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.