pilgrimage, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized, Wonder

Into the Wide, Diverse Sea

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” begins John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever,” my favorite poem in grade seven, a poem that made me fall in love with poetry because of its rhythm, and the mystery of the sea the lines evoked. The summer before grade seven, I lived in Seaside, in Monterrey County, CA, close enough to visit the ocean often, where I would sit on the rocky shoreline, mesmerized by the tireless waves–their strength, endurance and foamy beauty rolling in from depths.

 

Decades later, living and working in Singapore, a friend encouraged my husband and I to spend our winter holiday diving in the area near Palau in the middle of the Pacific, where we would be able to see incredible fish life among the reefs, including schools of barracuda, and manta. During the years I lived in Turkey, I’d loved snorkeling in the Mediterranean, and had spent many hours suspended in the water staring into the ladders of light with fish wandering through. When I moved to Singapore,  I was a new scuba diver, and barely aware of the rich life beneath the water’s surface. Traveling to spend several weeks swimming alongside fish wasn’t something I’d considered doing on a holiday.  Instead, I’d hoped to experience the world I’d read about from books but had never seen–historical places with art and architecture. I wanted to listen to people speaking languages I didn’t comprehend, and to experience something of the world other than the one I was comfortable with. I’d never considered what two weeks of diving might do to open my eyes to the world’s wonder, how diving could expand my experience of life beyond what was previously familiar. My friend’s various descriptions of diving in Palau and Truck Lagoon convinced me, however, that there was, indeed, a phenomenal new world to explore underwater beyond what I’d previously known, and I made the trip to Palau and Truk lagoon.

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Anna in the Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

The experience there changed me. Enveloped in wildness and beauty, I came to realize that to scuba dive is to have the most other worldly experience you can have on earth and still be on earth. Diving into ethereal blue waters to see bioluminescent clams and corals, watching coral feed, peering up close with a magnifying glass at a jeweled fairy basslet’s golden scales, observing a tiger shark emerge directly from the deep and swim toward you, witnessing a school of fish so large you can’t see the edges, or a hammer head swing its body back and forth in a movement fluid as an unfurling flag, watching the wildly patterned mandarin fish dance as it swims away, lying on the ocean’s sandy bottom as a ten foot wide manta ray wings its way gently over your head, these experiences are but a droplet in the life the ocean holds and that I’ve experienced underwater as a diver. It is a world other than the one we live in from day to day, operating with its own rules, and for a few minutes–as long as your air tank lasts–you are a part of it.

The nature writer Barry Lopez writes in his book, About This Life, how a man he sat next to on an airplane asked him what his daughter should do if she wants to be a writer, “…get out of town,” advised Lopez. “I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.” Ocean diving will most certainly separate you from the familiar and expose you to other languages–the ones fish speak with the behavior they display. It can also bring one a fresh sense of the world, how diverse it is, how wide, and what a gift it is to be alive. In this poem of mine written after diving in the Maldives, I describe the experience.

Days At Lohifushi
Anna Citrino

I.
Underneath the wing of the reef
twenty or more oriental sweet lips
lounge contentedly in the hammock of the ocean,
their happy striped and spotted bodies
swinging lazily back
then forward with the surge,
their yellow and black faces playing
peek-a-boo with passers by.

II.
Flowers burst in suns of buttery yellow
from the salmon pink fingered nubs
of corals stretching out from the wall,
a passion of color dancing out
into the darkness of the watery night.
I have traveled a long distance to stare at them here
thriving riotously underneath the overhang,
and notice how without traveling any distance,
with only reaching out to feed their pudgy bodies
on what happens to come their way
they dazzle with brilliance.

III.
Minuscule transparent shrimp float
almost invisibly in the shimmering
aquamarine windows, the smoldering
fiery gold jewels of their iridescent eyes
left as hidden treasure for seekers
to find, secreted inside the silent
dark caves of the ocean’s night.

IV.
Underneath me, the eagle ray rises
from the edge of the reef,
raises his wide arms, circles
the blue reach in slow spirals,
gliding, turning, each revolution
a lifting of his arm’s white lip
a mantra of smoothness.
I watch him until he slides away
into the far distance. I peer after him
though I can no longer discern
his body’s shape
from the lift of his wing,
and the shadow of the sea.

V.
We stand in a circle, waist deep in water,
watching the sea gently tumble
up the white coral shore.
Above the waving green palms, a rainbow
curves into a cup of blue sky.
Lars spins cartwheels, his legs
pointing up toward the clouds,
body twirling with the pinwheel spiral
of the earth whirling toward twilight
as the sun rolls, molten orange,
down the sky, smoothed
into the sea’s soft, silken cradle.
Hush. Can you hear the stars singing?

