Practicing for the Cave

I was talking to a friend of mine and suggested that he try giving up sugar for a year. Or maybe give up alcohol for a year. Or coffee. Or maybe he should try some mental deprivation for a year. Like giving up movies for a year. Or giving up reading books for a year. He was less enthusiastic than I had hoped.

I call that kind of self-imposed deprivation “practicing for the cave”. What comforts and pleasures do you have in your life that you would not have if meditating in a cave for an extended period of time? Yup. Pretty much everything. That puts things into perspective.

First of all, incorporating such forms of discipline into your life lets you remain in the modern world and still gain the strength and confidence of a cave experience. You know that you could thrive in extreme circumstances either voluntarily as a spiritual practice or if they were thrust upon you through a natural disaster or some other twist of fate.

In addition, there is joy in discipline: the joy of mastery and testing oneself and gaining inner strength. There is power in knowing that you can be happy without one or many of the things that you look to externally on a regular basis. It is freedom from the fear of being without. And freedom from fear is joy!

Next question: Why a year? Many spiritual traditions advocate shorter periods like the forty days of Lent. However, a year may yield much greater benefits. A year may be long enough to gain freedom from lifelong attachments. Even more importantly, sometimes we use things that may even seem to be positive pleasures like books and movies to distract ourselves from deep emotional pain or other issues.

It could take a significant period of time for those things to surface if your defenses are strong. Personally, I’ve gotten through months and years and even decades without allowing painful memories or feelings to surface. But if you take away my constant habit of reading books and keeping my mind focused on the next exciting field of knowledge to master, it’s a different story.

I’ve had to stop putting things into my mind-body system for long enough to discover what needed to come OUT! That is terrifying. Without my intellectual endeavors, who am I? Just a scared kid hanging onto the idea that I can think my way to safety and protection and love.

So I have ventured into this strange realm again and again and again. Beginning in my twenties, I practiced for the cave constantly, playing with different variables one at a time. No books. No movies. No meat. No sugar. No alcohol. No sex. Then multiples at once. I watched myself. At what point would I get angry? At what point would I rebel against my self-imposed disciplines? At what point would I fail?

Obviously depriving yourself to the point of serious depression is unwise. If you become dangerously depressed over relatively mild or moderate forms of deprivation, then there are likely deeper issues that warrant professional counseling or other support. But if it’s only a mild level of aggravation or you just feel sorry for yourself or whine out loud or bitch under your breath, then practicing for the cave may be a fantastic opportunity for you.

My friend said he’d get depressed if he had to give up sugar or alcohol for a year. EXACTLY! That’s perfect. That’s the point. Create an opportunity in your life to look at why you’d be depressed without a beer after work or donuts to eat on your coffee break or an action movie to watch on the weekend.

What are your values? What are your priorities? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Do these things serve your goals? What do you want to accomplish in life? What do you do regularly to comfort yourself or placate yourself?

Most of these activities are relatively harmless for most people. Some are even beneficial. Exercise, for example, can be quit addictive. Can you keep your emotional balance for a period of time if deprived of exercise? It’s the CHOICE that matters.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going without exercise for a year. However, going through the experience of forsaking things for a long enough period allows you to adapt to life without them. And then you can choose the things that enhance your life in a way that allows you to retain your newly gained self-mastery. Or indulge yourself without making it a habit. Whatever it is, you can take it or leave it.

Clearly the point is not to live in a cave. The point is to master yourself. If you have practiced enough to be ready for a cave, you are ready for an extraordinary life.

Prayer for a Predator

I am grateful for all of the recent media attention shedding light on one of the darkest of topics: sexual predators. This focus has caused me to look deep within to continue to find a way for myself that goes beyond forgiveness towards prayer for the predator as well as those who suffer at their hands. As a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest as a young teenager and later as the victim of rape by a health practitioner, I feel a kinship with all who have been terrified, molested or raped by anyone in a position of authority or trust: a coach, a teacher, a minister, a doctor, a counselor, a family friend, or a relative. 

