SMC Speaks Vol. 1: Executive Director Michael Gayner Discusses Leadership (and plays a flute)

By Travis Newbill

SMC Speaks is a recurring feature on this blog, through which our readers may come to know–and enjoy, no doubt–the people who comprise our unique and flavorful community, and the vision that we collectively aspire to manifest.

GaynerAmong his friends and throughout much of the Shambhala community, Michael Gayner is well known to be an exquisite host. With the artful touch of a jazz pianist, Michael seems to offer the just right stuff, in just the right amount, with keen regard for timing and space.

To continue the metaphor, he offers a few notes and then sits back and lets the tune unfold a bit, listening deeply to the air and fellow players around him before chiming in again to propel the event forward. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche might say, he allows things to flower.

Michael’s approach to leadership as the Executive Director of Shambhala Mountain Center has a similar feel. He describes his role as “supportive” and “nurturing”–words he also uses when recalling the first full-time job he held at SMC–fundraiser for the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. That was back in 2000-2001, just before Michael served as head of personal security for Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche–a position which took him all over the world training members of the community in creating and maintaining a safe environment in which the teachings can flourish. To be sure, none of the gigs listed above have been free of challenge, and that’s likely why Michael has accepted the positions.

In a recent conversation over dinner at his house (he is indeed a lovely host!), Michael described his manner of leading and the way he relates to, and grows from, some of the challenges that come with the territory. And, after dinner–in between tea and a nightcap–Michael delighted his guest with a performance of a Japanese folk song on his shakuhachi (please see the video below).

So your first time at SMC was your seminary?

Michael Gayner: Right. And my permanent ROTA was child care. It’s funny, I’ve baby-sat a number of the people who I’ve worked with on staff here.

And then you came back as head of fundraising for the Stupa. How was that?

I wasn’t painting anything, I wasn’t building anything, I was just kind of behind everyone’s efforts. It was more of a sense of holding the situation than of doing something. That has a particular flavor to it–that quality of supporting and nurturing other peoples’ activity. And, of course, it is inherently its own activity as well.

How does that compare to your position now?

It’s very similar. There are projects that are on my lap, but more often than not, my work is about supporting other people. For example, staff culture–it’s not something I can do. Rather, it’s something that I need to help people understand, and bring in other people to explain it, in order to create a situation where it becomes true for people, experientially. It’s not something I can build, but something that I have to nurture.

Does the situation of not being able to actively do something become frustrating?

One of the interesting things about being in leadership in the dharma is that one sees–when frustration arises–the desire to make something happen; to use the hammer, so to speak. You see how aggression arises so quickly and is such a potential expedient answer to something. But when you’re working at this kind of job–where you’re really trying to create something that is a dharmic approach to professional activity, community existence, and relating with the natural environment–that aggression always backfires on you.

So, you gently put the hammer back in the toolbox.

Right. You start to become very tuned-in to the arising of aggression within yourself, and you have to learn to really quickly work with that and take the longer route–usually of letting people take their time to understand something.


Stay tuned to this blog for more conversation with the fearless leader of Shambhala Mountain Center, as well as with other members of the community. Next time, you’ll learn more about Michael’s vision for developing staff culture at SMC…as well as a thing or two about his experience as a sumo wrestler.

For now, enjoy the music:

SMC Recipe: Holiday Gingerbread House and Cookies


As Thanksgiving will officially kick off the holiday season a week from now, it’s not too soon to start imagining how to best bring loved ones together this time of year. Nor is it too soon, nor too late, to reflect on holidays past. Our wonderful chef, Avajra John Russell, recalls how making cookies can be a magical way to celebrate the good fortune of family–of any sort. The SMC Community is a family and John is our beloved, crazy, artistic uncle. We hope you’ll enjoy his recollection of time spent with his childhood family and the cookies (or houses) that can be made with his recipe.

Avajra John Russel

Avajra John Russell

The holidays can be a special time of creating warm memories together that can stick with us throughout our lifetime. In my family, we always had some kitchen projects going, in the days leading up to Christmas. We used to stuff dates and my mom would always make crabapple jelly with crabapples from our trees–to give as gifts to friends and family. Occasionally, we would also make a gingerbread house and decorate it with all sorts of gum drops, jelly beans and different colored icings to paint in all the details.

