Sunday, August 8, 2010

Acceptance. Finding the Cave of the Heart

Acceptance is the key to living life with an open heart.

Ramana Maharshi's lower cave on the sacred mountain Arunachala
Tiruvannamalai, India

Acceptance. I’ve been asked what was the most important lesson I learned in the caves of India. My answer: Acceptance. Most people likely share a vision of the requirements and what meditating in a cave in India would entail. First, you would need to be a sadhu; a scantly dressed holy man draped in white or orange cloth or possibly only a loincloth. Or, perhaps you’d have to be a Buddhist monk wrapped discretely in a burgundy robe. To complete the image you’d need to sit upright for hours in a full lotus posture, meaning to sit not only crossed legged but your knees should touch the ground while your feet rest atop the cradle of your bent legs. In other words, to sit for hours unmoving, in silent contemplation in what most of us would soon find an uncomfortable posture, if not outright painful.

No, for me it was much easier at least physically. I am a big fan of pillows and never was flexible enough to maintain a rigid meditation posture, other than to sit as straight as possible. The monks and sadhus likely also mastered controlling their thoughts much sooner than I. For me, the caves served as a stomping ground to recognize and deal with my deepest emotions. Just as thoughts can be observed to come and go, I started to do the same with my emotional reactions. So, I can say I learned acceptance in those caves. I learned to welcome whatever was arising—thoughts, feelings, and sensations. I returned to the caves—repeatedly. ‘Being with what is’ became my sole practice. Whatever story would rerun in my head from life back home in the states or even from years past, I welcomed the associated feelings and sensations into the space of my heart. Before long, my heart and body ached as if I was taking too much in. My past conditioning taught me how to transform feelings, or rather how to avoid what I was really feeling, such as anxiety, anger, rejection, confusion, etc. Mysteriously, I felt determined to do the opposite of what I’d learned to do all of my life. It was time to face my deepest emotions. The cave was the place where the show down was going to take place and I knew it.

Instead of creating a positive mental image to replace what I was experiencing, or to distract myself by allowing my attention to get entranced by whatever scenery was appearing at the moment—people coming into the cave or a bug crawling on me—I did the opposite. I accepted whatever was being presented in the moment. If I remembered something painful, felt anxiety or stiff legs, I let it be. And, by doing so, I learned something valuable about myself. The more I accepted life on its terms without trying to change it, the more I could be with life when it was uncomfortable. And, the more I accepted what was uncomfortable; paradoxically it was no longer uncomfortable.

My heart opened. I felt expansive with love as I welcomed my own humanity, including any perceived flaws. I allowed my breath to lead me as I entered deeper and deeper dimensions within my heart. Life was happening in whatever way it was and I was finally okay with it.

So, when I returned to “real” life—out of the caves and back to my busy job in the states, back to being a wife and stepparent—I found my heart had expanded to the roles I play. The caves of India taught me that acceptance is the key to freedom and happiness. It is easy now to return to the cave where I spent so much time learning to accept life. But, now the cave is within me. It is the cave of my own heart I return. A single conscious breath returns me to this meditative space. There I meet whatever life is presenting, and I never need to go anywhere. So, as I go about my life I simply remember: acceptance is the key to living life with an open heart. I then relax into whatever I am feeling, and I breathe.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Recognizing the Self. Questioner: What am I looking for?

In seeking, we find our true selves.

“All self-liberates and returns to the Source. It is the bottomless 
ground, the conscious awareness of all existence, the simplicity of 
the present moment. It is the no-thing of absolute potentiality. 
This explains why Emptiness creates the space for all to manifest. 
An open void, a receptive vessel without boundaries, this is what 
we are." 
~Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within.

Questioner: While I intellectually know this to be true, I have not 
experienced emptiness. What am I supposed to be looking for? 
Where is the Source, the Self? How can I experience emptiness?

"No matter where we are or what may be happening, connecting 
with the Self, our True Nature, is readily available as the in-breath." 
~Bringing Home the Mountain: Finding the Teacher Within. 

