Alcatraz and Houdini

Looking across the Bay from the San Francisco Marina to Alcatraz, it’s impossible not to juxtapose the vast openness, all sunshine and gently lilting ripples, with the dark stone walls and dull metal bars that is Alcatraz. Before the somber construction, the island must have been filled with song and light. Now, the stain of human misery will probably never be washed away. I dream of bringing a sackful of sage and brushing away the heavy energy. But air and water have not done the job yet. 

To claim this gorgeous piece of land in the middle of one of the most beautiful bodies of water, then to build a prison to keep hundreds of men locked against the smell of the sea and the touch of the wind – was it cruelty? Evil? A spiritual, emotional, and intellectual darkness, for sure. 

Humans love their prisons. Writing odes to freedom, giving blood for freedom, yelling the word into microphones, strumming guitars or carrying guns, we claim this deep desire while we build prison walls around ourselves.  Gibran said, “There are none so chained as those who would be free,” and it seems as if the very constant cry for liberation is indication of how free we are not. 

But perhaps this is the whole point of incarnation. To lock ourselves up and see if we can set ourselves free. An experiment on a grand scale. Let’s build the prisons, catch ourselves in the traps, tangle into nets – create laws, relationships, customs, unwritten rules, religious doctrine, financial mores – then see if we can be free anyway. Put ourselves into complicated straight jackets, lock ourselves into unbreakable tanks, throw away the keys, then set ourselves the task of liberation. 

Seen in this light, it’s almost exhilarating. If my body is locked up, what part of me is still free? If I lose my mind in complicated traps, what part of me is still free? If my spiritual dogma is a set of maze-like contradictions, where can I turn to for peace? If love is twisted into crazy coils, how do I open my heart? Like the most difficult crossword puzzle, the most complicated sudoku, puzzles without a solution – it becomes a challenge that might turn me on. 

Who needs everlasting peace, joy, and beauty? Boring. Now that dark island is a symbol of human ingenuity, what sets us apart from the angels. We have set ourselves the challenge of incarnation into incarceration. What part of us is still free? 

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Once, many years ago, when I was wondering what to do with all my many vulnerabilities, I was given some advice: share them. It’s a hard piece of advice to follow, especially these days when everyone is full of spiritual sayings and uplifting poems. Amidst pictures of spring growth and rainbows arcing above death sites, I hesitate to share my darkness. This journal, however, has much of that, and each post, it seems, seems to come to some wholesome conclusion – usually the same one, since there is only one. So here I am, during this pandemic of 2020, sharing my vulnerabilities. May it do some good to someone. Or at least to me.

This month has been a mix of many things. Much gratitude, quite frankly, for the quiet that has descended upon the world and on me. I was a little desperate before, running from thing to thing in a completely unbalanced manner. I knew it at the time and, when it ended, I was aware of how much good it would do me to relax into this end of all movement.

I live alone. I have seen offspring and partner for a few days each, but I spend my days in a one-bedroom in SF, alone. I work online. I talk with friends on the phone. We are running out of things to say to each other. Not much angst to share these days. None of us wants to talk about the political nonsense playing out in the country, and everything is tinged with that. Sometimes, I wonder if the sorrow and rage I cannot feel now will come bursting out of me when things go back to “normal.”

SNL had a great sketch about all the clichés we are using these days. I’m trying not to. I feel a little nauseous when I hear one. Stuck in a time warp, we go round and round in the same conversations, using the same words, in the same tone. Silence on the phone is nothing at all and, in this larger silence, would be a terrible acknowledgement of how over things are, so we babble on. I do my share until I can’t anymore, grateful that people still want to talk to me. I have been a very connected person. I love people. I miss them now. I miss their hearts, their laughter. Their sarcasm. Their fear. Their different sentences. Their faces and hands. I miss looking into the eyes of someone with whom I am talking and seeing there, so beautiful, something else – soul, heart, divinity, whatever.

Last December, during some healing work that I do, I came to the understanding that it was now time to work – almost exclusively – on my relationship with myself. This isn’t new, of course, it has been a theme for years. But now it became more – more real, more urgent, more possible. Es tiempo ya. I have tried, since then. On March 16, I was given the time and space to focus.

I have had time to mull…over and under and in between.

One of the things I do – for better or for worse – is evaluate and re-evaluate my mothering capabilities. As in the case of my own offspring. Thanks to the work I do, in both my work spheres,  I am given the opportunity to see myself as mother. I have no idea if my recollections of being a younger mother are true or not – we color our memories with our narratives about ourselves. But I have come to this, and it feels true: As children of some really bad parenting, younger baby-boomers and older GenXers have tried really, really hard to not make the mistakes our parents made. Umpteen hours of therapy and a zillion hours on the mat have gone into making sure that we don’t torture our children as we were tortured. Yes – a strong word. I have realized, however, that while we have been careful not to treat our kids like our parents treated us, we didn’t realize that we treat our kids in the same way we treat ourselves – we talk to them, touch them, respond to them as we talk to ourselves, touch ourselves, respond to our own needs. It wasn’t, then, my relationship with my children I needed to work on, it was my relationship with myself. That would have translated to better parenting. That would have helped me avoid some of the mistakes I made. The lack of gentleness when it was needed. The fierce drive to be better all the time.

Yikes. Is it too late?

I feel as if I am changing in this alone time. In the space with my partner, I feel stronger than I have ever felt before. The change is happening deep inside. It has to do with living alone in the midst of this silent chaos and breathing in and breathing out without opportunities for deflection, transference, or projection. This sudden nowhere to go and nothing to do – I would still exchange it gladly, but I will miss it a lot, as well.

I hate to admit it, but I have been terrified of getting the COVID-19 virus. It’s the weirdest thing – how afraid I have been. When I talk to others, I say, “Keep an eye on all things scientific.” Which I try to do. If I have not been exposed in the last few weeks, and I probably haven’t been, then I most probably don’t have the virus. (The amount I say I would pay for a good test keeps going up. It’s in the thousands now. :)) When all this began in the middle of March, I got extremely tired. It frightened me so much that I was light-headed and in serious stress for a while. I had a headache for two days this week, and it totally freaked me out. It hasn’t stopped. On and off through the weeks, I have gone to this place. At other times, I’m fine. Walking, writing, singing, working. But now and then, this terrible fear.

It isn’t cool to admit that I’m afraid of dying. Oh – plenty of advice about this. I won’t bother to write any. I’m probably guilty of such nonsensical talk myself. Every spiritual blah-blah has a bunch of yada-yada about this. As my mother kept saying when she was out of it on her deathbed, “ok-ok.” Not sure what she meant, but it’s a good mantra said in different voices and accents as the situation calls for. OK OK. Truth be told, nothing we say about this makes a jot of difference and it’s more respectful not to say anything at all.

