The Bear-ings of Truth

There is something about looking up at a night sky that swiftly kills thoughts and moves one into a place that feels familiar yet mysterious, peaceful yet bubbling – where nothing and everything merge into one.

It took me years to realize this is somewhere I have visited many times – as a child in play, in listening to music, in making art, in nature, in contemplation of spiritual teachings, in meditation… And it took me many more years to understand that I am not a visitor to this place. I am this “place”. And somehow, gazing into the vastness of the universe, I am reflected back to my Self. As Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj once said:

There is a vastness beyond the farthest reaches of the mind. That vastness is my home; that vastness is myself. And that vastness is also love. 

It is easy to say this with hindsight of course, but when the willingness to awaken increases to a certain level, all of a sudden you recognize the whole universe as a pointer to Truth, a mirror for the Self. And you realize that every song you ever heard was talking of God, every word spoken to you was pointing to back to your Self, every event in your life was simply a garden gate to your home waiting to be walked through, and every being you ever encountered was the Friend.

The most popular constellation we teach our children in the Northern Hemisphere is Ursa Major, the Great Bear – or in its decreased form, the Big Dipper. I ran a small survey on Twitter and 75% of people said this was the first group of stars they ever got to know. (Although very few of us could name the brightest stars individually).

It was with such joy that I discovered recently that this constellation, and its partnering constellation (Ursa Minor, the Little Bear or Little Dipper) – are a symbol for the Mind as it seeks to awaken. The teaching was there above us all along.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big and the Small Dipper

Polaris (our current Pole Star) has long represented The Unchanging Self, the Divine Self, the Beloved, God, Truth. And Ursa Major and Ursa Minor rotate around the Pole Star throughout the year.

According to author Oral E. Scott, the mother/father bear represents the objective mind.  With maturity and mind control training and purification comes understanding and wisdom – represented by the large stature of the bear. But while this mature bear/refined mind points to Truth (as its stars point to the Pole Star), this mind/bear will never touch Truth/the Pole Star. We have to move beyond reasoning and the mind…

So when we are mature enough, our minds are then ready to become like the baby bear – open to not knowing, “being” rather than doing, and shifting into the subjective mind of intuition and being guided from within.  For it is Ursa Minor that indeed touches the Pole Star – it is at the very tip of its tail. By turning our awareness back upon itself we have the opportunity to finally behold the Truth that lies within.

And eventually, to stop spinning, to dissolve into Truth alone and become the Pole Star, we have to let go of even the child like one that is searching within.

Silence is Truly Golden

(Written for Books for Better Living) 

“Please don’t take it personally, or think I’m odd. I just love being in silence,” I uttered nervously to my partner in the early days of our relationship before heading to a 10-day silent retreat. He’s now used to it. I got back two weeks ago from my second silent stint this year, and have already booked another for 2018.

Onlookers consider my passion for silence somewhere between weird and downright peculiar, chiefly because I already live a tranquil life. My home is in a part of the city nestled between a graveyard and a park. “No quieter neighbors than the dead!” is a quip I often make to friends that is, ironically, met with silence. I also work from home (alone), and the only sounds I can hear from my desk most days are the blue jays and the faint whirring of the fridge.

But to limit silence to a purely aural experience is a mistake. Silence, or the lack thereof, affects our mental, emotional and physical state. For example, there’s a type of noise that has become increasingly familiar in our society — the noise of constant stimulus.

Beyond just the usual sounds of humanity going about its daily business, we now suffer a mental and emotional noise that comes with juggling 15 tabs and four applications open on a computer. There’s the incessant ‘noise’ of a cell phone signaling a text message from a friend, an email from the boss, mom’s voicemail, a doctor’s appointment, one of 10 possible app push notifications, anyone doing anything LIVE on social media, a UPS delivery, a local flood warning…

An opportunity for peace evades us now, and instead, we inhabit a world that prevents us from daydreaming by imposing minute-by-minute demands for our attention.

We’re losing our connection to silence and stillness to such an extent that younger generations are even afraid of it. In a joint study from the universities of Virginia and Harvard, researchers left individuals between 18 and 27 years of age on their own in a room from six to fifteen minutes in silence without reading material or phones to distract them. The majority reported discomfort. A third said they were unable to complete the task. In an extension of the study, participants could administer themselves with an electric shock to reduce their silent time — almost half pushed the button.

