Gifts of the Unfamiliar

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I’ve been writing a lot about India lately. I’ll be going back in less than two months and it’s been on my mind.

As I’ve mentioned before, India is not for everyone. But I don’t think you can know if it’s for you or not unless you visit. I have a few friends who have gone and their sentiment is, “I went, I’m glad I went, but I don’t need to go back.” I get it.

Others I know who have visited India are as perplexed as I am about why they want to keep going back.

Maybe it’s a particular city or town that draws them in. Or the food. Or the temples and architecture.

For me it’s a feeling. I am simultaneously lost and home. I am removed from the familiar and insanely present to my current surroundings.

Perhaps that’s the gift of traveling anywhere unfamiliar. You have to find your way. You cannot be the same you that sits on your back porch sipping coffee every morning. Or the same you that runs up to the grocery store for a forgotten item. You’re starting over, building who you are here – wherever here is.

India is kind in that way. Most Indians speak English. Most will smile and nod as you tantrum about the way it should be. Most will accept you as you are.

Visiting India can never be as simple as shopping in Jaipur, staying on a house boat in Goa or walking the grounds of the Taj Mahal.

That’s simply the first sentence.

I would love to take everyone I know to India. Its gifts are rare and unique and not always obvious and quick.

India takes its time with you. It’s in no hurry.

As I prepare to go back I work on letting go of expectations. Even though I’ve been to the same places many times there is always some nugget of wisdom waiting for me.

I wonder what it will be this time.

An Adventure in Being

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I’m not in it for the adventure.

Travel seems to be at the top of all the lists these days. It is always at the top of mine and always on my mind.

But it is not always adventure I am seeking.

I have no need to prove anything to anyone or myself. I’m beyond the stage when I need to walk a literal precipice to show that I can. Or to get my adrenaline pumping by jumping off a bridge tethered to a rope. I’m at that stage where I want deep experiences, rich soul-shining experiences.

I want to walk. A lot. All over. I want to consciously wander.

I want to sit in front of swamis, gurus, comedians, authors and even charlatans. I want to wander the streets of vibrant cities, take public transportation and interrogate locals on their favorite places to eat.

I want to sit in nature in a foreign country and remark – to myself – how nature is nature and no matter where in nature I find myself it’s healing. Nature has its own universal language.

I want to sit on rooftops sipping chai, coffee, wine, ouzo.

These are my adventures. Being in other places. Being wherever I am. Being. Observing. Noticing. Absorbing.

These are the adventures I want to share. I want to take others to all the magical corners of the planet and allow them to be. To notice. To create their own shift.

It really doesn’t matter where. The park 2 miles from my home can be as impactful as meditating on the banks of the Ganges. Probably. Although there is something mighty powerful about the Ganga Ma.

It’s not about accumulating. It’s not about becoming an experience junky. It is simply about immersion in this great adventure called life.

Our next adventure is coming fast – Rishikesh, India for 10 days in March. If India is calling, take a look at the details here. It’s an intentionally small group of soulful travelers.

Care to join me for a cup of chai on a rooftop overlooking the Taj Mahal?

India is Medicine

Did you wake up this year with a burning desire to become something different? To take more risks? To let go of fear? Did you decide to uncover your purpose?

If you said yes to any of that, then travel you must. You don’t have to go half way around the world, a day trip to a totally different sort of locale could help. The beach, the mountains, a park, some place you don’t regularly access.

But, if a trip half way around the world sounds just like exactly what you need, I can take you there.

Travel can be the balm that helps heal dissatisfaction, unrest or even a broken body or tired soul.

In just two and a half months we will be going to India. This is a country profoundly poor but intensely spiritually rich. Because it is so different from the United States or Canada or even Europe, it affords you the opportunity to get to go know yourself on an intimate level. You get to see all your tendencies, habits and choices up close and personal. With guidance and support, you can learn a tremendous amount and choose where to make changes and what to let go of. You have the ability to immerse in you and transform on a deeply spiritual level.

In India it’s as if the volume and vibrancy of have been turned up and I am aware.

India for me has been a place to reconnect with my spiritual home – the internal one. I can connect here on American soil too, but in India it’s as if the volume and vibrancy have been turned up and I am suddenly aware.

Each time for me is different; some parts are easy, some more difficult, but it’s all magic. It all does its work on me. With every departure from India I leave a bit of myself behind. I give the broken bits and the old beliefs and judgments to India to transmute into something greater. I never leave unchanged.