Last night, waking up from a bad dream and feeling the mild headache that convinces me I have the virus, I decided to investigate. Not that I haven’t tried. But this was the middle of the night when such investigations yield more.

What am I really afraid of? Not of dying. I’m not cool or strong, it’s just that I can’t possibly imagine dying well enough to be afraid of it. The ‘unknown” is just that. I can’t be afraid of what I don’t know. I can make up stories, but I have no idea. So no – that’s not it.

Being alone and sick. Here it is. The bitch of it is that it’s going to happen one way or another, and I am fucking terrified.

I spent much of my childhood in extreme illness. I had diphtheria when I was almost 5, and was in bed at home for 6 months, after which all my internal organs and my skeletal system were a complete mess. It took me years – decades, actually – to overcome some of the fall out. It was a bacterial disease of the lungs. I don’t remember much of the “during,” only plenty of the “after.” And an aunt gave me a copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” which changed my life. Or created it, really. I have some memories of that time. Of my family having to take great precautions not to catch this from me. Of adults worrying about me. These things I remember. But somewhere in my psyche is this experience of being terribly sick. What I don’t remember is my own fight with the darkness; I don’t have even a glimpse of it. But it’s got to be there – we know this is how it works.

In the next many years, I caught a lot of stuff. Childhood diseases such as mumps. Many episodes of flu when I remember being in extremis. Very high fever, delirium, horrendous fear. Some of it, I remember. Much of it is buried.

In my older teens, I got malaria. Twice. Horrible horrible. High fevers, delirium, vomiting. Quinine – the worst. I knew that soldiers had to take quinine, so when I was vomiting in the bathroom, I thought of them and felt some comradeship. Easier to think of being a soldier and vomiting quinine than being an 18 year old vomiting her intestines.

Two things about all this. One was that my mother was the best nurse ever. She was wise, strong, kind. She fed me, bathed me, held me, talked to me when I was delirious. I remember her sitting by me when I woke up screaming. She is not here anymore to do any of this for me.

The second is that these were the ONLY times when my mother was wise, kind, comforting. The only times when she was gentle with my body and loving in her speech. I suspected, later, that I had willed myself to be sick over and over so that I could experience this mother. I am so grateful to her.

When I left home at 22, I stopped getting sick. I mean, I never got sick again. Like…at all. Maybe a mild flu sometimes, when I would take a couple of days off from work and come back bright and shiny. I see an Ob/Gyn occasionally, but have almost no other relationships with doctors. I don’t know who my primary care physician is these days – I think my insurance company has assigned one to me. I am, given my age and the stuff that has happened to me, incredibly healthy.

I don’t want to contract this virus. I don’t want to not be able to breathe, to be so tired I can’t get out of bed, to cough and cough until I’m exhausted. Without my mother to make me turmeric milk (yech??), without her arm to hold me as I walk to the bathroom, without her keeping the others out of my room and keeping the family quarrels to a minimum while I am kept quiet because of my tendency to flip into horror, I am not sure I’ll make it. Forget making it. I don’t think I can stand it.

When my mother was dying, I signed a DNR and refused a ventilator her nurses wanted very much to connect to her lungs. It wasn’t a “we” decision – I made it alone. I don’t cry about that – I never have. We make decisions as we can with the data and advice we have at hand. Life isn’t so special that it needs to be kept going by machines. I don’t know – will never know – whether it was the ‘right’ thing to do. Only that, as part of my own contract with myself, I need to be kind about it. I am. But the irony of fearing that very ventilator now is not lost on me.

In the final few days of my mother’s life, I listened to her call for her mother. Prolonged  delirium – I hope it was comforting to cry out for help. I hope her mother came to her and soothed away her fears. I have little doubt that I will remember my mother’s calm caring when I am really ill again. That the illness will come – there is no doubt. I hold it off for now, masks and gloves, six feet away at all times, sitting at home with my laptop, my shruthi box, my Roku. But it will come.

These days, I have the time to (try to) make my peace with it.

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Rough Winds

the wind blows rough these days
gales and hurricanes 
sucking and spitting

What can I be in all this blowing?

a bird 
catching the air
under wings meant for this

a large turtle
under water
doing the slow crawl

An ant
busy anyway
building and breaking 

feeding on the wind
feeling my strength

the ocean
roaring rising
foam line lapping
at my fear

a woman
missing my child
holding big space
when I can

Loves, you all,
the world is in good hands
not ours

fly, why don’t you
feel that wind
against your skin

while you hold
the steady center 
with your heart
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A Buddhist Tale Retold

Once upon a time and long, long ago, when Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as the Buddha, Enlightened One, walked the land preaching the Four Noble Truths in small villages under broad-leaved trees in Northern India, a young woman, struggling under the weight of a small boy she bore in her arms, approached him as he sat teaching a circle of men. The boy was her son, and he was dead.

The talk in the circle was quiet and methodical, each man taking his turn with great respect for the authority of the man in the center. If the tingle of ambition made itself felt in the desire to one-up one’s neighbors, it was quietly buried in the bones. The Four Noble Truths were followed by the Eight Fold Path, which left no room for arrogant speech. It was a land of male philosophers, a place of heady delving into the nature of the universe, a society of mind blowing discussion of quantum truths and their implications for mankind. The woman with the dead son, bedraggled with the stink of sorrow oozing out of her pores, had never taken part in such a conversation as the one she was interrupting under that dark-leaved tree, because women in this land were given the task of keeping the bodies of men going while their minds dissected arcane philosophical theories.

So it was a startling intrusion – the woman with the dead boy. More startling for the tears and the snot and the unbraided hair and the knees that would not straighten all the way. More, even, for the sounds coming out of the woman’s mouth – not words, no linear reasoning to be got from this half screech half moan, not loud but deafening to those who were unused to such raw drama. One man – probably the one used to leading because of an election, or maybe just a natural leader – jumped to his feet – he was still young enough to do this in one swift motion – and put his arm out against the creature who did not belong in this group. The arm wasn’t threatening; it was meant instead to protect the Enlightened One from that which was foreign and could possibly swallow the gentle saint who had spent so many years fasting and then so many years begging for scraps off others’ tables.

The arm halted the woman’s approach and a murmur rose from the circle of men. Some yelled at her, “You are disturbing our conversation.” Some asked each other, “Who is she?” No man owned up to owning her. Was she from another village – stranger than a stranger, walking from god knows where with an unclean burden in her arms? The dead are not to be brought into polite company. Once one man realized what it was the woman held, the murmur became almost a roar. But the wandering Teacher held up his right hand and the obedient group fell silent, expectation straightening spines and opening wide eyes that waited for the noble Beggar to set things right.

