2020: The Heart of a Decade

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The Heart of a Decade

Truthfully speaking, I’m not one to remember anniversaries, think about dates, or even pay that much attention to time, though its passing sometimes evokes nostalgia, if not outright anxiety in me, someone who often prefers to live in the spacious realm of imagination that defies time until it comes along to bang the door down to teach me otherwise.

As we are about the confront the dawn of the 2020s, however, I cannot help but look back on the last decade, and realize, and even celebrate with some degree of awe, the decade it has been on a personal level (we know it has been a big decade in the social, political and environmental spheres, and I know many of us our grappling with how to move forward based on these cataclysmic changes; I am with you).

At the very beginning of 2010, at 35, I was newly-unemployed, ambiguously enmeshed in unambiguously destructive relationships, and I was freed – or unhinged, depending on my perspective at any given moment. I remember sitting in my now-emptied, soon-to-be former Toronto apartment, near the windows on which my purple sheets-turned curtains were the only remaining décor, a couple of empty wine bottles next to me, Skyping with a dear friend who pointed out how reminiscent of Demi Moore in “St. Elmo’s Fire” this whole scene was. Have you seen that movie? It was a loving comment, but it was not an assessment of how well things were going in my life, or at least the visible parts of my internal landscape.

Another good friend helped me unload my possessions in my parents’ basement in Ottawa, and I was soon off to Thailand, where I’d lived previously for a year. I’d fallen in love with this land so far from my own in every way; this time, like the last time, I had no agenda or future plans. I was older, though. There was a palpable feeling that everything was at stake, and I simultaneously felt like I had everything and nothing to lose. It was one of those rare, crystal-clear moments in a life when I was acutely aware of this edge, that it was a potential precipice… or gateway.

I spent three months consciously committing to self-exploration the main way I knew how, which was to write, though it must be said that doing nothing was also completely alien to me, and a highly subversive and transformative act in its own right, as I realized that not doing the things I was conditioned and expected to do was actually doing a whole heck of a lot more than nothing. I wafted between Thailand, Laos and Indonesia melting into hammocks, eating peasant soups (I love peasant soups; I want to run a peasant soup restaurant), and meeting special person after special person in budget guesthouse after ramshackle abode, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. I marveled at the fact that I never once, for a second, felt lost or confused. I had granted myself a gigantic time-out, and I was not so much making the most of it, as surrendering to the knowledge that life had to be lived right now, exactly as it was, exactly as I was, with no past and no future. Counter to everything I knew about myself, I magically embraced it.

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In Ubud, Indonesia, I was rummaging for books in a secondhand shop (these are sadly all but lost to the wayside in the region now), where I needed to find three to make an exchange. About to give up, I made the strange decision to crouch down and look behind a row of books lodged against the front window to see if anything had fallen – it had. Sri Aurobindo’s “Our Many Selves” was one of many landmark moments of 2010 that profoundly changed things. It is a dense and difficult book, but I couldn’t put it down and I quite honestly felt like something bigger than I am was guiding this almost hallucinogenic (I was sober) reading experience, much of it at the airport, where I stayed overnight before an early morning flight. The book suggested that we can’t transcend ourselves, our egos, until we fully understand the many facets of our personality and character. I took this straight to heart and made it my mission to catalogue as much of myself as I understood at the time.

Everyday for three months, I wrote about one of the aspects of the self that was living inside of me and was my interface with the world. I called them “Little” versions of me: Little Timid, Little Communicative, and so on. I wrote page after page, day after day, surrounded by absolute love and kindness by everyone around me. There was the jewelry artist who suggested I try a Reiki session in Nong Khai (I’ll get back to this life-changing moment), a young Korean musician in Nong Khiau, Laos, with whom there was a language barrier, so that we sat on our neighboring balconies and just smiled, and somehow protected each other. There was a Scandinavian philosopher recovering from food poisoning in Vang Vieng, Laos, with whom I shared so many of those kinds of deeply intense conversations that stay in your psyche long after the content has disappeared. I met a brilliant medical student on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, who suggested I try a Vipassana meditation retreat when I told her I felt a calling to learn to meditate, but didn’t want anything that was remotely trying to sell me a religion or even hinted of cultism.