I understand this discomfort. On a silent retreat, there is an initial excitement and some relief at not having to make chitchat with other people. But then, in the silence and with no phone, no books, and not even a pen, the mind has no option but to turn and look upon itself for distraction — and what it finds is chaos. There are thoughts you never knew you were having, or could have. There are thoughts you can’t stop. There are some thoughts are not even your own. And in the midst of it, you feel like there’s nowhere you can go to escape — because the noise is coming from inside your own head.

In his beautiful book, Silence: In the Age of Noise, explorer and writer Erling Kagge speaks of the fear that silence brings, and the constant “busyness” we adopt to avoid “allowing that restlessness to lead us somewhere further.” Kagge has experience with silence having walked alone to the South Pole, but he is keen to point out that silence can be attained standing under a shower, walking in a forest, or gazing up the stars.

In a letter he shares from Norwegian author and playwright John Fosse, Fosse describes silence as having “a kind of majesty to it, . . . and whoever does not stand in wonder at this majesty, fears it.” This fear, Kagge suspects, is actually a fear of getting to know ourselves better. Somewhere in the silence with no distractions, we become aware of our tendencies to be hard on ourselves and others. We can recognize thought-patterns and beliefs we have held rigid. We also see a deeper underlying desire to be free of all of that. And if we sit in stillness long enough we uncover something else — a deep capacity for peace. Just like that, the fear of silence turns into the wonder that Fosse speaks of.

Silence grants us a chance to become present, and to experience what it means to be alive. “Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, says Kagge, “but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.”

Receiving Part 1

“The sun is the wine, the moon is the cup. Pour the sun into the moon if you want to be filled.” – Sufi poet Hafiz

The Sufis and the yogis have a long and connected history. It’s no coincidence that yoga teachers quote Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz in classes. The two mystical paths share the same passion for devotion and surrender on the path to awakening. They also both recognize the importance of balance, of giving and receiving, of the sun and the moon.

In Sufism, there are 99 names or qualities of the Beloved (well 100 with Allah as zero), and each represents a facet for us to explore and experience in order to become united with this Beloved. The second of these “pathways of the heart” as Neil Douglas-Klotz calls them, is Ar-Rahim, The Moon of Love, and when called to it, we are asked to deeply consider our capacity to receive, and to look to the moon.

I love this pathway. How many of us find it uncomfortable to receive? A gift? A compliment? A friend offering to pay? I know I do. We can practice gratitude for the things that come our way, but that doesn’t always help us feel less overwhelmed or less awkward in that moment of receiving. Yet here are the Sufis telling us that if we want to live a life of love, it’s imperative that we get to know what it means to receive—to stop resisting.

The Good of Giving

Our greater emphasis on giving is understandable. We are genetically wired to give—scientific studies show that when we give, the brain releases the pleasure hormone dopamine. We also are reminded to give much more often—especially if following a spiritual path. In the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita we are reminded that service is a path to self-realization. Generosity, dana paramita, is the first of Buddha’s six perfections. In Kabbalah, giving is vital to overcoming self-centeredness. And in Judeo-Christian religions we are told that “it is in giving that we receive.”

Ar-Rahim, the Moon of Love, teaches us that when we allow ourselves to receive, the world gets our moonbeams.

This encouragement is wonderful, and there are clear practices we can follow to cultivate our giving nature: being of service to others, performing random acts of kindness, volunteering, donating, saying kind words….

But by comparison receiving can feel far less noble an action. There aren’t really any clear guidelines for practice as it is almost assumed we receive by default. As such, we’re not very adept at it. We confuse receiving with “taking.” We can judge receiving as selfish, or only suitable for certain people who we deem “needy” enough. How many of us do not practice the art of receiving, but simply regard it as something to fit it in “between” giving? “OK, I’ll accept your help,” we might acknowledge with defeat, while we figure out how we’re going to pay them back.

But the Sufis ask us to rethink how we view receiving, and to reflect upon the moon to help us do so.

