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I’ve been getting ready for a show this Saturday at The Soma Center in Highland Park, NJ, very much in my old stomping grounds near Rutgers University. I really like how Jessica sounds on vocals and viola. I think we have a good combo in sound and personality. This past Friday we played a mini house concert that served as a good dressed rehearsal for this weekend’s show. I didn’t feel quite ready to play one of the songs from the new material I’ve been writing, but I definitely want to get “Everybody Does the Best They Can” on Saturday’s playlist. Songs always feel like works in progress for a while after I start letting them out into the world, anyway. I do think they have to be let out in order to grow into their strongest form. Saturday will be a 2-for-1; after the concert will be Bhakti Dance! – an event I have been creating over the past year in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. I am hoping for a good “hometown” crowd for it this time. All this should feel more or less like part of the usual program; even better in a place where I am most at ease. It is actually a bit more complex at the moment, though thankfully not profoundly so – at least not anymore. 2014 has been a very weird year. I won’t write a book about it here, but suffice it to say that this year I found myself in close proximity with some practices and beliefs that were very off-putting (That would be somewhat of an understatement.). It was being called yoga, and it looked like yoga. I suppose it is yoga of a sort, but not one with which I care to interface. I can’t claim to know the inner life of anyone else, but it seemed to be a yoga of doctrine over discovery. It was clearly of mind over heart – a kind of academic belief in interconnectedness, but profoundly lacking in compassion. I could go on, but there is no need. There has been so much more to the journey than this, but one of the effects of opening my intimate circle to this bizarre detour has been to have to question all, to move through a real, but thankfully temporary fear of yoga and spiritual practice in general. I have had to rediscover for myself what these things are and what parts of them, if any, I want in my life. It has generally not been a good feeling, but it surely is powerful to tear everything down (or to have it torn down) to rebuild what is good and what matters. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I could go back to the part of my world that has been about facilitating kirtan and other yoga-related practices. Thanks to the help of genuine friends and my own journey through these months of decompression, reading, and sorting out what is helpful and for the highest good and what just isn’t, I have been teasing out and rediscovering all the elements of a contemplative, spiritual way of being that do resonate: Balance and integration are everything. Knowing and feeling the value of all beings is truth. The yoga that guides me and that is my daily way is doing the work of growth and finding the perfection in the messiness of real, everyday life, not in the aloof or abstract, but the embodied. Yoga is nothing if not about getting to the heart of love. I am relieved and quietly joyful to get back to my own daily meditation practice and my writing. The concert and Bhakti Dance will be so much fun on Saturday. I am glad to say it will come from a genuine place of opening to joy and enjoyment, finally unafraid.
Saturday, December 6th 6:30pm Soma Center *concert and Bhakti Dance! 511 Raritan Ave, Highland Park, NJ 08904 732-777-9642 w/ singer/violist Jessica Floresta Concert performance 6:30-8pm Bhakti Dance! 8:30-10pm $12/either event, $20/the evening Bhakti Dance! is a fun, transformative, alternative social event – Think of the high school dance only with great kirtan, mantra dance music, an uplifting party playlist, and none of the drama. Refreshments available.
This morning I ran across an old essay I wrote. It feels so apropos to share it. I hope you’ll forgive me for not waiting ’til Throwback Thursday.
I must be joking to soften how urgent and pertinent this feels for me in this moment. To live in spiritual openness, plurality, and fluidity, to be available to awareness of and wisdom in varied paths is a deep part of authentic spiritual growth. I want always to find new language for the great inner experiences, and to know that I may always find new ways to explore and express the same. I want always to know that how others find their way is a reason not for disdain but for celebration.
As I move in the flow of my own journey, I am discovering the ways kirtan, as much as I love it, has served to obscure some of the deepest work I need to do – the experiencing, uncovering, and writing down the blood-and-guts stories of pain, desire, memory, ecstasy, and daily life in all its messy glory. Now I am drawn to turn much of my attention to that work. Though my current focus is different, the essence of the essay below captures so much of what I feel and know in my bones tonight. I am glad to share this snapshot of what I was thinking about in October 2007, not long after the release of Live Devotion.