“What do you want, sister?” asked Gautama. The years of breathing slowly had done their work and calm curiosity won over agitation or surprise. He rose from his seat in the circle and walked to the woman, laying his hand on the arm that held her back so that the protector was reminded who was in charge here and went back to his place. “Sister” was better than “mother” in this group. It awarded sympathetic equality. But she was a mother. Had been a mother. That was the point.

Snot and eyes raised up to gaze at the one who was called holy, who said he had all the answers, who claimed good news for mortals. “My son is dead,” she said, and despite the mess, her voice carried a demand, even a challenge. “Since you are a holy man, since you are loved by the gods, since everyone says you have understanding of the Atman and Brahman, I have come to beg you to bring him back to life.” Despite the knees that all but buckled under the boy’s weight, despite the unkempt hair and unwashed sari, there was little of the beggar confronting the Sage.

Complete silence in the circle now. Was this woman sent by the gods to test this man who called himself a Teacher? Does debating and discussing Life give one the power to control it? Does a lifetime of deep meditation give one power over the gods or at least the fates?

Siddhartha was quiet. His face softened, his shoulders slumped a little. He went back to his seat under the Tree and was silent for long minutes, his eyes closed. Some men sought to emulate this stance – it seemed a noble response to such a display of the lower emotions. But many could not help staring at his soft face, squirms of disappointment rising in their bellies. The woman stood still, a little shocked at this lack of response.

The wind moved some fallen leaves, a cow mooed somewhere. Twilight would come in minutes, and the dark, as it always does, began to descend more quickly. The Tree under which all this was unfolding seemed to hold its breath. How would the Wise One respond? Had all his austerities amounted to nothing? Abandoning his family, abdicating his throne, leaving his lands, breaking his mother’s heart – what had he exchanged it all for? In all our lives there comes a moment when we know, for certain, whether the learning has been enough and of the right kind; whether the path traveled has been true or if it has been a wasted journey. Here, it seemed, was the test of Siddhartha’s decisions since he had driven out of his father’s palace with the faithful Channa.

One more breath, an eternity, and the Buddha’s eyes opened. It was clear that there were tears, and no attempt to brush them away. Even a cow’s face was not so soft as this man’s as the twilight darkened the shadows under the tree. “I will help you,” he said, and the men gasped. Were they to witness a true miracle? Had a god really come down to be with them? “But first, you must do something for me.”

Mothers and sisters know this truth – there is always something to be done before the gifts are given. But what could be too much to ask for such a gift? Hope flared in the woman’s heart and rose into her face and eyes like dawn breaking after the darkest night. “I will do anything,” she said, confidently. “Anything at all.” She would have bowed, but her arms were very full.

“Go back home,” said the Enlightened One. “Come back in three days and bring me a cup of raw rice obtained from a family that has known no death. Then, I will do as you wish.”

If a woman could dance on buckling knees, she would have. If heartbreak could allow singing, she would have sung while she danced. As it was, she left that circle with her chest so much lighter and, as she walked into the darkening road, her stomach rumbled. Hunger, for the first time since her boy had suffered and died so many lifetimes ago.

It took four days instead of the three he asked for, but Siddhartha Gautama did not leave the place. He slept under the tree, washed himself in the river, meditated long hours, and sometimes visited the village temple where he sat quietly and smiled at everyone who came in. He begged for his food, going to one door on a single street each evening. The nights were cool, and he was offered a bed by many householders, but he preferred the base of the tree and his orange cloth for a blanket. And every evening, a crowd of men would gather to listen to him teach, to ask questions about how his new ways met the ways that had always been, and to wait for the great miracle they would witness when the woman came back with her son. The crowds were larger every evening and, on the third evening, even the women joined the circle, sitting in a group on the outside, listening but also playing with their babies and comparing clothes. It was almost a festival. But the Seeker of miracles did not appear.

On the fourth evening, the crowds had fallen away, and the village went on with its chores. Some men, the die hard philosophers, probably bored with pre-dinner routines or some still hungry for what they could not grasp, came to sit with the Wise One. It was a smaller circle and conversation turned a bit dilatory. Dusk was beginning to drop onto the Tree when a figure stood at the rim of the circle – hesitant, careful, her head bowed, her arms empty. Her hair was combed into a bun at the back of her head, her sari was tied in place, her forehead marked. She smelled faintly of coconut oil.

A murmur from the men brought everyone’s attention around, but the Teacher was already on his feet and inviting her to join them. As he sat down, the woman prostrated herself at his feet. His hands touched her shoulders and he said, “Sister, you cannot bow to me. You are the Teacher today. Come, sit with us and tell us your story.”

Women of child-bearing age do not tell their stories to a circle of men, but this was a different circle. His gentle respect made it so. She took a place by his side and tried to bring some words out. Instead, the men had to wait for her tears to run themselves out. They were not used to waiting for women to finish crying and several fidgeted or looked at each other. But the Buddha sat quietly, his eyes closed, waiting, and so they had to, too. At last her sobs quieted and the woman began to speak. Softly, so the men had to lean forward. Slowly, so they had to wait for every word. Many did what they had been taught – breathing in, breathing out, watching their minds go crazy. Others forgot to breathe. Those were early times in the Teaching.

“I was so happy,” she began, “when you told me you would help me. I went home that night with a light in my heart. You are so wise and so gentle, I thought, he will never let me down now that he has promised. It took me almost the whole night to walk home and my husband was angry with me. When I told him that I had seen the great wandering Teacher and our son would live again in three days, he shouted at me that I had gone mad. But I was sure of your promise. Early the next morning, I washed myself and went to the house next door. I took a cup of sugar with me, because I cannot ask for something without giving something in exchange.

The woman next door is a good person. She has three healthy sons and a good husband, so I thought, that’s a house of good luck. A cup of rice from there will surely do the trick. I went in and we spoke for a while. She knew my son had died and it is not our custom to go out so soon after a death. But, as I said, she was a good woman and she let me in to her house. I said to her, I have brought you a cup of sugar. Can I exchange it for a cup of raw rice? She was surprised, most of all because sugar is so much more valuable than rice, and it wasn’t a fair exchange. But she didn’t say anything. She just went in and brought me a cup of rice, and I gave her my cup of sugar. As I was leaving, as if she couldn’t help herself, she asked, “Why do you need the rice? Have you run out?” And I told her my story – how I had come here and asked for your help and how you had told me to bring you a cup of raw rice from a house that has not known death. “Your family is so healthy and prosperous,” I said. “No hint of darkness has fallen over you like it has over our house. So I am taking this rice to the Holy One and he will bring my son back to life.”

