trust, connection, and the long walk home

I recently set an intention to work on trust- more specifically, trust that the universe is always bringing me whatever knowledge or experience I need. So this morning when I was emailed an article about relationships serving as a mirror reflecting parts of our soul, I wasn’t surprised that these words were perfectly what I needed to read, and at the perfect time. I haven’t blogged in a while, but as I remember the interconnectedness of our human experiences, I’m reminded the importance of sharing.

I’ll be honest and reveal something I’m not particularly proud of… lately I’ve found myself complaining A LOT about behaviors in my partner; “Brian is this, Brian does this, I wish Brian were more this.”  What I’m really not proud of is that with this has also came an irrational blaming him for my own challenges. I’ve found myself putting a lot of energy into ideas of “if Brian were more this, then my situation or my behavior would be more that”, and not taking responsibility for my own behavior or choices.

As I read this article, it hit me that every time I’d pinpointed a behavior or quality in Brian that I disliked or felt like rejecting, what I was really doing was taking a quality I’m not particularly pleased with in myself, or something I’d like to shift away from, and putting it on him. It’s a lot easier to reject the qualities of another person because we can distance ourselves from them, but it’s impossible to escape those qualities in ourselves. Instead we have to witness them, sit uncomfortably with them, and do the hard work to grow. I don’t know about you, but for me complaining about another person’s behaviors is a lot easier than taking a hard look at myself, and it takes a lot less courage.

Even as I realize that part of me has been really pushing against making internal shifts by trying to control the external, I’m realizing something beautiful. If we are open to seeing it, we’re drawn to people who if can show us the next step in our soul’s journey, especially if we shift from rejecting behaviors we don’t like to being curious. As they say, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”. In every human interaction, we are offered an opportunity to expand. When I slow down to trust the perfectness of each moment, I realize that each person that comes in or out of my life served a higher purpose- and I hope that some quality in me offers them the same opportunity. We are drawn to others who embody qualities of ourselves we are ready to work with, and usually at the exact moment our soul needs them. I love this, because it reminds me that even those who ‘rub me the wrong way’ are serving a purpose, and that the relationships that end do so because I and they have learned the divine lesson that our interaction served.

I think it works in the opposite way as well- not only do we struggle with judging the behaviors of others that reflects our own inner challenge, but I feel like we are drawn to those who embody who we’d like to be- for example, we are drawn to a dare devil because we’d like to start taking more risks, to the artist because we’d like to open to our own creativity, or the free spirit because we want to learn to let go. We are able to see our own abilities and undiscovered strengths in this person, and suddenly we want to spend as much time with this person as possible.  Maybe we hope in being near them we’ll absorb those qualities through osmosis, but the truth is… all of these things are already within us,  and it’s up to us to bring them forth. This person is here to show us not who we could be, but that even if it’s buried under a few layers, who we already are.

My friend recently shared a Ram Dass quote, “We are all just walking each other home.” I love this. Each encounter we have is an opportunity for our one soul to meet itself, to remember our wholeness, and to shed the layers that disconnect us from one another and return to the divine energy that we are made of. To everyone I’ve met and will meet, the souls I share the ordinary and extraordinary experiences of this human life with, thank you for walking me home.

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purpose, passion, and why we are all activists

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I’ve met a lot of people who called themselves activists, people who are championing every cause from protecting the environment to education reform.   I find myself asking the question,  “ What does it mean to be an activist?”

 “That which we are, we shall teach,

not voluntarily, but involuntarily.

…Character teachers over our head…”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Over-Soul

 

How exactly does one define what it means to be an activist? An activist is someone who takes action, usually with a message or cause in mind.   But, if Emerson is right, that we teach by who we are, then aren’t we all activists?   In other words, if in each moment, we have even the slightest amount of free will to choose our actions,  we subconsciously share an unspoken message of what we think is important.

Each morning you wake up with a series of choices; you are a bundle of potential energy and you are free. If you are reading this, chances are you are one of the fortunate who choose how you will spend your day, whether you will go to work, what you will eat, how you will interact with others, who you will be.  You choose your actions according to what you value, and in turn your choices, each moment and each day, are your message to the world.