Was I fully coming to understand myself after three months? Certainly not, and certainly not in any direct or concise way. Looking back, though, I can see a woman on the cusp of something that felt huge, even if it couldn’t be touched or tasted. I was most definitely earnest. I thought I was earnestly looking to know myself better, but I can see now that more importantly, I was willing, maybe for the very first time, to start regarding myself with an attitude of love – not harshness, not self-judgment, not recrimination, but kindness and love. I was finally ready, and even desperate, to come back to myself, to treat myself with the same kind of compassion I naturally felt for others. It was (is) a long, harrowing process of meeting myself with curiosity, openness and a real sense of caring.

At the end of those three months, I found myself returning to what would become – and still is, and will always be – the home in my heart of Nong Khai, Thailand. Nestled into a little pocket of heaven in Northeastern Thailand overlooking the Mekhong river is a guesthouse called Mut Mee, where many tourists come to stay for a night on their way to the border city of Vientiane, Laos, and where many fall in love with the serene quietude and the kindred spirits they meet, and don’t leave for months. It’s where I was recommended, months earlier, to have a Reiki session with Beatrix of the Nong Khai Alternative Center, tucked into the same little alley as the guesthouse, an oasis for healing, soul-soothing, learning and self-awareness. That one Reiki session was so powerful that I knew I had to start studying this healing modality – and so I returned, and this return felt like the first step of a path with direction, leading back to myself. This Pantrix center, established by two brilliant yogis – and artists, and so much more – Pancho and Beatrix, has grown over the last decades to become a true home, a mecca, really, for people interested in developing as yogis, healers … and humans. Pancho and Beatrix are as true as true yogi can come, and they’ve have become the dearest teachers who have helped and guided me in ways I will never be able to express in words. Beatrix is also a Reiki master and teacher and a stunningly insightful astrologer, and Pancho is a master-of-just-about-all trades who brings wisdom, joy, a generosity of spirit and an interdisciplinary approach to the teaching of yoga. Pantrix offers free daily meditations with Pancho, seven day Intro yoga classes and intensive one-month courses and special workshops, and an overall welcoming energy that I couldn’t recommend more to anyone looking for a cleanse of mind, body and spirit. Silvie, a long time resident of Nong Khai, does amazing CranioSacral therapy and Shiatsu sessions and dance workshops just down the alleyway, and Aey, proprietor of the Hornbill Bookshop, has make her shop more than a place of commerce; she has welcomed us into her home over and over, and has transformed her beautiful space into a coffeeshop and restaurant, where she serves food, smoothies and love in equal doses.

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Here in Nong Khai, I began studying Reiki and yoga, and almost immediately met my now-husband, Takeshi, who had just arrived for the first time after his visa run to Laos. I had recently completed my first 10-day meditation retreat, and it turns out and he had already done several in this style. We eagerly talked about everything that falls under the rubric of life. I told him I’d cancelled my 10-day stopover to Tokyo on the way back to Canada to stay in Thailand a few months longer, and joked that now Japan had come to me. Our connection was strong and quick, and it wasn’t long before we were making plans to do one of Pantrix’s one-month yoga intensives, and then journey on to India. We ended up doing several more of these courses and retreats over the next few years.

Ten years on, I can’t believe I have been with my love for a decade. I’m not surprised, though, to find that who I am today is so much of an ongoing product – project? Result? – of the seeds that were planted in 2010. Our journey took us to India, back to Thailand regularly and to Japan, where we made a home for six years. We have been through ups and downs, heartaches and joys, have found ourselves meeting each other and ourselves anew over and over, even as we met the challenges of feeling lost and wayward as often as we found ourselves gently touching what feels like life purpose.

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We have recently moved to Canada – not only Canada, but my hometown of Ottawa, where, to be truthful, I never, ever thought I would live again once I left at the age of 23 to pursue my Masters degree in Toronto. It felt like the right time to be near family again, but being back here, where I so unceremoniously dumped my life’s possessions a decade ago, is doing quite a number on my emotions and sense of self. I feel in many ways like I’m “back where I started”, as though the last decade never happened. At the same time, as I look into myself, I’m not sure what is left of that woman-on-the-edge of 10 years ago.

