Lightning Bug Lessons

I like twilight noises. I especially like the raspy lilting of cicadas and the throaty welp of frogs happy at night fall. As I sit in a quiet house on a quiet street in Atlanta, I can hear the steady cacophony of creatures beneath a twinkling urban sky; it’s early for night creatures but all the day walkers on the street seem to be sleeping. It’s just me and the alley cats, the crickets and rain.

After I arrived and unpacked, I went to the front porch to watch the day fade into that time when the landscape is in sharper focus because it doesn’t have to compete with the brilliant light of the sun. With my journal on my lap, I write a page about the marvel of a room in which I’m staying at the ashram during my trip to see my Teacher. I am in the room of a long time resident who is not currently home and the blessing of this is the photos, art and sacred objects in this cozy space. If I don’t have a dream about Jesus in this room, I can give it up forever, I’m just saying.

While I twirl the pen around my ear, a message winks at me from my phone. A car passes. A bird lands on the sidewalk then walks across the narrow, car lined street. I love this street and I love this ashram. As the stars come out and quiet descends, I feel the pangs of homesickness, like the twinge in leaving a lover at the airport.

To my left there is a twinkle in the bushes. It is a slow pulsation of light in midair.  I’m not ready to start having visions, yet I see it again; a yellow light, hovering and blinking on – off – on – and I see the silhouette of the bug it belongs to.

A lightning bug. I’d forgotten all about those. They are a relic from childhood, a legend like dinosaurs. We know they existed once, but don’t think about them so much unless they’re in a book we read or show up in a memory. But there it is, like a velociraptor tiptoeing down the street, like coffee with a dodo.

My phone blinks less artfully than the bulbous butt of this bug, and without thinking I open the screen and reply. While I text touchscreen letters onto a sleek mirrored screen the lightning bug maneuvers over to the porch, blinks again, then disappears into the magnolia bush. I look for him, my phone screen face down on the wood planks. There’s a twinge of regret that I might have missed befriending him while I was screwing around with my phone. As the shadows lengthen around me and streetlights come on, I know reality is never found on technology. It is in the myths of nature, the turning of time, and the breath of light we must pay attention to.

I stare at the street. I think of my cats, of getting to see Swami tomorrow, the novel I intend to finish editing and who I might con into reading it. I contemplate the Cats of Ancient Egypt exhibit at Emory I’ll see while I’m here and delicious vegan hotdogs with my friend. There is no order of importance to the catalog of my mind, it is ambling like the lightning bug in the bushes. Twilight turns darker and the night creatures grow louder. These sounds are comforting, like the noise from an air-filter while I sleep. The buzz and chirp of the street relaxes my mind.

I gather my journal and phone, but before I lift myself from the stoop I see that yellow breath of the lightning bug, brightly floating and friendly. He is the only one I see, and I wonder romantically if he is the last of his kind and what he does with himself. How long will he live, how will he carry on his lineage?

I’m in my comfortable, borrowed lair still thinking of that lightning bug. He offers the message not to become distracted from what is real by the murmurings and winks of the modern world; otherwise we might miss the sudden flash in the magnolia bush, the spark of realization in the heart. The lightning bug says we don’t have to flash too quickly, a slow steady pulse will do. And if someone isn’t giving you the attention you want or need, pass on by and keep doing your own thing.

I looked up the symbolism of the lightning bug. I figure if an animal crosses your path suddenly after a 30 year absence or repeatedly in a short span of time, it’s interesting to investigate what they’re trying to tell you. That sparky little guy brings tidings of illumination and the message not to underestimate marvels and miracles just because  they may have an uninspiring appearance during daytime hours. The breath is intrinsically linked with Light – the lighting bugs flash bulbs are created by a chemical reaction between certain enzymes in the presence of magnesium ion, ATP and oxygen. This is not very different from humans; deeper breaths = more Light.

“That which is night for all sentient beings is like day for one whose senses are controlled. That which is the time of awakening for a sentient being is like the night for the introspective sage who sees.” The Bhagavad Gita chapter 2.69

 

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Mala Puja

My first mala was a silver capped Rudraksha I ordered on the internet about twelve years ago. It’s a half mala made of 54 beads and doesn’t fit all the way around my wrist in the bohemian chic yoga fashion we have all come to know and love, but it’s a good mala anyway. I learned there is such a thing as Shiva, mantra, and prayer beads as a necessary accessory simultaneously – I shopped immediately and with abandon.