We often hear the phrase about being mindful consumers, “You vote with your dollar”.   True- we vote on what we value by how we spend our money… if we are again child labor for example, we choose not to spend money at stores or on products that support child labor.   If we are against GMO’s, we don’t buy those either.

However, expressing our values extends a lot further than how we spend our money, we vote each day by how we spend our time.    We choose in each moment what we believe and what we stand for by how we direct our energy.   The way we live our lives is how we shout out to the world, “Here is what I think it’s all about!”  In the words of musician Dan Wilson, what are you going to spend your free life on?  (Dan Wilson- Free Life With Lyrics)

I often forget to ask myself that question, but I’ve had a pretty amazing source of inspiration lately; my uncle.  I was honored that he chose to share his mission statement with me recently;  “ to change the world, one radical at a time”.  He told me he’d like to become a full time activist when my cousin graduates high school.  Become an activist?  If anyone already is an activist, it’s him.  His words and way of being inspire those around him… in fact, they inspired today’s blog.    His action?  Living honestly and courageously sharing his ideas of positive societal change with others with the hope of creating change. If that isn’t activism, I don’t know what is.

So, as you choose the actions that fill your day, your week, and your years, you too are an activist; deciding what you do and who you choose to be.   All of you are wise and wonderful accidental activists…. and I challenge you to ask yourself, and ask often:

If my life is my message, what am I choosing to say?…What am I going to spend my free life on?

Karmic Community.

I’m sitting in front of my computer screen for the first time in days, feeling torn between the need to put my epic experience of the Lost Coast into words and the desire to spend as little time indoors as possible in the few short weeks I’m in this amazing place.   This trip, initially planned as an attempt to slow myself down and unwind in the weeks before leaving the U.S. to teach overseas, has itself become an extremely valuable experience- a curious blend of synchronicity, adventure, and unintended transformation.

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My trip to visit family has brought me to Petrolia, a hidden town of less than 300 people, nestled in a river valley that cuts through the Kings Range Mountains.  I’m about five miles inland from California’s longest stretch of wilderness coastline.  It’s surreal, a town that exists in the past and the future at once, it’s citizens paying homage to tradition while remaining refreshingly open to new ideas.  The town itself consists of the intersection of several treacherous mountain roads, steep inclines created by the intersection of three fault lines, a lush river, ranches where cows graze alongside the ocean, a general store and post office.  Aware of the negative potential tourism could inflict on the almost untouched region, people here are justifiably wary of outsiders.  Luckily, I have an “in”;  my uncle, who might be the one person in my family who outdoes me in his adventurousness and love for the outdoors, landed a gig helping to restore a five bedroom cabin in town, moving  to Petrolia a year ago so my sixteen year old cousin could benefit from the unique structure of the incredibly small local school.

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Maybe upon first impression this is just another country town in the woods, but stay here for more than a few days and you’ll realize something special is going on.  I’m convinced there is something in the water, and whatever it is, it’s rocket fuel for the divine imagination.  People in this town have an unspoken commitment to sacred community, kindness, and shared plenitude.   The more I witness it first hand, the more convinced I am that I’ve found a place where intention becomes reality seemingly within moments, and where the rich connectedness of people creates effortless prosperity.  It’s as if the wind blowing through the Eucalyptus trees,  the Mattole river rushing, and the not-so-distant crash of salty seawater into jagged cliffs combine to create a symphony… and  the universe has been delighted into a graceful dance of “ask and you shall receive” magic. 

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A morning in Petrolia

I wake up wrapped in quilts in a lofted bedroom, shaking off the urge to hide from the crisp morning air.  I open my eyes and remember that this is the view out my bedroom window, and that my family has stumbled upon one of the most magnificent locations in the U.S.

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I sip on coffee that was prepared and packaged here in town, then throw on sandals and head next door to the town’s one room community center, where a handful of local women are discussing the new energy that last night’s rainstorm seems to have brought.  From just a few moments of conversation, I decide they are a treasure trove of knowledge on all things nature, spirit, and history.  I’d love the chance to learn more from them, but it will have to wait. The morning’s Qi Gong class is starting, taught by the local acupuncturist and town’s only doctor.

