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June 2016

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I entered a café yesterday. Dead silence. Has something happened? I looked around, the tables were occupied by people of different ages, each starred at a computer or phone screen. Not one engaged with another. The cluttering from the barista was a relief to hear, she turned on music to fill the deadness in the room. Did I just walk into a sci-fi film? Nope. This is the modern world I was told.

I went out for the evening in San Francisco and came upon one of the oldest cafes and bookstores. Pictures of people, the smell of old books, coffee and pastries engraved in the walls, I could feel the richness of life present in those rooms. People sipped tea and actually talked with each other. A couple snuggled on a worn couch, their kisses looked delicious and wild. Two students butted heads in a heated argument, sounded like politics to me. A grey haired woman was softly playing guitar and a gentleman in style and suite wrote his screen play. Aliveness, love, creativity was flowing naturally here.

It reminds me when I was on a boat to meet my whale friends. Beneath the clear blue sky we travelled not far, suddenly two humpbacks rose from the water only a few feet away. Life, in full splendor and glory. What a magnificent sight to behold, I was in awe and moved to tears by the sheer sacredness of it all. When a school of dolphins joined and played in utter joy in the waves around us, most people’s faces lifted into smiles and cheers (best facelift ever). Connected and open we experience happiness. We are in Love.

But, when we are in a state of separation from the spirit of life, our selves and each other we suffer. We might escape into the mind, disappear from our bodies and the earth, we feel discontented or depressed, negative, isolated, anxious, lost, closed down and overwhelmed. Our relationships get tangled into complicated knots and walls are built. Misery arrives in its many disguises and deadness can spread like a silent disease. We may try not to feel any pain or joy, nor hear the beckoning of soul, and fill desperately the gaping hole with endless substitutes. Computers come in handy, but they cannot give life or real connection.

What helps us to remember who we are, and open into the source of life? What supports us to be present and really connect with each other? What enables us to meet challenges with courage and celebrate life with gusto? What allows us to respond from love with all of our human vulnerability?

There are many ways that lead us home. A kind hand from a friend, waking into the preciousness of life in the blink of an eye, feeling the soft fur of your cat or dog, listening to the wisdom of our heart, practicing acceptance toward what we experience in this moment, reaching out to resolve a conflict into understanding, a good belly laugh, sobbing buckets when sad, seeing sunlight pierce through the clouds, putting your nose into a bouquet of flowers, sharing words and deeds from love…

It is my honor to offer a hand across the bridge for you, our relationships and leaders in this world. With a twinkle and a smile,
Nicola