These warm memories live on in my heart.

This recipe is pretty foolproof and can be used for cookies or gingerbread houses. It is somewhat flexible and can be adjusted for sweetness and spice. Roll the dough thicker for a moister and chewier cookie. Roll the dough thinner for a more stable gingerbread house construction.

As a side note: The gingerbread house project may seem daunting but please disregard that kind of distraction and build some cherished memories.

–Avajra John Russell

Holiday Gingerbread House & Cookies


1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
2 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 pound confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 egg whites


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  • In a large bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until smooth. Stir in the molasses and eggs. Combine 1 1/2 cups of the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. (Go easy on the cloves. Spices and sweetness are a personal taste. Adjust spice and sweetness amounts according to your family’s preference.) Then beat into the molasses mixture. Gradually stir in the remaining flour by hand to form a stiff dough.
  • Divide dough into 2 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to 1/8 inch thickness for gingerbread houses; roll out the dough thicker,1/4 inch thickness, for moister chewy cookies. Cut into desired shapes using cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 inch apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.
  • Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • In a medium bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar and cream of tartar. Blend in egg whites. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat for about 5 minutes, or until mixture is thick and stiff. Keep covered with a moist cloth until ready to frost cookies.


An Introduction to Chi Kung in Recovery


Greg Pergament shares an excerpt from his new book, Chi Kung in Recovery: Finding Your Way to a Balanced and Centered Recovery.  He will be incorporating this ancient practice in The Joy of Recovery: Buddhism, Chi Kung and 12 Steps–a unique recovery retreat also featuring Kevin Griffin. To read more about this program being held at SMC from December 6-8, click here.

Chi Kung is an ancient Chinese health care system that integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused attention. These three attributes make it an excellent complementary practice for anyone recovering from substance abuse and its physical, mental and spiritual manifestations.

Chi Kung creates an awareness of, and influences, dimensions of our being that are not part of traditional exercise programs. Most exercises do not involve the meridian system (used in acupuncture), nor do they emphasize the importance of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAadding mind intent and breathing techniques to physical movements. When these dimensions are added, the benefits of exercise increase exponentially.

The gentle rhythmic movements of Chi Kung reduce stress, build stamina, increase vitality and enhance the immune system.  It has also been found to improve cardiovascular, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic and digestive functions.

Consistent practice helps one regain a youthful vitality, maintain health even into old age and helps speed recovery from illness. One of the more important long term effects is that Chi Kung reestablishes the body/mind/spirit connection.


Taking Joy


 Photo by Greg Smith

Author, teacher, and innovator in the mindful recovery movement, Kevin Griffin, shares an exclusive excerpt with us from his new book, a work in progress tentatively titled Happy, Joyous, and Free: A Buddhist Guide to Contentment in Recovery. 

No matter how together our lives are, how good they look, how much stuff or success or fame we have, if we can’t take joy in it, we won’t be happy. Taking joy is the realm of mindfulness, practice at the center of all Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness is fundamentally about being present for our life, for each moment in a wholehearted, non-reactive, inquisitive, and intuitive way. While mindfulness is an inherent human capacity that we all have, it’s something most of us have never developed and need guidance and practice to establish. Mindfulness training is done formally in meditation. It is done informally in all activities, like walking, talking, eating, or exercising. Anything we can do, we can do mindfully and mindfulness enhances the experience of any activity.

With mindfulness, we actually experience the joy in our lives. We taste our food more fully; we feel our emotions more clearly; we see the beauty around us and are touched by sorrow, joy, and pleasure. Mindfulness enriches every moment.

When we take joy, we remind ourselves to fully experience something. I often find it amusing when I’m at some beautiful natural site and people pull out their cameras. Instead of actually experiencing the beauty, they are trying to capture it and take it home. How silly. As if looking at a picture of the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate could be more satisfying than being there. And yet, if we don’t learn how to be fully present, to be mindful, this is often the best we can do. When we are numbed by the constant inflow of sense experiences that our culture provides, it can become hard to feel anything more than superficially.

