Jan 21, 2017: Shakti Speaks

My trip to DC for the women's march was very last minute. I'd broken my right pinky toe over the holidays in a not-so-rare moment of unmindfulness and I just wasn't sure I could make it. I had very much wanted to go. I knew it would be a phenomenal historical event (and I wanted to both participate in it and document it).

A sign at the Union Station bus terminal.

A sign at the Union Station bus terminal.

And that's exactly what it turned out to be, and not just in DC; Saturday January 21st 2017 was historic for women around the world and all those naysayers out there who were "not impressed" by that were clearly either not there and are just a tiny bit jealous (go on, admit it!) or simply can't shake off their (invariably) straight-white-male biases (unlike all those SWMs who did attend).

Shakti is the Sanskrit word for female energy. It's active, creative, vibrant, intelligent, capable of multi-tasking, generous, compassionate and endlessly loving. That energy is not exclusively the domain of female human beings, but that's generally where you'll find the most obvious examples of it, and the global women's march was clearly one of those. Like it or not, that event (or collection of events) was impressive in three important ways:

1) Volume. Size matters.

The sheer volume of the people who protested cannot be ignored or denied. There are no alternative facts. In DC it was somewhere in the vicinity (or above) 500,000; five times more than was anticipated. A total of around 4.6 million people marched in cities throughout the U.S. and although there's no official global head count, thousands of women marched in cities throughout the world.

Cherie_Aartscoley_Womens_March242a_2017-01-21-16.29.31.jpg

2) The expression.

Shakti spoke on Saturday in different and unusual ways. Beyond the daily activism of tweeting and posting and signing petitions and phoning senators and supporting all the orgs that do that stuff best, she knitted and sewed, she drew and she painted, she sang and she chanted. The pussycat hats, the signs, the songs and the chants were all bold acts of creativity and experience that had an undeniable impact. If you doubt that, just take another look at some more of those signs [ https://www.buzzfeed.com/juliareinstein/best-womens-march-signs ]

3) The vibe.

Zero riots and zero violence. Yup. Think about that for a minute. Millions of people and not a single act of violence. That's because Shakti's mission is to overwhelm with love (along with some large doses of intelligence, diplomacy and creativity), not hatred. And we're not talking about some lame and insipid form of love. This is the powerful sisterly, motherly, BFF kind of love that says, "I see you. I know you. I've felt your pain." Whether it's the searing monthly procreative pain that we seldom mention, or the death-defying (and occasionally death-grabbing) pain of childbirth, or the emotional pain of rejection, unrealistic expectations, derision, discrimination or outright misogyny, it's the understanding that "I recognize you. I feel you. You are me. I am you. And we don't endure the pain of being a woman so that some ignorant tyrant(s) can come along and make it a whole lot worse." (Oh and please do feel free to prove us wrong, ignorant tyrants!). 

In that recognition, with that awareness, we came together; all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, sexual dispositions, races, colors, religions and political leanings, and we felt we felt alive, we felt intimate, we felt whole, and we felt LOVE.

Even a Trump supporter couldn't resist a smile.

Even a Trump supporter couldn't resist a smile.

And yes, we'll "get on" and "move forward" with the 100-point plan and the endless to-do list of resistance, but we'll also get back to our daily lives of cooking and cleaning and nursing and caregiving and teaching and counseling and hosting and running businesses and writing and singing and creating, and we'll feel that much more alive and empowered because we know we have a million sisters out there who've got our backs.

So please, no more belittling, bemoaning or just plain being mean about the women's march. Just step back a little and allow us a moment to let the energy of that day suffuse our lives, and for that to be a force for good.

Cherie_Aartscoley_Womens_March172a_2017-01-21-15.41.59.jpg

[ PS ... the biggest complaint I heard about the DC march was the trash left behind. Firstly; the signs left behind were not trash; they were messages left to be read. Secondly, we would've been able to implement a "leave no trace" policy if we'd been allowed to carry backpacks (as it was, that made it difficult to carry water, food and extra clothing). Thirdly, the march in DC flooded the city with money. Perhaps the city could've responded by bringing in extra street cleaners rather than extra police? After all, we've done our fair share of cleaning thanks guys. ]

If you want to see more of my pics from DC, click here (and scroll down).

If you recognize anyone in the pics please have them contact me for a high-res download if they wish (or to be removed if they wish that!).

 

WTF! DJT has NPD

Enough already! Last week the vast majority of those with a pumping heart and an active brain breathed a collective "Phew!" ... a resounding sigh of relief at the (then) most likely prospect that Donald Trump could be relegated to some freak show of an ultra-right-wing TV channel, and not be handed the keys to the White House. We thought we'd averted the likelihood of ongoing and escalating hatred, persecution and fear-mongering –and the inevitable corollary of those things were he to become POTUS. We thought we'd safely managed to escape having to waste a bunch more time in the collective freak-out. 

But the witch hunt reserves dug a little deeper. They brought in extra troops and funds to attack Hillary in any way possible. And lo and behold it actually began to work. DJT's popularity began to surge, and Hillary's plummet. We dropped the ball (or rather, the elephant). We turned our backs for what seemed like a precious few minutes, and the DJT came back, roaring the same acrimonious, vengeful rhetoric without focusing on the real, the tangible, the necessary, the facts, the research, the science. This is the man who would not only be ruling the USA, but effectively the Western World.

The time is now for everyone in the world who cares, to stand up and say; no! We will not allow a man with a very real and dangerous psychological disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) to become the leader of the United States. Most of all, we need medical doctors to speak out, especially to their friends in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Nevada. 

According to the U.S. government's National Library of Medicine, people with NPD display the following symptoms:

  • an excessive sense of self-importance
  • an extreme preoccupation with themselves
  • a lack of empathy for others

They are preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal love. They are also exploitative, envious, domineering, full of entitlement and an exaggerated sense of self worth. People with NPD can be excellent business people precisely because of their lack of empathy for others; they are ruthless. But when they are challenged, they can become unpredictable and dangerous. They:

  • react to criticism with rage, shame, or humiliation
  • take advantage of other people to achieve their own goals
  • exaggerate their own achievements and talents
  • have unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
  • need constant attention and admiration
  • disregard the feelings of others
  • have obsessive self-interest
  • pursue mainly selfish goals
Sourced from Crime Traveller | Researching Crime and the Criminal Mind

Sourced from Crime Traveller | Researching Crime and the Criminal Mind

Clearly, these are not the qualities we need in a leader (and not just any leader). People with NPD behave in socially distressing ways, and this limits their ability to function in relationships and other areas of their life, like work, according to Mayo Clinic. They can come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. They often monopolize conversations, belittle or look down on people, and become impatient or angry when they don't receive "special" attention.

How would this work in meetings with global leaders? I can't even begin to imagine. But imagine we must, until we're well and truly safe from that prospect. NPD is a very real and a very serious disorder that wreaks havoc on many peoples' lives. Let's not allow that havoc to be wreaked on the world. It's got enough to deal with already.

Vote wisely people!

 

¡Donald Trump tiene un trastorno psicológico grave!

¡Ya es suficiente! La semana pasada las vastas mayoría de los que tienen un corazón que bombea y un cerebro activo soltó un "¡Uf!" colectivo ... Un suspiro resonante de alivio en el (entonces) la perspectiva más probable es que Donald Trump podría ser relegado a algún espectáculo de fenómenos de un canal de TV de extrema derecha, y no entregarle las llaves de la Casa Blanca. Pensamos que habíamos evitado la probabilidad de un odio continuo y creciente, la persecución e infundir el temor -y el inevitable corolario de esas cosas era que él se convirtiera en el presidente de los Estados Unidos.

