Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Assisi Gathering

Forty-five years ago, there was a very clear first generation of Ananda—the devotees who “grew up” spiritually with Swami Kriyananda, founded Ananda Village and the various colonies, and now lead the work around the world. Many more have joined the movement since then, of course, but I’m told that there has never been quite so obvious a “batch” of souls incarnating together. Until now.

That first generation was able to spend a lot of time together in the early days of Ananda, forming bonds of spiritual friendship that held strong even after they dispersed around the world. The current generation is starting out already dispersed, and while it’s great that we’re already global, it also means we need to make an extra effort to bring our magnetism together and carry Master’s mission forward with all the harmonious energy it requires.

And so Narayani and Shurjo had the inspiration last year to create this gathering, with dozens of devotees coming together from three different continents. We were mostly in the age range of 25-40 or so—folks who have had a chance to get some experience on the spiritual path but are still fresh and enthusiastic about bringing a new wave of energy to carry Ananda forward. The 10 days we spent in Assisi, Italy, were a chance for us to build friendships, share magnetism, and really start to cohere as a group so that we can do this together. (Side note: We still haven’t come up with a good name for the group that doesn’t feel limiting, since the group itself doesn’t have a hard delineation. It’s really just more Ananda, manifesting in more ways through more people.)

There’s a lot more writing coming up, so if you’re the sort who prefers to skip right to the photos, there are a bunch here, mostly snagged from an even larger album here (which you’ll need to be on Facebook to see). There’s also a great video of highlights you can watch.

Ananda Assisi

The Ananda community outside Assisi was really the perfect place for this to happen, I think. It already has a very international feel, being the main Ananda center for all of Europe, and the home of devotees from many different countries. I also liked the fact that the retreat center serves three meals a day, like the Expanding Light, but it’s not just for visitors: many or most community members eat there every day as well. So even though our group was usually together, we still felt very connected to the community as a whole, rather than separate or isolated.

Similarly, the morning meditations at the temple are very well attended, and have a great, concentrated energy. I made a point of going to the energization and yoga sessions beforehand as well, which means my Italian vocabulary includes rather more body parts than is probably typical for beginners.


On the first evening there, we actually did all our introductions in the main temple, with the whole community invited, because so many people are interested in what was going on, and because it was just a fun way to introduce ourselves and meet everybody. We got a video of it, too, if you want to see who all was there.

On the following days, though, we had our own space in the common room of the Agriturismo (where many of us were staying), and we had a lot of time there just spent in sharing and discussion. (Okay, and foosball and ping pong, too.) Aside from sharing our own personal stories, we also had focused sessions on Education for Life, farming and sustainable living, music, Ananda businesses, and more. We got to hear about what our friends around the world are doing in all these different areas, and brainstorm new ideas.

It’s a testament to the magnetism of the group that we all could have been completely carried away into any of these areas of service. After Zach and Hailey spoke, I think we all wanted to be farmers. After the EFL sessions, we were all ready to go out and become teachers. When this group gets together, we can probably do anything.


Music is always one of the most joyful and miraculous things about any Ananda gathering. We had been doing some chanting together, of course, but we hadn’t had any proper choir rehearsals yet when we found ourselves at 10:30pm on the steps of the Minerva Temple in Assisi, about to sing for various assembled passersby and late-night al fresco diners. Narayani wanted me to lead the choir, so there I am with no previous conducting experience, not knowing what songs we all know in what languages, facing a 40-person choir with an audience already gathering around us because we sure looked like we were going to come out with something good. And wow, we did. We ended up singing about 6 songs, to the great satisfaction both of ourselves and of our audience. And conducting it was really quite an experience, because you get so much more of the complete choir focused on you when you’re right in front, rather than buried away in the tenor section.

One of the evenings early in the trip, our group led a kirtan for the community. I don’t think we got it on video, but here’s a recording of the last half hour or so of it. They have multi-lingual chant books in the temple there, so we took some shots at singing in Italian as well as English, but a lot of folks also just opted to skip that whole issue and focus on Indian chants instead.

We also put on a choir concert, for which we had one single rehearsal, the afternoon of the concert (and the day after our first singing on the streets of Assisi). And this was truly one of the miracles of music, because we only had a rough plan, and didn’t even know who we’d have in most of the solos or ensembles. And yet somehow, the music, as it does, pulled us all together and the concert was really a surprising success. We got the whole thing on video here (though the video and audio get pretty out of sync, so you might want to just listen).