For me, it was only after I’d gone on a Buddhist meditation retreat in California that I started to discover this kind of engagement. Returning to my hometown in Pennsylvania for Christmas, I was shocked to see how beautiful it was. I’d never noticed the loveliness of the brick sidewalks, the Victorian mansions, the tree-lined streets, and the 18th century church. I realized that I’d sleepwalked through my life until then, caught up in my own thoughts and feelings, taking my surroundings for granted. I finally began to take joy in the world around me.

In my role as a spiritual teacher, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to perform a few marriages. Each time I do, I try to emphasize to the couple the importance of being present and taking joy in the moments of the ceremony. Especially in experiences like getting married—with all the excitement, stress, and trappings—it’s easy to get lost and forget to pay attention. These are precious moments that only come once (hopefully), and we must remember to fully take in their joy. As a musician, I used to play at weddings from time to time, and seeing the bride or groom getting drunk was particularly tragic to me for this very reason.

Here’s another, much simpler example of taking joy: When I eat a piece of high quality chocolate, I stop and savor it, smelling the chocolate, inhaling the flavor, rolling my tongue over the smooth texture, chewing slowly, and taking in the whole pleasurable experience. Ah!

Interestingly, when I was working with some mindful eating researchers who were developing a program for severely obese people, this same technique was used to develop aversion to unhealthy snacks. The researchers asked the participants to slowly and mindfully eat junk food, the result being that the participants realized that they didn’t really like this stuff, but were eating it out of habit. This exercise has important implications for all of us, that if we pay attention to any of our activities, we will see which ones are bringing us happiness and which ones are leading in the other direction.

Mindfulness helps us to see clearly the difference between taking joy and grasping at pleasure. While the Buddha pointed out the fruitlessness of clinging, he also encouraged us to appreciate what we are experiencing here and now. Take joy in each moment, and then let it go. This is our path.

Kevin is leading The Joy of Recovery: Buddhism, Chi Kung &12 Steps with Greg Pergament at SMC from December 6-8. To read more about this powerful and supportive retreat, click here.

Seeing the One World with Two Eyes

By Elias Amidon

Elias Amidon leads Seeing the One World with Two Eyes: A Sufi Experiential Retreat, November 22-24.

Elias-amidonEven though we humans live in nonduality, we experience the world with the two eyes of duality. This is because we have the ability to conceptualize. Even to say the word “nonduality” is to conceive dualistically. When we say “nonduality” our minds are already at work, setting up nonduality here and duality over there.

It’s helpful to remember that perceiving dualistically is not a fault — it’s the way we’ve been made. If I say the word “I” it means I have conceived of myself as a subject, and this is natural enough, isn’t it? “I” wake up in the morning, “I” brush my teeth, “I” love you, and so on. It is a convenient way to think, even if it is not exactly how things work. Phenomena arise not as subjects and objects, but as a whole, all at once.

Nevertheless it’s not easy for us to see the wholeness of things because we see — for good reasons — with the two eyes of duality. Making distinctions between “this” and “that” makes it possible to navigate in the world. But if we cannot also see through the convenience of dualistic thinking to the nondual nature of being that is ever-present and all-pervading, we bind ourselves to a life of suffering.

A Zen master once remarked, “We must learn to realize nonduality through duality.” Is this possible? Can the two eyes of duality see the one world of nonduality?

That is to say, can we realize the truth without abandoning this world? Or, in Buddhist terms, can we realize the nature of emptiness without betraying the nature of form? Can we realize, as the Sufis say, that nothing matters and that everything does? Can we grieve the loss of a loved one even while we know nothing is lost?

In nondual teachings we often find phrases like: “everything is perfect as it is,” or “nothing ever happened,” or “this is all a magical display.” Statements like these, while true, seem to deny what we also know to be true: that everything is not perfect as it is, that something is happening, and that, magical display or not, this world is beautifully, heart-breakingly real.

I once held the hand of a young woman as she died. She was wide-awake when the moment came. I could say that nothing actually happened at that moment — it was like the space inside a jar “meeting” the space outside when the jar breaks — nothing really happened — and yet…

There is no way to think about this. Only the heart can encompass it, and the heart doesn’t think. To see the one world with two eyes (Rumi’s phrase), we have to allow the heart to see through those eyes. The seeing heart is like a musical instrument that lets the song be played but doesn’t cling to any melody. The beauty of our lives, the love, the losses, the injustice and cruelty we witness — the only way we can bear all this without turning from it, or hardening ourselves, or becoming overwhelmed, is to bear it in the open tenderness of our heart.