“Oh my dear,” my neighbor said. “You should have told me this earlier. Mine is not the rice that will do the trick. Don’t you know? I lost a sister when I was thirteen, many years ago. We were so close, and I loved her as if she was my self. But she got sick and died, and I have mourned her ever since. I still cry at night sometimes, wishing she could be here, wishing she could meet my fine sons and share my life as we were meant to share in everything.”

We had to exchange cups again, and I took my sugar with me, feeling so sad for my friend who had lost her sister. Because my son had been taken so recently,  my own wound was fresh, and I cried with her. I will treat her as my sister now, knowing who she mourns.

I went to the house on the other side of our home. There, a woman who is not very nice to the others on the street lives with her husband and only one daughter. We all say that she is always in a bad mood because she has no sons. But I thought, who cares if she is mean to me, I’ll just ask for some rice and leave. So I asked. but this time, she asked “Why do you need it?” right away, and I told her the truth, thinking she would laugh at me. But instead, her eyes became like stones, and she said, “You cannot have rice from this house. It will do you no good.” Her voice was rough and her words came out like little knives. “I lost my parents when I was six years old. It was during the riots, and I was in the kitchen when two men came in and hacked my parents to pieces. They didn’t see me because I hid under a tablecloth. But I watched them and I still can’t forget the sight of my mother’s blood seeping into the floor from her neck, her eyes wide open. Life is cruel and wretched. Get over it.” I could hardly breathe when I heard her story. My mother is safe in the next village, and I depend on her for everything. How would I feel if someone hacked her to pieces? I was so afraid and sad, I almost vomited. “I am so very sorry,” I told my neighbor. “I didn’t realize how strong you are, and how brave, to live with that memory all your life.” And I almost wanted to give her my cup of sugar, because I had nothing else to give, but I didn’t. Even as I left, I have promised myself to become her friend and to protect her from the others when they are mean to her. I was amazed at how much I didn’t know about the people who lived so close to me.

I tell you, I went to sixteen houses in our village. They have started to call me the sugar-rice lady, which is quite funny and makes me laugh. Nobody could give me rice. One woman had just lost her husband. Another was extremely happy because her mother-in-law had just died, but I couldn’t accept her rice either. I met four women who had lost children just like my son. We cried so much. In every house except the house with the dead mother-in-law, I wanted to cry and sometimes I did. But in the house of the women who lost their children, I wept. And they wept with me. So much water flowing out of our eyes, it’s a wonder the village isn’t flooding. I met older women who have carried their grief all their lives, like tumors inside their bellies. I met girls who mourned mothers, fathers, brothers, best friends. Girls who will turn into old women who carry their grief in their bellies. No one, it seems, escapes this fate. It is not only me.

Two days I spent in this way, wandering around like a sadhu with a begging bowl full of sugar. No one would take it. All that sweetness in a bowl could not get me the one thing I wanted.

On the third day, I woke my husband up early. We bathed, and then we bathed the body of our son. I loved him as I bathed his body. I cried as I sang him his favorite songs. Even my husband cried a little. Then we carried him to a priest by the river and there, we consigned him to the flames. It took many hours. As I watched the flames eat my love, I prayed for all the people I had met. Their stories were so fresh inside me, they poured out with my tears, and I asked the gods to keep the lost ones safe, to help us cope as we lived without them.

At the end of that day, we took the ashes that we collected from the pyre and we put them into the flowing river. The priest said, “turn your back on the ashes” and we did. Now my son is gone, and I will have to live without him. Our son has gone, and we will have to live without him. It is very sad.”

The circle of men was completely still. Inside their bodies, their hearts were beating too hard, inside their lungs, breath was clogged with tears. One man spoke into the silence. “Is that it? Is there all there is? No miracle to save the dying?”

The Buddha did not reply. He turned, instead, to the woman who sat beside him. “Is that all?” he asked her.

“Everyone dies,” she said, looking at the man who had asked a question. “And everybody mourns. We all have grief. We live with it and we die with it.”

There was a silence of maybe six breaths as the news sank in. “So what’s the point, Guru?” asked another man, looking at the Gautama, who once again turned to his Sister.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know if there is a point. It’s just sad. But I feel like a new person today. I have met a lot of very good people, and I want to live with them. I want us to take care of each other. I didn’t think I could laugh when I was so sad, but I did, when someone said something that was funny. I didn’t know many people in my village, and I didn’t like some of those I knew. I know almost all of them now, and I like them. I care about them. I want to be their friend. I don’t know if that is a point.”

The silence now was complete, and it wasn’t broken by anything. The sound of the water pump in the village filtered into the quiet, a hand pushing the squeaky handle up and down to the rhythm of the breath. Some voices were heard – a mother calling a child, a child replying. A breeze shushed in the Tree above.

The woman turned to the Gautama and, bringing her hands together near her heart, she said, “I thank you for your wisdom, Teacher.” The Buddha, with his hands together by his heart, responded, “I thank you for your courage and understanding, Dear One.”

The next morning, the Wanderer was gone from the village, making his way to another circle under another Tree with another group of people.

* * *

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Song Wisdom

It has been a bad time all around. Border wars, incarcerated children, terrorist attacks, dank corruption – the usual painful crap that serves as current affairs these days. I feel a deep pain in my chest and in my belly, as if a sharp object has found its way in – but really, it’s the pain of an open heart – I have been trying to keep it open despite the urge to simply shut down and go about my life as if nothing else exists.

I am atoms that are gently joined to form molecules that gather into a loose form that I call my ‘self.’ There is a song from the Upanishads that tells me all that I am Not. Not the intricacies of my thoughts, not the sound of my singing, not the gross body and not the ethereal body either. Not sin nor the opposite of sin – do we have a word for that in English? Not the scriptures. Not the food I eat nor the hunger I feel for the food. Not my caste or my creed, neither friend nor foe – you get the picture. The end of that passage says that I am, in fact, formless, deedless, without character, able to neither die nor live in the sense that we know it. I am eternal, free, boundless – what we would call god. What we might know as Love.

The Buddhists do a similar “not this nor that” thing. The Sufis go right to the heart of it – Allah Hoon, they sing – I am god. Imagine singing that and believing it. (Wondering if the Muslims gunned down yesterday in Christchurch were saying the words? Allah Hoon, blessed be.)

Underneath skin and bones? Underneath the gunk that is my trauma-scarred psyche? The unbearable radiance of the goddess. Truth, Consciousness, Bliss.