My partner in this upcoming adventure is Karin; she and I have been to India three times together and she feels as strongly about its depth as I do. It is a passion of both of ours to share this magical place. The magic you find will be very personal, just for you and it’s there waiting for you if you’re ready.

If you woke up this year wanting clarity, peace and purpose, India might just hold the answer.

 

 

It’s a Wander-full Life

This year has taken me to some amazing places. Some new, some familiar but all ever-changing. So grateful for this amazing ride called life. Can’t wait to see what explorations are in store for 2017. Join me, won’t you?

JANUARY was spent quietly at home, plotting, planning and preparing for my next big trip, India. I did take the time to wander my neighborhood trails. There’s nothing quite like a crisp Florida winter morning to energize!

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Oviedo, Florida

FEBRUARY sent me back to India. This time I immersed myself in the culture and magic of just one place – Rishikesh. I had been before but just for a few days, this time I spent nearly two weeks living on the banks of the Ganges. I’ll be going back this March and this time I’m taking people with me.

Rishikesh, India

MARCH – After India, I stopped over in Croatia and Slovenia for a week. It was still chilly but the air was so refreshing and invigorating. Zagreb was a bustling city, but it was the entire country of Slovenia that stole my heart on this trip. Going back later in 2017 to both places, exploring more of the Croatian coast and, of course, wandering back into that gem of a country nestled between Austria and Italy.

Zagreb, Croatia

Lake Bled and Ljubljana, Slovenia

APRIL Back home but not for long! Time to take a road trip across the state to Cedar Key for an uber relaxing natural Florida experience. Then a quick one day wander through Rainbow Springs.

Cedar Key and Rainbow Springs, FL

MAY A day trip or two a month often satisfies my inner-wanderer. Lucky for me I live in a beautiful, lush state. My own little town of Oviedo, working hard to maintain its small town feel with 30,000 people, then two hours west to St. Petersburg and an hour east to Indian Harbour Beach.

Oviedo, St. Petersburg and Indian Harbour Beach, Florida

JUNE A few days away in the beautiful mountains of North Georgia to check out an amazing retreat and spa. Dahlonega GA

Beautiful Dahlonega and Kitschy Cool Helen, Georgia

JULY An out-of-town friend wondered how far the Kennedy Space Center was so I took him there. The answer is about 45 minutes. Science is a whole different kind of wandering.

Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida

AUGUST  LA in August for some fabulous friends and food and a little scoping out of retreat potential.

Marina del Rey and Pacific Palisades, California

SEPTEMBER Then on to Sequoia National Park to be mesmerized by the stately ancient redwoods. Then later in the month up north to explore all of New Hampshire, bits of Massachusetts and a few seaport towns in Maine.

Sequoia National Park, California | Rye and Portsmouth, New Hampshire |Rocky Neck, Newburyport, and Gloucester, Massachusetts | Cape Elizabeth, Maine

OCTOBER  Back to the north Georgia mountains to take a lovely group to explore the mountains and do some yoga. Straddled the coast of Florida again with a quick trip to New Smyrna Beach to scout locations for a beach retreat and St. Pete to visit family.

Roswell, Amicalola Falls and Blairsville, Georgia | New Smyrna Beach, Florida

NOVEMBER Can’t get enough of California. Wandered the trails of Fullerton on an almost daily basis. Trekked into the cold hard streets of Hollywood to watch a friend play at a dive bar.

Fullerton, Hollywood and Brea, California

DECEMBER Ended the year much as it began, quiet and close to home. Spent an evening at a beautiful barn in Geneva all decked out for the holidays then meandered amongst the alligators, otters and birds at the Orlando Wetlands.

Geneva and Christmas, Florida

Reviewing this past year in photos and trips fills me with such gratitude for this life that is unfolding before me. I have always wanted to travel and once I consciously made the decision to make that a huge part of my life, opportunities began dropping into my lap. Thanks for coming along here and I hope you’ll join me along the path soon this coming year.

2017 promises a few new passport stamps in preparation of more fantastic retreats and adventures ahead. Stay tuned…

Ganga Ma

Each morning, we walk the short distance to the banks of the Ganges to sit in meditation for nearly an hour. Along the way we pass the sleeping shirtless man, in his makeshift permanent tent, with his dogs; an open manhole cover; and a giant mama pig rooting for breakfast as her pile of 5 babies sleeps protected beneath the dusty bushes.