And what is that? What is the heart? Here we have to stop conceptualizing. The heart we call our own is not ours. We might say it’s God’s heart, or the heart of the All-Good, or the One. It’s the heart inside of things. Through it flows all the experiences of beauty and all the despair that has ever been and ever will be. The heart I am trying to point to is not a private thing. It’s vast, boundless. It bears all. It sees the one world because it is the one world. It doesn’t limit or exclude anything. As Jack Kerouac reminds us,

 Not with thoughts of your mind

but in the believing sweetness of your heart,

you snap the link and open the golden door

and disappear into the bright room, the everlasting

ecstasy, eternal Now.

Elias Amidon leads Seeing the One World with Two Eyes: A Sufi Experiential Retreat, November 22-24. To learn more, click here.

Healing and Transforming Consciousness Through Sacred Sound, Music and Dance

Internationally renowned World Music artist, composer, educator and peace activist Yuval Ron will be coming to Colorado for two very special engagements—a concert in Boulder on March 27 presented by SMC in the City and a weekend retreat from March 28-20 at Shambhala Mountain Center. Read more from Yuval below.

This March I will be coming to Boulder, CO and to Shambahla Mountain Center, finally! Over the last 20 years I have met so many people, specifically people who graduated from Naropa who were compelled to comment on how much my work belongs in Boulder. The retreat that I will be leading is based on my work with master spiritual teachers of the East such as Pri Zia Inayat Khan, the head of the Sufi Order International, and neuroscientists of the West including brain researcher, Mark Robert Waldman, who wrote the bestseller, How God Changes Your Brain.

536385_354846544578343_1960086781_nDuring this program, I will be taking participants on an incredible journey into their inner world, providing them with a rare perspective into the worlds of Zen Buddhist masters, mystic Sufi leaders, Kabbalistic rabbis, leading neuroscientists and scholars of the mysticism of Christianity.  We will experience introspective and ecstatic practices of four ancient spiritual paths: Zen Buddhism, Kabbalistic Judaism, early contemplative Christianity and Sufi-Islam. Drawing from the hidden wisdom of the Eastern traditions of sacred music chanting, movement and spiritual mindfulness practices, I expect we will have a life-transforming weekend at Shambahla. These practices have been shown to alter the structure and function of the brain in ways that enhance memory, cognition and social awareness. They also help overcome the neural mechanisms that generate stress, anxiety, depression and anger.

In each session, we will focus on a different tradition, demonstrating the deep commonality and love for life and humanity reflected in these spiritual practices. I like to emphasize that these kinds of seminars are experiential and will not be lecture-based. The focus is on providing a deep spiritual healing experience, including walking, sacred movement, ecstatic chanting meditations, storytelling and poetry.

The night before the retreat, on Thursday, March 27 at 8 pm, I will be giving a special intimate concert in Boulder celebrating the divine Sufi poetry of Hafiz and Rumi along with sacred Hebrew music of the Middle East. This will be a unique program. Joining me on stage will be my wife, Carolyne, and my daughter, Silan, playing harmonium and violin, plus one of Boulder’s best percussionists, Ms. Kathleen McLellan.  I hope you will be able to join us for these exciting events at the end of March.

Peace be with you,

Yuval Ron

To read more on the concert at the Solstice Center in Boulder on March 27, click here.

To read more and register for the weekend retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center from March 28-30, click here.

Q&A: Naropa Professors Discuss “Artistic Process as Life” and Meditation Practice

By Travis Newbill

Jane Carpenter and Sue Hammond West will lead Creative Wisdom: Maitri and Art, November 15-17

Jane Carpenter

Jane Carpenter

The idea that artistry begins when the brush hits the canvass and ends when the palette is set down is questionable. An alternative view suggests that eating a pear may be as artistic of an activity as painting a still life. And, in this view, meditation practice is linked to both.

