Even now, 30 years later, I can recall the sharpening of my senses and how I responded to the growing fear of what I was about to do that night. Standing in the midst of the forest, my feet cushioned by winter softened leaves, I peered at the jungle gym of ropes in the branches of the trees far above me. This was the famous challenge course of the West Virginia Outward Bound School. Now it was my turn to climb up to the first of several obstacles requiring courage and agility. I knew on a rational level that I would be safely attached at each of the challenges to an overhead rope clipped into the harness I wore wrapped around my waist and legs. Even so, my body began to shake almost uncontrollably, fueled by the release of terror related adrenaline.
Each swinging bridge, cargo net, tight rope, and balance beam began at a firm supportive wooden platform. From those perches, I could stop trembling long enough to take comfort from my surroundings: newly leafing branches, a sunset forming in the distance, the odor of cool damp earthy forest air, the sounds of birds flying to roost, and the encouraging shout from the instructor below, “Just let go, Connie. L-e-e-t g-o-oh.” In spite of the empowering knowledge that I had successfully completed another aspect of the course, as I approached each new obstacle, debilitating fear returned. Repeatedly, I forced myself to leave my safe and secure base and step into the unknown.
On the last platform, I sat elated, exhausted, and feeling finished. “Just one more challenge, and I’ve got this,” so I thought. The spotter seated beside me drew a long sturdy rope toward the two of us and attached me to it, explaining, “Hold the rope, scoot to the edge, and then you’ll drop about 20 feet.” He promised that the rope would stop short of the ground and I would get to have the swing of my life as a reward. That’s when I looked down and froze to the platform.
After a while I said to my patient guide, “I’ll close my eyes and you can just push me off.” “No,” he replied, “it must be your decision to plunge.” Finally as night began to creep through the trees, I edged closer and closer to what felt like nothingness and eventually plummeted quickly down, down, down. The rush of air as I picked up speed in my free fall was exhilarating. My elongated scream pierced the darkening forest. As the slack of the rope wound out, the rope and I moved to and fro in a wide arc. It was the best swinging I had ever experienced. Slowing, I stepped onto ground level and unbuckled. I felt a satisfying sense of pride like that of a child when she has accomplished a new feat. I wanted to shout, “Look at what I did.” I didn’t understand until later how strongly I had internalized what had happened that night.
My Outward Bound experience was like a boot camp for teaching me to conjure up courage when future happenings threw me off course. To move forward from minor setbacks, like being transferred to a different teaching assignment than the one I had hoped for, I daringly leaped into the unknown. When faced with moving to live in a different town, my mind told me that change of my choosing should not elicit fear, but still my heart raced as I said good-bye to my happy home. Through continued practice of the lessons I learned on the ropes course, it was easier to let go of the security and safety of the known enabling me to step away from my living “perch” and embrace the choice to dwell elsewhere.
Later on, I would need even fiercer courage during my process of recovery from a major life crisis. My husband and I back then were just adjusting to our lives with two young daughters, only five and seven when he was diagnosed with cancer. His battle was a short one. One month and he was gone. I found myself stuck on a metaphorical “challenge course platform” named widowhood. Below and in front of me there lay an abyss as far as I could imagine. Calling me back from that ledge the “rope” that I held tightly was the knowledge that I had two young daughters who needed me. Sometimes, I could swear that the ghost of the voice I heard all those years before in the West Virginia woods was urging me to “let go-o-o-oh” once more. Instead, fear of what lay ahead kept me anchored to the past wishing someone would give me a push to catapult me forward.
And then, I am drawn into the present by graceful moments. While running to maintain my sanity, the autumn wind rains bright yellow leaves upon my head. A double rainbow appears in the sky one day while my daughters and I play together outside. We sniff the earth as we dig holes to plant daffodil bulbs so we can watch them appear in the spring. I remember to open my senses and take in the world around me. Consciously, I begin to connect to the calming powers of nature. Fear dissipates and I scoot to the edge of a new beginning. Trust propels me forward. And after a while, I am welcomed to solid ground.
