shoulder
of the
elephant
who becomes
courteous
to the
ant.

Attributed to Hafiz

An extra long strand of hair fell in front of my face. When I went to brush it away, I noticed it was extra silken and almost reached to the floor.   A small spider dangled a few inches above the floor.   Every year when the weather turns drier, spiders and other insects begin to appear in odd places in our home. This was a first.

Never before had a spider so boldly gotten my attention. Maybe it was a sign that I needed to look at the fragile attachments of my own precious web of habits and ideas. One example of my webbed mind is my believing that that even tiny beings like insects carry important messages.  Hence, I heeded the unexpected appearance of this spider.

It seemed the spider’s presence was simply a sign of the impending summer heat and the need to prepare accordingly.   So, thanking the spider for the guidance, I let it dangle from its thinly spun thread  and moved it to a protected spot outside.   There, we met more insects.  A stream of ants were making their way to some ripened plums on the sidewalk.

My morning encounter with the neighborhood insects reminded me of ancient teachings on connectedness. Our worldly existence is intricately woven together. Different cultures have different ways of expressing the thought that the mightiest are those who are gentle and respectful in their nature. Like the elephant in the poem attributed to Hafiz, the courteous are living expressions of the pure love and light unburdened by desire.

Insects in their delicate structures display living lightly on the planet. They are patient in their work.   Still, they are powerful.  Together, they can destroy an entire crop within hours. For the coming weeks, I will reflect on these qualities of these winged and multi-legged creatures. I hope you will join me.

Practice

This practice involves both being seated and standing. Choose a place that has minimal distractions.  Set your phone to airplane mode.  If needed, set an alarm for eight minutes.

  • Preparation –
    • Remove your shoes and socks. Begin seated with a gentle lift through the spine. If in a chair, place for feet on the floor.
    • Look around the room, listen to the sounds, feel the air and the texture of the clothing on your skin.  Do this as though you are looking at, listening to, and being with cherished friends.
    • Place one palm on your heart and then the other on top. Breathe a few breaths.  Relax through your palms, jaw, eyes, shoulders and torso.
    • Release your hands to your thighs. Breathe free and easy. Breathing, say to yourself: “I am safe and in the midst of friends. The surface beneath me is supporting me, the breath is nourishing me, the space around me is enfolding me with love.”
  • Practice –
    • Stand.  Remember you are in the midst of cherished friends who support, nourish, and enfold you in love.
    • Slowly begin to walk around the room.   Let each step be a gesture of your respect for the floor.  If it is wooden, acknowledge the trees that were the source of the wood.  If concrete, acknowledge the riverbeds and water that formed the rocks and sand for the concrete. Acknowledge the workers and their hands.
    • Keep a gentle breath. After couple dozen steps, pause. (No worries about counting the number of steps. An approximate amount is fine.)
    • Walk for another dozen or so steps. Acknowledge the walls, ceiling, and their sources.  Acknowledge the air and the trees that cleanse the air. Pause.
    • Stand by your chair.  Acknowledge the source of all life.  Acknowledge God or that which you consider to be most supreme.   Imagine you are filled with love and kindness.
  • Transition –
    • Seated, place both of your feet on the floor.  Relax your palms in your lap. Allow your eyes to close or be gently open with a soft gaze. Breathe.
    • After a few moments, return to your day.

 

This poem is translated by Daniel Ladinsky and is reprinted with his permission in Mala of the Heart: 108 Sacred Poems, page 15, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt and published by New World Library.

 

 

Spirals

For everything there is a season,

and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, a time to die…

Ecclesiastes 3.1

 

It seems I’ve been traveling quite a bit in the past couple months. Between the ups and downs of the planes, I felt the undulating cycles of life.   Spring flowers were in different stages of emerging and fading, new family members expected as another one passed, graduations and reunions, snow and sunshine, and so on.

The ancient cultures understood the constant rhythm of the universe with one cycle gliding into the next. They experienced life as three threads spiraling 3-dimensionally at lightning speed, clockwise and counter-clockwise and in different directions around an unchanging core.   Messages about this awareness were recorded with spiral carvings in caves, tombs, rocks and pottery around the world.

