Meditation

How to Lose Your Skin and Be Consumed

The title is not what you may at first think. It’s not about being eaten alive in the literal sense. But I did want to get your attention. It is about being consumed to the degree that you come alive in ways you may not have experienced.

I found the work of Will Johnson through Future Primitive, a podcast co-produced by Joanna Harcourt-Smith and José Luis Gómez Soler. Joanna interviews guests using a framework: What is it like to be in sacred communion with our living Earth? Will is a Buddhist practitioner with Sufi leanings dedicated to breathing practices that wake up the body. He’s long been offering retreats and teachings through the Institute of Embodiment Training, now in Costa Rica.

What first caught my attention was a statement Will made early in the interview. He was at an event and looked out over those gathered, noticing how very still, even stiff, people were in their sitting meditation. That let him know most of those gathered were not breathing fully, nor engaging the body as part of the process. Shallow breaths.

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©2015 Carla Woody.

I reflected on my own daily practice that has evolved over 35+ years. I was all about the breath, particularly in the early days, directing it in such a way that it opened my energy field and sometimes instigated involuntary movement. Then later for several years I participated in the local Sufi circle, especially zikr, which was anything but inactive.*

Listening to Will, I began to wonder if I’d become complacent. I no longer actively use breath or chants in the way I did in the past, but sit first thing in the morning, say a prayer of gratitude, then close my eyes. When I do, I become engulfed in palpable energy that ebbs and flows. It’s always there no matter how long I sit – 5 minutes, an hour or more. I feel tremendous connection. The witness part of me has noticed there are often times it appears I’ve stopped breathing for periods, but am not holding my breath. When I do finally take another breath it’s subtle. I call it “the breath of no-breath.” I’ve read about such occurrences in literature from Kriya Yoga. My body is quite still but doesn’t feel stiff in my awareness. What I’ve come to has worked for me.

But I decided to undertake the method Will calls the Hollow Bamboo Dharma Practice that focuses on the body and actively uses breath to open six points, freeing energy. This method can lead to a state of unity he calls the Great Wide Open and being breathed by the Divine, Universe, God or whatever anyone may call the Force Field of Creation.

I’ve experienced the state he describes. I call it “losing my skin” where there’s a sense of no separation, a state of being permeated by All That Is, in a way hard to describe, slipping into it with no intent of doing so—that gives deep comfort. Time disappears. I disappear. In the times it has occurred, I’ve almost always been meditating in nature. I can remember one time it happened during a prolonged Sufi retreat. The difference is my experiences have occurred spontaneously, infrequently. I don’t know really how such a sacred unity occurred.

Because of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders and uncertainty of the world, I decided to enter retreat and use this new-to-me approach to meditation as a framework. In his generosity, Will has on his website downloadable audios of a 3-evening presentation where he introduces his philosophies related to what he teaches, and the actual practice he calls Breathing Through the Whole Body. He’s quick to state this shouldn’t be considered a technique, that it’s a natural way of breathing and will feel that way over time.

Of all his books, I chose to get his newest one, Breathing as Spiritual Practice: Experiencing the Presence of God, because the title appealed to me. It turned out to be rather synchronous. I hadn’t read the description very carefully. This book is largely from his personal journaling over his own 10-day retreat several years ago using what he teaches, with each chapter given to one day. I decided to read a chapter each day of my own retreat, usually after I’d done the meditations according to his direction introduced in the audios. When I started reading the book, I found his retreat site to be one where I’d stayed myself, albeit for a very brief time, just a taste with a promise to myself to return. So, his recounting of Christ in the Desert, an isolated Benedictine monastery of silent retreat, in a box canyon at the end of 13 miles of bad dirt road in northern New Mexico, was already alive within me.

Here I’m offering a synopsis of my own process in retreat using the methods on the audio tapes.

I normally sit on my sofa cross-legged with a straight back. To make sure my knees were lower than my pelvis per his instructions, I transferred my meditations to the floor and sat at the edge of a zafu, legs crossed with knees on the floor. I noticed it straightened my spine completely, allowed me to elongate more and sit much taller without effort. The first instruction was about body awareness. I noticed immediately that, in this posture, my sacrum was unhappy and the muscle around my right clavicle was tight, exactly the place my massage therapist always goes after. It was achy but wasn’t unmanageable. This told me I was compensating and, as a norm, ignoring discomfort. This is the kind of thing Will said would be noticeable if you’ve been numbing out pain in the body. On point.

In the audios, Will is good about gently guiding the breath, spot by spot, introducing subtle movement, until the last sequence where you’re breathing in the six directions he identifies. I soon recognized I hadn’t done really deep breathing in years, which was the second point. The idea is to begin your breath in the belly—no problem there—and continue the in-breath all the way up to the uppermost sacs of the lungs at the top of the ribs…up the neck and into the cranium. Wait, what? The cranium? Now I can tell you it’s possible. But for me, not at first…

First time out of the bag, I was able to take in breath until my chest swelled. But I hit a wall when attempting to continue to the top of the ribs. Persisting over a couple of days, I guess I finally experienced body memory. My breath then found the pathway and continued right up into the cranium. Really. Well, I’m not so sure if it was actual breath but perhaps the energy of the breath. Something physical happened though. First the base of my skull popped and then it felt like my entire cranium subtly began moving with the breath.

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©2015 Carla Woody. 

One of the other things wonderful was that, through the breath, I was receiving an inner massage that affected my outer body and relaxed those spots that were protesting. My lumbar let go almost immediately. It took more for that muscle below my right clavicle to release. But I could feel, at the end of 10 days, it was stretching outward and loosening.