I chose the silver, chain linked number for the same reason I bought that shirt with the zipper all the way up the back that time – style and function. By my estimation, if it’s chain linked then my mala isn’t likely to break, which back then would have been a travesty because I didn’t yet know how to make or repair them. This mala needed to be sturdy because I was hell on wheels; determined to do both spiritual practice and maintain the half drunk social life I cultivated all the way back in beauty school, it wasn’t uncommon for me to do my japa (mantra repetition) in the CVS parking lot where I bought my cigarettes on my way to the bar.

This mala, in particular, has seen the best and the worst I have ever had to offer. This mala witnessed nightmare boyfriends, all night benders and career changes at the speed of light. It was with me in teacher training and the first time I went to Kashi Atlanta; I wore this mala around my neck and I felt both conspicuous and liberated.

At some point, I wanted a new mala. This is when I decided to learn how to make my own and the rest is history. I make prayer beads all the time now; for sale, for gifts, for friends and teachers in training and I feel very lucky to to do it. That first mala is something special because I realized it could be done, that I could envision it and then have it in hand. It is black ebony with gold flecked acrylic accent beads and a black and gold elephant charm beneath a small Rudraksha (the same brown seed bead of which my first ever mala was entirely made) – this mala looks like it should be around Michelle Pfriffer’s neck in Married to the Mob.

married to the mob

You may wonder whatever happened to that unbreakable chain linked mala that got me all the way to the cushion to begin with? When I learned that it’s appropriate to drape a mala over a picture of a beloved Teacher or Guru, that’s exactly what I did. I don’t know how long those Rudraksha beads circled Neem Karoli’s image, but it seems like a long time. The silver began to look dull and the tiny dog tag with Shiva in place of a tassel tarnished so it was hard to make out the image of the meditating Lord.

I’m not sure exactly when, but that mala fell into a tea light so that two of the silver capped beads were coated in white wax. I wasn’t sure how to clean wax out of the crevices of Rudraksha beads and, having decided that it lent an authentic, well loved took to my altar, left them alone until last week when I wrote “clean wax off mala” on my to-do list in my dot journal.

I don’t know what inspired me to add this to my to-do list, but once it was there I felt like I should actually do it. I’d moved the mala from the wood frame to the bowl of a blue lotus candle holder once I decided to clean it, and I retrieved it from its ceramic cradle last night. I looked dubiously at the tarnished metal, uncertain of my plan to rehabilitate it and not even sure why I felt inclined.

Alas, I took it to the kitchen sink over which I began to pick at the wax with my thumb nail. I was delighted that it flaked off easily enough, but there was still the matter of more deeply embedded wax. My plan was to boil it out with hot tap water, which worked like a charm. The wax melted out of the small channels of the dark beads quickly.

I turned on the cold tap and gathered the mala in my hand so the water could wash like prayers over the entire strand and with the cool water running over my hands my mind wandered back to Kashi. I thought about the Kali puja I attended with my Teacher. It was the February weekend workshop that culminated in a timeless practice of devotion through which I sang kirtan among my friends.

I witnessed my Teacher offer her hands to the care of Kali in the temple where we practice and learn. The room was awash in sunlight but we were all transfixed by the devotion and offering of time and attention taking place before us. There were candles and incense, fruit and chocolate, ghee poured onto a flame, there was a garland and flowers for the Mother. There was a palpable awareness that none of us would ever be the same.

Like the snap back of the space/time rubber band, I realized standing at the sink with my hands and prayer beads in running water that to practice puja means to take care, to tend to, to attend to. In a flash, this realization changed the whole feeling of cleaning this mala from the physical removal of debris to an act of devotion to that which is in service of the Divine. What else is a Mala meant to serve?

I dried this mala and noticed it felt lighter and sparkly, though the beads remained dark from the recent flood of water and years of use. I oiled the beads with jasmine oil and a silent passage of mantra over the beads to tune into the mantra, the mala and the Divine. I spent some time polishing that silver tag bearing Shiva’s likeness so that the tarnish lightened to a patina.

I realize as much as I have wanted to be told what book to read or which website might teach me about puja, it’s actually something that dawns like light in the heart. I might have been told a million times in a thousand lives, but having been shown is like the equivalent of muscle memory in the energy body – retrievable, irreversible, immanent. It is actually and absolutely the product of Grace.

But with this information regarding puja, it opens the practice of puja to limitless possibilities. Even self care can be a form of puja to the Divine dwelling within the body; drink plenty of water, eat good food, walk on the Earth.

Make effort on behalf of the good.

Give your full attention whenever possible.

As my Guru would conclude her emails, “This is my puja, and this is my prayer.”

Sunlight made visible
the whole length of a sky,
movement of wind,
leaf, flower, all six colours
on tree, bush and creeper:
all this
is the day’s worship.