Even though our modern-day world is composed of straight-edged shapes in our architecture, furniture, streets, and screens, we exist within spirals. In nature, there are eddies, whirlpools, wind and smoke patterns, and lunar and solar cycles. Swirls and florets appear in elephant’s tusks, horns of wild sheep, pinecones, flowers such as the sunflower and calla lily, snails, snakes, shells, and galaxies.  Besides a corkscrew-like umbilical cord and coiled inner ear, our bodies have whorls and waves in our fingertips, blood flow, navels, and bones, muscle, fascia and breath.

The natural forces of our existence radiate together in proportional harmonics defined by the Golden Spiral and Fibonacci progression, mathematical truths on the radiating movement of energy.  Like an eternal song, everything vibrates together as a universal octave with eight steps and seven intervals. We see seven reflected in our days of the week, colors of the spectrum, and religious symbolism.

When I read this verse and/or hear it sung by the Byrds in Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” I feel quietly peaceful within the dynamic spiraling of opposites. Polarities seamlessly somersault, fold and unfold.   Blossoms appear and fade away, the in-breath cycles into the out-breath, and I sense the harmonic vibrating nature at play.   What on the surface seem like linear, isolated events – such as spring, summer, war, peace, birth, death – are instead praises to life arising and returning to the eternal source.   This inspires me to sing along. I hope you will join me.

Practice

This simple, short practice can be done seated or standing.   It is a playful exploration of the movement of sound. I suggest you read through the practice before beginning.

  • Preparation –
    • Hug all your bones by tightly squeezing all your muscles from head to hand to toe. Hold the hugging for three to four seconds.
    • Release. Be sure and let go through the palms of the hands and forehead. Smile and breathe freely.
    • Repeat two more times.
  • Practice –
    • Open your mouth to create an extended “aah” sound.
    • Imagine the pathway of the “aah” sound:
      • begins at your navel,
      • travels upward through your torso,
      • across the back of your throat and palate, and
      • out of your mouth.
        • You may find it helpful to gently drawn in and up on the abdominal muscles to strengthen the sound.
    • First, imagine that your “aah” is bounding up a ladder.
    • Then, imagine that your “aah” is bounding up a spiral staircase.
      • Play with the spiral of traveling counter-clockwise and clockwise, and broader at the base or narrower at the base.
  • Transition back into your day –
    • Take a few minutes to sit quietly. Relax your hands and let them rest comfortably in your lap or on your thighs. Allow the eyes to be open with a soft gaze, or gently closed.
    • Invite the feeling of spaciousness in all your cells from the heart-center outward, from the tips of your fingers and toes and the crown of your head back into the center of your heart.   Clarity, openness everywhere.
    • In your own time, transition back into your day.

 

This verse appears in Mala of Love: 108 Luminous Poems, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt, page 6, published by New World Library. HEARTH is posted each full and new moon.

 

 

touch

Tenderly, I now touch all

things,

knowing one day we will

part.

St. John of the Cross (D. Ladinsky, translator)

 

I crave the ordinary – the kind of stuff that you can find around the globe. There are the big things like the horizon, clouds and the sky, sun and the wind. And, the little ones like the clatter of dishes, ruts in roadway.   In between are the hugs and gestures reminding me of life’s fragile beauty and interdependence.

The sense of touch keeps me in touch with my humanness. Wherever my touch goes, my mind goes.   I might even go so far as to rephrase “I am what I think” to “I am what I touch.” Because touch is a complex process involving sensors in the skin, neuro-pathways, emotions, and messages to different regions of the brain, it is constantly feeding my identity.   If I touch my palms together in prayer, calmness and equanimity are more pervasive.

Touch with other humans and nature is a dynamic, multi-dimensional communication. We know that babies need touch to learn bond, trust, and care.   Touching living forms opens the doorway to compassion, gratitude, and kindness.   We create through touch. Yet, now more than half of what we touch is a manufactured or processed product. This includes plastics, electronics, synthetic fabrics, and packaged food.

I believe that our individual, collective and planetary well-being literally lies in our hands.   Nearly 2,000 years ago the Platonists prevailed over Aristotle and declared touch as the most inferior of the senses. They felt touch was too reactive to outer influence and deemed sight as the superior sense.   I feel it is no accident that we find ourselves today in a culture where we are more drawn to touch metal and other objects that feed separateness rather than connectedness.  Unwittingly, we are in an optic-centric civilization where we are loosing touch with the modes of touch that deeply heal and nurture our capacity for civility.