It is spring, 2005. Residing in the tropical canopy shading my tent site at Anastasia State Park are hundreds of birds that serve as my alarm clock. I roll off of my cozy queen size air mattress remembering that today I “graduate” from my yoga teacher training course. After plugging in the percolator, I follow the path through the palmettos to the bath house to shower and put on my yoga clothes. Back at my picnic table, hot cup of coffee in hand, I review the previous day’s studies. Soon it is time to zip up the tent flaps and head for the Yoga Studio on the “mainland” in St. Augustine, FL. On the way I stop at the beach. At the boardwalk, I stop to complete a short meditation practice and enjoy watching the swimming Dolphins surface for air then disappear beneath the water.
Almost eight years later, I am moving among the elementary school teachers lying in Savasana on their yoga mats in a local school gymnasium. I offer shoulder presses. Peacefulness and beauty is present on each face and I marvel at the depth of surrender and trust displayed. It is an honor to be their yoga teacher. Providing this group with a respite from their often stressful daily routines of teaching is extremely gratifying. Reflecting back on my transformative yoga training, I feel compelled to share my story with other “mid-lifers” who sometimes hear whispers beckoning them to step onto a new path.
My journey to the front of the yoga class as a leader began for me when I was 58 and nearing retirement from over 30 years as a physical education teacher. At that time, the tethers that had kept me happily grounded for several years were snapping away one by one. My children had gone away to college. I had stepped off of a roller coaster ride of emotional swings, patterns present in my marriage. The eventual divorce necessitated selling the house I had called Home for seventeen years. I was then living in a temporary situation. The time was perfect for a learning adventure.
The yoga classes I attended during all that change became a peaceful haven where I was reminded of my uninterrupted connection to the divine. I began to envision incorporating yoga’s centering and calming effects into my elementary school gym classes and introducing yoga to older adults in my community. I was granted a sabbatical from my teaching job to immerse myself in professional growth. Because of the freedom found within my new life, I could travel to a five week intensive 200 hour teacher training format.
With a mix of trepidation and excitement, I stuffed my car full of camping gear and other necessities to create a home away from home. Although other lodging options were available, I preferred sleeping close to nature. After the long drive from Pennsylvania, I arrived at the state park I had chosen, staked out my tent, blew up the air mattress, and snuggled under the down comforter for a good night’s rest. It wasn’t to be. My nagging inner voice, the one that reliably shows up when I decide to adventure out of my comfort zone, had other ideas.
It whined, “Who do you think you are at your age to attempt to become a yoga teacher?” “What makes you think that you can keep up with younger and more proficient classmates?” On and on it went until I remembered, “Breathe deeply.” That silenced its bad attitude. Yet even so, the quiet I expected eluded me. The noise of traffic swooshing past on the road outside the park became the next distraction. I gave in to irritation hearing a new line of self-questioning, “How am I supposed to feel calm and centered for these next five weeks when I have to listen to cars speeding up and down the road?” With an annoyed sigh, I put in my earplugs and fell asleep listening to a meditation CD.
The next morning my spirits lifted when I stopped at the beach and had an “Aha moment.” The traffic noise from the previous night revealed itself to be the sound of the surf. I realized that peacefulness is often a matter of perception. I was learning quickly the yogic lesson of non-judgment.
Entering the classroom at the yoga studio for the first time, I viewed what would become the familiar sight of the circle of ten back jacks surrounding the temporary altar in the center. The scene was further enhanced with statues of Hindu deities, vibrantly colored cloth draping the focal point behind the teacher’s mat. The sweet smell of incense and the vibration of chanting coming from the speaker system drew me in.
Our teacher entered, introduced the opening ritual that would become a daily practice for us, and announced that she would be celebrating her 60th birthday during our training. Imagine my relief in hearing that she was actually older than I was at that time. I felt blessed to be exactly where I needed to be. With each passing day my body strengthened, my practice deepened, and my mind sharpened. Early worry about memorizing the Sanskrit names for asanas had been unnecessary. Repetition of the unfamiliar words during each of our practices was an effective learning tool.
After my morning at the campsite, the daily routine consisted of our opening ritual, a morning practice, a spiritual study, lunch, teaching demonstrations, and a shorter afternoon practice. I usually had dinner with a classmate and we all became tight knit friends. Back at the campsite seated in a beach chair protected from insects by the screens of my tent, I spent time each evening studying and reviewing for the following day.