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I’m not just enthralled because I am getting my “Asia fix” before I even leave the U.S., but also because there is something magically synchronous about Qigong discovering me while I have time off.   Two years ago, during the most intense portion of my Master’s program, my aikido teacher suggested that I try the practice, as I was having a bit of trouble staying grounded in the midst of one of the busiest, most chaotic periods of my life.   She advised that it might help me cultivate a deeper meditation practice- having the discipline to sit still has always been a challenge for me.  However, somewhat ironically, the same busy chaos qigong might have helped me regulate was the same reason I’ve made excuses not to seek it out.  It seems absolutely perfect that when I finally allowed myself some downtime, Qigong is not only available, but literally happening in my front yard.  How could I not go?  Thank you universe!

I struggled in my first class, probably for the same reason Aikido was a challenge; because Qigong requires getting out of your head.  Maybe that’s exactly why I need this whole trip; to step out of my constant stream of internal babble and get back in the flow of my physical energy.   Besides the benefits of the practice itself, discovering Qigong at the community center opened up another perfect opportunity;  while waiting for my second class to start, I strike up a conversation, and am thrilled to discover that one of the women in class with me is the school principal.  While normally this would just be only mildly interesting,  I’d been chomping at the bit to talk to someone about the local school, because it fascinates me- it’s a public school, yet  because of the size of the area, has only 36 students including the preschool and high school, and about a 1 to 4 teacher to student ratio.  Students here go on frequent field trips to coastal conservation areas, and high school age students spend their last month of every school year doing a career internship of their choice.  My inner education enthusiast was jumping for joy when offered the opportunity to pick someone’s brain about the benefits of a school like this, especially when part of the reason I’m leaving next month to teach abroad is to expand my culturally based perspective on education.

Qigong ended at 11am, and by lunchtime, tickled at the opportunity to learn from the unique perspective of these teachers, I had followed the principal back to the school, met half the staff and became a volunteer.  I had no idea how my day was going to go when I woke up, but I definitely hadn’t expected to find myself sitting in the sunshine reading Dr. Suess with a little boy from Nicaragua, as he  told me all about using papaya on a sunburn. This day was fantastic!  I learn that the K-3 students share a classroom, which creates a unique opportunity for collaborative learning.  At recess I decide I adore their teacher (although I admit I may be biased because she got her undergrad in art).  We talk about how she incorporates creativity in her lessons, using visual art, theatrics, and song to teach science, math, and social studies.

Since I arrived, every person I meet is a vast source of diverse knowledge, and it’s blowing my mind… it seems my journey off the beaten path on my way to starting teaching job has once again made me a student, each day meeting more people I’m supposed to be learning from.

Just when I think things can’t get better, I find out Petrolia also has weekly aikido and yoga classes, and a farmer’s market selling everything from homemade beauty products to locally made granola bars called “Honeydew Hummers”.  Plus, I can’t forget to describe the sheer joy induced by being surrounded by this much natural beauty.  It seems to be perpetually sunny with a calm breeze, and if I walk more than half a mile in any direction, I am surrounded by ancient wilderness.  I think I might actually be in a postcard.  I’ve been hiking river beds, deserted beaches and peaks overlooking miles of wild coastline, and when I get tired from all that exploring, I can relax, drink wine from the vineyard around the corner, and play ping pong at the weekly BYOB tournament  at the community center. I even meet some fellow Americorp alum who educate local youth on conservation.   It’s official, this place has it all.

The coastal view from “Windy Point”…

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Maybe the secret power of Petrolia lies in how it was founded.   White settlers originally named it New Jerusalem, changing the name when it became home to the first oil well in California.  The oil dried up shortly after, leaving behind a small community of ranchers with an innate knowledge that treasure often lies hidden beneath the visible surface.   It seems fitting that while I’ve been here, I’ve tapped into a part of myself that has been buried under layers of sediment; this place has been a tonic for my soul.  Thanks to this tiny coastal town, I am recharged, fueled by a sublime combination of nature, new ideas, and karmic community.