Just as much fun, though, is all the random informal singing that happens when gurubhais are hanging out together. On one long drive to La Verna, our van sang nearly the entire Oratorio—including some of the instrumentals—and then just kept going with whatever else we could think of. Then more singing on more car trips, singing around a campfire one evening, singing for spontaneous lunchtime entertainment, singing because you got sucked into the group performing for the newly arrived visitors… it was great.

Here’s a video of us singing in Santo Stefano.


We also had a chance to earn our keep with a few seva opportunities. I think most people probably got a shift in the kitchen at some point, and we also spent a morning working at the Terre di Luce farm (I got to weed and mulch around the rose bushes). And on the last Saturday, we joined in on the Rajasi Day—an all-community work day.

I had gotten pretty sunburned the day before, so I was looking for an indoors job. Plus, I was completely enamored of the Awakening Arts Academy that we’d gotten to visit earlier. Plus, Dana’s a hoot, so what with one thing and another, I managed to finagle my way on to her team.

I got spider duty. Those glorious high ceilings and skylights in the art gallery are apparently spider heaven, so I got to stand on a ladder, reach as high up as I could with a long broom, and sweep spiders and cobwebs right down on my face (because I couldn’t reach far enough to angle out much away from myself). Then scoot the ladder forward a foot and do it again. For several hours.

Luckily I had a helper, because apparently I have to start collecting my tribe of toddlers no matter where I am in the world. Little Xavier was there with his mom who was also working in the art academy that day, and he needed something to do, so I trained him to run around on the floor catching the spiders I knocked down and taking them outside. We both learned that if you grab a daddy longlegs by one leg, its whole body freezes still, which is pretty cool, and we both ended up having a lot of fun with the disarachnification of the building.


I hadn’t considered this trip as a pilgrimage, but as it turned out, it very much was, with the heart of it being in Swamiji’s house. It’s amazing that it is so open and available to be visited and meditated in, and we were blessed to share a meditation there nearly every day.

I don’t tend to go into such places expecting anything very dramatic. I know God and guru are everywhere, and so I figure I’m going to experience Their presence to a greater or lesser degree more on my own merits than anything else, like just being in a particular location. But some places really do have a special power.

It was sweet to walk around the small house, and see Swamiji’s favorite tea cup and whatnot. But then I went into the bedroom where he left his body, knelt down by the bed, and suddenly it was as if he were just there. It felt exactly the same, and every bit as vivid and immediate, as the first time I ever met him, and I spent most of that first meditation crying in the same way I did back then, nine years ago. Even just thinking about it days later, the same feelings come back.

I felt like our group as a whole was also very attuned to Swamiji, and I spent a lot of the trip trying to practice tuning into him more and more. But every visit to that bedroom was always special in its own particular and intense way.

St. Francis

We also, naturally, got to spend some quality time with St. Francis. San Damiano was our first visit, and was most notable for the spot where St. Clare left her body. I felt like I could have pinpointed that location even without the signs. Even just a few steps away in the same room, the energy felt different. After San Damiano, we went to the Porziuncola, but that was a bit too overwhelming for me. The original little church was very dear, but there was so much built up around it that I just couldn’t get centered and tune into it.

Unfortunately, we got to the Basilica of St. Francis just before it closed, and so we got in but not so far as to get to go to his tomb. We were also too late to get into St. Clare’s. But Santo Stefano was a cute little church, whose bells are said to have tolled on their own accord when St. Francis died. It was completely empty, so we meditated in there for a bit, and even sang a few songs in the lovely acoustics. Here’s a recording of us singing St. Francis’ prayer there, which became somewhat of a theme song for the whole trip. (This was the first time we sang it together as a group.)

Towards the end of the trip, we also spent a day at La Verna. For me, this started out as another case of too much stuff and too many people. Tourist energy is hard to meditate in, and even with us yogis, it can be distracting having 30 of us trying to get in and out of small chapels and whatnot. So I spent the morning hiking around the gorgeous mountain top and enjoying the stunning views of the valley. But then after lunch a lot of the rest of our group went up the hill, and many of the other visitors were in a service in one of the chapels, and I found myself alone with the rock that Christ sat on when he would appear in visions to St. Francis. I put my hands on it and suddenly all I could do was just stand there and be with it, unmoving, for 20 or 30 minutes. Eventually someone else came in and I slipped out to go visit the cave where St. Francis slept on a rock, and again I had some nice time there alone and moved on when other folks came by. Ditto for the tiny cave where the cliffside folded itself inward to keep St. Francis from falling. Those kinds of places, where you can be with the actual rocks St. Francis touched, were so much more moving than all the extra fancy stuff that got built up around it all later. Though I did go do my kriyas later in the chapel built where Francis received the stigmata.