Pensamos que habíamos logrado escapar con seguridad de tener que perder un montón más de tiempo en el enloquecimiento colectivo.

Pero las reservas de caza de brujas excavaron un poco más profundo. Ellos trajeron tropas y fondos adicionales para atacar a Hillary en cualquier forma posible. Y he aquí que en realidad empezó a funcionar. La popularidad de TDI comenzó a aumentar, y el desplomo de Hillary. Dejamos caer la bola (o más bien, el elefante). Dimos la espalda a lo que parecía unos pocos preciosos minutos, y el retorno de TDI, rugiendo la misma mordaz y vengativa retórica, sin centrarse en lo verdadero, lo tangible, lo necesario, los hechos, la investigación, la ciencia. Este hombre que no solo puede llegar a gobernar a los EE.UU sino a todo el mundo occidental.

El tiempo es ahora para todos en el mundo que se preocupan, ponerse de pie y decir; no! No vamos a permitir que un hombre con un trastorno psicológico muy real y peligroso, trastorno de la personalidad narcisista (NPD) se convierta en el líder de los Estados Unidos. Por encima de todo, necesitamos médicos que hablen, en especial sus amigos en Florida, Carolina del Norte, y Nevada.

De acuerdo a la Biblioteca Nacional de Medicina del gobierno de EE.UU., las personas con NPD muestran los siguientes síntomas:

– un sentido excesivo de auto-importancia
– una preocupación extrema con ellos mismos
– la falta de empatía por los demás

Ellos están preocupados con fantasías de éxito, el poder, la belleza, la inteligencia, o amor ideal. Son explotadores, envidiosos, dominantes, lleno de derechos y un sentido exagerado de autoestima. Las personas con NPD pueden ser grandes hombres de negocios precisamente a causa de su falta de empatía por los demás; Ellos son implacables. Pero cuando son desafiados pueden llegar a ser impredecibles y peligrosos. Ellos:

– reaccionar a las críticas con rabia, vergüenza o humillación
– se aprovechan de las demás personas para alcanzar sus metas
– exageran sus logros y talentos
– tienen expectativas no razonables de trato favorable
– necesitan atención y admiración constante
– no tienen en cuenta los sentimientos de los demás
– tienen obsesivo auto-interés
– persiguen principalmente objetivos egoístas

Claramente, éstas no son cualidades que necesitamos en un líder (y no cualquier líder). Las personas con NPD se comportan de manera socialmente angustiantes, lo que limita su capacidad para funcionar en las relaciones y áreas demás de su vida, como el trabajo, de acuerdo a “Mayo Clinic”. Pueden parecer presumidos, jactanciosos o pretenciosos. A menudo monopolizan las conversaciones, menosprecian o desprecian a la gente. Y se vuelven impacientes o enojados cuando no reciben atención "especial".

¿Cómo funcionaría en las reuniones con los líderes mundiales? Ni siquiera puedo empezar a imaginar. Pero imagínense que debemos, hasta que estemos bien y verdaderamente a salvo de esa perspectiva. NDP es un muy real y un trastorno muy grave que causa estragos en la vida de muchas personas. No permitamos que ese estrago estropee al mundo. Ya tenemos suficiente para lidiar con eso.

¡A votar con sabiduría!

Justice ( & ) Mercy

Yesterday Tyrone Palmer appealed his 22-month sentence for killing my brother, Matt Coley, in April of this year. I can't even begin to describe the whirlwind of emotions this has thrown me into, let alone for my parents who made the trek down to Wellington from Coromandel, went to High Court and took a stand publicly. I am so very proud of them. I know they're doing this for Matt, and because they care. They care about the truth around issues of justice and youth violence; they care about the need for strong deterrence as well as effective rehab for violent offenders in Aotearoa New Zealand.

And so do I. Yesterday I was sifting through some of our never-ending "stuffology" in order to condense and compact, and I found this beautiful note from Matt that he'd written to Annabelle for her birthday a couple of years ago. It said, "May all of your dreams come true ... Happy Birthday Annabelle, Dance the day away!! Luv, Matt xoxo P.S. The gold is Arrowtown River gold!" (the little bottle of gold is in a "safe" place somewhere; we'll find it eventually).

Matt sent this note to his niece along with a tiny vial with some Arrowtown gold in it.

Matt sent this note to his niece along with a tiny vial with some Arrowtown gold in it.

This note simply tears my heart wide open and sends torrents of tears onto my cheeks. I still can't believe that she will never receive another of those beautiful notes again because some young guy, high on LSD, pot and alcohol, felt the need to "King-hit someone" (his words, not mine).

I can only mildly entertain the notion of someone getting home detention for homicide if the context of that killing were so clearly accidental, and the killer were an obviously considerate, fair and law-abiding person in his normal life. But Tyrone Palmer has proven to be none of these. Not only did he have a previous offense for violent assault (which wasn't used against him at his sentencing because it hadn't quite been fully processed through the system), and attempted to attack someone else that night before he killed Matt (that guy was lucky to escape in a cab), he also threatened someone with his homicidal prowess at a party 3 weeks later, and proceeded to break bail three times. In his defense at the appeal yesterday his (new) lawyer said that he didn't hit anyone while on bail. (!!!).

His biggest (and perhaps only) mitigating factor is his age, and it's true; he was 16 years old when he killed Matt, but it's not true that he's still 16 (which was the impression they seemed to give in court, and is published in the TVNZ article about it below). He was 17 when he was sentenced in August in Invercargill and is still 17 (!). Clearly it would work in Tyrone's favour if the judges were under the impression he's still only 16. 

It's also true that New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world where 17 year-olds go to grown-up court rather than youth court for any offense (most other places it's 18). I agree that this doesn't make sense for lower-level crime but homicide is different and the fact is that even if the age were raised to 18, 17-year-olds who commit homicide would still be sent to High Court because homicide is so heinous. This excerpt from a legal article titled, When children kill: the age of criminal responsibility and criminal procedure in New Zealand, sums it up–

"... children are presumed to be unable to appreciate the real nature of their criminal offending and are shielded from the consequences of such offending, except in the case of murder and manslaughter.

"The question then becomes: “what makes murder and manslaughter different from other offences?” It is irrefutable that the notion of the sanctity of life predates any formal legal system. Thus the obvious answer would be that by taking away life, homicide is the most serious crime one can commit. It can also be said that the idea that serious crime ought to be treated severely regardless of the offender's age very much still exists in modern day. … Many a time, it boils down to the fact that homicide is a horrible crime that leaves devastation in its path, so the fact that the offender is legally a child often does little to affect how the victim or community believes the offender should be punished."

The other argument that he "didn't know one punch could kill" falls flat against the "I've just King Hit someone!" comment he said as he fled the scene. It's common knowledge, especially among those who are predisposed to violence that a "King Hit" (a.k.a. Coward's Punch, cowardly because there's no warning given before this forceful blow hits the head) – can kill or cause serious brain damage. It's not rocket science. You can even find it online, or you'll find out on your very first boxing lesson:

"The Temple is a proven weak point of the human skull and with enough force you can kill a person in one shot. The best delivery of this death punch would either be a powerhouse hook with the middle knuckle aimed directly at the temple, or if you have them on the ground a straight punch to the temple with everything you got should do the trick. At the very least the hit will cause a lot of pain and disorientation, if more power is added it can cause loss of consciousness and blindness, and if you are a beast with the right punch it can be fatal." [ Sci-fighting: Fatal Death Punches ]

Ideally, justice needs to be upheld in all cases. It's the very safety-fabric of our society. Without it we'd be living in constant fear. And in Matt's case justice needs to be upheld, because as Dad said yesterday, otherwise, "We will be handing our youth a license to kill with minimal consequences." Yes. It's that simple. If our youth know they can go around throwing forceful punches to the head that can easily kill someone, and all they might get is home detention, then our justice system is sorely failing us.

