Is My Path Taking a Turn?

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My favorite joke, and the only one I ever remember, is: Q: Do you know how to make God laugh? A: Tell him your plans for your life.

I think that is so true. There have been many turns in my life that I would have never predicted. If someone had told me those changes were coming, I would have said they were crazy. The most notable example is my relationship with Amma

At the time I met her, I had described myself as being somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist for 20 years. In those days, even hearing the word God made me feel sick to my stomach. I was a very logical, head based person and had no interest in spirituality or spiritually minded people.

In 1989, a new friend told me there was a woman saint coming to Seattle soon and invited me to attend her programs. My mind said NO but what came out of my mouth was OK.

My whole life changed the night I met Amma. Six weeks later, I was at her New Hampshire retreat and six months later I was in India. I have gone to India 26 times since that first visit. I have had other life plans change in unexpected ways since then, but none were as remarkable as that one.

On May 31 of 2017, I “plan” to retire. That is the time of year that Amma begins her annual North American tour so I have “planned” to attend some of those programs and then go to Amritapuri from mid-August until mid-January. I don’t remember when I developed this “plan”, but I think it has been firmly ingrained in my mind since I was in India this time last year.

One day in August of this year, though, I woke up thinking that I wasn’t going to watch another tree in the lot behind my house die. Al,  my former husband, and I had bought that property in 1973. I sold it in the mid-80’s and it changed hands again about ten years later. When Seattle formed the Cheasty Greenbelt, that owner sold it to the city.

The property was originally beautiful but none of the subsequent owners did anything with it, so blackberries, ivy, morning glories and bamboo took over. Smothered by the invasive plants, many trees died.

After I had that early morning thought, I grabbed my shears and started to work. I enlisted my friend, Ramana, to help clear some of the land. While Ramana worked on the major clearing, I focused on freeing specific trees.

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I found so many beautiful and fascinating things on the land and know that there are many more buried under the remaining blackberries.

One day, it occurred to me that we could make this project a GreenFriends project. (GreenFriends is the environmental arm of Embracing the World, Amma’s network of humanitarian projects.) I called the people in our satsang who have coordinated our tree planting and habitat restoration work in the past. They were very interested in being involved. In October and November, they spent some time working on the lot with me.

We also talked with the Green Seattle Partnership about becoming one of their volunteer groups. In March, we will take the Green Seattle Partnership Forest Steward orientation. Once we do that, we will be able to host larger work parties.

Our project will be supervised by the Seattle Parks Department and the city will provide the saplings and other greenery that we will eventually plant there. The Park Department will do any work that requires power tools. If there is enough interest in the project, we may decide to clear all four lots that are in that strip of Greenbelt!

I feel a great deal of passion about this work and it has been on my mind since I’ve been in Amritapuri. Even before I left Seattle, it occurred to me that August and September would be prime time for working on that land and if I was in Amritapuri, I wouldn’t be available to organize the work.

I have an ever growing sense that I won’t be going to Amritapuri in August and that my path is taking a turn that gives working with nature more priority than spending extra time in India.

Starting last week, I found another thought creeping into my mind. I have kept close track of world events via CNN throughout this trip. I’m beginning to wonder if I will even make it to India next year. It seems like there is so much potential for war.

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My years with Amma have taught me a lot about staying in the moment and not holding on to  plans. They have also taught me that Amma will hold me close to her no matter what comes my way. I trust that my life will unfold as it is supposed to and acknowledge that I have no idea what that will look like. What I do expect is that I will be participating in at least part of the Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu chant for world peace that will be held in the Amritapuri temple from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on January 1.

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings in the world be happy.
Peace, Peace, Peace

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Path

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

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Rara is one of my most favorite bloggers. She is so creative and her posts are unlike any others. I also love that she is so full of love and that she can go through the most difficult of situations and still “be” love.

A Multitude of Lessons

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(Because of the opening content, I will say at the beginning of this post, instead of at the end, that I originally published this article in the September 1998 volume of  The New Times newspaper. The first experience I describe in the article happened in the fall of 1997.)

 

As I sit here, only days away from undergoing surgery to remove an ovarian tumor, I find myself in a very reflective mood.  I read yesterday that the Chinese word for “crisis” is a combination of “danger” and “opportunity.” I can certainly see the potential for both in my current situation.  Since I do not yet know whether the tumor is benign or malignant, I am uncertain if I will simply experience a variation in the color of my day for a few weeks, or if this heralds the beginning of a major life change. The danger is obvious. So is opportunity, as lessons already abound.