To touch is to connect us to our earthly nature but also open us to our divine self. The Buddha, for example, points one hand toward the earth to bear witness to the enlightened realization that all is interdependent.   This is most apparent when we consider the subtle touch of air in our nostrils and the trees’ role with each breath. No matter how sophisticated we become mentally, humans are part of, not separate from, earth, air, and nature. Our more loving and spiritual self arises out of the ordinary, not away from it.

When I read the words of St. John of the Cross, I feel the grace of being touched.   His words seem to have been written for our contemporary times as a gentle reminder to reconsider what and how we touch.   He evokes appreciation for that which sustains the world – seen and unseen.  One day we will part.  Until then, I want to stay in touch.  Please join me.

 

Practice

This practice can be done at anytime. It helps bring awareness of your hands. Approach this with a sense of playfulness and exploration. Smile.

  • Take a moment to look at your hands.
  • Open the palms and hold them comfortably in front of you.  (Palms facing you.)
    • Move the fingers around.   For example, touch the fingers together and apart. Stretch out through the palms. Imagine you were looking at your hands for the first time ever.
  • Turn your hands over with the backs of the hands facing you.
    • Move the fingers around.  For example, spread the fingers apart. Play an imaginary piano letting your fingers dance across the keys.  With the fingers softly curled inward, roll the hands in circles a few times each direction.
  • Make sounds with the hands.
    • For example:  Flick the nail of side of each finger against the thumb. Click the fingers. Clap your hands.
  • Hold your hands in different ways.
    • For example:  Clasp them. Interlace the fingers. Squeeze them.
  • Bring the hands lightly cupped over your nose.
    • Feel the breath on the palms of your hands.  Relax the jaw and the eyes.  Breathe for several breaths.
  • Bring the hands over the center of your chest.
    • First, with one hand over the other. Take a few breaths and notice the movement in the chest associated with the rhythm of breathing.
    • Then, lightly bring the palms together.  Form the shape of a flower bud with the finger tips, and the heels of the palms, touching one another.  Leave a little space in the center of the palms.
  • Let the hands relax on your lap. Close your eyes and sit quietly for as long as you like.
  • Before your transition back into your day, perhaps set an intention to be gentle with your touch.

 

 

This poem is from Mala of the Heart: 108 Sacred Poems, Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt (editors), page 83, published by New World Library.

 

Luminous Nature

Even if I

repeated love’s name

forever,

could outward life match

the intensity of our hearts?

Izumi Shikibu
Translated by Jane Hirshfield

 

I was walking at a beach north of San Francisco this morning and the tide was unusually high. A ranger said it was due to the moon swinging nearer to the earth than it has in 68 years and its gravity pulling harder on the oceans.

The beach looked like a bed of a restless sleeper. The sand formed mini canyons and drop offs and logs were strewn about. Instead of the rhythmic whisper of the waves, there was a churning roar.  Gulls huddled in groups far from the shore.

With such a chaotic scene, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this close and bright full moon would have a similar effect on our emotional landscape.  Whether it does or not, life itself tugs us between the ends of the spectrum of emotions – elation to sorrow; turmoil to peace; attraction to repulsion; doubt to trust; humility to pride; and endless hopes, desires and fear.   Our appearance also shifts throughout life’s sways and phases.

Each of us has our own personal life journey. Yet, ancient sages and saints realized that the core of everything is unchanging.   They remind us just as the ocean remains the ocean as the waves ebb and flow, our innermost core remains untouched by outer experience. It is always the pure essence of love and compassion for all of life. The ancients called this core “heart” and symbolically placed it at the center of our chest. All of life was thought to move from this place.   (The anatomical heart had not yet been defined.)

This poem by the 11th century Shikubu reminds me that the heart remains steady. It has absolute understanding. It knows the nature of all existence from the smallest atom to the expanse of the galaxies and knows consciousness beyond words, time and space.   In the light of true knowledge, this ever-present core glows with intense brilliance and overflows with insight and clarity.

When asked to point to ourselves, we normally point to the heart center, not to our head, or thinking mind.   Even when life turns us upside down, we still have this firm and flexible inner essence on which to draw strength and courage. We have outward reminders of this core in nature, poems such as Shikubu’s, common gestures such as bringing our hands together in prayer, and sayings, such as “the heart knows all.”  Since worldly life and all its sensory inputs overshadow the heart, my intention over the next few weeks is to go on a sensory diet. By that I mean to be more attentive to what and how much information I take in through my eyes and ears. I hope you’ll join me.