VI.
Skimming along the surface of the inky water
the boat speeds ahead toward the city’s lights
and the plane that will take me home. I do not want to go.
I stare off into the distance out the side window,
unable to distinguish the difference between sky and water,
the whole world folding into one. Beneath me
water flies in showers of starry phosphorescent light.
Luminescent sparks flare in bright streaks.
I am leaving, carried on the tail of a comet.

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Lion fish, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

Immersing oneself in the sea may not be what everyone feels motivated to do, but the ocean is the place where all rivers meet and a source of immeasurable life. Now that I live in the US again, I’ve not had the opportunity to dive, though I admire the work of oceanographer and explorer, Sylvia Earle, and her efforts at Mission Blue, to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity, and as well as her work with National Geographic to create underwater marine reserves--blue parks. The natural world’s diversity enriches us and brings us more life.

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Blue spotted ray, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

It’s comfortable to stick with what we know, but it’s also good to recognize that our individual lives depend on the diversity of life worldwide. Appreciating and supporting that diversity is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to bring more life into the world, our own and the natural world as well. When diving into the ocean, we can see the variety of worlds going on there all at once. Many ways of being co-exist. A manta ray might be swooping over an underwater mound of rock where cleaner wrasse wait, ready to feed on the mucus, damaged cells, and parasites that live on the manta ray. To the side and below the scene with the manta and wrasse, an octopus prepares his den, shoving out sand, while suspended between the two worlds, bat fish slowly circle.

The natural world thrives because of its diversity. In the financial world, as well, advisors tell us that a diversified portfolio is the foundation for sound investments. Similarly, diversifying our activities can benefit both our mental and physical health. Being open to new kinds of people, activities, and ways of thinking is good for us. When we purposefully choose to allow new ways of thinking and being to enter into our lives, we, enhance our health and well being, says the Harvard Medical School newsletter.

Stepping out of our comfort zones to do or learn something new, go somewhere different, to consider unfamiliar thoughts and different ways of seeing the world that contradict our former ways of being can bring challenges. Those very difficulties can also wake us up inside, though, and help us feel more alive. They can enable us to become more whole. David Steindl-Rast points out in his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, an Approach to Life in Fullness, that Abraham was seventy-five years old when God told him “‘Go forth out of your land, and out of your kinsfolk, and out of your father’s house.'” It takes a lot of courage to leave the world you know, in particular to do this at an age when people often prefer to settle into what’s familiar and comfortable. Abraham left his familiar world behind, though, and it’s interesting to note that Abraham didn’t know where he was headed when he set out on his pilgrimage. He was willing to be uncertain about what he knew, where he was going. Perhaps this is a central reason he’s revered–his willingness to reach beyond the borders of his understanding, and to move into unfamiliar territory and ways of being.

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino
pilgrimage, Presence, Uncategorized

Waiting and Transformation

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WAITING
Anna Citrino

The heat rises each day in Delhi now, and the trees
on my street have lost their leaves. The branches,

gone barren, crave a new life. They hold open the palms
of their hands in yearning. Hour after hour, the sun

kisses their fingertips saying, “Not yet, keep going.
Keep on,” as the trees breathe in the circling birds,

and breathe out their emptiness. They want to blow
open in sirens of life, to scream like a child in wild glee,

want to turn on the colored search lights, to shout out
the story of a yellow Eden. They want to sing

in a ten thousand blossomed glory, setting fire
to the air. But they don’t.

They wait. Day by day, a pyre of sticks, they stand
quietly shriveling into the sidewalk, as if

they understand the silence, the humility,
out of which life finally speaks.

Landscapes can embody both longing and renewal. When I lived in New Delhi, a tree grew along the roadside in front of the school and in the courtyard inside the front gate. As the year moved toward spring, I noticed the trees beginning to lose all their leaves, just as it seemed to me that they should be bursting with life. I thought the trees were dying, and felt very sad to see them go–all of them alongside the roadway drooping and bereft of leaves.

The trees were not dying, however, though they appeared to be. They were actually getting ready to burst forth in blossom. By May the trees, the cassia fistula, had become enormous clouds of brilliant yellow clusters of flowers cascading down from the height of their branches. Their vibrant color embodied New Delhi’s intense May heat where temperatures climb over a hundred Fahrenheit (in the thirties in Celsius) accompanied with May’s monsoon season humidity. Like drifts of yellow sun, their blossoms fell in thick drifts along the roadside. It felt like the trees had to lose all their leaves in order to make way for the myriad blooms.

Some people liked to call these trees the graduation trees as their blossoms arrived at about the same time as the school year’s end. People would leave school to ride out into their summer holidays and their new or their other lives, accompanied by the generous beauty of these trees celebrating their long awaited for transformation. I learned from these trees behavior that what is true in one environment doesn’t always hold true for another, and that sometimes things that appear to be dying might actually be making ready for something entirely new to occur, even, perhaps, something glorious.