The tumor was detected days before I was to leave for my annual visit to Amma’s ashram in South India.  This trip has been a major part of my life for the last eight years [Note: Remember this event occurred in 1997. I can now say I have been going to India for 26 years!] The discovery of the tumor and the abrupt change in plans has provided me with the opportunity to face my fears of pain, disability and death, as well as providing lessons in letting go of expectations, letting go of desires, and trusting Amma to guide me.  I am also getting practice in maintaining the attitude that all lessons I am given are for my own good.

I have to laugh when I remember that this is occurring as I am planning a workshop focused on staying in the present moment. I continue to chuckle as I recall that I am also in the midst of writing an article about how God can teach a multitude of lessons through a single event.  This is so much the way Amma tends to teach me, i.e. through experience rather than words.

In a guru-disciple relationship the guru sets up a variety of experiences so that the disciple can see weaknesses that need to be addressed or lessons that need to be learned. I have no way of knowing how many of the lessons Amma consciously sends my way.  Some might say that God, Spirit or the universe sends the lesson.  Generally, I find it helpful to simply attribute lessons to Amma.

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The first time I became aware of how many lessons can be learned from a single event was in 1995. I had decided to create a workshop entitled “Lessons on Lessons.” This workshop would give me the opportunity to teach much of what I had learned about the process of receiving, recognizing, and working through universal lessons. I planned to develop the workshop during that year’s pilgrimage to India. It didn’t occur to me that going to India with an intention like that was like holding up a sign saying, “Amma, please send me lots of extra lessons.”

Within minutes of my arrival at the ashram that year, two devotees enthusiastically said, “I can’t wait until you hear the new song.”  One added, “Actually, some of us are concerned that when you hear it, you will leave your body and not come back.”  (Often when I hear bhajans, i.e., devotional songs, I experience ecstatic bliss.  Sometimes I feel like only my body is in the room, while the rest of me is in some unknown, unseen, wonderful place.)  Leaving my body and not coming back seemed totally out of the question, however, so I was not at all worried.  I was intrigued, though, and eager to hear the song.  Some time was to pass before I would have that opportunity, since the senior disciple who wrote the song,  was in Mumbai (Bombay).

Several weeks later, I traveled to Kozhikode (Calicut), a city in North Kerala, where Amma was conducting a seven-day temple re-dedication.  I was assigned to stay on the roof of the temple. There were several places on the roof where mounds of rough concrete rose awkwardly two to three inches above the surface.  Numerous times, when I passed a particular mound, my inner voice said, “Be careful, that concrete is dangerous.”  My response was, “I see it.  I AM being careful.”  I would then continue blithely on my way.  One day, as I was walking across the roof-top to my sleeping mat, not paying a bit of conscious attention to what I was doing, I tripped over the mound of concrete and tore a big piece of flesh from the top of my toe.

The injury was very painful but that was the least of my concerns.  Having an open foot wound in India seemed very dangerous.  Most of the time I go barefoot and the ground was undoubtedly filled with untold numbers and varieties of bacteria.  My nursing background told me that the extreme heat and humidity created a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

I cleaned the wound as best I could and went on with my life.  I found I needed to stay very conscious of my surroundings because any time I would lose concentration, I would hit my toe on something, sending waves of pain coursing through my body.

That same day the swami who wrote the song my friends were so eager for me to hear arrived in Kozhikode.  He sang it that very night. My friends were right, the song profoundly affected me.  Massive amounts of energy soared through my body and with it came waves of deep grief.  As I cried and cried, another part of me noted that my experience was somewhat muted due to the pain I was experiencing in my toe.  I thought, “Well, Amma, THAT was an interesting way to keep me in my body!”

I was aware that this incident had already served three functions. It reminded me of the importance of paying attention to the instructions given by my inner voice and showed me that I could trust Amma to help me during altered-state experiences, i.e. the pain had kept me from going “too far” out during the song. I also recognized that the injury had provided me with practice in mindfulness in that I needed to stay very conscious of my environment so that I didn’t hit my injured foot, not to mention that if I had been mindful, I would not have injured my foot in the first place. During the next few days, I discovered other learning opportunities.

First, I stayed focused on the re-dedication program.  A number of devotees had decided to explore the city.  The fact that my foot hurt when I walked made it easy to say “No” to diversions and to stay focused on my spiritual goals.

