On the Descent of Grace

(BALI, Indonesia) Settings for grace. (Photo taken by the author.)

(BALI, Indonesia) Settings for grace. (Photo taken by the author.)

It’s a little past noon and I’ve just begun the first leg of a nearly day-long journey back home to Manila.

Traveling so extensively on this particular day isn’t how I would have preferred to spend my birthday, but it’s fitting in its own way. Time is space so I might as well traverse both simultaneously.

Right now though, suspended thousands of feet above the earth, I’m neither here nor there, in a state of in-between-ness that’s as existential as it is geographic. I’ve just spent the last 12 days in a yoga teacher training intensive in Bali and it will take weeks—if not months—to understand what exactly I went through.

Bali wasn’t as charming as I remembered it to be. I’ve yet to determine if the disenchantment is a product of an idealizing memory or unfettered modernization. But the same energy was undeniably there: nurtured by the natives’ devotional piety and intensified by visitors’ ardent hopes.

I experienced that energy as an intense—almost unwanted—shedding of what Jack Kornfield refers to as the “scales of the heart.” There were days when I would flee to a corner of the shala, tears streaming down my face, pierced by something as brazenly mundane as the sight of bamboo waving in the breeze. By the fourth or fifth day, the space between my shoulder blades was in agony. My fellow trainees attributed it to muscle tightness coming from the twice daily asana practice, but I felt it as the unwillingness of my body to concede even more vulnerability.

Most days I couldn’t separate my senses of beauty and melancholy or make a distinction between the sensations of grief and love. I alternated between nights of dreamless slumber and nights of fitful sleep. The hours were short but the days were long, and the days blended into each other like malas without gaps.

Some days I just stared at my classmates’ faces, startled by the realization that it is possible to recognize the divinity in others, each face refracting a universal radiance in its particular shade of perfection. Each glimpse always came with a spectacular upsurge of pain. The most surprising epiphany was discovering that an undefended heart can bear an enormous amount of suffering.

Then on the ninth day, at the peak of an evening of brahmari pranayama and nada yoga, surrounded by the sound of reverberating gongs and humming vocals, images began to stream through my head: waves on a beach, dewdrops on a blade of grass, a sunset in the desert, the smile on a child’s face, the winds of a hurricane, a stand of redwoods…All of it followed by waves and waves of a heart-crushing love. At the end of it, I found myself chanting a prayer over and over again: Let me serve it all. Let me serve it all. Let me serve it all…

The mind recovers though, even if the heart never does, and I knew even as I left the hall that it would take a miracle to hold on to—let alone live out—that unexpected vision. True enough, the descent came as quickly as the ascent, and the days that followed ushered in the return of familiar demons: anxiety, insecurity, fear and loneliness. Like the Tibetan saint Milarepa in his cave, I welcomed them at the door and looked at what each of my guests had to offer.

Their gifts were the same: invitations to kindness, invitations to compassion, invitations to patience and invitations to faith.

So today, on my 33rd birthday, on the same year that saw the end of the life of Christ, I find a storehouse of treasures lying at my feet.

May I use them wisely.

May I use them well.

May I use them to serve all.


On the Magnitude of Grace

(UBUD Aura) My home for the next two weeks.

(UBUD Aura) My home for the next two weeks.

It’s a beautiful morning here in Bali and my roommate—along with a number of my fellow yoga teacher trainees—are taking full advantage of it by exploring the surrounding district.

I declined her invitation to join the group because the prospect of solitude was too alluring to pass up. Although I joined this training for purely pragmatic reasons, it’s begun to occur to me that I may have just settled onto the tip of an enormous iceberg of, well, grace and serendipity.

First of all, the training starts today, the first of August, a day that’s profoundly meaningful to me on several levels, and ends on the thirteenth of August, the day I turn 33, a figure that’s meaningful to just about everyone on several levels.

Second, the training organizers have lodged us in a remarkably atmospheric retreat center. The room I share with one other trainee is on the third floor, with a generous view of the surrounding villas and the infinity pool on the ground level, and adjacent to a shala well stocked with mats, props and several altars to a playful Ganesh. Because our room is the only one on this floor, we pretty much have the shala entirely to ourselves, as well as the verandah attached to it.

Third, the setting of the training itself has been triggering a number of deep-seated fears. One of the first things I noticed when I stepped out for breakfast this morning was the fact that I was practically the only guest of Asian ethnicity. Although I clearly belonged to the locale’s “tribe”—everywhere I looked I saw the well-defined deltoids, biceps and triceps of the practicing yogi—I was still the odd one out. This sense of being somehow set apart has accompanied me since childhood, and although I’ve learned to use this vulnerability as a shield since adolescence, it’s only recently that I’ve acknowledged the fear of imminent rejection that underlies the sensation.

The other thing I noticed was the sheer scale of the yoga enterprise in Bali. The schedules and community boards of the studio adjacent to my retreat center read like one long breathless mala with round-the-clock classes, events and workshops. I was tempted to think that such quantity couldn’t possibly be reconciled with quality, but a cursory glance at the teachers’ biographies revealed life histories that glowed with yogic accomplishments: advanced degrees in studies of bodywork, religion, philosophy and spirituality captioned photos of serene Olympians in complex poses. The fear came up again—this time, what lay beneath was a sense of inadequacy.

I know that if I don’t address these fears, I’ll go through these next two weeks in an armor of self-protective arrogance, and I’ll only get as much as my limited sense of self with its limited agendas and expectations can hope to obtain. But the invitation is here, as clear as the daylight streaming into the verandah and as palpable as the breezes ruffling my hair. The time is perfect, the space is perfect.

May my heart be wide enough to take the gift.