 

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It’s a fortunate coincidence that the tree blossoms at the school year’s end, a time when tired teachers are very much in need of a boost to carry them into a time of rejuvenation and restoration before beginning a new school year.  It isn’t only teachers that need renewal, however. Many people carry on through years of work holding up their families, nurturing other people’s health or hold the safety and wellbeing of others in their care, and must find how to sustain themselves and others through long periods of time. Whether its for graduation, a job, retirement, better health, a word of encouragement or a hand of support, we are often awaiting renewal like the trees, preparing and storing up reserves for the arrival of that transformative time.

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Often, when we put closure to certain phases of our lives, people like to know what we’re going to do next. We don’t have to know everything about our future though as we move toward change. We each have our our own way of opening and can allow ourselves to learn how to unfold in our own time. Success and the continual idea that we must be doing something so we can be called successful or call ourselves successful can make us deeply unsettled, and can prevent us from living satisfying lives. To wait on ourselves, and to listen deeply to the rhythms and needs of our lives is important to living meaningfully and with contentment. Before bursting forth into blossom, nature practices stillness, goes into her dark place and can look as if she’s dying. Like the cassia fistula, we can hold back, listening to our inner selves.

Several years back now, the first blog post I wrote on this site spoke about the mandorla, the ancient symbol that can be found in cathedrals’ stained glass where two circles or ovals overlap. The overlapping portion symbolically represents that area where wholeness develops, and growing into oneness occurs. As Robert A. Johnson explains in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, the Dark Side of the Psyche, “The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. This middle place is a mandorla, ” The shadow times, times we’re seemingly dying but are still living, the times where all is still and it seems nothing at all is happening as we wander and explore, aiming to understand experiences, feelings or ideas are important to our inner growth and wellbeing. “Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the loneliness, anxiety, and dualistic limits of the ego instead of awakening to your higher calling,” writes Johnson, explaining how important times of emptiness are for our inner lives to grow.

We live inside a mandorla–a world where opposites overlap. Whether change occurs slowly or quickly, our lives are always in transition, moving from one world into another. The stillness and space between the oppositions in our lives is where we learn how to transform our lives and periodically allow ourselves to eventually burst into blossom. While we search for the boat of insight that will carry us to the other side of understanding, we can practice being still and enjoying the moment we’re in.

 

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pilgrimage, poetry, Uncategorized

Journeys to Widen Our Lives

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Anna biking the Camino de Santiago de Compestela, Spain

“We do not need to go to the edges of the earth to learn who we are, only the edges of our self.” – L.M. Browning, in Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Some journeys are external others internal. Pilgrimages are travels we make to places that we feel hold spiritual significance—that will speak to our inner selves and transform us. We might travel to a place where grandparents were born, to a significant site connected to our history or a religion we practice. Pilgrimages connected to poetry attract me. The year I lived in the UK, I wanted to follow the Stanza Stones poetry trail. Located in the Yorkshire moors of England, this 47 mile trail contains six Stanza Stones, poems written by Simon Armitage and carved into stones naturally found in there by Pip Hall. Armitage collaborated with the Ilkley Literature Festival organizers to create the poems for the trail. To walk a landscape is to absorb the land’s language. Arimtage’s poems connect walkers to the landscape with words as they encounter the poems as in these lines from his poem, “Snow,” “What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white?” Though I wanted to walk at least part of this trail, I wasn’t able to find a good way to connect to it without better transport the weekend I had free to visit the area, so let go of the idea of this pilgrimage.

Walking Basho’s poetry trail is another pilgrimage I dream of going on. Following this pilgrimage path, walkers can hike the 17th century trail where the great haiku poet, Basho, traversed through northern Japan’s mountains to the Sea of Japan, passing by Shinto shrines, through pine covered islands, and hot springs along the way. I don’t know if I will be able to get to Japan any time soon to make the journey that inspired many of Basho’s poems. I look at photos of it on the Internet, though, imagining the quiet joy of walking for days beneath bamboo forests and among ancient trees.

 

We’re not always able to make the trek of our dream or travel to another land. Nevertheless, there are pilgrimages available to us all: quests through books, and our journey through time. A favorite journey I’ve been on since 2012 is one of the imagination. This sojourn began when I wanted to collaborate with a colleague I worked with who played the cello beautifully, and who was going to move away at the end of the year. I suggested a collaboration where I would write a poem for a piece of music he chose to play, and we would record the pieces together. The music he selected was Fauré’s, Après un rêve, (Op. 7, No. 1). The piece evoked a sense of loss and longing, transporting me to Naples Bay’s enormous circumference where I’d recently sat with my husband at sunset. As the sky burning gold-orange, we watched a boat pull from shore, heading toward the wide horizon. I thought of his grandparents departing Italy for America—how they left behind the world they knew as well as everything and everyone in their village of San Lucido on Calabria’s coast. They had no pictures of the world they moved to, didn’t speak the language, had little money and likely no maps. They never returned to Italy. Leaving was risky, enormously brave, and they would never be the same. Neither am I, as without their departure, I would’ve never met the man I married.