When we hear the word ‘trauma,’ we think of abuse. Violence, sexual violence, the stuff that causes soldier-like PTSD. Or death – losing a loved relative such as a parent or child. Stan Grof adds to this repertoire with the ‘trauma of omission’ – not receiving what we need – love, attention, recognition, especially at a young age. He also adds the trauma of birth – pushing through the birth canal, almost dying, suffocating, being over stimulated, cord wrapped around the neck and such. The list of traumas is so long that I begin to wonder what doesn’t fit into it. And then I think – it isn’t so simple as the things that are done to us that hurt us and the missing out of certain important core experiences. It’s more pervasive that that, more universal.

Being human is a form of trauma for the soul – spirit – whatever you want to call it. Experiencing complete separation from whatever it left in order to be ‘born’ here – this deep loneliness synonymous with humanness – this forgetting of connection with what lies beyond – this is trauma enough without adding gunshots or forced oral sex.

I have forgotten my connections and am set adrift in a hostile world where everyone is as I am – afraid, confused, angry, grieving. There is no one who knows how this should go, no one to tell me which way to turn. It’s difficult to love these others because I am so very without my own love. I am told that I will feel love if I love them, but it seems impossible to reach out, when I am so cut off myself. It is as if my arms are severed at the elbow and the stumps are laughably, painfully ineffective at getting me what I want.

Out of this confusion, I am to make my way to what my heart desires. Asking what that is seems so risky that I would rather shut down the question and go through the motions of being alive. Money helps – it gives me the feeling of being someone and being safe. Food helps my body to feel as if it is the only need. Alcohol brings relief. Religion is the perfect lie that doesn’t take away the pain but helps me to blame it on various people and ideas.

One day, if I am lucky, the thought arrives: There is Light. If I am even luckier, and if I am willing to spend my life wondering about that Light, I find out that it is inside myself. That’s when the work really begins.

What a game it all is. As if the One thinks – can I hide my light in the darkest darkness, and will it find me if I wait long enough? I remember reading a fairy tale in which the ‘prince’ changes himself into a starfish and hides himself in the ‘princess’s’ hair. So she searches everywhere for him, and he is right in her hair all the while. I need to remember that the darkest darkness is in my own heart, contained in my own psyche, filling my own mind. Then I can stop moving – stop looking, stop trying, stop wishing, stop longing.

The first reaction to stillness is pain and grief – for so many things. Wasted time. Wasted love. Decades of cursing this life and world. Lifetimes of loneliness. I know what to do with this – the Holotropic way – breathe into it and make it bigger. Trust that this pain is right and that it will heal me. It all but kills.

We have given the One many names (and many pronouns). The Ancients dealt with pain, loneliness, confusion, rage, fear… by chanting these names. This singing of names is not a beseeching for favors, it is a way to remember the names because we are prone to forgetting. It is a way of bringing the sounds into the chest and the lungs and the mind of the singer and the listener. Once, as I chanted the divine’s names, my mind began to wander. It was hard to keep track of the Sanskrit verses, and I wanted to come to the end of the song and be done. How many names does this bitch HAVE, I wondered. Then the nouns began to flow in parallel to my song – grass. trees. sand. throat. words. stones. rain. beach. river. home. food. feather. wonder. grief. gravel. mayhem. bullets. song. table. cloud. baby. zipper. face. nose. heart. cells. mitochondria. gravel. green. tongue. breath. laughter. medicine. rose. Made me crazy.

Another massacre somewhere and the hate in each of us get stimulated by our grief and despair. We see evil in the face of the shooter and we are quick to heap shit on this face in the attempt to proclaim our own innocence. That very separation that I have been trying to overcome is what I now want most of all. I cannot be associated with this level of hatred and confusion. It is not me. I say it loud and clear so that everyone can hear it, so that I can be sure of it. Get thee behind me, Satan! But it’s no go, for there is no ‘behind.’ – As another song says, the One is behind, in front, and beside – her light is the darkness, her love is the evil, her smile is the sound of a gunshot. It brings up my food to think of this – nowhere to hide, no one to blame. Only myself to come back to, to decipher, to connect to, to transform.

Can’t have it both ways. If I am not separate, then I need to own it All – hold it All. What I call the Light and the Darkness may not even be what I call them. Maybe even those two are only One.

Every morning I look in the mirror

force myself to say

this is the face of the goddess

would you like to cover up that wrinkle?

Every blog post I write is the same. What else is there to say?

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Day of the Dead

Holy Holy Mother of all

Pray for us now

At the hour of our death

Blessed be the weak in spirit

Blessed be the ones who hate

Blessed be the starving children

Blessed be the ones who take 

Blessed be those with the guns

Blessed those who are gunned down

Blessed be the haters and the hated

Holy Mother

Mother most blessed

Blessed be the Jews and the Gentiles

The Black the Brown and the White

Blessed the man who sleeps on the street

and the one with the golden bowl

Blessed the transgendered

the nongendered and too gendered

Blessed be the desert that is dying

The seas drying 

The animals who walk no more

Blessed be our hearts turned to ice

Our minds hardened to cages

Our fingers on the trigger

Our ink become blood

In your names this ask

May we remember them all

The syllables and sounds

May they stay on our tongues

In this time of darkness

May we remember your Light

Even as it is swallowed

By this terrible, triumphant gloom

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#MeToo, Or Maybe Not

San Francisco’s MUNI is a predictable source of triggers for more and more inner work. I never know what I’m going to confront in myself when I get on the bus. There’s a scene in the HBO show “Enlightened” when Laura Dern gets on a bus in LA and everybody on the bus has her mother’s face. It feels like every nuance of the psyche is reflected by strangers I ride with. I meet my fears, my jealousies, my curiosities, my compassion. Memories I haven’t noticed in a long time are jogged by someone’s bag or someone else’s half smile.

This morning, walking to the bus stop early for once, more relaxed than usual, I tried to listen to music on my earbuds, but it refused to load, so I thought maybe I needed to put that away and listen to the sounds around me instead. I caught an earlier bus than I usually do, asking the driver to open the door as he waited at a red light. At that time in the morning, I travel with the same people every day, all in our weekday routines. So this was a different bus crowd. Like being with someone else’s family.