I believe in the power of prayer. According to both tradition and scientific study, prayer literally sends energy and love and blessings to someone else. This has been a quandary for me. Is it advisable or even spiritually lawful to send positive energy to a criminal who may misuse that energy and continue to victimize others? How do I pray for someone who shattered my universe and stole my innocence and childhood faith? How do I pray for someone who was supposed to help me heal and only caused me further trauma?  

Yet there is a universal way of compassion and peace that seems to necessitate that we include all of life in our practice of prayer and forgiveness. There is a Sanskrit prayer to this effect: Lokah Samastah Sukino Bhavantu. The meaning of this something like, “May all beings everywhere be happy and free”. Wow. Am I really to pray for ALL beings? Does this include those who are unrepentant and continuing to harm others? How do I do this while still maintaining safe boundaries for myself and others?

I want to pray and love freely and inclusively, yet I want to avoid praying in a way that might send energy that could inadvertently boost the horrendous behavior of predators or that would imply acceptance or approval of their criminal acts. And now, decades after the trauma that I experienced, I think I have found a way to pray for the predators as well as their victims.

I can pray for their souls. I will not pray for the human personalities of those who chose to harm me or others or for the identities they have created that are capable of both covert and flagrant crimes, but only for their souls. That may sound ridiculously archaic and legalistic, but this approach gives me great joy and comfort.

If the soul is the part of us at the core of our being that is still pure and good and honorable, I can pray for that. If there is a seed of God that still exists within such a person, I can pray for that.

I can pray for the part of a predator that is salvageable. I can pray for the pearl that may yet exist under suffocating layers of misuse and abuse and selfishness. I can honestly say with my whole heart and spirit: “May God bless your soul!” I can feel deep love and compassion for the soul. Ultimately, the soul of a predator is also a victim of the predator’s acts. I can feel mercy for the soul. And in my prayer for the soul distinct from the person of a predator, I am free.

Workout Lingo

I think I’m starting to catch on to the workout lingo for weight lifting. I’ve learned about supersets (two or more exercises performed in a row without a break between them) and bench presses and back hack squats and lateral raises….

Sometimes the name of an exercise does a pretty good job describing the movement. These pics are a Concentration Curl. A very physical moving meditation!

ConcentrationCurl

One Lift at a Time

Six months down! My son Chrissy and I are finishing a half a year of weight training this weekend! I’ve read that the fastest gains are in the first six months so it may be slower going from here on out. For example, the first time I did squats, I could only use the bar–which weighs 45 lbs all by itself–no additional weights at all. Now we add 50 lbs so it’s 95 lbs total. It doesn’t look like much and the point is not to brag (though there is some of that, I’m human) but if I can do this, anybody can!

There are amazing athletes and yogis demonstrating superhuman feats of endurance and agility. What if we are not limited by our physical bodies at all? What if we can reach a state of boundless health and transcendent spirituality at the same time? How much of the challenge is emotional and psychological and what are the roles of diet, exercise and practice? Sports and play can be an incredible, joyous avenue for self-mastery and liberation! It’s a grand experiment called life.

SquatWeights

Boundless Health

Kathleen KarlsenI wasn’t super strong as a kid. In fact, I got sick a LOT. I wore special shoes because one foot turned out. When I was only three years old, I had drops put in my right eye every day to paralyze it and make the other eye work harder. That was the cure for having a “lazy” left eye. I stuttered a bit and had terrible allergies. I had pneumonia in grade school and five years of allergy shots. I was ill so often that my tonsils were removed in hopes that I’d get strep throat less often.

As a teenager, I started to get interested in healthy eating. My attempts at making whole wheat bread became the butt of family jokes. “Don’t feed that bread to the ducks, Kathleen! They will go straight to the bottom of the pond!” By the time I reached high school, I ran on the track team (until I got injured and had surgery for that) and played tennis regularly, but I always felt tired. I also got braces to straighten out my teeth and glasses to wear when driving.