Night and day
in your worship
I forget myself
O lord white as jasmine. 

 

 

Practical Magic

queen of cups

This New Year’s day happens to fall on the very same day in which the moon, our luminous satellite, is full in the night sky.

This is very auspicious.

Since getting on Instagram and enjoying all of the belly dance, tarot card and cat picture posts by resident witches, pagans and gypsies from around the world, I’ve discovered that everyone on the planet is an authority on astrology. I’ll be scrolling and see a long, emoji peppered post by a yoga teacher talking about how the moon is in Virgo so we better watch out, because it ain’t exalted there – or whatever.

I’m always like, “How do y’all know that? Where do you get your information?” Because I’m over here with my We’moon calendar trying to figure out what the symbol with the squiggly lines and horned dots is supposed to mean while the rest of y’all are planning your month around Pluto’s transits and solar flares.

The moon, on the other hand, is less foreign to me. The moon changes signs once about every two and a half days, so if you eff up a perfectly decent Moon in Libra by fighting with your spouse, you’ll get a re-do in about twenty eight days.

The new moon is a time for starting new projects and for setting intentions for what we would like to see increase in our lives. Think setting goals, re-aligning with your dreams, growing a business plan. Intention is something like a resolution, of which there are plenty at the New Year. Start a diet, get fit, finish the book, start the book, become a yoga celebrity, start college, ditch the loser, find a partner, quit drinking, quit smoking… you know what I’m talking about.

This is thinking in terms of, “I’m gonna do.” Not bad, but let’s turn it around.

The full moon is a good time to start thinking about what you would like to let go of, what you would like to see decrease in your life, what no longer upholds your dreams and aspirations or supports your work, whether that’s spiritually, mentally or physically. Think about what holds you back or enables procrastination. Y’all, the cosmos has set us up to do exactly that right here at the new year.

Turn your powers of discernment towards your day to day habits, contemplate what you want for your life and see where the two points are at odds. Question what you have set in place that keeps you from it. Instead of making a list of resolutions that you’re gonna start doing, decipher how you can get out of your own way and focus on that.

 

Now we’ve gotten around to the point of this post – your practice, should you choose to accept it. First, let me tell you that I have learned the fine art of using index cards in my spiritual practice from my beloved Teacher, Swami Jaya Devi. She has us write stuff on index cards all the time.

So here we go, starting right now, start thinking about habits that get in the way of what you really want to be doing with your life. Immediately one or two might come to you, but stay with it and see if there is anything beneath the surface. You can even take this into your meditation and sit with a nice, slow fire breath for about a minute and then sit in the stillness to see what comes up.

There may be one big hurdle that you want to focus all of your energy and upon which you wish all of the moon’s brilliant rays to shine. However, there may be a lot of small ways in which you sabotage yourself, so just write that stuff down, too. Now is a good time to remind you to approach this practice without judgement or criticism of yourself. Just remember that you’re trying to make a little room in your life to start a flower bed but you have to shovel out some dirt, first. Full moon is for excavation, new moon is for planting.

On New Year’s eve or day build yourself a nice little bonfire. Invite the kids and get some marshmallows and vegan hot dogs. Invite your family and friends and have plenty of index cards. Say a sweet prayer for guidance and protection to whomever you entrust your path and practice then invite everyone to write on their index card. No one needs to read anyone else’s, but between bites of s’mores place your card in the flames.

You may not be set up for a bonfire. Don’t worry about it. A fireplace or a coffee can in the driveway works nicely, too. But let me tell you something, this practice doesn’t have to be so woo woo. You can write, think, text, email your list to yourself and then delete it, recycle it, bury it. What you’re going for is awareness of self-limiting habits and then a method in which to transform it.

Don’t expect overnight magic, though we can hope, can’t we? We’ll have to work at it and remain mindful, but this is deeply symbolic to the human psyche and a powerful method of solidifying your intentions. Consider what you put in the fire to be an offering to your highest Self and to the inspiration you wish to have and to be. I wish you all the luck and all the space to express your creativity, compassion and genius in the new year. Remember to work with fire responsibly, make an effort on behalf of the good and share your stories with me if you’d like.

* Image “Queen of Cups” from Danielle Noel’s forthcoming tarot deck Moon Child, shadow deck to the Star Child Tarot. @moonchildtarot starchildtarot.com

What Does the Moon Think?

