The Guest House

When learning to live a life of learning, I am reminded that each experience that I have, each person that I meet, and each feeling that I embrace are my teachers – my guides. Some show me the way to go, some show me the way not to go. Each is here to help me see my way more clearly – if I pay attention.

I am reminded of this Rumi poem:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi (Born 1207); Translation by Coleman Barks)

CHAPTER FOUR: What I’m Supposed to Do

The first 19 years of my life was the first chapter: growing up in a safe, friendly neighborhood in Burnt Hills, New York; figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do; being a student, a good student; being a son, a good son. It was during those summers that I played a lot of baseball, spent mornings and many afternoons swimming at the community pool, and gazing at the stars at night. I learned to ski – and started to teach skiing when I was 16 and my basketball coach told me I’d have to decide between basketball and skiing. I started riding my bicycle wherever I wanted to go around town. I graduated from high school in the top ten of my class, being recognized for exemplary citizenship. On the outside, I was a good guy – quiet, kind and respectful. On the inside, I felt different, alone. I was indeed ridiculed for being too nice. I wasn’t into crowds or parties. I didn’t smoke, drink alcohol or try drugs. I felt relaxed when I was outside in nature, usually skiing down snowy hillsides at Hickory Ski Center or camping in the Adirondacks with my father. I decided to pursue my academic talents in math, science, and art, and pursue college education in engineering and architecture.

The second 19-year chapter was focused on my pursuit of a successful professional career in engineering and architecture. Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, summa cum laude, Union College – graduating first in class amongst engineering majors, third in class overall. Master of Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – publishing technical papers and receiving awards for work as a research assistant on snow loads on buildings. I began my career in Saratoga Springs, NY, as a design engineer on architectural and engineering projects before being hired by Ryan-Biggs Associates in Troy, NY. Here, I spent the balance of my second chapter progressing from design engineer to project engineer to project manager to company partner. I managed the structural work for new hospitals and college buildings and commercial buildings and schools and parking structures. I oversaw the renovation of numerous older and historic buildings. I became the President of the upstate chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. And I became the leader of culture-changing internal programs within my company to improve teamwork, quality of services, and sustainable design practices. I developed and mentored an excellent team of young consulting engineers.

During this second chapter, I also became a full-certified ski instructor and began a long career in the snowsports industry. I progressed from ski instructor to ski school director at Hickory Ski Center, 11 years. I taught one season at Pico before moving over to Mount Snow in Vermont. I would continue to teach at Mount Snow for the balance of this chapter – my professional life was relatively stable: engineering work most of the time, teaching skiing during winter weekends.

I got married… and divorced… during this chapter.

I designed and built a geothermal-heated home on a hilltop.

It was also during this second chapter that I became an endurance bicyclist. I rode my bike one day close to 200 miles from my home in New York to the coast of Massachusetts. And I made the same trip a couple more times expanding the route further into Vermont and New Hampshire. I competed in a half-dozen Olympic-distance triathlons, many of them in the Bud Light Triathlon series, and competed in an ultra-marathon 24-hour cycling time trial.

I finally took a real vacation near the end of this chapter in 1992 and rode my bicycle around the south island of New Zealand. Here, my spirit for adventure was born. A couple years later, I decided to take a leave-of-absence from my engineering company and enrolled in a National Outdoor Leadership School program in Outdoor Education in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. I knew there was something more that I was supposed to do.

Chapter Three, the next 19 years, began during this year away from my engineering career. I had been focused on a career that started when I decided in high school that I wanted to help people through the solving of society’s environmental and building development issues, but I realized then that my career had evolved years down the road detached from these original visions. The NOLS trip reconnected me with the Earth and the stars and my natural Self, with the satisfaction of working closely with a team of like-minded, outdoor-oriented people, and with my desire to lead an adventurous and learning-focused life. It was at this same time that I met Jo and her two kids, Alex (8) and Natalie (4). Together with my NOLS experience, meeting Jo, Alex and Natalie changed my life. I moved to Vermont. I was no longer alone. I felt connected. I felt at home. I found yoga.

My professional career during these 19 years took a back seat to the demands of being a husband and a step-father. I pursued work on my own as a consulting engineer and timber-frame home designer. I successfully designed dozens and dozens of beautiful timber-framed homes. I called my business Gaia Structures. I received an advanced certificate in sustainable design from the Boston Architectural College during the inaugural years of the green building movement. I also moved between roles as a regional ski clinician, a ski school manager, an adaptive sports coach and trainer, a ski school director and a manager of other mountain sports services, and a middle-high school teacher! I designed ground-breaking facilities for new learn-to ski and ride programs. I developed innovative strengths-based teaching programs and wellness-focused therapeutic recreation programs. I worked at Mount Snow, Bromley, Stratton, Snowbird UT, and the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Windham NY. I coordinated programs for the Wounded Warrior Project and co-founded Warriors Live On. I found my passion in working with those struggling through the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and leading outdoor wellness programs, being a mentor and a coach and a teacher. But, it all happened during this chapter without any planning or foresight. I learned to let go of the way I had thought my life should be, and started to trust in walking through the doors that opened. I learned to pay attention to what matters… being kind, loving, and wholehearted… again.