It doesn’t take long to get into the state. Once learned, your body knows the way. A by-product, thought also dissipates in such a way there’s just a feeling presence. Even if thoughts return—because they will—it’s easy to return to the breath, and they release.

I did have something occur that was distinctly unpleasant but wasn’t surprised because it had happened once before. About 20 years ago, I was going through a very difficult phase in my life. In order to maintain equilibrium, I was meditating long hours a day. It had a profound impact on my wellbeing. But when you do so, it loosens things that have been trapped, or consciously shut off, deep in the psyche that can come to the surface in different ways…in order to release.

I normally do not remember my dreams. When I do, it usually has to do with some deep spiritual meaning, awe inspiring but not scary. I have so rarely had nightmares in my life, they wouldn’t number the fingers on one hand. But during that time long ago I’m referencing, I had some kind of waking dream where I was surrounded by lepers reaching for me, brushing me. Like something biblical. I felt it all. I was terrified. I started to move and leap out of bed when a voice said to me…Just go into it. Merge with it. Like the story goes, invite the demon in to tea. I did that, and the fear and revulsion released. A sense of calm replaced it.

I’ve never had such a dark night experience recur until about 10 days ago. I think I was on Day 5 of my retreat when I had another waking dream like some godawful place out of Hieronymus Bosch or Dante’s Inferno, and I was in the middle of it. My chest was heaving. I felt electrified. I leaped out of bed, my entire body shaking. The visuals stopped but my body was still there. No saving voice this time giving wise counsel. I had to walk around for a while to calm myself. I was up the rest of the night.

As if it had arrived on cue, two days later reading Will’s Day 7, he had a similar dark night. Not necessarily the same content but within the same spirit.

At least I’d had some previous experience of this territory, and wasn’t caught by surprise. I’m quite sure this was brought on by the pandemic, the global chaos, level of death and destruction of what is familiar. I’d been aware of how very calm I’d been about the whole thing, even had some remarking on that. Not at all cavalier. But stopping short of entering the horror, which as somewhat of an empath, I can easily do. So, it’s no wonder fear of the unknown and real grief for this worldwide devastation had to surface, in order to break any internal paralysis, and be released instead into the realm of compassion.

It’s not pleasant to go through such things, but I don’t at all begrudge them. It’s part of the spiritual path. It’s just good to know the possibility exists. I was glad to see Will brought that particular aspect up in his writing.

In the book, he mentioned you could do the practice of breathing through the whole body anywhere, suggesting when laying down or walking out in nature. I tried both but didn’t have the same effect as I do during sitting meditation. Laying down I didn’t feel the full energy of my body as much. Walking out my front door onto trust land may not have been the best place to try it out in nature. I was too distracted by the roughness of the trail. I suspect I will get better at these other settings with more practice, once this way of breathing is second nature.

My practice continues. I recognize what I’ve undertaken here has health benefits, increased my physical energy and my sleep is so much better. I have a keen appreciation for the spiritual aspects. I didn’t yet get to the place where I lose my skin but imagine that may come. I’m grateful for this additional way of breath, body and energy and am incorporating it into my early mornings.

***

* Quoting Pir Shabda Kahn, Spiritual Director of the Sufi Ruhaniat International: “The mysticism of breath is central. Repetition of sacred sound is central. And the art of living wholesomely is also central. Our effort is to learn to live in the breath twenty-four hours a day. The actual practice is to outwardly connect with the breath, be conscious of the breath, and let the breath fall into its natural rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. And we combine sound and breath. We put a sacred phrase ‘on the breath.’ We do this in meditation, and we do this throughout the day. It could be Om Mani Padme Hum. So, we might put Om Mani Padme Hum on the in-breath and then again on the out-breath, and breathe it out throughout the day, throughout our life.
We recite sacred phrases out loud. Repetition is important. Sound has an effect apart from meaning, based on the rhythm it creates in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. One of the phrases we recite is called ‘zikr.’ The phrase is La Ilaha Ilaha Allah Hu. It includes both negation (there is nothing but God—separateness is a false notion) and affirmation (experience yourself as the ONE).”

To read this interview in full, go here.

 

Categories: Book Review, Contemplative Life, Meditation | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Breath, Energy and Lifeforce

[This article includes a free download of a breath meditation at the end.]

It seemed to me like something was coming. I had a similar sense when I was in my late thirties. Back then, I knew something was hovering on the horizon, but I just couldn’t see what. It turned out to be a big shake-up in my life. A time of new awareness. Clarity. A recognition I could no longer live the way I had. That recognition led to significant choices that placed me squarely on the path I’ve been on ever since. I still don’t have a word for it…this walk that chose me. But know when I’m aligned to it, and when I falter. This is at the personal level.

What I’ve been sensing, as many had—long before it happened—is global upheaval. Now here it is. Something like this had to happen to rip the foundation out from under us. Something big enough to stop us short. Indeed, it has. Collectively, we couldn’t go on much longer without things coming apart in a catastrophic way. We’ve been forced into lockdown, to shelter-in-place—a phrase I’d never heard before now.

I prefer to say that we’ve been called into retreat. We have things to consider, foundational things…each of us.

I know I do because I’m relieved to be here, at home, having been forced to reschedule commitments and journeys all the way into next year. I see open space stretching out in front of me and relish it for the rich possibilities it brings. It’s been a very long time since I allowed myself to meditate for longer than an hour during daily practice. Not so now.

After a few days, it’s no longer about allowing. I’m naturally slipping into those longer hours, finding it to be a familiar place that I haven’t stepped into in a long time but always remember…because significant clarity came from that space. And I became different as a result of being there.