The Moon of Love

When the moon is full, the light that bounces off it is enough to illuminate streets, yards, forests, lakes, and oceans. How many of us have enjoyed a night bathed in moonlight? Yet, upon exploration, we find that the moon isn’t really “giving” us any light—it’s receiving light from the sun. We simply benefit from the reflection. Ar-Rahim, The Moon of Love, teaches us that when we allow ourselves to receive, the world gets our moonbeams.

As we look at receiving through this new lens, we can begin to imagine… What if the moon could grow and receive even more sunlight? How many more moonbeams would the world get? While the moon can’t get any bigger, there is no end to the love we can receive if we practice opening our hearts and letting love in. Receiving is essentially surrender.

This requires giving up our judgments, and exploring the moments when we feel uncomfortable receiving. Why is it we find it hard to receive gifts? Do we feel obligated to give back? Why are some compliments hard to accept? Do we think we’re not worthy? Why don’t we let others pay? Do we judge those with less money as weak? These are all just pointers to what Sufi poet Rumi would call our “barriers to love”:

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

Practicing Receiving

Practicing receiving helps us uncover these barriers. It also helps us recognize that if we think giving is “better” than receiving, we are mistaken. They are one action, as the sun and moon teach us. To resist receiving is to resist giving.

I learned this beautiful lesson not under the moon, but in a checkout line at a New York City supermarket. The woman in front of me, a stranger, was gathering her food stamps and coupons to pay when I felt an internal nudge to offer to buy her groceries. But I hesitated. I started thinking about whether she would be offended—or what if she said no?

It was at that very moment the woman turned to the teller and said: “And I would like to pay for the groceries of this lady behind me.” I was shocked. It was like we both heard the giving/receiving voice at the same time, but her mind did not get in the way. Her heartfelt capacity to give was far greater than mine.

It was not easy to receive, although I did so with great thanks. My mind had several opinions about what it meant to accept such a gift from someone who appeared to have less money than myself. I would have been much more comfortable being the one to pay. But if we want to unite with the Beloved, then it’s not the comfortable path we take. As Rumi says: “Run from what’s comfortable.” If receiving is your barrier to love, then it’s worth making receiving your practice. And if we need a reminder, we need only look out the window at night.

Lessons in Humility

I have always been suspicious of Marianne Williamson’s widely-quoted “call to shine” below.

Our Greatest Fear 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

—Marianne Williamson

But this week it finally clicked. I was talking with a friend who lives everyday from her creativity, and was telling her about something I feel passionately about, but am fearful of following through on lest it puffs up my ego. That I’m not sure I want to start a Twitter account and start talking about it and putting myself out there about this project. Basically, I summarized, I want to be humble, and that feels at odds with doing things I would perhaps be successful at.

She didn’t even blink. “Wow,” she said. “Get over yourself. That’s the most arrogant I’ve heard in a while. I mean, no…. Just no.”

Now, I know when I’m getting good advice and ready to hear it when I don’t feel bruised by such a call-out, but rather, relieved to have had it called out.

She’s absolutely right and what a great lesson to see how sneaky the ego is. It can disguise fear as humility. It can disguise its need to feel important as humility. Who is this “i” that thinks what it does would be so amazing that it would then “struggle to be humble”!?  Who is this ‘i’ that believes people care what she is doing? And, is this thought merely a disguise for the fact that this “i” is scared that following a passion will end up being meaningless? Indeed, is the “i” just scared of finding out she is meaningless?

This last question is the crux of the matter. The person/ego – whatever you like to call it – needs to feel important, needs to feel it has a purpose. It is terrified that it won’t have a purpose – probably because it knows that without purpose it cannot exist – it has no identity to maintain, and so it is not needed. Indeed, by accepting ourselves as purposeless (or being moved simply by something greater than our tiny selves) then the ego withers.

I’m not sure if this is clear, but there is most certainly a relief in setting aside ideas of being important or failing, and of having any purpose or meaning, and instead, just following what my heart seems to be telling me to do for no other reason that it seems to be telling me to do it. The end. It’s quite humbling, and a little embarrassing (to the ego), to see that I really seemed under some spell that 1) my offering is my own and 2) that I matter.