A little while ago, whilst sitting in meditation, I was thinking…

I have this marvelous space for meditation. It’s in the corner near the bed with a low writing table to my left so that when I sit down to practice all manner of witchy yogi things, I’m enclosed and low to the ground, thus facilitating a baseline sense of security. My meditation table in front of me is long and nearly as low as my writing table. The blue wood surface is covered with images of importance; murtis (deity statues), photographs, gemstones, malas…

I have back pain in the upper back, somewhere in the neighborhood of my shoulder blades. This pain is probably from restaurant work, wherein I heft trays laden with food to and fro. Sometimes, this ache makes sitting tall and straight a challenge, so I recently contrived a seat against the wall near the bed, still within energetic reach of my meditation table and all of the meaningful accouterments thereupon. It is fortunate that from this vantage I may view pictures of my Teacher, my Guru and a stone Ganesha on the wall.

I’m reminded of my recent visit to Kashi Florida, the ashram where the Teacher of my Heart studied and where I just went on retreat during Durga Puja – the culmination of nine nights of celebration in honor of the Divine Mother. Temples abound in Kashi Florida; you can’t go to lunch without walking by several sacred spaces and, in truth, the entire field of houses and green is sacred, holy ground.

While I was in Kashi, I had a different sense of myself, as though self-awareness mingled with a dream. I ambled into a treeline and appeared on the other side at a yoga studio in the jungle; green and welcoming like the small shala, which means home abode of Yoga. I might find the path around the Ganga pond and peer into a thick ring of bamboo sheltering the large golden Buddha, an expanse of crystal at his knees. Perhaps I enter a home residence and, walking through the kitchen, find myself in the theater of study where Ma Jaya taught, teaches still, before a tall glossy black Kali who summons me to her feet.

In the midst of these spaces, ideas don’t so much encroach. To-do lists crumple and burn like parchment on hot coals. My what-might-have-been mentality, which haunts the corners of my mind like newly made ghosts, decays into the rich dark soil that feeds the jungle shrubs where The Mother dances, just off the path to the dining hall. I can feel that space now, evoked by the writing, and errant thoughts float away like petals cast onto the quiet surface of water. Each question of my mind is answered with another question made more sacred for the asking; why was all of that running around so important? What was bothering me so?

Oh, yes, thinking in meditation.

Back home again, my work is to continue to remember that feeling and freedom and bring it through my own life. Is this really even work, come to think of it? It is the only work that matters, I have decided.

Dear Reader, unless you are brand new to my posts, you are well aware that my work has confounded me and made me feel misplaced. I have had ideas about myself that I am not always sure how to align with my reality, so I flail around and make decisions  without all of the necessary information.

It was upon these ideas about myself I was contemplating whilst trying to meditate with my back against the wall. My small white dog made herself comfortable at my shins, not unlike the large crystal mountain range below the Buddha in the bamboo garden. Here I’m breathing into my heart, submitting my thoughts to the churn of that space in spite of the pesky protests the mind sees fit to produce.

As though from on high, a thought unoriginal to the low mind illuminates the moment; The Moon has no idea of itself and there is nothing else like it in the cosmos. There are other moons, how many does Saturn have? But none like ours… there is not another like ours. It shines radiant and full or collapses into the thinnest sliver, finding in its own darkness a well of renewal and replenishes us all with its draw on the tide.

This new train of thought is bright, like moonlight without the competition of garish streetlights. I am emboldened, thinking of the Sun, which has no idea of itself, either, but is simply bright and burning as a constant service to us all.  And there are stars, each unique in its combustion and placement, not a one contemplates its future or its distant, molten past.

Closer to Earth, I think of the black cat I adore. She sleeps unself-consciously, never doubting for a moment that she will be nourished with food and love. She does not question the path that lead her to me, or me to her; she has no idea about herself perhaps other than Love and being Loved as a feeling of wisdom in the language she speaks. My little dog at my shins dozes without the intrusion of ideas, just simple awareness of our nearness.

Granted, who am I to know what the Sun and the Moon are thinking? Who am I to say what the Cat knows? I don’t know, except that I know myself to be a disciple of the Sun, I am the Moon’s daughter, the Cat and I are Sacred Companions. I am learning that ideas are vastly different from inspiration; ideas can be unyielding, inspiration can expand and contract, like the breath, so it is life giving and sacred. An idea may only be acted upon, inspiration moves through us and we act of its behalf. I think, more than anything, ideas come from the outside in, from points of reference. I think inspiration is a gift from the inside out, like a heart beat’s cosmic reverberation.

I think ideas are meant to be guideposts until we can listen from the inside, thereafter to answer and call forth inspiration through the art of our practices, so we can see the path that leads into the treeline, and follow that narrow trail of rich Earth all the way home to ourselves.