Roaming Home through Rome

Okay, so our program ended on Wednesday morning, and seven of us had morning flights out of Rome on Thursday. Rome is about a 2.5 hour drive from Assisi, so someone (I don’t actually know who) had what seemed like a good idea at the time, which was for us all to go to Rome Wednesday night, drop all of our bags in Katelyn’s hotel room (since she was staying an extra day or two) and then just stay up all night wandering around Rome in the dark until it was time to get a taxi to the airport. Apparently jet lag can’t touch you if you completely mess yourself up first.

Well, as we finished dinner at about 10:30, some of us started realizing that it had been a pretty long 10 days, and we weren’t exactly caught up on sleep to begin with, and it was going to be how long until we could sleep on the plane? But we ended up having a very nice stroll all around Rome in the dark, seeing the outsides of various places that were, of course, closed for the night, like the Pantheon, the Coliseum, etc. After a couple hours we went down by the river to energize and meditate, which helped. And around 3:30 we finally went back to grab our bags and get a 100 mph (no traffic!) taxi to the airport by 4am.

My own saga continued with more details than I need to get into, but after various other delays and missed flights, I eventually got home, having gone about 48 hours without seeing a bed. Oh, and staying up all night totally did not scare the jet lag away. But I’m feeling better now.

What’s Next?

This gathering of people and energy was a beautiful experience, and really perfect for what we needed at this stage, I think. More gatherings of “this group”—however we define it and whoever wants to be in it—will definitely happen, but probably not in the same way. The energy needs to start heading out into more service and expansion sooner rather than later. Perhaps the next time we gather this “batch” of devotees together, it will be for a reincarnation of the Joy Tours, or a manifestation of something else fun and creative. Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 01, 2016

A Menagerie of Poems

I was debating whether to try tackling NaPoWriMo again this year, unsure whether I really felt up to doing a poem a day for a whole month again. But then I got a great jumpstart inspiration when I found a delightful book to give to Guy for his birthday that was an illustrated anthology of kid-friendly poems about animals. And not only some of the Edward Lear and Jack Prelutsky type stuff that you might expect, but also Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Bible verses, haiku, and more. I read it twice before sending it (late) up to Portland.

So then, right at the beginning of April, I had a whole menagerie of animals queueing up inside my head, asking for poems, and I’ve been having a ball writing them. Some are, yes, “for kids,” and some less so, but I love them all.

I was thinking about why this was such a fruitful way to generate poems. I think a big part of it is that simply choosing an animal to write about immediately gives you something very specific and concrete to focus on. When you sit down to a blank page, it can be all too easy to say “I’m going to write a poem about… Love!” And then something vague and mushy comes out because that’s way too broad a topic. On the other hand, you can say “I’m going to write a poem about a… Giraffe! Now what do I know about giraffes? They’re tall. Okay, let’s work with that.” And then you’re off and running with something that both writer and reader can really get a grip on. Zebras: black and white. Boom. And so on.

In some cases, the animal can even suggest the form of the poem, as with the Turtle, who made his own new type of sonnet by pulling the rhymes inside his shell with him. And then some of the animals just start telling you stories. I was a bit surprised with how the Manatee turned out, but apparently that’s what she wanted to say. (On the other hand, I got pretty much what I expected from the Buzzard.) One way or another, nearly all of my 30 poems for the month turned out to be about animals (though I did take a break to write The Danube Blues, just entirely for the sake of the title).

So now it’s May, and the poetry spigot is getting turned off. But I’m really starting to think this needs to turn into a book, especially since I have a very large number of small friends and relatives to whom I would very much enjoy giving such a book. Of course, these poems naturally beg for illustrations. So I may change the poem-a-day challenge into a drawing-a-day challenge and see how long it takes me to get marginally competent enough to do this. I really have no idea how it’ll work out, but wish me luck!

[P.S. A few more favorites include the Sloth, the Otters, and the Honeybee’s Lullaby. Or you can just read all the animals, if you like.]

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Seclusion Stories: Renouncing Time, Following Guidance, and Trick Trails

I was really ready to go on seclusion. (And I’m beginning to think I’ll always begin my seclusion stories this way.) It had been almost two years since the last one, and it turned out to be an interesting followup to what happened that last time.