The weeks quickly passed before it was time for evaluation. We had to pass a written test and then teach a posture to the group. Local yoga teachers would observe us and prepare a written report. The night before I was to teach, I was extremely nervous. Even though I had years of experience teaching movement to my young students, this seemed so much more daunting. Thoroughly prepared, I stood in front of my peers and adults who would judge my proficiency. Gratefully, once “on stage,” my inner teacher diva took over and got me through the experience. I was relieved to receive kind and positive feedback from the evaluators.
For our graduation ceremony on our last morning together, we filed into the yoga space all of us in white. Our mats had been set for us and each was illuminated with its own candle. After chanting, we performed an intricate and beautiful practice designed by our teacher. Forming a circle when finished, our gazes fell upon one another knowing that this would probably be the last time we would come together in this formation. We sounded together the chant we had learned on the first day.
“Om, Asato ma sat gamaya. Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya. Mrityor ma amritam gamaya.” (Sankrit)
English translation: “All is one. Lead us from the unreal to the real. Lead us from darkness to light. Lead us from death to immortality.”
My training had come to an end. My yoga teaching career was about to be birthed. Saying farewell to my learning companions, I hoped to maintain contact. Realistically though, I knew we would each go our separate ways eventually losing touch, always remaining connected. It was early May when I headed north, just one more snowbird filing into formation. The warmth of the same southern spring that had nurtured my yogic growth followed me all the way home.
On a Sacred Journey to Ireland
Newgrange, an ancient sacred site about 30 miles north of Dublin, was constructed over 5,000 years ago, making it older that Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It was built during the Neolithic or New Stone Age by a farming community that prospered on the rich lands of the Boyne River Valley. Archaeologists describe Newgrange as a passage tomb. Like other similar architectural examples in the region, it was precisely constructed to be aligned with solar movement. There are many who speculate that the term passage tomb is not an accurate description. There is mounting evidence in Ireland to support the notion that the Neolithic community in the area was adept at studying the movements of the heavens. Lately, Newgrange is more likely to be described as “Ancient Temple,” a place of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance. www.newgrange.com, http://www.mythicalireland.com/
As we neared the destination, I was becoming increasingly more excited. I had been looking forward to this day since my travels to Ireland six years ago when time didn’t allow for a visit here. In the Welcome Center, a museum section offered fascinating displays and exhibits about the pre-historic society living at Newgrange. I discovered that the “blueprints” for the Valley’s many passage tombs had common elements. The classical form was called the cruciform style. A narrow tunnel led from the outside to a large underground chamber. Three smaller recesses branched out from the main chamber and along with the passageway formed the arms of a cross when viewed from above. The passage and chamber, once constructed, was then covered with soil and in most cases topped with a cairn (a man-made pile of rocks). The entire structure was fortified with a stone kerb (Irish for curb) consisting of huge boulders that wrapped around the base perimeter of the mound. (www.megalithomania.com)
From the Visitor’s center we made our way to the area we were to await our scheduled shuttle which would transport us to the actual structure. We delighted in crossing the Boyne River via a suspension walking bridge. The river meandered gently between lush green grassy banks. It was easy to imagine ancient ancestors walking toward the river banks to perform daily routines. The Boyne made its appearance in several of the stories I had read about Ireland while preparing for the journey. It felt as if I was meeting a treasured acquaintance. In Ireland, it is said that the river was created by the goddess Boann and that Boyne is an Anglicized form of the name.
Legend tells that a sacred well was located near here. The well is said to have contained the source of knowledge. All were forbidden to approach this well, with the exception of Boann’s husband Nechtan, a water god. Boann, ignoring the ban, approached the sacred well and lifted the cover, violating the purity of the area. For her disobedience she was punished. (Hmmm, doesn’t that sound somehow familiar?) The waters of the well rose, transforming into a raging river that pursued her. Some stories say the outcome for Boann was drowning. I prefer to believe the way another version ends. Boann outruns the water and becomes revered as goddess of bounty, fertility, and healing.