Of course, this third chapter evolved only because of the deep struggles we faced as a family, enduring ourselves through the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and the difficulties of negotiating our way through seriously-dark and deeply-private times. I moved from one career priority to another often without real explanation based on our family needs, our survival. But I eventually learned to have faith in a higher power, a higher Self, and a more natural way of living. New doors always opened when I paid attention. The gift of the darkness was the light that was eventually shining more brightly from within. We just had to seek it and see it. The practice of yoga became our vehicle. And all of those previous years of dedicated work and worldly vision, beginning with the youthful years of parental love, support, and safe community, had prepared me for this Chapter Three. Through this chapter, without pre-planning or goal-setting, I became deeply aware of the Oneness in present-moment life and of the connections with previous-time experiences, ancestry and history. And I started to feel again my nature to be kind, to be nice, and to be loving. I learned that indeed, there was something more that I was supposed to do… and in many respects, I had already been doing it… all along.

So, a couple of years ago, I started to immerse myself in yoga. As a teacher and as a learner. As a coach and as a practitioner. Letting go of previous identities, challenges and accomplishments. Letting go of being attached to future expectations. I am living more and more as my natural Self, the Self I have always been, finding ways to live in this world in a way that matters to me, my family, my community, and this Earth. Finding ways to be of service, quietly and respectfully. Finding ways to express my devotion to the idea of Oneness, being wholehearted, and being compassionate and loving. Being open to the idea of expressing the true me… the me I am really supposed to be.

With deep gratitude for each of my previous 19-year chapters, I am learning to let them go. I am learning to see (and coach) new perspectives.

I am now beginning to write my Chapter Four… one day at a time.

Call me Babaman?

Sometimes, you have life-changing experiences. Sometimes, you don’t recognize the impact of those experiences until years later. Sometimes, you are immediately conscious of the magnitude of the experience as it happens.

Long ago, I didn’t realize the gift of going through personal traumatic experiences until years later. The experiences of head injuries, post-traumatic stress, and navigating family health-related setbacks opened pathways that at the time seemed so distant and unthinkable. I also didn’t also realize the long-term gift of training myself to endure hardship through long-distance bike rides and endurance races.

Whereas, I realized immediately that the heartfelt connection I felt with nature when I spent a month in the backcountry with a dozen other adventurers during a National Outdoor Leadership School expedition in the Washington Cascades in 1996 would be life-changing.

And last week, I also immediately realized that the heartfelt, joyful community experience of last week’s Bhakti Immersion in New Orleans with Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band would be life-changing.

Immediately, I felt my heart open. Was it the music? Was it the group of like-minded, open-hearted, non-judgmental people who had gathered? Was it New Orleans? Was it Sean’s warm-hearted demeanor or his joyful spirit or maybe his storytelling? Was it the opportunity to use my voice and sing again?

Immediately, I felt connected. The lines of separation between people, things, experiences – past and present, seemed to vanish. I went to my nature-place, my place where I feel a natural oneness. Within a couple of days, I wrote this:

The whisper of the winds calls my name;

The arms of the trees embrace my soul;

The heart of the earth calls me home;

The light of the sky guides my way.

Who am I to question my path?

Who are they that guide my way?

I am always here.

My home is the wind, the tree, the earth, the sky.

I am the wind, the tree, the earth, the sky;

I am the breath, the body, the heart, the light.

You don’t have to look to find me!

I am here. I am here.

I am home. I am Om.

Sean asked me to include my name in the poem. I couldn’t! How could I separate myself from nature with a simple name? I am who I am because of everyone in my life, past and present. My name (Bob) is my father’s name (Bob) and my uncle’s name (Bob) and my father-in-law’s name (Bob). Or, near Boston my name is Baaab. My name is often said as one name with my wife’s name (BobN’Jo). I thought of all of the people who put their hand on my back and let me know that they had my back. And, all of the people who rested their hand on my shoulder and let me know that everything would be okay – it was okay to just be me! I am who I am because of all of these people.

I thought of Hanuman, who I’ve written about before. According to myth (as I understand it), when asked by Ram who he was, he said (deha bhavena dasosmi) that when he takes on the identity of his body (as an individual separate from God), he is devoted to God (or a higher power, if you will) with a full and open heart. This is the Bhakti yoga path. When he takes on the identity of a wanderer or a seeker (jiva bhavena twadamshakaha), he’s part of God. When he identifies with oneness or pure consciousness (atma bhavena twamevaham), he is God, the universe, infinity – when the interdependence of all things is realized. Was I identifying this quickly at this Immersion in New Orleans with this sense of the oneness and interdependence? I was feeling totally connected by love with everyone around me, silently but openly. In a palpable way, these moments where life-changing for me.

So, knowing that memories of the mind fade and that the mind usually creates new stories to explain reality as it happens in real time, I thought I’d get a tattoo to remind me of the feelings that I was feeling.

This shoulder tattoo will remind me daily of those who have supported me in my life on Earth by putting a hand on my shoulder and letting me know it was okay to be me. And to remind me that:

Our super-human powers come from our heartfelt devotion to a higher power and a sacred purpose;

Through our natural and holistic expressions of both our male and female aspects, we learn to evolve, transform and blossom through the light and the dark periods of our lives;

We honor our teachers, gurus, mentors, elders, spirit guides and ancestors;

We remain grounded to the earth while ready to serve humbly and selflessly, moving mountains for the benefit of our family, friends, community, Earth and all of life;

With our open hearts, and with compassion and kindness, we have power over our monkey-brains – we expose our true nature to be playful, joyful and loving!

