A Travel Elegy By Joe Kara
Freedom & Release
Although the stone blocks, most of which dated back to the 8th century, were biting at my fingertips, I just couldn’t stop. There was something in there. It was deep in the crevices, the space that took the place of the mortar that had long since worn away. I was looking at it. I knew it. Yet my mind played its games: "Am I even in the right place? It couldn't really still be there, right? Outdoors for three years of sun, wind, weather, rain, snow?" Although I couldn't imagine an unprotected piece of paper surviving the passing of seasons, intuition fought back. It was tangible - I could see something. Maybe it wasn't it, but it felt right. I couldn't leave. This far from home, this close… I had to check. Had to make certain. I pushed back against this familiar pattern of trying to talk myself out of something good and important. I wouldn't talk myself onto a path of least resistance this time. I sat with my face an inch away from the next obstacle - my fingers alone weren't going to reach. I needed some sort of tool to dislodge it.
We each take journeys, retreats, or vacations for personal reasons. For some, it’s a chance for a break from the grind or a chance to re-boot. Others seek some reconnection with themselves or their creativity, perhaps clarity, a rebirth, a realization or some relaxation. Often the reasons don't reveal themselves until we're in it. Ultimately it is freedom we seek, with that freedom being relative to the individual.
I hadn't known D. prior to the trip - the first time I led a yoga retreat outside of the United States. It was Tuscany, Italy, in 2012. I was co-leading the retreat with another teacher, which is how D. had learned of it. As the trip progressed, everyone in the group got to know each other a little better: conversations left the surface and went deeper. The retreat group gelled in ways I could have only dreamed of. The dynamic became more enriched; people were bonding, sharing, laughing, and crying together. It was a special group. D. had a genuine energy she shared through her smile and thoughtful words, which seemed to affect everyone with goodness. Daily we'd rise to breathtaking Tuscan views, work through physical yoga poses, breathing exercises, contemplation, and meditation. Some of those meditations took place in the powerful setting of an ancient Etruscan cave that seemed to be enriched with energy so powerful, I'm not sure I carry the eloquence to properly describe it.
Over the first few days I was immersed in the minutia of running the retreat. So I didn’t have a chance to get to know D. yet. She did, however, briefly share that she had powerful post-yoga and post-meditation experiences and seemed quite moved by them. I learned quickly that D. has a rich connection with her subtle energy. She has vibrant, mystical visualizations and journeys even in short meditations. Being one challenged to remember or recount my dreams, I am in awe of those who can go on and articulate these magical carpet rides; my interest was heavily piqued.
From time to time, life's peaks and valleys can load us up with a weight we carry like a heavy backpack. Conditioning, upbringing and experience can germinate into unconscious presets of expectation, misperception, and self-protection; and that load can preemptively color situations and shape interactions. Living and practicing our yoga is the counterbalance.
In the midst of daily practice, sight-seeing jaunts around the Tuscan countryside, family-cooked meals, and emerging friendships, the exuberant feeling we all felt and witnessed with each other was indeed the yoga in action. Being present to new experiences, new places and new people helped melt away protective armor, habitual patterns and unconscious notions about how things are or how things will be. The joy meter rose to new heights daily. Nights grew longer, lighter and more celebratory; trips to new towns were inspired and festive. Lifelong friendships solidified before our eyes. The backpack started to empty.
On the third day of the retreat, D. and I sat together at the breakfast table as the group dispersed to get ready for the day's adventures. We finally had the pleasure of speaking for longer. It felt to me like there was no one else around. She had a quiet intensity that accompanied her incredibly kind spirit. She opened up to me about her experiences leading up to the retreat and what had transpired for her thus far.
It turns out D. had wavered back and forth on the decision to travel to Italy. She didn't really know anyone and was unsure. Just a few years earlier, she had lost her husband while he served in the Army in Iraq. From that point onward, she described feeling an emptiness, "like there was nothing left of life; I was questioning everything." A tidal wave of realization as to the importance of this trip for her bludgeoned me: the magnitude of her decision to come, and what it must have meant to take this step forward. I couldn't even begin to comprehend the suffering she was going through.
Although I sat stunned, she peacefully and joyfully explained she was certain, coming on the trip was the right decision. Her feelings had been reinforced several times already, beginning with the first day. Early that morning, we took the group to an old (but still active) Tuscan abbey with roots dating back to the 8th century. Lying on the route of the Via Francigena, an ancient and major spiritual route pilgrims traveled from the north to Rome through France, it remains a towering presence on the countryside, exuding an almost daunting power, yet a deep, grounded spirit. As our group approached the abbey, there was a palpable silence among us. Upon entering, D. heard the Gregorian Chants playing overhead, which she immediately recognized as ones her husband had listened to often. She went outside and cried, later recounting she felt "he was sending me a message." Upon hearing the chants, she felt a deep connection with the abbey, a calling to leave a memory of him there. She walked silently until she found a spot between the massive stone blocks that comprised the abbey's outer walls. There she slid a photo of the two of them deep into the crevices between the stone blocks. "Until that point I felt like my life had ended. When I put it in, I felt a release " she explained.