But it wasn’t at all a place of mind but rather a space of Unity with the Absolute from which Silence is naturally delivered…and unseen, unheard but felt guidance is offered. And the entry is through breath and energy. You could say mysticism is the by-product.

I’m looking to emerge from retreat with another perspective. I’m holding out for a deeper way of living and appreciating.

For several years, back in the late 90s to early 2000s, I held a regular meditation circle. I’ve never had any religious affiliation so felt free to borrow from Sufi, Buddhist or any other sources that that worked well to enter a non-mind state.

There was one meditation I used frequently with the circle I called Chakra Breathing. People found it particularly useful to deepen their state of being, relaxation and alleviate physical issues. I’ve had folks use it pre and post surgeries to support healing. I actually created it for myself in my late 20s for healing purposes. They asked me to record it.

It occurred to me that some may find it useful in the environment we find ourselves now.

We’re all in this together after all.

Connection

Download Chakra Breathing here.

Please feel free to download and share this 20-minute meditation.

Intended to accompany meditative practice, this recording uses the breath as a conduit to still spaces against a backdrop of Tibetan bells. Chakra Breathing is a tool to cleanse and vitalize the energy centers of the body and lead to that inner sanctity called Silence.

Categories: Contemplative Life, Energy Healing, Global Consciousness, Meditation, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Nurturing Core Silence

My invitation to meditation came nearly forty years ago. As many such things that arrive, it was of necessity, and I was unconscious of it in the moment. Thankfully, that time I paid attention to the part of me that knew—but back then would usually ignore…until I didn’t. A strong message: I must come down out of my head in order to live. You can read this as a metaphor, which is valid. But it was also a physical reality. I had driven myself into the ground until my body rebelled with a clear communication. It took that. I wasn’t listening. It stopped me short and laid me flat. It was serious. A hard learning curve.

It was in the recovery process the pull to meditation became pronounced. Now I would say I was just following the energy. Even that phrase is a poor descriptor. For some things, there are just no words. I had no real framework at the time. Even though “meditation” had become a buzzword…if there were classes where I was living at the time, they were underground, and I wasn’t part of the network.

I turned to research. How I came to these classics—Human Energy Systems by Jack Schwarz and Joy’s Way by Brugh Joy—is lost to time. Although my well-worn copies have remained on my bookshelf as a testament. Their content was a fit for me. I was able to come to my own method using breath and energy. Experiential. Of the body and beyond the body. I didn’t know what I was doing, frankly.

I began a practice that has stayed with me to this day: I got up at least an hour earlier than I did previously so as not to be rushed. (This is the point, isn’t it?) I sat. The mental chatter was an aggressive distractor. Finally, after quite a while, I started getting the hang of it. Then something totally unexpected started occurring.

Pain, pressure and weird sensations that—with my eyes closed—felt like my body was strangely contorting. It was only in opening my eyes, that I would discover I was still sitting upright, never having moved. Much later I would understand I was experiencing blocked energy. I learned through contrast as I began to kinesthetically experience flow in, through and around my body, stronger and stronger over decades. It’s been my saving grace. It’s affected how I live. I don’t know where I’d be without it…this gift from beyond my self.

Silence

It used to frustrate me there’s no Mysticism for Dummies book. No explicit instructions. How could there be? Any true book on mysticism, usually the most obscure, only allude to the elements of the path, always veiled, sometimes through metaphor. There are no words. It’s also a protection from ourselves. The mind loves to get wrapped around the right way to do things, losing out in the process.

What I’ve found most useful is not to read much in this realm. So much better for me to immerse myself and be present. Becoming aware through experience. When later if I stumble across something that documents the elements I’ve come to know experientially, it serves to validate something whose territory is already familiar.

silence bookOn that note, several months ago I stumbled upon Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness by Robert Sardello. There are examples of spiritual literature over the centuries, wisdom writings of great mystics, identifying the heart as the seat of spiritual perception. His writing goes steps beyond in leading the reader to the Presence that resides in the seat of spiritual perception…the wisdom source. This is not something abstract. It’s grounded in full vibration and kinesthetically recognizable. He also offers practices to recognize and develop this spiritual muscle. I’m going to stop here as this is your own area to explore if you like.

Over twenty years ago, I first came upon the word kenosis, coming from Greek, meaning to empty. I identified with it as the path I’ve chosen. The act of kenosis is more though than releasing, letting go. That’s part of the process. But ultimately, it’s about creating the inner spaciousness that invites something else. I resonate with what Robert Sardello gives name to—The Silence and that it comes as grace.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Contemplative Life, Energy Healing, Meditation, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Internal Constant in an External World

A couple of months ago I had two curious dreams in quick succession. First, meaning it was curious for me to even remember a dream. Second, that they came within a few nights of each other. My remembrance of any dream is a significant outcome in itself. Rarely literal, they present as a metaphor—realized after the fact—alerting me to shifting sands. A signal to pay attention, but its explication not quite straightforward.

I faced myself in a mirror and didn’t know who she was.

This one was quick, maybe a fragment of a longer dream. Quite disorienting.

I was in a celibate marriage of sorts but couldn’t see my partner.

This one was so real that, when I awoke, I continued lying in bed for some time searching to see where in my material reality it was true, and came up with nothing.

The last eighteen months for me have been quite intense. Never mind I had become more and more susceptible to the chaotic, tragic happenings in the world—especially in my home country—increasingly dealing with a sense of helplessness, anger and sadness…consistent perforations to my soul. Additionally, the nature of my work and family health was calling for ongoing attentiveness, sometimes venturing into places I hadn’t psychically visited, in the process generating much more than normal (for me) travel.