I don’t need to matter. Indeed, ‘mattering’ surely only stands in the way of whatever it is this person can serve best doing – however unimportant or grandiose the ego believes that action in the world to be.

Of Williamson’s words it is this line that is clearest for me:

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

In other words, we simply exist to allow consciousness to express itself through us, so just roll with it and be wide open to let that expression go all the way. That is humility. And with it a clear space opens up to feel immense gratitude. How wonderful that ‘i’ get to be a tiny tiny part of something so incredible and wondrous and unknowable as consciousness, or God, or whatever word you would choose.

I’m going to pin ‘get over yourself’ to my desk as a reminder.

The Need for Dark Skies

Sark, a small island between England and France, is the world’s first “Dark Sky” island. It has no vehicles—the 650 people who live there travel by bike or foot—and there are no street lamps. When night falls the only thing to illuminate the island of Sark is starlight.

Intrigued as to how living under the light of the stars impacts health and behavior, psychotherapist Ada Blair decided to interview Sark’s residents. She uncovered that the people who lived on Sark truly felt that being in touch with the night sky benefited their well-being. Writing of her findings for The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), Blair says that the shared night sky gave Sark’s residents a deep sense of community. That residents made comments such as:

“last summer we were lying on the field outside the Island Hall with everybody looking up during the meteor shower … people had sleeping bags, thermoses, and hot chocolate.”

And while small talk elsewhere may involve the weather, Blair says on Sark it those casual back-and-forths start with the sky: “Did you see the Milky Way above the Seignurie last night. Wasn’t it amazing?”

Not only do the stars bring Sark’s community together, but the residents observing the night sky results in positive (and sometimes transformative) feelings. 

Sadly the experience of turning our gaze to look up at the skies is one that is increasingly lost on our generation. While Sark may have dark skies, much of the world has become illuminated by unnatural light. Journalist, Ron Judd, in an article for The Seattle Times, says that 99% of Americans never routinely see a true dark sky – and that’s if they even step outside…

It’s a stark contrast to how humanity used to interact with the stars, where constellations were our guides, our friends, our gods.

By failing to look up above, we miss the prompt to ask ourselves deep questions. David Ingram, who heads a Seattle-based group of dedicated dark-sky advocates underscores what we miss when we stop looking up: “The sad truth is that the current bunch of us will be the first in the history of the planet to go most or all the way through life failing to grasp our place in the universe. Because we simply have never seen it. You can put anybody—I don’t care who they are—out under the stars for 30 minutes, and they start asking the big questions. Where else does that happen? You don’t ask big questions in a restaurant.”

 

Love is (still) the Only Way

 “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Several years ago one of my spiritual teachers, Jennifer Hadley, advised reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Loving Your Enemies” as a regular practice. “Recite it. Aloud. As if it is your sermon. Made from the pulpit of your living room,” she recommended. “It will transform you.”

There is an electricity that runs through all of Dr. King’s sermons. Probably the best orator of the 20th century, his speeches perfectly touched the souls of those hearing them. He stirred millions of Americans to nonviolent action, encouraging them to stand up against racial injustice, against racial and economic inequality, and against war.

The electric energy of Dr. King has endured. “Perhaps reading these eloquent proclamations will show us the way into the new millennium, and help us to continue to live truths,” says Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a colleague of Dr. King in A Call to Consciencea collection of Dr. King’s landmark speeches.

The Power of Speech

I wasn’t familiar with this particular sermon. Indeed, “Loving Your Enemies” is not one of Dr. King’s landmark addresses. It doesn’t mark the call to action like the speech he gave in 1955 following the arrest of fellow Montgomery-resident Rosa Parks. The speech in which he describes justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Nor is it the most poetic—like the speech he gave after a nonviolent march from Selma, calling for the right of African Americans to vote, declaring: “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her throne? … Not long.”

The sermon does not make the lofty aim for a global revolution of values that “will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’” As Dr. King did in his address on Vietnam in New York City.

Nor has it become a speech profoundly symbolic of the transformation of a nation from the mired history of slavery towards a hopeful era of civil rights and equality like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Rather, the “Loving Your Enemies” sermon given in 1957 was to a relatively small congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. King was a pastor.