The train was crammed. I crouched together with the local Indian people, pigs, chickens and fleas on the floor for 2 days. There were no benches in 3rd class. I was just 18 years old, thirsty to discover what real spirituality meant, as I travelled on my own from Germany to Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India. For many years I had wanted to work with Mother Teresa in the slums. I was very impressed with this remarkable woman, who started with a penny to serve the poorest of the poor, and dedicated her whole life uncompromisingly to God and humankind.
After my arrival in the city of Joy and Hell, I walked at 4am toward the nunnery. The sun was just rising over the city. What I saw shook me. Everywhere on the sides of the streets people lay sleeping only covered with ragged loincloths, some were washing themselves in muddy rain puddles. Many were skinny to the bones. Some were severely crippled. They had nothing.
As I walked into the nunnery my heart was pounding. I went up the stairs toward the prayer chapel and met a small woman. I asked her where I could find Mother Teresa. She held out her hands and I burst into tears. With a warm smile she simply said: “Welcome. It’s me. “Her obvious love, simplicity and purity touched me deeply. For several months I worked alongside the joyous nuns and Mother Teresa. Every day we went to the slums to offer food and medicine. I saw that even though these people had nothing, they shared their little bit of rice with each other. They were there for one another and had faith. The hunger and illnesses had left marks on their faces, yet their eyes shone with an inexplicable joy. Who really is poor I wondered? We in the West with our excessive wealth, isolation from each other and loss of soul–or they? We have a different kind of poverty that may be harder to heal though, than the one in India, where basic necessities make life possible.
A little 5 year-old girl in the orphanage, where I worked offered Mother Teresa her only toy to take to the children in the slums. I could see how precious this doll was to her and yet how happy she looked to be able to offer her gift. Mother Teresa did not want people to give from their abundance, what they did not need, or a left over. What matters, she always said, is how much love is put into the giving. That is where joy is found.
When I entered the house of the dying, I felt enveloped in a real sense of peace. The sisters tended so lovingly and respectfully to the ones close to death. They felt loved, may be for the first time in their lives. It was hard for me in the beginning to wash oozing wounds and to face all this suffering. How could the sisters bear to live and serve in the midst of the worst of human suffering? What was it that made them capable to do this work daily with such apparent love, joy and dedication? I remember, whilst praying beside Mother Teresa in her small chapel, when she said to me as if answering my unspoken question: “My lover is Christ and he is in everyone. In serving the poor we love, feed, wash, and clothe him. In giving love we are loved. Treat everyone like you would treat Christ.”
There was a handwritten paper pinned on the wall of the chapel, which read: “When I was homeless you opened your doors. When I was naked you gave me your coat. When I was in prison, you came to my cell. When I was lonely, you gave me your love. Searching for kindness you held out your hand. When I was happy, you shared your joy. “Every person, often the ones closest to us, is offering a gift–a chance to love.
This humble and strong woman had changed my life. Mother Teresa is more than a Christian saint. Her life of true compassion can speak to all of us with a profound and universal message: to simply act from love every moment of our lives.

Published article in Connection Magazine (2001)

May these true stories awaken in you what is wild, free and connected with all of life. I have had many incredible encounters with wild animals, like meeting a mountain lion and cub, having an anaconda snake around my neck, communicating with a bobcat, running with wild mustang horses and others. It is possible for all of us to communicate with the wild and to live in kinship with all of life. When you are in nature, are centered, silent in the mind, present in the body, with an open loving heart, the wild will talk to you–if you are willing to truly listen.

THE ANACONDA SNAKE AROUND MY NECK

I travel on my own deep into the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. I had not planned this trip at all, but was strongly drawn to find the ingenious people of the rainforest who still live in a natural way with the earth, so I could learn from them. In the poor village the roads end, I meet a river guide and within the hour I am on my way. A small boat takes me unto the wide river and we glide for hours upon the water, further and further into the jungle. Sounds, songs I have never heard before resound from all directions. The howler monkeys are laughing and in silence I almost hear these enormous plants growing. Eyes peer through the shadows of the leaves. The jungle is intensively alive, full of wonder and unknown. My skin though is prickling alive with mosquitoes, which find my sweet blood so very tasty. Sweat is pouring down my body. I feel the strong urge to put my head and arms into the water to cool off, but my river guide waves frantically: no, no, no. I look to where he points to: crocodiles are close bye and ready for a meal. I am not going to offer my hands up, no matter how much compassion I may have.

I am lucky, the river guide and his friend invite me to their tribe in the heart of the jungle, once I shared with him about my search and purpose. We talk little, only one of them speaks broken Spanish, so myself. They teach me less through words, but through the way they live, and how they relate with each other and nature. Once we are welcomed into the tribe, I am offered to live in a tiny hut made from leaves and I sleep on the bare earth. I become part of their community, prepare the meals with the women, learn about natural medicines from plants, which and how to use them, watch the men hunting. They need the meat for survival and always offer their prayers beforehand and offer gratitude to the animal that had given it’s life. All is done in deep respect toward nature. They are strong people and know how to live in harmony with the natural environment. It certainly isn’t comfortable, but a simple and connected life. Everything is so much slower here than the speed I am used to in the busy world where I come from.