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Monsoon dawn. Photo: Carla Woody.

Now that I’ve been home for a few weeks, I’ve come to realize I was exhausted, close to burnout. Not an unusual state for people in the encouraged busyness, demands and fragmentation of this Western culture. I had experienced near burnout years ago and successfully backed out of it. I knew the territory.

A significant factor: I’d had little time for myself. I’ve been a daily meditator for more than thirty years. Yet, I found I was unable to do so. It felt shallow if I could even bring myself to sit as normal. There were a few cases where I behaved in ways uncharacteristic to me, felt badly afterward…and decided I was unfit for public consumption. Even remarking so to a few close friends. Clear signals something was off.

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Monsoon dusk. Photo: Carla Woody.

Then came two gifts in quick succession, not unlike the dreams.

Last week I flipped the calendar page and discovered I had an entire ten days with absolutely nothing scheduled with the exception of a massage a few days away. I blinked my eyes and thought, Oh no, what have I forgotten to mark down. I wracked my brain. Realizing there was nothing, I exhaled. I decided it was a minor miracle, and the Universe had a hand in it.

Then within a day, I somehow stumbled upon an interview of poet David Whyte, part of Julia Bainbridge’s mini-series on inner lives on her podcast The Lonely Hour. I was listening to it as I worked on one of my mixed media sculptures that had been languishing for months. Listening to David Whyte always puts me into an altered state. When he said this…I backed up the recording to hear it a few times more then wrote it down…

One of the nourishing things of being alone again is who this stranger is inside you. I feel you always meet a new you in the form of a stranger, and to meet that stranger you have to spend time alone.

 It stopped me short. I remembered the first dream from a couple of months ago.

And he mentioned inviting in invisible help.

 I remembered the second dream…and what I call my council that has been with me for as long as I can remember.

I’ve sensed for a time that some kind of personal evolution is on the horizon—potentially a revolution. I can’t tell you what exactly. This I do know. When any of us are at a threshold of spiritual passage, our internal and external worlds collude and collide somehow in an attempt to maintain the status quo or even regress us. It’s that biological response of the amygdala mistakenly recognizing opportunity for threat.

The times that I’ve experienced major spiritual breakthroughs are rarely when I’m with others, although the circumstances and interactions certainly may orchestrate the launch pad. It’s only when I retreat into my inner world that I’m ushered through another threshold by whatever means arrive. Silence, the abject beauty of the night sky, the words of a poem, the stroke of my paintbrush, and the quiet feeling comes that something is now different or renewed.

I’m a confirmed introvert, almost off the scale. I must have those empty spaces of remembering, engaging the Internal Constant always there with me…or I suffer. I’ve always wondered how extroverts do it in the ongoing involvement with people they thrive on. How does the break appear proactively, not being forced into it by circumstance?

In mainstream Western society, the need for retreat and being alone—even if only a few hours or days—is often misunderstood. It can be thought of as an act of withholding or selfishness. In reality, for a major portion of this society, it’s the gift they need to give themselves in order to be whole in the world. Also the allowance for easing back into the places and spaces usually frequented so as not to be shocked and overwhelmed by the contrast. It’s not a luxury. It’s necessary…and often the ground of change.

Categories: Contemplative Life, Healthy Living, Solitude, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Caring for Precious Lands

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. It’s been a good companion over these last couple of days’ flights home. Particularly in long delays or crammed up against fellow passengers, it serves as a reminder that I’d rather be anywhere than where I am at the moment. And it takes me there.

I’m envious. Notified by a friend of an opening for fire lookout, he quit his job in Manhattan where he was a journalist and during the fire season lives in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in a small box held up by stilts. He watches for fires and calls them in.

In some directions, the gaze settles on nothing but vast wilderness. It must have the same effect as gazing into a night sky unobstructed by human-made light. The more you gaze, the more the night sky invites, catapulting you into never-ending depth. There’s the sense of our small place in the universe and ancient knowledge we’ll never know. I imagine it could be a lonely job if you’re not cut out for this kind of solitude and little outside human contact. But for those who instead make friends with nature, find solace in silence and discover meaning in the wind, it must be pure heaven.

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Monsoon season. Photo: Carla Woody

Connors focuses on the 2009 fire season and walks us through his daily life, controversies through the years about the service natural fires perform, the cycle of nature, prescribed burns, what happens in drought years, and philosophical thought. I particularly found interesting his detailed description of sighting tendrils of smoke when he was out on the trail, knowing he was the first to see it, how he sent the alert and the actions taken from that point by wildfire fighters. Considerations if the fire got too close or overwhelming, what options he had to save himself.

I’d never heard of fire lookouts until I moved to the Southwest. Now the possibility of fire hovers in the back of my mind during the season. It’s come quite close to me a few times and otherwise engulfed local areas, leaving devastation and lost lives. And I always think of the animals.

One year — I think it was 2002 — I had a chance for a small taste of what it was like to be a lookout. An acquaintance had been one for years on Mount Union, the highest point at 8,000 feet in the Bradshaw Mountains of the Prescott National Forest.  He’d been inviting me out for some time. One weekend I decided to drive up there, quite the feat for the car I had at the time, especially as it had started to rain and fog was rolling in. Unbeknownst to me, it happened to be the weekend he was going down to Phoenix. I arrived just as he was leaving. He encouraged me to stay anyway.

The clouds had by now enfolded all. I could see only several feet beyond where I was standing in any direction. I was completely alone.

