Wednesday
Jun112014

Hare Happiness

One of the most incongruous sights in all of New York City must be the Hare Krishnas, blissed out on God in Union Square as the models and bankers and all the rest of us whiz by on our frenetic way to Somewhere. I have always dismissed them as kooky, and out of touch with reality.

But today something was different. On my way to yoga class at Jivamukti, I felt a strange inclination - not to judge them, but to join them. The drums were pulsing in light and buoyant rhythm; kids were playing maracas; and young and old together were dancing in slightly uncoordinated yet utterly charming fashion. But mainly what attracted me was how innocent and genuinely happy they all looked.

Margaret Runbeck said that ‘happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.’ Lately, though, life’s burdens have accumulated in me, leaving me overwhelmed and depressed much of the time. Maybe it was my intuitive and deeply buried yearning for joy that attracted me to their odd gathering.

Synchronistically, a mishap occurred on my way to said yoga class that prevented me from attending. A half hour later, armed with yoga mat and un-spent energy, I found myself wandering back to Union Square. One of the leaders, sensing my curiosity, promptly approached me and placed a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in my hand – but I wanted to dance. The bookmark was a copy of the Hare Krishna signature chant, underscored by the admonition, “Please chant and be happy.” That was all the invitation I needed.

I dropped my bags (both literally and figuratively) and began to sway. Nervously I looked around for the inevitable encounter with a familiar face, statistically unlikely yet strangely commonplace for New Yorkers in Union Square. What would my clients think? Would a friend write me off as a loser? What am I doing here? Is this a cult? Gradually these thoughts fell by the wayside as the spirit of something larger than this life took me over, and I became as un-self-conscious as a child playing in beach sand. My feet shuffled. I hopped, I spun, I sang with all my heart. And I realized, they are singing to God, these crazy people! And isn’t that what joy is all about?

This magical gathering seemed to create a rosy filter that allowed me to appreciate people, including myself, in all our imperfect lovable-ness. We all have a story, and suddenly I was able to feel my story inextricably linked to everyone else’s. Rather than an isolated individual struggling for survival, I was a small but still significant part of something BIG. I felt that elusive feeling that drives people to seek out drugs, sex, or other often addictive activities: joy. And it burbled up from inside so naturally, un-sought for, like a snake seduced by a hypnotic flute.

I’ve been doing all the requisite things in my search for health and happiness: going to yoga class, eating salad, dutifully repeating mantras and positive affirmations. But Thoreau said, “Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will elude you – but if you turn your attention to other things it will come and sit quietly on your shoulder.” Though teachers and mentors can point the way for us, in the end we all discover our own path to happiness. I don’t know if yours will include anything as off-beat as dancing with the Hare Krishnas in Union Square, but I would wager that, like me, you are most likely to find the elusive happiness when you are willing to let go of your ideas of what it’s supposed to look like.

Friday
May302014

There are no accidents

Read my most recent blog post on yogacity here:

http://yogacitynyc.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/there-are-no-accidents/

Monday
Sep162013

An Interview with Thich Nhat Hanh!

Recently I was thrilled to interview Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, to be able to ask my most troubling and intriguing questions and to distill the answers into interview format. Read it here: http://www.yogacitynyc.com/articles/WeeklyDetails/742

 

Also, following is a blog I wrote when I had the opportunity to meet Thich Nhat Hanh at his calligraphy exhibit opening in NYC:

                                                                               September 2013 for www.yogacitynyc.com

 

 

Calligraphy with breath, tea, and Thich Nhat Hanh

“i have arrived.”

It’s September 5. I step out of Union Square’s hustle, into the opening of Thich Nhat Hanh’s premier calligraphy exhibit in the U.S., at ABC Carpet & Home . Monks and nuns from Blue Cliff Monastery  play soft cello music, draping the lush gallery with other-worldly serenity.

“peace is the way.”

In the rear of the store, a potent silence envelops ‘Deepak HomeBase’ as Deepak Chopra himself introduces the event. “We cannot create peace through violence,” he says. “Dwelling in the present moment is the only way to develop peace, both in ourselves and in the world.” I have the fleeting feeling that if our world leaders could congregate in this room the tangible energy of peace would usher in a new era.

“this is it.”

Thich Nhat Hanh enters a makeshift stage; by chance I’ve landed mere feet away from him! I am entranced by his youthful, calm presence. His words shower me like a healing rain. I try to let go of my resistance and allow the simple teachings to soak through my armor.

“breathe my dear.”

“If you breathe in and pay attention to that in-breath, something will happen,” Thich Nhat Hanh asserts. “The present moment is the only address of life. When we breathe mindfully we can touch the miracle of all that is.” Every aspect of this gentle monk’s presence and his stunning calligraphies radiates the simple message that true happiness is available here and now. He describes his process of creating his signature ‘Zen circle,’ a starkly beautiful expression of wholeness: “I dip my brush into my tea cup to mix it into the ink. Making the first brush stroke up the circle, I breathe in. Going down the other side, I breathe out. So, breath and tea and all of life’s wonders are in my calligraphy.”

“you are therefore i am.”

The beautiful calligraphies reinforce the idea of ‘inter-being,’ a term Thich Nhat Hanh coined to reflect the idea that everything is connected. “You are made up of non-you elements, like the food you eat, the earth you walk on, the sunshine that sustains life,” he tells us. The monks and nuns scaffolding him begin to chant. I am suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of relief; here I am. That’s all. That’s enough.