I listened in stunned silence, unable to cultivate a response.
As she walked away from the wall, a monarch butterfly, which her husband had always loved, emerged from somewhere and was floating effortlessly over the bushes and grapevines that surrounded the property. She knew this too was his close presence, and the significance of the butterfly's transformation was not at all lost on her. Again she felt a powerful sensation of release, accompanied by a deep sense that it came with his assistance and blessing.
Later that same day, during one of the cave meditations, D. had a vision of two mountains and a figure standing between them pushing them apart. She was certain the figure was her husband, helping clear the way for her to move forward in life. She was experiencing freedom in eruptive ways that reverberated to her very soul.
Although no one in the group knew this about the others until they started to share and connect, many on the trip had been dealing with some loss or transition. Powerful and healing experiences enriched our retreat. Several experienced a cleansing, a release, a freeing from the binds of loss that had dragged them or held them back. It was this same freeing that brought everyone together in the deepest of ways. Yoga, perhaps, in it's true essence: union. "The retreat, the yoga, the connections I made... life is 100 per cent better," D. explained many months after we had returned from the trip. "I don't feel that emptiness any longer. "
D. shared an experience from another cave meditation, a vision of a woman, whose face she could not see, cleaning an elephant-like figure over and over. She did not know what this meant. When I explained that her description of the elephant bore resemblance to Ganesh - the Hindu deity considered the remover of obstacles - she realized she was seeing a form of Ganesh, and that the woman was her. Leaving the photo in the abbey walls was a release. The mountain figure in meditation was a letting go. And now this Ganesh vision. Another sign that her obstacles were being removed. Freedom was at hand and she was dancing in it.
D.'s story is one I hold dear. Years later we have a wonderful friendship. This is why, three years on, I couldn't stop. She didn't ask me to check on or look for the photo when I returned to the abbey during what is now an annual retreat. I was fueled by the kind and beautiful words she sent to me in a heartfelt email just before I left for the trip. Powerful words of "healing, accepting, growth and rediscovering the person within myself who I thought was gone due to my loss of my husband." Included in that email was a photo that another retreat-goer had taken, unknowingly capturing the exact moment when D. had placed the photo in between the stones. I didn't know this photo existed until she sent it to me in this heartfelt email. The photo assisted me in finding the right place to look.
Realizing my fingers wouldn't reach, I started using anything I could find: twigs and branches off the ground, credit cards and business cards from my wallet, anything that would reach in there. I could see something. Finally, some combination of tools worked. I was able to just shift it… and then move it a little more… and then a little more. Until there, in my hands was the photo. Momentarily I was confused. Why was I digging it out? D. hadn't asked me to, but until that moment I felt that she had, and that this was an important mission. Suddenly I felt like I had done the wrong thing. Like I was disturbing or betraying a trust of some sort. Yet there in my hands, although pretty weathered, was a still intact image; perhaps the most enduring image of the power of love and surrender that I may ever experience. This paper photo had somehow endured three years of the elements. I couldn't comprehend how it had survived. I decided that my interaction with this powerful symbol and story of love was actually a gift to me, and I could now return the photo back to its resting place, folding it the opposite way to protect it. It was there I saw - perfectly preserved – D.'s graceful penmanship written on the back of the photo. A note to her husband I assumed, but I did not read it. I didn't need to. These were, I'm sure, deeply personal words of love between seamlessly merged souls. A private communication just between them. Enduring love like one reads about in timeless stories. I felt an indescribable wave of contentment and peace as I carefully slipped the photo in back into its immense, ancient stone frame.
Upon returning from my trip I shared the experience with D., who "cried tears of joy" on the recounting. This led to more beauty in our communication. She told me more about her husband, his character, his intentions, his intelligence, his spirit. She told me of silent walking meditations with him. Of letters from soldiers who knew him. Soldiers who adored and respected him, and looked to him as an example and a leader. I asked D. if I might share her story, this story of surrendering into the presence and possibility of love, vision, self-discovery, personal realization and growth. Her response considers and offers the yogic path itself: "Meditation brings out the things inside that you don't want to let go of. You may share my story because it was a blessing for me… a blessing of knowing love, and what it truly is. And that is such a gift."
Photgraphy & Art by Michael Kenna & Steve McCurry & Luigi Ghirri & Hyun Min Ryu & Doug Hall & Joe Kara & Hayami Gyoshū & Platoon