At the heart of it, we, and everything around is, is changing all the time, every single second. Time does not wait for us. We can’t really look at the numbers like 2020 and neatly package our goals and expectations into a new year or decade. Still, though, we are human, and big numbers like this are a beautiful chance for us to tap in and check on our state of being. I am tremendously grateful to have given myself a chance, back in 2010, to try out a new way of being in the world that immediately brought me more profoundly closer to my heart than I’ve ever been. The challenge – and joy – is to know that this journey does not end, no matter where our life’s circumstances take us.

The gift of time is really the gift of opportunity, to discover what it is that make our hearts sing, and to create the song, note by note. Happy, happy 2020 and beyond …

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If you happen to be in Thailand, or want to make your way there, these are highly recommended:

Mut Mee Guesthouse, Nong Khai – http://www.mutmee.com

Nong Khai Alternative Center – http://pantrix.net

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Our Many, Our Whole

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My body, my land.

Containing all the stories

all the world in it,

but they are not all my own.

The whole is not simple,

vague or even pure.

We must never stop

listening to how this swirl

this totality morphs into the

particularities of me and

you, as we strive

and struggle to bring ourselves

to the whole with compassion

and understanding.

We are one, yes,

but it doesn’t end here;

we are still so incomplete

in our knowing,

if not our being.

May we always

listen

honour

respect

commit

to the mosaic of our

distinct stories.

Our bodies

Our landscapes,

Our jewels

build something

beautiful together. – TS

The Universe Whispers

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a whisper
breathed in
just the
right spot
 
where
shoots spring
from the warm,
dense forest
floor,
 
where drying
crackling
leaves sway
in the thin
mountain air,
 
where
the mother
ends and
the child
begins,
 
will echo
from here
to eternity
 
will reverberate
as forcefully
as a thousand
songs
 
will tell the
only stories
we need
to know. – TS

Above and Below

I only have five words today, but they are important ones! There is always what we see, have and experience right before us, and there is the great, wide, vast universe out there to cushion us, to permeate through our experiences and inject life and energy into them. We can only start where we are, but we can also strive to see, experience, understand more … with JOY!

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The Yellow Ribbon for the Dalai Lama

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Thousands of people have already crowded into the sprawling Kalachakra Temple compound in Dharamsala, India by the time my husband and I arrive at 8:00 a.m.

We’re gathering in anticipation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first day of teachings at the very temple where he has his private chambers, and where he frequently addresses the public. Everywhere you look, your eyes rest on a sea of Tibetan monks, nuns and laypeople, a sizable smattering of foreign tourists and a substantial sprinkling of Indians, many of them journalists, cameras and video gear in tow.

As we thread our way through the crowd, I get the sensation that this colorful medley of humans, against the ornate backdrop of the temple, resembles a living, breathing and moving mandala- the cosmic order come to life. There is infinite possibility on this cool, crisp morning; all mysteries might just reveal themselves in this gathering of good intentions and open hearts.

We walk upstairs past a jam-packed garden to where there are two prayer halls, one of which the Dalai Lama will use to transmit his teaching.

In and around these halls hordes of people sit, in hallways, on staircases leading to toilets, by a room full of ever-burning candles and by the cellar kitchens where butter tea is being boiled. As we look for a small space to squeeze into, a child’s voice crackles an adorable, stilted chant through the loudspeaker system; his voice rings with the crystalline innocence of youth. Others, like us, are navigating the crowds searching for an empty spot. Ropes have cordoned sections off, and security is still ramping up for the Dalai Lama’s arrival.

We jostle our way into small opening by a large column that faces the large hallway the Dalai Lama will soon walk down. Not too far ahead are a couple of stairs leading to the antechamber he’ll enter to reach his chair in the prayer hall. We arrived twenty minutes early, and the teaching is evidently going to start late, so we have time to stand among the sea of visitors, to observe the goings on that lead up to an event of this magnitude.

The smart ones who arrived early spread out mats and sit on cushions, many quietly munching on snacks.