But in reading it, “by putting ourselves in his shoes, we have an understanding of what it took personally for him to lead a nation in profound transformation. How he became one of the most inspiring people to have ever walked the Earth, and how we can follow in his footsteps,” says Jennifer.

By reading it, we are transformed ourselves.

Love Redeems

The call to love that Dr. King lays out in “Loving Your Enemies” echoes through all of his speeches. Furthermore, it is the message upon which he built his life—that love is “creative,” and that only love is capable of transforming hate into love. Therefore, to change the world, love has to be extended to everyone—even to our enemies. The message mirrored Gandhi’s, who Dr. King looked to as inspiration in the nonviolent justice movement.

The sermon uses the story of Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Stanton as an example of love driving out hate. When Lincoln was running to be president, Stanton did his utmost to ridicule Lincoln. Yet, when Lincoln was elected—despite criticism from his cabinet—he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War. In doing so, Lincoln not only served his people by selecting the best person for the job, but he transformed the hatred Stanton held in his heart towards Lincoln—so much so that when Lincoln was assassinated, it was Stanton who gave one of the most touching speeches.

Love is a powerful tool, more powerful than hate, as Dr. King said in his speech:

If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton … Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his grave hating Stanton. … Hate destroys the hater as well as the hated … Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. … And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.

Dr. King’s gift was not just his soul-stirring rhetoric, but also his ability to put forward practical solutions. Love is a practice he realized, and one that requires certain things, as he noted in his speech:

  1. Looking at oneself. “We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past … That is why I say, begin with yourself.”
  2. Discerning between like and love. “Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. … [but] love is greater than like. Love is understanding.”
  3. Helping those we hate. “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. … When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love…”
  4. Seeing the good in all. “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. … Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.”

Radical Love for the Modern Day

It is only with this foundation that as a society we can continue to walk towards the equality that Dr. King talked about in his “I Have a Dream” speech, says Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. She is a senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, and Executive Director of The Middle Project, an institute that prepares ethical leaders for a more just society. “It’s a radical love. It is not a love for wimps. It’s saying: ‘I’m going to love you, and engage with you whoever you are,’” she says. “That love drives the dream of a world where black lives matter and therefore all lives matter. Asian lives matter, Latino lives matter, Muslim lives matter, gay lives matter, poor lives matter, and old lives matter. It is a world in which we value the woman in a hijab, and the man in a kippa, and the atheist. Where we realize we are a human family and we cannot function without each other.”

Her favorite speech is “I Have a Dream.”

“I feel its reverberations still as people stand up against racial inequality that continues to be a reality,” says Jacqui. “And I am hopeful. I see signs of people collaborating, of races and religions coming together for equality, for justice. It doesn’t take a million people, it takes just enough good loving people who say: ‘This will not happen on our watch.’ And who continue the nonviolent protests on the streets to insist that everyone is treated fairly.”

Of all of Dr. King’s speeches, “Loving Your Enemies” is the one closest to my heart. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s love spurred actions that transformed a nation and continues to do so today. Among the many things I am grateful to Dr. King for is this reminder that hatred does not serve the world—and that includes my own hatred. In that way I have transformed too. If we want to make a change, be it political, environmental, for social equality and justice, or simply in our own lives: “Love is the only way.”

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust and can be found here)

The Greatest Show is in the Meadow

In Inner Ramana, scribed by one my teachers, Regina Dawn Akers, the comparison is made between the mind and the circus. That, for a time (maybe lifetimes), we are fascinated by the circus. We love the acrobats, the trapeze artists, the sword swallowers and bearded ladies. We love the bright colors, the music, the costumes, the lights, the gasps, the drama, the cheers,… the drama.

But, deep within us “there is a desire […] to settle within the meadow that surrounds the circus tent”, and a vague feeling, much like an old memory, that it is there in the meadow where we will be met with an everlasting tranquility, and a show more beautiful than we could ever imagine. A real show.

The circus is the mind as it springs forth thoughts that grab our attention and draw us into the story of how many clowns will fit into the car, or, in daily life, how important we are, or how terrible we are, and what was said by whom to who, and the ecstasy of getting what we want, and the heart-wrenching disappointments of not getting what we want.

