Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Guest House

What matters most is how we feel, regardless of the circumstances that surround us. All the new age advice asks us to feel what we want to create in our lives, in order to attract it. So simple, right? So simple that I choose completely relaxed and at peace now, come on feelings! Hmmmm, great advice and I get it, intellectually- but my head ordering my heart around has a history of failure.

After ten months in Bali, I made the big shift back to the US. As my plane descended in the cold winds of San Francisco a few months ago, I witnessed the familiar bustle of the landscape all around me. My former home of ten years looked so familiar- freeways buzzing, boats in the deep blue bay, a bright, hilly landscape of movement, action, and ambition.

As our plane landed, the feeling came immediately: pressure. Pressure to make money, pressure to be disciplined, pressure to....I'm not even quite sure. It was a sudden and dominant feeling, this stress. We taxied to the gate and I felt the walls of it enclose around me. After nearly a year of lolling around on a tropical island at a pace I haven't known since the slow summers of my rural childhood, this anticipation of rejoining urban western culture was a shock.

I looked out across the gray tarmac, making a meager attempt at stretching my achy limbs after twelve hours in flight. Through keen observation I physically felt the tension enter my body- taxes, storage unit, cold wind, the rental crisis. Eeewwwwww, not feeling good. I took a breath and tuned in

The feeling of this tension came on so quickly- what if I could acknowledge it, accept it, breathe, and let it go? I tried. Stresses still lingered, but I was immediately able to acknowledge these feelings without becoming them. This is my practice- this ability to witness.

How is it done? By arriving in the moment! We cannot always choose what emotions move through us, but we can observe them as they arrive, that's for sure. Yoga teaches us to feel feelings without becoming consumed by them, to connect into that deeper self that is solid, peaceful, and unchanging. As so beautifully written in one of my favorite poems by the great Sufi Mystic, Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- translation by Coleman Barks

Sitting at the gate at SFO, my ability to witness the emotions 'sweeping my house' immediately comforted me. It awakened my awareness of a deeper consciousness- my "house." I squeezed my husband's hand and felt grateful for the safe flight. As I looked out at the fabulous light of the California sunset, I relaxed, and just as instantly curiosity and excitement returned. 

We host so many visitors- day by day, moment by moment. Curiosity, excitement, tension, stress. All just guests, passing through. Contentment is visiting me now, as I'm cozied up in my Berkeley cottage, eating organic berries in my post-acupuncture lull. Grateful is back as well. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Dance of Driving

Why did the chicken cross the road? To keep me on my toes of course! Or at least to keep me on the brakes. As I drive my tiny four-door Suzuki down the busy lane north of Ubud, the chicken is the least of my worries. In the sweltering heat my neighbors have dragged their rice harvest out to rake in the streets, two way traffic shares a single lane, and tiny babies ride all around me on motorbikes without helmets.

Be here now. Know your place in space. Go with the flow.

There's nothing like driving in Bali to keep you in the present moment. As I sit in the right-side drivers seat and shift with my left hand, I tune out the conversation of my passengers and focus on my breath. The jungle pours over us from both sides of the tiny road. Deep potholes abound. I'm aware and relaxed, even when the big truck is barreling right at me and a drop off is five inches from my left tires. I breathe. I've got this.

Knowing my place in space is a strong sense for me. My peripheral vision is keen, and my body relaxed. Does this come naturally? Au contraire. It comes from practice.

For years I spent most of my time and much of my resources on dance classes. As a result, I flow easily with the movements of others. I perceive and predict the actions of energies around me. Who would've known! All those years people told me I wasn't being practical about my dance passion, and here I am driving like a rock star in Bali.

As the curvy road winds up a steep hill, my left hand shifts swiftly, my ankles extend with grace between the clutch and gas. Whoa! An elderly woman with a giant stack of logs on her head appears out of nowhere! Brake slam, a near engine stall, but I've saved it. God bless my skillful neuromuscular proprioception.

I've always believed in follow your bliss. All those dreamy photos that float along the Facebook feed with positive messages, I eat them up. Every minute of my dancing was a joy. Even now, with an upset hip and a tender wrist, I tear it up at ecstatic dance.

Whatever you love makes you whole. Life takes us through many journeys, passions, interests, and sensibilities. We wear many hats. My beloved teacher, Luisah Teish, explains it like this: (please excuse my extreme paraphrasing YeYe) Life is a palette! We do not only use one color, but dabble in the entire rainbow. She tells me that when she is writing, she is simply resting from her painting, and when she is painting she is taking a needed break from her dancing, and so on.

