Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
Earth is a living, breathing biosphere of energy, supporting us as we grow and evolve. We are creatures of magnetism and gravity, inextricably linked to our mother, the earth. We live in extraordinary times where we can actually see the earth from the perspective of outer space, fulfilling what the ancient prophets saw only in dreams. In Black Elk’s great vision, he looked down upon “the whole hoop of the earth.”
“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all,
and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw;
for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit,
and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.
And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops
that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight,
and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter
all the children of one mother and one father.
And I saw that it was holy.” Black Elk, 1931
Try meditating on the earth from the perspective of Black Elk, high above the earth and outside of time. This film was created by expedition 28 and 29’s crew onboard the International Space Station using a time lapse sequence of photographs taken with a special low-light 4K-camera from August to October, 2011.
I was given a rare opportunity to participate in a Kirtan recording session with musical virtuoso Jeanne Newhall, who was making her first album of ancient Hindu chants entitled Blossom of Transformation. I originally meant to experience the process and interview Jeanne, but our discussion took me to unexpected places as we explored the parallels between traditional Western religious perspectives and Eastern forms of sacred worship such as yoga and Kirtan.
A vocalist and pianist with sixteen jazz, pop and classical albums under her belt, Jeanne Newhall was introduced to the piano at six years old, and made her professional debut before she was sixteen. Classically trained, she’d already mastered six Mozart concertos, by the time she graduated high school and was balancing her love of the masters with her love of that quintessential American art form, R&B.
So how did a farm girl who grew up in the shadow of the Sierra Estrella Mountains west of Phoenix and who sang in a Methodist choir, end up cutting a Kirtan album? It turns out that Jeanne Newhall’s musical journey is similar to any spiritual journey where we move from the known to the unknown. Jeanne started as all musicians do, studying her instrument piano with Nadia Reisenberg in NYC, then with Abbey Simon at Indiana University. She immersed herself in wildly creative forms like Jazz, cultivated her voice and became a pro musician. Sixteen albums later, Jeanne Newhall has recorded in multiple genres; pop, R&B, Jazz, classical piano and now Kirtan.
At the same time Jeanne was building a body of work, her interest in Self Realization techniques, Eastern Philosophy and Aryuveda led her to study different forms of yoga such as Ashtanga, Bhakti and eventually Kirtan. The heart-centered, exuberant chant and response form of Kirtan, fit Jeanne’s self-described nature perfectly. “I’m a rebel, an activist for justice and fairness and a person who cries without thinking. I am a heartbeat— a drum. I can still laugh until my stomach hurts.”
Kirtan was a natural evolution in her yoga and her spiritual practice, a natural way to express her inner journey. To many seekers, silence is the ultimate goal, to sit with the breath in the deepening space. But as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, Music is the universal language of mankind. Music was always Jeanne’s life, from the moment she reached her six-year-old fingers up high enough to tap the keys, so why not worship through music?
When Jeanne began singing Kirtan, she struggled with the symbolism of the Hindu gods. Singing Shantee, Rama and Ram were such foreign concepts. At first she was lost, but the more she understood the philosophy of Kirtan, the more she realized it isn’t about one right way or superior vs inferior, instead, it was One Light— Yoga and Kirtan are an aspect, a symbol of the sacred, a evolutionary vibration and a way of acceptance, devotion and faith.
Jeanne had to reconcile her upbringing, church and choir and stories of Jesus Christ, who spoke of love with chanting Ram, Ram, Hari Ram.
How could these two worlds unite?
It took another teacher, to open Jeanne’s heart in a way that transcended time and space and allowed her to find a bridge between the two worlds.
When Jeanne’s mother was days, then hours from passing, her voice was very faint. “Maaa ma ma ma ma” she said in a soft, dreamy sing-speak as her head rolled slowly from left to right on the pillow. Jeanne felt her mother was talking to someone who was someplace imperceptible, perhaps her own mother, but she could only guess. Her mother passed later, in peace.
Around a year later, the guru Amma was passing through Los Angeles. Amma is known as “the hugging guru,” who inspires long lines of seekers to touch her energy. Jeanne went with her husband along with three thousand others seeking to receive a message of hope from the healer. She waited through the night, talking to others who had come, anticipating what she might experience. Being raised Christian, she felt a little silly, a little shy. What was she doing at this type of event? Something was pulling her. She knew there was a reason for being drawn to Amma. It was just a feeling— a compelling one deep in her gut.
As the night moved along, group after group went to the stage for their hug from Amma. When Jeanne’s group was finally called to the stage, it was two in the morning. Jeanne was anxious, but reserved as she approached the stage. When it was her turn, she slowly stepped forward and bent low to receive her hug from Amma. As she received her hug Amma spoke a private phrase in Jeanne’s ear, “Maaa ma ma ma ma”.