One day, knowing that I would need to return soon into ‘civilization’, the one who speaks a little Spanish, motions me to follow him. He tells me, that the tribe wants to offer me a rite of initiation through the medicine man. Ok, I say. I do not know what they really mean by that. I walk with the men beneath these mighty trees and their endless thick roots, until we reach an opening, where the sun shines through. It is so hot and wet. They ask me to stand with closed eyes and begin chanting, songs I had never known, but the sound stirs something deep in me. Heavy barefoot steps come closer. The voice of the shaman tells me that this is a moment of life and death. If I succumb to fear I could die. Then he asks me, if I was ready. Well, I shrugged my shoulders, if I died here it would be alright (I didn’t have a child then) and there is little that scares me (except big hairy spiders, which I encountered plenty, even in my bed).

I would be fine really, or so I think. Sure, I motion to him, ready for anything.

From behind, he lands an enormous weight unto my shoulders, which sinks me unto my knees. He asks me to open my eyes. Shock jolts through me, Holy mother –it’s a humongous snake. A full grown anaconda snake at that. My shaman laughs through his brownish teeth and says she hasn’t eaten, if I freak out she would certainly strangle me to death and he would not be able to unloosen her. First I think he is making a bad joke at my expense, but then I realize rather fast what he speaks is true. Her head comes toward my face and she hisses with her flicking red tongue intensely. I am terrified out of my wits. To make matters worse, with focused motion she is moving in closer and closer toward her prey- my neck. Instinctively I put my hands there to protect myself. Naïve, for that would make no difference whatsoever.

Now what do you do, when you can’t stop your fear and it will certainly lead to what you fear the most? The only thing I can remember to do is to breathe and breathe again into my belly. Then into my feet and the ground. I breathe deeper, consciously relaxing in the midst of terror seems counter intuitive, but it is the only thing that works to calm my shaken nerves. I am not too fond of snakes, especially one as close to my skin as this, but I open my heart anyway to connect with this big, long and hungry snake. Sweat is dripping from my forehead. I can’t waste time on fear, indeed, this is a matter of life and death. I keep relaxing, opening and grounding. It’s working, slowly she drops her head lower and lower. When I am calm and centered she rests her head unto my belly, her body wrapping around mine. I stroke her slithering skin with a genuine sense of friendliness, and she closes her eyes. Getting used to her presence and weight I walk with her; all the while she rests on my shoulders and belly peacefully. What an awesome power this snake carries. The Anaconda Snake and I are many hours together, our connection is strong when I return her back into the wild. The medicine man smiles and nods, apparently I have passed my initiation well. The tribe has a feast that night under the stars. Something is deeply changed in me. I am not the same person who has come into the jungle, as when I leave. A greater power has awoken in me. It moves through all of us, like the snake, it is the energy of life. The power of creation itself is not to fear. I can only surrender to that and let it live me, all the way.

MEETING A WILD BOBCAT

I walk on a path through an open and wild area on the California coast with my 11-year-old daughter. She too has a deep connection with the animals. As we stroll along hand in hand, we see the high grass in the field moving and stop in silent mutual understanding, present, watching, sensing. Who is there? What is moving between the grass blades under the bright midday sun? Whoever it is clearly comes closer toward us; soon it is so near we can see the back of a large brown furred animal. As we watch, quiet with anticipation, out of the grass and onto the trail emerges a most beautiful, gracious bobcat. I motion to my daughter to slowly sit down. I too touch the ground and wait, as the cat leisurely strolls toward us.

She approaches, looking straight at us, and only an arm’s length away, she lays down before us. She isn’t injured or ill, but healthy, strong and at ease. I’m thrilled to meet this wild creature so intimately, but hold my excitement at bay, to not scare her off. She calmly looks at us, catlike; completely relaxed and alert, she stretches out, as if for a nap. A most beautiful, unusual friendship circle has formed between us. We give her our full attention and she communicates to us; telling us how to be at ease and walk through life with natural grace.

When our communion is complete, my daughter and I silently thank and bless her. The bobcat gives us one more look, as if to say good-bye in her own way, then gets up and strolls away. We wait a few moments watching her in awe, before we leave as well. I will never forget her face, the natural grace she exuded. What a way to walk through life like that.