On the way to Newgrange, we drove past scenic fertile land that had been nourished by the Boyne. Down a country lane bordered by tall shrubs was the entrance to our destination. When the coach stopped, I stepped off near an opening in the hedges. My intuition told me it was a gateway between two worlds. Passing through the portal, I felt myself being lifted from the mundane world of roads, motor vehicles, and the trials of travel into a Sacred Sanctuary. Up in the sky, hundreds of crows flapped their dark wings, “caw-cawing” until they landed in a giant old oak tree to roost. The tree’s branches became iridescent as light shone on crow feathers. It was a cold but sunny day, rare for Ireland, as we leisurely made our way up the gravel path to view the massive earthen mound called Newgrange.
Right away my attention was drawn to a stone retaining wall appearing to rest atop the kerb stones forming the base of the structure. The wall that wrapped around the front of the verdant hillside was breathtakingly beautiful. While traveling I can often be stopped in my tracks to view and photograph stacked walls such as these. I marvel at the way the rocks are placed like puzzle pieces by human hands to form lasting evidence of skill and patience. This particular wall was stunning, made with white quartz and rising straight up almost ten feet in height.
The wall, rising up almost nine feet, is a re-creation constructed during a restoration process in the early 1960’s. Controversy as to whether its current form is “anatomically” correct stills abounds. Formed mostly with stones found at the ruins of the site, a panoramic view reveals two lengthy walls on either side of the monument’s entryway. Pure white quartz stretching dramatically all the way to the opening glowed brightly in the sunshine. Scattered abundantly and randomly over the entire wall were ball-shaped granite stones. The tomb’s entrance was a bordered by black stones. The contrast of dark and light in the design caused me to speculate about what the architect may have intended to symbolically represent with his work. Was it symbolic of the ray of light penetrating the darkness of the passageway during winter solstice here each year?
The overall appearance of the site had changed greatly since it was “rediscovered” by the landowner in 1699. After many centuries of abandonment by its original Neolithic population, nature had taken its course. Piles of stone rubble had built up at the base from deterioration of the cairn. Course vegetation had taken over the hillside, camouflaging its original purpose. The entrance opening and a huge spiral-covered stone were completely covered until laborers began to quarry material from the site at the request of the landowner. A large boulder, magnificently covered in prehistoric art, was revealed. Double and triple spirals carved into the stones both at the kerb and inside the passage have caused scientists and lay people alike to wonder at the meaning intended by the ancient artists. For some reason, I felt more drawn to the double spiral than the triple one. In my mind’s eye I circled back and forth tracing the path of the carving, each time crossing the bridge between the two coiling lines. The action of the flowing balance aided me in sensing my own wholeness.
We joined a tour to learn more about the history of the site. It seemed remarkable to me when I heard the guide explain that the quartz and granite stones we viewed in the retaining wall had been imported from areas far away from where we were standing. Apparently they had been transported in boats made of hazel and willow rods and covered in cow hide. I wondered if these boats resembled the little golden boat I had admired in the Archeological Museum in Dublin.
There was time for exploring the grounds before it was our turn to enter. I wandered around in a daze like someone under a spell. Gazing past the well-tended fields to the hillside horizon on the other side of the narrow valley, I imagined the sun peeking up on the morning of the Winter Solstice. Turning my head, I peered behind me at the “light box” sitting atop the doorway leading to the inner chamber of the “tomb.” I sensed the anticipation that had likely been present long ago as each morning, nearing that time of the year, the sun rose ever closer to its precise alignment with the opening into the passageway. On the appointed day, those waiting in the main chamber for the event would witness a beam of light magically entering the tunnel coming to rest on the recessed alcove in the rear of the chamber. Our group would soon be experiencing the same journey, sacredly stepping in the footsteps of the ancients who were seeking light to illuminate darkness.
Originally, for those who entered the interior chambers, it would have been necessary to climb up and over the decorative kerbstone. Perhaps they traced some of the spirals to help them begin to achieve a meditative or altered state. Today, understandably, no one is allowed to touch the artwork. Currently, wooden staircases allow safe passage over the boulder. Tourist access has been well planned, including lighting the path inward with faintly glowing electric bulbs. Those who admitted to being claustrophobic were encouraged to stay at the end of the single file line so they could make a quick retreat if the need arose. At the end of the walk through the tight passage, the space opened up dramatically into a domed room large enough for our group of twelve to comfortably stand with space to spare.