Nevertheless we all agree that justice needs its compassionate counterpart; mercy. But mercy needs to come in the form of effective rehabilitation while the offender is in custody, not in the form of freedom. If Tyrone Palmer isn't feeling safe at the youth facility he's in, nor receiving the psychiatric care and effective rehabilitation he clearly needs for his drug addiction, ADHD and PTSD issues, then it's the job of our public health and corrections services to be fixing that, not our justice system (by handing him freedom). Our justice system is crucial to the healthy functioning of our society but for it to function optimally we need to be caring for and effectively rehabilitating our violent criminal youth, including the likes of Tyrone Palmer.

Tyrone Palmer needs to be in a “Custodial Rehabilitation Center for Youth" – a corrections facility where psychologically damaged (and potentially dangerous) youth can receive adequate psychotherapy, learn effective mindful practices like yoga and meditation, trauma-recovery processes like creative writing and painting, learn some kind of trade skill like cooking or carpentry, and receive education about the effects of drugs (like the dangers of mixing LSD with alcohol and other drugs: http://www.lsdabusehelp.com/dangers-of-mixing-lsd-with-alcohol-and-other-drugs). Surely if Tyrone Palmer were in one of these facilities the notion of an appeal to his sentence wouldn’t even be a consideration, would it? 

I understand the usual excuse is lack of funding, but this is such a profoundly important issue that demands appropriate funding, if only (from an economic perspective) to prevent the subsequent expenditure of not taking a proactive approach to the problem. My brother’s death has cost myself and my family in so many ways, psychologically and financially (even with the help of Victim Support), and I’m sure it’s cost the New Zealand Crown somewhere in the vicinity of  $1m in police, judicial and corrections – even without a trial. And in situations where unlawful violent assault doesn’t result in death the financial costs to the victim’s family and social services are enormous, especially when permanent brain damage is a result. How is this not economically relevant?

It's time for our justice system, our public health system, and our corrections system to work together to prevent these painful, ludicrous, and socially damaging situations from recurring. Personally, I am doing my best to lobby for both more serious consequences for homicide and unlawful violent assault, and more effective rehab for our psychologically damaged and dangerous youth and offenders who need genuinely effective rehabilitation before they hit the streets again.

Here's hoping Matt's death will not be in vain.


FYI: The facts around Matt's case:

1. Tyrone Palmer was high on a concoction of LSD, pot and alcohol when he was out at 1:30 on the streets of Invercargill.
2. He was 16 at the time he killed Matt, he's now 17.
3. Earlier on the night he killed Matt, he chased someone who was the son of a policeman, taking his shirt off and threatening him aggressively (the guy managed to escape in a cab).
4. Matt was trying to extricate himself from the situation he was in but they kept harassing him until they cornered him (outside the convenience store, where Tyrone killed him). We still don't know what the "argument" was about.
5. Matt had his hands at his side when Tyrone threw the punch and was showing no signs of aggression.
6. The punch that Tyrone threw was so forceful it caused a "mid-line shift" to Matt's brain and immediate subsequent haemorrhaging.
7. As Tyrone fled the scene he said to someone he knew, "I've just King Hit someone".
8. Tyrone broke bail three times (that the police know of)
9. Tyrone has ADHD and drug addiction issues. He was bullied as a child. He doesn't have a father.
10. What came up after the sentencing was a report that three weeks after he killed Matt, Tyrone used his "homicidal prowess" as a threat against someone at a birthday party (see the comment from "Lee" on my blog post One Punch Can Kill Many Dreams below).

See below excerpt from the transcript (The Queen VS Tyrone Palmer) from Tyrone Palmer's sentencing in August for a more detailed account of the events leading up to Matt's death that night in April.


Grieving family of one-punch victim plead with court to refuse offender home detention:
https://www.tvnz.co.nz/…/grieving-family-one-punch-victim-p…

When children kill: the age of criminal responsibility and criminal procedure in New Zealand:
http://www.nzlii.org/nz/journals/NZLawStuJl/2012/8.html

One Punch Can Kill Many Dreams:
http://cherieaartscoley.work/…/one-punch-can-kill-many-drea…


Matt in San Francisco for my wedding fourteen years ago.

Matt in San Francisco for my wedding fourteen years ago.


PS ... we are working on Matt's novel. It's a painfully bittersweet experience; uncovering the massive amount of work he'd done, and putting the pieces together of the intriguing story he was working on –all the while knowing he'll never see it come to fruition.


THE QUEEN v TYRONE JOHN PALMER

In the High Court of New Zealand Invercargill Registry

[4] I also want to acknowledge the statements by Mr and Mrs Coley and by Matthew sister, and for his brother. They are important parts of sentencing, as they disclose a sense of profound loss, but a hope that something will come of this for you and for other young people in particular.

[5] The Summary of Facts is not in dispute. On Friday 8 April this year, you and some companions were socialising in Invercargill. You consumed alcohol, together with a half tab of LSD or Lysergide and a small amount of Cannabis.

[6] Later, you went into town with some young people. In the early hours of Saturday morning, you saw another man speaking with Mr Coley.

[7] You and your group approached this man and one of the young women in your group had an altercation with him. He walked away but you and others followed and confronted him, and you took off your sweatshirt and ran after him. This man was spoken with later and said you acted very aggressively.

[8] Sometime later you became involved in a discussion with Mr Coley, who it is accepted was intoxicated, but at all times was neither aggressive nor threatening.

[9] The discussion went on for about 10 minutes before he walked off down Dee Street.

[10] At about 1.45am, Mr Coley was walking away from the Barluca Night Club in Dee Street and became involved in an argument with some of the young women.

[11] He then left the area and walked south on Dee Street. He was followed by the young women from your group who again confronted him outside the Esk Street Night n Day Store.

[12] You were outside the Store and became involved in the argument. You went into the entranceway of the Store and continued to argue with him.

[13] Mr Coley did not appear to be confrontational at all and it seems he was trying to get out of the situation he was in. But inside the Store, one of the young women attempted to push him, and then another pushed him outside onto the footpath.

[14] You, with the group, followed him and stood around him outside the Store and verbally abused him.

[15] A young woman from your group then punched him or pushed him in the chest. You and the group stood around him and he was not able to get away. The punch

[16] There then followed the incident which has led to your appearing before the Court for sentence today.

[17] You punched him once to the head and he fell back onto the Night n Day Store window, and then went straight to ground.

[18] He had his hands by his sides when you hit him. To repeat, he was not confrontational in any way.

[19] The punch is described and accepted as being delivered with considerable force and it “clearly blindsided the victim” as the Summary records.

[20] He remained on the ground until ambulance staff arrived and took him to Southland Hospital.

[21] You ran from the scene and you told someone you know you had just “king hit” someone, although I bring to account what Mr Young has just said to me with regard to your attitude and understanding at that time.

[22] You were stopped by police and security staff in Don Street. You admitted hitting Mr Coley when first spoken with but said you acted in self-defence. You later changed the story and said the victim, Mr Coley, did not come at you, but you thought he was going to punch you, so you punched him in the head first. That is not an explanation which washes.

[23] You refused a formal interview and would not consent to a medical examination.

One Punch [ can kill many dreams ]

One Punch [ can kill many dreams ]

Before Matt Coley left his one-bedroom apartment in Avenal, Invercargill in the far south of New Zealand on April 8th 2016, he emailed our mum several times. He was convinced his science fiction novel could become a New York Times bestseller and was ruminating about whether he should labour on it himself to get it finished, or outsource it somehow to “a better writer.”