Sue Hammond West

Sue Hammond West

In the upcoming program Creative Wisdom: Maitri and Art Naropa University professors Jane Carpenter and Sue Hammond West will present teachings and practices related to artistic discipline as well as meditation practice in order to guide participants in a process of exploring the ways in which we can be more awake as we create art and how we may live our entire lives in a more artistic way.

In their words:

“This weekend program explores the state before you lay your hand on your brush or your canvas – very basic, peaceful and relaxed. Here art refers to all the activities of our life, including any artistic discipline that we practice, referring to our whole being. This way of working with art is noticing the state before you make art. The potential of artistic creation is to directly point to what is true, the richness and limitless potential of the present moment of experience – nowness. We awaken our appreciation for the richness of this colorful and challenging world. Fear drops away as we engage with direct experience.”

Recently, SMC caught up with Carpenter and West and asked them to elaborate a bit on some of these pithy notions.

Shambhala Mountain Center: To begin with, how does meditation relate to art, and vice versa?

Jane Carpenter: The mind is always giving rise to ideas and thoughts. So there is always material, even on the cushion. When we’re engaged in an artistic discipline, we’re allowing the energetic patterns in that material to be used. So, I actually see a similarity of the mind being a blank canvass, and what arises in it actually being the paint and the color, or the flowers, or whatever it is.

And how about the idea of “artistic process as life?”

JC: I think it’s the ground of presence that is the thread through experiencing one’s life in an artistic way and the joy that one experiences in artistic discipline.

Sue Hammond West: You have to be authentic, and present to that authenticity, in everything that you do–in every part of your life. Then, when you go into the studio to create the art, your mind is clear. You’re not divided in your attention. You’re completely present, clear, and authentic.

How does the formal practice of meditation benefit the process of making art?

SHW: Because you have meditated, you have this incredibly awake nervous system, and clarity of mind. Those are excellent places to make art from.

JC: We are also able to see our emotional landscape or what’s arising in the mind. So when I think of clarity of mind or presence, I also feel that we’re present with what’s going on with us. So, if we’re feeling sorrow, jealousy, or any particular emotion, we actually can embrace that and express that clearly in what we’re painting or building.

There seems to be a sense of going beyond embarrassment in this approach.

JC: I see embarrassment as sort of an overlay to our authenticity. We are experiencing something, and we overlay it with a “should.” Then, what’s reflected in the painting is the “should” rather than the actual, authentic, direct experience. That’s where the problem comes in because the artist is actually expressing aggression towards themselves and that aggression translates into the artwork and then into the viewer.

How does one avoid that?

JC: Well, it’s something that very important to notice. It’s not so much that it won’t happen, but I think one can discriminate in the process and actually develop an appreciation for recognizing when one enters shame or embarrassment and sees that as path rather than making it into a problem. I hope that’s not too complicated. (laughs)

Jane Carpenter

Jane Carpenter

Would you say that the activity of making art is itself a meditation practice?

Sue Hammond West

Sue Hammond West

SHW: Well, making art could be meditation in action. You could actually go at it for all the wrong reasons–for all the self-loathing and neurotic tendencies–and actually come out on the other side with clarity. It could take a while, depending on the depth of the feelings that you’re working through, but there’s always that possibility.

So, it can be beneficial like sitting…

JC: Absolutely, it can. For some people, sitting is not going to be their choice to experience their life fully. Art is a method, we could say, for bringing oneself into the present moment. It can be contemplative practice, or, as Sue was saying, meditation in action.

So, making art and meditating can have similar results. I have the feeling, though, that striving for that result may not be the point.

SHW: Well, the nice thing about meditation, and art as well, is that you can do it for no result. When you surrender to the fact that there’s no right or wrong answer, and simply allow whatever is happening to happen, that’s when something shifts in your being.

What would you say are some of the most common obstacles to the artistic process being a meditation in action?

JC: One thing that comes to mind is self-consciousness, or a goal-orientated approach. If there is any expectation–of perfection, or getting a particular concept across to the audience, or any outcome at all–then one is a bit ahead of themselves.

SMC: Can you describe an alternative approach?

JC: We can be willing to look at something that looks really strange and be curious about it as opposed to labeling it “bad,” or “not as good as the other person’s.” So I think with a true artist, with this approach, we’re going beyond a dualistic, “good” and “bad,” view.