Tibetans and foreigners are chitchatting, smiling and laughing side by side. Two of the security guards near the antechamber entrance, Indians, are rail thin, mustached, ever-smiling and holding long, austere-looking rifles. At intervals, various monks inhabit the holding area leading to the antechamber, and I keep expecting each one to be the official greeting party for the Dalai Lama. But then they leave and others take their place. Time seems to be lackadaisically seeping outward rather than moving forward in chronological sequence.

At a minute to nine, an older Tibetan man in a royal blue apron who’s been standing by the stairs the whole time, disappears into the antechamber and scurries back out with a bright yellow ribbon. He painstakingly goes about wrapping it around the stair rail that the Dalai Lama will use as a support on his way up. He corrects it, flattens and presses it again and again until it is absolutely perfect and he’s satisfied.

This tiny gesture, almost lost in the tide of brewing excitement, deeply moves me as emblematic of the purity of honest work and holy servitude.

This bright yellow ribbon that forms a vibrant part of our view on a very special day, strikes me as a beacon of far more. Sometimes we wonder about arguably overwrought rituals in spiritual tradition, and in our cynicism, declare all the pomp and circumstance excessively elaborate, meaningless and unnecessary. We find infinite things to feel sour about as we get lost in the details and distractions of our lives and lose sight of the small marvels happening around us at every turn.

I couldn’t argue with any degree of certainty about role of ritual in our lives or spiritual practice. My own views keep changing with time as the rest of me evolves and adapts to the life I find myself living.

But what I feel deeply, looking at the man with the yellow ribbon, is that every single action affects the universe.

Every act of true devotion brings out the light in the one who is devoted and that light reaches all of humanity. Everything we do that is in service of something greater than us builds into a momentum of positive energy that will only expand with our combined efforts. Before the teachings have even began – before the deliciously strange butter tea is served to thousands! – lessons arrive right in our laps. I can’t help but feel these lessons were meant for us to discover.

One yellow ribbon taken in isolation is a shiny and slightly garish curiosity. A yellow ribbon lovingly handled to mark a great occasion by a man who, just like the rest of us, has good days and bad, depends on others and has dependents of his own, and wants to be happy and free of suffering, is a beautiful manifestation of connectivity at work.

The care that emanated from those aging hands arranging one yellow ribbon one the first day of the Dalai Lama’s public teachings, those inordinately generous offerings, is also the care and love that feeds the world.

*This article was published on The Tattooed Buddha.

 

I Look at the Tree

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I look outside
and the tree is still there,
sprouted from the earth,
grounded in being,
melting into the sky.
I turn to the tree.
This time I need
to fix my gaze
on something
that will remain
what it is,
which is a loud
and glorious
celebration of truth,
as the foundations
start crumbling.
Becoming the tree,
I give myself strength
to be, too, who I am,
and have always been,
even as I change,
as all things do. – TS

Introverts Need People, Too.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

All my life, I’ve lived in my head.

My mother tells me that they used to sit me on the windowsill of my grandmother’s apartment when I was a wee one and while everyone else chatted away, I’d stare out the window, occasionally pointing at things and asking, “Sta?” I was in my own little world, fascinated with the world around me. This tendency to be introspective and observational by disposition has stayed with me.

When I was in my early twenties, a close friend told me that my best quality was my independence, and my worst quality was my independence. It was an astute observation, even if it did leave me a little unsettled.

I’ve also loved communicating and expressing myself as long as I can remember.

That’s actually not true; I was a very shy kid. However, once I entered adolescence and started understanding myself more in relation to others, I found I was a talkative, opinionated being who also needed a lot of alone time for reflection. I loved being around other people, mostly close friends but also strangers or acquaintances in large gatherings whom I could meet and learn about, after which I’d need a few days to recover.

These days, there’s so much talk about introverts versus extroverts. Back then, all I knew was that I counted on my “catch-up sessions” with myself and my journal to refuel and understand myself better.

I have identified more strongly with the quieter side. The more outgoing I appeared to be or was labeled, the more I actually wanted to dive into a corner and retreat into what I considered to be the most authentic version of myself.

It’s amazing how we cling to our identities, how long we can go in life without challenging our basic assumptions about ourselves, and how invisible these assumptions become as we take them to be incontrovertible truth about who we are.

