Stoking the embers: an ode to growth

Inspiration is often fleeting.

Sometimes it floats in on a bright morning breath, trickles down the spine like wildfire, ignites to the very core. It gets hot, burns through doubts and worries, elates the soul, energizes the body.

But then that heat starts to fade. It’s too hot to handle, we need it to cool. And as it cools, our spirits fade too and we open the doors once again to doubt, worry, fear. The hows, the whys, weigh heavy as they climb each vertebrae, shrinking stealthily over the shoulders, and pulling down the collarbones, curling the head to hover over the heart in protection. And before we know it, we’re clawing our fingernails against the earth, longing for change but immobilized by fear of it.

We go through this process time and time again- sometimes the cycle is complete in a few hours or days, sometimes longer. The higher we get, the deeper the lull appears. We sabotage the high in fear and dread of the lull. Worst yet, we get stuck in the cycles spinning round and round until we lose orientation and start digging down when we mean to go up, losing ourselves in the pit. Our experience in the pit is a powerful one, and those embers of inspiration have trouble catching fire when smothered by the weight of a heavy heart. Subsequent experiences begin to grow their vines around the heart and the lungs, gently and consistently tightening their hold on our creativity, our air, our life. Each strand stronger than the last, we give in, allow them to victimize us, pushing us deeper into the pit- so deep that the flight of inspiration, of freedom, appears to be available only to other beings, and we watch them too. We watch through the peephole of our pit, gazing up, allowing the elations of others to increase the space between us.  We watch the waves of inspiration passing us over time and time again on the winds of change that no longer graze the surface of our skin. We watch ourselves settle, again stuck in the intensity of a craving and filling it with tastes that don’t satiate the palate. Tastes that are ‘safe.’ Tastes like job security. Tastes like a mortgage payment. Tastes like routine, and chores. We continue filling our plate with these monotonous, bland tastes, becoming a slave to them, replacing them with more bland, monotonous tastes the moment we finish so as not to leave any blank space, any inkling of a home for something ostentatious and sweet like creativity or spontaneity, though on some level we are aware that we ache for it.

Fear not the pit, because the deeper we dig down into the earth of the soul, the more fertile the soil for even the smallest seeds. The deeper the darkness, the brighter our smallest ember of inspiration can shine, grabbing our attention and commanding our focus. If we have a breath left beneath the weight on the chest, we have enough oxygen to fan our small embers to flames. These flames are flames of transformation, transmuting that which no longer serves. The fire revolves in the darkness, evolving the dormant edges of the body, asking us to move, to go, to do. Our task is to be open to these flames of initiation, our work is to allow it to move us. It matters little what we do with it; what matters is simply that we do. We follow the illumination of the flame to see through the darkness. We go. We Allow. We accept the cycles and seasons of our spirit and know that the dark is not a place to be ashamed of, it is a place to visit frequently for a humble reminder of the grounds of our soul, those spaces waiting patiently for the light. Each time we visit, a new evolution can begin, setting the next cycle into motion as we break outdated agreements and burn down the walls of restrictions, deepening our roots and expanding through our flaming branches. When we go through the painful, cracking, messy process with patience, peace, and love in our heart, we are growth embodied. Fear not the pit. Fear not the process. Stoke the embers and watch your innate, awesome power move. 

Fear & Other Drugs: El Salvador

Extended travel will teach you a thing or two about yourself. I, for one, never realized quite how terrifying the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain is for me. In fact, I was quite surprised by my discomfort. I always considered myself particularly easy going in the gray areas, I thrive in situations that have unclear endings and am nearly never bothered by worries of the future. I suppose you could say that’s how I got here in the first place. But here in Backpackland (a name so accurately bestowed by a wise soul sista), uncertainty is about the only thing I can count on…and as such, I spend a lot of time in my fear.

