Hearts of Fire

At the Sri Santosh Puri Ashram along the Ganges river at the foot of the Himalayas, I became fire. I became the flame that dances, tossing light to fill the darkness.  And I certainly didn’t do it alone.

“Exhale light,” said Mandakini, eyes slightly open, sitting in half-lotus on a meditation cushion. Her eyes held straight ahead at a single candle burning on a small altar.

“Focus on the single flame until your eyes get tired. Then close your eyes and focus on the flame with your third eye.”

This was our introduction to tratak, the Hatha yogic fire meditation that was the bedrock of the personal practice for our instructor, Mandakini, the daughter of the ashram’s late guru.  During our brief introduction to tratak, focused on the single candle I glimpsed something within myself, brief and fleeting like a shadow darting past an open door.  So I returned to the hall later in the afternoon to continue on my own. Whatever was glimpsed needed to be found.

Closing the door to the wide yoga hall I lit a candle and took my place before it, cross-legged on a soft cushion. I inhaled slowly. Then exhaled. My eyes’ focus fell onto the flame and I began to open myself to its light.  Breath after breath, a little more of myself melted away, thoughts, fears and ego dripping slowly like wax to the flame of spirit. The flame grew brighter, first from a low hum then to a proud light, melting the wax of Self faster away until eventually looking at the candle flame was like looking in a mirror.  All ideas and thin understandings of identity and Self lay in a pool of melted wax and the wick to my Spirit’s flame was no more.

I was a single flame, suspended in space. 

Inhale. Exhale. I was surrounded by a circle of other flames as if in the center of a chandelier. Inhale. The muted glow of the flame directly before me came into focus. Exhale. Clarity. My tía, seated before me with a glow emanating from her navel. All who knew her before her passing spoke of the fire of her spirit that shone through the brightness of her eyes like a foglamp in the mist.  She wore a robe of light, eyes clear as glass by firelight. I hadn’t seen her so clearly since I was four, before she got sick.  She smiled.  Tears welled in the corners of my eyes. Inhale. Exhale.

Inhale.  The two lights on either side of her focused into my abuelos.  My grandmother seated elegantly, the tip of her long dress swaying like a whisper just as I remembered when she would sit by the sea for hours and let the waves bring her back her beloved Havana’s malecón.  Exhale. My grandfather’s ruddy cheeks beamed like they used to when he, the proudest man in the world, would look down at me, his first grandchild, still small enough to curl up on the pillow of his portly belly. I hadn’t seen mis abuelos together since I was twelve, before abuela’s funeral. Eyes brimming. Inhale. Hold. Exhale.  The flames burned in silent stillness.

Inhale. The light at my left snapped into my mother, with a dress of joy and the face she wore when I looked at her as I received my diploma from Brown. She always was fullest when celebrating others. The light at my right, my father’s face, glowing as when he would tousle my hair after Saturday morning soccer, saying, “Good game mijo,” with the grin of a young father.  I was surrounded by the faces that have been my pantheon of guardians since before the beginning.  I was as vulnerable as the newborn they once held. 

I was nothing, it became clear, but a product of the love others have given. Inhale, shaking. Hoarse exhale.

The blaze engulfed me entirely.

Almost all at once, each of the remaining flames surrounding me ignited, blooming into the open arms of my sisters, my friends I’ve known since childhood, the ones I wondered about on long afternoons and the ones who will walk alongside me through each stage of life, friends from college who taught me how to laugh and how to cry, how to grow and how to lift my hands for help when I fell, my aunts and uncles, my cousins who’ve been as constant to me as a mountain to an evergreen, my partner in whose eyes I find the harmony of the sun and moon. And suddenly I am no longer. The circle of flames around me erupted and I was lost like a single candle engulfed by a blaze as bright as “the glory of a thousand suns rising at the same time” (Bhagavad Gita).

The faint rhythm of the dholak drums beat from the temple down the road in the late afternoon. Seated within a wide yoga hall at the foothills of the Himalayas atop a small cushion, staring at a candle, I collapsed, sobbing.  Some channel, some locked door or gate within me had been opened by the flames of other’s love like the avatar sanctuary on Crescent Island, opened by the the simultaneous bending of the sages.