One of the themes from my 2014 seclusion was learning not to just blindly charge ahead with whatever I want to do (even if it seems like a good idea at the time), but to deliberately involve God and Master in the process, and ask what He would like to do with me in our time together. So my overall goal for this time was to figure out how to do that. I ended up with three main tricks:

#1: Renouncing Time. (Or trying to, at least. Time’s not so keen on renouncing me.) The evening I arrived at the meditation retreat, I turned my phone completely off and disabled the clock in my computer’s menu bar (I still wanted my computer available for writing). I hadn’t brought a watch, and the cabin had no clock, which left me completely free to have no idea what time it was. There’s still the sun, of course, but I didn’t know exactly when sunrise/sunset was up there, and I didn’t think about it too hard.

This had a few benefits. One is that clocks like to tell us what to do, what with things like “lunchtime” and “bedtime,” especially for someone like myself who’s very schedule-conscious. This shuts them up. Then if a clock isn’t telling you when to do these things, you get to (a) decide yourself or (b) practice using your intuition. (Hint: (b) is a good choice.)

Additionally, it was really nice to completely let go of questions like “am I sleeping in too late?” or “how long am I meditating?” or other things that are more judgey than useful.

#2: The Guidance Log. The next thing I did was to take a small notebook and start a list for each day. Any time during the day that I had a question or a choice, and remembered to ask Master about it instead of simply deciding on my own, I would enter it in the log. This is both helpful as a reminder to keep doing this, and as a motivational game (trying to top the score from each previous day).

This also results in the notebook getting filled with a fair amount of pretty dumb questions. But that’s okay. The number of times in my life that Master will actually care what kind of tea I drink in the morning is probably a bit south of one. But he does like to be asked. It’s keeping the conversation going that’s important.

#3: The Activities Bowl. This was the final piece of my “system” for the week. I always head into a seclusion with a huge list of projects and activities that I don’t have enough time to do at home, and this isn’t nearly as helpful as it is tempting. In this particular case, I wanted to practice guitar, recorder, and singing, I wanted to work on a couple different choir arrangements, I wanted to do some writing, I wanted to prep for the next class I’m teaching, and more. All good stuff, yes, but with the danger that seclusion will simply turn into more busy-time.

So what I did was to write everything I thought I might possibly want to do on scraps of paper, fold them up, and put them in a bowl. (I also included sadhana activities, like meditation, energization, yoga, etc.) Then whenever I felt like I really needed to do something, I would go to the bowl and ask Master to help me pick.

Putting It All Together. Well, the first two days were mostly rest and recuperation time, with lots of sleeping and reading. This was something else I’d learned from the previous seclusion: that it’s not worth trying to push yourself if what you really just need is to recover for a bit. So just let that happen until you’re ready to start putting out more energy.

I also didn’t use the activities bowl much during those first two days. I felt that, if I were going to draw something blind, then I wanted to feel absolutely open and ready to do whatever it would turn out to be, no backing out. Which is a good attitude to cultivate, but took me a little while to work up to. And when I did start using it, I found myself getting a lot of things like meditation and energization and reading Whispers from Eternity, and not working on my “projects” much at all. But just as well, since it was supposed to be a seclusion, after all.

As for the guidance log, what I noticed was that, after a few days, I was less inclined to be asking so many questions as deliberately or writing it all down. Not in a bad way, but more because I began to feel like I was in a better overall flow and could simply see the next thing I was going to do at any given moment, rather than needing to make a deliberate decision. I did still keep taking some notes, of course, because it doesn’t do to get too complacent, but I could tell that the process had already gotten me into a different sort of state.

Also by now I was finding myself really wanting to meditate more, and I figure when that happens I shouldn’t worry too much but just go do it, which I did. Since I’m not big on endurance but focus better for short periods of time, I started getting into a system of multiple short-to-medium meditations throughout the day, alternating with other things, instead of trying to do long sessions. If I’d had more time there (the trip was only 4 full days this time), I think my eating schedule would have shifted from three small meals a day to four snacks, which would also have been helpful for throughout-the-day meditations.

It would be nice to do this for a longer seclusion sometime. As it was, I only had two really good days, and on the second of them I was already thinking about having to go home the next day. But it was all very definitely worthwhile, even for just this short amount of time.

More Games on the Hill. I wrote last time about the games God was playing with me up on the Bald Mountain trail, trying to get me to pay attention and listen. And I continue to be impressed with how amusingly tricky He can be up there on that small hill with so few passable trails. This week I had been happily visiting all my usual places up there, but on the last day I noticed something new.

At a bend in the trail, I saw a gap in the trees that I hadn’t noticed before. This was on my best “flow” day, and I just felt that it was obviously there for me to go explore, so I did. A short way into the undergrowth, I came upon a trail completely covered with dead manzanita branches, like a river of bleached wood. It seemed deliberately created, but also odd, since it doesn’t make for a particularly walkable trail. I followed it for a while, wondering how far down the other side of the mountain we were getting, or if I’d ever be able to find a trail all the way down to the river. After various twists and turns, the trail petered out, but I managed to continue a bit farther through various openings in the shrubbery.