Three months in and that hasn’t really changed, even as I grow more familiar with the unfamiliar. I still wake up to panic attacks in new places or just before we move along. I still feel the powerful and looming weight of dread just beyond the horizon in beautiful new cities. I still watch the shifting eyes of passersby as I walk with my massive Gringa backpack along busy streets of foreign lands. But I have also come closer to understanding this phenomenon. I haven’t “conquered” my fear, and that is not what I came here to do. I am living with my fear, drinking tea with my fear, getting to know my fear. I am slowly finding and sculpting and rendering my tools to keep fear from crippling me; learning how to make space for all of it.

You might say that El Salvador was the peak of all of this, and I might be compelled to agree. With a reputation as the most dangerous, drug trodden country in this corner of the world- the epicenter of infamously most murderous gang, MS-13, and its foes- El Salvador was not exactly on my list of adventures this time around. It’s hard to say exactly why I agreed to go; even if it is amazing, why take any risks when there are so many other amazing destinations? I didn’t want my fears to automatically stop me from experiencing a truly unique culture, so I did some research. Lonely Planet, our guide book for most of the trip, insists that ES is the gem of Central America. As it turns out, I have a few credible sources in my network that also gave me some hope. A friend from college even gave me her mother’s phone number in the capital, San Salvador, should I need any help. As we set up our travel plans, I felt that familiar sting of fear in my gut- the seat of my intuition- but also knew that this was a moment of growth, not doom.

See, the thing about fear + travel is that you want, you crave information. You want someone to tell you that everything will be fine. You want someone to give you a definitive idea of what your experience will be. But that simply is not how it goes. You can survey your entire network, trusted and otherwise, but no one will prophesy your future. You scour the internet looking for stories that you think apply to you, but the craving for certainty will never be satisfied by second-hand advice. I’ve come to realize that this is true whether you are traveling or not. Making decisions can be unnerving, whether in regard to destinations, big purchases, or simply getting dinner. The relativism between this decision making anxiety and our FOMO driven culture is not lost on me…but that’s another story.

Bearing our research in mind, we decided to spend a week in El Salvador…and had a wonderfully peaceful time. There was not a single moment that I felt threatened, and quite to the contrary, the people we met were fantastically friendly. I spent a day hiking with a local named Carlos, a coffee farmer and hiking guide in the sleepy town of Juayua on the Ruta de los Flores. In addition to a lovely hike, Carlos provided rich insight to the complex culture of a country riddled with war and gang violence. Up in the mountains where he grew up, there was little to tell about the violent reputation I was familiar with. He is passionate about the land and often volunteers on clean-up crews around the classic 7-Waterfalls hike. He told me about the hope he has for his country, that there are now programs to rehabilitate imprisoned youth through education, programs to help women who have been victims of violence learn and start businesses with micro-loans, and other community-driven support. He showed us some of the murals that were constructed by the young people of Juayua, displays of dedication to peace and community growth. He talked about the civil war, the people that were displaced, and how easy it was to turn to violence. He did not have a bad attitude towards the United States, even though he had once been deported. Like many folks I’ve met here, he was well versed in the political rhetoric of the US (something I’ll never quite get used to when traveling distant corners of the world) and even had some shockingly kind words to say about policies enacted under the current regime. Irony on Irony.

El Salvador is also home to one of my favorite beaches in all of Central America- El Tunco. Nestled among the rocky shores of the pacific coast line, Tunco is a haven for serious surfers. Reputation has it listed as a party town, but we hit it just as high season was coming to a close and found it immensely peaceful. The beaches are rocky, but tide was low enough to expose the black sand beach. The water was crystal clear shades of the deepest sapphire blue inter-spliced with bright turquoise. The fish was infinite, and the pupusas were cheap. It was its own slice of paradise. After one of the best yoga classes I’ve had on the road, I chatted with the teacher about an imaginary future in which I could successfully convince a US studio to have a retreat there. She laughed and said she knows how it can be hard to get people out and over their fear of new places- she leads retreats in India but can’t convince any of her community in San Salvador that it is safe in India. More irony.

