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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Embracing My Inner Dumbass.

Travel Lesson #1: Embrace Your Inner Dumbass

 Before I head off to Thailand, I’m spending a few weeks off the grid, on the Lost Coast of NorCal.  This place is wild and free, and I certainly will be blogging about my experience here.   However, the experiences I had just trying to get here proved to serve as an important travel lesson…that I have a big fat ego, and if I am going to navigate SE Asia solo, I better let go of my need to know anything, get comfortable with admitting cluelessness, and most importantly… start embracing my inner dumbass.

So I have a confession:  blogging, updating Facebook with pictures, and sharing all my adventures with friends have sent me on a bit of an ego trip lately.   I definitely don’t think bragging rights are the purpose of travel, or writing about it- my blog, as well as my upcoming trip, are supposed to be outlets to reveal my authentic experience and  let go of the need for approval in the process…  turns out that is easier said than done.  It’s kind of a ‘one step forward, two steps back process’.    I start out revealing a part of who I am, get just a tiny amount of applause, or start to feel like I know what I’m doing, and my mouthy ego pops back up and says, “Duuuuude, this is awesome!!!! Do more things to earn praise, I love this shit!!!”

Sheeeesh… silly ego.

Fortunately, whenever I start letting my ego do the talking… the universe has a lovely way of serving me up a lesson in humility.  Two days ago, I was all set to take an Amtrak train to Martinez, California, then hop a bus to Eureka, where I had a ride waiting to drive me down the long winding mountain drive to my uncle’s cabin in Petrolia.  Then came the ‘fun’ part…where I got to the station, remembered I’m from Ohio, and have never taken an Amtrak.  I didn’t know the first thing about navigating a large Amtrak station.  However, I like to think of myself as a saavy traveler, so I thought, “ I got this”, and began wandering.  What I did not do was admit to one person how incredibly confused I was- because I figured that would make me look like an ass.  Twenty minutes later,  I finally found my track.  Feeling a sense of confident satisfaction,  I showed the attendant my ticket.

….and was told that my train had left a minute before.

I felt defeated; if I failed at something as simple as catching an Amtrak, how on earth would I navigate the confusion of a new culture in where I don’t speak the language?!   I began to go into panic mode, sure that I would screw up every single part of my upcoming trip to Thailand, positive that this was a sign that I couldn’t handle solo international travel. Sometimes I overreact…

The next train to Martinez didn’t come for five hours, so I had a lot of time to figure out the San Jose Amtrak station/ calm down.  So while I munched on overpriced train station snacks, it hit me… not knowing how to find my track wasn’t an issue, mistakes happen and I was going to make it to Eureka the same day.

However, I did notice my big fat ego and stubborn avoidance of looking like a fool  kept me from admitting that I had no idea what I was doing and asking for help.   Had I asked a bunch of silly questions, I might have looked like a clueless idiot…but  I also might have been an idiot who was riding her train, instead an idiot watching one take off without her.

So… pretending to be in the know for pride’s sake… not working for me this particular day.  It also struck me how  absolutely ridiculous it can be to pretend to know what I’m doing when I was in Palo Alto eating Pho (Vietnamese soup) with my classmates.  So, for whatever reason, I can barely eat sushi with chopsticks.    As the bowl of noodle soup was placed in front of me, my stomach grumbled, and for a split second I thought, “I should probably ask how on earth one eats soup with chopsticks”.  But as I watched everyone chow down,  my loud mouth ego jumped in,  “Don’t be the dumb Midwesterner who has never attempted to eat noodles with chopsticks!”  All the while,  my physical body was saying, “Screw you ego, I don’t care if you grab those noodles with your hands, I’m starving!”

My ego won.

So, I  pridefully asked no questions, picked up the dreaded chopsticks and immediately slopped a pile of noodles all down the front of myself.  For the rest of my meal, the table, my lap, and the floor got covered in Pho.  I pretended not to notice, and  thanks to my pesky ego, I spent half an hour being frustrated as I tried desperately to land one full bite of food in my mouth without anyone noticing me flailing.   Later, when I realized in class I had noodles down my shirt and in my scarf, I realized I  probably need to have it out with my ego, because being prideful is starting to get messy.

So pesky ego, here’s the first blow.  II’m admitting publicly that there are more times lately than not when I’m completely clueless.  Despite my big fat ego, who would have everyone think I have it together, I’m admitting I’m a big dork, and most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing.  A lot of times when people think I’m quietly contemplating some deep thought in class, I’m trying to suppress a giggle because I just mentally thought “that’s what she said” about something my professor said.   I act fearless about my upcoming trip, when I tell everyone how awesome it will be, but in reality, I am full of insecurity and doubts.  I often worry that I’ll get there and find out I made the wrong decision, or be lonely, or accidentally end up in Laos because I couldn’t understand Thai and jumped the wrong bus.

I guess when it comes down to it, kicking my pride in it’s arrogant ass is probably the best reason to travel.   In the next month, I’ll be living somewhere where I’m so clueless that I can’t help but be humble… the place where I don’t speak the language, I look and dress strange, and I don’t know how to order food…  a Buddhist country where my ego can’t say “ohhh, look how spiritual I am” because I sure as hell don’t know more about mindfulness than the Thai people… a place where in order to survive, I have to check my ego at the gate, as I’m mispronouncing the three Thai phrases I’ve learned, “Hello”, “Thank You” and “ I’m lost”.

It’s been awhile since I took the travel plunge, and something has changed… I go into this trip knowing how to laugh at myself, knowing that travel, especially solo travel,  is another awesome opportunity let go of  pride and to stop taking myself so seriously.   Screw my ego.  I have no idea what I’m doing, but I have a plan-  I’m going to ask every question and unabashedly look like a clueless idiot.  And when I screw it all up… I’m going to laugh. A lot. Travel lesson numero uno- Embrace my inner dumbass.

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”