By my early twenties I had chronic throat infections (for which I had sinus surgery). I got a horrendous case of mono and a bladder infection that left me debilitated for a year or more. And that was just the physical! I’d been through several highly traumatic situations and my emotional world was likewise volatile at best and desperate at worst.

Now I am decades older and grateful to be in the best health of my life. It’s not that I don’t ever get sick or feel tired, but years can go by without even a cold. In addition to a disciplined diet and regular exercise, the secret I’ve discovered is that there is an energy, a source, that is the real fount of youth. I’d call it God, but that seems to be a political problems these days. Perhaps prana or chi are better options. 

Deadliftmarch2018

That energy is always flowing. Achieving health seems to be more a matter of removing the blocks to that flow than acquiring a particular physique or athletic skill set. Those blocks are largely emotional and psychological. We can figure out exactly why we have those blocks by looking at the patterns in our physical bodies and understanding their symbolic nature. This is a huge responsibility, but also the ultimate liberation.

Once you start to understand the connections between your health and the experiences that you have “embodied”, you become the master of your fate. The rest is child’s play. Lifting weights or running or dancing or swinging a golf club or whatever it is that you love to do becomes a joyous expression of gratitude and fun and a deep love of life.

We embed our experiences and emotions in our physical bodies. I use journaling and meditation and visualization and other tools to go as deeply as I can into the patterns that are expressing in physical form as health or illness, strength or weakness.  

Besides diet, exercise and an understanding of health psychology, some of my favorite tools for healing are chanting (see Music page) and essential oils. I like essential oils because they are right at that edge between the physical and the non-physical. They are volatile, meaning they evaporate readily.

Essential oils have impacts on many levels from easing sore muscles and keeping skin supple to serving as vehicles for spiritual intentions. Incense and oils have been part of religious rituals as far back as we know in history. I personally use them morning and night daily and sometimes in between. I never liked commercial perfumes, but I can use essential oils liberally. My goal is to share what I have learned so far with others and to keep expanding the boundaries of what is possible in my own life. 

Kirtan with the Shakti Bliss Band

My path to chanting and kirtan began when I was a college student and attended a spiritual conference on rebirthing. One evening we sang “Om Namah Shivaya” for about thirty minutes. I was hooked.When I went back home, I sang that single chant by myself on my back porch for months! I never found anyone else who chanted back in Hampton, VA, but eventually I became involved in an organization that used a form of spoken chants as their central spiritual practice. The spoken chants were called decrees. I spent two to five hours a day practicing decrees for a decade.  

More recently, I was involved with a small group who met twice a week to sing chants written by Yoganada for his American devotees. I realized that I wanted to go deeper into this spiritual practice and experience all different types of devotional singing, chanting and kirtan. Kirtan is chanting with others, sort of like doing yoga or other spiritual practices in a group.

Then I bought a harmonium and attended the Kirtan Leadership Institute in Boulder, Colorado for Level 1 and 2 training with Mike Cohen in 2017 and his Level 3 training in 2018. It was fantastic to meet other kirtan leaders, chant together, and learn from Mike’s extensive experience. Definitely a transformative process!

 SolsticeKirtanTHUMBNow I’m fortunate to be playing regular kirtan events with my band Shakti Bliss. We have five highly talented members: Marius Michael-George on table and percussion; Leticia Iniguez on violin, cello, flute and voice; Andrew Karlsen on udu drum, voice and recorder; Mahima Giri on kartals and voice; and yours truly on voice and harmonium. We are starting to schedule events out of the local area, so let us know if you are interested in kirtan in your area!

See our Shakti Bliss Facebook and MeetUp pages for currently scheduled events or check out our music at our Sound Cloud page.

 

Reforge Your Heart!