“welcome to the country of the present moment.”

“There is one country where we are all citizens if we choose to be,” Thich Nhat Hanh says as a volunteer cuts the ribbon ushering the official start of the exhibit. We proceed in silence into the gallery where Thich Nhat Hanh’s sumptuously minimalistic calligraphies and elegant Zen arrangements of natural objects like shells and stones create a meditative sanctuary.

The exhibit is organized thematically around concepts like reverence for mother earth; our body as our home; Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetry; and enigmatic Zen reminders that life is more than outward appearances.

“the tears i shed yesterday have become rain.”

I stop short in front of a series on transforming suffering. I recall Thich Nhat Hanh’s words: “We can stop running from our suffering, and embrace it like a child. Love transforms suffering into compassion.”

I rouse from my internal dialogue as Thich Nhat Hanh begins to create calligraphies on a raised platform in the center of the gallery. I am mesmerized by his hands: gentle, alive, precise, patient. “My father and mother are in my hands when I make my calligraphy,” he tells us. “Our ancestors are always with us…”

The evening comes to a close. No fancy pranayama techniques, no postures, no mantras. I am blown away by the utter simplicity of his teachings – yet how elusive they can be during the maelstrom of daily existence. I vow to hold on to this sense of calm presence and gratitude, glad to know that a return visit to this tranquil space can help me come back to center over the coming months.

Calligraphic meditation: the mindful art of Thich Nhat Hanh runs through December 31, free and open to the public. Calligraphy sales benefit Thich Nhat Hanh’s humanitarian works around the world. More information at http://www.thichnhathanhcalligraphy.org/newyork

 

Monday
Jul292013

A New Opportunity

Sometimes opportunities come to me, and I stubbornly try to send them away. They may not look the way I had expected, or may not make me feel the way I want to feel. Recently an opportunity knocked that I definitely did not want – yet I had no choice but to accept.

Bicycling home from a long day of work, out of nowhere I was struck hard from the side. When I woke up in the hospital, the pain in my chest was almost unbearable, and I could hardly breathe or move.

What were my first thoughts? Believe it or not, I was concerned about how I would get to work the next day, what the consequences would be of not getting to work, and all the opportunities I was going to lose out on. But laying in a hospital bed for eight days gives one plenty of chance to think… and I began to realize that what seemed like a tragedy was actually an opportunity in disguise.

There I was, a captive audience to my own psyche  -  and I started to see how much I hold myself back by clinging to my deep-seated, insidious habits of worry and fear. It may sound strange, but when I was able to relax and lie still – even within the pain I felt incredibly peaceful. There was nowhere I needed to run to and nothing expected from me – I was alive and thankful. When I indulged my restless thoughts of frustration, anger, and fear the same level of pain suddenly became overwhelming.

Miraculously, six weeks later I am recuperating at home. The doctors predict a full recovery with time, and I am trying to surrender to the opportunity to practice patience and acceptance. It is even harder to stay out of my old habits as I regain my strength here in my familiar environment.

I notice how small, seemingly unimportant choices can lead to undesired ramifications. Indulging in a self-pitying thought for example leads to an action I regret later, like lashing out at someone I love.  On the other hand, each slow breath I take anchors me back in the present moment where even within pain there are no worries or problems. Life is a state of constant change, motion, and connected-ness, and I am experiencing it all, rejecting none of it.

My teacher said, a mountain doesn’t concern itself when a pebble lands on it. From a broader perspective my pain is like a pebble on the vast mountain of life. And thanks to this fortunate accident, I have the opportunity to re-connect with the mountain of all that is, rather than separating myself through anxiety, fear, or self-aggrandizement.

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter how it turns out for me individually – as long as I use each opportunity to grow, my time here is a blessing.

Thursday
Feb282013

Sniffing out the 'egoic stink'

It is easy to buy into the idea that we are all separate beings – yet all great religions teach the fundamental truth that we are all connected. Eckhart Tolle describes how the human tendency to identify with our limited egoic selves rather than our universal, interconnected self is at the root of all suffering.  I’ve been trying to notice this pattern, and to shift to a broader perspective. A wise elder recently coined a term that helps me check in and see if I am on the right track. Before making any decision, she sniffs for traces of the ‘egoic stink.’ Is she doing something purely for limited selfish motives, or is she following a higher guidance? This phrase has become a kind of touchstone for me, reminding me to check my actions for signs of the ‘stink.’ Am I secretly inspired by what I hope to gain, or am I truly acting for the good of one and all?

The Bhagavad Gita also emphasizes the benefits of acting without regard for our own selfish interests. For example, if we donate money to charity it will help the recipient regardless of our motives - but according to the teaching it will only help us if our giving is unconditional – that is, free of any desire for reward or recognition.

I am now embarking on a new career path that feels humble, true to my roots – and non-‘stinky’ as best I can tell: I am becoming a public school science teacher!  My undergraduate degree was in science and the first eight years of my career were devoted to scientific advocacy and research, so this is a homecoming of sorts for me.

Next month I will start my new incarnation, as a New York City Teaching Fellow in a high-need NYC public school. Time will tell how yoga and writing will fit in to this new lifestyle. I will miss all my students, and hope to keep in touch with as many of you as possible.

The forces of life are with us, and many angels and teachers guide us as we endeavor to become more aware of ourselves as inter-connected, universal beings. In peace…