After writing the first poem, “Luisa Leaves Home,” in response to the music, I wondered many things: Why did they leave Italy? What was life like in San Francisco when they arrived? How well did different ethnic groups get along? What are Italian-Americans contributions to American culture? How did World War II change Italian-Americans? What does it mean to be Italian-American today? What does it mean to be American? Hundreds of questions surfaced, and I searched for answers. Paradoxically, the more I researched and wrote with the aim of unraveling threads from a century ago, the more mysterious and complex the world grew. The more questions I had.

I began listening to news items and other people’s stories with a second ear. I applied situations and information to the immigrants’ lives I was writing about, and reflected on how my experiences connected to their world. After sharing one of the poems with a relative, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That poem isn’t Noni. I don’t know who you think you’re writing about, but it isn’t my grandmother.” She was right. I never met her grandmother or lived in San Francisco. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American family or neighborhood. Neither do I speak Italian. Any of these qualifications would be beneficial in helping me write about Italian immigrants to America. The Italian grandparents were from a different time period and culture, and had little education. I had no way to access their lives or inner worlds and the family knew few facts. I couldn’t truly write in their authentic voices. Every writer has limitations of gender, culture, and time period, however. I felt drawn to understand and to journey inside Italian immigrants’ world, so I turned to research and imagination, constructing possibilities to embody a story. Research helped me to put the few facts I knew into a larger picture with a wider frame. Imagination created a bridge to a culture, time period, and people that gave me greater awareness of the complexities inside choices immigrants made.

We look in the mirror when we are at six, sixteen, or sixty. All that came in the years before is mostly hidden from view, disappeared, but still present beneath the surface, creating the life we see and experience. There are myriad stories inside one story. We’re many selves inside one body. It’s the same with cities. Years back I read Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan various cities, all of which are actually Venice. I began to see San Francisco in this way as well as I wrote—its subtle elements still present revealing the past or rising from a foundation into a remodeled version. When visiting the City, I recognized places I’d never been because I’d seen them in historical photographs and could recall events that took place there. It isn’t just San Francisco I see differently now as a result of searching for answers to my questions. The world I live in is larger and has greater dimension because of questions I’ve explored answers to. The walk into an unfamiliar world has been a pilgrimage that  widened my perspective and has transformed me.

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San Francisco from Twin Peaks

To step out on a journey into new territory can be unsettling for travelers. Today, people don’t think of Italians as the “other.” During the peak period of Italians immigration to America, however, Italians experienced prejudice. They were seen as lawless, treacherous, and having filthy habits. (See more at this CNN article, “When Italian immigrants were the other.”) Italians weren’t allowed to build a church inside Manhattan because city officials were fearful of Catholicism and the ceremonies they didn’t understand. The largest single lynching in America was of Italians in Louisiana 1891. Teddy Roosevelt, though not yet president, said of the lynching it was “a rather good thing.” The man who helped organize that lynching, John Parker, later became Louisiana’s governor in 1911.

Currently, similar to the time period one hundred years ago in America when Italian immigration to the US was at its peak, Americans’ fear of immigrants is heightened. Openness to new experiences, information and ways of seeing can enrich and expand our lives, and bridges that allow us to build deeper understanding of what is different can be helpful. Mahzarin Banaji co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and Professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard explains in her interview with Krista Tippett that our minds are basically wired to distinguish differences in order to help us make sense of our world. This wiring creates biases and blind spots we’re not aware of.  Tests created by researchers to help you see your biases at Project Implicit. People can, however, gain understanding of biases and blind spots by exposing themselves to ideas and people that stretch their boundaries of familiarity. Challenges to people’s preconceptions presented in contexts allowing them to continue to feel safe can help people grow in their understanding of others different from themselves.

One terrific way to do this is through reading, as reading allows us to learn from others without having to take personal risks as we step into their lives. Scientific American’s October 23, 2013 issue reports social researcher, Emanuele Castano and PHD candidate’s research evidence showing how literary fiction, delves into characters’ thoughts and interactions. In literary fiction, explains Kidd, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations.” As a result, readers have to imagine characters’ inner thoughts. This kind of thinking nurtures empathy as it leads readers to understand the complexity in characters’ lives and to reach for why they might do things differently than expected.

