Yoga

My Yoga Space

I live in a decidedly non-yoga town. Oh, it is much better than it used to be. At least there are yoga studios now even in my small town but compared to the choices in Alexandra’s Southern California town, it is still pretty sparse.  Alexandra goes to a studio, one of many, that has three classes every hour of the day with an array of styles and levels. Here in East Tennessee, you might get a few types of classes a week.   When I first got interested in yoga in the 90’s, there was literally nothing except one woman who taught a disorganized class and thought it was a good idea to start with headstands—I only lasted one class.  Or I could do a video tape. But who wants to do the same thing every time.  Then of course there was the cultural disdain for yoga. There was an incident many years ago where someone came into a yoga class to announce that the participants were devil worshiping. Many people in my community still struggle with the spiritual origins and so most classes focus on the physical benefits and even sometimes use Christian theology overlay to make it more acceptable.

Finally, about 8 years ago, I found a teacher, Lisa, who taught one night a week and was starting a beginner’s class.  I have to admit the first few months were pretty much torture. But since I don’t start things unless I plan on finishing, I kept with my once a week class with Lisa for many years.  Not only was I late to start yoga, I have several obstacles that have made yoga a challenge.  I will never be able to go to one of Alexandra’s classes and do a full routine—it just isn’t possible.  I have my own accommodations that I have learned because over 30 years ago I permanently injured my left elbow in a fall and can no longer put much weight on it. Therefore, I can do no downward facing dog, plank or table.  Try doing a regular yoga class without those very common poses—it is a challenge.

Lisa stopped teaching a couple of years ago and I was busy with school, so I started to do yoga in my family room with the help of Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube. The price is right, no long commute from my rural home and the level is just right for my decidedly Paralympic yoga accommodations.  I’m quite happy with where my yoga has evolved. It will always be a gentle practice and advanced poses will never be achieved but I’m really OK with that.  There is always a place for everyone and every level, even those of us who have physical limitations. There are still great benefits to finding what works and keeping with it even when it isn’t easy.

I’ve learned to accept my limitations. It would be nice if I could embrace them, but acceptance is good. I’ve accepted my limitations in other areas of my life too. I will never be a great pianist or a star academic. I’m not a best-selling novelist and I can’t draw at all. But I’m know that working with my limitations is part of life and I can enjoy these things even if I’m not stellar at them.  They serve my life.  I will continue my gentle yoga and take leisurely walks in the woods or around the lake, enjoying my life without the stress of a goal.  My effort is enough to keep me healthy, body and soul.

Shaker Village

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You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth for a pilgrimage to change you. Some of the loveliest places can be close to home. Pilgrimage is a perspective as well as an experience. Pilgrimage is seeing the divinity that is all around. Next month I will be back with new content but today enjoy a happy journey from a few years ago.

For most people visions of heaven include pearly gates, streets of gold and jewel encrusted mansions but not in my world. All I have to do is go to Kentucky to find my version of nirvana and it is called Shaker Village. After my lovely time at the Serpent Mound, and fortified with a latte, I retraced my path back to Lexington for the night. I had one more essential pilgrimage stop to make the next day. I needed a Shaker Village fix.

These days I live in my in-law’s home which is decorated in a style I would call High Ostentation but in my heart I prefer a style more like Early Convent. My Taurus/Virgo soul longs for a tidy house with white walls and simple furniture. The Shakers perfected this style and brought it to a high art.

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So who were the Shakers? They were a branch of the Quakers who came to America looking for religious freedom. Lead by Mother Ann Lee, the first communities were started in the late 1700’s and formed around 20 utopian centers with 6000 members at the peak of popularity. These communities were founded on principles of equality for the sexes and races, celibacy and pacifism. Men and women lived separately but worked together and the congregations grew by recruitment since procreation wasn’t allowed. In the early 1900’s the communities stopped taking members and were eventually closed

Spiritually they believe God was both male and female and the imminent second coming of Christ. They worshiped in stark meeting rooms with narrow benches and no pulpit. The service consisted of singing, dancing and ecstatic states of shaking and shouting thus they got the name “Shakers”. They wrote many songs for their worship and the most popular tune is Simple Gifts, immortalized in Aaron Copeland’s work Appalachian Spring.