He commiserated about not having anyone to go out with that night, and about some of the various disappointments he’d experienced with people in the past; "I never see it coming. Too much faith in humanity. Nuff said.”

By 2am the next morning Matt was lying in Invercargill Hospital, in a futile battle for his life. He’d been punched in the head by a sixteen-year-old youth who was high on a concoction of LSD, cannabis and alcohol. It was a single blow that caused a mid-line shift to Matt's brain; thousands of blood vessels in his head burst and he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He was never to regain consciousness.

Yoga on the Osa

Muchacha Ananda Costa Rica

Just before I left for a yoga retreat in Costa Rica earlier this year, a British friend said to me, “You’re living the life of Riley, aren’t you?!”

It’d been a while since I’d heard that expression and I had to stop and think for a minute who Riley was. I didn’t actually know, and decided to google him. It turns out he was a “Paddy” archetype from the Irish-American community during the First World War –of someone who was living “an easy and pleasant life” –a life of luxury.

In some ways, for sure; it’s true. My life these days is often more pleasant than not. Much of the time it’s hugely enjoyable, and I would even go so far as to say, deeply fulfilling. But easy? No, definitely not. As one wise teacher let the cat out of the bag recently, “Life doesn’t get easier. It just gets more compelling."

This is what I’m contemplating on the day after my return to New York City from the depths of the jungle, where nature is a teeming, writhing, seething, raucous feast for the senses.

Costa_Rica49a_2016-03-06-18.32.15.jpg

>>

Every color on the spectrum of green–
Splashes of red, blue, orange and yellow–
Cacophonies of squawking, chirping, whistling and roaring creatures–
A delicate breeze brushing the skin–
Warm Pacific waves–
The searing of too much tropical sun–
Fluttering blue butterflies–
The incessant itch of insect bites–
The smell of ripe bananas–
The bashing of stones against ankles in the thrashing surf–
A scorpion racing across the wooden floor.

>> 

Here in the city, the trees are yet to bloom, the skyline is a mass of grey and terra-cotta, it’s raining, our car has been written off as totaled, and I am deaf in one ear. If it weren’t for yoga, in all of its many forms, the residue of big nature, and the support of beloved friends and family, I would likely be a blithering mess right now.

Getting to the retreat, located in a remote part of the Costa Rican Osa peninsula, was no small feat.

The initial decision was easy; it was a birthday trip with my friend Wendy who lives in San Francisco, and who also celebrates her birthday around the same time. We’d done two retreats together before, one to Tulum in Mexico and another to Playa Madera in Nicaragua (during which I decided that was the place to purchase land for the Abide+Retreat+Explore project).

The first four steps were nothing short of arduous. I was beginning to doubt my once-famous capacity for travel.

Step one:

Extricate myself from a fleet of responsibilities (especially, the smashed-up car, the business, the school lunches, the dog). 

Step two:

Prepare the home front for a week without me (i.e. ensure there’s enough clean underwear for everyone and that my 12-year-old knows how and when to order food on Seamless).

Step three:

Pack (that includes a trip to “the dungeon” for that box of summer clothes).

Step four: 

Get myself to Laguardia airport at 4:30am.

 

Eventually the travel begins to take on the taste of freedom and excitement, tinged with a hint nervousness and a mild shot of exhaustion.

 

Step five:

Fly to Orlando, Florida.

Step six:

Fly to San Jose, Costa Rica.

By the time I arrive in San Jose and walk out of the airport into the midday heat to find the obscure Santas Airlines terminal (effectively a small hangar), I am beginning to loosen up. Delightful tropical bird sounds compete with the roar of jet planes.

I am definitely somewhere other than a wintry New York City.

 


Step seven:

Take a small twelve-seater plane with eleven others (mostly female yogis) to Puerto Jiminez in Gulfito– through choppy clouds, over great swaths of nature reserve jungle and a glinting metallic sea.

Step eight:

Take a bone-shaking 4-wheel-drive ride on a dusty and bumpy road to the retreat location, El Tumbo de las Olas (The Tossing-about of the Waves, or something along those lines), Playa Pan Dulce, at the tip of the Osa peninsula. 

 

Day 0.

Evening of arrival.

I walk into El Tumbo and am wowed by the architecture. It’s completely open. No windows, and no glass, anywhere. A framework of black steel channel beams supports the roof (made from corrugated galvanized steel), and the entire structure. The bedrooms attached to the main building are cordoned off by heavy cream-colored curtains on steel rails. The aesthetic is simple; minimal, natural, with a hint of local flavor.  Close to our bedroom is a wide wooden deck with views out through the jungle to the surf of Playa Pan Dulce. 

Costa_Rica26a_2016-03-06-13.58.36.jpg

A duo of locals (“Ticos") are beavering away in the kitchen downstairs, clearly cooking up a storm. The head chef has tattooed leopard skin prints on the front of her legs. The food is a fresh, healthy take on local cuisine; tangy guacamole, salsa picante, beans, rice, deep-fried thinly-sliced root vegetables, watermelon gazpacho. Ottolenghi’s cookbook, “Jerusalem” is casually lying around the kitchen.

I can barely contain my excitement, and relief (for someone with ulcerative colitis, diet is crucial), and yes, it’s true; I don’t need to lift a knife, a spatula, or a plate (other than to fill it with food I want to eat). Riley is in the lap of luxury here for sure. 

 

The group begins to gather and meet, to connect and relax, and wait for those still showing up. There are twelve of us, including the instructor, Julie Dohrman. Before this I knew Julie somewhat through attending some of her classes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including an advanced class at Twisted Trunk (a yoga studio in Soho).

I first saw Julie when she introduced the scholar and teacher, Paul Muller-Ortega at a Abhaya in DUMBO. I had read Paul’s book, The Triadic Heart of Siva and was intrigued. His teachings come primarily out of the Kashmiri Shaivist tradition, one that I began studying around four years ago and continue to enjoy (though most of my studies and practice are currently in the Srividya and Rajanaka realm I can dive in and drink the soma from a number of Tantric traditions – they’re all fascinating to me and I’m curious about where they overlap and diverge).

Julie had captured my attention with a series of classes she did in Gowanus last year on a goddess theme. She’s a tiny packet of pure energy, a “bija of shakti” with a radiant smile and the capacity to seamlessly weave Tantric philosophy into her rich asana classes.

Aside from Wendy and Julie, a couple of the women look familiar to me, likely from Julie’s classes, but otherwise I don't know anyone. There are no men. Four are yoga teachers. Four are mothers. Two are sisters from a family of six kids; one a dietician, the other a physical therapist. Every woman is uber healthy, fit, and confident. There’s a pilates instructor with an exquisite lithe, long body. A Stanford law grad who set up a successful non-profit supporting women’s rights. An ex dancer and wannabe full-time yoga teacher who works as a manager in a global ad-tech company. There’s the only yoga teacher in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, recuperating from a gnarly toboggan accident involving many torn knee ligaments. A psychologist who works in Manhattan, originally from a tribe in Montana. A software engineer. An artist.

And me. 

 

Day 1.

First: simply open. Pause. Breathe. Release.

I can barely move. My ankles are aching. My hips are aching. After the day’s second yoga session all I can do is crawl to a hammock and drown my mind in a few paragraphs of Salman Rushdie’s, The Enchantress of Florence, while my body fills the hammock’s cocoon and swings like a soothed baby. Tidbits of yogic thought, memories of the practice float through my mind, especially Julie talking about "core power" and getting into the "ground of your being."