Spent yet purified as ash, I looked up to the photo of the guru’s late disciple Mataji, hanging above the small altar.  She watched over me with eyes of understanding that seemed to say, well done, young man. Now, rest.  With a bow I packed up the room and blew out the candle. Walking out of the hall a new flame burned within my chest, un corazón de fuego.

I walked back into the room where Gabriela, who has passed the afternoon photographing the riverside, greeted me.  She held out her hand. 

“I found some rocks.”  

Immediately, the prediction of the water healer, Nadira, whom we met in St. Thomas came to mind.

“You’ll find a very special rock in India,” she’d said.  “It may not mean anything to others but it will to you.  It is waiting for you.”

In my sister’s open palm was a small stone with an odd shape carved onto its smooth face.  

“Looks like fire,” she said.

“Looks like a heart,” I said at the same time.

We looked at each other.

Un corazón de fuego, a heart of fire, beat in her hand.  Here it was.  We’d found it.

 

 

BY: Tomás Quiñonez-Riegos

*According to the Aarti Fire Ceremony Handbook the dhuni is the “sacred fireplace where the fires of sacrifice consume your ego and anything that you offer to it with surrender and devotion.” The late guru of the ashram, Santosh Puri, had spent over two decades living as a renunciant by a dhuni along the Ganges that has been burning since before human memory. Then he met Mataji, became her guru and created his own fireplace with her in the center of the ashram they restored together.

White Lotus Fire Guru [Video]

In India, we ended up at the Sri Santosh Puri Ashram to study fire.  Every day we sat meditating by the fireplace during the sunrise and sunset, just as the Guru had taught.  We also continued his practice of yoga in daily classes led by his daughter, featured in the video here.  This is the Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation, accompanied by mantras.

Pearls (Back Home)

The blinds flap lazily against the open window like seafoam lapping at the shore.  The morning light of late California summer pours over the warm sheets and I can hear nothing but the faint hum of passing cars and children at recess.  It’s a blended soundscape as familiar and sweet as honey forgotten in a cellar.  It’s been a while.  

I sit up in bed and rub the sleep from my eyes, checking the time.  11:15 am.  I think I fell asleep around 10 last night.  Another night of over 12 hours.  I never sleep this much.  But since we landed in Portland a few days ago my sleep cycle has been so erratic that I can’t seem to shake the fuzziness that clutters everything, like static on an old TV.  I’d love to give a solid smack to the side of the TV to make everything clear again but I’m not sure how.  I’m not sure about a lot of things at the moment.

For starters, I’m sitting in my childhood bed, in my childhood room, in my family’s house in California.  If I look around, nothing has changed.  My old comic books are still stacked next to old lego dinosaurs and soccer trophies.  The soundscape blend of lazy, late-summer mornings is as sweet as ever and my dogs snoring at the foot of my bed could be a snapshot from 2007.  What in the world just happened?

I reach over to my journal from the summer and flip through the pages.  The scribbled entries tell of fantastical tales of faraway lands, of spiritual exploration and soulful apotheosis.  What I have in my hands feels more like Avatar Wan’s travel diary that I somehow must’ve stumbled across.  This couldn’t have been me.  After all, I don’t feel particularly changed.

I toss the sheets back and lumber out of bed.  I’d like to keep the morning routine I learned in China so I stand up straight, place my feet slightly apart and prepare for Qi Gong, 5 animal-style exercises.  I close my eyes slightly and slowly raise my hands as I inhale deeply.  Immediately I am back in front of the Yuxu Palace at the Wudang Mountain, Taoist priests in white robes lined up before me.  I bring my hands down, exhaling, and stretch my feet wide to settle into the dragon form.  As I turn my body and brush my right arm in a wide arc, the Mountain melts away to the Kamogawa river in Japan.  There, I practiced this form while wearing white Indian robes (a gift from Delhi) after our private afternoon with an esteemed *Cha-do* (Tea Ceremony) master.  As I continue to step through the forms, memories continue to drift upward like clouds of puff brushed off a dusty book found in an attic.  They swirl around, weaving impossible tales that could only exist in a dream.

And, perhaps, that’s exactly the point.

The idea to travel around the world to four locations to learn the four elements began as a dream.  Then, with the support and will of many, many people, this dream passed into reality, like drops of rain from thick clouds.  After finishing its fleeting adventure through the atmosphere, the rain has landed and begun to evaporate, regaining again the consistency of clouds as ethereal and intangible as a dream.  