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Passion, Wonder, & Higher Education

Yesterday was my last day on campus as a Master’s student, and as I reflect on the journey that I’ve been on, and the soul connections I’ve made along the way ,I feel overwhelmed with gratitude.  As many questions as the future holds, I also feel a sense of peace and  purpose, knowing that I finally understood on that last day why I care so much about education reform.  I care because I have been fortunate enough to experience a different kind of higher education; I went back to school looking for a profession, and in the process rediscovered what it feels like to be lit up, to be inspired, to feel connected to something larger than myself.  I went to the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology with the hope of who I could become, and gained a deep appreciation of the person I already am.  Today, as I step beyond from my formal education and prepare for teaching in a new culture, I find myself questioning what the world would look like if we were to  infuse all education with the kind of deeper meaning and interconnection I have experienced in my graduate program. 

My undergrad experience was an entirely different story-  in my first years of college, it often seemed  that the purpose of higher education was to fill my brain with a handful of textbook knowledge, and to suck all the joy out of my passions, or at least convince me slaving away to earn a degree was the means to achieving the “American dream”… which as far as I could see seemed to consist only of dreading Monday mornings. I loved reading,  I loved writing, and I loved learning, but suddenly they became tedious chores to earn a piece of paper I could frame in an office.  In particular, I remember taking a creative writing class, and by the end of it, I was sure that this class was where exuberant young authors went to  learn how to become a bitter unpublished professor. I think it was cross listed as “Lit 104: How to Become Your Own Critic/You Can’t Possibly Get Published Because I Didn’t”.

After several years of switching majors, I decided to learn what I wanted, graduated with BA in Philosophy, few employment options, and the recognition that I was never going to be able to commit to a life path if it didn’t absolutely light me up…   which of course was terrifying, because all my friends seemed to be able to suck it up and go to full time jobs that they tried to escape from by drinking or vacationing on the weekends.  As critical as I was of that path, those same friends seemed to be doing a whole lot better than I was at paying bills.

Although it crossed my mind in the years I was struggling to get by financially, I’m SO glad I didn’t settle for less than finding something I love.   After undergrad, I started exploring schools out west that had arts based therapy programs, meditation studies, and looking for something different.  In the summer of 2010, I walked through the doors of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology* for an interview, and from that moment everything shifted.  I had this profound sense of déjà vu when I met the admissions counselor that day.  Looking back, the magical experience I’ve had here seems like some sort of karmic reward for fearlessly following my intuition to this school I knew nothing about, and for never conforming to a path that belonged to someone else.  When I followed my heart,  I found a place where I discovered that higher education should be more than a means to making a living, it’s should encourage us to discover how we want to live.

Indeed, ITP is more than a school; it’s a multisensory learning experience and an opportunity for personal expansion and growth.  From the first day you come here, teachers encourage you to play, create, and be curious. It’s a place where Aikido is part of the required psychology curriculum, dancing is encouraged, and art is medicine.  It’s an institution where heart is valued as much as mind, where you read the Tao to learn how to be a leader, and where connecting with those around you is as important as the concepts you learn.   It’s a school where neuroscience is taught alongside mindfulness theory, a place where your fellow students may very well become your most valuable teachers, and where learning can be as joyful as it was when you were a child.  ITP is the place where both my inner and outer worlds began to open.

As my formal education winds to a close, I realized that I am a lifetime learner, and a lover of knowledge.  I’ve also realized that education should and can be about about nourishing your soul, finding your inner purpose, discovering yourself, and connecting with those who support and nurture who you are as an individual.  Good education can open us to new ideas, but  great education also ignites passion and brings people together  who share a vision of what comes next.

This may be the last round of courses at ITP, but I’ve come to realize that in each moment we are all students, all teachers, and always learning a lesson… so I know the journey is only beginning.  Maybe the best schools are the ones that recognize this, and while providing us with knowledge, let us grow in ourselves, encouraging us to question not only the answers, but  also to wonder what questions we should be asking.  I’m so grateful for this experience, and it’s why I’m always telling all of my friends  to find something that excites you, why a part of me can’t help but see myself as teaching in the future… because when you find yourself in a place that reawakens your sense of wonder, you can’t help but hope that those around you can be as fortunate.