“There’s nothing you have to get rid of, and there’s nothing you have to take on, you simply need to drop into it; it’s always there.” She mentions the Sanskrit word tejase and I recall it from a recently-popular yet timeless invocation; it means "illuminative being” or “radiating luminosity." It’s the shining light at the core of your being. I know about this. I feel it in my daily meditation (sadhana) practice, and at plenty of other times too. But there’s something so effective about hearing it when you’re in the midst of asana, going deep into a the fire (tapas) of a pose. 

"How did that last pose wake up certain avenues in this pose? Can you find the opening that lies somewhere between sweetness and tapas (fire)?"

Two yoga classes in a single day definitely kicks my ass. But so did that gargantuan swim I did between yoga sessions when I was trying out a “hand plane” made by some friends in Hawaii.

I swam the entire length of the beach to get out to the point break. By the time I got there I was exhausted. Every time I tried to catch a wave I had to kick fiercely to get to the right point as the lip was beginning to peel. They were not tiny waves –around 4-5 foot, and breaking at a rocky point.

It was exhilarating, terrifying and exhausting.  

 

 

Day 2.

A black dog named Dragon follows us everywhere and guards us from possible intruders and too-precocious howler monkeys. He follows me in the early morning to the far end of the beach and further around the corner, where I thought I could find some similitude of solitude to chant my heart out.

There is nothing solitary about this place.

Hundreds of hermit crabs scuttle around us on the umber sand. A pelican glides along the surface of the water where the surf is breaking. Dragon pants thirstily until I give him some water from my bottle, via my hand.

Nothing solitary, and nothing serene. Quiet this place is not. Nature here is highly vocal: the monstrous growl of howler monkeys at dawn, the piercing sonorous buzz of cicadas at dusk, the squawks of macaws or toucans, the crashing of the surf most of the time.

 

Later in the day, resistance surfaces.

My legs feel like lumps of wood. Lethargy from the heat. Bucketloads of sweat, making some poses almost impossible with such slippery skin. Swimmer’s ear (I can only hear out of one ear now). Insects; the usual small biting ones (fortunately not too prolific), and the freaky ones that are probably harmless but scare you with their abnormalities. Thoughts of the boa constrictor that ate the manager’s daughter’s kitten recently (not that we saw it, but the mere knowledge they live around here is enough to make you squirm). The large scorpion that raced across the yoga studio floor and hung out on the edge, pincers at the ready, before I brushed it gently onto the jungle floor with a stick.

How do you awaken the core of your self through this dense matter of flesh and bone amidst all these niggling challenges? 

But I do know how.

I do this often enough, in bite-sized chunks, throughout my daily life and now I have the opportunity to run with it and really go deep, to find and ride that midway point between sweetness and fire. 

Yoga is a lot about going to your edge, to a place of intensity that’s both energizing and delicious. Only you know where your edge is, and everyone’s edge is different. Each asana (pose) works differently for every individual, depending on their body type, experience, mood, and immediate environment. Your edge is not necessarily your neighbor’s edge. In fact it’s almost impossible to find a bunch of yogis who can do a whole sequence of poses identically. 

 

Day 3. 

“Yoga is a state of being. When you visit the ground of your being and start to know it, then you begin to recognize your conditioned mind. When you’re in the ground of your being you have the sense, “I feel stable. I got this. I feel whole.""

Today, after morning yoga and brunch; an adventure.

Three of us decide to go paddle-boarding. Felipe, the male half of the management team and a well-built and experienced paddle-boarder and surfer, takes us out. He gives us some solid instruction first; point the board into the waves as you’re going out, kneel until you get out beyond the waves and then stand by getting up like this (he proceeds to show us how by placing the paddle across the board and getting up, one leg at a time).

"If you fall off, get back on like this," (he clambers on at an angle). "When you’re paddling, you’re using your core. Not like this," (he shows us the awkward stance of not using your core), "but like this." (erect, strong in the center, balanced).

We head out one at a time between sets of waves around four foot high. The adrenalin flows thick and fast getting out past the surf. Once out behind the break the wind picks up and starts blowing across the bay. Wendy catches up with me next, Sarah and Felipe still coming out through the surf. Wendy and I start paddling into the wind to avoid getting blown away from Pan Dulce. There’s a big swell and the surface of the water is getting choppier. I fall on my butt twice and land sitting up canoe-style and decide to carry on paddling this way.

I replay Felipe’s instructions about using your “core" to paddle, and effectively go into yoga mode; keeping an eye on my centrifugal energy, my balance, and my breathing. It definitely feels easier to be on my toosh and just working my stomach muscles than trying to balance standing up with all this chop on the water making it feel so unsteady. I get ahead of Wendy and assume she’ll catch up. I can see the trajectory; if we go into the wind for long enoughwe can simply catch the wind back into the beach (note that this works even without a sail).

Then I see that Felipe and Sarah have caught up with Wendy. Felipe paddles over to me and says he’s going to stay with them. We agree that paddling into the wind further will enable us to get back to the beach easier. I stay on course and, as the Kiwis would say, “keep charging” (think rugby union). I don’t look back too often because it throws me of course, but when I do I see the three of them getting smaller, and sometimes hidden altogether by the swell. I can’t tell whether they’ve been blown off course or are heading back to the beach at an angle against the wind. I can see a couple of fishing boats ahead of me, off the coast, directly into the wind. Perhaps I can reach them. If the others are stuck they’d be able to rescue them.

I keep paddling with all my strength directly in the wind, passing the beach known as Backwash and towards Matapulo. I’m a long way from the shore. I can see surfers catching waves at a couple of point breaks. They look like small playful dolls. Just about when I reach the point where I can catch the wind back into Playa Pan Dulce using my body as a sail, I turn back to see the others are getting closer to the beach. Phew! No need to hail a rescue operation from one of the fishing boats. I turn the board and point it towards Pan Dulce then stand up and paddle gently to steer course while the wind pushes against my back and I glide over the surface of the water, rising up and falling down on big swells that feels like moving mountains beneath me. Felipe paddles out to meet me. He was clearly relieved. 

“You were a long way out there! I was worried about you.” I assured him I was as worried about them and relieved they’d made it back. We glided towards the shore, chatting about New Zealand and Nicaragua and life in Costa Rica, as if nothing much had just happened; as if the roaring surf against the point break nearby were insignificant, as if the heaving ocean beneath us was gently carrying us to the shore like some delicate and divine hand carrying us to the land.

 

Day 4. 

Silence is golden, especially in the mornings before 8am as it turns out. Let nature do the talking. This rule was laid down upon our arrival and assiduously adhered to until this morning. I slept in and awoke to the raucous cackle and chatter of a bunch of yoginis preparing to depart on an expedition to an animal sanctuary. A few of us decided not to take the bone-shaking drive and ferry trip to the island where the sanctuary was and instead stay behind and chill.

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It was an excellent decision for Wendy and myself. We went for a short hike through the jungle along the coast towards a surf beach called Matapulo. On the way we saw a pair of scarlet macaws (apparently they hook up and stay together for life) in a beautiful big tree and we found a somewhat hidden spot at the end of the beach among the rocks, pulled out our drawing and painting gear and got to work; dissolving into the lines of horizon and tree and coast, into ink and pencil and pain on paper. The colors of cobalt turquoise and cerulean blues, ochre, and sap green. The shapes of ocean and rock, waves and sand, tropical trees. 

I still can’t hear properly but I’m not in pain. It’s just weird, and somewhat unbalancing.

Yoga is all about balance.

Every asana pose is done twice, once for each side. Much of the philosophy is about finding the “midline” or “middle way” between extremes. Only being able to hear in one ear is the epitome of asymmetry and unbalance, and I’m reminded of the deity Ardanarishwara, who is split in half; on the right (the side that is currently silent for me), is the male principle of Siva or Purusha, who is passive, still, vast consciousness. On the left (the side through which all sound funnels to me) is the feminine principle of Shakti or Prakriti; active, vibrant energy.