In Bali I drive with a smile. I operate this car with a confidence and grace that could only come from one place: the ballet bar.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Liberating my Future-Focus

I'm future-focused. Always have been. It's in my blood, my lineage. In my Michigan working-class family, we worked for the future. We studied for the future. We planned, with discipline and patience. With great pride we endured today for tomorrow, for next week, for next year. Our ancestors did it, and our children will have to. We. Our. We.

I am no longer a part of We, of Our. I chose to seek out a new paradigm. Twenty years on, my horizons have expanded beyond what I ever thought possible, and my beliefs have shifted. I have lived in many worlds and created many realities since my Michigan years. And yet, the layers keep peeling. Deeply ingrained layers of belief conditioning so lovingly shaped around me as a child continue to arise and peel away, years later. Amazing. Beliefs and ideas I thought I let go of are still arising! It feels endless at times, but each release is extremely liberating.

One of these beliefs is this: Most of my life I have been future-focused. It's a common thing in American culture, and widely accepted as the norm. As a culture, we are excited about the future, we worry about it, we work for it, plan for it, anticipate it. It's almost part the American Dream. Many accomplishments require planning, and future-focus surely has its place. Mine has served me well in many ways. It has helped me achieve some goals- yet it can be a bit of a double-edged sword...

Faith over fear.
Being future focused involves worrying, something I've always been great at. Of course I've heard the saying, "Worrying is like praying for what you don't want." Great. More to worry about, now I've said a prayer for what I do not want!

Yet recently something's shifted within, something has awakened. For the past year I have been living in Bali, among an international community. Many of my friends have left behind all semblance of "security," for travel and spiritual pursuits. When I ask them what their plans are, a common answer is "I don't know." These friends are all ages, all classes, families, singles, mixed. I have never in my life met so many people with no future-focus! My local Balinese friends are also present, smiling, enjoying each day though ceremony and strong community.

As human beings, we are creatures of influence (more so than we'd like to admit). In the same way I chose to leave the dominant paradigm of my Michigan upbringing, I now choose to drop my future-focus. I have gained the strength and inspiration to make this shift amongst the support of a community very much focused on the NOW, and I am grateful.

A simple observation: when we worry about the future, we feel the need to try and control things. When we try to control the future (from the present), things usually don't work out as we'd planned. Circumstances change, we change, the weather changes! Change is our only constant. So how can we control the future from the present? We cant! Give it up! We must surrender. Allow. Be.

Opportunities arise spontaneously and we can miss them. Beautiful people come into our lives and we rush by them. Our children change and grow so quickly that we don't experience them.
The power to slow down is in our hands- our world will follow. Our will to stay present creates our reality, and our surrender to what is becomes freedom.

And so my story goes, and another layer peels away. I am no longer obsessed with the future. More than ever before in my life, I am content with not planning, with not knowing what is to come. It's a new feeling, a liberating one. Naturally, I am still an occasional worrier, but the key word here is occasional.

In regards to the future, the possibilities are endless! By awakening to the moment we ignite our intuition, our best inner wisdom to guide decision making. When challenges and opportunities arise, we tune in and trust our own knowing. We flow with- rather than react to- the world around us.

All we have is this moment- and it is a pretty nice one. I am loved, healthy, surrounded by beauty. Sure, the infant next door has been screaming for hours as I write this. Sure, the house is a mess and my to do list never ending, but this moment is grand. And the best part- I am here in it!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Presence of Substances

Tea. It's a "thing" here in Ubud, Bali where I have been living for the past eight months. A divine thing indeed. Tea and raw chocolate, that is. I'll get back to the raw chocolate later...that should be a post on its own!

Substances. They come from nature, they affect our nature. They can be fine- even helpful- in moderation, and they can devastate lives. Hailing from northern California I know all too much about such substances and their affects. In the land of fine wine and kind marijuana- proudly exported across the world- offerings are frequent and fastidious. My last residence was in Oakland, California- appropriately nicknamed "Oaksterdam." And on occasion, I love me a glass of good local pinot noir.

Ancient Pu-erh tea, an experience to savor.
Some say it's how we approach our substances. In the innocently swift change from the decade of my twenties to my thirties, it became apparent that the divide runs deep. The divide of how friends and loved ones handle their substances. Sadly, there is quite a split. By my late twenties came the interventions, the seemingly have-it-all-together people announcing their alcoholism and asking for support, and the really, really smart and talented friend who is clearly, hopelessly addicted.