I got on and sat on the long bench along the wall. Across and a bit up was a man wearing white sneakers. About a minute or so after I got on, he took off his shoes. Of course, this caught my interest. We learn to be pretty vigilant on the bus – often, men get on who are high and angry, and then we all need to figure out how to deal with a lot of yelling, swearing, bodily functions gone haywire, etc. I stared at the man’s feet, wondering what was about to happen. This is San Francisco – maybe he doesn’t believe in wearing shoes. Maybe he’s a Hindu and considers buses sacred spaces. His feet were raw and red. Maybe a rash. He was very careful to keep the shoes under his seat so no one tripped on them. This told me that he probably wasn’t high and probably wasn’t going to get crazy. I felt bad for his feet – the shoes must have really irritated them. I know the feeling well.

I guess he caught my eye – I don’t know what was on my face. I’m usually pretty poker faced in public, I think. I was completely startled when he began to talk to me – loudly, so the people around that area of the bus could hear. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me. “You are such a beautiful woman,” he said. “I’m a gay man, so I’m not…but you’re the most beautiful woman…your face…” Whatever. Freaked me out. I made eye contact with one person across the bus from me and then just shut down.

Time out here for a moment, before I go on about him. I have a long history of being harassed and intimidated on buses in India. Many women do, who have traveled on Indian city buses. Men have touched my breasts, butt, and all other body parts. Rubbed their hard-ons on my arm as they stood near where I sat. Spoken in loud voices about how I looked more like a man than a woman so that everyone was embarrassed, and I was ashamed. This happened so often and so invariably when I lived in India that I was pretty severely traumatized, although I did not have language for that in those days. After I came to the US and started going to therapy, I spent long hours sorting through the shame and fear and hate. It never quite goes away, although it does get easier to manage.

I’ve often worried that there’s something about me that acts as a magnet for this sort of thing and would gladly wear a burka when I travel in India. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt quite relieved to become more and more invisible, as older women are. I’ve even begun to give up my baggy clothes and no makeup look for clothes that make me feel more attractive and makeup that brightens me up a bit. I feel freer now that people leave me alone in public spaces. Germaine Greer expresses some anger about this aging-woman syndrome, but I have been really enjoying it.

Back to the #1 bus on my way to work. I sat with half-closed eyes (closed eyes attract more attention in public spaces) and hands folded on my backpack while the guy went on. “While, as for the rest of you,” he said to the others on the bus, “….” I sort of blanked it out. It wasn’t cursing, but it wasn’t complimentary. I don’t know what he had against everyone who wasn’t me. But then we heard more: About how he was coming to terms with his own death. And mourning the death of his mother. Now, a different facet of my attention tuned in. I wish I could remember his exact words, but his was a loud mumbling tirade. He’s dying, he’s sad, but he’s doing his work. That was it. Then he got quiet. We all did. The woman in front of me had her eyes closed. I breathed. Let my stomach relax, my chest, shoulders, knees, feet, forehead relax. In breath, out breath.

And my heart opened.

Recently, at a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, I heard Tav Sparks’ talk about “the vertical and the horizontal” (he calls it the Awareness Positioning System) which I’ve heard so many times, I thought that I knew every word. I’ve given the talk myself a hundred times at least. When a strong feeling is triggered, when a memory of trauma is awakened and begins to take over, when shame, anger, hurt, sorrow start to overwhelm because they have been prodded by something in the present, a way to work is to first allow the depths to open so that I become completely conscious of what is showing itself, and then I bring it up to my heart so that I can feel compassion for myself as I trudge this hard road (again), and then I offer up all that I feel, all that I am, to a higher power, to Source, to Spirit, to the Creator who engendered all this in the first place. That’s the method.

But I haven’t been doing that last part because – get this – I feel bad for bothering the higher Self with all my crap. It doesn’t feel fair to pollute the Source with my anger, hate, fear, and sorrow. That Source, that Spirit, that Mother, is so pure, so loving, so beautiful – it would be like spilling oil into the ocean. Also, this Spirit, Source, Creator, Mother is being called upon constantly by so many souls in need. Go anywhere, talk to anyone – everyone wants something. Help me, heal me, save me. I, a truly fortunate person with so many resources to rely on, have no reason to ask for anything. So I’ve left out that last part of the practice. And, without that last part, it’s all too fucking hard. It’s like practicing mindfulness without mentioning the transcendental – practice becomes sitting in one’s muck for hours, struggling to “let it go.”

This occured to me after Tav’s last talk, so I’ve been trying to cultivate an “offering up” practice. Trying not to get caught up in mind games of “to whom are you offering this?” and just opening outward. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so this Energy in my body – this pain, discomfort, love, joy – comes and goes. I recognize it as it shows itself in my body and my psyche, and I let it go back to its Source.

There’s more. All on a short muni ride.

Once, when in a Holotropic state, I learned what felt like a new idea. The Mother, who is the Source of all comfort, doesn’t DO anything. She watches. She sits. She cultivates her garden. She rides her tiger, dances her dances, sings her songs, heart open, eyes everywhere. But she doesn’t do anything … until asked. Of course, this is all a projection on my part – all my thoughts are, for who can know what the Mother does or does not do? But this is what I saw. It was a significant learning. For one thing, it brought up again this idea of asking – which, as I’ve said, I find somewhat obnoxious. But it makes sense for the One who helps to wait until asked. This connected nicely to all I have learned in my HB training. I did not mean to make this blog post about Tav, but I need to mention here that Tav has come up with a practice for Holotropic Breathwork facilitators that he calls “doing not-doing” – my vision of the One as “not-doing” was a powerful reinforcement of this practice of allowing things to happen, to unfold, to play themselves out and not interfering unless asked.

So I offered and I asked. Sitting, in the bus, in my discomfort, wishing for a burka, suddenly ashamed of my short morning makeup routine, then distracted from my own shame and embarrassment by the man’s struggle for clarity and what felt like his reaching out to me, I offered up the whole busload of stuff. His pain, his vulnerability as he traverses a city that could do him harm at any moment, the varied and probably highly nuanced discomfort that each of the riders was brought to feel, and most of all, my own long past of feeling shame that I exist at all – because if I weren’t present, there would be no one to make fun of on a bus, to rub against, to make lewd faces at, to pinch and poke. Giving all this up as an offering, I was able to find the courage to open up to my barefoot teacher for the day. I was able, then, to ask for help – for me, for him, for all of us. Help him to work with his sorrow at losing his mother. Help him to find what he needs. Heal his feet. Por favor.

Touch him, I thought. People need to be touched. Especially people who are losing their bearings a bit. So, as I left the bus, I got up a bit early and walked to him. I’m sure that we were watched, but I was determined to ignore that. I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he was going to be alright. A pretty futile question, but really, there are no words to bridge that gap. He was great. “I’m fine,” he said. He sounded as if he might be. “You are so beautiful, your face is so…” I left him then.

