Sunday, March 9, 2014

If you put your mind to it. . .

If traveling to India again felt like a homecoming, hoping over to Nepal was a departure into the unknown, this being my first time here. There's a special tingly excitement that rings through you when you know you're about to have a "first time" of any sort. First kiss. First day. First taste. First glimpse. There is no recreating that first. You are gifted that opportunity, and it is never to be had again.

That might seem a sad statement to some. But if I've learned anything from the spiritual wisdom I've been exposed to, it's the imperative value in making the most of every single moment, otherwise known as mindfulness. Being mindful and present for each moment gives you the gift of infinite first times. So while you may not experience that exact same tingle, you can choose to recognize and revere every first as unique and sacred.

The path of mindfulness is the path of the Buddha, and being here in Nepal where Buddhism is so very prevalent, interwoven gracefully with Hinduism, I feel particularly charged and plugged into mindfulness practices in a near effortless way. The sacred is non-different from the secular here in this corner of the world, which to me makes it much easier to have the clarity and presence of mind that truly allow for veneration of each and every moment.

Here monks and nuns weave through the crowds with tourists and locals, all of us going about our business while flowing along a common current. Morning time around Boudha Stupa, where I am staying, is a beautiful display of reverie. It's a parade of prayer beads, wheels and flags sending their vibrations out into the ether, Tibetan rites being performed, incense burning, offerings made, mantras chanted. This isn't a special occasion. It's not a holiday. It's everyday. It's life. And life IS sacred. Life is worthy of being present for. Yet so many of us are not.

I include myself in that "so many" much of the time because it is just so easy to go on autopilot. For instance, how many times have I walked or driven somewhere, glued to my phone or some other distraction, and literally not known how it is that I got from A to B? On how many occasions have I taken a loved one for granted, or not recognized a blessing that lays right before my eyes?

The other night as I was walking back to my hotel, I stepped outside and the first thing I did was gaze up between the buildings to the darkened sky, marveling at the brilliance of the stars. Kathmandu is a valley with its fair share of smog, so it struck me to see the night sky clear enough for such a beautiful display. The stars twinkled brightly and just about half a moon lit up the vastness. Then as I approached the Stupa, I stood for a moment to take a mental picture of how it looks lit up with candles against the near black backdrop of night, a stark contrast from its daytime facade of sun-drenched whitewash.

These were little firsts for me. I've never seen the stars from Kathmandu before and I may never again for all I know. Even if I walk out to the Stupa at the exact same time another evening, it simply will not and cannot be exactly the same as that night. In fact, tonight it is adorned with strings of electric lights, looking even more spectacular, though still not the same as that first time. Just being mindful of that fact imbues me with a sense of presence and gratitude that fills my heart.

Now the work is to be just as mindful of the mundane as well. Can I rise to the challenge of appreciating the sanctity of life's little moments when I'm not standing on holy ground under a breathtaking sky in a foreign country? Can I literally dance with joy over a hot shower and electricity on demand when I'm back in a place where both are readily available to me 24/7?

With mindfulness I know I can.

I've learned to cultivate gratitude as a practice, and as more time goes by, the more effortless giving thanks becomes. Mindfulness and gratitude go hand in hand. When you are truly aware of the sacred blessings you are receiving every moment of every day just by simply being alive, how can you be anything other than grateful? Yet, while mindfulness fosters an all-encompassing gratitude, selective gratitude is not the same as all-encompassing mindfulness. That is the practice I seek to delve deeper into.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Krsna's Love

That I haven't the slightest clue what day it is really says something about how easily I've slid into this beautiful break from the reality I know. The journey to India feels like it was ages ago, though I know I've been here less than a week I believe. Filling those days with the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of this land that is at once so familiar and so unknown has me lost in the conventional sense of time and place.

A big part of why I love traveling to other countries is that it makes it effortless for me to suspend my judgements and presuppositions. There is no sizing people up when you haven't a clue about cultural norms. There is no clinging to what should be once you've committed to opening up to what simply is. So despite the constant stimulation and the packed schedule I've been keeping since arriving here, I feel relaxed in a way I seldom experience back at home. . . a particular mental relaxation that comes from letting go.