Maybe now, I’ll call myself Babaman! What do you think?

Happy 88th Birthday, Mom!

Yesterday, I had lunch with my mother, celebrating her 88th birthday two days early. Our conversation ranged back to her birthday memories of 75 years ago, December 7, 1941. Of course, that day, two days before her 13th birthday, the world changed. She spoke about how her family all gathered around the the radio and listened to President Roosevelt. That day would set a pathway for their lives as part of the greatest generation.

She spoke about how her future husband, my father, had delivered milk to her family that morning. I asked, “On a Sunday?” Yes, the Speck boys were up seven mornings a week, milking cows and delivering raw milk to homes in Rockport and Gloucester, MA. My dad often spoke about how he saw mom’s birthday gift – a bicycle – on the porch as he delivered the milk that morning before my mom received it from her dad

Back at the Speck farm, the family gathered around the radio also. In attendance was Chief Harold Tantaquidgeon, great-great-great grandson of Uncas, and a family friend. He was also working on the farm. Tantaquidgeon and the Speck boys would soon enlist. It would lead my father eventually on a path that included military service, college education in physics and nuclear engineering, and almost four decades of work for General Electric as a contractor for the US Navy building reactors for ships and submarines.

My mom also spoke of my grandmother, my dad’s mother, a proponent of natural foods and nutrition, who would travel to Boston on the train to learn from Gayelord Hauser. I hadn’t heard of him, but I soon found out why I saw my grandmother as years ahead of her time, and how I was influenced at a young age to eat well.

As we spoke of these years, and how the Speck farm eventually stopped functioning with the young men off to war and with the advent of pasteurization (Nana Speck would have nothing to do with taking the goodness out of the milk!), I soon realized that this all had only happened about 16 years before I was born. World War II had always seemed so long ago… but it was only a matter of decades before that these folks had lived through a depression and a world war.

And it was only a decade or so before that that my mom’s parents immigrated via ship from Scotland. My mom’s father and uncles had fought in World War I as part of the British Army and Black Watch.

Mom and Dad would settle in Saratoga County, NY, where I was raised, where Uncas had befriended early English settlers, where Tantaquidgeon had attended the premier of the original film Last of the Mohecans in 1935, where my dad would volunteer as a school board member for almost four decades, and where we had lunch yesterday.

At 88, my mother still lives by herself in our family home, feeling at home in this place with such a rich history and with so many wonderful memories… all from not-so-long ago.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Yoga and Skiing at Snowbird

That moment…

When you see the beauty of majestic granite mountains,

When you smell the fresh scents of tall pine forests,

When you touch the softness of sun-drenched powder snow,

When you hear the songs of awakening Spring life,

And you feel the exhilaration of your body flowing freely with gravity…

Is when you know you have found bliss –

And when you know you have arrived at Snowbird!

 

There is something about Snowbird that makes my spirit soar! Ever since I first arrived over 30 years ago, I keep going back. Maybe it’s just the feeling of being connected to the natural beauty of the mountains. Maybe it’s the deep connection I feel with the Earth. Probably, it has something to do with an acute awareness of feeling my life as it’s supposed to be… free and flowing and joyful.

I brought my family there. I taught skiing and riding there. I almost moved there.

So why lead workshops that combine the practice of yoga and the experience of skiing and riding at Snowbird?

Yoga heightens our sense of presence, our feelings of connection, and our awareness of what’s going on. When combined with the present-moment exhilaration of flowing down challenging mountainsides with beauty and like-spirited friends all around to support you, the possibilities are endless. All of your senses feel peace and become positively-energized at the same time!

And awe-inspiring experiences are meant to be shared.

For me, as a yoga teacher, a ski and snowboard instructor, and a personal coach, it is a heavenly way to bring smiles to faces and to help people feel something wonderful!

In April of 2017, we will welcome our Heart of the Village Yoga community to a one-week yoga and ski trip at Snowbird! Join us. You will know when you have arrived!

Spring is in the Air at Snowbird

The Wind Blows Through Me

Forty years ago, intent on solving the challenges of a growing society, I decided to pursue a career of civil engineering. Civil engineering soon morphed into structural engineering, which in turn morphed into architectural engineering and design.

Twenty years ago, I wrote the following article which was published in Healing Options in Spring, 1997. Now, after twenty years of letting go of the engineering career identity, I feel like I’m just now setting out again on the path intended for me, the path I felt so deeply when I wrote this article.

Sitting among the Manti-La Sal Mountains in Utah, 1996.

Sitting among the Manti-La Sal Mountains in Utah, 1996.

Tonight, I’m sitting on top of a mountain. The burning orange image of a rising full moon paints the sky purple as the blues of the sky get deeper and deeper. The long tail of a far-off comet starts to glow in the northwest skies. Stars start to twinkle above as house lights begin to twinkle below. I sit. I listen. I hear the whisper of the air as it moves through the branches of the trees nearby. They creek gently as they move in harmony. I listen some more. The whisper gets deeper, more like a deep hum or howl coming from far away and far above. I feel it move against my skin. I smell its fresh scents. I breathe deeply. The air blows through me. It seems to give me life and energy.