May the feet of men and women be free from sores. May our bodies be healed. May our hearts and minds be free to love. May we feel compassion for the pain of strangers. May we be safe when we reach out to them.

We are all so beautiful. I wish we could all be sure of that. I wish we could all be proud of that. I wish beauty didn’t become a thing to attack. The Darkness that propels some people to attack beauty by demeaning it – I offer it up to the Creator of all Beauty. May all women on buses be safe. May they be free. May they know their strength. May they be allowed to go in peace.

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Time to Cry

This recent shooting in Texas has me badly rattled. Right before it came the attack in NYC, and people I love the most in the world are in NYC every day. Then this. So many children died. For no reason whatsoever. Little babies having hardly tasted this life, are gone.

Before this year, I used to have a long commute to and from work. Alone in my car for at least two and a half hours every day, I had time to digest the goings on in the world and inside myself. When the Newtown shootings happened, I cried for days. Listening to NPR about Syrian refugees, I washed off all my make up for days. I hated the commute for many reasons and was seriously relieved when it ended. But now, I have no time to mourn the sorrows that keep on coming.

I take a bus to work every day and watch the people who ride with me. What tears are they holding back? I love seeing their eyes, their hands, their faces, their socks and shoes, the grey in their hair, the lipstick they have put on before leaving their various homes. I love that I am able to participate in their lives in this small way. That somehow, we are all together, making this ride every morning to our various jobs and back again when the day ends. But I can’t cry while on the bus. It wouldn’t work.

So I go about my day, doing my job. I work with children and with people who love children. In the innocence that saves us from the high anxiety that we ought to be feeling, we take them out to play and forget to be vigilant. Another day, another shooting, but life goes on, and we cannot afford to be bogged down by each horror perpetrated on strangers we would never have met anyway. The people in front of us, the work we need to do, is more immediately important and there’s hardly time for much else.There’s dinner to be made, friends to talk to, yoga classes.

But underneath, at least for me, the tears are building and sometimes, I am extra tired keeping them down. And sometimes I have no time for the fret and fuss of ordinary life, and sometimes I am so angry with the slow people in line in the supermarket or the person who talks too loudly in the airport. Sometimes, I want to cry so hard I could vomit. But I go about my day as if nothing is bothering me, smiling at people, doing the work I need to do, trying to be as efficient and constructive and thoughtful and helpful as I can be.

This way lies sickness.

Ask me what I wish for….here it is. A place where people gather to mourn about the sorrows that come their way, personal or otherwise. (What’s this “otherwise” anyway? Is it not a personal grief when children are gunned down by a madman?) I wish that we could all take a break from our busy-ness and sit together somewhere and speak what we feel. Not in a workshop setting in the mountains, not in a retreat center by the ocean, not in a circle of strangers come together for a weekend of transformation. But with the people we live with every day – our coworkers, friends, lovers, children. With our neighbors. I wish we could meet and say, I do not understand where the angels who are supposedly protecting little children have disappeared to. Did they forget that they have a charge? Forget to lock the doors? Forget to do their jedi magic and calm the mind that carries the guns? Could they not remember that it is their job to keep our children safe because we have forgotten how? Because we don’t have the power to do so anymore? I’ll tell you what’s eating me these days – the fact that none of us can say that our children are safe. This is the end of the world, truly.

And then, we can make some time to allow ourselves the luxury of a good, long, collective cry.

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Gratitude, #2

Can you feel it?


for how each drop of pain

like black fire

sinks into the heart

and explodes

into a zillion shining shards

so that all of you –

neck, shoulders, lungs, bowels –

is swallowed by agony

so that the mind can begin

its long wondrous swim

through brilliant realms

dive into the earth

where stars are born

and gods find their peace.

If the only god is

the broken open heart

how can you not feel grateful

that the world is such a very

cruel place?


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In the Arms of the Dragon

When one does a lot of NOSC work, Holotropic and other, it is imperative (we say) that the Traveler make time and space to go through an “integration” process – that is, be able to spend the time it takes to allow the new material, new lessons, new information gained to become a part of one’s life. This needs reflection time more than anything else, preferably without distractions such as jobs and family. Perhaps the Traveler could draw, sing, paint, walk, swim, meditate, pray – any activity that will allow what is latent to arise, what is undigested to be properly diffused into cells and tissue, what is not yet aligned to take its place in the whole. This is the prescription after every session – what we say, what we remind people to prepare for, what we insist is right practice.

In the 20 years during which I have been wandering this path, it has been both curse and blessing that my life is such that I have had almost no time to simply sit through a long integration process. Work and family have been all-consuming. The time away from both has been spent in NOSC session and taking more time is pretty impossible. I push back at those who would argue that this is all a matter of choice by agreeing that it is a choice but only in so far as I choose work and relationship over my own process because there are others involved – others who are at least somewhat dependent on my attention. This is samsara – and to be fully human, one needs to, I think, accept samsara fully even if one is fortunate enough to transcend it often. The barbed wire tangles of a human’s existence among other humans is highly irritating and it is tempting to “transcend,” to “detach,” to escape – but I choose not to. For one thing, I am not one who wants to keep coming back to this human existence – I’m pretty done with it despite the good food, sex, and forest hikes that make life bearable. So I’m in a bit of a hurry to learn all I can about barbed wire so I can get it over with and move on to something else.

My transformative integration process happens on the fly. Sometimes, literally – on long flights when I have the time to listen to music, read, stare out the window at vast stretches of land and water passing beneath. There’s something about the height that invites perspective, something about the rising that allows letting go, and of course the forced idleness is perfect. Long solo car drives help. Waking up an hour early in the morning to read or read the tarot or sing or stare into space or cry helps. 10-minute meditations, 2-minute check-ins, taking a long breath in the bathroom, getting into bed early enough to shut out the world before opening to the dream. The heart opens, the mind suddenly expands, the body lets go. Sometimes an image shows up just long enough to make sense of everything. Often a poem. But it’s all very fast and in between other, more practical, activities. I don’t recommend this to anyone, I still preach the long, purposeful integration, but I have not had it and have managed to get by without.

So I have come to see that the huge barbed wire tangle is really a living dragon – scales, teeth, tail, hot breath, and all. While she tosses me about, there is also her warm flesh to lie against, her eyes to look into, her scales to explore carefully. The stresses of not being able to pay my mortgage are her nails clawing my back, arguments with co-workers her hand dragging on my hair. I bite her back when she chews on me by bringing disappointment after disappointment. All those high expectations dashed under her swaying, thrashing tail. Bruised and scratched up, it’s good when I can get a minute out of her lusty, scaly arms, a minute to breathe clean air after the hot breath of depression and despair, the drooling snot of black fear that intoxicates mind and body.