I went inside the cabin, having thoughts toward dinner. Choosing one from the many books Jon had, I carried my plate to the small table in front of the west window, which normally held a view level with, or above, far mountaintops. At the moment, I saw nothing but a solid white wall. And by now, the gentle rain had turned into a storm.

I glanced out the window and couldn’t believe what I saw. An immense fiery ball seemed to be hovering just beyond, in the ravine. I went out onto the porch to investigate. There it was—huge and blazing. How could the sun be coming to me in this way through the now torrential rains and impenetrable shrouding of clouds? I stood watching, awestruck, until the last remnants of this light finally disappeared.

Even though the storm was raging, I was compelled to sleep in the tower. I lugged my sleeping bag and a flashlight up the steep metal stairs, along with some water and Saint Thérèse’s book. After arranging my bed for the night, I stilled myself and just watched the scene before me. From an altitude of around 8000 feet and the further height of the fire tower, I had a sense of being on top of the world. The clouds had raised enough that I could see the panorama of lightning dancing across the land. I’d never seen such a demonstration of raw power. Some strikes seemed too close for comfort and the thunderclaps vibrated the tower’s cabin. But I just stood witness and found an uncanny metaphor in the stormy night to some of the inner turmoil that I’d brought with me to that place. Finding myself distracted and unable to read easily by flashlight, I lay listening to the sounds of thunder and raging wind for the longest time, feeling somehow perfectly safe. Peace was penetrating. I finally slept.

I opened my eyes very early the next morning. I heard no sounds of wind or rain. All was silent. I sat up. There were no clouds anywhere. Peace had come to the landscape. I could smell the fresh scent of washed pines coming to me through the small crack I’d left in one of the windows close by. My eyes came to rest on the mountain range toward the east. First light was appearing. I watched as the same fiery ball rose into view, smaller now, but its appearance just as profound to me. The cycle of renewal was complete.

— Excerpt from Standing Stark: The Willingness to Engage

 

That night was so precious to me. I’ve never forgotten it. In such environments, things are more real somehow than at any other time.

Connors’ recounting also made me recall the years I lived in Germany. Especially those couple of years in a village where the road by the house ended several feet away in pasture, then shortly in forest. Forests in Germany always seemed manicured to me. Beautiful, but pristine and tamed. Each village has a forstmeister, or forest master. I wonder how their role compares to the fire lookouts and forest rangers here in densely forested lands of the US. I appreciate the wildness.

Fire Season will be of special interest to those in the Southwest and other such forested lands. He wrote of places I know. And for those who live in places like Manhattan, it may ignite something similar like it did in Philip Connors.

Widely available in print, ebook and audio.

Categories: Book Review, Contemplative Life, Honoring the Earth, Solitude | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Retrospective, Part I

I had an invitation from an art docent group to speak about my work a few weeks ago. Since I’m a narrative artist, the subject was art as a form of storytelling. Their preferred method was a PowerPoint presentation — a format I hadn’t used in decades — with real life examples displayed so they could encounter them up close and personal.

How to best represent my art? Going back 35 years, long before it became a conscious outcome, each of my pieces had a story behind them. They came from my experiences. Initially, they centered on villages I’d wandered through and trails I’d followed through forests, particularly in Europe.

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The Florist. Oil on canvas, 1988. ©Carla Woody.

Later, it was more about what came from sacred sites, ceremonies and people who populated Indigenous lands where I returned over and over, conveying in some way what had touched and changed me, deepened my understanding of what matters in this life.

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Maya Prayers Oil on canvas, 2011. ©Carla Woody.

I’m quite clear about my personal evolution over the years — changes I chose that placed me on another track entirely — but I hadn’t realized how it affected my artwork as well. How could I have missed that? I’m like anyone else. I’d gotten so immersed in the day-to-day I hadn’t realized what was evident. Creating that presentation became a gift. It caused me to stand back and pinpoint how I got from there to here. In that moment, I became the observer, not the artist. Each of those pieces were part of a history that generated a visual story. I used the same strategy on myself — in the context of art — that I facilitate with others who want to consciously create a transition in their life.

In being our own witness, rather than being in it, things become apparent. It helps us make decisions. It serves as momentum to veer off a beaten path, to move through a threshold with intent. It naturally gathers energy that provides courage and reinforcement.

So that was my first decision. If these folks really wanted me to relay how art could tell a story, they were going to get a retrospective peppered liberally with how I’d progressed as an artist, what influenced me, and finally what was behind each image in the PowerPoint.

That decision took me to another level. I became aware that, over the last decade, creating art had become integral to my spiritual practice. For me, that means there’s an excavation of sorts that occurs in the process of creation. My intent is to express something deeper than a surface level image and initiate an evocative response from the viewer. To do so, I require myself to go deeper.

During my talk prep, I came across a quote from the writer James Baldwin.

The purpose of art is to lay bare the question hidden by the answers.

 I’d written and taught of this before, although I hadn’t considered art when I did.

…Like an unconscious mantra held in the mind, we ask a question in any given moment. In asking the question, the answer naturally comes to us. Therefore, in holding the thought, we ask the answer. This is the paradox that guides our lives.

We cannot ask a question for which there is no answer. Our minds can’t conceive of such…Through some fluke of determination when our minds can conceive of a wider reality, or at least have some inkling of acceptance, that conception will generate answers beyond the questions. This opening will then move us into new experiences through the wider framework of the mind—and we wonder how we got there.