When I was laid off from my job at the end of 2009 and decided to travel on my own, I deeply looked forward to my time away. While I knew I’d miss my friends and family, I was longing to get some distance from some of my unhealthier habit patterns, which I would have a chance to dissect and deconstruct. I had no fear whatsoever of travelling on my own; I reveled in it, though my old friend’s voice did nag at me a bit:

Am I too independent? Is this part of the problem? What is the problem, exactly?

I refused to believe that loneliness could be lurking somewhere within all the alone-ness I was embracing with joy.

A great teacher I met along the way said something striking to me when she told me that I had a great opportunity to really dive into myself and experience solitude, since I’m the type of person (incidentally, or not incidentally, a Gemini) who exists and thrives in communication. I was surprised. “But I love being on my own. I’ve always been quite independent and introspective, maybe too much.”

A raised eyebrow told me I had a few lessons coming my way.

Cut to a few years later, moving from the sometimes chaotic, often serene and always vivacious landscapes of Southeast Asia and India to Japan. My head and heart were filled with so many encounters with people met along the way, with whom I could share intimate conversations and learn so many things. My ears were still ringing with the jumbled notes of India—the soulful chanting, the “chai chai chai” invocations, the clanging of wares on street, the talking-yelling-laughing-bellowing-beckoning exuberance that was part of daily life there.

Japan is a very quiet place.

My more Zen inclinations reveled in, and continue to love this shocking change of ambiance. I have been rewarded often by ancient mountaintop temples, the tiny urban temples and shrines I visit squished between school and houses and shops, to feel the special charge in the air there. My heart is also warmed by the understated grace, kindness and gentility of the people here.

The truth is, though, that over time I have really had to come face to face with what it means to live without the social interactions to which I’m accustomed.

In a land where it’s not common for people to make direct eye contact or to invade the space of others in any way, where politeness reigns over intimacy in initial interactions, I find myself often contemplating my very visibility when I’m out in public.

If I sit in a café, I’m entirely left to my own devices, which makes me feel that I’m basically in a more crowded version of my living room. I’ve never realized before how much my café experience at home is informed by the chattering I can hear around me, the stolen glances, the smiles exchanged with strangers, the awareness that people around me are reading books I’ve read or have been meaning to read…

In other words, by a shared, common and mutually understood culture.

I’m learning that while I’ve always loved my alone-time, it’s also always been cushioned within the knowledge that I can go out and relate to others any time I feel the need; which, as it turns out, is/was more often than I realized.

As humans, we all live in relation to others. How these relations are expressed across cultures varies widely, but we all exist in a frame of reference that includes others. We are all interdependent. This is a fundamental Buddhist tenet—that of dependence-arising—and a truth that grabs me in the heart.

When we’re outside our familiar culture, we lose our direct grasp of this interdependence, or not know how to fit into the societal web around us, which can lead to well-documented feelings of unease and isolation. Most importantly, though, it’s a great reminder:

As much as we may value our independence—or as introverts, cherish our alone-time—we truly thrive not only when we have time for our own thoughts and feelings, but when can be active, sharing and giving members of our communities.

Exploring new lands and learning about new people is a wonderful thing that I thrive on and personally love. However, understanding how precious it is that we come from a particular place with unique sets of values and codes for social conduct is equally important, and not to be taken for granted. Our culture is not the totality of what we are, but nor should we deny the beautiful ways we have of connecting within our familiar environments; they are part of the fabric of us, and can be an integral facet of our evolution.

Living in Japan is really teaching me how important it is to feel connected and to share in a wider community with love, joy and compassion. Also, that we need to truly confront loneliness that exists within our alone-ness so we can learn to be in healthy solitude, and bring our best selves to the world around us.

The Gold of Day {Poem}

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I edge closer to the

Small leaves turning

Autumn red

And dive in

Entranced by the

Velveteen richness,

Become swallowed until

I emerge bounding

On the other side,

Deep in the Himalayan forests,

Among the tall, thin saplings

Where the white fox dog

Has been waiting

For our return,

And leaps over

Panting his joyous breaths

And we sit, side by side,

On the slope of the

Forest mountain

The moist earth our cushion

Watching the sun trickle down

A slow fractal descent

In the gold of day

– Tammy T. Stone