Gazing up, I was awed by the twenty foot high ceiling made of gigantic slabs of stones. The roof was built “by placing the huge, flat stones (called corbels) on top of strong supportive vertical stones forming the interior walls. Each round of corbels had been stacked horizontally around the perimeter of the chamber. Row after row was placed a little closer to the center so that the opening to be covered grew smaller as the sloped roof rose higher. Finally the space left at the top was closed with a massive cap stone.” (Loughcrew, the Cairns by Jean McMann) My fascination with the construction of the ceiling reminded me of the lazy summer days of my youth when I would lie on hay bales studying the way the thick well-worn beams intersected inside the roof of our old barn. Back then, I imagined myself becoming an architect, a dream that never materialized.
The corbelled ceiling of the chamber at Newgrange is said to be one of the finest of its kind in Europe. When the site was excavated its ceiling was found to be standing intact without any repair work exactly as it was when first built. I stood in wonder trying to envision those who had accomplished this remarkable feat thousands of years ago. How did they hoist those stone mammoths up to form such an enduring edifice? The builders must have been very adept at structural engineering. How could anyone conceive of the idea that they were “primitive”?
Once we were all gathered in the main chamber, our guide asked us to move to the sides and clear a center aisle so we could experience a re-creation of the solstice event as it would look in current time. The lights were switched off. The darkness was total. Whispers transformed into silence. Ever so slowly, the beam entered and crept along the dry dirt floor of the passageway.
The leader explained that thousands of years ago when the alignment was determined, the light would have spotlighted the smaller chamber adjacent to the main one and opposite to the passageway. Today the beam landed on an area slightly to the right of center very near to where I was standing. The change was evidence that earth’s relationship to the sun had shifted. The amount of change seemed minimal compared to the millennia that had passed since the alignment had been originally established. It was a vivid reminder of the brevity of a human lifetime.
A wave of the insignificance of my own existence rolled through my consciousness until I recalled something I had read about the meaning of the symbols appearing in the artwork here, “The spirals symbolize how time passes - rather than being linear, time is circular, like the seasons. While we live in this time we could be passing closely by those who lived before us and will live on after us. Time turns – rather that passes.” Pondering that thought, my sense of being somehow connected to the greater ALL was re-awakened. Feeling comforted, I made my way back out in a state of grace and reverence. (http://travelhag.com/2011/05/30/newgrange/)
Slowly strolling along the path leading down to catch the shuttle, my thoughts turned to the lives the ancients had experienced in this space as their hard work progressed over at least two generations. What compelled them to create such a remarkable monument? I neared the hedge; the portal that I had thought divided two worlds, and realized that on this land, long ago, humans had existed with no separation. There must have been nothing mundane. It must have all been Sacred.
They fed themselves, respected the land, nurtured their children, and worked as a community all the while approaching their days with divine purpose. It must have been why they built a tribute grand enough to praise their celestial spiritual partners in the heavens above; sun, moon, and stars, along with their sustaining sources on earth; plants, animals, soil, water, and stone. In this place, still, once a year the cosmos, our source of inspiration, literally penetrates or merges with earth, our source of sustenance, graphically demonstrating they are one in the same.
When I returned home, I read this quote and felt a kinship with the writer, “There is a dim light which shines from the remote distance of the Neolithic past. It carries a message of wisdom, of understanding, of cosmic awe and inspiration, and astronomical mastery of the highest order.” (From Website: www.mythicalireland.com)
To be continued………
Heart Shaped Healing
This story appears in the book, Women as Healers: Voices of Vibrancy by Tami Briggs, editor; published in 2009 by Musical Reflections Press.
The lives of Nancy and Arlene, though brief and troubled, became an inspiration for Carol to create a Healing Garden at the Bucks County Women's Recovery center. Carol focused on each of the women's passions, gardening and walking, when she decided that a labyrinth would be a perfect memorial to them as well as providing a meditative and healing pathway for the center's current residents.