—Excerpted fromStanding Stark: The Willingness to Engage

I noticed there was increased depth in my art when I made a simple adjustment about five years ago. I sit in the same place every morning when I do my early morning meditation practice. I learned long ago that energy builds up in a physical space when I return to it over and over with such intent. It becomes a natural segue, an anchor or portal through which I easily enter a meditative state. Energy lingers there—like a booster rocket—the same as when I close my eyes in a certain way, signaling readiness for a shift from ordinary reality, a surrender to non-ordinary reality.

The simple adjustment I made was this. I began to bring whatever piece of art I had in process and placed it within direct viewing distance from my meditation spot. Then when I opened my eyes, still in a deeper state of being, a communication started to occur. A communion of sorts. No, I didn’t experience discourse with my ordinary ears or eyes. But something happened. I formed a much greater connection and knowing. The artwork came to life and had its own expression. The piece itself became my guide in how to express its deeper nature.

Of course, you can do the same for any context you wish to explore…whether you place a physical object as I did…or project some representation—via visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory manner—of what you wish to consider.

***

Read Retrospective, Part II.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Meditation, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: The Andean Cosmovision

AndeanCosmovision

This is a precious book on a number of levels. First, it is written by a Western man, a dedicated seeker on the Andean path through the teachings of Don Américo Yábar, who has consistently held intent to integrate his learnings back into life at home…and share what he’s discovered over more than twenty years. He touches on some of his struggles to do so coming from a Western intellectual perspective.  This honesty is important. It shows possibility toward core understanding beyond the mind and a way of incorporating it into daily living, an evolutionary process.

I can state these things with confidence having known Oakley Gordon over a very long time, witnessing his process as much as being a fellow traveler on the path. I know his heart. We were introduced to the Andean way through the same spiritual teacher, literally at the same time and place. He has also served on the board of Kenosis Spirit Keepers as Vice-President since our inception.

The book is a primer on Andean worldview. If you want more beyond the introduction, Oakley provides endnotes and anthropological resources. In this book though he writes to you as a friend would, not as an academic. It’s easy to take in and comprehend.

But ultimately it’s a guidebook, a how-to. It’s a compilation of meditations gleaned directly from Don Américo and exposure to other paq’os⎯a general Quechua term for healer, shaman or mystic⎯or created by the author from what he’s learned while in Peru. I don’t think another such book exists. This is important. From my own spiritual travel programs, people periodically express the fear of not being able to recreate the same state of being upon their return home. I share and show them how to do so. But The Andean Cosmovision provides it in print with many different examples to explore with step-by-step instruction.

Oakley states that, although much of the book is taken from the teachings of one specific teacher, he believes any paq’o would validate them. I’ll take it one step further. The tenets covered in this book are found at the core of all Indigenous traditions I’ve worked within: Maya, Hopi and Andean, as well as others where I’ve had exposure.

Highly recommend. Available in print and e-book through Amazon and on Oakley’s website.

♦︎♦︎♦︎

 Oakley will be covering the material in his book during a weekend workshop June 3-5, 2016 in Rockville, Utah to benefit the Heart Walk Foundation who work within the Japu Q’ero villages in the areas of education and agriculture. For more information, click this link to a pdf flyer: Andean Cosmovision Workshop

Categories: Book Review, Indigenous Wisdom, Meditation, Q'ero, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Float: Losing Your Skin to Deep Relaxation

In the 1983 my life began to change drastically. I was living in Germany and suddenly exposed to many influences unavailable⎯or at least drastically hidden⎯in Ohio where I’d lived for the previous seventeen years. I regularly attended weekend seminars in Wiesbaden through the international branch of the Association for Humanistic Psychology featuring researcher Dr. Stanley Krippner’s work on dreams and shamanism, scientist Dr. Valerie Hunt’s research on the human energy system and others. And I was immersed in a progressive, experiential master’s degree program on human relations through the University of Oklahoma’s satellite program that exposed students to such areas as Virginia Satir’s family systems work, sacred Native American rituals and even Robert Monroe’s studies in out-of-body experiences.

It was somewhere in here that I heard about neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly’s sensory deprivation tanks, initially emerging from his interest in trance states and what happened⎯physically and mentally⎯to astronauts when freed from gravity. The late Edgar Mitchell, who went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences, is a good example, seen here in this beautiful tribute video We Are One.

I remember thinking: I wonder what it would be like if I no longer identified with my body or mind? I’d already been meditating for about five years, a practice begun as recovery from a serious health issue. After the first few years I’d begun to experience⎯what seemed like at the time⎯strange sensations in my body. Having no one to talk to about these experiences, it was a relief when I went to Dr. Hunt’s seminar to learn that energy was something present for everyone. We just need to open our awareness to it.

But there was no floatation tank available, and my desire to experience it went underground. Years later through meditation, ceremony and being in an altered state of consciousness for days through spiritual travel I would sporadically lose any sense of boundaries. The only way I could refer to it was “losing my skin.” These rare occurrences were spontaneous, nothing I could call on myself. But the sense it brought was merging with the Universe⎯not unlike what Edgar Mitchell described.

Then about a year ago I came across some information online indicating there’s been an upsurge in interest in floatation tanks, state-of-the art versions, and more prevalent opportunities to dip a toe in. In fact, there are several sites in Arizona alone. Indeed, it seems to be going as mainstream as massage therapy.

So a couple of weekends ago when I was in Sedona with close women friends, I suggested we make appointments at True Rest. We all held anticipation for the hour-long session. I’m sure with different thoughts going through our heads as with any unknown experience. There were three uppermost in my mind. I’ve never had claustrophobia but wondered if I’d have any anxiety being completely contained in a small pod. That was a needless concern. The young man on staff was very careful to introduce every aspect of the experience, through video and demonstrating each feature on the pod, including how to alleviate any sign of claustrophobia. The second thought in my mind was whether it would be like “losing my skin.” It was and more. The third had to do with sleep patterns and whether it would help. For years, I’d been experiencing cyclical issues with sleep. I was in the middle of one and sleep deprived.