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If reading literary fiction helps break down stereotypes and prejudices, enabling readers to develop empathy with those different from themselves, it follows that writing fiction could further expand this capability as authors not only step inside character’s minds, they create their thoughts and build contexts from which they flow. As a writer, you immerse yourself in your characters’ lives, become familiar with their setting, social context and way of seeing so that you can portray their world. You reveal your characters’ weaknesses and blind spots, and come to understand your own as well.

While most people aren’t fiction writers, we’re all creators of our own life stories. We can consciously aim to expand our understanding of new contexts and situations. Simple things like taking a new route home, listening to or playing a different type of music, going to a lecture on an unfamiliar topic, trying a new sport, hobby or food can all help us expand. We can learn a few phrases in a new language, take a class in a unfamiliar subject, learn about plants in our yard or types of architecture in the neighborhood, experiment with art or try building something. When meeting new people, we can ask questions to bring out their experiences or ways of seeing things. These actions may not seem like large leaps for some, nevertheless they can open new paths in our brains to carry us on journeys widening into new vistas of understanding.

Some journeys start before you know they’ve started. I’d written quite a few poems about Italian immigrants experiencing earthquakes, crossing the Atlantic, learning about the largest lynching in America, and Italians being removed from their homes to be taken to internment camps before I realized I was actually on a pilgrimage with them. I’ve made the pilgrimage with them as I could through writing, and the trek has caused me to view my own place in the world with greater humility.

Not every story is ours to tell, but this one called to me and I felt compelled to take the writing journey to tell it. A Space Between to be published by Bordighera Press (date to be determined) describes this journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you. If you want, you can read more about the book here.

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Riding the Camino de Santiago
pilgrimage, place, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

To Bodhgaya and Beyond

The great story weaves closer and closer, millions of
touches, wide spaces lying out in the open,
huddles of brush and grass, all the little lives.

–William Stafford, from “Over in Montana”

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Buddha on the side of the temple at Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya, India, is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment after forty-nine days of meditation under the ficus, otherwise known as the Bodhi tree, a tree related to the mulberry. Because Bodhgaya is a place of historical significance,  I wanted to visit it while living in India. Two weekends ago, I had that opportunity.

The Bodhi tree is a ficus religiosa . Its leaves, even without a breeze, are said to be continuously moving. “O Ashvatha, I honor you whose leaves are always moving…,” says a verse in the Bhagavad Gita about the tree. Gods are thought to live in the leaves causing them to move, and thus the official name, ficus religiosa–the religious fig. The name fits, in particular for the bodhi tree in Gaya. Though the tree standing in Bodhgaya now isn’t the actual tree the Buddha sat under, it’s a relative. Sanghamitta, the daughter of the 3rd century BC Indian emperor, Ashoka’s, brought a branch of the original tree the Buddha sat under to Sri Lanka and planted it in Anuradhapura. The original tree was destroyed, how is uncertain. There are various versions (see more here) of how this occurred, though most accounts state that the a shoot from the Sri Lanka tree was brought back to India and replanted at the original spot.

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Bodhi tree, Gaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment

Bodhgaya is a holy site and a pilgrimage destination. One of the things that struck me the most while in Bodhgaya, was how many distinctive faces I saw as I sat near the tree, observing as people made their circumambulation around the shrine. Many visiting were monks and nuns performing ritual prayers, but others were like me, there to stand in a place considered holy, and to absorb what it had to share. For all the crowds, the place still manages to have a sense of calm, probably because so many there are intent on doing their prostrations and sending up prayers.

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It struck me how similar people are in the way they express devotion or carry out holy acts, though they are from different religions. Burning candles and incense, offering prayers, bowing down, ringing bells, bringing flowers,–these are commonly used in acts of worship in many religions. Bodhgaya attracts a wide spectrum of people from Buddhist countries, but people from many walks of life and countries in various parts of the world had come to stand in the spot where so many before have journeyed to send up their hearts’ longings–or possibly to set them down. Possibly, however, some pilgrims had come simply with an openness, willing to receive whatever understanding their minds brought to them while standing there, listening to their heart’s inner whisperings.

I’ve been learning about Buddhism, since arriving in India nine years ago, and somehow I expected to feel moved while standing in such a holy place. Instead, I found myself noticing people’s feet, and thought of the many journeys people had taken to arrive at this place where our lives briefly intersected with a smile or a short glimpse.

Once surrounded by forest, Bodhgaya it is now a city with apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels. To imagine the place as it was when the Buddha spent time there requires you to stretch your imagination. People continue to come to this place, because they wish to make a connection with the long chain of seekers, hoping to gain insight into how to live.