Everyone experiences heartbreak of some kind. We’ve all got our life credentials! I suppose we are each affected to different degrees by different types of experiences. The depth of the heartache seems to be related to the significance of the event in your life and the things that matter to you the most.

heart chakraI know what it’s like to have pain in your heart that keeps you awake at night. That kind of pain is shockingly physical–the kind that makes hard to breathe or move or think. You don’t know how or when the pain will cease and whether hope and joy will ever return. But now I have a new way to heal myself. I have learned to chant!

A few years ago I had an experience that was deeply painful. No matter how desolate I was feeling in the aftermath, every morning I got up and drove my car to an isolated spot (to avoid disturbing my family), turned on my music and began to chant. It was a huge effort on many levels. For one thing, you have to breathe to chant. And I couldn’t breathe without feeling the pain.

Sometimes when I started to chant, I ended up sobbing for an hour or more instead. Sometimes I couldn’t even make a sound, so I poured my heart out into my journal. Then I would try to chant again. Whatever I was feeling, I had to move through it in order to chant.

Now I am a kirtan leader, but in the beginning all I really wanted to do was heal my heart and experience again the magic I had found in devotional song and spiritual community. There are other tools that I have found to be very helpful–like hiking in the mountains and meditation–but chanting is my therapy of choice!

In the process of chanting and leading kirtan, I discovered something unexpected: a broken heart that has healed is even stronger than one that has never been broken by trauma or loss or disappointment. I am not saying that a heart that is healed never again feels the pain from past traumas or the pain of present realities. It is actually quite the opposite.

shakti bliss kirtan bandA heart that is healed feels EVERYTHING more keenly than ever before, both the pain and the joy and the passion of life. Perhaps that is the price to be paid for choosing to live with an open heart. In the process of healing, the capacity of the heart seems to be increased.

I imagine that the healing of the heart through chanting is similar to the reforging of the shards of Narsil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Narsil was the sword that Isildur used to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. It was shattered into many pieces, but later was reforged with physical fire into Anduril, the sword of Aragorn, the new king.

In my experience, a broken heart can be reforged by spiritual fire. Chanting is one of the most effective ways to bring spiritual fire into your heart. Spiritual fire purifies and heals and creates connections to stitch a broken heart back together again. Those connections are like the seams of welded steel that mend a sword, but they are flexible and soften the heart rather than making it more rigid.

Anduril sword reforgedThe experience of healing a broken heart gives you the confidence to be vulnerable again. You may still remember the pain, but you have a way to endure and to restore your faith in God and life and love. When you know that you can survive and you know that your heart can heal, that confidence allows you to be willing to risk that pain again and to continue to grow. You fear the pain less and recognize the opportunities more.

Personally, I can be grateful for that and much, much more. Kirtan and chanting have not only healed my heart, but have given me a whole new life. And I have had the opportunity to meet many others with similar experiences of healing themselves and their hearts with chanting. The name of God on your lips and the vibration of His chants in your heart can create a miracle: your heart can be reforged!

Image of Anduril courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Xander89.

Kirtan for Middle Schoolers

Andrew and Kathleen HWA May 2018My husband Andrew and I recently had the opportunity to share kirtan from the Hindu tradition with a sixth grade World Cultures class at a private middle school here in Bozeman, MT. Headwaters Academy describes itself as an independent middle school focusing on “developing students who possess great independence, strong self-advocacy, good decision making skills, and a solid set of personal values”. The school is located in very close proximity to Montana State University and takes advantage of many of the facilities and resources available. Learn more at headwatersacademy.org.

We’ve had four of our kids at HWA for some or all of their middle school years. At present our youngest son is a rising eight grader. It’s a small school with no more than sixteen students per grade. Lots of personal attention, high academic standards, and a tight knit social community.

kirtan demo

The World Cultures class has been studying India recently and asked us to come and share some music and the associated stories. It was great fun to talk about the “superheroes” of Indian lore such as Hanuman (the monkey-faced god) and Ganesha (the elephant-headed god). 