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The communities were self-sustaining farms and invented many new labor-saving devises. The Kentucky Shakers were know for their brooms and high-quality seeds as well as furniture and weaving. Hard work was important to them so all the communities thrived. They believed that beautifully made simple furniture was an act of prayer. Each building and room was perfectly planned for simplicity, practicality and order and ideal which has had a lasting influence on American design.

Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, is like stepping back in time. On this perfect September day the buildings glowed in the sun with a back drop of purple/blue sky. Pumpkins and corn stocks decorate the stack stone fences and there is just a hint of color in the trees that line the lane; translation—-pure joy. I wandered the buildings looking at the magnificent worn furniture, craft demonstrations, amazing circular staircases and stark perfection. I wandered into the dinning room for corn pudding and buttermilk pie, headed down to the old barn to see the friendly ram and horses and felt the gentle grace of this place frozen in time. During a past visit I sang Simple Gifts in the meeting hall where that song has reverberated thousands of times and I’m thrilled to sing it for myself.

After having my joy quotient filled by two beautiful days in Kentucky. I headed back to Tennessee. I didn’t have far to go and on the way home I listened to John O’Donohue talk about beauty. I have been bathed in beauty and sacred vibration for two days which has left my heart singing and spirit cheerful. My quick pilgrimage had all the joys of any exotic journey with no jet lag or expensive tickets. So this Fall find a place to pilgrimage close to home and bring beauty and joy to your soul.

http://www.shakervillageky.org

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Basho

Breaking the silence

of an ancient pond,

A frog jumped in to water —

A deep resonance.

This haiku by the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most recognizable poems in Japan. Haiku is a short traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of seventeen syllables divided into three sections of five-seven-five. It was Basho who perfected the haiku form, but he also wrote beautiful prose in the form of a travel log with the haiku inspired by his experiences. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his best-known work and read by almost every Japanese high school student and translated more than any other work of Japanese literature.

I first learned of Basho while researching pilgrimage. I was already familiar with the haiku form and its popularity in both Japan and the West but going deeper into Basho’s life and work expands my understanding of the form, but more importantly informs my own pilgrimages and soul journey. Although Basho spent a great deal of time traveling, it is this pilgrimage to the Deep North that called his soul. To wander in nature and discover the world was not a luxury for Basho but a necessity for his poetry and the calling of his soul.  On this journey, Basho developed a new form a writing called haibun, which alternates prose and haiku to describe his journey. The prose, equally as beautiful as the poems, explains the physical aspects of the journey where the haiku illuminates the internal images and experiences. He walked 1200 miles over five months with his disciple Sora and planned part of the route to include places described by other writers. Basho’s call to a pilgrimage was not a specific place but to experience whatever unfolded before him. “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander”.

Basho’s words are beautiful in their simplicity and grace. He uses a lightness and gentleness to describe nature and life itself. Beauty becomes an essential element in the soul’s journey. Basho found beauty on his journey: in the change of seasons, fleeting moments of sun on dew, a hazy moon, the arch of the Milky Way. He found beauty in the smallest details of cherry blossoms, pine trees, wind and water. Life is fleeting and these details captured the ephemeral moment when life is perfect beauty. Basho took great delight and wonder in these moments that fed his soul’s path. It is in these brief moments that Basho experienced eternity and left a trace in his haiku.

Walking pilgrimages are inherently simple. Life is reduced to what you can carry on your back. Basho’s haiku perfectly alludes to the essentialness of his journey. Pleasure is found in the simple moment of a flower, the soft breeze, or sound of a cricket. Basho left behind the comforts of home and community to see the world in the simplest moments where the sacred is found. Basho doesn’t analyze or offer opinion on what he sees, rather he relates pure experiences as they happen in the moment and in his heart. Haiku becomes the way he expresses his journey. Although haiku is simple in form it is not simplistic for the subtly expressed by the image associations and verbal play enter in the depths of the human heart.