Before I left the U.S., I had attended a workshop led by Steven Levine, who is considered by many to be a master teacher in the realm of living and dying consciously.  He commented that if we want to pursue a spiritual path, we have to be willing to feel fear.  I was certainly having the opportunity to face my fear of infection and pain.

A minister once taught me that you have to use the faith you have before you will be given more.  I was being given the opportunity to trust that I would be taken care of and, at the same time, trust that whatever happens is for my own good.

My toe healed at an amazing speed.  I would not have expected it to heal so quickly even in the United States where cooler temperatures and a cleaner environment would have made it easier to protect and take care of the injury.  The speed of the healing tremendously increased my faith in the power of the spiritual energy flowing through me.

I recognized that I had learned at least seven lessons from this one incident.  I wondered how many more I had learned at an unconscious level.  In addition, the friends that were supporting me had the opportunity to learn many of the same lessons by watching and participating in my experience.  Also, I had a new segment for my workshop, i.e., I could teach that by staying conscious one can learn many things from a single event.

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As I bring my mind back to my current health problems, I am thankful for all I have learned in the past.  I am very aware that those lessons prepared me for what I am experiencing now.  I know there is much to be gained from this unexpected turn of events.  While I grieve not being able to go to India,  I also feel a sense of adventure as I anticipate what is to come.  I thank God for the adventure that is Life.

(Note:  The ovarian tumor turned out to be benign.  I recovered rapidly from my 1997 surgical experience and a month later traveled to India for a short visit.)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spare

Sometimes I feel like I spend my life looking for things.  Having spares is a necessity for keeping myself sane.  These are the items for which I most often need to find a spare.

 

And these are ones where I often can’t find my spares no matter how many  of them I buy!

I have a long way to go in mastering the virtue of being mindful.

 

Written for Weekly Photo Challenge: Spare

Seeing What Is

In 1973, when Al and I bought the house I still live in, the yard was beautiful.  An elderly couple had lived there for more than 40 years.  It was obvious that much of their time had been devoted to taking care of the grounds. Because of divorce, child-rearing, working, going to school, etc. it was impossible for me to do all the work that was necessary to maintain the yard and the landscaping disintegrated. I yearned to have the property be beautiful again.

One day, I was standing with a friend in my back yard bemoaning the disarray. She said “Karuna, just look around you.”  That was probably 15 years ago, so the trees are taller now, but what I saw when I looked around that day was similar to these photos I took yesterday. (You can enlarge the pictures by clicking on the galleries.)

The view was stunning.  I realized that by putting my focus on what I didn’t like, I had become blind to the beauty that surrounded me.

Last year, I discovered another situation where I was not seeing something that was in front of me.  The tree in the photos below is so close to my top deck that some of the branches actually touch it.  The tree’s budding and blooming process is fascinating.  How could I not have noticed it before?

(Note: To see the whole tree go to Branches Reach for the Sky.)

 

Have you ever not seen something that was directly in front of you because you were so focused on something else? I believe that experience takes many different forms, whether it be like the examples I’ve shared in this post, or a lost item showing up in a place we’ve looked for it many times.  It could even be not seeing how lovable and capable we are or how much other people care about us because we are focused on traumas from the past or fear of the future.

Consider sharing ways you have not seen what is in front of you in the comment section below or in one of your own posts!

 

“Stay in the Present and Stop Thinking!”

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As I formulated this week’s Challenge for Growth, I remembered an experience I had in 2001. I described it in one of my Getting to Joy books, a series about my years of being with Amma.  While I still struggle with over thinking, this memory is etched into my mind. Recalling it whenever I’m into repetitive thinking gives me both pleasure and guidance.  Here is that section of the book:

 

“Stay in the Present and Stop Thinking!”

I had planned to spend some time at Christ in the Desert monastery after attending Amma’s Santa Fe programs. As I started thinking about my upcoming monastery visit, I began to cry. The more I thought about it, the more I cried. Why did I have so much grief? Old questions arose once again. Was I supposed to be moving into an ashram [monastery]? Would I ever move into an ashram?   I felt certain that now was not the time for ashram living, but how was I to deal with all of the sadness?

It occurred to me that I could discuss this situation with Amma. By then, it was past noon and she takes only a small number of questions each day, so I assumed that the quota for that day had long since been filled. Nevertheless, I felt drawn to check out my assumption. I was surprised to discover that Amma had not put any limit on the number of questions she would answer that day. Within a half-hour, I was sitting in front of her.