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*I should note that while I was enrolled at ITP, the university decided to change it’s name and expand it’s the programs it offered.  The artist formerly known as ITP  is now “Sofia University”, sofia being the Greek word for wisdom.  I remember being slightly disturbed that this institution I felt so attached to was changing it’s identity in the middle of my degree; I had a real need to feel like the ground under my feet wasn’t moving….which of course is an illusion.  In retrospective, it seems appropriate; coming to this school often shifts who you are,  and perhaps when we let go of identity and old labels, we are able to embrace new wisdom.  While I’ll always be an “ITP’er” at heart, there is something exciting about being a part of a change, a shift, and an opportunity for expansion.  It also seems only appropriate the word philosophy, in which I got my undergraduate degree, derives it’s name from combining the word “Sofia” with the word Philo, which is the Greek word for love…philosophy, translates to “the love of knowledge”

impossibility, terror, and taking flight.

I was having coffee with a friend last weekend, talking about the future, careers, and the often terrifying prospect of following our big dreams. You know the ones; the dreams that we decide not to follow because they are so huge and so scary that our rational brain tells us they are impractical… or my least favorite word of all… impossible

As we were discussing this idea of dreams vs. practicality, he reminded me of a personal truth that I try to live by. He reminded me that it ALL has a purpose, even what seems like confusion or misfortune in the present will make sense when we look at it down the road.  The truth he reminded me of was that even when it’s not clear, everything that happens fits together perfectly, that it’s all part of a path we are meant to be walking.

Someone once explained this much more gracefully… “it’s the path off the path that leads us to God.”  The idea that there is no such thing as a misfortune or mistake is a truth that is easier said than lived, especially when we are in the middle of tragedy or personal crisis, or really even when we just have a bad day.   It’s like we get so focused on what we want to happen, some goal we want to achieve, or some dream we can’t wait to be living, that in the moment we forget that it’s those twists and turns that are the real journey.

As a self-acknowledged accomplishment junkie, I am often guilty of  being so focused on my long term goals, the cause I want to champion, or my next big dream  that I get tunnel vision that prevents  me from seeing the beauty and divinity of the now. This is especially true right at the moment, as in a couple weeks I fly into California for grad school and visiting family and friends, and then fly from there to teach in Thailand for nine months.   Having a one way ticket to SE Asia has made living in the present more of a challenge than ever, my brain is a mess of future and past.  When I’m not distracted by  a mental  list of trip preparations, I find myself reflecting on the past, and the winding, unexpected paths that have led me here.

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So, I’ll indulge myself by lingering in the past for a moment, because as I look back over the last three years, all the pieces seem divinely orchestrated.  There were things that had to fall apart and come together, lessons I was meant to learn, friends I needed to meet, and places I needed to be in order to take this journey.   I feel like the last six months tested me in a necessary way.  Did I really want this?  Could I let go of the life I was used to in order to embrace a new adventure and perspective?   Most importantly, my gut has been telling me that going to Thailand is what I should be doing, but I’m not really sure why…so could I follow my heart when I didn’t know what it was leading me to?  When I answered those questions with commitment, and put my faith in the same higher power that continued to point me in this direction, I began witnessing each obstacle falling away.   I stalled on this dream for two years, avoided the signs, pushed forward on the practical career path I had chosen … until now. And now is perfect timing; had I not faced some of the challenges I did, I might not feel as strong, inspired or supported as I do.  I might not have the faith in my dream that I do now.

My experiences in the past couple years have granted me the ability to travel without seeking something out there, but rather stepping out of the known to see ordinary things with new eyes.  In this way, while I have no idea what the next step will be, I  know that coming home next spring will be just as valuable an experience as leaving.

Taking this trip represents only a first step; in doing the thing that no one thought I could or should do, I’m achieving my own impossibility.  Which is both exhilarating and terrifying, because suddenly I realize that the only thing that has ever limited me was the scope of what I believed I could be.  The way I see the world will change, because the things I ‘can’t do’ will suddenly be the things I choose not to do, and perhaps I’ll see doors where before there were none.   While this seems like a small step, I realize I am taking one more step towards letting go of fear and living the life I am meant to, whatever that ends up looking like.  So, thank you to all of the people who remind me to live fully and burn brightly, especially those who have loved me enough to let me take flight.

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