Stunned, Jeanne’s heart melted, filling her with love and her eyes with tears. Jeanne could not believe what she had heard. Here was the reason she made the journey.
After that experience, Jeanne’s two paths merged. She understood the old Indian saying; There are many rivers that flow into one ocean. There was only One Light; music, faith, Christianity, Kirtan, chanting, love, peace, inner quiet, purity, all were one.
As Jeanne began the Kirtan session, I heard it all in her voice. Jeanne’s chants were a combination of traditional Hindu chants but her interpretations were unique, she borrowed elements of Jazz and wove classical elements into the structure. Jeanne’s light and sensitive touch allowed me to withdraw from my body and the external environment and leap to a higher plateau. I forgot about the recording as the resonance of sound reverberated through the room. I thought of what Jeanne said, “Music pulls on you. You’re an instrument of the sound, it works through me, making the music and harmony glorify the higher power—the mechanics glorify it.” Jeanne’s musical journey had started with creative expression, but turned into a vehicle for expressing the sacred.
Angry! That’s what I felt the morning I received numerous calls and e-mails from my friends informing me that my Blissful Thai Yoga Therapy e-mail account was compromised. Scammers got hold of my password and wrote a fraudulent e-mail to all my Yahoo contacts from my business account, asking them to send money because I was “in Europe” and “needed cash to get back home!” During my forty minute drive to work, my cell-phone rang incessantly, flooded with calls from concerned friends and colleagues.
How could someone be so unethical? And for profit? Anger rose up inside me as I drove. I tried to remain calm, being mindful of my breathing and keeping positive. When I finally got to work, I found a deluge of concerned e-mails, primarily from friends and colleagues, sharing their support for my SPAM Challenge. I sent out a note of apology via facebook to my friends for the inconvenience. Already bombarded with a flood of junk e-mails, I didn’t want a scammer’s e mail to be a cause of concern for my friends.
As I posted my apology, I noticed my good friend Hillary had uploaded an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted spiritual practitioner and humanitarian, whom I deeply respect. Even sweeter, Ram Dass, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, was doing the interview. With that weird synchronicity life sometimes has, the interview was titled: “The Mindfulness of Anger.”
As I watched the video, it felt like Thich Nhat Hanh spoke directly to me when he said, “Embrace your anger tenderly, be mindful of it and then cultivate your loving kindness, so that it can take care of the negative anger energy.”
Now I had a positive course of action. Rather than being drawn into my own abyss, fretting over the injustice of the scammers, I could tenderly acknowledge my anger and then send loving kindness to dissipate the growing negativity. How does this happen? Simple: by breathing mindfully!
Breathing in say to yourself: “I know I am angry.”
Breathing Out say to yourself: “I am taking good care of my anger.”
I found it most helpful in dealing with my Spam Challenge and am planning to use it often, whenever my ANGER ENERGY rises again. I have the solution to my anger, right inside of ME! What a positive spin on ANGER!
Thich Nhat Hanh’s eloquent interview:
May it bring you some peace in dealing with your own anger. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shant!
Lastly, a big “Thank You” to Hillary Branoff, who was guided lovingly by the Universe to post the interview on my FB when I needed it so much.
“I wonder if you realize that all of us … me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t – that we’re all citizens of a different town now… a town of people living in the sweet hereafter. “ — Russell Banks
Change transforms our very core— our identity. As we relate to others, we take on complicated roles; parent, grandparent, lover, spouse, sibling, son, daughter, teacher or student. Sometimes we grow so used to these parts, like a comfortable pair of jeans, we find it hard to let go. But time reshapes who we are. The change can be exhilarating and confounding at the same time. We may fear death, aging or separation, while embracing marriage, parenthood or a new project. But even positive change means releasing a particular identity and forging a new way of relating to the world and if we’re attached to our former “self,” we suffer.
Powerful rituals like communion, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, weddings and funerals mark our passages. We coalesce new identities in this way, accepting adulthood, the aging process or loss. But some passages go unmarked by ceremony. Profound experiences like falling in love, aging, illness, betrayal, changing belief systems or loss of innocence, play out in the privacy of our bodies and thoughts. The power of these unsung passages can be devastating— all consuming, transforming us so completely, we are almost unrecognizable. It’s important to honor the life altering power of these changes, allowing ourselves the space and time to heal, adjust and emerge from the psychic cocoon back into life.
Transitions act as doorways, leading us to the Sweet Hereafter, that alien country where nothing is familiar. Sometimes our old “self” is unhealthy and we need to let it die and adopt a healthier identity. In that moment of realization, our life is no longer reliable but unknown. This is also where the most potential for growth lies. As our ego is shaken up and dislodged from its habits, we soften and become adaptable. The Sweet Hereafter is that place of pure potential, strange, new, definitely uncomfortable but filled with possibility. Once we free ourselves, we can become anything. [Read more…]