I've relaxed into the mood of Krsna, this particular pilgrimage very much focused on deepening my connection to this Beloved form of the Divine. Years ago, I began my spiritual journey on a different branch of the path, an impersonal one stemming from a Shaivist tradition. But the further along I've come, the more I've been exposed to, Bhakti has taken over and an impersonal relationship with the Divine simply doesn't resonate with my heart. When I chant and pray, I am calling out to my Beloved or to my Mother, not to abstract representations of the Universal Consciousness. I am yearning for union, connection. I am calling out to Krsna, reaching out for the Divine Mataji, and my call has been answered by bringing me here.

I began in Puri, sacred home of the Jagannath temple where Krsna is worshipped in a state of explosive, expansive love. And now I am in Mayapur at the ISCKON Kirtan Mela, which is basically like being at the Vatican of Krsna Consciousness for a massive sacred music festival. I also happen to be on the banks of the river Ganga, Holy Mother, so both of my heart's deepest understandings of the Divine are embodied here. I'm immersed in a sea of devotion, and in that sea there is no place and time. There is only Love.

If you disconnect from that Love, the noise, crowds, dirt, etc. can overwhelm you and you might find yourself very much in a place and time that feels unpleasant, even confrontational. It's a lot to be somewhere that seems so radically different from the comfortable Western world we know. But when you see and feel the Love in all, when you understand that everyone and everything are representations of the same divinity, the world becomes impossibly beautiful. The sea of devotion is infinite and letting go into its currents propels you forward toward bliss.

For me, bliss is being so merged with the vibration of a kirtan that no one voice or instrument is separate from all the rest and every sound melds together into the purest harmony. It's feeling embraced by that collective vibration, plugged into the sweetest emotion, knowing that the Divine hears your call. Yesterday, despite having gotten sick and feeling quite weak and tired, I sat for hours in the temple soaking in that very energy. I knew there was nowhere better I could possibly be. And I felt like my strongest, healthiest self when we moved into the center of the kirtan hall and I was so totally lost, yet so totally held, by the ecstatic expression of thousands of devotees calling out to Krsna. There is no remedy like bliss.

This journey has been a revelation for me. I realize that I was holding onto guilt about straying from the original branch of the spiritual path I'd been walking. When I started in the Sivananda yoga lineage some 7 years ago, I clung to it like a life raft because I needed something bigger than myself to hold onto and it was there. Aside from a yoga asana practice, Sivananda introduced me to mantra, japa, pujas, arati, all the ritualistic aspects that I so love. I was first exposed to kirtan through Sivananda and Sivaratri in 2009 was my first experience of staying up all night chanting to the Divine, experiencing for myself the magnificence of being immersed by the energy of hundreds of souls calling out in a space of Love.

As I've continued forward on my path, evolved as an individual, softened and healed pieces of me along the way, I found myself less aligned with other aspects of the Sivananda lineage, while simultaneously feeling so at home among the Krsna family. Reconciling this took time. It almost felt like cheating on my partner. Just as fidelity and loyalty are things I prize in my intimate relationships, I value them in this aspect too. So it has taken a long time for me to make peace with the fact that this isn't a case of infidelity. This is a case of me having progressed to a place where I know my heart far better than I ever could have when it was shrouded under layers of pain and suffering. My heart wants nothing more than to Love. That is my True nature. There is no other way. And to me, calling out to Krsna is the ultimate manifestation.

So here I sit, early morning, surrounded by nature, morning prayers carried over loudspeakers, Ganga at my back, ISKCON in front of me, Divine Love all around me. In losing my sense of place and time, I've found that I am in EXACTLY the right place and this is EXACTLY the right time. No guilt. No regret. No shame. Only Love. Only Krsna. And by seeing him in all, loving and serving him in all, I know deep in my heart that I cannot help but walk the path of my Truth.

Jai Sri Krsna!!!