In the essence of his work, Basho is above all a nature poet. All his senses were tuned to the natural world and Basho misses none of the subtleties of the wind, seasons, smell and sound, often bringing him to tears in the moments of pure wonder and grace. His poetry and prose are words of praise and thanksgiving for life in all of its forms. The sea, rocks, stars, mountain, trees, flowers, all participated in Basho’s poems to the ineffable mystery of our world.

Although written almost 400 years ago, Basho’s story and poetry are timeless. His experiences and observations reflect his deep understanding of nature and his own interior life. Pilgrimage, as a time of solitude in nature, becomes a catalyst that opens an important soul space.  Basho heard the call of this soul space and left a beautiful account of what that interior pilgrimage looks like. His words are those of the mystic that sees the sacred in all things and in all places.

The title of Basho’s story, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflects the physical road and is a metaphor for the quality of the interior journey for the sacred does not come with broad highways and neon signs. The sacred is found with effort on a narrow path that takes time and sacrifice, suffering and joy. There is no easy and quick way to a lasting relationship with nature and the soul. Hard work and dedication are needed to find these numinous moments when the world becomes alive with wonder as we step out of time into the timeless.

Later this year I am going to Japan to see for myself what inspired Basho. I will be walking part of the 88 Temple trail on Shikoku island, a 1000-year-old spiritual pilgrimage and a sister pilgrimage to the Camino. Basho did not walk this particular trail, he walked north of what is today Tokyo, but the landscape and culture as well as the search for the heart and soul of nature aligns me with the spirit of Basho.  Basho wrote on many subjects that moved him to live in relationship with his soul and thus offers me language to seek the same beauty.

 

 

Amid mountains of high summer,

I bowed respectfully before

The tall clogs of a statue

Asking a blessing on my journey

 

To talk casually

About an iris flower

Is one of the pleasures

Of the wandering journey.

 

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

 

 

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Gifts

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As we enter the traditional season for giving, I am reminded that gifts are always a part of the journey, on a pilgrimage and in daily life.   All you have to do is become aware the abundance of life and open your heart to receiving these gifts so freely given.  I offer these three gifts for this holiday season.  Gifts to give yourself and then in turn give to others.
Joy:   The poet Leon Bloy says, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God”.   Finding joy, living joy, sustained joy are the moments the pilgrim has put down their burdens, worries, sorrow and let the light of the Divine show through to your life.   This is a moment of transformation where just being alive and open hearted is all there needs to be.   On the Camino I had the experience of sustained joy where just walking and being in nature made every breath a thank-you.

Silence:  In our noisy world we don’t find much silence and if you do happen to encounter it most people find it uncomfortable and immediately fill the void with more talking or scrolling.   Silence is where you take time from our frenetic world.   You can’t hear the voice of your heart and the Divine if you are talking or distracted.   Practice sacred silence as you move into sacred space.   Take time to sit in silent wonder and just be with the experience.   You need time to be without distraction to connect your being to your special place on earth.   Before and after visiting a special place give yourself the gift of coming into silence so you can prepare, receive and then integrate this experience.

Music:   Music is part of spiritual practice in all traditions, hymns, chants, toning and other types of music that enhances your personal experience.   As always these should not affect the experience of others near you or the nature of the site.   Sing a song in your mind, quietly chanting, listening to a song on an iPod can greatly enhance your experience.   I like to link a specific song with a specific place or experience.    Sometimes I have chosen that song ahead of time, sometimes I let the shuffle setting choose the song, sometimes I like to have a song spontaneously come into my mind.      When a song is sung or listened to at a site the song is then imprinted on your energy at that site.   In the future when you hear that song then you can be instantly transported back to that place and time.   It is a way of being part of that place forever.   In the cathedral in Burgos, Spain during a Mass in English the congregation sang a hymn I learned as a child.   I sang the words that I knew but hadn’t thought of for decades.   Now my voice is forever in the stones of that chapel.