Buddha, Baal, and Mary— Finding your Footing Among Many Spiritual Paths
The other evening, a friend and I had a glorious opportunity to sit in a park in Bristol, PA with a fresh fruit picnic as we enjoyed the transition from summer to autumn, from evening sun to dusky night. If you don’t identify as Pagan, this is one of those nights that could beckon you toward that particular spiritual way—In the warm air, highlighted by an idyllic full moon, we savored the opportunity to sit close to the earth and to touch the grass that made its best effort to return strong from its most recent mowing, all in the company of a gorgeous, mighty oak. How easy it is to discover the Divine through nature on a night like this, and to experience the sacred energy of Goddess, God, Mother Earth, Father Sky—any of those names—ancient or new—that one may use to describe The Infinite.
I am a longtime practitioner of meditation, bhakti yoga, and eclectic Paganism. Indo-Pagan, Krishna witch—I enjoy wading through the words I might use to describe the set of practices that call to me. During our twilight picnic, my friend told me about her growing connection to the Druid path, and how she loves celebrating with her group, called a grove. She enjoys the righteous mix of reverence and mirth among its members, and that with each gathering they create anew while harkening to the ancients. We talked about how, like many modern Pagans, we both create rituals and adorn our own altars according to our personal connections to Spirit.
This friend of mine had a happy thing to report on that front – Not long ago, she added an image to her altar. Mary. Yes, Holy Mary, Mother of God. She had discovered a sweet, inner connection to Mary, opened to her guidance as a Protector, and for many nights has lit candles to honor her. It was a bit daunting at first, this foray into the icons of dominant religion by this devoutly alternative woman, but she has grown comfortable over time in talking about it with her grovemates. They welcomed her discovery of this connection, and the inner strength it brought to her and her practice. At first glance, her experience seems opposite to the religious dilemma of many, but her initial hesitation was really a lot like what so many of us go through when expanding out from the traditional religions of our families.
Most of us in the U.S. who now identify as Pagans grew up with a different tradition. For those from a Judeo-Christian background, it can be a daunting experience to step outside those boundaries and into a different way of seeing. For those of us who also grew up queer, quite possibly having been inside varying degrees of religious philosophy that called our sexual expression sin and instilled the fear of God in relation to all things Pagan is a serious 1-2 punch. You might well be caught in a dogma that told you there is only one true way. If you are feeling called to explore outside the lines, how can you move through your learned fears and get from the thought to the action?
The first time I bought a pentagram—a five pointed star, encircled, symbolizing the four sacred elements and Spirit—I have to admit, I was quite nervous. I felt in my heart that the small sterling pendant around my neck represented deep, Universal love and healing magic. But that little, irrational voice persisted… “No matter what I am feeling, is this actually the mark of the devil?” Putting time in working on the paths that call me allowed the fear to wane. It was different, yet nearly as odd when my devotion to Divine Consciousness found me honoring Jesus once again, having rediscovered that expression of light and wisdom in and through the beings of love I had come to honor.
Eventually, I got better at discerning what is true for me and what is imposed from another’s insistence—from any side of the religious equation. After all, what is the core of each religion, if not love? What is a religion but a path to the center of love along with a set of tools for help and celebration along the way? Why not find skillful, honest, and integrated ways to utilize all those tools that help us love the clearest and live the best?
Infinite numbers of seekers have realized the fabric of love, compassion, and enlightenment pervading all that is as the silence of The Buddha and as the pure love of the Christ. It has been found in an exalted Father-God and in Gaia, the living Spirit of the Earth Herself. You may find it in the named or the unnamed, a plurality of practices or a single tradition, Higher Self, or no-self.
There is no one answer or simple means to break through to a place of comfortable exploration. But as you begin to explore, consider giving yourself to the possibility that you may discover this: If you’ve been told of an “only way,” that one way may turn out to be whatever is suited uniquely to the longings of your own spiritual heart. Know that many, many seekers have walked the way of doubt, spiritual crisis, and emergence. In that, you are already a part of a beautiful tradition.
Saturday night was the second Bhakti Dance! at YogaLove in Yardley, PA. I am so glad the Bhakti Dance! idea came into focus at the end of 2013. Here is the way I’ve been describing it:
Come out on a Saturday night for a little bit of chanting and a whole lot of freeform movement. Bhakti Dance! is a fun, transformative, alternative social event – Think of the high school dance only with great kirtan, mantra dance music, an uplifting party playlist, and none of the drama.