 

Day 5. 

Despite the deafness, I am flourishing.

I feel lighter, more energetic, and at a deeper level; serene, curious, open. I am in constant awe of the nature surrounding us and excited to be spending time with a bunch of seriously empowered women, each a yogini in her own right doing amazing things with her body, her mind, and her life. And I feel fit, flexible, and brave enough to try poses I’ve never done before. With a little help from Julie I manage to flip back from a headstand into a backbend with my feet on the floor.

“When one of the senses is impaired, use it as a gateway to the infinite,” instructs the Vijñanabairava Tantra. 

Whether by deprivation, injury, or age,
Obstruction of the senses
Invites awareness of Soul.
The mind can no longer take the world for granted.
Attention spirals inward,
And touches the glistening emptiness–
The reality behind appearance.
~ The Radiance Sutras, #66, Lorin Roche, PhD

Being partially deaf has its benefits. For instance, when the howler monkeys are doing their ferocious growl at 5am, I can simply lie on my hearing ear and shut them out. Or when someone is vomiting during the night and there’s no sound-proofing? Nada.

But otherwise it’s undoubtedly challenging, and being in one of the most remote parts of Costa Rica means there’s no way of fixing it any time soon (I’ve already tried all kinds of ear drops, various yoga poses and other creative methods). The only thing left to do is find a way into not letting it bother me.

Enter: yoga.

And by yoga I don’t just mean the asana (the physical poses), though that is a part of it, especially if you’re practicing four hours a day. I mean the philosophy, the psychology, the get-into-your-being-and-figure-it-out kind of thing. The raison d’être of yoga from a spiritual perspective is intimacy, connection, union, with the [ insert here whatever your idea of god, grace, or the divine might be; some might call it The Self, or the sum total; The Universe ].

For the most part that’s a deeply internal process. People may have similar experiences but ultimately everyone’s experience of this process is unique.

Today Julie tells us a Hanuman myth (the one about the monkey god who goes to Sri Lanka to try to rescue Parvati). It’s one I’ve heard before but every retelling and every teacher’s take on it is slightly different. With this one I understand the energy of Hanuman as a kind of elastic bridge between Siva and Shakti; between the energies of expansive awareness and manifestation; between stillness and activity; between masculine and feminine.

As I become more and more elastic in my body my mind follows suit and I can feel the connection, the bridge, more and more easily. I feel myself stretch and dissolve into the intensity of each pose.

 

Before the last session Wendy and Sarah and I hike to a nearby waterfall. There’s a young couple sitting on a rock in front of the waterfall, reading. They are exquisitely attractive, like a manifestation of Siva and Shakti in the flesh. The fresh-water pool is delicious after the hike and we revel in the splashing water like children.

 

Day 6.

Today is our last day.

I decide to go on the tree-climbing-and-jumping adventure. Three of us set out with a local guide –a biologist from California who’s been here nigh on 20 years– into the lush jungle, teeming with life.

We hike across and alongside a lightly-gushing stream. He tells us about the trees that bleed antiseptic and anti-alcoholic blood, and about the pregnant woman who slipped on thegreen algae that’s not slippery when wet, only when exposed to the air. The story of her death lingers with me –the apparent randomness of it, the danger of being alone in some situations, the tragedy of two lives lost so swiftly.

We hike onwards and upwards and into the jungle towards an enormous strangler fig tree that each of us climbs and then jumps from with a rope assist.

Terrifying and exhilarating, again.

Never-not-broken-ness. 

Julie reminds us about Akhilandeshvari, the goddess who is never-not-broken. Our human condition is such that we are always “broken” –or in pieces– in some way.

I am currently physically “broken” by my loss of hearing, and even to some degree, by my aging body. I have been “in pieces” emotionally and psychologically many times in the past, and will likely be so many more times in the future; whether by grief or trauma, even my own death. And those pieces are constantly shifting, moving, and stretching in different directions.

But it’s how we work with that brokenness; how we harness those pieces and get them working together that can make us feel whole, and present, and powerful.

 

Worship does not mean offering flowers.
It means offering your heart
To the vast mystery
Of the universe.
It means letting your heart pulse
With the life of the universe,
Without thought and without reservation.

It means being so in love
That you are
Willing to dissove
And be recreated in every moment.

pūja nāma na puṣpadyair yā matiḥ kriyate drḍhā
nirvikalpe mahā vyomni sā pujā hy ādarāl layah

~Yukti verse #147, Vijñanabhairava tantra, via Loren Roche, Ph

 

[ Namaste. ]


Footnotes:

| Find out more about traveling to the Osa Peninsula here |

| Do a yoga retreat  to the Osa with Julie Dohrman |

| Stay at El Tumbo de las Olas |

| See more of my nature photography from the trip here |

| See more of my yoga photography from the trip here |


[  Yes, it’s true. I guess I am living the life of Riley in some ways, but I’m determined to live life to brimming full, because you never know when your last day is tomorrow. Why squander today? I’m also a big believer in karma. I work my butt off in so many ways, and have done for as long as I can remember. Good things come from giving and serving, in any way you can, and even better; in the most effective way you can. Rather than simply burning up good karma by indulging in luxury with no outcome, a yoga retreat has the opposite effect. When done well it’s like a recipe for alchemical transformation into more –better health, deeper insights, and a stronger capacity to love and serve. If you can do it, go do it –for yourself, and for all those you serve. ]

 [ The hearing issue began in my mid twenties when I was traveling in India many years ago and some “ rofessional" ear cleaner person in the middle of Delhi convinced me he could give me super powers of hearing –by cleaning out my ears. And so he did, but since then my ears have taken to overproducing ear wax (I know, it’s gross), and every time I go somewhere tropical I end up with a war in my ears between the wax and the water. I’ve finally found a good high-tech otaryngologist in Hoboken which helps (no more old-school water-boarding of the ears!).]


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

United We Stand

Photograph: Associated Press, Harvard GazetteThe shooting was mourned around the world, including in the Philippines, where a youth activist had his face painted to honor the victims.

For those of you interested in the recent tragedy in Orlando, in gun control and politics in the U.S. just now: I know that many of you are not American, but are nevertheless deeply affected by events in the U.S. These are important issues that affect us all.

I too find it tragic, infuriating, frustrating, challenging, and yet potentially hugely transformational for so many **{ if }** we can figure it out, and act. Fortunately, there *are* some powerful minds on the job, including yours.

I am no expert on anything in particular, but I love reading commentary from people who are. I also love reading commentary from my deep-thinking, writer-esque friends, many of whom have been capturing the essence of things much more eloquently than I can (also given the time of year in NYC for a mom and other things I’ve got going on just now … ) and so I’ve compiled here some of my favorite quotes on the subject written during the past few days. I sought to pull out those threads that seem most meaningful, that resonated most strongly with me; that felt insightful, and potentially constructive.

I vote that we continue to talk about it, even if or when it might cause bumps in friendships (when our opinions may not be fully in synch). We do need to see a way through this, together. And the more we talk about it, the more likely change will happen. Divided we fall.

How to Curb The Madness – Harvard Gazette:

"The answer to “How to stop it?” is a long way from being answered because we first need to define what “it” is, and then what causes “it.” Taking a medical approach, you can’t develop a treatment until you know what the illness is, and if you are going to prevent the illness, you need to know the cause.