Practice

This simple practice can be used anytime as a reminder of your luminous nature. It can help you reconnect with your deepest self and offer a momentary respite for your senses. Remove your watch and any other items from your wrists. If you wear glasses, please remove them.

  • Prepare – Sit in a comfortable position.   Vigorously rub your hands together until you feel some warmth on your palms. Close your eyes and lightly place the heels of your palms over your lids. Stay there for a few breaths until you feel your eyes relax. Then, twice lightly brush your fingertips in circles around the eyes, i.e., move fingers up to the forehead, down along the temples and under the eyes to the outer edges of the nose and up to the forehead again.
  • Relax – Let your hands rest comfortably on your thighs.  Without forcing, breathe in and out with a slow, even breath.
  • Practice –
    • Imagine the brilliant light of the Full Moon is glowing above you. Then, imagine as though that luminosity is seeping in through your closed eyelids and pouring into your heart.  Let the light come to rest in the deepest core of the heart.
    • Quietly breathe. Allow the mind to rest inside the light in the heart. Let the mind settle into the soft, radiant warmth and expanse of the heart. It may rebel. If so, reassure it that it isn’t forgotten, but for now it can rest. Imagine as though the eyes and ears also settle into the embrace of the light.
    • Continue to quietly breath, letting the entire being be bathed in the light.   Just be.  Stay for as long as the focus on remains steady and easeful.
  • Transition back into day – Slowly and gently place one of your hands over the heart. Gently place your other hand on top.  Stay with your hands over your heart for a few moments until you are ready to return to your day.

 

This poem is from page 12 in Mala of Love: 108 Luminous Poems, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt, and published by New World Library.  It was written by Izumi Shikibu, who was a court poet during the Heian period of Japan. Her poetry combines romantic longing with Buddhist contemplation.  She is a member of Thirty-Six Medieval Poetry Immortals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain

Mountains are steadfast but the mountain streams
go by, go by,
and yesterdays are like the rushing streams,
they fly, they fly,
and the great heroes, famous for a day,
they die, they die.

                                                                                                                  Hwang Chin-i                                                                                                                       translated by Peter H. Lee

 

I just spoke on the phone with my father, who will soon turn 94 years of age. He is well but increasingly feeling the need to share his elderly wisdom. Today he wanted to pass along his secrets to a long life. His advice is to “have a sense of humor, stay steady, and take life as it comes.”

The conversation left me with a sense of awe of how steadfast he and many others from earlier eras have been. They are like mountains that have weathered natural disasters, the rise and fall of rulers, the tragedies of war and grief of personal loss.   Prior generations form the foundation of their lives. In turn, they have offered broad shoulders for subsequent generations.  Even with flaws, their characters are so stable that they don’t topple over with the winds of daily news. Like the triangular shape of most mountains, they are strongly rooted in earthly reality and uplifted hearts. It is no wonder that the mountain has long symbolized the navel of the universe, the axis of the sun, the nursing mother, the place where earth meets the sky, and the abode of the transcendent.

These reflections reminded me of the poetic words of Hwang, who served the court as an artisan in 16th c. Korea. It seems apt that Hwang was also known as “bright moon.” Within the space of a poem, I feel she gracefully reveals the fleeting nature of life and the ancient wisdom of the elders. Through her lens, I feel free to let go, even if temporarily, of my own little backpack of fears and judgments to leave room for the softer qualities of love and compassion.   She inspires me to foster my own mountain-like qualities and to keep firmly grounded with a light heart and ever-clearer mind.   I encourage you to join me.

 

Practice

This little practice is about letting go of emotional tensions and making space to be more grounded.  It uses the breath.  This can be done seated or standing.  The eyes can be closed or open.  

  • Prepare – Allow your body weight to settle downward.  Imagine that the surface beneath you is the solid base of a mountain and the crown of your head is the upper tip.  Relax your jaw.
  • Inhale – Slowly and quietly breathe in through your nose.
  • Exhale – With a relaxed open mouth, quietly and slowly say “aaaaaaaaaah.”  As you exhale, gently draw in your lower abdominal and navel area.
  • Repeat – 5-7 times.

 

 

 

The poem is from Mala of the Heart:  108 Sacred Poems, page 60, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt, and published by New World Library.