Blog entry by Rihab, a Physics Professor, Yoga Teacher, and Shala Apprentice
One of the most gratifying feelings in my life has been the feeling of being surrounded and nurtured by family, really close family. Only second to this is the feeling arising in a romantic relationship early in its developmental stage. I grew up in Damascus, Syria, and to a Syrian, family is the center piece in life around which everything else revolves.
I arrived at Circle Yoga Shala on May 19, 2013 to enjoy a week of relaxation, followed by a two-week apprenticeship. I had visited the farm the previous summer for a few days on two different occasions. I had felt the genuine welcoming by everyone on the farm in the preceding year. However, when I finally settled into my apprenticeship, I recognized the old feeling I grew up with while in Syria: that of being surrounded by a real family. The Shala felt like home to me, and I became attached to it in a similar manner to my attachment to my first home in Damascus.
I was the kitchen apprentice on the farm. I didn’t really know what that entailed, so I went into the kitchen with the intent of letting my deep love for cooking, my passionate experience with food, and my inner inspiration guide me in preparing food for everyone who came to the lunch and dinner tables. This was coupled with a life-long knowledge of the Syrian cuisine I grew up with—a cuisine that influences every set of taste buds that welcome it in a most transforming fashion. My involvement in cooking throughout my life has taught me about the power of inspiring and transforming others who come to my table through not just eating, but “experiencing” the food in an intimate way people may never have before. It was almost like watching a magic spell unfold across the table from me in those who ate the food I prepared, while I sat and witnessed that transformation. I was the one doing the magic as I prepared the food and poured my heart and soul, and my love into it, which turned it into a love potion. What I didn’t know while I was at Circle Yoga Shala, and never expected, was that the food I was preparing was transforming me in new modes I had not recognized in my life before. I was in for a big surprise!
Around the clock
Early in my apprenticeship I had come to expect to feed anywhere between eight to fifteen people at lunch or dinner; basically, anyone who arrived at the Shala as we all sat down to eat was welcomed. There were the Shala owners and teachers—including the garden teacher, the yoga teachers-in-training among other apprentices, as well as guests that came and went. Despite the fact that the apprenticeship program stretched over only the five days of the week—the weekends were free time to do whatever I desired, my passion always took me back into the kitchen. The kitchen, naturally, never shuts down; everyone needs to eat, so I gravitated back to the kitchen every day as I gradually took over managing the kitchen for the rest of my apprenticeship. In a way, I had borrowed the kitchen and transformed it into a Syrian kitchen in forms it never had before in its history. However, to take on such a big task that put me in the kitchen seven to nine hours every day meant there was no place to hide. I am a recluse by nature; I love to hide until I am ready to be around others. Nevertheless, I realized very quickly that it would be impossible to disappear on my own while at the Shala. This was especially true given that I was in charge of making the main meals everyone depended on, and the kitchen is the one space most frequented by everyone in a farm house. I did spend some solitary time while working on food preparation, and during those times the food I thought I was preparing to feed and transform others with was working its magic on me.
The intimate experience that occurs during the process of food creation and preparation is, in part, a result of surrendering to the senses of smell and touch, whether it is with my hands or taste buds. This intimacy helps in creating the right flavor-combinations. Specifically, this innermost felt relation with the food while it metamorphoses opens up a space where a very subtle dialogue can take place. I intuitively “listen” to the silent messages in the food that tell me what it wants to be transformed into in order for it to actualize at its fullest potential. Since I spent such long hours in the kitchen every single day of the week indulging in my most favorite activity—cooking—there were naturally many, many such interchanges. The longer I spent in the kitchen, the deeper the discourse got and the more profound. What I discovered later, and much to my surprise, was that the silent dialogues were opening up new doors inside for me to peek through, and that the food at the table was only a consequential result of those conversations. The Shala had provided a safe setting for me to gaze inwardly. Every time I had probed the foodstuff about what it wanted to become in order to feed those hungry mouths, it was asking me different questions I had been avoiding. It was also reminding me that I had no place to hide since I had chosen to stay in the kitchen until I finished preparing food for two main meals every day. I was confronted with the following: What was I going to do with all the internally arising emotions that I couldn’t run and hide in order to process alone? And what was I hiding from by being a recluse? I didn’t have answers to the questions that kept cropping up every time I was alone in the kitchen with the food and the exchanges would resume. I felt naked and exposed with all the emotions that were surfacing on that kitchen journey.
Surrendering to being ‘cooked’
Emotions are a peculiar thing. They ebb and flow in ways, and at times, that cannot be predicted or controlled. They have their own timetable. I decided to surrender to that timetable, and trust something greater than me as a guide in handling all the stirrings within. My mind’s inability to find satisfying answers to the queries with which I was presented was most frustrating and tormenting. In times of vulnerability, being in the company of family can be very nurturing. I had a moment of realization that those who welcomed me into the Shala had come to be family. I felt embraced and totally welcomed as I did when I was with my own family. Unknowingly, I had let my guard down, and what an uncomfortable blessing that was.