With a final inhale, I bring my hands in a circle above my head and pull them down vertically past my head and toward my waist.  Exhale.

            Silence.

Interesting.  In the sweet-honey soundscape of a lazy, late-summer California morning in my childhood room, I note that my breath has gotten deeper, especially around the area just below the navel that the Taoists call the Tan Thien and the Zen Buddhists call the Hara; the center of your spirit.  I can’t help but laugh.  After 91 days of non-stop adventuring around the globe, the only things I brought home are my clothes, torn and ripped, a few gifts for friends and family, an empty bank account and a journal full of dusty memories.  The ways I changed?  My hair is a bit longer, my beard more scruffy and I breathe a bit more deeply.  

          I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

Perhaps, I think as I fold up the warm sheets to tidy up the bed, the process of adventuring through one’s dreams is similar to the process of an oyster buffeted by the currents.  The shell doesn’t change terribly much over time.  Yet it is the pearl nestled within, hidden from view that is the real treasure.  

I put on a pair of shorts and as I’m walking out my bedroom door I pause, hand on the knob, and inhale, passing from Earth to Water, Fire to Air.  Exhale.  Air to Fire, Water to Earth.  A smile ripples across my face.

Then I walk downstairs to the familiar smell of mom’s morning cooking on a lazy, late-summer California morning served on the same dining room table we’ve had for years in the same house we’ve lived in for even longer.  Nothing has changed.  Except now, there’s a small pearl growing with each deep breath.  This is a treasure that will remain for a lifetime.

 

BY: Tomás Quiñonez-Riegos

Land of the Third Eye

We’re nearing the end of our bus trip seven hours north of Delhi to a town called Haridwar.  After seven hours sweltering in the crammed seats with no air conditioning and any attempt at napping broken by the horrendously piercing, incessant, horn honking, we can’t wait for this journey to end.  Trouble is, we’re not sure exactly where we’re going.

I lean across the aisle to our new Indian friend and show him the vague address I found online the day before.  He examines it and, puzzled, shows it to a group of young men seated in front of him.  They all start speaking in rapid Hindi, break out their phones, argue while pointing at screens and start dialing without breaking the stream of their arguments.  Apparently, they don’t know where we’re going either.

A day prior we were sitting in my college friend’s family house in Delhi counting our blessings for access to a cool room and internet.  Our stay in Vrindavan had ended earlier than expected and we were searching online for ashrams to stay at in the famed yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh.  Unfortunately, all of the blogs we found seemed to suggest that in the past years Rishikesh yoga has fallen from grace as the international attention has attracted money-seeking hustlers who build cheap hotels, hire a friend to lead a daily class and call themselves a yoga ashram for foreigners.  Amid this research we happened across a post that briefly mentioned a small, humble ashram in a nearby town that, apparently, you cannot find.  Instead, “the ashram calls you and brings you home when you need it most.”  I managed to find a phone number and was able to get a call through for long enough to speak with a woman who confirmed that yes, we would be able to stay there.  The call dropped as she was giving directions, though.

So now we are in a dusty, dirt lot somewhere near the Himalayas  as the group of young men from the bus now argue in loud, rapid Hindi with a group of auto rickshaw drivers over a price and over where, exactly, my cryptic address should be.  Eventually, an agreement seems to have been reached and our friend brings us to a driver.

“This man will take you where you want to go and offers a respectable price.  But don’t let him charge you any more,” he warns.

We shove our bags in the small rickshaw and head off down a small highway cluttered with motorbikes and barreling buses and bicycles weaving in and out of one another with a never-ending cacophony of honking. 

We pass over a bridge and I can see dozens of people bathing along the brown current below.  The river is surprisingly wide and stretches on for as far as we can see up the mountain to our left.  Then it strikes that this powerful river is also the holiest in world; we’re driving over the Ganges.  I bow slightly in respect and look up to the far end of the bridge we’re approaching to see a massive statue of a fierce warrior with long hair, blue skin and a tiger pelt wrapped around his waist.  Between his brows is a third eye like the one Sparky Sparky Boom man or P’li would shoot explosions from.  In awe, I look up to a 100-foot statue of Shiva looking down on the flowing river.  The sun setting beyond the green mountain creates a golden glow the halos Shiva.  I almost expect the statue to look down at us.