In my book, “Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within,” 
I write about the specific practices and experiences that led me to 
these realizations. My journey to the Heart was devotional, and 
closely followed a path of self-inquiry as Ramana Maharshi taught. 
Know this emptiness, our true nature, isn’t complicated to find. 
The greatest challenge is to not miss it because of its obviousness. 
The paradox to the spiritual path is that our search for something 
greater than ourselves—for God, or an attribute we pray for Grace 
to bestow upon us—eventually brings us back to our true self, 
the Self, the Heart, the one that created the search to begin with. 

What we seek is our own awareness. This sense of awareness, 
of who we are, we already know. All we need to do is trust our 
own experience, drop below thought, and feel the expanse 
of our own hearts. By following our breath with single-pointed 
attention, slowly relaxing into the sense of our own being we 
can taste this emptiness. Seekers will often pop out of this space, 
thinking there is nothing there. This is when faith in the 
spiritual journey, the Mystery, is called for. This nothingness 
is emptiness and contains everything. It is the Self. The more we 
are able to find then simply relax into this space, we discover 
the Truth, which is our true nature just waiting to be recognized.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Visits to Arunachaleswara Temple... into the Temple's Belly. Tracing the footsteps of Ramana Maharshi.

The wandering sadhus wearing orange, 
along with the ancient trees that bordered many roads, seemed like 
surreal guardians. Their presence seemed to be whispering that a 
mystical journey had begun. 

~Bringing Home the Mountain: Finding the Teacher Within

The further we drove from Chennai, with a population of 7.5 
million, the roads became narrow and the landscape rural. 
Tiruvannamalai is 120 miles southwest of Chennai, and has a 
population of around 130,000. However, the population can swell to 
over a million during special full moon and other holy Hindu 
celebrations. I would be staying in a small village about two miles 
away, near Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. When I spotted towering 
lights in the night landscape, I knew we were close. It was my first 
glimpse of the Arunachaleswara Temple, one of the largest in India.

~Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within

When Venkataraman, later known as Ramana Maharshi, first arrived to Tiruvannamalai as a teenager he mostly sat absorbed in a samadhi, or heightened meditation state. He nestled himself in a tiny room within a dark basement of the ancient Arunacheleswara Temple and lived there. Despite the relentless insects, rodents, and other teens that would physically harass him, he sat unmoving. Finally, a kind hearted man took pity on him, recognizing him as an advanced soul. Ramana was assisted in relocating to a mango grove where he stayed until settling into the caves of Arunachala. 

With a heart filled with devotion, I visited the room where Ramana first stayed. It is now a sacred shrine dedicated in his honor. One of the resident swami's then took a friend and I on a tour into the temple's belly. 

The swami painted our foreheads in traditional Hindu fashion with red, white, and black ash and included us in a blessing ceremony. We were led deeper and deeper into the temple, passing several small fire offerings until we approached the innermost shrine room. It became profoundly quiet. My body was lulled deeper through the winding path into the most inner sanctum. Several Hindu worshipers had gathered around a large, black sacred lingam, their object of devotion. A lingam or Shiva Linga is a phallic-shaped statue said to represent the creative powers of the Universe. We joined the others in the mysterious darkness within the temple’s belly. Suddenly, it became light with a vibrant energy. I looked for the source of light but I could not identify anything to account for the brightness. 

~Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within.

 Om Namo Arunachaleswara Om...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Going into the Heart within the Caves of Ramana Maharshi and Arunachala

My time in the Caves of Arunachala, especially Ramana's Lover Cave, my favorite, was spent working with emotions. As I would slip into the deep abyss of meditation, blissful states would come and go, as would long-forgotten memories from my childhood. Numerous hours were spent simply 'being with what is,' and have enhanced my life beyond words. I discovered a life-changing technique, which I share extensively in my book 'Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within.' By using the breath to move into the space of contraction, meaning feelings of constriction, painful or stifled emotional states, without avoiding what is experienced, we have endless opportunities to break through the painful barriers of separation to freedom. 


"I spent four hours on the Mountain, primarily in Ramana’s lower cave. 
I focused on experiencing my love for Ramana, feeling this love in the heart 
center. After focusing on my bodily sensations, and the ego identity 
of Cathy with all the stories, history, strengths and vulnerabilities, a 
profound deepening or widening of the heart center took place. 
There were no boundaries or restrictions to this space. I focused on 
giving loving attention to my body, where I could physically feel 
emotions that were constricted. Some childhood memories flashed 
in my mind of stifling tears and sadness, and needing to appear strong."