There’s a joke I was told by a tour guide in Ireland: My previous job was a trampolinist in a circus. It had its ups and downs.

Our lives, dictated to by the mind, can be like this — lived in perpetual ups and downs.

But if we don’t follow the minds’ thoughts, if we just open the curtains and watch the show from outside for a while through self inquiry practices and meditation, then the feeling of the sun on the back of our necks, and the grass under our feet becomes more compelling than the show inside the tent. And, with practice we notice a quiet love for the meadow, so that even away from our meditation cushions we stop stepping through the curtains, until eventually we live our daily lives with its ups and downs, but we remain fully outside, laid down among the wild flowers watching the clouds pass in the blue sky above.

I was reminded of this teaching watching The Greatest Show last weekend — the musical movie of P.T. Barnum’s life. I have no idea how accurate the depiction was, but the storyline seemed to show this lesson beautifully. Barnum has a family he is smitten with and seems to live an idyllic, if what humble, life with them in New York City. But he longs for more excitement, and so starts a circus.

After a few years of success, however, Barnum’s thoughts turn away from the circus, and he declares he wants to give people what is real, rather than what is fake.

It is as if this point is his awakening — that he longs for something more meaningful, and senses it exists. But, instead of choosing the meadow, he chooses another show — one more opulent, more grand. He chooses the opera, the very epitome of drama, and its promise of high society and respect — the opposite to his time in the circus where he was loved by the common people.

Not long into his tour with his opera star, he realizes he has mistaken what “real” is, and his journey ends in sorrow for all who know him.

Realizing all he has lost, Barnum returns home long enough to revive his circus, but he has understood that the circus is no longer what he desires — now he chooses the meadow. He retires from his role as ringmaster, and chooses to spend the rest of his days with his family.

A wonderful reminder that the meadow was always there, and is always there if we can let go of the allure of the circus of the mind.

Winter – A Love Story

I have fallen in love with a most unexpected candidate. It happened, as love often does, over a period of time. There was a stroll in the park where, among the naked trees, I walked through a gallery of a hundred different-shaped pieces of art — summer homes curated by mocking birds, starlings, cardinals and robins, and now abandoned in the crooks where barren branches meet bare trunks.

There was that morning where I woke up to a blanket of white that turned the concrete yard into Monet’s snow scene, and the smell of ice on rivers 120 miles north engulfed my nostrils snuffing out the odor of exhaust and subways.

There was the night so crisp and clear that it felt possible to just reach my hand up, pluck the moon out of the sky and pop it into my mouth, knowing it would have tasted of mountain tops and honeysuckle. And underneath Capella I wished for better mittens so I could stay out just another hour.

Winter…I had never expected to like it, let alone love it. The final straw, however — the one that led to the fall — was the flash of red of a downy woodpecker’s head against a snowy bough, the scarlet wing of a male cardinal, and the cornflower blue of six blue jays at the feeder. When the Earth lays herself bare, when the curtains of leaves have gone, when the canvas becomes shades of white and grey, another beautiful world can be seen.

I’d missed it all — for years I’ve hibernated the minute the Christmas gifts are unwrapped until the yellow of daffodils trumpet the arrival of spring (which in the North East U.S. can be four long months).

Years ago I had started writing a poem about a summer fairy who sleeps all winter, and therefore misses the season’s treasures. Yesterday, bizarrely, I came across it yellowing in an old box as I was clearing out a closet. Perhaps it wanted to be found. Now that I have begun to see the gifts of winter, I might just be able to finish writing it.

Coming Home to Ourselves

In the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, homesickness was considered a serious illness. Its symptoms were nervousness and melancholy, and unfortunately for patients, doctors argued there really was no cure, other than simply to “go home” and see if it passed.

With the advent of global travel, the idea of homesickness, however, became almost juvenile—something children experience at camp perhaps—and the notion that ‘home’ is more of a feeling than a place lost credibility altogether.

I’m intrigued by homesickness simply because I have never really felt ‘at home.’ It’s a sentiment I know a lot of people share. It’s difficult to describe, but it has a quality of mild unease, of feeling unsettled, off-center perhaps, or a little ungrounded—like there is some place you belong, but you’re not sure it even exists.