Spring

Spring has arrived in east Tennessee and my world is pink and white and spring green.   The land is never more beautiful than at this time of year.   My sweet birds are chirping from dawn to dusk and the cats, Timmy and Persy, happily jump into the open bedroom window for some much loved fresh air.  Hamilton’s role changes from firetender to yardman.   He enjoys both roles especially now he has “another woman” named Huskey 2.2, a mechanical woodsplitter.   In the spring he spends many happy hours meditating on the old riding mower uninterrupted by the phone.

My old home has three working fireplaces and we use all of them during the winter.   They no longer are the main source of heat but now provide an atmosphere of warmth and peace with the smell of burning wood and the crackling sound.   During the winter months we offer our friends the irresistible invitation, “want to come sit by the fire”?  No one turns us down.

In the spring it is my job to clean out the fireplaces. I gather all the necessary equipment: brown bags, fireplace shovel, old sheet, hand broom and dust pan, bucket and rag.   I first take out the last bits of charred wood and then remove the screen, andirons, and grate.   I scoop the ash into the waiting bag and then sweep the remains into a dust pan.   Then, I wash down the mantel, tools and hearth.   Finally, I replace the grate and screen.   It is a big and dirty job but one that brings me a very unique joy.   Not only do I love the tidy fireplace for the summer season. but it is the one time I feel deeply connected to all the women who have lived in this house before me.   They are nameless, but we share a deep connection.   I’m sweeping the very same bricks they swept for generations before me.   I think about how they had to clean out the ashes constantly where I only have to do it once a year.   I’ve never met these woman but we are friends, bound by the needs of family and love of home.

This week I was reading Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton.   May loved her home and the solitude and space it provided for her writing.  She writes…”I have a fire burning in my study, yellow roses and mimosa on my desk. We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone…”   Plant Dreaming Deep is a memoir about her first year in her home in Vermont.   She learns to love her home and her home nourishes her.   May and I are kindred spirits and our spring birthdays are just a few days apart.   We love our old homes and find comfort and silence to grow our spirit.  “We are one, the house and I and I am happy….”

 

The Sleeping Beauty

A couple of weeks after my trip to Southeast Asia I found myself yet again in a very different world and a very different experience. Alexandra wanted to meet up on NYC for a mother/daughter arts weekend—how could I say no to that. My sweet girl and art—never a better combination.

For both of us it was a pilgrimage for we were going to see the New York City Ballet perform The Sleeping Beauty. I have loved ballet since I was a small girl but it wasn’t available to me because of religious restrictions. When I became a mother and removed those artificial restrictions I put my daughters in ballet class the moment they were old enough. I was too old to begin ballet but could live vicariously through them—-I’m so glad it worked out for all of us. Alexandra became passionate about ballet and it was her life all through school and beyond. She still takes class regularly and informs me that it is essential for her life and mental wellbeing. She is six feet tall and professional dancing isn’t her career path but instead she just gets to find the joy with none of the pressure.

Over the last few years she has become passionate about the New York City Ballet and follows them like others follow football. She knows the players, the moves, the opponents, the dramas and the choreography. So in February NYCB was performing her number one ballet The Sleeping Beauty. This ballet contains the quintessential elements of ballet in its highest form. The music, costumes, story, dancers, orchestra and audience all come together to experience art at its most refined and inspired.