"I immediately sensed a narrowing of my throat and heart space, 
along with a growing physical sensation of anxiety. The anxiety 
seemed to be locked in my stomach and chest so that breathing was 
difficult. I invited Shiva, the deity of fire, to burn away this 
resistance, fully breathing in the healing energy that surrounded me. 
The results were extremely powerful. There was an even greater 
opening within my heart center, best described as freeing. A 
physical release had somehow occurred, letting go of an area of 
constriction that had been guarding my heart. I had not realized it 
had even existed until it was gone."

~Bringing Home the Mountain: Finding the Teacher Within

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Om Arunachala. The Mountain of my Heart.

Arunachala! Thou dost root out the ego of those who meditate on thee in the heart. 
~Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi 

It is difficult to explain the spiritual vibration of this 1,600 foot mountain, or sacred hill, called Arunachala. It is located in the Southern State of Tamil Nadu and is said to be part of the oldest mountain range in the world. Hindus believe Arunachala embodies the Hindu God Shiva; thus, it has been an important pilgrimage destination for over a thousand years. Ramana Maharshi first came to Arunachala as a teen following his awakening, and lived there until his death in 1950. This was the reason I had come, as Ramana's ashram is located at its base. However, it wasn't until arriving to Tiruvannamalai did I experience the intense energy of this mountain. My heart felt expansive and pounded with a primal force. I yearned to move closer, to fall into complete union. My gaze was entranced by its splendor, as though I had fallen instantly in love. I knew I was home. I had come home to my own heart. The Mountain and I were One. 

Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within describes my first union with the Mountain, and the subsequent journey into the heart that began that day. 

"Today I am filled with such a peaceful, radiating energy. I feel at home here, as though I could spend the rest of my life here by the Mountain. Thank goodness, the Mountain is within me as the Self. The power of Arunachala is mysteriously beyond all understanding and words.”  ~Bringing Home the Mountain: Finding the Teacher Within

The Embrace of Mother India

The traveler is in search of the greatest adventure, the journey of self-discovery. 
“Why India?” I've been asked repeatedly why I am drawn to this vast country. India is the home of my heart, a country that makes me feel keenly alive. As a middle-class American woman in her forties I have been embraced by Mother India four times, joining the 2.5 million tourists a year that have chosen to visit this pulsing country. It's a land of abundant extremes. Garlands of jasmine and marigolds entice my senses to linger, while the ripe smells of trash and sewage propel me to the next scene of the moment. Yet, I am ever present with it all. No one is to blame if I don’t like something, if a plume of exhaust makes me cough, if a barking dog wakes me in the night, or if I am overwhelmed by what I see. All is experienced in the heart of who I am.With a population of 1.1 billion people, India’s endless hues and vivid scenes of humanity appear magically as if I am walking through a mirage. Sadhus, aesthetic holy men, draped in orange and white cloth, and Sikhs wearing bright turbans appear like surreal guardians in a whimsical, ageless arena of garnet and amber-tinged castles, ivory mosques, and chestnut temples which remain greatly untouched as the whiz of traffic create a cloud of frenzied movement. India’s beauty shines amid the scars of war and ambition, graced by the footsteps of Gandhi, countless scholars, the Dalai Lama, and many of the greatest Hindu and Buddhist teachers throughout the centuries, including the legendary Buddha. Modern development has taken hold like the scorching heat of an India summer. Though, the cooling monsoons protect the spiritual essence of India. The radiant heart of Mother India will remain a beacon for those who are drawn to come. For me, India's primal vibration awakens my heart, revealing who I truly am. 'Finding Yourself' happens by simply being present with what is, without trying to change anything. In the midst of everything arising within and around me, Truth is continually revealed. I am India, and India is I. This is the embrace of Mother India. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The beginning of the journey...

Many have asked me what inspired my first two trips to India. It is with a full and loving heart I utter the name, Ramana Maharshi. I have attached a link to my author's blog where I share select segments from Bringing Home the Mountain-Finding the Teacher Within, as Ramana often graces my book. I never thought I'd have a Guru, especially one that died sixteen years before my birth. Mysteriously, Ramana Maharshi has touched my heart as though his presence has always been with me. This connection led me to visit his ashram and the sacred mountain Arunachala. And with this first visit, the journey to awaken my heart began.