Pilgrimages are taken for many reasons, but one important reason is to the desire to expand beyond the boundaries one currently lives in– to break through the skin into something new, perhaps as the snake does when it sheds its old skin because it has grown bigger. Thoreau, purposefully set out to let his soul grow bigger when he spent a year living outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts on Walden Pond and wrote his famous meditations on living known as Walden. Thoreau speaks to the those of us who have felt the desire to step out of the hamster cage of events that keep us continuously rolling, and who long to live meaningfully. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour,” Thoreau asserts, and we are led to explore the idea that every life is worthy contemplation, of spending time reflecting on what our actions mean. This act isn’t meant to benefit just a few lucky ones who can take the time off to do so. We can do this daily as when we give our full attention to whatever it is we are doing, wherever we are walking or sitting. Listening deeply to those we are in relationship, listening to the world we walk through allows us to sense the holiness of life itself underneath the surface of all that is.

While wandering through the temple grounds at Bodhgaya, I read a quote on a plaque. The quote’s first portion eludes me, but the second portion read something like “Now I enter the forest of my old age,” and it struck me as a metaphor for transformation in general. We may have been walking through a plain before where things could be easily seen, but when we change, we enter a forest. Things aren’t necessarily easily found or understood. Perhaps we are even purposefully looking for a different path from the paths we once knew or walked. A whole new life can appear. As we age, though, I think of forests in the fall, flames arising from the myriad leaf faces, the sugar inside burning before the leaves let go to the earth.

Thoreau chose to go to the woods, and set aside a year to live in a small cabin on Walden Pond. Many of us can’t do that, or at least don’t feel it’s possible until reaching such an age where regular work ceases. Thoreau bravely took time out to consider to look for life before old age.  Thoreau chose to live simply during his year away, in order to find what it is that matters in life. He went to the woods, he said “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” This is a brave statement. It requires an openness to life, to what you might understand if you listen to the world around you, including listen to the physical world.

The Buddha, as well, encouraged people to let go of their attachments in order to find life. We may be born in one place, have a particular history or speak a certain language, but we need each other’s differences. The interconnected nature of our physical environment itself demonstrates this reality. Other people in other places with perspectives different from our own have experiences worth listening to, insights worth understanding. I notice fear is such a strong motivating force in the media but it creates so much suffering. The Buddha’s path began with a question, “How do I relieve suffering?” What if we were to live differently? What if everyday in recognition of life’s dearness we deliberately asked “How do I live so I learn what life has to teach me today? How do I live today so that I don’t discover when I come to die that I’ve never lived?”

James Wright, in his poem “The Blessing,” shows the reader what it is like to live attentive to the details before us as he describes his encounter with ponies off the side of highway in Rochester, Minnesota who “have come gladly out of the willows/ To welcome my friend and me.” The ponies greet he and his friend with “shy bows,” then begin munching the grass again, as they have been all day. As the speaker of the poem carefully observes them, he becomes aware of the wonder breathing beneath the experience, “…Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.” We become more than we are when we let ourselves experience that we are connected to all that is.

May we all break into blossom.

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Beauty, pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Quiet Moments With Clouds

photo 2-3Frequently this summer I’ve been looking at clouds, the way they grow and contract before my eyes, sometimes so imperceptibly I wonder if it’s happening, other times so rapidly I wonder how they can do it. Gazing at the sky may seem like a mundane thing to do, but I recall many a time as a child lying back on the chairs outside my house and watching them glide by for hours, morphing forms as they paraded by as if on a slow moving carousel.

There was something soothing about those quiet afternoons. They carried me into a place, that looking back on it now, I can describe as a place of communion. Like staring at a campfire, the experience enabled me to enter a state where the world dropped away and I was absorbed into the moment, fully present in the simplicity of being. I call it a state of communion because even now, years later, while cloud gazing I find myself entering the same place in the mind and body, connecting with the environment where words aren’t needed, nevertheless communication is happening. I see the images, color, shapes–they are all showing themselves to me and something in myself is responding with more than a mere physical reaction. I hold and behold the forms, and in doing so, I am learning about the changing nature of the world and how I participate in beauty.

Though I gazed at clouds more often as a child, still today when I look up at the sky after waking up or as I walk home from work, something in me longs for the the open sky I experienced as a child, the vast, spacious world the mind can wander in. A hazy, flat sky flattens the mind. On days when the haze lifts, my heart feels freer, more content and at home. It’s refreshing to be reminded that shapes can also have forms with soft edges that float.