Tchaikovsky wrote the music to The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and was first performed in 1890. It has been a touchstone for classical ballet ever since. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty will forever remain a popular and perfect ballet as it is at once pure beauty and mythic story that touches our hearts.  For in the classic fairytale we are reminded that true unconditional love awakens us from our unconscious lives. The NYCB production is choreographed by Peter Martins and is very much in the school of George Balanchine who founded the company. It is this perfect combination of the magnificent score by Tchaikovsky and the unique and truly American style of Balanchine that makes this work iconic and universal. Yet it was over 100 years in the making. Balanchine, a half a century after Tchaikovsky, pioneered a style and technique that matches the music like never before and elevated the art to a new level. It is a unique art form that can change and grow but yet still convey the essence of the original story and music.

Ballet is art expressed with the human body in time and space and this is the essence of this pilgrimage but makes it so different from visiting sacred sites. This is a pilgrimage of Time and ephemeral beauty. It is Time that brings the music and movement together in a refined state. Only in Time does this experience exist, the music and movement are only in the Now, fleeting and yet eternal in the effect on all who participate; dancers, musicians and audience. Alexandra and I were enraptured by the experience and what human beings are able to create. Each perfect movement to the perfect note is a transcendent moment.

Alexandra is the poster child for October 2017 Knoxville Symphony.   This picture from 2011 is just pure joy.

Questions

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It all started with a question. How will I feed my reading addiction when I’m walking the Camino? I could only carry about 17 pounds so a couple of books would make me way over the weight limit. Some people even suggested that there wouldn’t be time to read but they had no idea of the extent of my problem. I can get the shakes if I go more than few hours without reading. So, I bought a Kindle. Up until then I preferred books and fed my addiction at the used bookstore and with penny books on Amazon.

I took to my new electronic reader right away which is surprising because I’m actually what is termed a “slow adapter”, which mostly means I’m too frugal to buy new technology until the price comes down. Nothing wrong with old technology, in my world, the main source of entertainment here on the farm is sitting around a fire drinking coffee.

I looked around to find books to put on my new-fangled device that would be pilgrimage appropriate. I’m not much of a novel reader—can’t keep characters straight. I didn’t want anything densely philosophical or overly religious. I needed something to gently ground me after a long day’s walk, so Buddhism fit the requirements perfectly. I like the gentleness and simplicity of modern Zen writing and it was a good way to balance life on a Christian pilgrimage.

I decided to read Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller. I had read Hand Wash Cold and liked her style of writing. Karen is a Zen Buddhist priest living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looked like a good fit and someone I could relate too; mother, American, Buddhist, gardener. I downloaded the book and a couple of others on yoga two days before I flew to Spain hoping that would sustain me on my walk.

Everyday after our long walk and a hot shower Alexandra would take a nap and I would find some place to read because if I napped I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Each day I would read the next chapter in Paradise in Plain Sight. I always like to savor books like this and just read one chapter a day. Every chapter is centered around a part of Karen’s Zen garden that she was lovingly restoring to its original beauty after many years of neglect. It was a big project to take on but Karen knew she was the next caretaker for this special little paradise.

Each day I enjoyed learning something new about the garden and Zen. It was the perfect way to unwind after our daily 12 mile walk. That was until chapter 16, Weeds. Then everything changed. There was one tiny sentence that changed the entire perspective of my pilgrimage:

In Zen, we don’t find the answers: we lose the questions.

What?!? The whole point of the walk was to work through any lingering problems, sort through old memories, make future goals and generally come out of the experience full of ambition, accomplishment and deep personal insight. It seems that Zen had just turned that upside down and inside out. I put aside my western mind and moved into a wonderfully Zen place. In that moment I lost the questions.

The next three weeks of the journey took on a new light. Each day was just a walk in the world in great joy. I was freed from trying to figure life out and instead I was left the with the incredible lightness of being. Don’t tell anyone but I wrote the saying on a rock in hope that another pilgrim would also lose the need to find answers.

I am deeply changed by my walk, not in a dramatic “change everything about my life” type of change but a quiet, gentle way of seeing the world. I don’t need to have things figured out or know why things happen or what the future will be. All these questions will figure themselves out in time. My work is to be in this world and breath in life. I can definitely do that.