I start to move onward across the mountain top. But it’s almost as if I’m in a dream. My body is moving, lightly and easily, but my mind is elsewhere. It’s still on top of the mountain in a trance recapturing the spirit of the wind just felt. I’m reminded of similar experiences running on the beach or snorkeling in the ocean, hiking through deep green forests or biking across open fields. I’m reminded of similar sounds and feelings. I’m reminded of how the wind moves differently – sometimes with vigor, sometimes with gentleness – but it always moves. And it always makes sounds. I feel alive. I feel like I’m real. Everything seems to come together. Yet I keep dreaming…

For years I’ve worked primarily indoors performing a job that kept my mind challenged and my sense of accomplishment fulfilled. But there is something about being indoors that is stifling to me – like being stagnant and detached from what is really important. Inside, the wind is still. I sought the outdoors in my free time and continued to do what I supposed to do indoors. As a matter of fact, I still do – now and then!

For years I’ve studied and designed buildings, structures which give people protection from the wind and the elements of the outdoors. Some of these buildings were constructed with the sole purpose of helping people find peace and happiness. Homes, churches, and meeting places. That makes me feel good. But there is something about being outdoors which can’t be recreated inside a building. You need to experience it outdoors. Outside, the wind blows. It comes from far away and it connects through you.

It seems like years of thought and miles of travel, but I’m off of the mountain and back to my car. The moon is high in the sky and the stars are bright. My little story ends here. I must now go home to sleep, inside, hoping and dreaming that the wind will continue to blow through me…

 

 

Leading with Heart

Recently, someone asked me about my leadership principles. Words like vision, integrity, responsibility, and discipline rolled off my lips. Showing up with authenticity and presence, with a strong sense of inner knowing and mutual respect. Acting in a right manner, consistent in thoughts, words, and behaviors.

Of course, the archetype of leadership is the warrior. And last week, I spent 4 days hiking in the White Mountains along the 20-mile Presidential Traverse with 3 other warriors. (We started with 4 other warriors, but one was brave enough to say that the trip wasn’t for him. He became our base support.) Including our base support warrior, three were combat veterans; one was an amputee (and Paralympic alpine skier). I was the organizer and perceived leader.

Only one hiker other than me had mountain hiking experience. One was from the US Virgin Islands; not accustomed to sub-70 weather… They all knew me; only a couple knew each other before this week.

On our second day, after an initial first-day 4-mile steep climb towards the ridge line, four of us set out into the rain and clouds, temperatures around 50 degrees-F, and sustained winds of over 30 mph. Soon, at the ridge, we endured gusts over 55 mph. The way was rocky and wet. 7 miles.

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It soon became very apparent that we were all leaders. We took turns in front. We took turns caring for each other. We easily became a close-knit group. There were no issues with where we were going. There were no issues as we adapted to options we faced. The tenants of leadership organically materialized, strengthened, and flowed naturally from us, individually and as a unit.

We’d later roll into the AMC Lake-of-the-Clouds Hut and people asked us who we were. We seemed so comfortable with one another, like brothers. People noticed; they felt our presence.

Upon reflection, we knew that we were not just warriors, enduring the hardships of our experience with determination and fortitude; we were also healers – we were relating to each other from our hearts, indeed as brothers. We discussed the relationship – the balancing act – between our warrior and healer instincts. We discussed the special relationship we shared with each other and with our natural surroundings. We became immersed in the bond of friendship and our connection with the natural world around us. It seemed like the power of our group was well beyond the power of four individuals.

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In yoga, we become aware that, as individuals,we are on a self-realization journey discovering our own true nature. We utilize teachings from the Patanjali-Sutra that help guide us in our interactions: learning to live lives of non-violence (ahimsa), making ourselves more sensitive to the ways we often do subtle violence with our minds and our bodies to ourselves and to others; and learning to be authentic and truthful (satya), ennobling our own true nature through right action, allowing those around us to not feel deceived. We learn to be compassionate, with an open heart and an open mind. We feel safe being our authentic selves. We exude trust and faith in each other.

On our hike, these practices became our way of being. It was so nice to be in a place of sharing, of mutual support, of safety – even while immersed in a world of adventure and challenge.

Through heartfelt leadership, all of us as warriors and healers, balanced and flowing, we became one powerful unit, feeling successes well beyond the sum of each of our individual contributions.

In yoga, we look towards the ideal of pure awareness (isvara), surrendering to the unknown, letting go of perceived boundaries and past conditioning, having faith, and embracing the wisdom of uncertainty… together as one.

On this trip, I believe we scratched the surface of these feelings, towards this ideal, leading ourselves forward like we were one common soul – with heart. And in peace.

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On these rocks, we became Brothers.

Of course, our next challenge will be bringing these teachings into our daily lives and to the world around us. Maybe as brothers, we can.

 

 

Okay, So It Was Only 180 Miles

Back then, there were no cell phones. Back then, there were no portable GPS’s. Back then, there were GoPro video cameras, no social media. Back then, I thought I had ridden about 200 miles. In one day.

So now, 38 years later, I finally checked my route on the computer. 180 miles. Give or take.

I had just returned from a Chuck Mangione concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Children of Sanchez. “Without dreams….” still playing in my head. It was 1978. It was midnight.

My family was in Rockport, Massachusetts on vacation. I was working in Schenectady, New York for an architect doing drafting work. I had just finished my sophomore year in college. I wanted to take a few days off and go to the beach. So I did.

I got up at 3:00 am and started riding. A 10-speed, steel-framed bike with a hard leather seat and non-padded drop handle bars. I had never ridden more than 10 miles before. I did not have padded shorts nor gloves nor a shirt that covered the bottom of back. I did not know what dehydration was. I turned on the generator-powered light. Wrapped a bandana around my head. Off I went.