The young guy on staff had offered his own story having to do with a broken back, intense chronic pain and no sleep, which had resolved through regular float sessions. So I was hopeful.

The float rooms and tanks are private with shower. The water in the pods is body temp and they’re filled with a huge amount of Epsom salts, causing the body to automatically float. There’s an option to have light or complete darkness, as well as soothing music or none. My initial experience was floating on a warm sea that graduated to being in the womb. And before long I did “lose my skin” and had the sense of being elevated somewhere in the clouds or beyond. Periodically, I would feel gently thrust through the earth’s core. A purely kinesthetic experience of nothingness, with movement, quite hard to describe. At one point I had a fleeting thought to breathe in and out of my third eye and was presented with extraordinary visuals and energy. As I breathed in, I was looking from above into billowing light and energy emerging through the third eye portal. As I breathed out I was in an underground cavern standing at the edge of a lake leading to light in the distance. I was in two places at once and witnessing from a distance, the image begging to be documented on canvas.

Pyrenees

Pyrenees, Camino Frances, 2015.

There was a sense of timelessness. After “no time” the filter began swirling and drew me back, letting me know the hour had somehow ended. I showered off and went to the other dressing room. My body was more relaxed than I could remember, even after a very good massage. I looked in the mirror and swear I appeared ten years younger.

But the best news is the longer effect it’s had on me. Since this initial float I’ve slept quite well at night. Only once did I resort to the herbal sleep aid I keep on hand. I feel rested upon awakening. The visuals are still vivid, waiting to be transferred to canvas.

After the float when my friends and I returned to our lodging I was drawn to sit outside where it opened to a creek and wilderness area beyond. I felt absolutely present with nature, a comforting stillness inside. I sat there for quite some time until I got up to leisurely shoot images of the ducks and light on the red rocks. Only in retrospect did I realize the float had provided this segue to absolute Presence.

Each friend’s experience was different; the common denominator was deep relaxation. When I spoke to the young man about the depth of my own initial experience, he said I was probably predisposed due to all my years of daily meditation practice. I intuitively knew how to put my mind and body in a state; the float took me the rest of the way. In all the literature I’ve read, including the classic book by Michael Hutchinson The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea, experiences similar to mine do begin to occur after a series of floats, number depending on the individual. Long-term effects being: stress management, healing, pain management, enhanced creativity and sleep, increased problem solving capabilities, and spiritual consciousness. It’s even said to have effect on addiction and weight loss, which makes sense if the aforementioned attributes are in place.

Of course, the ultimate intent is to have such a Zen state integrated through daily life. It seems to me that, in addition to my daily meditation practice, a monthly float will help create such a passage. There’s no need to have the background knowledge that ushered me into my first session, just a desire to glean the benefits.

To find a floatation location in your area, go here. I do recommend True Rest in Sedona, with other locations in Arizona and elsewhere. The premises were quite lovely and spotlessly clean, and staff was welcoming and informative. Groupon coupon discounts are sometimes available.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Energy Healing, Meditation, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Review: Companion Books for Sufi Meditation

In May-June of this year I walked the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela. During my journey I undertook a daily spiritual practice from the Sufi tradition as a walking meditation. In a post entitled Momentum from my Camino blog The Essential Way, I wrote a bit about wazifa chanting practice, invoking any of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah, as a spiritual take-along due to its deepening effect on me. I can’t begin to tell you how important the practice turned out to be during this time. I chose specific wazifas that guided me and shaped focus and experience. When my body was having difficulty, they eased my pain and got me up mountains. When the day on the trail became long and my mind grew bored, they brought my awareness to presence and the beauty surrounding me. When I wrestled with uncertainty or issues, they helped usher in clarity.

Prior to embarking I told two Sufi friends about my intent for wazifa practice. Each mentioned a different book as a potential guide: Physicians of the Heart: A Sufi View of the Ninety-Nine Names of Allah and The Sufi Book of Life: 99 Pathways of the Heart for the Modern Dervish. I didn’t know either existed and was happy to learn there were e-book versions. When you’re carrying a backpack with your bare necessities, every ounce counts. Since they added no additional weight, I downloaded both. They proved to be valuable by providing different lenses, sorting perspectives on the same spiritual tenets based on the authors’ backgrounds and interests. All are well-known living Sufi mystics and leaders.

 Physicians of the Heart

Pir Shabda Kahn has been the spiritual lineage holder of the Sufi Ruhaniat International since 2001. In the introduction to Physicians of the Heart he writes about receiving inner direction, shortly after accepting the appointment, to bring forth an English language guidebook on the Beautiful Names to accompany study and practice. He invited three other Sufi teachers to join him in this spiritual work. Faisal Muqaddam is a founder of the Diamond Approach, merging psychology of the human spirit with Sufism. Imam Bilal Hyde is an Arabic and Qur’anic scholar. Murshid Wali Ali Meyer is the head of the esoteric school of the Ruhaniat. Aside from his work as lineage holder, Shabda is a recognized master of raga—Indian classical vocal music—and accomplished musician. This esteemed circle gathered for ten years to undertake deep wazifa study with intent toward producing a spiritual guidebook offering elements to take present-day practitioners to progressive levels of immersion.