The manifestation of the Heart-shaped Healing Labyrinth there is but one example of the magic of synchronicity and connectivity that we healers have become accustomed to. It begins with the first chapter of my own healing journey exactly ten years ago.
While wading in the pristine tree-lined Tohickon Creek back then, I reflected with angst on the emotionally charged turbulence within my marriage. Oh how I yearned for steady ground to stand upon. As if on cue, a still pond appeared on the shoreline.
I stepped out of the swirling rapids to inspect the peaceful waters. There on the ground beside the pond was a stone lined circular trail that triggered a remembrance. The intriguing pattern reminded me of a picture of a labyrinth that I had once seen. I stepped onto its winding pathway and began a restorative meditative walk. Beneath me, I felt relief as I sensed the support of solid ground.
During the years that followed my "discovery," the labyrinth has become a constant companion and healing modality for me and countless others who step upon its sacred path. Ancient symbol, mysterious in its history, the labyrinth connects us to ancestors who have made the same journey. Acting as a container of expanded space and time, the labyrinth allows us to slow down, move in a circular flow and be led to its center as well as our own.
My first public offering as a self-made labyrinth designer, installer, and workshop facilitator took place in my own back yard. I had laid out twinkly clear Christmas lights on my lawn in the classic seven circuit labyrinth pattern and issued an invitation to friends to enjoy a "Full Moon Labyrinth Walk." The monthly moon walk became a time when we gathered for sharing about our lives and to tell the stories of what had happened to us while in the labyrinth.
It was at one of these early gatherings that I met Carol. We lost touch when I eventually divorced and sold my house. It was with sadness that I removed the lights from the lawn and closed that chapter of my labyrinth journey. Joyously, those same lights reappeared later on a very large labyrinth created for a nearby recreational farm where hundreds of local people walked its illuminated paths.
One of my favorite ways of sharing the labyrinth then was to pack up my portable rope version and attend conferences where I would lay out the pathways and facilitate a workshop for participants. At an international conference in the Netherlands, I met Tami, a therapeutic harpist from Minnesota. We recognized one another as kindred spirits and have remained long distance friends since then.
On a tour bus a few years after our initial meeting, Tami and I collaborated on a heart shaped labyrinth pattern that she intended to use on a CD of original harp music. That same pattern now rests on the lawn of the Women's Recovery Center.
Recently, a friend named Carolyn attended one of my resurrected Full Moon Walks at a local spiritual goods store and gathering space for holistic workshops as well as individual healing sessions. At the time I was unaware that she was also a friend of the director of the Women's Recovery Center. When Carolyn visited the center, she was still processing her "moon walk" and shared with Carol her experience. Carol was delighted to hear that she could finally contact me regarding the installation of her meditation garden labyrinth.
At our first meeting Carol and the residents decided the pattern best suited to their purposes was that of the Heart Shaped Healing Labyrinth. On a Saturday morning a few weeks later, we had a busy workday and completed a template of the labyrinth by attaching rope to the ground with roofing nails, a sort of acupuncture for the earth. Pride was evident in the faces of the residents whose hands-on involvement had cooperatively created the special sacred space.
Collective awe was present as we ceremonially opened the labyrinth and were led in by the senior resident carrying a candle. The newest resident entered last carrying a twelve step book and reading from it when all had gathered in the center. Tears flowed when one of us noted that we totaled twelve women standing there in the middle of the concentric hearts of the labyrinth.
The courageous women continued to work together during the next weeks to replace the rope lines with brick work and to add plants, hand-made tiles and sitting benches to their garden. They finished just in time for a public dedication.
On a cool and breezy summer evening over forty people attended the event and walked the labyrinth. It was a tribute to its creators: all of us mentioned in this story. When it was time to go, I was about to blow out the candle at the entrance in its heart-covered crystal holder when I noticed there were two flames there glowing side by side.
As we viewed what appeared to be a miracle, I heard Carol state from a deep well of knowing,"Nancy and Arlene are pleased."
Key learning: "Although our life's journey may sometimes wind us away from our center, if we trust our path, it will eventually take us there: to our essential self."