If you should take away anything from this story, it is that this is my unique experience- not to be replicated or held as infallible truth. El Salvador certainly suffers from very real violence. The reputation is not one to be taken lightly. Though every country has its pockets, El Salvador is particularly tricky due to the lack of infrastructure available to help should you need medical or legal support. However, (and that’s a BIG however), the danger is largely localized in particular areas that are not difficult to avoid. We spent more money on a private shuttle rather than public transportation and headed all local warnings. As a rule of thumb, whenever you arrive in a new city (foreign or otherwise), the first thing you should do is ask your host what areas should be avoided. In El Salvador, a large percentage of tourist-involved crime has more to do with wrong-place, wrong-time than specific, targeted attacks. Still doesn’t exactly sound like a frolic in the park, but it is an important distinction when comparing relative dangers between different tourist towns. If you choose to go or you choose to skip it, do so on the basis of an informed decision and exercise extra precaution.

As for the fear, it’s getting better the more often I name it. I find that in situations of uncertainty, my brain will be quick to fill in details with “what ifs” drawn from a lifetime of cop shows, sensational news, and murder mysteries. It’s funny- I thought one of my single biggest fears was snakes. Any time we strayed off a well-beaten path my body would literally freeze in apprehension. Though it may sound silly, this is how I really came to understand and work with my fear. I noticed that I was primarily afraid of snakes only if I hadn’t walked that particular path before; once I had been there and sufficiently surveyed the area, I was fine. As if a snake couldn’t break the laws of my certainty and decide to move into my path. As if my quick search couldn’t possibly have missed an expertly hidden, probably terrified snake. If you do the math, it isn’t the snake the scared me, it was the possibility of a snake. I was almost relieved when I did see one, because that way I knew where it was (and it didn’t kill me…amazing). Transferring this conclusion to other instances of fear, I found that I am simply fearing the possibility of something going wrong- another minuscule yet major distinction. Faith and fear are one in the same. The former is belief that things will go well, while the latter is the belief that they won’t. Either way, you are speculating on something completely out of your control. Rather than sitting in fear and anticipating the worst, small little bits of positivity and lots of deep breaths can help you find your faith.

Pura Vida, Month #2

Today, February 18th, marks two months since I stopped, dropped, and rolled out of employment. On December 18th, I finished my last day of work in a hurry and without goodbyes after receiving word that my father’s business had caught fire and burned to the ground. Two days later I loaded my car with as much as I could and left Austin for the last time as a resident. Two weeks later I totaled said car and two weeks after that I said see ya later to New York too. I guess you could say I was shedding some layers, making some space. A lot of people will look at this life and say that I am lucky. And I am, for so many things. I’m lucky that my family didn’t suffer a more tragic loss when the Dairy Supply burned. I’m lucky that no one was hurt when I wrecked my car. I’m lucky for all of the love and support I have received with each decision I make. Most of all, I am lucky to have embraced the many opportunities to learn from my obstacles. Luck did not bring me here, my learning opportunities did.

The five weeks I spent at Rancho Margot were full of learning, internal and otherwise. As a yoga teacher, I had a pretty wonderful routine. My responsibility was the yoga space- creating it, cleaning it, opening it to the guests. I was given all the time and room I needed to practice, meditate, and prepare for public classes with few other duties. When I wasn’t teaching, I was finding new places to hang my hammock to read, journal, and ponder. I taught my first real yin class…and then I taught one every evening, sometimes followed by yoga nidra or meditation. By the time I left, even my vinyasa classes were starting to feel fairly yin-y, a fairly new and welcomed concept for me. Each day started before six in the shala, and each night saw me asleep before nine. My belly seldom saw sugar or meat, and processed foods dropped out of recognition. I often visited with guests, volunteers, and staff to soak up a bit of their story. Days off were spent hiking, riding horses, and adventuring in the jungle. It was lovely and it was quiet and it was simple- exactly what I wanted. Despite all of this perfection, I spent a lot of time feeling lousy.