So, are all works of art equal?

JC: It isn’t some kind of naive “everything is great” attitude. Some pieces will work, and some won’t. But the process is much more alive.

Finally, how will the practices utilized in this retreat work with the obstacle of self-consciousness and goal oriented-view?

SHW: We’ll be doing some sitting practice. We’ll be exploring the five wisdom energies, or emotions, in terms of embracing life. And so, I would say that we’re going to be covering the different types of thinking processes and we’ll be talking about the dualistic tendency of those and giving some experiential training on how to become non-attached to those–how to create the clarity of mind that we’re talking about that is the quality that we want to come at making our art from.

JC: We’ll explore questions like: What if emotions do arise when we’re doing art and we don’t reject them? Could we actually feel joy or delight in expressing ourselves fully? So, I think that we’ll be inviting people to play, actually. There will be different disciplines, and when you put it all together, it allows people to be fearless because there is no judgment in the environment. So there is no need to be self-consciousness.

Seems like nourishing situation.

JC: When we work like this we actually find that people retrieve parts of themselves that they haven’t experienced for a long time. Things can actually fall away–that judgment, or even judging the judger. So, we hope that there is a sense of inviting people to really enjoy themselves.

Discipline and enjoyment seem like sort of an odd couple.

JC: There’s an expression that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used, which is “discipline and delight.” So often when we talk about discipline we think about burden and sacrifice and this heaviness. I think in the workshop we’re going to be doing, the discipline of meditation and art brings delight. That’s why we do it!

SHW: Ultimately, it’s creating an environment for people to arise completely from where they are and just to notice who they are in the moment.


Sue Hammond West is a painter and mixed media artist who explores consciousness, quantum physics and the phenomenology of being. Her exhibitions include Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; Beacon Street Gallery, Chicago; and the University of Notre Dame Isis Gallery. She is director of the School of the Arts at Naropa University.

Jane Carpenter began the study of Tibetan Buddhism and Maitri Space Awareness with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975. She has taught the practice as an Associate Professor at Naropa University and internationally for over 25 years. Jane leads workshops on Dharma Art, Ikebana, and Contemplative Psychology.

Jane Carpenter and Sue Hammond West will lead Creative Wisdom: Maitri and Art, November 15-17. To learn more, Click Here

The Dark Light

 by Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


“As long as you do not know how to die and come to life again,
you are but a poor guest on this dark earth.”

It is likely, if you are past midlife, that you have had at least a mild experience of “The Dark Night of the Soul.” You may have had months or even years during which you lost your sense of purpose and confidence about the direction of your life. There may have been feelings of deep sadness and grief over what appeared to be lost. During this time you were overcome by existential questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? What is Life’s meaning?” And despite your prayers, you remained lost in a fog of unknowing.

As painful as these dark times are, without them we cannot participate fully in the great rhythms of the Earth. Winter, after all, is not a failed summer. It is necessary for the renewal of life. There is a lineage of both religious and secular literature reminding us that times of total darkness are a natural part of the human condition. To descend, submit and die—the openness to being acted upon—is the essence of the human experience when we come face-to-face with the transpersonal. It is a defining part of the spiritual life.

A singular aspect of every major life change is the need to move from our thinking capacities to our deeper knowings—those laid down in the right brain before the gifts of the left rational side were even recognizable.

For millennia our ancestors acknowledged and honored these transformational experiences through ceremonies and myths about a descent into the “underworld” where our old identity is stripped away. There we must stumble blindly waiting for a new “dark light” that guides us to our rebirth into greater awareness and wisdom.

Unfortunately, our present western culture prefers to hide death and medicate unhappiness, making these natural rites of passage all the more difficult. Our commercial media teach our young that happiness is a reliable measure of success in life. And grief, sadness, uncertainty, and loss are all signs of a failure to grasp “the American dream.” In our culture, growth and fulfillment are defined by accumulating, not by learning to let go.

Despite these erroneous messages, we cannot avoid change; and if change is to transform, it will inevitably take us into the unknown—that place where our old ways of navigating life no longer work. Here we intuit a different set of messages: gifts of insight left by those who have gone before us. These can help reveal the underlying patterns that characterize every transformative journey.