And then suddenly—a path! An honest-to-goodness, perfectly clear trail. I set a branch next to the trail pointing the way I had come, in case I needed to find my way back. Then I asked Master which way to go, and headed left.

Then within 20 yards I came to the trail sign at the entrance I had come in every morning. I had just completely not recognized it coming from a different angle, and had gotten so turned around I assumed I was on the other side of the mountain.

No major lesson here, except that God likes to find ways to make me laugh.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

I Wonder as I Wander

Dambara always used to sing this song at our Christmas concerts, as a beautiful solo with piano accompaniment. Since he moved away, I guess we haven’t quite been ready to have anyone else try it. But it’s always been a favorite of mine, and I recently had the idea to arrange it for a group of singers, just so we could feel like we’re doing something different and not just trying to follow Dambara’s act. I’m imagining this not so much for full choir as for, say, an octet accompanying a male soloist (though the soprano and bass parts get turns joining on the melody as well).

I haven’t ever done a proper choral arrangement before (and it’s not quite the same as all the music theory exercises I did in college, now that I have more of a stake in how it actually works out). But I had a lot of fun over the past week putting this together. If anyone wants to take a look and share thoughts on it, I’m open to feedback. You can download a PDF of the score here.

I’d love to hear it sung by actual voices, but we haven’t gotten that far yet. (If anyone out there wants to get folks together and try it, please send me a recording!) In the meantime, there’s this computer-generated mp3, which isn’t great, but is something at least.

(And... Christmas songs in August, you ask? Yes. I’m totally starting on Christmas music now, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!)

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Zealand, Part 3: Lake Taupo (and Getting There)

For our final, finale weekend in New Zealand, we drove down to Lake Taupo to lead a weekend-long retreat at the Tauhara Centre, which is something like a mini-Expanding Light that hosts all sorts of different spiritually oriented retreats on a beautiful hill overlooking the lake.

But first we had to get there. We’d named our GPS on the first day of the trip: Georgia Sweet Potato. (She can’t spell, but she’s pretty good with directions.) So far, she’d been a great navigator, and we’d had no complaints. But she must have gotten some setting clicked for “obscure roads,” because we started taking some interesting turns.

We were a little suspicious when we turned off the highway that actually said “Taupo,” but we were still on a highway, could still go 100kph, and didn’t think it could be all that bad. Then we turned off onto a smaller road that we figured would just take us to another highway. Then with each new turn we took, the roads got smaller and more winding until we were just bumping down a little dirt track with nothing around us but cows and scenery. But oh, what scenery. Beautiful green hills fresh from the rain, that at one point we simply had to stop the van to get out and look. So maybe Georgia knew what she was doing after all.

Well, eventually the roads started getting bigger and more paved, until we saw that we were finally coming back to a main highway, at which point I commented that we had not passed or even seen a single other vehicle the entire time we were on the backroads. Literally the second after I said that, a car came around the corner ahead of us, just to prove me wrong. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it only actually existed for just the 10 seconds it took to get around the next corner behind us.)

Anyway, we made it to Taupo. We had about 35 people there for the retreat, which was a very nice size group for that facility. And somehow, the two days that we had there felt packed with a week’s worth of activities. (A lot will be getting posted on YouTube over the next few days as I get them processed.) One of the most fun parts of it for me was the Saturday night concert with Dambara (here’s the video). I’ve had a delightful time accompanying him throughout this entire trip, and that evening was a very nice culmination of it all. We started off with some fun, lively, laughing songs, and gradually moved more and more inward, which finally led us to an outdoor fire ceremony with a bonfire out under the stars.

On the way home we were a bit less trusting of Georgia, and blatantly ignored her attempts to get us off the highway. (The first time had a sign pointing to a “Stock Effluent Disposal Site,” and the second time, very shortly after it, to an “Animal Fun Park,” which sounded very suspicious in that context.)

But we did make a quick stop off at Huka Falls. They’re not super high, but the water rushing through the ravine becomes such a beautiful shade of frothy, white turquoise that is absolutely stunning. The light was already fading, so the picture doesn’t quite capture it here.

Today we’re lounging around back at Kavita’s in Hamilton, after dropping Travis off to head back to Australia. Then we’re heading home on Tuesday evening, to arrive 13 hours later on Tuesday afternoon (they refund you the day you lost getting here on the way back). Photos from the whole trip are here.