A flat tire in Hoosick Falls. Not a car on the road. “Every child belongs to mankind’s family. Children are the fruit of all humanity. Let them feel the love…”

Breakfast at McDonald’s in Bennington, Vermont, just as it opened. 7:00 am.

Up Route 7 to Prospect Mountain and Woodford. Down Route 7 to Wilmington (it was my first visit to the town that I would move to 20 years later). Up to Hogback Mountain. Down to Brattleboro. It was lunchtime. I was hungry again.

I remember having a burger across the Vermont border in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. It tasted like cardboard. I didn’t know why I didn’t have much saliva.

Then all I could remember in New Hampshire was up, then down, then up, then down… over and over. It was 90 degrees and humid. It seemed like the towns were always about 10 miles apart. I had a paper map. Get a drink every 10 miles. Hold my head up. Peddle on.

There is something about long-distance bicycling that keeps you focused. You just have to keep going. One stroke at a time. I observed my thoughts… Present-moment awareness. No choice.

Somewhere in New Hampshire, I was startled by a chasing dog who happened to get a peddle in his jaw as I was speeding down a hill. Momentum was everything!

“All man need a place to live in dignity….”

My lower back hurt. My butt and hands were numb. My mouth dry.

“Those who hear the cries of children, god will bless…”

As I crossed into Massachusetts, around dinner time, I realized I was not going to make it to Rockport that evening. New Hampshire, the smell of pavement and car exhaust, and 90-degree, had slowed my pace. I called Rockport.

You see, I hadn’t told my parents I was coming. “You’re where? Doing what?”

“Can you pick me up in Lowell later?”

So, 18 hours later, my father and my uncle picked me up on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, near some town park where weekend festivities were starting.

I spent a couple days on the beach. Nursing a burnt back. Trying to get feeling back in my hands and butt. Walking slowly. Drinking fluids. Humming music.

“As my children grow, my dreams come alive…”

No pictures to share. Just stories. And the music I remember.

“I will always hear the Children of Sanchez…”

I swore I’d never do something like that again.

But I did.

Many times.

With padded shorts and gloves. And a helmet.

As a yoga teacher nowadays, practicing present-moment mindfulness, I sometimes look inside with a deep sense of peace, awareness, and an inner confidence that knows that everything is okay. This feeling has remained present in my life even when the going has been tough. I suspect it has always been there, even before I knew what yoga was.

Hmmm. Is resiliency a learned behavior, a result of direct experience? Or, is it innate? Is it part our true nature to be open to the adventure and discovery of daily learning?

Bobopelli in VC City 2014

 

A Vision Statement Written in 2012

Last week, after visiting with my friend Eva in San Diego, I was reminded of a vision statement that I had written in 2012 to help us begin a new non-profit organization, Warriors Live On. Eva has steadfastly worked on developing this organization since that time and growing it with new partners and participants. I returned to Vermont after that time focused on finding new work, hoping that one day we’d work together again. After meeting with her last week, I was overwhelmed with pride and respect for her and her work.

I also dug out the following vision statement that I wrote at that time. It is interesting to note that I wrote this before my wife and I started work at Stratton, before we opened up a yoga studio in Manchester, Vermont, and before I started a hiking club with my warrior-friend Jonah. It was before I met other friends living with PTSD or learned about Y12SR or read about current neurological research in mindfulness or knew about HeartMath or Brene Brown or Candace Pert. It was based on personal experiences and insights. It makes me wonder if this vision statement will be in my future intentions again…

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Mission:

Provide educational and life-changing experiences for people, especially combat veterans, battling through the symptoms of PTSD who are motivated to learn and live in a supportive and healing environment that includes: (1) therapeutic adventure activities that build trusting community and individual understanding of new self; (2) whole body-mind-spirit healing and therapies that teach new healthy daily practices to heal effects of trauma; and (3) educational experiences in an interactive, interdependent and sustainable working community that build new life skills for a fulfilling and enriching life.  

(1) Therapeutic adventure activities that build trusting community and individual understanding of new self:

  • Programs and activities that use experiential education models in an adventure setting to provide therapeutic and behavioral-changing outcomes. Through intentional and directed group activities and processing that includes interaction, teamwork, and trust-building, participants build sense of safety and have enriching “ah-hah” moments that build community, self-efficacy, and understanding of personal strengths and behavior.
  • Participants build relationships with other participants, interns, and staff through activities in an outdoor natural environment.
  • Teaching is conducted in a strengths-based, non-judgmental manner, building trust, mutual respect, feelings of safety and support.

(2) Whole body-mind-spirit healing and therapy that teach new healthy daily practices to heal effects of trauma:

  • Programs will be holistic in nature, addressing whole body health, and teaching daily practices that can heal the effects of trauma. Traditional therapies for PTSD deal primarily with the mind; cutting-edge holistic therapies take advantage of the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit.
  • Participants will have the following therapies and healing services available to them on a daily basis (in addition to the recreational and adventure therapies): yoga and meditation; one-on-one and group therapy; creative art and music activities; animal therapies.