I want to make it abundantly clear that the experience I have had thus far is unequivocally, deeply positive; Positive in that I have found a deeper understanding of meaningful living; Positive in that I have experienced a wide variety of emotions, including the unattractive ones; Positive in that I have found and lost and found inspiration. It is wildly complex and wonderfully beautiful. So when I say that I was feeling lousy, please don’t assume I wanted it any other way. It is all part of this process of learning, of understanding, of self-discovery. Its so easy to get swept up with the highlights, the story of the girl that quit the rat race to teach yoga in the jungle with her lover. I think it is important to share the less glamorous stories too, because in a lot of ways, a lack of ugliness in our collective story leads to our own increasingly negative feelings about our situation. It’s easy to think that if you do what others do, you’ll feel the as happy as they look. And then when you get there and you feel lousy, you think something is wrong with you. The problem isn’t you, it’s the us, collectively. In refusing to feel the backswing of the pendulum- the ugly, the dark, the negative- we are limiting our ability to feel the contrary- the thrill, the high, the elation- drawing us into a stale and unseasoned existence that we then dull with distraction.

 

Now that I am reflecting on my first good chunk of time out here, it is clear that some of the lousiness I felt stemmed from my own expectations. Out of nothing but naiveté, I assumed that the time and space awarded to me by this expedition would make clear what I was wanting- time to think about life and really just figure it out (in a matter of weeks). I craved the courage other travelers had, with their steadfast commitment to the lifestyle and fearlessness of the future. My expectation was to gain a bit of this simply by doing it too. I forgot that I am still me, and before I can emulate that same courage, confidence, and fearlessness, I need to spend some of the hard, ugly, dark times with myself to uncover my own needs. In my two months of liberation, I’ve boiled those needs down to the following:

  • Food Autonomy. I like to choose my food, cook my food, and I like to decide when and how to eat it. When I am given food, though I am immensely grateful, I feel powerless and a lack of control over a very big part of me.
  • Variable Work. When my days are filled with the exact same activities or a lot of free time, I get lethargic and deeply uninspired. Routine isn’t the problem per se, as long as I have different things to do each day. I have always been this way, but never realized why. I spend a lot of time thinking that my exhaustion was coming from taking too many classes in school or having too many jobs. I am starting to see that this variability actually gives me energy. Now the task is to find the path that benefits from this quality without abusing it.
  • Stimulus. I am a slow mover, and without stimulation, can get stuck in a low place. I enjoy doing things that force me to come out of that low place and get active early on. Once moving, I can keep the fire burning and the upward cycle begins.
  • Learning. I am most stimulated and inspired when I am in the learning process- whether it’s learning about someone, something, or somewhere, I crave it and it feeds me.
  • Alone time…together. I am very sensitive to the needs of others, and will often fall into the patterns described by the martyr archetype by sacrificing my needs to meet theirs, even if (and especially when) their needs are figments of my imagination. Spending time with my guy helps me work through this tendency and cultivate a healthier empathy that protects against emotional burnout. I am forever grateful for his ability to ground this heart- a process I find to be one of the most important qualities we can foster in each other, especially those working in emotionally charged jobs. After five weeks without any real alone time together, I found myself completely burned out and unable to listen empathetically. I was short tempered, irritable, and fiery as hell. Big thanks to my main squeeze for always supporting me, even in that.

As I begin to identify these needs, I feel that I am tending to my seeds of growth and transformation. I can feel a weight lift as I name each one, but also the burden of releasing that blissful ignorance. The biggest learning opportunity of all is the one you take to understand your needs. Now the real work begins. I cannot simply identify my needs and then ignore the situations that come up when I deny myself of them. It is now my responsibility to make sure my needs are met, and to take action when they are not. It is empowering and intimidating, but I intend to continue identifying and working to balance each and every one so that I may be forever cultivating, transforming, and honoring my very best self. Pura Vida, Month #2.

IMG_7204.JPG