We started out with about half an hour of chanting. I felt as though we sang just enough to become present in the room and in the event we were creating together. Then came the lights and the time to move. Transforming a yoga studio into a dance club is so satisfying and joyful! It is a good thing to have happened upon a truly natural expression of the connection I find between music and spirit. In the past I’ve had trouble creating the right balance in chant/performance spaces to reflect this. I’ve had trouble saying it in words. In the midst of dance, there is no need for words.
Val from Rainbows of Healing has been liaison for the event with the YogaLove space and has helped so much with her overall enthusiasm to make cool things happen. I love the look on her face when she hears the first notes of a back-in-the-day song and dives into the dance. Julio and Jana drove from NYC to join us, and were a total trip with their in-step dance moves and exuberance. Jane brought bindis and made everyone extra sparkly. Whenever I felt the urge to redirect the energy, thinking that people weren’t “getting it” or were heading toward boredom, I looked again and noticed they were dancing in their individual moments. I saw people keeping to themselves a good deal of the time and realized it as an indicator of deepening into the experience. There was also plenty of interaction – smiling, spontaneous rumba, clapping, random happy shouting. I’d planned to resolve the evening with “Shivo Ham,” but singing the Om Shanti together on “Holy River” turned out to be just right instead.
Creating Bhakti Dance! is feeling so amazingly good and it gives me encouragement to keep moving toward the singer/songwriter/rock performance meets chant meets dance party blowout creations I’ve been envisioning for a long time. My 2013 New Year’s resolution was “more dancing and more glitter.” It may sound silly and playful, and it is those things. It also turns out to have been more moving an intention than I could have guessed. I’ll keep it around this year. More song and dance and glitter all around!
A few tunes from Bhakti Dance! 1/18/14:
It’s time to see about taking Bhakti Dance! on the road. If you’d like to schedule one, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One afternoon on Facebook, Preetamdas Kirtana posted something like “F*!k tolerance! What if God practiced ‘tolerance?’ Practice love!” “That should be a T-shirt,” I commented. He said I ought to go for it – and so it is. => here Thanks, Preetamdas, for the inspiration. The Coexist movement is headed in the right direction. I hope this bit of in-your-face yoga inspires many more to approach life from a place of love.
Last week, I was at Jack and Jenn’s working on the preliminary recordings for the next chant CD. As the day to begin work drew closer, I felt as though I was cramming for kirtan. I had to solidify ideas that had been floating along for months. I needed to make decisions about instrumentation. I wanted to strongly suggest to divine inspiration that a visit would be more than welcome. “This is no way to approach bhakti,” I thought. These sounds should emerge whole from pure love, unabated. I was angry with myself for my process. All music should be effortless, right? I was angrier that I had been letting relationships and meekness and random distractions throw me off my game for too long. How long ago had the trail branched off? I realized that Virgo Obsesso, my inner critic, was at it again. I noticed that sometimes I manage to coexist with the process it takes to live and grow and create. Sometimes it feels farther off than that, and I barely tolerate my own mind’s changes. Life is a meditation. The point is to notice the straying, and return to center.
Recognizing that the shirt’s message must first be realized internally – spiritually – emotionally – was a revelation. Seeing this brought on an immediate shift. There is time to remember the breath and time to extend compassion to the inner struggle. Time to remember that music and art and awareness of spirit all show up where there is kindness to self. All of us woo-woo types talk about “You have to love yourself.” It was good to actually get it in that moment. I’m sure I’ll forget again and remind myself. Again. As with any practice, the hope is that the cycle becomes gentler as we move along the path.
I am now quietly excited about allowing the new sounds through. Seven new chants and spiritual songs are in the works. Recording felt easy, as if it was happening of its own accord. I love one song that I am so far calling “Blessed Be – Namaste.” It is exceedingly simple and is a blessing that seeks to make a bridge where the Pagan and Hindu traditions in me meet. The words and melody were sweet enough to show up the night before the recording session. I believe that often the best thing one can do for anything musical or poetic is to get out of its way.
Blessed Be and Namaste. May we be good to ourselves and practice love in our travels. May the reminders harm none and lead us back in those moments when love has been forgotten.