In terms of “it,” this was an act of extremist violence. Labeling it as “right wing” or “Islamic extremist” makes us feel better because we have attached a label and it allows for blame to be laid on a specific group. But it does not point the way to prevention, except for those who think most simplistically and favor exclusion of broad categories of people based on their religion and ethnicity and/or jettisoning the Constitution. Both are wrong-headed and destructive, but the fear mongering makes for what some consider good politics. In fact, such simplistic solutions are exactly what extremists want because it would tear at the heart of our society."

http://news.harvard.edu/…/s…/2016/06/how-to-curb-the-madness

Towards the Freedom That Binds Humanity – Douglas Brooks:

"While we cannot compel others to share our religious values, we can disempower and marginalize those who will not share in our humanity by tolerating their views only on the periphery of democracy. We will not all agree but what have we taught each other about inclusion that confers human dignity? When we are not educated to appreciate human differences and the role of religions in history, how can we engage in serious conversation or use the tools of argument? Do we refuse to invest in the public good because there is too much profit to be gained and too little shared conscience? Change will be incremental because all of these issues require time, effort, and seriousness. Our outrage is justified, no doubt. But outrage can, at best, inspire a meaningful process, it cannot create a durable result. To create a deeper humanity, we will need to learn more about how differences make us human and how we are only the "same" in the dignity of our differences."

http://rajanaka.blogspot.in/…/towards-freedom-that-binds-hu…

 

Some of my friends’ Facebook posts:

"I have been trying not to vent, but I have yet to see the perspective that demands attention. It is not about ISIS; and it is not entirely about gun control....at least not on its own. Orlando is about mental illness. The guy may have been gay, maybe not. Maybe ISIS resonated with him because he was struggling with his own demons. The only thing that matters is that he was mentally ill and our society conveniently ignored him. Obama is right! This is our problem. And we have to take care of our people!"
~ Lawrence, San Francisco

"I see lots of different stories about orientation –try not to believe everything you read; this is political rhetoric to divide the people. It doesn't matter if all the victims in Orlando were gay or even straight, Muslim, Jewish, from Europe or Africa... they are people just like in any massacre. I know racism and phobias are rife in modern society but politicians will use tragedies like Orlando for their own benefit. Using fear and security to create their own pockets of people. Separating the people. It is the same with the EU referendum or the police shootings in America. Separatism!!! People power is the only power and the more they label us and divide us the more power of control we give the state. The people united is what the 1% fear most."
~ Dylan, London

"I guess all I can or want to say is simply to echo the words of Harvey Milk spoken over 40 years ago -
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet shatter every closet door.” ~Harvey Milk
Despite a deep well of sadness today, I still know this: We must work tirelessly for peace. For love. For forgiveness and understanding. For gun control. For mental health resources. We must work harder to eradicate poverty and hunger and hate. We cannot turn back time to stop this shooting, but we have the opportunity to let these bullets shatter every closet door."
~Amy, New Jersey

Wild Women and Wolves

Wild Women and Wolves [ + Part 3 of 7 Therapies ]

I arrived at Annabelle’s school on the west side of Manhattan in the Theater District wearing hiking shoes, sweat pants and a t-shirt, and a giant pack filled with camping gear for the two of us. (Some of the finest adventures of my life have begun with wearing a pack, somewhat overburdened but prepared for anything). I managed to convince the school administration staff that I was sane and simply wanted to take my daughter out of school to go on a camping trip. I wasn’t sure I should mention the part about the wolves, or wild women, so I didn’t.

We got the green light, left the school and made our way through the thousands of tourists on 8th Avenue to the subway and hopped on a train towards Grand Central Station (it’s grand, and it’s central). 

From Grand Central we caught a MetroNorth train to Katonah, an hour-and-a-bit north of the city, very close to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, Westchester County where we were going to be “on retreat” for 24 hours in the very near proximity of a number of wild, and some not-so-wild, wolves.

We take a taxi at Katonah station with a sprightly young Colombian guy and drive through wooded areas, past a few well-maintained ranches, then turn off the main road, wind our way through some gorgeous forest and arrive at the conservation center, close to the top of a hill.

I hadn’t fully done my research on the wolves before we arrived and had somehow imagined that we could camp within the enclosure among them, like that time in Zimbabwe when I camped with my kiwi friends Kath and Pete among the elephants and hyenas (and lions, hippos, snakes and water buffalo) in Mana Pools National Park. 

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (as it turns out, in many respects, I really am still a “kiwi” – “gung ho" to the point of foolishness sometimes, resourceful and resilient enough to get myself out of most challenging situations, and completely inexperienced with wild animals).

I guess I'd thought that sleeping among the wolves would be some kind of test of our ability to overcome fear; an essential component to reconnecting with one’s inner wild woman. In my fog of ignorance, I had no idea that wolves really were that potentially dangerous. But like most wild animals who could take you out with a single lunge at the throat, when left to their own devices, and not provoked in any way, they are not such a threat. In fact wolf attacks in the U.S. are pretty scarce, but clearly a high-fenced enclosure is going to prevent any potential mishaps at all (except those from fingers poked through the fence).

So we hike up to the campsite and empty our gear into the tent we’re sharing between the two of us, located second along in a very neat row of seven tents around twenty feet from the perimeter of the fence between us and the wolves. Then we head to the outdoor lounge and fire-pit area where freshly-brewed herbal infusions and women’s care concoctions await and we begin to get to know some of our fellow wild women while awaiting the arrival of others.

There were ten women in total, including Annabelle (the verging-on-woman girl), and three of us were mother-daughter duos (though the other daughters were much older than Annabelle). One mother-daughter duo had flown up from Asheville in North Carolina. Another had driven from Philadelphia. One woman, who was British, had flown from the Cayman Islands (where she lives). Two other women were more local (Poughkeepsie and NJ). 

Then there was the retreat leader, a quintessential “wild” woman; herbalist, ex professional boxer and wolf conservation activist, Vanessa Chakour. With a confident and calming presence Vanessa introduced herself and the nature of the retreat and then she brought out a carved jade bear; a gift that belonged to a teacher of hers and was symbolic of her path as a herbalist. We passed the jade bear around and each said a little something about ourselves and why we were there. I couldn’t help but mention my brother Matt’s recent death death and that I imagined this experience would help with my grieving process –somehow, that I felt so happy to be out in nature on an escape-retreat with my daughter, and that I was very curious about the wolves. Annabelle expressed her curiosity about the wolves too. After all, she had been an equal motivator in getting us there; making sure we made the booking and had it in our calendar.

Vanessa’s more practical agenda was to help facilitate us into feeling comfortable in the vicinity of wolves, teach us a little about native herbalism and also some basics of a physical self defense practice she calls “sacred warrior boxing.”

You can well imagine how reticent I was about the boxing component after Matt’s recent departure following a single punch to the head. But I had sensed that, given her capacities with the wolves and herbalism there was likely something I could learn from this process, at exactly the time I needed to. So I decided to be brave and open my mind to the experience and through that I discovered and realized some interesting facts (see postscript below about that).

Meanwhile, back to the wolves, wild women, mothers and daughters, and herbs.

So the wolves were inside an enclosure, and we were camping very close to it –and them. And we’d arrived at the campsite and done our introductions and sharing and had imbibed our herbal concoctions –infusions of different mixes of local healing plants such as nettle, red clover, oat straw and red raspberry.

Then, without further ado Vanessa invites us, with a cheeky and happy smile, to stand up, and howl. All ten of us stand up, look up towards the gently-dimming sky, and howl together. We do this, initially with a little trepidation, and then gradually with full abandon.

Then we stop. 

Just the almost-silence of an inhabited forest just north of one of the world’s biggest cities. Until it began.

The reply. 

Soul-searing, illuminative, primordial, luscious, and deeply healing; the sound of a wolf’s howl. 