(3) Educational experiences in an interactive, interdependent and sustainable working community that build new life skills for a fulfilling civilian life:

  • Retreat setting will be a working homestead with organic gardening; food shopping and meal preparation education for healthy nutrition; animal care; synergistic relationship-building with local farmers, restaurants, and merchants; sustainable practices using renewable energy and recycled water technologies; artisan skill-building such as timber framing and/or other homestead crafts; and landscaping work. Participants will learn these practices through hands-on experience.
  • Through participation and group reflection, life-skills are learned, relationships are built, group behavior is valued, and personal “can-do” attitudes are developed.

Services:

On-site workshops, group sessions, skill-building, healing and therapeutic services.

Off-site adventure workshops and activities, therapeutic recreation and experiential learning.

On-line outreach, community-building, and educational services to the broader community of veterans with PTSD and people battling through trauma. Educational articles, blogging, expert advice, on-line mentoring and support services.

Writing: books, articles in professional journals, on-line media.

Trainings, consultation and mentoring for interested groups and organizations.

Participation in research and cutting-edge studies.

Participants:

Veterans of OIF and OEF who are either diagnosed with PTSD or who are battling through similar symptoms of combat stress, such as depression, anxiety, panic, and inability to function, and who are generally having trouble functioning and living in their civilian lives. These veterans will most likely be those who have already been treated in a clinical setting and are adjusting to home life unsuccessfully, or those who have never been diagnosed or treated and are having difficulty with the symptoms years after their active duty. The veterans will be screened, interviewed and required to complete an intake process to determine motivation, need, and behavioral issues. This will not be a program for veterans that are suicidal. It will be a program for veterans who are aware that they have a problem adjusting to civilian life and that they are motivated to learn how to get better.

There will be a code of conduct that will include: norms of behavior (mutual respect, no alcohol or casual drugs or other self-medications not prescribed, safety, etc), activity guidelines, responsibilities for group living, and future mentoring and promotions (recruiting future participants).

Ideally, each session would have 10-12 participating veterans attending on scholarship for the session, 4-6 long-term seasonal interns (alumni, veterans who can stay for longer terms, interested civilians with PTSD experience) who would provide primary facility services and support on a work-for-free participation basis; and 4-6 fee-paying civilians who would volunteer to be involved in group skill-building and recreational activities.

Eventually, will conduct programs and retreats for caregivers and families of veterans addressing the veteran’s “dynamics” at home.

Location and Housing:

The retreat is intended to be sustainable and organic in nature. Permanent housing will be provided for 2-4 facility owners (and their families or partners). Temporary housing will be provided for participants, interns and fee-paying guests (18-24 total).

Housing will be low-impact, low-energy, green and sustainable in nature. Common and public services will be shared. Private spaces and facilities will be provided.

Permanent housing will small or tiny houses. Temporary housing could be a series of small modular-types cottages, tents or yurts.

There will be a common building with a commercial kitchen, laundry room, public baths and showers, yoga and meditation room, meeting room, treatment room, offices, and fitness room. Common building could be renovated existing farmhouse. There will also be a barn for outdoor workshops, animals, equipment storage, and facility support.

Entire facility would be planned in a manner that retreat could be subdivided and sold as private or public housing.

Retreat has become a sustainable geographic location with the following physical attributes (no order of priority):

  • Acreage (approximately 25 – 50 acres).
  • Proximity to thriving community with local farms and artisans and support services.
  • Proximity to preserved nature land, preferably forested and mountainous, open spaces, great views.
  • Proximity to sustainable water supply, for drinking and recreation. Consider climate in 10-20 years.
  • Temperate local environment with high norms for days with sunshine (for solar facilities: no extreme heating- or cooling- days; for outdoor recreation; for growing food; for health).
  • Progressive community economics and social services; proximity to wealth for local financial support; like-minded businesses for partnerships and synergistic, socially-responsible relationships.
  • Proximity to major airport & transportation hub (plane, train, bus, vehicle travel) for easy access for travelers.
  • Proximity to adaptive sports facility and volunteer base for outdoor activities.
  • Proximity to outdoor education and therapeutic recreation choices: (1) Hiking and backcountry travel, (2) Flat water kayaking, (3) Biking, (4) Whitewater rafting, (5) Skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing (Backcountry, downhill, cross-country), (6) Rock climbing, (7) Surfing.
  • Veteran-friendly community, perhaps with local VA facilities for referrals.
  • On-site running water (stream) for tranquility and meditation.
  • Proximity to university with research interests in our work.

Organizational Philosophy:

Participant involvement will be experiential, hands-on, interactive, and relationship-building. It will be conducted in a manner that teaches life skills that can be applied daily in civilian life. As such, participants will be responsible for many of the daily activities required to run the retreat.

For continued growth, learning, and involvement in cutting edge work, the schedule and culture of this organization will promote learning and off-site travel. The leaders of this organization will be able to bring new life to this organization each session, promote work and personal growth in between, and continue on-line support as necessary at the same time.

To keep the organization a grassroots and socially-responsible business, we will seek supporters at a grassroots and local level. It will be desirable to have many small and invested supporters rather than just a few remote supporters. We’d like this organization to be as sustainable as possible. It may require individual fees or contributions from participants. We’d like to partner with local farmers and healthy food providers to assist with food services and joint marketing. We’d like to partner with local adaptive organizations for mutual support and longevity. We’d like to partner with larger organizations to provide services that are more intimate and holistic than they can provide. We’d like to provide with various holistic health organizations for services, such as local practitioners, local artisans, and local transportation service providers.