Years into my polite declines in California, I genuinely appreciate the lack of substances in my community here in Bali. What a blessing it is to be part of a very social community in no way centered around substances! It takes away all necessity for self-restraint. Parties, social events, dances, all sober. Unless you count chocolate and ancient pu-erh tea that is, and folks can get crazy on that stuff! When we purify our bodies through conscious nutrition and clean habits, we strengthen our nervous systems, awaken our senses, and balance our hormones. The results of such healthy habits allow us to function from a more balanced state.

My commentary is not a judgement on others choices, just a personal observation. I'd like to think of the communities we surround ourselves with as a conscious choice, but that's not always the case. We develop close friendships over the years and people change. Amazing people have all kinds of lifestyles. So, as I return to my wonderful arts community back in California, I will look forward to exercising my self-restraint, and resume my polite declines. After that one glass of pinot.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Imperfect Practice

I sit on my purple cushion at sunrise. I do it everyday, without fail. Though it takes discipline, it is a necessity. I need meditation to maintain a semblance of balance. Things get pretty out of whack when I don't get to my cushion.
My capability of actual meditation, now that's something else altogether! It's not what usually happens. Cuticle picking, spacing out, trying to remember my dreams or simply falling back asleep on my yoga mat in child's pose are all regular occurrences. And yet somehow I manage to climb onto that cushion, reach for my zazen app every morning, and tap the screen to start my practice.
I close my eyes, and concentrate on the moment. In Raja yoga, it's called Dharana. Number six of Patanjali's eight limbs of classical yoga, Dharana is defined as "uninterrupted concentration," and it is the step that comes before Dhyana, which is defined as actual meditation. I may call my morning practice meditation, but technically, Dharana is as far as I get. After all these years of practice- according to classical yoga-  I may have actually meditated only two or three times, go figure.

And still, I'm comforted by this refuge from my thoughts, and I intend to enjoy it. I listen. Birds, jungle sounds, the whirr of the fan in our room. From listening I turn my attention to my body. I'm warm. Starting with my head I feel into the subtle sensations all over- tickles, achy muscles, the pressure of gravity. Inevitably, I notice tension. Relax, I remind myself. I wiggle my jaw, and soften my face. Back to listening.

There are loud crickets out this morning, I hear the road in the distance. I need to call that place today, and email that lady about the man. Once I get his contact information I will set up and appointment and...hey! I am sitting here to meditate! Breath, sounds, body scan. My right elbow itches, my toes feel cold. I adjust my posture. Deep breath. I can do this! I am staying with the moment now. Seeing the orange light behind my closed eyes, I listen.

The sounds are changing, a new bird call echoes out, one I have not heard before. I will have  to use that cauliflower today or its going to go bad. I'll make the soup this morning- put on some cooking music, start chopping garlic, fresh ginger, and.....are we out of garlic? Shoot, we might be. I won't have time to walk to the market. I can't make that soup without fresh garlic. Arg. Well, if the cauliflower goes bad at least I supported the farmers market...once again it's....

Hey! Wake up girlfriend! I adjust my posture, inhale deeply and listen to the whirr of the fan. I relax. This is what its all about- this moment of waking up. The cycle repeats, again and again, until eventually, the bell rings. Monkey mind is free! This is why it's called a practice.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Beautiful Bali, an Endangered Blessing.

as published in Bali Inspired Magazine


"Be the change you want to see in the world," spoke the beloved freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. For years, this sentiment has been glowing away in helvetica at the bottom of my emails and, in a sense, this message describes what brings me here to Bali. Like many of my new friends, I have journeyed in search of my own authenticity. To look within, if you will. As an urban yoga teacher, I spent most of my time helping others relax, meditate and become embodied. Through my own meticulous self-care regimen - mind and body - I was maintaining sanity, but only barely by the end. I made it out, finally realizing my dream of coming to Bali! It hasn’t all been butterflies and frangipanis, true that, but it is a blessing to be in a place that honors Spirit and respects the importance of the inner realms. And yet, as magical as it is here, it is often easy to forget why I came. It's easy to sleep in, to shorten my meditation (just like home). It's easy, on this sacred island, to feel over-sensitive and moody, and the next moment blissful. To be irritated by the little ants incessantly crawling across my sticky skin. Easy to get busy. To get lazy. To get worried.