But each scratch opens me up, each hot breath is a wake-up call, each tail-swipe against my head a naming of my own impermanence. Accepting this relationship with her is the only way to live – saying yes to every bruise, then realizing that all this battering is her way of dancing with me, and I just haven’t yet learned the steps as she does them. I remember the first time I danced with someone’s arms around me – the only way to not step on toes and not bump knees was to get so close that we moved as one. This is the dance of the dragon samsara and getting as close as possible is more than survival, it’s the way into the dance. Listening with every pore to her and to myself prevents much pain, and I come to realize, finally, that dancing and snuggling with bad breath, sharp claws, and chomping teeth – inhaling parent brutality, neglectful lovers, abortions and drug abuse – is Love. I awake in her arms to the understanding that the dragon loves me, that I am ultimately safe with her. That Life loves me and, in fact, in Julian of Norwich’s words, all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

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Sat, Chit, (not yet) Ananda

When I think of myself as divine, star dust, created out of the same substances as the planets, I am filled with fear. Not uplifted as I am supposed to feel when I am told that I am all these things. When I am in the presence of the Great Mother, I am intensely agitated. Her eyes frighten me and I hide.

It’s almost as if I am happier being a clod of earth, although how can I say that anymore, when I know that the clod of earth is the Great Mother and that it is made up of the very same substances that make up the stars? I prefer to be just human, walking the earth in a purely material way – it seems safer. The rules are clear. If I make money, I will be safe. If I can eat, drink, live under a roof, have clothes on my body, I am safe. Expanding my consciousness beyond that is terrifying.

Because then there is no end, no limit, and hence no safety at all. Because then, there are no rules that I can recognize or know. All is possible and I, being everything, being god herself, being not part of the universe but the universe itself, then I am nothing that I recognize or know. If I don’t recognize or know myself I am not – because this mental recognition is all I know. All I can grasp. Letting go into not knowing, not grasping, is terrifying beyond anything.

So I shut myself away from her touch, her voice, her glance. I close myself into my shaking frame. And pull down the shutters, lock the doors. But she finds me anyway. Sometimes pounding on the door, sometimes even cracking it a bit. Sometimes waiting patiently for me to show up. Sometimes, in a stern voice, “Sharanya!” and I shake.

I wish I could be like other people who feel only joy when they hear her voice. I wish the call to freedom didn’t scare me so much. I wish my heart would be calm and I could be bold enough to take my rightful place. I wish I could accept the reasonable, everyday glory of being a divine being. But I prefer to be a creepy crawly, as if expansion of that sort would crack my ribs and turn my bones to dust. As if muscle fiber and connective tissue would rip and tear until nothing was left of me  anymore. And the pieces would scatter to the winds. And I would be nothing.

So it’s a trajectory to fear. Give way a little to freedom, to empowerment, to love, to divine companionship, and the end of that road is annihilation. Better to huddle under the blankets. Better to dull the senses. Better to keep life small, manageable, safe.

The thing is, though, that creepy crawlies are the mother – not even disguised in any way. There’s nowhere to go, nothing I can be that will save me from this state of divinity. This is the truth. This consciousness. I just can’t seem to feel the bliss.

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Sensus Corporis

During the long introductory lecture before a Holotropic Breathwork session, the subject of the body comes up a lot: somatic realms, trauma in the body, energies manifested in the body, body work during the session, etc. Once, many years ago, a man at one of my workshops asked the following: in all Hindu scriptures, the body is considered unimportant. For true transcendence, we must transcend the body entirely, they say. So why, in work that purports to be so spiritual, do we spend so much energy, time, effort on the physical body?

The question pushed my buttons on many levels. And, since, in a workshop setting, the only person I can work on is myself, I had to breathe into the pushed buttons and find an answer – which came quite quickly and seemed to satisfy most of the group – although I don’t think the person who asked the question bought it. I said, simply, that the primary teaching of this modality is to work with what is and, since we have bodies, we work with our bodies.

This question brought up a whole bunch of discomfort for me. Rage, shame, and wanting to jump out of my skin. All in a second. First, because the questioner was an older Indian man. As he spoke, I remember my mind jumping off to the small room in my family’s house where the Hindu idols resided. I remember being afraid to go in there. I remember being told not to go in there when I had my period. And that thought brings up all the ways in which my body – female and hence impure – was kept out of all spiritual practice. The men do the puja. The women stand by. IF they are not menstruating. All difficult, interesting, thought-provoking spiritual matters are left to the men. Kundalini practice is too powerful for women. Real shlokas are learned and spoken by men. We yell so much about the Catholic Church – has anyone ever seen a female priest in a Hindu temple? For some priests, the touch of a woman’s skin could send them off to take another shower. Because god will not listen to the prayers of an impure priest.

I was a Bharatanatyam dancer for most of my life. Gorgeous practice, it was banned in India for many years and, even in my time, women who practiced the form after a certain age could find it difficult to have an arranged marriage. In the “old” days, Bharatanatyam was the dance of the temple prostitutes. Translators of the stories of gods and goddesses, the women were kept as chattel. And, because we danced in front of so many men, we were “used” – a term carrying too many connotations to go into – but you read it or hear it and you know what it means. Defiled by eyes and lustful minds – somebody else’s – and now only trash. I don’t know if “prostitute” in this case meant actual sex acts or if it was a way of calling them “vestal virgins” of some sort. It doesn’t matter. The men, in discarding the humanity of these women, were discarding their own humanity as well. Because, clean or impure, our bodies are all the same. Also, if a prostitute is unclean, then so is the person who is with her.

To be human is to have a body. Probably there is nothing else that differentiates us from other beings. So we must include our bodies in human spirituality. “Transcending” bodies is pretending that we are not human. That simply can’t work, for anything not authentic is not true and the untrue cannot be spiritual. The history of humankind is a story of bodies as much as a story of ideas, feelings, movements.

True awakening cannot be separate from bodily awakening. But what a mess that is! Bodily awakening means coming into our feeling of pain: all kinds. Of craving. And the cells of the body lead directly to our emotional centers, so bodily awakening will be a coming into our emotional pain as well. Most of all, awakening into the body means awakening to our mortality – and perhaps this is why we would all prefer the spiritual bypass of finding god or oneness, transcending the immediate – because it’s so frightening to wake up to the knowledge of our imminent and certain death.

I try not to be sure of anything. And as I do more and more inner work, I am taught that I know nothing. And yet a paradox, for this I do know. At least for now. We cannot experience ourselves as spiritual without including our physical selves and everything that comes with that.

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