Other Relevant Ideas Related to Healing and Culture:  

Process begins when person becomes aware of a personal issue and becomes motivated to change. For someone to decide to then spend time with us, they’d have to first develop a feeling that coming to our program would be safe and beneficial. So, they’d have to first have some level of trust, faith, and hope that coming to our program will help. This is where on-line community with story-telling may be beneficial.

Story-telling might provide sense of validation, validation that their personal experience is a result of normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. Thus, on-line community might also provide educational stories, providing feeling that one is not alone and that others have same or similar symptoms.

Education might help participants realize that: the mind and body have changed; there are practices to help you change again; the physical imprints of trauma are stored in one’s body; emotional pathways are wide-open- all emotions- positive and negative, and logical and memory pathways are reduced; pathways to healing involves mindfulness, body work, and re-programming of thought processes to affect emotional response.

Developing mindfulness skills through meditation and therapies, and discovering the mind-body-spirit connections through yoga and outdoor activity in beautiful (and safe) settings will be the foundation of a beneficial community environment. We’d also teach: relaxation techniques to help get rest, recover and help body re-program nervous system; healthy eating and lifestyle skills that help body rebuild healthy cells, pathways, and bodily systems.

Vulnerability- Being vulnerable is uncomfortable for everyone, especially for those trained to be stoic and trained to control the situations one is faced with. However, through experiencing vulnerability in a safe and supportive environment, we learn about ourselves, our true and authentic nature, and we learn to appreciate the positive emotions that we are now experiencing.

Through learning about our own personal vulnerabilities, our true selves and authentic nature, and our inherent strengths and positive attributes, we develop self-efficacy. Through self-efficacy and feelings of self-worth in our “constantly-growing” bodies, with a new outlook that lets go of control and embraces living in the moment mindfully, we further develop positive emotions and we start to open up the neurological pathways to parts of our brain and body that have been shut down, allowing ourselves to heal previous physical imprints and re-program ourselves to a new healthy being.

Through this process, we discover a new sense of worthiness, that inside we feel like we are safe, worthy, and deserve goodness. We start to have faith in the future again, faith in ourselves, faith in others. Fear starts to become manageable and it eventually subsides. With faith comes hope; hope is a fundamental feeling that continues to allow all other positive emotions to develop.

Being in a beautiful outdoor setting not only helps participants feel safe, it helps them see beauty again in the world, helping them tune into the big picture, the miracles of life, and further develop positive emotions and spiritual presence. Being in a supportive environment where people appreciate the positive aspects of each other (strengths-based), participants start to let go of self-judgment and see the possibilities of positive, interdependent personal relationships with others, and will be motivated to find supportive communities at home.

Other skills-based and teams-based learning activities (food planning and preparation, arts and crafts, fitness and sports, sustainable home-living skills, animal care) further develop the sense of interdependence, worthiness, self-efficacy, and the feelings that we can thrive in our new bodies in our new civilian lives, and feel safe. Other creative activities like music, drumming, story-telling, and dance also help develop the idea of being vulnerable, non-judgmental, and free to share positive emotions.

Experiential education (EE) and therapeautic adventure (TA) models in a strengths-based learning environment, in a setting that is beautiful and safe, are the basis for developing this healing or living-well process. In an intentional manner, participants will be faced with sequenced situations that develop teamwork, trust, communication, and being vulnerable with others. If this vulnerability takes place in a safe and supportive sequence that builds trusting relationships, personal skills and interpersonal trust, participants go through a self-realization process that allows them to continue to succeed, one step at a time, building self-efficacy and self-worthiness. Other complimentary therapies would be utilized to support this process along the way, helping participants cope, helping participants become more aware, helping participants learn to be compassionate towards themselves, helping participants find physical health and spiritual health in their current mental being, and helping participants develop positive emotions and feelings of faith and hope. The EE and TA processes are the basis of what helps us all to quickly develop the sense of brotherhood or (sisterhood), trust, and which allows us to begin the process of being vulnerable and open to learning, changing, and living happy and well.

Hanuman

Last week, my wife and I spent the week with Dr. Manoj Chalam (a teacher of Hindu symbolisms and mythology), his wife Jyothi Chalam (a Vedanta scholar and South Indian classical singer), yoga and mindfulness teacher Christina Enneking, and about 80 other knowledge seekers at the Rising of Knowledge retreat in San Diego, CA. We practiced yoga, meditation, ceremony, and learned about Vedanta philosophy and yogic (Hindu) deities. We visited the Self Realization Meditation Gardens in Encinitas. Of course, it was an enlightening week. I thought I’d share some of Manoj’s teachings and their relevance to my life’s journey.

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When you visit our yoga studio in Vermont, you will see murtis, statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities such as Ganesh, Shiva, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Hanuman. You can understand a deity at many levels. The easiest way to relate to them is as personal archetypes. The word archetype was coined by the Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung. An archetype is a symbol or a form that is imprinted in your subconscious.

There are archetypes from many traditions. For instance, the Sun God is called Ra (Amun Ra) in the Egyptian tradition. The same Sun God in the Roman tradition is called Mitra, while in the yogic (Hindu) tradition, the Sun god is also Mitra or Surya. Even though the cultures were thousands of miles apart, these are Universal archetypes. Interestingly, Mitra was born of a virgin mother on December 25, was a wandering preacher with 12 disciples and when he died, he was resurrected 3 days later! Of course, the cross is another beautiful archetypical symbol. The Hawaiians call these archetypes Aumakua such as Pele, Goddess of the Fire. And I’ve written before about the four archetypes of Warrior, Healer, Teacher and Visionary (I base my morning ritual on them).