FACE TO FACE WITH A MOUNTAIN LIONESS AND HER CUB

Our adventure that day isn’t over. After encountering the bobcat we meet two other wild cats: A little further down the trail we see a mountain lion mother with her young cub walking toward us on the path. At first I rub my eyes, it seems otherworldly what I am seeing. As I realize that I am not dreaming, I should feel fear and turn back, but my daughter and I keep walking forward hand in hand. We cannot stop or turn away, as if a greater force is magically pulling us toward the golden lioness and her cub, who are stately walking toward us.

Suddenly, at the same moment, the four of us stop. We are woken by surprise when we realize we are facing each other only from about thirty feet away. My daughter is mesmerized; so am I. At lightening speed I check with my body senses: Is there any danger from the mountain lion? I can sense none from this proud and magnificent animal, who is standing in open sunlight with golden shimmering fur. Her lean muscles vibrate with strength, ready to pounce if must be. But she relaxes in our presence. As if in silent knowing, she is recognizing me as a mother. Both of us are leading our young. She isn’t hungry apparently (well, that would be too late now anyway). We watch and feel each other out, we all just look at one another with an open curiosity. The meeting is profoundly intense, and surprisingly relaxed.

My daughter is at ease, so I suggest that she connects and communicates with the cub. The dignified lioness and I have a “mother to mother” talk. She teaches me much in these amazing minutes, where time stands still. She shows me what living from true power really is. My daughter seems to make friends with the cub, as if this was the most normal thing to do. She does not put her experience to words, but receives in her own quiet way gifts from the cub and I think this furry young lion bundle feels my girl’s blessings too. Then our meeting has comes to a natural ending. And the bond we formed continues on in the beating of our hearts.

We bow as the great wild cats turn and slowly walk away. A magnificent sight to behold, we both will never forget.

COMMUNICATING WITH ANIMALS AND LIVING IN HARMONY WITH CREATION

The heart knows the universal language of all creation. The wild animals understand it. When you are connected to the heart of creation within and around you all wild creatures will resonate and you walk in oneness with all of life. It is like breathing air, simple and natural. We are interconnected after all. When I meet the wild animals; they seem not threatened by my presence and come often close to me. Why? I do not know. Just, that my heart is one with them and I can communicate with them. I love them. It is nothing supernatural, rather most natural for me. More like–of course, how could it not be so, since we are the same life, just different expressions?

Being in harmony with all of life isn’t complicated. It is in us. We just need to pay attention to it and live like that. The wild is dear to me. There is not much left. Can we stop the destruction now, protect instead what is so precious and learn to live in harmony with the gift and magnificence of creation? It is up to all of us.

A word of commonsense caution: If you want to get to know the wild animals better and learn to commune with them, begin with deer, birds, squirrels. Don’t go for a wild cat, bear or snake unless you are really solidly connected and have plenty of experience and skill. Listen to your own nature and theirs at a safe distance. It will open up worlds for you and benefit all beings. Enjoy!