For several years beginning in the late ‘90s I attended Sufi retreats featuring Shabda as teacher where he also led wazifa practice and Dances of Universal Peace. In ’98 I went to India with him to study introductory raga. I was already predisposed to embrace Physicians of the Heart without yet laying eyes on the first page.

There are many things I appreciate about its contents. It is easy to see the influence of each contributor’s knowledge, which brings a holistic approach and depth that had been lacking in my own awareness in wazifa practice, even though an effect was still there. I am particularly drawn to their distinction of select wazifas working together along a common theme. For instance, already knowing I was going to work with Ya Fattah I was shown to work with two additional wazifas, encompassing a natural, believable progression: Ya Wahhab (O, Giver of Gifts) to Ya Razzaq (O, Provider) to Ya Fattah (O, Opener). This metaphor is given to frame how they evolve one to the other. It resonated with me.

 …al-Wahhab is the free rain that is given to all, ar-Razzaq is the water that flows in irrigation ditches, and al-Fattah is all the fruit harvested from all the trees that have been irrigated. In other words, al-Fattah is the continuing action of all that will ever be accomplished…

First, a belief in abundance is necessary: There is enough for all. Second, the opportunity accepted, evidenced through work done to lay the foundation. Finally, there’s fruition of all the groundwork, consistently accomplished, so it stretches ahead to be met with each footfall. Should a practitioner encounter inner difficulties working with a wazifa, direction is given toward other wazifas that serve to help transmute limiting beliefs and patterns.

The content of the book covers a lot of ground: Arabic linguistic roots, pronunciation—even connecting to an audio version online—psychological components, Sufi teachings, overview and in-depth explanation of each wazifa. It is a reference for Sufi practitioners.

However, you don’t have to be one to glean value and guidance. I especially appreciate the way the book is organized. I may not be interested in the sound code on which there’s a detailed, technical chapter, but I can quickly find a wazifa, that draws me by the brief description of each one. Then go to the page where that one is discussed in depth and allow the knowledge to permeate my practice in ways I hadn’t foreseen.

Here’s a video treat: the authors speaking about their meetings and practice over ten years that culminated in this book.

Available via the book’s website or Amazon.

The-Sufi-Book-of-Life

I know Saadi Shakur Chishti—Neil Douglas-Klotz—through his books. He is perhaps best known for his translation of words attributed to Jesus from his native Aramaic language. In The Hidden Gospel Saadi compares the King James Version to the translated Aramaic of Jesus’ time. Dry, punitive language is transformed to lyrical prose that holds beauty and hope. In this latter version I can not only engage—but also immerse my soul. I pulled an example to give you an idea.

John 4:24

KJV: God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Translated Aramaic: Those who surrender to Unity, bowing to it in utmost adoration, must do so in breath and harmony, like the sense of right direction that drives the universal winds.

Given that his approach and translations in The Hidden Gospel transformed Jesus—to me—into a believable, approachable, forgiving teacher I was also predisposed to embrace The Sufi Book of Life.

In the introduction Saadi encourages the reader to meander through the book and notice which wazifas draw you…and work with those. This is easy to do because the chapter titles are in English illustrating a sense of what is sought or produced. Below the title is the wazifa in Arabic and guidance as to what is likely drawing you to that specific one. In the following paragraphs he lays the foundation in poetic language. Then draws upon Sufi teaching stories and poetry to embellish our understanding. When I read such writing I automatically find myself riding the Breath of Life to that inner place I’m being directed. It goes in a different way. The practice has already begun.

To return to my chosen wazifa Ya Fattah, the descriptive chapter title says Opening to Unity’s Breath. Guidance indicates I chose that one to: …take the opportunity to experience the Sacred Unity opening you to your destiny.

He proceeds to draw from Sufi teachings and the sayings of Muhammad to bring more depth: If they remember me in their heart, I remember them within my heart. If they come toward me walking, I come toward them running.

At the core we all want such a thing and there’s often fear accompanying the heart’s desire. Saadi names such limiting emotions and elaborates with Rumi’s words: Don’t be afraid of nonbeing. If you want to be afraid, fear the existence you have now…

There’s a section entitled Roots and Branches that offers the traditional translations and variations of the word and sound roots. Each chapter ends with a suggested meditation offering a physical centering point, progression using the breath, ending with a question to consider through the process. Since I use breath and energy in my daily meditations, this is naturally appealing to me.

Available on Amazon.

***

I found each of these guidebooks to be beautifully powerful in their own way. They can be used separately. But I found them particularly useful as companion books for practice.

Categories: Book Review, Meditation, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Film Review – Agafia’s Taiga Life

Agafia’s Taiga Life

A Documentary by Vice Media

Agafia

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times.

In 1936 Karp Lykov took his family and fled into the Siberian wilderness to avoid Stalin and persecution because of their religion. Called the Old Believers, they belonged to a sect of Russian Orthodox fundamentalists. Over the years they retreated deeper and deeper into the Taiga, a forested region in the heart of Siberia, where temperatures are extreme and civilization is non-existent.

Agafia was born into that life in 1943. Agafia saw no one but family for 40 years. And then no one at all for 25 years until a geologist moved a short distance away. All that time, she’d been a woman alone, living off the land.

Journalists from Vice Media visited Agafia to shoot a documentary about her life for their Far Out series. She relates what it’s like to live in the company of her animals, her faith, occasional encounters with bears and rocket debris, a way of life that gets much more difficult as she ages. Her story is an example of pockets in the world where people are living in solitude by circumstance and often by choice.

Watch it online for free. Length: 36 minutes.

To read about another in this series and watch the documentary, see Faustino’s Patagonian Retreat.

Categories: cultural interests, Film, Solitude | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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