One of the valuable characteristics about family dynamic is that we can see different aspects of ourselves reflected in each of the family members. In some form, each of them serves as a mirror into which we can choose to gaze in order to see ourselves. As we observe, interact, and even become entangled, we see images of various inner parts of the self projected onto each family individual. I didn’t quite understand this at first, but many weeks after I had left the Shala I began to clearly see how those dynamics played out within the Shala extended family. You see, the traits we are able to notice in others are exactly those qualities we have within us, whether or not we acknowledge them, regardless if they are pleasant or dark; otherwise, those aspects we pick up on would never register on our radar in the first place. In addition, we often project onto others qualities that we possess. We all have a rosy, beautiful side; it is the part we expend our best effort to show the world. It is the part in us of which we approve and continuously polish. What we do not like to acknowledge is that we each have a dark, shadow face that can wreak havoc and create storms. Our biggest nightmare is when others begin to see our shadow, because the mind equates it to shear ugliness. In a non-ending effort to avoid looking at it, the shadow always finds an antagonist to project its darkness onto and makes a “foe” out of it. What escapes our awareness mostly is that the antagonists are never those outside of us; they are merely “projections” of our own shadow. It seems easier to get angry and unleash frustration onto what is “external” than to ever take a peek inside. The family environment at the Shala definitely brings out the best in everyone who comes through. However, if you are ready, it can help you come face-to-face with the unpleasant shadow within.
I had set an intention for myself before I arrived at the Shala; I wanted to create an internal discourse for myself to move into once I arrived there. My intent was to explore the dynamic through which I would learn to integrate body, mind and soul. Part of each week’s activities at the Shala included asana and pranayama yoga practices, followed by discussions on our readings from the Ashtavakra Gita. The discussions were engaging; however, they seemed like a side-note compared to the more significant changes occurring in my inner landscape. My readings in the Ashtavakra Gita brought my awareness to the importance of further cultivating the “witness” within in order to gain the ability to step back and simply observe. However, being the observer is only one part of an equation that can only give texture and meaning to any experience as a whole when the other side of that equation is engaged; the other key component is attachment. I learned experientially about the equal importance of being the watcher as well as the one who is attached to the occurrence. Many philosophical traditions teach about non-attachment as an approach to end suffering. I have come to disagree with such teachings on the ground that the attachments themselves become teachers in the way they inform us about the shadow that lies within. To practice non-attachment would mean to never begin examining the shadow or even acknowledge its existence. Non-attachment might mean the shadow stays dormant, but it could not guarantee the shadow would never surface again. The information revealed by attachments is vital in order to integrate all parts of any single life-event. This is especially true of the shadow that can become the saboteur when we ignore it and withdraw from it our acknowledgement and love. The space between the two perspectives, that of being attached and that of being the witness, becomes the realm where deep learning is possible.
It is beautiful to explore the delightful side in everybody, including ourselves, as well as in every encounter. However, to only look and focus on that point would be robbing ourselves from an integrated experience. The shadow only begins to reveal its face when attachments to certain things occur. This can be attachment to a place, person, home, emotional state, a certain outlook on life, or anything else. I had become attached to my lovely existence at the Shala, and I wanted to guard it from the presence of the shadow deep within. I discovered in the weeks that followed my apprenticeship how remarkable it is—though very unpleasant—to examine the shadow that continuously exists alongside our bright face. I would be cheating myself if I looked back at my time at the Shala and said it was only wonderful and shiny, ignoring the dark edge that crept up all along. The shadow face will show itself sooner or later; I have come to learn that it is better to embrace it and give it love as soon as it becomes visible. This, as my journey has taught me, was the only practice that could lead to integrating all self-expressions into the fabric of my existence. In the past, when I have ignored the shadow, it has frequently caught up with me at the edge of a cliff I fell from every time as I crashed. Thank God this time I caught myself before the fall.
At the Shala’s kitchen I learned about integrating body/mind/soul through being of service; through the act of service we get to see in ourselves the good, the bad and the ugly. Integration was only possible when I could love all of it—good, bad and ugly—equally. The shadow—the part our mind calls the ugly—possesses enormous energy and a great power to create. It is the passionate part that can fuel everything else that shows up on stage. Without integrating the shadow, life for me is but a masquerade! My experience at the Shala eventually helped me see and probe into my own shadow as I watched others act out their shadow right before me. This opened my eyes to a giant void I had always avoided looking at: the void in which I had sentenced my own shadow into exile. Weeks after I had left the Shala at the end of my apprenticeship, I realized that my attachment to it was a way to avoid diving into the dark shores within me in order to learn how to integrate them. It was those same attachments that helped expose the shadow. That journey was the most challenging.. And the most rewarding in the end..