There is a tender breeze that becomes gustier as we ascend the steps up to the promenade, then even more pronounced as we cross it to descend down the other side toward the water. We are seated 9 steps up from the Ganga Ma – the mother Ganges. Before arranging ourselves to sit, we carefully take the steps that lead into the water to receive her blessing. Bending into a squat we each begin to create our own rituals. Mine is to place my right hand into the cold rushing water, to feel it, experience it, then scoop enough water to wash both hands, finally placing my fingertips on my forehead, as if to begin my day and my mediation with a clear mind.

What others do is unknown to me, we are each in our own space.

I am drawn in by this ritual. Seated meditation does not come naturally to me, but I have learned it is the process, and the eventual progress, not the perfection of the practice that is the work.

The air is chilly and each gust of wind whips at the scarf covering my head.

I open my eyes. A lot. It’s part of the process for me. The huge ashram across the river, the Parmarth, is hosting the International Yoga Festival starting in the next day or so. It is glowing with preparation. To its left is the Ram Jhula bridge, lit with strands of green, white and red lights. And to its left, a few lights diminish into nothingness. The mountains rise up behind all of it – tiny lights high in the hills could easily be mistaken for stars.

The light cast from the promenade behind us illuminates the rocks in the river that split the water creating eddies and ripples. There is great power in the speed of its flow.  The sound mesmerizing. Swami Divyananda had said, “Sitting on the banks of the Ganges and meditating is like absorbing the prana (life force) of the river herself.” I agree.

Directly in front of me, close to the steps, there is a rock that catches the water and throws it onto the bottom step. I use this as my focus for meditation.

Time passes slowly. People are walking behind us, some chanting, some silent. I begin to identify them by their gait, their shoes. A family dips in the icy waters to our right, gasping and laughing. I catch the scent of sulfur as a match is struck to light the tiny flat disk of camphor, the size of my thumbnail, in the flower boat intended to send a blessing down the river.

I am caught too deeply in observation to actually be meditating, but I try. Eyes closed, eyes open, uncross legs, re-cross, shift feet, sigh. I am not struggling, just observing how I am handling the impatience of my mind, the distractions. I am straddling both worlds and content in that.

Our time in meditation has ended. We bow in appreciation to the river, to ourselves, to our practice, and stand up to walk back to yoga.

There will be no gap in thoughts today for me. No profound awareness of the silent presence. Yet I am left calmer and clearer for having made the attempt.

Or perhaps it is the power of the Ganga herself that leaves me more content.

Traveling as a Spiritual Practice

I do yoga. I meditate. I pray. I read uplifting inspirational books. But nothing connects me more to the Big Mystery than travel.

Traveling to a place like India or Mecca or the Vatican, of course, brings with it some spiritual or religious expectations. And I highly recommend you visit a powerful place that will fill your soul.

For the travel I’m referring to you don’t necessarily need a passport or plane ticket. You may not even need gas in your car.

Wandering in nature close to your home is all the farther you need to go. The travel part is more internal. The journey inward.

Here are some pointers for this short but potent trip:

  • Put your phone in your pocket and use only in case of an emergency or to capture a moment on the camera.
  • Sit or stand still for long moments.
  • Look around slowly. S l o w l y…
  • Notice everything. The butterfly, the leaves rustling. A bird. The sky.
  • Close your eyes and breathe.
  • Now, wander.

So much of travel – near or far – is clearing away the expectations and anticipations, including fear. This is the process of presence.

No matter how far you travel, BE in that space. Just BE.

Excuses are Anchors

I have friends who have no desire to travel. Some cite contentment right where they are, others a fear of foreign places and people and the rest, concern for their safety. To the first group, I say, “good on you.” But check to make sure you’re not confusing contentment with complacency.

To the rest, I say, fear is the doorway through which you find magic.

Excuses dressed up like perfectly logical reasons are tiny little anchors keeping you stuck.

One of the biggest gifts travel to another country has given me is the ability to have my prejudices and beliefs blasted to smithereens. The more my perceptions are deconstructed, the freer I become. Now, I step through the looking glass with wonder.

With wonder, there is little resistance, with little resistance there is freedom, with freedom there is joy.

Where will you go next?