Through the translator, I told Amma how difficult it is for me to live a life that is not in an ashram, yet is not fully engaged in worldly activities either. I said I felt certain that it was not time for me to move into an ashram, and asked for her advice about how to deal with all of the grief I felt about being torn between these choices.

Amma indicated that there might eventually be an ashram in Seattle. For now, she said, I should remember that I am Amma’s child and that she is always with me. She then advised me to stay in the present and stop thinking! What could I do but laugh? Staying in the present and stopping unhelpful thought processes seems to be one of the major challenges of my life. I knew that over-thinking consistently pulls me into a downward spiral and that if I focus on what I have instead of what I do not have, it is much easier to stay in the present. I am also more likely to stay in a place of gratitude instead of moving into suffering. For some time thereafter, I used “Stay in the present and stop thinking” as a mantra whenever negative thought processes began. I found it to be a very effective technique in quieting my mind and shifting my focus.

 

Posted for Challenges for Growth Prompt #8: Stop (Repetitive) Thinking

 

“Stop Thinking!”

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The Dungeon Prompt Sreejit gave us for this week was to “take some time and think about the one thing that you’ve learned which you would most like to pass on to future generations.”  I gave myself several days to simply be with the instructions, knowing that the answer would “come” if I allowed myself to be quiet. And come it did! While I am far from having learned this lesson, I have come a long way down the path, and know I will go a lot further before I pass from this world. The lesson that is most important for me to learn and pass on is to quiet my over-active mind.

I have always been an introvert, and probably always will be. In addition, I lived in the era of “Children are to be seen and not heard.” In our home, the most common form of punishment was to be sent to our room. I spent a lot of time in my room. Did a lot of pouting there in fact.

I think my patterns of over-thinking have their roots in those early years. By the time I was in my thirties, I spent so much time immersed in my thoughts. When I was with a group of friends, or in a class, I analyzed everything I wanted to contribute to the conversation. By the time I had the perfect words figured out, the conversation would have moved past the point where speaking the words would have purpose. When I did manage to get them out, I would then spend an inordinate amount of time afterwards reviewing what I had said. Had I said what I wanted to say correctly? Had I made a fool out of myself?

That problem was probably at its height at the time I started my personal therapy process in the mid-eighties. I remember feeling like my mind was a computer that was about to explode. At one point, my therapist told me if I didn’t stop, I was going to end up in the hospital. He told me to pay complete attention to every moment. For example, when I was going to eat to say in my mind, “I am picking up my fork, I am putting the food on my fork, I am lifting the fork to my mouth, I am putting my fork down, I am chewing my food, I am swallowing my food, etc.” When I followed his instructions, my mind slowed down.

I met Amma in 1989. My mind was often very quiet when I sat near her, and I entered meditational realms that held so much deep peace and bliss.  It was as if a door had opened for me and I could see what was possible. When I was away from her though, I would go back to many of my old thought patterns.

At that time in my life, I felt a strong desire to live in an ashram (monastery), even though I knew that it was not the appropriate time for me to do that. Whenever I thought about living in an ashram, I would feel so much grief that I couldn’t stop crying. Sometime in the early 90’s, I took this problem to Amma. Her immediate response was “Stop Thinking!” I now realize in those two simple words, she had given me a direction that could change my whole life.

Simple to say, but not simple to do. I have come a long way in that endeavor, but if I am in my “stuff,” over-thinking is still likely to be the cause of it. I make myself so miserable in that way.

I know that a silent mind is where intuition, insight, and inspiration reside. I also know that the road to a silent mind is by doing the spiritual practices I have been taught, such as japa (mantra repetition), chanting spiritual texts such as the Sri Lalita Sahasranama, singing bhajans (devotional singing), and mindfulness. Processes such as meditation and yoga also help.

So what is preventing me from doing those practices consistently, what is my resistance? I have no doubt that the resistance is fueled to my over-doing. As long as I fill my life with doing things that do not support my goal of having a quiet mind, I will not have it.

While I still am over-doing, I am much more likely to say no to things that I don’t want to do. I have a harder time saying no to activities that give me pleasure.  However, some of those activities, such as studying Sanskrit and writing for my blog, are part of the path to a quiet mind. I am most successful in those undertakings when I do them in a way that is meditative.

Like most big changes, learning to quiet the mind takes time. I have the opportunity to make choices between doing and being many times each day. As I experience the benefits that come with a still mind, I am more likely to make choices that will promote it. I am progressing on the path, and that is what is important.

 

quieting the mind

bliss flows in

deep warmth for my soul