Our connections to the environment we grow up with influence who we become and leave an indelible mark. The house my father built and that I lived in as a child in San Diego county was perched high on a hill looking over a wide valley. We lived in a rural area with hills rimming the distant horizon, a geographical location that shaped my soul, so to speak: Living there nurtured a value of open space and encouraged in me the qualities of observation, reflection, and of taking the long view of things, values fundamental to my understanding of the world.

photo 3-2Earlier this summer I was recovering from a knee injury. Because moving around was slow and uncomfortable, all walking became a focused effort, each step a meditation. Immediately the world felt smaller and more challenging as a result. There seemed to be so much I couldn’t do, and I was surprised by how vulnerable and limited the injury made me feel. During that time, I was visiting my brother. I rested on his deck one morning, looking up into the enormous billowy clouds. Once again the world grew into itself, the largeness of it stretching out with the length of sky like an enormous blue sheet hung out across the universe, shifting in the solar breeze. Little had actually changed except my perception. I couldn’t move any faster than before, but staring at the passing clouds reminded me of the larger reality I was a part of, and brought me back to that place of wonder I participated in as a child. Just as clouds change forms, so does my life, and any suffering I might experience. Any suffering I might know, however small or big, is just a part of the larger suffering of the world. In the world there is pain, but there is also great beauty. Both coexist, and reality is a state of flow between them in different measures.

Not all of us live continuously in a world with natural beauty. I know I don’t. Countless others are like me–those who live in smog choked cities, those without access to green space and parks or who spend most their time in rooms without windows working under fluorescent light. Though we may not have access to it, the world’s immense beauty continues on. When I am in a place with natural beauty, I want to really notice it, pausing to take it in, to be thankful, and to consider all the processes of nature it took to create what I am experiencing. I want to remember often how open skies and time spent beholding them can restore.

When I am in a place that lacks beauty, when I find myself living there, I can also look up at the sky and know that beauty’s absence I that place will help me to recognize how precious beauty is when and wherever it is found. I can let this awareness fill me with gratitude that I have seen beauty, have beheld it, and hopefully do so again in the future.

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath’s 1999 poem, and how it values the small, quiet moments, emphasizing the importance of noticing and learning to rest in them, moments like looking at clouds.

photo 1-3

 

 

 

VII

by Wendell Berry

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to its rest.

Within the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is
almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed
light, a few leaves fall
of their own weight.

The sky
is gray. It begins in mist
almost at the ground
and rises forever. The trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite.

What more did I
think I wanted? Here is
what has always been.
Here is what will always
be. Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.

pilgrimage, Reading, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living Contentedly

20180913_183435-1-e1549430118152.jpgThis is the time of year when international school teachers begin to pursue jobs in new locations if they are planning to move to a new school the following school year. There is a lot of appeal to moving to a new school in a new country. It is exciting to explore a new culture, to enter into a new world that holds a different way of thinking, living and being as there are always valuable things to learn from other cultures, and living in one makes you examine your own life and values.

On the other hand, there are also good things to be said for staying in one place and going  deeper into the reality you are confronted with in the culture you are currently in? How can you learn what the place you are living has to teach you about yourself? I find it challenging to live in a city as big as Delhi, where to get out of the city takes a few hours, and where access to nature is limited. Something in me longs for a walk in the woods,  needs the opportunity to stare out at the sea spreading into endless space.  Something in those experiences feed me and reconnect me to Life, and help to restore me to wholeness. Nothing like that exists near me, however, and so the task is to learn how to be happy, truly content with the situation I am in, and that is challenging.

Sometimes the notion of moving to a new location slips into my mind, or going on a holiday, but in reality, doing these things would not bring me contentment in themselves, because they are only temporary solutions to the deeper need we all have of how to find contentment. Going on holiday or moving to a new situation could be an excellent thing to do, however, they are not a long term solution for living a contented life. Moving or going on a holiday would only mean trading some things I long for with a different set of things I long for.

No situation in life provides a person with perfect contentment, of course, or if it does, rarely does it last for long. Life has a rhythm of ups and downs. St. Paul said he had found that whatever state he was in he could be content. For most of us, learning how to be content in whatever situation we are found is a life long challenge. Taking on the perspective, however, that difficult situations can enable us to grow and can in fact help to teach us how to be content no matter what our outward situation is like, if we open ourselves to the lesson. That’s not always an easy lesson because it requires practice–consistent focused effort and attention over time. As a result, we would sometimes rather distract ourselves with something that will pump us up and make us excited about this or that. New things can be wonderful. They activate and energize our brains. If we are always in a state of excitement, however, we don’t know how to deal with the opposite side of that experience. We won’t know how to live normal, everyday life very well. We won’t be stable or content. We will always be swinging between high and low.

Our modern culture seems to be built around the idea that “too much is not enough,” as someone I know describes this perspective.  How do we be content with what is?  How do we focus on becoming more of who we are in the midst of a media driven world that constantly works on our emotions to make us feel that we are never quite right or enough, that we need to be who others say we need to be, that we need to keep our competitive edge in whatever it is we do in order to be taken seriously?