It doesn’t and we pass by Shiva down a thin road flanked on either side by lush pastures dotted only by the white of grazing Bahman cows and orange of monks’ robes, wandering slowly with walking sticks.  A mystique hangs over this land like the mist clinging to the mountaintop, shrouding it from change since ancient times.  After the madness of Delhi’s streets and the oppressive heat of Vrindavan, the cool breeze following the river down the mountain is very much appreciated.

We pull up to a metal gate and the driver gets out and rings a dangling bell.  A woman opens the gate and gestures us into an open courtyard and immediately we notice something distinct about the space.  

“So what brings you to Sri Santosh Puri?” the woman asks.

“We’re interested in learning about fire”

She smiles.

“Well then.  You’ve come to the right place.”

Behind her are photos of her parents who founded the ashram.  Somehow, I feel as though they were the ones who invited us.  But why?  What, I wonder, do they have to teach us.

I sip my steaming chai.  

All in due time, I hear.  All in due time.

Fire in a Bookshop

*Note; Play the audio as you read to step into the streets outside the bookshop


After leaving Vrindavan, we arrive in Delhi for a brief transit.  Things are not going according to plan.  We’d intended to leave after a night yet had to stay an extra day.  We’d indeed to go to museums.  All museums are closed on Mondays.  It’s Monday.  We’d intended to go to a bookstore.  

“Hmm Delhi doesn’t really have any good book shops,” says our host, the mother of a college friend.
 
“Well…” she says, reconsidering, “There’s one small shop that is rather nice. I can drop you off there.”  

I wave as she pulls away in her silver car and I turn to walk into a tiny, hole in the wall bookstore so filled with piles of books that the store itself seems to be made entirely of paper as the very walls are an endless stack of titles.  The only person who seems to have any understanding of the literary land of Oz is the Wizard himself, seated behind a pile of books functioning as a front counter.  

I’d recently been listening to an interview with the writer Pico Iyer and was interested in searching for pearls of inspiration by diving into his travel writing.

“Anything by Iyer,” I told the Wizard.  

He pointed me to a dusty corner where a young employee was bent over shuffling books from one disheveled stack to another with no discernible logic and for no apparent reason.  I walked toward him and, without breaking his rhythm, he gestured with his chin to a shelf with several volumes of Iyer’s work.  I looked over the enchanting titles, musing over which one to peruse first, then felt a thump on my palms.  Silently, still bent over, the young man had excavated a novel by Iyer from the veritable cave of of books surrounding him and placed it in my hands.  

I looked over the title, “Abandon; A Romance,” and immediately glazed over with disinterest.  I was searching for richly evocative, exciting and exotic travel writing, not a fictional novel and certainly not a fluffy romance.  Regardless, I flipped through the pages and landed on the dedication.

Fire is the most tolerable third party
— Thoreau

 

I cocked my head in curious amusement.  After all, the only reason I’m in India is to ‘study fire,’ whatever that means.  I am reminded of how the Jesuits taught that as God’s children we receive His divine teachings in innumerable ways.  These teachings are ever available to us granted we are willing to open our hearts, willing to hear the whispers in the wind or to notice a sparrow flying through the sunrise or, even, to open the first page of a book placed directly into our hands; to Listen.  

I walked over to the book-pile-counter and paid the Wizard.  I stepped out of the musty stillness of his kingdom and passed through the bustling noise of the street, past the street vendors selling *dahl*, the construction workers squatting on an unfinished sidewalk in front of an unfinished building and through the crowd of auto rickshaw drivers that swarm to foreigners like mosquitos to a hiker.  Eventually I found refuge under a tree in a quaint grassy park of some centuries-old tomb.  Turning to the first page, I opened the book and my spirit, ready to hear whatever it was I was meant to receive within its eloquently written lines.  A few dozen pages in, I was not disappointed. 

“I am reminded of the ancient Sufi tale in which a seeker, knocking at his master’s door, hears the sheikh call out, ‘Who is it?’ ‘It is I, sir, me,’ he responds, and the teacher’s voice calls back, ‘Go away! Where there is an “I,” there can be no true instruction. Come back when you are no one.’”
  - Professor Sefhadi; Abandon

And then I closed the book and let myself drift into irrelevance like a plastic bag carried away by the wind that gently tugged at the low, swaying branches hanging over me, falling into the embrace of the Eternal Present.


BY: Tomás Quiñonez-Riegos