In 1989, when Thich Nhat Hahn was not yet well known, I came to his monastery in Plum village, to learn from this Buddhist monk, Zen master and spiritual teacher, about living mindfully in every day life. I had read one of his books: “Peace with every step” which inspired me, because of its simplicity and the practical message about kindness and being present.
When I arrived at the village, at first I saw nothing but sunflowers. I had to smile and felt warmly welcomed already before I entered the sanctuary, where monks and nuns lived peacefully together. The first sign I saw said:” Smile. Breathe. You have arrived.” I slowed down in my steps, became aware of my breath and indeed that got me smiling again. The air was soft; summer in southern France is beautiful. Everything at the monastery looked simple, with a touch of sweetness and care even in the old stone buildings. The big bell outside rang. Already time for dinner? No. Odd, everybody stopped what they were doing, whether it was chopping wood, walking, talking or cooking food. All was still for moments, just consciously breathing–“Being Present. Being Peace.” The bell sounded three times and then everyone went back to their activities with mindfulness. This happened every hour. A simple practice with a profound effect. It even stopped me talking.
Already after one day of being here, I noticed that my mind slowed down, that I actually was aware of my breathing and much more present in my body, with the surroundings and the people. I saw peoples faces more clearly, heard the birds singing, could smell the different flowers…A whole world opened up for me, one that had always been there, but I had not been aware of it. All felt so much more real. It was like coming home to life, to myself. “Simply being here” became my main mantra.
I needed it especially for Sundays, when we had a lazy day. Nobody was supposed to work. Imagine that in America? It was a day for resting. Just being. Just here. Sounds easy enough. Not for me. My German work ethic got seriously in the way. People lay in the grass, watching the clouds pass bye and seemed to enjoy themselves. I got restless instead, because there was nothing to do. I wasn’t used to that. It took many Sundays before I looked forward to a lazy day and enjoyed doing nothing mindfully. Try it, if you like for a whole day.
My favorite times were the early mornings. I would always join Thich Nhat Hahn on his mindfulness walk. He would walk slowly, present with every step he was taking and smiled. It made me smile and warm just to be walking beside him. We would stop for moments to consciously breathe together and to take in all what is nourishing about life. I found there was so much and it was always simple–like a flower blossoming, the wind swaying a blade of grass, the warmth of the sun touching my face…”Breathing in–present moment, breathing out–it is a wonderful moment” is one of Thai’s main practices. Simple and profound. For the past is gone, the future has not arrived. What is really here is the present. And that is the gift. Worries had no chance to survive. People’s wrinkles smoothed out. Being fully here felt like the only true and actually the best place to be. Where are you when you are not present? I think I missed out on a lot of real life, when I was somewhere else than in the Now.
I remember how Thich Nhat Hahn related to the children, who loved to flock around him. Even a little 4 year old would walk slowly beside him, holding his hand. Children are naturally more in the present. They loved being with him, because he too was fully present with them and he brought joyousness, gentleness and kindness that called everyone to him like bees to honey. He truly saw them and was there for them. He began his dharma teachings always with a story that even small children could understand. To be honest, I loved his stories best and remembered them most. One time he taught about real love. He told the story of how a friend gave him a gift to show his appreciation. It was a Durango fruit. Thai related how he wasn’t fond of Durango’s. (When I had been in Indonesia, I was offered one and to me it tasted horrible). He spoke about the importance of looking deeply and seeing what the other person, whom we want to express our love for, really likes. And not to base it on what we like. It means to go beyond our selves and really see another. In that way we can better love others. I guess some people like Durango fruit. Just check first though!
He taught by example, less than by endless words, really embodying peace. There is no separation between enlightenment and being human in his way of living and teaching. Sometimes I have encountered a form of spirituality that cuts off from our basic humanity and thereby becomes another form of violence, which is cold and hard. His teaching embraces the whole. It touched me, when he taught about how to relate to our feelings. I had a lot of them and was particularly curious about how to be with them without getting swamped. “May I take good care of my pain, my anger…” which meant you turn toward your feelings like a kind mother or father and tend to them with friendliness and presence. You may already be feeling a sense of friendliness, when reading this. That friendliness was extended to the people who lived here, those who came to visit, the creatures and the land.
One evening we all joined at the river. An honoring ceremony was being held for those who had died and suffered in the Vietnam War. We chanted songs in Vietnamese and lit candles, which were placed into tiny woven baskets. Watching all these lights in the night, lit for many people, floating down the river, singing with the nuns and monks made the truth of our interconnectedness with all beings come alive for me. Suffering must not be swept under the rug, indulged in, or risen above, but needs to be met with compassion. In the morning and evening meditations we practiced: “Looking deeply and being present” as a basis for real compassion to flower.
Living with Thich Nhat Hahn for several months and learning closely every day from him, taught me to be present in life and it helped me to discover peace. I have used the practices in my parenting, relationships and work for many years. To this day I find them very beneficial. I am grateful for his simple teachings, which can be applied everywhere and in every moment of our lives. May it continue to benefit all beings.