Howling is like the primordial OM (minus the “m”). There’s something so undeniably primal about the experience of howling; something quite intangible and yet somehow so naturally therapeutic. I’d done it often enough with people in various situations, but I’ve never howled with wolves before and it was indeed everything I imagined it to be, and more. 

It was more insofar as I didn’t expect the “conversation” of the wolves howling together to be so diverse; so many different “voices” and styles of howling once they got going, and yes; they got going. After our initial howl with them they continued to howl more around sunset, during the night twice, then again at 5:30am and around 7:00am.

So the different styles of howling are due to the different species, different degrees of domestication, different ages and different genders, but also each wolf also clearly has its own personality, which comes through in its voice.

Just like us.

[ Interlude from the retreat experience for Part Three of Seven Therapies: Sound and Voice. ]

Sound –in the form of nature, voice, music and mantra– is one of the most powerful forms of healing that exists. I could write for hours on this but plenty of people already have so I don’t need to (see footnote below). For now, suffice to say that in my own experience, the healing –and general psycho-spiritual development– that comes through the experience of sound, and the use of our voice, is truly amazing. I know it has something to do with vibrations, physics, biology and subtle body mechanics, and that one day science and medicine will “catch up” on this. Until then, please take my word for it: both the experience of listening, and the experience of actually making sounds (like howling and mantras and singing) works wonders.

Meanwhile, back at camp. After we initially connected with the wolves through howling, we went to meet them and spend some time with them. 

There are two main groups of wolves in separate enclosures. The “wild” wolves –Mexican gray and red wolves– are fed once or twice weekly with deer carcasses from road kills. The Mexican gray wolves are the most endangered mammal in all of North America and the objective here is to nurture them from a semi-domesticated state back into wildness. These wolves are clearly more evasive. In fact we didn’t see them at all (though we did hear them a lot). Only one of the women saw some of the red wolves at 5:30am. Wild wolves tend to steer clear of humans and are only a danger if provoked or semi-domesticated (so if you meet a wolf in the wild, don’t go doing anything silly like taking it’s food from it or if it’s a mother, photographing its puppies). 

In the other enclosure are the “ambassador” wolves, which are somewhat socialized and are used to educate the public about the need for wolf conservation. They’re fed on donations of large red meat steaks from WholeFoods. They're much more social, and used to human interaction, but that doesn’t mean you can get too close. In fact there is only one woman, curator of the center, Rebecca Bose, who is able to get into the enclosure with one of the ambassadors, the elderly alpha Arctic wolf, Atka, who was brought up by her German Shepherd. 

The way those wolves “wolf” down those T-bone WholeFoods donations, you wouldn’t want to risk putting your finger through the fence. Instead we traded blow-kisses with Atka. He was cool, calm, and powerful, sauntering around like he owned the place (because he did), but he’d return every now and then to our blow-kisses, poke his tongue through the fence and was clearly longing for touch. That feeling was reciprocated; it was hard to restrain ourselves but obviously not worth the risk.

Atka has his own enclosure (being the alpha, he needs his space). In the other ambassador enclosure were three younger more vibrant and rascally wolves, the siblings: Alawa, Zephyr and Nikai, who are a mix of several gray wolf subspecies, but primarily Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray.

After an evening of hanging out with the wolves, practicing sacred warrior boxing and imbibing nature’s medicines (this time a variety of mugwort tinctures known to induce lucid dreaming), we shared a scrumptious and healthy dinner then sat around the fire sharing stories under the almost-full moon.

One of the wonderful things about a group of women like this getting together is that they tend to be non-judgmental and very supportive. Everyone’s been through some trauma or another and is open to supporting their fellow sisters through whatever it is they’re working with. I could’ve stayed up all night listening to everyone’s stories but Annabelle had fallen asleep on me, my eyelids were drooping and I was beginning to feel numb from her weight and being positioned just slightly too far from the fire. We sloped off to bed filled with stories and high on wolves and mugwort. 

The temperature had dropped a lot and I made sure Annabelle was bundled up warm but alas the sleeping bag I had was more for mid summer climes and I spent the night snuggling up to her in a bid to stay warm. It seemed like I never quite fell into a deep sleep. I also discovered that I have arthritic hips in extreme cold. But the upside was hearing almost every howl-fest the wolves put on during the night. (I even recorded them and will put those on SoundCloud so you can hear for yourself). 

I also had the most exquisite lucid dreams full of brilliant turquoise and delightful surprises.

In the morning we warmed up with a deliciously hearty and healthy breakfast, coffee and more time with the wolves. We also spent time picking wild plants and listening to Vanessa teach us about their medicinal benefits. Aside from the mugwort, there was wild violet, dandelion, plantain, rose, raspberry, mullein and chickweed. And I should’ve taken notes but I was too busy taking photographs. 

In any case this mother-daughter duo were thoroughly stoked with the joys of a brief escape from the city; a close encounter with wolves, and the camaraderie of being among a bunch of brave yet gentle and supportive women who know exactly what “wild” means for them.


Thanks to Vanessa and the Wolf Conservation Center, to all the wonderful wild women on retreat with us, and to my precious and adventurous daughter. There was not a drop of fear flowing with a giant fence between us and those gorgeous yet potentially ferocious creatures and was it ever amazing to spend time with them up close. If you like dogs, the sound of howling, learning about nature’s bountiful medicines, moving your body, sitting around an open fire, camping and getting close to nature and wilderness, you’ll love this. 


Find out more about the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, Westchester County here.


See all of my photography from the experience here.


Find out more about Vanessa Chakour and Sacred Warrior: wolf and nature retreats, herbalism, boxing here

Upcoming retreats:
‘Reclaiming the Wild Woman' June retreat
August retreat for men and women


FOOTNOTES:

 

WHAT’S THAT STUFF ON ANNABELLE’S FACE?

She had a dinosaur tattoo there and we had some trouble getting it off.

 

BOXING:

1) Vanessa taught us that you are most powerful as you are falling, not as you are pushing. It’s your own body weight that provides the power in those situations and I understand that now also through the experience of doing handstands; you really feel the weight of your body being pulled by gravity when you do a handstand. Falling forward with your fists covering your face has a lot to do with gravity too.

2) My random observations: I haven’t heard too much about women killing people in single-punch deaths (except for the woman who killed a friend during a party-stunt-gone-wrong moment in 2011 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/woman-trial-killing-rapper-punch/story?id=13724992 ). Women are much more inclined to talk and negotiate their way out of threatening situations, rather than throw a fist, so if a woman did ever throw a fist outside of the ring, you know that 99.9% of the time it would be from a place of self defense (agree, women friends?). 

 

SOUND AS A FORM OF HEALING:

“All music, in one way or another, is therapeutic because it can heal. Behind this healing are the principles of Nada Yoga –that sound is holy, and therefore capable of restoring wholeness. Around the world, from Greece to Egypt to India, cultures have used music to restore and health and harmony in a system out of balance … My hope is that melody and mantra will be included in future medical research and healing."

~p. 125, The Yoga of Sound, Russell Paul.

 

"The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought… Part of what music allows me is the freedom to drift off into a reverie of my own, stimulated but not constrained by the inventions of the composer. And part of what I love about music is the way it relaxes the usual need to understand. Sometimes the pleasure of an artwork comes from not knowing, not understanding, not recognizing."

How Music Helps us Grieve, BrainPickings.org:

 

WHERE ARE PARTS ONE, TWO, FOUR, FIVE AND SEVEN OF THE SEVEN THERAPIES?

I’ve posted parts one and two on my Facebook page and will elaborate on them further here at some point. I’m working on parts four through seven.