This feeling of being homesick is simply an experience along a soul’s journey, and our awareness of it becomes a turning point.
Initially I assumed it was just a side effect of moving around, or not having a partner or family of my own, but as those boxes were ticked and the feeling remained, it became clear that that wasn’t it either. Where was this so-called ‘home’ that I felt but could not find?

The answer came to me on the wings of Shamanic wisdom. There this feeling of being homesick is simply an experience along a soul’s journey, and our awareness of it becomes a turning point. According to the Shaman, we arrive in the world complete, but as we move through life we begin to energetically discard parts of ourselves. Sometimes that is by choice. The things we learn not to like, we disown—a part of our body that we perceive to be ugly; our desires, anger, or emotions that we were once chastised for. And sometimes it is through no choice of our own that parts of us leave. It is said that during traumatic experiences pieces of our soul become so frightened that they scatter.

If we wondered whether a place called home even exists, the Shaman says that yes it does, and our hunch was right—it is not outside of ourselves. It is our soul. The homesick feeling we sense actually belongs to the discarded pieces of our soul calling out to us to be found and welcomed back. Our job is therefore simply to gather those scattered pieces and invite them back in.

How do we do this? In the dictionary, one of the definitions for home is “where we flourish, and where we originate from.” So how do we begin walking back around the outer reaches of the spiral towards the center gathering the pieces of ourselves as we go?

First we can simply breathe a sigh of relief. Just to have the awareness of being unsettled and the desire to feel whole is enough to alert our inner voice to begin teaching us the way. Then it becomes a personal journey of self-reflection—one that should be looked upon with awe, curiosity, and great love. We gather these lost pieces back to us only once, so, as spiritual teacher Matt Kahn says, “Whatever arises… Love that.”

There are many great spiritual practices and tools for uncovering the parts of us we have pushed aside, and there are many Shamanic rituals for soul retrievals, but here is one of my personal favorites.

Making a Nest

Birds have been symbols for pagans, shamans, seers, prophets, and native peoples all over the world. Their ability to be at home soaring in the heavens, and equally at home nesting in a bramble bush close to the earth reminds us that home is within us, not without us.

The practice of “making a nest” was shared with me recently to welcome in a new soul as I was having trouble conceiving, but what I soon realized was that this was a practice calling in the parts of myself that had been discarded and letting them know it was safe to return.

To begin, create an altar area or a small safe place in your home that seems inviting—if you have an altar already that would work.

Then, like a bird, begin to gather things to make a small nest. If you feel a connection to the Earth, you could forage for small sticks, feathers, stones, leaves, and pine cones. But you could also use seashells, crystals, yarn, or paper. It’s entirely your creation, so it can be whatever feels inviting and nurturing to you, and it can look however you choose.

The center of the nest can remain empty allowing room for whatever would like to come back to you, or you can place a symbol like a stone in your nest to as place markers.

Then, this is when our nest becomes an act of great self-care. Every day take time to speak, sing, or read to your nest. Perhaps you will feel called to add new things to your nest such as flowers, photos, trinkets, or gifts, and after a few weeks you may also feel inspired to clean the nest, move it, or re-do it entirely.

As your sense of care and love for this small symbol of your soul grows, notice how parts of yourself you had forgotten arise in your awareness now feeling safe enough to come back in.

Pray Always, and All Ways

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust.com)

A few weeks ago, while poring over another medical study showing that mindfulness improves cardiovascular health, I came across something in the details. According to the data, a lot of us are praying. Yet an extensive survey recently found that the American public is becoming less religious.

Dr. John Younge and the rest of the study’s researchers made the uncommon decision to include ‘prayer’ as a mindfulness practice. Not only that, but they chose “only to include prayer that was not part of a group religion”—so as not to have the positive social aspect of group religion influence the results.