Andrew HWA May 2018

We did a few chants and invited the students to come and try out the harmonium and the udu drum. Looking forward another year at HWA beginning this fall!

Essential Oils for the Chakras

There are essential oils that are associated with each of the major chakras. These oils can be used for balancing and healing the chakras. Essential oils have an ancient history of use in religious rituals as well as for medicinal purposes. 

What I personally appreciate about essential oils is that they operate on many levels: physical, emotional and spiritual. They are volatile, meaning they evaporate easily. They also tie into the sense of smell, which is part of the limbic system. This is where memories and emotions are often stored in the brain.

Although recommendations vary, the following essential oils are generally associated with the indicated chakras: 

Base or Root Chakra: Rosemary, Cloves, Black Pepper
Sacral Chakra: Ylang Ylang, Clary Sage, Jasmine, Patchouli
Solar Plexus: Cinnamon, Peppermint, Chamomile, Lemon
Heart Chakra: Rose, Neroli, Angelica
Throat Chakra: Eucalyptus, Myrrh, Geranium
Third Eye Chakra: Cedarwood, Helichrysum, Juniper
Crown Chakra: Frankincense, Spikenard, Sandalwood, Lavender

 

chakras and essential oils

Looking at the list above, you can see that many of the herbs and the essential oils derived from them are connected in popular culture with the physical activities or emotions often correlated to these chakras.

For example, the sacral chakra is related to the reproductive organs and the power to attract romantic relationships. Jasmine and Patchouli are beautifully seductive scents.

Likewise, the solar plexus is associated with digestion. Peppermint and lemon are often used for digestive upsets. Cinnamon is good for the pancreas, and chamomile has a generalized calming effect. The heart chakra is connected to love, as is the rose and the smell of roses.

The throat chakra, often affected by seasonal colds and sore throats, can be soothed with eucalyptus. The third eye is closely connected to both the brain and intuition. Cedarwood can be used for meditation and the development of clear intuition.

Finally, frankincense and sandalwood have been associated with religious rites and royalty. Frankincense, of course, has been highly prized for millennia and was one of the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus. 

Resources: I have been using Young Living essential oils for over a decade. They have simply become part of my daily life for maintaining healthy skin, alleviating muscle soreness from exercise and to lift my spirits! See my Young Living website to learn more or become a member to purchase oils. 

 

Base Chakra: Safety and Security

The base chakra or root chakra is known as the Muludhara. This is the chakra of safety and security. “Mula” means root and “adhara” means base or support. This chakra is at the base of the spine and establishes your connection to your physical body, the earth, and the environment.

base chakra

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This is the survival center, symbolized by a lotus with four petals. The central square represents the earth. The base chakra is often associated with the color red, but in a higher form is the white energy of the Mother light.

The petals represent the Sanskrit letters va (vuh), scha (schew), sha (shu), and sa (suh). These are symbolic of four specific aspects of consciousness: great joy, natural pleasure, delight in controlling passion, and blissfulness in concentration. Alternatively they may be considered to represent dharma (spiritual longing), artha (psychic longing), kama (physical longing) and moksha (longing for spiritual liberation).

The deities Indra, Brahma, and Ganesha are associated with this chakra. Indra is the king of heaven and associated with lighting, thunder, storms, rain and rivers. Indra rides on a elephant, symbolizing compassion, intelligence and ancient wisdom. The seed syllable for the root chakra is LAM (lum). The vowel associated with this chakra is UH (uhhh). The Sargam* syllable is SA (sah). The energy is unmanifest potential.

The ruby is one of the healing stones associated with the base chakra. Rubies are the birthstone for the month of July. Rubies are one of the four most precious gems: emerald, sapphire, diamonds and rubies. The red color of rubies comes from trace amounts of chromium.

Rubies symbolize power and protection. Rubies were believed to protect warriors in battle. Dorothy’s ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz is a modern allusion to this legend. According to folklore, rubies also help their possessor to be at peace with their enemies.