Wherever You Go, There You Are

 

I used to think this was a funny, silly saying – even obvious. But now I know it to be profound.  A universal truth.

No matter where you go, you neatly pack your beliefs, ideas about the world and expectations alongside your toothbrush and unmentionables. Physically they take up very little space and they won’t add weight to your suitcase, but be aware they can add a ton to your experience.

Or take everything away.

It is nearly impossible to be without expectation. We spend our entire lives constructing little boxes and columns in which to put everything. She’s white, mid-forties, married with 2 kids. He’s Hispanic, early 20’s, college student. Then we pepper in some details and judgments based on what we know about white women in their 40s and Hispanic men in their 20s.

We can’t really help it. Judgment of this sort keeps things neat for us. And if we’re flexible we’ll allow for the fact that the white woman is married to another white woman without a whole lot of feather ruffling. Did you think she was married to a man?

Travel, especially to another country remarkably different from home, allows many opportunities for growth. Having our beliefs challenged regularly can be exhausting and we either give up and trust or fight and scowl continuing to insist on the way things should be.

Those who travel often learn to trust the hand of the universe at their back to guide them to experiences of expansion. Edges are pushed, fears are brought up, magic is revealed.

It’s not easy, this giving up of (perceived) control. I know people who will not travel anywhere there is not the guarantee of a cup of coffee in the morning.

So is this:

A. An addiction

B. An excuse

C. Entitlement

D. A medical condition

Sorry, it’s not D, I’m pretty sure.

We put limitations and conditions on things to protect ourselves, our ego. Coffee is maybe a silly example, but it is true. I know real flesh and blood people who will deny themselves experiences because coffee may be unavailable. [Note to those folks: Starbucks now has tiny little travel-friendly packets, so you’re running out of excuses.]

I also know actual people who will go somewhere even if there is no real medical care available. I know people who climb rock faces just because, and swim in the Ganges to dip their toe in enlightenment, and travel without luggage, just for fun.

The magic happens where courage and desire intersect.

For some that is a weekend an hour away from the kids for the first time. For others it’s backpacking through Vietnam alone. Everyone’s edge is in a different place and it’s up to them to nudge it.

Travel can reveal the work that still needs to be done. It can crack open and fill up. It can break down and leave ruins to rebuild. But it always changes the traveler. Sometimes those changes are apparent right away, sometimes they reveal themselves in conversations months later. Most often, those changes take the form of compassion and empathy.

And those are two lovely items to pack. Always.

 

 

 

 

India Calls

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India is always on my mind. I cannot articulate what about this mesmerizing and frustrating country has me so captivated. The people? Absolutely. The colors? For sure. The history, spirituality, devotion, customs, mystery? All of it.

But when someone asks me why I love India I can never convey with words why I must go back again and again.

A piece of me is from here. When I stepped onto Indian soil that first time, I reclaimed something. Nothing was added. Nothing was new. Something left sleeping and lightly snoring deep within had simply yawned, stretched and awakened full of peace and unperturbed joy.

I am able, in this truly foreign country, to be at peace with what is. Everything is so different from home I have no choice but to accept what is. My initial reaction upon seeing a family of five on a motor bike was, they can’t do that. But, indeed they can. That simple realization that laws and customs, and well, everything, is different here ,created a space of child-like wonder that a highly-decorated-deities-on-the-dashboard-‘horn-please’-hand-lettered-on-the-back truck could lumber through. Everything is new. All this ancient, crumbling, centuries old stuff, is new. To me.

It is this renewed sense of wonder that I take with me as I walk to see a Jamaican guru named Mooji one morning.

He is speaking somewhere down river. Led by a devotee of his in our group, we walk south, past the Indian man chanting into a microphone in front of a movie camera, beyond the women washing clothes in the Ganges, through an alley and onto a seemingly residential road where hoards of people – mostly white westerners – were patiently, almost quietly, waiting in line.

The line seemed terribly long, but we had heard they admitted people by lottery so our chances were as good as anyone’s to get a good seat. So many of these gatherings take on a cult-like atmosphere and this was no different. Perhaps it was the ‘no talking’ dictate, or the helpers all in white. It is referred to as a Sattvic environment – pure, balanced. Whatever the case, I’ve been down this road before and it didn’t worry me.

As we waited to be admitted, we took in life around us as it was taking us in: Families with children looking down from their roof tops and marveling at these people that line up day after day, doors cracked to allow the curious to peek out and men seated on stoops having their normal conversations as if this was nothing new.