In my first public workshop since my accident, we will use the energies of the winter season to work experientially with our own dark night, exploring the terrain and transformational power of not-knowing and surrender. Please join me, if you can, for this weekend workshop. I will be right there in the dark light with you.

Love and Dust,


During this weekend we will explore these patterns as they appear in the ancient Sumerian myth of Ianna’s descent to the Goddess, the surrender of Christian and Islamic Mystics, and the rites of passage in Native American tribes.

HOW TO BEGIN: Some notes upon arrival

By Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil leads Describe a Morning You Woke Without Fear: A Writing Retreat, November 8–10

Bhanu Kapil

Some years ago, in India, I was walking down an ordinary residential street behind my mother’s house – hard-baked pink dust, wilted jasmine flowers underfoot, shimmering blue oblongs (the Himalayas) in the distance. I was very far from home, from Colorado (now my home) and from everything that might function as a kind of psychic or practical ground. Perhaps you have walked down a street like this. Perhaps you have experienced the distance as a quality in your own body. On that day, there was too much space, too many contrasts between the different kinds of colors that the world is composed of in any instant: the pale silver of the sky punctuated by the emerald and scarlet flare of a child’s kite above me dipping and tucking on a roof. Perhaps I am simply describing a kind of homesickness in reverse; the way an immigrant might experience the strangeness of not being “at home” at the instant that they find themselves in the place that they are “from.” Perhaps this happens when you return to Texas or wherever it was your particular geography and history made a bright tangle: before you were born or afterwards. In other words, perhaps you don’t have to go all the way to India to experience a sense of being “unhomed” in an eternal and foreign landscape! I am not sure why I am bringing Texas into this. My dog (Porky) is from Texas; my neighbours are from Texas. I think I am trying to say that the U.S. is composed of vast spaces and that it happens, in a way that resembles India, that a person might find themselves thousands of miles from the place where they began – by nightfall; by twenty, thirty, forty years old.

I have been thinking about writing practice as a way to link myself to the earth, to the vibration of a landscape, the notebook, the time that the writing is happening in.



Whenever a pen lifts off the page, or a fingertip from the keyboard, there is a way in which – abruptly – one finds oneself in the element of unbounded space again. Is writing, in the simplest set of gestures that it is composed of – space to page to space to text again – a way of generating contact with the ground of one’s life itself? I recall my time in India and how it was writing that returned me to a sense of my own body’s place in all the space that surrounded it – what, in other ways of thinking about the body, is called proprioception. I used to walk to the Shiva temple at the end of the street and tuck myself into a corner, next to the banyan tree tied with so many red threads, hemp lamps flickering as dusk fell in the winter-time, and write: sentence after sentence, in my notebook, until the feeling of not belonging –in a version of India both shattered and shattering – diminished. These fragments became, in part, the source text of my fourth book, a work founded on a history of migration and its trans-generational effects, Schizophrene.

Perhaps here, because – after all – the Shivalik foothills are at the end of the street I am describing — I could say something about pilgrimage, the idea, in India, that a ritual journey reconstitutes the body of the goddess – of all the places where the parts of the goddess’s body, Parvati’s body, fell, after her ritual dismemberment by her father, who was upset – to cut a long story short – that she had fallen in love with as unkempt and wild person as Lord Shiva, with whom she lived on a remote mountain top. The idea here – we are now a very long way from Texas – is that if you visit all the places where Parvati’s fragments lie, you make her whole again. The wholeness resides in you, something evoked by the mantra or song you might recite upon arrival. A way to release the vibration of the fragment – and allow it to circulate once more: in time.

Next week, I am coming to Shambhala Mountain Center to teach a two day writing retreat. I want to practice an attention to cyclical sites and to what unfolds when, at each site – each of the twelve questions we will write into and through – we sing back. We answer. We write.

There is more to say. There is more to desire. To long for. To remember. To attempt. But perhaps I will pause there until it time to begin. To embark upon a journey to the space of the gold Buddha. To the north. Or south. Depending on whether you are coming from Denver or Laramie.

A pilgrimage of another sort.

Will you join me?

Bhanu Kapil leads Describe a Morning You Woke Without Fear: A Writing Retreat, November 8–10. To learn more, click here.