The entire philosophy of yogic Self-Realization is embedded in the symbols of these archetypes. These archetypes are within our Collective Unconscious. These archetypes lie deeply embedded in our Causal Body and are available for the whole human race. They appear in times of transition in our lives and help guide us to achieve higher ideals in life. One of the highest ideals is knowledge about oneself (self-realization). When we know who our archetype is, we can learn how to invoke the associated knowledge and superhuman ideals in our lives. At its very core, these teachings are not a religion nor a philosophy. It is a Sadhana (Spiritual Practice) of actualizing our human potential in every stage of our lives. It is always Perfecting as opposed to Perfection and looking at the good in everything around us.

The Sanskrit word for archetype is Ishtadevata. Ishta means desired and devata means deity. The murtis (statues) are not “out there”, but within you as archetypes. They not only help you in your transformation, but they lead you to Awakening. As Joseph Campbell said, myths are Collective Dreams, while your dreams are Personal Myths! When your personal dreams, hopes, and aspirations are in tune with the Collective Dreams or myths, there is amazing harmony in your life.

Finding your archetype (Ishtadevata) is like falling in love: the form of the deity has to appeal to you. It is like walking into a room of new people and immediately liking someone, or going into an art museum and connecting with a piece of art.

Similarly, you can look at these deities, touch them, feel them, understand their Symbolisms and myths. Sooner than later you will find yourself gravitating to one, two or three deities. Usually you have one primary archetype and another secondary one. They change during your life because you change! These archetypes give you the reason to live with joy and help you in your personal, professional and spiritual aspects of your life. They also remind us of the grander ideals we can all live for. They bring out the yearning some of us have to make an impact on people and society and leave a legacy beyond the transitory nature of our lives.

About 20 years ago, I took a grand leap and left my job as a partner in a consulting structural engineering firm. As a young engineer, I had progressed quickly into a leadership role. I was quickly emerging as a firm and regional leader, designing large projects, developing key clients, publishing research work, and leading regional professional organizations. Knowing deep inside that there was a greater service-oriented purpose in my life, I resigned. I had no plans, no job, no idea what was next. But I felt this incredible sense of inner power and devotion to a greater purpose in my life.

Since that time, I have pursued work as a teacher, a coach, a wellness coach and mentor, a spiritual seeker, and as a yoga practitioner. I am a devoted step-father and husband… and son. I have taken additional leaps of faith on my life’s journey, often when my professional career leads me astray from my heart-felt greater purpose. Looking back now, after meeting Manoj and learning about these archetypes, I have realized that the Hanuman in me was guiding me and giving me the power to make these various leaps, especially since that time. But, like many other archetypes and spirit guides with whom I walk, I realize that Hanuman has always been with me.

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In a nutshell, Hanuman represents superhuman strength and superhuman intellect with a high degree of devotion. He resides in the heart chakra. If there is one deity who embodies Bhakti (devotion or love-attachment), it is Lord Hanuman. Power comes from devotion. Hanuman represents service towards others with a keen sense of humility.

Hanuman is the ultimate quiet, non-attention-seeking superhero. He enjoys working behind the scenes to support others. Many aspects of yoga come from Hanuman, including many asanas. His father was Vayu, the wind deity so he taught the yogic world pranayama. His guru was Surya, the Sun god so he taught the world Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). He is so intelligent that he is able to reconcile the three main systems of Vedanta philosophy: Dwaita (Duality), Vishishta Advaita (qualified non duality) and Advaita (non duality). Manoj illustrates this aspect in this story: When this unassuming monkey becomes a superstar of the Ramayana, at the end Ram asks Hanuman “Who are you?” Hanuman replies: deha bhavena dasosmi – when I take identification with my body, I am your (God’s) servant. This is Dwaita, duality where you are separate from God and thus express devotion, the path of Bhakti; jiva bhavena twadamshakaha – when I take identification with the traveling soul, I am a part of you – this is Vishishta Advaita, qualified non duality where you are part of God; and atma bhavena twamevaham – when I take identification with pure Consciousness, I am You – this is Advaita, pure non-duality.

And of course Hanuman’s mythical leap to move mountains is memorialized in the pose Hanumanasana. This pose asks you not merely to stretch your legs but also to bring true devotion into your practice. Hanumanasana expresses the expansiveness possible when devotion is in the heart—the sense that you can overcome any obstacle when your yearning to help is combined with reverence and respect, as well as an intense and fiery devotion. In Hanumanasana you strive to reach much further than seems humanly possible.

It is interesting how my personal musings and reflections in the past years have led me down the path of looking at God or the Divine from these various perspectives. I have always felt that I am really me when I am observing myself and the world around me as a totally interconnected, loving, joyful, and spiritual soul… Advaita. In this place, I feel ultimate power and our divine nature… and I see in others our power and divine nature.

Experiences are always shared; our lives are always connected. In you, I see me. I am, because we are. Or, as the Beatles might say: “I am he as you are he as you are me – and we are all together!” and “And life flows on within you and without you…”

Om Anjaneya Namah.

Thank you, Manoj, for being you… and for sharing your insights with the world. (Much of the content in this article is directly from Dr. Manoj Chalam’s teachings.)

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