As luck would have it, we happened to be in the line that is chosen first to find a seat. The hall is big, with chairs lining both sides and a wide center portion set with pillows a little too closely together on the floor in the front, and wide open seating behind that. A single chair and a couple of plants occupies the stage in front of all of this. We chose chairs as close as we could get, maybe 10 rows back, stage right. And waited.

A woman in white took the stage first informing us of the rules of Mooji. It seems as if his message is all about liberation, as all questions were to be directed to that topic. There were standing microphones placed a few rows in on either aisle. If Mooji called on your raised hand, you were to speak your question into the microphone at close proximity so no one had to strain to hear you. Please make the questions universal and not personal. About liberation.

We were strongly encouraged to stay in our seats until Mooji exited at the end. No bathroom breaks or leaving early, please. If we felt we might want to do either of those, we were invited to take a less disruptive place in the back of the large hall.

Finally he joined us. I found his presence very soothing and grounding. He sat, covered his lap with a blanket then paused with the mic that was to rest on his ear, held aloft, as he gazed out at the audience with the most gentle smile in his eyes.

Then he placed the mic on his ear and spoke for several moments on the prison of our habits. Boom. Most of my nonfiction reading lately has been about this very subject – some of it even on purpose, some ‘accidental.’ I was listening.

Once he opened the floor up, it seemed despite the clear instruction at the beginning, each question was pretty personal in nature, but he was able to answer on a broader level. The people who stood to speak were infused with that yoga high I’ve become all too aquatinted with. It’s not lasting. Not like this. Once they leave the confines of their bubble, the real world often comes barreling back in to challenge their newfound liberation. I hoped they have the tools to take home to integrate, so the high can settle into a well-worn sort of bliss.

That’s what it is; integration. It may feel like transformation, and on some level it is, of course, but it is incorporating what you have come to learn to be true about you and infusing the ego-based personality everyone you know, knows. Here, your thin, pink vulnerability is protected by a shell the size of India, at home, you are raw. It’s a process with which I wish them the best.

One woman was invited onto the stage where she sobbed uncontrollably into Mooji’s lap. He very tenderly rubbed her back as she continued to wail into his microphone. His compassion was palpable, his reach wide, I too dropped into his energetic embrace.

As the woman’s sobs subsided, he began to teach from this experience. She was clear now, she got it and the rest of us could get it too. I nodded to myself but I’m not entirely sure that I did get it.

My big take-away was that this liberation – which is more allowing and letting go, than an actual attainment of freedom – is right here. It is not somewhere deep, it is not hidden in a cave or an untranslated secret scripture, but right in front of us. This is not new, nor is it news. But it bears repeating over and over and over again.

We are our own jailers. Our beliefs prevent us from being free, our perceptions and ideas about what is right and what is wrong, or what is good and what is bad, these prevent us from knowing freedom of the spirit.

it is so simple, but not so easy.

“You are not living life, you are life.”

The woman who had let it all go at the feet of her guru stayed with me. Witnessing that experience along with the other teachings left me contemplative.

When we were at last permitted to leave, I just wanted to find an empty space and sit. The exit was ordered and quiet – everyone was still observing silence – all the way through shoe retrieval and to the fence at the edge of the property.

I wanted to stay quiet. I wanted to sit in a bubble where these ideas, thoughts and challenges could bounce around me without landing, passing before my eyes and awareness for review or dismissal as I saw fit.

But this is India and quiet is a foreign concept. Just outside the gate others began sharing their experiences. I wanted them to stop talking to me. I wanted the kids to stop playing, the horns to stop beeping. I wanted quiet.

But isn’t this the message from Mooji? Letting all the distractions go – they’re there, but they don’t have to be distractions. Inner calm, inner stillness is portable – yoga instructors on microphones, rafters shouting as they navigate the Ganges, burning bodies on funeral pyres down by the same river, are all transient.

What I really craved was quiet time to digest, but that was a luxury I would be denied, maybe even until I was once again on my own sofa in my own home.

So often the pearls from my travels and experiences – maybe most especially in India – are revealed to me upon review. Writing is how I process these. I wonder, on occasion, if I am embellishing the memory, making it richer, better, more to my liking. But on the whole I don’t think that’s the case. I am simply able to take the time to color all the way to the edges.