I just finished reading Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl’s book, Contentment.  The authors state that discontent is important for our growth.  Johnson and Ruhl are Jungian psychologists who suggest that we need to honor our discontent. “…if you can stand to live in paradox long enough, then transformation takes place and a new consciousness is born. This occurs when one has stopped trying to maneuver external reality so that it will work out as the “I” desires. Contentment, the authors say, requires energy, and we need to learn how to say “Enough is enough,” and they go on to name several things that people can practice to help them regain balance in their lives so they can live purposefully and become whole.

The first thing the authors mention that can help us on this path is to honor the sabbath.  “We all need a sabbath, whether we are religious or not. Without the pause of the seventh day (or sabbath), life simply becomes an indistinguishable blur and monotony rules…Don’t let duties and responsibilities from the week, even work around the house or social obligations, spill over and claim your energy on this day. Make it a priority to preserve an oasis of rest, contemplation, and spiritual renewal.” Keeping the sabbath is a challenging, radically uncommon thing to do in our culture. It goes directly against the thinking that more is better and affirms the idea that you can rest that what you need will be there for you when you need it. Rather than thinking that everything you have or do is totally from your own effort, you are trusting that you will have time, that things will work out. You are letting go of the control and setting aside the kind of thinking that everything you have is through your own efforts.

A second thing Johnson and Ruhl suggest is fidelity to the moment. The authors explain how St Benedict’s novices took the vow of  “fidelity to the moment.” Its purpose was to help those who have just begun their spiritual journey. The idea is to concentrate on whatever is directly before you in the moment. Give your full attention to it in what you say, do and think. My mother taught me as a child that doing the dishes can be a sacred act, if you do it with concentration and an open heart. Everyday acts can be holy, can be offerings of ourselves.

Another thing the authors suggest is to take some time to just be. Reduce the to do list. This is a challenging one, as lists can be never ending for people that are goal oriented. I am reminded of how Thoreau could sit in his doorway at Walden Pond all morning, absorbing the sun and watching the light, and feel it was a day well spent.

Attending to the heart is a further practice that brings contentment. The authors suggest that you find a quiet place, close your eyes, place your hand over your heart. Take some breaths then think of the things you’ve put your energy into during the week. Evaluate how each has added to or taken away from your contentment. Continuing to think of your list, shift your attention to your heart, and ask it what is required for contentment. What does your heart yearn for? Wait and listen, they suggest. Compare lists, and then consider investing some time, money, or energy into what your heart yearns for rather than what you head desires.

The Dalai Llama in his poem, “Never Give Up” says, “Too much energy in your country/ is spent developing the mind/ develop the heart. Tobin Hart, also talks about the importance of keeping children’s hearts open to wonder as they grow and is exploring more of how schools and educators might include practices that help young people learn how do this. The practices he suggests, such as deep listening, use of reflective questions, freewriting, use of poetry and concentrated language, guided relaxation, and other suggestions as well, are different ways of helping us attend to the heart.

Spending time in nature is further activity that can enable you to reconnect to what supports life in yourself. Take a walk in the rain, in the woods, by the sea, in a park. Listen to and watch the birds. Getting out of the door and on to your balcony for a few moments, if you have one, or just staring out the window and noticing what the leaves on a tree are doing, or growing a small plant in your window and taking care of it each day are all ways to spend time with nature in a small, simple way if you can’t easily go for a walk in the out of doors. Satish Kumar, when he was visiting Delhi, suggested that part of school children’s day should be spent in nature, caring for it, so that they learn to make the connection with nature. When we spend time with nature, we learn to feel our connection to it.

Find home. Consider what home means to you and find what the gift of your own home is. Johnson and Ruhl suggest. What is within the circumstances of your own life that is worth affirming as a treasure? We may search the world for our treasure but what we look for is often right in our own home. Like the scarecrow, tin man and lion in the Wizard of Oz, we carry with us what we most treasure, but perhaps we are not noticing what it is we have. How might we notice what it is we have in our home. The practice of noticing these things and also expressing gratitude for these things on a regular basis can help shift our perspective. Gratitude helps bring greater physical and mental health.

There are several other practices that Johnson and Ruhl suggest in their book, but I will post only these for now. The difficulties we confront in our lives are our teachers. They are our opportunity where we can practice how to take the opposites of our lives and put them in a new framework. We can approach them from a different angle, breaking old patterns perhaps, so we can see things differently and begin to live differently. I view it somewhat like what happens when writing. Sometimes  you have to let a draft sit for a time and go out and live, do something different, then come back to the piece and read it out loud or have someone else read it out loud, or you might need print it off. You have to do something different with the work you have made so that you can see it anew. Then you can revise what you’ve done and see where to go. It’s a back and forth process and it involves waiting and listening very carefully to the bigger picture of what it is you are trying to say or do. Life is like that too.  You put old problems in a new framework so you can learn how to change and become new. Then you persevere. Slowly, over time, like all normal growth processes, contentment grows. It is the work of our life, is why we are here. I am still learning.