Of the 15,000 respondents who qualified as having a mindfulness practice, almost half said that this non-religious prayer was their activity. It wasn’t many in total—a little more than 1 percent of people surveyed in fact—but extrapolate that across the world’s non-religious population, and it could well end up being tens of millions of people. And if tens of millions of non-religious people are talking to their version of God as a daily practice, why are we not talking more about this? Do we believe that praying is only for the religious? Are we worried that we will be co-opted by a religion if we pray? This occurred to me last year, when my 97-year-old grandma—who has no patience for religion, but who has also never given a jot what people think of her—whispered to me over a cup of tea: “Don’t tell anyone… But I pray.”

“Prayer purifies, elevates, and transforms us. It awakens our souls.” – Michael Berg

Personally, I don’t consider myself part of a religion, but I am a pray-er. Since I was young, much to my atheist parents’ dismay, I just loved speaking to God. I had no idea who God was, or that “God” has religious connotations. Indeed, I had no idea what religion or “connotations” meant—I was only seven. But I felt “God’s” existence, and, given that God was apparently not at my house, or my school, prayer seemed the only means to be in touch.

“Dear God, I’m very thankful for this lovely family you gave me, but please can you come down from the sky and get me now?” was the nightly prayer I recited with my nose pressed against the bedroom window. And before falling asleep I would imagine myself curling up in the arms of one of the many images I had of God in my mind—An owl, the ocean, a faerie mermaid, the Kraken, a star, a giant egg, and three towering men with heads as made of cities.

Who are we praying to?

Over the years, when it became apparent that God was not sending a spaceship to collect me, I had to make the journey to her/him/it/them/us myself. And so the God of my prayers has changed names as I have studied and practiced my way through mystical and spiritual teachings. I’ve prayed to the Divine, the Universe, Oneness, the Great Mystery, the Mother, the I Am That I Am, Shiva, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Mary, Spirit, Allah, Source, and God again… Each one possesses different qualities for me but ultimately are all bridges that lead me to the same place.

Why do we pray?

Author Michael Berg says the reasons aren’t important. “Rather, realize that prayer is an immensely worthwhile end in itself: a spiritual tool for opening channels of Light… Prayer purifies, elevates, and transforms us. It awakens our souls,” he says in his book on Kabbalistic wisdom, The Way

Prayer awakens my soul. While I cherish meditation for the expansion and peace that it brings me, prayer is the only practice I know of that allows me to express the vast love inside me that claws at my chest, yearning to get out. It is like my namaste on rocket fuel—an uncontrollable urge in me to bow down and say to the Universe, and to all who live in it: “Thank you, I love you, I love you, I love you….”

What are we praying for?

Brené Brown says she prays for love and light. Mark Nepo says he asks what use and bridge he can be. Gabby Bernstein encourages praying for guidance. Michael says to pray for others. And Meister Eckhart? According to this philosopher: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

I’ve had my concerns about prayer. Does praying to God somehow mean we are placing this divinity outside of ourselves? Separating ourselves from the “source” in the way that religions do? I wrote to Deepak Chopra once to ask his opinion, and he assured me it was perfectly OK. “If one has a natural disposition for reverence and devotion, then it makes much more sense to be devoted to the Divine as an object rather than devotion to one’s divine self,” he said. Essentially, we should pray the way that suits us best.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an 18th century scholar and mystic, goes as far as to say that prayer is actually how we discover that the presence of the Divine is inside of us—by endowing us with the power of prayer, God gives us the opportunity to experience His presence in the most intimate way. We discover this presence is not somewhere up in the sky when we look out from our window, but actually within ourselves.

If that is the case, then why wouldn’t we pray? It’s not only healthy for our hearts, it’s good for our souls.

How do we pray?

Over the years the expression of my prayers has evolved. During my time learning yoga, my prayers emerged as a sensual dance for Shiva. In my study of Sufism, my prayers expressed themselves as amateur guitar songs. Immersed in paganism, I planted my prayers in the form of flowers. Throughout Buddhism, the paintbrush was my medium. For Krishna, I have always chanted.

Palms together, kneeling down, in silence, out loud, singing, dancing, painting, chanting—while serving others, writing, gardening, in meditation, or upside down in headstand—it’s all a prayer if we intend it to be. Whatever we do to honor our hearts, and to find connection with whatever it is we believe in, is always—without exception—the perfect way to pray.