This morning would be different - I was going to be productive. Laptop in tow, I make my way to begin working over cappuccino, Wi-Fi in the jungle. It is a hot, bright morning in Penestanan Kaja. My short stroll along the moss covered path to Yellow Flower Cafe winds beneath avocado and banana trees, plumeria blossoms waft a sweet scent from below. As the small footpath opens to the serene cave that is Yellow Flower, I see the Balinese owner sitting with members of his family and staff, playing a guitar and singing devotional songs. My timing is perfect. Sweet respite - music, Wi-Fi, caffeine. Another day on the Island of the Gods. There are no customers about and the young women are all dressed beautifully in lace ceremonial clothing, in fuschia and orange, teal and yellow - sashes and sarongs alike. "Upachara hari ini?" I ask, is there a ceremony today? "No ceremony, please join us!" This muscled, bulk of a Balinese man extends his hand to welcome me, with a gentle light in his eyes I have rarely seen. His beautiful newborn baby is watching his every move from a lap nearby, listening to every musical note with intense focus and fatherly love. This child is adored by so many, always surrounded by family and friends, held by abundant loving arms. I sit down on the bright pink sofa nearby and start humming along. Classic Bali moment. As they chant to Ganesh, OM Gum Ganapatayai Namaha, my original plan of busting out my technology flies out the window! I am loving this moment. The devotional songs conclude in a prayer. Heads bow, frangipani blossoms lift to third eyes. Many of the mantras I know from yoga. I close my eyes and listen, whispering along, and feel a stirring in my heart.

After my makan pagi and perfect froth are delicately placed before me, the kitchen staff join in to pray around the long table. With hands to hearts, incense burning and offerings coloring the place, prayers lift to the unseen world. There is no doubt of the reality of this invisible realm. This big difference between Western and Balinese cultures is precisely why some visitors feel more at home in Bali than back in their mundane Western origins. Surely, I am blessed to have a vibrant spiritual community back in California, but a reverence for Spirit is not what spins American culture. Back home the spiritual life is private, separate from everyday life. Faith in money and technology dominates. Here in Bali, there is no question that Gods exist. Spirits must be placated, both the benevolent and the demons, as the little offerings are placed everywhere, everyday. There is no question that each moment is precious and family and ceremony are of utmost importance. "God can call us back at any moment," my Balinese friend explains. "That’s why we enjoy life and make the most of each moment. We are just temporary visitors in this world; we never know when our time here is up." He smiles as he tells me this, clear about his place in this world, in his temporary visit on earth. The prayer at Yellow Flower continues, formalizing with each mantra. Out comes the holy water, the little hand gestures in perfect synchronicity. I am feeling blessed as I witness in silence, sitting behind my poached eggs and cappuccino. Time stretches out and slows down around us. My breath, sunlight through the lush green view, the soft moist air, and the sounds of the morning jungle. The veil between the worlds is thin. The Gods receive. For the duration of the prayer no customers arrive, no one is on the path, and there are no interruptions. This moment, this wonderful moment! This is why I came to Bali. To be here - in this moment, and this one, and this...

When we stop to breathe, listen, and feel what is around us - time slows down. When we communicate with the Divine within and all around us, the time/space continuum shifts. It is truly magical. A typical morning for me is suddenly transformed into a sweet meditation at Yellow Flower Cafe. Once again, I am pulled out of my spinning mind and into this beautiful life that is happening, now. This is one of the many great gifts of Bali, the gifts that draw us here in droves. At a new level, it hits me: how important it is to preserve this place!
The Balinese culture creates a virtual container; it holds a space of healing for all who visit here. The sad thing is that our very presence as visitors threatens the Balinese way of life. According to the Ministry of Tourism, nearly three million tourists came to Bali in 2012 and this number is expected to increase each year. Many expats continue moving to the island, creating more garbage, leasing land and opening businesses. It has happened, it is happening. We just can not get enough of this sacred place and its incredible smiling people. We receive so much here. This change is unstoppable. So how can we, as grateful hearts and respectful visitors, help preserve Bali? How can we be the change we want to see in the world?

We all must ask ourselves this question. The answer will be different for each of us because wherever we may roam - we bring our baggage with us! Many of us arrive here ready for a change, in need of healing, open to inspiration. And Bali delivers. We receive, we expand, we transform. So how do we show our gratitude?

We do not always give and receive from the same source, the Universe does not necessarily work that way. What is important is that we practice both giving and receiving. As a visitor, traveler, expat, or cultural refugee (now often called spiritual tourist), we must respect and revere Balinese culture, its people and this environment. We must acknowledge that Bali holds incredible space for so much healing to occur.

My own contributions have been humble, from Bahasa class to volunteering - I am always discovering new ways to love Bali! I am inspired by all of the positive things happening, and the conscious people I continue to meet here in Bali. Donate, integrate, educate. Whatever you choose, make it personal and from the heart. Let's be the change! What is your gratitude offering? I guarantee your heart will sing from sharing it.

Sarah Jenness is a recently recovered urban yogini, currently residing in the Here and Now of beautiful Ubud.